Shinji caught his breath as the redhead appeared, standing out distinctly in the throng of dark-haired Japanese. She was dressed in a red windbreaker and white shorts, glancing around distractedly with a bag in one hand. A moment later she noticed him and broke into a wide smile as she ran towards him.
"Shinji!" she called out, then restrained from throwing herself into his arms. Shinji took the bag from her hand, flung it carelessly into a nearby seat, and pulled her into his embrace.
"I've missed you," he whispered, in English. Asuka repeated the words after him.
They left the terminal and made their way out through the gift shops, where Shinji bought Asuka a little airplane shaped key-chain for her bag. He walked quickly, carrying her bag, and she had to hurry to keep up with him. Judging by his clothes, Asuka reasoned that he had just left from work. Shinji was wearing a black suit and his shoes clicked softly with every step on the tile floor. She trailed behind him as he picked up her suitcase, striding confidently out of the airport and into the heat of the Californian summer.
Shinji stopped suddenly in the parking lot, causing Asuka to slam into him from the back. From one pocket he pulled out his chain of keys and held up one piece with a small series of buttons, his thumb positioned over the first. "Press this one."
Asuka complied. A nearby car's lights flashed on and then off, emitting a beep.
"Is that your car?" she asked in wonder.
Shinji laughed. "Isn't it so much better than Misato's?"
Asuka thought of Misato's old car, with fading paint and worn out wheels, and laughed with him as he tossed her bag and suitcase into the trunk. She climbed into the luxurious passenger seat as Shinji started the engine and turned on the air conditioner.
"I notice you're wearing the locket," Shinji added.
Asuka reached for it affectionately and held it tightly within her hand. "Yes," she admitted, then shyly, "I've never taken it off."
The corners of Shinji's mouth turned up slightly.
At the next red light he reached into his other pocket and pulled out a cell phone, handing it to Asuka. "You'd better call Misato and tell her you've arrived, or she'll start to worry."
Asuka was surprised to see that Misato was already in his address book.
When she returned the phone to him, Shinji was full of plans. "I have most of the week off, but Kensuke's been talking about wanting to meet you," he told her. "One of my coworkers is holding a dinner party at his house on Thursday, so I expect it'll be then. I figured that tomorrow we could go to SeaWorld, if you're up for a long drive--it'll be about three hours--and Tuesday I'll have to work, but Wednesday--"
"Shinji," Asuka murmured, putting her hand over his timidly, as if he might shy away from her touch, "It's all right. We have time."
"But you're leaving in a week," he said quietly. "I want to make the most of it."
"I do too," Asuka added.
The orange Californian sunlight cast a soft glow on their faces. Asuka turned to look at Shinji. His eyes were focused on the road ahead, his wrists occasionally giving a sharp little movement to steer the wheel.
Shinji caught her staring and gave her a little smile. Slightly embarrassed, Asuka turned to her window.
"There are so many trees," she remarked, shading her eyes against the sun. "It reminds me of Misato's house."
"I thought that too, when I came back from Japan. Except there are so many more here. And a lot less cars," he added.
Asuka nodded. "Whenever I head off to work, the city is always full of cars and blaring horns."
"You work now?"
"Yes... do you remember the ice cream shop Misato took us to?"
"Yes!" Shinji exclaimed. "That place had the best ice cream in all of Japan... if only I had some that now...damn this heat..."
His words drew another laugh from the redhead. Shinji had never heard anything so pleasant in his life. He reached over and toyed with a lock of her hair, promising himself that he would draw her into his arms the first chance he got.
= = = = = = =
She hated touching the green button marked with a large black triangle, one acute angle pointing upward. Having been a doctor for so many years, she did not like to touch dirty things, and an elevator button did not count as "clean" in her book. Ritsuko bent her finger and pressed it with her knuckle.
Nothing happened. The glass ring around the button did not glow orange, as it usually did.
She pressed it again, to no avail.
Ritsuko's brow furrowed.
Just my luck.
She took the stairs instead, lifting her legs slowly, one step at a time as her knees cracked.
Damn, I feel old.
It was relief that she finally reached her flight of stairs and pushed open the door--to see the elevator door opening and two small children emerging.
Several minutes later she shoved her key into the keyhole and twisted it before pushing open the door. From the kitchen came sounds of sizzling oil. Suddenly wishing she had a gun, Ritsuko hesitated and flattened herself against the wall.
Surely if someone was here to rob me--or kill me--they wouldn't bother to take time cooking, would they?
That was most certainly someone dropping my pot.
Moved by her curiosity, Ritsuko shifted away from the wall and tiptoed towards the kitchen.
