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Heliophilia

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The thing about dating the literal sun, Misaki Okusawa reflected with a sourness that surprised even herself, was that, more often than not, you were liable to get burned.

Okay, so maybe her girlfriend wasn’t an actual blazing ball of hydrogen. Maybe she wasn’t a billion years old, and she didn’t incinerate everything in her path, no matter how destructive she could sometimes inadvertently be. But even setting all that aside, there was no denying that, when it came to the way she lived her life, Kokoro Tsurumaki had all the gravitational pull and scorching light of a healthy, young star hanging merrily in the cosmic void amidst a handful of captive, swirling planets.

Misaki watched those planets now as they gathered in the studio for practice, as usual. Hagumi and Kaoru were bouncing off of Kokoro’s chaotic energy as always, babbling about any inconsequential topic that happened to cross their minds.

“And I was thinking! What if we had backup dancers come in at this part, and then -”

“A magnificent idea, little kitten! Why, I tremble just imagining its glory!”

“Yay! Maybe Michelle can invite her bear friends to help us!”

The conversation flew back and forth, entering unintelligible territory so quickly that Misaki had no hope of jumping in even if she had wanted to. She just sat and fiddled around on the DJ table with her big bear paws, trying to ignore the dull throb of inexplicable annoyance in her stomach. She was hardly aware of how much she was staring until Kokoro turned her head and locked eyes with her.

For an instant, the rest of the world fell away. Flecks of light danced in Kokoro’s golden irises, and Misaki was spellbound. The others were still chattering away, but it was all just background noise that she could no longer hear. She was utterly lost, floating upwards into space, her mind devoid of any thought besides from how pretty Kokoro looked, her blonde hair all lit up like a halo.

Then, Kokoro beamed. One flash of teeth, and then she turned away once more, her attention caught by Hagumi, who was recounting an episode from her morning softball practice.

Beside Misaki, Kanon pulled on her elbow, and Misaki rotated her ponderous costume head so that she could see the other girl. As usual, she had an anxious expression on her face, though Misaki felt that it was directed more at her this time.

“Are you okay, Misaki? You seem a little down…”

Either Kanon had gotten really good at reading her body language through the bear outfit, or she was being way too obvious. It was probably a bit of both.

Misaki shook her head and waved one paw in a reassuring gesture. Kanon still seemed concerned, but Misaki was too preoccupied by the afterimage of Kokoro’s blinding smile to care.

Kokoro had smiled at her the same way two months ago, when Misaki had approached her with cracked, dry lips and a frantically beating heart. It had been just the two of them then, alone together in one of the main rooms of the Tsurumaki mansion for a song-writing session. Misaki wasn’t usually the type to get so worked up about - well, anything, but she’d stayed up the entire previous night trying to figure out what she’d say. With a carefully composed speech in mind, she’d gotten up from her seat next to her turntable and taken two steps towards the couch.

When Kokoro looked up at her with those bewitching, golden eyes, however, all the words she had prepared promptly flew right out of her head.

“Kokoro,” she had croaked, the epitome of eloquence. “I… really like you.”

Kokoro had smiled.

“Thanks, Misaki! I like you, too!”

A typical Kokoro answer. Misaki had wanted to smack herself for her own stupidity. Instead, she had tried again.

“No, I don’t mean, like- I mean… Do you want to go out with me?”

Kokoro had bounced up from the couch, clearly delighted. “Sure! Let’s go out right now!”

Misaki, sure that Kokoro had misunderstood her yet again, opened her mouth in a desperate attempt to clarify her intentions. That was when Kokoro had grabbed her hand and threaded their fingers together.

“So can we walk like this from now on? Oh, and kiss and stuff? I’ve wanted to do that for awhile now, but apparently you can only do that when you’re dating-”

And Misaki realized that Kokoro had understood her, after all.

It hadn’t exactly been a confession out of a romance movie. But Misaki had never had much patience for those kinds of films anyway, and in a way, things turned out exactly how she would’ve expected them to. Being the easygoing person that she was, she simply accepted the situation and slipped neatly into the relationship.

Dating hadn’t changed their daily lives much, in the end. They still went to school, ate lunch with their friends, and practiced songs with the rest of the band. In fact, on the surface, things were more normal than ever, now that Misaki wasn’t running around flustered and confused about her feelings all the time.

That was the problem.

“Oh, what’s this, little kitten?” Kaoru suddenly interjected, taking Kokoro’s hand to inspect it more carefully. “Is that polish I spy upon your beautiful nails?”

