A/N: This story is doubly a Valentine's Day surprise for my wife, Tarma Hartley. Once, of course, because it's a romantic story for her, and twice because most of the time that I write gift fics for her they're about Shizuru and Natsuki from My-HiME, because that is the couple that most reminds me of our own relationship. So, here's some ChiMeko Valentine's fluff, set in the same continuity as "Sometimes Courage Needs a Hand," "Date Night Resolve," and other related fluff. (Or maybe trebly a surprise, because I gave it to her when I finished it on the 11th, and she certainly wasn't expecting a Valentine's Day gift on that day!)

~X X X~

Kurusugawa Himeko was a little bit out of sorts, and it was not difficult for her to figure out why. It was, after all, Valentine's Day, and the strawberry-blonde college student had no plans. Most years this would not have been a problem. She would, she admitted to herself, feel jealous of her best friend and roommate Makoto, who'd never lacked for male attention (and who these past few years had been dating Himeko's other best friend Souma and so was even more likely to be up to something romantic and/or sexy). But that envy had never been more than a sad little sting of loneliness and was always mingled with happiness for her friend.

Not this year.

This year, for the first time in Himeko's life, she was not single as February 14th rolled around. After years of turning down potential dates because they, somehow, did not match up with the impression of the special someone she felt imprinted on her heart, she had someone in her life. She'd run into Himemiya Chikane in a crosswalk this past fall, they'd become friends at a rapid, almost absurd pace, and not many weeks after that Himeko had (with a few nudges from her friends) found the courage to ask her out.

They'd been taking it slowly and cautiously since then; both were inexperienced for their age at being in a relationship and Chikane's social polish was regularly overcome by an outright skittishness at making overtures. Himeko could be a clumsy and shy person, but Chikane treated the whole romance like it was a delicate sculpture of spun glass that one wrong move would shatter into dust, forever lost beyond repair. Often this left Himeko as the one who had to take the lead in planning dates or activities, and that really wasn't her strong suit.

There was, however, a point at which "uncertain and skittish" stopped being cute and started becoming a serious impediment to romance. A perfect example was, it was Valentine's Day and she hadn't seen or talked to Chikane for three days. Every time she tried to call it went to voice mail, her texts had gone unanswered, and she hadn't wanted to really push the point for fear of coming off as too clingy or jealous.

(She had called Chikane's roommate Haneda Satomi after two days just to make sure that Chikane was all right, but after learning that her girlfriend was only up-to-her-neck busy in various projects, the worry that had started to form vanished and the irritation came back.)

Thus when Himeko sat down to face her pancakes on Valentine's Day morning, she was filled with a number of emotions, none of them good.

Is she avoiding me? Himeko thought as she poured the syrup. Did I do something to offend her? Or...did she finally get tired of me? Chikane was, after all, a daughter of wealth and privilege, and the charms of an ordinary, common girl might linger only so long before she got bored with it. Maybe it was a confidence problem, that Chikane hadn't been willing to risk herself in an affair with a girl of her own social class without practice? That dating Himeko had been the romantic equivalent of a pitcher warming up in the bullpen before entering the game?

Or, had she not so much been shy and tentative as she was just disinterested? The thought filled her with dread. Ever since meeting Chikane, she had felt a kind of connection there, a way her presence in Himeko's life had just slotted into place, a natural part of her existence that had been missing up until then. She'd always thought that Chikane had felt the same.

But what if she hadn't?

Of course, there were other possibilities. That had only been the worst fear and therefore the one that had come to mind first. More likely was that Chikane was being insensitive or clueless or both. Himeko could appreciate being caught up in classwork; just because she was a photography major didn't mean that she didn't have difficult projects for her classes. But even so, she'd always been able to find time to communicate with her friends, even if it was just to say that she was busy and anyone interrupting her risked getting a camera tossed at their head! That Chikane would just vanish into silence like that was beyond rude.

And she's going to get a piece of my mind over it, believe you me!

She stabbed a piece of pancake, brought it to her mouth, and chewed ruthlessly. That was better. Anger didn't feel good (and honestly, she wasn't really good at the emotion; "huffy" was about all she could regularly muster), but it was better than the fear of being dumped, and it certainly made things easier on her stomach. Where anxiety made her too nervous to properly eat, anger wanted fuel, so Himeko tucked in to the rest of her breakfast with resolute determination.

