"Oh no!" Love screamed suddenly, making Setsuna jump.
"What is it, Love?" Setsuna asked, her hand already on her linkrun as she scanned the streets around them for any sign of Labyrinth. They were out on a walk in the town a bit beyond Clover Street, ostensibly so that Love could "show her around," although Setsuna had been in the area long enough she felt fairly confident she had the lay of the land. Really they were just spending time together doing nothing in particular — and yet, Setsuna felt a pang in her chest at the thought of Westar or Soular tearing them away from their idling.
"I can't believe it! This is the worst!" Love clutched at her head, curling in on herself in distress. Then she shot up straight and spun around to clutch at Setsuna's arm instead. "Wait! I know! Setsuna, can you do me a huge, huge favor?"
"Of course!" Setsuna responded without hesitation. "What do you need me to do?"
"Can you have Akarun take us home right now?"
"Got it. Let's go." With Love still clinging to her, Setsuna led them to a nearby corner out of the line of sight of passersby and teleported them back to the house.
The moment they materialized inside of Love's room, Love threw open the door, charged down the stares so recklessly it was basically just a controlled fall, hurdled over the back of the couch, belly-flopped onto the cushions, and fumbled frantically with the remote control for the television.
"Safe!" she declared as the screen flickered to life and a tune Setsuna found vaguely familiar began to play from the speakers. "Aw, I missed the cold open though."
Setsuna approached warily and leaned over the back of the couch for a better look. "Is that Bittersweet Blossoms?" she asked, and then immediately regretted it. It would be excruciatingly awkward to explain to Love why she recognized this television drama.
Fortunately, Love didn't ask. "Yeah! It was on hiatus last week, and that's when you came to live with me, and then we had the dance retreat. With all that going on, I completely forgot about the finale today!"
That was the big emergency Love had been so worked up about? Missing a TV show? This was like the beach ball incident all over again.
Love tore her eyes away from the screen for long enough to look up at Setsuna. "Hey, what are you doing all the way over there? Come on, sit with me!" Love rearranged herself into a more upright position and patted the empty space next to her invitingly.
Setsuna sighed, releasing the tension that had been building in her chest. She half expected to feel annoyance bubbling up in its place, but instead she just felt curious. Love's tendency to obsess over seemingly insignificant trifles had pointed Setsuna toward an epiphany more than once before. With that in mind, Setsuna sat down to watch the show.
Bittersweet Blossoms was a story about two teenage girls who became best friends, which was why Eas had sat through a few episodes of it in preparation for her infiltration mission. Soular had recommended her some books on the topic, but to Eas it had seemed obvious that she could learn much more by watching and listening to interactions between actual people, even if those people were actresses.
She had gotten her alias from a background character. When she'd heard it used in the show, "Setsuna" had struck her as an odd thing to call a human, but also an amusingly fitting name for a persona intended to exist only long enough to steal Love's linkrun.
Setsuna realized her hands were clenching up when they started to cramp enough to hurt. She reached out to touch Love's arm instead, and her fingers uncurled almost of their own accord to soak up the warmth of Love's skin. Love was so enthralled with the drama that her only reaction was a slight increase in the width of her smile.
Setsuna had forgotten most of what she'd ever managed to understand about Bittersweet Blossoms, and there had been a few months worth of episodes she'd never bothered to watch at all, so the finale's plot was difficult to follow. It had something to do with the two main girls needing to each choose schools to go to, even though they were already in a school, and then crying and yelling a lot when they ended up choosing schools in different parts of the world.
"Why can't they just keep going to school where they are?" Setsuna asked.
"They're pursuing their dreams!" Love explained without turning her head. There was something a little bit odd about her voice, Setsuna thought. "Haru got scouted by a volleyball team at a Japanese university, and Aki is going to a conservatory overseas where she can learn to be a world-class cellist!"
