DISCLAIMER: This is a work of fan fiction incorporating characters and situations from the Gainax manga/anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion and its related feature film releases. Gainax and its various media distributors hold sole exclusive rights to their use. The author is in no way affiliated with Gainax or its distributors, nor has this story been submitted for any commercial purpose.

The Dramatic Aspect – Three Kisses

by Ikarus Onesun

xxxxx

"Hey, Shinji… you wanna kiss me?"

Shinji Ikari was sure he must have misunderstood what his roommate had just asked him.

He looked up from the textbook he had been studying on the floor of the apartment he shared with his guardian, Major Misato Katsuragi, and his fellow EVA pilot, Asuka Langley Soryu, and gaped at the redheaded German girl incredulously. Her head was lying on the kitchen table where she sat beside him, and she was considering him with a calm, thoughtful expression, not the disdainful scowl that she usually reserved for the Third Child.

The two were alone in the apartment – Misato had called earlier to tell the Children that she was staying out late from the wedding she had attended earlier in the day to go drinking with Ryouji Kaji. Asuka was initially outraged at the news, as she still harboured a deep crush for Kaji, her former guardian, and she considered the handsome NERV agent to be her sole property and future husband-to-be. But since Misato's call, she had sunk into a quiet, pensive mood, which didn't bother Shinji in the slightest as he studied for Monday's physics exam.

Shinji half-expected Asuka to break out into a peal of laughter as soon as he reacted to her question, as she delighted in making him the butt of her jokes, but the girl remained straight-faced, regarding him with an odd look of… expectancy. He pulled the earbuds from his SDAT out, to make sure that he heard her perfectly clearly.

"Huh… what?" he stammered, still desperately hoping that he had simply misheard what Asuka had said.

"Kissing… you know," she reiterated, instantly dashing Shinji's hopes. "Have you ever done it?"

Shinji swallowed hard. What business is it of hers? he thought to himself nervously, although the truth of the matter was that he did not want to admit to the redhead that he hadn't. Resolving to lie, he nodded his head in the affirmative, but he was inwardly mortified as, unconsciously, he simultaneously blurted out. "Uh-uh."

Oh, God, he thought morosely. Here it comes…

Once again, he feared the cruel laughter that would surely burst from the redhead in response to his inept reply, but strangely, Asuka did not laugh. In fact, she looked… intrigued.

"So let's do it," she suggested, raising her head from the table and keeping her deep blue eyes fixed on Shinji.

Shinji began to feel panic build within him. If this was a joke, then Asuka was pushing it to the limit.

Maybe… maybe she's serious, he thought, as a pink flush began to spread across his cheeks. Maybe she really does want to kiss me…

He struggled to make his mouth work as he stared into the redhead's eyes, longer than he had ever had opportunity to do before. I've never seen eyes that colour, he thought. So beautiful…

"Uh, but… why?" he finally managed to blurt out, still captivated by the German girl's azure gaze.

Asuka merely shrugged. "I've got nothing else to do," she replied matter-of-factly.

Shinji was instantly taken aback, confusion playing across his features as he managed to pull his eyes away from Asuka's. "That's your reason?" he exclaimed, his face falling. "You're weird."

He turned his attention back to his textbook, feeling slightly disgruntled. He was right – Asuka was just kidding around with him. Nothing else to do? He would have preferred for her to have said something like, "because I think you're cute, Shinji" – even if she didn't mean it – or maybe, "I've never done it either, and I want to know what it's like."

Nothing else to do? That was a reason for wanting to kiss him?

He suddenly realized that he was genuinely upset. Usually, he just accepted Asuka's frequent torments as a normal part of life with the Second Child. He had been subjected to numerous barbs, insults, and pranks since she had moved in with him and Misato – but for some reason, this particular joke was cutting a little too close to the bone.

Asuka merely looked on in amusement as Shinji turned away from her, frowning, as he stuck his nose back into his book. She was enjoying watching the Third Child squirm, positive that he would not have the spine to take her up on her offer. Smiling coquettishly, she decided to turn the screws even tighter.

"Afraid to kiss a girl on the anniversary of your mom's death?" she purred sweetly. "Is she watching you from up in Heaven?"

The words were a red flag to Shinji. Asuka was taking this to a place that he was very uncomfortable with, and he resented her even bringing up the subject of his mother. He had agonized over this day for weeks, knowing that visiting his mother's grave meant that he would have to spend time with, and talk to, his cold, distant father, Commander Gendou Ikari. Their encounter earlier that day had actually gone off better than Shinji had expected, but after paying their respects to Yui Ikari's memorial, his father had merely walked away from him, boarded an awaiting NERV VTOL, and flown away, leaving him all alone in a vast sea of grave markers. Shinji's secret hopes of a reconciliation, of perhaps even forging the beginnings of a new relationship with his father, had been shattered, and Asuka's mention of the anniversary served only to rub salt in the wound.

"That's not it," he muttered darkly, hoping that Asuka would take the hint and drop the issue.

Asuka had no intention of doing any such thing, obviously delighted that Shinji was becoming visibly annoyed. "Or are you scared?" she goaded, her smile spreading even wider.

It was the last straw. Fuming, Shinji shot up to his feet, glaring at the redhead as his textbook tumbled to the floor. Asuka sat back in her chair, genuinely surprised at the Third Child's reaction to her taunt, and she was even more surprised when she heard the normally timid teen angrily declare, "I'm not afraid! Pucker up!"