She was just rinsing the syrup off the plate in the sink when the doorbell rang. Himeko set down the dish, quickly dried off her hands, and scurried to the door. Squinting through the peephole, she saw a teenaged boy in a deliveryman's uniform holding a bouquet.

"Flowers for Kurusugawa Himeko," he said when she opened the door.

"That's me."

"Here you are, then."

He pressed the sheaf of red roses accented by white baby's-breath into her hands.

"Do you know who they're from?" Did Chikane-chan remember after all?

The boy shrugged.

"Sorry. Mom takes the orders; I just make the deliveries." He grinned saucily. "Guess you've got a lot of boyfriends if you have to ask, huh?"

"No, I don't have a boyfriend," she said absently.

"Well, if someone's sending you a dozen roses, maybe you should give him a chance. Happy Valentine's Day!"

The boy left, and Himeko went back into the kitchen in search of a vase for the bouquet. While she was getting the roses arranged, she noticed a small envelope tucked among the petals. She took it and opened the flap.

That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

English literature was not Himeko's strong point. Actually, languages in general were not among Himeko's strong points, in contrast to Chikane. But she recognized the quotation from Shakespeare, as she'd had a course in his works last term to fill one of her degree requirements.

Below the quotation was written, thankfully in normal Japanese, "Do you remember the roses?" That was all; the card was unsigned, but Himeko recognized Chikane's handwriting on the second line.

She remembered!

The realization flooded Himeko with warmth, sweeping away the worry and doubt that had plagued her all morning. Obviously, if Chikane was sending her a bouquet of red roses, then she didn't intend to break up or anything awful like that. But while the card brought joy and relief, it also brought confusion, because she didn't understand what it meant. Remember? Roses? What is she talking about?

Himeko racked her brain for anything that combined the two ideas of Chikane and roses. Curiously, she kept thinking of the rose garden at her old high school, Ototachibana Academy. It was kept off-limits to most students, so she'd only been in there a couple of times (the first when she'd chased a stray puppy through a gap in the hedge), but her memory of it was clear and strong, as if she had been there dozens of times. More strangely, the rose garden gave her an odd, nostalgic feeling when she thought of it in connection with Chikane, even though she hadn't even met Chikane until after she'd graduated from Ototachibana and gone off to college.


She pushed the whole thing out of her mind as best she could. She needed to figure out what Chikane was talking about and memories of a place that was hundreds of miles away weren't going to help!

I wish Mako-chan was here. I'm awful at riddles! But when push came to shove, this puzzle was one her best friend couldn't help her solve. Only Himeko herself could go searching through the depths of her own memory.

So. Roses. Chikane. Chikane. Roses.

The mental image of Chikane lying on a bed of rose petals, the deep red color contrasting against her milk-white complexion, the scent filling the air as the petals were crushed by their combined weight and movement flitted through her mind.

Bad Himeko!

Not that it was wrong to have such intentions towards her own girlfriend, after all, but it was extremely distracting when she was trying to concentrate. But some day, I do want to try that, she decided, blushing faintly at her thoughts.

Himeko had gotten a bit of teasing from her friends for still being a virgin into her college years, but Chikane definitely brought out that so-far-unexpressed sexual side of her personality. She looked over at the bouquet again, smiling. Really, Chikane made Himeko feel so much like those roses, a bud flowering open in response to her presence, capable of feeling so many new and different emotions she'd only been able to understand intellectually before.

Her lips curved into a smile, warmth filling her at the thought, and in that moment a memory came to her.

"I don't know who invented slushies, but they'd better be up for sainthood," Satomi declared. The five friends had been walking home from a study session at the library when the urge to refuel had been too much to resist and they'd popped into an convenience store for snacks.

"Double-wasabi squid chips, Mako-chan?" Souma asked dryly. "Did we have a fight I didn't know about?"

"Nmmfph, no, we—mmrph—didn't. Why?" Makoto said while horking down a good third of the bag.

"Well, I figured that if we'd been fighting, you could freely eat those since you wouldn't have to worry about kissing me with that breath."

Makoto colored and the others burst into laughter, more out of surprise that Souma had managed to score off her than the actual quality of the joke.

"Oh!" Himeko spoke up. "I'll be right back." She turned and scurried back towards the store.

"Did she forget something?" Chikane asked.

"She didn't have a slushie in her hand, so I'd say so. Or maybe all the kissing talk reminded her that she needed breath mints?"


