Disclaimer: Mai-HiME owned by Sunrise, except the characters that aren’t.
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An aggressive roar rolled over the sidewalk, though the motorcycle, which Shizuru recognized immediately and looked off to her side expectantly, wasn’t even visible yet. A moment later, the black and red object with its black and red rider appeared around the bend.
Natsuki came to a stop on the street a ways off the sidewalk and saw Shizuru was sitting alone in front of the building, looking almost forlorn in the distance. Popping off her helmet, she hopped off her bike and ran down the sidewalk as the brunette slowly stood up.
“I—I’m sorry I’m late!” Natsuki panted as her dark-blue mane swung and flew violently behind her.
“That is quite all right,” Shizuru chuckled as she surveyed her friend’s lean figure. “You enjoyed your stay at Mai’s?”
“Oh, yes,” Natsuki grinned broadly.
“Hasn’t it occurred to you that Fujino-san might be trying to protect you and isn’t in denial herself?” Mai’s words rattled slightly as Natsuki watched Shizuru turn around and collect her things; her smile fell slightly while the brunette wasn’t watching.
“Hey, um… Let’s go back now,” Natsuki jabbed her thumb at the motorcycle. “I want to talk to you.”
“Oh? Very well.” Shizuru gave the biker a very curious look.
“Natsuki is rarely this direct, as I recall,” an easy smile formed on that beautiful face.
This caused Natsuki to frown slightly. Does she know what I want to talk about? No, that can’t be it. She’s not psychic… I think.
Shizuru saw the troubled look and laughed. “What I mean is that I am pleased Natsuki has learned to be more direct when she wishes to speak.”
“O-oh.” The girl’s face immediately lightened.
“I always enjoy talking with Natsuki, after all… though I fear I do most of it.”
Natsuki grumbled slightly and grabbed the case from Shizuru’s hand, turning to stalk to the bike. “Come on.”
As they strolled down the broad walkway, Shizuru asked about the meal and Natsuki quickly went into the details of being forced into an apron, to which Shizuru laughed, learning to cut meat properly without cutting herself, and other such cooking details. She avoided any mention of the heavier conversation.
“…I think I’ll try to make it on Friday. Mai gave me another set of detailed notes, so… Eh?” Realizing the lack of presence by her side, Natsuki stopped and turned back to see her friend leaning against the retaining wall. Shizuru’s eyes were tightly closed and the strain quite evident on her pale face.
Hurrying back and grasping Shizuru’s elbow, Natsuki exclaimed, “What’s wrong?!”
“Natsuki…” Shizuru whispered mournfully without opening her eyes, “I do not think I will make it home. Yoko… Yoko-sensei is here…”
They hurried down the hallway, Shizuru’s arm slung across the shorter girl’s shoulders. Natsuki didn’t have time to figure out what to do with the case, so she had left it on the wall along with the juice. Fortunately, all the important papers were already given to Yukino.
Shizuru shuddered as she felt a trickle of sweat run down her back. She was shivering badly and gritted her teeth against the hot soreness and nausea stewing together in her body.
I hate this feeling.
“Almost there. Just hold on,” Natsuki’s other hand gripped Shizuru’s waist and pulled her against her own body.
Natsuki hates hospitals.
Her breath came in uneven and ragged gasps, each punctuated by a stabbing pain between her temples.
Hopefully I will not need to go to one, but at this rate…
“God, you’re soaking wet. I don’t think you should have gone to this meeting. If you stayed home, at least we could…”
But Shizuru wasn’t hearing Natsuki clearly. The exam is Saturday. There is no time to fall ill.
“Yoko-sensei,” Natsuki’s face was tight with worry, “why is she shivering like this?”
“Rigor,” the doctor replied shortly but calmly, exuding an easy-going authority. “She probably had a mild fever before, but it seems like it’s getting worse. Okay…” They removed her jacket and shoes and loosened her shirt. Spreading a sheet and a blanket over the violently shivering girl, the doctor took out a thermometer and gently nudged it into Shizuru’s armpit.
“Make sure this doesn’t fall out,” she instructed Nasuki. “All right, can you hear and understand me, Shizuru-san?” Yoko gently touched the girl’s cheek. Shizuru nodded as evenly as she could. “I’m going to ask you some questions.”
Natsuki didn’t pay much heed to the questions themselves, which were concerned with specific symptoms; Shizuru merely nodded or shook her head in response as the doctor wrote on a small pad of paper. The dark-haired girl nervously watched the thermometer level rise.
“…Can you say how long you’ve been feeling ill?” This question caught Natsuki’s attention, and she looked up at Shizuru’s face.
