Hiroko’s first day of high school is a day she will spend the rest of her life pretending never happened, right up until the second hand hits the hour and the school day ends. That’s when Hiroko’s saviour appears, an older girl with the most amazing long hair, tall and skinny and just like any one of the most popular girls in Hiroko’s grade who’d spent the morning making her life hard.
“Hey,” the girl says, “you going my way?”
“Which way is your way?” Hiroko says, high-pitched and embarrassing.
“You live on my street, I think,” the girl says. “Didn’t know you went to school here.”
Hiroko doesn’t mention that she’s never seen the girl before. “I’m a first year.”
The girl takes her time to answer, because she’s chewing bubblegum, and she pauses their conversation deliberately to blow a massive pink bubble and pop it with one pointy fingernail. She could be any of Hiroko’s tormentors, but there’s something keen in her gaze, a suggestion that she’s looking at Hiroko with interest, not with any malice.
“Then let’s walk home together,” she says.
Nobody—nobody—has ever asked Hiroko to walk home with them. She’s always convinced herself she likes it that way, sticking to the edge of the crowd and doing the absolute opposite of drawing attention to herself wherever possible. But something sparks in her chest at the idea of having a friend to walk home with—Hiroko couldn’t say why, but she trusts this girl, and just this once, it might not be so bad for her to step outside her shell.
All she manages to say is, “Um, if you’re sure.”
“‘Course I’m sure,” the older girl says, and starts walking away from the school. Hiroko has to walk fast to follow. “Oh—I didn’t introduce myself, huh? I’m Okukawa Minako, second year.”
Hiroko freezes. “Like the ballerina… ?”
There’s a long, awkward pause; Minako stops too, and looks down at Hiroko with a blank expression, and then bursts into pretty laughter. “I don’t expect people to recognise me,” she says. “It’s fine, really—”
“You look so different with your hair up, and dressed in all those beautiful costumes, that I didn’t realise,” Hiroko babbles. “Really, I’m so sorry!”
“I told you I don’t mind,” Minako says. She starts walking again. “What’s your name?”
“I’m nobody important,” Hiroko mumbles, stumbling after a moment to keep up.
Minako frowns. “I’m sure that’s not true. Everybody is someone important.”
“Nakata Hiroko,” she says, quickly, before she can regret it. “I shouldn’t even be talking to someone as popular as you.”
“I’m only popular because people are scared of me,” Minako says. She blows another bubble and leaves her tongue stuck out. She picks the gum off with her long nails and flicks it into the undergrowth by the side of the road.
“I’m a little scared of you,” Hiroko admits.
“That’s okay,” Minako says. “I’m used to it. People have been scared of me since I pulled boys’ hair in elementary school.”
They come to a small flight of steps down from the main road to a side street that cuts through a patch of forest, the shortcut Hiroko never takes home, because her mum tells her it’s dangerous. Minako turns here, kicking her legs up and sliding down the metal railing. Her backpack scrapes against the chicken wire fence between the steps and the neighbouring garden, and her skirt flaps scandalously in her own gust of wind. She lands gracefully at the bottom.
Hiroko has spent all day at the mercy of taunts and, for her height, being called weak, and no matter how many times she’s looked at herself in the bathroom mirror and said, “I’ll grow, I’ll grow,” sometimes she doesn’t believe it, convinced she’ll be short and spotty forever. Now, she wonders if maybe it’s not about how tall she is, or how young she looks. If she pretends she’s tough, then—
“Sorry. I’m coming.”
There are five steps and she takes two at a time, coming to a halt beside Minako. Wordlessly, Minako peers down at her—Hiroko only comes up to Minako’s shoulders, if that. She’ll grow.
Then, long hair swishing over her shoulder, Minako turns, and heads down the street towards the forest. The sun is still bright in the sky but through the thick trees it’s lost, coming through only in glimpses to paint the deep green of the leaves in their naturally brighter tone. There’s no solid ground underfoot, but there are tracks trodden in fallen leaves so often that they’ve formed something of a path, wet from last night’s rain and squelching mud onto Hiroko’s school shoes. They were dirty already, the same shoes she had in middle school. Her parents couldn’t afford new ones.
