Carol and Filia sat on a rocky promontory overlooking Crescent Beach, watching the sun go down. Its bottom-most edge was just beginning to graze the watery horizon, its reflection painting a shimmering, dancing line of orangey-red light across its surface.
Carol smiled. She liked moments like these. She liked to imagine that, if she stepped out onto the water and walked along the line the sun's reflection made in the water, she could walk along it, all the way to... where? The next horizon? The next continent? The sun itself, perhaps?
No. Happiness had for so long been a thing too far out of reach, but Carol was beginning to accept that it could be here, now, in the simplest of things... like watching the sun set with a dear friend.
"I'm surprised that a place like this exists," said Filia contentedly, absentmindedly picking another daisy and slotting it into Samson. He grumbled resentfully but was pressed up against the bark of a tree along with Filia's back and so couldn't form a coherent rebuttal.
"I found it, when I was still a little girl," said Carol, sitting forward on the grass with her arms around her knees, staring fixedly at that point on the horizon where the sun met the water. "I've always loved coming to the beach, plus my parents found it a nice way to relax and let me run around at the end of a day so I'd be good and tired before bed, so I had plenty of chances to explore. And I found this place... one particularly special day."
Silence reigned for a moment, but it was an entirely comfortable silence. Filia had nothing to say. She knew that Carol probably did but was happy to let her say it, entirely in her own time.
In this place, in this moment, these two girls had all the time in the world.
"...I was messing around at the bottom of the cliff, looking in pools and throwing rocks, when I found this path, naturally carved out of the cliffside. I followed it up. I was barefoot at the time, and the rough rock hurt my feet, but I didn't stop climbing – not until I'd reached the top, and saw...
"...exactly the same thing I'm seeing now: the sun, just barely kissing the horizon. I knew, at that moment, that I was seeing something... magical: a single, special moment, plucked out of the flow of time and presented to me by fate. Up here, standing next to that tree, I felt as though I was at the highest point of the centre of the world. And this moment... this moment was mine. Even if they took my liberty and my life, they could never take this memory from me."
The sound of waves, gently washing against the beach and splashing on the base of the cliff. The sound of seagulls, crying off in the distance. The sound of the last few tired beachgoers gathering up their belongings and beginning the journey home.
The sound of Carol realising what she'd just said. She spun around to look at Filia.
"Filia, I'm so sorry, I didn't-!"
"Ssshhh... sh." Filia punctuated this by solemnly and softly placing her finger on Carol's lips. Then, Filia pressed the stem of the daisy she was holding with that hand into the line between Carol's sealed lips, lengthwise.
Not entirely understanding what she was doing or why but feeling nonetheless that it was right, Carol pursed her lips just enough that the daisy was held between her lips.
Filia let her hand come away and smiled at Carol in a slow, calm, almost sleepy way.
Carol gazed back at her. The daisy moved slightly as she too smiled, so softly that she barely distorted her suture scars.
And then, Filia spoke. Her voice was a gentle whisper, barely louder than the breeze, but to Carol Filia's words filled the whole world.
"The memories I've lost... they don't matter to me now. All that matters... All that matters is making new memories; new moments that I'll treasure... just like this one."
Filia leaned forward and, before Carol knew what she was doing, placed her lips on Carol's.
She drew back only a single second later, the daisy clasped between her own lips. Carol's mouth was freed from daisy-carrying duty, but she could do nothing with it save letting it hang open in disbelief.
Filia chuckled, taking the little light flower between thumb and forefinger. "I'm sorry. I'm in a strange mood right now. I might do silly things."
Carol only stared at Filia for a good while, various feelings and thoughts crashing silently into each other inside her head. Eventually, she said, in a hushed voice, "...You've hardly changed at all."
"Did I do silly things when we first met?" asked Filia playfully.
Carol shook her head, her need to be understood all too apparent. "I mean – what you said, about memories not mattering. I think you're right. Forgetting all those things hasn't changed you at all – if anything, it's only made you more like... you."
Filia frowned curiously. "What do you mean?"
"Your old life, the way it was... they tried to make you into what they wanted you to be, so that you could fit into the life they had planned out for you. They couldn't ever succeed, of course, you're just too strong to give in – but nonetheless, it made you... cloudy. Hid who you really were. Who you really are."
