AUTHOR'S NOTE: The second part of this story is more or less a re-telling of a scene from Hand Me Downs, so for those who've been there, yes, I am recycling my dialogue in a big way. (Remember: recycle, reuse, reduce!)
AUTHOR'S NEXT NOTE: Thanks go out to Wicked White Queen and Ninemil, both of whom have given me reason to think about a certain character who has been, as yet, almost completely absent from my fics. Thanks for the inspiration, both here and in the forthcoming chapter of Strange Fire.
Part 5: Marry Me?
It took a considerable amount of effort on the part of the hairdresser to get Miyuki's veil attached, given the overall lack of hair to be dressed.
Shizuma watched from a safe distance as the bride-to-be continued to be fussed over. At some point since last they'd seen one another at graduation, someone had gone after that dark hair with clippers, and Shizuma figured it had to have been Miyuki herself who had done it: her parents had never even liked the bob she'd worn through her latter years of school, and surely they would never have approved of something so drastic as this.
By the time the dresser, makeup artist and hairdresser had finished their jobs and vanished, leaving the two former schoolmates alone, Miyuki looked positively stunning in her bridal gown, severe haircut or not. As traditional as the Rokujo family might be, it seemed that even they had seen fit to opt for a Western wedding, right down to the last inch of virginal white cloth in the train of the dress. The high collar sparkled with what were almost certainly diamonds, and the veil shimmered like a waterfall frozen in the moment as it cascaded down her back.
Noticing the attention, Miyuki shot her friend a sardonic smile that completely failed to reach her eyes, then tweaked the fringe of her too-damned-short hair and rolled her eyes. "My last bit of rebellion," she chuckled mirthlessly. "Not that it's done any good, of course. My mother raged, but in the end I'll be a happy bride, come what may."
There was something very wrong with Miyuki's voice: she seemed on the verge of breaking, though whether it would be into tears or hysterical laughter was impossible to guess. "It looks... nice, Miyuki-chan."
"Oh, stuff it. You always liked my hair longer and you know it."
"No, I mean it. You look beautiful."
"Well, no expense was spared to make Rokujo's prime filly presentable for her parade down the aisle. Mother and father wouldn't have it any other way."
Shizuma closed her eyes. She had known that this would be difficult, but she hadn't counted on just how terrible a blow it would be to see proud, stoic Miyuki reduced to this. She knew she should have made a better effort to keep in contact with her oldest friend, but in the end, she had felt too ashamed. How could she flaunt her happiness in front of someone whose fate had been determined since childhood, and whose arranged marriage was all the more tragic now that she knew her affections lay exclusively with her own gender? Had Miyuki felt any attraction at all toward men, then maybe there could at least be hope that she might come to love her husband one day, but as things were? The rest of her life would be a lie. She would go to her wedding bed with the knowledge that no one would ever love her the way she needed.
To her surprise, Miyuki broached the topic first. "So how are you and Nagisa?"
"We're... well," Shizuma said distractedly. "It was hard at first, being away from her at University, but we're in frequent contact now. It took a transfer student friend of Chikaru's to give us the idea and take the first step for us, but now we see one another by webcam several times a week."
"Mmm, bordering on a dormitory rules violation," Miyuki nodded. "Interesting behavior for a former Etoile and a former Etoile candidate, wouldn't you say?"
A former Etoile candidate... Shizuma had been long debating whether or not she should ask this question, as it had been bothering her for months now. "Miyuki," she asked carefully, "why did you really choose Nagisa to run for Etoile?"
"What do you mean, really?" Miyuki asked, arching her eyebrows.
"I mean... was it for Miator, or... was it for me?"
Miyuki stared at Shizuma across the dressing room for a good twenty seconds before she gave a snort of laughter. "There's the Shizuma I remember. It had to be about you after all, didn't it?"
"Please, Miyuki," Shizuma protested quietly, but there was a part of her that felt she deserved it.
"I honestly thought that the two of them were the best chance Miator had. Suzumi-san was a hard-working, dutiful student who was well respected by her peers, if somewhat lacking in social skills due to her previous isolation. Aoi-san was a perfect complement, being gregarious, popular, and well-loved by the students of all three schools. The way she stepped into Chikaru's dress and finished the Carmen performance at your side had given her an almost legendary status. I'm still convinced that the two of them truly won the election, and Miator's honor would have been preserved had it not been for certain... dramatic events."
"I had to do it," Shizuma sighed.
"That being said," Miyuki went on, as if she hadn't heard, "I'd gauge that it was about... a sixty-forty split between Miator and you."
Shizuma looked up at the bride-to-be, and her eyes widened in shock. "What?"
"I didn't think she was good enough for you, Shizuma," Miyuki said in a conversational tone. There was not a hint of malice in her voice, nor any disapproval in her expression. "God help her, there were days when she seemed more a wilting flower than little Konohana-san, and I didn't know such a thing was possible. I didn't think she had the emotional fortitude to love you and support you the way you needed, or indeed deserved. Frankly, I'm still not convinced, but since we haven't spoken since graduation, I haven't had the chance to be swayed one way or the other."
