“Okay, why did we agree to let them cook dinner, tonight?”
“It was kinda hard to say no. And then they insisted Rise-chan help them out, so...”
“You are way too nice, partner.”
“Who knows? Maybe by working together instead of competing, the grub won't be so un-bear-able.”
“I guess if anything could cut through Rise-chan's lethal spiciness, it's Yukiko-san's utter blandness...”
“Yeesh, you're not wrong, senpai, and that's the worst part.”
“Oh, ignore them, we'll do fine,” Chie insisted, giving Yukiko a reassuring hug around the waist from behind.
Yukiko smiled, cuddling back against Chie, as she kept the stir-fry moving in the wok. The rather... “crisp” looking stir-fry. “Do you think it's browned enough, or is that just the soy sauce?” she mused.
Rise just smiled at the two from the other side of the counter, watching Yukiko as she watched the rice, chin in her hands, tapping the point of her toes on the floor. “Soooo, stir-fry isn't something you really wanted to wow the others with,” she teased. “Why did you want to pull me aside?”
Chie disengaged the full hug with Yukiko, to instead stand next to her, arm around her shoulders, and address Rise. “Well, Yukiko and I are thinking... We're gonna get away, this weekend.” She used her free hand to act out her next words. “As soon as school ends on Friday, we're heading out to Tatsumi Port Island, and coming home Sunday night.”
“We've been planning and setting aside money for this trip since Christmas,” said Yukiko. “We kinda chipped in a little less for the ski trip, because of that, but...”
Rise stood more at attention, intrigued. “No, no, I understand, but... So soon? We all just went on that skiing trip two weeks ago.”
“That was amazing,” Chie insisted with a grin, “but, that was also for Narukami-kun's sake. This is, well, strictly for us.” While still looking at Rise, Chie gave Yukiko's shoulder a shake.
“Yeah, I guess that makes sense.” Rise grinned and giggled into her fingers. “From what I hear, the cutest couple in Inaba didn't get a chance to have any relationship time since Christmas. Not even for Valentine's Day! You need to treat yourselves, and I'm all for it!”
“I'm glad you understand,” said Yukiko, before her smile turned eager. “It's...kind of a surprise, and in two days, but, exams are over, as is the event with the Shadows and the forest... Do you think you could join us?”
Rise jerked in surprise, her chin slipping out of her hands, her jaw dropping. She shook it off, and tried to laugh it off. “Oh. Like, a girl's night out. Guess it's not a romantic thing after all. That's a shame, you two deserve a--”
“No, it's still kind of a romantic thing,” Chie insisted with a blush, her grin growing nervous. “Just, not just between the two of us.”
This time, Rise's jaw didn't drop, and her hands didn't slip. Her eyes just went wide, and her lips went tight.
Yukiko giggled. “We thought it'd be fun, just the three of us. After all, it just wouldn't feel right leaving behind our biggest fan and supporter,” she said with a bit of a teasing intonation.
“You cheered us on a lot, calling us cute, saying you wish you had a friendship like our's,” Chie pointed out, also with a teasing smirk. “Well, we thought, why not take her up on that? Unless you wouldn't want to come with, spend a luxurious weekend with us...”
“N-No! I would—I would!” Rise blurted out, still shocked, still blushing. “But, uh...um...T...Tatsumi Port is pretty expensive, without the school funding a field trip! Booking for two is rich enough, add in a third...and, and we already spent a lot on the ski trip, so--”
“If you're worried about money, I can chip in.”
Rise and the others looked up in surprise, as Yu came down from upstairs, that calm, passive smile on his face. “You all put on a big trip for me to go out skiing,” Yu explained. “I want to return the favour.”
“H-Huh? N...No way,” Chie insisted. “I couldn't, we couldn't ask you to do that. We put on that trip because you'll be...” Now Chie made herself sad, and she looked away.
“I know. But it's like Rise-chan said: you went the extra mile for me. I couldn't ask for better friends. And now, I want those friends of mine to have their own fun. Together” He grinned as he looked between Rise, Chie, and Yukiko. “I'm sure the three of you would have a great time if you all went together.”
“Narukami-kun...” Yukiko gasped, touched.
“D'aww, you big softie,” Chie said with a blush. “You really are too much. ...I'm gonna miss you, man.” She looked back to Rise. “Seriously, though, Rise, it is kinda last minute. What'd you say? Wanna come with?”
