Asuka woke up Thursday morning with a headache. Perhaps it was just the position I slept in, she thought dazedly. The redhead pulled the blanket over her head and tried again to sleep.
She came up a moment later for air.
Asuka tossed the blanket back and widened her eyes. The large spring-green curtains were drawn back with matching ribbons, providing her with a vast view of the lake outside. She lay in her bed and watched a bird flutter down to her windowsill and cock its head as it eyed her curiously. The redhead shifted her position and the bird disappeared with a distinctive, shrill call. Sunlight streamed in and cast elongated shadows of her window, chairs, and dresser.
Everything matched in this room. The curtains and bed were matching shades of pale green; the seat covers of the chairs were made of dark green leather. There was a small tree in the corner with delicate leaves, its trunk consisting of three separate parts braided together. The floor was light-colored hardwood. There were no paintings on the snow-white walls.
She got out of bed and made her way to her suitcase, which rested on top of the short dresser. There was a closet near her bed, but since she would only be here for a week, Asuka hadn't seen a need to unpack and hang things up. She chose the dress Hazuki-san had given her before she left the hospital, a summery gown of pale pink with ripe red strawberries sprinkled across it. Asuka smoothed out the fabric with her hands, and the pattern reminded her of the leftover ice cream in the refrigerator. She was hungry.
Her bare feet pattered on the wooden floor across the hallway. Shinji's door was wide open, as were the windows; his curtains--which were blue--billowed in the wind. The bed was made. Clearly he had left some time ago.
She revived a bit over a bowl of ice cream that she ate leisurely, seated on a rotating stool before a tall, immovable table in the center of the kitchen with jade counters rubbed so shiny she could see her reflection. Shinji had left a note for her, telling her that he had gone to a meeting at work and would be home in a couple of hours. During this time, she was to do as she pleased. He had added the time--8:00 AM. Asuka glanced up at the digital clock of his oven. The time was 9:42, displayed neatly in blood-red numerals.
Asuka wiped a speck of ice cream off of the counter and rinsed out her bowl. It wasn't too late--perhaps she'd try calling Misato. She hadn't talked with her former commander since arriving in California.
She got only the answering machine, so she tried her cell phone. Asuka walked around the first floor as it rang, finally settling on a simple but comfortable leather bound green sofa in the living room. She spread out her body and stretched. There was a leafy plant placed against the end, and the tips of its leaves tickled her toes.
"Hey, Misato," Asuka said, a smile breaking over her face at the familiar voice.
"How are you doing?"
"Well... I just got out of jail twenty-four hours ago..."
"What did you do, Misato?!"
As simply as she could, Misato related the story of how she had landed in jail and how the day had passed. Asuka listened intently, an amused smile coming over her face. She heard voices in the background with Misato paused and asked, "Who's that?"
"Ritsuko. I'm in Kyoto."
"Tell her I said hi."
Misato relayed the message. "So how have you and Shinji been?"
She blushed furiously, thankful that she was alone and no one could see her. "We are fine, Misato, just fine," she said, accenting each "fine". "We went to SeaWorld on the first day. Tuesday I went to work with him, and yesterday we were at the beach."
"Oh, so that's why you weren't answering your phone..." Misato muttered, before remembering the time difference.
"Nothing. Can I talk to Shinji?"
"He went to work."
"Oh. Hey, Asuka, have you gotten a chance to wear that black dress we bought yet?"
"Not yet," Asuka admitted, "although tonight Kensuke is holding a fancy dinner party tonight, so we'll be dressing up."
"You've met Kensuke?"
"Yes..." Asuka retold the story of the hour she had spent in his room, being forced to look through all the pictures he had taken of Brazil and Tierra del Fuego. "He really hasn't changed at all, Misato."
Misato was silent.
"Yeah. I was just thinking."
Asuka decided to change the topic. "Will you be in Tokyo-3 by the time I come back?"
= = = = = = =
By 4:00, the weather had taken an ominous turn for the worse. Shadowy clouds were rolling overhead and every room in the house was dark. Even Shinji had turned his laptop off and unplugged it, not wanting to lose his data in the event of an electrical outage. Asuka stood in front of the two-story window, pressing her nose against the cold glass. The rain began to pour down in huge sheets.
"What time does the party start, Shinji?" she asked.
He was spread out on the couch. "Six."
Surely it'll stop by then, she thought. But at five the sky remained just as dark, and Shinji announced that he was going up to change. Asuka retired to her room upstairs as well.
Her window was closed, but raindrops thudded against it, and the fragile wire mesh panel shook with their fury. She turned on a light and began to rummage through her suitcase for the dress. It was in the very bottom, at the upper left corner, someplace where the movement of other clothes wouldn't have disturbed it. Asuka drew it out and shook it to loosen all the folds. Perhaps there would be time to iron it.
