"I blew it again!"
Syaro let her head drop to the table with a dull thunk, the interior of Ama Usa An vanishing behind the fine-grained wood filling her vision.
"Oh? Surely it wasn't that bad."
She allowed herself the minimal effort necessary to prop her chin on her folded arms instead, allowing her to look up at Chiya, who set a steaming cup of tea in front of her.
"It was exactly that bad. It's always that bad." She sighed deeply. "I was going to confess this time! I was really going to do it! I had a whole speech planned and everything. 'Rize-senpai, I've always really admired you...'" She trailed off with a groan.
"Did Cocoa-san interrupt again?" Chiya asked.
"No, for once."
Syaro frowned briefly as a slideshow of incidents ran through her mind. There was the time Syaro tried to talk to Rize in private and Cocoa burst in on them, the time Syaro tried to confess in the park and Cocoa came running past chasing a herd of rabbits, the time Syaro finally, finally got the words out and Cocoa loudly broke a plate at the exact same time...
"I convinced Cocoa to go with Chino to buy some supplies, so for once, it was just the two of us, with no chance of interruption. It was perfect! And then..." She paused, wincing at the memory, eyeing the table and dearly wishing it could just swallow her up. "And I still blew it, all by myself."
"What happened, then?"
Syaro squirmed. "Well, I asked her if we could talk, and she sat down across from me, and she was really listening! And I was so nervous, I was almost sick... And that's right about the time I usually start thinking 'what if she says no?' - but this time, I thought, 'what if she says yes?'"
Chiya tilted her head to the side. "But isn't that a good thing?"
Syaro squeezed her eyes shut. It was so embarrassing even to remember. "I just... wondered what would happen after, and for a little while, my mind was a total blank. And then I thought 'what if we kiss?' Oh, I was so embarrassed, I couldn't even imagine it. And then I couldn't even talk anymore! Rize must think I'm really weird, now..."
"I don't think Rize minds weird. She's friends with Cocoa, after all."
"That's different!" Syaro whined, looking up at Chiya petulantly. Chiya raised a hand to her mouth and started to giggle, which didn't help Syaro's mood at all. She reached out for the teacup reluctantly. "Ah, I really can't afford to keep getting tea here..."
"I thought to bring it myself, so please don't worry. It's on the house," Chiya insisted with a smile, nudging the cup a little closer.
"How can you be so mean to me and so nice at the same time?" Syaro grumbled, but she picked up the teacup and took a drink. The flavor flowed across her tongue and sent a soothing warmth through her body as she swallowed, instantly relaxing her. "Ah, that's really good..."
"Well, we've been friends since we were children. I should know your favorite tea by now, don't you think?"
Syaro took another long sip before setting the teacup back on the table. "Thanks, Chiya." She propped her head in her hand and sighed again. "I really need to get past this if I'm ever going to confess properly, though... Whenever I think about k-kissing her-" She swallowed, face heating at the stutter. "I freeze completely. It just seems so hard..."
"Oh? Really?" Chiya tapped her lips with a finger, thinking. "It seems to me like it would be the easiest thing in the world, if it was someone you really cared about."
Syaro shot her a skeptical look. "You really think it's that easy?"
"I do. Here." She reached down and grasped Syaro's hands, tugging a little, and Syaro allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. Then Chiya slowly leaned closer.
Syaro only realized what was going to happen an instant before it did, and just as she drew in a surprised breath, Chiya closed the gap.
All of her thoughts fizzled to a dead halt. Chiya's lips were soft and gentle, just like Chiya herself. Her breath was warm against Syaro's skin, and she was dimly aware of Chiya releasing her hands and moving up to carefully grip her shoulders, the weight solid and reassuring. Syaro's fingers twitched at the air for a moment, suddenly lost.
Then Chiya's lips moved, just a little, slipping against Syaro's own, and an electric tingle shot down her spine and back up again. She gasped sharply, and the moment was broken -- Chiya pulled away, hands sliding from Syaro's shoulders, and Syaro's thoughts came rushing back in a jumbled mess as she felt her face heat up.
