Kujikawa Rise is somewhat of an enigma to Naoto, even after all these months.
Here is a girl with a hundred different faces; here is a girl that can twist and shape herself to fit what whoever views her wants to see— and here is Naoto, stalwart and steadfast in the single version of herself that she wants to be.
Rise smiles, and it means a hundred different things to a hundred different people. Rise laughs, and everyone believes they are the one who it’s meant for, the one who is meant to benefit from it. Naoto prides herself on being able to peel people back layer by layer, to expose them and their secrets, and yet even after all these months she doesn’t think she could pinpoint which Rise is the most true self.
It bothers her. It bothers her deeply in a way she cannot truly explain, even to herself. There is something about the quality of Kujikawa Rise’s smile that both entices and unsettles her, and without a more pressing mystery to solve Naoto finds herself delving into it.
They both remain in Inaba for the time being. Naoto can readily, if reluctantly, admit that while she is a top-notch detective, her social skills with her own age group are, quite frankly, non-existent. She’s far more used to fighting and clawing her way to be heard over her young age and small stature and gender; she’s had to learn to be abrupt and direct and to the point, sharp like one of Senpai’s swords. Though the classwork is easy, bordering on boring, the enrichment she gains from interfacing with her peers is significant enough that both she and her grandfather deem it valuable.
So she will complete another year at Yasogami, then reconsider her options. She remains on retainer for detective work; if a case comes up, she will leave, but then she’ll return.
Rise’s motivations are much less clear, in that Rise refuses to explain them to Naoto’s satisfaction. She has a fairly lucrative career waiting eagerly for her return; it is also a career in an industry that will not wait forever, an industry where girls like Rise have an expiration date, where their juniors are always rabidly waiting for their chance to ascend.
(Well, no, Naoto corrects herself. There really are no other girls like Kujikawa Rise.)
It’s somewhat of a miracle that a humble tofu shop in a tiny town like Inaba managed to produce someone like Rise; however, the same could be said of the Shirogane line, of Naoto herself. Inaba is her home as well, no matter how loosely tied to it she once felt.
Either way, Inaba will be home to the both of them for the next year at the least. And Naoto cannot deny the quiet burst of pleasure it brings her, knowing that for the next year she’ll keep her seat behind Rise in class.
Rise likes Junes unironically.
Not just because of Senpai and Nanako-chan, though the thought of both brings a smile to her face. Not because it’s still really funny to see Yosuke-senpai turn all sorts of colors when she walks in on him wearing the hideous Junes apron. Not just because Teddie’s enthusiasm for his job is really sweet, either.
Junes, this Junes in particular, feels so much like home after all the time they spent sneaking into the TV over the past year. It’s a known quality, and for Rise, when so much of her life revolves around moving from place to place, it’s a comfort.
It reminds her of being a child again, in a way; from the top of the food court she can see the cherry blossoms blooming, and she thinks back to ohanami with her grandmother, just the two of them and a picnic basket under the boughs. Those were simpler times, to be sure, but they were also lonely times, spent helping her grandmother in the tofu shop and aching for friendship at school.
The Rise of five years ago would be so happy to see the Rise now.
In fact, speaking of friendship— she thinks she sees a familiar blue cap headed down to the Samegawa. She whips out her phone and sends three quick texts as she darts for the elevator.
The cherry blossoms are blooming in Inaba, pulling something small and wistful into Naoto’s throat. It’s been a long time since she’s walked the Samegawa in the spring like this— no hurry, no bustle, no case to occupy her mind, just herself and the wind and the water and the sakura shedding petals in the breeze.
It’s just beautiful enough to captivate her, to make her drift to a halt at the side of the walkway, to make her ignore her phone vibrating in her pocket until a call of “Naoto-kun!” makes her spin on her heel, shoulders drawing up tight. But it’s just Rise, dressed in a thin spring coat and gloves that echo the color of the cherry blossoms. “I texted you!” she says, slightly out of breath, wearing a smile that’s as close to genuine as Naoto’s ever seen it. “Don’t the sakura look amazing today? It’s been so long since I’ve been in Inaba to see them!”
