A Galaxy Apart

by Naia Zifu

"She is kinda pretty, isn't she?" Seiya said, leaning over the back of the bench on which I sat.

Caught staring again; how embarrassing! I felt my face flush, but tried to appear nonchalant.

"She's. . . all right, I guess. . . for an Earth girl," I said with a shrug.

"I hear she really digs you, but she's too shy to admit it. Maybe if you ask her out sometime. . ."

"Meeting girls is not part of our mission," I reminded him. "We are here in search of one woman only, and until we find her all others are inconsequential."

Seiya made a face at that, knowing I meant reference to his budding relationship with our odango-haired classmate, Usagi.

Seiya had shamelessly flirted around as long as I'd known him, but I'd never seen him as serious about anyone as he was about Usagi. He spent so much time chasing her that he sometimes lost sight of our objective. How could we hope to find our princess while Seiya had eyes only for that Earth girl?

"I assure you, Taiki, that Odango is not inconsequential," he said with a dreamy sigh. "She's different from the other girls I've known. She's special. The light of her star is matched only by that of our princess herself."

Again he compared that girl to our princess! Such blasphemy normally lead to an argument, but for once I was in no mood to start one. I watched my friend with a disapproving look. I knew from the look in his eyes and the tone of his voice that he was falling in love. Seiya was falling for an Earth girl, and emotions like that could prove very damaging to our mission.

Emerging from his reverie, Seiya nodded towards the blue-haired genius girl I admired.

"That one's star is bright, too. She seems very kind and pure of heart," he said. "And she's the only girl I've ever known who could rival you intellectually."

It was true, I'd never met anyone back home who could match my test scores or keep up a discussion on my level the way she could.
Granted, there was much about the universe she was too naive to understand, but in a way, that only added to her charm.

"She is all that and more," I said. "I admit, were circumstances different, I would show an interest. . . but I don't know whether it would be reciprocated. With her it's hard to tell the difference between friendly competition and genuine flirtation."

"Yet another thing you two have in common," Seiya said. "So go ahead, ask her out! Have a little fun for once. You worry me, being
alone for so long, shutting your emotions away all the time. It's not good for you. It's time to open up and let yourself feel again."

"I bet you never bother Yaten like this."

"The itty bitty bitter one?" he said with a laugh. "Are you kidding? Yaten wants as little to do with humans as possible; a relationship with one would be out of the question. Besides, any human his type's probably gay anyway."

I found that comment hysterical, as fixed gender and orientation were concepts we'd never had to deal with back home. Seeing one of my rare laughing fits started Seiya on one of his own, so passers-by soon began giving us strange looks.

Seiya abruptly stopped laughing and jabbed me with an elbow.

"She's coming this way!" he whispered. "Here's your chance! Go over and ask her out!"

"Demo. . ."

"No 'buts,' Taiki. I'm doing this for your own good. Now get going!"

Seiya shoved me forward so I was forced to either stand or fall off the bench, so stand I did. I bookmarked my page, tucked my glasses
into my pocket, and hastily tidied my uniform. When next I became aware of my surroundings, Mizuno Ami stood directly in front of me with a shy smile gracing her innocent face.

"Well, you two seem to be in good spirits," she said cheerily.

Just once, I told myself. . . just to get Seiya off my back. . .

"Ah, Mizuno-kun," I said as casually as possible under the circumstances. "Nice weather we're having."

Weather? I mentally kicked myself for the lameness of the statement.

"Yes, quite," she replied. "So, what are you reading?"

"Ancient Greek epic poetry, The Iliad," I said. "It's for a class, but I'm actually enjoying it. You're lucky; this world has so many different types and styles of poetry to enjoy!"

"Oh, I read that just last term," she said. "It's very good. If you're having trouble understanding, we're having a study group tomorrow night, and I'll be going over it for the others. . ."

It rankled me that she'd assumed I wouldn't understand. Did she view me as her intellectual inferior?

Seeming to notice my offence, she quickly added, "It's really more like a get-together than a study session. . . or at least that's how it usually turns out. We have snacks, talk, goof around. . ."

"I have to work tomorrow night," I said, "but I'm off Friday."

"Taiki-san, are you asking me out on a date?"

"I. . . no. . . maybe. . . I mean. . ." I cast a backwards glance at Seiya, who waved a hand to urge me on. I sighed. "Something like that. Dinner, perhaps? If you're not too busy. . ."

"Well, I have a science project due Monday," she began, and paused for effect before continuing, "but I've had that done for days, so I guess I can take one evening off. Where do you want to meet?"

"I'll pick you up at your place, if you'd like," I offered. "If I can get my roommates out of the house for the night, I'll bring you back to our place and cook for you."

"You can cook?"

"Not really," I admitted. "But I do well in chemistry class. How much harder can it be to follow a simple recipe?"

"Well. . .okay," she said uncertainly. "What time should I expect you?"

"Around eight, if that's all right with you."

"Perfect."

Balancing her books on one arm, Ami jotted down her address and phone number on a scrap of blue note paper and tucked it into my hand. Then, with a bounce in her step and a becoming flush on her cheeks, she hurried away. She barely even stopped to wave good-bye.

