Part 2: One Shade the More

Saturday, December 27th, 200X
Akihabara, Tokyo
9:55 PM

This isn't working...

Taishi pocketed the quickly-cooling can of coffee, rubbing his hands together and breathing into them for warmth. His eyes were still moist from the tears that hadn't yet fallen; something was just holding them back. The snow had heavily dusted his overcoat. Still, he felt nothing of the temperature sitting on his bench in Akihabara.

It would be nice to cry, he thought. To just abandon the way the world sees me and sob like a child. What I wouldn't give to not care about the outside... what I wouldn't give not to have to worry about the way others see me. What I wouldn't give to be able to stand on my own...

Taishi shivered again, tightly closing his eyes at a briskly cold wind blowing snow through the streets. He ducked into a side street off of the windward main road, finding himself looking up at familiar signs.

"Looks like I ended up in my old stomping grounds..." Taishi mused to himself, staring at the Cosmix Café sign. "Might as well keep walking... the last thing I need now is human contact."

I don't want anyone to be able to make me feel worse. As if it could get worse. No people, no worries, nothing.

Staring back over his shoulder, Taishi turned around back to the street, but as the snow picked up and spun in cyclones, driven onwards by colder and colder winds, the thought of walking around outside and alone became less and less appealing.

Fine. I'll warm up, have a cup of coffee, and go home. What a Saturday night this turned out to be...

"Hi, welcome to Cos—oh!" a familiar voice greeted as Taishi walked through the door of the café, kicking the snow off of his shoes in the verenda.

Be as normal as you can. Don't let them suspect anything.

"Comrade Reiko, how good it is to see the café still fares well under your expertise," Taishi said with a grin and a mock nod of approval.

Reiko Haga grinned wryly, rolled her eyes, and adjusted the cat ears she was wearing as part of her costume. "Nice to know you approve, Kuho-kun," she said. "What do you think? It's Excel Saga today; I drew Ropponmatsu II."

"Ah, the fusion of genki, catgirl, and seifuku girl," Taishi remarked, rubbing his chin and looking Reiko over appraisingly. "It's quite becoming on you, comrade."

"Thanks!" Reiko said with a confident smile. "It's just a couple old throw-togethers, but it worked out OK. You just here to say hi, or do you want a table? Maybe something to go?"

"A table would be perfect," Taishi replied.

"Well, you've got reign of the place," Reiko said, spreading her arm as if to show off the empty café. "Go ahead and sit wherever you like; you still like café latte?"

"You know me far too well, my sister," Taishi proclaimed. Reiko responded with a wink and a half-salute.

Taishi scanned the café as Reiko went into the kitchen. Good, nobody but one other person, he thought, noticing the back of a head in the far corner booth. He took a booth a space or two away from the occupied one, his back to the only other person in the café, and he tossed his jacket on the far edge of the table.

What am I doing here, anyway... Taishi thought, propping his chin in his hand and staring into space. I've been rejected. Shot down. All the coffee in Colombia won't change that now.

"I haven't had to worry about this yet..." Taishi said out loud in a low speaking voice to nobody in particular. "I've always been happy on my own, so content in leading my own life and accomplishing my goals. Why am I so sad about someone else not wanting to be with me?"

Taishi leaned his head on his folded arms on the tabletop. "This isn't fair," he said, sighing deeply. "Why not me? What am I doing wrong?" Sniffling gently, either from sadness or the cold, Taishi just stared at the stack of paper napkins on the table. "Yuu-chan... why not me?"

Taishi didn't hear the rustle of fabric rustling at his last statement. The slight sound was covered up by the sound of footsteps coming back from the kitchen. Taishi quickly sat up straight, grabbing a folded-up manga from his coat pocket and pretending to leaf through it.

"Café latte," Reiko said, placing two tiny pitchers—one filled with rich, dark espresso coffee, the other with steamed milk—and a mug in front of Taishi. "Anything else you need, Kuho-kun?"

"This caffeine will provide me all the energy I'll need, my eternal sister," Taishi said gratefully. Reiko bowed and withdrew.