“It’s the same for me,” Naoto says after a moment, after Rise falls in beside her, both hands in her pockets and head tilting to and fro as she watches the branches. “My work has kept me away for...quite some time. I had almost forgotten how lovely it is.”
Rise hums agreement, turning in a slow circle to take in the whole view. It’s a surprisingly young sort of move, in Naoto’s opinion— something childish, not something an idol would do.
But then again, it’s not Risette the idol here right now— she’s heard Rise tell this to Souji-senpai, to Yosuke-senpai, to everyone over and over again. It’s unfriendly at best and cruel at worst to force that persona over her when right now she’s just Rise-san. Rise, her friend, with a smile on her face and sakura petals drifting down to nestle in her hair.
Something in Naoto’s chest feels a little tight, a little funny. She ignores it. “Do you have business this way, Rise-san?”
“Nope!” Rise tells her cheerfully, her hands linking behind her back, a spring in every step. “I just wanted to see the cherry blossoms, but it’s even better that you’re here too, Naoto-kun! Do you mind if I walk with you?”
Naoto has no objections; Rise is not unpleasant company, and so they walk slowly down the floodplain, back and forth.
Rise likes to talk. Rise likes to talk a lot, but Naoto doesn’t mind. She learns a lot about Rise in between the lines of her words— she was a lonely child, much like Naoto herself. She had only her grandmother, much like Naoto only has her grandfather. She likes spicy food; one of her favorite restaurants is in Iwatodai, and she swings by it whenever she’s in the vicinity. She’s starting to worry that she’s becoming a little nearsighted; she almost misses the weight of her TV glasses on her nose, and finds herself trying to push them up every now and then. Her favorite flavor of ice cream is vanilla, but she loves trying weird flavors, and she hopes to find a good spicy one someday. She wants to keep working as Risette— her idol persona is just another part of her, and it’s a comfort to her, knowing that— but her time in Inaba has been a gift, and a sorely needed rest.
She’s so unabashedly open that Naoto finds herself contributing little bits and pieces of herself as well— the last time she came to view the flowers with her parents, for example, and what she does in her spare time. How much she likes high spaces, like tree branches and tall platforms, for the visibility they provide. How much she has grown to enjoy having company here in Inaba, and how she’ll likely miss it when she goes.
They’ve ended up stopping under a sakura tree while they talk, and by the time they stop to take a breath Rise’s hair is liberally speckled with sakura petals. Naoto reaches up to pinch one out of her bangs, and Rise blinks at her, gentle and open.
That tight feeling in her throat is back. Maybe that’s why she blurts out “I very much enjoy talking to you, Rise-san.”
“Is that so?” Rise says, tilting her head. Her smile is brilliant, wide and white and aimed just at Naoto, for herself alone. For a moment, Naoto understands what each and every one of her fans knows. “I really like talking to you too, Naoto-kun! Do you want to meet for lunch next week? We should do this more often!”
And she does, and so they do.
Naoto dreams, and her dreams are full of music and light and a star-bright smile, but when she wakes it falls through the cracks in her mind like dust.
Somehow, her days go from Naoto to Naoto-and-Rise with barely a transition.
They often wait for each other at the last stretch of the Samegawa heading towards school, and just as often walk the same distance together before they part towards different sides of town. They remain in the same class together and often partner for group projects.
Their friendship is odd, but grows as naturally as any flower or tree. They spend more time than strictly necessary together, until afternoons spent without Rise are more of an aberration than the norm.
Rise invites Naoto to the tofu shop, and they sit in her room and watch movies; Naoto analyzes them, as she analyzes everything, but the most seemingly innocuous commentary can set Rise off into gales of laughter, rolling back and forth on her futon. Naoto doesn’t really understand, but spending time with Rise isn’t an unwanted way to waste a few hours— no. Not a waste. It’s important to her. And the sound of Rise humming as she works her way through her math problems is quite soothing.