When Himeko emerged from the store, though, she had neither food nor beverage, but a tiny paper-wrapped bouquet of three short-stemmed roses, a little wilted from being in the store's flower cooler, but still a lustrous red. Shyly, she extended the flowers towards Chikane.

"Oh, thank you! But what's this for?"

"Well, it's just..." Himeko stammered, blushing. "You made studying today really fun, when it's usually a big headache, and I wanted to thank you."

"That's sweet of you, but really, it isn't necessary. Just being with you is more than enough to reward me."

Makoto elbowed Souma in the ribs while they watched Himeko's blush grow. "I hope you're talking notes."

"But I like when you bring me flowers for helping you study."

"Twice in one day," Satomi remarked dryly.

Himeko sighed happily, remembering the way Chikane's face had lit up in surprised pleasure when Himeko had given her the flowers. Chikane was a planner by nature, she knew, and little, spontaneous gestures were even more precious to her because she didn't see them coming.

So she was fairly sure she'd correctly identified the right moment. The next question was, why had Chikane mentioned it to her at all, and in such an oblique way? If the bouquet was meant to evoke memories of their time together, then why not just say so? And why not give them to her in person? There had to be a reason for it.

It won't do any good to just sit around.

She slipped into her jacket, picked up her purse, and changed her house slippers for her boots. When she left the apartment, she didn't go straight at the intersection to head for her morning class, but instead turned right towards the end of the campus where the library was.

The library was not Himeko's favorite building. She wasn't much of a scholar, even in things like languages and literature, and the thought of row upon row of bookshelves, the serried ranks of heavy volumes lined up like an army, was kind of intimidating. Even the building itself tended that way. It had been built in the 1890s, during a surge of pro-Western feeling at the university, and so was a great, blocky stone edifice reminiscent of a Greek temple except in dull, stormy gray instead of pristine white.

She couldn't resist a shiver as she stepped through the doors into the lobby. There was an eerie silence within, and the toweringly high ceilings and cavernous rooms picked up on every small sound, the echoes magnified and redoubled somehow emphasizing that silence into which they were thrown. A temple isn't a bad metaphor, she thought as she crossed the lobby, one dedicated to a kami who doesn't like me!


The intrusion of the voice into her nervous thoughts caused Himeko to flinch, enough that she nearly lost her balance. She managed to catch her footing before her clumsiness made her prostrate herself before the altar of learning.

"Kurusugawa-san?" the voice repeated. It wasn't raised—indeed, was a little softer than an ordinary speaking voice—but in the library foyer it seemed as loud as a shout. She looked and saw the reception desk clerk looking up at her and signaling with his hand. She hurried over at once, a little intimidated at being noticed by the official staff.

"I'm Kurusugawa Himeko," she said. "Um, do you know me?" Paranoid thoughts like magnetic scanners tracking her student I.D. as she walked through the door flitted through her mind, which suggested that she probably really needed to deal with her complex about the library.

"You were described pretty thoroughly by the girl who said you'd be in this morning. She even showed me a picture on her phone."

"Oh, I see. Was it this girl?" Himeko got out her own phone and pulled up a picture of Chikane to show to him.

"Uh-huh, that's her. She wanted me to keep an eye out and give you this if I saw you."

He picked a small red envelope, seasonally polka-dotted with white hearts, off the desk and handed it to her. Himeko's name was written on the outside in Chikane's elegant calligraphy, so there was no chance of a mistake.

"Thank you," Himeko said, and popped the flap open. Inside was another card like the one that had come with the flowers.

If music be the food of love, play on.

More Shakespeare. Chikane was clearly working a theme, and Himeko wondered if it was because Chikane had an affection for the Bard of Avon's works, or because she knew that Himeko had taken that course. Below the quotation was again written a line in Japanese, "I played for you."

So what does she mean by that? Himeko thought. And once again, what came into her mind was an impossible scenario. She imagined a high-ceilinged room, large but still private, like a music room in a mansion instead of a concert hall or a school. It was lit by candles, their flames thrown back dazzlingly by the mirrors the night made of the towering windows and the high gloss of the piano's polish. Chikane wore a long, black dress that left her arms bare, and Himeko sat rapt, letting the music drift around her, as if surrounding and embracing her in the essence of Chikane's soul...

