“Tsukasa, can you please hold still?”
Tsukasa grimaces. “Sorry, but it’s just—is this necessary? Surely you could find another model…”
Umika looks up from where she’s pinning a swath of pink chiffon around Tsukasa’s waist. Her hair is getting in her eyes, loose and unpinned, and her mouth is set into a stubborn pout. “You volunteered!”
Tsukasa has to take a moment to resist the urge to brush Umika’s hair out of her face. “That was when I thought this would be, like, a weekend thing. What about Aya, she could—”
“Nope.” Umika pops the ‘P’ on the word and continues adding pins to the chiffon. “I used Aya for my last design project, and my professor always says we have to try something new. Plus, Touma would kill me if I tried to do ‘married bliss’ as a theme again.”
Tsukasa sighs. “What about… Kairi?” she asks, but even the suggestion of it seems ridiculous.
“Yeah, ‘cause Kairi’s even better than you at standing still.” Umika rolls her eyes. “Although I’d love to see if he could pull off the pink.”
Tsukasa glances down at the half-dress—mostly just a lot of layers of skirt—covering her police uniform. “I think he’d look pretty good in it.”
Umika giggles and hops up from her stool. “Well, Noel would enjoy that. Okay, you can go for today but remember, I need you back here this time tomorrow, we have to measure you for the bodice.”
“You know I have a job, right?”
“Ah, yes, catching those elusive phantom thieves.” Umika taps a finger to her chin in mock-thought. “How’s that going again?”
Tsukasa restrains a smile. “Don’t be a brat. Help me get out of this, would you?”
Umika’s fingers are deft, light against Tsukasa’s hips as she pulls pins apart and gathers the chiffon up. “You know, it won’t look like such a princess ballgown when I’m done with it, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“I’m not worried,” says Tsukasa, watching as Umika untwists a bolt of fabric from around her waist. Everything feels a little soft-edged and bright when it’s like this—the two of them in Umika’s makeshift dressing room, just the fabric and her hands between them. “Your stuff is always amazing. I just don’t know if I’m the right model.”
Umika tilts her head up to send her a blinding smile. Her snaggle tooth peeks out at the edge of her mouth. “You’re exactly the right model,” she says with utter certainty. “You’ll see.”
Kairi offers her the bag of popcorn as he wanders around Umika’s dressing room. Tsukasa takes a handful, figuring she needs the energy to stay sane if Umika is going to poke more pins into her arms today.
“What, exactly, is the theme of this collection again?” Kairi asks, walking around them in a circle as if that will give him a better view of whatever Umika is doing. Tsukasa’s been in here for two weeks on end and she still has no clue what the final product is supposed to look like; Umika has kept her notes very well-hidden from everyone.
“Superheroes,” says Umika, around the pencil she’s carrying in her mouth. Tsukasa leans down and plucks it out for her, earning herself a smile. “That’s why I figured—who better than a Patoranger, right? You guys are the public’s darlings now.”
“Only because you three went and disappeared for a year.” Tsukasa shoots Kairi a significant look and he smirks. “Ow—watch it!”
“Sorry.” Umika quickly pulls the pin out from her shoulder so it stops poking through her jacket and into her skin. “You know, I actually did ask Keiichiro if he wanted to be a part of this project. I could have made you three matching outfits or something, but he said he wanted to ‘focus on work’.”
The air quotes are practically visible when she trades a grin with Tsukasa.
“And by work he means Kairi,” Tsukasa surmises.
Kairi looks up from his popcorn, alarmed. “Hey.”
“You are a lot of work.” Umika pats him on the shoulder as she gets up to go to her drawing board.
“Whatever,” grumbles Kairi, a flush visible beneath the collar of his jacket. He takes advantage of Umika’s absence to walk back over and offer Tsukasa more popcorn, which she accepts gladly. “And why are you the one who got roped into this again?”
Something about his tone seems less like questioning and more teasing, but Tsukasa figures it’s better if she doesn’t acknowledge that.
“Well, I did kick all your asses in our last fight, so I thought I owed her a favor.”
“We totally won—”
Tsukasa laughs as Kairi and Umika start up a barrage of protests, but when Umika sticks her tongue out at her and she feels her stomach flip over, it’s harder to ignore Kairi’s knowing smirk than it had been before.
