DISCLAIMER: It's actually rather tame so I wouldn't worry too much. No copyright infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I hate to have to say this but y'all know the drill. Please no posting of my work ANYWHERE without my express permission. The Mai HiME/Mai Otome characters do not belong to me in any way, shape or form (Sunrise Inc has that dubious distinction) but the story itself is my own creation. If you want to post it somewhere, you can always email me. Thanks for respecting my work and my privacy.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
All With Good Intentions
Chapter One Shades of the Past
The soft hues of orange and gold bled across the deep blue of the horizon as twilight gave way to the coming night. Warm breezes flowed like clear water through the tall sliding glass windows of a sparsely furnished penthouse flat atop one of several modern looking high-rise tenements in the Higashiyama District of Kyoto. Laughter and music from those attending the Gion Matsuri Festival filtered up from the crowded streets below. From the balcony, a lone woman sat in pensive silence, wishing that she had managed to enjoy the Festival's parade earlier in the day, as the Naginata Hoko was one of her favourite floats.
Fujino Shizuru leaned back in the fluffy papasan that was positioned on the flat's sprawling balcony for the specific purpose of watching the days start and end. With her usual cup of tea in hand, she stared off into space, meditating in the stillness of her mind. There was a time when that simple act brought her joy beyond measure. It was a ritual for her, to count the hours until she would get to see Natsuki again. However, that pleasure has long since been denied her after that fateful day. It had been almost a year and a half since the chaos that was ironically called the HiME Festival. The Obsidian Lord was no more but many of the HiMEs still were left to try to repair the emotional damage that he left behind in their lives. Although his destruction had returned everything to relative normality, memories remained of the pain that had been caused, the unforgivable acts that had been done.
She would relive those moments over and over in her mind, wondering if she really deserved the forgiveness that her dark-haired friend had given so freely.
Shizuru's brow creased in anguish as she remembered the look on her close friend's face; the pain of broken trust and the possibility that Shizuru had taken advantage of her at her weakest moment reflected in her deep green eyes almost brought the former student council president to her knees.
All of the best laid plans, all of the good intentions they paled and disappeared like so much smoke in the face of what Natsuki perceived as betrayal. Shizuru's soul had shattered into a thousand pieces. The woman she loved was lost to her in the briefest instant and she didn't know how to get it back, to undo the damage. So she left; fled to fulfill her promise to Natsuki, despite the loss. To defend her at all costs.
First District fell beneath Shizuru's blade with only a brief fight. They were surprised and outmatched. While it was very tempting to put the women's council to the sword, she had held back. Outright murder was not in her nature. Though she had touched on a darkness within that she never knew she possessed, Fujino-san was not entirely lost to madness. All of Natsuki's enemies were dismantled, their threat to her gone in the blink of an eye. She had to admit, efficiency was ever her strong suit.
A chill rippled through Shizuru and she tightened her grip on the cashmere throw wrapped around her shoulders. "What was that saying?" she mused. "The road to hell is paved with good intentions? Yet, like Dante who followed his guide, 'I entered on that deep and savage road'." She sipped slowly at her tea, her thoughts pitching and rolling through her mind like a storm-tossed sea.
When they had rematerialized in the school chapel, Shiruzu had broken down, begging Natsuki to forgive her for the things she had done. In the end, though, Natsuki had forgiven all without her ever having to explain. But somehow that wasn't enough. She felt the need to justify her actions to her most important person but she could barely justify them to herself. They drifted apart eventually, in part due to Shizuru's graduation but overall due to her feeling that did not deserve Natsuki's forgiveness or her friendship. Her parents had secured her place at Doshisha University in Kyoto so she returned home, convinced that the distance would help them both heal.
But once the semester began, Natsuki started calling her on a weekly basis. "I'm worried about you. You don't call me as much as before. And God knows, I miss you giving me a hard time," she joked. When the silence on the other end had gone on for too long, Natsuki had tried gentle prodding. "Hey, talk to me. I'm usually the monosyllabic one, remember?" The younger girl thought that might get her friend to open up but she remained as mysterious as before. Soon, she stopped returning Natsuki's calls. Guilt and the pain of rejection had taken its toll. She closed herself off from everyone she ever knew and hid out in the flat her parents gave her as a graduation present when she wasn't in class. Natsuki's stubbornness took a different tack; she began to write letters. Shizuru sent a brief missive back after the dark-haired woman had sent several letters; it read only "I withdrew from the world, not because I had enemies, but because I had friends. Not because they did me ill turn, as is customary, but because they thought me better than I am. It was a lie I could not endure." She hoped that Natsuki would understand. That was one of the things she so loved about her; they seemed to know each other's feelings without words being said.
"Fujino-sama, your dinner is waiting."
Shizuru turned her attention from her inner monologue to address the servant that appeared by her side. "Thank you, Touro-san. I'll be in momentarily."
"Very well, Fujino-sama." The young maid paused when her mistress did not move.
"Is there something else?"
"It's just .well, you've been very reclusive lately. You won't receive visitors or calls. I'm just concerned for you." Touro's voice trailed off.
A shadow of a smile flitted across her mistress's face. "I'm fine, just a little under the weather. No need to worry."
"As you wish." Touru replied, bowed and went inside the flat.
Shizuru sighed and rose to follow her servant inside when the doorbell rang. Arguing voices drifted out to her, one she recognized even with her eyes closed.
"You mustn't go out there! Miss doesn't wish to be disturbed by anyone."
"Well, I'm not just anyone. Move!" The brunette chuckled lightly. Some things just never change, she thought. She suddenly felt the presence of someone standing behind her.
"Shizuru! We need to talk. Right now!"
Chapter Two A Friend In Need
It was late afternoon one day mid-semester when Natsuki received Shizuru's letter. She was trying to wade her way through the Tokugawa Era for Japanese History class and wasn't having much success in the concentration department.
"Oi! Tokiha! Mikoto-chan! Anyone around?" Tate called as he strode in through the front door of the dorm room that Mai, Natsuki and Mikoto shared.
"Mai's downstairs in the laundry room, Tate. Don't you ever knock?" Natsuki growled in greeting.
"Why bother? Mai and Mikoto never lock the door anyway," he smirked.
Natsuki shook her head in frustration. "You are such a pervert. I have no idea what Mai sees in you. Honestly. Now will you PLEASE go drive someone else crazy? I've got to get this done before Nakahara-sensei fails me again."
"Sure, sure. Oh, by the way," Tate paused and handed the dark-haired girl a small envelope. "This was taped to your door. There isn't a return address on it, though. I wonder who it's from?"
Natsuki's blood turned to ice in her veins. She had a pretty good idea who it was from and had a feeling that wasn't a good thing.
"As it's addressed to me and not Mai," she said, giving Tate her patented death glare, "I don't see how that's any of your business."
Tate held up his hands in mock surrender. "This is me, backing away from very upset lady. I'd better get going anyway. Chie and Aoi are waiting for us."
"Double dating again, eh?" Natsuki asked with a barely concealed smirk. She remembered the last time that Mai and Tate went out with Chie and Aoi. Poor Mai said she was scarred for life and Tate had the silliest grin on his face. He kept mumbling something about having a front row seat for the show. Natsuki had the feeling that the couple had experienced an intimate moment between the two girls that was better left unshared.
"Well, Aoi made Chie leave her camera phone in her room after what happened last time. Have fun with your studying. See you later, Natsuki," he waved to her and walked out the door.
"Finally some damned privacy!" she groaned. "What was I thinking when Mai asked me to room with her?"
She laid the letter on her desk, trying very hard to control the urge to rip it open and read it right then and there. But there was homework and if she didn't get these last couple of chapters read now, it would never get done. Natsuki sighed in frustration and returned to her work. The slow, rather loud ticking of the clock in the living room coupled with large, flowing handwriting on the envelope's front only served to drive her to distraction. After fifteen minutes of staring at the same paragraph, she gave up all pretense of being able to concentrate.
Using the ornate scrimshaw letter opener that Shizuru had given her for Christmas, she quickly tore open the envelope and read the note inside. Her eyes widened in shock and confusion as she scanned the contents.
"Oi " Natsuki whispered. "What the hell is this?"
She gripped the note until her knuckles turned white. "Oh no you don't, Fujino Shizuru. You're not going to lose me that easily." She grabbed her cell phone and punched in some numbers.
"I need a ticket to Kyoto flying out tonight yes tonight. Yes, I want to leave right now, the cost doesn't matter .fine, fine, I'll hold."
Natsuki settled her cell phone in the crook of her neck while she typed in the words "Doshisha University" into Google on the laptop Shizuru had given her as a present. "No, you're not going to get away with that at all," she murmured.
Chapter Three - Revelations
"What the hell is this all about?" Natsuki growled as she balled up the offending note in her hand, her face as dark as a thundercloud.
Shizuru leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. "I thought it was self-explanatory," she said in a neutral tone.
"Really? Well perhaps you should explain it to me because I've never known you to simply give up."
Shizuru's bronze eyes misted over. "Maybe you don't know me as well as you think."
"I know you don't really believe that." Natsuki knelt down in front of her friend until they were face to face. "Why won't you talk to me?" she burst out in exasperation. "Why is it so hard for you to confide in me when I've always confided in you?"
Her words hung in the air, thick with worry and anger. Shizuru was aching inside to say something, anything but her mouth just wouldn't comply. Touro hovered close to the door of the balcony, hoping that her mistress would give her permission to toss the intruder out on her butt.
