Disclaimer: see part 1.

The Third Side

Side 2

Shattered Illusions/The Power of a Word
By Rx7


Touji looked up as Shinji entered the large kitchen. "Damn," he mused, "you look like you had a good time last night."

"Had… weird dreams," Shinji muttered, walking through the kitchen to the living room, "Where's Asuka?" he inquired, his right hand resting on his pants pocket.

"Eh," Touji replied, pushing his empty plate away, "went to physical therapy - you know the drill." He shrugged, "Gotta tune up the robo-arm every three thousand fist clenches, or something."

Shinji sat in one of the chairs in the living room as Touji joined him, reclining on the couch with a sizable belch.

"Good, was it?" Shinji asked, shaking his head in distaste.

"Leftovers from last night," Touji confirmed, patting his stomach and smiling lazily. "Sorry… there's none left, you'll have to have cereal or something."

"I'll grab something at work," the former Third Child sighed, resting his elbows on his knees and cradling his face in his palms. "Hope it was good at least."

"It ruled," Touji nodded, belching again, "even better with lots of salt and soy sauce."

"Salt and soy?" Shinji groaned, his culinary senses shuddering, "That's like saying salt and salt!"

"Yyyyyup!" the other boy smiled expansively. "So," he said easily, "tell me about the dream."

"Huh?"

"The dream," Touji pressed. "Don't play stupid! You said you had a weird dream, and I'm all for weird stuff - so spill it!"

Behind his hands, Shinji frowned.

The dream. He could remember half of it in vivid detail, while the rest was cloudy and vague. He could recall an apartment, and a conversation, and then… soft hair between his fingers, softer lips against his… pleas for more… giving more. He imagined that he could still remember how it felt.

"I dreamed about Rei," he whispered.

"Yeah?" Touji replied. "Right on! She's hot dude." He grinned. "Cough up the details!"

Shinji turned slightly green. "Why did I bring this up?" he muttered.

"Because you really wanna tell me," Touji offered. "Maybe not up here," he tapped his head, winking conspiratorially, "but deep down - you're aching to tell another guy about how you dream-did Ayanami. It was that kind of dream, right?"

Shinji suddenly felt quite ill.

"Hey," Touji said quietly, "Go ahead and tell me, man, I won't tell anyone else… k?"

Taking a deep breath, Shinji began, his eyes growing distant as he wove the tale.

"Well, I went over to her apartment - which is hard, since it was destroyed and all - but she invited me in, and we sat down to talk. We talked a little about my father… and she told me how he had raised her - something she never told me when she was alive. I told her about living with Misato and Asuka, and she leaned forward and put her hand on my knee… and then…"

"And then?" Touji prompted, leaning forward in his chair in anticipation and only barely resisting the urge to add, 'You jumped her?'

Shinji swallowed, then continued.

"At first, nothing happened. She just kept her hand there, and we kept talking. Then, she stopped - right in the middle of a sentence - and said, 'Do you want to kiss me?' Well… it was a dream, I guess, right? I nodded… and kissed her. It kinda got strange then, cuz-"

"Ayanami just up and kissing you isn't strange?" Touji cut in, raising a hand quickly as the other boy glared at him. "Sorry, keep going."

"Anyway," Shinji went on, "we were kissing… then we were naked on her bed. I really don't remember taking her clothes off, or mine, but her hair… felt like… silk." He sighed. "And… she laid back… ran her hands over my chest… and asked me to claim her. That's exactly what she said, 'I'm ready, Shinji… take me, please. Claim me as your own.'"

"So," Touji murmured, "you did."

"Yeah," Shinji swallowed, "I did."

"So?"

Shinji blinked. "What do you mean, 'So?' - this is Ayanami we're talking about!!"

"So she's dream proof?" Touji asked skeptically. He grinned suddenly. "Hell, I used to dream that Misato was our homeroom teacher."

Shinji brightened. "Really?" he asked, leaning forward in his chair. "I did too, a couple times."

"Yeah?" Touji asked, his grin becoming wolfish. "In yours did she have you stay after class for a special… detention?"

"N-no!" Shinji cried, shivering slightly at the thought of his guardian and his best friend in… detention.

"Look," Touji said with some irritation, pushing past his favorite dream with some reluctance, "you read Freud, right?"

"Yeah, some," Shinji nodded, "last semester, with you."

"Uh huh," the other boy said with a grin, "and remember all that stuff about girl's wanting to have dicks and guys all wanting to have sex with their moms?" He waited for Shinji to nod before leaning forward and whispering, "Well you know what? Fuck Freud. He didn't know shit."

"Well," Shinji said defensively, "Rei was kinda my mom… sorta."

"Shinji, Shinji, Shinji," Touji lamented, "weren't you paying attention at all? Since you seem hell-bent on agreeing with a musty, old, dead German guy, let's look at this a little closer, shall we? Didn't he say, flat out, that if you dream about having sex with someone, it doesn't necessarily mean that you want to have sex with them?"

"Well, yeah, but-"

"And," Touji cut him off, "since Ayanami was sorta your mom, as you put it, wouldn't it be natural for you to dream about her? Maybe? Once in a while?"

Shinji contemplated this for a moment, staring at the floor with a small frown. When he replied, his voice was so low that Touji had to ask him to repeat himself. "I said I miss her," Shinji murmured, leaning back in his chair and looking up to the ceiling. "I think that there was some kind of mistake… and she should be here instead of-"

"Oh here we go again!" Touji cut in, exasperated, "Look man - she was 'sorta' your mom, you saw her every day, and she was the first girl you saw naked." His voice softened, "And you cared for her. So of course you're going to dream about her from time to time - I think you'd be a freak if you didn't, actually."

"When did you get all philosophical?" Shinji inquired suddenly.

Touji scratched his nose. "When you sit around the house all day," he said with a shrug, "you have some time to do some thinking, you know? And since I can't exactly be the star of the basketball team anymore, I have more time to read and stuff." He waved a hand as Shinji tried once again to apologize for his injuries, "Anyway, the point is that sometimes a dream is just a way to remember someone, you know? Don't let it freak you out."