The dressing room feels pathetically empty when she enters and doesn’t see Umika there, for once. It’s still overflowing with fabric bolts and bags of buttons and sketches scattered over the table, but it’s jarring to not have Umika sitting in the middle of her mess, waving cheerfully at her.
Shiho is there instead, today. She looks up from her sketchpad when Tsukasa walks in and offers her a small smile. “Umika will be here soon, she just got held up at school.”
Tsukasa nods and drapes her coat over the chair. “How’s your manga going?”
Shiho’s smile turns into a beam in an instant. “Great! They want to run it in segments and then do a full printing once it’s complete and we can see what kind of feedback we have, but… I think it’s going to be good. I hope.”
“It’s gonna be amazing,” Tsukasa assures her. “And you’ll have your own real-life marketing team, what with these three.”
Shiho laughs. “No kidding. Sometimes I think Umika likes the phantom thief life more than she even likes fashion design.”
Tsukasa sits down and studies the other girl for a moment, wondering at how much had changed in the year Umika had been trapped. Shiho seems a lot brighter now, more confident than she had been just after the ice. But then, so does Umika—so do all of them. Maybe it was just something about being a phantom thief.
“And you?” Tsukasa asks carefully. “Do you miss it, too?”
“Sometimes,” Shiho admits. Her voice grows quiet and fond, her gaze drifting faraway. “It was fun—it gave me a real purpose. And I don’t regret it, because I got Umika back. But it’s different for her, I think.”
Here, she pauses and sends Tsukasa a significant glance. “Her and Kairi and Touma… I think part of it, they do it because of you guys.”
Tsukasa blinks. “Because of us?”
“You’re only in their lives because they became phantom thieves, right?” Shiho shrugs, looking back down at her sketchpad and tracing over a line in yellow marker. “Maybe it’s like, everyone’s worried if they stop… that’ll go away, too.”
Tsukasa wants to tell her that’s ridiculous, but she can’t seem to give voice to the thought. It’s like Shiho has unspooled some thread in her heart that she hadn’t even known was there. Hadn’t she agreed to be Umika’s model just because she missed spending time with her, outside of their fights? Without Jurer to bind them all together… maybe it was the same for all of them.
The thought stays with her until Umika arrives, bringing an armful of yellow silk and new sketches, and Tsukasa forgets about the fragility of everything in the light of her smile.
“Don’t be nervous,” Aya tells her backstage, adjusting the crystal pins in Tsukasa’s hair with nimble fingers. “Trust me, I’ve been there, but it’s over before you know it and it actually feels amazing when you’re out on the stage.”
Tsukasa sighs, rubbing her arms together. Her coat hides her dress from view of the other participants milling around backstage, but the warmth of it does nothing to stop her shivers. “I’ll take your word for it, but this is somehow more terrifying than facing down Dogranio.”
“We’ll all be in the second row,” Aya assures her with a smile. “Just look at Umika, you can’t possibly be nervous when she’s smiling at you.”
Tsukasa opens her mouth to ask her what she means—it’s true, but Aya’s smile has turned secretive in that annoying way everyone gets around her lately—but Touma saves her the trouble by walking up to them at that moment. He offers her a smile of greeting and slips his arm around Aya, and a sharp stab of longing hits her in the chest.
(It never used to be difficult, being around couples, but maybe it’s because Touma and Aya made it work around the trials of being phantom thieves. She remembers catching Keiichiro looking at the two of them once, at how they fit together, and imagined that she could see that same envy in his eyes—the wanting of what they’ve built together, without knowing how to do any of the work.)
“It’s almost time, are you ready?” he asks, checking his watch.
“As I’ll ever be.”
“You’ll be fine.” Touma’s voice is almost dismissive, but she knows him well enough to know that’s him being supportive. “And if it doesn’t go well, you can take it out on Umika next time we beat up a Gangler before you guys get there.”
“That only happened once,” she says and he grins. “Where is Umika, anyway?”
Touma trades a glance with Aya, then nods down the hallway, back towards the dressing rooms. “She was talking to her teacher, last I checked. You can still catch her before the show starts.”
