Disclaimer: Mai-HiME owned by Sunrise, except the characters that aren’t.
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“Remember the sugar?” Mai smiled broadly when she opened the door to the raven-haired girl.
“Of course,” Natsuki sighed. She brought out a bag with a small sack of sugar. “Eh, but you didn’t say how much exactly.”
“That’s fine, that’s fine.” Mai took the bag from Natsuki’s hand and allowed her to remove her shoes and unceremoniously dump her belongings into a corner. “So….” Mai couldn’t contain herself and ran to drop the sugar in the kitchen. Though she enjoyed cooking, something else was whipping up her curiosity. She returned quickly and sparkled at Natsuki, who stood at the center of the living area and stretched.
“How did the dinner go?”
“Wha—tch! Don’t tell me you’ve been waiting the whole morning just to ask me that,” Natsuki snorted. “It’s not like it was a date.”
“Hey, of course I want to know how my protégé is doing!”
“I’m not your protégé!”
“It’s special! That was the first full meal you put together by yourself—”
“H-hey, Shizuru insists on cooking most of the time—”
“—With a lot of phone calls, granted, but it’s like a rare, historical event—”
“—On the order of a solar eclipse—”
“Y-you…” Natsuki lifted her index finger with a nebulous threat.
“Natsuki is so mean,” Mai whimpered, feigning hurt by lifting her hands to her purplish eyes. “She doesn’t appreciate all the hours I slave away for her sake. And she doesn’t tell me stories!” She whimpered some more.
“It—it went fine! And I do appreciate your help.” Natsuki flailed her arms, unable to take even the fake wailing.
The fiery-orange-haired girl broke into a bright grin and hopped behind Natsuki, pushing the sullen girl to the kitchen by the shoulders and continuing her rapid-fire questions.
“So what does ‘fine’ mean?”
“Nothing really bad happened.”
“Did you take pictures?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Nothing was burned?”
“And the pie?”
“Sh-she liked it.”
“So neither of you got food poisoning.”
“That’s—hey, is this really necessary?” Natsuki made a very sour face as she looked down at the apron Mai was forcing on her body. “Wait, you bought a new apron?”
The scowl gradually disappeared as she inspected it. The apron was a beautiful lapis lazuli blue with minimal silver trim and—her scowl returned—the words “Don’t assume I cook” printed in small, white characters over the left breast.
“This is a joke.”
“I bought it for you!” Mai declared. “I only have one apron, after all, so we need two if two are going to be in the kitchen, and you always make faces at mine. You don’t have one of your own, and I know you don’t use Fujino-san’s. This one is blue and has no frills, so you must like it.”
Covering her mouth, Mai had to forcefully stave off the laugh that threatened to explode from her gut. The mental gears were churning in Natsuki’s poor head, the comicality of it compounded by the fact that every churning gear manifested on the poor girl’s face.
Damn that girl. But… she did buy it… spent money for me, and I didn’t ask for it. But an apron?! Well, the color isn’t… so bad. That motto thing is unnecessary, though. It’s… a sweet gesture… I think. Damn it. Should I thank or strangle her?
Natsuki sighed after a long moment and finally turned to Mai, deciding to demonstrate her value of their friendship. At that moment, Mai was already doubled over on the floor laughing.
After convincing her dark-tempered friend that she sincerely meant the apron as a practical gift and not one of teasing, they stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the carefully laid out ingredients.
“So…” Natsuki stared at the chunks of pork, whole potatoes, an onion, a small pile of shitake mushrooms, and a few condiments.
“Today is nikujaga day!” Mai exclaimed happily and clapped her hands together.
“You’re enjoying this too much.” Natsuki crossed her arms as she was wont to do but smiled at her friend’s enthusiasm. “So what is it?”
“It’s a very basic and classic homestyle dish. Every family has a little different variation, so I’m going to teach you the Tokiha version, which has only a slight twist. No sake, though, since I never cook it that way for Takumi.”
