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Come Here Often~?

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Ran's ambivalent on a lot of pastimes, but there's two things she can't stand:

Summer, and swimming.

"Raaaaaaaan! Watch this!"

...So why on earth is she here?

Jesus christ, it's hot. It's so fucking hot today. It's a miracle there's even a few clouds up today. The air's an oven, and the fancily patterned paving surrounding the swimming pool feels like it's forcing you to play The Floor Is Lava. Summer is actual, literal hell when you don't have Tsugumi's encouragement or Tomoe blasting the air conditioner nearby.

'Maybe it wouldn't be as bad if you didn't wear a long-sleeve shirt and jeans~,' she can imagine Moca blabbering. But it's not like she had a choice; if she exposed any skin in a girls-only swimming pool, then... she'd feel like she was wrong for existing here. She doesn't have Moca's jackassery or Aya's recklessness to overcome the ickier internal stuff with, so when Himari asked her to keep her company, covering herself up was the only way she could feel safe.

"..."

Although with all the sweat she can feel sliming up in... well, everywhere she doesn't want it to be, she can't help but feel nauseous anyway. The pool's looking real tempting as a way to rinse off right now.

...Sucks that being in it'd only make her feel even more out of place.

"Raaaaaaaaaaan!!!! Keep your eyes on me, okay?!"

"Oh."

She blinks, snapping out of her grime when she sees her friend waving at her. Himari Uehara stands with one foot forward and her hair tied back, the frills on her swimsuit blowing in the wind with it. She's got an eager grin like the pool's an enemy she'll cleave in two; it makes her look kinda striking, honestly.

...Not that Ran'd say that if anyone else was around. "Yeah. I'm watching."

"Alright, check this out!" Himari stretches her arms and readies herself. "I've practiced for this and everything. I'm finally going to do that backflip dive Rimi's sister can do!"

"Go for it."

Afterglow's dauntless leader turns around, bending her knees...

"W-woohooooo- GLLGAAFFRFF!"

...and then chickens out halfway through the flip, wobbling around in place.

SPLASH!

Himari nearly twists her ankle in the process of falling face-first into the water. Ouch. "...Well, she's making more of an attempt than I would..." Ran murmurs.

In all honesty, she doesn't regret coming here. She could've just skipped on the dysphoria and let Himari enjoy the pool by herself, but... Himari hates being alone. It's not fair to leave the leader alone, right? And if she's not keeping Himari company, who will? Afterglow isn't always around, and other people have a habit of trivialising Himari because they think she doesn't take anything seriously. Like, yeah... there's times where Himari's lazy. But that's not the same as ALWAYS being lazy. See, that's the problem; there's a lot of people who see her slacking off once and then think 'wow, she's a complete layabout', which is infuriating, because that means all the effort Himari DOES put in gets ignored, and-

...argh, forget it. What is she on about?

"I'll get it this time, I swear!"

"...Yeah," she responds, watching Himari dash by her for another attempt. "You will."

Maybe looking at Himari distracts her from the heat and the grossness. Himari fills you with confidence just by being there, really; she'll eat cake even if she fears her weight, she'll make suggestions no matter how many times she's laughed at, and she'll call herself leader no matter how many people think Ran is instead. That's why it's so easy to just... watch her. It's cheesy, but... if you're not feeling up to being brave, she'll do it for you, won't she? She's-

SPLASH! "Gllgkghfhfhfghfgfggff!!!!"

...Wait.

Wait, shit!

She just sunk like 3 meters into the pool! "Himari!"

She pulled off the backflip dive this time around, that's great, but... th-that gargling is a bad sign, isn't it? Himari exaggerates stuff like this, sure, but...

...Okay, no, gotta check if she's safe!

Ran screeches around the corner of the pool and rushes over. Okay, good, Himari didn't fall far from the edge of the pool... maybe if she reaches out, she can...

"Wrraargggh!"

"Wah!"

Himari pumps two fists right out of the water and poses with pride. She sure bounced back quick... right? ...Okay, no, she's still trying to push the water out of her nose. "GGrfffhrgh!"