The skirt was unusually thick. Asuka frowned and took hold of the outside layer, giving it a firm shake. A pile of dark aqua silk glided to the floor. A note was pinned to the top.
Hope you have fun -- Misato
There it was--the beautiful gown she had seen while shopping with Misato in Tokyo, the one that had been perfect for her, whose cost had been much higher than her price range. Misato had evidently sneaked out and purchased it for her without her knowing. Asuka held the skirt up and rubbed the soft material against her cheek. It was an inexplicable feeling, she thought, laying it down, that Misato had done this for her. Gratitude and poignancy welled up inside her and blended into excitement. She ran to Shinji's room.
"Shinji, do you have an ironing board?"
"Yeah, it's in the closet downstairs." His voice was muffled and faint, as it was coming from a steaming bathroom amidst water droplets. "Do you need any help?"
"I think I can figure it out."
She'd only seen Misato iron her clothes a few times--usually when she had to work the next day and had run out of clean clothes. Asuka filled up the iron with water and plugged it in, thinking that a power outage wouldn't hurt in this case. When it was hot enough--she tested this cautiously by flicking a few droplets of water onto the metal surface--she spread out the skirt and moved the iron up and down over the fabric.
Asuka showered and put on the dress, feeling like a princess. Misato was her fairy godmother, who had guaranteed her a night to remember.
Nervously she reached for her hairbrush and drew it through the copper tresses. It wasn't that she was nervous about Kensuke--she'd met him already--but the other people that would be there. Surely she would be asked where she was from, what she did for a living, etc. Asuka took a deep breath and smoothed out her skirt. I can do this--I can be calm and composed; I can be a normal person.
"Asuka, are you ready?"
She didn't want to keep him waiting. "Yes, I'm coming."
He was waiting for her at the bottom of the staircase, dressed semi-formally in a nice shirt and pants. Asuka reached for the railing and began to make her way downstairs. On the third step she tripped and tumbled to the bottom.
"Are you all right?"
"I'm fine." Asuka faced away from him deliberately; she didn't want him to see how nervous she was. She checked her skirt for tears and found none.
Shinji looked outside with disappointment. The rain was still pouring, and his car was parked a good distance away from the front door. They ran for it, Shinji unlocking his car (instead of handing the keyring to Asuka as he usually did) to save time. He turned on the windshield wipers and they began to hum merrily as they swept across the glass.
Asuka looked away. She placed her head against the window, thinking of what she might say when she was asked questions. She had never yet had to introduce herself to anyone, except for the children around Misato's house... and that hardly counted. They were all too happy to accept her readily for what she was.
Where am I from? Tokyo-3. Smile and nod. I was a friend of Shinji's when we were children.
What do I do? I work in an ice cream parlor in Tokyo-3. Asuka jerked out of her reciting reverie for a moment. These would all be people who occupied important positions in the management of the magazine--would they think differently of her if they knew she simply made ice cream? Asuka was scared for herself, and for Shinji. Surely, she thought, blushing as she did so, people would ask if they were a couple. She had to answer no--could she do that without blushing?
"What are you thinking, Asuka?" Shinji asked. "You're awfully red--are you feeling okay?"
"Yes. Are we almost there?"
"We have a little while to go."
I should have put on some makeup, Asuka thought, glancing unhappily at her reflection in the passenger mirror. She had never done anything of the sort, but Misato had tucked a lipstick into the side of her bag at the last minute. She was certain that all the women would have their makeup done nicely and she would be...well, plain.
And on top of all this lay the issue of her English. She didn't look very Japanese, but nor did she look distinctly American. In the last few days her grammar had improved immensely. She hoped that it would be good enough.
Shinji placed a hand on hers. "Don't worry," he assured her. "You'll be fine."
= = = = = = =
The sky was black by the time they reached Kensuke's house. It was smaller than Shinji's, but with all the sounds and light of merriment, it appeared very cozy indeed.
Asuka stepped over a puddle and walked alongside Shinji; he had brought a bottle of fancy wine as a gift and let her carry it. The door was unlocked and Shinji, obviously having been here many times, let himself in.
"Hey, Shinji!" Kensuke called over the sea of heads, waving an arm. Shinji returned the gesture.
"Ah well, he seems quite preoccupied right now," Shinji remarked. "Maybe we'll hang on to the wine until a little later."
Asuka nodded. Her head was swimming from the noise. People were everywhere, the men in formal clothing, the ladies all in dresses--all of which were black. She began to feel uncomfortable in her green dress.
"Shinji!" A slightly balding man sauntered up to them, his arm around a lovely blonde young woman. He nodded towards her. "My wife, Daria."
Daria extended a hand to Shinji, and then to Asuka. Her picture-perfect smile never faltered. "Hi."
"I'm--I'm Asuka," the redhead said.
