Sayo pushed through the doorway, eager to escape the winter wind’s grasp. Errant snowflakes snuck their way in behind the retreating guitarist and condemned themselves to a watery fate on her welcome mat. Her guitar slipped off her shoulder, laid to rest at the doorway to the music room while her coat took roost on a rack. Sayo stifled a yawn -- practice had run later than anticipated.
“I’m home!” she called.
“Welcome back,” came Tsugumi’s reply from somewhere within their apartment. The smell of freshly brewed coffee led Sayo to their living room, where she found her girlfriend curled up on the couch. Tsugumi was scrolling through her phone with two mugs on the table in front of her and a blanket draped over her lap. She lit up upon seeing Sayo.
“Sayo! How was practice? I made your favorite,” she said. Tsugumi shuffled to make room for Sayo and extended the second mug towards her. She sat down next to Tsugumi, posture perfect as ever. Tsugumi leaned up against her and dragged the blanket around the two of them.
“Practice was productive,” said Sayo. “Our new song is not ready for performance, but our rate of progress is acceptable. Imai-san brough animal shaped cookies as a Christmas gift, which boosted morale noticeably.”
“Lisa-chan! My fellow baker-in-arms. Did you bring any of them home? I want to see!” said Tsugumi. Only Roselia would intentionally schedule a practice on Christmas-eve, she thought to herself. Sometimes frustrating... but part of their charm.
“I apologize, I already finished the canine ones she set aside for me. I did take pictures if that would sate your curiosity,” said Sayo.
“Show me!” said Tsugumi.
Sayo retrieved her phone and entered her passcode with the precision of a surgeon. She navigated to the photo app, selected the “recent” album, and-
“What was that?” asked Tsugumi, a little too earnest.
“What was what?” asked Sayo.
“Go back a screen,” said Tsugumi.
Sayo did as requested, and immediately regretted it. Tsugumi had spotted one of her most compromising secrets: the album titled “Tsugumi-san”. She hid her phone against the couch as fast as she could, but the cat was out of the bag.
“Show me the photos!” Tsugumi sat up.
“I-It’s embarrassing! I can’t!”
“Pleaseeee,” said Tsugumi. She gave Sayo the biggest puppy dog eyes she could manage. It felt silly to her, but Sayo must’ve found it compelling, because she began to waver.
“Really, they’re nothing special…”
“Am I nothing special to you?”
“You know that’s not what I meant!” Sayo let her exasperation show through, but still couldn’t meet Tsugumi’s eye.
“After I made you the signature Hazawa Coffee cold brew? And kept the couch warm for you through this raging winter storm? I promise I won’t tease you too much!” Sayo wanted to protest further, but she knew there was no way she could resist extended pleading from Tsugumi. She was, as Lisa eloquently put it, whipped. Sayo groaned internally, and opened the album to the first photo.
It was a solo picture of Tsugumi dressed in an apron serving drinks behind the counter of Hazawa Coffee. The photo evinced an artist’s eye, taken with her brown halo awash in afternoon sunlight. She was focused on pouring a drink from a glass brew pot to a mug, seeming oblivious to the camera’s eye on her.
“When did you take this?” asked Tsugumi.
Sayo felt her face warm, threatening to break into a full blush. “I don’t remember,” she said. “I must’ve visited your shop some afternoon in… spring of your first year in highschool.”
“Were you visiting for the coffee? Or me?” asked Tsugumi with a teasing lit.
“Coffee is a powerful stimulant, useful for increasing focus and alertness before practice.”
“You didn’t have practice every day! Roselia had grades to maintain!” said Tsugumi. She played the innocent maiden well enough to put Chisato’s acting to shame.
“I practiced every day! A-anyways!” Sayo said, fleeing to the next photo in the album.
