Round Perdition's Flames

Part XI

Hunger

"Just say die,

And that would be pessimistic.

In your mind

We can walk across water.

Please don't cry,

It's just a prayer for the dying

I just don't know what's got into me."

                        --Seal

                        "Prayer For The Dying"

--Saturday--

            "You see, Shinji, I always get what I want." Asuka smiled as she took a long sip of her raspberry daiquiri (sans-alcohol) and let her tongue roll across a gob of whip creme that had made a journey up her straw.

            "It's......different. I've never really tried anything like this before." Shinji remarked hesitantly. Raspberry, Shinji found, had a duality to it, producing an effect that tasted both sweet and tart. He did not dislike it, but he also saw that it took a little getting used to. And to think, people put alcohol in drinks like this? You wouldn't be able to taste it. If a person didn't have an alcohol tolerance that rivaled Misato's, they could get themselves into real trouble if they weren't paying attention.

            "It's been too long since I've had something nice like this. Living in Japan is going to kill my culture...not to mention my palate."

            "Well, if there's anything you can teach me, I'd be open to experimenting a little in the kitchen, Asuka. I know the ingredients to cook the kind of foods you're used to probably aren't all that easy to come by in Japan, but I'm sure there must be something I can do for you. There's nothing worse than not being able to feel at home."

            "I only know how to make simple things, but I suppose I could try to show you how to do something. I didn't spend very much time preparing my meals when I was in college. Classes kept me busy. I ended up visiting the cafeteria a lot. Sometimes on a Sunday I would bake myself a little treat to munch on during the week while studying though."

            "I've never really thought of that before. Sounds nice."

            "Yeah. It would be nice if you'd make us a little something to snack on during the week. It'd be a lot better than the instant crap Misato keeps lying around. And I've really had my fill of Pocky and lychee cups."

            "Okay, you teach me, and I'll be willing."

            "All right then." Asuka felt startled as a hot plate of food was set in front of her, and another quickly followed suit in front of Ikari.

            "Please enjoy your meal." The arrogant waiter bowed without pretense, then left.

            "I will as long as it's good." Asuka muttered, placing her napkin on her lap. She had to admit, the rib did look good and tender, not of low quality. Whoever had prepared it seemed to have rather confident abilities. Asuka mentally increased her rating of the restaurant as she took her first bite. The incredible taste almost made her forget about the rude wait staff, if all the entrees were of this magnitude, it was worth the earlier frustration. In a most unladylike manner, Asuka cut, masticated, and swallowed piece by piece of the meat. Shinji watched with big eyes as Asuka's serving rapidly dwindled in size.  Oh yes, she felt a need to return here as soon as time allowed. Somewhere in the back of Asuka's mind, she knew she wasn't being a very good ambassador for etiquette, but she choked that part of her gone. Kaji was gone, as was everyone else except Shinji. There just wasn't anyone left to impress. If it weren't for the exceptional food, Asuka would be thoroughly vexed at that thought. To think she had wasted one of her perfect outfits for nothing! She would get Kaji for this somehow, and Misato too. Not to mention Dr. Akagi. It wasn't fair!

            Shinji quickly decided it would be best to try and keep up with his "date," lest she complain about him holding them up later. He found himself eating a bit faster than he was accustomed to, but his stomach didn't mind at all, considering the meager offerings he had presented it in the last 24 hours. It wasn't a terribly complicated meal, but he still found in enjoyable. Besides, Shinji had eaten Misato's cooking once—ergo anything was a step up. Even some of the things that found their way into Pen-Pen's dish looked more appetizing, given the choice between Misato's cooking and penguin chow...

            That line of thought was interrupted by Asuka as she set her fork down and took a generous sip from her daiquiri. "You seem to be enjoying yourself." Shinji smiled at her.

            "Good food is good food, Shinji. Eating is one of those simple pleasures that all of us get to partake in. A good meal and a hot bath can often wash away the memories of a lousy day. I should eat out more often…" Asuka mused.