Daria smiled. "Come over here and get something to eat. The men will start talking business affairs in a moment." She held a martini glass in her hands, and along the way plunked it down on a counter with other used glasses. "Asuka, I just love your dress. It goes so nicely with your eyes."
"Thank you." Feeling braver, "I like yours too."
Daria laughed. "Well, you know, it's been hanging in the back of the closet for years." She took a paper plate and piled it high with fresh fruit and gestured to the redhead. "Oh go on, Asuka, don't be shy."
"All right." Asuka picked up a plate and followed her example, picking up some grapes, chicken, and several slices of apples. They made their way to another room filled with chattering ladies; Asuka glanced over at Shinji but he was already hidden somewhere in the crowd of people.
Daria selected an empty couch and sat down on one end while Asuka took the other. "Ladies, this is Asuka, Shinji's--"
"Friend," Asuka supplied quickly, hoping that any bright colors on her face would be hidden in the dim light. She took a bite of her chicken and found it cold and juicy.
"It's nice to meet you, Asuka," the women told her warmly, and introduced each other amidst much laughter. Daria put an arm around the redhead's shoulder and pulled her closer.
One of them placed down her plate and chewed thoughtfully for a moment. "You know, when I was a little girl, I always wanted red hair. I've tried dying mine several times, but it's never looked nearly as natural as yours."
"Asuka's hair is natural, Marie," Daria chipped in, and the women marveled at the color. "Doesn't it go perfectly with her dress?"
They're showering me with compliments, Asuka realized. Is this normal, or are they just being nice?
"Are you just visiting Shinji, or do you live near?"
"I'm just visiting. I live in Tokyo-3."
"Tokyo-3!" Daria looked at her companion with admiration. "I've always wanted to visit there. I hope Steve gets an assignment there sometime so I can tag along."
"What do you do there?"
"I..." Asuka faltered. She had been afraid of this. "I work in an ice cream parlor."
The ladies exchanged secretive looks. Oh no, thought Asuka, I've said something wrong. What am I going to do?
Just as she was about to break out in explanations, Marie stood up and announced, "Well ladies, I believe we've found someone who'll know how to work that contraption."
"What con--contrap--?" Asuka asked, having not quite grasped the word.
Daria stood up as well. "Kensuke bought himself a homemade ice cream maker," she explained, "but couldn't figure out how to work it."
Marie took Asuka by the elbow and led her to the kitchen. The machine was still in its packaging, but the lid stuck out as if someone had hurriedly shoved it back into the box and not bothered to align things neatly. Asuka took the pieces out, assembled them, and plugged it in. Daria was pulling ingredients out of the refrigerator. "There's the cream, sugar, eggs, milk... what else do we need, Asuka?"
"Some fruit would be nice." Asuka was feeling more and more at home as her fingertips ran over the familiar machinery. "Is there any specific type of ice cream we need to make?"
"He didn't say," Daria said. "Shall I just bring you some of everything?"
"Yes, that would be nice."
Marie was leaning against the counter, propped up on one elbow. "You really know this stuff well," she commented.
"Practice makes perfect," Asuka quoted, drawing a chuckle from the lady. "In Japan... there are only two of us working in the store, so we are always very busy."
"If I ever come to Tokyo-3, I'll be sure to stop by," Marie chuckled. "Mmm, it smells good already."
Daria reappeared with several plates of various fruit. Asuka picked over the green grapes and slices of kiwi before making her decision and announcing it with a smile.
"Put some of everything in."
= = = = = = =
"Did you have fun, Asuka?"
"Yes," she replied brightly. Her ice cream had been an instant hit; Kensuke had been amazed to taste the products of a machine he was about to return, and all the ladies had clamored around to see how it worked. Daria had announced proudly that Asuka worked in an ice cream parlor in Tokyo-3, and anyone who visited Japan had to stop by. Kensuke was delighted with the wine, and Asuka had been proud that she had gathered the courage to present it to him herself. Most of all she was pleased that the women had accepted her as one of them; she hadn't felt the least bit like an outsider.
"And what did you think of Daria?"
"She's a lovely woman," Asuka replied without thinking, in English. Shinji burst out laughing.
"I'm glad you had fun." He ruffled her hair. "It's done wonders for your English."
Asuka grinned, but then a twinge of sadness pulled at her. Today was Thursday; then there were just Friday and Saturday and she would have to leave for Japan Sunday night. Then again, the next two days would be wonderful--she could trust that to Shinji. He was right about this night doing wonders for her English--but it had done wonders for something else, too, her confidence.
Asuka smiled to herself and lifted up the hem of her skirt with one hand as she stepped over a puddle and climbed into the car.
Author's Notes: erm... I really don't have anything to say. Asuka201, thanks for the translation!
Oh yeah, about Misato's handbag: Let's see... the story of that anime involves a Corsican girl, a Japanese girl, and a mysterious group known as the "Soldats"...
Any ideas? Drop me a review and tell me what you think.