As though aware that Natsuki was probably watching, the brunette hesitated. Swallowing, she whispered, “Since Friday morning, perhaps… but I had been feeling tired longer than that.”
“I see… ” Yoko scribbled on the pad. “Symptoms might be confounded by fatigue or stress.”
Natsuki’s heart fell. If Shizuru was tired, it was the combination of meetings, tutoring, and generally taking care of Natsuki and their apartment. Of this, Natsuki was keenly aware. She felt angry at herself, however, for not being keenly aware of Shizuru’s health. She knew the elder girl was tired, but…
Shizuru groped for Natsuki’s hand, which Natsuki stretched forward to grip her fingers. She felt the clammy hand squeeze urgently, then smirked. Yeah, that’s you telling me that it’s not my fault, isn’t it? Damn you, Shizuru…
She is probably cursing me and herself right now, Shizuru smiled, eyes still closed.
Yoko looked up at the two and raised a brow. Lightly ripping the note off, Yoko looked at her handwriting and sighed, then removed the thermometer and wrote the reading down as well.
“I’m going to send you to the hospital, Shizuru-san, to have them run some tests. Your fever is a bit high, but not dangerously so. More importantly, this clinic isn’t appropriate for a stay beyond twenty-four hours. I’ll go along with you since I have some affiliations with the nearest hospital,” the doctor smiled kindly. Natsuki’s hand tightened slightly around Shizuru’s, causing the older girl to drop her gaze in defeat.
I am sorry, Natsuki.
“All right, just let me make a phone call and get a few things, and we’ll go to my car.”
Shizuru felt Natsuki’s hand tighten even more and only chuckled helplessly.
Three sets of eyes peeked over a retaining wall to stare at the case and juice perched on another distant wall, abruptly abandoned a few moments ago.
“That was unexpected.” The small set of nearly black brown eyes narrowed, the face mostly obscured by a black hood.
“Not really. I looked through the other pictures, and she did look a bit ill already,” a woman replied. Hazel eyes rimmed with strong, narrow, wire frames, also partially obscured by a gray hood, peered down at the small head.
“The timing of everything is off if she falls ill,” the young man growled. “The deadline is Saturday.”
“If? Don’t be ridiculous. She’s already ill,” the woman sighed. “I still don’t see what you can do even when Saturday comes. Now what?”
“She hasn’t received the last one yet, has she?” the boy murmured thoughtfully.
“This could be an opportunity for something more immediate,” the man suggested.
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” the woman interjected.
The smaller set of dark brown eyes stared at the case and juice for a moment before looking up at the man by his side.
“Call the nearest hospital to prepare them. Have them reserve one of the most expensive rooms just in case. Be sure to give some kind of, eh, cover story for them to use.”
“Roger.” The light, golden brown eyes shifted away from the distant case, and the young man stalked deeper into the vegetation with cell phone in hand.
The hazel eyes continued to watch the small head, which had turned back towards the case and juice.
“What?” the boy muttered with irritation after a minute.
An ivory hand inched up over the small black hood from behind and then patted down heartily, the hazel eyes squinting with restrained laughter.
“Ow! Stop it!” The boy flailed at the woman.
“I’m so proud of you!”
“Watch your mouth,” she hissed.
Another minute passed before the man stalked back to crouch on the boy’s other side. “No cover story necessary.”
“Eh?” he looked up.
“I asked our family doctor if he had affiliates here, but he is in the city for a lecture.” The man smiled, light brown eyes narrowing slightly. “I just called in a favor and asked him to deal with that girl appropriately.”
Natsuki glided her motorcycle into a spot behind Yoko’s car, parked, and rushed to the passenger side to see how Shizuru was. In truth, she was terrified that her ill friend was more likely to die in the short trip with Yoko’s driving than from whatever illness she had. But Shizuru, bundled up in a blanket and tightly strapped in, peered up and only grinned drowsily, completely unconcerned.
The plum-haired doctor got out of her car, still wearing her doctor’s coat, and shuffled off to the reception desk while instructing Natsuki to help Shizuru inside. Natsuki had a loose bag borrowed from Yoko across her shoulder that held her own bag, helmet, the nikujaga, and Shizuru’s case, which she had grabbed at the last minute. She struggled to the door with Shizuru on her other arm until a couple nurses hustled up to help them. Natsuki tried to stop her face from twitching as she stood at the reception area, her memories flooding with unpleasant, anxiety-laced emotion.
“Thanks,” Natsuki mumbled as the nurses helped Shizuru into a wheelchair. She looked off to the side and spotted Yoko speaking with a doctor who looked to be in his early 60s. They soon hurried over to the girls’ side.