Filia paused a moment, staring at Carol in a contemplative way. When she spoke, it was slow and deliberate. "...Who am I really?"
Carol felt a lump in her throat. She swallowed it down. This next move would take more courage than anything she'd ever done as Painwheel.
She reached a hand up towards Filia's face, softly holding her cheek. Filia blinked in surprise, but otherwise remained perfectly still.
"You're the kindest, strongest, most open-hearted person I've ever known. I don't know what I've done to deserve it, but you've always stood up for me, been there with me... risked your life for me. When I was Painwheel I found it impossible to think of anything more than just my own survival, but now... now that I'm with you... I can see myself really living. And not just for myself. Not anymore."
The two girls stared into each other's eyes. Filia's lips were ever-so slightly parted, her breath very shallow and slow, as if afraid that breathing too loudly might interrupt Carol.
"So, no, it isn't silly. In fact, after all the insanity I've been through, it's the one thing in this world that makes any kind of sense. After fighting for so long, fighting to be free, fighting just to be myself again... I've discovered that I don't want to be completely free. I don't want to be by myself.
"I want to be with you."
Filia sat speechless as Carol drew closer and closer.
"I finally have back my body, my mind, my soul... my heart. And, even after all I've been through to get them back, I will willingly give all of them... to you."
When their lips met, the sun was still setting. When their lips finally parted, the two of them lying on the grass in each other's arms, the sun's light was gone from the sky, replaced by the gentle effervescence of the moon and her retinue of constellations. Carol realised that she'd missed seeing the sun set, but she didn't mind. The glow of Filia's smiling face was fully enough to warm her up inside. And as for Filia herself...
She whispered, somewhat breathlessly, "I think it's safe to say that I accept your offer."
The two girls burst out in a fit of giggles.
"But I must make a stipulation," Filia continued, putting on a solemn face. "Because you have trusted yourself to me, I have to promise that I will never mistreat you: I will never try to manipulate you, force you into anything that you don't want, or keep anything from you."
Carol smiled. "Then I promise the same."
Filia smiled back.
Carol was so happy that she felt her heart might just burst open into an endless river of rainbows. But her happiness was rudely interrupted when she realised something.
"What's wrong?" asked Filia, alarmed by the sudden change in Carol's mood.
"...Samson's heard everything we've just said and done, hasn't he?" Carol asked, shocked that she hadn't considered this before saying potentially the most embarassing thing possible to Filia.
However, Filia laughed: a quiet, restful chuckle that made Carol's anxiety sublime into the air like mist before a breeze. "No, no: he's been asleep this whole time. He got bored while we were talking about sunsets and memories other 'girly stuff'." Filia grinned.
"You mean... the two of you don't have to sleep at the same time?"
"You don't know the half of it," said Filia, her grin taking on a rueful aspect. "The number of times he's woken me up just because he was bored of being in a dark room staring at a wall – and don't even get me started on how much he moans if I sleep face-up while he's still awake."
It took Carol a second or two to work out why. "Oh. Right." She smiled at Filia, who reciprocated the expression instantly. It was as though that simple communication of happiness was becoming the ground state of being for the two girls, simply enjoying one another's presence so close at hand.
"Shall we head back, then? Your parents will be worrying about you."
"...I think it's a little too late for me to go home by now," said Carol, in a voice that was at once incredibly nonchalant and infinitely sly. "I hate to impose, but could I possibly stay the night at your place? I'll be a very good houseguest, I promise."
It was easy to see the laughter in the glittering of Filia's eyes. "Are you sure they won't get mad at you?"
"I'll call them when we get back. If they don't like it, that's just too bad for them. C'mon."
Carol stood, extending a hand to Filia. Filia took it, and the two of them walked hand-in-hand all the way back to Filia's place. They said very little, seemingly content just to be together. Many people passed them by, but they didn't exist, not in any real way: the two girls moved through the world inside their own bubble of tranquil contentment, untouched by the fears and trials they'd undergone to reach this place.
And, when they were finally alone together, they really were the only two people in existence: the door firmly locked; all the curtains and blinds shut against the night; the lights in Filia's room dimmed down low, just bright enough that they could look into each other's eyes; the bedcovers encircling the both of them in softness and warmth.
They had the entire night to themselves. They didn't waste it.