“Satou Sei-sama? Former Rosa Gigantea?
Sei looked up to see a smiling teenager standing next to her lunch table. The girl was dressed in the Lillian high school uniform and had slightly disheveled black hair. Sei could not tell if it was a style, or her visitor really cared so little about appearance. The girl’s sharp features immediately reminded one of a fox, and the look was completed by piercing green eyes barely hidden behind miniature thin-framed glasses.
“May I help you with anything?” Sei inquired with mock politeness after taking in this sight.
“My name is Kobayashi Kyouko,” the girl replied, causing Sei to smirk. Such a painfully ordinary name for such an extraordinary kouhai—brave enough to accost a former Rosa in the university cafeteria. “In a month, I am going to be the editor-in-chief of Lillian Kawaraban. I am currently doing a feature on the former Rosas for the newspaper and would like to interview as many as possible. It’s clear that you are busy right now,” she noted, bowing her head politely to Kei seated across the table from Sei, “but perhaps you could suggest a time when it would be convenient for us to meet.”
Sei opened her mouth to speak, but Kei interrupted with a mischievous smile, “She is not really as busy as she might seem. Actually, we’ve just finished our lunch, so why don’t I leave the two of you alone for a while?” Kei got up and swung her book bag over her shoulder as Sei looked up at her quizzically. Catching Sei’s gaze, Kei winked and smiled again, “Well, this certainly does seem rather interesting. I will see you tonight, Sei, and you’ll tell be all about it. Gokigenyou, Kobayashi Kyouko-san.”
Sei watched as Kei’s retreating figure disappeared behind a door before focusing her attention on the girl still standing beside her. She was going to suggest that Kyouko sit down. The girl already stood out enough by wearing the high school uniform on the university grounds. On second thought, it would be more interesting to see if the young reporter would dare to sit down at Sei’s table without an invitation.
Kyouko seemed undaunted by the attention she was receiving from the people around her. “Are you really agreeing to give me an interview right now, Satou-sama?” she asked. Sei liked that the girl needed to double-check, not knowing how much power Kei’s decisions held in the former Rosa Gigantea’s life.
“First of all, please call me either Sei-sama or Satou-san. Satou-sama just seems overly formal. Secondly, I will gladly consent to an interview. Anything to help a cute kouhai,” she smiled flirtatiously, expecting to fluster the high school student, but Kyouko merely smirked in reply.
“Thank you very much, Sei-sama.”
“Who else have you interviewed for this feature you’re doing?”
“No one yet. To tell you the truth, you are the first.”
“I’m certainly honored, but why start with me?” Sei raised her eyebrows slightly.
“Well, given the proximity, it is obviously most convenient to interview the former Rosas who are currently attending Lillian University. Those are you, Ogasawara Sachiko-sama, Fukuzawa Yumi-sama, Toudou Shimako-sama, Nijou Noriko-sama, and Matsudaira Touko-sama. Out of all these people, you are the only one who is going to graduate in a month. I could interview everyone else in April.”
“I see,” Sei nodded with a smile at the clear logic of Kyouko’s decision.
“This is just the formal reason I gave to my fellow newspaper club members, however. Actually, I am interested in you in particular.”
“Why is that?” The girl was clearly playing some sort of a game, but not knowing its rules did not prevent Sei from enjoying a bout with an intriguing opponent.
Kyouko finally sat down on the chair opposite Sei, put her bag on her knees, and searched for something within it. “Because of this,” she replied in a second, pulling out a paperback volume of The Forest of Thorns. “You see, I’ve read a few previous issues of Lillian Kawaraban before coming to interview you.”
Sei stared at the book for a moment. So this is what it was all about. Narrowing her eyes, she gazed back up at Kyouko. Was it a professional interest in a big story that compelled the reporter to question her on this subject, or was it something more personal? The girl clearly had much more to lose from publishing such an interview in an all-girls Catholic high school than Sei herself had from enabling her to do so.
