It's a precarious arrangement. Any wrong move and it could tip, fall right off the edge into nothing, carried off in the rolling waves. She knows this, logically, that things will not remain this way for long. But, no matter what excuses she gives, logic doesn't have much of a factor in this.
Anette hovers over her, arms pinning her in place on either side. Beneath her, her neck is craned up, back angled, supported by her folded elbows. She hadn't meant to fall, or had she? The taller girl doesn't say, but her eyes narrow, long lashes flutter and shut against soft cheeks. The two of them are cast in shadow in the dimly lit room, the sky bruised in deep blues and purples outside the window. Silence.
Her nose is filled with the scent of the other's shampoo as she follows in memory, barely thinking as her eyes shut in turn and they meet—slowly, deliberately—in the center. Lips mold against lips in a now familiar way, the angle allowing for them to come that much closer, seeking out more and more. A trace of cinnamon flavor still lingers, and she bites, enough for her to feel it but not hard enough to hurt. Though Yae would like it to; just where had she gone to eat that? Who was she with? What were they talking about?
She knows they're not dating. She's known that from day one, but “know” and “feel” are entirely different animals.
Soon her elbows are sliding from their perch, settling her onto the floor, and the other girl's smooth hands, long fingers are slipping under fabric, flirting with the skin of her waist. She pulls her closer with her right arm, wraps it round her as tight as she can. Anette's long and impossibly thick, wavy silver hair spills everywhere, and she thinks of her own, a dark pool around her back. She's always wondered how the taller girl does it, how she's always so stylish even when she's not trying to be, or so Yae can only assume. What exactly Anette is thinking, she can never really know, can she?
Their legs tangle and twist like knobbed branches not yet bloomed, of a season that may never come. She doesn't want to feel bitter, doesn't want to waste these precious minutes, but even as the other's hand cups her breast, she's wondering if this will be the last time.
Anette doesn't say anything. They have an agreement not to talk during these times; it would make things too complicated. Her finger slips as she unbuttons the other girl's blouse, drawing in a sharp breath.
Maybe, for now, she’ll give herself up to it.
It’s afterward, the room entirely dark now, and as she’s refastening her bra that Anette finally speaks. She’s holding a pillow to her chest, sitting with her long legs bent at the knee. Yae can’t see very well in the blackness, almost entire lack of light. She can only faintly make out the general shape of her, the line of her features, but not her face. Whatever expression she’s making, it’s unknown to her.
“Hey, Yae.” Her voice is plain and clear as day. As if she’s about to talk about the weather, or a new scarf she bought. “I’ve started dating someone now, so I think we should end this here.”
Her finger slips and misses the hook. The fallout is immediate; it’s more quiet than ever, vastly empty even with the two of them seated there. She feels strangely hollow, a knot forming in her throat. Of course she knew this day would come, had suspected it even earlier this evening, but… She hadn’t wanted to be right, not this time.
A smile makes its way across her lips, but she knows it won’t reach her eyes. This is a practiced motion, something she’s done countless times before. It’s simple to cover up her own emotions. As a lady, and as a future wife, she can’t let that get the better of her. So even as she sways, internally, dizzy from the shock, even as the other girl’s words echo in her ears, she only looks at her with that same, composed expression, and says, “That’s great. Who is it?”
Anette, naturally, doesn’t detect anything in her voice. She continues on, knowing nothing, seeing nothing but the cool smile on her face. After all, they weren’t dating. Why should she care if her, by all accounts, friend got into a relationship with someone else? It shouldn’t matter to her.
But it does all the same.
“A boy from Seiou. He’s a year younger than us, actually…” She hums softly, tapping her feet. “It surprised me, you know. He came up to me and asked me straight out. Really direct, I kinda admire that.” Of course it’s a boy. She knew this, but hearing it said out loud twists the knife right in.
“You accepted that quickly?” she says instead. It shouldn’t matter this much to her. It was obviously all some kind of practice for Anette. Rehearsal, maybe? It doesn’t count if it’s with a girl. Why would it? The room feels chilly, and she tries to cover her bare arms, prickling with goosebumps.
