Disclaimer: Mai-HiME owned by Sunrise, except the characters that aren’t.
(Please do not repost to other sites without my permission blah blah thank you. ^^ Link to this site instead.)
Nari continually squashed a corner of her pillow in a fist while staring up at the ceiling, running yesterday’s conversation through her head from various angles and time frames.
“I think that’s all today,” Yukino had lifted a stack of papers ceremoniously into her hands and tapped its edge against the tabletop. “Are there any loose ends?”
Nari looked up from her laptop, noting that she seemed more comfortable sitting at the head of the room.
“I think we are making excellent progress, Yukino-san,” Reito smiled brightly and leaned forward to stand from his chair, but a sharp rap on the table stopped him. He peered across the table questioningly. “Haruka-san?”
The blonde rapped her pen on the table again and huffed. “We’re finished even earlier today! I feel like we’re wasting good time here. Can’t we just get ahead a little? Two stones, one bird…”
The corner of Nari’s mouth twitched as she closed her laptop screen.
“That’s ‘two birds, one stone’, Haruka-chan,” Yukino carefully straightened her glasses and smiled.
“I said that!” She waved a hand imperiously. “If we can get through tomorrow’s agenda–”
“That is fine, Haruka-san,” Reito maintained his loose smile while herding some loose papers into a pile, “but I’m sure Shizuru-san is eager to learn of today’s progress, if that’s all right with you.”
“Ah…” Haruka paused before shrugging grumpily.
Yukino looked up from the head of the table. “Are you visiting the hospital so soon, Reito-san?”
Nari blinked and returned her attention to the council members, catching a flicker of hesitation in the young man’s smooth transportation of paper from table to briefcase.
He gave Yukino a slightly blank, if somewhat odd, expression before answering, “I was informed that she could take limited visitation now, yes.”
“In that case,” Yukino reached into her case and handed him a sheet of paper, “please also give her this.” Haruka remained seated and intensely eyed the paper passing from Yukino’s hand to Reito’s.
“Of course.” Reito cleanly snapped shut the case clips and straightened up, that easy smile reappearing. “Now, if you will excuse me, I am expected. Today was very productive, and I’m certain Shizuru-san will be impressed. We are making very good progress.”
Haruka merely harrumphed and nodded.
As Nari slung her laptop case’s strap over her shoulder, she considered asking if she could tag along, experimenting with different queries in her mind: “Perhaps Fujino-san would appreciate seeing today’s detailed notes?” or “I also have some things to discuss with her.”
Pulling a brush through her short, reddish-brown hair, Nari continued to mull in front of the bathroom mirror. She had instead quietly left the meeting, dutifully informing everyone that she would email the formal minutes thereafter. Imagining herself walking alongside Reito, Nari frowned with displeasure. “It would be much better to visit Fujino-san alone, isn’t that right?”
She completed her morning rituals like an automaton, all the while imagining Shizuru lying alone in a hospital room. “Who else knows about this? I wonder who is visiting and who is staying–” Nari paused her brushing motion and pursed her lips, an image of Natsuki’s favorite, slightly grimacing expression before her eyes.
Despite a constant thrum of curiosity she felt towards that notorious classmate, the same all other Shizuru fans surely felt, Nari had never bothered to investigate Kuga at close quarters. Fujino-san is much shrewder than others give her credit for. Having witnessed Kuga’s rather vapid and very distracted response in a rare social inquiry before, Nari had decided that she wasn’t actually a threat.
Carefully checking the contents of her bag in preparation for routine errands, Nari bit her lip at the possibility that Natsuki was with Shizuru in the hospital. She stopped her restless shuffling as an idea dawned on her, barely brightening her sullen face. “Maybe Fujino-san doesn’t have a laptop at the hospital, so I can give her paper copies of the latest minutes. Kanzaki wouldn’t have given her those from the last meeting, I think.”
Fluffing her shoulder-length hair slightly, Nari picked up her cell phone. Well, I suppose I’ll first see if Fujino-san is alone.
“Natsuki, if you continue to lie like that, you will get indigestion.”
“We haven’t had lunch yet,” Natsuki, face-down, replied into the pillow.
“But you did eat something while out with Yuuki-san, yes?”
The head of dark hair seemed to press deeper into the pillow, and a muffled grunt escaped.
Sighing and clucking her tongue, Shizuru absentmindedly ran her thumb across the poetry book’s pages and reached for Du-chan by her pillow, tucking him under her elbow. She bit her lip while tossing an anxious glance at Natsuki’s prone, still figure. There is not much time to plan at all.
A playful ring tone began to emit from behind the stack of books on Shizuru’s small table, to which she frowned slightly.
(“Ah… Yes, this is Nari.”)
“Oh, hello, Watanabe-san. Did you call concerning council activities?”
Natsuki turned over on her bed to scowl at Shizuru’s sudden change to a more business-like manner. Shizuru merely shrugged and smiled back.
(“I have the latest meeting minutes available, if you would like to see. Kanzaki-san would not have had access to these yesterday.”)
Shizuru hesitated. “If more convenient, you can send a copy over e-mail. You should have my address from previous messages of this nature, yes?”
Nari paused on the other end before adding, (“It is no trouble. I had printed a copy as well, since I didn’t know if you had a laptop with you. I assumed you wanted to check the latest events since the new year is beginning and all duties should be shifted by now.”)
Noting the barely perceptible, pressing tone in Nari’s voice, the former student council president leaned back into her pillow as Natsuki watched. Shizuru gave her a slight, wincing look, to which Natsuki raised an eyebrow. “Very well. I will have some more time shortly after lunch, if you would like to visit.”
(“Of course. Ah, do you have other guests…? I could come at another time today, if you like.”)
“Oh, that is no problem,” Shizuru gave a small chuckle, realizing what Nari was actually saying. “Guests come and go, and I am well enough now to accept more guests. If there is anything confidential in the minutes, we can discuss them separately, but having a printed copy is convenient as a matter of record.”
(“Very well. I will stop by in about half an hour, then.”)
“Yes, thank you. Have a nice day.”