"Uh. You okay?"

"FFFfhfhhHA-HAHA-HA!" Himari whips her head around, and water flies everywhere. "I mean, yeah! I'm good! I did it, Ran!"

"Y-yeah, you did, but... you're not hurt, right?"

"Eh?" She tilts her head. "Why would I be?"

Ah.

Yeah, that checks out.

Ran sighs. "You had me worried, you know. I thought you were drowning."

"Well, I did breathe in some water on accident, but," she exhales extra-hard out of her nose, "it's probably all out by now! ...Were you worried about me~?"

Gah. "E-evidently, I shouldn't have been."

"Aw, don't be like that! I'm happy to have you looking out for me!" Himari swims over to the edge and bumps her ankle. "So, what do you think? All those faceplants I went through from practicing in my room finally paid off!"

"...Yeah. They did." She can't help but smile at that. "How're you feeling?"

"On top of the world!" Himari cheers. "...And also exhausted. I'm thirsty! I think I walked in and out of the pool like, 15 times!"

Ran chuckles, before kneeling down and fishing out a water bottle. "Need some of this? Better than the pool's kind."

"I'll say! I've tasted enough chlorine for one afternoon."

Himari chugs it right down. Sheesh, her every movement's the liveliest thing around; even when she's tired, she's tired in a loud and dramatic fashion. Even when she's about to fall asleep, she mumbles and mutters in the silliest way she can. It's equal parts invigorating and exhausting to look at. She's just... an unfiltered, rainbow tunnel of emotion, as refreshing as the air in a field of pink hyacinths. And right now, Ran's walking idly through it, as if the difference between it and her own facial expressions aren't night and day. If Himari's a rainbow, then... well, Ran'd need a flower to even try and match her.

Maybe she should give Himari some flowers as a gift sometime, though. Just so she knows she's appreciated-

-Wait, no. That's way too corny. Besides... Himari'd probably just laugh at her for it again. N-not that it matters, since teasing's part of the Afterglow routine, but...

...argh, who cares? It wouldn't be a big deal. What's wrong with telling a friend you appreciate them? Himari does it all the time; why can't she? Showing that you lo- c-care for, your friends, should be a cool and hip thing to do-

"Ahhh~! Whew, that's refreshing. Here you go."

-Wait, why is she even getting this caught up over Himari drinking water? She snaps out of it and takes the bottle back. "Feeling energized again?"

"You bet! Ehehe. It's way easier to get motivated when you're watching me. Thanks a bunch, Ran!"

"...Heh. No problem, leader."

"...You've got such a pretty smile on your face right now, y'know?"

Ran is instantly un-snapped out of it. "W-what?"

"Aww, it disappeared already~?" The words dance. "I'll just keep my memory of it in the Afterglow Book of Memories, then."

Himari winks. And somehow, even though it's the same wink she always does... it's weirdly enchanting to look at right now.

"Seriously though, Ran. It's the best thing ever, seeing you smile like that. Any place where you feel free to enjoy yourself is a good place in my book!"

Oh, goddamnit. Don't do this. "...Is it really that big a deal seeing me smile? I'm human, y'know."

"Yeah, you are! I wish people'd realize that more. You'd feel a lot safer to smile in places like these if they did, right?"

"A-" Her jaw drops. "...Is that why you took me with you today?"

"Hehehe. Everyone's all addicted to that Smile Land park now, aren't they? I figured you'd feel safer to enjoy yourself here if there weren't as many potential smelly, meanie-faced bigots around!"

Okay, that's not fair. She's gonna blush hard enough to melt at this rate. "...You didn't have to do this for me..."

"I wanted to, though! Swimming around AND seeing my cool, sweet Ran smile? It's a two-in-one deal I can't pass," Himari sings. "Any emotion you put out feels so raw. It's so exhilarating! That's why I'll be finding every stop on the Ran tour, one way or another, mark my words."

"Urgh, cut it out," she manages. "I'll make you pay extra if you're trying to visit every station."