And so Naoto invites Rise to the Shirogane family estate in return, and delights in showing her around the nooks and crannies of her ancestral home. Rise meets her ojiisan and charms him; Naoto receives multiple cooking lessons from Rise’s obaasan and grows to enjoy the taste and texture of tofu.
When summer comes they both leave Inaba for handfuls of days at a time. Naoto aches to do what she’s made to do, what she loves, with every fiber of her being; being a detective is all she’s ever wanted in her life— until now. She’s far too disciplined to let her mind wander on the job, but in her down time she checks her phone more often than she strictly needs to, and is often rewarded with a nonsensical string of abbreviated words and kaomojis.
Rise texts like Naoto imagines a blind person would text. It’s charming, in its own way.
It feels like when Naoto gets back, Rise has always just left, or is about to leave; she’s been doing a string of promotional concerts across the country, not fully ready to return to her idol life but just as reluctant as Naoto to leave it behind completely. When they do manage to meet up, however, it’s...nice.
Like today; the two of them have cleared their whole afternoons for each other, and are currently sitting on the public fishing dock on the Samegawa, dangling their feet into the water. It’s a hot day, hot enough that Naoto’s forsworn both her binder and her sleeved shirts for something sleeveless and light. It’s not as unnerving an experience as she expected; Rise hasn’t even made mention of her...assets...like Naoto had thought she might.
Instead she seems more focused on the cool drag of the Samegawa against their ankles, leaning down to scoop up some river water to rub on her arms and the back of her neck. She’s fresh back from her latest concert, and she looks tired. There’s the faintest hint of shadows under her eyes, shadows that Naoto is both gratified and displeased to see. It’s not something that Rise would show to just anyone, this side of her.
She likes this Rise; as much as she likes Rise in general, this tired waif of a growing woman who’s left the spotlight behind to sit on a dock with Naoto is the one that she finds enchanting.
It’s a startling revelation, shocking in a way. She once told Souji-senpai that she had no time to dilly-dally with callow love affairs like a child. It’s a surprise even to her to find that her feelings on this have mellowed somewhat. She can’t possibly deny that the angles of Rise’s face are aesthetically appealing, makeup or no makeup; the fall of her hair and the slope of her neck could have been carved by an artist of such things.
“What are you thinking about?” Rise asks, eyes still fixed on the water below, and Naoto jumps. “You have your detective aura on, the one you get when you’re all focused on something.”
“You,” Naoto blurts without meaning to, and feels her face heat up when Rise looks at her and tilts her head. “I— I only mean— that is to say, I think about you often enough that it’s not an unusual occurrence—”
“Really?” Rise asks, bland enough to be inoffensive, but the curl of her mouth has wickedness written all over it. She leans in, and it’s like a magnet— Naoto is drawn towards her beyond her will. “What about, Naoto-kun?”
“I— Just—” There is no way to get out of this conversation; Naoto folds, ducking her head to stare at the water below. Their reflections waver beneath them. “Just you. Here with me. I— like that you choose to spend time with me.”
“Aww, Naoto-kun.” The teasing aura stays, but out of the corner of her eye Naoto sees the smile go genuine. “You’re one of my favorite people, of course I want to spend time with you!”
Naoto keeps her eyes on the reflections, and so is not caught off guard when Rise squeezes closer, close enough to rest her head on Naoto’s shoulder. One of her hands takes one of Naoto’s; her nails, smooth and polished, neatly manicured, contrast sharply with Naoto’s bitten-down, calloused palms.
Naoto swallows, and breathes, and laces her fingers with Rise’s; together they watch the water flow downstream, and eventually her racing heart returns to slightly above baseline.
Then Rise says “Hey, Naoto-kun?” in a tone so inoffensively bland that Naoto looks over on instinct, and is met with Rise’s lips on her cheek.
It’s just a quick press, there and then gone; Naoto presses her free hand to her cheek in astonishment, and Rise curls in on herself, overtaken by giggles. “You don’t need to look so shocked!”
“I— I was just taken unawares!” Naoto says defensively, and Rise laughs all the harder. “If you warn me the next time—”
“Do you want me to warn you every time I kiss you, then?” Rise says, full of coy charm.
