Growing up next to Shimizu Kiyoko is a lot like growing up next to a supernova.
When they meet for the first time, Hitoka is seven and Kiyoko is nine, and an incident occurs involving Kiyoko’s mailbox and Hitoka’s bike. Hitoka cries while Kiyoko puts Superman-printed band-aids on her knee with careful, steady hands.
“It’s okay,” Kiyoko tells her, soft and calm. “Don’t worry.”
“I’m going to die,” Hitoka announces, horrified. “It’s going to get infected and I’m going to die.”
And then Kiyoko laughs, and the fear goes out of Hitoka, hard and fast, like her breath had when she’d fallen off her bike.
The injury stops hurting so much, after that.
Shimizu Kiyoko is dark-haired and soft-spoken. Her smile is rare, but it makes Hitoka smile, too. She’s brave and smart and strong; she barely flinches at the blood running down Hitoka’s leg, even though it makes Hitoka want to throw up.
“You’re like a superhero,” Hitoka tells her, when the band-aids are securely in place and she’s back up on her feet.
Kiyoko’s eyes widen. “No, I’m just-”
“You’re a superhero,” Hitoka repeats, firmly and confidently. “Ten times stronger than Superman, for sure. Maybe even eleven times.”
“Eleven times is way too much,” Kiyoko assures her.
Kiyoko laughs again, and it makes her nose scrunch up and her eyes turn up at the corners. She has a dimple on the corner of her mouth, and a beauty mark. Hitoka can’t stop staring at it.
“Ten sounds just about right,” Kiyoko says.
She’s more than a superhero, though, Hitoka thinks as she limps back home, leading her busted bicycle. She’s like a princess, a queen, graceful and slender and beautiful. Straight out of the pages of a storybook.
Talking to her makes Hitoka feel buzzy and excited and humbled, in a different way than talking to her parents or her friends from school does.
(Hitoka doesn’t sleep much that night.)
The next day, Kiyoko knocks on Hitoka’s door with a couple Superman comic books and a tray of brownies her mom made. Hitoka lets her in, and Kiyoko asks whether her knee is okay, touching Hitoka’s shoulder with gentle fingers.
“Yes!” Hitoka says, surprised and flustered and very, very confused. “Thank you for your help, and I’m very sorry for the trouble.”
“What? No, of course I was glad to help. I’m really happy you’re okay, Hitoka-chan.” Kiyoko sighs, and then she adds, in a much lower voice, like a confession: “I was worried.”
“Oh,” Hitoka squeaks.
Kiyoko smiles at her, then, and Hitoka’s entire chest lights up. Turns to fireworks and flames.
“Want to go explore my backyard for buried treasure?” Hitoka blurts, a meager offering undoubtedly, but the best she’s got. Kiyoko grins delightedly and says yes.
Somehow, miraculously, when the whole messy affair is over, they walk away friends.
Well, Kiyoko walks away friends.
Hitoka walks away enamored, confused, and more than a little blinded.
This is what Hitoka learns, as the years pass and time turns on and on: Shimizu Kiyoko isn’t a supernova because she’s volatile. She’s not. She’s steady and reliable and kind. She’s very, very shy. She rarely loses her temper, even when Hitoka panics or breaks things or spills juice all over her kitchen floor.
She is a supernova because she is strong enough to forge iron and diamond and silver and gold. She is a supernova because she is brilliant and blindingly bright. She is a supernova because her eyes are gray, or maybe dark blue, but they somehow seem to contain every color known to man, and then some.
She is a supernova because, when she walks into a room, the entire universe holds its breath.
Kiyoko and Hitoka stay friends through middle school.
It’s a little difficult sometimes, because they’re in different grades and Hitoka is suddenly and painfully aware of how inadequate she is compared to some of the upperclassmen. But they’re still neighbors and best friends, and Kiyoko was there when Hitoka lost her last tooth and got her first period and went to her first dance. So none of the other stuff matters, really.
That’s what Hitoka’s always told herself.
(They have sleepovers, sometimes, usually in Kiyoko’s bedroom. But, once, they slept outside under the stars in Hitoka’s backyard. And Hitoka’s finger traced kingdoms and dragons and knights in the stars, instead of the constellations, while Kiyoko’s fingers found her wrist and squeezed.)
On the day of Kiyoko’s middle school graduation, Hitoka cries more than Kiyoko’s mom does.
Kiyoko ends up making friends in high school pretty quickly. Azumane, who is scary-looking but soft-spoken, and shares his Oreo cookies with Hitoka without her having to ask. Sugawara, who is kind and funny but has a glint of something dangerous and sharp in his eyes. Sawamura, steady and strong.