Misaki twitched.

Kokoro beamed and nodded. “Yup! I got some from Lisa. She said that if I put it on, it’ll make my fingers look super sparkly!”

Kaoru, not letting go of her hand, began to heap lavish praise upon her in typical princely fashion.

“It sparkles like the stars on a cloudless night,” she gushed. “Befitting of a princess such as yourself. It’s truly flee-”

Misaki’s body moved before she had time to think. Faster than anyone could even blink, she crossed the room and thrust herself between the two, forcing Kaoru to let go.

For a moment, no one reacted. Kokoro blinked up at her in confusion, her ever-present smile frozen on her face. With her limited sight, Misaki couldn’t tell what the others were thinking, but they were probably similarly shocked.

Feeling a bit foolish, Misaki let her arms drop to her side and coughed.

“Let’s start practice,” she muttered, in a flimsy attempt to brush aside what she just did.

Thankfully, everyone bought it.

“You’re totally right, Michelle!” chirped Hagumi. “Our concert is next week, after all!”

Kaoru passed a hand across her brow in a dramatic gesture. “Your dedication is inspiring. I’m utterly moved by your devotion to our music. It’s just as Shakespeare said…”

Misaki could hear Kanon breathing out a sigh of relief behind her as well. Only Kokoro remained still, making a slightly perplexed expression. Misaki stared back at her, glad for once that her heavy mask was hiding her facial features from view.

Then, Kokoro shrugged and her grin widened. She grabbed one of Misaki’s paws, pulling her towards the DJ deck.

“Michelle’s all fired up! Yay! That means we gotta get fired up too!”

Even as she turned on her equipment, Misaki’s cheeks still burned with embarrassment. She couldn’t come up with a single reasonable excuse for what she’d just done. Imagine getting jealous of Kaoru, of all people. She really needed to pull herself together.

She sighed and turned up the volume as the rest of the girls began to play. It wasn’t long before she found her eyes being drawn to Kokoro yet again. She had to physically shake her head in order to bring herself back to her senses.

She sighed once more at how hopeless she was.

Her life might not have changed much since she and Kokoro started dating, but Misaki herself sure had.

-

The rest of practice passed by in a blur, and it wasn’t long before the Hello Happy members were stowing away their instruments. Misaki excused herself to the changing room so she could remove her heavy bear suit. After spending so long in it, her body had gotten used to the weight, but taking it off remained a nightmare. Several sweaty minutes passed until finally, Kokoro’s bodyguards finished popping off the head and undoing the zipper for her. As always, by the time she had freed herself from the costume, they had vanished just as imperceptibly as they had arrived. Quite frankly, that was just fine by her. The suits were helpful, but that didn’t stop them from creeping her out.

Normally, the gang would hit up the shopping district for some croquettes or bread after a practice session. When Misaki stepped out the studio doors, however, she was surprised to see that only Kokoro was waiting for her. Well, waiting was a bit strong of a word. She was crouched near some bushes, trying to entice a stray cat over to her.

Misaki walked over to her, startling the cat, which bolted without further ado. Kokoro looked up and, spotting Misaki, grinned automatically.

“Misaki!” Her arm shot up, both as a greeting and a request for help.

“Hey.” Misaki obliged and, grabbing the outstretched hand, pulled her to her feet. “Where’s everyone else?”

Kokoro brushed at some dust on her skirt as she shrugged. “Hagumi had to go help with her family’s shop, and Kaoru needed to do something drama club thing.” She frowned pensively, adding, “And when those two left, Kanon said she should probably head home alone for some reason. I wonder why?”

An image of Kanon’s concerned and knowing look during practice flashed through Misaki’s mind, and she winced internally. A bit pathetic that Kanon felt like she needed to go out of her way to wingman for her, but with Kokoro’s warm hand in hers, she wasn’t about to complain.

“Guess it’s just us two then,” Misaki observed, and the rush of cheerfulness she suddenly felt was almost embarrassing. She had to physically restrain the smug smile that threatened to break across her face. “Wanna stop by a cafe or something?”

“Yesss!” Kokoro’s response was immediate and enthusiastic. She flung herself at Misaki’s arm, clinging to her and pushing her along. “Let’s go!”

This time, Misaki didn’t even bother to suppress her grin.

-

The nondescript cafe that they ended up at was better than Misaki had expected when she had eyed its dubious exterior. With construction being conducted on the upper floors of the same building, only some desperate notice boards informed bypassers that the coffee shop was still open. As soon as Kokoro had spotted them, however, she had taken an impulsive interest and demanded that they take a look inside.

