STANDARD DISCLAIMERS APPLY. (No rights, will remove, etc.)
Kanae sat at the café table, clutching the neck of a huge sack of chocolates, watching Kyoko's expression grow brighter and brighter, matching the heat she could feel in her own cheeks. She wanted to yell at Kyoko to stop looking like that, to stop acting as though she'd just been told she was going to receive the Oscar for Best Actress…it was just a damn box of chocolates!
Mo! I don't think I could look that happy even if I was told I was going to receive an Oscar every year for the rest of my life! Kanae clenched her teeth, waiting. Kyoko had only just gotten the box open, having carefully untied the ribbon and then unwrapped the paper without tearing a single piece. What was she planning to do, have it displayed in a museum or something? It was taking all of Kanae's strength to keep from saying something snarky…something off-hand that would probably crush Kyoko's feelings even as it relieved Kanae's. She didn't want to hurt her friend…but this was just so unbearable. As Kanae had suspected, Kyoko was turning this simple thing into something huge.
Matsushima-san said I had to, or I'd get in trouble with the President! It was on the tip of her tongue, begging to be said. I had to pick someone, and since we're both in the Love Me section you were the natural choice...
She couldn't say that. Kyoko would be crushed. Oh, but she wanted to! Anything to put an end to the blistering embarrassment. But in the end she knew the guilt would be even worse if she hurt Kyoko like that.
"Moko, these are so beautiful," Kyoko breathed at last, eyes sparkling madly as she lifted them back up to Kanae's face. The Sparkly Eyes of Doom, as Kanae thought of them. They were huge, glowing, and as glittery as a little girl's fairy-princess costume. "They look so delicious! I…I can't believe you got me chocolates for Valentine's! You said it was a waste of money! Did you change your mind and decide to give them out anyway?"
"Of course not," Kanae snorted, so derisive of the idea that she would spend money on strangers and co-workers she cared nothing for that the truth just burst out of her. "I wouldn't pay money to give lumps of fatty sugar to people I don't really even know, let alone care about. I only got these ones."
It wouldn't have seemed possible but Kyoko's face brightened even further. Her expression was so aerial that Kanae was starting to seriously wonder if Kyoko was going to levitate right out of her seat. Stupid! Kanae's brain screamed at her. Why did I have to tell her that?! Mo! I am such an idiot!
"Stop it!" Moko cried, trying to sound disgusted or outraged, but in truth she was pleading. The embarrassment of the situation was agonizing. Why did Kyoko have to make such a big deal out of these things? And why had she subjected herself to this when she knew what the result would be? There was any number of people she could have foisted a little box of chocolates onto, to fulfil the president's expectations that everyone have someone to give to on Valentines, yet the only person she'd been able to bear spending the money on had been Kyoko. Even though she'd known a scene like this would be the result. "Your eyes are going to fall out of your head if you don't quit it!"
"You're only giving them to me?" Kyoko repeated, her voice quivering along with her wobbly, starry eyes. She was starting to tear up…yes…there they went! Big, fat, sparkly tears, welling up and over her lashes. Kanae groaned, so embarrassed she wondered if one could experience a fatal overdose of the stuff. She looked around desperately, but there was no help anywhere, and if people were glancing occasionally there was nothing she could do about it anyway. "Oh, Moko…"
"D-don't make such a big deal of it," Kanae said stiffly, trying desperately to look and sound cool and composed. She took a risk, knowing the situation couldn't get much worse. "We're best friends, so it's only natural, right?"
To Kanae's profound relief, after an instant of blinding happiness, Kyoko nodded, the brilliant light of her aura subsiding a little as she solemnly reached into her bag and pulled out a two by two inch box and held it out in both hands.
"I have one for you as well, to thank you for being my friend," she said with solemn sincerity. "I made it myself…just one big chocolate, since I know you don't like to 'waste calories', Moko, but it has all my heart in it."
Kanae's cheeks heated again, and she sighed, accepting the box and focusing on opening it to give herself an opportunity to get her expression back in order. She stared in amazement at the extra-large single heart-shaped chocolate she found in the little box. It was milk chocolate, with swirls of lighter milk chocolate, white chocolate, and an almost black chocolate decorating it in an incredibly detailed filigree pattern. If it hadn't been almost two inches square, an inch thick, and made of chocolate, it could have passed for jewellery. Nice jewellery.
