It’s a little difficult, when you’re all a team, and you’re all friends, to avoid someone correctly. Luna intends to keep practicing. Today she’ll get “lost,” in whichever Florentine museum she’d suggested they visit for their little holiday. The name doesn’t matter. The point is they can be separated in an enclosed space instead of while roaming a whole foreign city.
She pulls out her notebook just to make sure she has it. It helps her pretense, but she actually does like pressing the pen down, up and down the page like she’s nothing more than the physical action. Luna doesn’t exist. Luna is a black ink on a white page. She doesn’t use the green ink gel pen Akari surprised her with once she got into the habit; that defeats the purpose.
Luna the student learning art appreciation on the side is not Luna the beast who turns on her friends, though in a way she’s just as willing to cut them off. At least she’s doing it the right way, she thinks, returning the notebook to her bag, packing the green ink gel pen regardless. The way that treats them with the respect they deserve relative to her. She won’t make the mistake of reaching too far again.
Luna really wants to. She doesn’t understand why it has to be a mistake.
The door opens for Akari alone, all “hello Luna I wanted to surprise you packing,” and Luna is rigid. She’d pulled for each girl to keep having their own room and it had been accepted, but not enough. They clustered constantly and she didn’t want to be the only one leaving her door locked and properly shut.
Akari looks restrained, Luna thinks, as if she wants to ask about her present or if she’s all right. Being Akari, she knows the difference between when an offer to listen and help is needed and when it’s unwanted, but that urge to help suffuses every second of her gaze.
“Really”, she says, and looks back down because the little blush starts before she can dispel the feeling with reminders of why she doesn’t get to have that reaction anymore. The image of Akari putting her hand on her lap blows it away like cold wind. That’s taken care of.
“I’m still surprised you like such cool things,” Akari says. “I mean, awed! Not that you wouldn’t like something cool.” Akari waves her hands quickly.
Luna tells her it’s soothing. “It’s timeless and quiet and I can listen to the art, which isn’t so hard.” She smiles a little smile when she looks back up sideways.
Akari giggles, the controlled concern still on her face. “It’s less dangerous to listen to, yes.”
She hadn’t meant it like that. Luna’s glance is a butterfly on an avoidance mission.
Ginka plunges into the room and Seira follows sedately, though with just as much cheer. Ginka bounces. “What if we go to the market on the old bridge? This country is living up to its reputation for food and we’re not done exploring that yet!”
“The walk will balance out the calories,” is Seira’s justification.
Akari says, “After the museum. It really would be nice. But I’m sure those places fill up fast and we just ate.”
Luna has no objection and, to reassure Akari—to reassure everyone of course—takes the lead in leaving, pushes enthusiasm into her walk.
She breaks through the current sheet of paper in the notebook. It’s not working. She keeps thinking of what the rest of the day will be like. They have to stay with each other; it wouldn’t be fair or right to get lost in an open market. Not upsetting them was the whole point. And that was a little scary for her too. She wished she were braver; but then she’d have been a completely different person. She wouldn’t have let resentment fester, wouldn’t have become the weak link among her friends. But she had and she still might be if she wasn’t careful. She should speak then, let this out for some air, but then what? They must know already why it had happened and what she’d wanted, she thought. Akari must know and Seira must know and even Ginka was sometimes wiser than she let everyone think. It was just too embarrassing for them and they wanted to be kind to her. They were more generous and ladylike than she was; Luna knew it to be true.
The shoulder grab makes her whirl. Akari is touching her and her pen has torn sideways through the paper.
The mishap is a good distraction for Luna. She runs a finger over the torn edges of the paper like she ruined good notes and smiles distractedly.
Akari blinks at her but keeps her hand where it is. There’s even more cause for her to be concerned now, after all. She leans in and says, “I thought you’d be hungry by now.” Her stomach rumbles gently. “And me too.” Akari blushes slightly. “Maybe this place has a cafeteria?”
Luna is about to agree when Akari tugs her along without waiting. She offers a slight resistance before following once contact is broken. But why, Luna thinks, am I doing this? It’s normal and fine and nobody else is throwing anything in my face so why should I? I want to eat lunch and touch my friends. I don’t want to be weird to them. I don’t want them to stop touching me. If they think I’m avoiding them, or pulling back, they’ll be too kind and respect that. Maybe they’ll be relieved. The thought presses sharply into her mind. She refuses to continue it and focuses on her feet stomping. Her feet were stomping. She notes that Akari is staring and so are some others. But Akari has noticed those others too and just speeds up, pulling her by the hand.
