The space station’s casino is a loud mix of chaotic noise and motion. A different kind of chaos than Takaki is used to, but a welcome change. People here are laughing and talking loudly over the sound of rolled dice, shuffled cards, and the music from the jazz band playing on the stage. There is a sense of freedom in the air. A hedonistic feeling that almost feels like a tangible electric buzz.
Takaki loosens the collar of the stiff suit he’s wearing and dives right in, sliding easily into a chair at one of the blackjack tables. He doesn’t know the rules, but the card game isn’t complicated to learn and after a few rounds, he manages to win a small sum of money.
“Looks like you’re having a string of good luck,” a guy says, appearing out of nowhere to lean beside him against the table. “Care to share?” Takaki takes a look at the mysterious stranger: the fedora pulled low over his bleached blond hair, his tight-fitting suit frayed ever so slightly around the edges, and the flirty smile resting on his face.
“I’m not much of a good luck charm,” Takaki answers. Involuntarily, the sight of bloody mangled bodies flashes through his mind and he tries not to wince at the memories.
The stranger sighs but seems only temporarily fazed by the rejection. It’s not long before he defaults to a smile again. “Wanna take a break from this and get a drink with me? I’ll buy.” His tone is brimming with confidence, as if just daring Takaki to say no so he could try again. Takaki has to admit he is a little bit intrigued by the stranger. And he can’t remember the last time he felt any sort of emotion for another person. He wants to explore this.
“Sure,” he agrees, gathering up his chips to cash out his winnings. He lets the stranger lead the way to the bar in the far corner of the casino, easily weaving through the crowd of men and women dressed to the nines to have a good time. They’re further away from the band now, but Takaki can still hear the smooth saxophone and sultry piano music swelling up to fill the room. It isn’t exactly his favorite style of music but it makes him feel at ease. More than he’d felt in a long time.
Or is it, perhaps, the presence of the stranger that makes him feel like it’s okay to let down his guard?
There are two open seats at the end of the bar next to the wall. Takaki’s arm brushes up against the stranger’s elbow, making him well aware of how close they’re now sitting. But the stranger doesn’t even seem to notice as he orders two drinks for them, pausing only briefly to make sure Takaki’s okay with a whiskey.
“So my name’s Yaotome Hikaru,” the stranger finally introduces himself, tipping his hat forward just a bit. “You can call me Hikaru though. Pretty much everyone does.”
Takaki takes a swallow of his drink first before he says anything in response. He wants to savor it all for a moment. When he leaves the space station, he won’t have an opportunity to just sit and talk casually like this. He has to remind himself that this trip is only a brief opportunity. A gift.
“I’m Takaki,” he finally answers. His voice sounds rough to his own ears, probably worn down as a result of all the yelling he’s done over the years.
“Just Takaki?” Hikaru teases, a hint of a smirk playing around his lips. Like the whole thing is merely a carefree game he’s playing. It should annoy Takaki, but strangely, he finds that he actually likes it. It’s a game with low stakes for a change.
“For now,” Takaki replies, trying to play along with Hikaru’s flirty tone. Besides, it’s been ages since anyone addressed him by anything other than his family name and rank. He almost doesn’t remember what it’s like.
Hikaru picks up his drink, but then sets it back down before it even reaches his mouth. He’s watching Takaki with curious eyes, studying him while he thinks of his next move. Takaki stares back at him and leans forward ever so slightly just to see how Hikaru will respond.
“Do you play cards here often?” Takaki asks in a low voice, barely audible over the music. He notices for the first time a slight tremor in Hikaru’s right hand. Almost imperceptible, but Takaki has a lot of practice in picking out weaknesses. He’s been trained to pounce on them, to pull them to the surface and then rip them to shreds. By this point it’s basically second nature, so he has to put in more effort to resist the urge now.
Hikaru laughs, oblivious to his thoughts. It’s a beautiful melodic laugh which sounds better than the music. “Whenever I’m just passing through,” he answers as he shifts in his seat, twisting his body so that he can rest his elbow on the bar and prop his hand up under his chin. “You could say I’m a jack of all trades.”
“Master of none?” he replies without even thinking.
This makes Hikaru grin. “I like you,” he says, more as a statement to himself than to Takaki directly. He shifts again in his seat, this time so that he can reach for his drink. Takaki’s somehow not surprised at how good he is functioning with the tremor in his hand and concealing it. Hikaru already seems like a guy who can’t stay still for longer than a few moments at a time, like he’s a free spirit lacking in discipline.