“We’re really quite lucky. This is Kimura-sensei, a colleague of mine who is guest lecturing at a nearby university—but more importantly, it seems he already knows your family, Shizuru-san,” Yoko gently squeezed Shizuru’s shoulder, who was still shivering. Despite her dazed expression, Shizuru nodded and smiled weakly at the doctor, who grasped her hand in greeting. Natsuki looked on, somewhat perplexed.
“Mm, we’d best get her properly rested right away so we can get some tests in. I’ll look after her personally, since I’m in town for a while and this is one of my private clinics.” The older doctor with thick, pepper-gray hair and beard nodded decisively. “Right, then, let’s go.” He immediately took the wheelchair from Natsuki and began to push down the hall.
“You are her friend, yes?” Kimura looked at Natsuki. The girl nodded numbly. “Your name is…?”
Kimura gave a slight double-take, unnoticed by the girl. “Do you plan to stay with her?”
“Ah, y-yes.” She couldn’t help the feeling of suspicion welling up in her breast. It’s not like I’d leave her alone in a place like this.
Natsuki looked around, her nervousness slowly cresting. Why hasn’t there been any paperwork? They walked past a row of waiting patients. So weird…
“Don’t worry. He really is one of the best,” Yoko whispered to Natsuki. “In fact, he was one of my teachers and knows many areas.”
“I—I see,” Natsuki mumbled back. She was relieved that Yoko was coming with them.
His gravelly voice, slight limp, short stature, and fluffy hair gave him an air more akin to a grandfather or lab researcher than a respected medical doctor, but Natsuki could only rely on Yoko’s words.
“This hospital is relatively new,” Kimura commented, “and many of the doctors have been educated abroad, which is why certain procedures will be different from a government hospital. She’ll receive the best care.” He smiled in turn at everyone, finally resting his wrinkle-framed eyes on Natsuki, who shifted nervously under his twinkly gaze.
He finally stopped in front of a sliding door and ushered everyone in. Natsuki stared at the large room containing a bed with sheets, a small table, and chair. A decent-sized window graced the far wall, and Natsuki’s eyes widened when she looked to her side. A private room and even a private bath? This is…
“Er… Isn’t—isn’t this… expensive?” she managed to stammer out.
The man laughed, which Natsuki begrudgingly admitted to herself sounded jovial and harmless. “This is actually not that rare in this particular facility. Everything is fine. The Fujinos have it covered with their insurance, and I assume they would ask for the best for their daughter. I remember that they always get these types of rooms, if available.”
“Right, insurance.” She wasn’t entirely convinced, but now was not the time to argue. Dropping her bag into a corner, she and Yoko helped Shizuru onto the bed. “Oh.” A light went off in Natsuki’s head. “Maybe I should contact her family? But I don’t know any of them…”
“Not to worry. I will notify them myself in a moment,” Kimura replied. This seemed to relieve the girl. “You two take care of her first, all right? I will be back shortly.” He swept out the door.
“All right, help me remove her clothes,” Yoko commanded.
Shizuru lay shivering and tense on the bed, her eyes tightly closed. Were I not in pain and discomfort, she reflected, this might be enjoyable. Shoving the thought aside, she clenched her jaw and shifted slightly to allow them room to remove the rest of her clothing.
Yoko dug into her own bag and drew out a loose sleep shirt. She smiled at Natsuki’s blank stare. “This is clean. I was packed to go on a short trip, but I will lend it to you for a while.”
“A wonder that you still wear your high school uniform after graduation,” Natsuki sighed at her friend. “Don’t tell me,” she added quickly. “For the meeting.”
A faint smile twitched on Shizuru’s face but soon dissolved.
“I told the Fujinos that her friend planned to stay, and they were fine with that.”
Natsuki blinked. “Really?”
He continued without missing a beat, “They’re a couple hours away, but they want to be notified if it gets worse.”
“Right.” She couldn’t reconcile the odd sense of relief in avoiding meeting a Fujino clan member mixed with the feeling of increased curiosity. Shizuru doesn’t talk about her family very much. I mean, I don’t really either, but maybe I should have asked. The barest twinge of guilt stabbed her gut, which Natsuki quickly shoved down to concentrate on the issue at hand.
“I’ve also taken the liberty of getting a second bed placed in here for you.”