“I’ve never been this route,” Hiroko says, because she’s more scared of silence than she is of someone as beautiful and popular as Okukawa Minako.
“Careful, then,” Minako says. “There’s a steep slope up ahead, coming down the other side of the mountain. It’s a fast route, but only if you’re brave enough.”
She looks back over her shoulder and winks at Hiroko. It’s not teasing; rather, Hiroko feels like Minako is letting her know they’re equals, by virtue of having followed her down the forest path in the first place.
The way turns steep sooner than she’d expected, and Hiroko hangs back to let Minako go first, watching as she grabs onto a tree branch to keep steady, then tracks forward balancing on her heels. There’s mud splattered on both of their socks, and Hiroko wonders if Minako cares, if she notices. It’s not long before she wonders if Minako notices anything at all—it’s a rock in her path, and Hiroko can’t call out fast enough, can’t make the words leave her mouth the moment her eyes catch on the rock and Minako’s heel catches on it too, and she goes flying forward, skidding onto her knees at the bottom of the slope.
Hiroko’s voice finds her at last. “Minako, are you—”
“I’m alive!” Minako calls, flinging her arms up into the air.
“Are you hurt?” Hiroko asks, reaching the bottom of the slope at last.
Minako shakes her head. “Covered in mud, but nothing’s—oh, I grazed my knee on something.”
“I have bandages in my bag,” Hiroko says, throwing it down onto the muddy ground while she rummages around for her first aid kit. “Hold still; I’ll cover it up for you.”
“Thank you,” Minako says. She doesn’t look in the least bit troubled, content to watch as Hiroko cleans and bandages her graze. “You’re good at this. Do you have training?”
“My parents used to own a restaurant. There were always kitchen injuries to deal with.”
There’s silence, the rustling of a breeze through the leaves, and Minako fixes Hiroko with that same interested stare. “Used to?”
“Things went bad with money,” is all Hiroko says.
Minako doesn’t press. “Help me to my feet! I don’t think I twisted my ankle, but my ballet teacher’s gonna be so mad if I did.”
Hiroko holds out her hands, and Minako takes them, hoisting herself upright and balancing as best she can on the slippery ground.
“If I didn’t have you around, that could’ve been bad,” Minako says.
“If you didn’t take the shortcut—”
But if Hiroko hadn’t taken the shortcut, then she would’ve walked home the long day and done her homework while her parents whispered about the finances and pretended Hiroko couldn’t hear them, and she wouldn’t have made a friend.
“You must be a lucky charm!” Minako clasps Hiroko’s hands tighter. “Let’s walk home together every day.”
Minako arrives at Yu-topia Katsuki with a large suitcase wheeled behind her and a slur to her speech, which she says is from all the alcohol she drank on the flight over—it hasn’t worn off yet. Hiroko is exhausted; she’s carrying Yuuri in her arms when she answers the door, because he hasn’t stopped crying since the thunderstorm passed over that morning, and on top of that Mari has been acting out again, throwing rocks at the boys she plays with down at the beach, and Hiroko has no idea what to do about it.
“He’s cute,” Minako says, while Toshiya pours her another drink. She’s at a table in the bar out front—one of the newer additions to the inn—and Yuuri has quieted down, interested by the new arrival.
“Yuuri,” Hiroko says. “He’ll be ten months old next week.”
“And you’re back at work already?” Minako looks shocked. “Who’s looking after Yuuri, then?”
Hiroko sighs. “I am.”
Minako knocks back the entire glass of whisky and puts the glass back down with a clatter. Yuuri is delighted by this, from his place on the table. He prods at the glass with his stubby baby fingers and it topples sideways; he is delighted by this too.
“It’s not as hard as you’d think,” Hiroko continues, reaching across the table to pick the glass back up. “Someone has to look after the front of house. We have fewer guests, these days. They love Yuuri, anyway. He’s a bit of a performer—” she pokes his cheek, “—aren’t you, Yuuri?”
Yuuri gurgles happily and knocks the glass over again. At least he’s not crying anymore.
