A/N: As a little helper, in the net conversation that happens early on, no space between two responses means that they were both entered at almost the same time. One space is like 15 seconds or something, and I'll specify if there are any longer pauses. Also, a bunny suit is one of those things that technicians wear in ultra-clean, non-static environments—not a big, pink bunny suit. Enjoy the longest chapter you'll ever read. :3

The hum of the elevator as it brought the pilots to the clean room in Central Dogma relaxed Shinji. It made his entire body vibrate right along with it, the sound waves influencing every molecule in his body. It was like a massage, to an extent; being able to lose himself in the mellow, paternalistic hum made his stomach settle down a fraction. The tests Dr. Akagi was to run today were all new to the pilots, and although it was part of the job, none of them were very enthusiastic about it. After all, tests were boring.

Ritsuko's voice came over the intercom. "This next room you'll enter is the prep-room. We need you to be as clean as possible for this series of tests today, so you'll all need to remove your clothes and be sterilized."

So that's why we aren't wearing our plug suits, Shinji thought.

"What!" Asuka exclaimed. "You want me to take my clothes off again?"

"The chamber that connects the prep area and the PRIBNOW Box is an ultra-clean room environment. Just taking a shower and changing your undergarments is insufficient," came the explanation, crackling over the heads of the children.

"Why do I have go to through all this just for a dumb auto-pilot test?" Asuka whined. No answer came as the elevator slowly lurched to a halt at its destination. The heavy metal doors slid open, not all too quickly, to reveal three separate changing rooms. "The middle one is mine, you hear?" she said looking boldly at Rei and Shinji. No argument arose, and so she made for her chosen domain.

Shinji looked at Rei and smiled, amused by Asuka, though Rei took it as a smile of adoration. She smiled back and started for her changing room, feeling warm inside. Asuka turned as she came to the door of her room, hair swinging as she planted her hands on her hips. "And no peeking, Shinji!" she said with a scowl. With a heavy sigh, she said to the ceiling, "This stinks!"

"With the advance of time comes the need for Eva technology to advance as well. To do so, we need a constant influx of new data. Now get undressed," the doctor said, rather perturbed.

The two girls closed the doors behind them, leaving Shinji alone in the entrance hall. I've got to tell Asuka, he said to himself. The sooner she knows that I'm interested in her the better—I don't want Rei to get any closer to me. She'll only get hurt if she does.

"You're wasting time, Pilot Ikari," a technician said over the intercom.

"R-right! Sorry." He hastened to his changing room, closing the door behind him. The room wasn't all that large, holding only a small metal bench and an equally small locker for his clothes; another door was on the far end of the room, marked "To PRIBNOW Box." "Why metal?" he asked no one in particular, annoyed at the fact that he'd have to sit on the cold bench while undressing. "They could have put in a wood one, or even a plastic one. Do they want us to be uncomfortable?" He sat with a sigh, untying his shoes. After tossing them into the locker, he untucked and unbuttoned his shirt. Taking that and his undershirt off, he bent to undo his pants. His back brushed up against the wall, sending a shiver down his spine. "Gah! Damn it…" He was starting to get pissed off, though it didn't really seem that there was any reason for it. All these little things about that room just ticked him off—it wasn't like him at all to get upset about something so trivial, though.

He dismissed the idea that NERV was intentionally making his life worse by putting in that stupid metal bench and took his pants off, his briefs following closely behind. Stuffing all the clothes into the tiny locker, he went out the exit door.

He walked into a strange room, a perfect cube with no furniture, no lights, no sign of life. As the door behind him swung shut, he was left in the dark. Shinji stood silently, covering his manhood dubiously.

A voice over the intercom broke the moment of silence. "This is the purification chamber," it said. "We'll need to run you through the cycle until we're satisfied you've been cleaned enough. Are you ready?"

"W-wait! What's going to happen?"

"Oh, it's just a little chemically-altered water. We're just going to spray you a little bit," it said. "Here it comes…"

An omnipresent light suddenly appeared in the room. It flickered a few times, and finally held a steady, though somehow dreary luminosity. It wasn't very bright at all, but Shinji could see dozens of small openings in the walls, the ceiling and the floor. He felt a small rumble reverberate in the floor, and heard the rushing of suppressed water all around him.

"Oh shi—"

Water exploded outward from the walls, the streams ripping and tearing at his skin. It came from all around him—if it hadn't he surely would have been pushed away by the force of the water. A relatively light stream of jets was shooting Shinji in the head from above, but no attacks came from the floor, curiously. Gurgling about with a half-full mouth of water that tasted like a strange mix of blood and lemons, Shinji flailed his arms in front of his face, trying to deflect his aggressors. He struggled to keep his head down, his eyes and mouth shut; but the water just kept coming and coming, pelting him for what seemed an hour.

At long last, the torrent stopped, leaving Shinji coughing and bent over. He could see the liquid flowing into a drain in the corner of the room. He assessed the damage he had incurred, quickly looking over his arms, chest and legs—they were all beat red, and with a strange tint of blue. He pushed down on his stomach where it seemed particularly blue, testing to see if he had been bruised all over. Surprisingly, it didn't hurt at all. Oh, it must be the chemicals, he deducted.

"Is that it?" he called out to the technician, trying not to cough.

"Oh no. We're not even done with one cycle yet!"

Shinji raised his fist, his eyes aflame with hate. "You basta—"

All the openings on the floor aimed straight towards him, and flung their deadly liquid with all their might. One right below him shot straight up and hit his manhood, making him squeal in pain and double over. They're…trying…to…kill…me!

Compared to the first part of the cycle, this second phase was infinitely worse. It wasn't nearly as long, but, dear God, did it hurt.

"Great! There's the first cycle!" the voice said as the water finally stopped trying to eat Shinji alive. "Ready for the next?"

Panting and leaning against a wall, Shinji asked, "How many more…are we going…to do?"

"Let me see here…" There was a pause, leaving the room in silence, save the dripping of the water off of Shinji's battered body. "From our calculations, only four more. Ready?"

"I hate yo—"

An hour later, Shinji was finally done running the Gauntlet. A man in a bunny suit opened what appeared to be a hidden door opposite of the way that Shinji had come from, and beckoned him to come in. He limped over to his escape, remembering to cover his privates as best he could.

"Sorry 'bout that mate," the man said through his respirator. "It's 'Ell, isn't it? I didn't 'ave to go through it meself, see, but I was one o' the boys what constructed the thing. Bloody powerful jets, those are."

Shinji shot a glare at the man, not wanting to talk to him at all.

"Roight, roight. Come wif me then, eh?"

He followed the technician down a short hallway where the man opened a door for him, revealing another cube-room. Shinji saw its poorly lit walls, those same small holes covering them, and almost had a heart attack.

The man could see the dread on his face, and reassured him. "No worries, mate! This here is another part o' the purification process, sure; but now you get to have a nice li'l shower-thing. No more jets, me boy."

Looking at the man dubiously and hoping he wasn't being led to his death, Shinji entered the room. The door closed behind him with a little thud and the clicking of the locks could be heard.

"Just this one more room and then we'll almost be ready," that same voice came over the intercom. "This chamber was designed to remove the blue tint from your skin. Not forcefully, of course. This cycle is actually part sauna, part shower, so relax. If you'd go into the center of the room, we can begin."

Shinji obeyed woodenly, hoping that the voice wasn't lying. A sauna sure did sound nice at the time—it'd be horrible if the bastards were tricking him again.

Much to his delight, they weren't lying. A light spray of deliciously hot water enveloped him as soft jets ejected the most playful mist he'd ever come across. Soon, he couldn't see a foot from his face. As Shinji looked down, he could only barely see the beginning of his nether-hair—the rest was enshrouded in the swirling mass of ecstasy that surrounded him. All the tension and pain left his body, evaporating away to join the mist. He sighed with relief, glad it was finally over and they could begin the tests soon.

For almost half an hour he paced, walked, and gamboled about the room. Finally, the mist began to fade, the hot vapor retreating into its home. Thank you so much, Shinji said to it. You've been fantastic. After checking his body, he found that the blue was completely gone from his skin, as was most of the redness. He grinned a bit, happy to be back to normal.

A sealed door, previously hidden, hissed open and swung inward. "If you'd follow this corridor down to the next chamber, you'll find a waiting room. The other pilots aren't quite done with their purification cycles, so you'll have to sit tight for a while."

The open door revealed a pure white hallway, illuminated by the same omnipresent light Shinji had seen in the earlier chambers—but now it was almost painful to have his eyes open, the light was so bright. At the far end of the corridor, not twenty meters away, he could see another door similar to the one he just passed. As he began the journey across this burning white desert, the door behind him hissed shut as a vacuum was created within the other room. Alone now, Shinji moseyed along, swinging his arms at his sides. There was no fear of being seen naked, he figured, and made no attempt to cover himself.