“Hm? No, that’s just how it started. That was like, weeks ago, you know? I guess I just realized what a neat guy he is, and… Here we are now.” They’re just friends. That’s all they’ve ever been, benefits or not. Much as she tries to convince herself, hammer the facts in, it doesn’t help. She’s angry. If she could only confront her, but that wouldn’t do much good, would it? It certainly wouldn’t put the pieces back together. No glue can do that.
So she smiles and says, “I’m happy for you.” Maybe it’s better that the light is so scarce, because even she’s afraid of seeing her own smile right now.
Days, weeks pass. They see each other at school, and at club meetings, but not once outside of that. Anette seems constantly distracted. She can't focus on conversation topics or dance practice, her feet flubbing the steps, and she apologizes, but Yae can see her expression when her phone begins to ring. She can hear her tone of voice when she picks up and says his name. At these times, she doesn't stay. She'll say she has something important to do, some business at home, and leave. Anette never seems to notice.
But Hibiki catches on.
It's on a Thursday, when she's making plans with her boyfriend for the weekend over the phone. Her voice is higher, a bit faster, excited. Yae doesn't know what they're talking about, and presently, she doesn't care. So she gives the usual excuse, or starts to, but Hibiki cuts her off. She slaps a hand on her shoulder.
“C'mon, how's about we head over to that new shop that opened up?” she says. Yae looks at her and her wide, toothy grin with slight surprise.
“I don't know if I can,” she replies, “with my family how they are.” It's a half-truth. But Hibiki is sharp enough to see through, and she knows that. She sweeps a lock of hair behind her ear.
The redhead grips a bit tighter. “Aw, how about somethin' close to home then? Or just, y'know, a little detour?” She understands what her friend is trying to do; she's been seen through, even despite her cool exterior. How much the girl knows, she can't say, but it's enough to get her concerned. She doesn't know whether this counts as a defeat or not.
Anette looks back at the two of them. “Sorry guys, I can't today. Maybe another time?” And she returns to her phone call. Not that she was really invited, but of course, she doesn't say this. Nor does she ask when she plans to stop flaking off in pieces like some kind of crisp pastry. How many things has she left unsaid?
She looks at Hibiki again, and smiles in the usual way, her expression taking shape automatically. Is she human or machine at this point? But all she says is, “Alright, you win.”
It's later, when they've stopped to grab a bite to eat and rest, when her friend finally asks what she can only assume has been on her mind the whole time. Whether they were trying on accessories, which were really more Hibiki's taste than her own, or leafing through short racks of clothing, she got the sense the girl was trying to fill the air with chatter and jokes to lighten the mood. Now she abandons this, and brings the real topic up, straight out: “Noticed you've been kinda weird lately. What's up? D'you wanna talk about it?”
She hums aloud, eyes drifting out the window. It isn't that she can't look at Hibiki now, but that she doesn't much feel like it. It's not something she especially wants to talk about, not in a public setting like this, but can she really deflect it now when she's been asked about it so openly? It might be time to come clean, risky as it is. But their once tight knit trio is already pulling apart at the seams, how bad could one more tug be? In the end, all she says is, “Anette's real close with her boyfriend, huh?”
Hibiki, sharp as she is, doesn't get the subtlety of the statement. “She is! It's gettin' a little annoying. Like, when we're practicing and she gets a call and has to pick up? What's with that? Pretty sure the guy can wait ten minutes.” She's frowning as she recounts it, now wrapped up in the assumption that this is all friend stuff. That it has to do with their club only and nothing more. This view is natural, of course. It's not as if the actual situation at hand is normal or usual; she knows that well enough. “Yae?”
“Hm?” she says, finally looking back at the person she's supposed to be talking to. There's a concerned press to the girl's brow.
“You're spacing out again. Don't tell me this is what I think it is.” She feels fear in the pit of her stomach, inexplicably, but smiles it off. No indication.
“I don't know what you're talking about.”
Jingle. The sound of a door opening reaches her ears, and a voice like sweet vanilla echoes through the room. Her stomach churns. It's accompanied by an unfamiliar baritone, and the two sort of harmonize in their contrast, in a way that makes her feel instantly terrible. She can't make out what they're saying from where she sits, but it doesn't matter. All she can think is: why here? Why now? She had gone along with Hibiki to get away from exactly this. But there's only one path through the store, and they're coming ever closer.