Seiya was perched on the back of the bench, beaming like an idiot, when I returned.

"Is it a date?" he asked anxiously.

"Something like that," I replied. "I'm picking her up Friday night around eight and bringing her back to our place for dinner."

"You're cooking?"

"Yes, but you won't be having any. I want both of you out of the house before she arrives."

Seiya retorted, "If you're cooking, Taiki, I wouldn't eat it even if you paid me. Be sure to keep the emergency number close by just in
case!"

"It's a simple matter of following directions, Seiya. How hard can it be?"

"Remember your last cooking experience?"

"That," I pointed out, "was because of Tsukino-san. She won't be there to ruin the recipe this time, so cooking this meal should be no problem."

Or at least that's what I thought. When the time came, things, of course, went much less smoothly.

I slapped the back of Seiya's hand with a wooden spoon.

"Stop eating all the cheese cubes!" I scolded. "Those are for the soup!"

"You mean the stuff in the silver pot that's boiling over?"

I hurried to the stove to turn down the heat. Then I set the lid off-centre to let steam escape and prevent further boilover.

"You should've told me sooner!" I said. "Why did you wait until it made such a mess?"

He replied with a shrug, "Your date, your food, your mess. What do I care? I'm going to a real restaurant for some real food anyway."

"Seiya, I hardly think a McDonald's Big Mac qualifies as real food."

"Better than anything you can make," he retorted, but popped another cheese cube into his mouth nonetheless.

I sighed and took off my ruffled pink apron.

"I have to go shower and change. Can I trust you to watch the food while I'm gone?"

"Yeah, sure," Seiya replied, all too casually.

Though his attitude worried me, I instructed, "Take the bread out in five minutes, or when it's golden-brown, whichever comes first. Turn the stove off when the buzzer rings. It should all be finished about the same time, so you shouldn't have much else to do. And will you stop eating all the cheese cubes?"

"All right, all right," he agreed. "Mind if I sample the fruit crisp, then?"

"Oh, all right, just a little--if you take care of the food like I asked. I'll be back in twenty minutes."

I didn't want to leave him alone, especially the way he was eyeing the fruit crisp. But with a half-hour to go before I picked Ami up, I was dirty, sweaty, and my clothes were covered in flour. I had no choice but to trust him. As long as I kept my shower short, I thought, there should be no problem.

"Everyday, it's a gettin' closer, goin' faster than a roller coaster, love like yours will surely come my way, hey, hey, hey! Everyday, it's a gettin' faster, everyone says go ahead and ask her, love like yours will surely come my way, hey, hey, hey!" I sang cheerfully.

I wasn't usually much of a shower singer, but this was a special occasion; between schoolwork and my Senshi duties, I hadn't had time for female companionship in years. And although we'd been on this planet for months, I'd never even considered dating an Earth girl. Romance just wasn't an option in our current situation. Still, in spite of the guilt I felt over agreeing to this "date", part of me was excited to give it a try. Earth relationships worked so differently than the ones where we came from; it was sure to be a new and interesting experience for me.

I stepped out of the shower and towelled off before dressing my male form in my best yellow suit, the colour that best accentuated my violet eyes. I needed to do my hair next, but a very female Yaten in a pink enamel minidress had taken over the mirror ahead of me. With a
blowdryer in one hand and a large round brush in the other, she tried to coax her shiny, silver-white bob to curve under just a bit.

Normally I could wait out Yaten's little styling sessions. But between my impending "date" and my anxiety over leaving Seiya to watch the meal, I was getting impatient. Finally I stood behind my vertically-challenged friend and borrowed the mirror space above her head to gel and comb my hair off my face in my usual style.

Yaten frowned and turned off the blowdryer.

"You know I hate when you do that, Taiki," she complained. "Just 'cause I'm a little short. . ."

"Gomen," I apologised, "but I'm picking up Mizuno-kun in fifteen minutes, so it couldn't wait."

"A date with an Earth girl?" Yaten said with a snort. "I might have expected that from Seiya, but not from you, Taiki. I thought you, of all people, understood the importance of keeping on task."

"What's really bothering you about this? That I'm seeing someone tonight, or that she's a human?"

"Both. We can't afford dates at a time like this, especially with humans. We're here to find our princess so we can go back and rebuild our own world, not mix with the inhabitants of this one."

"Not mix? Then may I ask where you're going tonight? And as a girl, no less!"

"You asked us to leave, so I'm going dancing. I just don't feel like dealing with the fans, so I'm not going out as Yaten. Tonight you can just call me 'Hii,' " she said with a wink.

" 'Hii,' now, is it?" I asked, raising an eyebrow. "Kawaii. Just don't let 'Fai' see you like this or you'll catch hell for it."

Yaten shrugged. "Who cares what Seiya thinks? I am not going to stay a boy all the time, the whole time we're on this crappy planet. It's not hurting anyone if I go out as myself just this once. No-one's gonna look at this body and see Yaten Kou; they'll see a
kawaii shoujo out for a fun night dancing. What's the harm in that?"