She shook her head sharply, breaking the spell. This was so strange! These visions—she didn't know what else to call them, since for all that they held the comfort and familiarity of memory that was something they couldn't possibly be—kept getting triggered by Chikane's cards, and she had no idea why. They weren't even romantic fantasies from her past that she was just now writing Chikane's face into. Rather, it was like they'd just sprung, fully-fleshed, into life out of nothing, and that was patently impossible, wasn't it?

My imagination's really been missing her, these past few days, she decided.

Leaving that aside, she was still left with another riddle. Successfully remembering the reference from the first card had led her to the second one, so it seemed pretty clear that Chikane was playing some kind of scavenger hunt game with her. The music reference was therefore a clue, and she needed to figure out what it was talking about. Thankfully, once her mind was clear of the odd vision, this one was fairly easy.

"There's more people here than I expected," Makoto said, settling into her seat.

"It is free," Satomi pointed out. "That's a pretty popular price among college students."

"Yeah, but not for classical music. I could stay home and listen to music that I actually like for the same price. And there must be two hundred people here."

"We're just here for Himemiya-san's sake," Souma said. "Himeko wants to hear her perform, and the rest of us are just along for moral support. There's seventeen students on the program, so that's sixty-eight people right there if each of them has four guests. Then add in the people who like classical music or are just curious, and there you are."

"I guess. It still feels weird, though."

"Be nice, Mako-chan," Himeko chided.

If Makoto had any response to that, it was lost when the house lights dimmed and the presenter came out, welcoming the audience to the annual fall semester second-year solo recital, then announcing that the first performer would be Himemiya Chikane on piano, performing an original composition, "Sunrise."

Chikane walked out from the wings, looking stately and composed in her subdued, yet elegant indigo dress to a smattering of polite applause. She slid into place at the piano, then looked up at the audience. After a few seconds, her gaze fell on where Himeko was sitting with their friends, their eyes met, and a warm smile lit up Chikane's face. Turning back to the keyboard, she set her long, slim fingers to the ivories, and began to play.

The music that arose was warm and kind. The title fit it well, Himeko thought; there was something about the composition that made her think of a warm spring morning, with the world gently waking up beneath the cheerful rays of dawn. It was a placid song, yet enheartening, and she could see why the professors had chosen it to open the recital, because it was definitely something that spoke of beginnings.

It was also something that didn't seem very Chikane-like, and that actually warmed Himeko's heart more than if she'd picked something more like herself. That Chikane was capable of writing this song moved her deeply, far more than any rational analysis suggested that it ought to. Somehow, without knowing why, she knew that it was far more important than it seemed.

There were tears in her eyes and a huge smile on her face when she applauded at the conclusion of the song.

The tears and the smile were there again, now, as the memory came back to her, and she brushed her eyes with the back of her hand even as she headed for the library door.

The music department conservatory was on the other side of campus from the library and couldn't have been any more different; it was a very modern-looking building of warm, terracotta-colored stone and tall glass paneling, the building itself a horseshoe shape with curving, angled walls. Himeko's problem there had nothing to do with atmosphere; it was just that she had no idea where she was supposed to go inside. There was no lobby or reception desk. With nothing better coming to mind, she decided to go to the concert hall where the recital had been held, even though there wasn't likely to be anyone there during the morning.

Himeko half expected the doors to be locked, or if not for a class to be using the room, but she was in luck and neither circumstance was the case. The hall was empty, with only the dim emergency lighting on so that people wouldn't blunder into something and hurt themselves in the dark—something that Himeko appreciated, clumsy as she was.

There was nobody else in sight, no helpful clerk waiting for her to pass on a message. She was fairly sure that she was in the right place, but even if so the card that had brought her here didn't have instructions on what to do next.

The piano? she thought. Chikane might have left a message there, but it wasn't going to be that easy for her. The piano wasn't there, perhaps having been rolled offstage to make room for a different kind of performance the last time the room was used. Probably it would be easy enough to find—they were hardly going to carry it all over the building, after all!—but Himeko really doubted that Chikane wanted her to rummage around backstage looking for a note in a dusty corner. Although, maybe the piano had been put away after Chikane had left the message? Or would she have checked on that in advance, when she was making her plan? Plans could be like that, derailed by the littlest unexpected thing happening at the wrong time, and the more complicated the plan, the easier it was for just one thing to bring it all tumbling down in a heap. Something like a piano being moved, or Himeko just not being very good at riddles and puzzle games.