Now, as she took a sip from simply the best coffee she’d ever tasted, Misaki had to admit that her girlfriend had made a good call.

“Look, Misaki! The cake is Michelle!”

Kokoro had ordered a delicious-looking dessert platter for them to share. Listed in the menu as the “Goldilocks Special,” it was comprised of a medium-sized strawberry cake with two scoops of ice cream on the side. And of course, it was arranged in the vague shape of a bear’s head.

“It does kinda look like her,” agreed Misaki. With a wry smile, she pondered whether digging into it could be considered cannibalism on her part. “Let’s split it before the ice cream melts.”

Kokoro nodded and picked up her utensils. Just before she cut into it, however, she froze, the knife and fork hovering centimeters above the bear’s chocolate “nose.”

Misaki raised her eyebrows. “What’s up?”

Kokoro withdrew a little, looking uncharacteristically hesitant. “It’ll hurt her! I feel bad.”

It took Misaki a moment to figure out who she was talking about, and when she realized, she snorted. “I don’t think Michelle will mind.” She held out a hand. “Here, let me do it.”

Kokoro relinquished the knife, but a hint of misgiving remained on her face as she watched Misaki divide the cake and transfer one half onto a separate plate.

“Hmm… I don’t know. She seemed kinda off today during practice.”

Misaki twitched and nearly rolled one of the balls of ice cream onto the table. She tilted the plate at the last moment, managing to halt it before it slid off the edge. “Oops.” With deliberate care, she finished splitting up the dessert and set it down.

“How do you mean?” asked Misaki with as much nonchalance as she could muster. She played with the handle of her fork, but didn’t begin eating her cake.

Kokoro cocked her head in thought. “She looked sad! Or mad, maybe? She definitely wasn’t having as much fun as usual.”

When Kokoro talked like this, Misaki really couldn’t tell whether she had figured out that Misaki and Michelle were one and the same, or if she still actually believed that Michelle was a magical animal with a DJ habit. It made conversations difficult. In this case, though, Misaki consciously erred on the side of caution - and in her own favor.

“She’s a bear. I don’t think it’s that complicated.”

“That’s not nice. Bears have feelings too, you know.”

Misaki bit her lip. Kokoro had no idea how right she was, but Misaki was not in the mood to elaborate on what kind of feelings “Michelle” might have been experiencing. She wasn’t quite able to articulate them herself. The truth was, she dreaded a deeper examination of her recent sullenness.

So Misaki fell back on her most trustworthy strategy. She changed the subject.

“Look, the ice cream is melting. We’d better eat before it all turns into soup.” With a decisive gesture, she stuck the tines of her fork through the spongy vanilla cake.

Kokoro didn’t need any further encouragement. With a noise of agreement, she followed suit eagerly. Soon, all thoughts of Michelle and her strange behavior were put aside, and they had relaxed back into normal conversation. Misaki ate her dessert with a certain amount of guilty relief, happy to be in the safe zone once more.

“That was amazing!” Kokoro gushed once they had both finished. She had virtually cleaned the plate, her apprehension about hurting Michelle a thing of the past.

The corners of Misaki’s mouth curled upward, her eyes half-closed in contentment. The cake had been more filling than expected, and she was basking in the afterglow of sugar and icing.

She let her gaze fall on the menu lazily, perusing the other food items on the list. She didn’t have quite the sweet tooth that Kokoro did, but she was only human, and indulging every so often wasn’t a bad thing. Plus, the idea of having a secret retreat just for her and Kokoro was too enticing to pass up.

“Man, we should totally come here again,” she mused out loud. “The other stuff all looks good too.”

Kokoro, herself in the midst of sinking into a food coma, sat up in her seat at the suggestion.

“Yeah! I wanna try the jumbo waffle special!” She jabbed her finger at a picture of the dessert in question, a monstrous construction of waffles, ice cream, and fruit topped with a honey and chocolate drizzle. Misaki could feel an early onset of diabetes approaching just from looking at it.

“That looks a little big for two people,” she joked, but Kokoro brushed her concerns aside with a flick of her hand.

“Don’t worry, I’m sure the rest of Hello Happy will help. Let’s bring everyone here next week!”

Misaki’s face went numb, and her ears filled with a deafening buzz. There it was again, that sickening burn in her stomach. The sudden, violent flare caught her by surprise, and she had to swallow hard before it reached the surface.