“The Fujinos are renting it,” he smiled. “Now, let’s see…”
The wizened doctor poked through Yoko’s notes and nodded thoughtfully. A nurse had inserted a catheter into Shizuru’s arm and was attaching an I.V. to stave off dehydration. They had already taken a blood sample, and another thermometer was nudged into her armpit. He slipped the paper into his pocket and turned back to inspect the girl again. Natsuki watched intently as the grayed man gingerly tested her friend’s limbs and pupils, and frowned when he slipped a stethoscope under her friend’s shirt to listen to both heart and lungs. Shizuru’s shivering had lessened but she still scrunched up slightly on the bed. He turned to Natsuki, who was sitting in a chair by the bed with her fists balled up on her lap.
“And you have not had any symptoms of any kind the past week?”
“Natsuki-san,” Yoko gently nudged.
“Huh? Oh, no. None at all. Why me?”
“Influenza is usually quite contagious,” the man noted.
“So it’s probably not the flu?”
“Perhaps not, but sometimes it happens even as the season wanes. Food poisoning is unlikely because of the length of time,” the doctor continued in his easy-going, professional manner that seemed almost as if he was talking to himself.
“We only had noodles Thursday night,” Natsuki replied. “Nothing raw.”
“Is there anything else you can tell me, like injuries or infections?”
“N-not that I know of,” Natsuki stuttered. “We didn’t see anything unusual when we, ehh, put her in the pajamas. Right, Yoko-sensei?”
“There was just a dark spot on the back of her neck that didn’t look like a mole. Otherwise, nothing else seemed particularly suspicious,” the woman replied.
“Oh?” Kimura gently coaxed Shizuru onto her side, which encouraged her to immediately curl up into a fetal position. “This looks like an insect bite. Good eye, Yoko-san.”
“Ah, that… We both got some mosquito bites when we visited Okinawa last weekend.”
“Truly? The weather must have been quite nice since it’s been warmer than usual this month,” the man murmured.
“Might it be… something else that’s serious?” Natsuki cleared her throat with dread.
The doctor looked down on some paperwork placed on the table. “Shizuru-san had gotten a complete physical and bloodwork tests done only a month before, so if it was something more serious or,” he looked up pointedly, “long-term, the specialists should have caught it. The Fujinos have access to some excellent private care, after all.”
Natsuki sighed and patted Shizuru’s hands, which were clutched to her chest. The girl curled up more tightly, then reached up to rub her neck. She stretched her neck slightly. Kimura watched for a moment before looking up at Yoko. “What do you think?”
The woman leaned forward and gently massaged Shizuru’s neck. “Shizuru-san, is your neck stiff?”
Red eyes blinked opened, and she managed to shake her head in the negative.
“Hmm. It would be early, though, wouldn’t it?” Yoko turned to the man.
“There’s no harm in additional tests. I will order a blood test for that.”
Natsuki looked helplessly at both of them and finally sighed in exasperation. “Test for what?”
Yoko spoke up after Kimura left. “You should gather up some things from your place if you don’t want to buy the expensive items at the hospital shop. Okay?”
Yoko drew out her pad and pen and scribbled a list. “Get these. I’ll stay with Shizuru-san until you get back. Get things for yourself as well.”
“So we won’t know the test results until tomorrow?”
“Yes. It’s a long shot, Natsuki-san, but the symptoms would match. This particular private hospital tends to be a bit more thorough.”
“Is there a treatment?”
“What—then what good is the test?” Natsuki frowned.
“We can treat the symptoms, but more importantly, it’s the possible long-term effects of the virus that’s most dangerous. We shouldn’t worry too much about this anymore until the test results come in. Who knows? Shizuru-san could be better by then, and it could be completely unrelated.”
Natsuki took the paper in her trembling fingers and nodded, her mind numbed by the bustle in the hallway and by the talk of tests and viruses. Shizuru opened her eyes to look up at her young friend, taking in the lost expression on the girl’s delicate face. Concentrating a moment to gather her bearings, she called out.
“Do not worry. Perhaps… perhaps Mai can help? I believe she has… a great deal of experience…”
Given a more definite direction, Natsuki’s mind cleared enough to grab her cell phone. “I’ll be back in a minute,” she called over her shoulder as she stepped out. Ugh, I’ve got to get outside.
She walked briskly down the wide hall as two nurses and a doctor ran past her and expertly maneuvered around a wheelchair in their path. She soon made it to the reception area, which looked almost like an airport terminal in size, and finally slipped out the sliding glass doors. She walked to her motorcycle in the parking lot and heaved a relieved sigh, flipping out her cell phone and the paper.
(“Hi, Natsuki! How are you doing?”)
“Um, are you busy?”
(“I’m actually window-shopping, so I’m not in a rush. Do you need something?”)