After Shizuru closed her cell phone, Natsuki sat up in her bed and leaned on a knee. “More council business? The nerve…”
“There is nothing wrong with that,” her friend replied lightly. “Because business has been unusual this past term, that is understandable.”
“Eh, should I leave, then?”
“Nonsense. This should be more like a visitation with a delivery. It will not be a more in-depth discussion like the one with Reito-san. And you should be studying, really.”
“Well, okay,” Natsuki stood up and rearranged her bed’s sheets and blanket, not noticing Shizuru’s look of relief. “I can use my earbuds to give you a little more privacy.”
“Good. The nurse should come by with lunch at any time now. Let us enjoy ourselves a little before our work. Oh, please open the window.”
Yukino hunched over a small, stapled packet of papers and receipts, carefully wiping from her small glass dish a bead of sweat that threatened to wet the packet. Across from her in the same booth, Haruka brandished a spoon over her own large glass dish that cradled a split banana and two scoops of ice cream.
“Yukino!” the blonde slammed her hand on the table, startling her friend. “We’re on break, break! Your ice cream is melting, so hurry up and eat it. Honestly, you’re more capable than this. You can do your work as easily as Fujino without wasting your fun time.”
Yukino looked up sheepishly, wiping another bead of water inching down the side of her glass dish. “Yes, you’re right.” She put the packet of paper off to the side and pulled the glass of vanilla ice cream smothered in anko sauce towards her. “It’s a lot of work, though, because this term has been so busy with reconstruction. We have a few new contracts now on top of old ones, so I have to make sure everything goes smoothly.”
“Yes, well, you’re still a student, so don’t stress out too much. Of course, I still expect you to do your best.”
“Haruka-chan, but you know that businesses don’t have breaks like school does,” Yukino meekly replied and poked at her ice cream with a spoon.
“Ah, it’ll be fine! Just ask and I can help with anything, you know.”
“I know.” Yukino grinned brightly and finally took a bite. “I’m sure everything will work out.”
Haruka chewed on a cherry, thoughtfully eyeing Yukino’s careful ice cream scrapings. “You know,” she spoke through the half-chewed cherry, “you’re a lot more self-competent lately, Yukino. That’s good!”
The younger girl’s spoon stopped before her mouth as she smiled. “You mean ‘confident’, Haruka-chan.”
“Yes yes, I said that.”
“Well, I’m sure it’s because you’re finally starting to rub off on me, Haruka-chan.” Yukino maneuvered the spoon of ice cream and red bean sauce into her mouth. After a moment, she added, “Things are easier than I thought they would be because I’m so familiar with all the processes, just as Fujino-san said.” A flicker of irritation crossed Haruka’s face, which Yukino immediately recognized. “Ah, I mean–”
“Yes, I know what you mean. But you know, Yukino, like I always said, we didn’t really need her. We could have done things ourselves, but rules are rules.”
Yukino remained silent and nibbled some more ice cream. She mulled over the urge to say something while watching Haruka carve a large chunk of banana off hers. Taking a deep breath, she took strength from a small certainty in her gut and looked up at Haruka to reply, “But, Haruka-chan, even without the chain of command, I don’t think it was lost on you back then when Fujino-san disappeared that we really needed her. I–I think she is very capable, just in a different way from how you are very capable.”
Haruka froze in mid-mastication, her brain vacillating between her friend’s compliment to her arch-nemesis and the very same compliment to herself. She glared angrily at her banana split.
“You’re defending that woman more often these days, maybe since she tapped you to become the new council president. Does her opinion matter more than mine?” Haruka tapped her fingers on the table.
“Of course not!” Yukino exclaimed, her hand reaching towards Haruka’s before twitching and freezing by her own glass dish.
The winter day was cold and dry. Yukino entered the girls’ bathroom to wipe off her glasses and some sweat, having run into the school to briefly meet Haruka moments before.
“Ah.” Yukino and Natsuki saw each other while reaching towards the nearest sink. They grinned somewhat sheepishly, and Natsuki deferred by taking a different sink. The awkward silence was softened by the scratchy static of running water. Yukino gave a sidelong glance to Natsuki, who was reaching for her handkerchief.
“Um, Kuga-san,” she began a bit timidly, pausing when Natsuki looked over. “I’m–I see that you’re coming to school regularly. That’s good.”
Natsuki looked a little surprised as she pat her hands dry, but smiled. “Yes, well, Mai and Shizuru had gotten on my case early on, and I have no excuse now. I suppose Suzushiro-san will have less to complain about too, huh.” Yukino chuckled at her mention. “And school is–school can actually be fun. Yeah. It’s not bad being around everyone after all,” she spoke as though to herself. “Even if they still don’t get it,” she added under her breath.
“That’s good to hear, Kuga-san.”
“Eh, Natsuki is fine,” she shrugged and held the handkerchief in her hands.
Yukino stopped rubbing her glasses and broke into a smile. “Yukino, then.” Natsuki returned the smile.
Watching Yukino loosen her muffler and reposition her glasses, Natsuki began slowly, “Say…”
“How are you and Suzushiro doing these days?”
Yukino fumbled while trying to fold her handkerchief, surprised by Natsuki’s sudden and direct question. She looked up to see the other girl give a slight smirk and chuckle. Realizing that the question was sincere, Yukino stammered in answer, “W-we’re doing well! Thank you for asking. Everything’s going well now these days, right?” She gave a slight laugh, trying to be reassuring.
Natsuki gave a half-smile and nodded. “I’m glad.” Yukino watched curiously as she slowly wrung her handkerchief out and allowed her eyes to slide over the nearby sink as though deep in thought.
“Is everything alright, Natsuki-san?”
Broken out of her distraction, Natsuki nodded and stuffed her handkerchief unceremoniously into her pocket. She turned back to Yukino with a more serious expression. “Well, there’s something I wanted to say to you.”
“Ah…” Yukino couldn’t help but feel apprehension. She steeled herself as Natsuki paused.
“Actually, I wanted to apologize,” Natsuki tugged on a piece of dark hair as though embarrassed.
“Back then, during the HiME festival…”
“Oh, well… But Natsuki-san, you didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Perhaps not, but I wanted to apologize on behalf of Shizuru too.”