            "Where are you going to get the money? Kaji?"

            "Of course. He's the primary source for my funds. I love to go shopping with him! Besides, I never tire of his company, and he hasn't paid enough attention to me since I came to Japan."

            "You and Kaji seem to have a close bond. That must be nice." The statement was a half-truth. While Shinji wished that the red-head wasn't so enraptured with the older man, he did envy her having someone she could talk to. Absent mindedly, Shinji began to wonder if Kaji would be a sounding board to his own problems. He had a lot of complications in his life, after all. But he wouldn't know where to start. Surely, talking with someone like Kaji would be easier than to some psychologist, he just wanted advice, not a bunch of crap about sexual repression.

            Not as nice as I'd like it to be, Asuka thought to herself. "We spent a lot of time together in Germany." Asuka volunteered, but offered nothing else on the subject.

            "Oh. That must have been nice. I used to live with my teacher but we weren't very close at all. And my father and I don't really get along. All I really have is Misato."

            "Mmmm." Asuka mouthed thoughtfully. Why had he said all those stupid things? Asuka couldn't possibly care! An uncomfortable silence passed between the two of them for several moments. Twice Asuka almost ventured a comment, but then she decided to remain quiet. She then found a sudden renewed interest in her entrée, and Shinji followed suit. Shinji was grateful, he didn't think he could say anything else that wouldn't make him sound like a fool. He never should've brought something personal up with Asuka, he knew better! It was then that Asuka said something Shinji never thought he would hear her say.

            Rei looked intently at the man across from her as he poured water from a carafe into their respective glasses, then began adding cream and sugar to his coffee. Rei still wasn't sure what to think of Kaji. His sudden interest in her was still a little jarring, especially since she was finding her own feelings on the subject intriguing. She began to see why Pilot Sohryu was so attracted to the man, he seemed very kind and full of confidence. There was something very...warming about that thought. Confident, much like the way Commander Ikari carried himself. But unlike the Commander, Kaji didn't retain any coldness within him. He was open and warm, and he had come to her with an open hand of empathy. He knew a bit about her as well, but not so much that her privacy would have been invaded. Privacy. The thought was the mental equivalent of a snort. She had no privacy, but she did not desire it either. Her entire life had been planned out for her before she had ever been born. Again, she sighed inwardly. Someone like Kaji could never relate to that. She absently wished that someone could, communicating with others wasn't easy for her, especially when she often found herself without a common frame of reference. Even the people she knew best, her fellow pilots, had little in common with her outside of Eva.

            "You aren't like the other NERV employees." Rei found herself venturing.

            "I'm not? Well, I'm not completely wrapped up in my work, no. I have a great respect for what I do, and always have a hunger to learn more, but no matter the job, moderation is the key. Unless it's absolutely imperative, I try to avoid thinking about my work when I leave for the day. A fellow can go crazy that way. Sometimes I just need to get away, not think about it for a few hours. Then I'm refreshed in the morning and itching to do some work. Maybe it's just human conditioning." Kaji grinned. "What about you Rei, I notice you keep an odd schedule, sometimes at NERV, sometimes at school, do you ever feel disoriented?

            "Not really." Rei commented. "I go where I am ordered to. Commander Ikari and Dr. Ikari would not pull me out of school if they didn't feel it were necessary. The work we accomplish is for our future, a future for all humanity. I do not feel that missing a few lectures is an unfair price."

            "Yikes, there's a serious thought." Kaji parried. "Don't you ever do anything for yourself?"

            "Such as?"

            "Life is short, and you're still young yet, Rei! Have you ever thought about taking a walk? Or reading a book? Or maybe just standing on a balcony and looking out over the city. Fresh air can be nice. And everyone needs a hobby, even I have one. Perhaps you can come visit me sometime and I'll show you."

            Rei blushed but forced her way beyond the feelings Kaji's last statement had brought up in her. "I do not wish to inconvenience you." 