The lithe brunette turned to her servant. "Would you excuse us for a little while, Touro-san?" she said quietly. She held up a placating hand as the woman started to protest. "It's all right. Kuga-san and I are old friends." Touro gave her a dubious look, retreated back into the flat and closed the door behind her.
"You finally did it, didn't you? You went and hired a member of your fanclub to do your housework." Natsuki grumbled good-naturedly. Shizuru narrowed her eyes in a mock-glare.
"That was beneath you, Natsuki."
The dark-haired woman held up her hands in a gesture of surrender. "Sorry, I just couldn't help it." She settled into a wicker chair beside her friend, crossing her legs to make herself more comfortable. The two friends stared at each other for what seemed like hours before Natsuki broke the silence.
"I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what's going on," she said, her voice echoing in the warm quiet.
Shizuru merely shrugged. "That's fine with me. I'll have Touro-san fix up the guest room for you."
Natsuki heaved a long-suffering sigh. "You're missing the point, Fujino."
Shizuru blinked at Natsuki's uncharacteristic use of her family name. "And that is?"
Natsuki leaned forward, taking her friend's soft hands into her own callused ones. "Why won't you show me all of you? The good as well as the bad. Is this about me not being able to love you the way you want me to?"
Part of the former student council president was pleased to see this level of maturity and compassion in her volatile friend. She was amazed at how much Natsuki had changed in the relatively short period of time they had been apart. She was pretty sure that her roommates and newfound friends on campus probably had more to do with that than anything else. However, there were some things that Natsuki just couldn't understand, that she really didn't need to know. But here she was, tempting fate like she always did, wanting to have the truth when it could only do more harm than good. Shizuru wasn't ready to have her dearest friend know the secrets of her personal truths; she'd already lost enough as it is.
A flash of anger showed in the brunette's eyes. She stood up abruptly and walked to the long dining table at the edge of the patio to pour them both some tea. When she spoke again, her voice was deadly quiet. "Just what do you want me to say?"
Natsuki knew that she was pushing her luck but she had to find out what was wrong with the person dearest to her. She lounged idly in her chair, her eyes a mystery. "Why not start from the beginning? That's always best, so they say."
Shizuru whirled around and slammed her hand smartly on the tabletop. "And you think you want to know? Do you really want to know the things I've done? The things I was thinking?" She leaned forward on her hands, her gaze pinning Natsuki to her seat. "Do you want to know how much it hurt to see you suspect that I could ever hurt you or do anything to you against your will? Or do you want to know how I was hoping against all hope that you would feel a tenth of the love that I feel for you?" Her voice had started out near a whisper but it was slowly building to a shout. Natsuki sat frozen in place, totally shocked by this display of un-kaichou-like behaviour. She wanted to head off a full-scale rant but Shizuru had built up a head of steam and it seemed that she was only getting started.
"How about I tell you how I can't stand that people think that I'm so perfect, this goddess that can do no wrong. Ugh, it makes me sick just to think of it! I can't be myself for all of the things other people think I should be!" She was crying openly now, her words came through her teeth as if she were spitting bullets. "Do you want to know how ashamed I felt that the strength I gathered from loving you was now a weakness to be exploited by people like Haruka and Yukino? Is that what you really want to hear?"
Natsuki's jaw dropped halfway to the floor; she was totally at a loss for words. Never had she imagined that the person who'd been the strongest for her had held back so much of her own pain. Shizuru glared at her from across the balcony, panting from the exertion of venting her anger and frustration. Natsuki got up and approached her warily. A wry smile formed on her face before she could stop it.
"Am I that amusing, Kuga-san?" Shizuru remarked coldly.
"Umm no, I was just thinking that this was our first fight. Ever."
"I'm sure it won't be our last."
"Probably not." Natsuki wrapped her arms around her former schoolmate. Using the end of her sleeve, she tried to wipe away some of Fujino's drying tears.
"Natsuki? A handkerchief would work best, don't you think?"
"Picky, picky," Natsuki scoffed. Green eyes stared into light brown with an intensity that surprised them both. Natsuki cleared her throat, breaking the spell that threatened to engulf them. "Why don't you tell your little fangirl make us something to eat? I'm starved!"
They both laughed out loud at the absurdity of her comment. "Anyway," she continued. "I think we both will need a bit more energy, don't you? We've got a lot to talk about."
Shizuru's eyes lit up in surprise. "You're not upset? Shocked? Disturbed?"
Natsuki giggled, giving her friend a knowing wink. "Not hardly. I always knew there was more to you than meets the eye. It's a shame you thought you couldn't share these feelings with me. Enough chat. Must...feed the Kuga monster!"
A tight smile crossed Shizuru's face as she wiped residual tears from her eyes. "Just when I think I know you well, you manage to surprise me." She wrapped her arms around Natsuki's waist and hugged her back. "We'd better go in. Supper's waiting."
Chapter Four To Forgive is Divine
Natsuki gave a small surprised gasp as she followed Shizuru through the flat into the relatively small dining area opposite a spacious kitchen. She was no stranger to wealth and privilege but the luxury in which her friend lived surprised even her. Old style Japanese décor and artwork adorned the flat with only a few modern style pieces of furniture for variety. She felt like she was walking through a museum as she paused to admire a piece of Kiyomizu pottery that had been autographed by a famous artist.
"I never knew that you had an appreciation for art." Natsuki nearly jumped out of her skin at the sudden appearance of Shizuru by her side.
Natsuki tossed her a hard look and a slight blush crept into her cheeks. "Do you enjoy scaring me half to death?
Shizuru's musical laugh filled the air. "As a matter of fact, I do. You get these really cute expressions on your face. Quite amusing and very adorable." She gave Natsuki a mischievous wink and led her towards the cozy dining room in the middle of the flat.
The two friends did quite a bit of catching up over the simple, yet refined meal that Touro had prepared for her mistress and guest. There were moments of strained silence when Natsuki tried to get Shizuru to continue the conversation they started on the balcony. Sensing that she still wasn't ready to delve any deeper into subjects of a personal nature, Natsuki veered their talk into a different direction. She decided to play the part of outrageous storyteller, lavishly embellishing stories of the antics of Mai, Mikoto, Chie, Aoi and the rest. A thrill of pleasure flooded through her to hear her friend laugh, to see her smile again. Shizuru's eyes twinkled with mirth in the dancing light of a few dozen very large circular candles that were placed about the flat. In fact, everything about her seemed to glow as if she were more angel than human. As Natsuki observed her friend, she was hard pressed to remember a time when Shizuru had looked more beautiful. She hadn't realized that she was staring, until Touro's presence snapped her out of her reverie.
"Should I serve your sake now, Miss?"
"No, not tonight, Touro-san."
"Why?" Natsuki blurted, her interest clearly piqued.
Shizuru mentally kicked herself for not paying attention. She knew that if she had alcohol when Natsuki was in such close proximity, things could get problematic in short order. Thus, she wanted to be able to exert some measure of restraint over her feelings. However, she didn't want that fact to be common knowledge so she offered the best excuse she could think of on spur of the moment.
She gave a noncommittal shrug. "I'm just not in the mood."
Natsuki burst out laughing. "That was just pitiful." Grinning from ear to ear, she leaned forward on her elbows. "So, do you ever join those infamous university drinking parties?"
They both heard Touro gasp in shock over Natsuki's audacity.
"Of course not."
"Well then why don't we have our own?"
"You're too young and inexperienced, Natsuki," Shizuru teased. "You'd be drunk too soon for any real competition."
"Oi! I'm not a little girl! I've had sake with Mai and the others and I drank them all under the table."
"Really?" Natsuki winced. Shizuru's eyes had that mischievous glint in them that she knew all too well. She had just managed to get herself in something she wouldn't be able to get out of.
"O-of course!" Natsuki huffed. "In fact, I could beat you if I really wanted to."
Neither had ever known the other to back down from a challenge and they stared each other down from across the table in the style of true Mexican standoff. Shizuru's poor servant looked as if she were going to faint.
"We'll see about that. Touro?"
"My usual and would you please leave the tokkuri* on the table for us?
Touro's eyes widened. This was an unusual request, one that she was sure her mistress was going to regret later, but she did as she was told. After she poured the strong brew into Shizuru's favourite ochoko**, she excused herself ostensibly to clear the dinner dishes, but mostly so she wouldn't watch what she considered to be Natsuki's unhealthy influence on her employer.
Shizuru made the first move. "Shall we drink from the same cup, or would you prefer your own?"
"No, yours is fine with me," Natsuki replied nonchalantly. She took the newly poured cup from Shizuru's hands and drank it down in one gulp. It felt like someone had lit a blowtorch in her throat going down but she merely grinned at her surprised friend. Initially, she felt nervous about showing off so much for Shizuru's benefit; but she knew she'd never hear the end of it if she didn't follow through.
A few drinks later, they adjourned to the living room where they continued their contest and their conversation. Things began to wind down a few hours and a bottle and a half of sake later. Tiredness slowly crept over the pair and, at some point, Natsuki wound up nodding off on Shizuru's shoulder. Shizuru was very tempted take advantage of the situation. It would be so easy to just give those perfect lips the gentlest of kisses, to give her face a light caress. But she'd been down that road before it almost led to her ruin. This time, she swore, restraint would win out.
"Natsuki?" Shizuru gently prodded her friend awake. The dark-haired woman's eyes opened to half-slits.
"Time for bed." Natsuki nodded, still half asleep.