“Oh, I see.” Yukino murmured, unsure whether or not to feel taken aback. She merely blinked.
“Uh, I don’t know if she’s talked to you directly yet.”
Yukino slowly shook her head. “We’ve only discussed council matters at meetings.”
“I see. Well, um, I just wanted to say that I think we all did some things… You see, I saw what happened to Shizuru and others like Mai, and I m-myself am not proud of some of the things I did,” Natsuki tried to untangle the words struggling in her throat. “But I think the festival itself along with all the deception and manipulation by Fir–that bastard Nagi and First District… all of that made us act in ways that, uh, were desperate, and… You know…”
“You mean to say that we weren’t ourselves?” Yukino clarified with hesitation.
“Yes, that’s it. Maybe Shizuru just hasn’t had the chance to say this, or I don’t know why, but I know she’s sorry for what happened. So am I. And I think that since it’s over, we should be able to move past… this. So, um, we’re–sorry.” Natsuki ended with a slight bow, surprising Yukino even more.
After a long moment in which Natsuki fidgeted and avoided looking directly at her face, Yukino finally shook herself out of her daze and raised her hands. “Of–of course. I mean, I’m sorry too. I wasn’t strong enough to stop anything or protect anyone. In the beginning, Mai-chan and Midori-chan had these ideals, but I… I couldn’t keep up. Even though if Haruka-chan knew about the specifics, she’d probably tell me I shouldn’t have given in to Nagi and his ilk too.” She lowered her head and fiddled with her glasses. “I’m still ashamed. But maybe you’re right…”
Natsuki shook her head and offered a small smile. “But you did find me when I was captured by SEARRS, and you helped find Takumi-kun, among other things. So, uh, I think you were more helpful than you think.”
They shared an awkward chuckle that loosened the atmosphere considerably. The silence that followed, however, seemed to echo flatly in the enclosed bathroom.
“Thank you,” Yukino broke the increasing awkwardness with some relief. “Yes, I think it’s time to properly move forward already.”
“Well, with all the council has been doing with rebuilding, I think all of you are moving forward quickly enough,” Natsuki replied.
“Yes, Haruka-chan and I have been working so hard lately–I think Haruka-chan even more so–but Fujino-san has been remarkable in delegating and negotiating. I wonder if there are really enough hours in the day…” Yukino looked back at Natsuki and saw a freshly intense look of interest in the other girl’s face.
“Is that so? I’m glad to hear she’s working hard, but…” Natsuki began to trail off as though distracted but quickly resumed her pace. “Ah, so they’ve been putting more work on you, right? You’re okay with that?”
“It’s been a challenge, but a good one. Of course, Haruka-chan has always said I would never have trouble with it and to just follow her lead. Ah, Fujino-san has been quite helpful as well,” Yukino added almost hastily.
Natsuki smiled at the compliment to Shizuru, stilted as it was. Ignoring its slightly uneasy tone, she instead finally launched into the inquiry that nagged at the back of her mind since seeing Yukino. Leaning against the bathroom wall and loosely folding her arms together, Natsuki commented lightly, “I’m glad to hear it. Uh. So… what has Shizuru been doing lately, anyway?” Seeing Yukino’s blink of surprise, she quickly added as nonchalantly as possible, “Seeing that Shizuru has been that busy, I haven’t seen her as often as I’d like to since I’m taking school more seriously now, after all.”
“Oh, yes, of course,” Yukino nodded earnestly. She went on to relate the various council activities planned and otherwise that had occurred in the past month while Natsuki carefully smoothed out her long hair and looked alternately distracted and interested. By the time Yukino finished expounding upon the various feats of leadership and inconspicuous maneuvering Shizuru had performed, Natsuki’s demeanor had vacillated back to a quiet attentiveness.
Yukino inhaled and nodded slightly, concluding the stream of information. As she shifted on her feet and ran her hand through her own short, brownish hair, she watched and waited for some reaction. Natsuki’s contemplative look slid into a small, rather sad smile, and her gaze had dropped to bore through the floor tile. Still leaning against the wall and now completely silent, she made no other motion, nor did she indicate any awareness of the other girl, as though her mind was presently very far away from the bathroom. Readjusting her glasses, Yukino peered cautiously through Natsuki’s pensive air and gently cleared her throat. “Are you alright, Natsuki-san?”
“Ah–” Giving a start, Natsuki immediately stepped away from the wall and looked around as though reacquainting herself to her surroundings. “Sorry. Yeah, Shizuru’s been quite busy lately, huh.” She chuckled awkwardly and stretched her arms, which had gotten stiff in the crossed position. Suddenly at a loss of words, she bit her lip and struggled to grasp a logical thread of conversation from the situation. “Er…”
Yukino smiled with encouragement, recognizing the confused discomfort Natsuki displayed. Rather than attempt to ease the chat, however, she instead launched into the inquiry that nagged at the back of her mind since seeing Natsuki. Carefully steering her curiosity around her own timidity, the shorter girl cleared her throat again. “Um, Natsuki-san… About Fujino-san…”
Natsuki stood at attention.
“How are you and she doing right now?”
It was a simple question. Insinuation crawled underneath that simplicity, however, rippling at Yukino’s apparent good intentions. Natsuki paused; had she not asked the same earlier and conversed with Yukino further, she might have retorted in some offense that they were fine. Instead, she tilted her head slightly and turned towards a mirror rather unwittingly. Staring intently at her own green-eyed reflection, she grimaced ever so slightly. Yukino caught a flicker of the same sadness she saw before. “I haven’t talked with Shizuru much lately, it seems.”
“Is that so…”
“Well, we did manage to go to a favorite sushi restaurant last week, but it was, um…” Natsuki struggled for the appropriate description.
“Too premeditated? Too short?” Yukino offered.
“Y-yeah, sort of. We used to just bump into each other, or Shizuru would get me from my place and we would go out for something. Or she would offer to tutor me in her room. Of course, I would complain, but…” ‘And it seemed she was just always around,’ Natsuki thought to herself wryly. “Lately, I’ve wondered…” Natsuki turned fully towards the mirror and placed her hands on the counter, frowning at nothing in particular.