"And you scolded me for not keeping on task?"

Yaten scowled and turned back to the mirror.

"If you're going to stand there, at least do something useful," she said.

She handed me a length of pink ribbon and, without further instructions, turned all her attention to applying her make-up.

I couldn't shake the mental image of Seiya eating all the fruit crisp while smoke billowed from the oven. But if I wanted the place empty in time, I thought I'd better comply. So I brushed Yaten's long white ponytail and wove it with the pink ribbon into a braid, finished with a large bow at the bottom.

"Now, may I borrow the mirror for a moment?" I asked. "I have to put in my contact lenses."

Although she had yet to put on her lipgloss, Yaten grudgingly relinquished control of the mirror.

"I don't know how you can stand to do that, Taiki. Touching your eyeballs like that is so gross!"

I shrugged. "Not really. You get used to it if you have to," I said. "All right, all finished. You can have your precious mirror back now, 'Hii.' "

"Finally," Yaten said, showing her tongue, before going back to her primping.

I returned to the kitchen to find the fruit crisp half-eaten, and Seiya with a spoon in his mouth and a guilty look on his face.

"Seiya! I said you could sample a little, only if you watched the cooking," I scolded.

"Hey, I watched it!" he protested, pointing.

And, much to my surprise, he'd done a pretty good job at that. The bread was a bit overdone, but everything still looked edible. And
the fruit crisp must've been good if he ate so much of it. I considered that a definite sign of success.

"Gomen," I apologised, "I shouldn't have snapped at you. You did well; you've earned your crisp." I patted his curly black head in
reward. "But don't you think you should save some for the intended recipients?"

Seiya smiled cheesily and put down the spoon. "Guess I got carried away there. Good crisp, though. At least you can cook something right!"

"Er, arigato, I guess," I said of the backhanded compliment. "I have to go pick her up now. I'll trust you both to be gone by the time we get back."

"Yeah, sure," he agreed. "You'll tell me all about it afterwards, right?"

"Nothing like that's going to happen!"

"Ecchi! I just meant, let me know how your date went. You know; how dinner was, if you got along, that kind of thing."

I blushed. "Oh. . . Yes, of course," I said. "You can come back around ten. That should give us plenty of time to eat dinner and get acquainted."

"Home by ten? On a Friday night?"

"You think that's too late?"

Seiya laughed. "Man, you really do need to get out more! I'll be back around two, and I'd better not find you asleep, or I'll beat you within an inch of your life. Now get out there and show the lady a good time!"

I fidgeted at the door of the Mizuno apartment, going over my introduction a few times to be sure I'd make a good impression. I needlessly straightened my tie and picked nonexistent lint from my suit. No matter how much I'd tried to avoid saying so, this was indeed a date, I realised-- a first date-- and I found myself growing nervous in spite of myself. Finally I worked up the courage to ring the doorbell.

An attractive brunette in a labcoat answered the door. "Oh, you must be Mr. Taiki," the woman said. "I'm Ami-chan's mother. It's a pleasure to meet you."

Playing the part of charming idol, I took a rose from the bouquet I'd brought and offered it to her.

"The pleasure is all mine, Dr. Mizuno," I said. "Now I see where your daughter gets her good looks."

Ami's mother blushed, accepted the rose, and invited me inside. I waited on their comfortable, overstuffed sofa while she left the room
to retrieve her daughter.

Theirs was a spacious apartment with expensive Western-style furnishings, richly decorated with paintings and photos of family and friends. It was warm and inviting; a home for a family to live rather than just a place to stay.

"Taiki-san?" There was disbelief in Ami's voice, as if she'd fully expected to be stood up and was surprised to find me there.

She was dressed simply, in a knee-length yellow dress with puffed sleeves and a light-blue sash. A small, heart-shaped jewelled clip decorated her short blue hair.

"You look lovely," I said with a smile.

"Arigato. So do you, Taiki-san," Ami said, blushing, but corrected, "You look handsome, I mean."

I gave her the bouquet of white and blush roses, and a small box of assorted chocolates.

"I hear this is the customary gift for such an occasion."

"Oh, how sweet!" she said, and went on tiptoe to kiss my cheek. "I'll just go put these in some water."

"I have to go now, Ami-chan," her mother said. "The hospital paged me; they need me up in trauma. I'll be back as soon as I can.
Have fun, but try not to stay out past midnight. And if you need anything, you have my pager number. Love you, dear."

"Okay," Ami replied. "Love you, too, Haha. See you later!"

"Taiki-san, do be kind to my daughter," she ordered. "I know how you musicians are, and if I find out you've taken advantage of her innocence, I'm not afraid to prosecute to the full extent of the law."

"Y-Yes, ma'am," I replied, surprised by her sudden change of attitude.

Dr. Mizuno put on her overcoat, grabbed her bag, and hurried off to work, leaving me alone in the apartment with her daughter.

Ami set the roses, now in a sparkling cut crystal vase, on the coffee table and tinkered with the arrangement.

"I apologise for my mother's suspicious nature. I told her you were a nice, safe boy, but she's convinced all musicians are inherently
ecchi," Ami said. "She's so paranoid when it comes to my safety."

