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Tangled Ribbons

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Hazuki lost track of how many times Hikari squealed about 'our first Worlds together!' before they even left the airport.

It was Hikari's first Worlds, period, so it was no wonder that she was so excited. Hazuki had been sent to the last one, two years ago, but Hikari had missed out on the team. Their coach – they shared one, still, not a teacher at a school club anymore but a real coach at a dedicated gym – tried in vain to rein in Hikari's enthusiasm while Hazuki sat quietly on the uncomfortable airport seat and read a book.

Worlds had been a very different experience than competing in Japan. Despairing – the judges were not so kind to her as the Japanese ones, while her competitors from Eastern Europe raced ahead – yet inspiring at the same time. There had been so many talented and heartfelt gymnasts to watch. To talk with, too, when they could both manage enough English and hand gestures. Knowing that she had been at that level of competition, going up against the best in the world, had given Hazuki uncharacteristic nerves, but had also made her dedicate herself even more after coming home.

Hikari's energy didn't wear off after the long plane trip to Bulgaria, and she was jittery in her seat in the taxi next to Hazuki. When they reached their shared hotel room, Hazuki immediately took out her pajamas and tucked herself in before she fell asleep on her feet. Hikari, though, was abuzz the last few minutes Hazuki was awake, humming to herself as she unpacked her suitcase.

The first day, during practice, Hikari fawned over the Bulgarians enough that their coach had to give her a talk telling her to focus. Then she fawned over Hazuki, too, in her usual manner. As graciously as Hazuki tried to deflect the praise – she herself knew more than anyone how far she had to go as an artist – it put a smile on her face, as it so often did. Hikari still sometimes put herself down too much, put Hazuki up too high, but Hazuki had never doubted that she meant every word of it.

"You're so graceful, Hazuki-sempai," Hikari said in the changing room after practice. "You look like you're in wonderful shape – I'm sure you'll do well!"

"Thank you, I'll do my best." Hikari winced as she tried to pull out her hair tie and the elastic caught; Hazuki stood to help her. "Don't forget to concentrate on yourself tomorrow. You don't want to drop your ribbon again."

Hikari groaned; she'd had trouble on one of her elements in practice, repeated failing to catch the handle of her ribbon correctly and lightly, or a few times, at all. "Right, focus! Diana might be watching!"

"Yes," Hazuki said quietly. With the hair tie successfully removed, she combed her fingers through Hikari's thick hair a few times to make sure all the tangles were gone.

There was nothing odd about Hikari admiring such a dominant gymnast as Diana; Hazuki didn't know why, lately, it had become grating when Hikari referred to her. Diana and her perfect grace, Diana and her wonderful music choices, Diana and her signature ball catch in backscale position, Diana and all her medals. All of it had started to wear at Hazuki somewhere in her chest. It was a bit strange.

When Hikari turned around, Hazuki smiled at her, ignoring the ugly feeling, and went to change out of her leotard.

Hikari was faster to pull her clothes over her head, and then she dug into her bag again, rooting around for something. "I'm starving! I can't wait for dinner... oh! Here it is. Want one?" she asked, holding out an orange. She must have kept it from breakfast; they hadn't had time to go shopping yet.

"No, thank you." Hazuki didn't eat snacks at competitions, or elsewhere; frankly, she preferred not to eat at competitions at all if she could stand to. It made her feel light, unbound as she leapt into the air with her ribbon looping behind her or her rope underneath her. But after a regional competition last year, where she had almost fainted from lightheadedness, she had started allowing herself breakfasts and dinners even on competition days. Only tiny ones, just enough to keep her body going. She didn't need to end up in the hospital and out of training again. The Olympics were next year, and every day at practice counted with Hikari was constantly on her heels.

Hikari, meanwhile, had eaten breakfast this morning like she was stuffing herself. No wonder she was always sighing with jealously over Hazuki's numbers on the scale during weigh-ins.