There was a long moment of silence, then Shinji stood, letting out a deep sigh. "Thanks, Touji," he said quietly.

"Don't mention it," the other boy said, "I mean it - don't mention it to anyone. Can't have people knowing that I'm smart and stuff."

"Did I say you were?" Shinji smiled.

"Ouch!" Touji replied, laying back on the couch and folding his hands behind his head, "Ikari's fighting dirty. I'd be shocked, but I think it's all that time you spend around Devil Girl." He sighed and closed his eyes as Shinji tensed slightly. "Never mind."

"Hey," Shinji asked after a moment, "can I ask you something?"

"Yeah, sure," Touji yawned, "Why not?"

Shinji hesitated, images from his dream insisting on comparing themselves to memories of Sachiko's apartment. "It's… kinda personal," he murmured, half hoping that the other boy would tell him not to ask.

"Just say it!" the jock shouted, sitting up and glaring at the other boy. "Man, Kensuke was right - you are kind of a whiny little bitch."

"When did Kensuke say that?!" Shinji protested, blushing brightly. They had visited the other boy two days prior, but he did not recall hearing anything like that - nor was Touji alone with him at any time he knew of.

"He didn't, you boob!!" Touji roared, "But damned if he wasn't thinking it when we were there! Now ask your damn question!"

"Ok," Shinji whispered. "How far have you gone with Hikari?"

Touji's frustration at his friend's lack of gumption was blown away in a heartbeat. "Ummm… me and… H-Hikari…?" he stammered, totally taken off guard. When Shinji nodded, he shrugged uncomfortably. "We've… done a lot, I guess." He sighed, leaning back and extending his arm on the back of the couch, getting as comfortable as he could. "I guess I can tell you," he mused. "You told me your dream, and I live with you and all." He paused to formulate his thoughts, then spoke, choosing his words very carefully and looking around from time to time as if making sure no one else was listening.

"The last time we went out, I uhhh… I went down on her. Yeah, don't look so embarrassed - you asked to know this stuff, tough guy. The week before that, she did it to me," he took a deep breath, smiling broadly. "That was awesome. But before that, we hadn't really done too much, I guess. She'd given me a couple handjobs, and I'd fingered her a bit, but she'd always back off when I tried to take her panties off."

"So, ummm," Shinji asked, wondering why he'd begun this conversation, "what changed?"

"Not really sure," Touji admitted. "We were just in her car, and she was - god, I can't believe I'm saying this to you - she was using her hand, and then she just smiled and said, 'ready?'" He looked up at the ceiling, his voice dropping. "I said, 'for what?' and she just smiled… and leaned down and put it in her mouth." He snapped his fingers, "Just like that."

"Do you think you guys are gonna, you know… sometime soon?" Shinji inquired, fidgeting with the object in his pocket.

"No," Touji said calmly. "Hikari told me, the very first time we really made out, that she wasn't going to have sex until she was married. Period. She told me that she had no problem fooling around and stuff, but if she was going to get real she was going to get real with her husband."

"So are you going to ask her to marry you?"

Touji sighed, scrubbing his right hand through his hair. "Yeah, someday I guess," he replied. "Or she might ask me, I don't know. You know how she is, man, she likes to get her way and she's patient. She'll either wait for me to ask, or just do it herself - but I'm not gonna like, ask her just so we can fuck, I'm not that shallow."

Shinji nodded, thinking that he wasn't so sure Hikari would do either. He wasn't as close to the pigtailed girl as Asuka, but he thought that there might be a third option Hikari would consider, rather than waiting for a proposal or giving one herself: finding someone else. It seemed a bit on the unlikely side, Shinji thought, considering how open she was with her affection for Touji, but Shinji had long ago learned never to take anything for granted.

"So is all this about that dream?" Touji asked airily, "Or are you looking for something you can use for your date this Saturday?"

Shinji flushed. Asuka knew about the date, of course, as she had been there when he got the call from Mitzuki to ask him. But he had almost kept the information from Touji, fearing exactly what was happening.

"It's just a first date," he protested, trying to forget the fact that the last time he had been alone with a girl, it almost led to passionate, sweat-soaked lovemaking.

"Yeah," Touji shrugged. "Maybe you'll get lucky. I couldn't even get more than a closed-mouthed peck from Hikari until the third date - and it was months before she let me cop a feel."

Only took me twenty minutes with Sachiko, Shinji thought suddenly, trying to push the image from his mind.

"Oh," Touji added, lying on the couch, "and I expect a full report - with details - as soon as you get home. Understood, soldier?"

"Yes sir," Shinji laughed weakly. "I'm gonna get to work."

"See ya…"

"See ya…"

**

Sachiko decided that this particular day… was the worst of her life. All things considered, she led a relatively peaceful life. All of her relatives and close friends had survived both the Second and Third Impacts, giving her no reason for grief, and her boyfriend was loving, kind, and exceedingly sweet and gentle.

But that Thursday, she was the tensest she had ever been.

It was time to stop running. Time to stop letting Shinji avoid her, and time for her to stop avoiding what they had done. They needed to talk, and they needed to talk right now.

It was a slow night, and Mitzuki had already gone for the day, giving Shinji a smile and wave before Alexander shoved her out the door, muttering something about ungrateful people and how they should get going when he let them leave early. It was approaching closing time when Sachiko finally steeled her nerves enough to approach the young dishwasher.

"Shinji, can I talk to you a minute?" she asked, waiting as he dried his hands on a towel.

"Yeah," the brown-haired boy said awkwardly, tossing the towel to the side, "what's up?"

"In private?"

Shinji stiffened. He knew that he shouldn't, he really did. What could happen at work - and moreover, what could happen with him so tense? When he stopped to think about it, he questioned just why he had been avoiding the waitress. Certainly what they had done was wrong, but they both knew that, and they had each tried very hard not to touch the other.

He followed in silence as the girl led him toward the back of the restaurant and through the exit, entering the narrow alleyway and waiting until the door closed before turning to regard him. "I don't know what it is about you," the waitress murmured softly, starting the conversation without any introduction. "I mean, you're not my type - at all. I don't want to offend you, Shinji, but to me, you're not that cute." She shrugged, blushing deeply and averting her eyes. "There isn't really a good way to say that. I just want to be honest, and really, I don't find you very attractive." Unconsciously leaning closer, she added, "But there's something about you - and I don't know what it is - but it makes me want to be close to you." Feeling her pulse quickening, she looked into his confused, dark blue eyes. "Does any of this make sense?" she asked softly.

