There was only one person on the path, and Manjyome was not it. He was hiding behind a tree, a few feet away, trying to keep watch without being seen himself. He had been hiding there for the past ten seconds or so, ever since he had realized what the shape walking up the road in front of him was.
Okay. Stay calm. Asuka's coming this way, but it's not a problem! Just stay calm! He took a few deep, steadying breaths, realized that she might hear him, and resumed breathing normally. So maybe she shot you down the first time, but that doesn't mean you can't try it again. You just... took it a little too fast last time. That's it. Just take things nice and easy, and it'll be okay. You can walk with a girl without having a heart attack. Right.
Her footsteps came closer, and he realized suddenly that if he could see her, she could probably see him, too. He quickly crept further behind the tree and stayed hidden there, breathlessly, hearing her light tread on the dusty road, imagining how gracefully she must be moving to make her footsteps fall so softly. Then he belatedly remembered that the point of the exercise was to walk with her, not let her walk by him. He stumbled out of his hiding place, looking rather disheveled and leafy. He was uncomfortably aware that there was pine-sap on his fingers where he'd touched the tree, and wiped them nervously on his jacket.
"Asuka! ... Hi," he blurted.
Asuka stopped walking and slowly turned around to look at him inquisitively.
"Hello, Manjyome," she said. "What were you doing in the trees?"
"Ah... well, you see... the wind! ...blew away my... yeah," he explained.
"I see," said Asuka. "I was just taking a walk."
"Yeah, exactly!" Manjyome replied, seizing gratefully on this plausible explanation. "Me too." Quickly, he consulted his mental map of the island and picked out the most likely place on it that he could be going to from this general direction. "I was just thinking of going to the card shop and maybe getting a snack or something. Want to come?" The last question slipped out in a jumble, all in one word.
Asuka gave Manjyome a long, considering look, and he held his breath and berated himself for not being more prepared. Why couldn't he, just once, think of the right thing to say to her? He was on the brink of turning around and diving back into the woods, never to be seen again, to probably join the tribe of wild monkeys and live off of nuts and berries for the remainder of his days, when Asuka's expression suddenly cleared. She smiled at him - a pure, unrestrained smile that by rights should have made him melt on the spot.
"Sure," she said. "Why not?"
She stepped a little aside, apparently expecting him to take the lead, and he started to walk. She fell into step with him. Just like that, she was walking next to him, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, as if they had been doing this since the day they'd met. She was so close to him, almost touching him - in fact, she did brush against him once or twice, sending a thrill of pleasure through him each time. He wondered if someone would see them together, and think they were a couple. He hoped so. He wondered if he ought to try to hold her hand.
"Don't even think about trying to hold my hand," she said.
"I wasn't thinking about it!" He shoved his hands in his coat pockets.
"Good. I thought not."
Well, so much for that idea. He walked in silence for a moment, wondering what he was supposed to do now. He supposed he ought to be entertaining her with witty and persuasive dialogue, but talking to people had never been his strong suit. Giving orders, yes. Making casual conversation with people? No, not so much.
"So, did you... have a nice summer break?" he managed at last.
"It was nice," she replied. "Everyone made a fuss over seeing Fubuki again. He lapped up the attention, of course. That's how it should be. We all missed him. How was your vacation?"
"I hid in my room, mostly," Manjyome mumbled. He had. Why not? He had a private bath in there, and an entertainment center, and his card spirits for the rare occasions when he wanted companionship. He stayed in there until his brothers had gone to work, and when they came home, he went back in. It was a constricted way to live, but really not much worse than having to go to class a few hours each day, and he got a lot more choice in what he did in his room than what he did in class. It wasn't so bad, really.
"Oh, that's right," said Asuka, looking chagrined. "I didn't mean to bring up a painful subject."
"It's no big deal," Manjyome said, staring fixedly at the road.
"Next summer you ought to come visit us for a little while," she said. "I'm sure Fubuki wouldn't mind you rooming with him for a few days."
Stay? At her house? Was he allowed to do that?
