It was the mid afternoon and the sun shone brightly, high in a cloudless sky. On all sides there was sound – laughing children, cheerfully talking parents, and squealing high schoolers, all turned out in light clothes to appreciate one of the first warm days of the new year.
During times like this, it was impossible not to appreciate how beautiful this town really was. On her left hand side, a river bubbled merrily; a small sail boat made its way down the current as a young boy hurried after it. On the right, the street looked especially colorful as flowerboxes burst forth with the new buds of spring, and their scent intermingled with the smell of warm brewing coffee and baking bread that wafted out of open windows and doors.
And right in the middle, walking down the street with exuberant air, strode Rize.
The girl bounced on her heels as she walked, long hair flowing behind her and falling about her cheeks. She thought she felt eyes on her now and then; back at an earlier shop, an old woman had called her a beautiful young lady.
She was doing it, she kept thinking with a barely restrained grin – she was fitting in as an ordinary girl!
Once several months ago, Rize had tried this before, but she had made several terrible strategic errors: in childishly changing into her clothes immediately she had robbed herself of the opportunity to make a proper evaluation of the most opportune time to take on this operation, and this had backfired. That was not to be the case this time. She had proceeded to buy this dress (a sleeveless, long-skirted blue and white polka dot thing which was a little too bare for the weather but a normal high school girl wouldn't care about that, would she?) on a separate outing ahead of time, and had then waited at home until the proper opportunity struck to go out again. Unfortunately, Rize had made the oldest military mistake in the book by failing to take into account the onset of winter, but she had responded by taking the sensible approach of conserving her energy until it was over rather than rushing ahead. Her time would come. And now, today, on a pleasantly warm day when she was off work but Chino and Cocoa were not, was perfect.
She would enjoy her outing, damn it. It would be elegant and pleasant. For today and today only, she was Roze, and everyone would see her as a normal, pretty high school girl and delight.
And so far, she had enjoyed it. Starting off in the opposite direction she'd travel in to go to Rabbit House, she had explored through streets she'd never seen before – she'd begun in the fashion district, for once enjoying the clothes there without having to worry she'd be seen, and then had proceeded towards a number of cute little stores selling jewellery. From there she'd stopped briefly in a number of book shops, picking a few up out of mild curiosity and with a content ease, and then had stopped to pick up a small crepe from a nearby seller. By that point, she had reached the main park and had spent over an hour wandering through it, admiring the new leaves on the trees and the many bunnies milling about, seemingly excitable and energetic even for this time of the year, though perhaps that was just Rize projecting her own emotions onto them.
By this point, she had been walking for half the day, and was feeling satisfyingly tired. Enjoying the stretch of her muscles, she walked down the main street, looking around idly for a place to maybe sit down and soothe her now-hungry stomach.
Trying to avoid the bigger cafés, she turned into a small side-street and come upon a small shop she often visited before or after work. She hesitated – she hadn't realised she had travelled so close to Rabbit House – but when she spied the store owner’s signature home-made pastries advertised in the window, her stomach rumbled. Suddenly, she was sure nothing else would satisfy her mid-afternoon cravings. And after so much walking, she certainly needed something high-calorie to make up for it all.
So it was with a carefree smile she entered the store.
“Good afternoon!” she said politely, head held high.
The shopkeeper looked at her curiously, but almost immediately plastered on the universal Customer Service Smile.
“Good afternoon, young lady. Are you after anything in particular?”
“Why, yes.” Rize straightened. “I have heard wonderful things about this little shop's éclairs. Would you by chance happen to have one that I could partake of?”
“My, what a polite girl!” the shopkeeper cooed, and then leaned down to take an éclair from the display case.
Rize handed over the money and took the small paper bag containing her prize with restrained eagerness. “Thank you!”
But before she could take a bite, a small grey rabbit hopped into sight, nose twitching in the doorway.
Rize's heart leapt. It looked so cute! She'd already spent some time petting the bunnies back in the park, but there was just something about bunnies that become cuter and cuter every time you saw a new one. Normally she would've felt self-conscious about cuddling something so cute in public, but it happened to be her lucky day because as Roze, nobody would mind at all.
This day just keeps getting better, she thought gleefully, and leaned down when-
“Shoo! Get away!” The shopkeeper rushed forward, waving her arms to gesture the rabbit away. The rabbit started and, to Rize's despair, hopped back, leaving Rize alone.
“Wh-why did you do that?” Rize asked, shocked.
“Bah. Normally I'd be glad to see it, but those things have been causing all sorts of trouble lately.” She returned to her counter, crossing her arms irritably. “There've been reports of herds of rabbits gathering together to overrun buildings in the area, searching for food or drink. I don't want to take the risk of even letting one of those rabbits in – who knows how many buddies it might have behind the corner, waiting to see if they could be sampling my pastries?”
“Oh my,” Rize said grimly. “That sounds horrible.”
The shopkeeper sighed. “It's a shame, it is. I feel horrible having to send them away. But pastries come first.”
Reluctantly, Rize nodded in agreement.
“Well, that's all for me, then,” she said, and turned to leave.
Immediately she found herself staring directly into wide blue eyes.
“Roze?!” Chino gasped.
“...uh, g-good afternoon!” she managed.
Chino's eyes were bright and she even smiled a little as she spoke. “It's nice to finally see you again after so long.”
“A-ahh, yes...” Rize swallowed discreetly, mind working rapidly. “But, um, pardon me, but I cannot help but notice your uniform – are you not working at the moment?”