At first, it’s pretty normal. Still Hitoka-and-Kiyoko, plus a few extras. And then Kiyoko gets her first boyfriend, and the impact of it hits Hitoka harder than anything else in the universe could.
Boyfriend-san is handsome and tall and generic in every way. When he meets Hitoka, he smiles at her. He’s respectful and kind, even though Hitoka is two years younger and still looks like she’s nine, and Hitoka hates him.
She really, really hates him.
She hates him, and then she hates herself for hating him.
The relationship only lasts a month or so, but there are a few others after him. One during Kiyoko’s second year. One during her third. Kiyoko smiles gently whenever she tells Hitoka about them, but her eyes always look odd.
Hitoka thinks the universe is probably cruel.
She’s not stupid. She’s read all the stories. She’s seen all the films. She knows exactly how this is supposed to go. She’s supposed to meet a nice boy and fall in love, too. But she doesn’t. She never does.
Because she already knows who the love of her life is, she has since she was seven, and nothing at all is how it’s supposed to be.
(Yachi Hitoka’s story was never supposed to involve sweaty hands and twisted up insides and quiet, painful, all-consuming affection for her best friend.)
They are seventeen and almost-not-quite-sixteen, respectively, when the universe throws Hitoka one last curveball.
Towards the end of Kiyoko’s third year, there is a shift. A tipping. A falling-out. A falling-away.
They don’t fight. Hitoka doesn’t think they’ve ever really fought. But Kiyoko begins to pull herself away, become near-silent and withdrawn. She flinches away from being touched, from being looked at.
Hitoka understands. She understands wanting to be alone. She understands trying to deal with something that doesn’t fit quite right inside your head. So she respects Kiyoko’s silence, gives her space and kindness and all the terrible action movies she can manage to scrounge up on Blu-Ray.
It isn’t until graduation is well within sight that Hitoka’s resolve finally breaks.
“What’s the matter?” she asks, when it is nighttime and the house is empty and they’re working on homework, alone in Hitoka’s living room. “Is everything okay?”
Kiyoko shrugs. “I’m overworking myself, I suppose.”
Hitoka nods. “Okay,” she says. “That’s not it, though.”
It takes some poking and prodding. It always does, with Kiyoko. But in the end, she gives in, tossing her notebook away with uncharacteristic frustration.
And then there is this, just this:
“I… I think I’m gay, Hitoka-chan,” Kiyoko whispers.
“Oh,” Yachi says. And then she reaches out, touches Kiyoko’s hair, her face, her shoulders while she cries. And she keeps talking, mumbling in a steady, constant stream. Things like, “It’s okay,” and, “I’m here,” and “It’ll be fine.”
And when bigger words come, more important words - words like “Me, too.” - she tries very, very hard to swallow them down. Because, somehow, sitting here with Kiyoko’s breath on her lips and Kiyoko’s smell on her clothes, they feel like they’re part of a much larger confession.
Hitoka’s always been good at being cautious.
She’s always been good at inaction.
(She’s always been good at fear.)
She saves up her I love you for a long, long time. Through Kiyoko’s first years at university, and then through her own. When it finally, finally spills out of her, a decade and a half after the words first formed themselves in her mind, Kiyoko is graduating for the third and final time.
Hitoka takes a train to Kiyoko’s university with Sugawara and Azumane, Sugawara showing up with a ring on his finger and Daichi’s most sincere apologies that he couldn’t attend. She spends most of the trip full of nervous energy, adjusting and re-adjusting the way her dress sits on her shoulders.
When she sees Kiyoko, though, the nerves stop.
(The universe quiets.)
“Congratulations!” Hitoka squeals, after graduation is done, and Kiyoko pulls her in, wraps her into a hug. She still smells the same as she did when they were children. Vanilla-y.
“I’m so happy you could make it,” Kiyoko is saying, but Hitoka is blinded, full of fire and iron and a star-rattling supernova. Just like when she was seven.
Just like every single year since.
She doesn’t realize they’re kissing, almost. It takes Kiyoko’s gasp, and Kiyoko’s rush of breath, warm against her cheek. And then her eyes are flying open and panic is flooding her chest, and she’s trying to pull away-
Kiyoko’s arms close around her waist.
Kiyoko kisses like she talks, quiet and straightforward and honest. One of her hands presses flat onto the small of Hitoka’s back while the other traces constellations onto Hitoka’s hip.
It’s the universe, the stars.
It’s every nova in every galaxy in the cosmos.
Somewhere behind them, Hitoka thinks she hears Sugawara cheering.