“...I'd love to,” Rise said. Her voice was genuine, but her expression was...sad. She found the genuine happiness in their offer and managed a smile of her own. “It'll be fun, just the three of us. I should get packed, right away.”
“Narukami-kun, maybe you could help Rise with packing and getting ready?” Yukiko offered. “I think Chie and I have got things, here.”
“Gladly. It...” There was a break in the conversation. Yu had that same, passive smile as before. “...smells great!”
Chie scoffed. “That's a lie and you know it,” she teased.
“Alright. And, really, have fun. Just be sure to play a round of King's Game, for all of us,” Yu insisted.
Though Yukiko raised her eyebrows in fascination, Chie already had her hands on Yukiko's shoulders, turning her back towards the stir-fry. “Yeah, that's not happening.”
As Yu and Rise turned to head back up the stairs, Rise suddenly pinched onto the back of his shirt. “Senpai, wait.” With Yu looking at her with such sympathy and concern, Rise looked away, embarrassed. “I do want to go with them, but... Don't read too much into it, okay?” she asked. “Chie-senpai and Yukiko-senpai are for sure just teasing me. I probably made them uncomfortable with all my gushing about their relationship, and they're bringing me along as a third wheel, to make me feel as awkward as I must've made them.”
When Rise looked back up, she could see Yu looking at her with genuine surprise and confusion. “That really doesn't sound like them,” he mused.
“Yeah, well, either way... I'm just their adorable kohai and famous friend, Risette, who needs to learn to cool her jets.”
Rise sighed, fatigued and depressed, as she slumped into the warm water, clutching her wrap tight around her chest.
At least, when they arrived at Tatsumi Port Island, they didn't end up in “Shirakawa Boulevard,” again. They got out at the station, and into a nice, pleasant hotel nearby. Two beds, Chie and Yukiko taking one, and her taking the other. By the time classes were done and they made the trip and checked into the hotel, there was no time left in the day, and they were all tired from the trip.
Chie and Yukiko slept big spoon/little spoon, respectively. Rise knew that, because she couldn't sleep, and ended up watching them for a while like a creep. She had never felt so awkward sleeping in the same room with them before...maybe because Naoto wasn't there, and the guys weren't over in another room. It really was just the three of them, together. Well, Chie and Yukiko together, Rise awkwardly tagging along, sticking out like a pretty, sore thumb.
For their first real day of this romantic vacation, Yukiko insisted they check out the famous “Oedeo-Onsen,” apparently one of the finest hot springs in Japan, or at least in the Tokyo area. Rise could vouch for it, as the three of them sat off to the side, relaxing and soaking in the hot water, it was very nice. Rise could almost catch up on the sleep she missed out on from the previous night...
“Y'know, I'll always have a soft spot for the baths at your family inn,” Chie pointed out, arm wrapped around Yukiko's shoulder, “but, this is really nice!”
“Hee hee. I really shouldn't say it, but, I think this is better,” Yukiko admitted. She leaned forward, looking past Chie, to Rise. “What do you think, Rise-chan? Did you ever come here as an idol?”
“H-Huh?” Rise looked up, from out of her sleepy haze. “Oh, yeah, one time, early in my career.”
“It's very luxurious,” Yukiko pointed out, lifting her arms out of the water, and giving one a rub. “My skin's never felt so...clean.”
“Heh, well, you and Rise-chan have skin that's meant to be pampered in luxury,” Chie pointed out with a self-deprecating grin. “Then there's plain old Chie, where it all goes to waste.”
Snapping completely out of her haze, Rise turned to Chie in shock. “Chie-senpai, don't ever say that!” she insisted. “You're super cute! Look at this arm!” Rise grabbed one of Chie's arms, yanking it out of the water, running her hand along her developed muscles. “The bulk, the toning, you've got a better body than a lot of girls I know! Heck, a lot of guys I know! You totally deserve a pampering!” she insisted.
Chie couldn't help but smile, through her blush. “Ah, I was just being dumb,” she assured. “You really think so, huh? Thanks, Rise-cha--”
“And look at these legs!”
Chie splashed and flailed as she was suddenly pulled below the surface of the water, with Rise yanking her leg up in demonstration. Despite her thrashing, the leg Rise was examining kept still.
