Satsuki sees her first.
Riko's seated at a picnic table near the student cafeteria and frowning at her phone. Her hair's even shorter than the last time Satsuki saw her, and she's changed up her style a little since coming to university. Black turtleneck, dark blue skinny jeans, and those boots that lace halfway to the knee and stay a bit open at the top for sloppy yet debonair effect. Every inch the university student.
As Satsuki begins to approach, Riko must notice her moving out of the corner of her eye, and she turns, her vague scowl unchanged.
"Fancy running into you here, Aida-san," Satsuki says with a friendly smile. There's something about Riko's drawn-together eyebrows that makes her hug her orientation binder closer to her chest.
"You got in? Congratulations," Riko says. "Sports sciences?"
Satsuki nods. Her eyes are doing that thing again, where she keeps trying to look away from a girl, but she can't, and she doesn't know why. Hinoe says that it means she's jealous of some aspect of the girl's appearance, but Satsuki knows that's not what it is. And Hinoe isn't here in the first place; she flunked the Centre Test and is going to be in exam limbo for another year. No one Satsuki knows got into Todai. Except Riko, but she's already been here for a year.
"Guess that makes you my senpai," she says to Riko, to keep the conversation going.
Riko casts another glance at her phone. "Guess so. So? How's that monster boyfriend of yours doing? Aomine?"
Satsuki purses her lips. "Dai-chan was never my boyfriend, as you well know. He is going to study in America; Kagamin helped him out somehow."
"Pity," Riko says. "I was hoping they'd stay here so I could see them play again."
Satsuki happens to wholeheartedly agree, but she doesn't like that Riko's talking about Dai-chan and Kagamin in that ah-yes-I-know-them tone. She hasn't been around for a whole year. "Why are you asking about Dai-chan, anyway? Could it be you have a crush on him?"
Riko laughs so loudly that Satsuki is taken aback.
"Why is that so funny?" she asks.
"You're a smart lady, you'll figure it out eventually," Riko replies. Her phone vibrates on the picnic table. "Whoops, that's my ride. See you around."
Satsuki barely has time to mumble a goodbye before Riko's striding away towards the administrative building's parking lot. No one's ever called her a lady before.
She stops and turns back to look at Satsuki. "Momoi-san."
Satsuki doesn't understand why her heart's pounding so hard. Anger? Why? "Yes?"
"Could it be you don't know anyone else here?"
She ends up behind Riko in the cafeteria lunch line, and her heart starts doing the thing again, but this time Satsuki knows it's not anger. It's guilt.
"I'm sorry, Aida-san," she says to Riko's back.
Riko jumps at least a foot into the air; her food tray clatters to the floor. "Be glad that was empty," she complains, replacing it on the counter rail and sliding it over a bit. "Haven't you heard of tapping a person's shoulder lightly?"
Satsuki sighs, her cheeks tingly-hot. "I thought you knew I was here but were ignoring me."
Riko considers this for a moment, then offers a wry smile. "I suppose I would have done exactly that if I had noticed you."
"Anyway, I really am sorry," Satsuki says again. "I was really rude to you the other day. I don't even know why I said all those things."
"You thought I was trying to insult you by saying you had no friends, so you got upset," Riko says.
"Stupid reason to get upset," Satsuki insists. "I just got here. Of course I wouldn't have friends yet."
"Well, apology accepted," Riko says, taking a plate of food from the server on the other side of the counter. She sets it on her tray and grabs a handful of napkins from the dispenser. "See you later."
She pauses, her hand hovering over the grey plastic cutlery tray. "What is it?"
"I am honestly not the same toddler I was in high school," Satsuki says, blushing as she remembers Riko's eyeroll. "I do know that bust size doesn't really mean anything."
"Well, it can if you're looking for a man," Riko says airily, grabbing herself a fork.
"Are you?" Satsuki blurts. Why? Why would she ask such a random question? Why don't I want her to say yes?
Riko laughs again, sincerely, and walks away.
The cherry blossoms are gone -- or they would be if the wind would pick up. These past few days, the air has been too still, as though the city were wrapped up in a cloth and stuffed in a dusty attic.
Dead blossoms carpet the sidewalks and lawns all around campus, rotting delicately. The scent of them is omnipresent but barely noticeable.
Satsuki's making her way to a lecture hall using a shortcut she found last week when she sees the two older girls on a scrap of blue picnic tarp, sequestered amid a cluster of trees at the back of Gym #5.