For a moment, Asuka had no idea what to do. She had been thinking about Kaji all night, ever since she heard that he was going out with Misato, and about how wonderful it would be to kiss him. Although she would never admit it, she had never kissed a boy either, and when she finally did have the chance to kiss Kaji, she wanted it to be perfect. She needed to practice – but how? Eventually, her eyes had lighted on Shinji as he quietly studied, and although the thought of kissing the Third Child was repulsive to her, he was a boy, so at least he could be useful to her in that regard. Besides, it would be fun teasing him about it, and he was such a coward that he'd probably never agree to kiss her, so either way, it would at least be entertaining…

But now, as Shinji stood before her, his eyes strangely intense as he silently defied her to back up her words, she suddenly felt as if she'd been backed into a corner – and she didn't like it one bit.

All right, Third Child, let's see how much nerve you really have, she thought.

"Right!" she exclaimed as she rose determinedly from her chair and fixed her gaze on Shinji, who gamely stood his ground. Her eyes narrowed slightly as she paused to scrutinize the brown-haired teen. "Did you brush your teeth?" she queried, the way a mother might ask a misbehaving child.

Shinji blinked, completely unprepared for such a question. "…yeah," he murmured, nodding slightly.

Asuka set her jaw. "Then here I come!" she announced, radiating confidence as she advanced toward Shinji.

The redhead was sure that Shinji would turn tail and run right then and there, but as she moved closer to him, she was astounded when the Third Child remained rooted to the floor, watching her intently as she closed the distance between them. She halted only inches from his face, staring into his slate-gray eyes, and waited.

He'll run away, she thought, although she found that her confidence was rapidly evaporating.

Shinji merely gazed back at her calmly, showing no sign at all that he was about to bolt. In fact, Asuka almost believed that he was waiting for her to back away.

Why isn't he afraid? she wondered, suddenly unable to discern whether she was annoyed, or excited, by the Third's resolve. Long seconds passed as they gazed at each other, before Asuka finally decided to see just how far Shinji was willing to take this. She leaned in close to him, pursing her lips, until their noses touched, her bright blue eyes watching him for even the smallest reaction.

The pink flush returned to Shinji's cheeks, and she was certain that this time, he would surely break, but she was shocked when instead, he closed his eyes, pursed his own lips, and leaned into her until his mouth was little more than a hair's breadth from hers.

Unglaublich, she thought, suddenly alarmed, as she stared wide-eyed at the waiting Third Child. I'm actually going to have to go through with this…

Asuka determined that there was no way that she was going to back down. And strangely, as she stood before him, she found that the thought of kissing Shinji was not quite as repulsive as she had first imagined…

To his credit, Shinji was doing an admirable job of holding his ground in the face of Asuka's aggressive overtures, his anger at the redhead's manipulations serving to temper his resolve. But inside, he was still extremely nervous about this whole situation, and his breathing came out in rapid puffs through his nose as he waited for Asuka to lean in farther and touch her lips to his.

After a very long pause, he opened his eyes to meet Asuka's own once more, and was surprised to see the look of uncertainty that had crossed the Second Child's features.

Is she… scared? he thought to himself, as he searched her face curiously.

Asuka suddenly felt cornered once again. She could feel his quick breath against the side of her face, and it raised her ire. "Stop breathing! It's tickling me!" she complained.

Shinji began to mumble an apology, but his words were cut off when Asuka reached out and grabbed his nose with her right hand, pinching his nostrils shut. He yelped in pain as she used her grip on his nose to roughly turn his head to the side, and a split second later, she was pressing her mouth to his.

It should be said here that, in reality, first kisses rarely happen the way they are portrayed in many storybook romances. In most cases they are in fact awkward, clumsy, uncomfortable, and sometimes, even painful.

Shinji's first kiss was definitely not of the storybook variety.

At first, he was preoccupied only with the stinging in his nose as Asuka twisted it to his left. Suddenly unable to breathe, he gasped through his mouth, and then he became acutely aware of the sensation of Asuka's lips on his. His own mouth was tight-lipped, as the intensity of the moment and the pain from Asuka's grip seemed to cause his entire face to freeze. His skin felt hot as a crimson blush bloomed across his face and seemed to spread down his entire body. Asuka, sensing his resistance, doubled her efforts, mashing her mouth against his and physically trying to spread his lips apart with hers. After a few moments, she succeeded in parting Shinji's lips, and the Third Child's eyes opened in shock as the redhead forced her tongue past his teeth and began roughly exploring his mouth. The sensation of her tongue scraping against the roof of his mouth was not… unpleasant, but the aggression with which she performed this act left him at a total loss. Should he do the same to her? Would she pull back and hit him if he tried? He decided it best to just let her take control, and stood there rigidly as Asuka continued to push her mouth against his, making loud slobbering sounds as she worked her lips and rapidly swirled her tongue around and around in his mouth…

After more than a minute, they finally staggered away from each other, Shinji gasping for air as he had scarcely had an opportunity to breathe during the entire experience. Panting, he looked across to Asuka, who stood before him with an odd expression on her face. She raised a hand to wipe the saliva from her mouth, letting her fingertips linger on her lips as her great sapphire eyes stared deep into Shinji's own for the briefest of moments, a kaleidoscope of emotions rioting across her features. A split-second later though, as if a switch had been thrown in her head, her face twisted into a scowl of disgust, and a loud "UGHHH!!!" erupted from her as she whirled and bolted to the bathroom.

Shinji listened outside, mortified, as he heard Asuka slurping water from the sink tap and gargling frantically, as though she had eaten something that had spoiled and was trying to wash the taste out of her mouth.

"Ugh! Eww! Bleh! I should never kiss to kill time!!!" she shrieked, between mouthfuls of water.

The Third Child, still dazed and confused from the experience, leaned against a wall for support as he listened to Asuka's histrionics in the bathroom. Somehow, he had never pictured his first kiss happening quite like this

xxxxx

Later that night, Shinji lay awake in his bed, mulling over everything that had happened that evening.