Shinji nodded slowly, trying to look away from her, but finding himself unsuccessful. "Yeah," he replied, finally managing to look down at the concrete between them, "you, ummm… make me forget myself, somehow - it's like, I dunno, chemistry or something."

"Yes!" Sachiko said, nodding vigorously, "Chemistry! That's it exactly! There's just that… something between us that… that…" she trailed off, hopelessly lost for words.

"I should leave," the boy said, his voice shaking slightly, "I-"

"I don't want you to," the dark-haired girl interjected, reaching out to touch his face, "I don't want you to go - I want to know what this feeling is," she murmured. She withdrew her hand… then slowly bought it back up. "It scares me," she said quietly, trying to sort out what she was feeling, "but Shinji - it makes me feel so alive." Slowly, she extended her other hand, feeling her face suffuse with color and her heart rate jump. "I like the way it feels," she breathed, pulling him slowly closer to her, "I want to feel it again… I want more, Shinji…"

"We shouldn't," Shinji whispered, his hands unconsciously finding her waist and circling it, "I'm supposed to be going out with Mitzuki this weekend, and-"

Abruptly, Sachiko grasped the front of his shirt, pulling his face to within inches of hers. He could feel her breath blowing across his cheek, coming in short, shaking increments - rather like a machinegun. "The way I feel," she managed, her teeth clenched and her eyes narrowed, giving her a sinister, almost angry appearance, "I could take you right here, Shinji - just say fuck it all and do it with you right now!" Her expression changed almost immediately to one of confusion. "And I don't know why." Abruptly, she pushed him away, taking a quick step back. "I'm sorry."

"It's alright," Shinji assured her, folding his arms and leaning against the wall, trying to stay calm in spite of the shaking in his arms and legs. "I understand completely. We just… work, somehow."

"Weird, isn't it?" Sachiko mused, shaking her head. "I've got a boyfriend, you've got… Asuka and Mitzuki to work out." She smiled weakly. "At least you've got enough control to know that I'm not who you should be with."

"I'd like to say I have control," Shinji said sadly, "or that I could make any really important choices in my life." He swallowed. "Like this weekend, for example. I'm not with Asuka, so I shouldn't feel guilty about going out with Mitzuki - but I do." He sighed, shrugging in defeat. "I don't think I can choose between someone I've known for so long, but I'm not sure about, and someone that I've just met, but definitely wants to be with me."

"You'll be able to," Sachiko said quietly, "I know you will, when the time comes."

"I hope," Shinji murmured, taking a step back, "that you're right… and that I can be as strong as you."

"I'm not strong," the waitress answered hollowly, "I'm just cold. I can push you away… I can tell you that you mean nothing… I can insult you, tell you you're not attractive to me, and then go back to my boyfriend's house and have sex with him." She blushed, dropping her eyes, "If that's what you mean by saying I'm strong, then your definition and my definition aren't the same."

Neither of them spoke for a minute. Sachiko fidgeted with the hem of her work skirt, staring at the ground while Shinji ran his fingers over the change in his pocket, feeling their texture and tracing the faces on the fronts. Finally, Sachiko stepped away from the wall. "I think I-mmmm…"

She was interrupted as Shinji put his hands on her shoulders, leaning forward and gently kissing her. "We… shouldn't be close anymore," he murmured, releasing her and taking three steps back, "it can only end up causing pain - for you, me, Domiyoji, Mitzuki, Asuka… everyone."

Sachiko shook her head slowly, unsmiling. "No," she whispered, "that's not going to work. We'll still see each other every day, and there's no way for us to never be alone, or close." She met his gaze head-on. "And I don't want it that way. What needs to happen," she told him, "is that we just need to keep it under control. If we can't even control this part of our lives, how can we control any other part?" She smiled softly. "Besides, I love hearing you laugh. I'd be sad if I never got to hear it again, or got to be the one that makes it happen. So how about this, Shinji: we agree, right here and now, that we won't let something like this happen again, ok?"

"I don't think I'm that strong," the boy replied shakily, "I-"

"You have to be," the waitress cut in, her voice taking on a hard edge, "and I have to be - there's no other way." Her face softened, and she reached out, almost touching his face before slowly lowering her hand again. "I think we can be friends," she murmured, staring at the back of her hand with a slight frown, "can't we? I mean, are we so pathetic that we can't even manage that? I don't think we are."

Shinji studied her face for a moment. "Guess we'll see," he said finally, "and soon - we're all going out to the movies this weekend, remember?"

For one, horrifyingly erotic moment, Sachiko could imagine yanking Shinji into the bathroom at the theatre and having sex with him up against the door, screaming as he stroked her with almost savage force. Then the moment passed, and she shivered, nodding.

Turning away, Shinji let out a shaky breath. "I'm going back in," he murmured, his own thoughts running in a similar direction to the girl's - only involving the back seat of a car and a slower pace. "On Saturday…" he trailed off, entirely at a loss for words.

Sachiko nodded. "Yeah," she said, "Saturday."

Silently, Shinji walked away, leaving the girl to ponder their odd situation.

**

"So," Asuka whispered, "this is it, huh? Just a few words on a shitty piece of marble… and she's gone."

"There's nothing left," Shinji confirmed hollowly, "even this grave is nothing more than an artifice."

He looked down at where Asuka knelt, her augmented hand resting on the carved obelisk that marked the final resting place of their guardian. He pulled his eyes away from the simple inscription, already knowing it by heart:

"Misato Katsuragi. Beloved guardian, friend, and mother - we will never forget you."

"You wrote it, didn't you?" Asuka asked.

Shinji blinked, flushing as he realized that he had spoken the epitaph aloud. "Yeah," he admitted, "I did."

"Stupid," the Second Child whispered, her good eye running from the inscription to the alloy strips on the backs of her fingers, "she wasn't anyone's mother. Why did you put that there?"