With considerable effort, she was able to keep her voice steady and casual. “About that…”

“Hm?” Kokoro looked up, innocently oblivious to Misaki’s inner turmoil.

Misaki cleared her throat. It was now or never. “I was actually thinking we could just come here again by ourselves. Just the two of us.”

From the way Kokoro blinked her bright eyes, Misaki could tell that her girlfriend was confused by the proposition. Of course she was. The members of Hello Happy World did basically everything together, usually at Kokoro’s own behest. Already, her eyebrows were furrowing.

“Why?” It was an inevitable question, but Misaki wasn’t prepared to answer it. How was she supposed to explain her feelings to Kokoro of all people? She was the kind of person who went out of her way to drag others into her plans, not keep them out.

“I just… I just want to spend more time with you,” she ended up saying, rather lamely, already regretting the words as they came out of her mouth.

As expected, Kokoro was not appeased. “But we spend a lot of time together!” she insisted. “At practice and school and on the weekends too.”

“Yes, but I want to do it alone,” Misaki said emphatically. Underneath the table, her fists tightened. Why couldn’t Kokoro understand? They were supposed to be dating each other, not the entire band.

“You’re so silly, Misaki. Isn’t it more fun to do things with everyone?”

“I…” Misaki looked straight into Kokoro’s golden eyes, preparing to argue further, but the expression of genuine puzzlement on the other girl’s face brought her to an abrupt stop.

Just like that, all the fight went out of her. She unclenched her hands, her shoulders sagging. What was the point? There was no getting through to her. Kokoro was simply the kind of person who thrived by bringing others together; it was one of the traits that made Misaki fall for her in the first place. She had no right to try and monopolize her, especially if it was something Kokoro herself didn’t want.

She was being selfish. Unreasonable. She knew that. And yet...

“Nevermind,” she finally muttered. She flopped back into her seat, lowering her head so that she could not see beyond the brim of her hat. As irrational as it was, she sometimes wished Kokoro could be less obsessed with making the whole world smile.

“Misaki?” a small voice ventured. She heard some shuffling, and a moment later, Kokoro was leaning down onto the table as low as she could go, trying to get a peep of Misaki’s face. “Are you okay?”

Typical Kokoro. Even when Misaki was at her lowest point, she still had the nerve to be cute.

Misaki exhaled slowly, letting the remaining tensity leave her body, then lifted her chin, plastering on a half-hearted grin.

“Yeah,” she said. “I’m fine.”

She wasn’t, but Kokoro didn’t need to know that.

-

Love makes people act in stupid ways. Misaki was one of those people.

After the disastrous non-conversation in the cafe, Misaki found herself keeping her distance from Kokoro more and more. At first, it had been (mostly) unintentional. After all, between studying for finals and band practice, the Hello Happy World members were all keeping busy. Before she knew it, several days had passed since the last time she and her girlfriend had had any one-on-one time together. And when Misaki realized that, she only needed to exert the tiniest bit of effort to maintain that status quo.

She wasn’t sure why she was doing it. No, that was a complete lie. She knew exactly why she was doing it. She wanted Kokoro to react, to run after her, to take her by the hand and pull her into an empty stairwell. She wanted a sign that Kokoro was thinking about her, that she missed her as much as Misaki missed her. In other words, she was doing what an airheaded protagonist in some vapid romance would do - she was silently testing her partner. Somewhere in the world, a relationship health expert was smacking their forehead against a wall.

The worst part was that Kokoro gave no indication that she had even noticed. She soared blithely through Misaki’s subtle cold shoulders and not-so-subtle attempts to include at least one other person in every plan that they made. Every 5-member songwriting meeting, every study session with their classmates, was borne with the same signature enthusiasm and cheerfulness.

And of course, the more Kokoro seemed to be totally ignorant of her efforts, the more Misaki dug her heels in. Part of her knew that she should just give up and cut her losses, but she was desperate for any sort of acknowledgement. So she persisted in ignoring Kokoro, and so felt increasingly stupid.

Undoubtedly, she reflected grimly as she closed her eyes against the blinding sun, she was at her stupidest now.

“Here we go, Misaki!” yelled Kokoro in delight from the seat next to her. Misaki felt her hand being grabbed and her heart had the traitorous nerve to flutter. In the next instant, however, it practically hopped out of her mouth as Kokoro forced both their arms into the air and their cart crested the hill and began to tip dangerously downwards.