After the incident with Asuka, Kaji had arrived at the apartment, practically dragging Misato like a sackful of rice behind him, her arm draped over his shoulder as she stumbled alongside the ponytailed agent. It was clear that Misato was incredibly drunk, and with Shinji's help, they managed to get her first to the bathroom to swallow a couple of aspirins and a little water, and then to her bedroom, where they left her sprawled across her futon with her party dress still on. Asuka had refused to help, too disgusted with Misato's condition and too taken with Kaji's presence in the apartment to be able to do anything but stare lovingly at him as he tended to Misato. When it was finally time for him to leave, Asuka had begged him to stay, but he had refused. She had clutched at his arm as he made his way to the door, but her face abruptly fell as she recognized a familiar scent on his clothes – the lavender perfume that Misato favoured.

Realizing what must have transpired between her guardian and the object of her affection, Asuka could only stand mutely as Kaji stepped out of the apartment, pausing only to ask Shinji, "Take care of Misato, okay?" before he made his way into the night. As Shinji closed the door behind him, he noticed the crestfallen look on Asuka's face, but when he asked her why she looked upset, she snapped, "That's because you kissed me, you jerk," before storming to her room and slamming the door behind her.

Now, much later, Shinji replayed the kiss that he had shared with Asuka over and over in his mind

It was not a good kiss, by any standard – even Shinji was astute enough to realize that – but it was something. He had kissed a girl, something he knew that most of his friends could not claim – and it had been with Asuka, who was easily one of the most desirable girls in his school, despite her acerbic personality. So what if it had been kind of… weird? So what if he had spent most of his time just standing there, hoping desperately for a chance to take some oxygen into his burning lungs, while Asuka seemed to be trying to chew on his lips while simultaneously attempting to drive her tongue as far down his throat as possible?

He could not honestly say that it had been a pleasant experience, but it was experience nonetheless. He wasn't exactly sure though whether or not he had learned anything useful from the encounter, and he hoped that the next time this happened, it might not be so… violent.

Shinji sighed, and turned to face the clock by his bed. It was 1:44 AM. He tossed and turned for a few more minutes, but sleep still refused to come to him as he continued to mull over the kiss.

Should I have tried doing the same stuff to her that she was doing to me? he mused, recalling his earlier indecision in the midst of the moment.

Maybe it would have been better if I had. Asuka seemed to enjoy what she was doing…

But… I didn't really enjoy it.

It felt like… like she was trying too hard.

Asuka always acts like she knows what she's doing, but I don't think she really knows anything at all about this…

His thoughts were broken by the sound of Misato's door opening, and the unsteady shuffling of her footfalls as she stumbled to the bathroom. Minutes later, he heard the toilet flush, and the sound of the bathroom's screen door being pulled aside. Shinji strained to hear as Misato seemed to walk straight past her bedroom and into the living room, and he heard the dull thump of a body flopping onto the living room couch.

She didn't make it back to bed, Shinji thought.

Kaji told me to take care of her…

Maybe I should try to get her back to her room…

The concerned teen rose from his bed, reached for a T-shirt and pulled it on, and rubbed at his eyes before rising and pulling aside the door to his room. The apartment was dark, the only sound coming from the living room, where the still-inebriated Misato seemed to be panting as she lay on the couch, the uneven huffing of her breath the only way that Shinji could tell exactly where she was.

Shinji crept out of his room and into the living area, squinting to try and make out Misato's form in the gloom. He did not want to turn the lights on, in case it disturbed Misato, but he also realized it might be difficult to get her back into her room if the apartment was this dark.

He ventured into the living room, barely able to make out Misato's body sprawled on the couch. "Misato…?" he whispered tentatively, half hoping that she was asleep.

She wasn't. Her voice came in a throaty slur through the darkness which permeated the apartment. "…Kaji?" she murmured.

Shinji's eyebrows shot up. "Uh, no, it's Shi…"

She cut him off with a pronounced, "Shhhhh… quiet, you'll wake th' kids!" Shinji froze, not daring to say another word, as the woman on the couch spoke again. "Hey, you… c'mere, I wanna… I wanna talk t' you."

Not knowing what else to do, Shinji moved across the living room floor, making his way over to the couch where Misato lay. As he approached her, squinting in the dark, he caught his breath as he realized that somewhere over the course of the evening, Misato had discarded her dress, and she was now lying on the couch in only her bra and panties.

As he stood over her, thankful that the darkness prevented him from seeing the full scope of her nudity, he froze as Misato turned and gazed up at him, smiling.

"Hey… I jus'… I jus' wanted t' tell you somethin'," she mumbled, her eyes wide but seeing nothing.

Shinji swallowed hard. "M… Misato," he stammered, "I… I'm not…"

"Shhhhhhhh," she cut him off again, bringing a finger unsteadily to her lips. "You… don't speak, okay? I'm th' one… th' one doing th' talking. You speak…. I listen. Got it?"

Shinji nodded mutely, although he was genuinely, and rightfully, confused.

"'kay," Misato continued. "Now listen, 'cause I've wanted t' say this t' you for a loooong time. Come closer, willya? I can't talk t' you when you're 'way up there."

Shinji began to panic as he considered Misato's request. Just what the hell do I do now? he thought to himself. She thinks I'm Kaji!

Well, I guess there's no harm in it, as long as I can get her back into bed…

He moved closer to the couch, and knelt down so that he was almost level with Misato's head. The lavender-haired woman smiled at him, still completely unaware who it was she was talking to.

"Kaji… all I want to say is… I'm sorry. I'm sorry I lied to you, I'm sorry I put you through so much trouble, an'… I'm sorry I… hurt you. It's all… my fault. You were always so good t' me, an' I guess… I guess I jus' got scared. You're sooooo much like my father, an' I jus' got so scared that I was going to end up with somebody who was exactly like someone tha' I thought I hated. But I don't hate you, Kaji… I've never hated you, no matter what I might have said. In fact… I still… I love you, Kaji."