“These are even better! I don't think I've seen anyone with such toned legs! You have so much to be proud of, Chie-senpai, don't ever think you're not worth it!”
“I...pfft, I don't think she...” Yukiko tried to point out, fighting valiantly not to laugh.
Pulling herself back above the water, Chie gasped for air, before pulling her leg free from Rise's grip. Flashing a wicked, smirking grin, she started splashing at Rise, throwing armfuls of warm water at her. “Appreciate it, but why don't you take a dip?” she taunted over Rise's ticklish shrieking.
Yukiko lost the fight, and fell into hysterics, laughing and snorting like a hynea as she slapped the surface of the water, doubled over and unable to control herself as Chie and Rise play fought next to her.
Eventually, the stern and confused looks from the other onsen patrons convinced them to stop; Chie and Rise settled back into the water, and Yukiko finally calmed her laughter. “Alright, think we should get out?” Chie asked.
“Why the rush?” Yukiko insisted. “The water's so nice, it feels like we just got in. Rise-chan looks to be enjoying herself, too.”
“Huh? Y-Yeah, of course! I wouldn't mind staying a little longer.”
Smiling contently, Chie lifted her arms to stretch, before lowering one of them around Yukiko's shoulders, holding her close...and the other arm lowered to Rise, hand clasping onto her shoulder.
Rise flinched, staring at Chie's hand. Twiddling her thumbs below the surface of the water, she inched over a little closer, into the tomboy. The silent invitation accepted, Chie's arm stretched out, hugging Rise around the shoulders just as she did for Yukiko.
Her cheeks already warm from the onsen, Rise was absolutely burning with blush, but she settled up against Chie, an utterly nervous but still excited smile on her face, accepting, for a moment, that she could actually join in what Chie and Yukiko had.
“According to this, this is the largest garden in the Tokyo metropolitan area.”
“C'mon, it can't be that big!”
“Well, it's not, but... I think I performed in an arena that was about this size.”
“You don't say... And it is pretty...pretty.”
“Mm, and any excuse to keep wearing these yukata they gave us. I never wore cotton that breathed this well!”
“Alright, let's have a little walk around.”
Rise sighed contently, curling her toes; the small stones that lined the path were so round and smoothed, it was like walking on foot rollers, the bottoms of her feet getting massaged, rather than poked.
As she and Yukiko and Chie walked through the garden, she couldn't help but feel a sense of peace wash over her. Her frets and anxieties melted away, she just shot the breeze with Yukiko, discussing the upcoming end of the school year, and the start of her own 2nd year and their 3rd year. About whether Rise would return to her idol career, and how university would work around that. All while Chie led their walk through the garden, smiling at them over her shoulder.
Rise was interrupted, however, when she heard some whispering from some of the other patrons.
“Is that Risette, over there?”
“No way... No way, it is!”
“Who's that girl she's with?”
“Wait, I think I've seen her before...I think she's the Amagi girl.”
“Amagi? Like, Amagi Inn Amagi? Treasure of Yasoinaba?”
“She's going to school in Yasoinaba... Makes sense she's friends with the closest thing that town has to a celebrity.”
“So, who's the other girl? A friend?”
“Maybe... Hey, you see the way they're locking arms?”
Rise flinched, and looked down; she WAS arm in arm with Yukiko! She didn't even remember holding onto her like that.
“Do you think they're...”
“No way, Risette on a date? Here?”
“Oh man, this is so going on my blog!”
Rise froze stiff. Oh no, they wouldn't! And if the tabloids found that blog, and whatever pictures...
Her worrying stopped when she noticed Chie suddenly dashing behind them, throwing her arms wide, blocking them off from the gossipers. A stern, angry look was flashed over her shoulder. The gossipers quickly backed off, no photos taken.
“Phew... Man, can't a girl just go out and have some fun?” Chie scoffed.
“Sorry about all that...” Rise muttered, morosely. “That's what you get for having a celebrity for a friend...”
“Don't worry, Rise-chan,” Yukiko insisted. “We got used to it after you started going to school with us.”
Rise frowned. That was different, though. They were friends, with the rest of the investigation team. Here, just the three of them, her senpai's insisting this was all romantic... The rumours and paparazzi circling her like flies, Rise wouldn't wish it on her worst enemies, let alone her beloved senpai's.
