She loved the jingling of little golden bell on the door of the ice cream parlor as she opened it. Asuka turned and waved to Misato, who smiled before pressing down on the accelerator. The blue car shot out of sight.
"Hey," Asuka greeted Madoka, her fellow employee, who was already busy at work adding sugar to her latest batch of ice cream. She glanced at the clock. There were still thirty minutes until they were due to open. Asuka sidled over to her friend. "Do you need any help?"
Madoka paused and looked up, her face pink from the exertion of stirring the mixture by hand. "Would you mind writing up today's special on the board?"
Asuka donned a dark red apron and crossed the black-and-white checkered floor to the east wall, where a large dry-erase board was hanging out of her reach. She stood up on a chair and pulled it down, removing the markers and eraser located conveniently at the bottom.
"What's the special?"
Asuka paused in erasing yesterday's special and looked up at Madoka. "Starfruit ice cream?"
"Yes, I did some experimenting yesterday and it came out quite nice. Come over and I'll get you some after I finish making this."
Five minutes later the board had been replaced, now bearing the words "Today's Special: Starfruit" in strawberry pink kanji. Asuka had packaged and frozen the new batch while Madoka made a starfruit cone for Asuka. The redhead licked it tentatively, then took a bigger bite and let the fruity taste spread over her tongue.
"It's good," she complimented. Madoka smiled, her anxious features relaxing. Asuka took another lick and added, "Akamatsu-san is really lucky to have you working here."
Madoka blushed, her dark shoulder-length hair contrasting with her pink cheeks. She was pure Japanese, twenty-one, and a student at Toudai University who worked during the summer to pay for her tuition. Asuka liked her; she was witty, accepting, and an avid ice-cream lover. The fact that Asuka was five years older than her made no difference; after all, Asuka had only started working here three weeks ago, and she had been here for several months.
Asuka, on the other hand, had finally gotten tired of staying home with nothing to do every day while Misato was at home; plus, it was nice to have something to do with her hands again. She'd passed the "Help Wanted" sign outside the nearby ice cream parlor while shopping with Misato, and had come back the next day to apply. Madoka had quickly accepted her as a close friend, and the boss, Akamatsu-san, had kindly entrusted her training to the Japanese girl. These days Asuka washed tables, swept the floor, and helped to sell and make ice cream--her favorite part.
Madoka knew little about her and asked little; she herself had a baseball player boyfriend who would stop by every now and then to grab a cone and give his girl a hug. Seeing the two together would inevitably make Asuka pine for Shinji; she would usually excuse herself to make more ice cream in the back room, whether it was needed or not. Madoka knew only that there was a potential guy for Asuka currently living in America who had given her the gold locket she always wore.
Asuka finished off her ice cream and unconsciously put a hand to the locket, teasing it in her fingers. Misato had found a picture of Shinji and shrunk it so that it would fit in the heart-shaped bauble.
The bell jingled as a mother and three hungry kids walked in despite the "closed" sign, bringing Asuka out of her thoughts. Madoka smiled and greeted them warmly. The youngest replied with a wail that resounded against the walls.
The mother glanced at the fresh words on the board. "Starfruit ice cream... that sounds good. I'll take seven."
Madoka's eyes grew wide, but she didn't say anything as she keyed in the order. Asuka hurried to the back and made seven starfruit ice cream cones, bringing them to the front two at a time. Several minutes later, the mother herded out her children, each silenced by a twin pair of cones. In one hand she held her own, licking freely now that the kids were no longer bothering her.
"We're not really due to open for another fifteen minutes," Asuka chided.
Madoka smiled mischievously. "I couldn't help but feel sorry for her, with all those kids. Hopefully they'll quit bothering her for awhile."
Asuka smiled. She could always count on Madoka to be sweet and compassionate. However, at that moment the door jingled again as a tall, muscular baseball player swaggered in. Asuka muttered an apology about peach ice cream and hurried to the back, one hand pressed over the locket.
= = = = = = =
"Welcome." Misato was at the stove, stirring and tasting as she worked. A wonderful smell drifted from the pot to Asuka's nostrils as she kicked off her shoes.