Shinji was absolutely dumbstruck at Misato's words. He suddenly felt extremely uncomfortable, as if he had walked in on an intimate conversation between two people – and in a way, he had.

He was completely unprepared for what happened next.

Without warning, Misato suddenly reached out a hand and wrapped it around the back of Shinji's head. Before he could react, Misato guided his head down to hers, and the next thing he knew, she was kissing him.

The Third Child's head swam as Misato's mouth lightly brushed his at first, and then, she parted her lips softly and pressed them fully against his. His eyes shot open and his whole body shuddered as she turned her head slightly in order to cover his mouth more completely. His senses suddenly seemed a thousand times more acute, particularly his sense of smell - and he had to admit that Misato did not smell very good at all. The light, lingering scent of her lavender perfume was still present, but it was mixed with the smell of sweat, alcohol, cigarette smoke, and an odour that he was reasonably sure was vomit. All of this, though, took a back seat to the electric sensation of her lips against his. Unlike Asuka, Misato was an expert kisser, and even as drunk as she was, she still knew how to give a kiss – it was almost instinctual to her.

Compared to Asuka's aggressive approach, Misato's technique was far more passive, and infinitely more effective. She subtly pursed her lips, making them as soft as possible, and gently caressed Shinji's mouth with hers, keeping enough pressure to maintain an intimate connection, but not so much as to physically overwhelm him. The sensation was tantalizing, and Shinji momentarily forgot himself as he unconsciously pressed his mouth harder against hers. In response, Misato's lips parted slowly, gently, and this time, it was Shinji's tongue that tentatively moved forward to probe the inside of Misato's mouth. Sighing, his guardian's lips opened wider, and the hair on the back of Shinji's neck jumped as her tongue made contact with his. For almost a full minute this went on, Misato's hand firmly on the back of Shinji's neck as their lips caressed each other and their tongues danced between them.

And then, everything came crashing back to Earth for Shinji when Misato finally broke the kiss, and pulled him close to her, whispering in his ear, "I love you, Ryouji…. I love you so much…"

Her words hit him like a slap in the face. As his sense and sensibilities suddenly rushed back, Shinji felt a deep wave of shame wash over him.

That kiss… that was… amazing – but it wasn't meant for me, he thought with embarrassment, as Misato's head nestled against the nape of his neck.

I shouldn't be doing this…

As he lay there awkwardly in Misato's embrace, he stiffened as he felt her hand brush clumsily across his cheek. Chuckling softly, she murmured, "So… y' finally got rid of that awful stubble…" She clutched him to her tighter, and he heard her whisper again, "Ryouji… I love you…" before her grip began to slacken, and her arms eventually fell away from him.

Slowly, he sat back away from the couch, as he realized that Misato had passed out.

For long minutes, he sat on the floor of the living room, gazing at his unconscious guardian with a mix of guilt and pity. Eventually, he rose and made his way silently to Misato's bedroom, where he scooped up the duvet from her futon and brought it out to the living room. Smiling weakly, he draped the comforter over Misato's prone form, tucking the edges around her neck and shoulders. He stood without a sound and regarded his sleeping guardian warily for a few moments, before he turned and slowly made his way back to his own room.

Behind him, Misato shifted underneath her down duvet, and sighed contentedly in her sleep.

xxxxx

Still later, Shinji was back in his own bed again, but as much as he tried, sleep still eluded to the troubled teen. His thoughts were a complete riot as he tossed and turned, unable to put the kiss with Misato out of his head.

She's going to kill me, Shinji thought nervously, his wide eyes fixed on the door of his room as if he expected a furious Misato to burst through it at any moment.

She is going to wake up, grab her gun, and SHOOT me!

She was so drunk though… she probably won't remember a thing… at least, I hope not…

His eyes narrowed in thought as he ran his hand across his lips, recalling the sensation of Misato's mouth on his. Compared to Asuka's clumsy attempt, the kiss he had shared with Misato was spectacular, but the more he thought about it, the more he decided that he hadn't really enjoyed it any more than he had with Asuka. The physical sensations were incredible – Shinji had never felt anything like it, and her touch had set off reactions all through his body. But despite this, everything just seemed… wrong.

I completely took advantage of her, he thought miserably.

I could have stopped her. I could have pulled away.

I SHOULD have.

But I didn't.

And it's not like I ever really think about Misato like… that… so what WAS I thinking?

God, I feel like a total lowlife…

He rolled over in bed again, glancing at the clock on his bedside table, which now read 2:50 AM. He groaned dejectedly, and flopped onto his back, staring up at the dark ceiling above him.

She didn't really want to kiss me anyway, he mused.

She thought she was with Kaji.

She said she loved him.

Is that what a kiss is supposed to be like, when somebody loves you?

Shinji suddenly felt incredibly depressed, as he recalled the sensations that had ran through him when Misato had kissed him. Would any girl ever love him enough to kiss him like that? What if that never happened for him? After all, he had only ever felt rejection and abandonment from the people in his life who supposedly loved him – what if that never changed?

What if his kiss with Misato was the closest he ever got to such a feeling?

He was wide awake, his thoughts were a tempest, and he couldn't bear to just lie in bed and wait for sleep. He needed to get out, to get some air, to somehow try to put his mind at ease. Rising from his bed, Shinji pulled on the school clothes he had laid out for the morning, silently slid the door to his room aside, and crept out into the apartment, taking care not to wake Misato. He pulled out a light jacket from the hall closet before he turned the knob to the front door as quietly as he could, slipped out into the outside walkway, and closed the door behind him with a soft click.

