Aya sat huddled on the bench, her jacket covering her legs and her arms wrapped around herself as she shivered a little, watching her classmates jog around and warming up on the track. She tried to suppress the small measure of resentment she felt. Not so much towards her fellow students—mostly towards the teacher for telling her she had to watch rather than letting her read. It wouldn’t do any good, but she still felt it all the same. She breathed out in a small sigh, listless and detached, and almost didn’t notice the other girl sit down next to her.
“I wish the teacher would let us sit inside on a day like this,” Reimi grumbled. Aya tilted her head a little to examine her classmate. The girl was frowning in displeasure, but her eyes were bright and energised.
“Are you sick?” Aya asked, her voice petering out into a huff of air. She hated that, worried that it made her sound bored or contemptuous, but if it came across like that to Reimi, she made no indication of it.
Reimi smiled coyly, sliding her bob of light brown hair behind an ear. “I told the teacher I was on my period and it really hurt, so she let me sit out.”
Aya cocked her head at that. Their sports teacher had been reluctant to cave to any sign of physical weakness from any of the girls, but after she’d consistently come close to passing out at anything more strenuous than a gentle jog for three months, the teacher had lost her resolve and let Aya sit out whenever she felt like it. Clearly she’d lost the will to argue with any of them at this point.
“That doesn’t add up,” Aya stated, not critically, just matter-of-factly. “Eventually, hah, she’s going to realise you’re sitting out more than once a month.”
“I know,” Reimi said cheerfully. “But I can pretend it’s really irregular for a bit longer, at least. Anyway, you looked like you could use the company. It must be really boring sitting here by yourself. Especially without your books.”
“Yeah,” Aya said. She fidgeted, feeling both incredibly self-conscious and yet somehow warm inside. Reimi sat beside her, smiling, and glowing like a miniature sun.
Reimi knew Aya didn’t often feel confident in school, which seemed altogether unfair. Aya was smart—it was just that the mediocre results on her report card belied the truth. She’d taken to asking Reimi for help, particularly in the classes for which she had some aptitude: history and geography, for the most part. Those subjects sat easily in Reimi’s mind, the wheres and whys and hows of people and places, how they all tied together. The world felt like Morioh in macrocosm: everyone had a home, and neighbours, and streets that connected them to other locations, and that informed how they lived. At least, that was how she would explain it to Aya, who nodded and took notes in a deliberate and studious fashion as Reimi tried, with mixed success, to put the web of connections in her head into words.
Aya was a stickler for the rules though—she would never ask Reimi directly for the answer or, god forbid, even think of copying her work. After their conversations, she would curl over her workbook and painstakingly write down her own answers while Reimi grappled with her maths homework. Reimi knew that the concepts didn’t sit as easily in Aya’s mind as in her own. But she was dedicated. And in the areas that came more naturally to her, that dedication caused her to excel.
One of those areas, the report card acknowledged. Her marks in English were consistently above any of her others, and certainly above Reimi’s own. It wasn’t only a natural aptitude for language, though Reimi supposed that played a part, but also a love of stories. Over the past year, ever since she’d started to notice, Reimi didn’t think she’d seen Aya with the same book two weeks in a row. They were always in English—some slim volumes with clearly printed letters, but lately larger volumes with intimidatingly small text.
She’d asked Aya once about the book she was reading. Her eyes had lit up in enthusiasm as she breathlessly explained the story—a magical tale about four English children who had found a land of endless winter inside a wardrobe. After that, Reimi made sure to notice whenever the book changed and ask her about it. Aya had a gift for retelling the stories and a fondness for the mysterious and magical. And her passion gave her an instinctive grasp of English that sent Reimi asking for her help in exchange.
The other thing Aya excelled at was more subtle, and not something the report card would ever acknowledge—something that Reimi didn’t notice at all until she started noticing faces in general, how the depth of an eye and the curve of a lip fascinated her in ways she’d never experienced before. And then she noticed Aya’s face. It wasn’t just pretty and attractive to her, though it certainly was that. It was a practised and deliberate work of art. She shone, and Reimi couldn’t look away.
Aya’s mother had let her play around with her cosmetics since she was little. Her favourite thing to do had been to paint her mother’s face with them, enjoying her mother’s delighted laughter at the clumsy makeovers that she would discreetly wipe off her face after Aya was put to bed.