That made something resembling sense. Setsuna did recall that one of the girls was an athlete and the other a musician. That had been a source of conflict early on, if Setsuna had understood things right, because it meant that they each tended to be around very different kinds of people. The people around Aki thought that Haru was too loud, which somehow made her "like a boy," which in turn was somehow a bad thing. Meanwhile, the people around Haru thought that Aki was too quiet, which somehow made her "stuck up and self-absorbed," which Setsuna could understand might be a bad thing if it were at all true, but it very, very obviously was not.
"And they really need to be that far apart to pursue their dreams?" she asked. "Different parts of Earth are that different from each other in terms of what they have to offer?"
Love nodded and uttered a choked-up-sounding: "Mm-hm!"
Alarmingly, that made even more sense. The people of this world lived their lives so chaotically that the cultures of different cliques within the same school could diverge to the point of fundamentally misunderstanding each other. Of course it would be even worse on a global scale.
The episode culminated in a sequence where Haru raced across the city to make it to the airport before Aki's plane left so that she could apologize for yelling and the two of them wouldn't part ways while upset with each other. With a quiet sense of pride, Setsuna reflected on how this plot would have made no sense to Eas whatsoever. If Haru's never going to see Aki again anyway, why does it matter what Aki thinks of her? she would have wondered. That was before the letter. That was before the frantic final mission, assigned by herself to herself and for her own sake, for closure in any form that she could find it. She'd sought revenge at first, then honesty and understanding, then maybe just a single moment of true happiness, which surely couldn't have been too selfish of a thing to reach for if Moebius had no further use for her anyway.
Feelings mattered, Setsuna knew. They mattered most of all once you realized they were all you had left.
Haru made it to the airport. When Aki saw her, she called out her name and ran to her and threw herself against her in an embrace. They never did that in first few episodes, Setsuna thought. That was one thing she definitely remembered, because it had left her completely unprepared for how much Love had hugged and touched her when she'd first started becoming Setsuna. Though, on reflection, even if she had been aware that Love might act that way, it could not possibly have prepared her for just how warm the other girl's body had felt against her own, let alone the even more inexplicable warmth that had spread up Setsuna's neck and into her face and ears.
"I'm so sorry!" Haru sobbed against Aki's hair.
"Don't be!" Aki responded. "I wanted to try talking to you again, but I didn't have the courage. But somehow you ran all this way just to talk to me. You're incredible, Haru!"
"But I shouldn't have gotten so upset that it ruined your first attempt to talk to me!" Haru insisted.
"No, of course you were upset," Aki said. "You thought I was leaving you behind. But that's not what's happening at all!"
"Oh, thank goodness," Setsuna blurted out. She would be embarrassed by how caught up in this silly fictional drama she had managed to get, except that Love was outdoing her by weeping openly. Setsuna stroked her arm consolingly. "There, there, Love. Did you hear that? She isn't really leaving!" Clearly the two heroines had just misunderstood each other again. Aki wasn't going all the way across the ocean after all, or she was planning to come back soon, or maybe she had found some way that she and her friend could spend time with each other even while attending school in different places.
But then Aki continued, "You're the one who made it possible for me to get on this plane! Becoming your friend opened up my world!"
"Wait, what?" Setsuna asked. "What is that supposed to mean?" Unfortunately, Love was crying too hard to explain.
A slower, more dramatic version of the show's opening theme played as the heroines said their final goodbyes and Aki got on the plane. Setsuna could barely hear what was happening over the sound of Love's wailing, but she was fairly certain neither character said anything that actually contradicted the earlier understanding that the two of them might never meet again.
"How is that not leaving Haru behind?" Setsuna asked as the television began to play between-show commercials and Love wiped her tears away. "First of all, what does Aki mean her world opened up because of Haru? Isn't she just heading even deeper into the world of serious musicians? How is that different from where she started? And second of all, even if it were true, what would it have to do with Haru not getting to be around her anymore?"