Still, as Hikari peeled the orange, Hazuki couldn't help but take in the smell of bright citrus – a scent that suited Hikari – and look up from where she was pulling on her shoes. Her mouth watered at the thought of the sweetness and the acidic bite of the orange.

She didn't ask. But Hikari looked over and plopped down next to her, and offered half the orange. "Here you go!"

"Thank you," she said, conscious of how she didn't really need the snack, conscious of how their fingers brushed as she took it. Part of her was unhappy at the thought of eating it, but she had already accepted it, and that part was overruled when she forced herself to take the first bite.

It tasted like sunshine, sugary and delicious, and Hikari smiled at her. She leaned into Hazuki as they each ate their own half.

They walked close together on their way back to the hotel, their coach having scolded them about not getting lost in an unfamiliar country where they didn't speak the language. But Hazuki remembered the route back, even when their coach hesitated at a crosswalk, and stuck to her side, Hikari smelled like oranges.


As Hazuki had expected, the competition was incredibly tough. She felt her world narrow down to herself, the music, and the apparatus each time she stepped onto the carpet. There were the light piano notes of her ball music, the dramatic drumbeats for clubs, the arch of her spine as she caught her hoop in a large leap, the swaying movements of her rope, the circles her wrist made as she danced with her ribbon.

Catch it lightly, she told herself, matching her hand to the speed of her falling ball so it settled softly into her fingers. Hold a difficult pose – then she had to move her feet quickly, keeping on the beat of the song. Smile, smile, pretend her stomach wasn't hollow and her toes didn't ache, pretend she wasn't tired from the time zone change and the practice, smile at every moment the choreography demanded she do so.

By the end of her last routine, she was exhausted, but she had done her best and made no major mistakes, unlike the previous time, when she'd dropped her hoop and then a club. Her scores had all improved, and she finished at a higher place this year. "Good work," their coach told her, offering her jacket after she came off the carpet for the final time.

Despite all of her efforts, she didn't finish in a medal position – hadn't come close to challenging for it – but she scraped into the ball final. Hikari, who had finished before her and ended up placing lower, clapped her hands when she learned that she had made the final for her specialty, the ribbon.

"I wish both of us were in it," Hikari said in the changing room, breaking open another orange before she'd even started to remove her leotard. "Yours is so pretty this year."

Hazuki had chosen ballet music, Sleeping Beauty; Hikari had gone with something much more upbeat and modern, as was her nature. Her leotard fit the routine, too, bright yellow and orange and the shades in-between, with a collar that cut a sharp and surprisingly low V down her chest.

Hikari had done a lot of growing up over the past few years; the new leotard fit her curves well, and it was hard for Hazuki to keep her gaze from drifting below her exposed collarbones whenever she wore it.

They split the orange again this time, too, and Hazuki felt some of her tiredness leave as she ate it, resting on the bench. The room was buzzing with competitors, chatting in different languages. Some, she could tell from their tones, were sighing about their own performances. Others were stoic and quiet in a way that meant that either they were holding in their disappointment or remained focused even now.

Maria Leonova came over to say hello, or rather, to admonish Hikari. "You're supposed to be my rival!" she complained, crossing her arms over her chest. "You only got into one final!"

"I'll keep training," Hikari promised. "At the Olympics, I'll be even better. I promise!"

"You'd better be," Maria hmphed, but then she relented with her expression and said, "Your dancing is a lot more mature now than it was last time I saw you."

Hikari lit up. "Really? I'm always trying to be as good at it as you, or Hazuki-sempai, or Diana." Hikari's eyes pinched at the corners with worry. "She came to watch today, right?"

Odd; the orange had tasted sweet enough on the first bite, but as Hazuki ate, it seemed to be getting more sour and bitter.

"Of course she did! We sure made her proud today." The Bulgarian gymnasts had taken all three of the all-around medal positions, with Maria in bronze. "Although, our coach said that she smiled while watching your ribbon routine, so I guess it must have been pretty okay."

