"I'm here to see Sorhyu Asuka Langley."
The receptionist glanced up from whatever she had been writing and shifted her gaze to the woman in front of her. She held a small bouquet of unrecognizable flowers in one hand, the blossoms small and bunched together. Her facial expression immediately showed that she was not a woman to mess with.
With one finger, the receptionist tapped the keyboard languidly. It took an agonizingly long time for her to pull up Asuka's files. The visitor remembered Ritsuko Akagi's technological talent.
"Sorhyu Asuka Langley is in Room 212. The elevators are to your right."
She bowed to a 45-degree angle, then pivoted and headed towards the elevators.
She was older now, of course, and she'd begun to find a few white hairs--the result of her worrying and sorrow over the last decade--but overall, she felt she hadn't changed much. She still walked the same way, her back held straight, her arms swinging from side to side--her hands balled into fists. Sometimes she would still have a cell phone to her ear and her words would still rush as a stream of commands, her voice never faltering when giving directions.
Her hand shook ever so slightly as she reached for the button labeled "up". She paused, then looked over her shoulder. The receptionist was watching her.
Misato Katsuragi pressed the button and stepped into the narrow elevator, a steely glint in her chocolate eyes.
= = = = = = =
Asuka was in bed again.
Of course, that wasn't too uncommon. She got up around 9 every day, went for her morning walk with Hazuki-san, came back to her room for breakfast, and had the rest of the day free to herself--save for mealtimes.
Much to her delight--and her nurse's--the I.V. line had been removed from her arm, and Asuka was beginning to try foods that had been denied to her before. A variety of fruits and vegetables stacked up in her room faster than she could eat them. She was propped up now by a stack of pillows, trying to peel an orange.
In addition to learning of her past, Asuka felt as if she had to relearn how to act human, and it frustrated her. She'd finally mastered the art of moving her legs evenly, walking without toppling over. It hadn't been too hard to learn how to use a knife and fork, but chopsticks were another matter. When Hazuki-san took her meals with her favorite patient, the redhead would sit and marvel as she deftly picked up food with two thin bamboo sticks.
At the other end of the spectrum were foods such as oranges, which required no utensils to eat. When she had first found herself faced with a round, waxy orange fruit, Asuka had tried to bite through the thick peel. When that failed, she stabbed it ferociously with an fork--the result of which was that orange juice squirted out and got in her eye. Eventually Hazuki-san came by and removed the peel, but by then Asuka was utterly exasperated with herself and had enough. The orange remained uneaten.
There were days when she had more patience, and today was one of them. She'd gone for her morning walk (without clinging to Hazuki-san's arm!) and even visited a few other patients. Her nurse had taken her down to the children's ward and let her watch them playing and recovering through the glass wall. One young girl, stumbling to walk, even made her way over to the wall and laughed as she pressed a tiny hand onto her side of the glass. To Hazuki's astonishment and delight, Asuka had responded by smiling and pressing her hand against that of the child.
It was one of the tiny, nominal happy memories of her new life that Asuka treasured as diamonds in her mind. Ever since she had come to the hospital, she had had virtually no contact with anybody other than Hazuki-san, except for the gruff doctor who came in every few days to make sure that she was all right. It still astonished her that that little girl had actually been happy to see her--her, a lost, insignificant person who didn't even know who she was.
Asuka didn't notice that she was smiling slightly as she remembered. She dug her nail into the peel and bent her thumb. With a soft ripping sound, loud in the silence of her room, the peel pulled away from the juicy orange flesh. Asuka stared, surprised. Then she laughed, a gurgle of excitement bubbling from her throat. She peeled the rest of it happily, in the same way, then divided the inside into twelve equal pieces as Hazuki-san had shown her. She held each piece up to the light, in turn, and marveled at the prettiness of the translucent orange fruit.
Misato watched dejectedly through the slits in the blinds of Asuka's window.
So this was what the young, talented fiery pilot of Eva 02 had become.
She resisted the urge to bang on the window, realizing that Asuka would probably go mad at someone disturbing her joy with the orange--and furthermore, she probably couldn't see her former commander through the blinds. Misato sighed. The flowers in her hand seemed to wilt with her dejection. She looked down at them and plucked off a petal absentmindedly, then let it flutter to the floor. It hadn't surprised her that the receptionist had looked at it so curiously--after all, they weren't the usual roses, lilies, or spring bouquets one might bring to cheer up a friend. Misato had plucked the starflowers from a patch in the woods and tried to arrange them among the watermelon flowers. There were a few wild daisies and something in her yard that looked suspiciously like a weed--but it was colorful and flowering, so Misato had added it. The result was a rather mismatching bundle of flowers, all in different lengths and sizes.
The former Nerv commander turned her gaze back to her former charge. All the slices of oranges were gone and Asuka was on her feet in front of the platter of fruit. A few minutes later she crept back into bed with an armload of apples, oranges, and kiwifruits. Misato watched as she opened up another orange and began to eat.
She wondered that they let her do that, day after day.
Misato sighed again and wondered why Ritsuko hadn't told her of Asuka's condition, only that she was in Tokyo-3. Even after Nerv had split, she and Ritsuko had remained distantly in touch--an email or phone call now and then. Her college classmate was working as an engineer in Kyoto and seemed to regard her memories of the Nerv years coolly, though she was not overly sensitive--as Misato sometimes tended to feel--although she hid it. It was a skill she'd developed and refined over the years since the Second Impact.
It hadn't really surprised Misato when Ritsuko called. She'd been expecting it; after all, over two months had passed since the blonde had last written. What shocked her was the unusual shortness of the call--and the jarring message Ritsuko had to deliver.