“Yes?” Yukino found herself leaning forward and trying to encourage the other girl’s expression.
“Uh. I mean, I can’t help but wonder if Shizuru is avoiding me. I know she’s busy, like you just told me, but still.” Natsuki drooped, her long hair brushing the sink’s lip. “I feel like she’s holding back.”
Yukino studied her posture for a while in silence, noting how she once again seemed completely unaware of her presence or even their current setting. Fortunately, this bathroom was less frequented in the building, and no other student wandered in to interrupt.
Gingerly easing her existence back into Natsuki’s periphery, Yukino quietly spoke, “Do you feel as though Fujino-san is using these council activities as an excuse to avoid you?”
Natsuki raised her head and looked surprised. Still facing the mirror, she muttered, “Yes, I suppose that’s it. Ah, not that there’s anything wrong with working hard in the student council, of course–”
“No, I understand. Um, but… considering what happened between you two… that time, maybe that’s natural? To avoid…” Seeing Natsuki wince and look away, she hurriedly added, “But I think this case is special because the academy is facing an emergency, and to be honest, Fujino-san is best suited to handle most of these matters.”
Natsuki seemed to consider this. “I’m sure that’s all true. But there is a feeling–that is, I can tell now in Shizuru’s expression and, uh, this mood around her whenever we do manage to meet. Ah, it’s hard to describe.” She rubbed her head in frustration. “But you’re best friends with Suzushiro, right? I’m sure you understand what I mean.”
Yukino didn’t answer but looked on in sympathy. Unconsciously imitating Natsuki, she also stood in front of a sink and faced a mirror but clasped her hands in a mildly worried gesture. “‘I do know what you mean quite well, actually. I tried to explain what happened to Haruka-chan with the HiME star, but I’m not sure she fully understands, especially at that place…” She didn’t dare turn to look at Natsuki’s expression. “But Haruka-chan acts just a little differently with some people. I’m sure no one else notices but me, though.” She finally looked over at Natsuki, who was quietly watching through the mirror, her expression neutral.
“But Suzushiro still treats you the same?”
“Yes,” Yukino admitted. “For the most part. But while I can’t talk about all of this in great depth with Haruka-chan, Fujino-san is a different matter. She is very, ah, sharp. And you are too, Natsuki-san. Have you… tried to talk to her directly about your concern?”
“Eh.” Natsuki snorted and shook her head. “You know Shizuru–she has a way of weaseling out of any conversation, right? She can turn a discussion about local seafood into world history if she wants to. I still can’t keep up with that. And she’s very good at distracting me.”
Yukino chuckled in agreement. They continued their symmetrical, silent watch over the bathroom sinks for another long moment.
“Actually,” Natsuki broke the quiet, her voice softly echoing in the otherwise empty bathroom, “the other day, I tried to invite her to come live with me in my new apartment.” Giving a sidelong glance to her soft-spoken peer, Natsuki nearly smirked at her clear expression of shock. “As a roommate. I thought it would be convenient and so… Eh. No.” Natsuki blinked as a prickling sensation on the back of her neck made her backtrack. “No, that’s not it.” She now turned to face Yukino unabashedly. “I… I wanted to show her. Since Shizuru isn’t talking to me freely now, I wanted to show her that I really do forgive her for what happened, that I’m over it. But she declined. Well, I could tell that she’s going to.” Natsuki ran a hand through her hair and rubbed her scalp in thoughtful frustration. “I don’t know what to do. At this rate, maybe we won’t really speak to each other again until the end of term, and then what? I don’t want that. Everyone else is…”
Yukino had turned to face Natsuki as well, her expression still glazed over by surprise at Natsuki’s bold declaration. “Are–are you really okay with that? To be her roommate. You’re not… uncomfortable with that?”
The two girls eyed each other uneasily through the shared and unspoken memory of that harsh, autumn night at the tea house. But Yukino dared not ask directly what happened, and Natsuki appeared unwilling to answer anyway.
Natsuki’s jaw fell open to reply, which she then closed immediately as though thinking better of it. She faced Yukino instead with a resolute expression. “I have no problem with it. I don’t believe Shizuru would do anything that I wouldn’t like. But,” she hesitated, “but I’m afraid she might try to run away no matter what I say, so…”
“Literally?” Yukino arched an eyebrow above the rim of her glasses.
“No, not like that. Considering how we are now, and… Well, it’s a feeling.” Natsuki sighed and tilted her head, turning back to the sink. She pulled out her now-wrinkled handkerchief and carefully realigned its edges.
Yukino fell deep into thought. A realization replaced the meditation with amazement, however. ‘Natsuki-san is worried only about the present. Does she even think about the tea house? I still think about it from time to time, but she has a much better reason… She really is trying hard.’ This odd, somewhat spare feeling of admiration was soon awash with an even stranger feeling of relief.
‘If Natsuki-san can forgive Fujino-san’s actions in this way and concern herself with keeping that relationship, maybe…’ A new realization colored Yukino’s contemplation of this conversation, and she envisioned a flash of Haruka’s smiling face. She stared hard at her reflection in the mirror, molding her facial expression into something much more determined than she was accustomed to bearing.
Maintaining this newfound expression, she turned back to Natsuki and inhaled. “Natsuki-san, I’m sure it will turn out. I think you should try again later, and maybe Shizuru-san will get the hint. You should have an honest and proper talk with her too, but that will have to be on your terms if you want her to listen, I suppose.” Mentally grasping at the alien momentum building in her own train of thought, Yukino continued, “Remember what you said? If the HiME festival is properly over, we should be able to move forward honestly. That would be our final triumph, right?”
“I–I don’t think I said it exactly like–”
“You most certainly did,” Yukino cleared her throat and carefully repositioned her glasses. “At least, I understand what you were trying to say, Natsuki-san.”
“Is that so…” Natsuki gave a lopsided grin at Yukino’s unfamiliar forwardness.
In the next heartbeat, the shorter girl took a step forward and seized Natsuki’s hand, a motion that took her by complete surprise. Natsuki gasped and nearly stepped backwards in avoidance.
