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Girl of Your Dreams

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It was half past midnight, but Rimi still couldn’t get to sleep.

This wasn't typical. All she normally had to do was lie down and close her eyes, and she'd be lulled off to the world of dreams, where visions of choco cornets and band practice flitted through her head. Rimi rarely ever stayed up past her bedtime. Yuri slept in the bottom bunk, after all, and was always quick to remind her little sister that it was important to get a good night’s sleep so she could focus at school. But this night wasn't like every other night.

It didn’t matter what she did: what position she rearranged herself into, or whether she tried to count sheep. Nothing could distract her from the image in her head. Even when she closed her eyes, the scene played behind her eyelids: Kaoru in a white tuxedo, standing inside the chapel with an enchanting smile on her lips.

And with the image came the echo of her words in Rimi’s ear:

You, my dear, are the loveliest little kitten.”

Rimi let out a squeak. She rolled around on the bed again, ending up on her stomach with her burning face pressed into the pillow. Almost immediately, she was struck with worry that the noise had woken her sister up. She listened for any signs, but Yuri’s snoring continued from the bottom bunk, prompting her to sigh with relief.

She didn’t want Yuri to see her like this. She didn’t want anyone to see her like this, so flustered that she could barely lie still. Her heart was pounding wildly in her chest, the way it had during her first live show. Her entire body felt overheated. She probably looked feverish; she must be so red—

Oh no.

That thought called to mind something else Kaoru had said earlier: something even more embarrassing.

"Your cheeks are as bright as the reddest of apples, my dear. I might just have to take a bite..."

Rimi let out a frustrated groan into her pillow. Thankfully, Yuri slept through that too.

She’d never felt this way before. Sure, she got shy and embarrassed all the time – far too easily, in fact. For years, she’d worked hard to overcome the wobbly feeling in her stomach whenever she had to speak in front of her class, or the way her face would burn with heat every time she drew attention to herself in public.

But this was different. This wasn’t like having to read a book report out loud in school, or like spilling her lunch tray in the cafeteria and having everyone stare at her while she knelt down to clean up the mess. It wasn’t that kind of anxiety-provoking situation.

No, if she had to compare it to something, this feeling was more like the feeling she got while performing.

Fear. Anxiety. Embarrassment. An unsteadiness at her center that spread throughout her body, leaving her feeling unbalanced. A pressure in her chest that threatened to crush her heart. It was scary, having so many eyes on her, and yet at the same time, it also felt good.

It was exhilarating, to perform, to be seen. To stand onstage with her friends and bandmates and feel like she was a part of something special. To have something she was good at, something she loved.

Rimi’s eyes flew open.

Love…?

Was that the name of this feeling?

Earlier, when she was with Kaoru… when Kaoru had noticed her, had gazed at her with those piercing red eyes and spoken those thrilling words to her… it had been a little scary. Unable to do anything but stammer, she’d wanted to melt right through the floor. But Kaoru hadn’t been scary. What she’d been scared of was the feelings Kaoru inspired in her, so strong that they overwhelmed her entire being.

Having Kaoru turn the charm on her like that had been scary, but it made her feel good, too. In fact, just hearing Kaoru say “my dear” and “my kitten” in that deep, enchanting voice was so pleasurable that Rimi had been completely overcome.

She’d wanted more. She still wanted more.

She wanted Kaoru to keep teasing her, to keep saying those sweet words to her, to keep looking at her and only her. She wanted more of Kaoru’s attention, more of her smiles. She wanted to see Kaoru looking so handsome in that tuxedo again. But next time…

Next time, Rimi wanted to be the one standing next to her in a wedding dress.

That thought kept her awake for some time. It felt like she’d realized something big and important about herself, something with staggering implications—like maybe she should be worried. But at the same time, she also felt relieved. It was a relief to pin down why she’d been acting so strange all day, to have a name for her feelings. Maybe now that her feelings had a name, she could finally get to sleep.

But if I fall asleep, she wondered, what will I dream about tonight?

When she had good dreams, they were usually about her friends, or her family, or music, or chocolate cornets. When she had bad dreams, they were usually about a jeering audience at CiRCLE, or about losing her sister and her parents in a crowd somewhere, or something like that. But this night was different from other nights. Maybe her dreams would be different, too.

Tonight… will I dream about her? About Kaoru-san?

Rimi wanted to. She hoped that she would.

And yet, even if she saw Kaoru in her dreams… there was a part of her that felt as though that wouldn’t be enough. As though the frenzied beating of her heart wouldn’t stop until she could reunite with Kaoru again in the flesh.

As she lay flushed and wide-eyed in her bed, staring at the ceiling in the dark, a single desire consolidated in her mind.

One day, she wanted to wake up after a good night’s sleep and find herself not in the bedroom she shared with her sister, but in Kaoru’s bed.

If she could just wake up to the sight of Kaoru's face… if she could just hear the sound of Kaoru’s voice greeting her with “Good morning”… then maybe… maybe the longing in her heart would finally be satisfied. Or at least, that was what she hoped.

With that single, fervent wish held close to her heart, Rimi shut her eyes for the night at last.

...

Chisato blinked rapidly as the morning light flooded her eyes. It took a moment for her to register the person observing her from the adjacent pillow.

Kaoru broke into a smile. "Good morning, Chisato."

“Good morning, Kao-chan," she replied with a yawn.

As usual, a rosy blush swept across Kaoru’s cheeks at the sound of her childhood nickname. And as usual, Chisato filled with satisfaction.

Probably trying to shake off her embarrassment, Kaoru sat up in bed. Chisato followed suit, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes.

“I’m afraid I haven’t had the time to prepare us a romantic breakfast in bed," Kaoru said, seeming to have regained her composure. "You see," she let out a rueful chuckle, “I was captivated by your sleeping face. As the great bard once said, ‘I have seen roses damasked, red and white. But no such roses see I in her cheeks.’”

When Kaoru finished, she looked at Chisato expectantly, clearly hoping she’d made an impression.

“…Kaoru do you even understand what you just said?”

Kaoru's smile slipped off her face for a few moments, before she recovered smoothly: “Why, that your face is so beautiful, it reminds me of roses of the purest red and white."

Chisato sighed. “That’s not what that quote means. Shakespeare was saying he didn’t see any roses in his lover’s cheeks."

“He didn’t?” Kaoru's expression was the picture of confusion. Chisato could practically see her replaying the quote in her head. “Ah... that’s right," she recovered smoothly once again, "of course he didn’t. He was saying that he saw something far more beautiful than roses when he looked at her face. Isn’t that right?”

Poor Kaoru. Her gaze was expectant, betraying how eager she was to hear that she'd gotten it right this time.

Too bad Chisato would never lie just to make her feel better.

“That’s not it, either,” she said patiently. “In that sonnet, Shakespeare wrote that his lover's beauty can’t compare to the roses he’s seen. He also said that her voice isn’t as as pleasant to listen to as music, and that her breath doesn’t smell as good as perfume.”

Kaoru frowned. “That cannot be… The great bard is renowned for his poems about love. Why would he ever say such cruel things about his mistress?”

“You’re right that Shakespeare was well-known for his love poems," Chisato conceded. "That's the point. That sonnet was a parody. He was making fun of the type of love poems that were popular at the time, including his own sonnets. Poems like ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.’”

“But… why?”

“Because they’re dishonest,” Chisato said simply.

Kaoru opened her mouth, no doubt to try to deny it. But Chisato just gave her a look to say she wasn’t done yet, and Kaoru fell silent at once.

Chisato took a moment to clear her throat, mentally stepping into a different persona: the one she used for stage plays.

“‘I grant I never saw a goddess go/My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground/And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare/As any belied with false compare…" she recited from memory. Then she slipped back into her normal tone and continued, "Shakespeare was saying that poetry like the ‘summer’s day’ sonnet is filled with false comparisons. In poems like those, the writer builds up his lover into something she's not. He makes all these sweeping false comparisons to express his love for her. But with this sonnet, Shakespeare was saying that his lover is just a regular woman. He admits that she’s not supernaturally beautiful, or anything like that. She’s just a normal person… but he’s saying he loves her anyway. And he doesn’t need to justify his love by acting like she’s better than she really is.”

Kaoru listened thoughtfully throughout the entire explanation, never once taking her eyes off of Chisato. When it was finished, she stayed quiet for a minute, trying to put together an equally thoughtful response.

“My, you know that poem very well." Slowly, she broke into a smile, sounding genuinely impressed. “I didn’t realize you were such a student of the bard. I thought you disliked Romeo and Juliet.”

“I said that I came to understand Juliet’s feelings in the end, didn’t I?” Chisato reminded her. “But even so, disliking one story doesn’t mean you can’t like anything else the author has written."

"That is quite so," Kaoru chuckled. “Your thoughts on the sonnet were illuminating, and have improved my understanding tenfold. All the same, perhaps we should consider getting out of bed..."

“Too early for me to start going off on tangents like that, huh?" Chisato asked, smiling wryly. "Sorry.”

She wasn't really that sorry, but Kaoru had a point. She had a meeting with her agent in just a few hours. There was an English test she needed to study for. And as usual, both of them had band practice in the afternoon.

And yet, she wasn’t moving.

She could tell herself it was just early-morning sluggishness. Her limbs were heavy, and her mind felt a little clouded still. But truthfully... the reason she hadn’t yet gotten out of bed had nothing to do with herself, and everything to do with the person she was sharing it with.

She wanted to stay with Kaoru for just a little longer.

“Don’t apologize.”

With a small smile playing on her lips, Kaoru reached out to touch her. Her fingers trailed down Chisato’s cheek, before moving lower to curl around a lock of her hair.

“Whether or not your voice sounds like music, I never tire of listening to you speak," she murmured, bringing the strand of blond hair to her lips.

Chistao blinked, her heart beating a little faster at the sound of those words accompanied by such a loving gesture.

