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It was strange. Time seemed to pass through them like sand on a sieve. Before all this, they both resigned to leave the stage. And yet here they were, almost a year past, retreading old ground, falling back into familiar rhythms. Stage girls once more. It surprised her just how easily stirred were the fossilized remains of her sentiments.

She was scribbling something in her notes that seemed so terribly important up until Tsukasa asked, “Is anything wrong?”

Shizuha finished a paragraph on her notes, her mind wandering.

Tsukasa already knew. Still, Shizuha’s response was “Nothing.”

“It doesn’t look like nothing to me.” Shifting in her seat, Tsukasa folded her arms on the table, setting her own notes aside. She was smiling, shyly, not sure how to lift the levity of the mood.

Although it was not meant to pry an answer out of her, not really, not here in the library and definitely not when they were doing their reading assignment, Shizuha felt like she had to say something. If it bothered her then it bothered Tsukasa.

Shizuha let herself say it, and it came out in her serene and docile voice, same and yet different, “I didn’t think we’d be talking like this again.”

It was a simple statement, said in part disbelief and part awe, and it said everything.

Later on Shizuha would promise she would not let herself get any braver than that. But what a release it was. Not anymore bearing the weight of the elephant in the room (one of them, at least, and having pointed it out herself), she luxuriated in finally leaving that here, out in the open.

She watched Tsukasa tilt her head, watched her smile.

“Me neither.” Tsukasa was shaking her head, like she was disagreeing with herself about something. “We really owe Aruru and Misora one. Has Misora told you she watched last year’s S-Con?”

It was impressive that Tsukasa was bringing up the events of last year herself. Although it mustn’t be easy. Shizuha replied, “That’s news to me.”

“She did, and she’s seen me there.” Tsukasa said this like it was something Shizuha ought to know, as if they were bound to tell each other everything, and she must.

Shizuha humored her, “You must’ve left an impression.”

Tsukasa looked wistful. “It was the best way I could have left an impression.”

Anybody could have caught the bitterness, but Shizuha recognized the hurt. “How are your legs doing?”

Tsukasa nodded, and she drew her head away as though she had seen this question coming a mile away. “Loads better. I still have that massive corkboard hung up in my room. The one Lalafin sent me.”

It had been a gift of sorts from all the students in their course, to wish Tsukasa well on her way to recovery. Pinned on the corkboard were all kinds of cards and notes that showed the creativity (or lack thereof) of the first-year classes.

“You left a really sweet message.”

“Did I?” Shizuha could recall with precise detail what she wrote, but part of her hoped Tsukasa didn’t. She wouldn’t want to bring up any unpleasant memories.

“It was like a couple words long. Easy to remember.” When she saw Shizuha’s expression, Tsukasa quickly added, “I really, really loved it. It’s one of my favorites.”

Both of them wouldn’t say it out loud, but her foot injury marked a hard period for both of them. No words could quite encapsulate the shock either of them had felt, and some of it still hadn’t worn off.

There was a moment of pause, on her part, but to her surprise, Tsukasa spoke again, “So, I’m kind of curious. Did you have anybody else in mind…? When Misora and Aruru were scouting for a dark pirate, I mean. The one who liked talking a lot.”

“I had several,” Shizuha confessed.

“Funny, Lalafin said something about that.”

“Well, she might be right.” At the corner of her eye, she spotted Tsukasa fidgeting in her chair, and Shizuha’s smile faded. “What’s wrong?”

“Oh, it’s not serious. I just mean,” she tried, “that…I’m not sure. It all still feels so fast. It’s a little surreal.”

Shizuha thought she should say something here, but her throat closed up. When she learned how to speak again the moment had passed.

Thankfully Tsukasa was not discouraged. She didn’t seem to be, with her. She sometimes wondered if her patience could outlast her.

”I gave up, you know.” She looked at Shizuha apologetically, like she was sorry she didn’t know how to pick up from here. “I feel—I don’t know how I feel. A bit awful.”

For a moment it was like Shizuha could see once more the girl in her who had grown to distrust grownups not too long ago. When Shizuha looked at Tsukasa quizzically, she went on, “I had to wait for an opportunity like that before I came back. It’s kind of shameful.”

An opportunity like that…she was talking as if she wouldn’t have found a way back to the stage herself. Like none of their success should be accounted to her. Regret did that to people. It did that to Shizuha, still did, sometimes, and right now she could see how regret was doing it to Tsukasa.

“That’s hardly your fault.” Shizuha was shaking her head. She was careful not to go out of bounds. Tsukasa was doing her best impression of someone who found everything mundane on their table more interesting than the person she was speaking to. Force of habit. “You don’t have to apologize for…that.”

“I don’t?” She laughed. “It’s like I see a different story in your eyes.”

They smiled. An old argument resolved too many times over that was not worth resolving again today.

“Actually, I was happy you joined. Very happy.” Shizuha offered a smile, which Tsukasa immediately returned in familiar fondness. “I could tell you missed it.”

Tsukasa whistled low, laughing. “I did. I missed the stage so much. What would you do if I refused?”

“I can imagine we wouldn’t be here,” she said, truthfully. “We would have found someone else to perform with us. And even then, it wouldn’t be quite the same.”

“That’s true. I think, you know, either way, I’d still end up with you guys.” She shrugged. “Eventually.”

Almost intuitively, Shizuha knew what she meant.

It would be silly to call it fate, but Shizuha could not think of another word for it. Knowing Tsukasa, she must be entertaining thoughts along the same ley lines. They shared so many things.

Tsukasa continued, looking solemn, “I didn’t think you’d stop performing. I didn’t want you to.”

Shizuha looked at her with that vaguely empty expression of hers, pure in its gentility. Tsukasa held her gaze for a moment, and Shizuha would have caught on to whatever drift she was suggesting, and then she dropped it.

“It’s funny because I don’t know where I’m getting at. I don’t even know if this is the right time…I don’t blame you for leaving either, not at all.”

Tsukasa left a few things unsaid, like she was worried about her own presumptions. Shizuha would have told her how lonely it had been for her too, but when she looked inside herself she couldn’t.

Tsukasa had an aptitude for letting people’s guards down. For Shizuha, she wished it were easier to open up about more things, and sooner, and yet she did not make it easy for herself to either.

She thought about feeling guilty, then felt guilty for starting to feel guilty, because after all Tsukasa asked her what was wrong.

But then Tsukasa gave her a reassuring look.

“You loved the stage so much,” Tsukasa was mumbling. It was not inviting at all, just a gentle reminder. No rush, that look seemed to say. And it brought Shizuha great comfort to take it from her. “I’m glad we’re back.”

Shizuha nodded, relieved. “Me too.”

They had said everything they needed to today. And it was a silent agreement that they did this as steadily as they could.

One wound at a time, she thought, and a comfortable quiet fell between them again, now palpable in its familiarity like a thin shroud. It seemed the library grew warmer in their corner.