The night is, by all accounts, a perfect one.
After two years of winning the Professional Ballroom title at Blackpool, Hyoudou and Shizuku have finally been usurped by none other than herself and Tatara. To finally, finally, beat their longtime rivals?—it's a pleasure that is bittersweet. More sweet for her, and more bitter for Tatara, she suspects, who reveres their friends/ rivals as much as he did when he began dance.
Still, the laughter is big and the smiles are bright at dinner that night. It's a scrappy affair at a Korean barbeque, where the lightbulbs hang bare from the ceilings and the booths are wooden, smoothed from years of wear. The sizzle of the grill is tireless beneath their chatter, and the familiarity in plucking meat straight off the grill and popping it into your mouth is something that only the six of them can do together. Liquor flows freely, though maybe less so in Mako's direction—Gaju has become even more famously protective over the years now that his sister is a bona fide beauty. Mako tolerates it half of the time.
They toast in celebration of her and Tatara's victory, along with Mako and Gaju's—they had taken the Professional Latin title—and Hyoudou in a uncharacteristic, tipsy proclamation vows to take back the Blackpool title next year. She sticks her tongue out at him, daring him to try.
Yes, Chinatsu thinks as their glasses all meet in a clash. The night is perfect, indeed.
At least until Tatara slides out of the booth, onto one knee, and takes her hand. He brandishes a diamond at her that is decidedly not small, and a grin more nervous than she's ever seen in their years of partnership.
Chinatsu stands and leaves.
The thing is, she and Tatara aren't dating.
Over five years of hugely successful partnership—with a rocky beginning, granted—they've never once discussed it. Chinatsu knows that partners dating or being married, even, is the norm, not the exception, but she and Tatara have never even entertained the notion. She's married to—
"To dance, I know," Shizuku interrupts.
Chinatsu huffs, fully aware of her pout but too riled up to care. She watches in agitation as Shizuku pours her a cup of tea in the Hyoudou/Hanaoka hotel room kitchen. "I don't have time for dating. Tatara knows that. He also knows that we aren't dating, and you can't ju-just propose marriage to a girl you're not dating!"
Shizuku's wrist bends elegantly under the weight of the teapot in a way that poets have no doubt waxed romantic upon. Shizuku is elegance personified, even while enduring the rants of her rival and friend. Her gaze is decidedly thoughtful, her pause heavy.
Chinatsu lets off steam next to her teacup, also steaming away, albeit differently. "How dare he! And in such a public place!" Chinatsu throws her arm over her eyes dramatically, arching her back on the stool. It can't be comfortable—after a long day of competition yesterday and last night on the couch in the Hyoudou/Hanaoka hotel room, Chinatsu's back has to be aching.
Shizuku continues to not say anything, instead leaning on the counter across from Chinatsu, her chin in her palm.
Chinatsu uncovers her face and tosses Shizuku a critical glower. "Aren't you going to say anything?"
Without moving, Shizuku merely slides her gaze up and over to Chinatsu. The other woman is gorgeous— long, luxurious hair spun of fire, lithe in frame and strong in build with discerning, intelligent features to match. The only surprise is really how long it took Tatara to fall for her, Shizuku thinks idly, and how long it took him to realize that he didn't want to be without his dance partner in anything.
"You won't like what I'm going to say," Shizuku warns mildly.
Chinatsu's face takes on the expression of one slightly betrayed. "What? Don't tell me you agree with what he did?"
Shizuku shakes her head. "Not that far, no."
Chinatsu fills the pause, aggravated, "But...?"
Shizuku contemplates her angle. Chinatsu is combative, there's no doubt. But for all her pride, she is also remarkably open-minded. And as they've grown up, Shizuku detects that her friend has gained a heft of patience. Best to play it calm, then, with the right amount of gentleness.
"Tatara has been your partner for five years, correct?"
"That's correct," Chinatsu allows.
"In those five years, you never once discussed dating. A romantic relationship was always out of the question, correct?"
Chinatsu barely holds herself back from rolling her eyes. "That's correct. What is your point?"
Shizuku's tone doesn't waver. "For you, that's what marriage means—a step in a romantic relationship."
"That's what marriage means for most people," Chinatsu barbs, though her eyes don't flash. That's how Shizuku knows that Chinatsu will still listen to what she has to say.
