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Arisa woke up slowly. It was the twenty-fifth of December, just another Christmas, and the only notable thing about it was the way she was waking up not in her own room but in one of the luxuriously appointed rooms of the Tsurumaki Winter Lodge – all capitals necessary, because it turned out her yearmate’s family owned what seemed like a small town’s worth of land. The sleeping body radiating heat to her left wasn’t notable, not at all, not even the way its owner had somehow slung an arm across Arisa’s shoulder in the depths of slumber.  Arisa bit her lip as heat rose to her cheeks – damn rooms with only four beds! Damn Kasumi’s insistence on having a sleepover-within-a-sleepover with the only member of Poppin’ Party not in her class! – and slipped out of bed with as much stealth as she was capable of.

Her morning routine breezed by, Arisa focusing on the snowy scenery outside to avoid affording the now awake Kasumi any more than the most cursory greeting. In a somewhat stiff silence, they made their way to the lodge restaurant, where they split up – Kasumi heading to the breakfast bar while Arisa’s eye was caught by Hina’s wild air-guitaring only two tables away. Luckily, both O-Tae and Kaoru-san were there – at least she wouldn’t look lonely. Upon her arrival, O-Tae looked at her and smiled.

“Morning Arisa! Did you,” O-Tae paused to yawn widely, “sleep well last night?”

“N-no! Of course I didn’t!” was the immediate reply, warning bells going off at the contemplative look on the other girl’s face. Nothing good ever came of those – either a strange suggestion, or straight up nonsense, or – and these were the worst – insights that cut right to the heart of whatever Arisa was thinking at the moment.  

“Anyway! Bye!” and Arisa speed-walked to get some cereal.

-

An hour or so later, all twenty-four girls were jolted from lazy discussion by Tsurumaki-san banging together two of the most obnoxiously golden cymbals Arisa had seen in her life.

“Attention! Today is going to be the best Christmas you’ve ever had! I had my suits pick one thing for each band to do, and we’ll be doing those for a while! Then you can switch, if you want! Also - don’t forget the party tonight!” The blonde backflipped off the table she had been standing, and half the room applauded.

Arisa just watched on, bemused. If Tsurumaki-san was like this all the time… maybe it was time for her to appreciate how Kasumi was the most chaotic element of their band. Kasumi was never this loud – so many of her gestures came from a place of affection, instead of a desire to be the most eye-catching thing in the room. The way she sprung hugs on everyone without warning, how she could be heard calling you from a mile away, the fierceness of her hand-holds… today had to be the worst Christmas ever, if Arisa couldn’t stop thinking about the way her friend brightened every room she stepped into merely by existing. She was kind of like the sun, in that sense, and she’d been so warm to lie next to…

Rimi’s soft voice nudged at her consciousness, startling Arisa out of her daydream. “Arisa-chan, we’re going on a sleigh ride.”

Right. That’s what they were there for. Why a sleigh, of all things? Tsurumaki Kokoro worked in mysterious ways – maybe she’d intercepted Kasumi’s list for Santa, or something. That seemed like the type of thing she’d put on it.

-

“Uh… is this a sleigh, or a roller-coaster?” asked Saaya, the only girl not rendered speechless by the monstrosity in front of them. Arisa squinted – it was a sleigh, but on a roller-coaster track, and the reindeer in front of it were very obviously inanimate robots – what was the point of all this?

“It’s a sleigh,” a Black Suit said. Imposingly. “You should get in, Tsurumaki-san can’t wait for you to experience it.”

Speechless yet again, the five of them got in slowly. Saaya first, followed by Tae, then Rimi, then Arisa, then Kasumi.

“Wait – does this even have seatbelts?” Rimi asked, evidently close to panic.

“You won’t need them. Enjoy,” another Black Suit said with a mild smile.  

A bar slid down over them, not unlike the ones on most rollercoasters, and the ride began. And – what a ride it was. Jingle Bells blared from invisible speakers as the ride started, and it was only a hint of the hell to come.  The reindeer – twelve! Arisa internally remarked on their attention to detail – climbed up, and so did the sleigh. Then it plummeted, all five of them screaming.

When the sleigh hit a plateau, Arisa looked at Kasumi and could tell they were both thinking the same thing. Could it be over? A lot of things could be said about Kokoro but accommodating was, overwhelmingly, not one of them. Height was no longer an issue, but the extreme zig-zags the sleigh began travelling on had the five of them crashing into each other, Arisa holding Kasumi’s hand for dear life. She didn’t know if it was the altitude or the nearness but Kasumi’s face was turning red, a heat that seemed to match Arisa’s own. Five – ten – fifteen minutes later, the sleigh finally stopped and Kasumi wobbled out, Arisa letting go of the death-grip she had on her reluctantly. Shaky but somehow exhilarated, the five slowly made their way back to their cabin.