Chiya was smiling a strange smile, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear and glancing to the side. Syaro felt like she should say something, but it was hard to make her voice work. She could still feel the phantom touch of Chiya's lips on her own.
"Th-that... that was..."
"It was easy, wasn't it?" Chiya was still looking away, not meeting Syaro's eyes. "So... you really don't have anything to worry about."
"H-how can you be so calm?" Syaro buried her face in her hands. "You're teasing me, aren't you?"
Before Chiya could respond, the door jingled, signaling the entrance of a customer. "Welcome," she said politely instead, turning reluctantly toward the door.
"Ah, I'm sorry, I should let you get back to work," Syaro said, rubbing at her flushed cheek with one hand, trying to will the blush away. "Th-thanks for the tea, Chiya." Then she all but fled the shop, leaving the other girl to tend to her customer. She just barely caught a glimpse of Chiya biting her lip as she watched her go, before she took off down the street at a rather faster clip than necessary.
Maybe that had been too forward.
Chiya took her customer's order with a smile, even though worry gnawed at her inside. She really hadn't intended to kiss Syaro, until she had -- in the moment, it had just seemed like such a natural thing to do.
She began brewing the tea on autopilot, hands moving in a long-practiced dance. She loved Syaro, of course. She had loved her for a long time. They were best friends from childhood, after all, and Chiya knew nearly everything about her - her hopes, her dreams, her fears (even the ones less obvious than rabbits and ghost stories). There were thousands of shared moments between them, some sweet, some sad, and some embarrassing (and Syaro was so cute when Chiya teased her, it was hard not to do it all the time).
She just hadn't fully recognized the shape of her feelings until Syaro had come to her house after her first day at her elite high school -- the first day she'd ever walked to school without Chiya, gone to a school that was different than Chiya's -- and gushed excitedly about her cool senpai who was so brave and pretty and exciting. Chiya had smiled as brightly as she could manage and listened to all of Syaro's stories, paying attention to all the important parts and asking all the right questions.
Because the most important thing was for Syaro to be happy, and Chiya knew in her heart that Syaro would be her dearest friend forever, so there was no need to be jealous. Sure, she might've asked Cocoa if there was any more sugar in the storeroom right after Syaro had stepped inside to talk privately with Rize, or pointed Cocoa toward a particularly large group of rabbits in the park, or accidentally bumped into Cocoa hard enough to make her drop a plate at an unfortunate moment, but whenever Syaro came to her for advice, Chiya always answered sincerely.
She wondered if Syaro would use the advice Chiya had given her today on Rize.
Shaking away those thoughts as best she could, Chiya poured the steaming tea into a cup and carried it out to her waiting customer. She bowed deeply and returned to the kitchen to tidy up.
Syaro's lips had tasted faintly of the tea that Chiya had prepared for her. She'd never tasted anything sweeter.
Chiya bit her lip. What if this really changed things between them? That was the one thing she feared the most, that they'd become distant from each other. Should she pretend she was just teasing, to make sure their friendship stayed the same?
This was all too much to think about all by herself. Maybe... maybe it would be good to seek some advice of her own.
Chiya looked up at the clock on the wall. It was only half an hour before closing time. If she could close the shop up quickly right at five, she could probably make it to Rabbit House before Cocoa and Chino finished closing up themselves.
With a firm nod, Chiya set to her cleaning with renewed vigor.
Syaro soon slowed to a more reasonable pace as she made her way through the February slush. She didn't really have a destination in mind; she just needed some time to herself to think.
Chiya had kissed her. And it had felt... really nice.
It was her first kiss, Syaro realized suddenly. Her very first kiss had been with Chiya Ujimatsu, her best friend since childhood, standing right next to her favorite booth in Ama Usa An. She blushed harder and sank deeper behind her scarf in an effort to hide it.
