The air tastes like frost and snow; the stars look down distantly from a cloudless sky. They shine brittle in their icy brilliance, and oh so bright. Beneath their impassioned gaze, the city glitters and glows with light and life. And along the bright streets below, two couples walk home together after an evening out.
"Double date, double date!" chants Ai giddily, in badly-accented English. She swings Yota's arm back and forth like a pendulum Their mittened hands are linked firmly together and their combined breath mingles, forming smoky plumes in the chill night air.
A step ahead, Takashi shoves numb fingers deep into his pockets. He hunches his shoulders resolutely. Taking double-steps to his long strides, Moemi slips her hand tentatively into the crook of his arm. He stiffens, then accepts, resigned to her touch.
"We should do this again next weekend," Yota confides to Ai. "It was a good idea,"
"Of course it was," she boasts, giggling. "I thought of it!"
Yota smiles. It had been a good idea. Takashi had been stiff and distant recently, and Yota had worried about his best friend. But all of Yota's tentative advances had been met with polite, cool denial, and an assurance that he was just fine, thank you very much for asking. It just wasn't like him.
Tonight, though, Takashi had sprawled in his seat beside Yota in the movie theatre in his usual careless fashion, smiling and laughing. He'd looked happier than Yota had seen him in weeks.
One step at a time, the two lovers fall behind, hand in hand. Their whispering and giggles carry clearly in the cold air. Takashi stiffens further and quickens his pace, heedless of Moemi struggling to keep up. Her steps hasten to match his until she strains at his heels in a near-run.
"Takashi, wait, please!" she gasps. He stops suddenly, staring at the girl clinging to his arm as if wondering who she is and why she's there.
"What's... wrong?" she pleads, still short of breath.
"Nothing," he says, stony-faced. He looks away, refusing to bear the weight of her earnest gaze.
"I'm fine," he repeats emphatically.
"Are you sure?" she persists, hands clasped nervously together. "I mean--"
"What?" he snaps, patience wearing thin, hands balling into fists at his sides.
"I worry," she says finally, eyes downcast.
"Don't," he says flatly.
"Just forget it," he snarls in frustration.
"You can't expect me to just pretend there's nothing wrong," she cries angrily. "Even I can see it, and I don't even know you as well as Yota!"
"There's something wrong," Ai says suddenly, pulling her attention away from Yota's warmth at her side. Up ahead, voices are raised; inky silhouettes enact an all- too-real shadow play of anger and passion.
"Leave me alone!" Takashi cries, a heartfelt shout of rage, frustration, and pain.
Half a block away, Yota breaks into a run, Ai right behind him.
Takashi raises his hand viciously, a sharp, desperate swing. Moemi pulls back, stumbling on the icy sidewalk. Her eyes are wide with fear. And it is the fear, fear of him, that breaks through to reason just before Takashi's hand comes down, just as Yota throws himself in front of her with his arms flung wide.
"I..." He lowers his hand, staring at it as if it belongs to a stranger. He swallows hard, shakes his head slowly from side to side in denial, and bolts, thinking of nothing but the panicked need for escape.
"Wait." Ai lays a hand on Yota's arm. "I'll go after him," she says, firmly but gently. "You stay here with Moemi." And with that, she is gone, running with a speed and sureness he never suspected.
"I'm sorry," Yota says awkwardly, kneeling on the icy pavement besides the stricken girl. She huddles into herself and buries her face in her mittened hands, hot tears soaking into the rough wool. "He... I've never seen him act like that before... I..."
Moemi looks up, pulling one hand free of the mitten to wipe her eyes. "If you weren't so kind... and so good... and so... so... nice--" She holds up her hand, cutting off the denial forming on his lips. "I think I could almost hate you," she finishes thickly. His eyes mirror shock and puzzlement back at her. "But," she continues hurriedly, "I can't, I just can't!"
"But... but why?" he stammers.
"Because Takashi..." She swallows, suppressing another sob. "Because he only really relaxes when he's with you! I wish... I wish I were half as close to him as you are! Because you're his best friend and I... I don't even know why he's dating me!"
"But... why wouldn't he?" Yota protests, baffled. He pats her shoulder awkwardly, stumbling over the words in an attempt to convince her that she really is wonderful, gorgeous, and brilliant. Moemi shakes her head in a mute denial.
"Why doesn't he want me?" she chokes painfully.
Ai comes upon Takashi silently. He is sitting on the frozen riverbank, so still she almost passes him by. He stares speculatively at the dark water slipping by, a degree or two above ice.
"Don't you dare!" she says sharply.
He starts, and after a moment, speaks. "I won't." His voice is flat and level.