Takaki watches him and says nothing. He’s never been so enthralled by someone else before. Everything about him is captivating. The way a few wisps of blond hair fall into Hikaru’s eyes. The way his fingers wrap around his glass of whiskey. The way he acts as if he owns the whole universe and nothing can go wrong.
“I was going to play roulette earlier,” Hikaru says right after he signals the bartender for another drink. “Wanna play with me?”
Takaki nods in agreement. He wants to know more about Hikaru. He wants to know why he chose to bleach his hair and why he doesn’t buy a new suit to replace his worn out one. He wants to know if silly jokes make him laugh and if he cries at how beautiful the sun looks when it rises. He wants to understand why it feels like this sudden stranger has wormed his way under Takaki’s skin, going deeper and deeper in the direction of his heart.
Until today, Takaki hadn’t been sure he even had a heart anymore.
With his drink in hand, Hikaru takes him across the room to a roulette table with an open spot. Hikaru tips his hat to the person in charge before he explains all the rules to Takaki. When it comes to any game of chance, Takaki is a quick study and soon enough, he’s winning a couple of rounds. The two of them don’t say much while they play, instead just sharing a few smiles with each other when their luck is good. After a while Hikaru seems satisfied with his winnings.
“Rule number one of gambling is to always know when to quit,” he says. “Luck can change in an instant.”
Takaki knows that all too well, but even if they aren’t gambling anymore, he’s not ready for his time with Hikaru to end just yet. Not when he’s just starting to feel alive again. He casts his eyes around the room for another idea. The band is still playing a mix of upbeat jazz tunes and some slower-paced ballads. A few couples are gathered in front of the stage, looking cozy and happy together as they move to the beat of the music.
“Do you want to dance?” he asks. It’s an impulsive question, one that comes out with a hint of desperation he hopes Hikaru doesn’t notice.
Hikaru’s face instantly lights up. “Now there’s an idea!” He takes Takaki’s hand and they weave through the casino tables and gamblers until they reach the open space in front of the stage. The fast-paced song is about to wrap up, so the two of them hover on the edge of the dance floor until the next one begins. The trumpet player steps back and a saxophone player begins with a softer tune. The quiet voice of the singer serenades the dancing couples, and at that moment, Takaki hesitates.
“I…” Takaki trails off for a moment, feeling embarrassed. “I don’t actually know how to dance.” Not with a partner anyway. He couldn’t remember ever dancing with anybody before.
“That’s okay, I’ll lead,” Hikaru gently takes his hand while wrapping his other around Takaki’s waist. “Slow dancing is mostly just swaying anyway.” He laughs a little which washes away Takaki’s embarrassment. Hikaru’s effervescent confidence makes him feel lighter.
Or is that just the space station’s artificial gravity?
Takaki can feel the tremor in his dance partner’s hand, a tiny little persistent muscle spasm that Hikaru can’t manage to fully control. But soon Takaki is so swept up in dancing that he doesn’t pay attention to it. Being this close to Hikaru is dizzying but in a good way. He’s been pressed up together in close quarters with people before but that was out of necessity. This is the first time he wants to be closer.
“Tell me,” Hikaru begins, looking at Takaki with clear eyes. Eyes that look like they’ve seen their fair share of hardship but, unlike his own, still managed to maintain a vibrant sparkle. “Tell me, what’s something that makes you smile?”
The question catches him off guard. He doesn’t have an answer so he tries to deflect the conversation back to his dance partner. “Why do you ask?”
“Because your eyes look sad,” he answers in a low voice, “like you haven’t had anything to be happy about in a long time. I could see that from the moment I spotted you across the room. That’s why I spoke to you at the blackjack table. I was curious.” He falters a moment as if worrying he’d said too much. It’s the first crack in his confidence Takaki’s seen so far. “Is that okay?”
“I don’t mind,” Takaki says after a brief amount of consideration. The attention is nice. And the curiosity goes both ways. Perhaps if the situation had been reversed and Takaki had been the one to first spot Hikaru from across the room, then he might have approached him too.
There’s a lull in the conversation as the music swells into a sweet interlude. All the musicians are playing together in perfect harmony while the singer steps back for a moment. Everything feels so simple for a brief second, and then Hikaru speaks again.
“So tell me,” he repeats, “what makes you smile?”
“Is it bad that I don’t know?” Takaki answers honestly.
Hikaru shakes his head. “You can ask me a question while you think about it,” he offers. The song ends and the next one is a little more upbeat. Hikaru continues to guide their dancing, and Takaki accidentally steps on his feet twice. This faster-paced dancing makes him feel like all the blood is rushing past his ears and his heart might flutter away.
“Where does all your confidence come from?” Takaki asks.