"Up you go," Shizuru pulled Natsuki to her feet by one arm. Together they stumbled their way to the guest bedroom.
"What kind of sake was that? My mouth feels rather strange." The words came out of Natsuki's mouth in one long slurred sentence.
Shizuru chuckled. "It's one of my favourites: Ozeki Nigori. But I have only had it a few times. It's a bit strong."
When they finally reached their destination, the older woman used one foot to push open the door to the room while attempting to maneuver a swaying Natsuki to the bed. However, her foot caught the edge of rug and they both collapsed in a heap on top of each other.
"If I had known that you would be this fun after a little sake, I'd have done this ages ago." Shizuru raised an amused eyebrow.
"Sorry, Kaicho-san," Natsuki giggled. "No underage drinking allowed. Against the rules and all that."
"I see. So, if there were no rules, you would've been happy to play with me, eh?"
Natsuki's brows crinkled in concentration. "I don't think I said that ..did I say that?"
"Not in so many words," Shizuru turned away briefly to hide the sudden flush she felt. It must be from the sake, she reasoned. Her eyes widened in surprise as she suddenly felt a hand caress her face. She looked back to find Natsuki's intent gaze upon her. She drew Shizuru down to lay next to her then rolled over on her side until they were both face to face. "I'm so sorry," Natsuki whispered. "I never meant to hurt you. I-I just didn't know how or what to feel. Can you ever forgive me?"
A lone tear slid down her cheek, leaving a silvery trail down her alabaster skin before landing on Shizuru's outstretched hand.
"There's nothing to forgive." Natsuki gave her a grateful smile and curled up on the bed. The pair continued to bask in the warmth of each other's regard until they could no longer keep their eyes open and they drifted off to sleep.
*tokkuri: ceramic flask from which sake is poured and served.
**ochoko: small cylindrical cup in which sake is commonly served. It can also be served in masu (a box-like wooden cup) and sakasuki (flat, saucer-like cup it's mostly used for special ceremonies like weddings and Shinto purification rituals).
Author's note: Drinking from another's ochoko is often viewed as a sign of friendship.
Chapter Five: Revelations
The sounds of someone moving in the room woke Natsuki before anything else did. Touro's heavy-handed movements as she went about her cleaning routine were a none-too-subtle hint that she had possibly slept for too long. Rays of morning sunlight assaulted the lids of Natsuki's eyes, driving themselves into her brain like nails in a coffin. She was pretty sure that some island somewhere was missing its beach and that it had taken up residence in her mouth. Her lips and tongue felt like weighted sandpaper. Groans of abject misery rumbled in her chest. Making up drinking games had been a very bad idea, of that she was now quite sure. Never again, she swore. Never EVER again. Gingerly opening one bloodshot green eye, she noticed that the side of the bed Shizuru had once occupied was now empty.
Natsuki lay immobile on her side for some time, letting the tingling after effects of the previous evening dance on her skin a while more. She watched Touro zigzag through the room, straightening the furniture, opening the window, doing all of the things she supposed a servant must do. For the first time, Natsuki noticed that Touro was actually rather good looking. Shoulder-length dark hair flowed around her neck, a striking contrast to her pale as milk skin; her eyes were so light as to almost have no color and her facial features were delicate like a china doll's. She was sure that Touro knew that she was being watched and chose to let her silence convey her displeasure over last night's events.
Unable to remain silent any longer, Touro cleared her throat to speak. "Kuga-san," she said stiffly. "Miss has taken the liberty of aquiring the family jet to fly you back to school. The driver will be here to pick you up in two hours." Natsuki could feel disapproval and annoyance coming from the servant in waves.
"Fine," she sighed in resignation.
"Miss left a note for you as well." Touro laid a small blue envelope on the pillow next to Natsuki. The bright blue stood in stark contrast to the pristine white of the pillowcase like the outer shell of a robin's egg.
When Touro made no move to leave, the dark-haired girl gave her an aggravated look. "A little privacy, if you don't mind."
The young woman huffed in indignation, gave her employer's guest an equally stern glare and left the room.
She was tempted to go back to sleep for another hour or so, but she kept seeing that damned blue envelope behind her eyelids, taunting her. Last evening had been what? Exciting? Revealing? She searched her fading memory for details but found that the potent sake had only left her with a throbbing head and rolling stomach. I hope that I didn't do anything foolish. An involuntary shiver spread liquid warmth throughout her body. Her skin remembered the soft pressure of being held close, warm breath on her ear, the security of strong arms. Natsuki allowed herself a small smile. She felt privileged to be so loved, yet it frightened her all the same.
After several long moments, curiosity finally got the best of her. Taking the letter from the pillow, she got out of bed and sat in one of the overstuffed chairs by the window. She took a deep, steadying breath, then opened the envelope. The kana written in Shizuru's flowing hand leapt out to her from the page.
It's been quite a while since I've had so much fun! You're always a pleasure especially when you're drunk. I'm sorry that I wasn't able to see you off. I had class early this morning. It was good to just talk and let everything out that I've been holding in for so long. Your friendship is very important to me; but I think you've always known that. I'll probably be busy with classes for the next few weeks but we'll see each other again soon, I promise.
P.S. No, nothing happened but please try to improve your sleeping habits. You kicked me out of bed twice during the night and took all of the covers!
P.P.S. Just kidding. You slept beautifully.
She felt her cheeks burn with a slight blush. Leave it to Shizuru to find a way to give her a hard time without trying.
"I do hope that you care for Miss as much as she cares for you."
Natsuki started in surprise. She was so intent on reading the letter, she hadn't even noticed that Touro had re-entered the room. Cocking an amused eyebrow, she asked, "Why are you concerned about my feelings for Shizuru?"
Shizuru's servant stepped into the room to place towels, a spare toothbrush and a plush bathrobe on the nightstand beside the bed for her mistress's guest. "Because Miss is destined for great things and you are a distraction that could be her undoing," she remarked in a brittle voice.
"What does that mean?" Natsuki growled, her eyes narrowed into her signature glare.
Touro gave a noncommittal shrug. "Fujino-sama has been groomed from an early age to take her father's place as head of the Fujino family business once he becomes too incapacitated to perform his duties. Her time as student council president at Fuka Gakuen was merely a test of her abilities and skill. She had already been acting as secondary financial consultant for her father by her second academic year. Why do you think Kazahana-sama had complete confidence in her? She knew that Miss was quite capable of handling the business matters of the school."
She paused in the act of changing the sheets on the king-sized guest bed. When she spoke again, her voice was quiet and reflective.
"I've served Fujino-sama ever since we were children. I've watched her grow into the beautiful woman you see today. In all of that time, I never once had the courage to tell her how I felt, to let her know my heart."
The young woman finished her task and sat on the edge of the bed. Silent tears glistened on her face in the gentle glow of sunlight that filtered through the bamboo blinds.
"You see, I knew," she continued. "I knew that she required another like herself someone strong, loyal and kind. While I could give her some of those things, I knew that I was a mere servant. I could never be her equal."
Touro opened her eyes and turned her intense gaze on Natsuki. "If one is to be her partner in life, they must be her partner in all things. Make no mistake, Miss is far stronger than she looks."
Memories of Shizuru dismantling Yukino's CHILD, Diana and a fierce encounter with her flickered briefly through Natsuki's mind. She knew quite well the magnitude of her closest friend's strength and determination. She considered the seriousness of the young servant's words. Her mind was such a riot of conflicting emotions that she almost didn't notice when Touro began speaking again.
"I knew something was wrong with her but she never said a word. All of the time in her self-imposed solitude, she remained strong; only her eyes showed the depth of her pain."
Natsuki sat down heavily in a nearby chair as Touro paused to open one of the windows a bit further, letting in another blast of warm air. Anger flashed in her light-coloured eyes only to be replaced by bitterness a moment later.
"But when you came last evening, I knew then that she would accept no one but you to share her life. Many will try to capture her heart but they will fail. I am as sure of this as I am sure that the sun will rise tomorrow."
"Don't you think I know that?" Natsuki flared in sudden anger. "I do love her! That will never change. I just can not love her the way she wants. I'm just not capable of that."
"That is a lie and you know it," Touro hissed. "I've seen the way you look at her. One's eyes always tell the truth. Your mouth speaks cowardly words and gives you an excuse to take advantage of Miss's loving heart."
Natsuki jumped up, her hands flexing in rage. "How dare you judge me?"
"You make it so easy. You're too willing to reap the benefits of Miss's love without investing any of your own heart. You've made sure that the only one who gets hurt is Fujino-sama. Those pathetic excuses are pure selfishness. So don't lecture me about being judgmental."
The air between them was charged with animosity. Had anyone walked into the room at that moment, they would've sworn that the two would've come to blows.
The dark-haired woman stepped closer to Touro until they saw eye to eye. "It is not as simple as all that," she said in a softer tone. "Nothing ever is. You only know one half so that does not give you the right to judge the whole." She turned on her heel, gathered up the items on the nightstand and made to go to the bath when a hand on her arm held her fast.
"It would not be wise to break Miss's heart a second time," she said with a hint of edge in her voice.
"Is that a threat?" Natsuki bristled.
"No, merely a suggestion." Touro made to leave the room, pausing at the doorway to give a curt bow to Natsuki. "The driver will be here within the hour to take you to the airport. Gokigenyou, Kuga-san." She turned and left, closing the door quietly behind her.