It was a pretty mean joke for Chiya to pull on her, stealing her first kiss like that. And yet Syaro didn't feel angry, only flustered and confused. All of a sudden, all she could think about was Chiya: the time when they were seven and Chiya had bandaged the cut on her knee while she cried; their first day of middle school when Syaro had been so nervous and Chiya had held her hand the whole way there; just a little over a month ago when Chiya had stayed with her while she was sick, insisting on sitting there reading her book and exposing herself to Syaro's cold in the hopes that she might catch it herself instead.
Ever since she'd entered high school and met Rize, Syaro had been starstruck. Rize was just so cool, and so brave, saving her from those terrifying feral rabbits who cornered her. Chiya, on the other hand, usually just laughed when Anko chased her around the shop.
But... Syaro had never really imagined a future with Rize. And her imagination had been pretty vivid: daring rescues, dances, all sorts of idle fantasies where Rize took her hand with a grin and a wink. Each of those had just been a moment, out of time, out of context.
She couldn't say she'd really imagined a future with Chiya, either -- and certainly not with her -- but she'd never imagined a future without her, either. When she imagined where her life would take her, of course Chiya was always there. Chiya had always been there, after all.
"It seems to me like it would be the easiest thing in the world, if it was someone you really cared about," she had said.
Syaro cared about Chiya. She'd always cared about Chiya. They were friends! Friends cared about each other!
Friends didn't kiss each other like that. And friends definitely didn't feel electricity shooting through them when they kissed their friends.
Did Chiya feel it, too?
It was all just muddled and confusing and so very sudden. The cold air wasn't clearing her head; it was just stuffing up her nose.
Syaro ducked into the corner grocery, intending to warm up before heading for home. She made her way between the shelves, browsing to pass the time while the numbness receded from her cheeks and nose.
As she turned a corner without really paying attention, she ran directly into something solid.
She bounced off, windmilling her arms in a losing battle to stay upright, but a hand reached out and grabbed her shoulder, steadying her.
Syaro's eyes went wide and snapped up at the familiar voice. "Rize-senpai? Ah, I'm so, so sorry! I wasn't paying enough attention..."
"It's fine, it's fine," Rize replied with a smile. "Shopping today?"
"N-no, I was out walking and just came in to warm up a little." She hesitated a moment. "Rize-senpai?"
"Yeah?" Rize cocked her head to the side.
"H-have you ever..." Oh, how was she going to explain this? "Have you ever really wanted something, for a long time, and even though you want it so much, you never stop to think about why, or what you're going to do with it once you get it? And then something else comes along, and you never thought to want it because you already had it, except maybe you didn't have it as much as you could have it, and now you don't know whether you want it more than the other thing you wanted or not, but you also know that you really don't want to not have it, because that would be awful!"
"Uh..." Rize rubbed the back of her head sheepishly. "I don't think I really followed that, sorry. I'm not very good at this kind of thing."
Rize frowned. "But hey, it sounds like it's really important, so maybe you could explain it again, a little slower?"
"Well..." Syaro wracked her brain for a more Rize-friendly angle. "How about if you have a... a target?"
Rize nodded, grasping her chin in a thoughtful pose and watching Syaro intensely
"And you've been aiming for this target for a really long time. B-but, uh, you don't know if the target is aiming back at you, or ever would, even if they knew."
This metaphor was falling apart already. But Rize was still nodding, so Syaro continued anyway.
"But then, um, a totally different... thing... targets you, or at least it seems like they're targeting you. A-and you think that maybe they'd be a better target after all. But you're not sure if they were actually targeting you or if it was a mistake, and they've always been your... ally, and you don't want to ruin that..."
She really couldn't go on. That didn't make any sense at all.
Rize seemed to be thinking hard. "Well," she said finally, "I think you'd better focus on your ally first. They're the real threat. But you don't want to attack if they haven't really turned on you! So I think your best option is a covert operation."
"A... covert operation?"
Rize grinned. "Yeah! You have to figure out what they're planning, after all."