"I'll be balancing the till if you need me. We're closing soon, but feel free to stick around for a while."

Taishi absentmindedly dumped three packets of sugar into a splash of the coffee and stirred it limply. I'll warm up, drink the coffee, pay, and go home, he thought as his spoon clinked against the ceramic mug.

"To think that for all the things I unload on other people that lead to success, I can't go to anyone when I'm down... not like I would even if I had the option..." Taishi sighed deeply. "Taishi Kuhonbutsu? Depressed? Angsty? They'd think it was a trick."

There was a clink of ceramic from a few tables back, another rustle of fabric, and light, gentle footsteps. Just as Taishi started to pour the hot milk into some of the coffee in the mug, he started stirring again...

"Um... Kuhonbutsu-san?" a soft, low voice quietly asked.

Taishi's body jumped a little at having been stealthily approached, which was not a good thing considering the small pitcher of piping-hot milk in his right hand.

"Hasebe-saaOOOW!"

Aya Hasebe's hands flew to her mouth as if to cover it up quickly, taking a step back at Taishi's shocked exclamation.

"Oh... Kuhonbutsu-san, I'm so sorry... are you all right?" Aya eked out almost frightfully, as if fearing retribution.

Taishi shook his hand off. "My sister, you gave me quite a shock," Taishi said wistfully, blowing on his hand. "It appears that this is a minor wound, though, not even worth worry."

"I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to scare you like that. Here, let me clean that off for you." With that, Aya reached for a handful of napkins from the tabletop with her left hand and took Taishi's hand in her free right.

What? Why does this feel nice?

Gently blotting up the milk from Taishi's hand, Aya let go and bowed deeply at the waist. "I'm terribly, terribly sorry, Kuhonbutsu-san."

Taishi didn't even notice Aya's apology. It took him a moment to shake himself out of a mild trance, simply staring at his wounded/gently held hand.

"Hasebe-san, don't worry about it," Taishi said with a smile. "All the flesh is still there, see?" He held up his hand and showed her both sides theatrically. "It will take more than hot temperatures to drown out the burning passion within my heart."

Aya looked up questioningly. "Burning... passion?"

"Yes!" Taishi exclaimed, springing to his feet explosively, back to his normal self. "The passion for all things dojinshi that is shared within the very walls of this café will not die so easily! The sprit of cosplay, the spirit of the dojinship... it burns with greater fire than any hot milk could extinguish!"

Aya straightened up and folded her hands at her waist as Taishi went on. Within a moment, he was invoking the spirit of Osamu Tezuka and standing with one foot on the bench, another foot on the table.

"Kuhonbutsu-san... um... is something the matter?"

"The matter?" Taishi asked, looking aside from his re-enactment of the struggle against the bourgiousie with a handful of sugar packets and a spoon. "Why ever would something be the matter, my eternal sister?"

"No reason..." Aya said shyly, looking down and to the side. "It's just that nobody ever comes here at this time of night on Saturdays... it's always been really quiet. I didn't mean to interrupt you..." she bowed gently again. "I'm sorry for having gotten in your way."

"No, wait, please don't leave, Hasebe-san," Taishi exclaimed, quickly leaping down. "I don't mean to interrupt whatever it was you were doing... but..."

I need to talk to someone. I need you. Please, Aya... if you could just listen, then please just listen...

"Um..." Aya said, looking back up at him. His John Lennon glasses could only partially shade over the deep, resonating green of his eyes, and she saw something other than the normal look in them. "I... I wasn't doing anything important..."

"Can I impose on you for your time?" Taishi asked rather quietly, his voice significantly lower and more intense. "It's just... I don't want to be alone right now."

"I..." Aya blinked her wide green eyes curiously. "I've never seen you like this, Kuhonbutsu-san."

"I've just had kind of a rough night," Taishi lamented, shaking his head. "You'll have to pardon me if I don't really care that much about dojinshi or world conquest all that much tonight. Besides, from reading what you write, I can tell that you know more about these things than anyone else."

"These things?"