Shinji cleared his throat. "She was… kinda like a mother to me - and you, in a-"

"She was nothing like my mother," Asuka cut in flatly.

Unable to read the girl's tone, Shinji simply nodded.

"You're always doing things like that," the redhead mumbled, "always making things so deep and meaningful." She looked up at him, neither smiling nor frowning. "Do you know how annoying that is? Why can't things just be what they are, Third Child? She was your guardian - not your mother."

"Well," Shinji murmured awkwardly, "we were kinda close."

"I know."

They fell silent, each lost in memories of the purple-haired woman that had given her life to save Shinji, and by extension - everyone on Earth. Asuka knew of the kiss Misato had given Shinji before her death, but she could not say that she cared. Why in the world would she? If her indecent, controlling guardian wanted to spend her last few minutes of life sucking face with one of her goddamn charges, that was her business.

"So," Asuka mused, "tomorrow's your date."

Shinji looked at her closely, but he could not interpret her expression. "Yeah," he said cautiously. "We're gonna go see Shadow's Fall."

"Isn't that a horror movie, Third Child?" the redhead asked skeptically, slowly lowering her hand to her lap. "I thought you didn't like scary stories."

"Well," Shinji admitted, "they're not my favorite. Mitzuki picked it out."

"Of course," Asuka said coolly, "Lord knows you would never make a choice."

"What do you m-"

"Forget it."

Shinji stared at his feet. "Maybe…"

"What?" Asuka frowned as he trailed off. "Maybe what?"

"Maybe we could… go see something next week," Shinji murmured awkwardly, "you and me."

Asuka's eyes flashed.

"Should I see if maybe Hikari wants to go out with you the week after that?" she growled. "A different girl for every week? No!" She rose to her feet, stepping past the agitated looking boy as her hands clenched at her sides. "Maybe a different one for every day of the week! Forget it, Third Child; I'm not going to be your second option. I'm going home."

Shinji bowed his head as the girl walked quickly from the graveyard.

"Why did I say yes?" he whispered miserably.

Slowly, he knelt by his guardian's grave, running one hand over the epitaph… and the other over the object in his pocket.

**

Saturday was chilly, for Tokyo-2.

Certainly, when held up against other cities, fifty-eight degrees was by no means freezing, but when the average temperature was a constant eighty to ninety, fifty-eight had a way of feeling like forty.

Shinji met Mitzuki, Sachiko, and Domiyoji at the theatre, declining the offer to have them pick him up. He knew that Mitzuki, at least, was curious about where he and his roommates (or rather, her competition) lived, but Shinji had decided when he agreed to go out with them that he did not want Home and Work mixing.

It just felt wrong.

"Shinji!" Mitzuki called happily, waving as the boy approached the theatre and headed towards the ticket booth. "Come on! We already got tickets."

Shinji nodded, shivering slightly as he hurried over to the trio awaiting him. "How much was it?" he asked, reaching for his wallet.

"Don't be silly!" Mitzuki giggled, grabbing his hand and pulling him into the lobby.

Shinji tried to protest, but he found himself unable as Domiyoji shook his hand and clapped him on the shoulder. "Hey Ikari," he said with a grin, "finally managed to get Mitzuki out of her little shell huh? Nice job! We were starting to wonder if she was ever going to-"

"Let's get some seats," Mitzuki cut in, grabbing the boy by the arm, "I wanna talk to you about something I like to call - shut the hell up." She turned to Sachiko. "You guys grab the drinks, k?"

Sachiko immediately moved away from Shinji, heading for the concession stand without a word. Shinji caught up a moment later, avoiding the young woman's eyes until she spoke.

"It's fine, Shinji."

Shinji started. "Ummm… what?"

"I said it's fine," Sachiko murmured, looking over the candy in the display case. "We can do this," she looked up and offered him a weak smile. "Just don't lean over in the middle of the movie and slip me the tongue, and I think we'll be just fine - I know we will."

Something about the waitress's determined expression convinced Shinji that she, at least, believed what she was saying. Nodding, he placed his order, buying two drinks and some popcorn, and followed her into the theatre.

**

True to her word, Sachiko barely looked Shinji's way. She spent the length of the movie talking quietly with Domiyoji and giving him soft, deep kisses.

Mitzuki, on the other hand, was riveted by the cheap horror onscreen, and screamed at several of the tenser moments, grasping Shinji's arm as if by reflex.

For the last scene, she kept her hand on his arm.

"This was fun," Domiyoji said amicably as they exited the theatre. His arm, Shinji noticed, was firmly wrapped around Sachiko's waist. "We should do it again sometime."

"Definitely!" Mitzuki agreed, nodding vigorously.

"You guys want a ride?" Sachiko inquired, leaning her head against her boyfriend's shoulder, her eyes lidded and drowsy. "Or are you gonna walk?"

Shinji looked confused until Mitzuki said, "We'll just walk… g'night." As they parted company, she explained, "I only live three blocks from here."

"Ahh," Shinji nodded, falling in step at the girl's side as they started to walk and offering no protest as she took his hand in hers. He looked back over his shoulder, but Sachiko was not looking his way.

"I had a good time tonight," Mitzuki told him after they had walked a block. "I'd like to go out again sometime."

Finding that he had no real reason to say no, Shinji simply nodded.

They fell into silence until they reached Mitzuki's street. "I've got a tattoo," she piped up suddenly, smiling as Shinji looked at her. "Did I ever tell you that?"

"No," the boy admitted, wondering suddenly if anyone else he knew had one.

"Sachiko's got one, too," Mitzuki grinned as if reading his mind. "Of course, hers is in a different place."

A brief flash of memory tickled Shinji's mind. Bare skin… quickened breath… hands covering places that should never have been uncovered. He thought, maybe, that he could recall a line of some shape peeking out between a thumb and a forefinger, but he quickly shook his head, trying to clear the memory before it could become too much of a focus.

"Anyway," Mitzuki went on, "wanna see it?"

"Huh?"

"Here," Mitzuki sighed, "gimme your hand." Not waiting for the boy's consent, she grabbed his hand, leading it to edge of her shirt, and under.