Chino nodded. “Yes, but we had a rush of people asking for mocha, so I came to this store to buy some more chocolate.”
Darn it. Rize tried not to glare. Usually, Cocoa's freaky number skills put her quite firmly in the job of stock-taking – as boring as she found it, she usually finished the job so quickly it didn't matter. But Cocoa had had the day off recently, so Rize had taken the job, assuming that simply adding numbers together couldn't possibly be too difficult. But very quickly, the sheer number of ingredients she had needed to keep track of overwhelmed her, and she had tried to get the job done as quickly and cleanly as possible, without fuss. Clearly, she should have spent more time considering this exact kind of situation.
After greeting the shopkeeper, Chino went off to retrieve as much chocolate as she could carry. Rize glanced at the door, but Chino continued to talk as she piled chocolate into her arms.
“What have you been doing for these past few months? I haven't seen you at all through the city.”
“Uh, I went on holiday over winter,” Rize hastily improvised.
“The entire winter? That sounds great! Where did you go?”
“Oh, you know... lots of places...” She coughed. “Um, should you be getting back to work...?”
Chino's shoulders slumped and she nodded. “One of the other workers is also off today, and I shouldn't leave Cocoa alone...”
Just as Rize was beginning to regret being so curt, Chino's head suddenly perked up again and she looked back at Rize.
“But I'd really like to keep talking to you, so why don't you come to Rabbit House for a coffee? I'll be on duty of course so I won't be able to keep you constant company, but I'll give you a discount, if you'd like?”
This was, in fact, almost exactly the sort of situation Rize had been specifically trying to avoid. And at this point, there was really no turning back. To have admitted in the first place that she enjoyed this kind of clothing was one thing, but for the others to find out that she had gone so far as to construct a fake identity and had specifically gone out while they were working just to walk around town? No, absolutely not. Rize couldn't possibly live with that kind of embarrassment.
But as she hesitated, Chino slowly slumped again. “Ah... sorry, you're probably busy with something else right now, huh? I didn't mean to bother you.” She bowed, cheeks a little red. “So sorry, please forgive me.”
As it had a few minutes before, Rize's heart leapt.
“No, no, that sounds like a truly marvellous idea! I was just looking for a place to sit down and rest my tired feet, actually!” she found herself saying.
“It isn't far,” Chino clarified, almost looking excited. “Just around the corner really. If you'll just let me, erm...” Carefuly, she took her wobbling stack of chocolate blocks to the counter, letting them drop. After the laborious process of counting them, Chino paid her money to the shopkeeper and bit her lip as she considered how to pick up this pile again.
“Here, I'll help,” Rize cut in. Within a few moments, the blocks were piled into a couple of manageable stacks which Rize held easily in her arms.
“Oooh!” Chino looked impressed. “Strong and beautiful! You are really the best at everything, huh, Roze?”
“Eh? O-oh, uh, thanks...” Rize mumbled. She briefly considered feigning that the stacks were too much for her and letting Chino carry half, but she couldn't bring herself to pile on the poor younger girl like that just to maintain her image. “...so, um, where is this café, then?”
“I'll show you the way,” Chino said. As they walked, the girl peppered Rize with questions – where had she been? Did she go on holidays often? Was her hair naturally curled? Where did she live? Rize tried her best to respond, and thankfully Chino didn't seem to notice how strained she was – or perhaps she chalked that up to the pile she was carrying?
When they were almost there, Chino became quiet for a few seconds.
“This may sound hard to believe,” she finally said, “but actually, I'm not usually a very talkative person.”
“It's certainly hard to believe after this trip,” Rize muttered.
But Chino didn't seem offended. In fact, she smiled. “Normally, I find it really hard to talk to new people. Yet with you, everything seems to come very easily.” She looked up at Rize, positively radiating a pleased light. “I wonder why that is? Maybe you're just a very easy person to talk to. Or maybe we're destined to be friends.”
Rize couldn't look away, throat suddenly tight. She had been working at Rabbit House for quite a while – over a year now, she realised with some surprise – but in truth, for those few months before Cocoa had started, she and Chino had never really talked all that much. They worked together fine, but Rize wouldn't have thought they were friends.
It wasn't until Cocoa had started, therefore, that Rize had realised what they were missing. To then all of a sudden see them getting along so well (because for all that Chino seemed irritated by Cocoa's antics at times, Rize knew she wouldn't have put up with her at all if she didn't want to) made Rize feel unexpectedly jealous. It didn't help that, at that point, she hadn't yet really talked to Sharo either – in truth, she'd had no good friends at all.
Those had been her thoughts then, and she realised now with strange clarity that she had never updated them – she had gone on assuming that Chino and Cocoa were friends but she and Chino were not. But all those times Chino and Cocoa were together, wasn't Rize there as well most of the time? Didn't the three of them go out often together, or with Chiya and Sharo as well? In fact, when she thought about it, she could remember Chino going to her and her alone several times over the last year, something she had never really done earlier.
It would have been a very heart-warming moment, she thought, if she wasn't in the process of fooling Chino by pretending to be someone else that Chino seemed to believe was a wonderful new friend.
Rize looked away, trying to figure out how to respond. She could reveal who she was, but that would also disappoint Chino. What could she say?
““...that's a wonderful thought,” she eventually said, “but I don't think that's true.”
Chino frowned. “It's not?”