They're clearly unaware that they can be seen -- they must be, or they would not be kissing like that, Satsuki is quite sure.
"Break it up, you two," calls a voice Satsuki recognises, and then Riko is standing over the girls. The blond one glares a little.
Riko shakes a white paper bag and sits down beside them, saying something with an animated expression; this time her voice is too low for Satsuki to hear the words. The two women titter, and the dark-haired one digs into the bag Riko brought.
"Doughnuts!" she crows.
Satsuki's mind navigates through her recent encounters with Riko to the first available conclusion: like attracts like; people tend to make friend with the same… interests, and women with this kind of interest have no interest in men Which makes Riko, well.
Riko's laughter, open-mouthed and ringing yet somehow elegant in the truth it carried.
Riko, who seems to have some kind of Satsuki-radar at the most inconvenient of times, turns to look at her. She waves, her expression friendly.
Satsuki, her jaw unhinged, points to the other two women, then to Riko. Are you like them?
Riko blows her a cheeky kiss, and Satsuki runs so fast without aim she gets lost and ends up being late for class.
"I can tie a cherry stalk into a knot with my mouth," Satsuki announces.
She's at a get-acquainted party with the people from her Introductory Kinesiology study group at an Italian restaurant with an underwater theme. Red-haired mermaids in heavy make-up frolic on the walls amid foamy squiggle-waves.
The boys all look suitably thunderstruck by Satsuki's special talent, but they're not the ones whose reactions interests her. Riko is just a few tables over with a group of upperclassmen -- they're having a proper drinking party, being full-fledged adults and all. Satsuki ended up sitting with her back to Riko's table, but that hasn't stopped her from turning around every once in a while, pretending to look for a waiter.
The live band is pretty loud, though, and Satsuki doesn't think Riko heard her.
Are you like them?
Am I like you?
Satsuki's lingering in the administrative building's vending machine area, waiting for Riko to come back outside. The cicadas in the trees down the alley behind her are making an awful racket, reminding her that it's almost summer break.
In two weeks, Dai-chan's going to get on a plane and go far away, and she already feels abandoned. She wants to at least say thanks to Riko for all her help and guidance over the past few months. Maybe see if she might want to hang out over the break. They aren't friends, not really, but Satsuki hasn't really made that many friends yet.
Riko walks through the door fifteen minutes later. Spotting Satsuki, she marches up to her and puts her hands on her hips. "Do you have something to tell me or are you going to continue accidentally showing up everywhere I go and pretending it's a coincidence?"
"I'm not gay," Satsuki says really quickly, flushing. "Or bisexual, or whatever you call it. I like boys." She's rehearsed saying it so many times that the words come out smooth as sea-polished stones. "I like them a lot. They're really... strong."
Riko tilts her head to one side. "I see. So you had guys from every school in the prefecture falling at your feet, back in high school, and then you conveniently fell in love with the one who showed zero interest in you. Because you're so very heterosexual. Okay, we'll go with that."
"I really was in love with Tetsu-kun," Satsuki insists. "We just grew apart is all. It happens."
Riko's eyes gleam with impish amusement. "So you'd have liked it if he stuck his tongue in your mouth and rubbed his you-know-what all on your thigh?"
"Um, please don't be gross," Satsuki says, wrinkling her nose. She can't even imagine Tetsuya doing such a thing. How nasty. "We held hands once in a haunted house, and it made me really happy!"
Riko nods. "Okay. That's cool. Sorry I jumped to conclusions. Friends?"
Satsuki beams, a little over-enthusiastically. "Yeah!"
She watches Riko walk to her dad's car, acutely aware that every last bit of her insides has shrivelled up like seaweed in the sun.
She asks Riko to come to the airport with her, as friends. Dai-chan's and Tetsuya's parents don't count, after all -- they're going to see their precious sons off and they'd need her support, if she could give it. Satsuki didn't even know that Tetsuya was going to be leaving as well; she was so caught up in all the new experiences at university that she's barely kept in touch.
She watches the three of them -- Dai-chan in the lead, then Kagamin, then Tetsuya -- walk single-file through the security gates, and as soon as she's sure they're out of earshot, she starts to cry.
Riko pats her shoulder. "They'll be back before you know it. They get a lot of time off around Christmas in America, a whole two weeks or something. That's just a couple of months away."
