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The clean, powder blue button shirt and black business trousers were not the usual attire in which Shizuru was accustomed to seeing Reito, but she liked the more relaxed and perhaps sincere feel he emanated now. She was not sorry to see the stiff, black school uniform gone; it was as though he sloughed off a manifest part that was infected with the HiME fiasco. A small part of her heart yearned to do the same.
“I hate everything that he touched,” he had once commented to Shizuru. “It’s unusual and disgusting to think a stranger–a being of that nature–had been wearing all my clothes, touching my things, the people I care about. I’m not sure how to explain it.”
“I understand a little better than you might think,” Shizuru had replied sadly in return. “That purple kimono…”
And they left it at that.
Without a word, Reito eyed the toy puppy in Shizuru’s arms and immediately deduced who gave it to her. She’s not the type to buy these things for herself. He reached out to pet it, but Shizuru frowned and pulled it away.
“Du-chan is suspicious of you,” she teased quietly, “but I asked him not to growl.”
He chuckled, suddenly imagining the toy as an extension of a certain other person. How fitting. “Well, then, how are you feeling?” Reito stood to open the curtains, flooding the room in a cool afternoon glow.
“As well as can be expected. You have news?”
“Straight to business, hm?” The young man settled back into the chair and seemed to contemplate his next move. Shizuru regarded him carefully, as though also thinking of possible responses. They sometimes had their verbal Go matches, and Reito decided to gauge her state with a light spar. “Really, how are you doing?”
“Natsuki did not tell you?”
“Do you think she would to any great detail?”
Shizuru considered this and closed her eyes. “No, she would not,” she sighed. “I am merely tired. I would prefer to recover at home, but Kimura-sensei insists that I stay here.”
“You’re unsatisfied with this… because of Kuga-san?”
She opened her eyes to peer at him suspiciously. “That is a factor, admittedly… but I simply prefer to be in a familiar space.”
“Of course.” Reito then softened his gaze and shuffled papers that Shizuru did not remember him holding. “I have the notes that I thought you would be interested in.”
He noted the way eager diligence shone behind her eyes when now offered the chance to get down to business. It wasn’t so long ago that she didn’t have such interest in her seat despite her competence, but things certainly changed quickly shortly after the HiME festival–and even now that she was no longer the president. He knew he wasn’t the only one to notice.
“I thought Yukino-san did well with the last major partner meetings,” Reito commented as he helped Shizuru into a sitting position. “Certainly… not as you might have done it, but she did quite well.”
“My instincts were correct,” she murmured and sifted slowly through the papers. “Ah, this agreement here is better than I thought it would be.”
“Haruka-san seemed quite pleased with the outcome as well… though she would not admit it to you, perhaps. I believe she was still a bit offended by your original offer but is now more comfortable believing Yukino-san will supplant you.”
“You are speaking of promoting Kikukawa-san to presidency instead of executive directorship as Suzushiro-san intended?”
“Of course. At first, I wondered if you did that to rile Haruka-san–” Reito cut himself off upon seeing the displeasure that appeared. “I mean, you two did have a certain rapport, and I thought you might be renewing it…”
Shizuru dropped the papers into her lap and leaned back. “That is ridiculous. You know that I cannot have the same relationship with those two ever again.”
Reito picked the papers from Shizuru’s lap and neatly tapped them together before placing them back into her hands. “Then was the offer… to make up for that?”
She stiffened and looked away.
“…I’m sorry. That was rude.”
They both remained still until Shizuru finally sighed, “No, I believe you are at least partially correct. However, I have not been on speaking terms with my subconscious lately. And I truly did make such a decision for the benefit of the council and school. Surely that is why you supported my decision in the first place.”
“I know. Regardless, I have no right to accuse anyone of anything. Guilt? The irony–I feel I’ve had the most to do with it, and yet I was the most helpless…” He stood and wandered to the window, resting his hands in his pockets. “…and useless.”
