February 14th. The most beloved and reviled date on the calendar... for some. A day of fantasizing over what-ifs and wallowing in loneliness and yearning wasn’t ideal for anyone involved, but Tsugumi wasn’t the type to romanticize her idle thoughts so brazenly. She knew it was an ideal time to fantasize about chivalrous men sweeping her off her feet and indulging her in fairy tale romance, but she never seemed as into the idea as Himari was. Then again, as Himari told it she always imagined Kaoru Seta sweeping her off her feet, and she wasn’t exactly a man, but… well, Tsugumi tried her best to cheer Himari’s heart on wherever it led her. As for her own… Tsugumi just hadn’t paid it much mind. Mostly because Valentine’s always glummed her out in a very specific way.
It wasn’t due to a lack of attention, or anything so petty as that. She always got the requisite friendly chocolate from friends - well, most friends. Afterglow held their own inter-group celebrations on the 15th, since Moca had turned the 14th into an unlikely annual tradition of trying to get Himari and Tomoe to realize they were in love with each other (it was her 4th attempt, and Tsugumi already heard muttering about plans for a 5th). That said she had plenty of other acquaintances to greet her. Like a certain white-haired coworker who she passed by on the street on her way to school.
“Oh, Tsugumi-san!” greeted Eve with a smile, pulling out a small cellophane package from her bag as Tsugumi approached. “How fortunate that we meet now! I can give your present before class begins.”
Tsugumi waved her arms frantically. “O-Oh, you don’t have to--”
“I insist!” Eve thrust the package into Tsugumi’s hands. “Happy Valentine’s Day! These are traditional milk chocolates from Finland! I hope you enjoy them greatly!”
Tsugumi smiled plaintively as she pulled out her own packet of bite-sized chocolates and offered them in return. “Happy Valentine’s, Eve-chan.”
Eve beamed, thanking Tsugumi as she scurried off towards Hanasakigawa. Tsugu stared at the Finnish chocolate as she walked, stuffing it into her messenger bag with a sigh. She knew Eve meant well, but… she couldn’t eat them, as much as she may have wanted to. So her head hung low and her feet dragged along the asphalt as she reached Haneoka.
A familiar gathering of squeals surrounded the front gates. Even without being able to see the center of the mob, Tsugumi knew which eggplant-haired upperclassman was responsible--she attempted to politely skirt the crowd, when…
A princely voice called out to her, stopping her dead in her tracks as a regal 3rd-year flew to her side, prostrated upon one knee, and held out a plate with a delicate delicacy upon it.
“Do not sally forth without a gift on this most holy Saint Valentine’s Day, kitten,” breathed Kaoru, proffering the sweet. “I tarried night and day to cook this chocolate pound cake for the sake of all young maidens within Haneoka’s hallowed halls, after all.”
Tsugumi took the plate, eyeing the treat mournfully. “Um, Seta-senpai, I hate to ask, but what did you use to make the cake?”
“Hm?” Kaoru chuckled. “Oh, the usual. Eggs, flour, butter, sugar, cocoa… though there is a secret ingredient.”
Kaoru winked. “Love.”
“A...Awww,” said Tsugumi, grinning at the cheesy yet sincere line. “Thank you, Seta-senpai. B-But, uh, I’ve got to go to class now.”
“Of course, dear.” Kaoru, still kneeling, clasped a hand to her chest. “May Cupid strike true for you today, and may your taste buds salivate upon his bounty.”
Saliv…? Tsugumi thought, walking into the building while being careful not to drop the plate. Much like Eve’s gift, the more Tsugumi stared at it the more she was filled with a wistful dread. As soon as she entered homeroom, she walked over to Himari’s desk. “Himari-chan, do you want another slice of Seta-senpai’s cake?”
Himari nearly choked on her spit, her eyes growing starrier than the night sky. “Tsugu have I ever told you that I love you more than anybody else in the world?”
“Uhm…” Tsugumi peeked over her shoulder to the corner of the classroom, where Tomoe was receiving a shoulder massage from Moca, like a boxer and coach in-between rounds. “Anybody else?”