"That's understandable," I replied. "Most musicians probably are ecchi."

"But not you, Taiki-san," she said. "Even going to your place alone I don't feel in danger. I just know you would never take advantage of me."

"Your mother doesn't know where we're going?" I assumed.

"Of course not! I just said you were taking me to dinner. If I told her where, she'd never let me out of the house!"

Ami finished arranging her flowers. Then she put on her jacket and shoes before pausing at the door.

"If my mother asks," Ami instructed, "we went out for a curry. If my friends ask, I didn't see you at all tonight. If Usagi-tachi knew I was out on a date with you, they'd never let me live it down!"

That was another odd thing about Ami. Most girls, if asked out by an idol, would brag and broadcast it. But Ami wanted our date kept
secret. I took that as an indication she was seeing me because she honestly liked me, rather than just for my idol status.

I drove her back to our place and put the key in the door, only to find it unlocked. I felt the knob turn even as I put my hand on it. The door opened, and Yaten stood there in female form with full make-up, her pink minidress, and the face of a deer caught in headlights.

I stammered for an explanation. "Ah, Mizuno Ami, this is. . . uh. . ."

"Hii desu," Yaten finished in an artificially high voice. "I, uh, came to see Yaten-kun, but he isn't home, so I guess I'll be going. It was nice meeting you, Mizuno-san. Enjoy your date."

Yaten slipped past us and hurried down the hall, white platform go-go boots clicking loudly with each step.

"Yaten's friend," I explained.

"She seems nice," Ami said. "How did she know we're on a date?"

"I. . . guess Yaten must've told her."

"Oh. Pity he didn't say when he'd be leaving, too."

If not for the innocent tone of her voice, I'd think that meant she suspected something. But the remark sounded harmless enough, so I
just shrugged and let the matter drop.

"Please excuse the mess," I said as I took her coat. "I tidied up just this morning, but my roommates can be such pigs."

"No, it looks fine. Very. . ."

"Minimalist?"

"Well, I was going to say 'practical', but that works, too." She wandered our small livingroom for a minute, taking in what sparse furnishings there were. "It's odd. . . I think this is the first home I've seen with no pictures or knicknacks."

"We don't get many visitors here," I said, "so we don't feel much need to pretty things up."

"Not even just for yourselves?"

"Pretty possessions don't mean as much where we come from. The people we care for, the things we learn, every new experience in life; those are the most important things for us."

"Isn't that what photos and knicknacks are for, to remind us of the people and things that are important to us?"

Were all Earth girls as curious and persistent as this one?

I shrugged. "The life of an exchange student, I suppose. Most everything that was important to us, we left back home. Forging new relationships and creating new memories in a new place takes time."

"Ne, if you don't mind my asking, where are you from?" she wondered. "There's no mention of it in the fanclub literature or on the website."

"It's. . . very far. I'm sure you've never heard of it," I said, being as vague as possible. "We should eat now before our dinner gets cold."

I seated Ami at our small metal dining table and went to retrieve our dinner from the kitchen. I was surprised to find every dish had been sampled, and I'd be lucky if there was enough fruit crisp left for the both of us. I'd trusted Seiya not to eat everything while I was gone, and the moment I left, he did anyway! Nothing to be done for it now, though, I thought with a sigh. I'd have to make do with what was left, and scold him for eating the rest later.

"Taiki-san, you made all this yourself?" Ami asked. "I'm impressed."

But even if the meal looked impressive, the moment I tasted it I knew it was a mistake. Eating the soup was like chewing cud. At first I deluded myself to think it just needed more cheese cubes, but there wasn't enough cheese in the world to disguise that taste. The bread may have looked a bit overdone outside, but inside was a core of raw dough. I wanted to taste the meat next, but it was like boot leather! I could hardly even get a fork and knife into it.

I looked at my date, who smiled and continued eating as if nothing were wrong.

"You don't have to pretend you like it," I said. "I know it tastes awful. I was in such a rush, I tasted nothing; I didn't even know it was like this until now. This is highly embarrassing!"

"The vegetables aren't so bad if you add a little butter," Ami said cheerily.

My eyes shot her daggers, but she returned such a sweet little smile that my sour mood instantly lifted.

"What do you say we abandon this sorry excuse for a meal and order pizza?" I suggested.

"I'd love to."

"Great. We can eat the remains of the fruit crisp while we're waiting."

Ami eyed the crisp warily. "Are you sure it's safe?"

"Seiya ate half of it before you even got here, if that's any indication. He said it's the one thing I can cook well."

"Sounds like a ringing endorsement to me," she said. "Let's eat!"

An hour later, the uneaten meal remained on the dining table, while an open pizza delivery box took over the livingroom coffee table. My jacket was tossed carelessly across the back of a chair, and the two smartest, most respectable students of Juuban Koukou sat with
feet on the sofa, chatting like friends and eating mediocre pizza.

"As you probably know, my mother's a doctor," Ami said. "She's at the hospital a lot, so I don't get to see her as much as I'd like. My father's an artist, who is currently without a permanent address. He left my mother years ago to live amongst nature and work on his paintings. I almost never see him anymore, but he sends me postcards from his travels, and presents every holiday. How about you, Taiki-san? What's your family like?"