When she didn’t try too hard, Kaoru really could be charming.

“Actually,” Chisato mused, “it might not be so dishonest to compare our voices to music… After all, we are both performers. Not that my voice compares to Aya-chan’s, of course.” Then something occurred to her, and she narrowed her eyes at Kaoru. "But don't think that means you have my permission to go out and flirt with her by telling her how beautiful her voice is.”

Kaoru audibly gulped. “I-I wasn’t planning on it."

Chisato just smirked, letting her hair slip through Kaoru’s fingers as she finally got out of bed.

She went about finding where her clothes had ended up last night and started putting them on in front of Kaoru's full-length mirror. She'd just finished dressing and was about to fasten her necklace when she saw Kaoru come up behind her.

“You know, Chii-chan…” Kaoru began, gazing over the top of Chisato's head at their shared reflection, “I hope you won’t think me dishonest if I say I find you beautiful.”

Chisato smiled.

“Not if you say it like that."

She watched Kaoru's hands move up in the mirror, and then felt them cover hers on the back of her neck. Obligingly, she held up her hair, allowing Kaoru to fasten the chain on the back of her necklace.

“Then I’ll say it as many times as I need to," Kaoru said with a soft chuckle that Chisato felt against her ear.

After straightening out Chisato's necklace, Kaoru's arms slipped back down to wrap around her waist. Though there were many things Chisato had to do later that day, suddenly none of them seemed so important that she couldn’t spare the time to close her eyes, fall back, and let herself be held in Kaoru’s embrace. Just for a moment.


“Here you are, Saaya-chan.”

The cashier passed her bags over the counter, all of three of them bulging with food and cooking supplies. Saaya accepted two of them with a practiced ease; after years of carrying the grocery bags home to her family, her arms had gotten stronger, which also helped with her drumming.

And as for the third bag…

"Thank you very much," Kaoru said, beaming at the cashier as she slung the handle over her wrist.

"Thank you for your patronage.” The old lady beamed back. “You two make such a lovely couple. Enjoy the rest of your day.”

Saaya just laughed. “Thank you, we will.”

And with that, they headed out through the door and stepped into the summer air.

“It is quite humid today… On such a day like this, one understands what the bard meant when he said, ‘Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines.’”

“Thanks for agreeing to accompany me even when the weather’s like this. I’ll definitely make it up to you. Would you like a croissant today, or a cornet?”

“Any treat prepared by such a beautiful girl would taste delectable,” Kaoru said smoothly. “I’ll most gladly take whatever you have to offer.”

So, the same answer as usual, then.

Kaoru still didn’t seem to understand that Saaya didn’t actually run the bakery herself, and it was mainly her parents who did the baking… but oh well, it didn't matter. Saaya just smiled at her.

“Alright, then how about a croissant? We have a lot of extras today, so you could even take home a whole box.”

Kaoru chuckled. “Excellent. Italian pastries truly are the most splendid of all.”

No, croissants definitely aren't Italianbut maybe it’d be nicer not to correct her.

After arriving home, Saaya led Kaoru into the kitchen. They passed by her mother at the bakery counter, who greeted them cheerfully. As they began to put away the groceries, Saaya noticed two heads peeking around the corner.

“You guys can come in if you want. She won’t bite,” Saaya said.

Kaoru smiled amicably at them. “Why, hello, dear cherubs.”

It wasn’t the first time Sana and Jun had met Kaoru. As always, Sana enthusiastically waved, and as always, Jun looked torn - like he couldn’t decide if he wanted to flee or not. He knew Kaoru was a girl, but she didn’t seem to intimidate him as much as Saaya’s other friends did.

Timidly, he raised a hand in greeting as well. “H-Hi,” he stammered.

Kaoru turned to Saaya and chuckled. “What fine children.”

“Aren’t they cute?” Saaya agreed. After putting away the last of the food, Saaya gestured back towards the storefront. “Alright, let’s get you your croissants.” As she led Kaoru out of the kitchen, she could feel Sana and Jun’s eyes on them. She noticed Kaoru wave goodbye over her shoulder, which prompted Jun to let out a squeak.

As promised, Saaya's mom packaged five croissants together for Kaoru. She gave them away for free with no complaints – in fact, she seemed happy to do it.

“On behalf of Hello, Happy World, I thank you for this gift,” Kaoru said as she accepted the box. “Your gesture moves me beyond words.”

“No, the pleasure is all mine,” her mother assured her. “Come back anytime you like.”

“Very well.” Kaoru chuckled. “We will surely meet again... Farewell, fair maidens."

“What a nice young lady,” Saaya’s mother remarked, as they watched Kaoru’s form recede into the distance from the shop window. “So well-mannered.” Her eyes crinkled at the corners as she asked, “Are you sure there’s nothing going on between you two?”

Saaya laughed her off. “Mom, don’t be embarrassing.”

With the shopping out of the way, Saaya headed upstairs to her room. She still had some summer homework left to do, and today seemed like as good a day as any to finish it. But as she walked up the stairs, she couldn’t help but get distracted, reflecting upon the afternoon’s events.

At first, she’d denied it, of course.

When the pictures from the photoshoot first went up around town and everyone started congratulating her on the wedding, she hastily corrected their misunderstanding. The idea had seemed ridiculous to her: that she’d be married at age sixteen, a mere first-year in high school. There was no way she was ready for marriage yet. She already had her little brother and sister to take care of; she definitely wasn’t ready for kids of her own, no matter how often everyone said she’d make a great mom.

And besides… thinking she’d gotten married at sixteen was strange enough, but to think she’d gotten married to a senpai from another all-girls’ school? That was just too weird.

Yes, Saaya had hastened to tell everyone the truth… with one exception. When the old lady at the grocery store said that she’d heard rumors Saaya was “starting a family of her own”, Saaya had been all ready to deny it… until the woman had made an offer too good to refuse. She’d offered to give Saaya a family discount, if she wanted to swing by the grocery store with “her groom” sometime.

The shopping trips were Saaya's only interactions with Kaoru, outside the few times they passed each other at CiRCLE or Edogawa Music. At first, Saaya had been worried Kaoru wouldn’t want to go along with the deception. But when she’d asked, Kaoru had simply chuckled and promised to accompany her wherever she liked.

Most days they went shopping together, it was like a joke. They’d pretend to be bride and groom – a ridiculous idea – so Saaya could get the discount, and then they’d head home. It was a funny situation. Arisa had scoffed when she heard about it. Kasumi said she thought it was cute. And Rimi had been rather surprised. Her eyes had gone wide and she'd turned bright red when Saaya had revealed that they still pretended to be a married couple sometimes.

That’s all it was: pretending.

Just once every couple of weeks, just for the discount. Or at least, that was what it felt like most of days, when Saaya’s family wasn’t home and Kaoru was quick to leave.

But on other days… on other days, it felt a little different.

Like something other than just pretending. Something warm and comfortable.

Something like a real family.

Sitting at her desk in front of a blank page of problem sets, Saaya wryly smiled as she shook her head at herself. Those kinds of embarrassing, mushy thoughts about Kaoru weren’t like her at all. She hardly even knew Kaoru. They were in different bands, different years, different schools. Saaya knew Kaoru by reputation, of course – even at Hanasakigawa, the "female prince" had her share of admirers - but that wasn't the same thing as really knowing her.

But on days like today, when Kaoru would accompany her home and help her put away the groceries without complaint… On days like today, when Kaoru had such friendly exchanges with her family, and seemed to fit right in at her home, as though she’d always been a part of the household… Saaya felt like maybe she could understand where all Kaoru’s fans were coming from.

Like maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to be married to her for real.

Her math homework thoroughly forgotten, Saaya leaned back in her chair and exhaled a sigh.

She could picture it in her mind’s eye with surprising ease: what it might be like to walk home together every day with Kaoru by her side. What it might be like to prepare dinner with Kaoru, and serve it to Sana and Jun. What it might be like to play with them after dinner, and prepare their bath, and put them to bed together with Kaoru.

Kaoru could manage it. Sure, she wasn’t exactly very bright, so homework help might not be her strong suit, but she could probably help out with everything else. Kaoru was capable and responsible. And more importantly, she was good with kids. It was probably to be expected, since Hello, Happy World did play at children's events. Kaoru could help take care of her siblings.

And then, after Sana and Jun were asleep, and all the chores were taken care of… the two of them could finally have some alone time, at least an hour or two before bed.

They could curl up on the couch together, watching TV or reading a book. They could discuss music, or school, or their friends, or any number of topics. Or maybe... they could do what couples usually did when they had time alone together.

Saaya blushed. She shook her head at herself again, wondering what had gotten into her.

That was probably going too far. They were still in high school, after all.

But maybe something like a kiss wasn't too unreasonable to think about.

When she thought of Kaoru bending down to lightly brush their lips together, Saaya felt a warmth settle in her chest. It wasn’t longing, or excitement, exactly – which made sense. None of this was going to happen, so there was nothing to get excited about. It was a more familiar, comfortable warmth; like the feeling she got when she thought about family.

Yeah, there was no way it was going to happen. Not for a long time, and not with Kaoru. But it was kind of fun to think about anyway.

It wasn't so bad, playing pretend.

...

“When we move in together, I want one of those for our house.”

Kaoru followed Chisato's gaze across the courtyard. “A foot bath?”

“Yes. It’s always nice to go over there and cool off, isn’t it? Especially after a long day of practice.”

The two of them were seated at one of the tables in the cafeteria outside CiRCLE. Kaoru was drinking tea. Chisato, coffee.

Kaoru nodded wisely at Chisato’s words. “Quite so. I could use the opportunity to cool off as well, since my heart is always burning with the fire of my passion for you.”

Chisato’s blinked at her. “…you really didn’t hesitate at all before you said that…”

Kaoru smiled triumphantly. “Why, Chisato, I do believe that’s a blush on your cheeks.”