“I will wish you luck!”
“Ah. Uh. Y-yes…” Coughing and clearing her throat, Natsuki flushed slightly in Yukino’s awkward grip. “Th-thanks.”
Yukino drew back her hand, resting it on the foot of her ice cream dish. “No, her opinion doesn’t matter more than yours, Haruka-chan,” she repeated softly.
Haruka released a blustery grunt and nodded to her large banana split with some finality. Yukino watched as she attacked and consumed it with an impressive fervor. Fingering her own spoon with some nervousness, the smaller girl looked up and caught Haruka’s eye in mid-attack. “Um, Haruka-chan. Are you still angry at Fujino-san?”
The blonde’s eyes grew wide as she lurched to the side in her seat, giving an odd squawk and beating her upper chest with a fist.
“Ah! I’m sorry! Are you okay?” Yukino stood and reached across the table. Haruka coughed violently and waved her away.
“Nngh. Are you trying to kill me?!”
“Of course not.”
“I’m okay. But honestly, such a strange question while I’m trying to enjoy my banana split, you know.”
After another moment of hacking, Haruka stabbed her spoon into the side of her ice cream, pushed the dish away, and firmly crossed her arms as she always did, which had the unintended comical effect of buoying her large bust so it looked almost disapproving. She looked directly at Yukino with a stern expression. “What was that? I never expected you to brooch the subject so freely, and on our time off, no less.”
“Broach,” Yukino corrected and smiled helplessly. When Haruka made no response, her smile faded, and she nervously placed her spoon into her glass as well. She peered at her friend’s unwavering gaze that was more conflicted than angry. “Um–”
“I’m bothered that you could even ask that. Why should I not always be angry at that woman?”
“She attacked you! And with a big sword-thing no less–”
“Well, technically, I attacked first–”
“–Nonsense. And then tried to kill me–”
“That’s not exactly how it worked–”
“And did she apologize for all of that and for her irresponsibility? Of course not.”
“Actually, I think Fujino-san has been–”
“–As full of herself as ever after that princess contest, and to think that Kuga is still with–”
“Haruka-chan!” Yukino smacked the table with both hands, causing their spoons to rattle against their glass dishes. Haruka’s hands froze in mid-gesture, her mouth gaped, and she looked on with shock.
“Yu-Yukino,” Haruka murmured, bewildered.
Yukino gingerly combed through her short, light brown hair with her fingers, composing herself. But Haruka-chan, you might be more similar to Natsuki-san in one specific way than you realize. At least for me, I… “I understand your feelings, but maybe I didn’t explain it very well back then.” She glanced at her friend, whose bewildered expression was quickly becoming tempered by a frustrated confusion. “Anyway,” Yukino suddenly took off her glasses and wiped them as an idea bloomed in the back of her mind, “I have some more papers to give to Fujino-san, and Reito-san did say that she could take visitors.”
Haruka’s previously frozen posture quickly loosened as she planted both hands on the table and leaned forward with some alarm. “What! Couldn’t you have given that stuff to Kanzaki when he said he was visiting?”
“It wasn’t ready yet. Are you going to come with me?” Yukino posed the question innocently and casually, pulling her ice cream dish back to consumption distance and picked up the spoon.
“Wha–today? Now? Well, yes, I have time, and I’m not about to leave you alone with…”
Yukino incised her ice cream with precise swipes of her spoon, not listening as Haruka continued to complain in the background. She shoveled the half-melted mounds and anko sauce into her mouth without much tasting the dessert, since her mind was already circling around the risky, unplanned trip to the hospital where Haruka’s arch-nemesis slept.
Natsuki was stacking her books onto the corner of the table by her bed when a light knock made her pause and frown. She turned to Shizuru, who was smiling knowingly, and merely shrugged.
“Please come in,” Shizuru called to the door by the time Natsuki seated herself, back to the room, and inserted her earbuds. When Nari entered, Natsuki merely turned and nodded slightly before returning to a pile of paper.
“Please excuse Natsuki,” Shizuru rearranged her blanket around her bed, which was now in sitting position. “She has been busy taking care of me and studying at the same time.”
“I see.” Nari had set down a bag and given Natsuki an equal nod of courtesy, though it rankled her sensibilities that the girl couldn’t be bothered to give a proper introduction before turning away. This feeling lessened when she met Shizuru’s apologetic smile and light shrug. I suppose that’s the way she is. She must have better qualities if Fujino-san keeps her company…
As she straightened out her long blue skirt and sat down, Nari commented offhandedly, “Kuga-san, yes? I hope my notes were useful…” She glanced at Natsuki for some reaction, but Shizuru caught her attention by gesturing to her ears to indicate headphones and then pointing at the cord snaking around Natsuki’s waist.
“They were, I know intimately,” Shizuru answered instead. “The quality of your note-taking surpasses most students, I believe.”
“Ah.” Nari fluffed her short hair a bit and nodded to cover any self-consciousness, though it was difficult to discern anything from her constantly neutral expression as it was. “So long as that’s the case, then it’s fine.”
“I appreciate you taking the extra trip, Watanabe-san. It is comforting to know our academy’s council members are as diligent as they are, especially with how the past year has been.”
Nari twitched slightly while digging around her bag, her initial annoyance completely disarmed by Shizuru’s simple compliments that never strayed into the excessive quality her own fans usually employed. I should be used to this by now. Nari offered a small, gracious smile. She can always alter any situation or even attitude to her advantage. I’ve seen it so many times. She silently placed a packet of paper on Shizuru’s bedside table and then flipped through one in her hands, as though preparing a narrative for it. “Yes, well, considering how soon the new year is starting, we had better make sure the transition is as painless as possible, right?”
Their conversation was otherwise barren outside official matters. Having determined with some certainty that Shizuru was only interested in getting the direct points of her visit, Nari did not attempt any further small talk. Natsuki, meanwhile, made no effort to engage either of them, appearing studious at least from the backside. Nari found herself occasionally glancing at that silent back, draped with a curtain of shiny dark hair, despite an inward resolution to ignore her.
“Did you see that? Look, look!”