Tetsuya's mom nods vigorously and pats Satsuki's other shoulder. "Don't cry, Satsuki-chan. I read all about Tetsu-kun's new school on the internet, and apparently the campus is very safe, even though it's in America."
Satsuki hadn't even considered that it might be unsafe where the boys were going, and she wants to cry even harder. But she doesn't. After all, whatever she's feeling, the parents must feel even worse.
Riko's hand stays on her shoulder long enough to leave a trace of warmth that lingers all the way to the parking lot.
"You like me," Satsuki says on the drive back to the city. "Don't you?"
Riko gives her a slow sideways smile, but keeps her eyes on the road ahead. "Don't flatter yourself. You aren't my type at all."
Satsuki pouts. "Oh? Who's your type, then? Is it that Mai girl you're always studying with?"
"Mai's really cute, but she's a little too intense. Political. You know, fist in the air, feminist reform, end nuclear power. I'm not cut out for that kind of thing." Riko signals a lane change and passes a slow-moving grandma in an ancient American jalopy.
"Yeah, I don't think you'd be a good match," Satsuki says, immensely relieved. "So is there someone you like right now?"
"Who knows," Riko says. "There's always someone, isn't there?"
Satsuki sits in Riko's room and watches her knit instead of doing her reading like she said she needed to -- but couldn't at home, because her parents have decided to rip up and replace the flooring and the house is a zoo.
"What are you making?" she asks, watching the many balls of yarn transform into a rainbow-like… item in Riko's hands.
"Just a little something," Riko says. "I like to upgrade the old winter wardrobe before the weather gets too cold."
Satsuki watches Riko's hands and thinks extremely inappropriate thoughts about what else those slim, precise fingers could do, and where.
It doesn't even make her blush any more.
"Satsuki-chan, are you home?"
"Yes, mama," Satsuki calls. "What do you need?"
"Oh, nothing -- I bought a watermelon, come and have some with me!"
They eat watermelon on the back porch, side by side. When done, Satsuki lies down with her head in Mom's lap. She doesn't care if that makes her a baby. Her mom always makes her feel safe, no matter what.
"Hmm? Really hot day, isn't it?"
"I'm probably a lesbian."
Pause. "Yeah, you probably are."
Satsuki breathes in, long and deep, the humid air feeling like it only reaches halfway to the bottom of her lungs. If Mom's so calm about it, then she must have been waiting for this. No one understands Satsuki better. "What's going to happen to me, mama?"
Mom strokes Satsuki's hair softly. "I guess that's up to you."
The summer break is ending.
"Can we go to your room, please?"
"Sure," Riko says, following Satsuki through the house. "Dad's not home, but whatever you want. What's going on? You look like a ghost chased you all the way here."
"I'm a liar," Satsuki says, balling both hands into fists as soon as she's past Riko's bedroom threshold. "I think you're-- I'm really-- I want to do things. Like dating. With you. I know I'm not your type, but--"
Riko's kiss is passionate and deep, with no lead-in, no coyness, like she couldn't wait to taste her, and every last bit of doubt Satsuki had before coming here disappears, like soap bubbles going nova. This is exactly what she's waited for -- not the right boy, as she's assured herself all this time, but the right woman. This woman.
"I thought I wasn't your type," Satsuki murmurs after pulling back to catch her breath. "You said so."
Riko reaches back to shut and lock the door. "You aren't the only liar in this room."
Satsuki sniffs. "How mean."
Riko holds out both her hands and waits for Satsuki to take them. When she does, Riko pulls her in close, so close Satsuki almost overloads from the perfect shape of her, the scent of her, the sound of her heartbeat.
"Hey, so what's this I heard about your mouth and cherry stalks?" Riko whispers.
The rainbow thing Riko was knitting turns out to be a scarf.
Satsuki takes it out of its Christmas wrapping, winds it about her neck, and tells Riko it's very warm.
"I think that's just your face getting all hot," Riko teases. She looks happy.
Come late March, the winds are so strong that the cherry blossoms are all gone before Satsuki gathers the courage to invite Riko to share a bit of blue tarp -- and blueberry tarts from the station bakery, and terrifying almost-public kisses -- behind Gym #5.
She invites Riko anyway, and it's just as nice without the cherry blossoms. Especially the kisses.
Satsuki inspects her borrowed furisode sash and touches the back of her updo carefully as she navigates through the slushy puddles in the awkward platformed zōri. "I want to go to a hotel, Ricchan."