“You must be imagining things,” Chisato said lightly, taking a sip of her coffee. “Anyway, we’re in public, so try not to be too bold.”

“My apologies. But Chisato, aren’t you the one who started talking about the two of us living together in the future? With such a romantic topic of conversation at hand, it seems impossible not to get carried away by flights of fancy.”

“I think you get carried away just fine all on your own,” came Chisato’s quick retort, "but, fair enough.”

Chisato stared thoughtfully into her coffee. After a pause, she admitted, “Maybe the reason I keep wanting to talk about things like this is because I’m insecure.”

Kaoru blinked. "Insecure?"

“Yes.” Chisato leveled her gaze at Kaoru across the table, something almost apologetic about her expression. “We’ve been dating for months now, but we haven’t been able to tell anyone about our relationship. I know that if the news gets out that I’m seeing someone, it could jeopardize my career as both an actress and an idol, so we have to keep everything secret. And that makes me feel insecure about our future. I want to believe that someday, we’ll be able to be together openly, but that day isn't here yet. So…" She trailed off, staring back down into her coffee. "I guess I keep thinking that if we start planning for our future now, it’ll be more likely to come true.”

Kaoru mulled that over for a minute in silence.

“I see,” she said eventually. “The idea of an illicit affair shrouded in secrecy is quite romantic in theory, but in practice, having a love you can’t tell anyone else about quickly becomes burdensome."

“A lot of things are romantic in theory, but not in practice. Like showing up for your first date dressed as a phantom thief,” Chisato teased, smiling shrewdly.

Kaoru grimaced. “T-That’s beside the point.”

“No, I think it’s relevant. But anyway…” Chisato’s grin faded into a more serious expression. “It’s not that this relationship is a burden to me. On the contrary, I feel like our dates are the only times when I get to be myself. If one of us is a burden in this relationship, it definitely isn’t you. After all..." She smiled sadly. "It’s thanks to my career that we can’t be open in the first place.”

“Chisato…” Kaoru reached across the table to try and comfort her, but stopped when she realized the distance was too wide, letting her arm fall to rest on the table.

She hadn't known Chisato had been thinking about such serious things lately, but now she wondered if she should have noticed. She sighed, frustrated with her inability to find the words to make things right.

“I’m sorry this weighs so heavily on your mind," she said carefully, after a moment. "But you could never possibly be a burden to me."

It was all she could think of to say. And it was the truth. But it still didn't feel like enough.

Chisato seemed to consider her words for a minute. “I suppose that must be true,” she said slowly. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t have kept trying to talk to me back when I was turning you down every time… how many times did you ask me to sit with you at one of these tables, only for me to reject you?"

Kaoru grimaced again at the memories that flooded her head. “N-Never mind that. It is pointless to dwell on the exact number.”

“I wasn’t making fun of you for getting shot down,” Chisato said, shaking her head. She smiled a self-deprecating smile. “I guess I’m just saying that I’m glad you didn’t give up on me.”

Kaoru smacked her fist on the table, causing Chisato to jump in her seat.

“That’s precisely the point I want to make!” she said eagerly. “Chisato, whenever your career gets hectic, and you start to feel overburdened… you need not fear, for I will always be there. You always have a home with me, even though we cannot move in together just yet."

Ah – that seemed to do it. She'd found the right words to lift Chisato's mood.

Her lover's smile finally looked genuine instead of sad.

“Mmm, I know that. I know that I have you, and that I have Pastel*Palettes… but I guess I don’t mind being reminded sometimes.” She smiled at Kaoru meaningfully. “Thank you, Kao-chan.”

Kaoru's heart did a somersault. “M-Mmm…”

They lapsed into silence after that, sipping their drinks. This time it was a comfortable silence, but Kaoru found herself wanting to keep the conversation going anyway.

Because it was a thrilling topic to consider, even if Chisato’s reason for starting the conversation had been sad.

Chisato wasn’t the only one eagerly anticipating their future together.

“Do you happen to know where we can buy a foot bath from, Chisato?”

“As a matter of fact, I do," Chisato replied. "Do you remember Arisa-chan from the band Poppin’ Party?  Her family owns a store selling such things. It’s called Ryuuseidou. That’s where the foot bath over there came from.”

Kaoru nodded. She couldn’t exactly remember which kitten Arisa was, but when the time came, she’d figure it out. “I see. That sounds like a fine place. When we’re shopping for our home, we’ll have to pay it a visit.”

“What about you?" Chisato asked. "What would you like to have in our home?”

“What an intriguing question.” Kaoru made a show of rubbing her chin thoughtfully. “We’ll need to have an extensive library. And a practice space, of course, for your bass and my guitar. And we’ll need a guest room, for when we wish to invite our dear friends over. But other than that…” Kaoru trailed off deliberately, getting ready to drop her next line. “I think I have everything I need right here,” she said, looking meaningfully at Chisato. “So, we should be all set.”

That line didn’t make her blush, unfortunately, but her smile did seem a little wider.

“Mm. That sounds nice."

Then while Kaoru took a sip of her tea, she added, “We should also get a dog.”

Kaoru nearly spit out her beverage.

This time, it wasn’t a flood of memories that hit her, but one particular memory from her childhood: the memory of a large, mangy, black-haired dog. The sound of a guttural growl, and the flash of sharp teeth.

After its owners had gotten it back on its leash, they had apologized for scaring her, but she’d had her face hidden in Chisato’s shirt the whole time they spoke.

“A dog?!” Kaoru repeated, horrified. Then she saw the look on Chisato’s face and came to her senses. “I-I mean… right, yes,” she stammered, trying to recover. “I know very well how much you love your dear Leon..."

“You’re not still scared of them, are you?” Chisato asked, looking mischievous.

“N-No, I no longer harbor such childish fears. It’s been many years since then,” Kaoru lied. But it wasn’t her finest performance.

Chisato giggled – a sound that always made Kaoru’s heart flutter, even when it came at her own expense. “We’ll work something out," she said merrily.


“Hello, little kitten.”

Kanon’s spoon halted in midair as a familiar voice cut through the noise in the cafeteria. Sure enough, when she glanced over her shoulder she saw none other than Kaoru Seta approaching her table.

“That bowl is almost as cute as you,” Kaoru said smoothly, before Kanon could even open her mouth to greet her friend.

Kanon blinked, then offered her a friendly smile. “Do you want to share my acai bowl, Kaoru-san?”

Kaoru chuckled. “What an exquisite offer. Would that really be alright?”

Kanon nodded. “You can sit down. I was just eating by myself.”

“Very well, if you insist.”

Kaoru pulled out the other chair and sat down – even the way she sat down seemed so graceful – and took the spoon that Kanon offered with a gleam in her eye.

“An indirect kiss,” Kaoru murmured, her voice low and husky. “How fleeting…”

Kanon felt heat bloom across her cheeks, but she reacted the way she’d trained herself to: just sit there and smile without giving anything away.

Once Kaoru dug in, she mercifully stopped talking about indirect kisses. But unfortunately, she didn’t stop the embarrassing commentary altogether.

“Kanon, what is this dark-colored berry that shines like your eyes?” she asked, holding up her spoon.

“That’s an acai berry,” Kanon replied patiently.

“How about this red one? It looks almost as luscious as your lips.”

“…Kaoru-san, haven’t you ever seen a strawberry before?”

“…perhaps.”

They spent some time chatting, but not too long after they polished off the bowl, Kaoru bid her goodbye.

“I have some business to attend to, but I have no doubt our paths will one day cross again."

“Well, we have practice tomorrow, so… yes,” Kanon agreed.

Kaoru just chuckled. “Thank you again for sharing such an exquisite snack. Nothing brings me greater joy than to share delicious food with a delicious girl. Farewell, my kitten.”

Kanon waved goodbye, but as soon as Kaoru was out of sight, she collapsed on top of the table with a groan.

Interacting with Kaoru one-on-one always left her feeling drained, like she'd just run a relay race or overdid it at drum practice.

She thought she’d done a pretty decent job of keeping a straight face while Kaoru flirted with her. By now, she was used to it. She hardly reacted at all anymore.

But even though she did a good job of keeping her reactions in control, Kaoru's words still made her feel hot all over.

She doesn’t mean anything by it, Kanon always had to remind herself. Kaoru-san is like that with everyone.

Friends, bandmates, classmates, fans, and random people she met on the street… as long as they were a girl, they received the same over-the-top treatment from Kaoru. It wasn’t just Kanon she called cute and luscious and delicious. The pet names, the shameless flirting, the excessive compliments… that was how Kaoru talked to all girls. Every girl was special, which meant nobody was.

It wasn’t like Kanon wanted to be special. Really, she didn't.

Kanon didn’t have a crush on Kaoru. Kaoru was an irreplaceable member of Hello, Happy World and an important friend, but she wasn’t Kanon’s type. Sure, she was undeniably charming, but Kanon preferred someone more grounded and reliable. Someone more like Misaki, if she had to say.

The problem wasn’t that Kaoru treated her the same as other girls. It was just – hard, sometimes, not to think about that night on the cruise ship.

When Kaoru had leaned across the table and spoken those tantalizing words, Kanon had remembered how it felt to have Kaoru’s voice speaking right in her ear, as she was held in her arms.

Ah, sweet captive of mine, do not despair. You have nothing to be afraid of…

She had been afraid, that night. She hadn’t even realized it was Kaoru at first, hadn’t recognized her in the mask and those clothes. For a minute there, she really had thought she’d been kidnapped by a thief. And it had been terrifying, but...

Catch me, and I shall return you princess to you.”

... exhilarating.

Although she’d been scared, Kanon had been undeniably excited, too. It was the first time she’d been held aloft in someone else's arms. The thief had called her a damsel in distress, but she’d felt more like a princess, especially when the thief had treated her so gently. All she'd done was carry her off to the cabins, set her down on one of the cushy beds, and told her not to worry.