Screams erupted from behind them as they plunged forth and gravity took hold. She could hear Kokoro laughing in complete fearlessness, while her own breath had been ripped from her lungs. She just kept her eyes squeezed shut and prayed for the ride to end.

A dizzying two minutes later, they finally slid to a stop back at the launch point. Misaki staggered out of her restraints panting and disoriented. She didn’t hate roller coasters, but she was certainly out of practice with them.

“Wasn’t that fun, Misaki?!”

Misaki started, belatedly realizing that Kokoro was still holding onto her hand. It felt like it had been years since their fingers were last intertwined like this, and for a second, she was tempted to just enjoy the physical contact. Then, her stubbornness kicked in again and, on the pretense of adjusting her cap, she pulled her arm away.

“I thought I was gonna die,” she joked, examining Kokoro’s expression for any change out of the corner of her eye. There was only that inscrutable smile, same as always. She sighed, then straightened up. “Come on, we should catch up with everyone else.” With that, she walked off, making it a point not to see if Kokoro was following her.

“We should totally do that again!” she heard Kasumi exclaim as she approached the rest of their party, and Misaki groaned. This was what happened when you invited the entirety of Poppin’ Party to join your friends at the amusement park for the express purpose of making your own girlfriend easier to avoid. Between Kasumi, Hagumi, and Kokoro, there was enough energy in their group to power a small country.

Thankfully, Arisa was here to put a damper on things. “No way,” she stated flatly, putting a hand on her girlfriend’s shoulder. “That line is more than an hour long, and there are a bunch of other rides.”

Kasumi pouted. “But this one’s the fastest one! Come on, everyone else wants to go again too, right?”

Misaki surveyed the others’ faces and was alarmed to see how many seemed unopposed to Kasumi’s suggestion. Even Tae was nodding.

“It’s not that scary once you’re on it,” she offered, while in the background, Hagumi was jumping up and down in excitement, already clamoring about wanting to sit in the very front this time. Arisa’s forehead wrinkled as she took inventory.

“How many of you want to go?” she asked, taking charge as usual. Six hands shot up into the air, including Kokoro’s. Only she, Misaki, Kanon, and Rimi kept their arms down. Seeing the ratio, she pinched the bridge of her nose, then let her shoulders slump in defeat. “Alright. Let’s split up. People who want to ride again, go ahead. We’ll take a break and wait for you guys.”

Kasumi pumped her fist into the air. “Yes! Love you!” She swooped in for a quick peck, then zoomed away, leaving Arisa blushing. Misaki was about to shoot a smirk at her when she felt a tug on her elbow. She looked down to see Kokoro there, gazing up at her.

“You’re not coming?” she asked, her eyes wide and expectant.

Misaki hesitated. Honestly, now that things had turned out this way, riding the coaster again would probably be more interesting than sitting around waiting. She could still change her mind. But…

“Do you want me to?” She kept her body stiff, her face impassive. She ignored the way Arisa, in her peripheral vision, whipped her head around to observe the exchange.

Kokoro, as always, considered the question seriously, chewing on her lower lip. “I think you should do what you want to do, Misaki.”

Another non-answer. Misaki resisted the urge to sigh in frustration. She shrugged instead. “I don’t really care, either way.”

They lingered there for a moment, nothing between them except the screams and laughter of the other park attendees around them. Misaki waited, hoping with every fiber of her body that Kokoro would figure it out.

All she had to do was say it. Say that she wanted Misaki to go with her. Give some indication that she actually cared about being with her.

“Kokoro, come on!”

That reassurance never came. Kasumi’s voice floated over to them from the entrance to the ride line, and she waved at them impatiently when they glanced over at her. The rest of the group peeked out from behind her, probably wondering what the holdup was.

More roughly than she meant to, Misaki shook her arm out of Kokoro’s grasp. “Better not keep them waiting.”

If Kokoro heard the bitterness in her voice, she didn’t show it. “On my way!” she yelled back, then gave Misaki a pat on her shoulder. “I’ll see you later, okay?”

And just like that, Misaki was left hanging, once again watching Kokoro’s back recede into the distance.The sight was as painful as ever, and with an angry jerk of her head, Misaki forced herself to look away. When she did so, she locked eyes with Arisa, who was scrutinizing her and frowning.

“Okay.” She crossed her arms. “What the hell was that?”

Misaki groaned. She could never catch a break. “None of your business,” she shot back, then made a valiant effort to change the subject. “Where’s Kanon and Rimi?”