Upon reaching the far end, the door swung inward, making the same hissing noise as the other had. It revealed a room not unlike the changing room that Shinji had visited earlier—the only difference being that there was no locker here. One of those metal benches gibed Shinji from its static life on the wall, but he greeted it with a smile. After being in that sauna/shower, it would be nice to cool down on its smooth surface. He took a seat, greatly appreciative of NERV placing such a bench in this strategic place.

A crackle came from the ceiling. "Pilot Ikari," a woman's voice intoned, "the other children are still being cleansed. It will take approximately another hour until both are finished." Shinji sighed at this new information. "There is the possibility that bacteria is still living in your pores, however. Since we need to keep you as clean as possible, we'll be heating this room so your sweat will evaporate faster. I'll keep you up to date on the other pilots' progress."

Another hour? Meh. Won't be too bad, right?

Close to two-and-a-half-hours passed before the woman told Shinji to get ready to leave. He got up from his prone position on the floor, eager to escape the burning hell that they had encased him in. When they said they were going to "heat up" the room, he suspected only a few degrees. But no—they had to have turned the thermostat up to damn near 120 degrees! Shinji stood loosely at the door, waiting to be let out into the cooler room next to him.

Like the woman said she would, she had informed Shinji of the progress of the other two pilots. She actually let him know every time one of them finished a cycle, which soon got on his nerves. He tried to count how many times each of the girls went through, but was soon so oppressed by the heat, his mind was basically trying to swim through tar to get to where it would be able to think. However, at his last count, Rei had gone through eight times, while Asuka was going on almost eleven.

The door hissed open and Shinji walked through hungrily, searching for cooler air to engulf himself with. He entered a small room—more of a closet, really—and the door closed.

"This is just another precaution, Shinji," Dr. Akagi said over the intercom. It was good to hear a familiar voice, and he relaxed a bit. "We're just going to clean you once more with a few small blasts of air."

Those "small blasts" turned out to be just like the "sprays" that the first chamber guy had described. Before he could think, Shinji groped at his stomach, feeling like he had been hit with a bat. Another bat hit him in the side, on the leg, the back, the ribs, the leg again, his arm—they just kept coming! Soon there was no pause between the blasts. A scant few seconds passed in agony as the air pelted him from every direction, but it was done as soon as it had started.

"You…" he whispered through the pain.

"What's that Shinji? I couldn't hear you that well." Ritsuko asked.

"You…bastards…" he whispered again, not any louder than before.

There was silence.

After a moment, the doctor continued. "Right, on to the next chamber. This is the last one before the PRIBNOW Box, so don't worry." She didn't let on that she had heard anything from Shinji; he had wanted her to know his opinion, though, and hoped she had at least heard a little bit.

The door hissed at him, telling him to get out of the room. It slid sideways instead of swinging open like the other snake-doors Shinji had encountered earlier. He passed into the next room, happy that all of the preparations were almost over with.

He walked into a small cubicle-like thing, screens on either side of him, as well as in front, covering him from about chest down. Ahead was another white room, longer than it was wide with a security camera in the far corner. He looked left and saw Rei—she was naked. He blushed furiously and looked away from her, to his left, only to find Asuka—naked. Damnit! I'm trapped! He fixed his eyes on the ground before him, clenching his jaw to keep from blurting out apologies that were not needed. He covered his privates after he noticed he, too, was still naked.

Asuka planted her hands on her hips once again. "Alright, I'm here, just the way you wanted—butt-naked and ran through the wash cycle seventeen times."

Shinji's eyes widened. Seventeen times? I almost died after five!

Ritsuko's voice echoed about the empty walls. "Very good. And I want all three of you to stay that way as you walk through the room and board the entry plug."

"What!" Asuka exclaimed.

Shinji gasped a little, looking forward, surprised at what they were being asked to do. Walk through the room? With these two? NAKED?

"Don't worry," Dr. Akagi said, "the video recorders have been shut off. We do respect your privacy."

Asuka clenched a fist. "Oh sure you do—and that's not the point!" Exasperated, she folded her arms. "This is a personal thing."

"The purpose of this experiment is to monitor the harmonics directly from your bodies, without the interference of your plug suits." Akagi was replaced with a stern-sounding Misato. "Asuka, this is an order."

She gave in, at last. "Alright, but I don't want anybody peeking, okay?" A faint beep resounded off the walls, and a red light lit up on the camera—it had been turned off. She suddenly turned to Shinji. "That means you too! If you look at me, I swear I'll hit you so hard, your ancestors will feel it."

"R-right. I wasn't planning on l-looking anyway," Shinji said, once again averting his eyes downward.

"Oh, what's this? You think I'm ugly, do you? Is that why you don't want to look at me?"

He shrunk down as much as he could trying to escape the overbearing glare that was being thrown his way. "N-no! T-that's not what I meant!"

"Then what the hell did you mean?" Asuka demanded.

"Asuka," Rei said, "stop it." She turned to look her right in the eyes. "There is no need to pester him."

"Oh ya? Why are you defending him all of a sudden?"

"Asuka, cut the chatter," Misato crackled. "I won't have any of this during an experiment. Now get moving, all of you."

Rei and Shinji said an identical "Yes ma'am," while Asuka went with a rude "Yeah, yeah." The screens in front of them vanished, getting sucked into the thin supports they were strung between. Asuka started out first, followed closely by Rei. Shinji hesitated a moment before walking with them, trying his best to keep his eyes away from the naked flesh that was presented so succulently before him. Despite his best efforts, his gaze wandered.

He firstly looked upon Asuka, striding arrogantly and angrily with her hands in fists. Her hair was streaming behind her, flowing radiantly backwards. Her skin was immaculate—no scars, no birthmarks, nothing. It was the color of a peach, almost, but so much more vivid and alive than such an insignificant fruit. Shinji tried to put words to what he was seeing, but failed miserably—there was no word in any language that could describe such beauty. The way her hips swayed as she walked, and the way her backside went right along with them, made the most inappropriate things flash through his mind. Though he was lagging behind, Shinji could still see a part of Asuka's breast. He'd caught a fleeting glimpse of that pair earlier when he was in her room—such a long time ago, it seemed—but he had covered his eyes out of decency before he really saw anything. Now, though he couldn't really see all of it, he studied that breast like he was going to be tested on it.

From the corner of his eye, Shinji saw something blue. He turned to see what it was. Oh, it was Rei, still naked. His jaw dropped. If there was no word to describe how beautiful Asuka was, then there was nothing in the entire universe to explain any part of Rei's ravishing figure. Her milky-white skin reflected the light into a thousand shining stars in Shinji's eyes, trapping him into a spell which part of him hoped would never be broken. Was it possible for such radiance to exist? Was he really seeing a human being in front of him, not three feet away? He was surely dead and was seeing an angel coming to bring him to the pearly gates.

Shinji felt…something. He looked down at himself. No—he was still alive. And well, it seemed.

His face going scarlet with embarrassed shock, Shinji clasped his hands over his growing member, trying to hide his arousal. Dear God, please don't let them look, please don't let them look, please don't let them look. After walking for a tense five more seconds down the room, the girls entered their plugs, never noticing Shinji. He let out a sigh of relief and uncovered himself as he moved into his own plug. I'm not supposed to think of them like that! How could I let my mind wander so much? I'm such an idiot, he thought.

After boarding the plug, with some difficulty while his arousal still presented itself, the good doctor gave the children instructions.

"Treat this simulation plug like it's in your Eva. I want you all to concentrate on synchronizing with the simulation bodies. There should be no problems."

Technicians ran off a checklist as the plugs were inserted into the phantom Evas. "Test duration will be three hours," one said.

Three hours? Geh. We've already been here for three. This test is taking way too long. Shinji shifted in his seat, trying to find a comfortable position.

"How do you feel?" Ritsuko asked over the radio.

"It feels quite odd," Rei replied.

"Yeah. It's a little different from the other times," Shinji added.

"Something's wrong with my senses. My right arm's clear—everything else feels fuzzy," Asuka said, sounding a little worried.

Ritsuko dismissed her problems. "Rei," she said, "focus on moving the right hand."

"Right." Rei moved the corresponding control stick a little, visualizing the right hand flexing a small amount. She could sense that it had done what she wanted through her neural-uplink.

Shinji sighed. This is what it's going to be like for another three hours—small, boring movements. I suppose it's better than fighting an Angel. At least we're safe in here.

He looked up to the control room. Dr. Akagi was looking at him, but suddenly turned around. He could see a flashing red…thing on one of the transparent viewing screens. Wha…what's going on?