A covert operation. Maybe she could find a cunning way to figure out how Chiya really felt... But that wouldn't help Syaro figure out how she felt.
"And if they did attack you, then BAM! Counterstrike! Close off your borders, hit them in the supply lines! Try to take them out in one go! Then you can turn back to your old target, and use the same strategy there: infiltrate, and if they're a threat, take them out!"
Syaro covered her face with her hands. This was not a helpful discussion at all. Rize was just too literal when it came to fighting and war games. "Thank you for trying, Rize-senpai, but I don't think that's the answer I needed," she said with a sigh.
A hand came down on her shoulder, and she looked up to find Rize looking at her seriously. "Sorry I'm no good at this kind of thing," she said, "but the best advice I ever got was 'go with your gut.' So I think the best thing you can do in any situation is to listen to your instincts."
"My instincts..." Syaro repeated quietly. Rize was touching her. This might be the most Syaro had ever managed to say to her in one go. Her nervousness seemed to have fled for the moment. Rize cocked her head to the side and offered a small smile.
Syaro took a step back, and Rize's hand fell away from her shoulder. "Thank you, Rize-senpai," she said, stuffing her hands in her pockets in preparation for braving the cold again. "I think that's exactly what I needed to hear."
The lights were still on in Rabbit House as Chiya knocked on the door. It didn't take long before she could see Chino approaching through the glass, reaching up to unlock the door and open it. A rush of warmth and the smell of coffee washed over her.
"Chiya-san," Chino greeted politely, standing aside to give Chiya room to enter. "Please come in."
As Chiya stepped across the threshold, she heard Cocoa's voice come from the back.
"Eh? Chiya-chan's here?"
A moment later, Cocoa's head popped up from behind the counter, followed by the rest of her. She waved cheerfully.
"We weren't expecting to see you today, Chiya-san," Chino said as she relocked the door and moved to join Cocoa behind the counter.
"Ah, well, I needed some advice, that's all. Can I help you close up?"
"Please don't trouble yourse-" Chino began, but Cocoa was already handing Chiya a plate to wash. "Cocoa-san, don't make our friends do your job."
"Eh?! But she offered! And the sooner we're done, the sooner we can all sit down and listen to Chiya-chan's problem!"
Chino's cheeks puffed out in annoyance, but Chiya decided to interject before the other two could work themselves into an argument.
"I really don't mind," she said, looking around for a dishcloth to use. "This kind of work is soothing, don't you think? And friends should help each other, after all. I'm asking for your advice, so it's only right that I should help you, too."
Chino looked like she wanted to object, but in the end, she dropped the subject, instead moving to wipe down the counters. The three worked in relative silence, the only sound the clink of dishware and Cocoa's cheerful humming. Soon they had the cafe in pristine condition, ready to open for customers in the morning, and Chiya took a seat on one of the stools while Cocoa and Chino leaned against the other side of the counter.
"So what's wrong with you and Syaro-chan?" Cocoa asked.
"Eh?! How did you know it had to do with Syaro-chan?" Chiya hoped her face hadn't gone too red.
Cocoa smiled. "Well, you looked so down when you came in, even though you tried to hide it, and the last time I saw you that upset it was because you had a fight with Syaro-chan, so..."
"So it seems even Cocoa-san can be observant sometimes," Chino said.
"Huh? What do you mean by that?"
Chiya felt her mood lightening a little just watching the two of them. Coming here had been a good idea. "I don't think it was a fight, exactly. But I might have made her upset, and I really didn't mean to. I just wanted..." Chiya trailed off with a sigh. Quietly, she continued, "The worst thing in the world would be if she wasn't my friend anymore."
"Chiya-san, you've been friends with Syaro-san for a long time, haven't you?" Chino asked.
Chiya nodded, a wistful smile emerging. "Best friends, since we were young. Those are... precious memories for me."
"Then you should have more faith in Syaro-san, shouldn't you?"
Chiya looked at Chino, whose face was as grave as ever. Beside her, Cocoa nodded enthusiastically.
