Miyako sneezed forcefully, hard enough to make her double over, and her glasses slid down to rest precariously on the tip of her nose. She shoved them back in place, sniffling a bit and wishing she'd had the foresight to bring a handkerchief. Then again, it probably didn't matter much, at this point. Her father had wrangled her into helping him clean out the stockroom at the back of their convenience store, a task that had taken most of the morning and more than a little sweat and frustration on her part. She had never dreamed that the room could hold so much stuff, not to mention dust. It was the dust that really got to her, after a while.
It got to Poromon, too, come to that. He'd only been with her a day or two, after all, and he was still fiercely protective of her, and not entirely trusting of this odd new world he'd been brought to. The upshot of this was that he insisted on following her everywhere he could get away with, for her own safety and his... including dust-filled back rooms. She had given in to his polite but insistent requests, and had let him sit and watch from a safe shelf. This slightly puzzled her father, but she had hinted- without-really-saying that he was a vending-machine gift from her latest crush (she didn't really have one, but that was irrelevant) and she couldn't bear to part with it. That was in-character enough to not raise her father's suspicions. As it turned out, though, Poromon turned out to not only get a box dropped on him by accident, but he also seemed to be allergic to something, and had to be hustled back to her room before the sight of a sneezing toy made anyone suspicious. Just now, he was huddled in Miyako's bed, nursing his aching head and streaming eyes.
His partner, however, had different ideas of what would make her feel better - namely, some fresh, clean air that hadn't been growing stale in a small room for who knew how long. She had escaped to the park to enjoy some actual room to move and breathe. Pausing beneath a stand of trees, she turned her face towards the sun and closed her eyes, enjoying the feel of its warmth and the gentle touch of the wind.
Then she felt something else. It wasn't much, as sensation went, just the slightest tap in the region of her right shoulder. She looked down, expecting to find that a twig or something had fallen on her. Instead, she found something much less pleasant.
"A bug!" she yelped. It was the largest bug she'd ever had the misfortune to encounter, at least in the real world, and she wasn't eager to get to know it better. She performed a quick backstep, obeying her instinct to get away from the thing, but it continued to cling to her. It seemed to be entangled in her hair.
"Ew, ew, ew, get it off, get it off!" she wailed, dancing around and flapping her hands helplessly. Much as she wanted the bug removed, she couldn't quite bring herself to touch it. She had a vague notion that anything that big ought to bite, and if there was anything she liked less than having a bug in her hair, it was having a bug gnawing her finger off.
"Do you mind?" said a voice. "Some of us came here for peace and quiet, you know."
Miyako froze. The voice was clipped, confident, and full of underlying authority. It was not used to being disobeyed, and indeed had forgotten that anyone could or had. It was also vaguely familiar. The combination of the two was enough to make Miyako momentarily stop in her tracks. She turned around slowly to seek the source of the voice.
There was a boy resting in the shade of the tree, looking so perfectly at ease there that he could have been one of the shadows cast by its branches. The forked roots at the base of the tree could have grown as they did just to make a comfortable nook for him. A notebook was propped on one knee, and he had apparently been making some kind of calculations in it when Miyako had arrived; a black pen was poised in one of his slim, pale hands. Miyako studied his face for a moment, trying to discern his features through the shadows of the tree and the shadows of his long, dark hair. Then something clicked in her brain.
Oh, my, she thought.
"You - you're Ken Ichijouji!" she exclaimed. She knew about him. Everyone did, or should have. He got his face in the papers and television more regularly than most of the local politicians and some of the movie stars. That, she thought, explained how she'd recognized his voice, though perhaps not the nagging feeling that she was also forgetting something important.
"Kind of you to notice," he said, in such a neutral tone that she couldn't be sure if he was being sarcastic or not. She wouldn't have blamed him if he was, between her stammering like an idiot and her dancing around shrieking over a bug like an even bigger idiot. "Would you mind telling me what you were screaming about? Just as a matter of idle curiosity, you understand."
Miyako could feel herself blushing. "A bug got caught in my hair. It... startled me."
Much to her surprise, he folded up his notebook and set it aside, and then rose gracefully to his feet. It was remarkable, the way he moved, as if gravity were something he put up with just so he wouldn't draw the attention of the mere mortals around him. He walked closer to her, within touching distance. She found herself suddenly wishing she was wearing anything other than her dirty, sweat- stained work clothes, with her bandanna still tied over her hair. She wished she had thought to put in her contacts today - never mind that they irritated her eyes. Above all, she wished she was meeting Ken Ichijouji under any circumstances other than these.
"Allow me," he said in his soft, cultured voice. He reached out one hand to carefully pick the insect out of her hair.
"Thank you," she said. The words seemed so inadequate, but what else could she say?
"You're quite welcome." He raised the bug, its multiple legs waving feebly as it attempted to escape his grip. He gazed at it as if it were his own hair the bug had trespassed in. "I've never cared for insects."
"Me either," she said. She smiled slightly, and was relieved to see him smile back. It was a sly sort of smile - conspiratorial, she thought, like the two of them knew something that nobody else did.
"I can't say I blame you," he said. "They have a habit of turning up exactly when you don't want them around - say, when you're trying to enjoy a relaxing afternoon in the park." He gazed at the bug that was still trapped between his fingers, and he flicked it away, scowling at it. Then he looked back at Miykao, and his easy smile slipped neatly back into place. "Insects seem particularly drawn to me, for some peculiar reason. Especially the large ones."