Chapter Six: Aftermath Side One
Rays of midday sunlight reflected off the slick surface of the modern style desk that was placed strategically in front of a large sliding glass window. Downtown Kyoto glittered and bustled with activity several floors below. Shizuru gazed out the window with her back to the oaken double doors of her office, seeming to admire the view. However, her mind was racing to formulate plans within plans, preparing herself for the daunting tasks that lay ahead.
The memory of last night's spontaneous visit from Natsuki brought a slight flush to her cheeks. It had felt like old times; the witty banter, the dares, the eventual sleepover. She had awakened early, as was her habit, and allowed herself the luxury of peeping at the soundly sleeping Natsuki. It was one of those moments that brought her immense joy as well as guilt. She could admire Natsuki however she wanted, with whatever she felt and there was nothing to take that away from her except Natsuki's consciousness.
The telephone on her desk bleeped and she pressed one of the glowing buttons on the console.
"Mr. Nakuhara is here to see you, kaichou-sama." Shizuru tensed slightly at the honorific; it felt so strange to have that title outside of the grounds of Fuuka Gakuen.
"Send him in please."
So much to do, so little time to do it, she contemplated. The door behind her opened and Shizuru turned to face her guest. Nakuhara Kobe was a tall, middle-aged man, whose imposing, dark eyes shone like onyx in the dim light of the office. He was the Director of Security Operations for Fujino Industries and was often thought to have used unorthodox methods to help the family company retain its position at the pinnacle of Japan's economic domain. It was also rumoured that he often served as the personal bodyguard of the Fujino family on occasion. To be sure, Nakuhara was fanatically loyal to them and seemed to have an especial soft spot for Shizuru.
"Gokigenyou, Nakuhara-san," she said with a polite nod.
Nakuhara bowed in response. "Gokigenyou, ojou-sama."
"Have you completed your task?"
"Yes. All traces of the Fujino family's dealings with the First District have been cleansed from the records once and for all," he answered, his deep voice rumbling from deep within his chest.
Shizuru's eyes narrowed at the mention of Natsuki's former nemesis. "And what of the funds we received from their illicit dealings?"
"They were quietly disposed of by channeling them through various charities within, and outside of, Japan."
Shizuru closed her eyes, pushed herself away from her desk and turned to look out the window. "I had thought by destroying them myself, that I had erased the shame of dealing with so vile an organization. I had no idea how deep the First District had buried their claws within our family."
"I trained you to trust your instincts," the security director replied. "Their fall from power was due to in-fighting between various factions within First District. Once divided, they were more of a liability to us than an asset. We could not have foreseen how detrimental their association would be to us. "
"Even so, I still feel responsible for not catching this sooner." Nakuhara remained silent, knowing that there wasn't anything he could say to assuage his employer's guilty conscience. She turned to face him in time to see a flash of sympathy in his eyes. "Anshin shi, old friend. I'll be fine. On another note, how is father faring?"
"Not well, ojou-sama." The tall man crossed the room to stand beside Shizuru, his gravelly voice filled with concern. "The doctors say that he won't last much longer."
A stab of sadness pierced Shizuru's chest at the possibility of losing her father. "Why must everyone I love abandon me?" she thought helplessly. Thoughts of Natsuki insinuated themselves into her mind, throwing her emotions into chaos. She tried to focus on the plans that needed to be made, all of the tasks that needed to be done but found she was losing that battle.
"Thank you, Nakuhara-san. Would you please be so kind as to tell the Board I will be a few minutes late? I have something to take care of."
Catching the note of dismissal in her voice, Nakuhara bowed and left the room in silence. Shizuru threw herself back into her chair after hearing the faint click of the door closing. "If he only knew," she mused. "My guilt runs deeper than any river. Not only must I bear the shame of First District but also the secrets I've kept from Natsuki, as well." Her heart ached at the possibility that Natsuki might reject her really and truly if she knew the truth, that the Fujino family had funded First District's research facility for a number of years unbeknownst to Shizuru. Hot tears of frustration streamed down her face. So close we are so close to the friendship we used to have, to things returning to normal. But she has to know. No more secrets.
The phone on her desk buzzed insistently. "Kaichou-sama, Kuga-san has arrived safely at Fuuka Gakuen," her secretary announced then rang off. A relieved smile crossed Shizuru's face at the announcement. She doubted that she would ever stop being concerned for Natsuki's safety. Another task lay before her, one that she didn't relish completing, but she had no choice. Events were unfolding faster than she had anticipated; soon she would officially assume the mantle as head of the Fujino family business syndicate. Her life would no longer be her own. With a resigned sigh, Shizuru removed a slim Motorola flip phone from the pocket of her tailored business suit jacket, hit speed dial and waited for a response.
"Natsuki?...no, no, I'm all right. I just wanted to check on you " Shizuru's rich laugh suddenly filled the room as one of Natsuki's comments caught her unawares. "I'm sorry, I should have warned you that Touro can be a little brusque no, class is the same, boring as ever we'll talk again soon, I promise. Yes, you too. Goodbye." She closed the phone with an audible snap. There was so much Shizuru had wanted to say but her words dried up and blew away like autumn leaves. A sharp pang of loneliness for Natsuki nearly cleaved open her chest, so strong was the ache. Her hands trembled as she laid them on her desk for leverage to stand. Gentle remonstrations filled her mind, telling her that now was not the time to fall apart; so many people were depending on her. She took one last look at the picture on her desk of her and Natsuki in happier times, straightened her skirt and strode purposefully out of the office.
Chapter Sixb Aftermath (Other Side)
Natsuki stared out the window at the landscape flowing by beneath the fast moving jet, her deep green eyes were lost in thought. There was so much to contemplate, choices to be made. The dark-haired girl sighed in frustration and leaned on the window, cupping her chin in her hand. Snippets of her conversations with Shizuru the previous night and her confrontation with Touro that morning, swirled through her mind like a heavy fog; the meanings hidden within them were just as ephemeral.
"Why is it so hard for me to make a choice?" she thought with frustration. "I know what I want! Why can't I simply reach for it?"
The heavy drone of the aircraft engines couldn't even drown out the inevitable response from her conscience. Because you're afraid of the cost. You're afraid that Shizuru will want to give up so much more for you, even though she's already given more than enough. You don't want that responsibility. A pang of bitterness twinged in her chest. Despite her fears, she really did want to be the one to give Shizuru the happiness she so deserved. However, as much as she wanted to compensate for all that selfless sacrifice, she knew she had nothing in return that could ever equal it. Someone once said that if you can't afford something, you don't steal it. You leave it where you've found it and walk away. The reasoning sounded logical enough, but that little nagging voice in her head wasn't having any of it.
Touro's right you are a coward.
Natsuki's brow furrowed in annoyance as she gave that voice a mental slap for insubordination. Deep down, she felt that Shizuru's breakdown was her fault. The Festival had brought out the worst in all of them but it was her insecurities and heartlessness that had driven the most important person in her life to the brink of madness. Touching that hidden darkness had terrible consequences for Shizuru; all because she dared to love someone so utterly foolish and self-absorbed. A laundry list of "what ifs" and "If I'd onlys" marched through her mind, promptly diving off the steep precipice of "Too late now" like a herd of lemmings. The trouble was that, although Natsuki now realized that she loved the caring brunette deeply, she always had this nagging feeling that Shizuru deserved someone far better than herself.
"Honestly," the dark-haired woman muttered. "This is giving me a headache."
"Then maybe you should not strain yourself by thinking too deeply," came a caustic response from across the aisle where Touro sat glaring at her in frosty silence. She had not been happy that her mistress requested her to accompany the insolent girl back to school but she had no choice. Natsuki had barely suppressed an all out laugh at the poor servant's facial expressions when Shizuru's orders were delivered by way of her secretary. She could tell the girl was incensed, yet, Natsuki had to admit, she held it together rather well.
"If I remember correctly, you were the one who suggested that I do so" she muttered darkly. "Or was that holier-than-thou speech this morning just idle chit-chat?"
"I meant every word I said. I simply cannot comprehend all of your convoluted deliberations. To me it is all quite simple."
Her steel grey eyes shone with barely concealed anger. She held Natsuki's wavering gaze for a long moment before returning to view the deep blue expanse of sky.
The young servant shrugged and folded her arms across her chest. "Really, what is there to think about? You love Fujino-sama," she paused and drew in a shuddering breath. " and it is apparent that she feels the same way. Though it would complicate her life somewhat if she decided to forgo the omiai her father had planned for her to be with you instead."
"You're not making this any easier, Touro-san."
"That was never my intention," Touro replied with composed arrogance.
Natsuki growled and was about to launch across the aisle to throttle the girl when the voice of the pilot crackled over the cabin loudspeaker.
"Kuga-san, Touro-san, please fasten your seat belts and secure any loose gear. We will be approaching the Fuuka Gakuen airstrip in approximately five minutes."
The two women's icy stares bored holes into each other while the plane prepared for landing.
"I'm warning you for the last time," the former HiME hissed through clenched teeth. "This is between your mistress and myself. To put it bluntly, it is none of your business."
A confident smile slid across Touro's fine features, contrasting the dark look in her eyes. "You needn't concern yourself overmuch, Kuga-san," she remarked in a deceptively quiet voice. "For the moment you destroy Fujino-sama's heart, I will be there. And, make no mistake, I will give you plenty of time to realise just how much of my business this truly is."
Each turned to face forward in their respective seats, lost in their own thoughts as the plane began to make its slow descent.