“No...” Rize tried for an elegant, calming smile. “After all, we have already hardly spoken, no? And yet here you are, bursting with energy. While I do enjoy your company, I would say that the real cause of this talkativeness is most likely you. That is to say, you have this ability in you all along – you merely do not often get the opportunity to express this part of yourself.”
Chino walked in silence for a few steps. “So, you think I have it in me to make more friends?”
“Well, unless I'm mistaken, you already have at least two friends, yes? Miss Cocoa and this miss Rize I heard about.”
Chino smiled again. “Yeah. In fact, if I'm more sociable now, it's probably because of them.”
They approached the café and Rize felt a surge of worry as she looked up at the sign. Yet even this couldn't stop the little tendril of pride and happiness that sparked when Chino looked up at her and thanked her for her wise advice, before practically skipping into the café.
The inside of Rabbit House was even livelier than the streets outside had been, filled with people obviously taking advantage of the warm weather to come out. Cocoa was rushing back and forth, apparently in her element, but Rize knew her well enough to tell that she'd collapse with exhaustion that night from all this work.
“Oh! Chino! And – Roze?!” Cocoa exclaimed on seeing them.
“It's lovely to see you again.”
“We brought the chocolate.”
“Of course – oooh, those look so heavy! Here, let me, ughhh-” Cocoa grabbed at the stacks, narrowly managing not to let them all fall to the floor. “W- w-w-what would you like to drink?” she asked stiffly, desperately trying to keep the blocks balanced.
“U-um, I can help if you need...”
“Unacceptable,” Chino said immediately. “You are our guest today, we can't have you doing our work for us. Please, take a seat.”
A little disappointed – and more than a little skeptical of Cocoa's ability to transfer the stacks to the kitchen without dropping any – Rize found a small both by a window she had always thought looked rather cosy. With Chino gone to oversee the counter and Cocoa dealing with the chocolate, Rize had a couple of minutes to herself to look around the shop.
It really was a different experience coming here as a customer rather than an employee. From here, the art and scenery the café put on display were much more visible, giving the café a soothing atmosphere that was much less obvious from behind the counter. She glanced around at the other customers not with an eye for who needed to order or which tables needed to be cleared but merely to see how they were doing and was surprised at the variety of people around – over here was a woman with her baby, drinking a big mug topped with whipped cream; over there were two high school girls from a nearby school, both sipping tea and tasting biscuits. This reminded Rize of her éclair and she removed it carefully from her bag – luckily, it wasn't too crushed, and she bit at it happily.
Eventually, Cocoa returned to her table, Chino stopping by as she travelled the opposite way back to the counter.
“So Roze, it's nice to see you again!”
“You, too.” Rize looked over Cocoa's expression, but she didn't see any sign that she knew who she was. Relieved, Rize allowed herself to relax a little.
“And thanks for helping lil' Chino with all those chocolates – ahh, I wish I coulda been there to help out too, but there were heaps of people wanting orders...” Cocoa said, looking disappointed.
“It wasn't any trouble at all. I have a lot of experience with this sort of thing,” Rize replied proudly.
“Really?” Chino asked, impressed again. “Like what?”
“Oh, the usual things – carrying heavy loads back and forth, of all sorts of things like-” she cut off suddenly, catching the enthralled expression on both their faces.
Wait. Darn. This probably wasn't an ordinary thing, was it?
Flustered, Rize grasped for the first 'ordinary girl' thing that came to mind. “Loads of, um... teddy bears.”
The other girls blinked. “Teddy bears?”
Rize tried not to flush. “Y-yes. When I was younger I was tasked with carrying many large loads of, um, teddy bears.”
(In fairness, this was not precisely false. When she was a child Rize had indeed possessed an enviable collection of stuffed toys. They had not factored into her training sessions, however.)
Chino's eyes widened even further. “I would like to see your house, then.”
Rize blinked. “Oh, uh, no, they weren't ours,” she hurriedly corrected, “they were, erm – for charity.”
(Again, not all false: Rize had undertaken many operations which had the aim of providing charity to war-ravaged civilians. None of these had involved teddy bears, however.)
“Ohh wooow.” Cocoa nodded many times. “If you'll excuse us for a moment, we have to talk serious shop business for one second, okay?”
The girls walked two steps away and turned their backs.
“That did sound like a very Rize-like thing to say,” Chino said, well within hearing range of Rize.
Honestly, for a moment, Rize was so distracted by their failure at discretion that she couldn't even
think to be worried about her cover being blown.
“Mm, mm.” Cocoa nodded again and again, as did Tippy as he sat on Chino's head. “Very suspicious.” And seriously, their lack of subtlety was only making Rize feel even worse that she hadn't even managed to fool them.
“What do you think?”
“I think... I can catch her.” Cococa gave a thumbs up. “Leave it to big sis Cocoa.”
Chino seemed doubtful, but just then she noticed a customer at the counter, so she nodded at Cocoa and went up to see to them.
Rize swallowed. So, this was it. An interrogation.
She sat up stiffly in her seat. She hadn't consider the possibility this morning, but a soldier had to be aware at all times of changing circumstances, and this was one she was well-prepared for. Finally, all those hours of practicing and training were to pay off. She would mask every tell, improvise flawlessly. Rize could handle this.
Rize would not give herself away. Not ever.
“Soooo.... Roze,” Cocoa said in the least casual voice Rize had ever heard. Slowly, she slid into the booth in front of Rize, leaning back so far in an attempt to look casual that she was staring at the ceiling.