“I sent them off to get snacks as soon as I saw that trainwreck happening.” Arisa was never one to mince her words. “Why are you and Kokoro fighting?”

“We’re not fighting,” Misaki said automatically, and was met with the most dismissive eyeroll she had ever encountered.

“Riiight. And Michelle is a real bear.”

“We’re not,” Misaki insisted, flushing. Arisa held her gaze, not backing down but not pushing further, either. A few beats of silence passed.

Misaki was the first to look away. She scuffed her shoes against the ground and added in an undertone, hating herself even as she said it, “In a real fight, both people have to care.”

Arisa took the hint. “Do you think that Kokoro doesn’t care about you?”

“She cares,” Misaki intoned. “She cares about me just as much as she cares about everyone else. That’s the problem. We’ve been dating for months now, but she acts like I’m just another member of the band. Like I’m not…” She trailed off, unable to complete the sentence.

“Like you’re not special,” Arisa finished for her. Annoyingly, she was nodding with an air of sage understanding. Misaki was already regretting opening up to her. “Have you tried talking to her about it?”

Misaki snorted, half in irritation. “You make it sound so easy.”

“Well, what’s stopping you?”

She forced herself to take an even breath, then tried to explain. “Kokoro loves… everyone,” she said, with great difficulty. “Well, she loves having fun. And she has the most fun with other people, so she likes everyone.”

“Yeah, make the whole world smile or whatever,” Arisa agreed. She seemed nonplussed, wondering where Misaki was going with this. “So?”

“So,” Misaki said, letting desperation creep into her voice, “how am I supposed to even bring it up? How could someone like that possibly understand how it feels to want to be more important than the others around them?” Her cheeks colored as she heard those traitorous words finally come out of her mouth. She slumped her shoulders with something very close to shame. “It’s stupid. Selfish.”

Arisa was looking at her more softly now. “You’re her girlfriend, Misaki. I don’t think it’s selfish to want her to treat you like one.”

“...And if she doesn’t?” Misaki didn’t mean to say it. She had never planned on telling anyone about her fears. But now that she was being forced to confront them, she couldn’t stop. She swallowed, then finally gave form to the question she hardly dared to ask, the question that kept her up at night. “What if I talk to her, and tell her how I feel, and it turns out… she doesn’t feel the same way?”

Of all the ways she might’ve expected Arisa to react, it wasn’t the obvious exasperation that showed on her countenance now. “What? Are you serious?” the girl scoffed. “That’s what you’re hung up on?”

“What? What’s that supposed to mean?”

Arisa just shook her head and sighed. “You know,” she said casually, “I always knew you were faithless, but I didn’t realize exactly how bad it was.”

Misaki was so indignant, she temporarily forgot about feeling sorry for herself. “Excuse me? I am not!”

“Oh, really? Because right now, it just sounds like you don’t trust Kokoro at all.”

“That’s not-” Misaki’s words caught in her throat as Arisa raised her eyebrows. “Stop! Stop giving me that look. I do trust her.”

“Then prove it.” Arisa shrugged, as if the matter was settled. “I can’t believe I have to even tell you this, but Kokoro isn’t dumb. She might be oblivious and honestly really fucking annoying, but you of all people should know that she wouldn’t start dating someone for no reason. You’re acting like such a martyr, but in the end, you’re the one who doesn’t even believe in her girlfriend enough to have a conversation with her. Hell, I’m pretty sure this talk we’re having is already longer than any you two have ever had.”

That, more than anything, struck a nerve.

Misaki opened her mouth, then closed it. She had never considered it that way, had never considered how all her doubts added up to a simple lack of trust. She loved Kokoro, but she had never even taken the time to ask how her girlfriend felt. Overjoyed when Kokoro had accepted her confession and unwilling to push her good luck, she had simply spent the past few months trying not to upset some imagined balance.

Arisa observed her stricken look with some degree of satisfaction. “Look, don’t be a pussy. Just tell her everything you told me. It can’t turn out worse than it already is.” She turned away, scanning the crowds for a sign of Kanon and Rimi. “Oh, they’re back with the snacks. We’d better go help them.” Without bothering to wait for Misaki to respond, she began walking towards the other two.

Before she got too far away, though, she looked back over her shoulder. Misaki remained rooted to the spot and could only watch numbly as Arisa gave her a smirk.

“And for the record, you’re the only one who can’t tell that Kokoro is head over heels for you. The rest of us are pretty sick of it. Maybe tone it down a little, huh?”