            "Nonsense, it wouldn't be an inconvenience at all. I told you, I just wanted to be a sounding board for you. But I think you need to stop and smell the roses, Ayanami. You work very hard for the Commander, and that's great, but you must learn to relax a bit more. When it isn't an emergency, you shouldn't feel like you are at everyone's beck and call. I'm not saying you should disobey Commander Ikari, or Dr. Akagi, or anyone. I just think that you should be allowed some time for yourself. Too often I see you there at least as long as Ritsuko, if not longer. That woman doesn't take well enough care of herself, I'd hate to see one of our star Eva Pilots in poor health."

            "My health is fine. I'm fine, really. You should not worry about me."

            "It's more concern than worry. I think you're perfectly capable of taking care of yourself. I'd just like to see you always at your best. You have so much potential Rei, as do all the Children. You shouldn't underestimate yourself. Pardon me for being forward, but I'd be very much interested to know what you'd like to do after the business with the Angels is completed. Assuming we're on the winning side of the conflict." Kaji added.

            "I-I. . .I hadn't considered the possibility." Rei tried to explain in a way he could understand. How could she tell him that there was no future for her, not once Ikari called her to him. Not once the drop rejoins the ocean.

            "Consider, then." Kaji smiled. "Life is full of a multitude of surprises—trust me on this one. You never know where it may take you. You can spend your whole life with only one simple goal in mind and never reach it.....or you might find something even greater on your path towards it. Never lose sight of the mystery, Rei."

            "The mystery?"

            "The mystery of life. Because once your able to embrace it for what it is, ah, that's when things really change for you."

            "I'm afraid I don't understand."

            "Don't worry, I think that you will, in time." His response to this remark came from the cute waitress, holding two deep, wide, oval bowls on a tray.

            "Two grilled chicken salads, one with the meat on the side, right?"

            "Absolutely." Kaji grinned.

            "Would you like any dressing?"

            "Oh, I think I could be persuaded to try a nice vinaigrette. What about you, Rei?"

            "I will try what you are putting on your salad." Rei explained.

            'Thanks for the vote of confidence. I do try to make it a habit never to disappoint a lady.

            "I'll be right back then!" The waitress smiled adoringly at Kaji, then hurried back into the kitchen. The girl had a good ethic to her—fast and prompt service was usually rewarded with a generous tip. Being cute didn't hurt either, especially with hair as long as hers...Kaji decided to terminate that line of thought before he hopelessly distracted himself from the matter at hand. He was about to start a fresh topic with his "date," when the waitress made her lightning fast return. "Here you are!" she smiled, gently placing a large bottle of vinaigrette on the table, along with a basket of bread. "I thought you might enjoy a little something else with the salads."

            "Thank you, Ah......I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name."

            The girl blushed. "Sayori. Don't hesitate to call if you need anything else!"

            "You'll be the first to know." Kaji passed another winning grin to Sayori, and she bowed to hide her face, quickly darting away, and leaving Kaji's attentions for another. "So Rei, I hear that you don't get out much. . ."

            Misato raised her arm out for another glass, bumping one of the many empty bottles and shot glasses in front of her. She wasn't working tomorrow unless there was an emergency, and she was resolved not to get up until she was drunk enough to forget about Kaji for the rest of the night, or at least until she couldn't hold her pee in anymore. The Blossom's Fall wasn't one of her regular places to get drunk. Actually, it was one of the only hotels in the city. She had seen that it housed a restaurant though, and what looked to be a decent bar. Chasing down each shot of tequila with a mixed drink seemed to lessen the shock to her system, not to say that she was an amateur when it came to Grandpa's cough medicine. She wasn't lying to herself, she only got this drunk when she wanted to forget about her life, even for a little while. Too often she felt as though she were on a treadmill. The humorous yet morbid image of Commander Ikari winding a spring in her back played across her mind's eye for a moment. Yes, she had definitely been working too hard, wading through a pile of paperwork larger than the Japanese government turned out annually. She owed this to herself. She did.