"My father was a medical researcher who spent long hours in the lab developing vaccines," I said. "We never got to spend as much time together as I would've liked."

"So he and my mother would get along," she said, seeming pleased we had this in common. "And your mother?"

I thought a moment for the equivalent word before replying, "You would've called her a 'housewife'."

Ami smiled softly. "Nothing wrong with that."

"She was a kind, well-meaning woman, and a good mother, but we were on very different levels intellectually. I only wish I'd been more patient with her about that."

"You don't talk to your family anymore?"

I shook my head sadly. "They're gone."

"I'm so sorry! How did it happen?"

"Casualties of war."

"How awful!" she cried. "Did you get on well with them when they were alive?"

"Most of the time," I replied, "but my mother and I had a big argument just before she died. It was over something trivial-- should've been no big deal-- but neither of us would budge. I stormed out of the house, told her I hated her and she was no longer my mother. The war began soon after, and I never saw my family alive again. I never even got the chance to apologise."

"I'm so sorry," Ami said again. "It's hard to imagine you ever getting that angry. You're usually so quiet and reserved, as far as I've seen."

"I try to be."

"Taiki-san," Ami said, touching my arm, "what happened to your family was tragic, but you can't close off forever just from that. It
wasn't your fault."

I drew back my arm and shot her an angry glare. "Don't talk about what you don't know."

"I thought that's what this was all about, a chance to get to know one another." The spark of an idea crossed her eyes. "Why don't we play a game, like Word Association? What's the first word that comes to mind when I say. . . happiness?"

"Music."

"Hope?"

"Princess."

"Loneliness?"

"Living."

"Guilt?"

"Survival."

"Peace?"

"Dying."

"Taiki-san!"

"Facade," I said before realising it wasn't a game question. "You did that on purpose!"

"Taiki-san, you gave some really disturbing answers," Ami said. "I'm worried about you."

"You chose the words; you must've wanted disturbing answers."

"You said you associate peace with dying!"

"I don't think I like this game much," I said, pouting.

"All right, turnabout is fair play," she decided. "You can do me next. Make it as disturbing as you want."

"My, you do think I'm an ecchi musician. . ."

Ami's face turned a brilliant shade of red, and she insisted, "Nothing like that! I meant the game!"

"All right, then, disturbing associations it is," I said, amused at her discomfiture. "What comes to mind when I say. . . fear?"

"Failure."

"Death?"

"Rebirth. . . and there's that fixation again, I notice."

I shrugged. "You wanted them disturbing. Torture?"

"Separation."

"Decay?"

"Inevitable. Could you make them a little less disturbing?"

"Very well, then. Tranquility?"

"Water."

"Romance?"

"Impossible!"

I raised an eyebrow. "And why is that?"

Ami blushed and covered her mouth.

"Did I say, 'impossible?' What I meant was--"

"It's word association, Mizuno-kun," I interrupted. "You said what you meant the first time. So why do you feel romance is impossible?"

"Mostly because of my studies, I guess. I have to do well in high school to get into a good university and become a doctor. I haven't got time for a boyfriend."

"Have you ever had one?"

"I had a boyfriend, once. He made top grades, too, but he wasn't a real genius boy; his grades came from cheating. He was just doing it to get my attention."

"You deserve a real genius," I said, "someone who'll study hard and be able to keep up with you honestly. Why did you continue to see him if he wasn't really smart?"

"It made me feel good just to be wanted," Ami said. "And he knew everything about me; there was something very comfortable about that."

"But you aren't seeing him anymore, are you?" I asked. "So what happened?"

"He moved away over a year ago," she said. "He swore we'd keep in touch, but I've only seen him one time since. I guess he must have lost interest."

"Or realised he wasn't what you needed, after all," I surmised. "Maybe it's time you found someone new to share your secrets with."

Ami sighed. "I wish I could trust you that way. But, Taiki-san, you won't even say where you come from. And each time I think you're starting to open up about your past, you push me away again. I can't share my innermost secrets with a boy who tells me nothing."

"All right, then."

"And the door to Taiki's soul slams shut on me yet again."

"What more do you want? I've revealed myself too much as it is," I argued. "You already know more about me than anyone else here."

"You say you've revealed too much, but what have you told me? A few small facts about your family, that's about it. And now you say I know more about you than anyone?" she said incredulously. "What is this big, important secret about you I supposedly know?"

"Why don't you tell me?"

"I know your basic information from the fanclub."

"That's what everyone knows," I said. "What do you know outside the ordinary?"

Ami watched me uncertainly for a moment, then began, "Well, I know you like poetry, especially the tragic kind. That's probably because you've endured so much loss yourself, including your whole family dying in a war. Because of that, you want to close yourself off
from everyone. But even though you try to stay cold and unfeeling, sometimes your other side creeps out. That side is what I like most
about you, Taiki-san, because it makes you one of the kindest, most caring, most decent human beings on the face of the Earth." She blushed faintly. "That's why I agreed to go out with you tonight."

