Miyuki looks up in surprise. It is only lunch so she is not expecting to find Tamao in the Student Council Room.
"I know you're busy, Rokujō-sama, but I was wondering if I could bother you with something..."
Miyuki tilts her head to the side. She and Tamao have grown considerably more comfortable with each other over the past weeks, so she finds the younger girl's sudden shyness intriguing.
"Of course, Tamao-san. You know that I would be glad to help you with anything."
"Well..." The younger girl hesitates. "It's just that I haven't been able to write poetry...lately, so I've tried my hand at something else. I really admired the critique you did of my adaptation of Carmen, so I was wondering if I could impose on you to do more of the same with this new work I'm trying..."
Miyuki looks at the slim notebook in Tamao's outstretched hands and accepts it with a smile.
"I would be honored, Tamao-san. I know how highly regarded your literary work is in Astraea Hill. Are you sure you'd want to risk the originality of your work by paying attention to editorial criticisms from me?"
Tamao answers simply and candidly.
"Rokujō-sama, I would consider my work incomplete without your comments. Please feel free to be as harsh as necessary. I would greatly appreciate your honest opinion."
With that, Tamao bows and leaves the room. Miyuki is left staring at the bound volume in her hands. With some anticipation, she turns the first page.
I knew, someday, it would come to this. I'd only hoped it would come much later. She was mine for too short a time. But I deceive myself. She was never mine. She was another's the moment another claimed her with a kiss. Everything else that's happened since then has only delayed the inevitable. Now the inevitable has happened. But I find no consolation in my foresight, just an immense sense of loss and desolation. If friendship means desiring the happiness of the other, then I want no part of friendship. I have only ever known the pain of loving, never the joy. Of what use are my gifts to me, when she only loves another?
Pain twists Miyuki's heart as she turns the pages of Tamao's notebook. Tamao had written an elegy. For herself, and for Miyuki, whether she had intended the latter or not. Grief overcomes the older woman as Tamao's retelling of her loss forces her to relive hers. Miyuki closes her eyes and thinks with despair. It never ends. Not in Strawberry House.
It had been inevitable really, her falling for Shizuma. Shizuma exercised a near terminal attraction on nearly everyone who encountered her. She was wild, beautiful, headstrong and free - a feral creature turned loose in the bland domesticity of Strawberry House. As for Miyuki, she had been a delicate and withdrawn child, raised with rigor but no affection. And so when both girls had been assigned the same room in their first year in Astraea Hill, the stage was set for a tragedy so obvious it was nearly comic. It would take years for Miyuki to learn to even construct a haphazard defense for her battered psyche. Faced with filial and romantic rejection, she learned to find solace in the one thing she could control: the fulfillment of duty. If a side of her ever existed that craved for love and affection, no visible trace of it remained. At least on the surface.
Tamao shades her eyes and blinks up at the figure before her. Despite the cold, she is seated on the ground, leaning against her favorite tree, the requisite pen and paper in hand. She no longer expects her poetry to come to her these days, but finds the ritual oddly comforting.
The older woman hesitates, then asks.
"May I join you here, or am I disturbing you?"
It is Tamao's turn to be surprised by her mentor's hesitation. She shakes her head in answer and shifts slightly to make room for Miyuki by the tree.
"Not at all, Rokujō-sama. I'm always glad to have your company."
This statement of affection, said so artlessly and seriously, brings a smile to Miyuki's face. She gazes at the younger girl and speaks without thinking.
"You're very sweet, Tamao-san. I'm really glad that we got the chance to know each other better."
Tamao looks away, embarrassed. The warmth on her cheeks tells her that she is blushing. When she looks back at the older woman, Miyuki is gazing out into the frozen lake, fingers tracing an outline on her neck in the by-now-familiar gesture.
"Forgive me, Tamao-san. But I don't think I can give you a proper critique of the work you lent me the other day."
Tamao does not conceal her disappointment.
"But why Rokujō-sama? Is it that bad? Or perhaps your duties don't leave you much free time?"
Miyuki shakes her head to silence the other girl.
"It's not those things, Tamao-san. It's just that what you've written..." Miyuki hesitates, then tries again. "Perhaps the best way to put it is to say that I don't have the required aesthetic distance."
This time, when they look at each other, neither turns away. Gray eyes meet brown ones in a look of shared pain and compassion. Tamao nods, deeply touched by the older woman's admission of what is obviously an intensely private grief.
"I understand, Rokujō-sama."
They continue sitting by the lake until early evening.