Hikaru raises one eyebrow and then partially shrugs while still leading their dance. “When I was a young kid, I very nearly died in a serious accident. It left me with all this nerve damage in my arm,” he explained, nodding his head towards his weaker hand. Takaki can imagine there are probably deep scars underneath Hikaru’s suit. He thinks briefly about all the scars hidden underneath his own, and he understands. “So since then, I try not to waste any moments, you know. I just see what I want and I try my hardest to reach it. That’s all.”
The song ends and the band starts up another slow tune. Takaki prefers that actually. He can spend less time thinking about where to put his feet and more time thinking about Hikaru. Again, he’s aware of how close they are. He thinks he should feel uncomfortable and awkward, but being wrapped up in Hikaru’s arms makes him feel… safe?
“Sometimes I think…” Hikaru starts in such a quiet voice that Takaki has to lean even closer to pick up the husky tone. “Sometimes I wonder how I would be different if the accident had never happened. Maybe in another place, in another lifetime, I’d be quiet and shy. Too shy to even say hello. I think about that sometimes. How life can change in an instant just because you hesitated for a split second or moved a moment too soon.”
His head dips down and rests on Takaki’s shoulder for a moment, and then he chuckles. “Sorry. Drinking whiskey always makes me get philosophical. It’s just now hitting me.”
“It’s something to think about,” Takaki says. In quiet moments, the same thoughts rattle around in his head like that too. What kind of person he might have been if his life had gone on a different course.
Hikaru straightens back up and all trace of his momentary vulnerability is gone. His eyes sparkle again and a smile settles back on his face. “But nevermind my rambling. You still owe me an answer to my question.”
Takaki thinks he might finally have one. “I like the ocean,” he says. He doesn’t remember much of his childhood, but occasionally there are flashes. Bits and pieces of his life before. He can remember the sound of a warm voice, the feeling of a gentle breeze against his skin, and the way sunlight reflects off the ocean like a million sparkling diamonds.
The ocean is so vastly different from the endless expanse of dust-covered red rocks he’s been staring down at for years from inside the cramped cockpit of his jet.
“Going to see the ocean is always nice.” Hikaru looks happy as if an idea suddenly popped into his head. “Hey, I know a nice beach on a moon just a few lightyears away. Not many people know about it so it’s never crowded. Come fly there with me. It’ll be worth the trip just to make you smile.”
The offer suddenly jolts Takaki back to reality like a punch in the gut. He stops dancing and takes a step back, feels instantly colder without the warmth of Hikaru’s arms.
“I can’t,” he says. He’s overwhelmed for a moment and can’t find the words to explain himself. Hikaru pulls him to stand by the wall, away from the other dancing couples so they won’t be in the way.
Takaki stumbles over what to say. “I mean, I want to go with you. I really do, but I have no choice. I’m supposed to leave in a few hours.”
“Everybody has a choice,” Hikaru says, narrowing his eyes in confusion. “I don’t understand.”
It feels like his heart is breaking, and Takaki wonders why he had made the mistake of letting Hikaru get so close. Feeling nothing is better than feeling this. “I’m not allowed,” he tries to clarify. “I have to go back.”
Hikaru’s eyes widen suddenly, as if finally piecing everything together. “I saw a military supply ship dock a few hours ago. You’re a soldier, aren’t you?” he whispers. His eyes stare at Takaki with a mixture of pity and horror, almost as if he was looking at an alternate future of what his life would be like if he’d been conscripted to fight too.
Takaki’s stop at the space station was only ever meant to be brief. Just long enough for their ship to get more supplies and let a few soldiers like him take a break. This is the first time Takaki has been away from the fighting in over three years. It was almost crueler to be given this glimpse of life outside of the battlefield only to know that he’d have to go back again.
“But you’re fighting a war that will never end,” Hikaru says, not as a question but as a matter of fact. He looks so unbearably sad now, and that somehow hurts worse than Takaki’s broken heart.
“I know.” Takaki can’t think of how else to respond. The war was being fought before he was taken away to become a soldier and it will continue long after he becomes another casualty on the battlefield. He’s always been told that’s just the way of the universe.
Hikaru takes a deep breath and shakes his head, like he’s try to brush off all his sad feelings. He forces a smile back on his face. It’s admirable the way he’s trying so hard to make the best of this turn of events. “I’ve had fun with you,” he says. “And I don’t regret it at all. I still wish you would come with me, but I can’t force you. You don’t want to run away, right?” Hikaru pauses and then adds one more thing. “Just promise me that you’ll try to smile sometimes, okay?” Hikaru leans forward and kisses him gently. Then he says goodbye and quietly disappears back into the casino crowd before Takaki has a chance to react.