Mai did not miss the distant look that crossed Natsuki’s eyes the moment she said “family.”
“…Is this okay with you?”
“Eh? Oh, of course it is. Basic and classic, huh. Sounds like a good thing to make.” Natsuki managed a small smile. Do family recipes have a special something that make them taste better or feel warmer? I will probably never know. But, Mai… thank you.
“It’ll be great,” Mai encouraged. “And I’m sure Fujino-san will love it.”
“Why do you keep bringing that up?” Natsuki immediately snapped out of her contemplation.
“This type of dish would normally take about half an hour to prepare,” Mai grinned and sat herself down across from Natsuki at her small table. She lowered her face slightly to take in the rich, comforting aroma of the nikujaga meat and potato stew wafting around and filling the apartment. “Never mind that we spent two hours, though, since it’s your first time… at many things, apparently. Now, let’s eat!”
Natsuki grimaced at the other girl’s underhanded verbal ribbing before leaning forward to do the same. “Mm, it really does smell good.”
“Of course it does! Now, here you go.” Mai handed Natsuki two sheets filled with neat, handwritten notes for Nikujaga: Tokiha Version. Natsuki chuckled at the large “Absolutely no mayonnaise” printed under the title.
“I think I’ll try making it next week.”
“Hopefully with fewer phone calls, since I’m going on a date with Yuuichi,” Mai popped a piece of onion into her mouth nonchalantly.
“Okay, I get it,” Natsuki rolled her eyes.
“Will you make every Friday night a special occasion, then?” Mai winked.
“Anyway, I’m glad you’re rooming with someone—and even more that it’s your best friend, right? At least you don’t isolate yourself as much as before, but I still need to instill the joys of karaoke into you. Speaking of which, about two weeks from now, would you—”
“No,” Natsuki easily and emphatically interrupted without looking up from her bowl.
“Ahh, but you don’t know what I was going to—”
“No! And I do know.”
“I know! I’ll call Fujino-san and ask her. She’ll definitely say yes, and then you’ll have no choice.”
Natsuki scowled and shoveled some of the stew and rice into her mouth, which was a mistake because her next retort was immediately trounced by the delicious taste and sensation of the sauce running over her tongue. She could actually feel her salivary glands ache at the rich flavor. Natsuki looked down at the bowl of brown stuff in wonder.
“Hmm? Okay, then that’s a yes.” Mai clapped her hands together joyfully, snapping Natsuki back to reality.
“Hey! I said no!”
“Is the nikujaga good?”
“Oh, yes, it is.” Natsuki thoughtfully nibbled a chunk of potato.
“Theeennn for teaching you this custom family recipe, you must come to my karaoke party. That’s not asking much for return, is it?”
The dark-haired girl groaned and nearly dropped her face into the bowl. “You’re not going to let me off easily, are you?”
“Of course not. I took half a page from Fujino-san’s book when it comes to you. It’ll be a lot of fun, Natsuki. Remember the party last time? Everyone was happy, and Fujino-san even got you to drop your mayonnaise habit for one meal—”
“—Which is very good for you. Maybe she can get you to drop that stuff for another meal. Eh? Natsuki?”
Natsuki had quietly laid her chopsticks down and was staring through the bowl and table to her feet as some mysterious realization washed over her.
“She hasn’t actually touched me since then.”
Mai blinked, uncertain how to interpret both the statement and the way Natsuki said it.
“Ah… so…. you mean she hasn’t hugged you since then? And… do you want her to?” She half expected Natsuki to fling the bowl across the table at her, but her volatile friend remained deep in thought.
“Actually, Shizuru hasn’t touched me or talked with me about the festival at all for a while, now that I think about it.” She ignored Mai’s timid inquiry and knit her brows together. “She’s been so busy with meetings and tutoring me, and, well, I’ve been studying…”
“…Did something happen?”