“Oh! Didn't think I'd see you guys here!” It seems she's reached their table.
Hibiki is the first to speak, naturally. Her voice is light and carefree. “That's my line! Thought you were going off somewhere with the boyfriend.”
“I was, I was! But we decided to stop for something to eat. Can only be on your feet so long, y'know?” She’s got a grin on her face, wide as can be, and here Yae loses track of the conversation. Maybe Anette isn’t the distracted one. Maybe she is. She fights the urge to yawn and does her best to pay attention—no matter how she feels. The other two are now sitting at their table, chatting away. Hibiki glances at her briefly. Does she understand?
“Oh, Yae,” says Anette, finally addressing her. “Almost didn’t notice you there. You’re awful quiet.” It’s a light jab, a tease, but the normal way she says it turns the dull edge into something sharper. She smiles all the same. It’s as if she’s off on some island somewhere, seas too dangerous, unpredictable to allow the passing of ships. Or maybe it’s the wind. A coming storm? Anette continues, “You remember that one time? When we did that training camp thing.”
Hibiki jumps in, full of enthusiasm. “You mean…? That was great.” She breaks into laughter, doing a sweep of the hand as if wiping a tear from her eye. Anette’s grinning too, not that she had much to do with it.
“Never expected that from Yae! Like, you know...”
“Yeah, yeah! I totally get what you mean.”
She raises an eyebrow. It’s obvious what they’re talking about, but have they forgotten that she happens to be sitting right here? “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she says, looking at the both of them. It’s the first time she’s spoken since Anette arrived, already some time ago. Her voice feels a bit strange in her throat. “Could you explain?”
But she realizes something, in that moment: they’re baiting her. It doesn’t matter if they’ve momentarily annoyed her, so long as she’s talking and responding in kind. This takes her by surprise, and she’s left entirely wordless. It’s then that Hibiki slides in, takes the ball into her court. “Like…the whole scare with the ghost? Classic.” She nudges Anette with her elbow and gives her a quick wink. What’s their game?
“Oh totally,” is her confident reply, and she notices a bit late that the girl is looking right at her, eye to eye. She swallows, silently. “Yae was way cute, honestly. Who knew she had that kinda...endearing side?” ...When did it get so hot in here? She’s roasting in her skin, as if even now she’s still wrapped around her finger. And she can’t stand it.
The three of them glance aside, suddenly remembering the fourth person. The mood turns cold. He looks a bit awkward, but mostly just confused and annoyed, a furrowed brow betraying his yet unspoken feelings. His mouth is twisted and knotted unpleasantly. He hasn’t said a word yet, but already, she’s lost her patience. “I think I should go. Not sure why I’m here in the first place. It’s pretty obvious I’m not a member of your...club or whatever.”
Who does he think he is? Arrogant, self-important. She frowns. “You’re here because you’re dating Anette.” A pause. They’re looking at her, afraid, and she knows it. She isn’t stopping; lightning’s about to strike. “But obviously if you cared about her, you’d care about her friends too, wouldn’t you?”
He looks at her as if she’s just said something immeasurably stupid. “Why should I? I’m dating her, not her friends. I don’t give a damn about any of this.”
“So I suppose you’re just with her for her boobs, or something? Because if you actually liked her for her, you’d care about what she has to say and her feelings.” Ice cold on the outside, but a storm has brewed inside her, the wind now unrelenting. Her words pour like freezing rain and don’t hesitate to hit, hard. “But don’t mind me,” she says, pleasantly, cordially, “go ahead and say what you want to say. I’m sure your girlfriend won’t take offense.”
He grits his teeth. And then, all at once, he’s shoving his chair back to stand, and Anette starts to reach out, pulls back. She looks like she wants to say something, but for once she is silent. He speaks instead, just as prompted, or rather spits in his heightened anger. “I dunno whether you’re jealous or what, but I don’t really care. See you later.”