If the situations had been reversed, and she had been a male talking to a female, this would have been the point to say something poetic about, say, bees being drawn to flowers. As it was, it would sound stupid of her to say something like that, and anyway, she'd never been that good at poetic language. She settled for trying to look properly sympathetic.
Ken fidgeted slightly. He didn't do it the way other people did it - there was none of the nervous shifting from foot to foot or playing with his hair. It was just a subtle change of posture, and a sliding of his gaze from her to the notebook that was resting under the tree. There was, Miyako realized suddenly, something odd about his eyes. Not just the color, though right now, it was hard not to notice what a lovely color they were, or the way the blue in them shaded so perfectly to violet near the centers. That by itself was very interesting, and she would have been happy to give it her full attention, but something else had caught her attention. It was the odd way his pupils seemed to stay contracted, even in the shade of the trees. Then again, she was sure she'd read somewhere that blue eyes were more sensitive to light than brown ones like her own; that probably accounted for it.
"Oh, I'm sorry," she said. "I'm interrupting your work, right?"
"That's all right," he said. "I needed a distraction, anyway. And meeting you has been... interesting." He glanced around, as if an idea had suddenly struck him. "Are you... alone, by any chance?"
Oh, my, she thought, fighting back a blush.
"Yes, I came alone," she told him.
"Ah." He relaxed a bit, as if something had been worrying him, but now he was smiling smugly. "Just making sure. I would hate to make someone jealous, you know. A lovely young woman, a chance meeting in the park... I'm sure you can imagine the conclusions one might draw." He waved one hand airily.
Oh, my, she thought. And then she thought, Um. What do I say? She didn't want him to think she was unavailable, but what if she put across the idea that nobody thought she was interesting enough to date? After all, she was alone in the park with the most desirable male of her relative age group in the city, and she hated to waste her chance.
What are you thinking? He probably already thinks you're a total basket-case, after he saw you freaking out over that bug!
"I don't think anyone will get too jealous," she said, "except some of the other girls I know. Most of them would give their left arms just to be talking to you!"
He smiled slightly. "On the whole, I think I would rather be talking to you. There's something... intriguing about you, let us say. I'm sure we have a lot in common."
As he spoke, a rogue breeze brushed by, flipping his notebook open and turning a few pages. Ken gave it an annoyed look and prodded it shut with his toe, but not before Miyako caught a glimpse of its contents. Its pages were littered with complicated-looking symbols, diagrams, and sketches; much of it looked vaguely electronic, and she was certain some of it was computer code.
"What's all that?" she asked.
"Just a little project I've been working on," he said. "You might have heard I have an interest in computers. And games. I'm very interested in computer games."
"Oh, me too," she said, eagerly claiming this common ground. "Computers, I mean. I'm good at them. I fix them all the time for my friends, and I'm in my computer's school club. School's computer club. That's it." Mentally, she kicked herself; why did she have to get tongue tied just when it was important to make a good impression?
"I'm sure you are," he answered smoothly. "I suppose you're a gamer, too?"
"Not really," she admitted, as if this were a dreadful social transgression. "I never really thought they were that important."
"Oh, but some of them are," he said. "I take my games very seriously. I enjoy a good competition, particularly with a worthy opponent. There are so few worthy opponents... but that's all right. I also enjoy winning."
For a second, an odd expression flickered across his face, but it was gone before Miyako could decide what it was. He gave her a sunny smile.
"Nothing like a little healthy competition to stimulate creativity, wouldn't you say?"
"Oh, sure, absolutely," she agreed.
"I'm so glad you see it my way," he said. He gave an elegant flick of his wrist to bring his wristwatch into view. "And now, I'm sorry to say, I need to be leaving. Some things to take care of - you understand, of course."
"Yeah. You must have a busy schedule," she said, trying to squelch her disappointment. Of course a famous and important person like Ken Ichijouji had more important things to do than hang around talking to a scruffy girl in glasses all day. "I guess I'll... see you around?"
He smiled. "Of course. I do hope I'll be seeing you again, quite soon." She must have blushed again, because he laughed and said, "Of course I will. I'll look forward to it. But for now..."
He gave her a bow of farewell and began strolling off, his notebook tucked protectively under his arm. Miyako wistfully watched him go.
Well, there goes my brush with fame and fortune - having Ken Ichijouji pull a bug out of my hair.
On the other hand, she mused, none of her other friends could say they'd spent five minutes chatting with a celebrity... and they had gotten along pretty well, come to think of it. They had things in common. And he'd said he wanted to see her again! Soon! That was something to look forward to... except...
"Darnit!" she yelped. "I didn't tell him my name!"
Oh, well. It wasn't like Ken was the kind of person who was hard to track down, not when he was on the news and in the paper every other day, and went to press conferences as often as she went out for ice cream. She would take some initiative. She could find him, and next time, she would be ready for him. Even now, her imagination was painting the image - Ken strolling nonchalantly down the red carpet somewhere, surrounded on all sides by his screaming fans, when he suddenly saw her face in the crowd...
Meanwhile, Ken walked the other direction, his eyes staring off into nowhere in particular. Then a bit of movement caught his attention, and he glanced down. The beetle he had rescued was still trundling along the sidewalk, apparently in a hurry to find someplace where it could get away from shrieking teenaged girls. Ken knew the feeling well. He considered it a moment. Viewed objectively, it was really rather pretty, its green shell sparkling with hints of russet and gold. Ken put his foot down on it and ground it into a fine powder. When he removed his foot, little bits of it blew away in the wind. One wing waved feebly as it stuck to the sidewalk.
"Insects," he hissed, and walked away.