Frankly, she kind of stank at them.

Himeko decided to sit down and try to think things through, but then she had a brainstorm. If she was going to sit, then why not sit in the same seat she'd had for the recital? Sitting there might trigger some flash of memory or inspiration.

As it turned out, there wasn't any need for inspiration. When she got to the seat, Himeko found another heart-spotted envelope taped to it. With a sigh of relief, and a bit of a chuckle at herself for almost missing the obvious, she pulled it free. She was just starting to open it when the bell rang.

"Oh, geez!" she gasped, jerking upright. She glanced at her watch, saw the time, and gulped. Chikane's latest mystery was going to have to wait—she was going to have to run if she was going to make it to her ten-thirty lecture! Unlike in the eight-thirty course that she'd skipped, her world history professor was a stickler for attendance, and she was doing poorly enough in the course that she couldn't afford to be down-marked any more for missing classes. Shoving the envelope into her purse, she ran for the door.

Himeko was lucky; at a dead sprint she managed to get across the campus in time to reach her lecture, and better yet managed to do it without running into anyone or falling down and hurting herself (three sets of skinned knees during her first year had Makoto getting her a set of soccer pads as a gag gift). She dropped into her seat panting for breath, and resolved for the eighteenth time to find time to go to the gym for a workout more often.

Maybe Chikane would come with me? The thought of her girlfriend in a leotard and tights was the kind of reward that could overcome a lot of laziness.

Unlike thoughts of Chikane in skimpy exercise wear, the lecture proved to be dull as dishwater. That was no surprise; it was generally agreed upon by the student body that Professor Sato had instituted his attendance policy because it was the only way anyone would show up. With the lecture able to command no attention at all, Himeko's mind turned back to Chikane's scavenger hunt, and the question of what was next. Did Chikane know about her class schedule? If not, was she expecting Himeko to be in a certain place at a certain time?

Well, there's nothing I can do about it now, she thought sadly. But what she could do was to get to work on the next card. She fished it out of her purse, using the cover of being one out of a hundred and twenty-five students, and popped the envelope open, extracting the card.

As expected, it was crowned by another Shakespeare quotation, this one from a sonnet: Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

And Himeko shuddered.

The image this quotation called forth was the strongest of all thus far. She sat with Chikane beneath a single, towering maple in full green, in the midst of a meadow strewn with yellow flowers that stretched all the way to the horizon. There they held one another's hands, and words of love spilled from their lips in frantic desperation, as if fighting to hold back some future. Another quotation from the same sonnet came to mind unbidden, and she whispered, "'But thy eternal summer shall not fade, nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st.'"

The boy sitting to her right gave her a look, wondering why she was murmuring to herself in English. "Sorry!" Himeko whispered and he shrugged and went back to trying not to fall asleep.

As for Himeko, she was left very confused. That scene made no sense at all, and yet it brought with it a sense of nostalgia so strong it was almost painful. A false summer, she thought. After all, she'd met Chikane on the first of this past October! So a summer's day was twice as impossible. She glanced down the card, and it was as if Chikane had not only read her mind but was determined to mess with it.

Let's go on a picnic again this summer!

A picnic? But that didn't make any sense, unless... Himeko giggled into her fist as the memory struck her.

The cloudburst hit without warning, skies that had been only partly cloudy an hour ago suddenly covering over in charcoal gray and opening up in a torrential downpour. Grabbing Himeko's hand, Chikane made a run for it, their shoes splashing through growing puddles as they bolted down the path that ran along the athletic fields. Up ahead was the open shelter where there were public bathrooms and lockers, and Chikane made straight for it. The girls burst inside at a dead sprint with a giant sigh of relief. Himeko bent over, hands on her knees for support as she gasped for breath. Even Chikane was a little winded, her chest rising and falling as she drew in air.

"Look at that," Chikane said softly. "It's falling so hard it's like a curtain of water across the doorway." Which it was, the runoff from the angled roof plus the rain falling just outside making her description literal.

"I didn't know it was going to rain like this," Himeko said. "Did you bring an umbrella, Chikane-chan?"

Her girlfriend shook her head. "I'm sorry; I didn't expect this, either. There was nothing in the weather forecast about rain." Outside, a dull rumble of thunder settled the point. Umbrella or not, they weren't going to be going anywhere until the storm passed.

"I'd better text Mako-chan and let her know we won't be meeting them for lunch," Himeko said as she dug through her bag for her phone.