Shizuru immediately felt the urge to toss something at Reito’s head, but slipped into a weary smile. Even when the rest of us girls try to move forward, we do so with these inextricable bonds. But he alone remains… Not including Mikoto-chan, besides Mai-san and myself, no one else who was directly involved has made an effort for you, who was literally the most used. And were it not for Mashiro-sama’s mercy…
She broke into a small laugh, and his dark brown head turned slightly at the beautiful sound. “Idiot.”
“Hm, yes?” Reito turned fully with a slight grin.
“Do not try to sell me your guilt. You alone had the best excuse: possession by an unearthly spirit. That being fully left you and was banished by the rest of us. However…”
The warm look dissolved off his face as he watched Shizuru begin to brood. It was quite familiar to him now. “Shizuru-san.”
“You mustn’t think like that.”
“Why not?” Shizuru spat quietly. One of her hands gripped the blanket. “A seed… A seed is there, Reito-san, but I am at a loss. Was it always there? Was it merely planted at the festival?” She look up at him with fear and anger behind those deep red eyes. “And is it still there? Sometimes I think I can feel it, like a marble under a futon mattress. I fear the slightest crack in my rebuilt self… The risk is far too great. I cannot fail again, Reito-san–” Her thoughts tumbled forward, gaining momentum like a stone dropped from a cliff.
Reito quickly sat back down and pried the clammy, pale hand from the blanket, covering the smooth knuckles with his other palm. Like this, he cradled her hand until she calmed down.
She finally whispered, “It is like an infected wound that barely closes. The slightest jar may cause the wound to blossom–easier, perhaps faster. Will it never heal?”
“Perhaps it will not only because you pick at the scab… with doubt.”
She chuckled at his choice of words.
“Is this why you have not spoken with your subconscious lately? You fear what may stare back at you from the black mirror…” He felt the hand twitch within his grasp. “But you must remember that Kuga-san brought you back. Didn’t you say that she forgave you? Out of that HiME abyss, everyone was returned healed. You’re not the same as then at all. That was a dark gift…”
Despite his efforts, the former vice president of the student council watched his colleague fight the weary despair that was overtaking her. In this weakened state, she was surely losing. Reito cleared his throat upon seeing that she was close to tears.
Moreover, he knew his own words were too brittle. The star? Even Mashiro-sama had no answer. Healed and whole? That might be true for the others, but… He looked at the sandy head that was turned away and bowed. Shizuru-san’s actions compounded above the festival alone and out of a ‘twisted’ form of love, a love you had guarded for so long. That is what you’re thinking, aren’t you?
“I tried.” The simple, accented statement fell onto the bed, then seemed to disappear like smoke. Reito blinked. “I have tried to have faith as well.”
“Yes?” he leaned forward, worried.
“I mean to say that I have tried to follow that path you are implying.”
Ah, she’s certainly ahead of me in that thought.
“Everyone returned healed. That is what I like to believe–that we are better off now than before. But Reito-san, no matter how I look at it–”
“Stop. That is enough. Thinking like that only disrespects the effort Kuga-san has been making with you, and if you continue down this particular path, I will be forced to have a chat with her.”
Shizuru blinked in surprise. Reito merely smiled inwardly, noting a point in their mental Go match. He decided to press forward.
“Are you happy where you are?”
“Where I am?” She looked around the square, drab hospital room.
Reito sighed and finally replaced her hand on Du-chan’s back. “Really, now.”
She chuckled hoarsely, but quickly surrendered. “You mean with Natsuki, sharing an apartment as I prepare to go to college.”
“Yes, that makes me happy. But it is also tiring.”
“Not like that. I am working to maintain the kind of balance I had before. If I can stay in a comfortable control, then everything should be fine.” Keeping Natsuki just at arm’s length… That is also better for her.
Reito mulled this over. More familiar with her ways than most anyone else, he knew there was always a reason underpinning an action.
“You still tease her,” he pointed out. “That would seem to imply that you don’t always… control yourself?”
“Of course. I need my small indulgences,” her face lightened again.
“Only to keep her on her toes.”
At this mild revelation on his part, Shizuru stared in open surprise and found no retort.