"Why?" she asks. His heart makes her wince, so full of anger, hurt, and yes, love. "What are you denying?"
"Go away," he grates.
"No," she says simply, settling down beside him. They sit silent for a long moment. Finally, Takashi takes a deep breath, frozen air like icy knives in his lungs.
"I used to think I hated her," he says bluntly.
"Who, Moemi?" Ai blinks.
"But," he continues, picking restlessly at the frost- brittle grass, "I keep telling myself I'm dating her because it makes Yota happy."
"Is that any good if it makes you miserable?" Ai counters.
"It's better than nothing!" he retorts, pounding a fist into the ground in frustration.
"You don't deserve it and neither does she!" she cries sharply.
"What other choice do I have?" His voice catches with suppressed emotion.
"Who do you love, Takashi?" she says quietly.
"Not Moemi," he says evasively. "I wish I could. That would be such a nice, clean solution to everyone's problems. Yota thinks so." He stops, rubbing his eyes wearily. "He's so noble and self-sacrificing and naive I could shake him," he says bitterly. "He was so sure that the two of us would be happy together that he damn well forced her on me. And after I watched her, watched her break his heart as she babbled on to him about how much she loved me. She never thought that she could be turning him inside-out, that he might really love her. I could hate her for that alone, if it weren't that... that all the while..." His voice breaks. He takes a deep, shaky breath, and continues, needing to say the words out loud. "Yota was doing the same thing to me."
"I see," Ai says softly, her suspicions confirmed.
"The little love-sick idiot," Takashi says angrily. "He tried... he tried to give up everything he wanted so that the girl he loved and his best friend would be happy, even if he wasn't." He swallows. "I don't want her," he says thickly. "All this time, Yota's even said it himself, 'But Takashi, you don't like girls.' He never asked who I do like, then." He closes his eyes against the pain. "I'm only doing it for him." Tactile memory hits him hard, Yota's knee warm and unnoticed against his as he slouches in his seat at the theatre.
"Ohhh, Takashi..." Ai says, her own heart aching in sympathy. His stoic façade crumbles in the face of her compassion, and he buries his face in his hands, choking on a strangled sob. Ai, helpless and hating it, rubs his back soothingly and murmurs words of comfort. He tenses under her touch and pulls into himself further, isolated in the agony.
After a few moments, he stifles his grief, and with one last shaky breath assumes his cool, detached demeanor. Ai frowns.
"Don't tell him," Takashi says abruptly, the pleading in his eyes belying his tone.
"Maybe it would be best," she says reluctantly.
"Can you see any good coming out of it?" he says bitterly. "No."
"I think you underestimate Yota," Ai says quietly.
"Do you really think he wouldn't pull away from me? Do you really think he wouldn't find some way to make himself sick with guilt over it?" he snaps. Ai stops, blinks, reconsiders.
"You're right," she says finally, though her heart aches to say it. "I won't say anything."
Yota and Moemi walk slowly, his arm around her shoulder for comfort. She is silent and holds her chin high despite her tear-stained cheeks, waxen in the moonlight. He points silently at the two figures approaching. She nods in acknowledgment. Ai pulls a reluctant Takashi forward by the hand. As they draw nearer, he fidgets restlessly, eyes fixed on the pavement.
"Go on!" Ai places one hand at the small of his back, shoving him encouragingly forward. He looks up at last, meeting Moemi's steady gaze. His eyes are dark with pain.
"We'll let you kiss and make up," Ai winks, grabbing Yota's arm and hauling him forcibly away. "Come on, Yota!" she hisses under her breath.
"What did you say to him?" he asks as she drags him off around the corner.
"Stuff," she says evasively.
"Stuff? What kind of stuff?"
"Emotional stuff," she says firmly, though Takashi's heartache still nags at her with a dull, sick pain. "And speaking of emotions..." She grabs him by the ears and kisses him soundly, the best distraction she could offer.
"Oh," he says faintly, finally.
" 'Oh?' Is that all you have to say? Why don't we let those two talk and try this again..."
And from around the corner, there is silence.
Takashi stares fixedly at a point just past Moemi's shoulder. "I..." The single syllable lingers in the wintry air. Moemi lifts a silencing finger to his lips.
"I know... you didn't mean it," she says softly. "I love you."
"I'm sorry," Takashi whispers brokenly in reply, uncertain whether it was the former or the latter, or both, that he is apologizing for.
"It's all right," she whispers in reply, reaching up to cup his face in her small, cold hands. He closes his eyes. On tiptoe, she kisses his forehead. "It's all right." And though he says nothing, they both know it's not. Above them, the stars glitter hard-edged and uncaring.