Natsuki's eyes teared as she disembarked the sleek-bodied aircraft. The influx of campus sights and sounds induced a tidal wave of nostalgia in her. Never had the ache of missing Shizuru felt stronger than at that moment. She supposed that she should have felt more relieved to be home. Instead, pangs of loneliness and guilt gnawed at the edges of her sanity. Shizuru made this place home to me, she thought ironically. I see a part of her everywhere. It hasn't felt the same since. The insistent vibration of the cell phone in her coat pocket interrupted her ruminations just as she stepped into a waiting limousine that was to take her to the campus apartment complex. She flipped open the cover, noting that it was Shizuru's phone number that showed on the viewscreen.
"Hello? Hey, are you all right? You didn't tell me that you were sending along that demon of a servant I'm not entirely sure why you find that so funny, Shizuru How are your classes?...Must be nice to be good at school work. I guess I should let you go. You'll call, right?...Ok, take care of yourself Goodbye," the erstwhile HiME's wistful voice faded into the stillness as the line closed on the other end.
Chapter Seven: Atarashii no Hijimari, Mukashii no Omoi
(: Old Feelings, New Beginnings)
Frigid winter air needled Shizuru's skin as she stepped from a bullet-shaped limousine and entered the equally cold foyer of her high-rise apartment building. The door to her flat opened with a resigned creak as she stepped inside, closed it and leaned back against the smooth wood. Today had not been one of her better ones, filled with seemingly endless meetings, one of the dubious perks of being a CEO. Her thoughts tumbled through her mind like rocks in a riverbed as she sat her briefcase by the doorway and slipped off her shoes in the genkan. It seemed like everyone wanted something from her at a time when she felt she had the least to give. There were times during these meetings that she longed for the simplicity of Fuuka Gakuen despite the catastrophe of the HiME Festival.
The burdens of her office showed clearly on her delicate skin; careworn lines had worked themselves around her mouth and underneath her eyes. Even the playful sparkle in her bronze-coloured eyes had dimmed in the passing weeks. Shizuru shed her woolen winter coat, silk scarf and leather gloves as she made her way to the place where simple respite awaited her.
She opened the sliding glass door to the spacious balcony and was glad that Touro had anticipated her desire for relaxation after a long, trying day. The young woman had already lit a small fire in a Venetian cast iron chiminea by her favourite chair, placed a neatly folded heavy, woolen blanket on it and had a light supper of gyudon and Gyokuro green tea. Shizuru shook her head in amusement. Sometimes Touro mothered her far too much. She wrapped the blanket around her shoulders, poured herself some tea and dropped into her beloved papasan. In the distance, she could see the snow covering the treetops in Maruyama Park, the powder winking like stars from the surrounding streetlights.
Shizuru leaned into the comfort of the fluffy papasan, tentatively sipping from her teacup as Touro entered the balcony from within. The young servant bowed and waited for her employer to address her. The brunette sat for a time, lost in thought before she spoke.
"Konnbanwa, Fujino-sama." Touro replied soberly.
"Have I any messages today?"
"Only a few this time, Fujino-sama."
Shizuru reached out her hand to retrieve the notes, sifting through each one with a faintly hopeful glint in her eyes. The brunette gave her servant a questioning look when she did not find what she was looking for. Touro bowed before her mistress, hoping to hide her reactions about the missing message.
"Kuga-san has not yet called," she answered curtly. Touro was trying very hard to suppress her outrage at what she considered to be Natsuki's blatant disrespect.
Shizuru regarded her long time servant in silence before standing to carelessly drop the message slips on the patio table. Touro could feel her presence moving within the dimness. She tried to bow her head even deeper, hoping that somehow her feelings would remain shut off from the one she so adored. A gentle hand softly lifted her chin to meet her mistress's eyes. She almost gasped at the tender sadness that shone there, glistening like rosewood. Fujino Shizuru was looking at her as a person.
The tall brunette dropped her hand but continued to hold Touro's astonished gaze. "Of all people, no one knows more than I the pain of unspeakable feelings." Once again, she touched the young girl's face, her voice filled with contrition. "I truly thank you for your heart but I cannot accept it."
Touro could feel sharp pangs of the truth burning like lightning within her chest. She knew this all along and yet, the expectation did nothing to diminish the pain. She wanted to look away and hide her building tears but was held in place by the hands of her mistress.
"I could only offer you honesty and my appreciation for all the things that you've done," Shizuru paused, trying to gauge Touro's reaction to this revelation. "Do you hate me now?" she asked; her voice was a bare whisper, an extremely rare exchange of heart just between the two of them.
Touro immediately pressed her hand against the one on her face and shook her head almost fervently. Tears flowed freely at the mere suggestion. "I could never."
She felt her heart ache as the smile on her mistress's face widened. "Then don't hate Natsuki either." Her eyes widened briefly, first in surprise, then understanding. Touro nodded in obedience. "As you wish, ojou-sama."
A sudden noise from one end of the large patio caused Shizuru's eyes to narrow almost imperceptibly. She touched her servant's shoulder and Touro took that as a sign to withdraw. She bowed to her mistress and went inside the penthouse, closing the sliding wooden door behind her.
When she was sure she was alone, Shizuru called out into the darkness. "Is there something you wish to speak with me about, Nakuhara-san?" she said mildly.
The tall security director stepped from the shadows, unsurprised as his employer's preternatural awareness of his presence. "Yes, ojou-sama. Unfortunately, the news I have is not good."
Shizuru refilled her tea cup from the small kettle that was on the table beside her papasan. A mild frown crossed her face when she took a sip of the tea and found that it had gone cold.
"I am listening."
Nakuhara cleared his throat nervously, something Shizuru had never known him to ever do. "It is about your father, ojou-sama. I understand that you had planned to see him as soon as you were free from the Board Meeting this evening. However, a sudden heart attack cut his time shorter than expected. He passed away an hour ago."
Her face was the picture of stoicism. Nakuhara was surprised that she hadn't even flinched; as if she had already known what he was going to say. What surprised him even more was the vulnerability he heard in her voice when she finally spoke.
"Thank you, Kobe-san, for coming to tell me personally. My father thought very highly of you and I appreciate the respect you have given me in doing this."
The security director went to Shizuru and knelt beside her chair. "You could not have known that this would happen, Shizuru," he said softly, using her name for the first time since she was a child. "He would have understood why you were not there."
Her eyes glittered in the dim glow of the torches lit on the patio. Nakuhara was startled when she stood abruptly and walked to the railing to look out over the city. He himself felt no small amount of guilt at the moment. It seemed that every time he saw her, he brought her pain like a twisted offering.
Her father, Fujino Nobuo, had long ago tasked him with training her to become the most deadly HiME in order to ensure her victory in the great battle. It pained him to know that he was robbing Shizuru of a happy, carefree childhood by forcing a killer's blade into her hands every time they trained. He felt saddened when he instructed her in the arts of death, teaching her how to be the best at something that a girl should never have to know.
Still, he had obeyed his kaichou's orders in silence and without question. In truth, he had spent more time with Shizuru than even her birth father. Yet he could not feel the pride of a father for he knew that he had helped raise her in a most unseemly manner. Though she had a strength and fortitude that most women would never have (she even rivaled some men in that regard), there was a darkness within her might never be dispelled.
Nakuhara was so lost in his own thoughts, that he was unaware of his mistress's penetrating gaze until she spoke.
"Would you be so kind as to inform the Board and make the necessary arrangements, Kobe-san? I have some tasks of my own to attend to before father's funeral."
The older man stood and bowed deeply. "As you wish, kaichou-sama." He took one last pained look at his former charge then melted back into the shadows from whence he came.
The next few days were a blur for Shizuru as the preparations for her father's funeral seemed to consume all of her waking hours like a brushfire. She took great care in selecting his formal kimono and stayed up all night with his body after the wake service until the morning of the funeral. It took every ounce of will that she could muster to keep from breaking down in tears during the wake.
Business associates, family acquaintances, long absent family members all lined up to weep and grieve for the deceased Fujino Nobuo. Shizuru ground her teeth in silence as the syncophantic platitudes flowed like dirty water, poisoning the air around her. Half of the people attending barely even knew her beloved father but here they were, acting as if they loved him all the while.
She was thankful for the peace and quiet later as she knelt alone in the semi-darkness before her father's butsudan to pray. Unlike her stoic outward appearance, Shizuru's mind was in turmoil. Now that she was fully the kaichou of the Fujino family business, she had to visit the overseas operations to complete the formalities. In truth, this move was more political in nature than she had a taste for. But it had to be done, despite the length of time she would have to spend away from Japan and, more importantly, from Natsuki.
Silvery moonlight filtered in through the windows, bathing Shizuru in its ethereal glow. Through the ages, women have often felt a certain kinship with the moon; Shizuru was no exception. She felt that the moon goddess's rays were comforting her, as if the immortal knew of her silent pain.
Natsuki, how I wish you were here to lend me your strength, your love. There is so much more than I want to say but it is better this way. I won't hurt you again; I won't allow myself to. I want you to live your life, happy and free. Just knowing this is enough to keep me whole.
The sound of soft footsteps came from the gloom behind Shizuru.
"My apologies, Fujino-sama," Touro announced quietly. "But the plane is ready for departure."
Shizuru bowed low before the butsudan and turned to her servant. "Thank you, Touro-san. Would you be so kind as to inform the pilot that there will be a small deviation from the flight plan? There is something very important that I must attend to."