Sorhyu Asuka Langley? The redhead who used to hit Shinji and call him "baka" all the time?
Misato wouldn't believe it at first. Part of her didn't want to believe it. But Ritsuko, with her quiet words of truth and that uncanny understanding of her old friend, soon won her over.
Her young charges had split soon after Nerv disintegrated and the angel attacks stopped. Asuka had been the first to leave, declaring that she was off to "make a difference in the world"--as if she hadn't already--and that she was glad to be rid of "ano baka" and Misato. The door had slammed and she had gone. Misato had had too much on her mind to worry about her then.
Ikari Shinji... Misato still wondered sometimes how he had looked at her and how he would come to remember her in the future. Ikari Gendo's son had informed her quietly that he was leaving, thanked her for everything, and disappeared soon after. Not a word to his father.
With her apartment now quiet and empty, a dismal change from the usual affairs of the Katsuragi residence, Misato moved into Kaji's residence--and was even more dismayed to find his backyard consisting solely of a huge patch of dried up watermelons. In time she'd replanted some and cut out dead vines, and now they produced more watermelons than she could ever eat. The younger children around her neighborhood would come by from time to time and she'd give her watermelons to them to take home. She had no use for them and furthermore, knew it was what Kaji would have done.
She didn't know anything about any of the other Nerv employees. Nothing of Rei, the shy and quiet girl. Nothing of Ikari Gendo, Maya Ibuki, or that other guy who'd once had a crush on her--she couldn't even remember his name now, twelve years later.
A bustling young nurse, appearing maybe ten years younger than her, brushed past her and entered Asuka's room, glancing at her curiously. Misato backed away a little so she wouldn't seem as if she were intruding.
She watched Asuka smile in a childlike way upon seeing the nurse, but she never spoke a word. Misato was startled. Not only had Asuka perhaps gone insane, but now she was also mute?
She knew Asuka wouldn't be ready to face her yet, ready to face the horrors of her past. Misato backed away slowly, leaving her ragged bouquet on the windowsill.
= = = = = = =
Asuka looked up from her fifth orange and smiled happily, but didn't say a word.
Hazuki-san pulled over a chair and sat down next to Asuka. "Would you like to go for a walk outside?"
Asuka nodded. She had never seen the little garden outside that her nurse had been telling her about. Hazuki-san grinned, but the expression wore off slowly as she noticed the increasing pile of orange peels on and under the blanket.
"Asuka-chan...how many oranges did you eat...?!"
Asuka paused, then held up all the fingers of her right hand.
Asuka got out of bed herself, planting both feet toes-first on the floor and waiting as Hazuki-san pulled her chair back to its proper place. "There's a lady outside your room with long purple hair. Do you know her?"
Misato is here?
The name came to Asuka's head immediately, and she was afraid her facial expression would give it away. Quickly she shook her head.
"No?" Hazuki-san was not disappointed. "Never mind that then, let's go outside."
The German redhead followed her nurse outside, looking around cautiously.
"She left her flowers."
She brought me flowers?
Hazuki-san picked up the wilted bouquet and handed it to Asuka. The girl was silent in thought, wondering whether it was for the better or worse that she had missed Katsuragi-san. She fiddled with the bouquet for a few minutes, then pulled out the pink daisies and threw the rest into the trash.
"There will be much prettier flowers in the garden, Asuka-chan."
Asuka spun the flowers in her hands, forming a ring of pink petals and yellow stems, then tucked them behind her ear. Hazuki-san moved towards the elevator and beckoned for her to follow.
Her patient surprised her a moment later, however, as she stepped inside and reached over to press the button labeled "1".
Of the two people in the metal box, Asuka was the more surprised. She had not known exactly what an elevator was, but she had certainly known what to do once she got in it. And--Asuka glanced towards the panel of buttons again--goodness, there were more than fifteen. Just how had she happened to pick the correct one?
Hazuki-san's face was shining with excitement, so Asuka smiled too and took it as a big leap towards becoming the girl she had been.
The doors opened and Asuka stepped out first, then realized that she didn't know where to go and felt very foolish. Hazuki-san laid a comforting hand on her shoulder and gently steered her to the left. As they walked down the lobby, Hazuki-san greeted other nurses and doctors, all of which nodded in greeting and hurried away. Asuka was interested in everything and kept wanting to stay behind and watch.
"The really pretty things are outside," Hazuki-san told her, when Asuka discovered a new fascination in carrying people in stretchers.
The glass door before Asuka opened to reveal what she could only imagine was paradise. There was a small waterfall running into a pond in which goldfish swam. Around it grew a variety of flowers, blooming in all colors. Like a hummingbird, Asuka darted from this flower to that one, and finally came to a stop in front of the pond. Hazuki-san had had enough of chasing her and was sitting on one of the many rocks that formed the border of the pool.
Asuka got on her knees and extended a hand into the cold water. The fish darted away. Startled, she pulled her hand out back out and let the water drip onto the surrounding rocks.
Hazuki-san laughed and, not to Asuka's surprise, began to tell her the story of how the garden and its flowers had come to be.
Their shared excitement masked the sound of a blue car, driven by a very agitated purple-haired woman, pulling out of the hospital parking lot so violently that she was narrowly avoiding being tipped over at each turn.
Author's Notes: Misato has entered the picture...and backed out of it again. She'll be back, though; I thought it'd be nice to add a bit of flashback, show how things went. As usual, drop me a review... tell me how I'm doing. Thanks so much to those of you who have already reviewed!