What the hell? Kanae's brain had gone blank for a moment. It's gorgeous.
"Wow," she said, unable to find any other words. "I-it's so fancy…"
"Of course, because it's for Moko!" Kyoko said cheerfully, her hands clasped together in anticipation. "I told you, it has all my heart in it. I know you might not want to eat it all, but please take a little bite…"
It seemed a shame to do so, but Kanae bit into it automatically, helpless to resist, feeling like she was under some kind of spell. Every one of her taste buds experienced some sort of spontaneous overload after the chocolate touched them, but she barely noticed…she only swallowed out of habit, even, as she was too busy staring at what she could see now that she had bitten into the pretty heart.
Inside were layers of white, light, medium and dark chocolate, and between each layer was a gleaming thread of gold, no wider than a hair. Gold leaf, her mind supplied. Kyoko had put gold leaf between each layer. Gold leaf was so incredibly thin that the actual amount of gold in the chocolate was very low and perfectly edible, but still…it would have tripled the cost of making it, maybe more…and it was beautiful.
Kanae was speechless, even in the face of Kyoko's tense anticipation.
"Do you like it?" she prompted hopefully.
"It's delicious," Kanae admitted helplessly. "And it's really pretty. Kyoko…how did you do this?"
"Oh, it's not that hard if you're patient…you just have to start with the tiny centre chocolate, paint the gold on, set the bottom of the next layer, set the smaller chocolate on it, fill the mould in over top of the small chocolate, wait for that to set, do the gold leaf again…and repeat until all the layers are done."
Kanae stared at the layers blankly. It had probably taken two hours of her undivided attention…and two hours was only because it was Kyoko. Had Moko been doing something like this it would have taken four or five.
"It's…so much work."
"I did my very best," Kyoko confirmed. "Because it's for Moko," she repeated. "I told you already: I put my whole heart into it because you're my best friend, Moko."
She did all this, yet she still got that excited over the little box of store-bought chocolates I gave her, Kanae thought, experiencing a very strange emotion. Embarrassment and guilt all mixed together with shame and a very peculiar, sharp kind of happiness that was as painful as it was pleasant.
This is why I never wanted to get into any kind of close relationship, she thought. It's so awkward. She'd grown up in a family that had sucked the life out of her. Good people or not, it didn't matter…they had had no regard for her privacy or her personal possessions. They had taken whatever they wanted of her money, her time, and her space and left her with next to nothing to keep to herself, and it had left her constantly feeling drained and exposed with no place to just live her own life. She'd sworn she'd never let anyone do that to her again, and yet…
Somehow she hadn't wanted to keep Kyoko at arm's length. She still couldn't put it into words, but instead of taking from her, Kyoko somehow added to Kanae's identity, to her strength and her sense of self. She even made Kanae feel like a better actress; she had seemed like such an ordinary girl when they'd first met, but it had quickly become obvious that Kyoko was anything but ordinary. She was very lucky, it was true, and she was a hard worker…to a degree that Kanae found both insane and inspiring…but she also had an inborn talent that Kanae couldn't help but be fascinated by. It was probably her very weirdness that made her so startling as an actress, making all her characters feel so fresh and compelling and real. Kyoko's approach to creating and acting characters was so different from her own that it was stimulating, causing Kanae to examine her own methods and revise them where she thought necessary. She liked that. And it was flattering, that Kyoko put so much weight on Kanae's opinions as an actress.
And even though to be so obviously and even publicly loved was so embarrassing it made her want to die…she didn't hate it. She had tried to hate it, but some stubborn little part of her persisted in finding it endearing, though she would bite her tongue off before she'd admit it.
She did hate the awkwardness, though. She hadn't been made for this kind of friendship! She wasn't equipped to respond in kind, and she knew she ended up hurting Kyoko far too often, but finding a balance between her pride and Kyoko's happiness was still hard, even after all this time. Sometimes it was downright agonizing…yet the idea of giving up the effort never occurred to her.