"I'm sorry you'll miss out on seeing your friends."

"It's all right. I'm sure Mako-chan and Souma will be glad to have some time to each other. It'll be like an impromptu date for them!" Belatedly, she realized what that meant, and she felt a faint blush come into her cheeks. "And, um, I'm not unhappy to spend more time alone with you, Chikane-chan."

It was Chikane's turn to blush at that—she often did at Himeko's endearments. Then her sapphire eyes lit up.

"You're right, Himeko. We'll be alone in here for twenty or thirty minutes at least while the cloudburst passes, so why not make it a date? In fact, since we're missing out on lunch and we both have afternoon classes, why not a picnic?"

"Oh, that sounds fun!" Himeko exclaimed, then belatedly realized, "Um, but we don't have any picnic things."

"Sure we do." Chikane shrugged off her backpack and set it down with her purse, then took off her jacket and laid it out on the concrete floor, the rain-spattered outside facing down. "Let me have your coat, too. Thanks to it being November, we've got a picnic blanket with us!"

"How cute!" Himeko giggled, then put away her phone and handed over her own jacket. "But what are we going to do for food?"

"Why, Himeko, don't you know? The kitchens are always open." Grinning, she indicated the row of vending machines. A few minutes later, they were seated on the coats, packages of sandwiches and snacks in front of them. They popped the tabs on their cans of hot black tea.

"To serendipity," Chikane said, clinking her can against Himeko's, "bringing me a surprise date with you."

"Mm-hm!" They each took a drink, then Himeko suddenly leaned in and pressed her lips against Chikane's. The kiss was warm and gentle, and she didn't break it off until their lips were starting to flower open against one another.

"Oh, my!" Chikane said, and Himeko grinned at her.

"If there's anything I've learned from years of having lunch at school, it's to always have dessert first."

"Well," her girlfriend favored her with an evil grin, then reached out to pull Himeko into an embrace, "who am I to argue with the voice of experience?" Then her mouth came down over Himeko's, and neither one of them had anything to say for a while.

Himeko was lost in the reverie for quite a bit, to the point that she didn't realize that the bell had rung until the students around her were getting up and leaving. Belatedly, she started shoving things into her bag, hopped to her feet, and darted for the door, squeezing between people with babbled "Excuse mes" and "I'm sorrys" as she forced her way to the building's exit in uncharacteristically aggressive fashion.

It's February, she told herself. No one's going to be using the shelter. But that wasn't necessarily the case; students did use the field area regularly for outdoor exercise even when there weren't games or practices going on, and the phys. ed. department still had outdoor classes when the weather was appropriate. Anyone might find Chikane's message and accidentally take it, or the cleaning staff might be more concerned with the rules (and their jobs) than romance.

She didn't sprint across campus, but she definitely was moving at least at a jog, probably a run. Mako-chan would be proud of all the exercise I'm getting today! There were, as she'd feared, various people around at the fields—she saw one class working out, and a few individuals and pairs jogging on the track—and inside the shelter, one boy was even getting an energy bar, but the distinctive envelope was still there, taped to the side of the vending machine that served hot drinks.

"Ah, so you're Kurusugawa-san," the boy said, walking past as she reached for the envelope. He shot her a grin. "I'd wondered who it was that had somebody playing romantic games." He winked before he sauntered off, leaving Himeko to blush in his wake. Obviously he'd seen the envelope, which with its heart motif could hardly be anything other than the romantic message that it was.

Does he mean...that he thought I might be some kind of femme fatale, to inspire my lover to go to elaborate lengths? The blush grew deeper as she tried to imagine herself in that kind of role, in a slinky, low-cut dress lying stretched out on a divan and beckoning to Chikane.

Then she sighed heavily.

"There's just no way that would work," she decided, then took the card out of the envelope.

What light through yonder window breaks?

Romeo and Juliet again, then. Himeko even remembered the rest of the line: It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

Is the sun.

This time the vision didn't so much come to her as it exploded through her mind. She staggered, her knees going weak, and she was lucky that there was a bench nearby or she'd probably have fallen to the concrete floor instead of reeling back and sitting down with a thump that shot up through her tailbone.

She was standing at the base of a towering flight of stairs leading up to a sealed shrine, burning energy crackling all around her as she sought to impose her will upon it, shape and control the tremendous force...

