Tamao turns around to find a pair of concerned-looking maroon eyes trained on her.
"Oh, hi, Nagisa-chan..."
"Tamao-chan..." Nagisa sits down next to her friend and looks at her worriedly. "Please tell me what's wrong."
Tamao's depression the last few days had alarmed Nagisa. She had never seen her best friend succumb to melancholy. Even after those first few difficult weeks when she had started going out with Shizuma, Tamao had been energetically, if somewhat painfully, determined to be happy for Nagisa's sake. It had relieved Nagisa later on when Tamao had become Miyuki's protégé (and she suspected, something more besides) and eventually Miator Student Council President - though the relief had been tempered by sadness and more than a little jealousy. While she had been happy that Tamao had found a way to move on, she had nevertheless been pained by the fact that they no longer had much time to spend with each other.
But now, suddenly, Tamao had become withdrawn and listless. And, Nagisa had observed, she had not spent much time with Miyuki the last few days.
Tamao sighs and turns to smile sadly at her best friend.
"Nagisa-chan...Have you and Shizuma-sama ever wondered how things will be once she graduates?"
Nagisa is startled by the question. She does not see how it can be related to Tamao's depression, but wants to help her friend in any way she can.
"Well..." The red-haired girl hesitates. "I did worry about it a lot at first, but you know Shizuma-sama...She's not one to let concerns about the future bother her too much. But when she saw that it was making me really anxious, she told me not to worry, that we would still be together."
"How?" Tamao looks at Nagisa, the expression in her eyes telling the red-haired girl that she is somehow counting a lot on the response.
Nagisa pauses a moment, unsure about the kind of response Tamao is expecting. "She said that she would work for her family's firm for a few months while preparing for university exams. Both the family company and the university she wants to enter are close enough to Astraea Hill that she can visit me on weekends. It'll be...difficult not seeing her everyday, but this is honestly the best way for us to still be together."
While Nagisa had been speaking, a tiny spark of an idea had begun to glow in Tamao's mind. Gray eyes widen with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. Tamao thinks, It's not a foolproof plan, but it's the only chance Miyuki-sama and I have! Jumping up, she impulsively grabs Nagisa and hugs the red-haired girl hard. Looking fiercely into her best friend's startled eyes, she says:
"I love you, Nagisa-chan. And I really, really owe you for this one."
With that, the blue-haired girl walks away, leaving a somewhat bewildered but nonetheless happy Nagisa.
"Not at all, Tamao-chan." She says softly towards the retreating back. "Not at all."
"To what do I owe the privilege of a visit from our Miator Student Council President?"
Tamao is standing quietly in the greenhouse. In front of her, former Etoile Hanazono Shizuma is watering a few potted roses, a sardonic gleam in her cat-like green eyes. Just a few months back, Tamao would have quailed at the prospect of a private interview with the older woman. Today, to her own surprise, she finds herself unfazed by Shizuma's mocking air.
"My sincerest apologies for not calling on you sooner, Shizuma-sama, but we have both been preoccupied with...more important things."
Shizuma raises an eyebrow at Tamao's smooth response. A tinge of respect softens the amused glint in her eyes. The older woman nods slowly at the blue-haired girl.
"I can see why Nagisa-san loves you so much, Tamao-san, and why Miyuki chose you personally as her...protégé. Despite your delicate appearance, you have a formidable character. But I don't suppose you came here to listen to a discussion of your many admirable traits."
"No indeed, Shizuma-sama." Tamao responds evenly. "And if I did, I'm sure the discussion wouldn't take longer than a minute. I'm here, Shizuma-sama, to ask for your help in a matter relating to Rokujō-sama."
Shizuma resumes watering her roses. "Miyuki is not the type to send others in order to ask for help."
"Rokujō-sama does not believe she can be helped, so she is not the one doing the asking."
"In that case, Tamao-san, does Miyuki know that she is about to be...assisted?"
"Not yet, Shizuma-sama. I would prefer telling her when and only when the plans have a little more certainty in their outcome."
The silver-haired beauty looks away briefly, a faraway gaze in her eyes.
"An arranged marriage is not a thing to be taken lightly or meddled with easily, Tamao-san. Miyuki comes from a very old and very distinguished family."
"So do you, Shizuma-sama, yet you are free. Wouldn't you wish the same for Rokujō-sama?"
Resolute gray eyes look into considering green ones. Moments pass, then the former Etoile gives her answer.
"Miyuki deserves the best that life can give her, Tamao-san. If there were any way I could help give that to her, I would do it."
Shizuma listens to the fading sound of Tamao's footsteps, then puts her watering can down with a sigh. She had once believed that she had felt all the violent emotions life was capable of inducing in the brief span of her eighteen years, but today is the first time she has felt...shame. She had known for years that Miyuki resented her arranged marriage, at the same time that she had known how desperately Miyuki had loved her. Her initial reaction had been a studied ignorance; after Kaori's death, it had become a scornful apathy. Shizuma compares her past indifference with Tamao's current determination, and winces inwardly. Still, she has a few weeks left to make up for the past six years. She hopes it will be enough.