It was still odd to come home after a day of work, for several reasons. She'd always been the one cooking dinner when Misato or Shinji came home. She'd never wanted to kick off her shoes and eat--then sleep--and get up and do it all over again. And she'd never felt so satisfied with her life.
She thought of the calendar in the room she shared with Misato and reminded herself to cross off the date, although there was no need--the page was covered in large red X's. Days she'd spent thinking of Shinji. Days that had been devoid of news from Shinji.
She ate her dinner slowly, savoring the taste, washing away the flavor of starfruit. The ice cream had been an instant hit; Madoka had had to make several more batches before the morning was over. Even Akamatsu-san declared he'd never seen the parlor so full; children were sitting on the floor and the line stretched a good distance outside. Asuka offered him a cone; he pronounced it the best ice cream Tokyo-3 had ever seen. Madoka was planning to package it and sell it by the gallon, if she and Asuka could ever keep up with the demand.
It wasn't the money that made Asuka happy, although the income she brought in did lessen the stress on Misato a bit. She loved the excitement of lunchtime and early afternoon, when children were hot and tired from playing, and she loved the smell and taste of freshly made ice cream. Most of all she liked knowing she was useful and that her work was productive.
When she came home, however, her thoughts would turn to the small family she belonged to: Misato--and Shinji. She knew he had asked Misato for her address, had wanted to write, but there had been nothing. Asuka comforted herself each night hoping that perhaps he had written but the letter had been lost. Or maybe he couldn't read Misato's handwriting--far more likely, given that she had written it in the dark and was half asleep. Anything was better than the thought that he had simply not written--and she shivered--forgotten about her.
"Misato," she said smoothly, putting down her fork, "there wasn't anything in the mail, was it?"
Her voice was cool and composed, the words indirect, but Misato knew what she meant. She'd been asking every day since his departure. Sadly she shook her head. Asuka nodded acceptingly, then turned back to her meal.
Misato watched her sharply, wondering as well why Shinji had not written. It was well over a month since had left; surely he could have at least informed her that he had arrived safely. Perhaps he needed a little prodding, she thought mischievously. Those thoughts faded quickly as she realized she hadn't bothered to ask for his address.
The doorbell rang.
Asuka excused herself and went to go get it. Kimie was at the door, with Makoto and Keiichi. She called for Misato, who quickly cleared up and brought out a knife. Then the five went to the backyard for watermelons.
"These stupid watermelons are growing faster than we can eat," Misato complained. "Sometime I'd like to have a backyard that's actually flat and not filled with green lumps."
Kimie, Makoto, and Keiichi laughed, but Asuka only smiled. She knew Misato would never get rid of the watermelons; it was practically all she had left of Kaji. She knew now whom those masculine clothes in the back of the closet belonged to.
"We tried to stop by for ice cream," Kimie told Asuka, "but there were so many people that we didn't have time to stay in line."
Asuka told her about Madoka's new experiment. Makoto's eyes grew wide and he asked, "What's a starfruit?"
Asuka attempted to explain but the boy failed to understand how any fruit could look like a star. Keiichi, however, noted that Misato was looking wistfully at her field of fruit, and asked, "Asuka-san, have you ever tried making watermelon ice cream?"
"No," Asuka was forced to admit, a smile blooming over her face, "but I believe I will tomorrow!"
= = = = = = =
Madoka's eyes were wide as saucers. "Asuka," she stammered, "What are you doing?"
Asuka's face was red as she breathed heavily, hauling in a cartload of watermelons. "I thought we could try for watermelon ice cream," she said, smiling happily.
Madoka smiled too. It was early in the morning and the sun had just barely risen, but already she was at work mixing up more starfruit ice cream. Several crates of starfruit lay stacked in the backroom. "I'm afraid it'll have to wait until we can keep up with this starfruit demand, Asuka--it looks like people are lining up outside already."
"ALREADY?" Asuka flew to the front counter, her fingers grasping the edge. "But--but--we don't open for another two hours!"