After a moment, Ritsuko turned back, seeming unfazed by whatever had happened. The red light disappeared as well. There was silence.

Rei screamed, a blood-curdling sound that sent shivers up Shinji's spine. He craned his neck over to see what was happening. Her sim-bod's arm smashed against the wall, palm open. It stuttered a moment, then the upper part of the body started moving. It has no head! How is it moving by itself? It began pushing itself away from the wall, though it was still connected by a mass of tubes and wires via its neck and waist. Shinji saw it reach out with its arm, reaching for the control room. It lunged.

Ritsuko smashed the glass protecting the emergency release toggle, and pulled up on the handle. The sim-bod's arm blasted off, sending little particles of skin away to float in the water. The arm itself rammed into the control room's front panel.

"What the hell is going on?" Asuka fervently demanded.

"Rei, are you alright!" Shinji yelled into the radio. There was no response.

One second he was looking over at Rei's crippled sim-bod, hoping for an answer; the next, he could only see the prismatic metal inside of the entry plug, and he was being pushed down against his chair. They ejected us! What the hell is going on! The plug sped upward, cutting through the water. The pressure that was being forced down onto him made all the blood run down to Shinji's feet, and he was soon light-headed. Not soon afterward, the ejection sequence ended, the jets ending their propulsion of the plug. A weight was removed from Shinji's body as he gently floated toward the surface.

He had a thought. Where exactly is the surface? he wondered. Shinji was soon able to figure that they were floating up to the surface of Lake A-3 using his knowledge of the Geofront's layout relative to the layout of Central Dogma.

"Asuka? Are you there?" he called out. No answer. "Rei? Where are you guys?" Still no answer. The radio should be picking up his voice and sending it across the frequency the plugs were all tuned to, but it seemed like it wasn't working. There was power in the plug, that was for sure; so why wasn't the radio working?

Shinji felt the plug suddenly bounce against something, and stop moving upward—the surface, at last! But…what now? If he was in the middle of a lake, there was nothing he could do. Without the help of the NERV cleanup crew, all the pilots could do was float right along with the plugs. There was always the chance that they could swim to shore, depending on how far away they were; but that left the embarrassing problem of all three of them still being naked. Asuka would probably get mad and drown him if they tried to swim together anyway.

Thinking of Asuka, Shinji remembered his decision that he had made. I've got to tell her, I know that much. But when? And how? This whole thing is so embarrassing… He had to find the courage within himself to tell her, and he knew that. The problem was that the courage he needed to find had never been used before, and so had lain in the dirt, collecting rust and dust for years. He'd never had any use for that specific courage, and so he had never nurtured it to make it grow into something strong and confident. But now that was the one thing he needed to make this whole venture into having a relationship with the opposite sex be successful.

Shinji once again tried hailing Rei and Asuka on the radio, and once again only found silence. There wasn't even any static coming from the speakers set up in the plug—there was only the silence.

A small message box popped up with a beep in front of him on the display panel. Startled, Shinji peered at the tiny text, trying to make out what it said. "Magnify," he said to the onboard computer, focusing on the box. It enlarged quickly, swooping to cover nearly half the display.

PRESP00: Shinji, this is Rei. Are you well?

"Rei! Hey, can you hear me over the radio? I think mine's broken or something."

PRESP00: It seems all radio transmissions have ceased within the Geofront. However, the Simulation Entry Plugs are still connected to the NERV network.

"Oh," he said, turning red. Why hadn't he come up with that idea? And how was Rei talking to him through the network? He didn't see any kind of keyboard anywhere to type with, and he had no knowledge of being able to use the neural-net to type.

PRESP00: If you press the small gray button on the left control stick, a keyboard will become available.

I'm so stupid, Shinji thought as he searched for the button. Why didn't I know about that? He found it with little delay, and having pressed it, a keyboard flipped up from the side of his seat. It was connected to an extendable arm able to move almost anywhere within the plug. He positioned it in front of him, finding a locking mechanism would keep it in place.

"Uh…now how do I send a message? I have no mouse to make that window active…"

The answer to his question came in the form of a new person joining the conversation that he and Rei were having.

PRESP02: Hey, idiot! I bet you're trying to figure out how to send a message, nicht? Well, I figured it out all by myself, and you can do the same.

"What, can they read my mind now?" Shinji asked.

PRESP00: It is quite easy to send a message, Shinji. Just focus on which person you would like to send one to, and start typing. It is much like when we perform actions with our Evas—all you have to do is think of which person you wish to send a message to. Since we are all currently in one chat room, all you have to do is concentrate on this message box.

"That's not so hard then. Let's give it a try…"

Shinji looked at the box, and focused on sending a message. After a few moments to make sure he was concentrating hard enough, he started typing. A new dialog box appeared below the first, showing what he was writing.

PRESP01: Yeah this isnt so hard. Are you two allright?

PRESP02: No thanks to you, yeah.

PRESP00: Yes, thank you.

PRESP01: so whats going on? What happened to you in the sim-bod Rei?

PRESP00: I do not know. It was like something took control of it. It was like the connection I had with the sim-bod was ripped apart.

PRESP02: How the hell are we supposed to know what's happening, idiot? We can't contact Headquarters, and to add to that, we're stuck out in the middle of a lake!

There was a pause in the conversation. Shinji re-read what Rei had said, and an idea formed in his mind.

PRESP01: Wait, could it have been an angel attack? Could an angel have taken over Rei's simulation body and tried to use it to attack the control room?

PRESP02: That's ridiculous! We would have been warned earlier if an Angel was going to attack.

PRESP00: It is possible that an Angel could have infiltrated the security system around Central Dogma, but it is very unlikely.

A long pause followed, none of the pilots having anything to add or anything to suggest. Shinji squirmed in his seat, starting to get uncomfortable. Suddenly, his curiosity piqued, he asked:

PRESP01: How did you know about these keyboards Rei?

PRESP00: Even though the Evangelion Units are the most advanced examples of technology the world has ever seen, there is still a need to get directly into them and perform maintenance. These keyboards are used to manually check data, conditions, etc., on the entry plugs. Although the pilots are never called upon to use the keyboards, we are fortunate that they were installed. Otherwise, there would be no way for us to be communicating at the moment. The tags you see by our messages stand for Project E Simulation Plug, then the designation number.

PRESP02: What I don't get is why we're still connected through the network, but the radio's busted.

PRESP01: yeah, that is kind of weird

A new box popped up next to the existing one after an interim of no new messages, startling Shinji somewhat. It was already magnified as big as it's companion, and it read:

PRESP02: HAHA! Check this out, Shinji! I figured out how to send you a personal message without Wondergirl snooping in on it!

Focusing on this new conversation, the familiar dialog box crystallized, once again showing what Shinji was typing.

PRESP01: That's great Asuka, but why don't you want Rei seeing what your saying?

PRESP02: What kind of stupid question is that? I don't want her seeing anything because what we're talking about is PERSONAL!

PRESP01: What do you mean? We havnet talked about anything yet, so how could it be personal?

PRESP02: SHUT UP

Shinji blushed and mentally kicked himself. He looked over at the first message box, and saw that there hadn't been any new posts. He looked back at his and Asuka's conversation.

PRESP01: Sorry

PRESP01: so what is it that you wanted to talk to me about?

PRESP02: Who do you think is prettier, me or Rei?

PRESP01: what!

PRESP02: JUST ANSWER THE DAMN QUESTION!

"Whoa," Shinji exhaled. "Where did that question come from? And why did she say it in capital letters? I hope she isn't angry with me for some reason. Knowing Asuka, though, she probably is," he said to himself. He looked at her question again, and thought. There's no way I could ever say which of them is prettier, but if I say Rei, then Asuka will be even angrier.

Wait, this is a perfect chance for me to tell Asuka that I like her! The realization hit him in the face like a brick shot out of a 400mm cannon. It took him several tries, and the backspace key was used frequently, but Shinji was finally able to get out what he wanted to say.

PRESP01: You are prettier by far, Asuka.

PRESP02: Danke sehr! I think so, too.

PRESP02: So WHY do you think that?

"Damnit," he cursed. He struggled to find enough reasons why he chose her over Rei, but eventually found enough. He saw an opening, though—this was it! He would be able to tell her straight out that he liked her, and all this nervous energy would be finally released from his body.

PRESP01: I realy like your hair, and your blue eyes look like beautiful sapphires. And I guess I think you are prettier just because I like you

No response. Nervously, Shinji typed another message. If he hadn't been immersed in LCL, a nervous sweat would have been dripping down his brow.

PRESP01: I feel that…your more than a friend

Silence. Shinji gulped and anxiously started typing again. This was torture!

PRESP01: so im aking if youwant to go out with me?