"Egh?! No fair! Booooo!" Himari's face contorts. "...I-I mean, I'll pay that extra if I need to! It's worth it!"

Ran waves the water bottle in front of her. "You don't have to bother, you know. With the whole, um... tour thing." She sighs. "I'm grateful, but... you don't have to take me out everywhere just to make me feel safe."

"What kind of leader would I be if I didn't?"

"C'mon," she says. "Would you take Moca to every bakery in Japan if she asked you to?"

"T-that's different! She's just being greedy," Himari drawls. "Besides, I'm enjoying these outings as much as you! And it's nice to have a knight in shining armour here when I run into danger."

Knight, huh? "...Sounds more like you than me."

"Ohhhh~? Are you flirting?"

A-

Wh-

Where did THAT come from?

"Mwehehehe. I flustered Ran!"

Gack! "...Don't get ahead of yourself...!"

"Two can play the compliment game!" Himari wears a sly grin, crossing her arms over the ledge and leaning forward. "Hey, babe. Come here often~? Must be why you look as cool as the pool does."

She snorts. "That was awful."

"But you're blushing from it, aren't you? You're already falling for my charms~."

Goddamnit. Really, goddamnit.

"Well, go on then. Can you do any better? Gimme a real knockout of a compliment."

"W-why should I? This is embarrassing..."

"Oh~? What's the matter? Can't take your eyes off?" Himari poses confidently. "Am I gorgeous enough to leave you speechless~?"

"...Sure, whatever. Let's go with that."

"Woohoo! Ran thinks I'm gorgeous!"

Fine, fine, the leader can have her victory. She always spends 30 minutes trying on all the outfits she picks out, and this swimsuit's no different. She's earned it. Besides, she deserves more compliments, doesn't she? She gets enough insults as-is, so... yeah...

"Hey, Ran."

Himari grabs her hand, with a grip as soft and mushy as it is tight.

"Why don't you swim with me sometime? It'll be fun."

...Ah. That's a question she didn't really wanna hear. "...Sorry."

"Aw, no pressure! It's up to you," Himari smiles. "I just don't think it's fair you have to deal with stuff like this. You deserve to feel comfortable in a swimsuit!"

"I know. I wanna feel comfortable in one, really. Like with the band outfits," Ran says. "...But I dunno. Even if everyone said they'd be okay with it, I'd... probably still say no. I just feel weird when I think about it."

"Dawrgh... swimsuit Ran will forever remain in my dreams..."

"Tough luck," she responds. "I'm not swimming ever again."

"E-ever?! That's no fair on you, though!"

"I'll deal with it somehow."

"Mmmmmrgh." Himari's clinging to her wrist now. "I don't like it when you're excluded, though. When Afterglow's together, Afterglow's gotta play together!"

"...It's not like I want to be excluded either."

"Then let's find some solutions! Like..."

The two miniature emerald pools in Himari's eyes brighten. There's a very long, drawn out and slightly intimidating gasp.

"I've figured it out! Ran, I've got an idea! A way you can swim!"

"Huh? What's that supposed to mean?"

"Hehe. Wanna find out? You can try it right now!"

"Now?" She raises an eyebrow. "...Well, okay then. Go for it-"

There's a tug on her arm. Himari grunts, and heaves; and Ran's now leaning over the shimmering water in the desert. The sweat she's accumulated from the summer heat drops into the all-quenching pool.

She realises. "...Wait," she says, "You're not gonna-

And Himari pulls her in.

 

 

She's falling.

 

 

 

SPLASH!

The noise gets filtered out.

She's washed in her entirety. Every worm crawling over her body disappears. Suddenly, her arms and legs are clean, given the sustenance she needs and craves. At the impact, she winces, and instinctually shuts out the light.

But she quickly realises she isn't scared. It's too comforting for that. Feeling the arms wrapped around her, she opens her orchid eyes...

...Looking upon a vista. She can't speak; all she can do is gasp, bubbles flying up. Turquoise delicately massages every part of her, from her hair, to her clothes, and finally to her skin. There's no thirst when you're submerged, she learns; there's just you, the reflections of the sea all over...

