She wears her hair in braids now.
She has ever since they started attending Tohtsuki, and Satoshi remembers when he saw her at the entrance ceremony. It had been the first time seeing her since he had left the Kinokuni household, and she had stood quiet—perhaps even nervous—but firm, with her hair no longer loose but pulled into two tight braids.
Today, they face each other for the sixth seat of the Elite Ten Council. They are not first year junior high students anymore, but her hair is in two braids like it was then, and her mouth is set into that serious expression he has seen so many times.
There are so many things that have changed and just as many which have stayed the same, and she looks enough like she did when they both were children that he smiles a real smile as they prepare for the shokugeki ahead of them.
She does not smile back.
“I won’t lose to you,” she tells him. She does not raise her voice, and he hadn’t expected her to. It is not a battle cry, but he knows that it is as close as she will get to one. It is a promise, one which drives him to give his best to the food which he is about to make, and he does not doubt that she will do her best to see it through.
He has confidence in himself as much as he does in her, and to do otherwise would be to underestimate them both. There isn’t a need for him to tell her that he has no intention of losing to her, either.
“Save a plate for me, won’t you, Kinokuni-kun?” he says lightly, smile unfaltering. He’s here to show what he’s become, and so is she.
He takes his first bite, and lets himself taste all of the things she has learned in the past three years.
These days, she wears her hair down.
She keeps it longer than she ever did when they were kids. Long and loose, and sometimes Satoshi finds himself watching the way she tucks it behind her ear, the way she brushes it over her shoulder in one sweeping motion when she focuses on the task ahead of her.
Like she did years before, she tells him, “I don’t plan on losing to you.”
She means it as much as she did the last time, Satoshi knows, but this time, her words do not carry the same coldness as they did in their first year. They’re not battling for her sixth seat, this time, but his second, and he has no intention to give it up to her.
“Neither do I,” he replies. He doesn’t smile this time, because he’s already detailing in his mind the dish he might make: to defend his seat against Kinokuni Nene, no less than his best will do.
They move around each other, acutely aware without looking. He does not need to watch her to know that she is fully focused. It is enough to be present on this stage: the mingling of the sounds of their knives against cutting boards, the click when he hears her set her oven’s timer.
Neither of them is the person that they were when they first earned their places on the Elite Ten. They are stronger now, more confident—and Satoshi will trust in her, and trust that she does in him, too.
She presents her dish to the judges, confident in her work. Satoshi does not worry. If she wins today, then next time, he’ll have to be the one to challenge her.
When he ducks out of the kitchen, he spots her, seated alone in the same corner as always.
I’m going to be in town next week, she had told him, and he had told her to stop by any time.
After graduation, she had told Satoshi that it’s simply impractical to move into somewhere permanent before she’s settled down with her career, and he had told her that his door would be open. She always calls exactly seven days before she will visit, and he always tells her that she doesn’t need to call ahead. He learns the most on those phone calls: about the chef from whom she is currently learning, about the weather in her corner of the world, and in between pleasantries and culinary talk, he gathers more pieces of who Kinokuni Nene is.
It is a week later, and so she waits: alone at a table, with legs neatly tucked under her, and she does not look at the menu in front of her. She waits for him like she always does on her visits, with anticipation but without an ounce of impatience. When she hears him approach, she looks up, and the light catches her glasses. A grin, faint but true, curves across her face, and Satoshi does not allow himself to entertain the idea of what it would be like to see that kind of smile every day.
“Chef’s special,” he says, setting the dish down in front of her, “for my favorite regular. Enjoy.”
She rolls her eyes, picking up her chopsticks. “I can hardly be considered a regular if I only come every other month, Isshiki.”
“You could come more often, if you wanted,” he tells her, and makes himself busy wiping at an invisible spot on the table so that he does not have to meet her eyes.
She’s quiet for a moment.
“Maybe I will,” she says, and he hums in response.