            She sighed, wondering where Ritsuko had run off to when she had left. "Probably to go bury herself in her work." Misato mumbled, brightening up when a fresh shot of tequila, along with a rum and coke, were placed in front of her. Too many secrets were being kept lately, and Commander Ikari was absent more than he was present. He wasn't her favorite person in the world, but when neither Commander Ikari nor Sub-Commander Fuyutsuki were around, the hardest decisions often fell to her. Decisions that could return to bite her in the ass if she wasn't careful. The attack of the Seventh Angel, wherein Kaji had come up with a way to save her job, suddenly came to mind. Damned if she wasn't finding herself drawn to him! Why did the jerk have to put her in his debt? And yet. . .it meant he still cared about her. That was the trouble with Kaji. She couldn't blow him off as some guy just trying to get into her pants—she had definitely been the sexually aggressive one when they were together. Besides, much as she disliked him, he was still good looking. If he was just looking for another girl to have sex, he wouldn't waste his time on her. "Dammit." Misato muttered, downing her rum and coke in 3 quick sips. "He wants something from me." She opened a green cocktail umbrella and twirled it between her fingers. Kaji wanted something from her. He always did have his own motivations, just like her father. Still, he was above using her. Despite everything that had passed between them, she knew he wouldn't try to manipulate her. Even if he did try, they both new she was too smart for that crap. Had he really come all this way to try and rekindle things with her? It didn't seem possible. Her assignment to Tokyo-3 was no secret. If he had been that desperate, he would've sought her out sooner. And he hadn't exactly laid on the charm when they met on Over The Rainbow. He had openly questioned her chastity in front of two of the Children! So what was his game then? She saw him with some frequency at NERV Headquarters. He strutted around like he owned the place half the time, and if it bothered Commander Ikari one bit, the man wasn't saying, or even inferring. Those who upset the Commander had a tendency to either straighten up and fly right at warp speed, or else they would be transferred faster than their heads could spin. Something about him had changed, since the times they were in college. She didn't fault him that—she had changed as well. Ritsuko was probably the most like her younger self, but the girl didn't get out much. To think she accused both Rei and Commander Ikari of not being good at living! Ritsuko seemed to prefer her cats to human beings. Their responses were more predictable and comforting. Misato briefly wondered with the good Doctor was in need of some good sex, then wiped the thought from her mind. She was not that drunk. At least, not yet. Misato flushed, and she gathered herself by downing the shot of tequila, clearing her mind of the most unwanted imagery. Although she couldn't recall seeing Ritsuko with a man since college, and even then, Akagi had had few boyfriends. And she never seemed to get very involved with them. How many times had she run and left Ritsuko all alone, so that she could spend time with Kaji? A gripping sense of shame began to wash over, mixed with anger. Nonsense. Why should she feel any guilt? If Ritsuko had trouble finding herself boyfriends, that was her problem! Still, the guilt persisted. What did it say of her if she hadn't even noticed Ritsuko's solitude until just now? Hadn't she just been thinking that the woman preferred cats to people? Yeah, some friend she was.

            All right, enough was enough. She had been running from Kaji for too long. She should've listened to him, Ritsuko too. She was being a child, and she had even made a scene in front of Shinji and Asuka. Way to undermine her own authority over those two around the apartment! Ah well. There was that wedding coming up, a good opportunity for some free booze at the reception. She could talk to him then, clear a few things up. Who knows, maybe it could even be interesting.

            "You're kidding, right?" Shinji asked.

            "Well if you're not up to it. . ." Asuka trailed off.

            "But why?"

            "Because it'll be interesting. Or are you scared?"

            "No, I just figured you wouldn't want me to know anything about you."

            "The information I end up giving out won't be worth all that much, trust me. But not here. We'll play later. I think I'd rather have some ice cream first."