"Hey, Ritsuko." The purple-haired woman turned around slightly, one hand still busy stirring the sizzling contents of the pot. "Had a good day?"
The blonde shook her head as if to clear her mind. "What are you doing here? No wait, first--how'd you get in here?"
Misato smiled slyly, reached into her pocket, and pulled out a set of keys.
"You left these at my house last time," she reminded. "I wanted to see how long it would take for you to notice... except apparently you never did."
The blonde turned promptly red. Damn, I am getting old.
Misato waved a spoon heartily. "Ready for dinner?"
The blonde blanched instead. Misato gave the pot a final stir, then spooned out the contents into two bowls and handed one to Ritsuko, who drank in the warm scent hungrily without bothering to find out what it was.
"Where's Asuka?" she asked, following the former Commander into her own breakfast room.
"She's off visiting Shinji in America."
"What? You let her fly to America alone?"
Misato smiled as she sat up. "Eat up, Ritsuko, while I fill you in on the details--you need it. And when you're done, I've brought a gallon of the most delectable ice cream in Japan."
= = = = = = =
"This is your house?!"
Shinji was amused at her reaction. They had driven over a drawbridge, passed the huge letters reading "HOLLYWOOD" on the famous mountain, and she was most impressed by his house?
Asuka marveled at the splendor of it. Shinji's house was set in a tiny corner of Los Angeles filled with trees and meadows, so rural that she expected to hear cows mooing. Instead there was only the tranquility of pure nature and a bird flittering overhead.
His house resembled a large cottage nestled away in a jungle of trees and ivy, built with white walls and natural brown roofs. The windows were cozy and inviting. A little path paved with stone guided the way to the door, and Shinji took Asuka's hand as he led her into the house.
Her first reaction was that they must still be outside--it couldn't be so bright inside. Upon closer inspection, however, Asuka noticed that there were indeed no fancy lamps on; two-story high windows adorned several walls, allowing the sunlight to stream in. Everything was green, ranging from the jungle green sofa to the jade counters in his kitchen. As if there wasn't enough foliage around his house, Shinji had also placed pots of hanging plants and small trees at strategic locations around the house.
He placed his hands on her shoulders. "Like it?"
"It's gorgeous," she whispered quietly.
Asuka was embarrassed to notice he was carrying both her bag and her suitcase. "I'll get these up in your room for now," he insisted, when she tried to take over. "Feel free to wander."
Helpless to stop him, Asuka obeyed.
The green furniture provided a nice contrast against the pure white walls, Asuka thought, as she took off her white sandals and placed them neatly against the glass door. She took one tentative step onto the carpet and almost giggled. This was nothing like the worn floor coverings of Misato's house; the carpet was thick and fluffy and gave Asuka the impression of walking on clouds. She tiptoed over to the main living room, then stared up in amazement at the sight that had awaited her.
Over the fireplace--and a very large one it was, too--was an enormous oil portrait featuring younger versions of herself, Shinji, and a girl she recognized as Ayanami Rei, apparently on their way from or to school. The girls were carrying black leather suitcases and Shinji was wearing a two-strap backpack over both shoulders. The difference, however, was in how they walked.
She was skipping, leaning forward slightly with a confident smile, holding the suitcase behind her back with both hands.
Shinji was walking evenly, both arms hanging in relaxation at his sides, his mouth open in mid-sentence.
Rei was taking small steps, her stance held back slightly and accentuated by an expressionless face, the suitcase handle held securely in her right hand.
Three distinctive ways to walk, describing the unique personalities of three utterly different people.
I wonder where Shinji got this, she thought as she continued to stare up at it, marveling at the massive size of the work. Asuka sensed the presence of another human being and turned around to see Shinji leaning casually against the wall, watching her.
"Where did you get this?" she asked.
"Misato took the photograph," he explained quietly, "and a few years ago I had a painter transform it into an oil painting." Shinji stepped closer until he was right in front of the fireplace, craning his head to look up. "I've always thought he ruined your eyes--they're so much grayer than they really are."
Shinji looked her directly in the eye as he spoke. Asuka looked away, and Shinji immediately withdrew, feeling shy again.
"What would you like for dinner?" he asked instead, changing the subject.
Asuka had not noticed that she was hungry, but the overhead clock informed her that it was nearly eight.
"I don't mind, anything's fine."
"I don't really feel like cooking tonight," Shinji admitted honestly. "Do you mind take out?"
Fifteen minutes later, Asuka had perused a variety of menus and made her selections. Shinji was on the phone, making their orders. A moment later he replaced the phone in its cradle and reached into a cupboard, pulling out two candleholders and two matching red candles. "I know it's not very romantic, but would you like to eat dinner outside?"