Natsuki looked up and was met with a sincere and concerned expression. Mai doesn’t know, she brooded. Suzushiro and Yukino know, even Nao, but I never did tell Mai, did I? And she was the last one… And she was the second real friend I ever had. Natsuki turned her gaze back to the homestyle meal that was filled with Mai’s love for her family and friends. I said that I had faith in her.
Mai couldn’t help but stare with worry, then nodded in encouragement when Natsuki looked back up to meet her purple eyes.
“Did you… did you know,” Natsuki began haltingly, “that Shizuru was the first and only friend I had in the past four years since my mother died almost ten years ago?”
Mai slowly and carefully laid her own chopsticks down and gently pushed the bowl aside. “Well, we’re also friends now, right? So,” the redhead looked directly into a pair of anxious green eyes, “please tell me what’s bothering you.”
“So things seem to be back to ‘normal’ now, back to the way Shizuru was before… before the whole damned HiME festival, except that we now both know how she feels.”
Mai sat, thoughtfully eyeing her own clasped hands on the table. She had patiently listened as Natsuki related the painful, private details of her own life leading up to the revelation between herself and her best and only friend. It was not an easy journey for either of them. There were times where it seemed Natsuki–the dark, brooding rebel that she was–might cry. Besides the initial shock when Natsuki told her about Shizuru’s confession, Mai felt deep sympathy for her friend and wanted to hug her as she did with Mikoto and Takumi. No wonder…
Instead, she looked up to continue the track. “But you don’t know or aren’t sure how you feel, right?” Natsuki looked very troubled. “Okay, then is it the fact that Fujino-san seems to have, ah, reverted that bothers you?”
“It’s funny, isn’t it?” the dark-haired girl chuckled sadly. “I thought we were happy before all that. She would… take me shopping and embarrass me. She never once–I mean, I really never knew. How could I know what was really normal since she was my first friend? I thought she was a little weird and all, but now that we know… It feels like she’s just gone back to a place where I can’t reach her again. It feels like she’s just hiding from me in plain sight–or at those council meetings.”
“Has Fujino-san really ignored everything about the HiME festival?”
“Well, no. She sometimes makes weird jokes,” Natsuki coughed. “But they pass by so quickly. We haven’t talked.”
“Natsuki, is that why you wanted her to move in with you at the beginning–because you wanted, um, for both of you to heal together?”
“I–I think so. Well, I’m not–maybe I was afraid she would just run away.”
“Had she done that before?”
It was cold but dry. Shizuru wore a very elegant, if simple, burgundy wool coat and scarf, while Natsuki wore a deep navy blue one of similar style that Shizuru bought for her. Both walked in comfortable silence.
“So my apartment is supposed to be ready after remodeling in another month.”
“I did not realize you were considering moving again.”
“Well, I miss my old apartment, and this new one is even better.” Natsuki gazed up at the clear, blank sky.
“You do not enjoy being roommates with Mai-san and Mikoto-chan?”
“Um, yeah, but… you know me. I like my own space, but, uh… And Mikoto is too noisy and bouncy, honestly.”
Shizuru chuckled and shook her head. “It is good to live with another to develop social living habits, Natsuki. And it saves money. I believe Mai-san is a good influence on you, although I do not know about Mikoto-chan in this case.” A wry smile crossed her face as she imagined Mikoto’s energy wearing Natsuki down.
“R-really. Say…” Natsuki cleared her throat lightly. “Why don’t you room with me when the apartment is ready?”
Shizuru stopped in her tracks to stare at her beloved friend, who then stopped a few steps ahead and peered back.
“What? What’s with that look? Geez…” The faint blush that alighted Natsuki’s cheeks belied her ignorance of Shizuru’s interpretation.
Shizuru hesitated before cleanly replying, “I was merely thinking that your current arrangement is ideal. I will be going off to university, after all.” They continued walking.