PRESP02: OF COURSE!

PRESP02: I thought you'd never ask.

PRESP01: You were waitin for me to ask you out? How did you know that I liked you?

PRESP02: You still have a lot to learn about us girls, leibchen. Don't worry—we have our ways of finding out a guy's feelings. :)

A message floated onto the original screen, and Shinji's eye caught the movement. He looked over, reading hastily, almost annoyed that he was being taken away from talking to Asuka.

PRESP00: Are you both well? You have not said anything for a time.

PRESP01: Oh sorry. I'm just fine, just a little bored.

PRESP01: how long do you think we're going to have to stay in here?

PRESP00: I am unsure.

A new message popped up from Asuka in the other window.

PRESP02: So I guess we're boyfriend and girlfriend now, huh?

PRESP01: yeah, I guess so

The first window:

PRESP00: Do you have schoolwork to catch up on or any other important matters for the rest of the day?

Asuka's window:

PRESP02: I bet Hikari is going to be happy that we're a couple now.

PRESP01: And I bet that Touji and Kensuke will never let it go.

PRESP02: If they make any rude comments, I'll kick 'em in the balls!

The first window as Shinji giggled at what Asuka had said:

PRESP01: I still need to catch up on my physics and math homwork. What we're doing in those classes sometimes confuses me…

PRESP01: so you think we could go on a date maybe tomorrow?

Shinji read what Asuka had said again, and giggled to himself. "Those guys are going to be so surprised when they hear me and Asuka are going out." He scanned the latest posts on this conversation, and froze.

Dreading what he thought was true, Shinji slowly looked over to the conversation he was having with Rei.

There it stood, the testament of his undoing. He had asked Asuka out on a date in the wrong conversation!

"Oh fuck!" he exclaimed, leaning forward and sitting up straight, panic racing through his eyes like lightning. From Asuka's conversation:

PRESP02: Verdammt idioten…

From the main window:

PRESP00: Pardon me?

"Damn it all!"

PRESP02: He's not talking to you! We're going out now, Wondergirl, so don't get any ideas!

PRESP00: Is this true, Ikari?

After a long while, Shinji forced himself to type.

PRESP01: yes it is

PRESP00: I see.

PRESP02: What, jealous?

There was no response. Shinji had fucked up, and he knew it. He'd messed that one up real good, and there was no way he could get himself out of the hole he just leapt in to.

But isn't that what he wanted? He had needed to tell Asuka that he liked her, and he did. Eventually, Rei would have heard it from someone. She would have figured it out sooner or later—Shinji had just made it sooner rather than later. Maybe not in the gentlest way possible, and not on purpose, but he had done it. So why was he feeling so guilty? Why did he feel like such a bastard?

For fifteen minutes, no one typed anything, leaving Shinji to brood about what had happened. Rei surely hates me now. How could I be so stupid? He berated himself for several minutes until Asuka sent him a message.

PRESP02: Are you okay?

With trembling hands, Shinji was able to respond after liberal use of the backspace key.

PRESP01: I guess. I know that Rei would have found out that were a couple eventualy, but she hasnt said anything for os long. I think she might be upset

PRESP02: And what if she is? Are her feelings more important than mine all of the sudden? I thought you liked me.

PRESP01: that's not what I meant! I do like you, but I feel guilty for hurting Rei.

PRESP02: Bah!

PRESP02: There's no need to feel guilty. She knew that I wanted to go out with you. She knew that I was going to win, too—she should have just given up at the beginning.

PRESP02: So you see, it's her own fault that she got hurt.

PRESP01: I guess your right

Shinji saw the logic in what Asuka was saying, and decided that believing her was preferable over feeling so horrible about the whole thing. Looking over at the other window, he saw there were no new entries. Rei had been silent for a long time…

But he had to forget about her. Asuka was his girl now, and he was her guy. There was no room for Rei.

Suddenly there was a crackle that filled Shinji with hope. It was low at first, and he didn't know what it was for a bit; but it got gradually louder until he could make a woman's voice over the radio.

"Shinji, Rei, Asuka! Can you hear me?"

"Yes ma'am," the three said in unison.

"Great! This is Misato. We just got radio communications back online, and we've sent a crew to come reel you guys in. Don't worry, you're safe now!"

"Wait Misato," Shinji said, "what happened?"

"Oh, an Angel attacked, that's all."

"That's all!" exclaimed Asuka. "What do you mean 'that's all'? We could have been killed!"

"Everything's under control, Asuka. We've already destroyed it. "

There was a click and some static, then Ritsuko came onto the channel. "Children, I apologize for the interruption of the tests. Due to the harm incurred by Rei's simulation body, we'll have to reschedule the experiment for later. Once you've all been rescued and have gotten your clothes back on, you're all free to go home."

"All right!" Asuka said, enthusiastically.

"When will we be debriefed, Doctor?" Rei asked.

"In the morning, Rei. We're still putting together all the information we have on the Angel."

"Understood," she replied coldly.

After a few minutes of waiting, Shinji felt the wake of a boat as it passed by. Soon, he was attached to one, and was being tugged towards the shore. Once on dry land, a technician opened up the emergency hatch on his plug, letting the LCL drain out. Averting his eyes, he handed Shinji a big blanket to cover up with.

Grabbing it and throwing it around himself, while being sure to keep his privates covered, Shinji exited the plug. Two black NERV vans on the road that ran along the beach waited for the pilots. Groups of technicians were working on hoisting up the entry plugs with cranes onto the beds of big semi-trucks. Rei and Asuka, both clad in the same kind of blanket that Shinji had around his shoulders, were being escorted up towards one of the vans. Asuka saw him looking and waved, smiling. One of the corners of her blanket flew loose as she let go of it, and the whole thing almost fell off of her. She shrieked and hurriedly made herself as decent as possible once again.

Shinji blushed and looked at the ground as his own escort took him to the van. The girls got into one as he entered the other, and the small convoy was soon on its way back to NERV Headquarters. The agents that had been assigned to escort the children had brought along their clothes as well, and all three quickly put them on. Shinji was relieved to be clad in his street clothes once again after being naked for nearly five hours.

As the two vans sped along the road, Shinji's being in the back, he looked out the side window at the Geofront. The trains that entered and exited by their own routes glistened in the afternoon sun as they carried passengers unknown to places unknown. The city wasn't on any kind of alert, and so none of the gargantuan skyscrapers were hanging from the ceiling. Every time Shinji saw the city sink, he got goose bumps just thinking of how much power it took to suspend such great beasts of metal and concrete. Whoever had come up with the idea of a submergible city was a genius.

Looking forward, he watched the leading van. Asuka and Rei were in there together—he hoped that they weren't fighting over him again. He also hoped that, if they weren't quarreling, Asuka wasn't bragging or poking fun at Rei too severely. There was no point in hoping she wouldn't jeer at her at all—that was impossible. No matter how much Shinji asked, Asuka would always find reasons to make fun of or belittle Rei.

He sighed as he thought of what was to come in the next few days. Tomorrow was Sunday, so maybe he and Asuka would be able to go on a date. He didn't have any clue as to where or what they could do, but he was sure that Asuka would have an idea. Once Monday rolled around, though, everyone would know that they were going out. Touji and Kensuke would probably disown Shinji from their circle of friendship for betraying them so, but that was alright—he could survive without them. He wondered what the teachers would do about it, since they would know just as soon as the students. Can they even interfere with personal relationships between students? he wondered. He'd never heard of any such incident before, but who knows? If their relationship became too much of a distraction or a detriment on their grades, he and Asuka might be forced to break up. Shinji hoped it would never come to that.

His jaw dropped as he remembered something. I'm Rei's lab partner in physics! No…no! How am I going to be able to face her now? Shinji began to think of ways to free himself from the commitment. The lab they were doing was going to be over by the end of the week, so he was able to brainstorm several things he could try. He could flat out skip the class all week, though that would decimate his grade. He could say he was sick and stay home all week, though he doubted Misato would buy that. He could say that NERV needed him, conveniently only during physics class—that would attract unwanted attention, though. He could always cause some kind of disruption in the class and get kicked out every day, though that was completely against his nature.

It seemed that there was no way to stop the inexorable event of him having to talk with Rei. So if there was no way to avoid it, was there perhaps a way to separate himself from her while still attending the class? He could rip up their blueprints for the bridge, or somehow sabotage the experiment, making it impossible for them to continue—it was too late in the lab to start all over again, anyway. But…that was the only thing he could come up with. It became apparent that there was no way to evade Rei without having his grade spiral down the drain.

Shinji tried to tell himself to stop worrying about it, that it was going to happen and he couldn't do anything to stop it. Whenever he would quit thinking about it for more than a few minutes, though, it would always creep back from the corner of his mind to pester him yet again. Damnit! Why can't I stop thinking about it?