"I guess that would be okay," he said, trying to sound offhand.
This is pathetic. I spend all this time wanting to be alone with her, and now that I am, I can't think of anything to say to her! It had been a good way to while away the long hours of summer break, to sit in his room and imagine what he might say or do to win Asuka's heart when school started again. He'd had dozens of romantic, persuasive speeches ready in his mind. Why couldn't he remember any of them? The only thing that was coming to mind was to wonder whether she was actually wearing perfume or if it was all in his imagination. He kept catching almost-whiffs of a floral scent that he couldn't quite pinpoint, and it was driving him to distraction.
"You're being awfully quiet," she said, cutting into his thoughts. "Not that I'm complaining or anything, but you're usually a little more... outspoken."
"I can't think of anything to say, all right?" Ack! Why did he have to start snapping at her now?
"I see," she replied. "So I guess that means you're over that crush thing, huh?"
"What? No!" Manjyome yelped. "Why would you think I would...?"
"I don't know," she replied. "You just never seemed like the romantic type, you know?"
"I'm romantic!" said Manjyome, and then, recalling his dismal performance so far, added, "Well, kind of."
She laughed. "Maybe so. But it came over you so suddenly... What did come over you, anyway? We've gone to school together for years, and you didn't act like this before."
"Things were different then."
"So what's different now?"
"You know," he said uneasily. "Stuff."
She raised an eyebrow. "Like?"
"I got to know you better," he mumbled. "Can we not be having this conversation? I just like you. Isn't that enough?"
"No, it's not," she answered. "There are lots of guys who like me. I am tired of guys liking me. It's always the same thing every time - they just look at me and decide all of a sudden they're in love with me. I wouldn't mind so much, except it has nothing to do with my personality or my talent or anything - it's always because of how I look. Why should I think you're any different?"
"Because I am," he shot back.
"Well, that's convincing."
"Care to explain?"
"Um, well... You remember when we got put in those bubbles?" he managed.
"Vaguely," she answered with a wry smile. "What about them?"
"Well, when we were there..." This was so hard! It was such a personal thing; he wasn't good at saying personal things. "I could... sort of feel your... your presence, I guess. Even with all that going on, you were so calm. You're always calm, about everything. I never felt that way in my life before. I... kinda liked it. I could have stayed that way forever." He sighed. "I guess it's different down here on earth."
"I guess they are," she replied.
I don't think she's impressed. He stifled a sigh. Maybe it was a lost cause. There was nothing he could say to make her return his feelings, and everything he did just seemed to make him look like an idiot. Maybe he should just give up. He should resign himself to just worshiping from afar for the rest of his life...
They reached the card shop and stopped walking.
"Well, here we are!" said Asuka brightly. "What are you going to do now?"
"Um," said Manjyome, puzzled, because the doors were closed tightly. He pushed on them. They didn't even rattle. "It's closed."
Asuka nodded. "They closed early today because it's the first day of school and they haven't got a full stock in yet."
"They did?" said Manjyome stupidly. He shook himself. "You knew! You knew all along it was closed! Why didn't you tell me!"
She shrugged. "I guessed you had your reasons."
"You were playing a trick on me," he said, scowling.
"Maybe a little one," she answered, giggling.
"Fine. Be that way," he muttered. "I know when I'm not wanted."
He turned and stalked away, hunching dejectedly into his coat. Asuka, still laughing, broke into a run and overtook him. She stood standing in his path with her hands on her hips.
"And just where do you think you're going?" she asked.
"Who cares?" he snapped.
"Well, if you aren't going anywhere in particular," she said imperiously, "you ought to walk me home. It would be rude to drag me all the way out here and then make me walk home by myself, you know."
"Uh, no. Yes! Huh?"
"Walk," she ordered, and he did. Somehow, he got his feet both moving in the same direction in something like a coordinated rhythm, and she walked next to him. Again, it crossed his mind to wonder if maybe he could hold her hand, and decided he didn't need to just now. For the moment, he was happy just to know she wanted to walk next to him.