A beam of sunlight strikes him squarely on the face.

Hori grunts, turning over to bury his face in his covers. It's empty, he realizes with a start; he distinctly remembers falling asleep with his arms around Kashima's waist, peppering her neck with kisses and-

Oh, shit.

If he licks his lips, he almost can taste her on them.

There's a note on his bedside table, folded into a neat triangle. He cautiously picks it up and unfolds it, a sinking feeling of dread in his gut.

Hey, senpai, it reads, in her trademark scrawl. Sorry I had to leave- signing up for early morning classes was definitely a bad idea, haha. Talk to you later, maybe?

Not even a mention of what happened last night. But then again, what had he expected?

Hori slowly lowers the note, clapping a hand to his forehead.

I ruined everything, didn't I?

Being with Kashima had been comfortable. She was funny, wicked smart, even a little goofy- but that just added to her charm. And her smile- god, that smile could end wars and cure cancer and had the uncanny ability to send something fluttering in his belly.

Being with Kashima had made him feel so good, like he could never come down from that high. They were a little too close at times, close enough for him to close that gap between them with a reach of his fingertips, but that had been enough- their quiet inside jokes and that curl of warmth inside of him every time he'd helped her rehearse, watched the muscles in her face relax and listened to her honeyed words wash over him like waves against the shore.

And he'd never wanted it to end.

Well, Hori, he says to himself. Did you want to kiss her?

Um, yeah. So?

Did you enjoy it?

More than I should have.

Did you want to do it again?

Again and again and again, Kashima had whispered.

Do you know what that means?

"Oh, fuck," Hori mumbles. "I like her."

But after that freak show he'd put on, now what? How can he blame her for avoiding him, escaping before she could get caught up in his tangle of craziness?

Of course he'd had to throw it all away. Of course he'd had to fuck it all up.

"Fucking hell, Kashima."

Hori sweeps his gaze across the expanse of cushy seats to confirm that the coast is indeed Kashima-free, before ducking into the coffee shop, praying that he doesn't look nearly as shitty as he feels. A lost cause, probably.

Sakura's early, for once, refilling the syrup canisters behind the counter. She lowers the bottle of hazelnut syrup to regard him with pursed lips and a perfectly arched eyebrow, hands on her hips. "Well, well, well, look who decided to show up."

He scowls, shuffling behind the counter and tying on his apron. "What are you even talking about?" Reaching over her for white chocolate sauce, he keeps his eyes firmly locked on the tiled floor.

"Oh, please, don't give me that," she says drily. "You totally ditched me last night. You said we'd hang out, remember?"

You're never gonna let me this down, are you?

Normally, he'd humor her, tolerate her endless pokings and proddings with little quips of his own, but today, he's too exhausted for this shit, too frazzled to see the quirk of her lips and the teasing sparkle in her eyes and not feel that telltale surge of annoyance.

"Sorry," Hori mutters darkly.

"No sarcasm? Geez, what's gotten into you?" Sakura frowns at him. "Seriously, what gives? You know my rules- no ditching unless either of us is getting laid." She freezes, a look of horror on her face. "Wait...unless you were-"

"Um," he says, shifting uneasily from foot to foot, "sort of?"

Sakura lets out an unintelligible squawk, dropping the syrup with a clatter.

"What?" Hori says loftily, bending down to pick it up. "Is it that surprising?"

"Yes!" she shrieks, smacking him on the shoulder maybe just a little bit harder than she intended to. Either way, it hurts like a bitch; there's a surprising amount of power contained within those tiny fists. "Tell me everything! Who is it? Some girl from your improv class? That stage manager girl you're always talking about?"

"No and no," he counters, grimacing at the idea of hooking up with Mitsuzuri, of all people. "Besides, we're in public. A customer could walk in at any minute!"

"Don't even try to weasel out of this one. We don't even open for another fifteen minutes," Sakura counters with an eye roll, snapping her fingers in his face. "So spill."

He takes a deep breath. "You have to swear not to tell a soul."

"Stop stalling, already," she huffs.

"Okay, okay," Hori grumbles.

