They lean back against their favorite tree, looking for all the world like a devoted senpai-kouhai couple. Tamao is reading one of her latest fictional works, a play. She still has not shown Miyuki any of her new poetry. If the older woman has noticed the omission, she has refrained from passing comment. Miyuki's eyes are closed, following the drift of Tamao's work through her voice. Once in a while, she asks a question. Tamao has grown so rapidly as a writer that there is little useful criticism that Miyuki can offer these days. Nonetheless, the roles of writer and private reader/editor suit them perfectly. It is one more intimacy they share in a growing list of intimacies. It also serves as a useful public foil to the true nature of their relationship, which they have chosen to conceal. It is not embarrassment that keeps them silent - just a desire for privacy. By this point, they have become such public figures in Astraea Hill that any trivial act or word on their part leads to blatant speculation.
And for a while there had been a great deal of conjecture. Both women had previously spent most of their time in Strawberry House either alone or with their respective roommates, so their sudden intimacy with each other over the last several weeks had sparked rumors. But the absence of any public displays of overt affection, coupled with frequent demonstrations of what was so obviously a mentor-protégé relationship, had eventually quelled all speculation. And then finally, and not least importantly, both women had a growing body of ardent admirers who fervently asserted their apparent if somewhat aloof availability.
Miyuki, in particular, had been puzzled by her sudden popularity. Years of living in Shizuma's shadow, dazzled and out-dazzled by her magnetic friend, had rendered her permanently incapable of appreciating her own charms. Yet freed from the shackles of her attachment to Shizuma with its attendant pain and grief, and secure in the knowledge that she was loved, Miyuki shone with a luminescence all her own - a brilliance further enhanced by her own obliviousness to her appeal. It was, Tamao had decided, one of the things she loved most about the older woman.
As for Tamao herself, her growing independence from Nagisa coupled with the demands of the presidency had molded her into a quietly confident and assertive young woman. In the frequent absence of the roommate who had been her most vocal and ardent supporter, Tamao had eventually learned to fight her own battles. The submissive and diffident creature had grown into a poised and self-assured young woman. She would, Miyuki had once thought with regret, have made a splendid Etoile, even all by herself.
The disruption, when it comes, comes in the form of a letter. Tamao has been searching for Miyuki, and finds her mentor inside her room. The older woman is holding a sheet, and passes it wordlessly to Tamao with a pale and shaking hand.
It is the draft of an invitation to Miyuki's wedding.
Somehow, in the hermetic joy and peace of their past few weeks, they had both forgotten one salient fact: that Miyuki was engaged to be married shortly after graduation. Tamao had heard of it from the older students, but she and Miyuki had never discussed it.
If only they had.
Now, anguished brown eyes look into tormented gray ones. Without a word, they reach for each other. For once, neither finds solace at the prospect of fulfilling their duty.