The entirety of the drive from the lake back to Headquarters was spent like this—worrying about the future, regretting the past, discontent with the present. He kept calling himself an idiot, a moron, a jackass, a fool for having mistakenly asked Asuka on a date in the wrong conversation back in the simulation plugs. That was most definitely the worst mistake he had ever made in his life up to this point, and it would not let him be.

After a relatively short drive, the vans pulled up to the entrance to Headquarters. An agent that had accompanied Shinji turned to him, saying that he was free to go now—Major Katsuragi would be staying in the Geofront until later that night. Shinji thanked the man as everyone piled out of the van. He looked over at the other vehicle to see Rei, back in her school uniform, striding away, hands clenched at her sides. Asuka smiled at him and walked over, her own school uniform donned yet again. Shinji nervously swallowed.

"Wanna walk home with me?" she asked giddily, hands clasped behind her back. A light of expectance shone in her eyes.

"Y-yeah," Shinji stuttered, still feeling awkward around his new girlfriend.

They began their walk towards the nearest train station that would shuttle them to the surface. Only the sounds of the gravel crunching beneath their shoes and the echoes of the city above were heard—no conversation had sparked up yet. Shinji glanced over at Asuka every now and then, trying to determine if she wanted him to start talking or not. Even if he had the ability to pick up on her feelings like that, he still wouldn't have had any idea as to what to talk about. Anything he said would more than likely come out with a stutter, and wouldn't make sense to boot.

An awkward silence enveloped them both, though only he felt its affects. Asuka seemed to be impervious to anything that might make Shinji feel uneasy. She's so confident all the time. It's actually really admirable, he thought, wondering if he should speak his opinion.

But that would be an inappropriate time to compliment her with such a thing. She'd think he was weird if he said anything, so he kept his mouth shut. Minutes passed as the two walked together, no more or less than a foot apart, as to avoid making each other uncomfortable. As the station came into sight, Asuka closed the distance as she took hold of Shinji's hand.

Her hand was soft and smooth, warming his cold skin. He caught a small whiff of her perfume on the wind. Just a taste, though—some small offering to entice him to draw her close. He thought about releasing her hand and wrapping his arm around her waist, but the mere idea made him so nervous, he almost froze in place.

Asuka noticed him tense up and squeezed his hand for a moment. "Anything the matter, leibchen?" she said, looking into his eyes.

"N-no, n-nothing," he managed to get out.

The two were close enough to the station to hear an announcement over the intercom saying the next shuttle was due in five minutes.

"There's no reason to be nervous. I won't bite you." As an afterthought, and with a wicked grin, she added, "Well, not yet."

"Wha…?"

"Nothing," she said with a giggle. As they approached the platform, she led him to a bench. "Sit with me."

They were the only two at that particular station at that particular time, a particularly catchy song playing over the radio—isn't that word great? They sat on a wooden bench together, Asuka scooting close to Shinji so that their legs were touching. She placed their still-joined hands on her leg, turning her palm downward. Shinji flinched as the back of his hand touched her thigh, thinking she would get mad at him. A bead of sweat trickled down his back—being so close to her like this was making him even more nervous than he already was.

"You know," Asuka started, "back in the clean room?"

"Y-yeah…?"

"I knew you were looking at me."

Shinji tried to free is his hand from hers and stand, but Asuka pulled him down firmly and continued—she wouldn't let him escape.

"I'm glad you did it. Did you like what you saw?" she asked wistfully.

He nodded slightly, not trusting his voice to be able to say anything other than incoherent gurgles.

"Good. That's good." Asuka's voice dropped to a near-whisper as she brought her mouth up next to his ear. "Did you like seeing Rei naked?"

Silence and stone. Nothing made a sound, nothing moved.

Shinji was shocked. How could she be asking him that question? What was he supposed to say? How could he answer that? And, by God, this was the first time Asuka had ever called Rei by her name!

Asuka tightened her grip, digging her fingernails into the back of his hand. "Did you?" she growled.

"Asuka, you're hurti—"

"Answer me, Shinji." Her voice was a calm ice storm, demanding the truth to come forth from Shinji's pale lips.

"N-no, I didn't! P-please, you're hurting me…"

She heeded his words and eased the grip she had on his hand. Her nails hadn't quite pierced his flesh, but any more pressure would have had the red liquid oozing out from the wounds. She kept his hand entangled with hers though, not letting him inspect the damage.

"That's good," she said in her regular tone of voice. "I don't want you talking to her anymore, understand? You're mine now, and I won't have you flirting with any other women."

"Alright," Shinji said meekly. He didn't want to challenge anything she said while the fires of jealousy still burned within her so brightly.

A woman's voice was suddenly heard over the intercom. "The 2:30 shuttle bound for the surface is arriving at platform 13. If this is your train, please prepare to board. For your safety, please stay behind the white line. Again, the 2:30 shuttle bound for the surface is arriving at platform 13. Thank you."

Shinji and Asuka stood as one and walked to the edge of the platform. The train glided to an elegant stop before them, and the double doors slid open, inviting them aboard. They took their seats together, still holding hands. Shinji's palm was beginning to sweat, out of the heat of Asuka's hand and of his own perturbation.

It wasn't long before the woman over the intercom announced the train's departure. The doors slid close with a swoosh, and the train lurched forward. Soon they were speeding along the elevated track, climbing like a mole up towards the surface. The luscious landscape that grew progressively smaller was breathtaking, the afternoon sun slanting down to seemingly make every color more vivid, more alive. Shinji could see Headquarters from there—the strange pyramid-shaped building and its inverted-pyramid pool; the curved building that rose up behind these two structures kept its quiet watch over the surroundings, ready to stop any intruder.

Why does Headquarters look like that? What's that big pool's purpose, I wonder? Shinji thought. He had never really pondered such things, even though he had seen this same view many times. The main building looked just like the pyramids that he had seen pictures of at school, just like the ones in Egypt. Most of them were destroyed now, thanks to desperate armies waging a war in the burning desert sands of Africa after Second Impact occurred. Wayward shells fired from tanks, loathsome bombs dropped from above by planes, and apathetic missiles launched from afar all utterly destroyed the once-wonderful Great Pyramids. Rubble and corpses were all that was left after the Saharan War.

But that pool—what did it do? Surely it wasn't there for aesthetic value, and it wasn't used to swim in. Shinji would have to ask Dr. Akagi the next time he saw her.

Oh, but that's it! That water was probably used to cool the Magi Supercomputers! Shinji grinned to himself, happy he had figured out yet another mystery of NERV.

"What is it, darling?"

He turned with an innocent face towards Asuka. "What do you mean?"

"You're grinning, aren't you? What for?"

"Oh, I as just thinking about NERV."

"I see."

The train entered the tunnel that connected the Geofront with the surface, and the view was lost. Orange lights flashed by in the darkness for a few seconds, then the sky opened up before Shinji as the train reached the surface. "Almost there," he said, nonchalantly.

The sun shone down upon the land, warming its temporary occupants. Scattered clouds dotted the sky, wispy things, high in the atmosphere. No sign of rain could be found anywhere on this hot day, the horizon clean of any foreboding clouds. A slight wind played along the tops of the trees and on the surface of the ocean, giggling as it went.

Once the train had come to a complete stop, and the doors had opened once again, the couple exited onto the platform. Luckily for them, another train was getting ready to depart which would take them very close to the apartment. Quickly, the two hopped aboard and took their seats among the small crowd of people. They still held hands, Asuka examining the near-cuts she had dealt Shinji, cooing comfortingly.

"Gah! It's so hot!"

Asuka came into the kitchen as Shinji was making them some lunch. She was wearing shorts and a tank top, her hair up in a bun, surprisingly. A light sheen of sweat covered her face as she sat down at the table with a huff.

After getting home, she had gone straight to the bathroom to wash herself. She said that the smell of LCL sickened her, and she couldn't stand another second with it on her. She left a trail of clothes on the ground as she hurried to the bathroom, not caring that she was stripping in front of Shinji. Before anything indecent was exposed, though, she had gotten out of his sight. He gathered up the discarded remnants of her uniform and put them all in her room. He spied the clothes she was wearing now and, thinking he'd be nice to her, gathered the shorts and shirt. He knocked on the bathroom door, telling Asuka he had some clothes for her.

"You can come in, you know. You don't have to talk through the door," she had said.

Images had flashed through Shinji's head, images of Asuka naked, of her in the bathtub, of him naked wi—he'd stomped out that last picture before it could be fully formed. It was true that they were going out now, but it wasn't right of him to think of her that way. Not yet, anyway.