They had reached a small garden with no visitors at the moment. Luna realizes Akari must have brought her in on purpose. Because I’m attracting attention, being stupid, she thinks. Suddenly she remembers to ask about the others. Where were Seira and Ginka? It runs through her mind. But she doesn’t ask. The hair on her arms and neck made her skin tingle. She doesn’t know if she’s excited or dreading what’s to come. The weight of Akari’s stare drags her down, like a boulder tied to her feet in a fast-flowing river. But her skin is hot and Luna wants to cover her face with her hair because somehow, she’s out in the open.
So she moves first and forward, grasping Akari’s hand in both of hers, pulling it to her own heart, stopping before contact. She says, “I still really like you. It’s still a weakness, maybe, I’m sorry. I wish I didn’t but that feels so unfair. It should be okay to like you. I just don’t want to cause any more trouble.” Luna shakes, her breath heavy, but she doesn’t let go. She clenches her jaw for a second and drags Akari’s hand to her cheek, then her forehead. “I hope it helps if I just say it,” she continues. “I hope I can make a difference. I don’t want this to burden you but I don’t know how else to change. I keep trying and trying to avoid you without avoiding you but I don’t want that! I don’t want you to start avoiding me! I don’t want this team to change. We-we just got back together. After all that, Ginka dying, and what I did. And I tried to be alone before but it didn’t work. I just let myself get tricked. Please, Akari. I—want to be forgiven and I want things to be just the same, even if I don’t deserve it.” She’s heaving air and tears out and maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Certainly not here. Oh no, and in a museum. She’ll get them kicked out. What if something worse happens—trouble with the police, trouble with Leguzario once they hear—maybe they’ll send her back home by herself. Reassign her to another team like they reassigned them to a new country.
Luna might be stuck in her own mind, has been for a while, but she’s always aware of Akari. So she notices the free hand taking a handkerchief to her tears and sweat (sweat; Luna is further mortified); she notices Akari smiling softly. For a moment she doesn’t see their surroundings and remembers the touch on her lips, the not-Akari moving closer, all the better to hurt her before the stab and her nerves becoming something feral. She tenses up. She remembers who is standing in front of her and now she has to worry about mixed messages again. When does the worrying stop? Even talking hasn’t helped, apparently. But through every bit of panic the press of cloth and the warm skin behind it remains. It’s soft and steady and can’t be lasting this long. Of course not. Akari pulls both hands away.
Akari says, “Do you really think I don’t want you to tell me that you like me? I’m here to listen. All I want is for my friends to talk to me. Especially about me,” she blushes and looks away in turn, before her gaze returns firm and clear.
“But,” Luna says, adrift. She thinks, I am her friend. She wants me as a friend. Well that’s good, right? What I said I wanted. But she wants me to tell her I want her and she just…does she want all her friends to really like her? No, she’s not that vain. How nasty of me to think that. Does she understand what I said? I want her to want me more than anyone else. I don’t want it to be just us. “I don’t want it to be just us,” she repeats the thought aloud, “not anymore. But I want you. I really like you. And I know I’m so terrible after what I did but I still want to be with you and I don’t want to be weak about it ever again. Akari, do you understand?”
Akari’s smile is even bigger and Luna wonders how she could have ever thought Cerebrum was her. Beyond the arrogance of wanting it to be true. She feels shame again. That man, she thinks with a spike of viciousness, is not even the moon to her sun. She pushes the memory away because this is too warm and good to give up noticing right now. She’s not too ashamed to look for happiness and she finally knows she should just do it. It’s just another kind of weakness to hide in modest fear.
Luna says, “Akari why are you smiling? Doesn’t it bother you that I came out with this? This outburst in public.” She says the last words without totally meaning them. She just wants Akari to answer her. The impatience is a surprise—to them both, it seems, as Akari’s eyes widen.
Akari finally tells her: “I’ve been waiting for it. I mean, not quite like that. I wanted you to say it but I didn’t know how to make you. I didn’t know how bad you still felt. You know,” and her smile is sadder, more serious if that can be said of a smile. “I was weak too. I wanted my cousin back so badly, and Cerebrum wore me down. I just wanted to talk to her again, even though it was a hindrance—but it was necessary, I think. I did need to face her. And you needed to face me, and I needed you to face me, because I really like you too Luna. You can’t be any more unworthy than I am. You helped me every time people thought I was weak, every time I exposed myself because I wanted to fix something. Something I still want to fix. With us as a team, all four of us. But also just with you.”
It’s too hard to look Akari in the face, which is ridiculous, but Luna looks at her hands instead. Watches them. They cup her face around the cheeks and she doesn’t need to avoid Akari’s eyes anymore.