Like their other recent guests, Minako is charmed by Yuuri too. “And your eldest? What was her name?”
“Mari. She’s six now.”
It’s been five years since Hiroko was last in touch with Minako, not long after Mari had been born, and everything was still new, uncertain. Now, Hiroko knows how to handle a baby, and she knows how to run front of house at an inn. It’s been eight years since Minako left Hasetsu to study in London, to travel the world dancing, making a name for herself, winning awards—and now she’s home again.
Hiroko does not ask why.
“Six,” Minako says. “Wow. That’s a pretty big gap between kids. What gives?”
“Once Mari started going to school,” Hiroko says, blushing, “Toshiya and I had more time to—”
She’s saved from finishing that sentence by Minako’s sharp burst of laughter, and after a moment, Hiroko manages to laugh too. When they’re like this, it’s easy to pretend they’re still at school, tiptoeing through the forest shortcut and holding hands so neither of them fall, shrieking at every sound from deep amongst the trees.
“I missed this place,” Minako says, once her laughter fades. “I missed you.”
“Are you back to stay?” Hiroko asks.
Minako dips her head. “Yeah. I don’t have anywhere to stay, so is it okay if I crash here for a while? Just while I get back on my feet, find a place to rent.”
“Of course,” Hiroko says. “Please don’t think this is rude of me, but I’m worried about you, Minako. Do you have any plans for what you’ll do now that you’re home?”
“A couple of thoughts,” Minako says. “Nothing serious.”
Hiroko takes the whisky glass away from Yuuri, who is dangerously close to trying to drink the dregs at the bottom. “If there’s anything we can do…”
“I’ve thought about teaching.” Minako says it quickly and then goes quiet for a few moments longer. “I wouldn’t be anywhere without the instruction I got. I want to give some of that back. I got lucky—so why shouldn’t other kids have that opportunity? After all, there’s nothing else going for this shitty little down.”
“Don’t,” Hiroko snaps. It comes out of nowhere. She hears Yuuri let out a small whimper, and steadies her breathing, hands clenched in fists and pressed against her knees. “Don’t say that.”
Minako cringes. “Sorry. I didn’t mean it that way. It’s just that—when you’ve seen the world, things shift in perspective, you know? Hasetsu is so small. All the businesses I used to know are closing down. This is the only onsen resort still operational. I looked it up before I came. Wanted somewhere peaceful to stay.”
She goes quiet, looks deliberately away from Hiroko.
“Didn’t want to impose on you.”
“You could never be an imposition,” Hiroko says. “That’s what friends are for.”
Minako’s expression softens. “Thanks, Hiroko. I mean it. It’s good of you to have me, even though I haven’t written to you in years.”
“I tried writing,” Hiroko says, “but I got a letter back saying you’d moved, and the person living in your old flat didn’t know your new address.”
“That was my fault,” Minako says.
She goes slack at the shoulders and flops forward, long hair like a fringe curtain brushing against the table. Yuuri yanks at her hair and laughs like it’s the funniest thing in the world. Hiroko wishes she could understand what babies were thinking. It’s probably much happier to be ignorant of everything that goes on in the minds of adults, amused by something as simple as a glass, cut from fake crystal and catching on the light.
Then again, Hiroko wouldn’t give up her memories for anything. Even if things aren’t the same as they used to be, Minako is still the best friend Hiroko has ever had, and putting a roof over her head while she readjusts to being home is the least Hiroko can do.
“I don’t know about your old ballet studio, but an ice cream parlour not far from here closed down last month,” Hiroko says. “As far as I know, the shop is still empty. There’s not much space, but it’s better than nothing.”
“I don’t need to teach,” Minako says. “I could open a bar.”
“You may not need to, but you should,” Hiroko says. She picks Yuuri up and puts him in her lap, so she can look clearly at Minako. “I know you’re a good teacher. And you’re right—the children here need something to look forward to. I know Mari needs something to keep her occupied.”
“You always know exactly what to say to me,” Minako says, settling back with her palms flat on the floor behind her.
Hiroko smiles. “I always did.”