Misaki wasn’t even able to impart a passing shot about Arisa’s own public displays of affection when it came to Kasumi. She was too busy attempting to melt into a puddle of mortification.

-

No matter how many times Misaki visited, she could never get over exactly how huge Kokoro’s house was.

Kokoro’s room alone was more than half the size of her own family’s tiny apartment. She surveyed it now with mixed awe and incredulity. As her eyes passed over Kokoro, the blonde girl perked up.

“So? What did you wanna do? I got some new coloring books yesterday, if you wanna do them with me!”

Misaki closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Here it was: the moment of truth.

It had been a week since the amusement park. A whole, agonizing week during which Misaki alternately worried, sulked, and plotted. All because she had made the mistake of opening up to Arisa.

No, that wasn’t quite accurate. It wasn’t that her discussion with Arisa had led to any particularly new revelations. Misaki had contemplated most of the points at one time or another. But having them all laid out like that, under the harsh light of day, made them seem more petty and irrational.

She couldn’t keep hiding from her own girlfriend. So finally, she decided to grow a backbone. She had spent the past few sleepless nights trying to figure out what she wanted to say and how she wanted to do it, and then, before she lost her nerve, she forced herself to ask Kokoro if she could come over.

“Actually,” Misaki began, “I wanted to talk. Can we… Can we sit?”

“Sure!” Without hesitation, Kokoro flopped up onto her huge, four-poster bed and patted the area next to her. “What’s up?”

Misaki took a seat on the edge of the covers a little more gingerly. She folded her fingers together and looked down, trying to remember what she had rehearsed earlier. With Kokoro, you always had to be up front and direct - something Misaki had never had much practice with.

“Well first, I wanted to… apologize. I guess. I mean, I’m not sure you even noticed it, but…” She shook her head. “I’ve been kinda avoiding you.”

She expected surprise. Maybe even denial. Instead, Kokoro nodded.

“Oh, that? Yeah, I noticed.”

For several seconds, all Misaki could do was gape at her. “Wait, what? You did?”

“Mhm!”

“W-Why didn’t you say anything, then?!” They had barely exchanged five words, and things were already going differently than Misaki had imagined. Was she ever going to catch a break?

Kokoro seemed pensive as she explained herself. “You always got a frowny face when you were looking at me. So I figured I was making you mad, and that you’d tell me why when you were ready.” She brightened as another thought came to her. “And now you are!”

A bark of laughter left Misaki’s mouth. She couldn’t help it. All of a sudden, the puzzle pieces
were fitting together, and the picture of irony that emerged was almost hilarious. All this time, she had assumed that Kokoro wasn’t reacting because she didn’t care, when in fact, she was keeping her distance out of a sense of tact.

In the end, it was all absurdly simple. All Misaki ever had to do was reach out. If she had, she would’ve found Kokoro reaching back with open arms.

“I wasn’t mad at you.” She skimmed her palm over the soft blanket pensively. “I was mad at myself, for the most part. Because I kept on feeling like I wasn’t important to you.”

“But you are important, Misaki.”

“I know, I know. But you always talk about how everything’s more fun with friends, which made me start wondering - am I just a friend? What makes me different from Kaoru or Kanon or Hagumi?”

The deluge that Misaki had long kept back spilled forth now, and she was powerless to stop. Kokoro received them with patience, letting her finish airing her grievances without uttering a single word in protest.

“Like, we started dating, but nothing really changed from when we were just friends. We still do basically the same things. Whenever we hang out, it’s fun, but we’re always with other people. And I know it’s selfish but… that’s just not enough for me. You’re… s-special to me. And I need to know whether you feel the same way. Somehow.”

When she finally finished, she dropped her gaze to the floor. Saying all that took nearly every ounce of energy in her body; she had never been good at being honest about her emotions, and voicing them to the one person she had been trying to keep them a secret from was not at all easy. Some of the coward crept back into her. She didn’t dare look up to see what Kokoro’s reaction was.

“Misaki.” Kokoro bumped her shoulder. She twitched at the sudden contact and lifted her head a reluctant fraction. They stared at each other, brilliant gold meeting her own dull grey irises.

Without warning, Kokoro pounced.

Both her hands shot out, grabbing either side of Misaki’s jaw, and before she could even yelp, Kokoro crashed into her with a wet, messy kiss. Her momentum pushed the both of them down onto the bed, and it was all Misaki could do to very narrowly avoid rolling off.

Kokoro broke away. Absurdly, she was grinning.