"Emotions, human feelings..." Taishi said wistfully, looking down at the floor and tracing a circle with his left shoe.

I don't know what to feel...

"You've got something I don't, Hasebe-san. You know how to feel, how to understand feelings."

Where is this coming from? All this, all of a sudden...

Aya nodded, the nervousness on her face starting to fade. "Taishi-san, I think I understand," she said with a little more confidence. "I'm not great with this... but I can try to help..."

Taishi looked up at her more casual usage of his first name as she reached for her own steaming mug of coffee and sat down across from him. "What happened?" she asked.

"Just... just don't tell anyone, okay?" Taishi said, slumping into his chair. "If you couldn't tell, I'm not always like this, and I'd rather nobody knew about me in a state like this."

"Why not?" Aya innocently asked, cradling her still-hot coffee mug in one hand.

"Why not?" Taishi replied incredulously. "Look at me, Hasebe-san! I've been one step towards tears all night long, choking them back so I don't look like some fool who just got shot down!"

"I see..." Aya said, nodding. "So Inagawa-san wasn't interested..."

"You knew!?" Taishi said, banging his forehead on the table repeatedly. "Why didn't anyone ever tell me..."

"Hurting yourself won't solve anything, Taishi-kun," Aya said with some urgency, reaching across the table and catching his head in her hands.

Taishi froze in mid-bang, again not expecting the softness of Aya's gentle hands.

Why does this make me feel so good...

Aya moved her hands from the sides of Taishi's head to his cheeks, gently pushing his head back upright. "Taishi-kun..." Aya quietly started. "I don't mean to be rude, but you're getting dramatic again."

"Yeah..." Taishi said with a sigh. "I guess it's just what I do..."

"I hope you weren't like that around Inagawa-san..."

"I..." Taishi sighed, looking down into his latte. "I tried all I could. I didn't want her to be like Kazuki and I are... like friends. I didn't want her to think that I saw her as 'Comrade Yuu.' It's just... when I started, it was..."

"... too hard to stop, wasn't it..." Aya said quietly, staring into her coffee.

Taishi looked up at her. "You sound as if you've been in something like this before, Hasebe-san..."

Aya blushed deeply. "I... I suppose it's easier for you because you can be outgoing, Taishi-kun," she said, biting her lower lip briefly. "It's easier to be open to people... to have outward courage. But it's... at least you could get it out, Taishi-kun... you should be proud for that much."

"Proud of what?" Taishi said, propping his chin in his hand and staring lifelessly at the tabletop. "My only pride is that the woman I like won't like me back. I think I'd rather trade places with you, Hasebe-san."

"Taishi-kun..." Aya started. "What would you say if I told you the same thing happened to me?"

Taishi looked up. "You spouted propaganda while trying to confess your feelings for the person you liked?"

Aya shook her head, smiling. "I... it was before I met all of you, last year. Only I was a lot more obvious..."

"What did you do?" Taishi asked, looking Aya straight in the eyes, his own expression intrigued and open.

"Well... I really liked him. I mean, really liked him," she said, looking shyly into her coffee and stirring her spoon. "Just being in the same room as him made me feel special, just talking to him made me nervous... one day, I was idly sketching him looking off into a window, and it turned into my first dojinshi."

Aya blinked a few times, her eye taking on a moist sheen. "I... I wrote it, refined it, printed it, and dedicated it to him..." she sipped her coffee, swallowed deeply, and met Taishi's gaze.

"It was called 'Hazel Sunlight,' a play on the color of his eyes. It was just everything I had ever thought... how much I enjoyed being around him, how nervous I got... it was every single escapist dream I'd had of him, just sneaking glances at him during class, during lunch... and..."

"... he bought it?" Taishi asked quietly.

"While I was out getting lunch, the other circle at my table was watching my things... at Comic Ichiban..." Aya replied, taking a deep breath. "He was there... I know because the person watching my table saw someone pick up my book, leaf through it, throw it down in shock, and walk away, shaking his head."

"Hasebe-san..."