“Eh, so? The apartment is actually closer to Fuuka University, and I can just ride my bike to school. And you mentioned saving money, right? Let’s just split the rent.”
“Well, that is—”
“And what with that silly tutoring deal, instead of trying to mesh our schedules together, we can study back home!”
“Do not call it silly, Natsuki,” Shizuru clucked. “You are the one who opted for the tutoring and one-time exam in lieu of extra courses throughout the school year.”
“Ah, yeah. Damn it…” Natsuki flushed slightly, remembering the lengths her best friend and Sakomizu-sensei went through to get that option. “A-anyway, what do you think? I would… I would like it if you, well…”
Shizuru did not answer right away, watching with loving amusement as the younger girl tried to stammer her way through the gesture. She wanted nothing more than to draw Natsuki into her arms, smell her hair, feel her living breath, and warm her soft body with her own. But that simply was not an option. They were now standing in front of the dorm. Shizuru drew in a chilled breath.
“You should reconsider moving out from your current arrangement,” Shizuru spoke gently and with a smile. Natsuki only watched and chewed her lip slightly. “Certainly, neither of us can cook as well as Mai,” she added glibly.
“As if that mattered!” Natsuki snorted. She appeared to struggle to avoid falling into an immediate pout. “Ah… just think about it, okay? I’ll, eh, ask again later. Okay…”
Shizuru smiled lovingly as the shy, brilliant green irises rose up to her. “Yes, I will think about it. Then, good night.” They parted ways.
“Ah, do you know how Fujino-san feels about living with you?” Mai sheepishly asked.
“W-well, she seemed happy enough. She hasn’t shown… you know.”
“It doesn’t bother you that she… well, you know, that she’s in love with you, and you’re now both living together? That’s a little… I don’t know–suggestive to her, maybe?”
“Maybe it is,” Natsuki sighed and rubbed her head, “but if I just let her be and we both pretended nothing happened, nothing is solved and I’m afraid I might lose her, like I almost did at the festival… because she knows that I know, and maybe that scares her. Does–does that make any sense? Shizuru often said that I need to think more before acting. I guess I figured that if she was close by, I could show that I do accept her… and maybe keep tabs on her.”
“Apparently, that’s difficult.”
“Oh, you have no idea. And trying to get her to lighten up about student council matters is out of the question.”
Natsuki caught Mai’s vain attempt at hiding a snicker.
“It seems Fujino-san is as stubborn as you, just in a different way. So did you tell her your reasons for wanting her to move in with you?”
“Uhh… I thought I… would bring that up once we were living to together. I gave other reasons,” Natsuki admitted shamefully. Her cheeks warmed uncomfortably as she stared down at the table, recalling her babbling about convenience for Shizuru’s tutoring, a short commute to Fuuka University, and saving money with shared rent.
“You’ve been living together for a little while now, right? Have you tried to talk to her already?”
“N-no. I… it just never occurred to me that it’s become this way until now.” Natsuki buried her face into her hands at this revelation. Damn it. Why am I so slow? Does living with me hurt her after all? That’s not what I intended…
“I see…” Mai contemplated some more, searching for solutions or words but finding neither so easy to grasp.
No, you don’t see it all. Natsuki prodded at the now cold stew and rice with her chopsticks. I didn’t tell you exactly what happened when… But even I don’t know exactly what happened at that house. I said that I forgave her, but I honestly didn’t think we would… come back. I mean, I do forgive her, but… She sighed and allowed her head to hit the table with a light thunk.
“Natsuki, do you want things between you two to go back to the way they were before the HiME festival?”
The half-lidded green eyes shot open at Mai’s direct question. “No.”
“B-because… I thought I said earlier—because now that we both know—”
“But why does that matter?”
“Why does it matter that you both know? Does knowing that she loves you hurt you?”
“No, it doesn’t hurt me,” Natsuki frowned, trying to divine the direction Mai was going. “But because I know, I want her to know that I do accept her, otherwise she would just be so lonely. I don’t want her to be hurt anymore.”