Nowadays, that night came back to Kanon in a flurry of fragmented memories, vividly recalled every time Kaoru turned the charms on her. The warmth of Kaoru’s breath against her ear; the feeling of Kaoru's hands as she carried her; the sound of Kaoru's voice whispering, “Fear not, my dear maiden, I won’t do you any harm”; the way Kaoru's eyes looked underneath the mask, red and piercing.

Whenever she remembered that night, all the feelings she felt back then came flooding back, catching in her throat and causing her heart to lurch in her chest.

She was frustrated that Kaoru could make her react that way. As a performer, she's always struggled with stage fright, forcing herself not to fluster so easily. Through hard work and effort, she’d made some serious strides towards becoming more confident onstage and off. But just the memory of that night with Kaoru on the ship made her revert back to the shy, blushing girl she used to be.

A flustered damsel in distress, and a wild and unpredictable thief of hearts… Maybe those really were the roles they were meant to play.

Kanon wasn’t in love with Kaoru. They were just friends and bandmates – nothing more.

But even so… if Kaoru ever got the idea to try playing another ridiculous role-playing game… Kanon had to admit, she wouldn’t mind being swept off her feet again.

...

The knock came at the appropriate time, but the sight that awaited Chisato on the other side of the door wasn't what she'd been expecting.

"Good evening, my lovely lady. I have arrived to sweep you off your feet.”

Her response was instantaneous.

“I’m sorry,” she said pleasantly, “but I’m not interested in pick-up artists. Especially ones who wear strange masks.” And with that, she slammed the door.

“—wait, Chisato!” came Kaoru’s muffled voice. “It’s me!”

“I know it’s you,” she sighed, reluctantly opening the door again. “What I want to know is, what’s with that ridiculous outfit?”

Kaoru blinked owlishly, her eyes partially obscured by her silly-looking mask. “Do you mean to tell me you don’t recognize the iconic fashion of the phantom thief?”

Why are you dressed like a thief?” Chisato frowned. “We were supposed to be going on a date together, not a heist.”

“Ah, but don’t you see?” Kaoru smiled, undeterred by her utterly lukewarm reception; if nothing else, Chisato had to give her points for chutzpah. “I may not be out to steal diamonds or money, but I fully intend to steal one thing tonight.”

“…please, tell me you’re not going to say ‘my heart.’”

Kaoru’s entire body jolted.

“Huh? I mean – N-No, of course I wasn’t…” She was starting to sweat now.

“Oh, really?” Chisato said brightly, feigning relief. “That’s good. I would’ve hated having to hear a cheesy line like that. You know I prefer to be spoken to honestly."

“R-Right.” Kaoru looked very sheepish. Chisato felt her exasperation evaporate, giving way to a new desire to keep teasing Kaoru as much as possible. She really was endearing when she was flustered.

“So, what is it you plan on stealing then?” she asked innocently.

“N-Never mind that,” Kaoru said hastily. “More importantly… if these clothes are unacceptable, what do you suggest I wear?”

“Your clothes aren’t really the problem. It’s the hat and that strange mask that stand out—though the jacket is also a bit excessive.” Chisato looked her up and down, idly wondering whether or not Kaoru had stolen the costume from the drama department. “It isn’t a good idea to wear an outfit that draws so much attention. Even when I try to look as nondescript as possible, I still get recognized in public all the time. You wouldn’t want our date to be interrupted by people crying out, ‘Look, it’s Shirasagi Chisato, and she’s with a man in a mask!’, would you? I certainly don’t.”

Instead of hauling out more lines about phantom thieves, Kaoru listened to what she was saying with a thoughtful look on her face. When Chisato was finished, her lips curved into a rueful smile.

“It seems I failed to consider the practical implications of wearing such an ostentatious costume,” Kaoru said. “I’m sorry. I just wanted to look worthy of your company.”

When she sounded so contrite, Chisato not only couldn’t help forgiving her, but felt bad for reacting so harshly in the first place.

She knew Kaoru understood she wasn’t really mad, though.

So Chisato just smiled. “Your usual taste in clothing is fine. And besides,” she added, stepping close enough to touch her, “you should know by now that I enjoy your company no matter what you’re wearing.”

“Is that right?” Kaoru asked, hands coming up automatically to rest on Chisato’s shoulders.

“Mmm. In fact, I think I like you best… dressed down." Chisato smiled mischievously, trailing a finger down Kaoru’s chest.

“O-Oh? I-Is that right?” Kaoru turned bright red.

“Yes.” She reached a hand up to touch Kaoru’s face, tracing over the edge of the mask. “I mean, with this in the way, I can’t even see your face clearly.”

Curling her fingers underneath the mask’s nose, she slowly lifted it off Kaoru’s face and slid it under her chin. Then she stood up on her tiptoes, trying to meet Kaoru’s eyes - though she still couldn't quite reach.

“When we’re alone together,” she said very seriously, her breath ghosting across Kaoru’s chin, “I want to be able to look into your eyes like this. I want to know you’re looking at me, and only me… okay, Kao-chan?

She heard Kaoru audibly gasp.

After lingering there for a moment, to ensure her words left their mark, Chisato pulled back to get the full picture.

Kaoru was blushing furiously. Her eyes were wide, still locked like magnets on Chisato’s, and her mouth was slightly agape but no sound was coming out. She’d been rendered speechless.

Chisato just smiled.

“Now that you understand, do you mind taking off some pieces of your costume? The suit underneath it should be just fine.” She paused. Kaoru was still unresponsive. “Unless you want me to help you undress?"

After another long moment of silence, Kaoru finally regained her voice.

“…n-no… that won’t be necessary. I-I can do it.”


“O-Okay, then…”

She felt impossibly flustered and nervous under Kaoru’s intense gaze, but she took a deep breath and got ready to say the line anyway.

“U-Umm… I-I love you. M-My heart is your—”

“…O-Oh my god!”

Misaki jolted and spun around.

“—Hagumi?! How long have you been there?!”

“Sorry!” Hagumi said automatically, blushing. “I’m interrupting, aren’t I?!”

“Huh?” Misaki asked, before she realized Oh no, and started blushing furiously herself. “You’re not interrupting anything!” she said frantically. “D-Don’t get the wrong idea, okay?!”

Misaki shot a desperate look over at Kaoru, trying to wordlessly communicate help me out here. To her relief, Kaoru nodded, turning to address Hagumi herself.

“Greetings, Hagumi. You’re not interrupting anything. The bigger the audience is, the better.”

Misaki was not so relieved anymore.

“T-That’s not the problem here, Kaoru-san,” she said weakly, even while she was thinking Are you fucking kidding me right now? That doesn’t clear anything up!!

“I-It’s okay, Mii-kun! I won’t tell anyone what I saw!” Hagumi assured her, causing Misaki’s heart to sink down in her chest, but she forced herself to stay calm. This was just a misunderstanding; all she had to do was explain.

After taking another deep breath, Misaki found that her voice came out steady when she spoke next – though her blush, unfortunately, was not going away.

“Hagumi,” she said gently, “this isn’t what you think it is, okay? I was just acting—”

But before she could finish, Kaoru cut in with a chuckle.

“It was awkward, but still an adorable expression of love, was it not?”

So much for staying calm.

“K-Kaoru-san!” she wheeled around to shout at her. “You’re not helping!”

“You don’t need to panic!” Hagumi said quickly. “I might not look like it, but I never gossip!”

“I’m telling you, it’s not what you think,” Misaki said, but it came out all weak, all wrong.

To her surprise, Hagumi started laughing.

“Ehehe… it’s so exciting to see this kinda thing,” she giggled. The surprise and embarrassment on her face had faded, replaced by her usual cheerful expression. “I’m sorry I interrupted! I’ll wait outside, so feel free to continue!”

And with that, she turned to run out of the rehearsal room.

“Hagumi?!" Misaki called after her. "Where are you going?! It’s okay! You can stay!”

Misaki tried to beat her to the door, but she wasn’t fast enough. Hagumi was gone.

For a long moment, she stood there staring blankly at the door, a part of her brain still trying to process the ridiculous situation she'd ended up in. And Kaoru broke the silence.

“Hagumi has shown us some consideration. Let us not waste it, and continue with our practice.”

Misaki felt something churn in her gut at the sound of Kaoru’s supremely carefree voice, combined with her usual blasé expression. It sounded like it didn’t matter to Kaoru at all what Hagumi thought about them, and that made her angry.

Of course Kaoru doesn't care.

Just like she hadn't cared about Misaki’s embarrassment that night on the boat, when she made her “confess” to Kanon. Just like she hadn't cared when she made her play-act that stupid love confession again just a minute ago.

She didn’t care what people thought, or how they felt. To the girl who flirted with everyone, love was just a game; just another performance on a stage.

But what made Misaki the most angry of all was this: even though she knew Kaoru was just playacting, her heart had still skipped a beat when Kaoru uttered the words“I love you.”

Even though she was angry, now wasn’t the time to get into all that. Not when she had a misunderstanding to clear up.

So Misaki just shook her head and turned down Kaoru's suggestion.

“This isn’t the time for that. I’m going to go chase after Hagumi!”

As she ran out of the rehearsal room and down the hall, Misaki found herself wondering yet again, How did I get myself mixed-up with these idiots?

...

Hagumi hugged her knees as she sat on a bench outside CiRCLE.

The cafeteria was right there, and she'd considered getting something, but decided not to. She wasn’t in the mood for sweets very often; acai bowls and chocolate cornets just didn’t scratch the same itch as a nice croquette. There was also a nearby foot bath some people were using, but she didn’t feel like getting her feet wet right now. After walking in on such an exciting conversation, the only thing she could do with herself was sit there and think about what she’d just heard.

Mii-kun likes Kaoru-kun… No, she loves her!