"Rather than eating it, I should have it cast in resin or something," Kanae said, still keeping her eyes on the chocolate and trying not to look directly at Kyoko much, as she was afraid of catching her eyes. "Honestly, are you an actress or a chef? Do you want to work as a chocolatier, now?"
"I just wanted to do my best," Kyoko said again. "You really like it?"
"Yeah," Kanae conceded. It was hard to be honest, but this much she could manage. "I like it. It's…it's really beautiful. I really feel like I shouldn't eat it." She set it on the table and pulled out her phone, quickly snapping a picture of the chocolate from the top and the side, where she'd taken the bite. No one would ever believe it, otherwise. Not that she was going to tell anyone! But…it seemed criminal to eat such a thing and leave no evidence of it in the world. It was too pretty to destroy that way. Kyoko was flushed with happiness again, and Kanae sighed. She was glad Kyoko was happy, but it surely was embarrassing. "We need to get going, though; we have this whole lot left to give out," she gestured in disgust to the two sacks between their feet, full of little boxes of chocolate from the President to…well, everyone. Everyone at LME that the president wasn't able to deliver to personally, at least.
"Okay," Kyoko agreed, finishing her coffee and standing up, grabbing her sack of chocolate and slinging it over her shoulder along with her bag. "Thank you for the chocolates, Moko," she beamed.
"You're welcome," Kanae muttered, uncomfortable. "Th-thanks for mine, too."
"Hey, Moko…" Kyoko said as they were leaving the café and starting down the hall. "Can I hold your hand?"
Every hair on Kanae's body stood on end.
"What?!" she squawked, hoping she'd heard wrong.
"I saw it on a TV movie, once!" Kyoko explained, her expression immediately becoming plaintive, complete with puppy-eyes. "The main character had a really close friend and the two girls were always holding hands, it was so cute, they looked so happy…I just wanted to try it, once. It's in illustrated books sometimes, too. Just for a minute, even!"
"No way, that is so gross! I can't believe you would want to…are you crazy? Even if it ever happens, it must be between children only! Grown up women do not hold hands!"
"Why not?" Kyoko complained, looking disappointed.
"B-because…" Kanae spluttered, unable to believe she was being asked to explain something so obvious. "It's just ridiculous, that's all!"
Kyoko's expression was so downcast that Kanae felt a little pang, but this time she refused to give in. There was only so far she was willing to go, even for her best friend!
"Oh, it's Tsuruga-san," Kyoko noted a moment later as they turned into a new hall. The only other people in the hall were all the way at the other end of the longest hall in the building, barely more than little oblong blobs in the distance. Kanae squinted.
"How can you tell?"
Kyoko looked surprised. "It's obvious, isn't it?"
It was another thirty seconds before Kanae was able to see how tall the 'blob' had to be and therefore conceded that it was indeed Ren Tsuruga. She glanced at her friend. Kyoko was wearing a slight smile, but it wasn't anything suspicious. Still…Kanae was suspicious. Kyoko seemed to have no idea how often she spoke of Ren Tsuruga, or the sort of expressions she sometimes wore when she did so. It wasn't glaringly obvious, but Kanae knew Kyoko too well not to have begun to wonder.
She didn't know Ren Tsuruga very well, but she had seen him with Kyoko a few times, and if she was a little suspicious about her friend's feelings for LME's lead actor, she was downright certain of his feelings for Kyoko. She'd had a chance to watch closely, and more than that, she'd heard of many of the great Tsuruga's doings from Kyoko herself, and he was far too concerned with Kyoko and everything she did to be thinking of her only as a kohai. And the way she'd caught him looking at her at the Christmas party! If she hadn't had any suspicions before, that would have been enough to go on right there. It was shocking that Kyoko hadn't realized it.
Then again, maybe it wasn't so shocking. Kyoko wouldn't notice what she refused to look for in the first place, what she'd block out of her sight even if she happened to glimpse it in her side vision. Still, it was clear to Kanae that Ren Tsuruga was in love with her best friend, and it grated. It grated because she could see Kyoko's edges being worn away by that guy, bit by tiny bit, the way the way the tide turned shells into sand.