She was suffused in a world of light, a small, round mirror beneath each of her palms. At her back, she felt Chikane's warmth, and a golden fire surged out of her...

She held Chikane's limp form in her arms, listening to words spill from the wounded maiden's lips, lying words that were trying to create distance between them, and she felt a force surge up inside her, a heat strong and bright enough to set fire to a soul thought as cold and dark as the world that it represented...

Not any more, something murmured in the depths of her heart. I won't allow it. No matter what tries to leave her cold and alone, I won't permit it!

Himeko let out a deep sigh as she sagged back against the bare block wall, her mind clearing to be replaced by the natural, normal parts of reality. She didn't know what all of these images were, anything from half-recalled dreams to something amazing like past-life memories (she ought to ask Souma about that, since his big brother Kazuki was the priest at Ohgami Shrine back home). What she was left with, though, was a conviction that it made perfect sense now, how she'd been so completely convinced that the people who'd asked her out in high school weren't right for her, and how Chikane had so easily and completely won her heart from the moment that they'd met.

"...and that was how we finally got Mako-chan out of the rafters, and why that bar dropped the whole American West theme instead of repairing the mechanical bull."

Chikane laughed, nearly snorting tea out of her nose (which an impish part of Himeko wanted to see, simply because it would have been so unlike the elegant girl in the white dress).

"Your friends are so funny, Himeko."

"Well, that's what she deserved for trying to get me drunk."

"I bet she was surprised when she found out that her friend who'd never touched alcohol could drink her under the table."

Himeko grinned smugly. She was amazed at how much she'd been talking; she'd never been very outgoing, but Chikane seemed to soak up everything she had to say like it was water and she'd been lost in the desert.

Then again, Himeko sort of understood. Talking with Chikane didn't feel like meeting someone new, but like she was reconnecting with an old friend after years apart. It was the same kind of sensation that had made her hug this complete stranger in the crosswalk (how embarrassing!) and had persisted since then, this feeling of rightness that they'd be together.

"She named a rule after me, for if we ever—" Himeko began to say, then broke off as a ray of light fell across Chikane's face. They both turned to the window, to see the dawn sunlight streaming between two buildings across the street. They both stared, dumbstruck.

"It's morning," Chikane murmured.

"I...I'd barely even realized it was nighttime."

Chikane glanced at her watch.

"It's six a.m. We've been here for fifteen hours," she marveled.

"Fifteen!?" Himeko yelped. She couldn't believe it. They'd just come into the little coffee shop to talk a bit after their rather unorthodox meeting. There had been cups of tea and coffee, and a couple of times they'd ordered sandwiches while feeling hungry or taken a bathroom break when the output side of the digestive system had spoken, but there had somehow been no sense of passing time.

Chikane combed her hair back from her eyes with her fingers.

"I wonder how many texts and voicemails we have waiting, since we turned our phones off." She sighed. "I suppose...that we'd better go."

"Yeah; I hope I don't fall asleep in my classes!" They rose from their seats and reached for their purses. "Um...I'd like to talk to you again, Chikane-chan. Can I give you my mail address and phone number?"

"Of course, and you should have mine, too." She smiled, and the radiant joy it showed, probably without Chikane even being aware she was doing it, slid through Himeko and suffused her with warmth. "I'm really happy to have met you, Himeko."

"Me, too, Chikane-chan," Himeko whispered to the now-empty shelter, clutching the notecard to her chest.

This time, she didn't run. She was confident, now, that she was going to the right place, and she didn't think that there was any chance what she was looking for was going to be missing. Sure enough, when she walked through the door of the coffee shop, Chikane was sitting there waiting for her, at the same table where they'd spent that first night. A cup was cradled in her hands, and her face lit up the moment that Himeko came in.

"Happy Valentine's Day, Chikane-chan," Himeko said as she approached.

"Happy Valentine's Day, Himeko."

"I hope you haven't been waiting too long," Himeko said. "I couldn't get out of one of my morning classes."

Chikane shook her head.

"I'm just glad you were able to follow the clues. I...I kind of worried about that."

Himeko pulled out a chair and sat down.

"I'm not really good at puzzles," she admitted.

"No, no, that's not what I meant! It's just...all the clues were about some moment since we met that I thought was special, and I..." She bit her lip, a surprisingly nervous gesture from Chikane. "I was afraid that you might not have thought of them the same way."

Himeko reached out and took her girlfriend's hand. Her skin was soft and cool, like silk.