“Then, Naoto-kun, I’m going to kiss you again.”
With fair warning, it’s a very enjoyable experience. Kissing Rise is quite different than Naoto been lead to expect. There are no fireworks, no explosions; no symphonies sound off in her ears. But Rise’s lips are soft, and she smells like something floral and spicy, and when she giggles her eyes crinkle up in a way that makes Naoto’s heart pound all the harder.
All in all its a pleasant and agreeable experience, and one she hopes to repeat.
Rise dreams, and her dreams are full of quiet voices and high places, of calloused hands and eyes that pierce through her like steel, and when she wakes she’s wrapped in a warm, contented glow that lasts a long, long time.
“So,” Souji-senpai says— he’s back for the last two weeks of the summer holidays, so everyone’s gathered over at his house to celebrate; Nanako-chan finally got to smash her own watermelon this year, even! Souji-senpai’s gone all out, grilling all sorts of tasty stuff for everyone to eat, and Rise’s missed his cooking so much!
“So?” she says, delicately taking another bite of her watermelon slice— she’s stuffed, but the watermelon was just so tempting, and Nanako-chan had offered it to her with that look in her eyes… Somewhere behind her, Teddie and Yosuke are organizing ice cream sundaes and yelling about sprinkles; somewhere behind her, Yukiko is doing that laughing thing she does, and she can hear Chie groan even as she laughs too.
Somewhere behind her is Naoto, and she resists the urge to turn around and look, because she’s already done so three times in this conversation alone, and Souji-senpai is definitely about to call her out on it. She drums the backs of her heels against the porch and smiles winningly at him, a practiced, polished gleam that he just stares at her through until she bends over, giggling. “Okay, okay! So what?”
“So...you and Naoto?”
“Me and Naoto-kun what , senpai?” She bats her eyelashes outrageously, and he wiggles his eyebrows at her. God she’s missed him, her dear friend. Texting him is just not the same; everyone thinks senpai’s this really cool dude, but they’re not the ones getting pictures of cat memes at three in the morning, are they? “You really expect me to kiss and tell? That’s not what a lady does.”
“Good thing you’re no lady,” Soujii says blandly. Rise places a hand over her heart in carefully feigned shock, but she can’t hide her delight. No one plays along with her like this anymore except Teddie. “Now are you going to spill, or am I going to have to investigate the truth out of you?”
“Investigate the truth out of what now?” Naoto says from behind them. Rise cranes her head back and to the side, unable to stop her smile; Naoto’s holding an ice cream sundae with a tower of whipped cream that looks almost as tall as the ice cream underneath it. It’s got a fresh divot in it, and Naoto’s got a little dab of white on her cheek.
“Oh, Naoto-kun, lean over—” When Naoto does, Rise reaches up and wipes the smear of whipped cream off of her cheek, then licks it off of her thumb and gives her a brilliant smile. “There you go.”
It’s maybe a little mean, but Naoto-kun is so cute when she blushes! And she doesn’t even curl up like a turtle or cover her face anymore, she just sinks down beside Rise and buries her focus back into her ice cream, kicking one leg back and forth where it dangles off the porch. Has Rise mentioned lately how cute her girlfriend is? Because when she’s not being a professional detective, when she’s just being Naoto-kun, she’s downright adorable.
“Cute,” Souji-senpai murmurs, just low enough for Rise to hear, and Rise beams back at him. She knows!
Beside her Naoto grumbles just a bit, but she balances her ice cream on one knee and hesitantly places her hand next to Rise’s, just enough that their pinky fingers cross. Rise hooks her finger a little more snugly over Naoto’s and smiles even wider.
The warm summer sun, the sound of her dearest friends all around her, and her wonderful, amazing, brilliant girlfriend at her side? If the Rise of five years ago could only see her now!
“What are you smiling about?” Naoto asks.
“Oh, you know,” Rise answers. “You.”
“You’re going to give me cavities,” Souji-senpai tells them seriously, and leaves behind Naoto’s blush and Rise’s uproarious laughter.