"I was hoping that he'd see it, of course," Aya said, looking down into her coffee. "And he did. He saw it, he read it, he understood enough. He saw 'For Takashi, with all my heart' on the inside cover. He saw the protagonist who looked almost exactly like me. He saw himself in it. He never spoke to me after that."

Taishi watched Aya's gaze sink deeper into the depths of her espresso. The dark, sweet coffee reflected Aya's image in its still surface, growing slightly cooler. It was all he could do not to reach over and take her hands in his right there, either out of solidarity or just plain desire for human contact...

I want to take her hand and help ease her pain. She doesn't deserve that. Nobody does.

"Hasebe-san... no, Aya-chan..." Taishi said, taking a deep breath. "I never knew... I never knew someone had ever been so cold and unfeeling towards you..."

"Well... part of me thinks it might have been for the better," Aya said, looking up at Taishi, the moist trail of a tear running down her cheek. "Because... because I couldn't tell him in words, I had to write it... and I ended up looking like a stalker, really," she said, laughing gently in spite of herself. "But... but he found out in the end, and... and then he knew, then we both knew, that it wasn't going to happen."

What an idiot he was. Nobody deserves that.

"I... I wish I could tell you something to make things better, Taishi-kun..." Aya said quietly. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you seem minimized, or to make things worse... I'm really sorry..."

Taishi reached into his suit coat pocket and pulled out a packet of tissues. He tore the top open and extended it to her.

"Thank you," Aya said, reaching for the tissue, blinking away tears and dabbing daintily at her eyes. "I... I guess I didn't ever really have the chance to tell anyone about all that..."

Taishi nodded. "I felt the same way," he said, reaching for a tissue of his own.

Now she has me shedding tears... and I was trying to be strong, too...

"I think you were braver than I was, Taishi-kun," Aya said with a sigh. "You were able to look Inagawa-san in the eye and tell her how you felt. You made the risk, you got it out there, and even after she turned you down... well, I never thought Inagawa-san would be the type to hold a grudge..."

Taishi held up a hand as if to say STOP. "Aya-chan, you overestimate me," he said. "I never actually told her."

Aya blinked. "Oh..." she said. "Then... what happened?"

"I..." Taishi said, taking a deep breath. "If you can tell your story, I might as well tell mine..."

Taishi told her everything. How he saw her, how he wanted to be with her, to be more than friends... how he had asked her out for coffee, how the evening had went...

"... and it was just as if it were another topic," he said, lamenting about how the rest of his night was spent wandering in the snow. "I hinted at it, she blew me away, and we just went on. Then I got to hold her... to feel her, to be in a situation as if I were embracing her. So close, so far."

Aya nodded quietly. "It never is fair how things turn out when they turn out like this..." she observed.

"You're telling me," Taishi said. "Then it ended up like this... and here we are, tied together by the red string of fate."

Aya giggled gently. "That doesn't sound like something a boy would say."

"I guess you haven't noticed I'm not your everyday boy, Aya-chan," Taishi said, laughing back at her.

For a moment... let's just laugh together...

"Hey, what's so funny over here?" a voice cracked from over at the cash register. Aya turned over he shoulder and Taishi looked up to see Reiko leaning up against the door in her street clothes.

"We've gotta close up, you two," she said, shrugging. "Sorry, but we'll be open tomorrow if you really need your coffee."

Aya turned back to the table to reach into her purse, but Taishi had already left ¥980 on the table for the two of them.

"I owe you for far more than coffee," Taishi said sincerely as he stood up and pulled on his jacket. "Can I walk you somewhere?"

Aya looked away and blushed. "Um... I live in Mitaka, so I'm just going to the nearest Isanko line station... you don't have to trouble yourself on my account."

Taishi shook his head. "At the risk of being dramatic, I think I'd just like to make sure you get there safe..."

Aya gently held up a finger to her lips and tossed her head back towards the door, where Reiko was putting on her coat.

"Let's just leave," she said in a whisper.

Taishi nodded.

She's right. Don't want any rumors to fly... but at this point, I don't care about my chances with Yuu anymore, so what's the point if I'm seen leaving a café with Aya?