Reito noted another point. He smoothed his dark brown hair out of his eyes, but it promptly flopped back down. And only because we are both such good actors…
“For some time, I was confused why you would tease with those odd ‘advances’ while you were living with her and yet profess to me that you wish to maintain control… balance, whatever you call it. This certainly isn’t the first time you have mentioned it. To me, such words mean–staying farther away from Kuga-san.”
Shizuru listened with a dread she could not identify. “But I tease very little compared to the month following the festival.”
“That isn’t the point. It occurred to me one day while watching you two. She tends to be a little tense when you tease her–or sometimes even when you’re not speaking with her, because she is expecting it. Tell me, Shizuru-san, are you using that part of Kuga-san against her?”
The brunette hesitated before murmuring, “I do not understand what you mean.”
“Everyone knows how Kuga-san reacts when you are like that. It seemed to me that, for you to keep this ‘control’ you want, you must have Kuga-san herself keep you in check. Is that correct?”
“I…” the wine-red discs widened slightly.
“Perhaps you weren’t even aware of this yourself.” Reito watched her reaction closely, but saw none besides a blank stare. “Or perhaps she will get used to it in small doses.”
“Ah, I would not worry about that,” she seemed to relax slowly. “Natsuki has not shown that kind of interest even if she tolerates me better now. Perhaps the apartment was a gift in the same way so many of us have acted lately.” She turned a tired smile back to him. “Guilt? Perhaps so, perhaps not. That does not concern me.”
Reito remained silent, then smiled and decided to try another maneuver. “Mai-san has told me that she has begun making friends with you.”
“Ah, perhaps. She is a nice girl–sincere and quite the big heart. But she is Natsuki’s friend above all, and that pleases me much more.”
They both savored the happy thought for a little while before Shizuru made a maneuver of her own. “Speaking of Mai-san, has your act of pursuit finally finished?”
“My–” Reito gave a start, but caught the mischievous glint in her eye and realized that he was caught by the Go master. “Well, perhaps I enjoy keeping Tate-kun on his toes.”
“They seem to make a good couple,” Shizuru commented.
“Yes, I know. Besides, he was the one who was seducing her later on, not me.”
“And you believe Mai-san cannot trust your intentions, previous or otherwise?”
Reito merely shrugged. “I don’t blame her. It’s over, anyway. I am not idle despite this part of my life, of course. Mashiro-sama has left a network of responsibility for both myself and Fumi-san. Not only will it keep me quite busy on top of college, but I doubt I can keep an honest relationship with this aspect intact. It would be unfair to burden Mai-san or anyone else with this debt; she’s better off with Tate-kun in this regard.”
“I see…” Shizuru was too tired to think much on his statement now, and instead gazed into his warm, gray eyes, each communicating some unspoken understanding. “It is a shame, yes?”
“Nonsense. Forcing something unnatural to you is the biggest insult of all, isn’t it? We’ve discussed this before.”
“However, the rest of the school may still think we are the perfect couple.”
“Then let them think that, but a thought hardly makes fact.”
Shizuru smiled and offered the slightly crumpled papers to him. “You spoke of college,” she changed tack again. “You must be very excited to go to the University of Tokyo for law, of all things.”
“Ah, yes, I’m so excited that it makes my head buzz, though perhaps few people can see that.”
“I believe you would do well in conflict resolution. Of course, that is just my opinion.”
He laughed at this and nodded. “Unfortunately, Mikoto has been sulking a lot lately since she found out that I would be moving away. But I told her that it wouldn’t be far.”
“I remember you were a bit awkward around the girl. You seem to have adopted her more as a sister now?”
“She is far too endearing for anyone to stay strangers with her, I think. Or rather, she is so energetic that it wears down any resistance.” Both laughed. “It’s still strange to suddenly have a new little sister, but I like it. It hadn’t occurred to me, but perhaps I will be forced to keep a tie with Mai-san as long as Mikoto has adopted her.”