Riko gives her an indulgent one-armed hug. "I heard you every time you said that over the past month."
Satsuki moves away from Riko's embrace and takes her hand instead. Lots of women walking around holding hands on Coming of Age day -- no one's going to think anything of it. "But did you hear me hear me?"
"I heard you," Riko says, squeezing Satsuki's fingers.
"We've been dating for over a year and we've never gone to one," Satsuki whines."If not today, when? I've become an adult and everything."
"And adults must be patient," Riko replies with a laugh. "It's eleven o'clock in the morning."
That night, they eat dinner at a proper Italian restaurant, with candlelight and fresh-baked bread and delicious wine and crisp white tablecloths. Not kitschy mermaids and a jukebox that's three years behind on requests. It makes Satsuki feel much more like a Real Adult than any of the heartfelt congratulations and gifts she's received today.
After they leave the restaurant, Satsuki, resigned to her hotel-less fate, starts walking towards the station entrance.
"Where are you going?" Riko asks. "The hotel's this way."
Satsuki brightens. "You booked one in secret!"
"They even have a free furisode re-wrapping service because of today," Riko says, pulling her by the hand. "Come on."
"Oh, I won't need that," Satsuki says. Her mom made it look really easy; she's sure she memorised the steps exactly -- she'll just have to give Riko instructions. It might even be a fun new kind of play, come to think of it.
But in the morning, after trying unsuccessfully three times in a row, Riko gives up and calls the front desk for someone to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
The diminutive lady who comes to their room doesn't so much as raise an eyebrow at the state of the bed or the hickeys on Riko's shoulders and Satsuki's chest. She even winks at them as she bows out, having wrapped Satsuki up so well the outfit feels even comfier than it was yesterday.
Maybe Mom's right, Satsuki thinks. Maybe the way people see these kinds of relationships really is changing, little by little.
The spring after next, the cherry blossoms stick around the longest in recent memory.
"I can't believe you're about to graduate," Satsuki says to Riko as they stand in the campus common waiting for the ceremony to begin. "You're going to be a real, proper adult, with a job and a salary."
"Here." Riko hands her a packet of advertising tissues.
"Thanks?" Satsuki says, puzzled. "Is my mascara running?" She doesn't remember crying. Yet.
"No, look at the ad."
HOME COOKING FOR TOTAL BEGINNERS
NOW RECRUITING APPLICANTS
MASTER ALL THE BASICS OF REAL JAPANESE COOKING IN JUST THREE WEEKS
EVENING AND WEEKEND CLASSES AVAILABLE
Satsuki looks back at Riko, expectant. "What? You want me to learn how to cook? Are you saying you want to get married?"
Riko opens her mouth, snaps it shut, sighs in that resigned way she always does when Satsuki makes her flustered. "I do want to get married, though that's not what this is about."
"Oh," Satsuki says, a little disappointed but also relieved -- she'd like them to exchange proper rings, not packets of tissue paper. "What's it about?"
Riko lifts one of Satsuki's hands and smooths it open, then places a key in the middle of her palm. It's warm, as though she's been holding it in her fist for a while.
"Ricchan," Satsuki says, excitement bubbling up in her. "Is this a key to your new place?"
"Our new place," Riko says. "You'll have to come and sign the lease with me, and pitch in properly with your part-time job earnings."
Satsuki throws her arms around Riko's neck and spins them both around, the key now clutched in her fist. "I'll take the cooking classes," she breathes, wishing she were brave enough to kiss Riko right here for everyone to see. "Every night when you come home from work, I'll have totally non-poisonous dinner waiting, and we can take baths together, and--"
"We'll both take the stupid classes, you goose," Riko says, hugging her tighter. "Come on, Sacchan, people are going to stare."
Satsuki nods and pulls away -- just in time: the PA system warbles to life, inviting the graduates to proceed to the staging area.
She watches Riko walk towards the other graduates until she vanishes into the crowd, which moves past the cafeteria's windows and then disappears around the corner.
The rough-hewn picnic table where she met Riko again three years ago is gone; they remodelled and put in a nice little patio with bright yellow umbrellas and miniature candle holders.
But if Satsuki concentrates hard enough, she can see a ghostly outline of a table, and a slip of a girl in stylish boots frowning at her phone. My girl.
Satsuki smiles at the cloudy sky overhead and walks off to find a seat near the podium.