Saturday, December 27th, 200X
CosMix Café
Akihabara, Tokyo
11:05 PM

"I'll see you guys later," Reiko said, heading off towards the Yamanote line station for Akihabara. "New Year's morning at Meiji Jingu, right?"

"Of course, my sister," Taishi said in his normal drama. "If the world were to stop spinning, I would defy all lack of gravity to be there!"

"Just stay bolted down, Kuho-kun," Reiko said with a wave. "I'm sure Aya-chan will make darn well sure you make it."

Aya covered her mouth with her hands, blushing madly. "I... um... well, I'd... um..."

Reiko winked and dashed off through the lightening snow.

Aya adjusted her tan parka, tossed her dark purple wool scarf around her neck, and pulled on her white gloves. "Sorry to keep you waiting," she said apologetically, looking up at Taishi. "I'm not very good with the cold." She looked up at him, cheeks red with wintry blush.

Taishi looked aside sheepishly. "No worries," he said shyly. "You look really... comfortable."

Aya smiled at him. "I feel comfortable... that is... well, not just from the cold, Taishi-kun."

Taishi grinned and shook his head. "I guess we're both fools, and what's worse than two fools feeding off of each other, eh?"

"Um... something like that," Aya said, smiling inwardly.

Well, I guess we're both a little vulnerable right now... but then again, Aya's felt this way for years... maybe she just feels better after all this coming out. Yeah, that's it. I mean, I know I do...

"Do you... do you feel a little better, Taishi-kun?" Aya asked as they walked towards the station, slowly enough to keep balance on the quickly-freezing sidewalk.

"Very much so," Taishi said, stretching his arms behind his head. "Just getting it all out... just talking about it made things feel so much better. I guess I'm still sad about it... well, I'm not happy, but... well, you seem to be well-adjusted enough after what you went through with Takashi. You're stronger than you may think or seem, Aya-chan."

Aya looked away and to the ground. "I'm not really that strong..." Aya said quietly.

"No, I think you are, Aya-chan. You were able to keep on making dojinshi, something that you always enjoyed, and to make them as heartfelt and understanding as ever. I still wish I could have your insight into the way people think..."

"But I'm not that insightful!" Aya blurted out, interrupting Taishi. She took a few quick steps forward, turned around, and looked Taishi right in the eye. "I couldn't find the right way to confess to Takashi... I couldn't make you feel better about Inagawa-san... all I can do is react, all I can do is find a way to keep pressing onward. I'm not strong, Taishi-kun!" she blurted, closing her eyes and shaking her head. "I'm not strong at all..."

Taishi reached out and grasped Aya's shoulders gently. She opened her eyes, starting to fog with tears, only to see Taishi's eyes tearing up as well.

I... I don't know what to say... but I won't be the next man to make Aya Hasebe cry...

"Aya-chan... strength isn't necessarily the ability to make a solution..." Taishi said. "It's... it's the ability to try. I mean, yes, to try, but to really be able to try... with all your honesty and desire to affect a resolution... to give of yourself, to risk yourself... and to be able to maybe make a difference..."

Taishi hung his head, not entirely dramatically. "I'm sorry, Aya-chan," he said. "I never was very good at expressing this sort of thing..."

"Well..." Aya said, wiping her eyes with the back of her jacket sleeve. "No, Taishi-kun, you're right... but... I think I just wanted to hear it from you, that's all..."

"Trying to extract the benefits of your teachings, comrade Aya?" Taishi said teasingly, pulling his hands back and making a tsk-tsk-tsk motion with two fingers.

Aya giggled, then took a deep breath. "Taishi-kun... will you close your eyes for just a moment?"

"Close my eyes?" Taishi asked.

She nodded. "Just close your eyes. I just need to do something... I promise I won't take too much of your time..." she tilted her head away, blushing. "Unless you'd rather just go home..."

"My eyes are closed," Taishi said, closing his eyes.

Do I... do I still want to be with Yuu? I'm just helping Aya, she's just helping me...