“So you want to protect her. Why do you think Fujino-san is acting this way?”
“I really don’t know, Mai,” Natsuki groaned.
“Hasn’t it occurred to you that Fujino-san might be trying to protect you and isn’t in denial herself?”
“…What?” Those green eyes stared forward in anxiety at the direction Mai was going.
“Hasn’t it occurred to you,” Mai spoke slowly and gently, “that Fujino-san thinks that your knowing about her… is hurting you? And she obviously doesn’t want you to be hurt anymore.”
The confusion that crept over Natsuki’s face drained away some color. “But I told her! I told Shizuru that I was glad that she fell in love with me…”
Mai continued, trying not to strain her friend’s demeanor too much. “That might be true, but have things been more awkward since you know she fell in love with you? If so, Fujino-san must have noticed. She might be acting like this to show that you shouldn’t worry about living with her. She might be trying to go back to the way things were for your sake.”
A stray piece of raven-blue hair fell across Natsuki’s pale face. She swallowed hard as she digested what Mai was saying to her. Going back for my sake—but at whose cost? Hers?
At once, the image of Shizuru’s face peering straight down at her appeared. She tried to remember the detail of expression on her face, discern if there was a mask when the older girl leaned on the couch and hovered just on top of her, almost touching. No, that’s not it… Natsuki instead desperately tried to remember the expression on her own face at that time.
“Natsuki,” Mai finally piped up, “I think you know what you should do.”
With her hands covering her face, Natsuki only released a frustrated grunt.
“If you two don’t talk about what’s worrying you or what’s worrying her, even living together doesn’t help things. It may even hurt things, especially if she’s really, eh, you know… People need to share their love for it to be real.”
Natsuki hesitated before smiling weakly. “Yeah, you’re right… I’m sorry.”
“Huh? What?” Mai sat up in mild alarm.
“I mean, you’re right. I need to talk to Shizuru, and I think I’ve always known that because there were times when I wondered it myself. I’m just no good at this sort of thing. I’m sorry that I took up your time like this.”
“Oh! Silly, I’m glad you talked to me. Maybe you just needed someone to tell you the obvious. I know I wish others would do the same for me, sometimes. I mean, just look at Yuuichi and me.” Both laughed. “I do mean it, though, Natsuki. This is how friendship works, okay? Love is good, as Mikoto would say.”
Natsuki’s face warmed with gratitude.
“You can trust me, you know.”
Mai mirrored Natsuki’s bright smile. She definitely smiles a lot more now than before. I’m glad she doesn’t want to go back to the way things were before the HiME festival.
“We’re going to be okay… aren’t we?”
Mai’s lively purple eyes widened slightly at the unmistakable vulnerability that laced her temperamental friend’s words.
“Of course. We’re all going to be okay. We just need to be honest with ourselves and each other, right?”
“Yeah. Ahn–M-Mai, I have to go! I told Shizuru that I would wait for her outside the building.” Natsuki hastily stood up and surveyed the table, wondering what to do with everything.
“I’ll pack everything up in the kitchen while you get your stuff.” Mai expertly picked up all the dishes as only a waitress could. “And just one more thing…”
“You two died in each other’s arms. Remember that. If that doesn’t represent the depth of your relationship, I don’t know what does.”
Natsuki felt herself redden slightly. “Y-yeah. Thank you, Mai.”
“Don’t forget this!” Mai cheerfully shoved a bundle of deep blue cloth into Natsuki’s arms as she tried to balance the container of nikujaga and her motorcycle helmet. Unable to contain herself, Mai leaned forward and pulled Natsuki into a warm embrace. “And good luck. You know that you can call anytime.”
“Ah… thanks.” Natsuki shifted awkwardly after the hug and smirked, tucking the apron into her bag. Turning on her heel, she strode down the hall, looking back once to wave.