He walked aimlessly through the streets of Tokyo-3, not paying any attention to which way he was going, his hands jammed in the pockets of his windbreaker as his mind continued to turn over and over the events of the last day. Seeing his mother's grave, seeing his father, and now this terrible situation with Asuka and Misato – it had not been a good day at all.

Nothing had been resolved between him and his father. Asuka surely hated him now more than ever – he was certain that she would take every opportunity at school to tell the entire student body what a terrible kisser he was, and would probably even try to make it out so that it was his idea, not hers. And Misato…

Shinji thought glumly that it maybe would be best if she did kill him, because he wasn't sure he could live with the shame and guilt that would surely exist between the two of them now.

After a while, he found himself following a bicycle path that ran along the shore of Lake Ashinoko – the real one, not the man-made second Ashinoko that had been created during an N² mine strike on the third Angel, months before. He proceeded along the path until he came to a small green belt, where a collection of park benches were arranged beneath several tall statues of angels that looked out over the water. A brilliant full moon hung high in the sky, its reflection rippling on the lake's calm surface, and Shinji paused for a moment to take in the view – and he caught his breath at a most unexpected sight.

On a solitary park bench close to the water, directly beneath one of the looming stone angels, sat a pale, slender girl with a conspicuous mop of blue hair.

Rei? Shinji thought in astonishment, wiping at his eyes in case they were playing some sort of trick on him. He glanced at his watch and saw that it was now half-past three in the morning.

What's she doing out here all by herself, at this time of night?

Concerned, he stepped off of the bicycle path and onto the grass, and made his way across the small park to where Rei Ayanami sat alone. She was dressed, as always, in her school uniform, and her briefcase rested against the bench's legs on the ground. As he drew closer to her, Shinji saw that the girl's eyes were closed, and she sat very still.

Is she sick? Shinji wondered, suddenly alarmed.

Or maybe… is she sleepwalking?

Shinji had heard that it was dangerous to wake a sleepwalking person, and the last thing he wanted to do was to put Rei in danger.

But she's dressed… and she has her briefcase with her, he noted, as he continued to approach the silent First Child.

She's not sleepwalking, then. She came here on purpose.

I wonder what's wrong?

He was now standing beside the bench, looking down at the blue-haired girl. Strangely, Rei did not react to his presence at all – her eyes were still closed, and she did not so much as turn her head in Shinji's direction.

Shinji remained there for long moments, feeling very awkward. Either Rei had not heard him approach, which seemed unlikely, or she was ignoring him, which seemed unlike her. As distant as Rei could seem at times, she was not rude, and she would always acknowledge Shinji with some sort of greeting whenever they met, even if it was nothing more than a simple, "Ikari."

Finally, his curiosity got the better of him, and he managed to work up the nerve to speak to her.

"Ayanami… what… what are you doing here?" he stammered.

She did not reply, but instead held up a hand, gesturing to him for silence. Shinji froze in place, alarmed and unsure of what to do, but after a few moments, Rei gestured again, motioning for him to take a seat beside her on the bench. Warily, Shinji slowly stepped forward, keeping his eyes on Rei the whole time, and sat down gingerly beside her, confusion playing across his face.

"Listen," she whispered. She kept her eyes tightly closed, and she seemed to be concentrating intently on something.

Shinji closed his eyes and concentrated as well, although he wasn't exactly sure what it was he was concentrating on. Nearly a full minute went by before his eyebrows raised in surprise as a long, plaintive call echoed across the lake. It was obviously from some kind of bird, but it was a birdcall unlike any that Shinji had ever heard before. A few seconds later, it came again, the oddly forlorn sound sending a small shiver down his back.

"What is that?" he asked under his breath, his curiosity piqued.

"I believe it is a common loon," Rei replied quietly.

"What… what's a loon?"

"It is a species of freshwater fowl," she answered, her voice barely above a whisper. "They are not native to Japan, they are normally found mostly in Canada and the northern United States. Their migratory paths must have been altered by post-Second Impact weather patterns, and it seems they are now finding their way to this country."

"It's… beautiful," Shinji whispered thoughtfully, as the loon's keening call pealed across the water once more. "I've never heard anything like it. It sounds so sad… and lonely, like… like it misses somebody."

"That is not possible," Rei replied. "Birds do not have emotions."

Shinji turned to face her, one eyebrow slightly arched. "How can you know that for sure, Ayanami?"

"I have read about them. None if the information in our textbooks indicates that birds are capable of emotional interactions."

Shinji could not suppress the small smile that crept across his mouth. "Uh, well, I can introduce you to a certain domesticated penguin that would blow a big hole in that theory. Pen Pen has lots of emotions – he's cranky, greedy, obnoxious, he's a huge suck-up when Misato's around…"

"I have been introduced to… Pen Pen already," Rei answered, quite unnecessarily, as Shinji knew that she had met the penguin several times. "He is an anomaly, a genetically engineered being, not a wild animal. His particular behaviors are not the norm for avians."

Shinji recognized that Rei had a point, but he was not ready to concede the argument. "Okay then," he continued, after a moment's thought, "what about… lovebirds? They're always in pairs, and always cuddling each other, so they must have emotions, right?"

"That is not emotion, it is instinct," Rei answered immediately, "nothing more than an ingrained urge to find a mate in order to ensure the continuation of their species."

The loon called out across the lake once again. Shinji sighed, wondering if Rei could make any topic sound as clinical and academic as this one.

"Well, I still think it sounds lonely," he finally mused, before adding with a grin, "I think… maybe it's lost. Maybe it misses its friends in Canada, and wants to go home."

"Birds cannot make friends, Ikari," Rei replied, seeming quite certain of the fact as she turned her ruby eyes back to the lake.

Shinji rolled his eyes in exasperation. It appeared to the teen that their conversation had reached an impasse, and he frowned as he searched his exhausted mind for something else to talk about.