“That is like a new family. I am very happy for you, Reito-san.” A new sister, a new family… Mikoto-chan would never allow you to be lonely, I think. A painful thought nearly ruined her ephemeral peace of mind, but she quickly beat it back. A bright smile and reaching hand signaled to Reito that she was ready to say good-bye.
“Call me anytime for anything, Shizuru-san.” He packed his things away and leaned forward to squeeze her hand. “Let me know if there is anything I can do for you.”
“Thank you, but you have done so much already.”
As he left, Shizuru stared out the window and turned her thoughts back to that fragment of idea. She imagined a younger Natsuki in her elementary school uniform. How things might have been…
Funny that it takes something like this for him to act like the child he is. Azami loosed her light blonde hair but quickly tamed it into another bun as she observed a sulking young man facing the back of a sulking boy.
“Yukio, I really believe she’s not ready.” Kosei sat on the bed with his legs crossed, staring at a photo of Shizuru in his hands.
“You promised! After three times, you promised.” Yukio sat on the edge of the bed, facing away from him. “If you mentioned something in the letter already, maybe I could see her this time!”
“It’s too soon,” the young man replied quietly. A thick silence then hung between them.
Azami sat on her own hotel bed and watched this with great interest, especially how her young charge would react to Kosei. Like a brother… Yukio is able to express his feelings only when Kosei-san is around. Even around me, because I’m his tutor and haven’t known him as long…
Kosei reached up and automatically scratched his small patch of white hair that was surrounded by thick black. He looked over to Azami pleadingly, who only shrugged.
This isn’t my argument. I don’t even know the girl.
“I said I didn’t mention your name,” Kosei tried to placate the boy. “But I did mention a ‘big fan’…”
Yukio’s shoulders seemed to relax slightly as he took this in, and Kosei pressed on.
“I suggested that she could meet her biggest fan. I don’t know if she would, but she has some level of awareness now, see? You must be patient. After your last encounter…”
At these words, the boy visibly cringed. Azami shot a disapproving glare at Kosei, who quickly raised both hands and nodded. “Everything will be fixed. It will take some time, Yukio, but I promise you that.”
Yukio’s leg had developed a nervous tic while he was thinking, and he finally took both hands to rub his light, grayish-brown hair. “Okay! But don’t hide things from me anymore.” He turned his black eyes up to Kosei. “You’re not my father. Don’t be like him.”
“Yes, sir,” Kosei sat up straight and answered half-mockingly, then reached over to tousle the boy’s hair. A rare grin adorned his face.
“But what if she doesn’t answer?” Azami felt responsible enough to ask the question. “Kosei-san, if I’m not mistaken, you’ve rephrased the question of her return in this letter.”
“Ah… yes,” he grunted. “Don’t worry. She will be returning.”
“How can you be so certain?” the blonde sighed, ignoring the pleading look on Yukio’s face. “I’m positive that you haven’t told her all the circumstances this time either. Frankly, I feel sorry for her. For you to be so forceful at the last minute as she prepares for a new life–”
“That isn’t really your concern, is it?” the handsome young man stood and returned to his usual somber manner.
“I’m wondering if your methods might backfire. That is all. I don’t want Yukio to get hurt either, you know,” the older woman replied softly. She slid an arm around the boy, who was now deep in worried contemplation. “You’re not telling either of us a great deal about your ‘plan’ even when one of us–this kid–has such a vested interest. Of course I’m going to get nosy.” She felt the boy wrap his arms around her like a child does his mother.
“There is one thing she cannot decline.” Kosei crossed his arms and looked out the window, annoyed that he might be forced to show his hand even to his allies.
Azami’s brow crinkled in concern. “You’re not speaking of a blackmail, are you?”
“No. Just a favor she owes me.”
“You can’t possibly be–that seems cruel even to me.”
Yukio looked to each of them with confusion, but was duly ignored by the adults. He returned to sulking and began to flip through a photo album on the bed.
“Cruel in method, perhaps, but you know what I–we want. We must get the best possible outcome for everyone involved. Except…” Kosei turned his attention to Yukio and placed a heavy hand on the messy head.