Minako is the pride of Hasetsu, the young star who’s performed overseas and climbed to heights far greater than a sleepy Saga town by the sea could ever dream of. Hiroko is beginning to wonder how she got so good, if all she does at the ballet studio is goof off.
“Stop laughing, Hiroko! It’s not funny! Nobody is taking me seriously.”
“Maybe that’s because you want to perform to a YMO song for your audition,” Hiroko says, stifling a giggle behind her hand. “I think it’s cool, but don’t ballet companies only perform classical works? Do you think they’ll take you seriously?”
Minako huffs, striding across to the other side of the studio to turn off the record player. Her teacher is busy downstairs with a class full of younger students, so Minako took the opportunity to bring Hiroko around for the first time, and show her the routine she’s been working on. Hiroko had been nervous at first—she’d been beyond nervous, actually, especially because she knew how some of the girls in her class idolised Minako and would do anything for a private audience with her. But being here is easy, and more than that, it’s the most fun Hiroko has ever had with a friend.
“That’s just it,” Minako says. “I want people to take me seriously, but I’m not going to get there by doing the exact same thing as everyone else. I want to be respected for being different.”
Hiroko tries to placate her: “And you will be. But you won’t be noticed in the first place if you don’t do what they expect of you.”
“It’s all the same.” Minako slouches onto the floor, crossing her legs. “I’m tired of being what people expect.”
For the first time, Hiroko realises that being adored by the whole world might not be as wonderful as Minako always makes it out to be. She hesitates for a moment before getting up to join Minako across the other side of the room.
“When you’re good at something,” she says, “of course you’re going to judge yourself more harshly. Other people look at your dancing and see something incredible, that they’d never be able to do themselves.”
“You’re right!” Minako exclaims. “Hiroko, let me teach you how to dance!”
“That’s not really what I meant…”
But Minako is already on her feet, realigning the needle with the beginning of Solid State Survivor’s A-side. “Come on, it’s so much fun! You’re right, this isn’t really ballet music—but you can dance to anything. It doesn’t need to be ballet dancing, either.”
“Um, I don’t think so,” Hiroko says, still sitting on the ground.
Minako puts her hands on her hips. “How come?”
Now, Hiroko stands up. “Well, I’m—” she gestures to herself, “—fat.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” Minako says dismissively.
“Maybe to you it doesn’t.” Hiroko clenches her hands into fists by her side. “Every dancer I’ve ever seen has been tall and skinny like you. Girls like me can’t move the way you can. People don’t even talk to us, if they can help it.”
“Now you’re exaggerating,” Minako says, but she’s flustered, so she must know there’s some truth in it. “Here, just because you can’t kick your leg as high as me, doesn’t mean you can’t move your body.”
The song that’s playing is upbeat, a driving synth melody and distorted, robotic vocals, and Minako starts moving in time with the music. Her movements are repetitive, nothing like ballet, more like something out of the instructional exercise tapes Hiroko’s mum leaves on in the background while she does her knitting. But like everything she does, it’s hypnotic to watch.
“There’s no way I could dance like that,” Hiroko says.
Minako grins in a blur of motion, whipping her head around. “Try it! Be my mirror image.”
The ballet studio is walled with mirrors, reflecting Minako four times like looking down the barrel of a kaleidoscope; with the trance-like repetitiveness of the music, there’s something psychedelic about it. These mirrors are enough already that Minako doesn’t need another—Hiroko tries to imagine what it’ll look like with two bodies moving in time, different shapes but following the same patterns.
Hiroko doesn’t say anything. She faces Minako and starts slowly at first, moving her arms the way Minako does, twisting her body sideways when Minako does, following her movements in the mirror when she can’t bring herself to look Minako in the eye.
“See!” Minako sounds far too proud of herself. “You’re getting it. Now try moving your feet.”
So Hiroko does. It’s easier than she expected. It’s not graceful and Hiroko very decidedly doesn’t watch her thighs or her arms or her stomach, but it feels good. It feels fun. When the second track on the LP starts playing, Minako’s dance changes, and Hiroko finds it easy to adapt.