            "Oh right, that place you said you know."

            "Yeah." Asuka slurped to the bottom of her daiquiri. "Let's go there. The walk will do me some good. You're a little scrawny yourself."

            "I can't help it."

            "Yeah, right. But it's better to be a nerd than a jock, I suppose. You're got an extra microcosm or two more brainpower than most of those idiots at school have."

            "I've never been good at sports."

            "Too many people into that scene are phony, Shinji. The university I went to was full of them. Like because they could kick a ball into a goal, they were entitled to see all the girls in school naked. Idiotic perverts!"

            "What about swimming? Ayanami could probably make the swim team."

            "Swim teams exist to give the guys and girls something to ogle, Shinji. And don't even try to tell me your favorite spectator sport isn't girls' volleyball."

            "I. . .don't usually watch, although I know Toji and Kensuke usually go to the games."

            "See, I told you."

            "I said I didn't go!"

            "And that's supposed to impress me? You hang out with guys who do. Guilt by association!"

            "I don't think I've ever seen you impressed, Asuka." Shinji stood up then, leaving the wad of yen that Kaji had given him on the table to settle the bill. "Come on, we'd better get going before that ice cream place closes."

            "Just what the hell was that supposed to mean?"

            "Nothing!"

            Asuka wanted to scream, but she refused to give Shinji the satisfaction. "You've been getting pretty brave lately, Third Child. So what's your story?"

            "If you want to know, ask me later, like we agreed."

            "And you'll just up and tell me. Just like that?"

            "We'll see." Shinji knew he was playing a dangerous game, standing up to her, but he figured he had to do something to prove he wasn't a wimp, or he had less than no chance. And he couldn't bring himself to abide that. He refused to ruin things for himself by doing something stupid. If he was going to fail, he wanted it to be because it just wasn't meant to be. If there was one thing Shinji didn't like, it was regret. Too many missed opportunities in his life, and Asuka could easily become just another one. If there was a way he could somehow end up with her, he was certain she would turn his life in a whole new direction. He just had to hold on for dear life and refuse to give up—the girl was by every means a bucking bronco! Not for the first time, Shinji was filled with a sense of awe, directed inwardly. Never before had something or someone meant so much to him. Yet he still didn't feel like he was in love with Asuka, there was too much he didn't know about her, about himself. Maybe it was more of an attachment he felt to her, at least at the moment. But he wanted to know more. The idea was a little scary, but it also felt. . .right, somehow, and that made him smile. If Asuka noticed, she refrained from saying anything, and Shinji was free to revel in his moment, however brief.

************************************************************************

Yes, I know this chapter was several days late. Fear not, this technically is the February chapter, not the March one. You'll still get one of those, with any luck, on time, towards the end of the month. This chapter is shorter than the typical one, I know, my intent is to remedy that situation next time out. But I indulged myself a bit in recent chapters and the story was slightly off track—I wanted to just put the main players in a certain place this time. Next update, everything will be on track.

Despite the fact that this chapter wasn't really planned, I still felt it had some good moments in it, although it definitely wasn't my finest moment in this story. All in all, I felt that this outing was a "workhorse," although I tried to get a fair amount of speculation in. Strictly FYI, the APV of this chapter is exactly the same as this version, so you're not missing any footage on this update. I've been lazy about looking for a home for my APV, but in the meantime, they are still available. Try contacting me on AIM, I'm Asukaphile26. Or e-mail me at:   ranger_writer@yahoo.com

I like to think that I've got some fun stuff that will start coming down the pipes next time out. For my loyal fans that have been wondering where the hell I'm going with this thing, well, after all this time, we'll take our first major step. You'll just have to see for yourself.

Lastly, a shout-out to Random for reminding me of the power of laziness, and to joedoebell, just for the hell of it. Also, you can hear Lord Malachite every week on "The No Name Sci-Fi Show," point your browsers to www.mistrust.com/slave to check us out.

3/06/03

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.