Chapter Eight: Ripples of Shifting Sand
Frosty winter winds whipped Shizuru's hair like spiteful fairies as she stood beside one of the trees near the dormitory where Natsuki lived with Mai and Mikoto. The pilot had been rather puzzled at her request for a stopover at Fuuka Gakuen but he was smart enough to keep his thoughts to himself.
The former student council president found herself being carried down memory lane as she strolled through the campus towards her ultimate destination. She lingered especially long in the garden where she first met the woman who would capture her heart. Shizuru never thought that she would be capable of loving someone so completely; she had never known such a thing could exist. She knew that her work would take her far away from Natsuki. It would be virtually impossible for them to see each other on a regular basis and the erstwhile bad-girl would never be satisfied with that.
Shizuru told herself that this was best, that she had to let Natsuki go. Though her mind was all logic and rationality, her heart was still breaking into a thousand pieces. When she finally reached her destination, she paused to lean against one of the Japanese maples that ringed the inner quad near the dormitories. It would be so easy, so easy, to just sit here and lose herself in a warm steam of a nice cup of tea in the midst of all that was familiar to her, a place more home than the Fujino family compound had ever been; but her fate had already been decided long ago. She closed her eyes, her heavy lids sliding into half-darkness as the gentle rays of sunlight filtered through them.
The sun's warmth felt almost foreign to her as most of her days were now spent either in her office or traveling from one destination to another in the luxury of private transportation. Oddly enough, she found it quite simple to methodically live according to a schedule; everything planned, everything in order. There was no thinking, no surprises, no pain. She found that she preferred it that way, to be productive and useful, in order to keep her thoughts occupied. It kept those moments of solitude at bay; those rare instants of lucidity, like the one she was in right now, when the reality of it all would come crashing through her carefully maintained façade.
She reached her hand up to massage the dull ache of nostalgia that throbbed in her chest.
"Natsuki," Shizuru moaned, half to herself.
The brunette gasped in surprise as she was nearly bowled over from behind. She turned her head slightly to see the object of her affections with a firm grasp about her midsection. She stood in stunned silence for a few seconds, trying to recover from the effusive reception. "Well that was quite the greeting," Shizuru smirked, her eyes filled with mischief.
Natsuki quickly released her and she stood staring at her friend, totally speechless. She hadn't even realised how much she had missed Shizuru until that moment. "What are you doing here?" Natsuki asked hesitantly, still shocked at this spontaneous visit.
"Ara, always with questions, always so suspicious," Shizuru joked.
The dark-haired girl blushed deeply at the comment. "Very funny. But seriously, why are you here? If it's about not calling, I .I am sorry about that " she broke off as Shizuru placed a finger on her lips to silence Natsuki's babble.
"It's all right. I understand. However, that is not why I am here."
"No." The former kaichou paused, took Natsuki's hand and led her to a nearby bench. "I have something important to tell you."
Natsuki's expression changed from curiousity to mild alarm. "What is it? Are you hurt? Did something happen to you?"
"Natsuki," Shizuru admonished.
"Don't take all day! Tell me!"
Shizuru stared into Natsuki's face, her eyes deadly serious. "My father died yesterday."
Concern and sadness filled Natsuki's eyes; she gave her friend's hand a gentle squeeze in sympathy.
"I'm so sorry. Is there anything I can do?"
Please don't ask me that question, Natsuki, Shizuru thought silently. The answers would be more than you might wish for.
"No, I will be fine. But, I have to go away for a while."
Natsuki's eyes narrowed. "How long is 'a while'?" she grumbled.
"Several months," Shizuru replied with a resigned sigh.
"What?" The biker girl's voice went up a few notches. "Why so long?"
"With my father gone, I am now the head of Fujino Industries. I am responsible for all of its operations, thus I must visit the overseas facilities in order to have them formally acknowledge my authority."
All of Touro's words and the meanings behind them came flooding into Natsuki's mind. She finally understood what the young girl was trying to say and she didn't like it one bit.
"But but why must it be you? Can't someone else go for you? What good is being powerful if you can't use your power for yourself?" she said through clenched teeth. Hot tears pricked at the corners of her eyes and, for once, she was not concerned about anyone seeing her cry.
Shizuru shook her head sadly. "If only I could, but I have no choice. Please try to understand, Natsuki." Yes, please try. I could not bear it if you were to hate me now. I must do this, for the both of us. We both know too well the consequences of my use of power. Please, please forgive me.
Angry green eyes bored into calm, bronze ones, each trying to win the battle of wills in their own way. Shizuru pulled Natsuki in her arms and hugged her fiercely. "Don't worry. It is not like I will be gone forever. I will see you again in a while, I promise." Natsuki clung to Shizuru like a lifeline, cursing her for leaving and damning her own self for not having the courage to speak her heart.
Before she even knew what she was doing, Natsuki's lips had found the older girl's. It was a desperate, heartbreaking kiss, mixed with tears and missed chances. Even though it was brief, to them it felt like forever. They sat holding each other for a while longer before the older woman broke the embrace. Shizuru stood, straightening her skirt and her now tear-stained blouse. She placed a finger under Natsuki's chin, tipping her head until their eyes met again.
"I have to go now."
"I know," Natsuki croaked, her voice hoarse and raw.
Shizuru gently kissed her forehead and just as she was about to walk away, Natsuki grabbed her by the arm. "I just want you to know," she whispered. "I do love you."
"I know," Shizuru replied softly. With more strength than she felt, she strode through a storm of falling leaves down past the garden and out of sight.
Chapter Nine: Homecoming
Six months later
Raucous laughter and shouting filled the dormitories on a warm Saturday afternoon. It was Graduation Day and the leaving upperclassmen were holding impromptu parties throughout the campus. Chie and Aoi decided to have a small going away gathering in their room for Natsuki so Mai agreed that she would do the cooking. Natsuki stood on the couple's balcony with a fruity drink Chie jokingly called "The HiME Rumbler" ("Highly Inebriating Mixed Entertainment, get it?" she said with a knowing smirk), deep in thought. Thoughts of her last moments with Shizuru tumbled aimlessly through her mind like stones in a river.
On the surface, it seemed like the pair were never truly apart. Shizuru faithfully wrote letters, sent postcards from the various countries she visited, often attaching small, hand-picked tokens of her affection. Sometimes she shared her thoughts, other times she wrote things just for the sheer delight of making her dark-haired friend blush. Natsuki swore that she could hear amused giggles in her head every time she received such missives. They emailed more often than not, as Natsuki had terrible penmanship and it was more addicting to read Shizuru's words almost instantaneously rather than having to wait a week for her letters to arrive.
She yearned to see those eyes looking only at her, to hear that unique voice speaking words that would tame the uncertainty inside her, to feel Shizuru's embrace once again and finally have the chance to cherish what she had pushed aside.
However, memories were all that were left, a constant reminder of what was missing. And at night, without any distraction, she was defenseless against the deep yearning locked in her heart.
She'd wake up sweating, listening to the complete silence that surrounded her, recalling those vivid dreams where Shizuru held her, kissed her, touched her with desire, knowing that the one she loved wanted her and no one else.
It was always then that Natsuki wondered if Shizuru still felt the same, if time or some other person had took her place far away. Her lips burned with the memory of the few kisses they shared, once right after they were revived, the second just before Shizuru left. Though she knew that she was still always on Shizuru's mind, it simply wasn't enough. She wanted real tangible proof.
"A penny for your thoughts, Natsuki-chan." Natsuki turned her head in surprise. Aoi had stepped onto the balcony and leaned against the railing, sipping a homemade Mai Tai through a bright green straw. Afternoon sunlight slanted along the pretty underclassman's face, giving her blue eyes an almost preternatural glow. Natsuki found herself idly wondering if the girl knew just how striking she was.
"It's nothing, really," she answered, flashing Aoi a warm smile. The two had gotten to know each other fairly well over the course of the year. Aoi was often overshadowed by the more gregarious nature of Chie but she didn't seem to mind being in the background. Natsuki had often assumed that she was so naive and not as worldly as her girlfriend. She was reticent at first to open up to the younger girl; Mai seemed to be the logical choice when it came to understanding what the HiMEs were going through, trying to rebuild their lives. But Aoi's childlike, sensitive nature gradually won Natsuki over. Aoi became more of a confidante with Shizuru being gone for so long. She had understood Natsuki's inner turmoil and worry and always made time for Natsuki to talk with her regarding things that she was upset about.
"Sure, sure. Then why are you blushing?" Aoi smirked. Natsuki reached up to find that her cheeks were a bit flushed. "It's ok, though, if you don't want to talk about it."
"It's not that," Natsuki stammered. "Honestly, I don't even know what I'm thinking lately."
"You still miss her a lot, don't you?" the younger girl queried, her observation as astute as always.
"Sometimes I more than just miss her. I can't stand not knowing what to do." Natsuki flung herself down in frustration on the nearest deck chair. "She'll be home soon and I still don't know how far I want this thing between us to go." Her voice trailed off and she again stared out across the campus grounds, apparently lost in the deep hues of violet and orange as the sun began to set.
The two girls sat in companionable silence for a while, content with just listening to the riotous laughter from within as Chie continuously entertained the guests with outrageous tales backed up by the many blackmail pictures she had printed from her cell phone.
