Glancing at the older woman's sleeping face, Tamao feels an odd pang of tenderness and affection. Asleep and bereft of her usual severity, Miyuki looked years younger, her vulnerability exposed. After weeks of close company with her mentor, Tamao knows that the older woman's aloofness is merely a front for her fragile psyche. She has caught enough glimpses of a smiling, laughing Miyuki to believe otherwise.
I suppose it was inevitable, Tamao thinks sadly. Not even happy, carefree Nagisa had been able to withstand the violent onslaught of Shizuma's presence. For a time, the red-haired girl had retreated into gloom and melancholy; and even then she had only known Shizuma for less than a year. How much more for delicate, withdrawn Miyuki, who had endured Shizuma's careless and platonic indifference for six?
I've really had it much easier, Tamao sighs. Whatever her burden had been, at least Nagisa had done her best to lighten it. Tamao suspects that Shizuma has not done the same for Miyuki. The silver-haired girl was a force of nature, bringing pain and joy in equal measure. It was up to the victims - her collateral damage - to heal themselves.
Miyuki awakens with a start. She is startled to find her head leaning on Tamao's slender shoulder, and even more startled by how comfortable it feels. She leans up suddenly, her instinctive reaction to berate herself for showing a weakness like exhaustion. But something else nags at her, diverting her attention from her self-dismay.
"Are you feeling better now, Rokujō-sama?"
Miyuki glances at the younger girl, mouth open with an automatic apology, when the look of gentle understanding and concern in Tamao's eyes cuts her off. After a moment, she nods instead and smiles gratefully.
"Much better, Tamao-san."
Tamao's heart skips a beat when she sees the smile playing on Miyuki's lips. Once again, it occurs to the younger woman that her mentor is a beautiful woman - what most people would consider a delicate Japanese beauty. She wonders if Miyuki is aware of it, or if she has ever had the chance to be aware of it. The thought causes a strange ache in her chest. For the first time in weeks, words come unbidden to her mind. Wondering gray eyes look into wondering brown ones. After an oddly long moment, Miyuki speaks.
"We should be getting back, Tamao-san. It seems to have gotten quite late."
Tamao smiles and nods. Their steps, when they walk back home, seem strangely lighter.
Later that night, Miyuki finally recognizes the unnamed and mostly unfamiliar emotion that has plagued her since waking up beside Tamao.
Safe. She makes me feel safe. Before drifting off to sleep, she has one final thought. So that's what it feels like...
On a different floor in Strawberry House, Nagisa comes in to find Tamao asleep at her desk, a smile on her face. Around her are the littered sheets of a budding poem. Nagisa smiles a strange smile of pain and relief, and covers the sleeping form of her friend with a blanket.