Madoka shrugged, but her delighted grin showed her pleasure at their success. "I don't remember seeing him yesterday, either," she said thoughtfully. "News must be traveling fast." She sliced up another starfruit, peeled and seeded it, then threw the slimy pieces into a wide bowl. Asuka mixed eggs and cream and sugar, then poured it over the fruit. Madoka blended them in the old fashioned ice-cream maker--nothing could make ice cream as good as that old machine, which Akamatsu-san claimed had been a wedding present. Asuka emptied the finished product into gallon-sized buckets and placed them in the freezer. The cart of watermelons lay to the side, forgotten for the time being.
"Maybe we should open a bit earlier today?" Madoka voiced her concerns. Asuka glanced at her watch; it was still thirty minutes early. She told this to Madoka. "But that poor man's been standing outside for an hour and a half!" the Japanese girl cried.
Asuka shrugged. Madoka held off for another twenty minutes, then opened the door. A healthy crowd of people began to stream in. Among them were a tired Kimie and a bouncy Makoto.
"He declared that he wasn't going to sleep until he got some of that ice cream," Kimie muttered, yawning. "I don't know where he gets his energy from."
Asuka laughed and gave him an extra large scoop. His eyes grew wide as he tasted the sweet tangy flavor. "I want another one!"
"Finish yours first," Kimie instructed as she took hers from Asuka's hands. "Thank you, Asuka-san."
Asuka would have liked to chat, but the small parlor was echoing with booming business, and she had to hurry to tend to the next customer. Madoka came out of the room once, but Asuka shouted for her to keep making more ice cream, and she soon disappeared into the backroom again. Several hours later she emerged again, this time to relieve Asuka--it was time for her lunch break. Gratefully Asuka made her way into the backroom, her fingertips sore from hitting keys over and over again. Upon closing the door behind her she noticed the watermelons.
Asuka bit into her apple as she sat down to think. She had helped Madoka many times to make ice cream, but never gone through the entire process herself. It couldn't be that hard, could it?
Before Asuka knew it, she was slicing watermelon and picking out seeds with the tip of her knife. Juice and red frosty flesh went into the bowl; alone she mixed cream, eggs, and sugar, heating them as needed, then pouring it over the watermelon.
She was faced with a problem. There was far too much; it would not all fit in the ice cream machine at once. She would have to make two batches, perhaps three. Already her arms were tired; usually this part was Madoka's job. Asuka glanced in the corner and was pleased to see that there were still four empty buckets. Carefully she lifted the heavy bowl and poured into the open top of the ice cream machine. Asuka recapped the machine and began to crank, checking periodically to see if it was done or not.
It did take three batches to empty the bowl of watermelon and cream--and she had only cut one watermelon--but by then Asuka had gotten the hang of the machine, and she was pleased when she discovered the ice cream to be done the first time she checked. Now all that was left was to freeze it.
Asuka finished cleaning up and ate the rest of her lunch quickly. Madoka appeared to bring in more ice cream, and the redhead offered to take her place.
= = = = = = =
The sun had almost set--Madoka knew it was almost time to close up, but the crowd hadn't seemed to dwindle since the moment they had opened. Asuka had gone shopping for more heavy cream. She excused herself and ran to the backroom to bring another batch of starfruit ice cream.
She paused thoughtfully in front of the freezer, its cold air biting her skin. There seemed to be more ice cream than she remembered. Perhaps she'd made more than she'd thought. Madoka suddenly felt grateful for the work she didn't remember doing; it would mean less work later. She grabbed one bucket and hurried back, apologizing for the delay.
"It looks awfully pink," the boy commented, looking a bit apprehensive. Madoka assured him that it couldn't have gone bad, as she had just made it that morning--and made him a fresh cone. The boy licked it once, twice, then three times--and suddenly pumped his fist in the air, shouting, "It's watermelon!"
"Watermelon?!" Madoka exclaimed. The boy's mother bent down and took a lick. Her eyes widened as she stood back up. "I'll have another one of those... and a gallon of it to go, as well."
"A gallon..." Madoka's voice trailed off as she keyed in the order.