I smiled to myself. She really could see deeper than just the cool idol facade.

"And though you won't tell me where you're from, I know you aren't Nihonjin, because I would've heard about that war you spoke of. Well, that, and because of that face of yours. . ."

"My face?" I repeated. "What's wrong with my face?"

"Nothing's wrong!" she assured me. "Your face is very handsome! It's just also very exotic. Seiya-san and Yaten-kun have similar features. Did you all grow up together?"

I nodded. "We've been best friends since childhood."

"I can tell," Ami said. "You speak and act as close as family. I bet they're the only two in the world who know everything about you."

"You'd win that bet," I admitted. "But you see, you know a lot, as well."

"I'd like to know more, if you'd tell me."

I tried to dodge the subject.

"So, what is it about my face that looks foreign?"

"Your eyes and the shape of your face, mostly," she replied. "But don't worry about it. We all like you, no matter what you look like."

"You can't say such things and expect me not to worry."

"Taiki-san," Ami said with a smile, and leaned in to kiss my cheek, "you're very handsome. But is it really such a bad place you come from, that now you don't want anyone to know?"

"No, I'm very proud of my home; there's no better place in the universe! It's just that some people are too quick to judge by origins, and might react badly if they knew."

"I swear I'm nothing like that," Ami said. "Wherever you're from, I could never to hold it against you. I'm not that kind of person."

"When you say it like that, I believe you," I said, smiling a bit in spite of myself. "But this is just our first date, and I'm a private person as it is. You can't expect me to open up immediately. We have to take things slowly and build up a relationship first. Then I might reveal more of myself to you."

"So how will I know when it's safe to ask?"

"Probably, when I feel comfortable calling you 'Ami-chan', " I replied. "I only reveal myself to people I'm very close to. I'd prefer you ask more shallow questions until then."

"All right, then. There's one shallow question I've always wanted to ask, but was afraid it might offend you," Ami said. "Is your ponytail real, or does it clip on?"

"I get that so often in fan mail," I said. "I've never understood why. Does it look fake?"

"Well. . .yes, a little," she admitted. "I only ask because it looks rather incongruous with the rest of your image."

"Incongruous?" I said with a laugh. "That's the most polite insult I've ever received."

"Was it an insult? I only meant that you're so straight-laced. . ."

"It's all right. Here, because you asked more creatively than most, I'll show you," I said, and untied it to prove it didn't clip on.

"Well, then," Ami said after a moment, "that's a very. . . interesting haircut."

"Well, I like it," I said meekly.

Ami laughed. "I'm making you self-conscious about everything today, aren't I?"

"I'm afraid I'm just not used to this kind of criticism."

"Don't tell me no-one cares about looks where you come from, either!"

"Obviously you've never watched Yaten get dressed in the morning," I deadpanned. "Of course we care! But where we come from,
you try to accept others as they are, without criticism."

"Life is very simple where you're from, isn't it?"

"Most of the time, yes."

"I can see why you miss it so much."

I tried to act nonchalant. "I have my studies, and our music," I said with a shrug. "If I immerse myself in my work it's not a problem."

"Yes it is. I can tell by the way you talk about it," she said. "If you miss it so much, why not go back?"

"That's what we're trying to do, but. . ." I felt a lump growing in my throat and had to get off that subject. "I thought dates were a time for pleasant conversation."

"But I've enjoyed our conversation as it is," she insisted. "I've learned so much about you today, Taiki-san. I really like seeing you so vulnerable; it's a big change from the cold face you show at school. I feel like I'm finally getting to know the real you."

"You may be right about that," I admitted. "That's what I'm afraid of."

"I'm not."

"That also frightens me," I said. "Mizuno-kun, I really like you. You're the kind of girl I could get serious about, if I didn't have so many responsibilities, or so many damned secrets to keep."

"Dating couples can't have secrets."

"I know. That's why I don't think I should see you anymore."

"Doshite? You said before, if we just took things slowly. . ."

"But it seems you can't go slowly," I said, "and at the rate you're going, you'll know all my secrets by the second date."

"And if I try to take things a little slower?"

"Even then, there are some things about me you probably never want to know."

"Taiki-san," Ami said, "unless you used to be a woman or something, nothing you have to say will ever shock me."

I was surprised. "A-a woman?" I stammered. "Whatever gave you that idea?"

"Oh, no! I didn't mean to insult you again. I only meant--"

"Mizuno-san, do you like girls?" I interrupted.

She flushed and stammered, "W-well, I really. . .that is, I. . .I like. . .people. Beautiful people with beautiful souls. . . like you."

"Then gender isn't that important to you?"

"Well, I. . .I wouldn't say that exactly, but. . ."

"Then do you mind if I tell you something?" I asked. "It feels so wrong asking you out without telling you."

"Sure, you can tell me anything," she said. "What is it?"

"I'm not sure how to say this. I hope you don't take this too badly, but. . ."

"It's all right," Ami said, taking my hands in hers, "you can tell me. I won't criticise."