She had to admit, she hadn’t seen it coming at all. Not only was she shocked to learn that Misaki loved Kaoru, but she was shocked to hear her confess it. The way Misaki had just said it out loud like that - looked right at Kaoru and said “I love you,”  - left Hagumi feeling amazed. She hadn’t thought Misaki was such a brave person, but she’d really done it: she’d confessed her feelings to the person she loved. And the way she’d been blushing and stammering the whole time made it clear that those feelings came from the heart.

Then again, maybe Hagumi shouldn’t have been so surprised.

I mean, I guess it is Kaoru-kun…

From the beginning, Hagumi knew Kaoru was mega-popular. Hagumi's classmates were always talking about her: the real-life prince from Haneoka Girls' High School, Seta Kaoru. Girls talked about her in hushed, excited whispers. They lined up to watch her drama club performances, and then after she joined Hello, Happy World, they saw her face on the posters and started coming to the band’s live shows too. Hagumi knew that Hello, Happy World owed much of its popularity to Kaoru and her fans.

Lots and lots of girls loved Kaoru, so Hagumi supposed it only made sense that Misaki did, too.

But something still felt off about the whole thing.

Hagumi was happy for her friends. She was excited to see their relationship blossom. But she also felt a little conflicted. There was an uncomfortable feeling nagging at her, like something was wrong. It was the same kind of feeling she got when her parents could make it to her brother’s band concerts, but not hers. Or the feeling she got when she visited Kokoro’s house for the first time and realized she'd never be able to afford all that cool stuff. Or the feeling she got when a fan asked Kokoro, Kanon, Kaoru and Michelle to sign her posters, but ignored her entirely.

I think seeing that confession made me kinda jealous, she had to admit to herself.

It wouldn’t be the first time Kaoru inspired jealousy in her. Hagumi had to admit that deep down, some part of her had always been a little envious of Kaoru; after all, Kaoru was much cooler and more popular than she was. Hagumi had always been insecure about her boyishness. All the time when she was growing up, people would tell her she should act more like a girl. Meanwhile, Kaoru didn’t look or behave “like a girl” at all, but everyone loved her for it. It was hard not to resent that just a little bit.

But I can never stay bitter towards her for very long. I mean, she’s such a good friend…

Whether it was going to the movies, the bookstore, or the music store together, Hagumi always enjoyed spending time with Kaoru. When she was with Kaoru, she could forget about the insecurities dogging her steps, or the fight her parents were having at home. Kaoru would talk to her about all sorts of subjects. Kaoru would tell her that the clothes she tried on at the mall looked cute on her, a word nobody else ever used to describe her. And when Kaoru had sampled a croquette from the family shop for the first time, she'd said it was “unspeakably delicious.”

Hagumi wasn’t that jealous of Kaoru. She liked Kaoru, and she was glad so many other people did too. It was just…

If Kaoru was dating Misaki, didn’t that mean she’d have less time to spend with Hagumi from now on?

The world of romance was a mystery to Hagumi. She’d never really understood love. After all, her parents were supposed to be in love, but they argued all the time, and that didn’t seem like much fun. Love was supposed to be make you feel good, not bad, right?

Kaoru made her feel good.

But their time together was about to end. Or at least, it was probably going to be cut short.

Maybe that was why she was feeling jealous. She wasn’t jealous of Kaoru this time; she was jealous of Misaki.

Hagumi didn’t know what love felt like, but if she had to pick a time when she came closest to experiencing “love”, it would probably have to be one of the times she was with Kaoru. She wasn’t immune to Kaoru’s charms herself; when Kaoru leaned in close and said nice things to her with a smile on her lips, Hagumi would start to heat up. That was how love was supposed to feel, she was pretty sure: warm. Exciting. Kind of embarrassing, but in a good way.

Maybe I should have confessed to her to before Mii-kun did.

The more she thought about it, the more she felt like she’d lost her chance. But could she ever confess the way Misaki had?

When she thought about Misaki standing there across from Kaoru and speaking her true feelings—when she remembered her saying “I love you” like she was nervous but completely sure of herself—Hagumi felt another surge of jealousy rise up. She tried picturing herself in Misaki's position instead.

Could she have done it? Faced down Kaoru and said, “I love you”? Even though she wasn’t cute, or cool, or sure of herself?

And if she'd done it…

Would Kaoru have accepted my feelings?

Maybe she wouldn’t have. Maybe she was just trying to be nice, during all those times they spent together. Or maybe she saw Hagumi as a friend, but nothing more. That was probably it.

But if Kaoru did accept… if she did accept, and she became Hagumi’s girlfriend, instead of just her friend… then what would happen?

Would they go to new and exciting places together? Would they go to the same places they went to before, but on dates this time? Would they share croquettes together, and go out to see romantic movies, and buy each other gifts at the mall? Would they perform a duet, just the two of them onstage, her bass and Kaoru’s guitar?

Would Kaoru kiss her, and touch her, and hug her really tight?

Would Kaoru show up to sweep her off her feet whenever she didn’t want to be at home anymore?

Hagumi didn’t know. She thought that was how love worked.

But she guessed she’d never find out now.

“—Hagumi! There you are!”

Abruptly, she was jolted out of her thoughts by the sound of someone calling out to her. When she looked to see who it was, she saw Misaki running her way from across the courtyard. 

She came to a halt in front of Hagumi, holding her knees and panting.

“I-I’ve been searching everywhere for you…” She let out another breath, then straightened up to address Hagumi directly. “I need to tell you something important.”

In spite of her new awareness of her feelings for Kaoru, Hagumi faced Misaki without any bitterness.

Even if it meant she was going to be left out from now on, she still wished her friends nothing but happiness and smiles. That was what Hello, Happy World was all about, after all.

So she offered a smile of her own and said, “Okay.”

...

Kaoru was not surprised to see many familiar faces in the crowd at Space, apart from just her bandmates. It made sense for other girls her age to have the same idea. Spending an evening at the local live house, supporting local girl bands, was an excellent way for a young person to spend one's time. Ahh, youth... how fleeting.

She turned on the charm for Hina, for Moca and her cute friend with the red streak in her hair, and for a number of other kittens without any problem at all.

But when her eyes caught sight of another familiar figure standing alone at the front of the room, everything changed. Kaoru's breath caught in her throat, and she stayed rooted to the spot.

She hadn't been prepared to encounter Shirasagi Chisato tonight. She never was.

Soon enough, to Kaoru's simultaneous thrill and dismay, Chisato looked over her shoulder and caught her staring. That single moment of eye contact caused a concoction of fear and excitement to erupt in Kaoru’s chest. Now, she had no choice but to go over there.

It wasn’t that she didn’t want to be near Chisato. Far from it.

It was just that nowadays, where it concerned her childhood friend, Kaoru never seemed to say the right thing.

Recently she’d been leaving every single one of their encounters feeling downtrodden. None of the lines she saved up or the schemes she devised seemed to have any effect. She felt like she truly understood how Orsino felt, pining after the fair Olivia - or the way Olivia felt, enchanted with Cesario. Channeling her feelings into her drama club performances had led to great success, but that was only a small consolation.

However... as the great bard once said, the miserable had no medicine but hope.

Surely one of these days, she’d succeed in melting Chisato’s frozen heart.

With that single-minded wish driving her forward, Kaoru walked across the dance floor to meet Chisato, wearing a confident smile that masked her anxiety (or at least, she hoped it did).

“Why, Chisato, fancy seeing you here. You look radiant as always, my dear princess.”

“Strange,” Chisato said without missing a beat, “I don’t recall being born into royalty.”

It was a reply that would have sounded harmless and playful, if not for the icy sheen covering her voice.

Kaoru chuckled, even as she inwardly winced. “But to me, you are a princess.”

“…is that all you wanted to say?”

Chisato was smiling, but she looked uncomfortable. Curses. When she looked like that, it meant that it was time to drop it.

“Of course not. I must ask, what brings you here tonight?” Kaoru made a sweeping gesture at their surroundings. “It is incredibly fortuitous that we should run into each other here. To cross paths on a night like this must be fate…” She chuckled again. “How fleeting.”

“It’s not that unexpected," Chisato said. "There aren’t that many live houses in the area.”

Kaoru felt her own smile fall by just a fraction.

“Could it be, you wish to glean inspiration for the band you’ve joined recently?” she tried asking, deciding to pretend as though she hadn't even heard Chisato's last remark.

“Something like that," Chisato replied. "It was the others who wanted to come, but I didn’t see any harm in escorting them.”

Finally, a straight response. She was overjoyed - or at least, she should have been.

While one part of Kaoru was happy and relieved that she hadn't said the wrong thing that time, another part of her couldn't help but think there was something strange about her reply. And that same part of her couldn’t resist the urge to interrogate further.

“Does that mean you don’t see the value in observing other local bands yourself?" she asked Chisato curiously. "Are you so confident you already know how a band is meant to function?”

“I’m not that arrogant,” Chisato replied. “My domain is acting, not music. I know I have a lot to learn about being a musician. I'm just not convinced it will help to study a bunch of amateur high-schoolers. The groups that perform here aren’t even idol groups.”

“Why not study idols, then?”

“I’ve already studied idols," Chisato said, her voice calm but her eyes blazing. "There’s a lot of crossover between television actresses and idols. They’re both part of the entertainment industry… in the end, that’s what it comes down to. It’s not about the music, or the quality of your acting. That’s why actresses and voice actresses are expected to do songs, even if they have no talent as musicians. If they can’t sing, their vocals will just be edited at the studio to make it sound like they can. So, really… idols groups are completely different from bands.”

It was strange. Kaoru's goal had been to hold down a normal conversation with Chisato for once, and finally, she was succeeding. But instead of feeling happy as she listened to her, Kaoru found her heart sinking. There was an odd, detached quality to Chisato's voice that was worrisome; it sounded as though she wasn't very happy. And once again, some of the actual things she was saying didn't seem to add up.

Kaoru was left wondering, once again, what the other girl's true feelings really were.