Sakura's eyes widen to the size of saucers as he recounts the entire tale, taking extra care to gloss over the gorier details of the story. Even so, she's enthralled, her nails digging into his forearm and leaving little pink indentations in his skin.

"And that is the story of how I almost got laid," he finishes, waiting for her reaction with bated breath.

She makes a thoughtful noise at the back of her throat.

Perplexed, Hori raises an eyebrow at her. "You don't sound surprised."

"Well, no," Sakura admits. "I sort of knew. I mean, you guys seemed way too into each other."

He groans, stretching his arms over his head. "Well, too bad I fucked it all up."

"Whoa, hold up," she says, raising a hand. "I think we're jumping to conclusions here. She did say she had a class to go to, right?"

He lowers his arms, giving her a dubious look. "Sakura, it was an excuse. An escape route."

She shrugs. "You never know- maybe she was telling the truth."

Hori lets out a derisives snort. "And maybe I'm the queen of fucking England."

Sakura passes a tongue over her lips, brow furrowed in concentration. "Give her some credit, Hori. All of that showing up at your doorstep at 3 AM business? Well, that's not normal. Neither is finding any possible excuse to hang out with you or rehearse lines or cook you breakfast or whatever. Take it from me, pal- she's totally into you."

"If she's so into me, why is she running away?"

"Jesus Christ, Hori, it's not running away," she huffs, exasperated. "She's just...overwhelmed, probably. Really happy, but super worn out. And in desperate need for some space. But she does like you- I'm one hundred percent certain of it."

When he only glances away and bites his lip, Sakura heaves a sigh. "Tell me, Hori- and don't you dare lie to me- do you like her?"

"Yes," he says, without a moment of hesitation. "So...now what?"

"Are you kidding me?" she exclaims, throwing her hands up in the air. "Call her. Text her. Meet her after her class. Anything. Just talk to her. Tell her what you told me. Be honest."

"And if it still doesn't work out?"

"You guys can still be friends. I mean, look at you and me." She spreads her arms, gesturing at the entire shop. "We had a nasty breakup, yet here we are, still slinging shit after five years."

"Yeah, well, we're different," he mumbles.

"Ain't that the truth." Sakura cracks a sardonic smile. "Anyways, my point is: stop worrying about so much, and just go for it, already. Even if you do screw it up, it's not the end of the world, right?"

"I...yeah, you're right," Hori says slowly. "Thanks."

She shakes her head, punching him half-heartedly on the shoulder. "Idiots."

Oh God, there she is.

Kashima's leaving the building now, and oh, he realizes with a pang, she looks stupidly cute today. Bangs pinned back with a plain blue barrette, she's got her face buried in her striped muffler, rocking back and forth on her feels.

A nervous flutter in his stomach, Hori smiles feebly at her, lifting his hand up to wave. "Hi."

She stops just a meter before him, blinks at him like a deer in headlights; he finds it weirdly endearing. "Hey."

Cue the pause of tense silence.

"Can we talk?" they blurt at the same time.

She lets out a bleat of nervous laughter, and he joins in, pointing at a nearby park bench, rusted and lonely and entirely pathetic. "Shall we?" When she nods tersely, he manages a gracious smile, waving her ahead of him. "After you, milady."

I like you, I like you, I like you, some part of him wants to scream.

Hori swallows them back down with a gulp, feeling his throat constrict.

Kashima gingerly sits down, smoothing down her skirt and staring pointedly at it, like she wants to memorize each and every knife-sharp crease in the expanse of inky blue. "I'm sorry," she mumbles, fisting her hands into the fabric.

"What are you even sorry for?" he snaps, before he can stop himself. "I'm the one who should be apologizing. I'm the one who-"

What the hell are you saying? he chides himself. Way to go, Hori.

"It was the both of us," she says slowly.

Hori takes a deep breath to steel himself. "I like you, Kashima. A lot, actually. But more than anything- I want things to be okay between us. And if that means pretending that last night never happened, then I'm-"

Kashima reaches out to touch his face, letting her finger rest against his cheek; in the half-light, he's struck speechless by her all over again, shivering at the feeling of her skin against his. "I like you," she whispers, "so, so much. Since the moment we met, probably."

