The place had not been changed by the years she had spent at university, Rize decided. In fact, it looked like the shutters had been repainted, like the siding had been redone. Had Chiya been there? No, she had yet to come back from studying in Kyoto – one year to go, almost ready to return to the family business as the picture of a perfect hostess. But Sharo had, to all accounts, stayed. She must have been the one to renovate the small house. She had mentioned, once, the possibility of buying it for herself after fulfilling all the terms of her scholarship, but it had only been a possibility.
Then again, in her texts and e-mails, Sharo – she had been pursuing a degree online, and almost had her hands on it – had mentioned becoming a full-time employee at the café on top of her studies, and Cocoa had been helping her invest her savings. She never did say it directly, but Rize had the impression that she had managed to make a small fortune through a mixture of diligence and smart decisions. Cocoa had mentioned portfolios, diversification, and the like, but Rize, despite having a good grasp of the subject, had not paid full attention. Cocoa did have issues staying on the subject.
No sense standing here like a stone, Rize thought, raising one hand to knock on the door, but it opened before she had the chance, and there stood Sharo. But Rize had to blink, since this Sharo could look her in the eye without tilting her head backwards. Taller. Longer hair – to the middle of her back, in fact. But she had the same smile, and, before Rize could open her mouth to greet her, she gathered her up in a big hug, and Rize could not help but return it. She had done her best to stay in contact, but ... no amount of texting and e-mailing could replace a face-to-face conversation.
"I missed you, Rize!" Sharo said – not senpai, not Rize-san. That made Rize blink again, but she did not mind. She liked the sound of it, in fact, and she followed Sharo into the house – hard to believe she always called it a shack – with that warm feeling in mind. In the flurry of conversation that immediately followed, she learned that Sharo had, in fact, bought the house for herself, and that she had become a partner in owning Fleur de Lapin. She got advice from Cocoa, but she had learned the ins and outs of business for herself, and she had become very good at making money.
The living room had all-new furniture, most notably a coffee table of solid oak that had a half-finished jigsaw puzzle – depicting two rabbits eating clover, meaning that it must have been a loan from Chino – on top. The walls had fresh paper on them, and the floor had been redone in wood-like tile. Seeing that Rize could not resist looking at her surroundings, Sharo announced that she had done it all herself, give or take a quick assist from Cocoa and Chino – Tippy might have helped if he had not been a rabbit, perhaps – for certain tasks that required more than one set of hands in play.
Rize started to say, "I'm proud of you, Sharo-chan." But that did not seem appropriate. The Sharo of years ago, small, easily flustered, and afraid of rabbits, had all but disappeared, though a spark of her charm could still be seen in the taller, stronger Sharo next to her. Instead, then, Rize said, "I wish I had the same energy!" Once upon a time, she did, but, though she had never lost her enthusiasm for exercise, the military, and all of that, time had made her more contemplative, and she tended to save the energy she had for the important tasks that her studies always laid before her.
"Funny," Sharo replied, "I used to say the same thing about you." And she laughed. But the smile immediately disappeared, and she said, "I don't know how long this cup of coffee I had is going to last, so I've got to ask." Rize nodded, and she continued, saying, "Are you seeing anyone?" The question did not surprise Rize as much as she might have once expected, and ... she had not been seeing anyone at university, not a single person. And she had never stopped to ask herself why that might have been. She had plenty of admirers, both male and female. Why not choose one?
"No," Rize said. And she added, saying it aloud instead of thinking it to herself, as she had perhaps intended, "I've been waiting for the right person. Or –" Why stop now? "– I've been waiting to come back. I mean, I've graduated, I've got a job lined up with my family, so ... I can think of other stuff." Like going back to her old bedroom and stacking up the bed with all her old stuffed animals so she could fall asleep among them. Or spending a whole afternoon sipping coffee with her friends while catching up on old times. Or – "Like seeing how you've been doing. Are you seeing anyone?"
And Sharo took the bait. Or had she been the one to set the trap in the first place? "Only you, Rize." At that, she blushed, seeming like her young self again. "I think it's always been you. Why do you think I really wanted to see you again?" Again, Rize did not feel surprised. "And ... I'd say you kind of knew that. It's not just a notice-me-senpai thing. I thought it'd go away, but it's still here." She picked up her (oversized) coffee mug again, warming her hands on the sides. "So! Since you're back in town, want to go to Rabbit House for a date instead of just catching up with everybody?"
"I think I do," Rize replied, half-smiling to herself. "I think, years ago, I would've kept it to myself, and that would've been it, but I've learned to be a little more honest." And she looked at Sharo. "Just like it looks like you've gotten over just about everything that used to bother you. And all that time you spent saving money has really worked out for you." She took a deep breath. "This is a new chapter for everybody, so let's start it off right." At that, she reached out to pat Sharo on the head. "So let's go, huh?" And she stood, holding out one hand. "And make sure you're holding this when we go in."
Sharo took her hand, smiling, and off they went to Rabbit House.