= = = = = = =
Madoka had closed up, ushered the final customers out, and was cleaning up melted ice cream when Asuka came in through the back door, carrying two large jugs of cream.
"Sorry," she apologized.
Madoka threw aside the mop and started to laugh. "For what? I believe you've found a flavor to topple starfruit."
Asuka stood in utter incomprehension for several moments. Her apology had been to account for her tardiness--but--Madoka must have found the watermelon ice cream!
"Oh no!" Asuka cried out. "It hasn't been refrigerated long enough! Are you sure it was ready to eat?"
"We sold out in less than six minutes," Madoka informed her. "I think we have a new specialty to add to our board."
Some of the fatigue lifted from Asuka's arms as she climbed up to remove the board. In large green characters she added "Watermelon."
= = = = = = =
Misato glanced over her shoulder, a knowing smile on her face. "Hey, Asuka--"
Asuka cut her off rather rudely. "Sorry, Misato. I think I'm going to skip dinner and go straight to bed tonight, if that's all right."
"Sure," the purple-haired woman answered, deciding not to tell Asuka what else she was missing out on. She'd appreciate it more when she was fully relaxed.
Asuka sank onto her cot and slept. She didn't know when she woke up, but when her eyes opened again the room was dark and Misato was spread out on the cot beside her. Her throat was unusually dry. Asuka got out of bed, being careful not to wake Misato, and made her way to the kitchen.
She turned on the light, squinting at the brightness and placed one hand on the counter as she reached up with the other for a glass. Instead of the smooth, glossy wood she expected, Asuka's hand sensed paper. She glanced down to see a thick package whose stamp indicated it had come overseas--from America!
Asuka grabbed the package and held it close to her face. The return address was unfamiliar, but the name at the top was: Shinji Ikari.
She tore it open and the contents fell to the floor. Asuka knelt down to pick it up, expecting a letter or photographs--but certainly not the magazine she found.
The front cover portrayed a large water bird with pinkish wings and a spoon-like bill, which Asuka did not recognize. She opened to the first page and found that the picture was of a "Roseate Spoonbill", and the image was credited to Kensuke Aida.
She remembered then--Shinji was the editor of a magazine for which Kensuke took pictures. Asuka flipped back to the cover and admired the grace of the large bird, despite its clumsy beak.
But why had Shinji sent her a magazine?
Asuka shook it; no letters fell out. The envelope was empty when she checked.
There was nothing to do but return to the magazine. On the second page, however, was something that made her gasp.
It was a photograph of her. She was standing on the front steps of Misato's house, gazing off into the distance. When had he taken this, without her noticing? Asuka peered closer and noticed a small row of letters at the bottom: the picture was credited to Misato Katsuragi!
But the photo did not cover the page. A long, typed letter in English spanned the rest of the page. It was a letter to her. And at the bottom was Shinji's signature.
Asuka wished her English were better--she had not exercised it in a long time--but nevertheless she read through the letter easily several times. He had arrived in California and missed her. Throughout the letter he mused about the experiences they had shared, and regretted that they could not have spent more time together. Asuka read through the last few lines several times--he was inviting her to America!
"I hope that someday you'll be able to come to California for a visit," the letter read. "There are so many things here that I would like to show you. The next time we meet..."
Asuka was crying, smiling at the same time; her happiness and sadness clashed and blended as she held the magazine to her chest and fumbled with the locket again.
He remembered me. He's thinking of me. He wants me to come to see him.
Asuka wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and lay down on the kitchen floor, wanting to savor the moment. Several minutes later she was fast asleep, a happy smile blossoming on her face, the magazine clasped tightly in her arms.
Author's note: A very odd chapter... I felt like this one revolved more around starfruit ice cream than Asuka and Shinji, sorry about that. Asuka's found something to do with herself for the time being, and Shinji's settled back into his life while still keeping her in the front of his mind.
Last time I was asked if I happen to hate Rei. While I don't hate her, Rei has never appealed to me as much as Asuka; I don't think I could ever write a fic with her as a main character because I can't think in her mind at all. However, I do have a few plans for Rei in this fic, towards the end...
Thanks for reading! Drop me a review if you'd like.