“Y-yeah, I need to ask another favor. We just took Shizuru to the hospital…”
(“Hospital? Ah! What happened? Where are you?”)
“Hold on, hold on,” Natsuki’s jaw stiffened slightly. “They want to keep Shizuru for at least two days, so Yoko-sensei gave me a list of things to get from our place, but… I kind of want to stay here, and… I gave you an emergency key, so…”
(“Okay! Say no more. I’m on my way to your place now. Which hospital?”)
“The one closest to Fuuka.”
(“Okay, just wait for me at the front–“)
“Wait! I have the list here–”
(“Don’t worry about it. I already know what I have to get. By the way, I hope you don’t mind me digging through your drawers…”)
“Ehh…” Natsuki blushed at the thought of someone rifling through her more delicate belongings. No, no, I trust her. Now isn’t the time to worry about these things. I’ll just kill her later if there’s… damage. “Th-that’s fine. I’ll wait outside. Thank you… so much, Mai. I–”
(“I told you, don’t worry about it. I’ll be over soon. See you later!”)
“Okay. Thanks.” Natsuki closed her cell phone with a loud snap and looked out over the parking lot, trying to calm her nerves. It’s not the same hospital. Yoko-sensei is there. She trusts this doctor. This doctor is tied to Shizuru’s family, so I guess that’s fine. Yeah, I’m just being an idiot.
Natsuki carefully slid the door open to let both herself and Mai slip into the room.
“Hello, Mai-san,” the plum-haired woman smiled kindly. “How is Takumi-kun doing?”
“Hello, Yoko-sensei. Oh, he’s doing well. He’s going to miss the first week of school, though, but that shouldn’t be a problem,” Mai spoke quietly. “Is Fujino-san asleep?”
“I gave her a mild sedative to help her sleep tonight,” Yoko stood up. “She may need more later if it persists, but she should be fine for now. Her fever is still high, but not dangerously so, therefore we won’t give fever medication just yet.”
“Okay,” Natsuki nodded, not really understanding it all. All she knew was that Shizuru was lying on the bed with a relaxed expression; she wasn’t shivering or wincing in pain or doubled over, vomiting. She was just sleeping.
“I’ll be going now. I need to get to a seminar tomorrow, but believe me that Kimura-sensei is one of the best. He went to the United States as well.”
Natsuki smiled awkwardly at the woman’s sincerity. “Okay. Thanks a lot, Yoko-sensei.” It’s not like I have a lot of choices here.
Yoko waved on her way out. Mai then placed the duffel bag onto the table and pushed her fiery hair behind her ear.
“Here we are: toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap and shampoo, towels, slippers, tissue, pajamas, underwear, a set of sheets—”
“Heh. And eating utensils. I’ll give you a rundown of what you need to do. You can do all the laundry at your place if you want to, since it’s yours anyway.”
Natsuki peered into the bag but did not actually see anything. Her mind had fallen numb again to protect itself after Mai had gone. The fiery-haired girl had taken the nikujaga away and left a cold bento in its place for Natsuki to eat later on. She slowly digested everything around her. Her eyes finally fell on Shizuru’s bed.
People don’t sleep like that, was the only thought that formed. Shizuru lay completely still with her arms laid out straight by her sides, her head resting on the exact center of the pillow. The dark-haired girl stretched her hand to smooth over the now flat, light brown hair.
Another realization coalesced under the cloud covering Natsuki’s mind.
I have never taken care of anyone before.
Her tired green eyes absorbed the slow rhythm of breathing and followed the blanket-covered, smooth valley of abdomen, which rose to a slight plateau at Shizuru’s ribs. Natsuki couldn’t stop her cheeks from warming a bit as she allowed her eyes to quickly dart over her friend’s breasts, slowing where the top of the shirt puckered open to a crescent of flesh. The bony protrusions of Shizuru’s clavicles framed the small hollow at the base of her throat. A light sheen of sweat covered the skin that was visible.
Natsuki watched the gentle pulsing in the smooth hollow and allowed her eyes to roam up to her charge’s serene face; there was no evidence of stress, pain, or unhappiness. Shizuru’s defenses were gone. That expert air she wore when facing the world was gently blown away like the morning mist simply by sleep. She was vulnerable and open to the world. That knowing, smiling mask was not there to confuddle Natsuki. There was innocence, illusion or not.
A new, stronger feeling edged through Natsuki’s confusion as she reached for a small towel and very gently wiped Shizuru’s sleeping face. Her dark brows knitted together with determination.
I will take care of you, Shizuru. Don’t you worry about that.