“I get what you’re saying,” she announced in the face of Misaki’s bewilderment. Misaki could feel every soft puff of breath against her cheeks. “But I think you’re forgetting something!”

Misaki swallowed hard. Her fried brain could barely process what Kokoro was saying. “A-And what’s that?” she managed.

A mischievous gleam entered Kokoro’s eyes.

“I don’t kiss my friends.”

She leaned in and pressed her mouth to Misaki’s once more. Misaki was unable to form a coherent thought like good point or never thought of it that way because suddenly she was too preoccupied by the feeling of Kokoro’s lips moving enthusiastically against her own.
Regrettably, they had to surface for air at some point. Misaki would’ve been quite fine with it if Kokoro had decided to dive right in a third time, but the blonde girl instead patted her head and began to stroke her hair.

“I like doing things with all of our friends because it’s fun,” she explained. “Band practice, going to the park, studying… The more people there are, the better! And I think you have more fun when it’s like that, too.”

Debatable, was what Misaki would’ve said, if she wasn’t so frazzled.

“But,” Kokoro continued, “there are plenty of things that I only want to do with you, too. Like kissing. And cuddling. And holding hands.”

Misaki wilted gracelessly under this onslaught. “Those are all physical,” she muttered, embarrassed.

Kokoro shrugged. “Did you want the whole list? That could take awhile! Let’s see… You’re really nice, and you write good songs, and oh! Your smile is the prettiest! Plus, you’re so strong. I love it when you pick me up and-”

“Okay, okay!” Misaki hurriedly grabbed ahold of Kokoro’s shoulders to make her stop. Kokoro giggled, unperturbed, and tumbled herself over so that they were lying side by side. For awhile, they laid there in peaceful silence on the giant bed, holding hands and listening to each other breathe.

The mattress dipped as Kokoro propped herself up on one elbow. Her gaze was tender and warm. “I think you’re special, Misaki,” she stated, matter-of-factly. She smiled that same beautiful smile that Misaki had fallen for all those months ago. “And I’ll keep telling you that as many times as you need to hear it.”

Misaki’s heart swelled. Any residual fear that was lingering melted clean away. Somehow, Kokoro had known exactly what to say, and that, more than anything, was proof that she really, truly cared.

Misaki reached out to cup Kokoro’s cheek and pulled closer to her. Sweetly, slowly, as if they had an ocean of time, they kissed again.

“I love you,” Misaki said, when they pulled apart. It might’ve been the first time she had ever said it without feeling self-conscious.

Kokoro lit up like the sky at dawn. Her delight stretched at the corners of her mouth until she seemed ready to burst at the seams.

“I love you, too!” she practically shouted, wriggling around with joy like a dog. She flung herself forward onto Misaki’s body abruptly, knocking the air out of her lungs.

“Oof! What the-”

Kokoro threw one knee over her torso, straddling her waist. Her expression, though still mostly cheerful, showed a hint of hunger.

“Well, I think we should start now!” she exclaimed brightly. “Gotta make sure you know you’re special, after all!” She bent forward. Misaki tried very hard not to notice how she could catch a glimpse of the other girl’s cleavage down her shirt.

“Wait - Hold up -” She made some perfunctory effort to protest, but her words died in her throat as Kokoro placed her hands onto her navel and scrabbled for the hem of her top. The slightest brush of Kokoro’s fingers against her bare stomach sent a hot, rippling wave straight to her groin. All thoughts of resistance disappeared from her mind.

There would be more time for talking, after. There would be more time for reconciliations and compromise and apologies. And maybe it wouldn’t always be this easy to see eye-to-eye.

But as Kokoro buried her head into the nape of her neck, pushing a thigh in between her legs, Misaki decided to stop looking so far ahead.

It was enough simply to enjoy the warmth that Kokoro brought, here and now, like soaking up the rays of the sun.

-

When they were lying in each others’ arms later, spent and satisfied, Misaki spoke again.

“You know that cafe? The one we went to awhile back with the Michelle dessert?”

Kokoro blinked languidly and mumbled a sleepy, “Yeah.”

“We should go there again. With everyone.”

Kokoro nodded into Misaki’s sternum. “Mhm,” she yawned. “It’ll be fun.”

“But… maybe we can go there by ourselves sometimes, too. Just the two of us. For a change of pace, I mean.”

Kokoro shifted in her embrace and looked up at her. The lengthening shadows cast by the sunset dyed her face with a golden glow.

“That sounds perfect,” was all she said.

But by the way Kokoro smiled, Misaki knew that she had understood.