“The members of your group play their own instruments, do they not?” Kaoru pointed out. “And, as I recall, they had to pass multiple auditions. Their musical ability is not fake. Therefore, your group definitely counts as a real band, by any criteria. Just because your group is an idol group put together by a talent agency doesn't mean you and your fellow members are any less valid as musicians."

She realized after she’d spoken that she might have given away just how many hours she spent reading up on Pastel*Palettes; how many times she’d searched Chisato’s name; how closely she followed every news story about Chisato and the new idol group she'd joined.

Maybe Chisato picked up on all that, because for a moment, she looked at Kaoru with surprise.

But then, something wonderful happened.

Slowly, Chisato began to smile – and to Kaoru’s intense happiness and relief, it looked far more genuine than any of her smiles before.

“You have a point," Chisato said, and Kaoru's heart soared. "This project should be different from just your standard idol group. That’s why I agreed to sign on in the first place. I’m hoping for everyone’s sakes that it will be worthwhile, and that the group will be a success. If all goes well, we'd like to show people everything that idols can do."

Kaoru beamed back, feeling overwhelmed with the force of her own elation. Finally, she'd said the right thing, found the right words.

A newfound confidence overtook her, so strong that it swept her away.

“See?” Kaoru chuckled. “I knew I understood your true feelings about the band. No one could possibly know you better than I. We are the dearest of childhood friends, after all. Our hearts beat as one."

Thoroughly carried away by this point, Kaoru extended her hand, flashing Chisato her best winning smile.

“Shall we dance the night away? If I could, I would be honored to be your prince this evening, my dear Cinderella.”

By the time Kaoru finished making her invitation, Chisato was no longer smiling.

Staring disdainfully at the hand that had been offered to her, she took a step backwards.

“Sorry,” Chisato said curtly, “but I’d rather spend the rest of the evening at home doing work than spend it dancing with someone who uses ridiculous lines like that.”

Kaoru’s hand fell to her side.

The only reason her face didn’t fall with it was because they’d had so many interactions like that lately. By now, she was practiced at keeping the hurt from showing on her face, even as it gnawed at her heart. Instead, she let out a wry chuckle.

“Such an unfriendly kitten.” She sighed dramatically, still smiling, playing it off like it was all just a game. “Perhaps another day, then? Next time, I am confident that I can find the words that will win your heart, and you will have no choice but to be swept away by—"

“You really don’t understand anything, do you?”

Kaoru shut up immediately when Chisato cut her off.

She stared at Chisato openly, startled by the harshness of her words and the abruptness with which they were said.

And as she stood there, frozen to the spot, and examined Chisato's expression, Kaoru realized that there wasn't any affection there. There was nothing to indicate that this was all just a rather cruel and overly elaborate form of teasing; not a single trace of the intimacy they’d shared together as children remained.

The Chisato from back then was gone.

And if that was really true, Kaoru wasn’t sure she'd ever be able to recover from her loss.

There wasn’t anything else for her to do. She could obey Chisato’s wishes and leave her alone forever, but even then, her heart would never allow her to forget. She’d be left to pine over the connection they’d once shared for the rest of her life.

How unbearably lonely that would be.

“Chisato,” Kaoru said seriously, no longer able to smile, “you don’t have to stand with me in this crowd. You can leave me here, or I can leave you - whichever you prefer. But just know… just know that no matter how cold you act towards me, my feelings won’t change.”

Chisato just stared at her, her gaze uncomfortably scrutinizing. She seemed to be looking for something. Kaoru was left wondering what that something might possibly be, why it was that she couldn’t find it.

“And what feelings are those?”

Chisato's voice was soft. She sounded wary as usual, but there was also a tinge of curiosity to her voice. Like she really did want to know.

There were all sorts of things Kaoru could say.

Like, The reason I got interested in acting in the first place is because I wanted to share a hobby with you.

Or, I could never stop thinking about you, even when we started going weeks without seeing each other, even when you stopped wanting to talk to me.

Or, I want to be with you more badly than I’ve ever wanted anything so why won’t you just let me?

But she couldn’t say any of those things. She wanted to. But she couldn’t. She wasn't brave enough.

It would hurt too much to spill her true feelings, only to be rejected once and for all.

So instead what she said was...

“That I dearly wish to one day stand on the stage with you... That is my heart's desire."

It wasn’t a lie. That really was one of Kaoru’s greatest dreams. It was just that it didn’t come close to describing the whole truth, either.

Chisato didn’t react to her declaration. Her gaze was neutral; not disappointed, not impressed.

“We’ll see if that day ever comes,” was the last thing she heard Chisato say before a girl with cat-shaped hair stumbled out onto the stage and a new performance began.


The final notes of “Orchestra of Smiles” rang out, followed by enthusiastic applause. But the band didn’t move onto playing another song. Instead, Kokoro stepped down from the mic – and crossing over the stage to replace her was none other than Kaoru.

“Thank you, ladies and, er, gentlewomen,” she addressed the crowd. “We shall continue playing for you. But first, I wish to tell you about our next song. Our next song will be a little bit different. The first difference is that it will be a duet between Kokoro and myself.”

Himari gasped.

Kaoru-senpai is singing?!

As far as she knew, this was an unprecedented event. Himari had not been able to attend every single performance of Kaoru’s band, of course. She was busy with her own band, and many of Hello, Happy World’s shows took place at children’s events. Being without any younger siblings, Himari sadly didn’t have any excuse to go to those shows, no matter how much she loved watching Kaoru perform.

But Himari did faithfully attend every appearance that Hello, Happy World made at CiRCLE, and not once had she ever heard Kaoru’s singing voice. It was always Kokoro singing while Kaoru played her guitar and chatted up the audience between songs. And that in itself was amazing, mesmerizing – it was worth the time and price of admission just to see Kaoru play and to hear her enchanting words.

But this… this was even more amazing. This was ultra amazing.

She was going to get to hear Kaoru sing.

I’m going to hear Kaoru-senpai sing!!

“Secondly,” Kaoru continued, “this next song is not an original composition, but a cover of an existing song." Her lips curved into a smile as she added, “A very romantic song.”

Himari gasped again.

Romantic?!

She could hardly believe her luck: not only was she going to get to hear Kaoru sing, but she was going to hear Kaoru sing a love song. Her heart was pounding in her chest.

It was going to be amazing. Kaoru-senpai is soooo romantic!

By that point, the crowd had dissolved into a flurry of excited murmurs, but it was Kaoru’s next statement that sent everyone in the room over the edge.

“And third of all, this song is dedicated to a special someone in the audience.”

Himari almost started hyperventilating.

A SPECIAL SOMEONE?!

“I will give only three hints as to her identity. First—” Kaoru held up a finger, and the audience waited with baited breath for her next words. “She is a girl. Second—” Kaoru held up two fingers. “She is a student at either Haneoka Girls’ High School or another school. And third—” Kaoru pointed a third finger in the air, smiling beautifically. “She is extraordinarily beautiful.”

The crowd erupted, as Kaoru’s loyal fans went crazy trying to figure out who she was talking about.

Himari quickly turned Kaoru’s three clues over in her head.

A girl—I'm a girl!

A student at Haneoka or another school – that fits me, too!

And as for “extraordinarily beautiful”, well… Himari wasn’t self-absorbed enough to call herself beautiful, but...

It's not completely impossible that Kaoru-senpai would see me that way, right? Right??!! She's complimented my appearance before!!!

Frantically, she racked her brains, trying to remember if Kaoru had ever called her "beautiful" before. There was that time last week when they ran into each other on the way to the cafeteria, and Kaoru had said “You look lovely today as always, my kitten,” but “lovely” wasn’t exactly the same as “beautiful”, let alone “extraordinarily beautiful” (but maybe it's close enough??? Please let it be close enough!!!). Then there was that time last month when they passed by each other in the shopping mall, and Kaoru had said "It isn’t every day that I get to experience the joy of seeing a cute girl shopping for cute clothes.

Was “cute” close enough to beautiful? Or was “lovely” closer?

And anyway, even if Kaoru had never called her “extraordinarily beautiful”, that didn’t necessarily mean she'd never thought it.

Himari couldn't be sure of anything, but she was getting her hopes up anyway.

Face flushed with excitement, Himari turned to Tomoe in the crowd. She had a feeling that Tomoe might somehow know Kaoru’s true feelings better than she did. They seemed kinda similar sometimes, like kindred spirits. Himari thought of it as a shared aura: the aura of a cool prince.

“Do you think she means me?!” Himari asked, then flushed a little when she realized how she’d sounded. She totally hadn’t been able to hold her excitement in. But I just can't help myself!!

“Uh… maybe?” came Tomoe’s awkward reply. “That description could apply to anyone here, though… which is probably the point…”

Himari was about to consider that, but before she could, the next song came on - and then she was gone.

Her surroundings disappeared, the crowd reduced to a blur of white noise and her friends in it forgotten. All her attention went to the woman in front of the microphone, strumming her guitar and getting ready to sing.

And then she sang.

A pleasure to meet you, my lady

I’ve come from a western land looking for love

It’s sudden, I know, but please don’t be surprised

Would you please be my princess?

At first, Himari was so distracted listening to the sound of Kaoru’s voice and watching her perform that she didn’t even register the lyrics. But once they did sink in, her heart was suffused with a wave of longing and excitement.

She didn’t know if Kaoru was singing to her, but if she was, then that meant she was asking Himari to be her princess.

(She's asking me to be her princess!!!)

She really, really wished she knew for sure. She wanted so badly to answer Kaoru’s plea: to jump up on that stage, tell her Yes, and throw herself into her senpai's waiting arms. She was so sure Kaoru would catch her, even though she was carrying her guitar. Kaoru was just that amazing.

Come now, change into your dress

Finest princess in the world, shall we dance?