First of all, you're not even looking at me, Rize thought, irritably. How are you supposed to notice my tells? Or how nervous I am?
But no, back into character. “Yes, Cocoa?”
“You look an awful lot like a friend of ours,” Cocoa continued lightly.
Rize almost stared. What does she hope to achieve here? If she was really Roze she wouldn't understand this at all, and if she actually was Rize, she definitely wouldn't give up that easily. If she hadn't known what Cocoa was going for before, she definitely would now.
Instead she plastered a fake smile. “Yes, I've heard! It's quite the strange coincidence. But I'd love to meet her.”
“She's not at Rabbit House today.” She shot Rize a glare. “Or is she?!”
“I wouldn't know?” Rize said, genuinely confused and increasingly frustrated. “However, Chino said earlier that your other worker was off today – would that be her?”
“Oh. Yes.” Cocoa chewed her lip, watching the store.
Seriously! How do you expect to intimidate me if you won't even look at me?!
“You know...” Cocoa said, still resolutely not looking at Rize so blatantly that Rize found her teeth gritting in consternation, “it'd make me pretty sad if you were lying to me, Roze.”
Rize paused. “...is that so? I have nothing to lie about, however.”
“Very sad.” Cocoa nodded. “So much so, that if you were lying to me I'd have to...” Abruptly she slammed her hands on the table. “Cuddle Chino to feel better!” she yelled.
...was that supposed to be a threat?!
You can't threaten people with things you just want to do anyway! Nothing about that was threatening at all!!
With extreme difficulty, Rize swallowed her complaints.
“I-if you really want to, don't let me stop you...” she managed.
Cocoa glared at her for several seconds, before sighing and leaning back with a chuckle.
“Heh, sorry about that, Roze! I was just kinda worried for a few seconds that maybe you really were Rize, after all.” She giggled. “But if it were Rize, there's no way she'd manage to hold herself from yelling at me for a bad joke like that. That's kind of her thing here!”
Rize stared. Truly, her greatest misstep had been underestimating Cocoa.
She'd made it through this time. But only barely.
“Well, her and Chino. Come to think of it, they both do that. Heh, that's so cute!”
“...no offence taken.” Rize smiled politely. “I understand completely.”
“But wow, it's really nice to make a new friend then! How are you enjoying Rabbit House so far?”
“It's quite lovely,” Rize said honestly. “It's got a wonderful atmosphere.”
Cocoa beamed. “I know, right?! Heh, I guess since I'm working here I should be humble, but really I'm so glad to be here, it still feels like a wonderful dream! Though, it is a little disappointing that Rize isn't there, too – it just never feels the same without her!”
Rize didn't know how to respond for a moment, unexpectedly touched.
“...it's certainly nice to be around friends.”
“Right?!” The door chime jangled and Cocoa bounced to her feet. “Speaking of which!”
Oh, no. Not again.
“Chiya!” Cocoa cried, and Rize watched as the two girls immediately hugged. “It's nice to see you!”
Chiya smiled, as carefree as ever. “You, too! I had the day off, so I thought I'd drop in for some coffee!”
“And what good timing – you haven't met Roze, yet, right?”
Rize tried desperately to hide her face behind a menu but before she could devise an escape route Cocoa was standing at the exit of her booth, blocking her way. “Chiya, this is Roze! Chino and I met her walking around the city one day. Roze, this is Chiya – she works at a nearby cafe, Ama Usa An!”
Rize tentatively revealed her eyes over the menu. “Um... good day!”
Chiya gasped. “Oh my! You...”
“I know, right? She looks just like Rize! But she isn't even a relative or anything – it's all just a wacky coincidence!”
Chiya stared into Rize's eyes as she lowered the menu with resignation. Chiya's eyes went even wider and then without saying a word she reached for her phone.
“Huh?” Cocoa asked, but Chiya ignored her to tap at a contact and hold it to her ear.
Oh darn. Desperately, Rize glanced at the window on her other side. Was the glass too thick to crash through without hurting anybody else? Probably, she realised with a curse – a terrible design oversight she was sure to bring up with Chino's father later.
Because, really. Fooling Chino and Cocoa was one thing. Fooling Chiya was pushing it. But managing to pull one over every single one of her friends?!
“Yes, yes, I know how it is when you're working,” Chiya continued brightly. “But I really think you'll want to see this! There's a girl in Rabbit House who looks exactly like Rize, except she's dressed and acting like a rich young lady! It's really quite wonderful to see!” She listened through the phone for a few more seconds, and then nodded, apparently pleased. “All right, I'll see you soon then!”
Chiya closed her phone. “I hope you don't mind but I invited my friend Sharo as well; she should be over in five minutes.”
Rize forced a smile. “Why, of course.”
Daintily, Chiya tucked her phone back into her bag, little teacup phone charm jingling. That done, she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and smiled at Rize with that same calm delight she always seemed to exude.
“Are you new to town, then?”
“Um, no. However, this is my first time in this establishment,” Rize said, but her brain was preoccupied. This whole time, her main goal – the entire purpose of her outing, in fact – had been to be able to act like an ordinary, feminine girl. But Rize was just beginning to realise something she had never considered before; she had noticed in the past how admirable Sharo's maturity and dedication were, but she had never picked up on the fact that Chiya was the girliest of all in their group, the picture of elegant beauty.