Neither Sayo nor Tsugumi were featured in this picture, just a slightly tilted rectangle of stationary, slightly dirited with oil and flour. After a moment, Tsugumi recognized the handwriting as her own. The note was untitled, but unmistakably the jealously guarded Hazawa family shortbread recipe. After the cooking class where she happened to meet Sayo, the other girl had expressed her desire for a copy of the recipe so that she might “conquer” cookies. Ostensibly a Hazawa family trade secret, Tsugumi had found parting with the recipe an acceptable price for entering the endearingly serious girl’s good graces.
Although, based on the order of photos in the album, perhaps the encounter wasn’t as coincidental as she thought.
“You kept the cookie recipe?” asked Tsugumi.
“It is an excellent recipe. Despite my many attempts, I could never get the texture to match that of the pasty I made with your guidance.” Knowing Sayo, she had probably spent hours in front of the oven working to match the skills of a professional baker. Tsugumi patted her leg in sympathy.
“Show me the next one,” she said.
Sayo herself couldn’t remember the precise contents of the early stretches of the album, and she was growing nervous she wouldn’t keep pulling blanks in their nostalgia russian roulette. But she would be a poor girlfriend indeed if she called for a stop when Tsugumi was enjoying herself so much. The only option was to steel herself and swipe to the next photo in the album.
This was, without a doubt, the most romantic highschool era photo she had.
Before the photo was taken, Tsugumi had mentioned offhand that the volume of student council work was keeping her at school late. Sayo had immediately volunteered to assist. She had protested, but the knight of Roselia refused to leave a damsel in distress. Sayo arrived at the student council room, ready to render whatever secretary services she could, but to her surprise Tsugumi already had help.
“Onee-chan!” cried Hina, slamming into Sayo with something halfway between a hug and a tackle. The speed with which she crossed the room was borderline inhuman.
“Why are you here at Haneoka?” sparkled Hina.
“I heard Hazawa-san’s student council duties have been keeping her late, and I offered to assist. I have not noticed you similarly burdened, Hina,” she said. She had her suspicions as to why that was.
“I know! Isn’t Tsugu-chan super boppin’?” said Hina. Sayo glanced over at Tsugumi, who offered an apologetic smile.
“Hina isn’t causing trouble at the student council, is she?” sighed Sayo.
“N-n-no trouble whatsoever!” replied Tsugumi, convincing no one.
There was nothing to be done for it. Sayo gritted her teeth. She would just have to power through this work and block out her sister’s distractions. She pushed Hina off and sat down next to Tsugumi at the head of the table. There was a daunting array of documents, coded by paper and stamp color.
“Hazawa-san, how are these organized?” asked Sayo. Hina sat down on the opposite side of Tsugumi and immediately set about making eyes at her sister. Sayo refused to rise to the bait.
“Ah, let me show you!” said Tsugumi. She rose from her seat and leaned over Sayo’s shoulder. Her heart skipped a beat as Tsugumi’s hand made the briefest contact with hers on its way to a page. She chided herself. Such a reaction was an unbecoming reaction to the innocent touch!
“-but the green papers with blue stamps are..”
She had missed Tsugumi’s explanation. Sayo looked upwards, aiming to catch her eye and request she repeat herself.
The sound of a digital camera shutter. Sayo snapped towards the noise. The culprit grinned at them from across the table, phone in hand. The phone case looked suspiciously plain for her sister’s taste, and inspection of the now vacant corner of the table where Sayo left her phone a minute earlier confirmed her suspicions.
“Hina! Give me my phone back!” demanded Sayo.
“Just a sec! I wanna send the pics to Tsugu-chan!” said Hina, who was glaring at the phone, trying to fool the facial recognition with her best Sayo impression. The technology was obviously flawed, because it promptly made the unlocking noise. Ridiculous. Hina’s facial feature scrunching looked nothing like her.
“Hina, so help me god I will cancel our movie night if that photo leaves my phone,” said Sayo in a voice typically reserved for unruly children.
“Onee-channn!” Hina pleaded. Sayo was unrelenting.