He'd cracked open the door a little bit, just enough to fit his arm through, and tossed the clothes on the ground. He apologized—not for any specific reason, but more of a precaution—and slipped out.

As he walked away, his stomach grumbled, complaining that Shinji hated it. You suck, it had said to him, angrily. You ignore me all the time! Gimme some damn food!

Shinji grunted, mentally putting tape over his stomach's mouth. He didn't want to hear its whining right now. He did, though, realize that he hadn't eaten since early that morning, and it was almost 3:00. Thinking he'd be nice and surprise Asuka, he went to making some lunch for them both.

And here he is now, just finishing up on putting their sandwiches together. Nothing special, they were—merely peanut butter and jelly on white bread. Just the same, they'd still taste good, and they'd still fill up their bellies. He took both sandwiches and put them on plates after slapping a touch more jelly on his own.

"Here you go, Asuka. How was your bath?"

"Oh, just fine," she said before stuffing her mouth full of sammich. "I left the water in there if you wanna go take one yourself," she said around her food.

Shinji swallowed his bite before talking. "I might in a bit. I need to clean up the kitchen and my room a bit before, though."

"How can you stand to smell like LCL? It can't bear it!"

"Well," Shinji said, "I don't mind it. It kind of smells like blood, but when I'm in the entry plug, I feel…comfortable. Like that's where I'm supposed to be."

"I didn't mind it earlier on, but now it's just disgusting to me." She took another big bite. "I get what you're saying about it smelling like blood, though. I think it smells that way too." She paused a moment after swallowing. "What in the world is LCL anyway?"

"I…I don't know," Shinji said. He laughed a bit. "Isn't it strange that we don't know what it is, even though we're always submerged in it? I don't even know what 'LCL' stands for."

"Yeah, me neither. I guess we could ask Misato once she gets back." Finishing her sandwich, Asuka brushed the crumbs from her hands onto the plate. "Want me to help with the dishes?"

"I-if you want. There's only our plates and the knife I used, but you're welcome to clean them."

"I don't have anything better to do," she said glumly.

Shinji finished soon after her, and after the dishes were washed, they both cleaned the kitchen as well. They used something that smelled strongly of ammonia to get some stains out of the countertop, and they had to cover their noses with their shirts to keep from inhaling the fumes.

"Did we really have to use that stuff?" asked Asuka from behind her shirt. Hiking it up to cover her nose, the tank top left her stomach bare. Shinji looked down at her petite waist and at her bellybutton. He blushed and looked away quickly, embarrassed to see so much of her skin.

"Y-yeah. Misato spilled some soup on the counter, and left it on there overnight a few days ago, so I don't think that anything else would have gotten the stain out. She must have been drunk when she did it…"

After everything in the room was spotless, Asuka leaned back against the counter below the cabinet that held the cleaning supplies. As Shinji was wiping the table one last time, she watched him through her calculating eyes. We're going out now, but he's not mine yet. He could still leave me and go out with Wondergirl. The corners of her mouth curled into an evil little grin. But I have a plan—I just need to find the right time to act. Then, he'll be all mine.

Shinji grabbed the bottle of chemicals he was using to clean the table with and walked over to Asuka. Sheepishly, he said, "I-I need to get into the cupboard above you."

"Alright," she replied. "Go ahead." She grinned a bit more.

What's she trying to do? She's right in my way, Shinji thought. Seeing the steadfast look in her eyes, he saw that she wouldn't budge even if he asked her to. Not seeing any way around her, Shinji gulped. Raising himself up on his toes, he reached above her and opened the cupboard. Grabbing the bottle, he raised it up above his head, arching his arm. He didn't want to get too close to her, and nervously tried to put the bottle in the cupboard. His eyes switched between looking at his hand and into Asuka's piercing blue eyes.

Get in there, you bastard! The cupboard was chock full of miscellaneous cleaning supplies, and there was hardly room for the bottle he was stretching to put in. Trying to push back some other bottles, Shinji lost his balance.

He put out his free hand to catch himself before he fell into Asuka. He grabbed something and put pressure on it to hold himself up. He shoved the bottle into the cupboard, knocking over a few others in the process—he got it in there, though.

"Oh my! I didn't know you were so forward about this kind of stuff," Asuka purred.

Shinji looked down. He was grabbing her breast.

Her loose tank top had been moved when he caught himself, the shoulder strap hanging loosely on her arm. He had to let go, he had to get his hand off of her; but if he did that, her shirt would fall off!

"A-Asuka! I d-didn't mean to!"

"Well then take your hand off me, if you don't like it." Her grin bloomed into a coy smile.

"B-but…b-but…if I take my hand off, y-your shirt will f-fall off," Shinji stuttered, trying to explain.

"Oh sure. You just don't want to take your hand off me, darling. It's alright, I understand." She put her hand on his shoulder, forcing him back down onto flat feet. She pressed up against him, his hand still on her chest. She turned her head a little, giggling lightly, bringing her face close to his. Her eyes studied his mouth, then his eyes, then back to his mouth. She began to close the distance between their lips.

She paused at the last second. "You smell like blood," she said. She took her hand off his shoulder, put the strap of her shirt back on her shoulder, and grabbed Shinji's hand. "Go take a bath!"

She pushed him away into the table and stalked off to her room, leaving him there, stunned.

"Wha…bu…my…" Shinji muttered, looking at the palm of his hand. "But…I didn't mean to…"

After recovering from the incident as best he could, and after properly putting away the cleaning materials, he went and took a bath. The water was a little cold, but that was exactly what Shinji needed. It woke him up, brought him back to his senses, made him think.

She wanted that to happen. She must have planned the entire thing out, and lured me in to her trap. He smiled, a warm feeling expanding within his body. It sure was a good trap, though. Just what would have happened had I not smelled like LCL? He pondered what could have happened for a minute or two. Suddenly he noticed something as he lay back among the suds and bubbles of soap—he was aroused.

"Damnit!" he cursed, embarrassed. He sat up in the bath and covered himself, though there was no one to see his arousal. I can't think about her like that—we just started dating! Mad with himself and how fickle he was, Shinji drained the bath and dried himself off.

After retreating from the thoughts that were spawned whilst in the tub, he went to his room to get some clothes on. He had been in a stupor for a while after the whole incident in the kitchen, and so he had forgotten to grab some clean clothes before taking his bath. Because it was still rather hot outside, Shinji put on a comfortable pair of shorts and an old, flannel pajama shirt. The clothes smelled clean and fresh, making him feel all fuzzy inside. He left his towel hanging on the back of his desk chair as he waltzed out to the living room.

Asuka had moved from her room to occupy this territory, and was lying down on the couch watching a movie. Shinji didn't see her there until he had already entered the room, thinking it was empty. He froze in his tracks and spun on his heel to ninja away from Asuka—he didn't think he'd be able to talk to her after what had happened between them.

"Hey Shinji, you wanna watch this movie with me?"

Damn. He stopped mid-stride and turned back. "S-sure…"

Asuka shifted so that Shinji would be able to sit on the couch with her. He took a seat at the far end, right up next to the armrest, making sure not to touch her feet.

"W-what movie is it?" he asked carefully, looking over at her. Instead of looking at her face, which was turned towards the TV, his eyes locked between her legs. The particular way that she held them, combined with the loose shorts she was wearing, made it so he could see the white of her panties with ease. Time slowed to a crawl as a bead of sweat dripped down the side of his face, his eyes hungry to eat up everything they saw.

What he saw were regular, run-of-the-mill white underwear, but because they were Asuka's, they were transformed into a temple, a place where millions flocked to pray for good fortune and longevity. These ordinary panties were lifted above the heads of the masses, glorified to the extent that they were turned into a demi-god.

This was the first time Shinji had ever seen anyone's panties. They were just so…great! It didn't make sense though—he'd seen Asuka completely naked. Why was seeing her underwear so fantastic then?

"Oh, I dunno," she said, turning to talk to him.

Shinji snapped his head forward, hoping beyond hope that she hadn't caught him peeking.

"Anything wrong?" she asked as she poked his thigh with her toe.

Shinji jumped. "N-no! Nothing's wrong!"

"Are you sure? You look tense."

He nodded furiously.

"Come lay with me, darling." She beckoned him to join her, spreading her legs for him to fit in between, extending her arms out to him.

Time slowed to a sluggish pace as Shinji turned back to see Asuka, open and ready, calling for him to join her. The amount of bare skin that he saw was astonishing, almost blinding him with its gorgeous shine. A single thought pervaded Shinji's entire mind, expunging all other thought, destroyed all consciousness of the world about him.