The clouds dissipate. He is gone and Anette doesn’t follow. Hibiki’s mouth is shut, has been this entire time. The laughter and mood from earlier is all but destroyed. It hits her in that instant, and she can hardly take it. How can she look her in the eye now? How can she act normally when she’s just single-handedly thrown a wrench in her friend’s relationship? That’s the key, after all. Anette has only ever seen her as a friend, and she’s crossed the line this time. She’s gone too far.
Yae stands. “I’m gonna go. My family and all, you know how it is.” She’s back to excuses, and she doesn’t care. It doesn’t matter. Turning on her heel, she begins to walk away, when she hears the clatter of a chair, feels a hand on her sleeve. Hibiki? Or…
“I’ll walk you there, at least some of the way.” A voice like vanilla, but she thinks she’s allergic now. Her chest pricks uncomfortably.
She’s stopped in place, her back to them, not knowing or understanding even the expression on her face. A moment passes, and she pulls her arm away gently.
“Do what you want.”
She traces over the memory in her head. Daylight waning, streets quieter than they’d been just an hour or two before, and they walked, their shadows stretched and pooling on the sidewalk. The air was mild and her fingers curled, brushing the folds of her skirt. A distance of feet felt like miles upon miles as she walked a step ahead, maybe two. She didn’t need to turn and look to know that Anette was following behind, but for once she wished she wasn’t. For once, she just wanted to be alone.
The tension in the air was tangible. She could feel it, taste it. It hung thick and tight and choked her heart. All that time, and she hadn’t said a word more. How could she?
But it was as they were about to turn a corner when she felt a hand on her arm, gently pulling her to a stop. It trailed down, down, met her own palm and folded around her fingers. Anette’s skin was soft and cool, her fingers longer, hand just a bit larger than her own. And she finally turned, “just to see” was her excuse, not spoken but wholeheartedly believed. Bluest blue eyes met brown.
“Yae...” Her voice was sweet and soft, and she remembered when that voice would whisper, close to her ear. She remembered when that voice would lift and leap. Here it hung like a note in the air, somewhere far away. She was always just out of reach, far enough that her fingertips would barely graze her, but at that moment she didn’t even try.
And she didn’t understand why Anette did.
“Yae, listen...” she said again. She searched for the right words as if fumbling in the dark, no longer the Anette they had known, that Yae had thought she’d known. Over-confident Anette, who always knew what to say, even if it wasn’t the most delicate, had lost all her words in one sweeping motion. Every single one. And she, Yae, in turn had misplaced her control and tact. When had they lost themselves like this? She wondered when it all went wrong.
“What is it?” she said after a pause, tone a bit too brisk for her liking, but there was no taking it back. Maybe, she thought, she should take the initiative and apologize. It wouldn’t fix what’d been broken, but she hoped it would at least clear the tightness in her throat. Her voice softened, curled around the edges. “...You know, I’m sorry for what I said back there. I was worried about you, but I shouldn’t have gone that far.”
Were the three of them there, Hibiki would crack a joke about her “heard once every hundred years” apology. As it was though, the conversation continued on without her. And she found that she sort of missed her in a strange way. In moments like these, she always brought the two of them together.
Anette slowly shook her head, and spoke. “No… I mean, it did get kinda intense back there, but you don’t need to apologize for that.” From the slight press of her brow, the softness of her eyes, it was easy to tell that her smile was genuine. Much as it confused her at the time. “I really appreciated it. I wouldn’t have been able to say those things like that myself, and… Honestly, I know I haven’t been showin’ it too well lately, but you and Hibiki mean more to me than any boy.”
The gentle touch of her hand. The subtle scent of cinnamon. It fills her nose, her senses. But she is alone in her room, swallowed in darkness and the slumbering moon. It’s so far into the night that everyone has long since retreated to bed, but she’s had some trouble sleeping lately, and so she lays there, tracing flowers into her pillowcase.
If Anette were here with her now, what would she do? What would she want her to do? If they could throw away all the unnecessary feelings and leave her boyfriend in the dark, what would happen? Nevermind the guilt for now; she’s allowed her thoughts. And right now, she’s thinking that she’d like to kiss her again. Before she’d always been uncertain, but if she had the choice, she would be a little more direct, a little more forward. Not only to touch, feel the slope of her waist, but to tease. She’d like to provoke her.