Tsukasa exhales and turns away from their knowing looks, walking as fast as she can in her heels to where Umika’s dressing room is. She spots her professor coming out from one of them and passes her into the room to find Umika standing there, staring at the full-length mirror. Her yellow mask is in her hands.
“What—oh, Tsukasa,” Umika sighs when she sees her. “It’s you. You scared me! Shouldn’t you be out in the line with the other models?”
“Just… thought I’d get a last-minute pep talk,” Tsukasa says, a little lamely, but Umika smiles at her. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Umika says, slipping her mask back into her pocket. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“You look like you’re about to cry.”
Umika giggles a little. “It’s just… nerves.”
“Okay.” Umika squeezes her eyes shut for a moment, and inhales slowly. “I was just worried… about the show.”
“You think I’ll screw it up somehow?” Tsukasa asks, raising an eyebrow.
“No,” Umika says, shaking her head. She’s at least still smiling at the joke. “I know you’ll do amazing. You look amazing. You’re the only one who—never mind. I was only worried about how… after this show… we wouldn’t—”
Her voice falters and fades away. Tsukasa moves closer without being conscious of her feet moving, stopping just inches away from Umika and taking her hands in hers. Umika stares down at their fingers as Tsukasa interlaces them, looking a little bemused.
“We will see each other after this,” Tsukasa promises her. “You think after all we’ve been through, one show would be the end?”
“No, I just,” Umika stops herself and sniffles. “I like being a phantom thief. But I like… being with you without fighting. And with Keiichiro and Sakuya, too, but… especially you.”
Warmth runs over her skin, dizzying and absolute. “Me, too,” she admits quietly. “Why would you think that would stop after this?”
“I don’t know.” Umika laughs a little helplessly and dashes a hand at her cheeks, even though they’re not wet. “Just being silly, I guess.”
“Not silly,” Tsukasa assures her. “How about after this, we all go out for dinner somewhere? All of us, together?”
Umika nods, her face brightening just enough. “That sounds really nice.”
The fact that she doesn’t stumble even once is enough to make the show a good one, in her estimation.
Tsukasa stops at the front edge of the stage, looking out into the audience with her heart in her throat—Umika is in the center of the second row, a smile stretching her cheeks, and Shiho and Kairi are on either side of her, both of them cheering and clapping. Touma sends her a smile and at his side, Aya grins at her. Further down the line, Keiichiro and Sakuya and Noel are clapping, too, and it feels like, despite everything, all the lies and the fighting and the waiting, the fact that they’re all together means more than whatever had come before.
She meets Umika’s gaze and feels herself smile, too, so much that it feels like her heart is about to float out of her chest.
In the screens all above the audience, she can see herself in Umika’s vision—a modern-day superhero. All the chiffon of the skirt swirls around her, opening up over sleek navy blue pants, and the bodice is fitted with a black and pink cape that falls down like a train over the back of her dress. Her face is painted with spirals of pink to mimic a mask around her eyes, and yellow silk ribbons tie the whole thing together, floating from her wrists and her waist.
She looks half like a phantom thief, half like a princess, and, with the navy blue ribbons on her torso twining into an S over the pink, all Global Police.
Afterwards, when the lights are flickering on backstage, she doesn’t even make it to the dressing room before Umika barrels her way through the other models and designers to crush her in a hug.
“You looked so beautiful!” she gasps, pulling back to make sure she hasn’t wrinkled the dress. “You did everything right, you—”
Tsukasa cuts her off by drawing her all the way back in and kissing her so soundly that Umika can’t say anything for a long moment. Her heart is beating a drum solo; she can’t even think about anyone else backstage, or about their friends still waiting out in the audience, or anything else—only the taste of Umika’s lip gloss and her hand fluttering around Tsukasa’s waist, hesitant and warm when they finally press into the silk.
“I was right,” Umika breathes, her voice giggly and wild. “You were exactly the right model.”
Tsukasa grins and cups Umika’s face in her hands, running her thumb over her cheekbone and watching as Umika’s eyes flutter shut at the sensation. “I still think you could’ve put Kairi in pink.”
“Next time,” Umika promises her, and then surges forward to kiss her again.