"Maybe," Shizuku says—and the sharpness of the light in Shizuku's eyes make Chinatsu instantly uncomfortable—"Tatara doesn't see marriage like you do."
The words wrongfoot Chinatsu. Doesn't see marriage like I do? What else could marriage possibly be? She still can't understand how Tatara proposed to her out of anything other than lunacy. It's not that they have nothing—of course not. They are firmly ingrained into each other lives, to the point that she can't picture a day without him in it. They moved to England for dance together. They eat, sleep and breathe dance together. They live together, for heavenssakes. (Which is why she made a quick break to the event hotel after throwing together an overnight bag, and pounded on Shizuku's door.)
It's just that...
It's just that...
It's just that...!
The door to their apartment opens and closes.
"Hey," she greets from their tiny kitchen table, not looking up from her magazine. She's concentrating hard on the letters, on their collections into words, so foreign. She stops at an advertisement for lipstick, trying to identify common phrases printed against the playful pout of the model. She presses her thin lips together with an alien feeling—she's never felt insecure about her lips before.
The chair across from her is pulled out and settled in. "That's obviously photoshopped," Tatara says, breaking her reverie.
Embarrassed that Tatara has caught her in throes of self-inadequacy, she unsmacks her lips, snaps her head up and looks him straight in the eye. "How was it?" she deflects.
Tatara breaks the cap off of a bottle of water. "I-I don't think I'll see her again."
The sudden lightness of Chinatsu's heart is nothing. "Oh, really? Why?"
Tatara takes a lot of time to fully unscrew the bottle, take a gulp and place the bottle back down. His gaze remains fixed somewhere over her left shoulder. "We just... didn't click."
Chinatsu's good mood dampens. She can't figure it out, but she suddenly has to know why Tatara and this... random girl aren't going out again. There's a void of knowledge here that needs filling. "Was her Japanese bad?"
Tatara shakes his head. "No, it wasn't that," he says sparsely.
"Well then, what was it?" Chinatsu aims a Look his way, one he cannot wriggle out of, no matter how hard he tries.
But he's just as stymied as her, it seems. "I really don't know, Chi-chan. There was just... something missing. Something important."
She stands, quickly pushing out her chair with the backs of her thighs. "Ta-ta-ra," she scolds, emphasizing the last syllable of his name in her signature way, "don't be so wishy-washy. What was missing?"
But Tatara is adamant. He looks up at her with wide eyes, honesty seeping through every pore. "I can't name it, Chi-chan. It's just... a feeling. I've felt it before. It's something I can't describe, and then I just know—"
"Ugh!" she cuts him off, frustrated with his answer, but more frustrated that she doesn't know why she cares so much—"forget it!" And off she goes, grabbing her music player and her coat.
Tatara, on the tail-end of an epiphany, barely comes to in time. "Chi-chan!" he calls after her retreating back, while shoving his shoes on, "Chi-chan, wait!"
"So, he followed you."
Chinatsu's gaze slides to the newest occupant of the room, one trudging (and apparently, hungover) Kiyoharu Hyoudou. She puts up a hand in greeting, but responds to Shizuku, "Well, of course he followed me. He's Tatara."
Shizuku imperceptibly narrows her eyes. "Right."
Chinatsu goes on, hands waving in the air, "But the point is that he's dated. He went out with a girl. If he wanted to date me, wouldn't he have said something?"
Hyoudou, rumaging through the fridge, has apparently already caught onto their topic of conversation. He points out in a tired voice, "He doesn't want to date you. He wants to marry you."
That makes Chinatsu grind her teeth. He's right, but goddamn is he annoying. "How can you state that so plainly?"
"He is right, Chinatsu," Shizuku comes to her partner's defense. She turns around and switches the range on again, waiting for the kettle to boil. "Tatara asked you to marry him, not to date him."
"And how can you state it so plainly?" she groans to the heavens. "This is marriage. Surely, Tatara can't be so delusional as to propose to me and expect me to say yes. It's such a large commitment! We're not—we're not even—"
Hyoudou leans against the fridge, his temple against the chill surface of the metal. In his oh-so-frustrating and eternally-cool way, he says, "Honestly, what's stopping you?"