Oh, to dance with Kaoru… that would be a dream come true, as well. She wanted to melt just thinking about it: Kaoru’s body pressed warm and close to hers, her hands resting on her waist, red eyes gazing into her green ones... It was the stuff of her dreams. Literally, sometimes.

Drowning us in ecstasy

I’ll steal true love’s kiss

Oh no… when Kaoru mentioned kissing, Himari overheated even more. She was so overcome she was almost dizzy.

If those wonderful words were really meant for her, she’d probably die. But if they weren’t meant for her, she’d die too.

Kaoru-senpai, Kaoru-senpai! was all she could think. It was like everything and everyone else on Earth had disappeared, and there was only the two of them left in the world.

You sparked the passion within us

For your name is Juliet

Himari couldn’t hold back any longer. Without any shame at all, she cried out her true feelings.

KAORU-SENPAI, PLEASE BE MY ROMEO!!!"

“Himari, we need to go backstage now,” Ran tried to tell her friend, but received no reply.

“Don’t bother,” Tomoe said, shaking her head and smiling wryly. “Nothing you say will get through to her until this song is done.”

...

After the curtain call, they retreated backstage into the dressing room, their ears ringing with the sound of the crow'ds rousing cheers.

Rather than the image of the audience applauding them, the image that lingered in Chisato’s head was the look on Kaoru’s face as she strode across the stage. When Kaoru had met her in the middle of the stage and grasped her hand so they could take their final bow, she'd had looked exhilarated, triumphant. And Chisato had been quite sure that Kaoru’s expression of unbridled happiness and satisfaction was mirrored on her own face as well.

"You did great, Kao-chan," she said, already smirking at the blush she just knew would be waiting for her on Kaoru's cheeks.

But when she turned to look at Kaoru...

Chisato blinked.

It wasn't that she'd been wrong. There was, indeed, a huge blush on Kaoru's face.

But there was something... odd about her expression. Something startling.

She looked almost too flustered, and she wasn't saying anything, either. Kaoru just stood there and stared at her. And stood. And stared.

Slowly, Chisato raised an arm to wave her hand in front of her stage partner's face. That did the trick; after a moment, Kaoru blinked rapidly, finally snapping out of it. Whatever “it” was.

"Ah... t-thank you. You were fantastic as well, Chisato."

Something was definitely wrong. But Chisato wasn't sure what, so she just smiled and swept it under the rug.

"Thank you," she said, and started to head for the curtained-off changing area.

"Wait—"

A hand wrapped around her wrist, preventing her from getting away.

She spun around and came face-to-face with Kaoru again. Kaoru was still blushing. Her eyes were wide, like she was surprised, or terrified, and they were locked on Chisato's as though she couldn't look away. But still, she said nothing. She looked like she wanted to, but the words wouldn't come out.

Chisato really, truly couldn't imagine what was going on.

Unless...

"Do you need something?" she asked, trying to keep her voice level, polite. Even though her nerves were starting to spike. Even though her heart was starting to pound in her chest.

For another long moment, Kaoru remained silent, before letting out a frustrated noise.

"I-I... I wish to talk to you about something," she finally stammered out.

Chisato didn’t say anything. Just smiled and tried to tell herself that it was probably nothing.

“What... did you mean when you said I was your Romeo?” Kaoru's blush deepened as she asked.

Chisato blinked a few times. Then she started to blush herself.

“You overheard that, huh?" she said, thinking back to that conversation with Maya just a couple of days ago in this same room. "I thought I already explained it... Being with you allows me to step outside my role. When I’m with you, I get to be myself. I don’t have to play the role of ‘Shirasagi Chisato.’”

Kaoru listened to her. Then kept listening, like she was waiting for more. When she could tell that Chisato was all done, she frowned slightly.

“Is… that really all you meant?”

Chisato's heart skipped a beat.

“I wouldn’t say that’s ‘all’ I meant," she said, keeping her voice level even though her body had started to feel shaky. "It’s really important to me, you know? The fact that I can be myself when I’m with you… that’s not a small thing at all.”

Once again, Kaoru continued to wait after she finished speaking, watching her closely. It left Chisato feeling bare and vulnerable.

“…I see," Kaoru said at last. She closed her eyes. "I’m very glad for that. But, Chisato..." Kaoru opened them again and looked at her seriously. "What I want to know is… how do you feel about me?”

Chisato's stomach plummeted.

This was it.

She could no longer pretend that she didn't know the meaning of those questions.

This was really, truly happening. They were going to do this right now.

“I wish—no," Kaoru shook her head, "I need to know. If I don’t find out, I’ll lose my mind.”

Chisato laughed, trying to sound casual. Instead it sounded startled and borderline hysterical.

“You’re always so dramatic. Is that another line you tell all your little kittens?”

A part of her was yelling at herself, despising herself for continuing to play dumb like this. Another part of her absolutely refused to do anything else.

She'd spent months, years at this point, trying to push Kaoru away. To make Kaoru hate her as much as she hated herself. But she saw now what she should have known all along, and what she might have known, deep down, anyway: that none of it had worked.

Kaoru had never once given up on her.

“No. I’ve never felt this way about anyone else before." Kaoru shook her head, still with that great big blush on her face, still achingly sincere.

"I… I-I told you that sharing a stage with you was one of my greatest dreams. For my dream to finally come true… It felt magnificent. Better than I could have dreamed." She smiled, then, some of her earlier triumph coming back. "I knew that we would shine together, and we most certainly did. But…" She took a deep breath. "I also realized that I cannot allow my dream to end here.”

She looked at Chisato like she was seeking permission. Or maybe she was expecting her to protest. When Chisato did nothing, she let out another nervous exhale and continued.

“I cannot go back to the way we were before. Onstage and off the stage, I w-want to be with you.”

Chisato held her breath.

“I-I love you, Chisato— ...Chii-chan.”

Silence.

For a moment, her mind was blank. All she could do was stand there and stare, before her brain caught up with her body and forced her to say something.

“You really said it…” was what she came out with. Her voice sounded just as shell-shocked as she felt.

“I did," Kaoru agreed. "I-I really did," she said - and then she started laughing with relief. “Ahhhh, I almost cannot believe it was so easy. I feel as though I’ve been struggling with those three words forever." She laughed again, a high breathy sound. "How fleeting...”

“Not only that, but you called me ‘Chii-chan’ too. That must have been doubly hard for you, huh?”

Yeah. Even at a time like this, she was teasing Kaoru. She couldn't help it; Kaoru made it so easy.

But she also knew she was stalling for time.

“I-It was, yes," Kaoru admitted. "But, perhaps it pays to be honest sometimes. Already, I feel as though a tremendous weight has been lifted off my chest… but I know my heart will not calm down until I receive an answer.” And here, she eyed Chisato meaningfully.

There was only one thing Chisato could say.

“I love you too, Kao-chan.”

Because she did.

For the rest of her life, Chisato knew she would remember the look on Kaoru's face. At first, Kaoru was simply stunned. But then all her features lit up, and she was visibly ecstatic. She looked happier than Chisato had ever seen her before - no, she looked happier than Chisato had seen anyone before.

But when Kaoru lunged at her, Chisato held her at an arm's length, refusing to let herself be swept away just yet.

“Are you sure about this?" she asked, staring up at Kaoru's eyes seriously. "I’m not always a pleasant person to be around, you know. I’ve been really rude to you in the past. And I’m both an actress and an idol. That means I’m always busy, and that I can’t be open about any relationships."

She needed to say these things; it wouldn't be fair otherwise. Kaoru needed to know what she was getting into.

"You’d have a much easier time with someone else," Chisato said next, and it was true. They both knew it.

But deep down in her soul, after all these years, she also had a feeling she knew what Kaoru's answer would be.

That must have been why her eyes only went wide when Kaoru said something rude to her - an echo of Chisato's own words from months ago.

"You really don't understand anything, do you?"

Kaoru let out a chuckle when she saw Chisato's reaction.

“Sorry. But by now, you should know that I accept you for who you are." Kaoru moved her hand to cup Chisato's chin, her eyes radiating so much affection that it left Chisato feeling lightheaded. "The aloof side of you, the side of you who teases me with ridiculous nicknames, and the side of you who performed alongside me on stage… those are just three faces of the person I love. I'm sure there are other faces I have yet to meet, but I cannot wait to know them."

Her free hand came to rest on Chisato's waist, in a position similar to the one they'd struck onstage. Kaoru, her Romeo, pulling her close.

“Because you asked, I shall answer: yes. I am more sure of this than anything.”

And closer.

“Please, allow me to remain by your side. If you say yes, I promise that I’ll never let you go... C-Chii-chan."

One by one, the carefully-constructed walls guarding her heart had been torn down, leaving her with no choice but to let herself be loved.

She was powerless to resist the magnetic pull that Kaoru had over her, that she'd always had since they were children. She was powerless to do anything but let herself be held against Kaoru's chest, feeling her heartbeat beneath her ridiculous clothes.

“You really don’t give up, do you?" Her words were muffled by the cloth of Kaoru's stage costume.

She pulled back - just for a moment. Just so she could see Kaoru's eyes.

"Okay," she said, and it was done. "If you’re going to promise that you won’t ever leave my side, then I’ll hold you to it. And I won’t let you go, either.”

Chisato!"

Kaoru hugged her tight, practically crushing their bodies together. Chisato returned the embrace for a moment before pulling back again, not to get away but to get closer; to stand up on her tiptoes in her red high heels and try to steal a kiss.

"Try" was the operative word here. Without Kaoru leaning down far enough, she only just brushed just brushed her bottom lip. But it was worth it to hear Kaoru stammer, to feel her entire body jolt like she'd been shocked.

"Sorry," Chisato laughed. "I missed."

She watched with amusement as Kaoru went from being visibly stunned, to being super-flustered, to trying to shake it off and psyche herself up. In the end, she managed a breathy chuckle.

"Allow me to help you, dear Juliet."