“You’re a good teacher,” she says, breathless but alive with energy.
Minako shrugs. “Nah. I’m only good at it because I’m good at this. You’re picking it up all on your own.”
Hiroko knows Minako is just humouring her, trying to encourage her—because, Hiroko is beginning to realise, this is what best friends do for each other—but Hiroko is happy to take the praise. One day she’ll tell Minako that, actually, it’s all down to her. Hiroko wouldn’t have anywhere near this much confidence if she was alone in the studio, forcing her limbs to move in unfamiliar patterns. She doesn’t think the idea to dance would even have occurred to her—but is that her fault, or is it the influence of the girls at school who’re still picking on her even though she’s hanging out with someone as cool as Minako?
Minako stops dancing in the pause between songs, caught in her pose. “Yeah?”
“I changed my mind,” Hiroko says. “You should do your audition to this song.”
Yuuri is five years old and shy when Hiroko first takes him to the ballet studio. He’s not shy when there’s music playing at the inn and Mari takes him by the hands and dances around the bar, but he’s shy when Hiroko lets go of his hand and tells him to knock on the door of the studio.
“Go on, Yuuri,” she says. “It’ll mean more if you ask her yourself.”
Being encouraging is new to Hiroko—Mari always did things without being told to, and sometimes despite being told not to, so it was a surprise to Hiroko that her second child won’t do a single thing unless he’s told to. Except for dancing, that is. Yuuri is always dancing, whenever there’s music and sometimes when there’s not. Minako isn’t around the onsen as much these days, busy with students and running her bar, so Hiroko knows it can’t be her influence. Still, she wonders.
Yuuri nods and balls one little hand into a fist. He raises it to the door, and then—
“Mum, what if I’m not good at ballet?”
“It doesn’t matter if you’re not good at it right away,” Hiroko says. “You might take years to learn ballet, and lots of hard work. It’s worth it to do what you love.”
Yuuri shakes his head. “But I’m fat.”
For a moment, Hiroko is back in this same studio, an awkward sixteen year old with a head full of all the wrong ideas. She’s putting the needle back to the beginning of the record and starting again, dancing until she doesn’t care what people think about her—but it wasn’t easy, and changing the way she thought of herself took so much time, and now she has to look her son in the eye and she doesn’t know what to tell him to make him feel better.
Instead, she asks, “Who told you that?”
“Who… ?” Yuuri looks confused. He scrunches up his face into a frown. “Um, kids at school, sometimes.”
“Well they’re very silly to think they’d know about something like that,” Hiroko says, “since they don’t even know their times tables yet.”
Yuuri laughs at that, but his expression turns serious again a moment later. “I’m gonna knock.”
The change in demeanour is so sudden that Hiroko almost laughs too. Her own son, and she still can’t tell what goes on in his head. Maybe part of this is accepting that she’ll never truly know. All she can do is be unfailingly positive, and make sure her children are always smiling.
Minako opens the door not a moment later—Hiroko had called ahead to make sure she knew she was expecting them.
“Look who we have here!” Minako leans down and pokes Yuuri’s nose. “Don’t you know I’m teaching a class soon, hmm?”
“Sorry, Minako,” Yuuri says, bowing his head.
“Don’t be sorry,” Hiroko stage-whispers.
Yuuri nods, sticking his chin up high. “Minako, can I join your class?”
Minako does a fabulous job of acting surprised. “Of course you can, Yuuri! My other students are warming up already; why don’t you go and introduce yourself while I chat to your mum?”
Hiroko puts a hand on Yuuri’s shoulder. She’s learnt from Mari not to be too overbearing; kids find that embarrassing these days. It’s very sweet, and Hiroko is happy for her children to learn that independence—they’ll have to, with parents who’re always busy working. And Yuuri takes her nudge as the support she means it to be, ducking past Minako to join the other kids. This is the beginner’s class, but a lot of them look older and taller than Yuuri. At least this means they’re probably not the same kids who’ve been picking on him at school.
As Minako gets back to her feet, Hiroko says, “Thank you so much for taking him.”
