Suzumi Tamao leans back against a tree, pen and paper in one hand, forehead in another. Words fail her today, as they have every day since the Etoile selection. Once again she is disappointed, but hardly surprised. She has only ever used her gift to express lightness and love. She has never learned - nor needed - to express anything else, until now. But her inner voice remains silent, mute and bewildered in the face of her private pain. Suzumi Tamao sighs and shakes her head. For her own sake, she needs to grieve. For Nagisa's sake, she cannot grieve too much. And now, even her ability to write poetry has abandoned her. She closes her eyes and breathes slowly, the momentary stillness giving her the respite her lost talent cannot. And then, behind her, a quiet voice calls her name.
Rokujō Miyuki looks silently at the dejected form by the tree. She knows something of Tamao's feelings, having witnessed them countless times in her six years in Strawberry House. It's inevitable, she thinks dispassionately. Put the most beautiful, intelligent and accomplished girls in the country together and force them to live in close proximity, and it's impossible for hearts not to get broken. She absently touches her neck, fingers instinctively groping for a key not long ago returned. The gesture jolts her from her reverie. Rokujō Miyuki sighs and shakes her head. Inevitable or not, no one deserved a broken heart. Stepping forward, she calls to the girl by the tree.
"Tamao-san. I was wondering if you could be of assistance to me about something."
"How can I help you, Rokujō-sama?"
The two women are having tea at the lounge area of Strawberry House. Apart from being slightly more reserved than usual, Tamao appears as earnest and focused as ever. It is a strength that Miyuki can respect and admire, though never acknowledge. She lowers her cup and regards Tamao steadily.
"Tamao-san, I imposed on you once by forcing you to run for the position of Etoile with Nagisa-san. I honestly believe you could have both won, had circumstances not changed...suddenly. Now Amane-san and Hikari-san occupy the position of Etoile, but that doesn't mean there isn't room for your skills and talents. Tamao-san, I would like you to run for the position of Miator Student Council President."
Tamao is startled by the request. For the past few weeks, training for the position of Etoile is all that has occupied her mind. She has forgotten that other roles exist, and that the women filling them currently are graduating soon. Sensing the younger woman's hesitation, Miyuki decides to press her case.
"The fact that you qualified for the position of Etoile means that you are more than qualified for the position of Student Council President, Tamao-san. Your are intelligent and reliable and well-liked by your peers and elders. Obviously, Miator has a lot to gain from you being in this position, but there are things you can gain as well. You have great leadership potential, Tamao-san, but it hasn't had much opportunity to develop. I would consider it a privilege to be able to teach you what I've learned."
This time, the surprise on Tamao's face is unmistakable. Her cheeks redden slightly and she bows her head towards Miyuki.
"You are too kind Rokujō-sama. I'm sure I would be a burden for you to teach."
Miyuki's face relaxes into a small smile.
"You have never been and likely never will be a burden to anyone, Tamao-san. Please think about my request. If you don't mind, I would like an answer by tomorrow."
Nodding her head at the younger girl, Miyuki stands up and leaves. Tamao sits for a little while longer, contemplating the blank sheet of paper at her side. After all, she muses, without Nagisa-chan's company or my poetry, I really have too much time on my hands. She picks up her cup and sips absently at the lukewarm tea.
"Tamao-chan!!! I'm sorry I got back so late!"
Nagisa barrels into the room, breathless from her sprint through the halls. Tamao smiles at her friend and chides her gently.
"Nagisa-chan, it's okay to come in late as long as it's before lights-out. I don't mind."
The last statement is a lie and they both know it. They both also know they cannot ever speak of it. Since the day of the Etoile selection, they have carefully borne the suddenly fragile raft of their friendship on the perilous eddies of silence and evasion. It pains them both tremendously, but they are young and love each other too much and know no other way. Nagisa looks helplessly at Tamao. The blue-haired girl smiles through too-bright eyes and propels her friend towards the bathroom.
"You should hurry up and get ready for bed. Sister Hamasaka might be doing the rounds again tonight."
In bed later that night, Tamao speaks quietly across the room to Nagisa.
"Nagisa-chan, Rokujō-sama has asked me to run for the position of Student Council President."
Nagisa's form shifts slightly on her bed. A few moments pass by in silence.
"I think you would be a wonderful President, Tamao-chan. I honestly can't think of anyone else who'd be a better replacement for Rokujō-sama."
"Thank you, Nagisa-chan. That means a lot to me."
Turning in their beds, one sighs and the other cries silently to sleep. They have both taken steps away from each other, have both begun to abandon their little craft. Dawn, when it comes, brings little relief.
"Rokujō-sama, I have considered your request, and...I would be deeply honored to fulfill it. Please take me under your care."
Miyuki considers the bowed figure before her, and allows herself a small smile. She has never entertained the possibility of Tamao refusing her request. Different people dealt with heartbreak in different ways, but Miyuki has always believed that like herself, Tamao would choose to find solace in work and responsibility.
"Thank you, Tamao-san. I'll be seeing you every day after school then. There is much to explain and not much time, so I hope you understand the urgency."
"Of course, Rokujō-sama. My time is at your disposal."
With that, the younger girl bows again and leaves the room. Miyuki watches the retreating figure and sighs. She would prefer to show more compassion, but knows it would be crossing a line. More intimately than most, she is aware of how dignity can oftentimes be the only refuge left to the despairing. She will not rob Tamao of any refuge the younger girl can find.