Yukio looked up slowly, his black eyes narrowing slightly. A curl began to form on each side of his mouth. Kosei leaned down and appraised his reaction.
“You’re still certain you want to do this, Yukio? If we succeed, you may lose your fortune, you know.”
“I lost it years ago already. I’m working to get it back.”
Both adults turned to his commanding tone. Despite his age and small stature, the spate of private schooling, tutors, and strict upbringing lent the boy a surprising intimidation when he chose to exercise it.
“Yes, sir,” they both replied with a smile.
Azami straightened her glasses on her nose and noticed the photo album in Yukio’s hands. She studied the lean figure of a girl on a motorcycle, her body completely covered in a black, gray, and red outfit from head to toe.
“Well, changing the subject, but you two wanted to know what I thought of this girl after a few days’ interaction, right?” A sly smile grew on her face as the other two stared at her with intense curiosity.
“I’m baaaack,” Natsuki called into the room.
Shizuru looked up from the pile of mail that covered her bed and smiled brightly. “Welcome back. Were you productive?”
“Eh…” Natsuki scratched her head as though trying to remember what she just did. “I picked up some things. Since you’re awake now, I thought you might be bored, so I picked out some of your books.” She took a few out and stacked them on the table. “Um, I wasn’t sure what to pick, so I picked out ones that you seemed to like a lot.”
“Ah, Natsuki takes such good care of me. Is that not true, Du-chan? Hmm?” The sandy brunette had picked up the toy and was nuzzling and making strange, embarrassing noises.
“Natsuki is no fun.”
“Council stuff go well?”
“Quite. Thank you. Will you study now?”
“I don’t want to!” She stopped her rant to study Shizuru, who looked up at her curiously. “You look tired.”
“Yeess?” Natsuki glared very pointedly. I’ve caught onto your lying, so give it up!
“I–I am. A little,” Shizuru finally answered meekly.
“I’m going to read this magazine, so you go and read a bit or nap. I’ll study later, and then we can eat. Okay?”
“Ah…” ‘Good girl’?
But lacking the energy to tease, Shizuru instead turned her attention back to the pile of mail around her legs. Nervously, she fingered a light blue envelope in her hands, having just opened a corner of it before Natsuki had entered. She turned to the rest of her mail, keeping the blue envelope tucked under Du-chan’s body. After a moment, Natsuki yawned and wandered into the bathroom. The older girl seized her opportunity.
Carefully prying up the flap, she lifted out a familiar white card with a small, blue flower imprinted on it. Upon opening the card, a sheet of silver-flecked, deep blue origami paper fell out. Placing the paper aside, Shizuru opened the card with trembling hands.
The silence in the room buzzed louder and pressed into her ears as her eyes scanned the square, neat writing.
“…For these reasons, we will facilitate your return…”
She blinked rapidly as her heart raced painfully against her chest. A lump began to form in her throat as she stared again at the short but directed note. But my plans… So soon–this is…
The violent sound of a toilet flush broke her concentration, and Shizuru quickly composed herself as Natsuki washed up, hiding the offending card in the stack of books Natsuki had left for her on the table. She sighed as Natsuki reappeared.
“Oh, what’s that?” her raven-haired friend pointed at the square of brilliant deep blue by her leg.
“Ah,” Shizuru picked it up, grateful to be distracted. “This is just a sheet of origami paper.”
“I didn’t know you liked origami.”
“It was an old hobby that I grew out of,” Shizuru said quietly. “But sometimes I will still do it.”
“It’s very pretty.” Natsuki turned it around in her hands, noting the bright, silver flecks embedded in the midnight-blue paper.
Of course she would like it, Shizuru nearly laughed. “Here, I will make you something.”
“Ohh…” Natsuki sat expectantly as she watched Shizuru’s fine hands carefully fold the paper. Soon, a pair of crane’s wings began to take form.
1.9 Notes (commentable)
0.2 Omake: “Fifteen”
Next chapter: 1.10