“It’s my pleasure,” Minako says. “A kid who’s always dancing shouldn’t be allowed to go so long without dance lessons.”
“We should’ve encouraged him to go sooner,” Hiroko says, “but business hasn’t been good, and we couldn’t afford these lessons until—”
“Don’t worry about payment,” Minako says. “I’m serious. You’re a friend, and you were just about the only friend I had when I moved back here. This is the least I can do for you.”
Hiroko is momentarily at a loss for words. “You shouldn’t have to. You need to make a living too. And don’t you go acting like teaching ballet is the most well-paying profession in the world.”
“It’s not,” Minako says, half-smiling, “but I get revenue from the bar, and you only have one source of income. I don’t want to take more of that than I need.”
“Then take a discounted price,” Hiroko says. She’s embarrassed that the words are even leaving her mouth. “Don’t take nothing.”
Minako sighs. “Half-price?”
“Please let me pay you the full fee,” Hiroko tries, one last time.
“Sorry, no can do,” Minako says. “I’ve instituted a new rule that friends are only allowed to pay half-price.”
Hiroko narrows her eyes. “And when did this rule come into effect?”
“Right this moment!” Minako claps her hands together. “Okay, Hiroko, I have a class to teach, so I’ll see you later, bye!”
“I’ll cook dinner for you every night,” Hiroko says.
“Wow, it’s been so nice catching up! But now I have to—”
“You can have free drinks at the bar—”
“See you later, Hiroko!”
Minako pokes out her tongue and shuts the studio door. Hiroko lingers, though—she stays in the corridor until she can hear the first sounds of music, and footsteps across a wooden floor. She shuts her eyes and remembers the old record player, the way it had felt to let loose, and only then, once she’s allowed the memory to dissipate naturally, she leaves.
Hiroko doesn’t know what else to say as she approaches Minako after the graduation ceremony, where she’s standing with her group of friends under the blossom trees. Thankfully, Minako breaks away from her friends to talk to Hiroko, clutching her diploma proudly.
“Thanks,” Minako says. “I didn’t get the best grades, but… it’s good to be finished.”
“I can imagine,” Hiroko says. She can’t wait to finish herself, start looking for a job in a restaurant, and help support her parents.
Minako smiles sadly. “I’ll miss Hasetsu, though, when I’m—”
“When you’re what?”
“It’s nothing.” Minako’s eyes go wide, panicked. “I shouldn’t have said! I haven’t told anyone yet, but—”
“You can tell me,” Hiroko says.
They’ve been good friends for long enough that there are no secrets between them. So many people look up to Minako and hold her at a distance—in terms of a confidante, she only has Hiroko. Which is good, because Hiroko only has Minako, and she doesn’t know what she’d do if she were ever forced to confide in someone else.
She adds, “Please.”
Minako lets out a long, resigned sigh. “One of—a few of my auditions were successful, but the one I’ve chosen to go with is the Royal Ballet, in London. I’m leaving in a month.”
Her words take a while to sink in. Hiroko had resigned herself to Minako leaving school, and leaving Hiroko to walk home on her own every day, but she’d thought at least she would be able to see Minako after school and on the weekends. The idea of Minako being so far away that they can only write to each other makes Hiroko feel like she’s sinking, stones tied to her limbs and a heaviness in her heart.
“That’s fantastic,” Hiroko says. “I’m so proud of you, Minako.”
“Yeah?” Minako sounds uncertain.
“Of course. You’re living your dream and you’ll be dancing with one of the best companies in the world. Wherever that takes you, I know it’ll be somewhere amazing.”
Minako glances over her shoulder at her friends, then back to Hiroko, her eyes narrowed. “You’re not… sad?”
Forcing a smile, Hiroko shakes her head. “No. I’m happy for you.”
“You won’t miss me?” Minako demands.
Despite herself, that annoys Hiroko. Naturally she’ll miss her only friend—there’s an awful, selfish part of Hiroko that she’ll never show to the world, a voice at the back of her mind that’s shouting for Minako to stay, to keep Hiroko afloat so she can keep that carefree confidence Minako has shown her how to feel.