I like you.

Since the moment we met.

There's a swooping feeling in his gut; he feels distinctly dizzy, feels every drop of blood flowing his veins, feels his heart thudding against his ribs like the beating of a thousand drums, like he's been knocked down and can't possibly get back up.

Like things will never be the same again.

"I...um, okay," he manages, utterly failing to suppress the giddiness in his voice.

They lapse into content silence.

"So, I like you, and you like me," Kashima says wryly, nudging him in the ribs. "Now what?"

"We date?" Hori shrugs. "Whatever you want, I guess."

She lightly pushes at his shoulders. "I want to know what you want, silly."

"That was it," he says lamely, feeling spectacularly stupid.

"Oh, okay. Well, I want that, too." A grin spreads across her face. "There. That wasn't so hard, was it?" When he nods, she splays her fingers across the small of his back and tugs him in for a kiss, longer and slower this time.

God, kissing Kashima is like a religious epiphany. All of the uncertainty dissipates from his head like morning fog, and all he can think about is the taste of chapstick and her warm breath on his collarbone.

"I like you, I like you, I like you, boyfriend Hori," she murmurs, toying with the collar of his shirt.

He tilts his head to the side. "Boyfriend Hori?"

"Just sounding it out," she explains. "It feels good."

Hori presses a gentle kiss to her nose. "I like you, too, girlfriend Kashima."

Kashima closes her eyes like she's savoring it. "Would it be weird if we made out right here, in this extremely public area?"

He blushes down to his toes. "I'd probably punch you."

Her lips curl into a smirk. "Would that be a sign of affection?"

"Only with you."

thanks for the advice, Hori texts Sakura later that afternoon, unable to wipe the grin off of his face.

Just as he'd expected, she's frantically calling him barely thirty seconds later. Feeling immensely pleased with himself, he picks up, phone cradled between his chin and shoulder. "Hey, what's up?"

"Don't you dare change the subject!" Sakura demands. "So...did you ask her out? Did she say yes? Are you guys a thing now?"

"Um, I guess? She did call me her boyfriend." The very word sends a warm sensation singing up and down his spine. Boyfriend, boyfriend, boyfriend. I'm her boyfriend.

"Hori, this is huge!" Sakura squeals, before hesitating. "You have to admit- it is a little unfair, though."

"What? How?"

"I had to order you on pain of death to join Miyako's support group just to see my crush, yet you're the one who gets laid," Sakura grumbles, and he can't help but laugh at the pout in her voice.

"Funny how life works sometimes," Hori remarks, failing to suppress his smile.

"Unfair," she whines.

"Maybe if you didn't like a guy who's a complete pain in the ass-"

"Oh, shut up," Sakura groans. She pauses. "I'm really happy for you, you know."

He raises an eyebrow. "Where did that come from?"

"It's just that...wow. Hori, dating a girl that I actually like? Unfathomable. No offense, but your high school girlfriends were hellspawn."

Hori smirks. "What, you weren't hopelessly enamored with Kyoko?"

"Her?" she says scathingly. "God, you weren't even her boyfriend. You were her lapdog."

"I know," he concedes. "I was actually sort of relieved when she dumped me. I mean, she treated you like shit."

"Ha, I thought you'd never notice!" Sakura exclaims triumphantly.. "Seriously, anyone who doesn't get that I'm always your number one girl can get the fuck out." She hesitates. "Kashima does get it, right? You and me?"

"Of course," he assures her. "We're forever, okay? Nothing's worth that."

Even so, he can't blame her for being paranoid; dating different people in high school had caused a bit of a rift between them, and hell if that hadn't been the worst six months of his life. Things just weren't the same with her mindless chatter and 3 AM back-and-forth texts and her showing up at his door with Rocky Road ice cream whenever he needed her, ready to pick up the pieces.

"Right, of course. I'm just being silly," she says, sounding relieved.

"Bros before hos, right?" Hori offers up.

Sakura giggles. "You are such a dork. It's a miracle Kashima even gives you the time of day."

"Must be my abundant charm and bubbly personality," he quips.