Takaki slumps against the wall, not entirely sure how to deal with the storm of sudden emotions he feels. He looks at the casino again, a steady mix of chaos—the band still playing, people still dancing and drinking, the gambling still going strong. Everything continues just as normal except that the room seems emptier without Hikaru.
But because his mind is starting to race, Takaki tries to tune out the whole room. He can’t shake the feeling that his life had irreparably changed the moment Hikaru had leaned against the blackjack table, throwing out a cute quip about good luck. That one moment set everything tumbling into motion, picking up speed and spinning so out of control that Takaki can only roll along with it. The trigger has been pulled. A few hours ago, he was just a soldier whose only purpose in life was to make sure he survived to fight another day.
Now he actually had something to desire.
Takaki leaves the dance floor behind and joins another game of blackjack instead. He needs to occupy his hands and focus on something to make him forget. He wants to put his brain on autopilot and run on instinct like he does when he’s flying over the battlefield. Concentrating on the shuffled cards and stacks of chips provides a distraction for a short while, but his mind quickly finds its way back to Hikaru.
“I try not to waste any moments,” Hikaru had said to him. Takaki thinks his own life is just a series of wasted moments. So many years of his life fighting and fighting and fighting and fighting. Simply trying to not die. The whole galaxy could be at his fingertips, but he never had the opportunity before. He never even thought about having the opportunity before.
He looks down at his cards to see an ace and a ten, exactly what he needs to win the round. Takaki makes his bet, waits, and then feels relieved when he actually wins and the dealer pushes the chips towards him. He’s about to play the next round when it suddenly occurs to him to quit while he’s ahead.
Maybe, a quiet voice whispers in his head, he should quit everything while he’s ahead.
He’s had a taste of living again; he’s been reminded what emotions are like. He can’t go back to feeling nothing. He can’t be the perfect soldier anymore.
He thinks of Hikaru’s clear eyes, his confident attitude, his desire to simply make Takaki smile.
That’s where Takaki wants to be. Right by his side.
He leaves the casino behind after he looks carefully for the familiar fedora and the shock of bleached hair underneath. He knows it may be impossible to find one person amongst all the people passing through the space station, but he’s got to try. He walks through the halls of the station like he’s completing a mission that his life depends on.
And then, right when he is about to double back and search the casino again, he sees Hikaru. All alone, leaning against a railing by a window, gazing out at space ships passing by and all the stars in the distance. The image is so pure and simple that it almost feels like he’s looking at a painting capturing a moment in time. He’s a little hesitant about approaching because he doesn’t want to spoil it. But here are all these feelings again, all these emotions. And one of these feelings is happiness. Maybe.
That’s a new one.
“I’m beginning to think you’re right about me having good luck,” Takaki says as he leans against the railing too. He wants to sound as confident as Hikaru, but his heart his pounding in his chest anyway. “I found you.”
Hikaru’s face looks so bright. “I didn’t expect to see you again.” He rushes forward to hug Takaki, but hesitates at the last moment. “Did you come to fly away with me?”
Takaki nods, and that’s all Hikaru needs to move the rest of the way forward, wrapping Takaki in a warm embrace. Takaki kisses him because he doesn’t know what else to do with all these overwhelming emotions. He feels like his whole body is on fire even when he pulls away to breathe.
“Are you sure about this?” Hikaru asks the question like it’s merely an obligation and he already knows the answer. He’s already grasped Takaki’s hand, tangling their fingers together, like he doesn’t want to let go.
He nods. Takaki doesn’t want to do anything else but travel the galaxy with Hikaru. There’s no going back now. There’s no time to feel regrets about the responsibility he’s fleeing. These feelings worked their way under his skin and permanently settled in his heart. He isn’t going to be a soldier anymore. He’s just Takaki. Takaki…
“Yuya,” he says out loud.
Hikaru tilts his head.
“That’s my first name,” he explains. It’s been so long since he’d heard it spoken out loud, he felt like he’d almost forgotten it.
“Okay then, Yuya,” Hikaru says, with the most radiant grin he’s ever imagined. “Let’s go. Come fly with me to the moon. I’ll show you the most fantastic ocean you’ll ever see.”
He’s not used to feeling excitement, but here it is, making itself comfortable in the pit of his stomach. These feelings are so strange, but he’s ready to explore them. He even pulls the corners of his lips up into a tentative smile which becomes easier and genuine when Hikaru smiles back at him while tugging his arm towards the space dock.
The adventure of his life is just beginning.