Kyoko was the only real friend Kanae had had in going on 18 years, and it was maddening to think that she could so easily be taken away again. But that was what happened to friendships. Eventually love came along and overshadowed them completely, and even when things came even again, it was never the same.
"Do we have chocolates for them?" Kanae asked, looking at the list she had of the contents of her own sack. Tsuruga and his manager were now close enough to recognize by features other than Tsuruga's height.
"No; I'm sure that the president would give anything he had for Tsuruga-san to him with his own hands."
"Kyoko," Kanae said, a terrible impulse overtaking her. It was petty and embarrassing, yet she was suddenly diving into it, almost urgently. "Do you swear that those girls you saw on TV weren't little kids?"
"W-ellll…they weren't that little. They were about twelve…" Kyoko said reluctantly.
"I guess…I can hold your hand, just this once. Just for a minute, though! And for god's sake, don't swing them, okay? And no skipping! We're not on the good ship lollipop!"
Kyoko's face was so completely overtaken by delight that Kanae felt a little overwhelmed as she held out her hand. Kyoko took it eagerly, squeezing it as they dropped their clasped hands between them. Kanae tried hard to make it look natural and Kyoko was obviously doing her best not to do anything 'weird', but she was beaming ridiculously and Kanae couldn't help but feel the burn of embarrassment, though she swallowed it as best she could as Ren Tsuruga and his manager, Yashiro, approached.
Both men smiled politely once they were within speaking distance, and Kyoko paused to bow.
"Good afternoon, Mogami-san…Kotonami-san," Tsuruga greeted. Kanae nodded politely, as a kohai ought, and Kyoko straightened from her bow, her posture as perfect as always, except for the fact that she was still holding Kanae's hand. She was showing no sign of letting go.
"Long time no see, Tsuruga-san, Yashiro-san. On your way for lunch?"
"Yes we are; would you like to join us?" Tsuruga's manager asked.
"We've just been," Kyoko replied, shaking her head. "And we have hundreds of chocolates still to deliver, so we have to keep going. I hope we'll see you again soon."
"Later, then," Tsuruga agreed with a smile that was too warm to be 'charming'. "Don't work too hard, Mogami-san." Kanae wondered if the man had even noticed that he hadn't included her in the farewell. They started to walk forward and Kanae shifted her sack subtly so that their hands could be seen from behind.
"It's been a minute," Kyoko murmured quietly. "I…guess I should let go now…"
"No, it's okay…it's not as weird as I thought, since no one's looking. You can hold on for another minute or two," Kanae muttered, glancing behind her, to see if Ren Tsuruga was still watching.
He was, and wearing a complicated expression, too…one that showed affection and frustration and a myriad of other emotions too subtle for her to read, knowing him as little as she did. Kanae smiled, not exactly at him, but not exactly to herself, either. He caught the look and cocked his head in speculation, but Kanae didn't care. As things were, there was nothing he could do.
If she wants you in the future, I won't have any choice…I'll have to let her go, Kanae thought, slowly pulling her gaze from his and facing forward once more. But if you want her hand you're going to have to pull it out of mine first, Ren Tsuruga…I won't just let you take my place at her side.
After all, as embarrassing as it was to admit…even if she was never able to say it out loud…it was precious, that hand. More precious than even Kanae's pride. She was going to hold onto it for as long as she could.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is a sort of companion piece to At His Back. "Why are you writing a companion piece to your least popular fic?" you are probably all asking. Well, because I like At His Back even if all anyone wants to read is Ren x Kyoko and therefore skips Yashiro-centric stuff or the non-fluffy stuff, and because this let me express thoughts and feelings I am very familiar with, personally. I think it is something most women experience, eventually…a fight between struggle and acceptance, when it comes to one's best friend and the man they know is eventually going to take her away. Because even if he's willing to share, it's never quite the same. And I get a bit warm and fuzzy over how clearly Moko really does love Kyoko, yet struggles with being able to accept it. So please take this as it is. I can't do 100% Ren x Kyoko all the time, you know. :)
And yes, I know the Oscars are American, but I don't know the Japanese equivalent so I'm sticking with it. :)