If Asuka had thought the house was huge... no, there simply weren't any words she could think of to describe the deck. It seemed larger than the first floor of Misato's house and consisted of several floors, with various miniature staircases connecting them. Shinji led her up to the main area, which was adorned with a glass table and wire chairs laden with fluffy pillows. While Asuka seated herself, Shinji set up the umbrella for fun. He then proceeded to hand her a tiny bottle.
"Mosquito Repellent?" she asked, trying out the words on the label tentatively.
"You'll need it, believe me," Shinji replied grimly. "They'll be coming in clouds soon--I hope the candles will keep them away, to some extent. Just spray it over your arms and legs." The doorbell rang and Shinji ran to answer it, while Asuka followed his directions and found herself swathed in a misty scent that seemed both minty and bitter.
Shinji lit the candles and filled her plate for her before sitting down across from her. Without further interruption, the two dug in.
= = = = = = =
"You were right about the mosquitoes."
"I know." Shinji slapped at a pesky insect that had landed on his arm. "I learned from years of experience..."
Asuka laughed for what seemed like the thousandth time that night. They were resting on a lower level of the grand deck now, in soft reclining chairs that allowed them both to lie down as they stared up at the stars. Shinji knew the name of a few and taught them to the redhead, and they enjoyed making up names for the ones they didn't know.
"How long have you been here, Shinji?" she asked quietly.
Shinji tensed, and for a moment she feared she had asked the wrong question.
"I left Misato's house about the same time you did, and stayed with Kensuke's family for a while. When they moved to Osaka, I went with them...I wanted to say goodbye to Touji's sister and tell his parents I was sorry, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I didn't think they'd ever want to see me again," he whispered, "after what I'd done to their son."
Asuka turned to look at him, but his eyes were focused on the stars as he spoke again.
"Kensuke never lost his love of photography. After the angel attacks stopped, the military defenses we had mounted up slowly lost importance. He concentrated on nature instead, and for awhile on people," Shinji explained, one corner of his mouth rising in a crooked smile. "Unfortunately, following them around and snapping countless pictures was not a good way to get girls to like him.
"We went to college here, together...Kensuke of course studied photography, and I meandered from subject to subject, changing my major constantly. I was never like Kensuke, who knew exactly what he wanted to do, and so when he graduated and went to work for a magazine I went with him.
"How about you? Are you planning to stay with Misato?"
The question struck Asuka lightly this time. She remembered that several months ago, she had received quite a heavy shock when one of the children had asked her how long she would be staying.
"As long as she wants me, I guess," Asuka finished finally. "I don't really have anywhere else to go, and she doesn't seem to mind too much. Besides, now that I have a job, I'm not depending solely on her and causing her stress."
"You could always come live here," Shinji offered seriously.
Silence. Shinji turned to look at her and saw that her eyes were big and blue, the stars reflecting in their sapphire depths.
"Thank you," she replied at last, in a voice saturated with sincerity. "I had a wonderful time today, Shinji."
His hand found hers, and he was relieved to feel that her palm was dry and her fingers relaxed. "If you thought today was fun, just wait until tomorrow." Excitement crept into his voice. "We're going to go swimming with dolphins, watch killer whale shows, and--how does a water ride sound?"
"It sounds wonderful."
Shinji smiled up to the heavens.
Thank goodness I found you, Asuka.
= = = = = = =
"Wake up, Misato."
The two translucent Ritsukos in front of her rotated slowly in circles and finally melded into one very opaque blonde doctor. Misato attempted to lift her head, decided the amount of effort required was not worth it, and dropped it back to the table with a loud thud.
The doctor was tugging lightly at her arm now. Misato sighed and propped up her chin with one hand. "Damn it, what do you want, Ritsuko? Do you know how tiring it is to drive to this place from Tokyo-3? And what time is it now, anyway? Three?"
Ritsuko ignored her and spooned out a large serving of ice cream, waving it tantalizingly in front of the former Major's mouth. "Don't you want some?"
Reluctantly Misato opened her mouth to grant the spoon entrance.
"All right, you win," she muttered, sitting up. "Give me some."
Author's Notes: Next time will have Asuka and Shinji in SeaWorld... I have to add that I invented some details about Los Angeles, so my apologies about any errors.
I'm also trying to work Rei into this story, except Shinji and Asuka are having such a good time that I don't want to ruin it for them...she will definitely be here in the end though--that chapter is already half-written.
Drop me a review and tell me how I'm doing. Thanks so much to all of you!