“If you had really done you homework before coming here,” she said, regaining her composure, “you must know that I was not the one who wrote that book.”
“I am aware of that. What I’m much more interested in is what made the rumors about you being its author spread around the school so quickly,” Kyouko almost imperceptibly raised her intonation at the end of the sentence, making it sound like a question and inviting Sei to reply.
The former Rosa Gigantea smirked. Too deeply immersed in the conversation, Kyouko committed a crucial mistake in the way that she posed her question, making it enticingly easy for Sei to avoid answering it. After all, there was the correspondence between her name and the author’s pseudonym. On the other hand, was the evasion really worth it?
“When I was a second-year high school student, I fell in love with another girl. It did not end well,” she said simply. Games played with the past seemed too much like denial.
“What happened?” Kyouko asked, looking straight into Sei’s eyes.
“She wanted to be a nun while I wanted her to be with me. I’m sorry, it’s still kind of difficult to discuss this,” Sei smiled bitterly.
“Of course,” this time, Kyouko actually did seem flustered. “I’m sorry. I can’t even imagine how painful it must be.”
“It was painful,” Sei nodded seriously. “It’s not as bad anymore. Now, it feels more like a bitter sense of loss, a tiny prickle in my heart whenever I say her name. That’s it,” she said with a shrug.
For a while, Kyouko looked at the hands she held clasped on the tabletop. “Of course, I only have the novel, which was not written by or about you, as my reference…,” she ventured slowly, still not raising her gaze, “but did you… did she…?”
Sei waited for a minute for the question to be finished, but Kyouko allowed her voice to trail off. It did not matter. Sei felt fairly sure that she knew what the girl meant to ask. “No, Shiori is not dead.”
Kyouko’s gaze flew up to rest on Sei’s face once again. “Then did she dump you?”
“It sounds so banal when you say it like that,” Sei smirked wryly. “But yes, she transferred to another school, leaving me only a letter to explain why she could not run away with me. We had this crazy idea to run away together, you see.”
“Where would you go, though?” Kyouko asked incredulously. “Both of you being just teenagers…”
“You’re right. There was nowhere to go. We wanted to find a paradise where other people would not have been able to touch us. If she had not left, I think it’s quite likely that our story would have ended the same as that novel. We weren’t interested in the world and living in it, you see. That was our mistake.”
“It’s difficult to be interested in the world that is not interested in you living in it, though,” Kyouko’s eyes seemed more piercing than ever before.
“Don’t blame people’s ignorance on the world, Kyouko-chan. The world itself is impassive to everyone. It’s up to people to establish themselves in relation to it.”
“What you are saying is that you could have been happily in love with another girl while attending a Catholic high school, had you only been more open to it?” Kyouko inquired cautiously.
“Exactly. Why else do you think I decided to go to Lillian University? During my third year of high school, I realized that I didn’t give this world and Lillian enough of a chance. There are so many truly great and caring people here, and I was almost fatally wrong in barricading myself from them and assuming that they wouldn’t understand me just because I’m a lesbian. I don’t know if you are going to actually publish this interview now, but if you do, please mention this as well. As cliché as it sounds, the life at Lillian—and life in general—is what one makes of it. I felt I owed Lillian another chance.”
“Did it repay you?”
“Yes, it did,” Sei smiled gently. “The girl who I was having lunch with is my lover. After Shiori, whenever I met a girl I felt attracted to, I made sure to take a step back. I did that with Kei as well, but thankfully, falling in love with her then gave me the courage to take two steps forward. Next semester, we are going to graduate school together in Princeton. I wouldn’t have had such a love if it wasn’t for Lillian and Shiori.”
“It’s kind of like the paradise you sought with Shiori-sama,” Kyouko smiled.
“No, it isn’t,” Sei shook her head adamantly. “Kei and I aren’t running away from anything. We are moving forward in the world and being a part of it.”