Nari stopped on the sidewalk and turned towards a small throng of female students buzzing near a bunch of shrubbery and small trees by a side campus garden. The girls were busily muttering amongst themselves and pointing through the foliage. Curiosity getting the better of her, Nari placed her case on the ground and also ducked, squinting through the bushes. She caught a distant glimpse of Shizuru’s familiar hair and another girl with longer, very dark hair. They appeared to be sitting on the grass and eating.
“Who is that?”
“I heard about her–she’s a delinquent.”
“I heard she gets in fights all the time.”
“Th-that sounds dangerous.”
“Someone who hangs around that really seedy area, you know–”
“Should we warn Kaichou-sama?”
“That girl is probably trying to gain some kind of favor.”
“You mean a bad influence?”
“I heard they’ve been hanging out a lot.”
“What if we go over and join them?” One girl held up her bento as though she meant to whack someone on the head with it.
Watching the two on the grass, Nari’s light gray eyes widened slightly when she recognized Shizuru’s lilting, cheerful laugh. Strangely, the dark-haired girl didn’t seem very happy about it and attempted to turn away, perhaps sulking. ‘That girl is…’
Nari closed her eyes and straightened herself up, turning to the rest of the throng with her arms crossed. Her height and bearing caused some of the girls to move out of the way nervously.
“Isn’t it fine for Kaichou-sama to enjoy a lunch with someone?” Nari spoke with some irritation at the time. “I don’t suppose any of you bothered to ask about their relationship, or do you all just enjoy spreading gossip?” Her own curiosity was easily eclipsed in the rhetorical point of the question.
The other girls shifted around and eyed each other, most shaking their heads, some grinning with embarrassment, and others clutching their bags or staring at their feet.
She continued, “I think we can give her some credit in character judgment. And you shouldn’t think that everyone around Kaichou-sama is out to get her. That sounds lonely.”
“Eh, Watanabe-san, maybe you’re right.”
“Hey, we don’t have much time for lunch now!”
“Wait for me!”
Nari watched the throng break up and wander away before she relaxed and dropped her arms to her sides. She sighed and shook her head. Leaning down to pick up her case, Nari allowed herself to peer through the leaves once more. “So, that’s Kuga, huh.” From that distance, Natsuki appeared flustered and started shaking her chopsticks at Shizuru, who only laughed harder. Nari picked up her case and marched towards nowhere in particular. “I wonder what kind of person she is.”
Their mundane discussion of mundane council particulars didn’t have the opportunity to drop into a horribly tedious exchange since both Nari and Shizuru moved through the material at a brisk pace. All the while, Nari quietly observed that Shizuru seemed in higher spirits than she expected, though she was slightly pale. She wore no makeup, and her hair was actually loosely tied back, a style Nari had only seen during physical education classes. The lack of makeup seemed to make her lips appear even softer than usual, and Nari surreptitiously eyed them along with her pale and smooth neck before forcing her gaze to wander over the loose blanket. Otherwise, the only indication of anything awry was the fact that Shizuru sat in a hospital bed.
Nari shot another superficial glance at the turned back when she heard Natsuki flip a page. Why didn’t she go to a library? From the corner of her eye, Nari caught Shizuru’s amused expression. Uh oh.
“Natsuki’s studying is not distracting you, is it?”
“Not at all,” Nari replied and tugged at her skirt. I hope she can’t hear me through those earbuds. She hesitated before continuing as carefully as she could, “I was merely curious. You are quite famous, but Kuga-san has only recently resumed a regular attendance and taken part in student activities…”
“And you are curious as to what kind of person Natsuki is that I might befriend her?” Shizuru murmured in a low, knowing chuckle. She motioned lightly towards Natsuki, whose back made absolutely no indication of awareness to their conversation about her.
“Er, I wouldn’t put it exactly that way,” Nari flushed slightly over her relatively indifferent expression. So she knows.
Shizuru observed Nari for a moment, then seemed to retract her outward comprehension. She coughed lightly. “Well, she needs to study for her exam now, otherwise I would invite her to join our conversation. However, if you watch Natsuki more closely while she is at school, I am sure you can come to understand her personality, or at least some of it. It is true that she may be a bit awkward around social activities such as the student groups, but having known Natsuki as long as I have, I will only say that she had some unusual problems that have only recently concluded.”
Nari raised an eyebrow incredulously. Is it alright for her to say this much? “I–I see. I will not pry, of course.” She paused before adding, “Then she is very fortunate to have a supportive friend like you, I’m sure.”
“Thank you.” Shizuru smiled broadly before subtly flicking a paper in her hands, making it stand stiffly between her fingers. Nari nodded at the clear indication to continue and spoke no more of things beyond the scope of the council.
A light tapping on the hospital room’s door prompted Shizuru and Nari to look up, though Natsuki remained unperturbed.
“Come in,” Shizuru called as Nari straightened out the papers they had already covered.
Perhaps sensing the commotion, Natsuki finally turned slightly to look over her shoulder as the door slid open. Everyone in the room stared at the two in the doorway. Yukino looked embarrassed while Haruka, standing behind her like the Colossus of Rhodes, gave off an air of reserved defiance.
“Please excuse us,” Yukino bowed slightly. “Reito-san said it was fine to visit, but I didn’t realize you’d have a visitor already. Should we come back later?” Haruka gave a strange grunt but otherwise made no comment.
Shizuru’s eyes were wide in genuine surprise. “My my, this is all very unexpected,” she exclaimed with a hand against her cheek. I will have to thank Reito-san later for this excessive activity, she mused.
“Huh, more visitors?” Natsuki pulled her earbuds out. Her eyes met Yukino’s, who smiled mildly with some silent understanding.
The expression between them was not lost on Shizuru. “No, please come in.”
Nari stood from her chair and greeted the two. Her mind churned with various responses before she finally reached towards the papers on Shizuru’s bedside. “Fujino-san, can we continue this tomorrow? I should get going as well.”
With that, Nari smoothly uttered some parting remarks, made an extra motion to nod at Natsuki, and slipped out of the room. As she exchanged places with Yukino and Haruka and slid the door shut, an expression of disappointment flickered across her face before the tall girl straightened out her things and exited the hospital at her usual brisk march.