Chinatsu rolls her eyes so hard they may just get stuck staring at the inside of her skull. To her supreme bad luck, they don't get stuck and she has to look at Hyoudou again, cool as a cucumber on the other side of the kitchen. "Um, we're not involved?" she injects as much sarcasm into her tone as possible. Sarcasm doesn't usually come naturally to her, but around the Hyoudou prodigy it's a knee-jerk response.
Hyoudou lifts his head for a second, then replaces the other side against the fridge. Must be soothing his hangover. "Aren't you, though?"
Affronted, she scoffs. "What? No."
Hyoudou's stare becomes annoyingly analytical. After a pregnant pause, he says, "You dance together. You live together. You spend what little of your free time you have together. Who says you aren't already married?"
Chinatsu feels a chill shoot up her spine.
"And you still manage to like each other," he tacks on.
The kettle comes to a boil. Shizuku tends to it, pouring the water into the teapot, then the fresh tea into a cup for the Hyoudou brat. The cup passes easily between their hands. Hyoudou drinks it like it's nothing special, and Shizuku turns away to lean against the counter again, focusing her attention on Chinatsu. But the interaction is easy, close and simple. It's telling. Their partnership has been so strong for so many years that they don't need to speak at all.
Chinatsu watches them and sees herself and Tatara.
The music is just about to repeat again, so she finds the remote to the stereo and hits the stop button. They're not going another round. She's just... not in the mood.
Tatara, from where she's left him on the floor, tosses her a quick glance.
Before he can ask her anything, she puts the remote down and makes a break for it. Her shoes sound even louder than usual against the laminate, the squeaking reminiscent of the swivels in the tango they were just practising. The noise just makes her wince.
She trades up her skirt for sweatpants and her heels for runners. She pulls a hoodie on over her tank top and grabs her bag. She knows that as she pushes the door open, Tatara's eyes are on her back. But she can't turn around and say bye to him. She'll see him back at the apartment anyway.
She doesn't let herself cry until she's in the shower. It's easier there, with the warm water flowing across her skin, to pretend that it's just more water from the tap.
When she steps out of the shower, she hears the front door open and close and knows that Tatara is back. Through the steamy air and the fog of the mirror, she checks her eyes for redness and sees none. She knows that there's still a chance that Tatara will detect something, though.
She doesn't know if she likes that or not.
Tatara is sitting on the couch in the living room. He's got the television on, but he's not really watching. She suspects that he's just absorbing the cadence of English speech.
"Goodnight," she says softly.
Tatara looks up immediately. He looks like he wants to stop her, but then he pauses, takes her in, and says, "Goodnight."
She retreats to her bedroom, but sleep doesn't come. Her mind is buzzing with so much—too much.
Will he be alright? Why aren't I there? Why did he have to...?
There's a knock on her door.
She turns in bed to check her bedside clock. It's 12 midnight.
"Chi-chan?" Tatara's tone rises in a question, but its rise is sure and steady, unlike when they were younger. Before, Tatara always seemed unsure of himself, a collection of nervous gestures and fidgety uncertainty. But through the course of their partnership, he's become less of a cloud, ghosting over the surfaces he contacts. He's really come into his own. He wouldn't have knocked on her door a year ago.
With that thought, Chinatsu sits up in bed. She'll meet his bravery with her own. "Come in."
The doorknob turns and Tatara steps through. He closes the door softly behind him and walks over. As he sits on the rug by her bed, he keeps his eyes on her face. She doesn't know how he does it, because it's pitch-black save for the meager light of the moon streaming in through her blinds, but he does. He looks right into her eyes.
Hearing the softness in his voice, she draws her knees to her chest and quietly concludes, "You called my parents."
He shakes his head. "They called me," he admits. He has the grace to sound sheepish.
That stuns her. Her parents called Tatara?
"He'll be okay, you know," Tatara says.
She turns her cheek to him.
Tatara is so patient, and the silence stretches so long, that eventually she says, just as quietly, "I think... I know that."
Tatara rises onto his knees and leans on the edge of her bed, near her blanketed feet. His face is full of hope—it's one thing that hasn't changed about him at all. "Kids are durable," he agrees lightly. He looks up at her for confirmation, for commiseration.
She tries to smile as she shoots her gaze down to him, but she can only hold his eyes for a moment, so bright is he and so dark is she. "Yeah."
She thinks she sees his smile dim. "Chi-chan, it's not your fault."