There was a pause while both girls were busy thinking. Finally, Sei broke the silence by saying quietly, “Are you really going to publish this interview?”
“Of course,” Kyouko seemed genuinely amazed that Sei would ask such a question. “Why?”
“I just think that you are a very brave girl.”
“I believe,” Kyouko said slowly, cautiously feeling ahead before every word, “that it’s an important story to tell… for the Lillian students who find themselves in the same situation.”
“I agree,” Sei nodded. “That’s the most important reason for giving this interview, don’t you think?” she smiled lightly, gently letting Kyouko off the hook.
The reporter stood up and stuffed The Forest of Thorns back into her standard black Lillian-issued book bag. “Thank you so much, Sei-sama. I really can’t say anything right now except, ‘Thank you.’”
Sei also got up and walked around the table to offer Kyouko a handshake, saying, “It’s always a pleasure to help out such an interesting kouhai.”
Kyouko blushed and, ignoring Sei’s outstretched hand, pulled her into a quick embrace. “Thank you, anyway.”
The door of the greenhouse opened with a loud creak, and two girls clad in dark uniforms entered the old, decrepit building.
“I didn’t even know this place existed,” one of them whispered, turning her whole body around in order to take in the sight before her.
“That’s because you are always so focused on people, Kyouko,” Michiko laughed merrily, embracing the other girl from behind.
“It’s so beautiful here,” Kyouko whispered still in awe of her surroundings. “And quiet. Serene—that’s the word.”
“Onee-sama says that this greenhouse used to be gorgeous back when her mother was a student at Lillian. Now it’s kind of run-down, so very few people come by here.”
“So I guess no one will see even if I do this,” Kyouko extricated herself from Michiko’s embrace and leaned forward to kiss her.
Michiko smiled into the kiss, whispering after a moment, “What are you going to do? Seduce me on top of the Rosa Chinensis plant?” she pointed toward a tiny shrub that was only beginning to sprout new translucent green leaves.
“Yes, that’s exactly what I intended to do,” Kyouko smiled back, playfully burying her hand in the dark folds of Michiko’s skirt. “On a different note, how do you know what that plant is? It’s too early for flowers.”
“Onee-sama showed it to be last year after I accepted her rosary. It’s a tradition in the Red Rose Family, you know.”
“How strange,” Kyouko whispered. “I keep forgetting that you are the high and mighty Rosa Chinensis.”
“I’m not, though. Not for another month, anyway,” Michiko gently laid her hand on Kyouko’s shoulder.
“But you will be soon.”
“Yes, I will.”
They fell quiet for a minute, both knowing precisely what this statement meant. Rosa Chinensis is a position of power and responsibility, not to mention prestige. Adoring and well-meaning fans would follow Michiko’s every step. What will it mean for our relationship? Kyouko wondered. Her own position as the editor-in-chief of Lillian Kawaraban could protect their privacy for a while, but not forever. Sooner or later, the other members of the newspaper club were bound to wonder. And who knows if the student body would willingly follow a Rose known with absolute certainty to be a lesbian.
Michiko took a few potted plants off the ledge that ran the perimeter of the entire greenhouse and sat down. Kyouko followed her suit and rested her head on her lover’s shoulder. It was so wonderful sitting there together and simply enjoying each other’s company that, for a while, she forgot all about her worries and allowed herself to relish the moment.
Michiko was the one to finally speak. “Are you really planning to publish that interview with Satou-san?”
“Yes, I am,” Kyouko replied with absolute determination. “I wouldn’t respect myself if I backed out of it now.”
“Well, the school administration does not check the issues of Lillian Kawaraban before they come out, but someone is sure to read the interview afterward. You might get in trouble,” she added quietly.
“Not with the school administration,” Kyouko shook her head firmly, lifting it from her lover’s shoulder. “There is no rule at Lillian prohibiting lesbian students from attending the school, despite it being a Catholic institution. Even Sei-sama got in trouble for allegedly writing a novel, but not for the book’s subject matter.”