"W-what are you doing?" Shinji gasped.

"There," Mitzuki said with some satisfaction, "feel that?"

Shinji frowned, feeling a slightly raised pattern on the girl's skin. "What is it?" he asked curiously as she moved his fingers over it. "It feels like a character."

"You're so smart," the young woman grinned, keeping his hand against her skin, "it's the Chinese character for 'powerful.' I got it the day after I filed for divorce… as a reminder that no one has power over me - I'm my own person." She smiled as Shinji slowly drew his hand back. "Come in for a little while? I don't want to say goodnight yet, Shinji, ok?"

The boy stole a glance at his watch, finding that it was still rather early. He frowned slightly as he recalled what happened the last time he had been invited into a girl's apartment.

Sensing his apprehension, Mitzuki grabbed his hand. "Come on," she said lightly, pulling him through the door, "I want you to see my place."

Shinji swallowed. Come on, he thought, mentally crossing his fingers, no big deal - just a quick look around, then I'll go home.

The look around took rather longer than Shinji had anticipated, since Mitzuki's house was substantially larger than Sachiko's apartment. She also had comments on each room, pointing out details she thought he might find interesting. A picture in the dining room… a statue in one of the guest bedrooms… the large, four-poster bed that dominated the master bedroom.

Mitzuki smiled as her guest seemed to relax somewhat. "Want a drink?" she asked as they finally stopped in the living room, "I've got a little bottle of amaretto I've been holding on to… I could-"

"I really shouldn't," Shinji said quickly, blushing as the waitress frowned. "Sorry, I just don't think I want to start drinking yet."

"Fair enough," Mitzuki replied, gently pulling him down on the couch next to her, "but you have to sit a while and talk to me, since you won't join me in a drink - it's bad manners to just leave after a tour, you know."

"It is?" Shinji asked skeptically.

"It is," Mitzuki confirmed with a wink, "and besides - you haven't seen my tattoo."

Shinji blinked as the young woman pulled her shirt halfway up, turning slightly to offer him a better view of her back, and revealing the underside of the lavender bra she was wearing. "Why… there?" he asked hesitantly, noting that if the tattoo was another inch higher she would have needed to pull her bra up too.

"Because it hurt," Mitzuki replied quietly, keeping her shirt up. "It's right on one of my ribs… and it hurt like hell. I wanted to make sure I would never forget that it was there - or what it was supposed to mean." She grinned, leaning a bit closer. "Wanna touch it again? I like the way it feels when it gets touched. The skin is more sensitive there."

"N-no thanks," Shinji stammered, looking away.

Mitzuki sighed and lowered her shirt, though she tried to stay as close to him as she could. "Thanks for taking me out," she said softly, putting her hand over his. "I'd like to go again some time, Shinji, I had a great time."

"Ummm, alright," Shinji answered uncertainly, getting to his feet. I should talk to Asuka about this, he thought, blushing, Just to see if she… his thoughts trailed off as Mitzuki smiled, reminding him that he had no real obligation to tell the redhead anything.

"Talk to me," she whispered, keeping his hand. "Don't leave yet."

"Ok," Shinji said hesitantly, casting around for a topic of discussion. "I guess, I was wondering… if I could I ask you something?"

Mitzuki nodded, smiling softly.

"Can I ask why you wear that?"

Mitzuki blushed as he tilted his head forward, indicating the bandana she wore. "I'll show you," she whispered reluctantly.

The brown-haired boy watched with avid curiosity as the waitress reached up and slowly pulled the bandana off, revealing a head full of short purple hair, barely long enough to touch the tops of her ears. Kinda like Misato's, he thought absently, wondering why this was a big deal to her, little bit lighter, though.

The young woman fidgeted nervously for a moment as he studied her, fighting the urge to retie her bandana and run away. Don't make fun of me, she thought desperately, dropping her eyes, please don't call me a freak…

Shinji finally shrugged. "Umm, ok," he murmured.

"It… doesn't bother you?" Mitzuki asked cautiously.

The former Third Child blinked in confusion. "Why would it?" he wondered. He had lived with a woman with purple hair, and fought beside a girl with blue hair… and for the life of him he could not understand why it was an issue.

"It's my natural color," Mitzuki explained awkwardly.

"Ok," Shinji replied, his tone clearly showing that he was still confused.

"But, but it's unnatural," Mitzuki protested, "no one has purple hair - it's just weird."

Shinji frowned slightly, getting the oddest impression that she wanted him to be upset about this. "If you say so."

"Sit down," Mitzuki said softly.

Doing what he was told, Shinji retook his seat on the couch, noting absently that it was the same kind Sachiko owned.

Mitzuki was quiet for a long moment, deciding just how to start. Ultimately, she concluded that the straightforward approach was best. "I was born with this hair color," she said quietly. "Kids in school used to make fun of me for it, but my parents wouldn't let me wear hats or dye it or anything like that - they said I had to be proud of who I am." She sighed, running a hand through her hair. "Then my husband… he made me dye it brown. He said it made him sick to look at it."

"That's horrible," Shinji said honestly, "I don't think it's weird at all!"

The young woman smiled at him. "You really don't, do you?" she asked wonderingly.

It was odd, she mused, that her ex-husband had been so bothered by it. She knew now, of course, that the reason he bothered was that he didn't care about her - as a person - at all. She was just a tool to him, a pretty little trophy to keep around the house for chores… chores and sex.

"No," Shinji shook his head, "I think it looks pretty."

Mitzuki smiled, biting her bottom lip for a moment and studying his face closely. "It's been really hard to deal with," she said slowly, putting her hand over his, "people have made fun of me my whole life - but you don't think I should hide it, do you?"

Shinji looked down at her hand, then slowly up into her bright green eyes, shaking his head slowly. "No," he replied after a moment of quiet, feeling the slightest bit nervous as she stared at him, "I think you should be who you are. You can handle what life throws at you - I think you're really strong."

In the time they had worked together, he had formed a pretty solid opinion of her - and that opinion didn't include images of her sniveling or whining because someone was insulting her hair color, of all things. It wasn't that he didn't feel bad about her being teased and ridiculed, but he knew that making a big deal over it was unnecessary, as it would embarrass her.