The two Children sat in silence for long moments as they stared out across the moon-dappled water, Shinji continuing to ponder over the blue-haired girl's presence in the park, while Rei seemed content to wait patiently for the next call of the loon.

Eventually, Shinji stole a furtive look through his brown forelocks at the First Child as she gazed out across the lake. Lit by nothing but the moonlight, Rei's pale skin appeared almost translucent, and she seemed to be outlined by a soft, almost angelic-seeming glow against the surrounding darkness. The moonlight also accented the light blueish tones of her hair, making it seem even more otherworldly than usual. As a gentle breeze from across the water brushed her bangs aside, revealing her high, alabaster brow, Shinji was struck by how intensely red the irises of her eyes were, as if they were somehow lit from within, rather than from the light from the moon overhead.

It seemed to Shinji as if every coherent thought he'd had up to that moment had been somehow sucked out of his brain, as he stared, captivated, at the silent girl.

This is… weird, he thought, shifting awkwardly in place on the bench. I can't just sit here and not say anything… but I can't just get up and leave, either…

I should say something… anything… but what?

Another breeze fluttered Rei's bangs once again, and this time, she raised a hand and absently brushed her hair out of her eyes. The innocent motion took only seconds, but to Shinji, it seemed to stretch on and on for minutes.

She's…

I never really thought about it before, but… Rei's so…

pretty…

As the confounded teen struggled mightily for another topic of conversation, Rei suddenly turned back to him, regarding the Third Child with a querying look.

"Ikari… why are you here?" she asked flatly. She seemed unconcerned that Shinji had suddenly turned bright red and appeared to be having trouble breathing.

Why AM I here? he thought desperately.

Wait… didn't I ask her that first?

Oh yeah, she came all the way down here at three in the morning to listen to some stupid bird! Of course!

So… what's my excuse, then?

Shinji licked his lips nervously, staring at the ground in front of the bench as he struggled to answer Rei's question. He had no desire to lie to her, but at the same time, he wasn't entirely sure how to put his experiences into words.

"Well… um," he began, "I've had… kind of a weird night, and I just had to get out of the house for awhile, I guess." He turned back to Rei, and was surprised to see that that girl was studying him intently.

It's like she's looking right through me, he thought. The First Child said nothing, but it seemed to Shinji that she was definitely expecting a more detailed explanation.

"Um," he continued hesitantly, not really wishing to say anything more, but feeling almost compelled to under Rei's crimson gaze, "some… well, some stuff happened tonight, with Asuka, and… and Misato too…" Shinji's voice trailed off, his discomfort clearly broadcasting from his features, and his deepest hope at that moment was that Rei would lose interest in the conversation and turn her attention back to the loon calling in the darkness.

His hopes were abruptly dashed.

"Stuff?" the blue-haired girl replied, mouthing the word as if she had never uttered it before in her life.

Shinji sighed, and dropped his gaze once again. There was no getting around the issue, he supposed. And for some reason, even though it wouldn't have been unreasonable for him to simply make an excuse and avoid discussing the matter with her, the thought of deliberately misleading Rei seemed somehow… wrong to him.

"Okay," he continued, taking a deep breath, "Asuka and I… well, I was studying, and Asuka asked me if I wanted to kiss her… and I wasn't going to, at first… but she kept bugging me, so I said I would, but I didn't want to, and I didn't think she really wanted to either, I thought she was just trying to bother me, but she said "okay", and I still didn't want to kiss her, not really, but I didn't want to chicken out either, because that would have just made things worse, and so… finally… we did."

The sentence came out in a hurried rush, as if a dam had suddenly burst. Shinji was aware of the heat radiating from his flushed face as his wide gray eyes bored a hole into the grass between his feet.

After a short pause, Rei's quiet voice broke the silence. "I see," she murmured slowly. "And I assume then that afterward, you had a similar encounter with Major Katsuragi."

Something in the girl's voice caught Shinji's attention. She spoke in the same flat monotone that he was accustomed to hearing, but it was lower, and softer, and seemed almost… wistful to the Third Child.

Is she… upset? Shinji wondered to himself.

Had he found the courage to glance up at Rei at that moment, he might have noticed the tiny crinkle that had appeared over the bridge of her nose.

"Uh, well… yeah," he went on, "Asuka was really mad at me, and then Kaji dropped off Misato – they'd been out drinking all night – and she sort of passed out on the couch, so I went into the living room to check on her – it was late, and really dark – and she started talking to me… and then – I'm still not really sure how this happened, but… we, uh, sort of started kissing, too."

"Mm," was the blue-haired girl's only reply. A long, awkward silence settled over the two Children as Rei turned away to gaze once more across the glittering waters.

Shinji looked sidelong at the quiet girl, trying desperately to read her reaction. He had a definite feeling that something was not right with the First Child.

I feel like… like I've offended her somehow, he thought, as the sick feeling of shame began to twist his insides once again.

I guess I really am a lowlife…

"I'm sorry… I should go," he mumbled miserably, as he began to rise from the bench, "Sorry I disturbed you, Ayana…"

His voice fell away as he turned to face the blue-haired girl, and he froze as her intense crimson eyes locked with his. Rei had turned herself on the bench in order to face him more fully, and the expression on her face was one that Shinji had never before seen from the normally impassive First Child - curiosity.

"I'm not sure I understand," she stated, "what motivated you to kiss Pilot Souryu and Major Katsuragi?"

Shinji could only stare back mutely at her for several seconds as the simple question impacted his reasoning. Eventually, he realized he was holding his breath, and let it out in a long sigh as he slumped back onto the bench. Rei waited patiently as Shinji ran his fingers through his brown hair, searching his frazzled brain for the answer to her query.