"I'm sorry," Shizuma flinched, the barb having hit home expertly. "She is strong, though. Stronger than I knew possible."
"She'd better be," Miyuki nodded. "But at the time, I had my doubts, and I thought perhaps nudging her away from you would be better for all concerned parties. She and Suzumi-san would have one another for support, if nothing else, and you'd be free to move on to someone who could love you with all her strength."
"Someone like you?" Shizuma asked, because it had to be said.
They looked into each other's eyes for a long time until Miyuki at last broke contact and turned away. "In my wildest dreams, maybe," she sighed. "But yes, perhaps someone like me. I used to have this dream that one day we'd have the chance to save one another. I'd save you from your heartbreak, and you'd save me from this sham of a marriage, and then we could be..." She paused and shook her head. "We could be what we are, and not what anyone else would want us to be."
She was barely holding back tears now, and something inside Shizuma snapped at the sight of it. "Miyuki-chan, you can still be what you are. Don't go through with this marriage. Let's leave this church right here and now. We could... we could rent a house together, and I could put you through school. You could live your own life and find your own love."
"You know I can't do that," Miyuki whispered. "There's a reason why some dreams have to remain just that."
"Do you love her?"
Shizuma blinked at the question. "Do I..?"
"Nagisa. Do you love her? Do you want to spend the rest of your life with her in spite of the roles the rest of the world would try to push you into? Will she make you happy until you're old and... even more silver-haired than you are already? Will my dear friend Shizuma, whom I love and cherish more than anyone else in this cruel, unfair world, be fulfilled by this girl?"
After blinking a few more times at the barrage of heartfelt words, Shizuma nodded. "Yes... I think I will."
Something softened in Miyuki's expression, and indeed in her entire bearing. "Then I can try to be happy, even married to a man I know barely at all and want even less. I can walk down the aisle feeling more like a contented friend than a lamb being led to slaughter."
"Why would that ever be enough?" Shizuma asked helplessly, thinking back on the string of people who had always been looking out for her happiness, sometimes even to their own detriment. What had she done to deserve the love and respect of those she had only hurt? "How can it possibly fulfill you just to know that I have a chance at leading a happy life?"
"You really don't know, do you?" Miyuki asked, and this time the amusement seemed real.
"I guess I don't."
"You're... one of those amazing people. When you're the real Shizuma... the one who burst into that cathedral, not the one who sleepwalked through the year leading to that moment... you have a way of drawing people to you, so that they can bask in your light. Whether we choose to be planets around your sun or moths around your flame... well, that's our lookout. But you're a light in a dark world, my darling Shizuma, and if you're shining, how can anyone who truly loves you do anything but share that happiness with you?"
Vividly, Shizuma was reminded of a similar thing Tamao had said about Nagisa some months ago. Nagisa had become everyone's light, too, especially Shizuma's own.
As if reading her mind, Miyuki nodded. "Light up the world with her, Shizuma-chan. Don't let this chance slip away. Don't make me go into this mockery of a union without the knowledge that the one I love most will do everything in her power to hold onto this girl... and be happy."
Four days, a long drive and a rain-soaked walk across campus later, Shizuma was back in Strawberry Hall, dripping on the carpet of the dorm room shared by Nagisa and Tamao, having decided to forego their normal Wednesday night webcam chat for an infinitely more personal talk. Taking pity on her, Tamao brought towels and a clean bathrobe, and soon after, Shizuma re-emerged from the bathroom wearing the robe and trying desperately to tamp down her hair with one of the towels.
As she'd hoped, Chikaru and Hazuki had been able to make it this evening as well. As much as she wished Miyuki could be here as well, she knew that she wanted Chikaru, at least, to be a part of this, one way or the other.
After some initial chit-chat, Nagisa was still staring at her as though unable to mentally reconcile her unexpected appearance, so Shizuma turned her full attention to her beloved and got down to the reason for her being there. "There's something I need to talk to you about, Nagisa, and once I decided, I knew I couldn't wait another day. I wish the weather would have cooperated more, but in the end, it doesn't matter."
After looking for a moment into Nagisa's wide, trusting eyes, she continued. "When I went away to University, Nagisa, I was terrified that I would lose you. Not to anyone specific," she winked at Tamao, hoping that this simple gesture would convey her trust and gratitude, "but just to... absence. I thought you'd drift away from me, or that you'd begin to think of what we had as a dream from your past."
Nagisa shook her head, her breath coming in a soft gasp. "I could never..."