“I will miss you,” Hiroko says, and that’s where her honesty ends. “But more than anything, I’m so excited for you. You’re living your dream.”
“You already said that.” Minako scowls. “Go on then. Why don’t you tell me to stay?”
“I don’t want you to stay,” Hiroko says. This time she almost means it. “Do you want to stay?”
Minako puts on a very affected nonchalance. “It doesn’t matter, does it? I’m leaving forever. There’s nothing for me in Hasetsu. There are no stages big enough for my talent.”
“I know that.” Hiroko doesn’t want to argue. She doesn’t want this to be her last conversation with Minako. “I know that the rest of the world is going to love you.”
“Will you write to me?” Minako asks. “I’ll write to you, as soon as I get to London, so you’ll have my return address.”
Hiroko holds out her hands, and Minako takes them, diploma tucked under one arm. “Of course I’ll write to you.” She pauses, steadying her breathing, just in case her sadness decides to escape through her eyes. “And you’re wrong, you know.”
“There will always be something for you in Hasetsu,” Hiroko says. “If you ever come home, if you ever need anything—”
Minako drops Hiroko’s hands and flings her arms around Hiroko’s shoulders, pulling her into a tight hug. Her diploma rolls onto the ground. After a moment’s shock, Hiroko manages to reciprocate the hug.
“Thank you,” Minako says. “Thank you so much.”
“Remember me when you’re even more famous,” Hiroko says, laughing.
She doesn’t feel like crying anymore. They have the whole month ahead of them, after all, days and days of spring to spend together until Minako has to leave. Minako says goodbye but it’s only for now; she picks up her diploma and returns to her friends.
Hiroko watches her back as she walks, all the grace of a ballet dancer, none of the slouch that graces Hiroko’s shoulders as she slumps down on one of the benches under the blossom trees, soft petals crushed beneath her. She lets the sadness hit her now, lets the tears come, pressing her fingernails into the petals either side of her and leaves crescent moon marks, like a long trail of frowns.
“Hiroko? Nakata Hiroko?”
She looks up sharply, wiping her wet eyes. She’s ready to snap, defend herself—but it’s just Katsuki Toshiya, from class B.
“That’s you, right?” Toshiya says.
Hiroko nods. They haven’t talked much before, and definitely not since the Nakata family restaurant closed down and stopped supplying food to the Katsuki family onsen. It’s been years, but Hiroko is always going to look the same, and Toshiya hasn’t grown much either.
“I almost didn’t recognise you, it’s been so long,” Toshiya goes on. “You’re, um, you’ve really grown.”
Oh. “You too,” Hiroko says. “Um, did you want—”
Toshiya interrupts her. “Can I walk you home?”
“We don’t live anywhere near each other,” Hiroko says, confused.
“I know,” Toshiya says. He awkwardly readjusts his thick glasses. “I meant—can I walk you to my home? You can stay for dinner, if you want.”
Hiroko thinks she gets it now. There’s a shy but hopeful smile on Toshiya’s face, so she stands up—she’s still shorter than him, but at least it’s easier to talk this way, easier for her to smile back and allow herself to hope, too.
“It’s a long walk,” she says. “Let’s go.”
On Hiroko’s short walk home from the fish market, she sees no fewer than eleven posters with her son’s face on them, one arm raised to the sky and his gaze tracking it like it holds all the answers to some unspoken question. Yuuri is the new pride of Hasetsu, the small seaside town that keeps sending its children to international stardom. Hiroko will never forget how lonely that had been for Minako.
She takes her time getting back to the inn; business has been slow, although the reservations are picking up now that they’ve got a real celebrity staying with them. And everyone’s busy for other reasons—Mari is packing to follow Yuuri and Viktor to Barcelona, along with Minako.
In fact, it’s chaos back at the inn. The sun has barely risen, but already Yuuko and Takeshi have brought the triplets around to say goodbye to everyone, which means that the triplets are playing with Makkachin and pestering Viktor in turn. Yuuri, blessed with the natural ability to sleep through absolutely anything, is passed out with his head on the table and a bit of drool at the corner of his mouth.