"But seriously, you guys are magic together," she says. "Like peanut butter and jelly. Like me and skittles vodka."

"Maybe not quite that magic," Hori laughs, affection for Chiyo Sakura welling up in his chest.

God, what would I do without you?

Mitsuzuri gawks at their hands, laced tightly together, her gaze flitting back and forth between both of their faces. A dangerously wide grin spreads across her, and it's a godforsaken miracle that her entire face isn't splitting apart. "I fucking knew it."

It's the cast party today, a couple dozen milling around the stage and helping themselves to corn chips and guac, an ignored pitcher of lemonade and an entire cooler full to bursting with beer cans. Courtesy of Mitsuzuri, probably. Something tells him she's seriously gonna regret her generosity later.

"Knew what?" Hori asks, feigning innocence.

"Don't even try, pretty boy," she scoffs. "Don't you guys ever listen to cast gossip? We all knew you guys were gonna hook up sooner or later. The sexual tension was practically killing me."

"Hanako!" Kashima protests, clearly mortified.

She shrugs. "Hey, don't look at me. I didn't start the betting pool."

"That would be me." Grinning devilishly, Michimiya slings an arm around Mitsuzuri's shoulder, sipping from a red plastic cup. "Honestly, how long were you two gonna make me wait? I was starting to worry that you didn't have the balls."

Mitsuzuri shrugs her off, shooting her a meaningful look. "What she means to say is congratulations."

Michimiya sniggers, fluttering her eyelashes. "Of course, Mitsu-chan."

Mitsuzuri rolls her eyes. "Whatever. Anyways, that reminds me- got an important announcement to make." Climbing onto a nearby chair, she taps her beer bottle to get everyone's attention. When the chatter finally peeters out, all of the partygoers turning to face her, she clears her throat. "First of all, I'd like to congratulate you all for a job well done. You were amazing out there, every single one of you.

"As much as I'd love to mess around with guys 'til the end of time...I'm a senior. From here on out, I won't be here to terrorize you anymore. And so, Masayuki Hori," Mitsuzuri turns to him, "would you do me the honor of becoming our humble university's next stage manager?"

Hori blinks owlishly as everyone zeroes in on him, applauding him politely.

"Wait, what? Me?" Only then does it dawn on him. "But why?"

Mitsuzuri arches an eyebrow at him. "Why the hell not? Seriously, Hori. Have more faith in yourself. You've certainly proven yourself to be more than capable for the job."

Kashima squeezes his hand.

"I...uh, yeah. Sure," Hori says.

Mitsuzuri smiles, lifting her beer bottle into the air. "To Masayuki Hori, stage manager in the making!" Cheering, the cast members echo her toast and gulp down their drinks, and with that, the spotlight's off him.

Still in disbelief, he barely registers Kashima's gentle nudge in the ribs.

"Looking forward to working with you," she whispers.

He isn't sure who he wants to be yet- but maybe, just maybe, this is enough for now.

"Caramel macchiato!" Hori shouts, sliding forward the steaming hot cup. When the customer finally totters away, sipping contentedly at her drink, he collapses against the counter, grateful for the short break.

"God," Sakura barely stifles her snicker, "you look like hammered shit."

"Thanks," he says gloomily. "Really feeling the love here."

"And seriously, what is with this hideous outfit?" She pulls at the gray turtleneck he's wearing underneath his apron, frowning at the offending object. "Jesus Christ, what were you thinking?"

Oh fuck, she caught me.

It brings to mind his and Kashima's escapade last night, in which he discovered that he really, really, really liked neck kisses.

"I thought it looked nice," Hori says lamely, cringing at how unconvincing he sounds.

"I call bullshit," she says in a singsong voice. "Got something to hide, Hori?"

He grimaces. "She's a little...enthusiastic. Like, leap on top of me and ravish my collarbone enthusiastic."

Sakura wrinkles her nose, bracing her hands in surrender. "Okay, okay, you've made your point."

"Hey, you're the one who brought it up in the first place," Hori says defensively.

"Well, I take it back. Fuck, this is so weird- hearing about my best friend's sex life is a lot less enthralling than I thought it would be," she muses. "Okay, let's lay down some ground rules. Rule #1: no one talks to me about sex."