"Mizuno-kun, I'm really. . . no, not like that. Speaking of girls, I. . . no. . . You know what you said about just liking people? No, that's not it, either. I'm not sure there's any painless way to say this," I said, finally deciding just to tell her straight out. "Mizuno-kun, I'm Sai--"

"Baka!" Seiya cried as he burst through the door. He practically dragged Yaten along by her ribbon-entwined braid. "What were you thinking, going out dressed like that? If I ever catch you out like this again I'll--" He stopped ranting and smiled cheesily when he saw Ami there. "Ami-san, I-I didn't think you'd still be here this late."

Ami consulted her watch. "Two o'clock? I had no idea it was so late! I was supposed to be home before midnight!"

"I'll drive you back," I offered. "Do you think your mother will be home yet?"

"I don't know. Depends on how things went at the hospital."

"I'll stay and explain everything if she is," I said, and told my roommates, "You can have the rest of the pizza when you've finished
killing each other."

"So you couldn't stand your own cooking, either, eh, Taiki?" Seiya said. "I hate to say I told you so. . ."

"Then don't," I said, thumping Seiya's forehead to quiet his gloating. "We'll discuss the food situation later. And don't even think you're off the hook for it yet-- I have only just begun to rant!"

"See you in school Monday, Seiya-san," Ami said. "It was nice meeting you again, Hii-chan."

I was glad to be leaving when my roommates' argument resumed.

"You let her see you like that, too?" Seiya yelled. "And I thought I was the irresponsible one!"

"Seiya-san and Hii-chan don't get along?" Ami asked.

"Er, rather, for them, arguing is a good sign," I replied. "For two people so opposite, some arguments are inevitable."

"So ka," she said. "Just like Usagi-chan and Rei-chan!"

"Something like that."

"So, what were you going to say before we were interrupted?" Ami asked once we arrived outside her door.

But I'd already lost my nerve by then. "Never mind," I said. "It's not that important after all."

Ami looked disappointed. "Oh. Well, if you change your mind. . ."

"I'll be sure to tell you."

"Good," she said with a smile. "I had a really good time tonight."

"In spite of my cooking and bad conversation?"

"You're such a perfectionist, Taiki-san! It had nothing to do with that. I enjoyed it because I got to spend time with you," Ami said. "You opened up to me for the first time today. It was nice to see you just be yourself for once."

She didn't know how close she'd come to seeing just that.

"Maybe we'll do this again sometime?"

"If my mother doesn't ground me for staying out late and forbid me to see you anymore. . ." Ami opened the door and peered inside. "Haha? Haha, are you home?" There was no answer. "Good, she's not back yet. I'd invite you in, but my mother could be home any time now, and if she found a boy here at this time of night. . ."

"I understand. So, I guess I'll see you in school Monday?"

"Of course," she replied. "And will you be kind to me?"

"I'll try."

Ami looked up with hopeful eyes, and it took me a moment to realise what she wanted. I leaned down to give her a quick peck on the
cheek, but she turned her head so our lips met instead. It sounds strange for a famous idol to say, but it was my first time ever kissing a girl on the lips. My face flushed all the way to the ears at even such a brief intimate contact, and Ami giggled at my overblown reaction.

"Good night, Taiki-san," she said softly, and disappeared into her apartment.

"Good night. . .Ami-chan," I tried the name out in her absence, but it didn't feel right. I couldn't "-chan" someone who didn't even know my real form. "I guess we aren't ready to exchange our deepest secrets, after all."

I returned home with her kiss still lingering on my lips, only to find my roommates still arguing--over the remains of our pizza--when
I got back.

"Look, just deal, okay?" Seiya said crossly. "We talked about this when we first got here, and this is what we decided was best."

"Best for who?" Yaten argued. "I can't wear my dresses. I can't wear my make-up. I have to go to the washroom standing up!"

"Taiki's here, let's ask him," Seiya said. "Yaten's having a freak-out over having to be a boy on this planet. Personally, I have no problem with it; I think it's kinda fun. But you know how this one likes to blow things outta proportion. Would you tell her this isn't a problem?"

I shrugged. "It doesn't bother me. It's an interesting experience, but I neither like nor dislike it."

"See? I told you it's no big deal," Seiya said, "so get over it, already!"

"But I see why Yaten might have trouble with it," I said.

"Huh? How come?"

"Yaten's always been the most feminine of us. While it doesn't bother you or me, you can see how it might bother her to stay male so
much while we're on this planet."

"Fine, then. Whenever you feel you can't stand it, be a girl for a while," Seiya conceded, "but do it in the privacy of our own home, away from the windows, and don't let anybody see you. We had a hard enough time dispelling those 'Yaten is gay' rumours-- the last thing we need is a bunch of 'Yaten's a crossdresser' rumours flying around next."

"All right, all right," Yaten said. "But you know, I didn't go out as Yaten in a dress. I went out as--"

" 'Hii,' yeah, I know," Seiya said, rolling his eyes. "You think a kawaii little nickname is gonna disguise your identity?"

"I let her go out like that, Seiya," I admitted. "I thought since no-one knows us as Starlights, they wouldn't know Yaten as Hii, either. I didn't see the harm in it."