“There might still be rumors… about us,” Michiko offered cautiously. “We spend so much time together that people have already started talking.”
“Do you not want me to publish it then?!!” Kyouko exclaimed, suddenly spinning around to stare at the other girl.
“That’s not what I meant,” Michiko murmured, averting her gaze. She paused for a few more seconds before venturing, “It’s strange. She is from an entirely different generation, and yet there are so many parallels.”
“She is only five years older than we are.”
“I meant Suga Sei-sensei, not Satou-san.”
“Note to self,” Kyouko smirked, “call the writer Suga Sei-san in the article. Suga Sei-sensei sounds rather weird.”
Michiko’s eyes stayed serious as she ignored Kyouko’s comment. “That book is almost prophetic, it seems. Decades later, we are still hiding, keeping secrets, isolating ourselves… But there is a difference.”
Kyouko nodded in understanding. “We are going to live, because our lives matter not only to one another, but also to other people, like Natsuki-chan and our onee-samas. Michiko,” Kyouko said, gently grabbing hold of the other girl’s arms, “do you understand why I need to do this? Somebody has to break the silence.”
“Somebody! But why us?!!” Michiko cried, jumping up and starting to pace around the tree planted at the very heart of the greenhouse. “I am going to be Rosa Chinensis, for crying out loud!”
“Exactly! Who better than you to show everyone that we are people?”
“Well, isn’t that fine?” Michiko smiled sarcastically. “You just decided this for both of us. What about what I need?”
“Michiko!” Kyouko also jumped up, but it was too late, as the greenhouse door banged loudly in her face. It was useless to follow Michiko. When she got this livid, her anger could not be placated.
“Damn it!” Kyouko hit the ledge they had been sitting on, and it rattled unsteadily, reminding her of its considerable age. Reading The Forest of Thorns and then meeting Sei-sama acknowledged her existence in a place that passively denied it for years. She felt a sense of solidarity—knowing that she and Michiko were not alone. There had been others before them and there will be more in the future. And her future kouhai will question and wonder as she did, not finding at Lillian the niche that was rightfully theirs.
On the other hand, Sei-sama said that the world does not care one way or another. And if Kyouko and Michiko were in charge of their own lives, it was possible to make everything either better or worse or simply to leave it be.
Kyouko’s principles were on the side of the logically real, but still faceless people. She could not help but wonder, though, if she had a right to sacrifice Michiko on the altar of their visibility? No, she thought, shaking her head, because it was not her decision to make. Kyouko held true responsibility only for Michiko’s happiness. She was real while all of those other people, however inevitably alive, for now were still only a figment of the imagination.
Kyouko gazed at the Rosa Chinensis plant, and her resolve strengthened. She strode confidently towards the door, but it opened before she even touched it. Standing on the other side, Michiko looked very startled, as if she was also surprised to find herself suddenly facing the lover she had argued with minutes ago.
“Shh,” Kyouko pressed her finger to Michiko’s lips. “The interview doesn’t matter. It’s all about love, and losing you would be the worst repudiation of it.”
For the first time since they met, Kyouko saw Michiko’s face streaked with tears. Wiping them away, she leaned forward in order to kiss the other girl, but Rosa Chinensis en Bouton regally shook her head. “We are not the only people in the world, though, Kyouko,” she smiled.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that in a month, after you’re done with the features on former Roses, I want you to write an article about the new Rosa Chinensis.”
“Yes,” Kyouko laughed, kissing Michiko passionately on the lips. “Yes, I will.” Wrapping the other girl in a tight embrace, she was certain that she was holding the most courageous Rosa Chinensis ever elected to the Yamayurikai.“One more thing,” Michiko whispered into her ear. “If it’s possible, I wonder if you could send that issue to Satou Sei-san… with thanks.”