"You'll probably revoke that soon enough," he notes.

"Still. Jesus, Hori, I just ate." Sakura shakes her head, pretending not to notice as Hori rolls his eyes. Soon, her eyes light up. "Oh, hey, look, it's your turtledove. Speak of the devil, right?"

Sure enough, Kashima's sauntering through the door. Leaning over the counter, she tugs him forward by his apron strings and pecks him on the lips before he can protest, grinning crookedly all the while. "Hey, coffee boy."

Sakura gags and shields her eyes. "PDA, guys. PD fucking A."

Having become quite adept at deflecting Sakura's jabs, Kashima appears unfazed. "Sorry, Chiyo-chan! I just couldn't help myself- he looks so cute in that outfit!" she chirps, her smile only deepening when she sees how flustered he's gotten. Pinching his cheek, she props her elbow on the counter and idly toys with his hair. "So, when do you get off?"

Hori glances at his watch. "In about forty-five minutes. Sorry, I wasn't-"

"Nah, it's okay! I don't mind waiting here," Kashima says brightly. "But I really wouldn't mind a cappuccino to help tide me over, if you catch my drift." For good measure, she adds a flirtatious wink.

Sakura barely stifles her laughter.

Doing his utmost to ignore her, Hori reaches for a plastic cup. "I'm starting to think you're only dating me for the perks." Pouring a stream of frothy milk into the coffee, he draws a careful heart in the foam and caps it off with a snap. "Here you go, freeloader."

"Thanks, babe! You're the best." Grabbing her drink, Kashima blows him a kiss with her free hand, flouncing away with a skip in her step.

"Whipped," Sakura says snidely.

"Shut it, you," he grumbles, half-heartedly batting her on the arm.

The next half an hour passes without incident. It's a fairly peaceful morning, the steady stream of their regulars flowing in and out of the shop just enough to keep his hands busy, but never quite tipping past that point. It's shifts like these that remind him of why he loves his job- the warm fragrance of brewing coffee and fountains of whipped cream, the clink of mugs and swish of flowery skirts, the cha-ching! of the cash register mingled with the soft hum of Sakura's idle chatter.

Every now and then, when he gets enough of a break to check up on her, he glances up to see her watching him, wearing one of her quiet smiles reserved only for when it's just the two of them. Every time, it causes a little pocket of warmth to unfurl in his chest.

Hori's lost count of how many times this has happened when Sakura slams the stack of cups onto the counter, jolting him out of his stupor. "Okay, enough."

He blinks at her. "What?"

"Oh, don't play innocent with me," Sakura growls, tearing off his apron and throwing it onto the hook. "If I have to see you guys making googly eyesat one another one more fucking time, I swear to God, I will die of diabetic shock. Out." Shaking her head reproachfully, she pushes him from out behind the counter, dusting her hands off on her jeans. "Good riddance."

As excited as he is to get off his shift early, he can't just leave Sakura behind in good conscience. He frowns at her. "Um, are you sure? I can stay, it's just fifteen more-"

"Case and point. The world's not gonna stop turning just 'cause you skipped out on the last few minutes of your coffee shop shift, for Christ's sake," Sakura says scornfully. "Seriously, Hori, who do you think I am? I can handle it."

"Damn, I owe you one," Hori says, still in awe. "You're the greatest, Sakura."

"Hey, that's what friends are for, right?" she replies, obviously suppressing a smile. "So run along now, baby bird. You don't want to keep your prince waiting, do you?"

He whips around, and sure enough, Kashima's waiting at the door for him, holding out a hand. Nodding to Sakura, he slips his hand into hers and together, they stumble out into the mid-morning sunshine.

"You are shameless," Hori says affectionately, punching her lightly on the shoulder.

"What can I say? My coffee boy was giving me impure thoughts," Kashima says coyly, grinning from ear to ear. Not for the first time, she steals his breath away, turns him into putty with her touch, taffy melting in the hot summer sun. "And hey, I was getting impatient."

He pulls her close to him. "Oh, heaven forbid."

Their kiss is every good as her smile had hinted it would be.