Himari made prayer hands towards her. “You’re a saint walking the earth.”
“Uh… hahaha… th-thanks…” Tsugumi crept towards her seat, flush with embarrassment. Ran, her closest neighbor, gave her sympathy eyes.
“Another year of this, eh?” she asked softly.
“Well…” Tsugumi began unpacking her supplies. “It’s not so bad.”
“It’s just rough that you have to deal with…” Ran trailed off. “Nevermind. I know you’re tough enough not to deserve my pity.”
Was she? Tsugumi never really thought of herself as kind or strong or any of the other positive qualities people said she had. Maybe a little pity would’ve been nice for once.
It wasn’t like other people cared otherwise, right?
…No, dummy. Don’t think of your friends like that.
She gave herself a light slap in the cheeks, thrusting all ideas of chocolate to the back of her head as she pulled out her notebook and pencil. As far as she was concerned, today was just another ordinary day. It was only other people who made a big deal out of it. Time to just tune it all out and focus on her studies.
The first half of the day passed without incident. When lunchtime came around, other friends stopped by to offer their own homemade and store-bought goods: Maya gifted peanut butter cups, Ako dropped off some very loaded brownies decorated with little cashew horns, Lisa (and by proxy, Yukina) gave fresh soy flour cookies… it was all a delicious cornucopia that Tsugumi could do nothing with besides dump it all in her bag. Even the spectacle of Tomoe blurting out “I’m in lesbians with you” to Himari didn’t lighten her mood (likely because Himari’s response was “no way sorry I’m straight after all I love Kaoru-senpai and liking a girl as handsome as Kaoru-senpai is the straightest thing I could possibly do”).
Her weariness must’ve carried over into student council after school, because Hina wore her usual pen mustache with a frown as she sized her up. “Something wrong, Tsugu-chan? You’re totally not boppin’ today.”
“Hu--eh?” Tsugumi blinked, only now realizing she was being spoken to as she filed papers. “I-I’m fine… just got some Valentine’s blues, I guess…”
“Why would Valentine’s make you blue?” asked Hina, eyes towards the ceiling in wonder. “Isn’t it like a pink holiday?”
“Er… I guess…?”
“Ohmygod, that reminds me!” Hina cackled as she pulled out her phone. “Aya-chan got me this strawberry cupcake for Valentine’s yesterday! Even though it’s today! And why would you get strawberry on Valentine’s? You’re supposed to get chocolate!”
Hina thrust the phone screen in Tsugumi’s face, showing her a fluffy pink-and-white cupcake iced with thin pink lines in the shape of Aya’s signature. It looked like she had labored for hours to make it.
“Oh, but I got something for you~!” Hina pulled out a crumpled up sandwich bag and thrust it into Tsugumi’s hands. “Go ahead and taste it!”
Tsugumi looked at the slab of chocolate, filled with a variety of unusual ingredients all smacked together: she spotted, among other things, pop rocks, pocky, jawbreaker pieces, and rice candy. “Umm…”
“Sis was baking last night, so I tried this and that and added some spices of my own!”
“Go on!” said Hina, nudging her. “Eat!”
Tsugumi gulped as she looked between Hina and the chocolate concoction. “H-Hina-senpai, I appreciate the gesture, truly, but…”
Tsugumi sighed. “I can’t eat this.”
“Aww, why not?
“W-Well…” Tsugumi shuffled in her seat, looking for the words.
Hina’s confusion cleared from her face as she fell back in her seat. “Oh, I get it. It’s one of those ‘love’ things, isn’t it?”
Hina laughed. “I don’t quite get it, but Sis was telling me about it last night. Valentine’s when you give chocolate to someone you love who’s special to you, right? Special in a way nobody else is.”
Tsugumi turned the color of Valentine’s day. “I-I mean…”
“Well, you are special to me!” said Hina.”You’re super boppin’! And shoobity-doobity! And ker-zappity! But I dunno about ‘love.’ Guess I gotta unpack that one for a bit.”
“Uh…” Tsugumi coughed. “I-I’m sorry, Hina-senpai.”
“No worries!” sang Hina, hands on her hips. “I just didn’t get it, that’s all.”