It would embarrass her… and him, as well - because he would feel the need to comfort her and he didn't think that she wanted that, nor did he think he knew her well enough.

Mitzuki's thoughts, on the other hand, were running an entirely different direction. "You know what I like about you?" she asked quietly, smiling as she added, "Well, I like a lot of things about you, but what I like most about you?" Shinji shook his head. "You always think before you speak." She leaned forward suddenly, putting her hands on his face.

"Another thing I like is your lips…"

Shinji's eyes widened as Mitzuki closed her eyes, kissing him softly on the lips she had just mentioned her affinity for.

"Mmmm," she hummed, breaking away slowly, "I've thought about doing that for three weeks now, Shinji." She leaned forward again, barely grazing his lips with hers. "Do you want to do more…?"

Shinji swallowed, feeling short of breath as what had been a rather light discussion of hair color became something entirely unexpected. "Ummm… more?"

Mitzuki nodded, taking his hand and kissing the palm lightly. "There's no one here," she murmured, breathing softly against his hand, "and… I think you're great, Shinji." She smiled, placing his hand against her waist. "So, up or down," she whispered, closing her eyes, "either way is ok."

"I…" Shinji kept his hand perfectly still, "I don't think we should," he said quietly.

"Why?" the girl asked, opening her eyes and frowning slightly, "you're not seeing anyone, right?" she waited for him to nod. "So what's the problem? Am I… not pretty enough for you?"

"No!" Shinji said quickly, "It's not that at all! I just." I want this to be with Asuka!

"I'll tell you something," Mitzuki whispered, "my husband was the first person I ever slept with, and I did it because he was so demanding and sure of himself… but he never loved me, Shinji, no matter how hard I tried, I was never good enough for him." She reached out and gently caressed his face, smiling softly, "But you… you're always nice to me - to everyone - and I think…" she started leaning closer to him, her voice lowering as she went on, "I might… be falling for you, Shinji."

Shinji opened his mouth to reply, but found himself being kissed before he could speak. There was nothing demanding about the way she kissed him - none of the animalistic drive that had fueled the kiss between him and Sachiko - but it was still warm, and soft, and very human. He closed his eyes, trying to sort out his feelings.

In the cemetery, he thought, Asuka made it pretty clear that I meant nothing to her. He tried to stay focused as Mitzuki put her hands on his chest and gently pushed back, easing him into a reclining position on the couch. I can't keep pretending she'll ever want to be with me.

"If you're worried about work," Mitzuki whispered, breaking away and moving down to kiss his neck, "don't be - I'll keep it between us, Shinji, no one will ever know if you don't want them to."

Shinji nodded absently. I guess I should have known, he thought tiredly, maybe… maybe I just WANTED to be in love with her.

Mitzuki moaned softly as she felt the boy's hand slowly moving against her side, resisting the urge to take his hand and guide it where she wanted it to be. "You're perfect," she breathed, shivering slightly as his fingers once more traced her tattoo. "God, Shinji… I've been looking for someone like you for so long."

The former Third Child said nothing, still confused about what he truly wanted - in life, and in this situation. He couldn't contain a small gasp, however, as the young woman placed her hand on the front of his pants, caressing him slowly into full hardness and slowly reaching up to unzip his pants.

"We shouldn't… go all the way tonight," Mitzuki whispered huskily, "I don't want you to think I'm a tramp." She finished unfastening his pants, smiling languidly, "But I do want you to know… that I want you."

Shinji decided suddenly that perhaps this wasn't the best idea, and took a breath to tell the woman that there was no rush… but before he could speak, she leaned down and gently drew him into her mouth, holding still for a moment with just his head between her lips before dipping forward and taking him all the way in, closing her eyes and flattening her tongue to make sure that she covered every inch of him.

Haven't even done this, have you? Mitzuki thought as the boy moaned deeply, his back arching slightly as she began bobbing up and down, drawing her cheeks inward to caress the tip of his shaft. I've got so many things to show you… just be nice to me, and I'll show you how good it can be.

She forced herself to slow down, afraid that she might send him over the top too fast. If she made it last, she reasoned, it would be far more memorable - and she wanted him to remember her. Yes, she decided, she wanted him to think of her as much as possible, and to want to be with her. She wanted to be his fantasy - never mind why, for now, but if she could get him to think of her when he thought of pleasure… maybe he would start thinking of her when he thought of companionship, as well.

It was a complicated, slightly skewed way to look at the world, she would admit to herself later, but as she drew him slowly in and out of her mouth, she could not help but feel that it was true. And she could not deny that she loved the sounds she was coaxing from the boy's throat - so passionate and lustful! When they did have sex, she knew, he would be the kind of man that could not hide his pleasure. Making love to him would be satisfying and long-lasting, because she would be able to prolong it by slowing the pace when he was getting close.

Control, her ex-husband had taught her, was everything.

She eased herself down on the couch, cupping his testes in her hand and gently caressing them as he groaned, shaking his head from side to side. Nice, she thought, humming contentedly as she tasted a small drop of pre-cum on the tip of her tongue, so that's what you taste like. I want more, Shinji - I want it all! She shifted on the couch, knowing that her panties were getting wet, and bobbed her head quickly up and down, deliberately making the wet, slurping sounds of enjoyment her ex-husband had told her to make when she went down on him.

"Mit…zuki…" Shinji gasped, his hands grasping the couch as he felt her tongue circling his glans, "you'd… better stop, or I'm going to… come…"

"Mmmm…" the waitress murmured, pulling away from him briefly and stroking his shaft with her right hand, "I hope so."

Shinji cried out as she doubled her efforts, taking him deeply into her mouth and swirling her tongue all around him. She slid off the couch and onto her knees to get a better angle, gripped his hips holding him firmly in place as she dropped her mouth all the way to the base of his shaft, relaxing the muscles in the back of her throat to allow his crown to slip through and humming - meaning to drive him wild.

This was all it took to get what she wanted. She coughed slightly and pulled back as she felt his warm semen splash against the back of her throat, closing her eyes and breathing deeply as a bit more pattered onto the front of her shirt and the carpet at her feet.