She knew that he would read her mind. She knew, and so she already has a rebuttal—"If I hadn't gone on so much about dance in front of him, he wouldn't have tried—"
"And he wouldn't have found something he loved," Tatara cuts in swiftly, firmly, but most of all, gently. "Chinatsu, he loves dance. He loves it, in no small part, because of you."
"And he got hurt because of me!" she cries out, for once not releasing her anger through her body, but keeping it tightly coiled. No, this hatred is all for her. Immediately, she curls tighter in on herself and weeps into her knees.
She doesn't know what she expects Tatara to do. He's been changing so much, holding tight to some parts of himself and discarding others, that it's hard to keep track. But when she feels his hand land on top of her hair, she doesn't flinch. Not when he starts to card his fingers through the strands, not when he caresses her neck, and not when he finally joins her to sit on top of the bed.
"You've inspired so many people, Chinatsu. Akira-san. Your little brother. And me," Tatara says into the blankets at her side. "Your passion for dance is... so beautiful. That's what draws people in. They want, even for just a moment, to experience that kind of beauty." His words flow over her, the familiar rise and fall of his voice a soothing accompaniment to the warmth of his fingers in her hair.
She doesn't say anything, but she stops crying.
Tatara continues, "You know, every day we dance together. And every day, I get to see some of that beauty. It's wonderful, Chi-chan. I get to see it up close, dancing with you. I don't think I'd trade anything in the world for it." There's a sigh, and she could almost swear it's wistful.
Chinatsu stops breathing. She hasn't heard any words more beautiful in her life. And the crazy, weird, unbelievable thing is that—
These words are from Tatara.
Her breath gushes out of her lungs at the same time she throws her arms around him.
And as her body continues to shake and the last of her tears flow, Tatara's hands never leave her hair, stroking in a rhythm as constant as a tango.
Frozen, Chinatsu feels the weight of the stares on her.
She feels all of that, but most of all, she feels the prickling sensation at the base of her skull that tells her maybe, just maybe, all along...
Tatara has been saying that he loves her.
A loud slurp issues from across the counter.
Semi-spooked, her eyes flick up to focus on Hyoudou.
He stares back at her over his teacup. "So, you finally got it."
She feels as if the temperature of the room rises by several degrees.
Shizuku steps out from behind the counter. And perhaps sensing that Chinatsu is not fully present, Shizuku places a hand on her bicep. "It's not so crazy when you think about it, is it?" she asks softly.
Chinatsu blinks. And then, slowly, she cranes her neck to look at Shizuku and gulps, falling back on her old refrain—"But I'm married to—"
"Dance, I know," Shizuku completes for her. Then Shizuku's grip tightens on Chinatsu's bicep, just a bit, just enough to draw her attention again.
"But Chinatsu, who are you dancing with? Who have you found your perfect partner in?" Shizuku asks tenderly, with not a hint of urgency.
Chinatsu takes a breath, almost as if to answer—
But she stops short.
"We're not saying you have to marry him," Shizuku forms the words carefully, taking her responsibility as a friend seriously.
"But can't you see? You belong to each other."
With those words, the last of the fog leaves her. "What?"
Shizuku just shakes her head and smiles. "Don't be afraid, Chinatsu. It's scary and different, yes. But you can trust him. You already trust him."
Chinatsu furrows her eyebrows. Her breathing feels deeper, like it does after practise. Shizuku and Hyoudou continue to keep their attention pinned on her, and somehow she knows that their gazes are full of surety even though they can't possibly know what she'll do. Even she barely knows what she'll do.
A loud knock issues from the other side of the door.
Shizuku answers it.
"Hey," the sound of Gaju's voice promptly shatters the atmosphere.
Chinatsu looks over to the door, prepared to tell him to come back later, even though this isn't her hotel room, even though she has no logical reason to tell him to get—
Standing in the doorframe between Gaju and Mako—
Tatara's gaze is focused solely on her.
"Hi, Chi-chan," he says. He's very brave to say hello first after what she did yesterday.
"Hi, Tatara," she responds. She slides off of the stool.
And before Chinatsu can really process where this is going to go, Shizuku is grabbing both her and Hyoudou's coats and shoving Hyoudou out of the door while he whines about his hangover. Gaju and Mako loop their arms through Hyoudou's unwilling ones, bookending the grumpy prodigy—Mako tosses Chinatsu a wink over her shoulder, complete with a hair flip that hits Hyoudou in the face. Shizuku grabs a cardkey and leaves Chinatsu with a supportive hand on her elbow, then closes the door behind her.