“C'mon, let's get out of here,” Chie insisted, a reassuring, rallying smile on her face. “We can't spend the whole weekend at this one onsen.”
“Exactly! Rise-chan, we should go back to that mall you showed us, last time. Oh, it was so beautiful, like an Italian palace!”
The rest of the day was filled with touristy activities; without school or Shadows to worry about, the three were finally allowed to truly enjoy themselves, not a care for anything else. That was the theory, at least; Chie and Yukiko seemed to embrace it, but Rise just couldn't.
Modeling clothes while shopping only made Rise acutely aware of just how attracted she was to her two senpai; her previous fawning over their cuteness sounded creepy to her, now, and their own praise for how she wore her new potential outfits brought her a shyness and humility that was altogether new to her. A boat ride across the bay was made more awkward when she ended up sitting between them, separating the two girlfriends from embracing each other, cuddling together like they did on the train ride to the island in the first place. They didn't seem at all bothered, even pleased, but Rise knew they were putting on a brave face for her, if not rubbing the awkwardness in her face, themselves.
Her appetite was shot, and her appreciation for the view from the observation desk of the Fuji studio was tanked, wracked she was with anxiety and guilt for being a drag on Chie and Yukiko's romantic vacation.
And now, here they were, walking back to their hotel. The late February sun had already set, a 6pm nightfall washing over them, and the lights of the Tatsumi Port Island were on, including its “rainbow bridge,” a long bridge across the bay adorned with lights of many colours, what people called the “bridge of dreams.”
Arm in arm, Chie and Yukiko went first, Rise solemnly trudging along behind them. Not ten feet onto the bridge, though, the two stopped, and looked back at Rise, first confused, then concerned and sympathetic.
“Rise-chan...are you okay?” Yukiko asked.
“You've been...kinda down since the onsen this morning,” Chie pointed out. “Is everything alright?”
“...It's fine,” Rise muttered.
“Well...don't feel like you have to stand so far back,” Chie insisted, her and Yukiko turning fully to face her. Chie opened her other arm. “Looks like we got some space to ourselves, let's make the most of it, huh?” she suggested, trying to cheer Rise up.
It only seemed to backfire. Wincing and gritting her teeth, Rise turned away. “Just stop...”
“Rise-chan... Please, tell us what's wrong.”
“This is supposed to be your vacation! I'm just getting in the way!” Rise instantly felt tears forming in her eyes, but she couldn't stop now to try and hide it. “You don't have to keep accommodating for me, okay? You've made your point, I was weird in fawning over you so much. You should enjoy yourselves! And I should stop being a third wheel!”
Yukiko stepped forward, concerned. “Rise-chan, you're not--”
“Yes I am! You two have been friends since you were kids! You've had a lifetime to get to know each other, to fall in love! You've only known me for half a year! There's no way I could... That you could care about me that much, that quickly!” Hugging herself, Rise turned away, tucking her chin into her chest. “I'm just...splitting your attention. I love that you're trying to be nice, trying to make me feel involved, but you should focus on each other. Focus on the actual love. Instead of trying to...tease me, or throw me a bone, or whatever it is you're trying to do.”
Chie and Yukiko looked to each other, concerned, before slowly approaching Rise. Cautiously, they placed their hands on Rise's shoulders. With Rise not pulling away, they instead pulled in a little closer, soothingly embracing her. Rise began to sob and shudder, tears starting to flow.
“Rise-chan...” Chie paused. When Rise looked up, she could see a strange smile on the tomboy's lips, before she spoke up again. “You know something, Rise-chan...I was...I am worried that you two might see me as the third wheel.”
Rise's jaw dropped, and her red eyes went wide, staring at Chie. “It's true,” Chie insisted. “Back at the onsen, when those people were talking about us... No, about you two. The famous idol, Risette, and Yukiko Amagi, heiress to the Amagi Inn, practically Inaba royalty. And me? The best a small town girl like me can manage is maybe, maybe police chief, or chief detective like Dojima-san.
“If anything, I should be getting out of your way. Let the two of you live the life of luxury and celebrity you deserve, and not have to worry about your prestige being tarnished by plain old Chie Satonaka.”