"I… don't really know, Ayanami," he finally ventured. "I can't… I mean, it's just that it wasn't really me who started it, either time. I don't really know how it actually happened, and I'm still pretty confused about the whole thing, but it was definitely Asuka and Misato who made the first moves – not me."

Rei tilted her head slightly at this. "In that case, what would motivate Pilot Souryu and Major Katsuragi to kiss you?"

Shinji visibly deflated at the remark. Sure, Rei, why would anyone want to kiss me? he thought glumly.

Hey, I know I'm no prize, but come on…

"I am sorry," the girl immediately offered, noting his reaction to her question without registering the reason behind it. "I wish only to understand what happened."

The look of hurt on Shinji's face faded somewhat at this. He wasn't really sure why Rei seemed so interested in his experiences, but it felt… good that he at least had someone to talk to, after everything he'd been through that evening.

"Well… Asuka said she wanted to because she had nothing else to do," he began hesitantly, "and Misato… well, she had a lot to drink, and she… well, she actually thought that I was somebody else. I'm sure she probably won't even remember that anything happened when she wakes up."

The tiny crinkle above Rei's nose returned. "So… people kiss when they are bored, or when they are inebriated?"

Shinji was momentarily taken aback. "Erm… well, I guess they do, sometimes, but… that's not really the point of it."

"Of course," the girl replied, "kissing is an activity that two people engage in as a prelude to sexual intercourse."

The Third Child's jaw dropped at the remark.

"Uh… well," he stammered, suddenly feeling the burn creeping across his face once again, "that's… that's also true, sometimes… but that's not really the point either."

Despite his discomfort at the direction the conversation was taking, Shinji couldn't help but be fascinated by the subtle flickering of expressions that crossed Rei's face as she struggled to grasp the topic.

"I… do not see the point then, Ikari," she finally murmured, genuinely perplexed. "I have never experienced… kissing, myself, or seen others perform the act, except on television and in movies… and in those cases, kissing almost always leads to intercourse. I thought it reasonable to assume that it was merely a part of the human mating ritual."

"Actually, I think that flowers and dinner usually come first," Shinji replied with a weak grin, which evaporated almost instantly when his remark was greeted with blank silence from the First Child.

Okay, bad time for a joke, he thought.

"Look, Ayanami," he ventured, pausing briefly to collect his thoughts, "people kiss for all kinds of reasons. Sure, they can do it when they're bored, or drunk, or when they want to have… sex, but it's a lot more complicated than that."

Rei watched him intently as he paused again, searching for the right words to explain something to her that he barely understood himself.

"There's lots of reasons that people kiss, and lots of ways to kiss, too, and none of them are the same," he continued. "The way a mother kisses her child is very different than the way two friends might kiss each other, or a couple who are dating would. Sometimes, you might kiss someone to comfort them, if they've hurt themselves, or if they're sick, or sad, or even happy, or... if you're in love with them..."

Shinji voice trailed off as he ran his fingers slowly across his lips, recalling again the sensation of Misato's mouth on his.

Ryouji… I love you…

"They're all different," he murmured quietly, "and they all feel different, too."

A long silence settled over the two Children once again, which was eventually broken by the loon's melancholy cries. Shinji turned to face Rei, who was now staring up at the massive stone angel that loomed over them, her light blue brows knit in thought.

"I'm sorry, Ayanami – I guess I'm not explaining this very well," he offered apologetically, "I'm afraid I really don't know very much about… things like this."

"Yes… it is difficult," the girl replied, her voice barely above a whisper. "Perhaps… it would be easier to understand if you would… demonstrate."

This last word inexplicably sent Shinji into a coughing fit which lasted for several seconds. Sputtering through the hand which he had quickly clamped over his mouth, he fought to regain control of himself as he stared, wide-eyed and stunned, at the First Child.

"Y… you… want me to… to d-d-demonstrate?!?" he stammered, unable to believe his own ears. "How… how would that help?"

Rei regarded him calmly, as if they were discussing ideas for a science project at school. "I have no personal knowledge of this subject, nor can I find any reliable sources for study," she posited. "You, however, have engaged in kissing twice, and although you cannot explain the act adequately, you are nevertheless experienced, and should be able to give a suitable demonstration."

Things seemed to be going from bad to worse for the Third Child. Shinji felt utterly trapped. More than anything, he wanted to run – I mustn't run away – but he didn't seem to be able to tell his legs how to work as he gaped mutely at the blue-haired girl. The flight instinct, though, was warring with another impulse that was stirring within him – one that he couldn't immediately recognize, but the turmoil it was causing deep within his soul kept him rooted to the spot as he struggled to respond to her request.

"I can't… I mean… WHAT?!?" he finally managed. "Ayanami… I'm… I'm not "experienced!" I've only done it twice! And I… I didn't even know what I was doing when I was doing it!"

"You are still acquainted with the physical actions involved in the act," Rei replied, making the "act" sound as if it came complete with a technical manual. "That is all that I require in order to draw my own conclusions."

She rose quietly from the bench, and stood before Shinji, who shifted and fidgeted for long moments before he finally glanced up uncertainly at the girl. Rei said nothing, but merely waited patiently as her crimson eyes searched his face. Above her, the brilliant moon was partially eclipsed by the light blue crown of her hair, creating a soft white corona all around her head which was broken only by the overarching wings of the marble angel. Shinji was utterly speechless in the face of the breathtaking image before him.

"Please, Ikari, "she whispered, breaking a silence that seemed to last an eternity. "I wish to understand."

I love you, Ryouji…

In the distance, the loon's mournful cries echoed across the lake once more.

I love you so much…

Before he knew what was happening, he was on his feet, gazing into her fathomless ruby-coloured eyes.