Natsuki greeted them politely but looked uncertain as to whether she should stay or not. Obviously, they’re going to talk about council stuff, but… Her eyes glossed over Haruka’s stance. Suzushiro’s giving off a weird aura. What is this, a battle?
She turned a half-worried look onto Shizuru, who immediately noticed and understood. “Oh, Natsuki, this hospital has a garden with which I believe you are unacquainted. It is quite impressive. I think you need a break from studying, yes?” Shizuru smiled brightly and calmly as though to say, Do not worry about a thing.
“Actually, we won’t take much of your time, and I would like to speak with Natsuki-san anyway.” All eyes turned to Yukino with varying mixtures of astonishment and curiosity. “So no need to move from where you are, Natsuki-san.” She grinned somewhat awkwardly but calmly sat down. Haruka opted to stand and hover behind Yukino’s shoulder, though, which disquieted her friend’s attempt at a casual atmosphere. “Um, Haruka-chan, there’s an extra chair.”
“I’m fine. This won’t take long, right?” The blonde seemed to wilfully ignore propriety. Yukino shrugged helplessly at Shizuru, who merely returned the gesture and smiled as she always did. Natsuki turned to hide a scowl.
Yukino immediately dropped into business, handing a small bundle of paper to Shizuru, who graciously accepted. As they talked about things Natsuki didn’t understand, Shizuru complimented Yukino’s work.
“See, Natsuki,” Shizuru held up a page, “you should be aiming for this kind of outline.”
Natsuki blushed and pouted slightly while Yukino looked on with some embarrassment. Recovering from the unexpected focus on her, Yukino pushed up her glasses self-consciously and took a breath.
“Well, that covers the materials that Reito-san couldn’t share with you just yet.”
“Thank you. I believe these show that you are quite ready to handle the variety of responsibilities and pressures in office, but,” Shizuru obliquely deferred to Haruka, “I am sure you always had such abilities. You merely needed an outlet.”
“Oh, ah, thank you.” Yukino flushed with embarrassment, her discomfort magnified by the increased air of unpleasantness emanating from somewhere behind her shoulder. Natsuki observed in silence, leaning an elbow over her chair’s back. Looking up with a pleading look, Yukino caught an irritated expression in Haruka’s eyes, which Haruka blinked away before nodding down at her. Yukino held her gaze for a moment before turning back to Shizuru, who kept her mild and polished smile unchanging.
“Onto another subject,” Yukino cleared her throat and pushed up her glasses. “I was wondering how you and Natsuki-san are doing.”
Shizuru sat in the library, deep into the stacks of paper surrounding her like turrets. She heard soft footsteps coming toward her and hoped they would quickly pass. It was fairly dark outside, the clouds muting all color and strangling what little light poured onto the table from the nearby window. The footsteps stopped in front of her table. Shizuru feigned concentration, but the intruder lightly cleared her throat. The brunette sighed, steeling herself to send away, if politely, the person. Her internal preparation suddenly turned on itself as she raised her head, however.
“Kikukawa-san?” This was the last person she expected to seek her out at that time.
“Fujino-san,” the short-haired girl with glasses greeted her as she stood across from the student president, separated by a paper-laden library table. Yukino loosened her muffler to expose her face.
“…Do you need something?” After overcoming her initial surprise, Shizuru said this with a subdued sincerity that was not lost on her underclassman. Yukino watched her thoughtfully then carefully and slowly pulled out a seat opposite the paper turrets, as though in a choreographed decision. She sat down, unbuttoning her coat in a motion implying that she intended to stay a while.
Yukino inhaled slowly and spoke quietly. “Natsuki-san seemed upset a couple of days ago when I bumped into her at school.”
That she dove straight into the matter quite unlike her usual habit surprised Shizuru enough to allow confusion through her usual expression. The look glinted across her face so quickly that Yukino thought it might have been an illusion, but the reaction only girded her momentum.
“…Have you spoken with her as to the reason?” Shizuru finally asked cautiously.
“Yes, we had a good talk.”
This gave Shizuru some pause before she replied, “Then I am glad, and I thank you.”
Yukino hesitated, unprepared for the unexpected response. “Excuse me?”
“That Natsuki considers you a friend.” Shizuru smiled.
Her expression thoughtful, Yukino regarded her quietly. Shizuru merely leaned back slightly and tilted her head.
“She is confused. I mean, the way you are acting is confusing her,” Yukino began again when she saw that Shizuru had opened her posture and seemed ready to ‘close’ the conversation as she had seen the president do many times before at meetings.
A pause lengthened and pushed Shizuru further back into the chair. This strange turn of events was muddling her already sleep-deprived mind. She blinked rapidly a few times before lifting a hand to squeeze the bridge of her nose. Yukino merely watched, gauging her reaction.
“Kikukawa-san,” Shizuru finally murmured, “why are you here?”
“Like you imply, I consider Natsuki a friend. She explained to me about her apartment…” Yukino fidgeted ever so slightly. Suddenly, the older girl understood and broke into a quiet, almost pained chuckle. The underclassman peered over her glasses and raised a brow. Shizuru leaned forward, looking tired with her chin resting on her clasped hands.
“Naturally, I will decline. She may disagree, but it is for her own good, and I have strong reasons to sway her otherwise.”
“You need not worry. Natsuki will be fine. I am hoping to convince her to continue rooming with Mai-san, who we know is a good influence, yes? I will be moving closer to the university in due time.” Shizuru noted that the mousy girl was no longer spooked by her gaze. “Is there anything else?” she asked, hoping to relieve the awkward air and return to the paperwork.
“Yes,” Yukino did not miss a beat. “I would like to hear these reasons.”
Shizuru couldn’t prevent the blank surprise from blossoming across her face, a look that prompted Yukino to lean forward in her seat. However, she kept her hands locked tightly together under the table.
After a drawn-out moment, Shizuru seemed to regain her composure and once again pressed her fingers against the bridge of her nose. “Kikukawa-san, might I ask first what has prompted this? I understand that you may be attempting to help Natsuki in some way, and for that I am grateful, but why… To this extent, why are you invested in my personal business?”