When Aya was a little older, she received a makeup set of her own for her birthday from her parents. Confronted with the reality of what her childish daubings looked like on her own face, she resolved from then on that makeup was a tool to be treated seriously and used responsibly. She began to practice with it in her spare time as diligently as she did her schoolwork.
It was some time before she would venture out of the house with makeup on. It was just a very simple foundation and concealer to start with, to smooth out her face and cover over the spots that were beginning to make themselves known. She began to add in lipstick and eyeliner too, only to be scolded by a teacher and told to remove it once she started back at school. After that, she wore only her subtlest makeup to school, but her skin was nevertheless flawless and her eyebrows immaculate. It was logical to her that someone who desired to be disciplined and controlled in study must also be disciplined and controlled in appearance, well-presented to face the challenges of life head-on. And there was something magical and transformative about makeup—as if by looking the part, she could more easily become the sort of person she wanted to be.
As soon as school was out, she was first to rush to the bathrooms to complete her look. Nothing excessive, of course. Simply the ideal shade of pink for her lips, a little eyeshadow in dusky peach, a flick of mascara to her lashes, every addition deliberate and purposeful to present herself correctly—mature, competent, with just a dash of whimsy to her. She would smile sweetly at her reflection, then rejoin her gaggle of friends taking their time on the way home, until dinner and homework summoned them away. It was pleasing to know that her friends noticed and admired her skill in makeup. It was particularly pleasing to notice Reimi noticing. And she was delighted when Reimi asked, slightly shy in a way she hadn’t been before, “Could you help me?”
It was an intimate thing, to learn the face of another person. Not just how to make it look good, though she and Reimi certainly managed that time and again in front of her bedroom mirror, gossiping and giggling and testing out their latest purchases from the drugstore. Reimi was pretty, and had a smile that could light up a room. Aya loved that smile, loved seeing it in whichever shade of pink the day held. But more than that—Reimi was kind, and intelligent, and mischievous. And for all of her dedication and practice, this was the thing Aya loved most: being able to make those qualities shine upon Reimi’s face for all the world to see, just like magic.
Reimi shared homeroom cleaning duty with a certain cute boy. At least, she had it on good authority that he was cute, and she supposed she could see it. He had a nervous sort of smile with dimples, and fluffy hair. He wasn’t as cute as many girls she knew, although she was starting to resign herself to the fact that maybe no boys were, and she would just have to accept that.
She was attentive enough to know that the two of them were the subject of some gossip. And lately she wondered whether his refusal to say more than a couple of words to her or to properly meet her eyes was not so much disdain as embarrassment.
It was embarrassing to her that this whole thing was hovering over them, anyway. She was pretty sure she’d notice if she had feelings for him. It seemed the sort of thing that ought to be noticeable and significant—at the very least as significant as how she felt about her best friend, Aya. Otherwise what was the point of those sorts of feelings?
But maybe she was looking at it all wrong, she thought to herself while studying his face in profile as he dusted off the blackboard. Maybe you just had to dive in and go for it. That was when she asked him out.
The date wasn’t unpleasant, as such. He was nice, nicer than a lot of other teenage boys she knew. He held her hand, and his hand was big and a bit sweaty, but it was okay. There was something kind of sweet about his enthusiasm as they walked along the seafront together, but Reimi was more captivated by the sunset than by the boy. When he leaned in to kiss her, she let him, but she was thinking of what she would tell Aya later when she went over to her house more than she was thinking of what was happening in that moment. And when he opened his lips to put his tongue in her mouth, she let him do that too, curious but strangely detached. It wasn’t what she’d thought it would be like. It was slimy and a bit gross, tasting simply of tongue, with a hint of the ice cream they’d had earlier. She pulled back, and her unconvinced expression must have been blatant on her face, judging by the mortified expression on his. They parted ways and agreed never to speak of it again, and Reimi spent another half hour sat by herself on the beach, feeling confused and disenchanted.
She had discussed kissing with Aya before, what it was supposed to be like. Weren’t there supposed to be fireworks? A magical, tingly feeling? The sensation of flying, or soaring music, or fiery passion? Granted, Aya was more of a romantic than she was, but Reimi had still expected there to be something. Something that felt right.
Reimi went around to Aya’s house later that evening and told her about it. Aya was usually an attentive listener, but that night she was especially still, head cocked to one side and her face held in a guardedly neutral state.
“I can’t believe after all that fuss, kissing is just really boring,” Reimi sighed.
“Don’t you feel that’s a little, hmm. Premature?” Aya asked. Even through its breathiness, her voice was sharper than usual. “You only know what it’s like to kiss a boy.”