-

It was five thirty p.m., and Arisa, locked in a bathroom, felt like she was about to burst. All this – the touches, the proximity, the blushing – it couldn’t be good for her heart rate! Could it? For someone who regularly topped her class, confusion had become an alien feeling. She really hadn’t spent so much time thinking about her feelings back when the bulk of her day had been spent in her room. It wasn’t like plants made bad friends, either – they were good listeners and she loved them dearly. They just weren’t… people.

All at once, she realised just how much the star-shaped presence of Toyama Kasumi had crept into her heart. The Arisa of a year and a half ago wouldn’t have been on this Christmas retreat right now because she wouldn’t have known anyone on it. She wouldn’t have been part of a band. And it was all thanks to her – to Kasumi. Like a dawning, the realisation hit. Oh. I like her.

That explains it.

--

The Christmas party was to be held at the lodge restaurant, a ten minute walk through the snow from Popipa’s cabin. On the way there, Arisa caught Kasumi’s gaze once, twice, but didn’t initiate a conversation – not like it made much of a difference.

“Arisaaaa! Are you excited? Kokoron said it’d be a proper Christmas party, with a tree and ham and m- mi-“ In probably the most surprising turn of the day, Kasumi stuttered over a word and clammed up. Arisa turned – she wasn’t worried! The other girl never stuttered! – only to see her looking away with resolve.

If she didn’t want to talk, that was fine too. Arisa still needed time to sort out her own feelings. Their hands bumping every few seconds didn’t change anything, and neither did the way Arisa felt her own fingers twitching to grab hold. With an audible exhale, Kasumi grabbed her hand.

“There! We both forgot gloves, so we can help each other!” she said, brilliant smile back on her face.

“S-stupid! We have pockets!” was the immediate retort.

“You weren’t using yours,” the brown-haired girl pointed out, and Arisa didn’t know what else to say – so they ended up holding hands up until they reached their destination. And what a destination it was.

The restaurant, so bland in the morning, seemed completely transformed under the December moonlight. The cafeteria-style tables had vanished, replaced by elegant benches and what could be a bar if not for the brightly coloured juice menus. Despite the surroundings, everyone was still mostly dressed the same as they had been earlier in the day. The band split up – Tae heading towards the other guitarists, Rimi and Saaya going to find food, Kasumi immediately intercepted by Hagumi, who seemed to be balancing… three cakes? Arisa started walking away for the sake of her own sanity and saw Lisa sitting, unoccupied. No – she was occupied, staring at Yukina across the room with such a soft look on her face that Arisa had no choice but to turn away. Lisa-san and Yukina-senpai… they were together, weren’t they? Arisa still vividly remembered it slipping out during one of their baking sessions.

Longing… that was the word, for the mix of emotions she was feeling. She wanted that. She wanted to be able to look at Kasumi across the room without being questioned why, she wanted easy comfort with the girl she had come to like so much, she wanted to be open.

Arisa bit her lip. This was the perfect place to do something – it was the holidays, after all. And Kasumi would never cut her off if she did something awkward, because Kasumi was the type of girl to blow through discomfort with sheer force of personality. How else had they become friends?

She searched the crowd for cat-like hair, and found it less than three steps away from conveniently placed mistletoe. For once, Kasumi wasn’t doing anything – there was a smear of cake right below her lip, but all that did was make her look cute. Her brows were furrowed and Arisa suddenly felt like removing that worry was the most important thing in the world.

“Kasumi!” Without giving her a moment to respond, Arisa tugged her beneath the mistletoe. Kasumi looked… perplexed? Her face was indecipherable, really, but at least the worry was gone.

“What are you-“ “Don’t say anything,” Arisa cut in, and leaned in. Embarrassingly, she had to tip-toe slightly to get past their height difference, but she succeeded in planting a light kiss on Kasumi’s cheek.

“I wanted to do that. It doesn’t have to mean anything if you don’t want it to, I just… needed to do it.”

There was this face that Kasumi liked to make. She’d made it when getting her hands on Random Star for the first time, when Popipa made star candy at the city festival, when they’d been on the sleigh and Arisa had grabbed her hand – and she was making it now.

“Arisa – I – I like you so much! I’ve wanted to hold your hand since September! I – mmph-“ her words were cut off by Arisa slapping her own hand over Kasumi’s mouth.

“Don’t be embarrassing! We’re in public!” she tried to scold, but the effect was ruined by the smile she couldn’t keep from growing.

With strength that only came out once in a blue moon, Kasumi pried Arisa’s hand off and quickly pecked her on the mouth. While Arisa was stunned silent, Kasumi sang “You won’t be able to stop me~” and dashed off. Arisa licked her lips, dazed – so that had been cake, after all.

God. How ridiculous.

Arisa couldn’t help but think that this was the best Christmas she’d ever had.