Instead of answering, Love started crying again. "Setsuna!" she sniffled loudly, then threw herself across Setsuna's lap while wrapping her arms around Setsuna's waist. "I love you, Setsuna! You don't like that kind of ending either, do you?"
Setsuna had no idea what was going on here anymore. She felt weird inside in more ways than one and could not begin to work out what she was supposed to do about any of them. Finally she settled on asking, "Why were you so excited about watching it if you don't even like it?"
"I mean, I didn't know it would end like that!" Love said. "These sorts of stories usually do, but I always hope, you know? And I really liked every episode up to this one, so of course I thought I would like this one too!"
"I see," Setsuna said, and her scattered thoughts began to coalesce. Love lived for happiness, but she went out of her way to watch stories that ended up making her sad. Also, it was apparently considered normal for people of this world to pursue their dreams by leaving behind the good things they already had. None of that seemed particularly optimal, but it wasn't as though anyone here had much in the way of guidance regarding optimization.
Setsuna had seen more than enough to convince her that, compared to a world where everything was decided, allowing people to make their own choices was a much better way to cultivate happiness. She had reforged her whole identity based upon that conviction. So it was with a soul-deep sense of discomfort that she began to consider that "better" did not mean anywhere near perfect.
"Don't worry, Setsuna," Love said, pulling her arms tighter and nuzzling her cheek against Setsuna's thigh. "I won't let any of the rabbits get away!"
Setsuna felt her face flush. "Love, you're getting your tears on my clothes," she chided, although that was the least of the ways Love's clinging was affecting her. "And what are you talking about now?"
"You know, the rabbits!" Love sat back up but leaned in when she looked at Setsuna so that their noses were almost touching, which didn't really improve matters much. "'If you chase two rabbits, you'll lose both.' Well, I'm still not going to choose!"
Oh. Those rabbits. "Given what happened back then, isn't that a reason to worry more rather than less?" Setsuna felt obligated to point out.
"But that was back before I had you!" Love said.
"I don't know if I can really do much to help you," Setsuna confessed. "I still don't feel like I understand dreams and happiness and friendship all that well."
"It's okay!" Love insisted. "We can help each other! And now you have Akarun too, so if we ever have to live apart for a while, you can still come see me all the time!"
"That is true," Setsuna said, feeling a flood of cool relief wash away the burning beneath her skin. "Finally I get a practical suggestion out of you."
"That's exactly what I mean!" Far from being flustered by Setsuna's teasing, Love sounded excited. "You can be the one who comes up with most of the practical ideas, or at least the one who keeps pressing me until I do! That's why we need each other!"
"I suppose." Setsuna smiled. Then her thoughts finally caught up with what her feelings were doing. "Wait a minute. How did you know that the show upset me because it made me think about you leaving? I didn't know that was why it upset me!"
"That's because I am a feelings expert!" Love declared smugly. Then she reached out a finger and poked Setsuna's thigh where she'd been resting her head earlier. "Also, I started thinking about that because you're soft like a rabbit."
Setsuna flushed again. Her face was almost certainly visibly red by this point. "We shouldn't use Akarun anywhere with other people around if it's not an emergency," she said, partly in a desperate attempt to preserve some sense of dignity and control, partly just to make sure she put that out there before Love managed to distract her again. "Next time, either don't forget your show or get home the normal way."
"Okay!" said Love.
"You sound far too cheerful about that," Setsuna noted. "Aren't you going to pout and argue?"
Love shook her head vigorously. "Nope! I'm glad that you're making your own choices! Besides, it's like we just talked about: you're helping me by being practical!"
This girl was really just too much. Setsuna felt her flush deepening even though Love wasn't touching her at all. She remembered the beach ball incident again and did the only thing she could think of to do: she picked up the couch cushion beside her and lobbed it at Love. Love laughed giddily as it smacked her in the face and slid into her lap, then picked it up and lobbed it back.
The two of them carried on like that until Love's mother arrived home and told them to wash up and help with dinner.