"Chino-chan's right! Whatever happened, I'm sure it's not enough to break a friendship as strong as yours!"
"If you feel like you did something wrong, then you should apologize," Chino continued. "If you don't feel like you did anything wrong, you should explain your side to Syaro-san. The most important thing is to be honest."
"Yeah!" Cocoa smiled. "As long as you share your true and honest feelings with Syaro-chan, I'm sure everything will turn out fine."
Chiya looked down at the counter, losing herself in thought. "My true and... honest feelings..."
"Just like I always do with Chino-chan!" Cocoa threw her arms around Chino, grinning widely. "That's why I know I'll always be her precious onee-chan!"
"Please let go of me," Chino said flatly, but it didn't really seem like she minded all that much.
"Thank you." Chiya stood up and pulled her coat tighter around her.
"Anytime!" Cocoa beamed at her.
"We're glad we could help."
Chiya turned to go, listening to the pair start squabbling as she did.
"Call me onee-chan and I'll let go!"
"That's never, ever going to happen."
"Come on! I know I heard you say it once!"
"Your ears must have been playing tricks on you."
The door closed behind her, silencing the growing argument, and Chiya smiled to herself as she turned toward home.
The cold was really starting to bite as evening headed on toward night, and Syaro buried her face as deep as she could in her scarf as she trudged along, concentrating on the slush-covered pavement just in front of her boots. Just a little farther, and she'd be home. Then she could take some time to warm up and think about what she wanted to say before going next door to talk to Chiya.
Ah, there it was, finally. She was just reaching for the doorknob when she heard a very familiar voice.
Syaro looked up to see Chiya pausing in the threshold of her own door, one foot inside and one outside. She stepped back out onto the street, shutting the door.
Syaro really wasn't prepared for this conversation. But hadn't Rize told her to go with her gut, to follow her instincts? Maybe it was better this way. She let go of the doorknob and took a step in Chiya's direction.
They came to a stop just a pace away from one another. For a moment they just stood there awkwardly, the cold seeping into them.
"Chiya..." Syaro started, but she trailed off uncertainly.
Chiya smiled gently at her. "Syaro-chan." She looked off to the side and seemed to gather herself together. "I wanted to say that I'm sorry. I went too far earlier."
"O-oh..." Syaro felt her stomach clench.
"But I wasn't teasing you," Chiya continued, turning to meet Syaro's gaze steadily. "I didn't mean for things to happen the way they did, but I've decided to tell you my true and honest feelings."
She stepped closer, reaching for Syaro's arms, and Syaro let her pull her hands from her pockets and take them in her own. Chiya's fingers were cold, and so Syaro shifted her grip so she could clasp Chiya's hands between hers, shielding them from the winter air.
"I care about you. You're my best friend, and I want you to be happy, but... I also always want to be by your side. The truth is..." She screwed her eyes shut, and her grip on Syaro's fingers tightened. "I really, really like you, Syaro-chan. I think... I've felt this way for a long time."
Syaro's heart beat faster in her chest. How long was "a long time"? How much time had Chiya spent, never saying anything? How should she respond? Oh what to do, what to do...
She took a deep breath. All she needed to do was trust her instincts.
She let go of Chiya's hands.
Chiya took in a sharp breath and opened her eyes, just as Syaro stepped forward, hands coming up to cup Chiya's face, and leaned in.
Chiya's lips were still soft and gentle, if a little chapped from the cold. Chiya's breath was warm against Syaro's face as she exhaled, a shaky sigh of relief, and her hands moved to rest lightly against Syaro's waist.
They stayed that way a long time, lips moving tentatively against one another's, slowly relaxing enough to pull closer, feeling each other's warmth even through their bundled winter clothes.
It was only when the cold around them grew too unbearable that they finally broke apart.
"I like you too, Chiya," Syaro said quietly, the words feeling silly after the electricity of the kiss. But the sunny smile that spread across Chiya's face banished those thoughts.
"Your cheeks are cold," Chiya said. "Let's go inside."