"Let me get a towel," she murmured, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand as she drew back, "we… ummm… kinda made a mess." She blushed, smiling as she rose and headed towards the bathroom.

As soon as she was out of the room, Shinji closed his eyes, covering his face with his hands... and wondering why he had ever decided to stop Instrumentality. It was too hard - too hard to figure life out. He thought he understood when Asuka had touched him, but now he wasn't so sure. Certainly, what Mitzuki had just done to him was pleasurable, but it had made him feel confused - and just the slightest bit… dirty.

Maybe more than just a bit.

"Here," the young woman offered, smiling as she returned with a small hand towel and a dry shirt, "or do you want me to do it for you?"

"That's ok," Shinji said quickly, blushing as he took the towel, "I'll just… get cleaned up in the bathroom."

Mitzuki nodded, waiting to speak until he stood, awkwardly covering himself with the towel. "I'm sorry," she said softly, keeping her smile, "I don't want you to get the wrong idea about me, Shinji. I just," she shrugged, "I think you're incredible… and I love being with you." Reaching out, she ran a hand over his chest, sighing slightly, "Do you understand why I did… what I did?"

Shinji looked at the floor, shaking his head reluctantly.

"It's ok," the waitress whispered, "it doesn't really make a lot of sense - but I'll try and explain it." She put her finger under his chin and gently raised his face, looking into his eyes as she explained, "You're… amazing, to me. You're so quiet and shy all the time - except when you're with your friends, then when you smile…"

Shinji frowned as she trailed off, trying to make sense of what he was hearing. I'm still me, he thought as he waited for her to continue, it's not like I'm two different people.

"When you smile," Mitzuki went on finally, placing her hand flat on his chest and giving him a brief, closed-mouthed kiss, "I can see how happy you could be, and it makes me want to be the one that gets you to smile." Gently, she embraced him, ignoring his partial nudity. "And it makes me think, maybe, I could be happy too."

Shinji stared over the young woman's shoulder, his eyes finding her bandana. If only Asuka… he thought, no. He shook his head, dismissing the thought, that's an illusion. She's never going to be anything more than a friend - she doesn't WANT to be more than just a friend. Time…time to let that go…

Mitzuki felt her pulse quicken as the brown-haired boy turned his head and kissed her softly.

"Can you give me a couple days?" he asked softly, looking into her bright green eyes as they parted, "I've got some stuff I've gotta work out." He lowered his gaze, imagining that he could actually hear the illusion of a relationship with Asuka shattering in his mind, but still hoping, maybe… "I don't want to rush into anything."

The lavender-haired girl nodded quickly. "Of course!" she said happily, "I don't want to rush into anything either, I…" she trailed off, blushing fiercely as her hand brushed the towel covering his crotch. "Well," she said awkwardly, "I don't want to rush into anything, ummm… more." Abruptly, she stepped back, "I'll let you get cleaned up now," she murmured, suddenly embarrassed by her brazen behavior.

Shinji nodded, trying to keep himself covered as he headed towards the bathroom. Not like she hasn't seen, he thought as he closed the door, but still. He sighed as he cleaned himself up, refastening his pants and wrapping the hand towel in another towel before stuffing it into the hamper against the wall.

When he emerged, Mitzuki smiled at him. "Ummm… do you want to eat with me?" she asked timidly, balling her dampened shirt anxiously in her hands. "You can say no, if you want."

He opened his mouth to say no, then closed it and nodded instead. Might as well, he thought tiredly, no reason not to, right?

"Great!" the young woman beamed, "I'll cook something."

Shinji reached out, restraining her by putting a hand on her shoulder. "Can I help?" he asked quietly, smiling as she blushed and stammered that he was her guest, and shouldn't have to do any work. "I like cooking."

Mitzuki closed her eyes, nodding slowly. Could I want him any more? she thought as she turned and opened them, tossing her soiled shirt carelessly through the open bathroom door before leading him into the kitchen, No… no I don't think I could.

While they cooked a simple, traditional meal, she kept stealing glances at the boy, hoping that he wouldn't make her wait too long before deciding, because somehow, knowing if he wanted to be with her had somehow become very, very important to her.

**

"Why don't you call him, Devil?" Touji yawned. "You've got his cell number."

Asuka continued pacing (a pastime she enjoyed partaking of in front of him as often as possible) muttering, "No one asked you, moron. I'm not going to pry."

"Uh huh," the boy replied, "but you will make me dizzy, wandering around the living room until the guy you 'hate' shows up. Yeah, you're not prying, just-"

"Will you shut up?"

Touji leaned back on the couch, putting his hands behind his head and closing his eyes. "I'd say you should try decaf," he said, smiling slightly, "but you know what? I already switched the cans when I heard you were moving in, so I know this is pure you."

Asuka finally stopped, plopping down in one of the chairs arranged around the large room. "You're a real dick," she said levelly, "you know that? If you're still wondering why Hikari doesn't want to sleep with you, I'll fill you in - it's because you're a pushy, know it all, asshole jerk who's so damn full of himself that he can't even say 'I love you,' when he knows that's probably all it would take to a get a proposal!"

Her nostrils flared as she waited for him to reply. After a long moment, Touji stretched, rolling onto his side and facing the back of the couch. "Yeah," he said quietly, "but of course - you wouldn't know anything about that, right…?"

"Don't pretend that you know me," the redhead whispered dangerously, her augmented hand unconsciously grasping the arm of the chair and leaving deep finger-marks in the wood, "I'm not like you, you loser! I say what I mean, and I do-"

"Shut up."

"What!?"

"You heard me," the former Fourth Child murmured, still facing away from her, "you're so full of shit it makes me sick to be in the same room with you. You think everyone buys your little 'fuck the world' line? I've got news for you, Red - that shit may fly with people that don't know you, but I went to school with you, I fought with you, and I live with you… and the only person you're fooling is yourself."

Asuka glared at the boy's back. "You don't know shit, Suzuhara, and you didn't fight with me, you got crushed - like the bug that you are!" She took a deep breath, knowing her composure was long gone, and hating the feeling. "I don't need anyone! Least of all a sniveling, kiss-ass, fucking loser like Shinji!"