"Love is tricky," Aoi said in a quiet voice as she fiddled with the straw of her now-empty drink. "It is never mundane or daily. You can never get used to it. You have to walk with it, then let it walk with you." She moved over to where Natsuki was and sat beside her. "You can never balk. It moves you like tide. It takes you out to sea, then lays you on the beach again. Today's struggling pain is foundation for a certain stride through the heavens. You can run from it but you can never say no, it includes everyone."**
Natsuki's jaw tightened as tears formed in the corner of her eyes. Aoi placed a gentle hand on her shoulder in a gesture of understanding. "You already know what you want. Now is the time to go for it. No more waiting; you no longer have a reason to. You're finished with school. You can do whatever you want now. For once, be honest with yourself and do what you really want to do."
The dark-haired girl nodded soberly. "You're right. No more excuses." She stood up from the chair to go back inside the flat but paused. "Chie's really lucky to have you. I just hope she knows it."
Natsuki turned with a determined look on her face and went inside, leaving a deeply blushing Aoi sitting in stunned silence on the balcony. A few seconds later, Chie stepped outside with an amused smirk on her face.
"Mind telling me what that was all about? Since when are you a poet?" she asked incredulously.
Aoi blushed even harder at the comment. "Well, don't tell Natsuki-chan but," she winced. "I read it in a book once. To be honest, I don't even remember which one."**
After a few hours of partying with Mai, Mikoto, Chie, Aoi and even Midori and Youko-sensei (the latter of whom had to be carried away by the Student Council Campus Security for public lewdness when they started playing strip poker in the dorm lounge after having 5 HiME Rumblers a piece), Natsuki said good night to everyone and retreated to the relative solitude of her room.
She wandered about her tiny living space that was littered with half packed boxes and an open suitcase or two. Aoi's gentle prodding had inadvertently caused a stirring within her chest; she couldn't call it panic but she suddenly felt restless with her need to do something. Her hand kept straying towards her cell phone. She desperately wanted to hear Shizuru's voice, something she hadn't been able to do in months. When she finally was able to pick up the phone, all she could do was stare at the glowing green keys, numb with fear.
What if she's found someone else? I'm sure she's met so many other people while traveling. She's probably gotten over me. Who could blame her? Who would want someone who can't even decide what they want out of li- Her internal monologue was derailed like a runaway train when her cell phone's silent ringer nearly buzzed it out of her hand. Natsuki's eyes grew wide in shock when she read the name flashing on the caller id screen. What the..? Why is SHE calling me?
"Hello?" Natsuki answered hesitantly.
"Kuga-san," Touro's curt voice replied. "Shizuru-sama's plane will land in Kyoto at 7:30am tomorrow."
Natsuki's jaw almost dropped to the floor. Her mouth flapped open and closed in shock. "Wh-why are you telling me this?"
Touro sighed in annoyance. "I, too, am wondering why I am doing this. However, if left to your own devices, it is apparent that you would do nothing. Ojou-sama's happiness is my only concern and if she finds that with you, so be it."
The young servant paused, drawing in a deep breath to get herself under control. "Do whatever you want but do not continue to play the foolish immature child. It is not fair to all of us."
"You're right, again" Natsuki admitted with chagrin, much to Touro's surprise. "I kept telling myself that I had nothing to offer: not enough money, not enough social standing, not as much love as she deserves to have. I was so busy being scared that I never once considered Shizuru's feelings. You were right. I was a coward, hiding behind those stupid excuses. She never really cared about all of that No, Shizuru was always able to see past the inconsequential things."
Touro's eyes widened at this revelation; this was something that she had also never thought about. All this time, the only things that kept her from confessing her feelings were the insignificant details her mistress never concerned herself with. She herself was never capable of seeing beyond these things because she had been raised to serve the wealthy and privileged all of her life; she knew no other world. Yet it was her fear of rejection that ultimately forced her to suffer in silence. A weak smile crossed Touro's face at the other end of the line. Kuga was her ojou-sama's one anchor in life, of this she was now completely sure.
"I appreciate you telling me this, Touro-san," Natsuki continued. "You're a truly loyal friend to Shizuru."
Tears of defeat formed in the corner of Touro's eyes. She was thankful that her rival could not see her in this moment of weakness. "Good luck," she replied in a surprisingly gentle tone. "And thank you." A loud click at the end of the line indicated that the woman had said her piece and would go no further.
The dark-haired girl stood in stunned silence, not knowing what to make of this sudden opportunity. A mask of grim determination settled on her face as the wheels of her mind clicked and whirred. This is it! The time to make a change is now.
Natsuki threw a few pieces of clothing into waterproof rucksack, changed into her motorcycle gear and hastily scribbled a short note to Mai and Mikoto. "With a little luck and no cops around, I might make to the airport in time. Maybe," she thought as she hopped onto her Ducati 749 and sped off into the night.
It was a grey, dreary morning when Shizuru's plane finally landed at Kansai International Airport. Driving rain sluiced down the outer hull of the Fujino Industries Learjet, its fat drops thrumming in time with the dull whine of the engines. The young CEO lounged idly in a comfortable divan-like chair, staring out into the dimness. She swore that the events of the past few months had literally sucked the life out of her. Though she had indulged herself in regular communiqués with Natsuki, the hollow ache inside her never went away. If anything, it grew stronger with each letter, each email.
This is why she had resolved to quietly re-enter Kyoto. On the surface, Shizuru hoped that Natsuki had gone on with her life, and that she would be happy again with any new relationships she might have cultivated in Shizuru's absence. But in the quiet spaces of her heart, the newly minted kaichou wished that Natsuki had indeed waited for her. Her patrician upbringing fought for control over her rebellious heart. The war being waged within her was at times so fierce she was pretty sure that spontaneous combustion was in the offing.
As she started out of the raindrop-stained window nearest to her, a dormant memory resurrected itself in her mind. "Logic and reason are often at odds with your emotions, Sai," her father once said. "But remember that your mind often knows what's best, even when your heart does not." He had called her by her mother's name during those times when he was reminiscing or on the rare occasion when they were on an outing alone. It made her feel special that he would use the name of the wife he so dearly loved. Those times happened so few and far between, Shizuru was surprised that she remembered what he said with such clarity.
"It's time to disembark, kaichou-sama." Shizuru blinked a few times in confusion, unaware that the plane had rolled into the company's private hangar. The crew had already lowered the stairs and begun removing her luggage when Sayuri, the young, dark-haired girl that was her private attendant, came to retrieve her employer.
"Thank you, Sayuri-san," the brunette replied tiredly. "Would you be so kind as to inform my driver to take me home instead of to the office"
"As you wish," the attendant replied with a concerned look, bowed and left to carry out her orders.
Shizuru stretched her aching muscles. I really need to start delegating authority more, she mused, painfully aware of her stiff neck and cracking back. She gathered her belongings and slowly made her way down the carpeted stairway. A stern-faced driver held open the door to the waiting limousine; the brim of his cap and raincoat were slick with cold rain. The loud screech of wet tires on concrete filled the hangar bay as a phantom motorcyclist riding a jet black Ducati barreled inside and skidded to a stop near a very surprised Shizuru. The rider flipped up its face shield to reveal intense emerald eyes.
"Get on," Natsuki commanded.
"Pardon me?" Shizuru asked in surprise.
"I said, get on. We have to talk."
"Natsuki, this is neither the time nor the pla-"
"Then when will there be a time?" the dark-haired girl cut in abruptly. "When we're past the point of no return? Oh no, that won't happen again. I won't let you run away so quickly."
She grabbed Shizuru's arm, hauled her onto the idling bike and tossed the indignant woman's briefcase to the driver. "Here, take that. Your kaichou-sama won't be needing it for a while."
"Give it to me," ordered a voice from within the limo. Touro stepped out onto the tarmac to retrieve the bag from the stunned man. She walked up to Natsuki and shook her head. "Always so crude," she said with a mild look of disapproval. Her eyes shifted to her mistress, pain well hidden within them. "Please, do not worry. I can take care of everything else."
Shizuru started to protest but Touro reached out a hand to stop her. "Ojou-sama, do what you feel that you must. Meetings can be rescheduled, plans can be changed. But matters of the heart, they are more important. Trust me, you must put them first or you will always regret it."
Realising that she was outnumbered, Shizuru simply nodded. "I leave it to you, Touro-san. I promise I'll call later."
Her servant bowed by way of reply as Natsuki gunned the engine and the two roared off into damp morning.
**Author's Note: Aoi's little speech is actually done by the character Olivia Laguni in Amy Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses.
Chapter Ten: Unexpected Revelations
Steam poured out of the partially opened bathroom door as Natsuki, clad only in an oversized nightshirt sprawled on a divan by the massive window of their hotel room staring balefully across the city. She watched the ebb and flow of people from the view overlooking both the JR Kyoto and Shinkansen Kyoto Stations. Having arrived in the city only two hours before Shizuru's plane had touched down, she barely had enough time to rush to the Hotel Granvia Kyoto, intimidate the manager into giving them one of the best rooms they had available, and sped off to Kansai International. To be honest, she felt exhausted; but Shizuru was home and that alone was enough to keep her warm for a while.
She had to admit, it was pretty brazen of her to just poach the astonished woman from under the noses of her servant and bodyguards; but she felt she had no other choice. If she hadn't acted quickly, Shizuru would have faded into the shadows like she did after the HiME fiasco. Natsuki chuckled to herself at the recollection of her friend's reaction when they reached the hotel.