Her eyes narrowed, just slightly. She had the perfect model right here in front of her. In a lot of ways, this was actually a wonderful happenstance. Maybe if she was able to channel Chiya properly, she would even be able to manage keeping her calm and fooling them all?
Chiya's eyes sparkled and Rize instinctively mimicked the way her shoulders raised a little in excitement. “Oh? How wonderful! Are you fond of coffee, then?”
“Yes,” Rize said, trying to fold her hands delicately on the table like Chiya was. Think like Chiya! she thought, guiding her response. “But I must say that I rather prefer tea most of the time.”
“How marvellous!” Chiya tilted her head to one side; almost unconsciously, Rize did too. “Then, you simply must visit my store as well some time! We're called Ama Usa An, and we serve tea and traditional Japanese sweets!”
“That sounds-” Rize struggled for an adjective that hadn't been used yet. “Um, stupendous?”
“Brilliant!” Chiya agreed.
“Er – E-electrifying?”
“Electrifying...” Chiya breathed. Rize's heart hammered. Had she said something strange?!
Chiya leaned in. All of a sudden she was staring at Rize intensely, small mouth pursed in a little frown. Worried, Rize leaned in, too. Had she made a gaffe? What would a proper young lady do in this situation?
Finally, Chiya gasped. She took in a breath, and then: “Electrifying Ruby Comb!!”
Rize jumped, resisting the urge to reach for a weapon at the shock.
But Chiya was still staring at her. She tilted her head again. “No – Electrifying Crimson Comb!”
She smiled again at last. “Yes, that's it! Electrifying Crimson Comb! Ahh, I like it! You're such a great help, Roze!”
Chiya reached back into her bag and took out a notebook while Cocoa walked by the table. “Ooh, that's a good one, Chiya!”
“Thanks, Cocoa!” Chiya said cheerfully as she wrote into the book with a pink bunny-topped pen.
Eventually she looked up at Rize again. “Is everything all right?”
No... just wondering why I ever thought this was a good idea in the first place.
“Ah, I'm fine...”
From there, Chiya asked her about all sorts of things, even as Rize tried to keep the conversation focused on her. Although Rize had abandoned her original aim, she had to admit that Chiya really was good at holding this kind of charming conversation, occasional wackiness aside.
After a few minutes had passed, Rize saw Chiya notice something behind her with amusement. Rize turned and found herself facing a distinctly out of breath Sharo still in her cafe uniform attempting to lean casually against a nearby pole.
“I – I'm-” Once Sharo got a good look at Rize's face, she abruptly stopped, jaw dropping open.
Rize swallowed. “G-good day!” she attempted, in her most feminine voice possible.
Sharo's cheeks were looking distinctly flushed. “Good day,” she squeaked out.
“Yes, good afternoon, Sharo,” Chiya said. She sounded rather amused; if Rize weren't so worried about her cover being blown she might feel the same.
“I- good morning,” Sharo mumbled, gaze not falling from Rize.
Rize looked away, eyes dropping down to her mug as she took a careful sip.
“Roze, this is my friend Sharo. Sharo, this is Roze – apparently Cocoa and Chino met her a few months ago, and this is her first time in Rabbit House.”
After several seconds, Sharo suddenly burst into noise. “Ah-ahhh ahh, right! Sorry! I'm really sorry, I really didn't mean to stare at all!” she said, waving her hands in denial. “It's just – you happen to look a lot like another person we know, and I was just, erm, kind of shocked-”
“Yes, I've heard,” Rize said, in relief. “Rize, yes?”
Sharo nodded. “Yeah,” she said, almost absent-mindedly sliding into the booth beside Chiya, who quickly shuffled aside. “You, um... you almost look like a twin. It's really something.” She was still staring, now more in abashed curiosity.
Despite herself, Rize found herself deflating a little. “I guess you're not used to seeing your friend like this?”
When both girls looked at her in surpris, Rize clarified - “You said on your phone that I looked like her, but was dressed like a 'rich young lady.'”
Chiya nodded. “It is unusual to see Rize dressed this way.” Chiya's mouth quirked a little. “I don't think Sharo is opposed, however.”
Sharo immediately glared at Chiya. “Oi!”
“What's wrong?” Chiya said with a teasing smile. “It's not like it's really Rize, right?”
Rize frowned. Huh?
Sharo shifted uncomfortably. “Still...” She glanced at Rize briefly and then quickly looked away again.
Well, now. This was a little interesting. Rize tried to lock her sights on to Sharo discreetly. Of course, it was no secret that Sharo admired Rize – Rize highly doubted that was the source of her present reluctance. But what else could be making her hesitate? Surely she couldn't be hiding another secret along the lines of her economic situation?
When Rize thought about it, she almost wanted to kick herself, because she had been looking at this situation all wrong. Of course, any time there is a disguise involved, there is the possibility of discovery. However, there is a far greater opportunity for intelligence gathering.
Rize settled back, composing herself. This might not have been the most honest action, but she was only human – there was only so much temptation she could resist. And right now, the temptation to pry just a little was just too high.
“Why would it matter if I were?” she asked.
Chiya and Sharo exchanged glances.
“Come one, Sharo,” Chiya weedled. “You could use this for practice?”
“Practice for what?”
Sharo looked at Rize with clear trepidation. Chiya began to speak again but Sharo sent a glare heavy enough to silence her. Instead of elaborating, however, Sharo turned her gaze down to a spoon on the table and fiddled with it, moodily.
After many long beats of silence, Chiya finally continued.