Beauty…

This solitary, abstract word brought all of the activity in his brain to a complete and utter halt. It couldn't possibly describe in full what he was experiencing—as all human language is flawed in not being able to penetrate the barrier between the physical and spiritual, and this was most definitely a spiritual event—but that wonderful word, that magnificent arrangement of letters, was the key to this tumult of feelings that rushed through his system.

It wasn't just that Shinji could almost see through Asuka's shirt, under which she wore no bra; nor was it that he could see even more of Asuka's panties; it wasn't even that she had her legs spread about as wide as possible. He gazed at her perfect body—the contours of her physique, the texture of her skin, the vibrancy of her eyes, the regal way her hair was thrown about her shoulders. What he saw was a physical being—a tangible, touchable entity—that encased the very essence of that one wonderfully complex word.

He had never seen anything so pure in his life.

"Come on!" Asuka said, reaching to grab him; Time resumed its pace. She took a handful of his shirt and brought him—not forcibly, but not gently, either—to rest with his face against her bosom. He brought up his arms to cushion his fall a bit, if it could be called a fall, and they came to rest along Asuka's sides. She wrapped her legs around him, intertwining them, placing her feet on his backside.

"Comfy, huh?" she said, looking down and smiling.

Shinji, with his head turned, view blocked by her breast, weakly nodded, still unsure whether or not he was in Heaven.

"It'd better be. It took a lot of time and patience to get the way I am. You should feel honored to be resting there."

Another nod.

"Hikari and Touji have been going out for a few weeks, but you don't see them doing this kind of stuff. We've been dating for less than a day and we're already farther along than they are."

A little whimper of half confusion, half pleasure escaped Shinji's throat.

"I bet they haven't even kissed yet. I think all they do is eat lunch together, really. I don't see what Hikari likes about the kid anyway—he's just a big, dumb jock."

Asuka took a deep breath and sighed, Shinji riding the wave of her chest. The air that she exhaled tossed around his hair a little bit, tickling him. He tried to move his hand around Asuka's body to scratch it, but to no avail. As he brought it up, he misjudged the distance between their heads. What resulted could be called a slap, his hand connecting with Asuka's cheek, though it was never his intent to strike her.

"What the hell!" she screamed as she sat up. Shinji's head now rest in her crotch. "Get off me, you pervert!"

A resounding thud was heard throughout the house as she hit the back of Shinji's head. She pushed him off the couch, but more importantly off of her—he fell onto the floor, hitting his leg against the coffee table in the process.

"Why the hell did you hit me, you idiot?" she demanded.

"N-no!" came a muffled voice. "I didn't mean to!"

"As if! Get out of my sight, damnit. Go to your room!"

Shinji scrambled to rise, limping out of the room as he held his injured head. He followed Asuka's orders and went to his room, closing the door behind him. He flopped down on the bed and curled into a ball, holding his leg where he'd hit the table, nurturing the bump that was forming on his head.

"What the fuck was that all about?" he whispered fervently to the dusky light that shone orange and red through his window. "She invited me to watch a movie with her; she invited me to sit with her; she invited me to lay down on her, too. So how the hell can she get so mad when I accidentally, and lightly, hit her?" He pounded his fist down into the mattress. "I don't understand women."

No one ever will, kid, the light spoke out. I doubt even women understand women. They're just crazy like that. But hell, the world can't function without 'em, so we gotta put up with their moments of random insanity as best we can. No worries, kid—she'll have forgotten about all of it in the mornin'. Just bide your time.

"Whatever," Shinji said. "Come morning, she'll have forgotten anything ever happened. That's Asuka for you" He hadn't heard the darkness speak, but he had a strange feeling that his words were not quite his own—some greater force had placed them in his mind, and thinly disguised them as his. He shrugged off this feeling as best he could and slipped into his covers, falling asleep soon thereafter.

Only once was he disturbed from his sleep. His eyes had snapped open, a sharp breath being sucked into his lungs through pale lips. He had awoken from a nightmare, the first he had had for weeks, but by far the one of the worst he had ever had.

He had been in the cage at NERV, looking into the glowing eyes of his Eva while he stood frightened in his plug suit. Usually its eyes were a bright yellow, almost white; but now they were of the deepest, most malicious crimson, boring right through his heart. He cried out for Misato, for Ritsuko, for Rei, for Asuka, and even for his father; but no one ever came. He screamed for someone to help him, for them to not leave him alone, for them to not let him die. And even so, no one answered, no one came.

The Eva activated itself, freeing its arms from the restraints to tear down the umbilical bridge that Shinji was standing upon. He saw the arms coming, saw that he was soon to be crushed by their grip, and yet he could not run. His legs turned to stone, not able to move even the slightest inch. The hands came down, gripping directly to the left and right of where he was standing, coming close enough so that he could have reached out and touched them.

He turned to look into the Eva's red eyes once again. It gazed back, and after a moment of silence…it laughed. It was a wicked, evil thing that tore into Shinji's soul, into his very essence, trying to devour, torture, maim, and kill him. He covered his ears and doubled over in pain, trying to block out the horrendous sound that made the very ground rumble beneath his feet.

"Shut up!" he yelled. "Shutupshutupshutupshutup! WHY WON'T YOU SHUT UP?" His lungs burned for air as he threw it all out in pleading, commanding, demanding, pitiful shouts. He uncovered his ears, stood straight, and looked once again at the Eva.

Its mouth was open as wide as possible. Its teeth, stained red from the blood of its victims, paralyzed Shinji with fear. The Eva lunged forward, crushing down its jaws to quickly sever his body in half.

Silence. White, perfect silence. Nothing existed. Nothing needed to exist. Shinji floated in nothing, he himself not having a physical body, but having only his consciousness. He wondered if this was what it was like when you died, if this was Heaven—or Hell.

Then, rose petals. From everywhere they came, showering down upon the now visible top half of Shinji's body, his innards strewn across an invisible floor. They were soft and light, very pleasant to the touch as well as gentle to the nose. Millions upon millions of petals came down, came up, came sideways from the nothing that was everywhere to form a grand congregation on and around Shinji.

He watched as the red things fluttered about him. He couldn't feel his legs or his waist, and the rest of his body was bitterly cold. He wondered again if this was his Heaven or if it was his Hell, but then wondered if this was the kingdom that souls go to before they are allowed into either place. That thought quickly left his head to be replaced with the utter cold that surrounded him.

These things around me, he thought, not being able to realize what they were, are they what make me so cold? Are they what put this pressure on my body? Panic raced across the periphery of his mind, never coming into full consciousness—the petals kept his alarm under control.

Shinji was having trouble drawing in air, his breaths coming ragged and shallow. What is this? My chest hurts, and I'm getting dizzy. What's happening to me?

The petals danced about Shinji, covering him, smothering him, loving him until there was an incalculable amount of them in the pile, if one could call it that. The petals had no trouble going through the invisible floor, and so formed a perfect and ever-growing sphere about their new plaything.

Shinji found that he could no longer draw breath. His chest burned something fierce, but he could do nothing. His body was completely numb other than the tearing that was ripping his lungs asunder, but his mind was at ease because of the petals. Dark clouds crept in from the edges of his vision and grew until there was nothing but black. Slowly, Shinji suffocated in complete happiness and ignorance.

Sweat stuck the shirt he was wearing to his back as he sat after waking. He panted furiously, then drew a deep breath, then panted more, repeating the cycle. The air felt so fantastic running through his lungs, and after moving around his legs a bit, knowing he wasn't bitten in half was calming.

Shinji had had nightmares about the Eva's before, but that was before he had grown accustom to their alien presence. Now they were just things that were there, and no matter how much he hated them, they would and could not go away. He'd come to terms with the fact that he knew almost nothing of what the Evangelion's really were, and it was around that time that his nightmares began to subside.

Sitting on the side of his bed, his feet on the cold floor, Shinji held his head in his hands. What the hell is going on in my mind?

Deciding that a cool drink of water would help him forget about the nightmare, he got up and left his room. As he entered the hall, a dim, flickering light brightened up the walls a fraction.

Where's that light coming from? Did Asuka forget to turn off the TV again?

Running a hand along the wall, Shinji walked towards the room from which the light came forth, and was soon able to hear the singsong voice of the hostess on an infomercial. As he crossed the threshold between the darkness and the light, he had to squint—the brightness of the TV hurt his eyes, accustom to the dark as they had been.

Asuka lay on the couch with neither a blanket nor a pillow, but asleep all the same. Her limbs were sprawled every which way, her hair a mass that was delicately strewn about. Shinji stood at the end of the couch, looking down. Asuka had her delicate mouth open ever so slightly, breathing through it rather than through her nose.