It shouldn't have been possible for Hikari to smile that much. A moment later, though, she inexplicably dimmed. "It's too bad that she couldn't compete at the Olympics."

Diana, Diana, Diana. Hazuki didn't want to hear it anymore, not about how terrible it was that Bulgaria had boycotted in 1984 so Diana couldn't go, not about whether she'd cried or hid her tears, not about how Diana would have taken tens on every apparatus, none of it. She quietly pulled on her jacket, double-checked that she had all of her apparatuses, and left.

Why did it bother her so much? Maybe she was simply tired. It had been a long day. Hikari continuing to admire Diana so heavily made sense; artists needed inspiration. And she had yet to lose the sparkle in her eye when she watched Hazuki compete – Hikari was hardly going to forget about her, not with how hard Hazuki worked to stay ahead, to be as graceful and feminine and elegant and skilled as Hikari professed her to be.

Hikari returned to the hotel late enough that their coach had started to wonder if she had gotten lost. Maria had apparently walked her back after taking her to dinner with the other Bulgarian gymnasts (though without, as Hazuki attempted not to feel relieved to hear, Diana). "They're all really nice," Hikari said, bouncing on the edge of her bed. She didn't seem tired at all. Where did it come from? "It made me think it would've been nice to train with them after all. But then I wouldn't be coming up with our Japanese style with you, Hazuki-sempai."

"Do you regret it? Refusing her offer?" Hazuki asked, setting her book aside.

Hikari shook her head, sending her hair flying, then bounced up so she could sit next to Hazuki. "I think it would've been really hard to live away from home, too, without Mao-kun and everyone else, and I like training together." There was a flush of joy on her cheeks, and her smile went up through her eyes. "Maybe if they asked me again now... but I'd definitely ask if you could come, too. If you could learn some of their difficult apparatus handling and combine it with all of your elegance, I'd never be able to beat you."

"You shouldn't sell yourself short," Hazuki told her, feeling a flush creep up on her own cheeks. Hikari was so warm, the dip of the mattress under their weight pressing them into each other. "You learned that new hoop catch in only a few tries earlier this year."

"I guess I did," Hikari said with a laugh, and for a warm moment, she leaned her head into Hazuki's shoulder before jumping up again.


Hazuki didn't medal in the ball final the next day, but she was pleased to not be in last place, at least. She really had done all she could. It wasn't good enough, not yet. She would have to be more perfect next year, for the Olympics. More lovely with more difficult tricks. As soon as they returned home, she knew, she would be back to work, with no breaks, no snacks. If there was to be any hope of a medal, she would have to be as flexible and lean as possible, with reflexes to match the Bulgarians and all the decorum her dance teacher could work into her.

Not being in the ribbon final meant that she had a chance to see Hikari's performance. She had seen it in practice a hundred times, but Hikari always came alive during competitions. As soon as the music started, Hikari sprung out of her starting position.

The music was fast-paced, but Hikari could match it. She started with an energetic leap – she jumped higher now than she used to – and then pulled herself into a scorpion pose while her ribbon twirled in small spirals, each well-formed.

This year, she had been working hard on her pivots. Her turns were now faster, cleaner, and the ribbon bounced through the air as she spun until she was off again. She zig-zagged across the carpet, barely pausing by one corner to toss the ribbon before she raced to the opposite corner to catch it. No time for the ribbon to lag and drop; Hikari was already spinning it again as she danced around the floor, taking up every centimeter of space.

She was incredible. Hazuki could be balletic, but she couldn't dance like Hikari did when she was like this. It must have been exhausting; still, Hikari's honest smile didn't waver from start to finish. Hikari was having fun, and it showed in every perfect movement.

There were others – graceful gymnasts, wonderful dancers, tricksters – but none of them had Hikari's sheer shine.