"I know that now," Shizuma nodded, squeezing her girlfriend's hands, "but there was more to be afraid of than just that. We're lucky, Nagisa. Our families accept who we are and what we have, at least for now, but I can't promise you that being with me will be easy once we're both in that unforgiving world outside Astraea Hill. Here, we have something beautiful and romantic, and we have friends to celebrate it with. There, we're just different, and there are so many people who will take great pleasure in reminding us of that, every day of our lives. So that's pretty terrifying, too." She thought of Miyuki, somewhere in Europe on her loveless honeymoon, and felt her jaw clench at the injustice of it all.
"I know," Nagisa whispered. "It's hard not to be scared of that."
"But in the end," Shizuma said, feeling her throat begin to constrict with emotion, "I love you more than I'm afraid of them. While I thought you might drift away this year, you've only gotten closer to me, and I'm grateful to the help our friends have given us in that regard." She smiled at Hazuki, then turned back to Nagisa and breathed deeply to steady herself. "I pictured this moment many times, Nagisa. And even though I never thought it would happen in your dorm room while I was wearing a bathrobe... I simply don't care, because I won't wait another minute."
Oddly mindful that Tamao's robe was far too short for her, Shizuma carefully knelt before Nagisa, reached into the pocket of the borrowed garment, and brought out the small box she'd not taken out of her hand even as she'd driven here all the way from Tokyo. "Aoi Nagisa, in the presence of these friends and loved ones, I ask for..." Her voice failed her at the last moment, and she grinned despite herself at the less-than-smooth delivery. The words mattered most, after all. "Please... marry me, Nagisa." She opened the box, revealing the platinum-and-gold braided engagement band inside.
Nagisa's eyes filled with tears, and for a terrifying moment, Shizuma wondered if this had been the right thing to do. Was it too soon? Was it too much?
But then Nagisa lit up her world with a single choked word.
Shizuma's smile became impossibly wider, and Nagisa found her voice at last. "Yes, yes, of course I will!"
Nagisa held out her hand to allow Shizuma to place the ring onto her finger, then they embraced, laughing. And then Chikaru was hugging Nagisa, and the normally somber Hazuki was tearfully embracing Shizuma, and everything became a happy, warm blur.
Peripherally aware that Tamao was sobbing happy tears into Nagisa's shoulder, Shizuma next found herself in Chikaru's arms. "Well done," the Lulim president whispered into her ear, following this with a kiss on the cheek.
"This is just the beginning," Shizuma whispered in reply, flashing her old friend a nervous smile.
"As it should be, my darling," Chikaru winked.
Shizuma looked for Tamao, hoping for the chance to hug her as well, but she was already wrapped in Hazuki's strong arms, and Chikaru returned to sandwich her between the two of them as Nagisa once more faced her fiancée (fiancée!) and slipped her arms around her. "Thank you, my love," Shizuma whispered.
At this point, Nagisa finally appeared to remember the ring, and she turned her left hand to watch the patterns of light on its surface. "It's beautiful," she smiled, but then her face darkened. "But the uniform code..."
Shizuma had been prepared for this; from deeper in the box she pulled an elegant silver chain. "Sadly, as your former Etoile, I'm aware of the rule. So you can wear it under your uniform with this. It's long enough that it should hang next to your heart. One of my favorite places to be."
Nagisa looked from the chain to the front of her uniform. "More like right between my breasts," she giggled.
"Yes, well, that's one of my favorite places to be, too." Shizuma winked, remembering that night after Summer School when they had first kissed. Now, thankfully, she could remember it without regret.
She then turned to the three "witnesses," feeling her heart swell with affection as she spoke to each of them in turn. "I'm honored that you could be here," she bowed. "You can't know how much you've meant to me, all three of you, for all you've done for Nagisa..." This was said directly to Tamao, who had been a better friend to both of them than Shizuma could ever have hoped.
"...for the two of us..." she went on, nodding to Hazuki, the former outsider whose ability to simply think outside the Strawberry had been such a boon to them.
Last, she turned to Chikaru, remembering a kiss that never was, and wondering not for the first time if she'd be where she was now if not for that moment, and the ones that had followed. "...and for me."
Chikaru nodded, her eyes twinkling as always, and in that brief exchange Shizuma knew that Chikaru understood. "Congratulations to you both," the Lulim president smiled. She then very deliberately took the other two girls by the hand and pulled them toward the door. "In honor of the newly engaged, however, I think some time alone is merited, so I do believe Hazuki, Tamao and I will be going to my room now to have some hot lesbian sex."
Nagisa made a small "meep" noise, her mind having apparently gone to the same place as Shizuma's, but Chikaru shot them a mischievous grin before the trio disappeared. "And by 'lesbian sex,' of course, I mean tea. But it will be hot."
The door closed, and for a while neither of the newly committed couple said a word. At last, though, Nagisa took a breath to say something, and immediately blushed.
"What is it?" Shizuma asked, grinning at her beloved's continued ability to embarrass herself by her thoughts alone.
"Um... I was just wondering... would you like to follow their suggestion?"
"Oh, most certainly."
"Only... without the tea?"
"Without the tea."
Next (Last?): Come Live With Me?