“Sharo... has a crush on Rize,” she said simply.
Sharo pouted down at the spoon. “You don't need to say it like that,” she grumbled.
“How should I say it then?”
“I don't know...” she whined. She glanced up at Rize briefly, and Rize tried desperately to school her expression. Thankfully it must have worked because Sharo looked down again, but she continued to speak. “I just... kind of like her... a lot.”
“As in, she wants to be more than friends with her.”
“She gets it, all right?!”
“So you can see why it was quite a nice thing to see you like this,” Chiya said brightly, ignoring Sharo's irritation.
“I see,” Rize admitted reluctantly. With this, all of her urge to gather intelligence had vanished completely.
...no, not all of it.
“...um.” She coughed, and the two girls looked up. “If you like seeing, um, your Rize like this, then... why do you have feelings for her? If you prefer her this way.”
Sharo stared. “...what do you mean?”
“Well-” Rize shrugged, suddenly very flustered. “I mean, um, you obviously prefer seeing her looking like this, yes? Even though it is rare. So, why do you like her that way in the first place? Why not prefer a more feminine girl?”
Sharo continued to stare. It was starting to make Rize uneasy.
“Not at all!” Sharo blurted out. “I mean, I really like the idea of seeing Rize like this, but only because it would mean seeing this different side of her, you know? Because Rize is like that, really, sometimes, she just doesn't let it out often! But, the way Rize is most of the time – all cool and strong and brave and awesome – I love that even more, and that's what made me fall for her in the first place!”
Sharo paused and then shrunk, seemingly embarrassed about her outburst.
Rize's mouth was dry.
“...I think you should tell her,” Rize said, quietly. “Your feelings for her are obviously very strong.”
Chiya nodded as well, but Sharo sighed, slumping.
“No... there's no way I could do that. She's just too... too... beyond me, you know?! Uwaa...” Sharo covered her face with a hand.
“Don't say that” Chiya chided. “Rize has said heaps of times that she admires and values you. You have so many good qualities, Sharo, you can just never see them!”
Sharo removed her hand to speak but then stopped, staring in front of her. Rize jumped, nervous again, until she realised that Sharo wasn't looking at her, but at something behind her.
Sharo's mouth dropped open in growing horror. On the edge of her hearing, Rize heard a quiet rumbling, as of distant thunder. Slowly, all noise within the café ceased, conversation dying as people turned to stare out of the front window.
And then, was that – the sound of...snuffling?
It all happened at once. Before anybody could stop it, a giant herd of fluffy, desperately hopping bunnies burst through the doors into the café. People squealed, trying to get out of the way as rabbits darted around their feet or leapt onto their laps, flying in all directions and knocking over mugs. Rize heard an ungainly screech and absently watched as Sharo shot bullet-fast towards the back room, locking the door behind her. The entire store was filled with hysterical, squealing rabbits and humans alike.
Rize's blood drained cold. From the first moment she had spied the pack her hands had flown to where she normally kept her gun... but of course, in a fit of now almost unimaginable stupidity, she had left it at home this morning in some horrible attempt to force herself to act like a normal girl. But, as she glanced uneasily in Chiya's direction, she had to admit that even if she had her gun, there wasn't much she could do – if she tried to take control, her cover would definitely be blown.
So, swallowing deeply, Rize forced herself to look for another leader.
Up at the bar, she could see Cocoa clearly – she was squealing louder than anybody, sitting on the floor as rabbits crawled all over her. “It's a fluffy-fluffy paradise!” she cried out in ecstasy and attempted to hug all of the rabbits on top of her at once.
Further back, Rize could see Chino clinging close to a wall in clear distress. “I can't hurt them... They're too cute...” she muttered over and over as rabbits kicked at her feet and nipped at her heels, even as Tippy tried valiantly to growl them away from where Chino was holding her to her head.
Finally, Rize turned to her last hope, Chiya – but the girl had already fallen to the floor, curled into a ball, hands over her head. “Noooo...” she wailed, eyes bursting with tears as rabbits climbed all over her, “I've been over-run, it's no use, it's all over for me...!!”
Chaos reigned – plates were flung to the ground, children were crying, rabbits were screeching as humans accidentally stepped on them. Is there nobody in this cafe who understands both rabbits and hostile crowd-control procedures?! Rize thought fiercely.
She closed her eyes, briefly. God, what a coward she had been, hiding in this booth merely out of some selfish desire to preserve her image. But wasn't this, in fact, the situation she had been preparing for all her life? Now was the time to step up. Now was the time to protect that which was important to her, for the good of her nation and of her people.
Now was the time Tedeza Rize took charge.
Abruptly, she stood up, taking on a powerful stance. “EVERYONE!!” she yelled.
Immediately, most of the people stopped moving, turning to look at her. Rize felt the other girls' eyes on her, but she ignored them, putting her hands on her hips.
“We have a serious situation on our hands!” she declared. “If we're all going to get out of this alive, you're going to have to listen to me!”
“Tell me what to do!” a nearby schoolboy wailed.
“First of all, you have to stop moving! It's only distressing the bunnies and causing them to become hysterical. If you attempt to take on a stoic composure and not engage them, they will begin to calm down.”
She spoke as much as possible in a clear, confident tone of voice, and was rewarded when most of the customers stopped their jerky and fearful movements; immediately, many of the rabbits stopped as though they had been paralysed, sniffing madly but otherwise remaining still.