"Fifth place isn't bad for your first year," their coach told Hikari later, grinning. Hikari looked elated, and she deserved it. Fifth place among the amazing skills of the Bulgarians, and the Yugoslavans, and the Russians, having made that much of an impression on the judges her first time here—

"You did very well," Hazuki told her. "You were energetic, but sweet. Like a honey bee."

Hikari laughed. "A honey bee? Sempai!"

After they cheered on the Japanese group in qualification and had dinner with their coach, Hazuki went for a short walk on her own. She roamed through a nearby park and watched the people walking past, trying to imagine herself living here and shopping in those stores and being one of those people. It was easier to picture brash Hikari on these strange streets, but Hazuki hadn't pushed herself to the heights she had by being timid.

When she came back, Hikari was frowning at the mirror, wearing her leotard. The one with the orange and the yellow and the deep collar. Hazuki's eyes drifted lower by their own volition, and she had to snap her gaze up.

"Oh! Sorry." Hikari laughed, playing with the end of her ponytail. It was always messier when she put it up; there was a reason she let Hazuki comb through it and tie it back before competitions. "I was thinking about what I want to wear next year at the Olympics, and I thought it'd be easier if I could see this one on me...."

"It suits you very well," Hazuki said, setting her shoes to the side and going to stand next to Hikari. "Something with a fit like this would be perfect."

"I was thinking blue and white, with, like, diagonal stripes," Hikari said, meeting Hazuki's eyes in the mirror. "Do you have any ideas yet?"

"No. I'll think about it later."

"I know it's kind of silly, but – it's the Olympics! We're going to be on TV! We need to look stylish."

"If we get there," Hazuki pointed out, smiling when Hikari's expression turned sheepish. "Which I'm sure we will."

"Right! And whatever you wear, you'll look super elegant and beautiful, like a ballerina." Hikari made an exaggerated face. "I'll look like a stumpy little bee."

"You will not," she scolded. "I meant it as a compliment. Bees are light and agile creatures, and you're lovely in this." Hikari was joking, but there were notes of sincerity underneath it, which Hazuki didn't understand. Why was she so often so self-critical?

She stepped closer. Lately, she had noticed, Hikari sometimes made her feel an odd tingle. The only thing Hazuki could compare it to was the way that being with Ooishi had felt, when she had been in love with him; but that had been years ago now, hadn't it, and she didn't know why Hikari should make her feel like that. Not when she was a girl.

"Look," she said, putting her hands on Hikari's shoulders. Thanks to the cut of the leotard, her fingers touched bare skin. "You've grown into a very nice young woman." One with fine curves and muscles, and large eyes that were always bright. She had never caught up to Hazuki in height, but she was hardly stumpy. Her collarbones were particularly nice, or so Hazuki thought to herself, with the urge to trace them, to slide her hands further down the cut of the leotard. Where did that come from? Hazuki hadn't felt like this about another gymnast she had ever admired.

Hikari looked into the mirror for a long moment, but then Hazuki realized that she wasn't staring at herself; she was staring at Hazuki's hands. Self-conscious, she drew them away from Hikari's skin, but it felt odd to hold her at the shoulders, and her hands settled down Hikari's sides, into the curve of her waist. Hazuki's heartbeat jumped at the way Hikari's eyes followed her touch the whole time.

"I guess I'm not bad," Hikari finally said. "You think I'm pretty, right, sempai?"

"I just told you I do. You're as pretty as any girl you competed against today, and you stood out more with your own energy."

"Are you glad I didn't go to Bulgaria with Diana?"

Hazuki's hands tightened on Hikari's waist. She made them relax. "Yes. I enjoy training with you. I can't imagine that I would have advanced so much if you weren't there, pushing me every day. You truly brighten our gym."

Hikari bit her lip, and then she straightened. There was a strong aura of conviction about her that Hazuki recognized, though she couldn't fathom the reason for it.

She started when Hikari spun in her grip, and almost shouted, "Sempai! I really like you!"

