That Haruka loved Chihaya had never been in question, never even for a moment. But Haruka remembers precisely when she understood how, and exactly how much.
She remembers standing off-left of stage with her friends, cloaked in the darkness of the wings, and the stage lights so close and so sharp in her eyes. She remembers looking on, Chihaya standing tall, her back straight, confident and self-assured — everything she kind of always had been in a way, only now — only now she was glowing. She was smiling, she was happy, and everything about her as she sung, now — nothing but the sound of her voice and Haruka’s own heartbeat ringing in her ears — was radiant. And Haruka felt so full of warmth and full of pride, in the crisp air of winter pushing out the end of autumn, from her cheeks to the very tips of her toes.
She had never felt her heart so full, before. And when she looked at Chihaya, in that moment, and she wanted to kiss her, it just made perfect sense. But the moment she really thought she might came later; it came when Chihaya came running back to her — well, to all of them, really — and when she said her name as everyone rushed back into the dressing room. It came when she said her name, and then she said thank you, and there was more meaning in that and in her brown eyes than she knew how to accept, than she might ever fully understand. And she thought how perfect it would be to kiss her, then. But she didn’t move — only smiled, and shook her head. In that: you will never need to thank me.
Now what comes next isn’t really the second, or third, or hundredth time Haruka wanted to kiss Chihaya, only the second time she almost really did it.
She’d been down. Really down. And Haruka is no fool; she knows the others count on her can-do attitude, that she is literally marketed to the nation on her apparently boundless optimism. The image has always come with a hint of isn’t it adorable, naïve, how much faith she has? But having faith isn’t easy, and faith is not the absence of doubt. Not that she can tell that to anyone, or is sure she even wants to— except Chihaya.
If she could tell anyone it might be Chihaya, but she knows how much Chihaya struggles, how much she’s been through, and she doesn’t want to burden her. It feels petty, somehow, in comparison (though she knows Chihaya herself would be angry at her for thinking that, in that silent way of hers). There’s a part of her that wants to be selfish, and honest, and another that just can’t.
Even if Haruka doesn’t talk to her about it, Chihaya just being there helps so much more than she knows. Because there’s so much they can communicate without words, because Chihaya struggles to speak at all, and Haruka struggles to speak her mind. In some ways it’s easy, and liberating, but she knows it isn’t enough. Still, it’s what gets her through when things are rough, and tomorrow Chihaya is leaving the country, and it’s not for long, but things will be so much harder without her there at all.
So of course all of this is weighing on her mind when it happens. They’re walking home together, as they often do (and if it’s too late to catch a train home, Haruka stays over, makes dinner, pretends her heart isn’t jumping out of her chest every time). They’re crossing the same old bridge, and Haruka feels herself yawn.
“You were up early this morning, right?”
“Yeah,” Haruka replies. She pauses. “Wait, how did you know?”
Chihaya sighs, a kind of knowing sigh, and also a kind of worried one. “Otonashi-san told me you moved your regular radio recording session to this morning.”
“Yeah,” Haruka explains, “if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have been able to make it to practice today.” She notices Chihaya has stopped a few paces behind her. “Chihaya-chan?”
“Haruka, I’ll ask the producer to have them postpone my overseas recording session that’s scheduled to start tomorrow.”
Haruka’s heart stops. No. No, this is all her fault, she can’t—
“You can’t do that, Chihaya-chan. You have to go.”
She walks over to Chihaya, and without really thinking about it, holds her hand. “It’ll be alright,” she says. This is when she looks at Chihaya’s eyes — all full of concern, and affection, and, she doesn’t know what — and thinks how perfect it would be to kiss her on her beautiful lips with their selfless words. But she doesn’t— only lets go of her hand, steps back, and admits:
“It’ll be a bit lonely without you though.”
The third time is on the beach, in the morning, the ghost of the sun dappling the water and the clouds a gentle pink. Haruka is warm from their jog and she can feel her heart in her chest, feels alive. She watches Chihaya pull her camera out of her pocket.
“You’re always taking pictures now, huh?”
“Don’t make fun of me,” Chihaya says timidly. “I bet you think it’s weird…”
Haruka shakes her head. “It’s a great hobby,” she says. She thinks about Chihaya, about her quiet appreciation, her silent understanding. “It suits you.”
Still timid, Chihaya smiles. “I’m not too good at it. I’ve been so focused on singing my whole life, I forgot to pay attention to what’s right in front of me.”
When Chihaya asks to take her picture, Haruka is awkward. Why she's awkward, when she is in the business of modeling, acting, live performance, and pretty much every televised, recorded or photographed activity imaginable must seem baffling to Chihaya, and is a little confusing to herself, too. She can’t help but wonder if Chihaya will ever take pictures of anyone else on the beach at the break of dawn, all alone. Or if it means anything to her. But Haruka can’t say no, and there’s kind of a rush, even if she can’t shake the nerves.
Later, when they’re sitting on the sand and Chihaya is leaning close to her, scrolling through the pictures, she hardly pays attention. She thinks how perfect it would be to kiss her, then, in the pink light with the gentle crash of the sea in their ears, before Chihaya goes to New York for God knows how long and only has these terrible photos to remember her by. But the pink sun turns orange, and they have to be back before the others wake up and start to worry, so she doesn’t.
This time, they’re in a café and Haruka is being honest about her feelings— or her most immediate ones, anyway. About how maybe she’s overthinking things; about how she doesn’t know what to do; about how she doesn’t know why they made her the leader. And Chihaya is silent, soaking it all in, just letting her speak, letting her train of thought flow naturally— until it reaches that place, where she shakes her head and tells herself to stop, and says aloud, “No, I have to stay strong. As the leader, I have to decide what’s best for us.” This is when Chihaya speaks.
“If it’s what you want to do,” she says, “then we should do it.”
And Haruka is a little confused. Isn’t she supposed to put the others first?
“Not as the leader,” Chihaya insists, “but as yourself.”
“But would everyone be okay with that? What if it’s the wrong thing to do?”
And Chihaya smiles, as if that’s impossible, and tells her she should tell them all what she feels first, then they can go from there. Haruka feels that warm, full feeling in her chest again. Then Chihaya continues.
“Also, I think I want to invite my mother to this concert…”
And she thinks about how far they’ve both come, how much they’ve both grown. She’s looking at Chihaya and she feels like her deep brown eyes are like a mirror, that she sees all the warmth and love and pride she feels reflected in them. She thinks it would be such a perfect moment to kiss her, then, after everything they’ve been through together— but Chihaya breaks their gaze, as a nearby couple looks at them and whispers to each other in hushed tones. So they leave instead.
And this is when she really does it. This is when Kana is okay, and the producer has left but she feels fine, like she can do this, like she has what it takes and she isn’t alone. She’s walking side by side, like she always is, with Chihaya, and the sun is warm on her skin and leaves are crunching under her boots. Then there’s this moment, where Chihaya asks her to stop for a second, and she does. And Chihaya’s hand is in her hair, and her heart stops, and she watches her pull a leaf from her head and smile. Haruka watches Chihaya laugh and her chest feels so full, and for once, in this perfect moment, she feels unafraid. Unafraid of her going away, unafraid of not being good enough, unafraid of hurting her or being hurt, unafraid of being seen or known, unafraid of it being the wrong moment. All of those things could still be true or real, she thinks, but it doesn’t matter.
“Chihaya-chan,” she says, hoping her voice doesn’t waver, “can I kiss you?”
Chihaya stops laughing, suddenly, and she blinks. Haruka’s heart drops to her belly, and then—
“Of course you can.”