...and Himari Uehara, wrapped around you, pressed against you with a huge grin on her face.

The two of them meet air.

"Gah!"
"Bwah!"

The sunlight welcomes Ran.

She takes a moment to get her breath back. Ugh, she's drenched... she tries to shake off the water, but it's impossible; besides, everything below the shoulders is impossible to dry right now. "...Oi. What were you thinking-"

"Ehehe."

She tries to say more, but it's cut short. Half of her's trying to be indignant; but when she sees Himari, the other half stuffs it with ease. Yearning finds its wake.

The bound curls of pink hair that define Afterglow's leader are soaked, shimmering in the summer's holiday rays, and lines of water run past the radiant smile on Himari's face. S-she can feel how soaked Himari is, too, even through her soggy-ass shirt and jeans; it's like she's being given a hug from a big slippery teddy bear. "How is it~? If you're covered up, you won't have to worry as much about people looking at you, right?"

"You want me to start swimming in my casual clothes?" Ran balks. "Sheesh, Himari. What if I had my phone on me?"

"Oh no!" Himari gasps. "D-do you?"

"...No."

"Whew! God, I... I-I wasn't thinking," Himari stammers. "W-well, it all works out for the better, right? You're swimming now!"

She wants to make another rebuttal, but Himari cuts her short again; this time by squeezing her even tighter. "W-what's with you? Why are you so close?"

"Ehehe! It's because you look so nice like this!"

"Wh-"

Himari runs a hand through her soaked black hair. "See? It's the first time in ages I've been in the water with you."

It's at this moment at time when Ran Mitake notices her heart is beating.

Very, very fast.

Calm. S-stay calm! Just stay calm. "Do you even remember the last time?"

"Psssh! Details!" Himari giggles. "But don't mind me. I'm just making sure I get a good, close look at how cute you are when you're soggy. It's another expression for the Afterglow Book of Memories!"

"...Pfft. Hahaha!" God. When she hears something that corny, she can't stay starstruck. "Guess you pulled it off again, Leader."

"My plan to visit every station's working well, isn't it?"

"That means I really am gonna charge you extra."

"Well, you know what?"

Himari squidges her cheeks.

"You're worth every penny!"

...Ran keeps smiling.

It's possibly the most morbidly embarrassing situation she's ever been in. It's more affectionate than she's used to, more emotional than she's used to, and way more intimate than she's ever been used to. But amazingly, she's not irritated by it; because Himari's too cheesy and earnest right now for her to even want to. The grin on Afterglow's radiant leader isn't some excuse to tease Ran, or to be sarcastic...

...It's just Himari.

"Eh? Ran?"

Screw it. Let's be brave.

She rests her face into Himari's shoulder, returning the embrace. "R-Ran? You're being... awfully friendly..."

"Hah." Ran grins. "Now who's the speechless one?"

"O-oh. Oh, you devil, you!" Himari giggles, and it's a new melody in her right ear. She's pushed back so Himari can rest their foreheads together. "I'd better watch out. Otherwise, you'll flatter me right out of the leader position!"

"What? Why would I do that?" She responds. "Besides, even if I did, you'd wrap around me like this and coax it right back out, wouldn't you?"

"Oh, you bet!" Himari places a hand on her chin and returns her grin. "If I get usurped, I'm taking back the leader position as soon as possible!"

"Yeah. I doubt I'd even keep it for long, knowing you. That's what makes you Afterglow's leader in the first place."

They share a few giggles together.

"...Hey, Himari." She pulls back and leans against the wall. "I'm not really feeling swimming right now, but... I don't mind hanging out in the pool for a while, I guess."

"Oooooooo?! No complaints from me!" Somehow, Himari pulls a pair of dorky-looking sunglasses out from nowhere. "Let's chill together, babe!"

She doesn't bother arguing over the 'babe' part.

It's fine, really. Being with Himari's just... fun.

So, looking up at the slightly cloudy blue sky, she feels Himari's arm wrap around her side, accepts the complementary pair of dorky-looking shades, and leans back...

...enjoying her rest in the waves.