“Now, we're going to have to work together on this! First of all: is there anybody in this establishment who has vegetables on hand?”
“Um, I do!” called a woman from near the opposite window, holding up a grocery bag.
“Good! Then, I'd like you to please pass those vegetables – particularly any bananas or green vegetables, as those are particularly appetising to rabbits – out to all those sitting near the door.”
“But – those are my groceries-”
“You will be duly compensated for your loss, ma'am, as well as receive the gratitude of your country for your service.”
The woman seemed unconvinced, but reluctantly starting handing the vegetables out.
“Now, before we begin, I'll explain how this is going to work: in a few moments, Ill have the people near the door use their food as bait to lure the rabbits back outside again. As you are civilians, I will not expect you to take on any great risk – it would be a great help if any of you would mind running forth yourselves, but if you do not feel capable, feel free to merely throw your vegetables out the door. Meanwhile, I will have the people at the back – and only at the back - of the café stomp on the floors to create vibrations to spook the bunnies away. Do not stomp if you are not near a wall, it will only recreate that state of fear and confusion in the rabbits as they attempt to rush in all directions. Is all of that clear?”
The customers nodded.
“All right then, let's open the door.”
A nearby man did, shakily.
“On the count of three! One, two... THREE!”
Immediately there came a hail of lettuce leaves and green beans out of the door, while a couple of high schoolers ran out. This was enough to tempt a lot of bunnies to immediately leave, dashing after this unexpected onslaught of treats. Meanwhile, the stomping at the back caused many others to hop away from the offending sounds, creating a push forward in the herd that only grew faster as the bunnies at the head realised that there was a reward waiting for them.
As the crowd watched in excitement, the pack of bunnies funnelled out of the café like a fast-moving river. When the last old grey one gingerly hopped out to chomp on a celery stick held by a nearby high school girl, a loud cheer rang out.
“Don't yell out yet,” Rize warned over the applause, “there may still be some rabbits caught under tables or chairs.”
As the other guests checked around them, Rize stalked around the store making sure. Most of the spaces were thankfully empty – until Rize looked under one table booth, finding a single small, shivering young bunny.
Rize tried to regain her stance. “All right, there's one here. So... we need to...”
She stared at the bunny. It was so small, so scared.
“We need...” she said, her voice wavering.
The bunny twitched its nose, hopefully.
Feeling tears pricking, Rize abruptly dove under the table and gently picked the little bun into her arms.
“It's... it's so cute...!” she squeaked, and hugged the fuzzy little thing to her cheek.
Slowly, all the tension released from her. To be truthful, from the moment the bunnies had entered this store she had felt this urge to snuggle come upon her, almost too much to resist at times – she had managed not to succumb as Cocoa had to the fluffy-fluffy paradise, but at times, the temptation had almost been too strong even for her iron discipline. Truly, these bunnies were a terrifying enemy.
Once she had cuddled the bunny enough to satisfy her for the moment, she reluctantly took the bunny back to door. However, as she stood there, she realised that wherever this young thing's mother was, it had long gone. It might be just young enough to survive on its own, but Rize didn't want to take the risk.
Well... maybe it's not so bad if we keep just this one, she thought. Since Rabbit House and Ama Usa An already have mascots, perhaps I could donate this to Fleur Lapin?
That thought in her mind, Rize turned back into the store -
And found herself face to face with Chino, Cocoa, and Chiya, all staring directly at her.
“Rize,” Chino breathed out.
Rize's stomach dropped.
Oh. Of course. It had finally happened. Her secret was out.
She hung her head. “...yes,” she said.
“I'm so sorry!” Chino continued, eyes wide. “We should have realised it was you from the beginning!”
“Wait – it's really Rize?!” Cocoa gasped. “I knew it! I mean, I didn't know it, but I knew it!”
“That doesn't make any sense.”
“It's definitely Rize!! But wow, you look so much different!!”
“Ah...” Rize shrugged, self-consciously.
“You look really good like that,” Chino said. “I never would have expected, but it suits you.”
Rize frowned. “You thought I'd look bad?”
“N-not bad!” Chino looked upset. “Erm... sorry, just – it's unexpected, and...”
Rize snorted. “It's... fine. I think I get it.” The poor girl had been trying hard all day today, after all; she pat the top of Chino's head, and though Tippy was kind of in the way, the rabbit leaned into the pat, and Chino seemed to understand the meaning behind the gesture anyway.
“So, why'd you end up pulling this whole trick, anyway?” Cocoa asked, bemused.
Rize raised an eyebrow self-deprecatingly. “Because it doesn't suit me, like you guys just said? I thought... you'd be weirded out by it.”
“I'm not weirded out, I just think it's weird,” Cocoa said.
“Thanks,” Rize muttered; Chino was glaring at Cocoa, though she didn't seem to notice.
“But, not any weirder than your usual weirdness? It's not like it's normal to wave a gun around or yell out military commands all the time either! I don't get why you'd be self-conscious about this but not that!”
“That's... I don't like when I do things people think are weird in general. But that stuff's just me, I can't help that.”
“But this is you too, isn't it?” Chino asked, head cocked just slightly.
Rize was flushing by now. “This is... this is different. What... what if I looked really bad?”
“You super don't!! You're so so pretty!” Cocoa reassured.
Chino nodded too. “You really do!”
“Right, Chiya?” Cocoa asked.
But when they all turned to Chiya it became apparent why she hadn't spoken up yet – she was glancing between Rize and the floor with teary eyes, hand to her mouth.