The way the light from the TV played across the contours of her face made Shinji stare. The shadows that danced on her cheeks, on her nose, on her forehead, on her lips—they were like fairies dancing in a deep, sacred forest. They had their own will, and they chose to capture Shinji with their seductive movements. They told him to draw closer, to get a better look—he did so. They told him to watch as they made this human girl alive with shadowed beauty—he did so. Now that the light was created the same fairies on his face, they told him to join with Asuka so that all the shadows may be together in one dance.

He didn't quite understand what the fairies were telling him—how does one join with another person?

Ah, but of course! Shinji understood.

Butterflies tumbled about in his stomach as he bent further towards Asuka's face, ready to join with her. He licked his dry lips nervously, not wanting to disappoint the fairies—they expected him to do a good job so that they would all be joined in dance, and would not take failure as an answer.

The butterflies knocked against the inside of him, threatening to break loose as he loomed over the sleeping girl. He hesitated for several moments, his own will battling the will of the fairies. He knew that Asuka would be angry with him if she woke up with him kissing her; what was more important, though, was that he just wasn't ready to do this kind of thing on his own initiative. But then the fairies were pooling their power in to one, massive force that was slowly but surely beating away his will.

As the war raged on, Asuka stirred. She turned her head as she slept, a whimper of panic and fear escaping her throat. That simple call for help stopped the battle right out, freezing both warring factions in their places, as well as culling the butterfly army inside of him.

Shinji walked around the edge of the couch to kneel next to her. He placed a hand on her shoulder, gently pushing to wake her up. After a few tries, her eyelids snapped open in surprise, her eyes searching for what had woken her. She saw Shinji and smiled.

"I was having a bad dream, leibchen. Thank you for waking me," she said.

"You too, huh? I just got up to get a drink after having a nightmare, and I heard you…whimpering."

A worried look flashed across her face. "Oh, poor baby. You had a nightmare?"

"Yeah," he said, lowering his head. "It was the first one I've had in a while." He shivered remembering the glowing eyes of the Eva.

Asuka cupped his cheek. "Why don't you go get a blanket and come lay with me. Then you can tell me all about it, 'k?"

He nodded a small amount as the butterflies resurrected the revolution within him. They were more determined to break free, now, and he could barely keep them in check. Walking to his room to grab the comforter off of his bed, he tried to get a grip on the situation.

She just wants me to tell her about my nightmare, nothing else. She wouldn't try anything, would she? Shinji got to his room and stood in the darkness for a moment, panicking. But we're the only ones here, and we'll be lying together under a blanket! What if she turns off the TV? Then it'll be completely dark in there! Oh God, this isn't good. This isn't good at all! He tugged at a corner of the comforter, forcing it to give up its home on top of the bed. No no no, not good, not good. What do I do, what do I do? Argh! If I were Kaji, then I'd know what to do!

"God damnit," he said to the darkness. This was all he could think of to say, this small curse upon his own lack of knowledge in the ways of women, at his confusion, and at his cowardice. Those two words summed up the torrent of feelings inundating his mind sufficiently, even if they were only uttered to release those mixed emotions.

One thing was outstandingly clear though—Asuka wanted to be with him.

The full force of understanding slammed into his mind. Shinji staggered backwards, drew a shuddering breath, steadied himself on the wall. Fear replaced everything that had been swirling inside him moments earlier, fear that covered his mind with the shadow of self-doubt.

He'd never been wanted by anyone. Ever since his father had abandoned him, no one had ever shown the slightest interest in him, unless they were going to use him—like his father was doing now.

But Asuka…

She really did want to be with him. She wanted to lay with him, wanted to share her body warmth, wanted to share the air she breathed, the space she occupied—she wanted to share her very existence with him!

No…no! I-I don't deserve this. I-I'm sneaky, and a coward, and a wimp! Shinji insulted himself over and over in his mind, trying desperately to escape this new, alien situation. His defense mechanisms were well in place at this point in his scared, lonely life, and they were in full effect now.

Tugging the comforter close, teeth bared and jaws clenched, he brought his knees to his chest and sat on his heels. Rocking back and forth slightly, he panicked. Images, ideas, thoughts, passions, wants, fears, wishes, and memories all ran through his frazzled mind at once. Nothing made sense—the understanding that was supposed to be there had stripped naked and was now in the process of cursing up a storm.

The panic was everything. The surrounding air pressed downward, suffocating him. The pressure solidified into a sphere of blades, points aiming straight for his body. They grew closer, threatening to pierce his pitiful, fragile human form as he huddled by himself in the darkness.

But then…

"Shinji-baby," came forth from the living room, "what's taking so long?"

A sweet, cool balm washed over the cowering child. It sucked out the poison of fear, took it into itself, destroyed it. Shinji stopped rocking, relaxed his tense muscles and opened his eyes to the dark. He felt…good, felt content, felt excited.

What is this? Within seconds, the boy went from being paralyzed with fear to feeling like he belonged here and now, and nowhere else. This was his time, and he was the master of it; this was his place, and his rule was absolute. He had control—immaculate and undeniable control.

Yet…how could this be? Hearing Asuka's voice, a smooth salve of melodious comfort, had transformed every negative emotion in Shinji's body into a riot of wonderfully addictive, positive emotions. No longer did he cower, shrouded in the cloak of Nocturne. Risen above the dread, Shinji now stood gripping the comforter—not with anxiety, but with newfound happiness.

"I'll be right there, Asuka-baby," he said, imitating her with a grin. With a spring in his step, he returned to his girl.

"Come on," she whined as he stood smiling in the doorway. "I'm freezing here!"

"Well then," Shinji said, dropping the tone of his voice to sound manly, "that's no good, is it?" He flung the comforter around his own shoulders in a flourish as he moved to share his warmth with Asuka.

An idea. "Asuka, why don't you get up for a second?"

"Why? What are you gonna do?"

"C'mon, just get up. Pleeaase?"

With a huff, she obeyed and stood. Shinji took the comforter from his shoulders and gave it to her, then dropped down to his new spot on the couch. After positioning himself appropriately—on his side right up against the cushions—he beckoned Asuka to lay down with him.

She smiled slyly, a glint in her eyes. She saw the way he was laying. She knew how he wanted her to position herself. Excited that Shinji wasn't being as timid and self-conscious as he usually was, she threw the comforter over him, then snuggled herself into place.

She faced away from him, her cushy backside pressed against his pelvic area. She knew he'd planned this, and was rather…aroused by his cunning, not to mention his obvious want for her to be close.

Shinji started talking about his nightmare, as she had asked earlier, though Asuka was surprised that he had actually went back to the subject when much more…interesting things could have been spoken of, or even acted upon.

She listened carefully, knowing that it wasn't every day that Shinji opened up like this. As he finished his tale, the feeling that had been slowly growing in her reached its peak.

She felt compassion.

She also thought that Shinji was the cutest boy she'd ever seen. She didn't say anything about it, but at that moment, she felt that she was doing something right, something that mattered.

Several hours passed before the two finally went to sleep. They had spent the time talking of dreams, of alternate realities, of other lives they could have led, of school, of their classmates, of NERV. Meaningless chatter to some, but serious, heart-to-heart conversation to the couple lying on the couch together.

They decided that since Misato hadn't come home yet—she must have been out drinking again—they would simply sleep with each other on the couch. Asuka had suggested the idea and it didn't faze Shinji at all. She worried about what she has said for a few minutes in the silence, wondering if he had thought she meant that they should have sex. Her fears were belayed after she heard and felt Shinji slow his breathing, falling into a deep slumber. Asuka went to sleep with a growing sense of belonging in her heart.

A/N: Impressive, huh? Three months in the making, my friends. I apologize for not updating earlier, but I had way too much crap to do (school, work, etc.).

First off, this isn't the whole chapter, as you might have guessed with the "Part 1" tagged on the end. I originally wanted to end the story with three chapters, but that would make this chapter alone over 30k words, which is a bit ridiculous. Thus, I present to ye the first part of the first ending chapter.

Secondly, if you'll notice that Shinji sucks at typing, I'll have you know that that was intentional, and it's not just me forgetting to edit the story.

Thirdly, the title of this chapter basically means "now I know what love is." This is pretty ironic considering almost no one in the entire story knows what love is, especially not Shinji and Asuka. The German, however, seems to act like she knows all about it, and Shinji just kind of follows along. Naivete for great justice, eh?

Lastly, considering Shinji "hearing" the dusky light speak / Shinji feeling that his words were not his own: What does this show, exactly? Well, it shows that Shinji is becoming attuned to things such as Fate, and thus is raised above the rest of the mortal beings that inhabit the world. Having been spoken to by the omniscient and all-powerful Fate, Shinji could be considered a demi-god or something equally cool, right?

Anyway, the second part of Nunc Scio Quid Sit Amor should be out in a few weeks if I get my act together (which I probably will), so be sure to look out for it.