Two very wet, bedraggled women staggered off Natsuki's bike almost an hour later. Shizuru's stood in regal silence as her coat and business attire dripped puddles of cold rain onto the pristine floor of the hotel lobby. Natsuki managed to look a bit sheepish under the damp kaichou's glacial gaze as she led the way to her room. When they were safely behind closed doors, the only words Shizuru spoke after several long, uncomfortable moments were "You could have just asked me, you know."
Natsuki had the good grace to blush at the admonition. "For some reason, that never crossed my mind."
"Yes," Shizuru drawled. "I can well imagine." She removed her sodden coat and hung it on a nearby coat rack. Natsuki could not help but notice how her damp silk blouse clung to her skin, revealing far more cleavage than she was comfortable with at that moment. A slow flush crept into her cheeks and she quickly looked away. She didn't even notice Shizuru was speaking to her until she heard her name being called.
"Hmmm?" The biker girl replied distractedly.
"I am waiting for you to explain," Shizuru intoned.
Natsuki mulled over the request for a minute or two before responding. "I don't even know if I can. Everything seems to have happened so fast." She wandered over to the lush bed and flopped down. "One minute, I was standing in my flat, phone in hand, about to call you. The next thing I know, I'm on my bike, heading for Kyoto, hoping that I get to you in time."
"In time for what?" Shizuru queried, her expression was one of mild confusion.
"To catch you before you disappeared from my life," Natsuki responded in a half-whisper. The expression on her face became a mask of determination as her eyebrows furrowed and a slight frown formed pulled at the corners of her mouth. "I don't know if I could live with myself if I let you go. It happened once. I won't let it happen again."
Shizuru's misted over as she tried to maintain her composure. "It would have been better if you had not come," she replied dully.
"Why?" Natsuki cried as she sat up so fast she almost lost her balance. Her lips quavered as she struggled to get herself under control. "Even when you knew how much I missed you, you didn't even call me to let me know you were coming home!"
Shizuru just shook her head, stripped off most of her clothing and headed toward the bathroom, clearly signaling her intention to take a bath. She wanted to be alone so that she could think but Natsuki's firm grip latched tightly around her arm, preventing her from taking another step. She tried to pull away but it only served to provoke the younger woman into grabbing her other arm, forcing them to face each other.
"Look at me!"
Shizuru could see the hurt in Natsuki's deep green eyes. However, instead of feeling guilt as she had expected, sudden anger seethed from within. From the day they met, her heart and soul had been enslaved by this stunning, willful girl. To be further restrained when she finally had the courage to end this obsession and free them both almost drove her past the breaking point.
"Natsuki..." Her previously unspoken thoughts flowed from between clenched teeth like steam, slow and inexorable. "Had it not occurred to you that I did so purposely or that I might be weary of playing this charade?"
The moment the words left Shizuru's mouth, she felt the grip around her arms slacken as she stared unflinchingly into the eyes that haunted her dreams. A myriad of emotions played across them like a movie reel: shock, denial and finally, understanding. Through Natsuki's loosened grip, she could feel the younger girl shaking as lips that she knew were softer than rose petals quivered with the need to speak.
"Are you tired of me?" whispered Natsuki, her voice soft and feeble without its usual determined strength.
A part of Shizuru was really tempted to simply lie and end this sweet pain but in doing so, the one person that gave her life any meaning would disappear with it. She could feel her heart dying just thinking of it. Fatigue drug its claws through her chest, her whole body ached from the long journey. Inconsistent thoughts swam in her fogged mind as she searched hard for a lucid reply.
"Never," was Shizuru's weary answer. "But I'm tired of pretending that we could be friends. I can no longer settle for just a part of you."
And there it was. The truth finally came to light. Shizuru felt ashamed owning up to her weakness and remorse for exposing Natsuki to this aberration. She had tried to drown this ugliness in a sea of work and with forced separation only to realize how much it had become a part of her, like a fragment of her soul. Sinking heavily onto the bed, Shizuru held head in her hands and tried to steel herself for the rejection that was sure to come.
Natsuki sat down beside her after a few long moments and pulled her into a tight embrace. "Neither can I." The older woman leaned back, searching Natsuki's eyes for any hint of deception, any indication that she was being less than truthful.
"Why are you doing this to me?" the lovely kaichou demanded, confused at this unexpected admission.
"Because I love you," Natsuki replied, drawing Shizuru back into her arms. "You were right when you called this a charade," she murmured in her ear. "And I'm tired of just pretending that this is enough."
A deep sigh escaped her chest as Natsuki's thoughts flowed through the sieve that was her brain. There were so many things she wanted to do for Shizuru, to do with her. But try as she might, she found it hard to put these desires into words.
"I just really want to be a part of your life."
"Since when do you know what you want?" came Shizuru's mildly sarcastic reply.
Natsuki bristled at the remonstration. "Will you just listen for once?"
A hurt look flashed in Shizuru's dark eyes, causing Natsuki to curse her careless tongue. "You just have to answer one thing. Do you still love me?"
The young CEO merely stared at her, paralysed with indecision and fear.
"It's not a difficult question," Natsuki said with a wry smile. "I love you. Do you love me?"
Shizuru considered what Natsuki was saying. Though they were merely words, they felt so real, so tangible, free of the usual illusions and double meanings that often accompanied them. Those deep emerald eyes gazed at her without hesitation, clearing a path for them towards a future that held so much promise that it caught her breath.
"Of course," she nodded slowly.
"Then, let me love you the way you deserve to be loved."
For the first time since the HiME incident, Shizuru was completely speechless. Her greatest wish was finally coming true. No words came to her; she merely gaped at the woman across from her with incredulity.
"Wow, if I had known that's all it would take to catch you off guard, I'd have do" Natsuki never got to finish the sentence for she suddenly found a pair of soft lips covering her own. It was gentle at first, tentative and slow. Just as the kiss was building up towards something more passionate, Shizuru pulled away. Natsuki blinked rapidly and groaned at the loss of contact.
"Wha-what's wrong?" she stammered as she tried to catch her breath.
Shizuru gave the biker girl a speculative look. "I am wondering if you really understand what you would have to sacrifice to be with me. What I would have to sacrifice to be with you." She softly stroked Natsuki's cheek, her eyes filled with worry and sadness.
"We both have gone through enough, don't you think? Don't worry. I've got a lot of making up to do. You won't be able to get rid of me that easily."
"That is good to know but we still have much to discuss."
"I know and we have all of the time in the world to discuss them so less talk, more kissing."
Shizuru rolled her eyes and giggled helplessly. "Well, if you insist."
The pair spent the next few hours getting reacquainted, chatting and dozing, each wrapped in the other's arms, enjoying the closeness they shared. Eventually, Shizuru relinquished her hold on Natsuki to take the bath she started to when they first arrived.
The erstwhile HiME was still in the chair, pensive and distracted, when Shizuru finished bathing. She leaned on the doorjamb of the bathroom, clad in only a towel, her eyes looked almost iridescent in the dim light of the room. The dark-haired woman sighed and ran her fingers through her unruly mane of hair. She decided that if a picture was worth a thousand words, Fujino Shizuru was a masterpiece. She was form and function, mood and beauty. Natsuki wondered at her own idiocy in holding out for so long.
"What are you thinking?" Shizuru asked in a quiet voice.
"Oh it's nothing really. I'm just realising how much of an idiot I am for almost losing you."
"You wouldn't have lost me. We just may not have been quite so close anymore. It would've been better for the both of us." The brunette crossed the room to lounge on the arm of Natsuki's chair.
"Maybe," Natsuki conceded. "Maybe not. But I'm not about to make the same mistake twice."
A faint blush tinged her cheeks as she tugged on the towel, dragging Shizuru down for a gentle kiss.
Down on the streets below, Fujino Akihito stood on the steps of Shinkansen station, dressed impeccably in black and took a drag from the Turkish cigarette dangling from his mouth. A youngish looking street tough bumped into him from behind, seemingly by accident. The man turned to glare at him. "Watch where you're standing, pops."
"Did you get enough pictures?" Akihito murmured, his eyes moving back and forth to make sure they weren't being watched.
"More than enough. I may even waive my usual fee. They put on quite a show," the young man smirked.
Before he knew it, Akihito had him by the collar and punched him in the gut in one swift moment. He dropped to his knees, coughing and retching.
"While I may covet her position, she is still the head of our family. I'll not tolerate disrespect from you. Know your place. Understood?"
He didn't wait for the man to reply; he dropped the cigarette on the ground, crushing it with his heel. "I want those in my hands by morning." The hired investigator nodded painfully in response. Akihito briefly glanced up towards the women's hotel room window, flipped up the collar of his coat against the chill air and disappeared into the foggy, rain-slick evening.
Author's Note: Ok, so I FINALLY finished this fic...but not quite. I tried to lay the groundwork for a sequel which has been banging around in my head for some time now. Irritating muse. Drives me nuts. Anyway...especial thanks go to my wife for putting up with me every time I get a notion to write. I totally turn into a one-track minded dork when an idea comes and she's put up with it all. I love you, dear! Thanks to my most excellent beta, Seravy, because she puts up with my pugnacious, stubborn argumentativeness and comes out a winner almost every time. She's a rare gem. And last but not least, a warm thanks to all of the readers who stuck it out with me and put up with my lack of updates. I wouldn't be able to do this without you.
Especial thanks to EUGENE for the art shown. Please PLEASE go to her site and support her work. She is talented beyond all measure. And to Jango-Joe because she and her art are so awesome, and I mean REALLY awesome.
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