“Chie, don't ever say that!” Rise insisted. Her eyes were clear, and she lifted her arms to grip Chie's shoulders. “I don't care if you're not... No one should care if you're not famous! You're more wonderful than any other idol or celebrity I've met! You both are! And no amount of fame or fortune would ever change what a beautiful soul you have, Chie!”
Chie smiled, lifting a finger to flick on Rise's forehead. “You called me Chie,” she pointed out the lack of “senpai” in there. “Does that mean you...”
Rise blushed, and tucked into herself. “I... Of course I do,” she said aloud. “B...Both of you. B-But... But I can't. T-Two of you? At once? That's not...”
“It's already amazing Rise's in love with another girl,” Chie pointed out. “What's the harm if it's two girls, on top of that?” She gave Rise's hand a reassuring squeeze. “Just like how... It's no drain for Yukiko or me to like another girl, as well.”
Rise was about to burst into tears again, as she threw herself into an embrace with them again. “C-Chie...! Yukiko...!”
“It's alright, Rise,” Yukiko said softly, soothingly, rubbing Rise's back in the embrace. “Let it all out.”
It took a few minutes for all three of them to compose themselves, but, soon, the embrace broke apart, though all three still kept affectionately close.
“Actually... I was worried about being a third wheel, myself,” Yukiko admitted.
“Seriously?” Chie and Rise looked at Yukiko, bewildered.
“Back at the Onsen, when Rise pulled you under the water, and then the two of you splashed around and had your wrestle,” as she explained herself, giggles rose in Yukiko's tone, “it was such a funn—beautiful show of passion, I felt a little aloof and dry. Like, I should let you two have your fun.”
“Well, we should have some fun,” Chie agreed, throwing her arms around both Rise and Yukiko. “C'mon. This is supposed to be a romantic get away. For all of us. Night's still young, and poor Rise felt left out all day, we should do something nice, together.”
“How about the club, again?” Yukiko suggested. “What was it, Club...Escapade? That was fun, last time! What I remember, anyway.”
“Ugh, fine, but we're not playing King's Game, I'm serious,” Chie put her foot down with a smirk.
“...Of course not. We only have three players,” Yukiko agreed, glancing this way and that as she dug some marked chopsticks out of her purse, broke them apart, and inched away to toss them in the trash.
Giggling, Rise shook her head. “How about karaoke, instead?” she suggested. “The Mandragora Bar is just below the club, I've been there a few times with the company. We can get a good deal on a room.”
“Ooh, that sounds like fun!” Yukiko agreed, Chie nodding as well. “Do you think they'll have your song on the list, Rise?”
“What, the one she sang at that Junes concert, October?” Chie asked. “Man, that'd be a quick if they had it on the list...”
“They better have our horn section, Chie,” Yukiko insisted. “We practiced hard on that!”
Sharing a laugh, arm in arm in arm, the three resumed their walk across the lighted bridge, Rise now in between Chie and Yukiko...so they could best lean in and kiss both her cheeks at once. Rise could barely contain her delighted squeal.
“If you don't see either of us as your third wheel,” Yukiko summarized, “you should never feel like your our third wheel. The three of us, together.”
“Inaba's strongest power couple!” Chie cheered. “Erm, triple. Terminology's weird, but I wouldn't change it for the world.”
Rise lifted her head and smiled, before giving Yukiko, then Chie, a kiss on the cheek as well.
That night, Rise couldn't sleep, again.
This time, because she was so giddy.
When they returned to the hotel, after several hours of karaoke, they asked one of the staff to help push their beds together. And now, here they were, Rise sleeping next to Chie and Yukiko, all three of them cuddled together with the tomboy in the middle.
Once again, she watched the way they peacefully slept, the rise and fall of Chie's breath, the way Yukiko nestled up against her childhood friend and sweetheart. She still felt like she was being a little creepy about it, but... This all seemed so much better, now. So much more natural.
A soft chirping broke her concentration. Sitting up, Rise looked over to the stand next to the bed, and realized that her phone was still on, and she got a text. She took a look. It was from Yu.
“Hi Rise-chan. How's your completely platonic vacation going with Chie-chan and Yukiko-chan?”
Rise smiled softly, and quietly tapped in an answer.
“kay senpai. u can stp teasin”
“just sayin u can read intoit.”
Now remembering to turn her phone off, Rise settled in, cuddling up close to Chie, reaching her arm over to brush Yukiko's hand, she finally drifted off to sleep.