Her little known, seldom seen dominant side could come out then, pin her down, get revenge. She might feel her lips on her neck, or the graze of teeth on her shoulder. It’s a lonely fantasy, but she indulges herself just this once. Fingers slip, she inhales between barely parted lips, and the night goes on.
If only inside her head.
Things had started off so perfectly. She can still feel the traces of excitement, the thrill of a new relationship. But it’s all embers and ashes now, and she knows, understands that it’s impossible to rebuild a fire from burnt wood. So as she looks at him, eyes tracing over the smooth angles of his features, she tries her best to let that save it, let his deep voice echo in her ears and calm her feelings to a lull, a gentle rock-a-bye. It doesn’t work.
“Hello? Earth to Anette, you there?”
She blinks, shakes it off. She can’t doubt herself now. This isn’t the time for that, if there is a time. She went into this by her own will and she’s not about to chicken out just because things got a bit confusing. “Sorry,” she says, “I’m a little out of it. What’s up?” Keep it casual, don’t think too much.
His face turns sour at learning he wasn’t being listened to, but he washes it away with a sigh. “Your food’s getting cold. Thought you said you were hungry.”
“Oh...right.” She laughs strangely. She had been, hadn’t she? But now she looks at it and feels nothing, maybe a pang of disgust. It’s probably very good food, but she can’t bring herself to eat it. What’s with her today? And the day before, and the day before that. Maybe she’s getting sick, or something. “Um, actually, I think I might—” Stop and think. Think before you speak.
“Might what?” She avoids his eyes.
“I’m not feeling well, so I was thinking I’d head home for today.” She would stay, she really would, but there’s a twist in her gut and a tremble in her fingers that she can’t place. She’s not the type to fall to nerves, so it must be a cold, or… She’ll believe that it is, at least for now. It makes things easier. If she’s sick, then she can leave with no one the wiser, and delay it another day, another week. Until she can get her feelings sorted out.
His stare presses into her, but she doesn’t lift her head to see what kind of expression he’s making. She doesn’t need to know. “I’ve been meaning to ask… Do you wanna break up? Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’ve been really weird lately.” Her head snaps up.
She swallows, mouth suddenly dry. “I’m just confused, that’s all. I dunno...” His eyes narrow in response.
“Y’know, I’m not stupid. Ever since that Yae girl or whoever said that shit, you’ve been all flaky. If you don’t wanna date, that’s cool. Whatever.” His voice is cold and she flinches at the sound of it. Now is a terrible time for this. The timing, in fact, can’t have been worse.
Here it comes. “...Yae isn’t a ‘whoever.’ She’s a very important friend to me. I really didn’t appreciate how you talked about her and Hibiki that day.” She’d been trying to hold back, but he took the bottle and smashed it to pieces. She’d wanted to keep confrontation, conflict at bay, but…
Why is that? Doesn’t she pride herself in her honesty?
What’s happened to her?
“Here we go again. If your friends are that important to you, go and date them instead. Though I guess you’re not like that. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here.” It’s meant as a half joke, and he says it with a slight chuckle. But it’s not funny.
She looks at him in complete disbelief, willing him to say what it is he’s thinking. “Like what?”
He doesn’t answer, not directly. This annoys her considerably. “Look, I’m not gonna explain everything. I’m not gonna tell you who to be. It’s your call who you wanna sleep with. But just open up that damn head of yours and think. Maybe then you wouldn’t be so confused.”
Yae stood up for her that day. She spoke her mind without hesitation and gave him a verbal punch to the face. She could have made it physical—she’s stronger than she looks—but instead she put her words to use and made it clear she wasn’t okay with it. If five foot, baby face Yae can do that, then why not her? Why not now? The guy’s right: confusion is stupid and useless. Especially when she knows the answer already.
She stands from her chair. “I need to see Yae.” And, without once looking back, she’s out the door.