I never really thought about it before…

Tentatively, he reached out and placed his shaking hands on her fragile shoulders. Her expression did not change, but her eyes continued to study him closely as he inched toward her.

but Rei's so…

He leaned forward slightly, inclining his head to the left. There was a pause, and then Rei followed his action, tilting her head and moving closer until they could each feel the other's soft breath against their cheeks.

...pretty…

It was not aggressive, hard and hungry, and overwhelming, like it had been with Asuka.

It was not accomplished, soft and sensual, and tantalizing, like it had been with Misato.

It was awkward, hesitant and halting, and very, very brief.

It was very much like a typical first kiss might happen between two young people.

And to Shinji, it was the longest seven seconds of his life.

It's… different, was the only recognizable thought that ran through his head as his lips gently brushed against Rei's.

It was as if everything surrounding him in that briefest of moments – the park, the bench, the stone angel, the moon overhead, the loon in the darkness – had vanished. All that existed to Shinji was a sudden rush of pure sensation, the information coming at him almost too quickly for him to comprehend.

First, there was her scent – Shinji recognized the the smell of the generic soap from the dispensers in the pilots' locker room shower, mixed with a faint, lingering trace of LCL. Then, there was an almost neutral taste, with just a hint of toothpaste – wherever she'd been recently, she'd showered and brushed her teeth. He was aware of the crisp feel of her cotton school shirt under his trembling hands, the warmth of her cheek against his, the gentle sensation of the breath from her nose against his skin, and the impossible softness of her mouth as it barely made contact with his own. And the only sound that he could hear as he gently moved his lips against hers was that of his own blood, rushing at a breakneck pace through the vessels in his brain as his heart threatened to pound its way out of his chest.

It was nothing like the other times.

It was like nothing he had ever experienced before.

It feels… so different…

And then it was over.

Shinji opened his eyes to find Rei still staring her flat ruby stare at him, her face as solemn and expressionless as ever, even as their mouths continued to meet. Shocked, he quickly drew back, holding the girl at arm's length for several seconds, their eyes locked on each other, before he let his arms fall limply to his sides. The Third Child suddenly felt extremely self-conscious under the weight of her gaze as he braced himself for her reaction to the kiss.

Were her eyes open the whole time? he thought apprehensively. There was no way that he could tell for sure, as his own eyes had been closed.

Was she… watching me?

He was sure he had just made an incredible fool of himself – again. He knew that Asuka would ridicule him endlessly after their kiss, Misato would most likely shoot him on sight if she remembered anything about their encounter, but Rei…

For some reason, Shinji dreaded Rei's response more than Asuka's and Misato's combined.

He was dumbfounded when, after a long pause, the blue-haired girl merely gave him a slight nod, her expression unchanging.

"Thank you, Ikari," was her only comment.

The two continued to gaze at each other in silence until Shinji could finally take it no longer.

"It… it's really late, I gotta… I gotta go," he stammered, "I'm sorry… I'm really sorry, Ayanami... um, I'm going to… okay, uh… I'm leaving now… 'bye."

Rei watched as the mortified boy abruptly turned and made his way hurriedly across the grass toward the bicycle path, eventually crossing out of the reach of the streetlights and disappearing into the darkness.

She stood there alone for several minutes, looking into the black night in the direction that the boy had gone, her brow furrowed in thought. Eventually, she raised a slender arm and drew her fingers lightly across her lips, her eyes widening slightly as she replayed the encounter with Ikari over and over again in her mind.

It had been a long night, and Rei was tired. The tests she had performed for the dummy plug system earlier that night had been tedious, and exhausting, and had lasted until early in the morning. By now, she would normally have been in her bed sleeping, had she had not been strangely drawn to the lake by the loon's call as she walked home from NERV. She could not explain what had attracted her to the bird's cries, but something about the sound had taken hold of her, and she was unsure how long she had sat by the lake and listened – hours perhaps – before Ikari had arrived.

Then he had told her of his experiences with Pilot Souryu and Major Katsuragi, and she had been unprepared for the turmoil his words had caused within her. While he spoke, she had felt an uncomfortable irritation building in the pit of her stomach, and while the topic of kissing interested her from a purely sociological perspective, for some reason she had also wished – irrationally – that Ikari would just stop talking.

Most curious of all had been her sudden urge to experience kissing herself. It was not a matter of great import to her – knowledge of such things had no bearing at all on her responsibilities to the Commander and the EVA project – but after Ikari's description of his encounters with the Second and the Major, it had suddenly seemed necessary to experience this herself… and to experience it with him.

Her evening had begun with questions, and would end with even more, it seemed.

With a small sigh, she reached down and picked up her briefcase, and turned to make her way back across the park toward her apartment. Before she could take more than a few steps, the loon's mournful cry echoed across the water once more. Stopping in her tracks, she glanced back toward the lake, a thoughtful expression on her face.

It sounds so sad… and lonely… like it misses somebody, Ikari had said.

"Birds do not have emotions," she repeated to herself, but this time, the words had a hollow ring to them.

How can you know that for sure, Ayanami?

Slowly, Rei brought her free hand to her face and touched her lips once more, as a glimmer of understanding suddenly sparkled in her thoughts.

"Goodbye," she whispered, gazing over her shoulder toward the plaintive sound of the loon in the darkness.

"I… hope you find your friends."

xxxxx

Author's notes: This story was originally conceived as a Valentine's Day one-shot, but I didn't manage to complete it by the 14th of February, so it sat half-finished for awhile until Hamstadini invited me to contribute something for Studio 402's "Sixteen Aspects of Rei and Shinji" project. Studio 402 is a writer's collective formed by the fine people at "The Tales of Apartment 402," many of whom also have excellent fics hosted here under their own handles as well. Anyway, with a little retooling, my little bit of Valentine fluff now appears in its present form, and I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it.

Cheers,

IO