Before Tsugumi was forced to continue any more of this awkward conversation, the afterschool bell rang, sending Hina bolting up from her chair. “Oh! Time for practice! Now I get to see Aya-chan up close and personal!” She skipped off humming, not sparing even a passing glance at Tsugumi as she went.
Tsugumi made her own exit in a meandering fashion, Hina’s words echoing in her head as she plodded down the stairs. A love thing, huh…
She knew that wasn’t the case. She wasn’t waiting for ‘The One’ to give her Valentine’s chocolate before indulging in it or anything else so dramatically meaningful. After all, her friends loved her plenty, and the chocolate was proof of that, wasn’t it? But…
She stared mournfully at her feet as she swapped shoes at the shoe locker, barely keeping another sigh in as she exited outside. At least it was a beautiful winter day… brisk but not cold, the sky streaked with clouds of a simmering amber as the sun began to set over the horizon, casting everything in long, thin shadows. In the warm lighting of a cold day, she found herself stopping in the middle of the courtyard, watching her breath puff ever so slightly in the chill, dissipating into the aether like memories from the back of her mind.. The shadowy hues of the ground were so striking and multitudinous that she didn’t notice one shift by the school gate.
Tsugumi felt her heart jump a little as she swiveled to face the visitor. “S-Sayo-san?”
Sayo--shivering slightly due to not changing out of her uniform--remained cool as she walked up to her. “I… apologize for the intrusion at your school…”
“It’s no problem!” Tsugumi’s face unconsciously fell into a smile. “Were you here to see Hina-senpai? I think she already ran off…”
“Er… no… well, not exactly…”
Tsugumi had never seen Sayo stammer so much. She coughed before reaching into her coat and pulling out a tidy yellow gift bag.
“Um… that is to say… I…”
Tsugumi wanted to say “take your time” but she was too paralyzed to speak.
Sayo eventually extended the bag with both hands. “H-Happy Valentine’s Day.”
Tsugumi took the carefully wrapped gift bag, her heart tom-toming in her chest as she felt its gentle weight in her hands. “U-Um… th-this is kind of you, but...”
“Th-Three ingredients,” Sayo stuttered. “Cocoa, coconut oil, and honey. No nuts, no wheat, no soy.”
Tsugumi’s eyes widened.
“I-I recalled you mentioning allergens during the cooking class,” Sayo continued. “I was very careful to not contaminate any of the ingredients.”
“Th-that said, I might have made a mistake,” Sayo huffed, clearly frustrated with herself. “The sweetness, the acidity, the bitterness… the balance isn’t there. I apologize for my amateur ski--”
She was cut off by Tsugumi falling into her.
“H-Hazawa-san?! Are you alright? Feeling ill?”
She said it as a happy little gurgle into Sayo’s chest.
“I said it 4 months ago but you remembered.”
Sayo’s hands continued to flounder, afraid to embrace her even as Tsugumi wrapped herself around her. “I-It was only common courtesy. I would not want you to suffer an accidental allergic reaction. Which is why I brought an Epip--”
“Thank you.” Tsugumi felt her tears get soaked up by Sayo’s blazer. “Thank you for noticing.”
Sayo’s embarrassed confusion gave way to a soft, tender smile. “You’re welcome, Hazawa-san.”
Tsugumi reared her head to wipe her eyes with her sleeve, giggling softly. “S-Sorry. I just… I don’t tell people about my allergies often, so…”
“I understand. I merely wish for you to enjoy the confectionaries.” Sayo took a skittish backstep. “I apologize for taking your time. I’ll head home now--”
“Sayo-san, wait! I need to repay you.” Tsugumi closed the distance between them “Stop my cafe. We’ve got a chocolate cake special on sale.
“Truly?” Sayo’s lip curled inward as she nodded. “Lead the way, then.”
Tsugumi smiled and linked arms, causing Sayo to flail around for a moment. But eventually she settled into the connection, the two of them walking in tandem as Tsugumi took a piece of chocolate from the bag and bit into it.
She wasn’t sure what Sayo was talking about. It was the sweetest thing she’d ever eaten.