“Chiya?! What's wrong?!” Cocoa asked, immediately taking her friend's arm.
“I-it's just... Sharo...”
“Ahh.” Sharo wasn't in the room, which meant she was probably still hidden in the back room. Rize didn't blame her. That hoard had been terrifying – with Sharo's fear, it was only reasonable to get as far away as possible. “I should go calm her down.”
“No!” Chiya exclaimed, holding up a hand to stop her.
“Huh? What? What's going on? You're blushing again!”
Rize ignored Cocoa. “...no, that's why there's all the more reason to talk to her.”
Chiya hiccoughed sadly.
“I was the one who said it right out...” she mumbled in despair. “I'm such a bad friend...”
“Not at all! I don't understand but I'm sure it's not that bad, Chiya!” Cocoa said, already starting to tear up herself in sympathy.
Rize smiled. “It's fine. I'm, um...” She looked down, and rubbed the back of her neck. This had been a long day that had demanded a lot of her, but she was swiftly approaching one final push of bravery – possibly her greatest yet. “...if it all goes right Sharo might not be too angry at you once this is over.”
Chiya's eyes widened. “Rize...”
Rize nodded at her. Chino caught her eye; she didn't seem to understand the situation, but she recognised Rize's posture immediately.
“Good luck,” she said seriously. Rize inclined her head gruffly.
Carefully, she made her way towards the back room.
She knocked, twice.
“Are they gone yet?!” Sharo wailed through the door.
“They are. It's all safe.”
Sharo was silent. Did she recognise Rize's voice? Or did she assume it was Roze?
The door clicked; a narrow gap appeared, Sharo's face in between.
“Um... no. It's, um. Me.”
Sharo stared at her for exactly two seconds before she suddenly attempted to slam the door shut; luckily, Rize's highly trained combat reflexes allowed her to brace it open beforehand and push through.
“R-R-R-R-R-R-Rize-sempai?!?” Sharo squeaked in the highest voice Rize had yet heard. She backed away, even more horrified than she had been just earlier, clutching at her bright red cheeks.
Rize nodded. “Are you okay?”
Sharo gaped and took another step back.
Darn it. This was getting critical. Since it didn't seem there was anything Rize could do to defuse the situation, she instead went for the opposite tack and grabbed Sharo's arm.
Rize floundered. But she hadn't gotten this far just to give up.
“Thank you for what you said about me earlier!” she shouted, and bowed deeply.
Sharo stopped moving.
Rize breathed deeply. “It... really meant a lot to me, what you said about, um, liking me both when I'm like this, and when I'm how I am normally. I felt really nervous about any of you seeing me like this, which is why I felt the need to lie to you all, so hearing what you said made me... very happy.”
Sharo was silent.
“I apologise deeply for lying to you. I didn't mean to put you into an uncomfortable position... and I'm sorry for upsetting you. But I'm not angry, or uncomfortable, or anything. I'm just – just very happy.”
It took a long time for Sharo to respond.
“Oh,” she said.
And then, very quietly: “So... you don't mind that I, I... have f-feelings for you...?”
Rize swallowed. Finally, she looked up. Sharo was staring at her with hesitant wonder.
“Not at all,” she said. “In fact, I'm... honoured that you do.”
Sharo gaped again.
“So!” she said, much more loudly than before. “So – then -”
Rize waited, heart in her throat.
“Then – then – then – d-d-d-do you want to go out on a date?” she near-shouted.
Rize smiled in great relief. “...yeah. Yeah, I'd really like that.”
“OKAY,” she said. “I'M...” She covered her face with her hands again and then said all in a rush “sorry, I'm just – I'm so happy I don't know what to do and I'm really overwhelmed right now!!”
“It's all right.” She loosened her grip on Sharo's arm but held on. “Do you want to go back to the others now?”
“Actually I think I might just stay here a little while longer!!”
Rize snorted. “Okay. Come out when you want then, all right?”
As soon as she closed the door behind her, she heard a distinctly high pitched noise from behind the door; lips quirked, she ignored it.
Back out in the café, the calm after the storm had arrived – the customers had all left, and Rize recognised the closed sign hanging on the door, keeping the place empty as Cocoa, Chino, and Chiya walked around picking up the pieces of broken glass and ceramic.
Rize sighed. Reconstruction might not be exciting, but it was one of the most important duties a soldier undertook. So, she grabbed a broom near Chino and set to work sweeping.
“Hey, what're you doing over there?”
Rize looked up; for some reason, Cocoa had directed that at her.
“Er – sweeping?”
Cocoa giggled. “Silly Roze – you don't work here, you don't need to help us out?”
“That's right,” Chino agreed firmly. “You're our guest.”
“Guys...” Rize sighed. “It's... fine, really. I don't need to be Roze anymore.”
“No?” Chiya asked.
Rize shook her head. “No... I'm happy just to be here, actually. Rize – with Cocoa, Chino, Chiya, and Sharo.”
The other girls beamed.
“...besides, you guys aren't taking nearly enough safety precautions – broken glass is extremely dangerous and it needs to be disposed of correctly!”
“Sir yes sir!”
And so the afternoon went on, orange light melting into the still cafe, coffee in the air and the last warmth of this early spring day cosy around them. Birds chirped as they flew in formation outside the window; inside, a large, fluffy white rabbit doted on a small baby rabbit.
Another day was over, and in this moment, Rize couldn't have felt happier.