Reimi felt a jolt run through her body, instantly becoming hyper-aware of her own heartbeat. A flurry of connections formed in her mind and she met Aya’s eyes with a sudden understanding. A tingle of anticipation rushed across her skin and she shivered involuntarily as they leaned in towards each other, synchronised, as if pulled together by some unseen force.
As their lips met—and Aya’s lips were so soft, so tentative and gentle at first—heat blossomed within her, glowing out of her cheeks, trickling down her spine, coursing up from her legs. Reimi leaned in closer, and every caress of Aya’s lips, every brush of her breath against her own caused her stomach to flip. She felt Aya’s hand reach up to cup her neck and bring her closer, and the sensation was so overwhelming that she found herself giving a soft whimper. Time dissolved into a haze of pressing together, the exploration of lips and tongues, the brush of fingertips over clothes.
When they stopped to catch their breath, Reimi leaned away. Aya was right—it was so different from kissing a boy, exciting and intense, but there was something terrifying in that intensity that made her want to scurry away and hide.
She found that she couldn’t look at Aya the next day. She was scared—of what, she didn’t quite know. Only that the way she made sense of the world, how everything was joined together in her head, had suddenly become tangled and confused. As if someone had taken a map by which she could navigate her life, crumpled it up, ripped it to pieces, and scribbled Aya’s name over the fragments. She couldn’t concentrate on anything except for how good it had felt to kiss her, and how frightening, and avoiding her barely helped. It was miserable.
A week passed before Aya confronted her. She stood in the corridor after school, hands on her hips, blocking the way out, and Reimi had to look her in the eye. Aya was frowning, and she could feel the corners of her own lips pull downwards in kind.
“You can’t just ignore me, Reimi,” she said, her voice petering out into a sigh. “We need to talk.”
They walked in silence together for a time, out of the school and down towards the sea. Reimi felt Aya’s hand brush against her own, and she loosely laced their fingers together, her pulse starting to race again at the contact.
“I’ve liked you for years, you know,” Aya said finally, her voice little above a whisper. “I thought, maybe…”
“I think… I’ve liked you for years too,” Reimi replied, the pieces coming together in her mind as she spoke. “It’s just…” She stopped walking, turning to face Aya, keeping their hands twisted together. “I love having you as a friend. It’s wonderful. It’s safe. And you mean more to me than anyone else. But… things like…” She swallowed, uncomfortable and embarrassed. “Things like falling in love, I always thought about them as happening to other people. And for me, now, it’s just… a lot. I’m scared of things changing. I don’t think I’m ready. I’m sorry.” She felt hot tears gather in the corners of her eyes.
To her surprise, Aya smiled. “I understand,” she said. “Things have to happen at their proper time, hm?” Aya reached up and cupped a hand to Reimi’s cheek. “I want you to be happy, Reimi. More than anything else.”
Reimi sniffed, blinking away her tears.
“You know,” Aya said, glancing away, out towards the sea and pulling her hands back towards herself. “I applied to a cosmetology school in England. They’re one of the best in the world. And… they accepted me.”
Reimi scrubbed at her eyes and stared. “Really!? Aya, that’s amazing!”
Aya gave a pleased little smile. “When I turn sixteen, I’m going to move there. They have an exchange program. I’m going to live with an English family.” Her voice was still soft but her eyes were sparkling with excitement. Reimi couldn’t help but feel thrilled for her, even as the news seemed to twist her stomach.
“And what will you do after that?” Reimi asked, unable to bring her voice above a whisper.
Aya slipped her fingers into Reimi’s hair, tucking it behind her ear like she did habitually. “I’ll come back to Morioh, of course, and open a salon here. And I’m going to make you happy.”
Reimi felt a blush creep across her cheeks.
“I’m not saying you have to ready by the time I come back. But it will give you some time, hm? To think it through.”
“Yes!” Reimi said quickly. “Yes, of course. I’ll wait for you.”
Aya leaned in and kissed her cheek, soft and delicate. “And in the meantime,” she said, brushing a thumb against the edge of Reimi’s lips. “Please don’t be sad. I’ll be happy knowing that you’re happy.”
Reimi felt her mouth twitch upwards despite herself. When Aya asked her for something, there was not one part of her that wanted to refuse.
Reimi did as she promised, and began to smile again. Aya also did as she promised, and flew away to England.
It would be a long time before either saw the other again.