"Taichi... You still like me, don't you?"

The young man in question raised his eyes from the book he'd been trying to read for the past quarter, and fixed them on Chihaya, confused. It wasn't just the question that surprised him, even though its content sure would have been enough to puzzle a better prepared soul.

The fact that Chihaya had barely spoken at all for most of their time together today was the main reason why he felt startled by her words now.

She really had been quiet for most of the day, even though they were spending it at his place, determined, as she herself had claimed, not to get in the way of his studies. Taichi had tried to make her realise that it wasn't what he wanted at all, that the very reason he'd invited her over was to get a break from all the reading and just relax a little. He'd explained over and over again that he needed her to be a distraction; tried – unsuccessfully – to get it into her head that she was actually doing him a favour. He knew how much of a workaholic he could be and so he specifically planned the visit as a means to enforce the necessary break he might not have taken otherwise.

He had told her all of that. And yet, she'd remained quiet.

All the way until now, that is.

And just what on earth was she going on about?

"What's with that question? You know the answer to that," he replied casually, almost dismissively, before going back to the textbook in his hand. He really had no idea what had gotten into her all of the sudden, but then again, he didn't care to delve on the subject. He knew she'd tell him anyway.

"I was just wondering," she answered, a trace of hurt ringing in her voice; Taichi needed to hold back the smile that sprang on his lips at the sight of her pout. "Is it so bad if I do?"

Taichi hummed in thought.

"Is that why you've been so quiet all day?" he asked right after. "You've been just busy considering my possible affection for you?"

"Stop with the mockery. I'm thinking of it seriously."

"Oh? And what conclusions did you come to?"

"I wouldn't have asked if I'd come to any."

He had no choice but to close the book and put it away after a statement he'd just heard. Not that he minded. Throwing it on the floor rather carelessly, he sat up straight in his corner of the couch and, resting his chin on his palm, he fixed his gaze on the girl seated by his desk on the other side of the room.

She really was being impossible today.

Well, he supposed that wasn't anything new. He'd known Chihaya long and well enough to not be fazed by the swings in her mood or the inane schemes she so often came up with. He had learnt to expect the unexpected, every day, every hour of his otherwise boring life, because that was obviously the only way to keep up with her. The one thing he had to keep doing if he still wanted to be a part of her life.

Because that was how Ayase Chihaya was.

Chihaya. His best friend. His fiercest karuta rival. The girl he'd been in love with since fourth grade of primary school and the girl who'd rejected him straightforwardly at the very beginning of their third year in Mizusawa High. The girl whom he'd thought he could never win over, on whom he'd given up again and again, fooling himself he could move on and blight the love he'd had for her since he'd been a ten year old squirt.

He sighed and shook his head, remembering her question from a moment before.

She knew damn well he was still head over heels for her.

She was his girlfriend, for sanity's sake.

"I can't believe you actually have asked, you know," he picked up with the same fake weariness he'd shown before, if only to cover his growing amusement. Seeing her very real anxiety made him assume a more solemn expression, as he asked, "Seriously, what brought this on? Are you mad about something?"

"I'm not mad," she disagreed instantly, and with good emphasis.

"Are you unhappy then? Did I do something to make you feel like that?"

Again, she denied. Now she just looked sad. "That's not it."

Wrong. She was flustered.

"Then what is it?" Taichi asked, as gently and warmly as he could. Not for the first time, he felt grateful for all the hard training his patience had received. It was obvious that Chihaya needed that from him now. "It's not like I could get over you like this, you of all people should be aware of that. You're the most important person in my life. The best companion I could think of. You know I get lonely and grumpy when I can't see you, and you know I still get absurdly jealous, even though I hate being so. And so I can't help but think there's something else I'm not doing right."

Taichi stopped there, waiting for her to, if not answer his question, then to contradict him in one way or another, at least. After all, he really was at a loss.

He thought he'd been doing a fairly good job as a boyfriend, when all was said and done. He'd already shared Chihaya's most important interest and it wasn't difficult to at least understand the new ones she'd found. He made sure to be there for her when she needed him, and tried his best to give her space when she needed that more. True, he'd had some trouble coming for help on his part, but even that was a thing of a past rather than present – certainly not something that could shock Chihaya into thinking like this.

He would think that the all-day-long date he'd come up with and seen through in celebration of their first anniversary as a couple last week was a good show of how much he still cared.

He wasn't perfect. Neither was she. But never in his life would he have thought that he'd failed to get his feelings across.

"Chihaya," he prompted once more, his voice audibly quieter. "Please tell me what it is. I can't fix it if I don't know what's broken."

She looked up from the floor she'd been glaring at for a while and met his gaze, a shadow of unease still clouding her big brown eyes. She opened her mouth to answer; she closed it instantly and looked away again, abashed. There was a hint of pink on her cheeks, and it only grew darker as the time passed, though whether it was because of embarrassment or something more alarming, Taichi couldn't tell yet.

"Chihaya–"

"It's because you never say it."

He supposed his eyes opened wider than ever, what's with the utter astonishment he felt growing inside him immediately. For a few moments, he could do nothing but stare, the craziness of the situation overwhelming enough to successfully prevent him from forming a sensible thought, and much less coming up with any kind of solution. One look at Chihaya was enough to sober him up, however.

She was distressed. She was insecure.

No matter how stupid he thought the reason to be, he could hardly allow the situation to last.