Hazuki barely had time to blink at her – like her like what, they were both girls, surely she couldn't mean – before Hikari used all of that springiness in her legs to shove them into a kiss.

A kiss that toppled them backward; they only barely caught themselves on the bed. Hikari's eyes were wide and her face was beet-red, but she didn't look ashamed of herself at all. She pushed herself up above Hazuki, opened her mouth, then closed it.

Hazuki looked at the ceiling for a moment, feeling things slowly click into place in her head. Jealousy, the tingling feelings, why Hikari's womanly figure in the leotard was so stunning, why she could never look away.

She wasn't supposed to like girls. She was a nice young woman from a wealthy family; it wasn't how things were done. There was a path she was supposed to be on. Date someone like Ooishi, marry someone like Ooishi.

Hikari always was pushing her into new things, wasn't she?

She looked at Hikari, who was waiting for a response. Maybe she should take after Hikari a little more – in risks that could pay off, if only she tried hard enough and trusted in herself and her – not apparatus, here, but in Hikari.

"I think," she said, feeling her heart beat strongly against her chest, "I like you, too."

Hikari beamed and flopped on her. "I wasn't sure – but you keep looking at me lately, and the way you touched me was like the way Ooishi-san used to touch me before he kissed me, so I thought—" She levered herself up and kissed Hazuki again, short and sloppy but full of her happiness. "I think, I'd really like if you showed me where you think I'm pretty. Um. And I could show you how beautiful I think you are! Since - I really like you, sempai."

Goodness, could her face get any redder? Hazuki touched her own face and felt heat. It must have been nearly as red as Hikari's. "Well, I – I suppose. Could we—" She closed her eyes and breathed in and out to get her bearings. "Perhaps we should start with a proper kiss?"

"Okay," said Hikari, and so they did. A proper kiss and plenty more, before Hikari led Hazuki's hands, her own shaking slightly, under her leotard, to her soft skin and the weight of her breasts and the swell of her hip. All the places Hazuki had been looking at recently, all the places she hadn't realized she had wanted to touch so much.

It was dizzying, too new, but she didn't fall, didn't stumble, and Hikari didn't let her drop to a tangled coil on the ground.


Maria found them in the stands before the group finals. Hazuki had folded her jacket in her lap; Hikari had squished into her side and slid her hand underneath so they could hold hands under the fabric. It was cold in the arena today.

Hikari and Maria chatted about each group after they went - which elements they had liked, the music choices, the best choreographic moments - and Hazuki joined in here and there. Maria, naturally, was the most enthusiastic about the Bulgarian team. They were very good, having taken first place in the qualifying round with perfect scores, and Hazuki thought after their first performance that they might sweep both the finals, too.

"All the best rhythmic gymnasts are in Bulgaria," Maria proclaimed, her back straight and proud. "It's our natural talents, but also our training style. Are you sure you don't regret turning down Diana, Hikari?"

Hikari laughed. "I was just talking about it with Hazuki-sempai the other day! I'm glad that I did when she asked." Her fingers laced with Hazuki's under the jacket. "But when I was watching you yesterday, I wondered if maybe now would be a better time. But only if Hazuki-sempai could come with me!"

Maria furrowed her brow and leaned back to look around Hikari at Hazuki. "Her, too?"

"I can't imagine training without her! She makes me feel like a slacker. I'm always trying to catch up!"

"I'd have to talk with our coach about it either way," Maria said with a shrug. "And Diana was really impressed by you, so I could ask what she thought about Hazuki, too...."

"I'll leave our contact information," said Hazuki. "We can consider it after speaking with our families, if it's a possibility."

"She better let you come," Maria grumbled. "You need the best training facilities to rival us at the Olympics!"

"So we can take first and second for Japan," Hikari laughed, and she and Hazuki squeezed their fingers at the same time while Maria protested.

Red, Hazuki thought. For her Olympic leotard. Red like all the warmth and vitality and energy of Hikari, all of the things that training with her and watching her and touching her made Hazuki feel.