"Chikane-chan, I'm here, aren't I? So you don't need to worry about that any more; obviously I understood all of your clues. And I had a lot of fun remembering all those times we shared."

The other memories, the strange visions called forth by each reference, she decided not to mention. It wasn't that she was afraid Chikane would think they were strange, it was just that they didn't matter. Dreams, fantasies, past lives, they were all ultimately pointless. What mattered was the here and now, the time she could spend with Chikane not in fantasy, but in their real, everyday world.

Her reassurances must have struck home, because Chikane's hesitant expression melted into a warm smile.

"Thank you. I wanted to do something that would be special and fun and let you know how much I love you, and I spent all kinds of time planning it out so carefully, then suddenly this morning I started to get so nervous that my plans for you don't really work out the way I expect them to. You're kind of hard for me to read, sometimes."

Himeko blinked.

"I don't think anyone's ever said that about me."

Chikane frowned.

"I'm sorry; I didn't realize..."

Then she sighed.

"Actually, I suppose that I do realize. It has nothing to do with you; it's just that my own fears and hang-ups keep getting in the way. It's like when you asked me out for the first time. I got so nervous about liking you that I ran away and hid until you came and found me. I think it's going to take me a while before I stop doing that."

"But you're getting better, aren't you?"

"Oh? What do you mean?"

"Well, instead of jumping to the wrong conclusion about me and getting all flustered and making bad decisions in the complete certainty that your wrong ideas are right, now you're getting nervous and flustered because you aren't so certain and realize you might be wrong. That's progress, isn't it?"

She couldn't help but think of the vision she'd had, of the pledge she'd made in it. Maybe that one, at least, did have some bearing on their everyday lives.

"That sounds like something Saotome-san would say."

"She's going to hit you one of these days if you don't stop calling her by her last name, you know."

It was Chikane's turn to blink in surprise.

"You're feeling very confident and sassy today, Himeko."

Himeko beamed.

"Of course I am! It's Valentine's Day, and I've spent the entire morning being reminded of how special I am to the girl that I love."

"You love me?" Chikane said, not entirely teasing. She leaned in so that their foreheads were almost touching.

"I love you more than anything, Chikane-chan. And I'm really happy with my gift."

The dark-haired girl sighed with relief.

"I wanted to do something more than just getting you flowers or candy or jewelry or any other gift that would just be me throwing money around instead of time. Though I did get you flowers, too, so I suppose that I was hedging my bet?"

Himeko giggled.

"I know exactly what you mean. Is that why I haven't been able to get hold of you these past few days? Because you were planning all of this?"

Chikane had the grace to look a little sheepish.

"I couldn't think of anything to say that wouldn't end up giving away the whole thing. I was sure you'd ask about Valentine's Day plans, and then I'd melt into a babbling mess."

"That doesn't sound much like you."

"I know; usually I can do the graceful social lie without even trying, but...not with you."

Himeko sighed happily, the last vestiges of the morning's irritation draining away.

"I'm glad to hear that's why, because I admit, I've been a bit worried."

Chikane instantly looked stricken.

"Oh, no. I'm so sorry, Himeko! I didn't even—"

"In fact," Himeko continued playfully, trusting that what she had to say would deal with Chikane's momentary discomfiture, "I was so miffed that I almost didn't pick up my Valentine's Day gift for you."

She reached into her purse and pulled out a small plastic card, which she handed to Chikane. Butterflies started going wild in her stomach as her girlfriend turned it over to look at the front. Please let this be the right time for this! she prayed.

"This is...a key card to the Palace Hotel?"

"I...reserved us the honeymoon suite for the weekend."

"H-Himeko, are you...I mean, are you sure...?" Chikane stammered.

Himeko nodded firmly.

"I am. I love you, Chikane-chan—"

"I love you, too," Chikane responded at once.

"—and since you've already given me a Valentine's Day I'll never forget, I want to do the same thing for you."

It's too bad Mako-chan's not here to take a picture, Himeko thought. I bet there won't be many chances to see Chikane blushing as red as a beet! She could have taken the picture herself, of course, but she had better things to do, as she demonstrated by leaning in the last couple of inches and kissing Chikane firmly on the mouth, regardless of the coffee shop's lunch crowd.

They could get their own lips to kiss; this pair was hers, and she wanted them to stay that way for many Valentine's Days to come.