This time, their lips met at the same moment. This time, Kaoru's hand winded itself in Chisato's hair, and Chisato wrapped her arms around Kaoru's neck.

The moment seemed to stretch on, and on. Chisato only pulled back when she couldn't resist the urge to see Kaoru's face any longer. When she did, Kaoru looked dazed, but then broke into a smile when she caught Chisato's eyes.

They had just moved in to kiss again when fate cruelly intervened.

“Are you guys ready to go out and meet people?"

The sound of Maya's voice calling from outside the dressing room caused both of them to freeze. Then they heard the sound of the door opening and instinctively jumped away from each other.

"There are a bunch of fans lined up who want autographs... Ah, that includes you too, Kaoru-san! In fact, I think there might be more fans of you than Chisato-san… Um." Maya abruptly stopped talking when she noticed them looking like two deer caught in headlights. "I'm not interrupting anything, am I?"

“No," they both said too quickly, at the same time. Then they stared at each other.

Chisato had to fight the urge to burst out laughing.

“Sorry," she said, holding in her giggles, "we got so distracted talking that we haven’t changed out of our costumes yet. Could you please give us a few more minutes? After that, we’ll be ready to talk to fans.”

Maya looked like she was still curious, but didn't press further. “Got it. See you in five!” And with that, she was gone.

Once she was out of the room, Chisato really did laugh, and was quickly joined by Kaoru.

"T-That was a close one," Kaoru breathed, smiling and shaking her head.

"This is what I meant," Chisato said, sobering up a little. "Even though Maya-chan is one of my friends, I can't tell her about us yet. We can't let ourselves be caught... But that doesn't mean we can't be together. We'll just have to spend more time together in private, okay?"

Chisato had been gunning to make Kaoru blush again, with the implications of what "private time" might entail. But surprisingly, Kaoru didn't fluster. She just nodded thoughtfully.

"I understand," was all she said. And then she thrust out her hand, smiling brilliantly.

When Chisato covered it with her own, Kaoru brought it up to her lips and kissed it.

"Come - we shall embark on this journey called 'love' together. But first... let us not keep our dear fans waiting any longer."


“So, Rimi-rin, truth or dare?”

“Um…” Rimi let out a hiccup. She was still tipsy from New Year’s sake she’d been drinking. “Truth this time.”

“Back in high school, did you have a crush on Seta Kaoru?”

“Eh?” Rimi blushed, clearly caught off-guard by Saaya's question.“W-Well, um…" She fidgeted, avoiding everyone's eyes. "Yes.”

“Really?” Tae cocked her head. “I didn’t know Rimi liked anyone back then."

“Seriously?” Arisa shot her a disbelieving look. “It was pretty obvious.”

Kasumi laughed. “I guess that’s O-Tae for you!”

Rimi looked around at her circle of friends in shock. “W-Wait, all of you knew?!”

“Well, I didn’t know for sure, or I wouldn’t have asked, but… yeah, I guess I had a hunch,” Saaya admitted.

“I guess that explains Rimi’s first girlfriend,” Kasumi remarked. “She had kinda the same vibe. Like a female prince!”

“Yeah, definitely.” Saaya nodded. “It wasn’t surprising that Rimi-rin would start dating in university, but it was a little surprising to see her come home with this girl who was super tall and mature-looking and stuff. Even though you two were the same age, she looked a lot older."

“I guess that’s Rimi's type, huh…” Arisa mused.

“I-It’s not like that,” Rimi protested, flushed from both her embarrassment and the lingering effects of the alcohol. “I wasn’t using her as a replacement for Kaoru-san, or anything! I wouldn’t do that.”

“I know you wouldn’t,” Saaya reassured her, smiling apologetically at her friend. “Sorry if this is making you uncomfortable. To be honest, the reason I asked in the first place is because I kinda went through a phase where I had a crush on her, too.”

Rimi’s eyes bugged out. “R-Really?”

“Yeah.” Saaya felt a touch embarrassed herself now.

“Was it… during the wedding photoshoot?” Rimi asked timidly.

“No, not during it, but that was what started it. We started spending more time together after that, and I guess that whole thing made me realize how cool and reliable she could be.”

“I see…” Rimi clearly hadn't had any idea.

“Ah, the wedding photoshoot! That brings back memories. You looked so pretty as a bride, Saaya~”

Saaya laughed. “Thanks, Kasumi..." She stared off into space, her voice taking on a thoughtful tone as she said, "Lately, I’ve been thinking about the past: the people we went to school with, and the bands we shared a stage with, and all the memories we made. I keep wondering how everyone else is doing these days. Has anyone heard anything about Kaoru-san recently?”

“I did! I heard that she started working as a stage actress in Tokyo,” Kasumi volunteered.

“Really? Guess that makes sense. It’s what I would have expected from her.”

“Mm! And not only that, but she’s living with that famous actress who went to our school, and played in another band… um, what was her name again…?” Kasumi scratched her head.

“You seriously forgot her name?” Arisa asked incredulously. “That was Shirasagi Chisato. You know, the Shirasagi Chisato.”

“Well, we didn’t have her in any classes cause she was a year older, and I don’t really pay attention to television and stuff,” Kasumi said sheepishly. She pressed her palms flat together and bowed her head like she was asking the gods for forgiveness. “Sorry I forgot your name, Chisato-senpai!”

“She and Kaoru-san are living together?” Rimi asked.

“That's not surprising,” Arisa said. “Back when we were all introducing ourselves during rehearsal for the Girls Band Party, those two said they were childhood friends.”

“That sounds nice, living with your childhood friend,” Kasumi remarked happily.

“Do you think they’re really just friends, though?” Saaya asked. Everyone turned to stare at her. “I mean,” she continued, “if they’re living alone together… and it is Kaoru-senpai we’re talking about…”

Rimi hiccuped again. Saaya looked at her, and then she noticed that her eyes were wet.

“Sorry, Rimi-rin!" she panicked, feeling suddenly guilty. "I didn’t mean to upset you. We can talk about something else if you want."

But Rimi shook her head.

“No, I’m not upset." Saaya was clearly about to interject. “Really, I’m not," she insisted. "Kaoru-san was my first love, but I got over her years ago. If she and Chisato-san are together, then I think that’s wonderful. I just want her to be happy…” She smiled, her voice wobbly but unmistakably sincere. “I hope all our old friends are happy right now.”

“Yeah,” Kasumi agreed, smiling as well.

They were all smiling now – even Tae, even Arisa. Rimi’s words had summed up their own feelings perfectly.

“I’m sure you’ll find happiness one day too, Rimi-rin~” Saaya reached across the porch and ruffled Rimi’s hair, which prompted her to let out a cross between a giggle and another hiccup.

“I’m already happy right now. Just being with my friends for the New Year is good enough. I don’t need a girlfriend… though, I guess I wouldn’t mind one either…” Rimi trailed off, blushing slightly.

“So, Saaya, what’s your type?”

“Why do you ask? Are you interested in her?”

Hell no!” Arisa snapped at Tae. “It’s just, if we’re going to keep talking about this stuff…” She scowled, blushing a deep red. “F-Fine, never mind.”

“You can ask me whatever you want when you win the king’s game. But for now, it’s still my turn,” Saaya said with a grin. “Truth or dare, Arisa?

...

Kaoru opened the box with trembling hands. Inside was a diamond ring.

Beautiful was the first word that passed through her head. Then her hand trembled again and the box shook, sunlight glinting off every iridescent surface of the gem, and the sentiment was multiplied tenfold.

“I know you were probably planning on being the one to do it," Chisato said, and Kaoru had to force herself to tune out the white noise roaring in her head and focus on what she was saying. "Knowing you, you probably had some big romantic gesture in mind. And I kind of wanted to see that, but… since we’re both women, I figured it didn’t have to be either of us. It would make just as much sense for me to do it. And I wanted to, because… I guess it feels like you’ve always been the one chasing me. When we were kids, and when were teenagers..."

Kaoru finally jerked her gaze away from the diamond, only to find that Chisato's eyes were equally blinding.

"The reason we’re together now is because you never gave up on me. So," Chisato said, resolutely, "I wanted to show you that I’ll never give up on you. That I want to stay by your side forever.”

After that, she seemed to be done. Distantly, Kaoru registered that she should reply, but she was still too overcome to do anything but stare, mesmerized, at the woman in front of her.

“Sorry." Chisato mistook her wonderment for uncertainty. "I know it might be sudden. You don’t have to accept. If it feels like it’s too soon, we can just go back to the way we were before. But if you want to, then… there’s nothing that would make me happier.”

“Kao-chan," Chisato said, her voice like the sun, "will you marry me?”

The second the words were out of her mouth, it was like all Kaoru's reflexes caught up with her at once.

She flew through the air, obliterating the distance between them to sweep Chisato away in a spinning hug.

Chisato yelped, tensing and then relaxing in Kaoru's arms. “W-Was that a yes?” she asked, sounding relieved and amused at once.

Kaoru indulged herself in one more moment of hugging Chisato tightly to her chest, resting her face in her soft hair, before she finally addressed the person who meant more to her than anything else in the world.

“Yes. A thousand times, yes.”

They kissed, feverishly excited at first, before mellowing out into something slow and languid. Once that rush of initial excitement faded, they seemed to realize there was no hurry, nowhere else they needed to be. They had all the time in the world: the entire rest of their lives to spend together.

At some point they ended up simply holding each other, Chisato's head tucked under Kaoru's chin. The box with the ring in it was clasped tight in Kaoru's hands, behind Chisato's back. One of Chisato's shoes had come off and lay somewhere off to the side, forgotten. She stood on top of Kaoru's feet instead.

“I’ll never leave your side," Kaoru promised, just as she had after the play.

Chisato snuggled deeper into her chest. Her presence was warm, constant, the most reliable thing in the world. 

“I know that," she said, her breath the ghost of a whisper against Kaoru's neck. "Thank you for being you, Kao-chan.”