I can hear the sound of the snow crunching underneath my feet, even despite the winds raging between the trees.

This place is so beautiful in the summer... The enclosure of trees provides sanctuary from the gaze and the sounds of teachers and students. The leaves have since fallen, and now the copse seems bare, almost skeletal. Still, though... with the snowflakes falling dreamily from a bleached white sky, I think this place is more beautiful than ever.

That's why I chose this place. This is where I want things to begin.

The freshly fallen snow is almost pristine, save for a single pair of footprints into the woods. I feel a flutter in my chest, and focusing on the metronymic sound of the snow crackling under my feet is the only way I can keep from losing my resolve. As it is, I know I'm almost twenty minutes late. It took me that long simply to conquer my own anxieties.

I must have thrown away ten drafts of that note before I was finally able convince myself that one was flawless. Even then, I couldn't work up the nerve to deliver it myself. I handed it over to a friend. That was this morning. I've hardly been able to concentrate on anything else since that moment.

I finally see him, facing away from me, breathing into his hands to fight the numbing winter cold. The sight of him causes my heart to race, and despite the biting winds, I can feel my face get hot with embarrassment. He's freezing because I've kept him waiting out here for half an hour.

Not a good start. I almost lose my nerve and turn around, but the same anxiety that makes me want to give up is also paralyzing me, keeping me bolted to where I'm standing.

No. There won't be any turning back.

"Hi... Hisao? You came?"

A stammering, painfully obvious question. I internally wince at my words. Didn't I have something else to say? Didn't I practice something? Why can't I remember?

I feel my heart skip a beat as my voice reaches his ear and he starts to turn around. His eyes meet my own and I momentarily forget not to look like I'm completely petrified.

He starts to say something, and my heart begins to race even before he's finished his first sentence.

I don't think I even hear what he says. All I can focus on is the tenor of his voice. I recognize what's in his hand, though. The eleventh draft. The note I haven't seen since this morning.

"Ahmm... yes," I say, as if I'm still somewhat uncertain, "I asked a friend to give you that note..."

Smile, stupid. Smile. Don't look terrified.

"I'm so glad you got it."

This time, he doesn't say anything. He seems... dumbfounded. I start to feel like an idiot. My heart is pounding now, hard, as though it were striking me in protest, chastising me for being a fool.

After what seems like a century, he finally speaks again. "So... ah... here we are. Out in the cold..."

Again, the wind begins to roar through the woods. I feel it brush against me and I can't help but flinch against the force of it. In truth, I'm not dressed for this weather, though I don't feel cold at all, anymore. I stand up straighter, despite the wind.

His eyes are earnest and excited. A part of me never would have dreamed the two of us would be here, having a moment like this. My heart thumps anxiously, each beat sounding with greater and greater urgency. I can't... what was it I was going to say to him?

My throat is tight; speech is a challenge, now. Determined, I will myself to force out the words.

"Y," I gasp, "You see..."

thump

"...I w, I wanted to... know..."

thumpthump

"...if, yyyou'd g, go out with ME..."

He stand there, motionless, and I see his eyes wash over with... apprehension? Horror? I think I've done something wrong; whatever it was, I know I must say something else, but... I suddenly realize it's gone. My voice... There's something wrong with my voice...

"...Iwanako?"

Without warning, my throat erupts into pain.

I try to clutch my neck, to quell this inferno spreading into my chest, but as I try to move my arms they wail in protest...

"Iwanako?!"

thump

My whole body goes rigid, betraying me, except for my eyes, gently trembling with fear.

thumpthumpthumpthump

"IWANAKO!"

Then the building pressure in my chest dies away. I break apart onto the virgin snow.

This beautiful wood, where I wanted everything to begin — the obsidian trees, the howl of the wind, Hisao running towards me — all of it fades to white. The last thing I remember before the world goes away is the feeling of his hand on my cheek and the snow against my bare skin...