Tatara turns from the closed door to her. Apparently, the hullabaloo hasn't ruffled him. "Chi-chan, sit."
She carefully schools her expression into neutral. Instead of sitting at the counter, she goes over to the couch and settles into a corner. Tatara follows her and carefully perches on a cushion—not too close and not too far, as if at any second, she'll fly away.
"Chi-chan, I spoke to Gaju-kun and Mako-chan this morning, and they... explained a few things to me," Tatara starts, "I want to say first that I'm sorry for surprising you."
She just nods. "Thank you."
"Especially since it was in front of our friends, in a public place. I'm really sorry—"
"Tatara," she cuts in, barely able to look at him, "it's fine."
Tatara's demeanour changes to take on a shy quality, one that she associates with their younger selves. Still, he soldiers on, "I-I want you to know that even though you said no, I'm not mad. I... I want us to stay dance partners, if—if that's okay with you."
Her hands feel sweaty.
"If you're not comfortable anymore... I understand," he adds timidly.
That snags her attention.
"Did Gaju-san and Mako tell you that, too?" she asks slowly.
"N-no!" he's quick to say, ducking his neck forward in his assertion—honestly, when Tatara is stressed like this, he reverts back to his former posture, and it's awful. "I just thought... I thought that if you're uncomfortable with me after this, then... we could—"
"That we could what, Tatara?" she's drawn her knees together, feet flat against the floor, back ramrod straight. If Tatara's posture is going to be so atrocious, she's going to make sure hers is perfect. "Split up?" she spits the words out of her mouth like they're particularly disgusting—which they are. They feel like dirt leaving her mouth.
"Of course not!" he exclaims back to her, finally twisting his torso in her direction. "I'd never want to split from you, Chi-chan!"
"So after we win Blackpool, it's just bye, see you never? It's just let's get married, no wait I'd rather fucking leave you?" she snarls.
Tatara flinches—and rightfully so. It's a hefty blow she's dealt, and regret slashes through her, seeing the hurt in his eyes. But she waits for what he'll say.
He gathers himself, drawing up to his full height in sitting, regaining the regal posture that looks just right on his dancer's frame. His shoulders are broad now, sitting solid and low.
And then, firmly, determinedly, he says, "I meant it when I proposed to you. I'd never want you to leave me. But that's always how it's been, Chi-chan—if anyone was going to leave the other, it was going to be you leaving me. Because I couldn't leave you. There's no way"—his gaze flickers down, then back up to her face (and now, she feels her throat dry out)—"there's no version of reality where I leave you. I'm yours if you'll have me, Chinatsu. I've been yours. For a very long time."
Instead of softening, her gaze hardens, challenging in its glint. "You mean it?"
Tatara nods, just once.
Her thoughts, once frantic and swirling in a muddled cyclone within her brain, suddenly come to a standstill.
Her life has never been simple, and she doesn't ever expect it to be. She went from leading in a girl-girl couple to failing to make a match to butting heads with the silliest, most naive boy she'd ever known.
But this— companionship? love?—that Tatara is offering, and frankly has been offering to her for all of these years...
It's simple. And in its simplicity, it's honest and beautiful.
She'd thought, only just last night, while shoving her toothbrush into her bag with a change of clothes, that Tatara was operating on some strange, unheard of level where you proposed to a girl you hadn't ever dated, and you expected her to actually say yes.
But now she knows that Tatara lives in a world where the people you care about—the people you love—you love unabashedly, without an ounce of self-consciousness. There is no need for evidential proof, no need for the mirror song of I love you and I love you too. That love is felt. That love is earned, through observing their insecurities and making them feel better, through fighting and pushing and pulling, through late nights at the studio and at their bedside. So when you propose marriage, you're proposing that you do everything the exact same as you've been doing it, for all of these years, together.
We belong to each other, she thinks, as she takes in the familiar planes of his face—crumpled brow, smooth cheeks, strong chin.
So she grabs his hand and twines their fingers together atop his lap. Over their years of partnership, they've held hands more times than she count, but this time is different. They both feel it.
And even though they both know it, she says it anyway, just to bring it all full circle—
"I'm yours, too."