For a moment, Touji said nothing. Finally, he sat up, turning to face her. "You know something, Souryu?" he said tiredly, shaking his head, "You and him, just…" he trailed off, his eyes widening.

"Just what!?" the redhead snapped. When he didn't answer, she turned to see what he was staring at.

Shinji stood in the doorway, his hand still on the knob and his key still dangling from it. His other hand was clenched into an irregular fist, clutching whatever he was holding in it to the point that his knuckles were white, and he was chewing his bottom lip absently, staring off into space with a disturbingly blank look on his face.

Fuck! Touji and Asuka thought at the exact same time. They rose to their feet, first Asuka, then Touji, and faced him, neither quite willing to take the first step and speak. Before they could, Shinji nodded slowly to himself and stepped back out the door.

As it clicked shut, Touji sat back on the couch, shaking his head.

"Don't you dare," Asuka muttered as the boy opened his mouth, "not one fucking word, do you hear me? If you even so much as start a syllable, I'll fucking crush your other leg."

Touji shrugged, leaning back on the couch and closing his eyes. Go after him! he thought, biting his tongue so hard he thought it would bleed, Don't let him walk out like that! GO GET HIM YOU STUPID WOMAN!

The redhead took a hesitant step towards the door, her face a study in uncertainty and pain… then abruptly changed directions and headed towards her room.

As he heard her footsteps retreating deeper into the house, Touji considered chasing Shinji himself, but he knew nothing he could say would make his friend feel better. It had to come from Asuka, and he seriously doubted the girl would try to make any kind of apology or explanation. In his mind, only one word described the redhead at that moment, and he whispered it to himself, trying to figure out how he could help mend what she had broken.

"Idiot."

**

A week passed, during which Shinji and Asuka spent much of their time avoiding one another, annoying Touji to no end and raising the tension level in the house to a nearly unbearable point.

Shinji went out with Mitzuki twice more, relaxing considerably as she asked nothing more from him than a simple kiss goodnight… but he could still sense her anxiety. He knew that she was waiting for a definite reply, and the more he put her off, the worse he felt about it.

Touji was no help to him, either, as it seemed that the boy had taken a sudden interest in locking his door and sleeping whenever Shinji happened to be home.

Several times, Shinji found himself standing in front of Asuka's door, his hand raised to knock, but he could never quite bring himself to do it. The object in his pocket seemed to grow heavier with every passing day, making him wonder if perhaps it was less a simple trinket he could not bring himself to give and more an intangible icon of his feelings.

This idea concerned him, for if it was true - what did it mean if he could not give it?

It was a Friday night when he was finally forced to make a choice.

"That one wasn't so bad," Mitzuki was saying, smiling as she brought Shinji's hand up and kissed it. "Was it?"

Shinji shook his head, looking ahead as Mitzuki's house came into view. "Definitely not as scary as Shadow's," he conceded. "But next time, can we see a drama or something?"

"Sure," Mitzuki said warmly, leaning her head on his shoulder as they walked.

Silence stole over them as they neared her building, and as they came to a halt, Shinji murmured, "Well… guess this is goodnight."

Mitzuki leaned up, tilting her head expectantly until Shinji leaned forward and kissed her. As he stepped back, she reached out and grasped his hand.

"Don't go."

Shinji blushed. "Mitzuki, I…"

The waitress smiled gently as he trailed off, waiting until he met her gaze before whispering, "I think… I figured out what the problem is - with you and me, I mean."

"What problem?" Shinji asked halfheartedly, not truly wanting to hear.

Mitzuki laced her right hand with his left. "You, umm… not wanting to be with me," she said quietly.

"Oh?" Shinji replied, forcing his tone to remain noncommittal.

"Well, I kinda realized that it's one of those 'all or nothing' kinda things," Mitzuki said, nervously shifting from one foot to the other, "ya know what I mean? Like, maybe you're just thinking about it too much."

"I don't follow," Shinji murmured, though in all honesty, he did.

"What I'm saying," the girl pressed, unwilling to let it go, "is that… maybe you should just stop thinking for a little while - see what happens. Because if you do that, maybe I can prove that I'm worth it. Make more sense now?"

Shinji averted his eyes, nodding slowly.

"So what I was thinking," the girl said hesitantly, "what I was… wondering, is if you wanted to…" she lowered her eyes, flushing as she whispered, "stay the night."

Shinji's hand clenched in his pocket, the hard edges of the object perpetually kept there digging into his palm. "If I do," he replied softly, pushing his sadness away as his hand slowly uncurled, "would you let me cook breakfast…?"

Mitzuki nodded slowly, sensing that this simple request meant a lot more than she could see. "Of course."

"And," the brown-haired boy added quietly, "will you take off your bandana?"

"As soon as we get insi-"

"Now."

The waitress froze, totally unprepared for his odd demand. Is this some kind of test? she thought, licking her lips nervously and looking around the quiet street, It's late, and there aren't that many people around…

Shinji watched as she slowly reached up and removed the cloth from her head, allowing the harsh illumination from the streetlights to shine off her purple hair. "Thank you," he said, smiling softly.

"Ummm," Mitzuki hummed, smiling weakly and trying not to look around to see how many people were staring at her, "does that mean you'll stay…?"

The former Third Child squeezed the small item one final time, then brought his hand out of his pocket, reaching out to gently caress her face. He could feel the young woman's breath escape in a gentle sigh against his palm as he whispered his reply.

To be concluded…

Author's notes: what was Shinji's reply? Oh yeah, right - like I'm gonna tell before the next chapter! Whatever!! About Sachiko's sudden lack of interest in Shinji… well, things happen that way sometimes. *shrug* I've had it happen to myself, once or twice - one day you only want that person, the next… you could take them or leave them. Can't relate? Can't help ya. :P But I hope you're liking the story so far!

Pre-read was done by the Asuka/Shinji fangirl club president - Ryoma!! Thanks, little miss!! Hehehe Also lending a hand was Daniel. Thanks going out to him as well as yon metal god RustedAngel, who's most valuable input was, "Shit, I'd do Mitzuki!" Yeah man… me too. O_o