Hina pouted, but reluctantly handed over the phone as instructed. And so, the photo that was before Sayo and Tsugumi on their memory lane stroll had come to be. The picture had been captured at the perfect moment. Sayo’s face was upturned while Tsugumi looked down, tips of her hair just brushing against Sayo’s head. Tsugumi had one hand braced on the back of Sayo’s chair for support and the other a hair’s breadth from Sayo’s where it rested on some document. The most noticeable part, however, was Sayo’s expression. The corners of her mouth were turned up ever so slightly in the tiniest of smiles, and expression she never voluntarily wore in those days.
“You kept the photo?” said Tsugumi. “I thought you deleted it! You seemed so embarrassed!”
“It was a well shot photo,” Sayo admitted. “And with the perspective of retrospect, I can remember it as a treasured moment with two people I care for deeply.”
Tsugumi snuggled in closer and wrapped her arms around Sayo’s tummy. “As much work as student council with Hina was, that moment alone made it all worth it,” she said. Surprised by her own forthcomingness, she hid her face in the crook of Sayo’s neck and flipped to the next photo.
The swipe revealed a group photo taken at Sayo’s graduation. Sayo was standing beneath a cherry blossom in full bloom, surrounded by her cheering friends. All but one of Roselia was garbed in graduation regalia. Lisa was hugging Sayo, Yukina somehow managed to look proud of her brood despite her ever stoic expression, and Aya headed up the waterworks brigade. And, of course, Tsugumi was there. She stood a half step apart from the Hanasakigawa group, but still part of the celebration.
The picture was also taken a few minutes before Sayo had finally, finally asked Tsugumi out.
“I’m sure I have this one saved somewhere. It’s one of my favorite memories,” said Tsugumi as she gave Sayo a gentle kiss. Sayo hummed contentedly before reciprocating.
Tsugumi pulled away to make better eye contact. “A year plus of mutual pining and you still waited to ask me out until we were staring down the barrel of a future appart. Why did you take so long?”
“I was afraid of ruining our friendship,” she answered honestly. “And… I didn’t think I was worthy of you.”
“I’m sorry it took me so long,” said Sayo.
“I’m just thankful for what we have now. I would’ve waited as many years as you needed, you know.”
A few reflective moments passed between them. Sayo took a sip from her coffee, her talisman against the drowsiness tugging at the edge of her consciousness. Then she bolted upright as realization hit her.
“Wait! Why did you never ask me out,” she demanded. Tsugumi had to stifle laughter.
“I made my crush on you so obvious! The baked goods-”
“Imai-san gave me baked goods,” Sayo interrupted.
“I went to every Roselia live.”
“You came with Mitake-san!!”
“The confession letters?”
“They were anonymous!”
“I signed them ‘Your dearest keyboardist’.”
“.... Ichigaya-san and I have always gotten along well.”
Tsugumi gave her a soft pap on the forehead. “I thought to myself, If she was interested in me even a little, at least one of those hints would’ve gotten through that thick skull of hers. So I decided to wait and see if you would grow feelings for me.” Well, wait and complain to Himari about how slow Sayo was. She didn’t need to know that part, though.
Sayo sighed to herself. Maybe she had been a little dense. Just a little.
“You’re right. I’m sorry I was slow. I enjoy every day with you though, as friends, girlfriends, or anything between.” said Sayo.
Tsugumi felt her girlfriend’s head rest on her shoulder, an unusually vulnerable gesture from her.
“Can we stay like this for a bit, Tsugumi-san?” asked Sayo, voice dripping into a whisper, eyes fluttering closed. Tsugumi drew the blanket tighter around them.
“We can stay like this forever if you’d like,” she said. Sayo found Tsugumi’s hand and twined their fingers together. Tsugumi smiled to herself. Her girlfriend could be quite the romantic when sleep lowered her guard.
A few minutes later Sayo’s breathing evened out, a sure sign she was well and truly asleep. Their cooling mugs needed to be rinsed out, and Tsugumi was fairly sure there were dishes in the sink. It would be a crime to chance waking Sayo, though, and it was so warm under the blankets with her. She could close her eyes for just a moment…