With a groan that was bound to startle her, he bent over and buried his face in his hands.

Only one thing he could do now.

"Come here," he said, his face still hidden behind one hand as he tore the other one away and beckoned her towards him. "No excuses. You'll talk later. Now just come here, please."

She did, albeit tentatively, as if afraid of the reaction he might show her. With his patience starting to run thin at last, Taichi didn't wait for her to cover the whole distance, instead reaching out and grabbing her by the wrist, only to pull her down on the couch right next to him.

And then he pulled her even closer, locking her in a bone-crushing hug.

"I'm gonna do something to you," he mumbled into her hair, his voice a mixture of laughter and complaint. "You cruel, cruel, woman. Have you no heart? Here I am, mind reeling as I try to figure out what the hell I did wrong again and you say it's because I don't say I like you enough. As if you didn't already know you've got a firmer hold of my heart than I ever did. Tell me, am I really this bad at showing you that I care that you doubt it?"

It was Chihaya's turn to growl at him, though it surely – and fortunately – didn't stop her from burying her face even deeper into his chest and digging her fingers into the shirt on his back. Again, Taichi laughed at the display, but didn't loosen his grip one bit.

That silly, unbelievable, most beloved girl.

"This and that are different things," she muttered finally in response against his buttons, her stubborn indignation probably being the only reason why he could discern the words at all. "There are different kinds of love languages. We even talked about it, you know."

"Yes. And as far as I remember, we've already established that neither of us cared for this one. So your argument doesn't work."

Well, this was a lie, or at least, it wasn't fully true. After all, he could never get tired of hearing her say those words, to him and him only. But he didn't need it that much, not when he already knew of so many other ways in which Chihaya expressed her love towards him. He'd always assumed it was the same for her, too.

Funnily enough, he still didn't think he was mistaken.

"I've had feelings for you for the past fourteen years, you dummy, I wouldn't change my mind just because you decided to return them," he threw in only half-jokingly, as if to make sure he got his point across before moving onto the next part. "So? Care to tell me what's the source of it all?"

He felt her tense against him for a split second, only to relax in the next moment with a long, weary sigh. He waited for her to make herself comfortable in his arms, shifting ever so slightly to make it easier for them both. And then he heard her speak.

"I met up with Kana-chan the other day," she admitted weakly. "Her and Desktomu. And I guess... They're always so sweet with one another, now more than ever. I suppose... It made me feel a little jealous. But most of all, it just made me think."

"And you decided that I'd fallen out of love with you, because I don't talk like Komano does?"

"I didn't decide anything, I told you already. I just wondered if maybe I was doing something wrong to deserve that treatment. Sorry for being so terribly scared of losing you again because of my own foolishness."

Words caught in his throat as Taichi tried to protest against this new development. That last addition Chihaya had made – and more importantly, the wounded, truly uncertain voice with which she'd spoken – would have been enough to melt his heart even if he had actually been angry with her. Right now, he had to hold back from grabbing her by the chin and kissing her senseless until all the idiotic ideas evaporated from her overworked mind.

The things she did to him without as much as trying.

You evil little imp.

"They're newly-weds. You can't use them for reference," he managed to stutter out at least, conveniently ignoring the hoarseness of his own voice and the emotion that hovered behind it. "Not to mention, those two are the opposite of us when it comes to talking about feelings openly. There's a reason they got together six years before we did. Just because something works for them doesn't mean it's the best course for us to take as well."

He smiled again and planted a kiss at the top of her hair, before adding, "I still can't believe you really doubted me, though."

She huffed and pulled away, although she still didn't move from her place on the couch. They were still close; close enough for Taichi to see the light reflecting in her eyes and the blush that hadn't left her cheeks, and to reach out and comb her tangled hair with his fingers. Another gesture so full of love, even though it was but a fraction of all that she made him feel.

"Well, since I never understood what had made you fall in love with me in the first place, it's only natural that I'd have this kind of doubts."

He chuckled and she smiled on her part, her obstinacy giving it to the desire to just be with him. It was another thing Taichi was able to read in her eyes – and, knowing the feeling well enough from his own experience, he had no trouble deciphering it.

Delayed, the first part of her sentence entered his brain.

What made me fall for you, I wonder?

He didn't know. It had been so long since he'd realised his feelings after all, and longer still since those feelings had been born. Even all those years earlier, he probably wouldn't have been able to point out the reasons clearly, never mind finding the one spark that had started it – trying to do so now seemed downright impossible.

There were so many reasons, after all.

Maybe it was because she had never considered herself a possible love interest for anyone, first when she was too engrossed in karuta and later, when she thought she didn't deserve to be one. Maybe it was her hot-headedness and her drive, and how different she'd always been from him, and yet never failed to tell him how much she'd admired and envied those qualities of his that she lacked.

Maybe it was the fact that she'd always been with him, so close and so dear and yet so impossible to grasp.

Maybe it was because she'd loved him long before either of them dared believe that was the case.

Maybe...

"Maybe," he said out loud, though in fact not loud at all, his lips moving against her forehead as he leaned in to put a kiss there, too. "Maybe, if I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more."

Edging away, Taichi saw tears gathering in her eyes. He wiped them away with his thumb, his hand cupping the side of her jaw fittingly.

And then he kissed her properly.

Just like he had wanted to ever since he'd first seen her that day.