The coldness of the night sunk away with a mild shock as he felt two soft, gentle hands on his back and a sudden warm feeling over the front of his body. Taishi felt a tingle run up the small of his back and to his shoulders, and the feminine scent of lavender warmed the cold night with its presence.

"Just let me be like this for a moment, Taishi-kun... let me prove you right, that strength is giving of yourself when a risk is involved..."

Taishi kept his eyes closed as Aya embraced him, leaning her cheek against his chest gently. He kept his eyes closed, trying to keep his arms at his sides.

Do I hug her back? Do I just stand here? Do I kiss her? Twice in one night, and she isn't Yuu... but this feels so much closer... so much more special...

"A-Aya-chan, I..." Taishi whispered.

Aya let him go, and Taishi opened his eyes. "I'm sorry if that felt a little out of place..." Aya said, smiling gently and briefly looking away from him. "But... I think you're right, Taishi... I guess I don't know my own strength..."

"No, Aya..." Taishi said, shaking his head. "I think you're keenly aware... more so than you might hint at."

Aya looked up at the snow, which was slowly stopping. "Maybe that's how it is," she said. "But then again, maybe I knew it all along..."

"Aya-chan, what should I do?"

"What should you do?" Aya repeated, still looking up at the snow. "Do you love Inagawa-san? Would you spend the rest of your life with her if she asked you right this moment? Would you raise children with her? Would you love her every day you were together?"

"That... that might be a little much..." Taishi said reluctantly. "I mean... I like her... but I don't know if I love her..."

"Then you already know what you should do," Aya said, turning around and looking Taishi right in the eye. "You either wait in the wings, pine away, and let it get to you... or you realize that Taishi Kuhonbutsu existed before Yuu Inagawa and he'll still exist after Yuu Inagawa."

"It's just so hard..." Taishi said, rubbing his ungloved palms together, breathing into them for warmth. "You know how it is... how long did it take you to get over Takashi?"

"Taishi-kun, if your hands are cold, you warm them up, don't you?" Aya asked.

"What?" Taishi replied quizzically, looking at his own hands. "Of course..."

"Then why don't you warm your heart back up if it's feeling cold?"

Taishi sighed, his breath steaming in the cold night. "It isn't that easy for me to do..."

"Do I have to ask you to close your eyes again, Taishi-kun?"

"Um..." Taishi blushed slightly. "Aya-chan, I..."

"That's what I'm trying to get across to you, Taishi-kun. Sometimes, we can't heal ourselves completely. If strength is risking, then you need to be strong by risking your image and reaching out to the people who care about you..."

Taishi froze in mid-stride as they were walking. Pondering just for a moment, he watched Aya's back as she went a few steps ahead of him. As her dark raven hair undulated in the cloudy, cold night, he watched her walk just for that moment. As she turned to face him, he found himself dumbstruck.

Why do I feel like this now...

How could it turn to this so quickly? Why have I been thinking of her like this... and why do I want her to hug me like that again?

"Aya-chan..." Taishi said, taking the few steps between them to stand facing her.

Aya smiled gently, sincerely, her green eyes moistened by tears from the cold.

"You don't know how right you are..." he said, leaning down and to the side, kissing her gently on the cheek. "Thank you."

Aya immediately blushed and touched her cheek gently. "T-Taishi-kun..." she said breathily.

Taishi smiled. "My sister, you don't know your own strengths that well, do you?" he asked, some of his normality rising back up again.

"I suppose I don't..." Aya replied quietly, still blushing, her smile stuck on her face.

"Let's get you home," Taishi said dramatically. "For the masses seek shelter, and in many ways, those masses have their wisdom."

"Yes..." Aya replied. "But... just before we go anywhere..."

As Taishi turned to look at her, he felt Aya's gentle hand around the inside of his forearm, grasping it gently. She looked up at him, smiling... "I hope you don't mind..."

She... she feels it. She feels the same thing I do.

Am I happy... was I just after the feeling... or... was I just after her?

"If I minded, I'd be dumber than Takashi," Taishi replied, smiling at Aya. "Shall we?"

"Yes."