"You're probably right," Seiya said with a sigh. "Just don't do it again, okay? And never let schoolmates see you wearing a dress again."

"Hey, that was an accident," Yaten said. "I didn't mean to be here when she came! But first I had to wait for you to leave, Seiya, so you wouldn't see me in a dress. Then I just had to try Taiki's cooking. . ."

"So it was you who tasted everything before we got any?" I said.

"Well, Seiya got to try it, so why couldn't I?"

"Seiya got some crisp for watching the meal while I changed," I said, but he looked so guilty I had to ask, "That is all you ate, isn't it, Seiya?"

"Well, no," he confessed. "After you left I got curious and tasted everything. But don't scold me; eating your cooking was punishment enough! That stuff's lethal, man!"

"Well, that's what you get for tasting it without permission!"

"So we know why you phoned out for pizza," Seiya said, "but how'd your date go otherwise? Did you get along?"

"Pretty well," I replied. "We mostly just sat and talked the whole time. We didn't even argue except when a touchy subject came up."

"Touchy subject?" Seiya repeated. "Like what?"

"She's too curious for her own good, that Earth girl. She wanted to know everything about me."

"You didn't tell her, did you?"

"Of course not! But there were some things she figured out for herself. . . and I'm afraid she did worm a few secrets out of me."

"What does she know?" he asked urgently. "You told her nothing about the mission or our real identities, did you?"

"No, and I don't think she knows anything about it, either," I said. "But some things she does know surprised even me. For instance, did you know our faces look foreign?"

"Good," Yaten said, idly toying with my discarded brown ribbon. "The less I look like one of those damned humans, the better."

"She didn't say 'inhuman', Yaten, just 'exotic'."

"Which is just another word for 'weird'," Seiya said. "So what did she say was so wrong with our faces?"

"Mostly our eyes and the shape of our faces," I reported. "But she didn't say we looked unattractive, Seiya, just foreign. Actually, she thinks I have a very handsome face."

"Oh, that's okay, then," Seiya said. "We never said we're from Japan, anyway. Where does she think we come from?"

"She didn't know."

"Well, we should decide for the next time someone asks. How do you tell what country humans come from anyway?"

"How should I know?" Yaten said with a toss of her hair. "Earth people all look alike to me."

"Now there's a racist statement if ever I've heard one! Seriously, though, we have to decide. This is likely to come up again," Seiya said. "How about France? We could tell people we're from France. Might have to learn a few words, but. . ."

Yaten stood up and yawned while stretching. "This is a total waste of time," she said in a bored tone. "I'm going to bed."

"If you go to bed now, I'll tell everyone you're from some backwater," Seiya threatened.

I yawned, too. "No, I think she's right this time," I said. "It's almost three a.m. Plausible invented backstory is a lot to ask this time of night."

"Oh, all right," he agreed. "Everyone go take a rest. We'll drag out the atlas and get back to this first thing in the morning."

"Says you," Yaten said through a yawn. "I'm sleeping till noon!"

She tossed me my ribbon and stumbled off to her bedroom. I was about to do the same, leaving the post-date cleanup to morning, when
Seiya called after me.

"So, Taiki," he said, "you got on pretty well and enjoyed your date, right? So when are you planning to see her again?"

"Probably never."

"Never? Why not? I thought you liked her!"

"I do-- she's absolutely perfect. I'd love to keep seeing her if I could."

"But?"

"Her last boyfriend moved away a year ago and lost touch, which broke her heart," I answered. "Once we find our princess we'll be going home, and it could be years before I see her again, if ever. I can't do that to her, especially after what her last boyfriend did. She deserves better."

"You're probably right," Seiya said, "but you're a much better man than I! I'd date her anyway, to please myself, and worry about her
feelings when it's time to go. Oh well." He clapped me lightly on the back. "Get some sleep, man. Tomorrow's a whole other day."

Seiya wandered off to his own room, untying the blue ribbon from his long, dark ponytail along the way.

I had another look around the messy room, and considered cleaning it. But to do so would erase all tangible evidence of our date. I wasn't quite ready to do that; I wanted something to remind me in the morning that I hadn't dreamt the whole thing. So I left everything where it was, carelessly tossed my ribbon back onto the sofa, and started off for bed.

©2000/2007 (revised HTML version) Naia Zifu all rights reserved.
The characters contained in this fic are SM characters I don't own rights to. As always, I'm not trying to make money off anyone else's ideas.
Song lyrics from "Everyday" by Buddy Holly, used without permission, but since I'm a Buddy Holly daifan, he shouldn't haunt me for using them anyway. . .will he?
Yes, I know it's not one of the H&M fics you're all used to, but I LOVE Taiki-sama! I currently love all Three Lights, so I reserve the right
to do their occasional story in addition to my usual H&M ones. I hope nobody minds.
And if this fic is pathetic, it was probably meant to be. Right now I'm in one of my "Oh, it's so sad Ami and Taiki can't date!" moods, and wanted to write a fic about it. If it's any consolation, it's not as bad as it could've been; I swear the original ending was way more
melodramatic :-P .