It’s been days since, the weekend now over, and the school day coming to a close. She’s made her decision. It took her some thought, but she needs to do what’s best for her; that’s the bottom line. And being in limbo like this doesn’t work. She opens the clubroom door, and while it creaks gently, it opens all the same.
Before she sees her, she hears her voice: “Yae! You’re here finally!” It’s brighter than usual, not offhand but wholehearted and spontaneous. She isn’t looking at her phone, and in fact, she can’t spot it anywhere in the room. No, she’s looking at her. “I tried texting you, but you didn’t answer. You okay?”
After everything had happened, she’d turned her phone off for the weekend. But she won’t say that. She won’t make things harder than they have to be. Except that seeing Anette’s smile like this is already raising the difficulty, and she isn’t sure how much more she can take. “Where’s Hibiki?” she says, without answering. She hopes the other girl won’t ask why.
“Oh, she said she’d be late today. Texted me earlier. So we can start without her for now.” The implication is clear: she’s to be alone with Anette today, at least for a while. Sneaking suspicion that it’s intentional on Hibiki’s part, but she doesn’t say this. Not that it matters now, anyway. She already knows what she needs to do. And if the cat-eared girl isn’t here when she does it, all the better.
Soft hum, and she speaks in a normal, usual tone. “I won’t be joining in today.”
“You not feeling well? We can take the day to rest, if you want,” she says after a pause, a quick blink.
She hates to do this, and hates even more how natural it feels. How easy it is to drop the final word: “What I mean is, I’m leaving the club. So I won’t be practicing today, tomorrow, or any time after that. I just came here to let you know.”
The smile drains from Anette’s face. Those blue eyes widen, lips part. “It’s...not April Fools, right? You’re not kiddin’ me, are you?”
Her boyfriend will be there. Hibiki will be there. Sure, she’s skilled at dancing, but many girls in their school probably are. It wouldn’t be hard to find a replacement. She needs space right now, because being with her like this only reminds her of all the things that went wrong. All the things now lost between them. “I really can’t be here anymore.”
“Tell me why. If you’re going to leave, at least tell me why. I know you aren’t this cruel.” The words are pleading, but her tone is firm, as is her unrelenting gaze. She begins to give.
She glances left, right around the room. It’s only the two of them, and the door is shut. “I told you I supported you,” she says, “but that was a bit of a lie. If you’re happy, then that’s all that matters, but under all that I felt betrayed.” Her voice begins to tremble. It’s strange, speaking about her true feelings now, after keeping them under wraps for so long. She hasn’t lost her cool yet, but her cover is starting to break. “Did that really mean nothing to you? That you could toss it away so easily? Because I can’t do that.”
Her eyes fall to the floor, her cheeks burning. The room spins and roasts her from the inside out. For once, she feels small. She wanted to let this go, to move on, but here she is bringing it all up to the surface again, and to the person she’d least wanted to see it. This side of her that she’d never wanted anyone to see, much less Anette. She never wanted to look weak. “I love you.”
Silence. It stretches on, makes the pounding of her heart ring in her ears. She can barely take it. When can she leave? When will this be over?
But Anette takes one step forward.
And before she knows it, the girl’s arms are around her tight and her face is buried in her chest, the height difference more apparent than ever. She grasps loosely at her back, lets her eyes relax and shut, and takes in her warmth and scent and being while she still can. Cinnamon and vanilla. “I broke up with that guy, you know,” she says, and Yae doesn’t understand. She isn’t dreaming, is she? “I realized something. You and Hibiki are super important to me, but… You, you’re…”
“Don’t tell me,” she says, a bit muffled and giving a sniff in between, “you’ve caught whatever this is too.”
Anette pulls away, but her arms, her hands remain, and Yae’s eyes no longer look at the floor but instead into her bluest blue eyes, which look right back. She doesn’t understand, even though all the signs were there, she tells herself in the end. She doesn’t know how things worked out this way, but she doesn’t care about all that. Or what they’ll say, do when Hibiki returns, although chances are she’s already figured it out anyway.
“Maybe I have. And, this is so cheesy, but… Wanna treat it together?”
“I just felt the urge to gag.”
She grins, laughs. “...Me too, honestly.”