Hiroko leans down to wipe her thumb across Yuuri’s mouth. He may be one of the best figure skaters in the world, but he’s still her baby boy, and sometimes she indulges, lets herself be his doting mum. Yuuri, of course, does not stir.
“So cute,” Viktor says in his stilted Japanese. Hiroko doesn’t know if he means both of them, or just Yuuri. It’s hard to tell with him.
Like everyone who’s ever known Yuuri, Viktor is drawn to his charm—like no-one else, Viktor is drawn to the same things as Hiroko, the quiet in-between moments like this, when Yuuri is out cold in the middle of a commotion and drooling on a table. Viktor looks at Yuuri like this is when he’s at his most beautiful. Hiroko worries, sometimes, about letting her son go; with Viktor, she knows he’ll be in safe hands.
Letting Yuuri go to America was hard enough, but Hiroko is used to people who’re dear to her disappearing for years on end. In those five years, it was easy enough to imagine him jetting off to competitions around the world, but now that he’s been back home for so long, seeing him off each time feels worse than it did the last.
This time, at least, Yuuri will have Minako with him. She always supported him when he was little, taking him on the train to competitions and going with him internationally as his coach, and this season she’s resumed that role—she no longer needs to act the coach, but she’s been able to support Yuuri from the sidelines in a way that Hiroko never could. She never could, because she was busy running the inn, working in the kitchens, helping guests settle.
To Yuuri, she’s never really understood his choice of career. Privately, though, she wonders if maybe she understands it too well, and doesn’t want to think about what it might be doing to him.
Mari clatters into the bar with her suitcase just as Minako is arriving. The last time Minako brought a suitcase to Yu-topia Katsuki, she had been tipsy and staggering. Now, she flings her arms wide and greets Hiroko with a hug. Over Hiroko’s shoulder, she calls out, “Ready, Yuuri?”
Hiroko laughs, gently pushing Minako off her. “He’s sleeping.”
“He can sleep on the plane,” Minako says. She walks up to Yuuri and looms over him; this is something she used to do a lot when he was young, but now he’s grown so tall and she can only do it when he’s sitting down. “Wake up, sleepyhead! Barcelona’s calling.”
Viktor says something to her in English, and Minako responds in kind. Sometimes she even speaks to Yuuri in English. She tells Hiroko they argue about the language, because she learnt it in Britain and Yuuri in America. Hiroko just has to take her word for it; she’s never had a head for words. Sometimes she wishes that wasn’t the case, that she could talk to Minako in the second language she uses as easily as if it were her own.
Once Yuuri is spluttering awake, being fussed over by Viktor and the Nishigoris, Minako returns to Hiroko’s side.
“Look at him,” she says. “It seems like just yesterday he was a little kid stepping onto the ice for the first time.”
“I still think that every time I watch him on TV,” Hiroko says.
“Do you miss him?” Minako asks. “When he goes away? Is it hard, now that he’s back?”
It’s like she can read Hiroko’s mind. That must be what happens when you’ve known someone for over thirty years; the frequencies they operate on have started to interfere with one another, to the point that Minako can tell what’s going through Hiroko’s mind as she watches Yuuri get ready to go away again, and Hiroko can guess at what Minako is feeling too.
“Of course I do,” she says. “And you—it must be a familiar sight.”
“I performed in Barcelona, a few times,” Minako says. She very rarely talks about her years abroad, even though the trophy she has to show for it sits proudly on her mantlepiece. “It was very beautiful, but I didn’t see much of it; we were rehearsing all the time. I’m hoping to be more of a tourist this time.”
“Do you ever miss it?” Hiroko asks. She doesn’t usually cross this line.
Minako is silent for a while. Hiroko tries to focus on the triplets yelling, Makkachin barking.
“Sometimes,” Minako admits. She nudges Hiroko’s elbow. “Not as much as I missed Hasetsu when I was abroad, though.”
“Come back soon,” Hiroko says, and they both laugh. “We’ll be waiting for you.”
But, selfishly, she means, I will be waiting. The smile on Minako’s face, a secret between the two of them, tells Hiroko she understands.