Yukino shook her head. “Don’t misunderstand. You… It’s clear to me that Natsuki-san cares for you greatly even after all that has happened.” At this, Shizuru looked down at the table and pursed her lips. “And I can see that you have been working very hard lately, much more so than is asked of you.” Yukino quietly observed her mute, expressionless face before continuing. “I think Natsuki-san notices this as well. Do you know what she told me?” She paused for effect, trying to measure Shizuru’s reaction. “She’s trying to tell you something, you know.”
“Even if that is the case, circumstances–”
“With all due respect, Fujino-san, I think you’re considering the wrong circumstances.”
Unaccustomed to being interrupted, especially by this girl, Shizuru hesitated. “Pardon?”
Yukino shook her head slightly. “Actually, I don’t really care about your reasons, but I came to realize something when I spoke with Natsuki-san. I don’t know what she really thinks about what happened back… then, and you’re right. It’s not my business. However, even after everything, she has been working hard since the end of the festival to remake herself. I… You already guessed before about my relationship with Haruka-chan.”
Yukino’s momentum wavered unhappily as she recalled Shizuru’s piercing tone in front of the tea house, drawn silently across that moment’s truth as though to cut and bleed it. It was her fortune that Haruka didn’t understand the situation at all. The memory was not lost on Shizuru, who frowned.
“Well, what I mean… I mean to say that I’m impressed… And maybe I’m a bit jealous that Natsuki-san has moved on the way she has. If…if Haruka-chan could, like that, also…” The last of Yukino’s courage nearly left her as she mulled over her purpose in speaking to Shizuru in the first place.
From across the table, the student council president narrowed her eyes slightly, suddenly aware of her junior’s intentions. “You believe if Natsuki and I can repair our relationship, then there is hope for you and Suzushiro-san?” Yukino tried to meet her eyes, to which Shizuru sighed. “Your hopes are misplaced, Kikukawa-san.”
“Ah. Let me finish. Even if that’s the case, whether or not it’s my business, what Natsuki-san is trying to say is that she doesn’t want you to run away, right? This is what she told me.” Yukino decided to stay on topic and avoid mentioning the apology. “I don’t believe she’s considering her relationship with you to the extent you’re thinking, but something more basic and foremost.”
“Kikukawa-san.” The council president spoke with an edge of pleading weariness, prompting Yukino to preemptively raise her hand.
“Hear me out. At the very least, I agree with Natsuki-san that we should all have a chance after the festival. Perhaps… perhaps your decision in this, um, private matter should consider Natsuki-san’s feelings and her attempt to move forward as well. Maybe it’s a chance for both of you. It’s just a suggestion.” Yukino gave an apologetic and shy smile more in line with her usual habit. “Anyway, I’m sorry to take up your time this way. But I do think Natsuki-san is a good person, therefore…”
She stood up and pushed the chair back to the table, still trying to gauge her senior’s reaction. Yukino stood still with her hands resting on the chair’s back. “Well, I will let you get back to work, Fujino-san,” she finally nodded, somewhat satisfied at Shizuru’s simple, confounded expression. Without another word, Yukino straightened her jacket and walked away from the table.
The silence and matching blank expressions following Yukino’s seemingly innocent, conversational question were quickly broken by Shizuru’s renewed smile and lilting accent, “We are doing quite well. Thank you for asking.”
This affirmation seemed to relax Natsuki, who looked befuddled as though the question were a trap. She rubbed the top of her head, causing some of her long, dark hair to flick around, before nodding in agreement and smiling. Haruka, on the other hand, made no sound or motion besides swaying slightly by Yukino’s shoulder, displaying only a half-disdainful disinterest.
“That’s good,” Yukino smiled casually. “Then your living arrangement together turned out well?”
At this, Haruka finally reacted and looked between Natsuki and Shizuru with a measure of shock. Before Shizuru could answer this time–though she looked somewhat flustered–Natsuki cleared her throat. “Yes, it’s been going well, and no, I haven’t been making a terrible mess,” she declared almost defensively. Shizuru finally released a giggle at Natsuki’s diversionary remark, whether it was intentional or not.
“I wasn’t going to suggest that, Natsuki-san,” Yukino replied, relieved that there was an undelayed answer at all. She was acutely aware of Haruka’s bristling energy just behind her chair.
“But I must agree with Natsuki,” Shizuru added, “the arrangement turned out better than I originally hoped, and no, Natsuki has not been terribly messy.”
An awkward silence ensued. Haruka was clearly beside herself, having no appropriate response at all to the current situation, instead containing her undirected energy into an expression of outrage. She looked ready to burst into insult or complaint but managed to restrain herself as Yukino shot her an imploring look.
“As–as I was going to say,” Yukino cleared her throat, trying to loosen the nervousness bundling up her chest, “I’ve wanted to return a favor that Natsuki-san gave a couple months ago.”
As all eyes turned onto Natsuki, she looked taken aback. “I, uh… What was this?”
“You don’t remember?”
“I believe you if you say so, but I don’t…” The dark-haired girl looked embarrassed.
Natsuki blinked before recognition sparked in her eyes. “Oh!”
“Yes, well.” Yukino pushed up her glasses again and turned back to Shizuru in the bed, who was staring in a confused contemplation. “Fujino-san, I wanted to forgive you for what happened back then. And I also wanted to apologize for my own behavior.”
“W-wait just a–Yukino–!” Haruka finally burst forth, leaning over her friend’s shoulder and rattling the back of her chair. Natsuki looked surprised while Shizuru’s entire countenance froze.
“I’m not finished yet, Haruka-chan.” The surprisingly stern quality underlying her tone made Haruka pause just long enough for her to continue. “I hope… I hope that we can truly put all of this behind us and close this chapter after the festival, before we move onto new schools.”
Both Natsuki and Shizuru remained silent, though Natsuki smiled slightly. At this cue, Haruka’s righteous anger finally erupted. Yanking on Yukino’s chair, which caused her to yelp in surprise as she jerked backwards, Haruka positioned herself between Yukino and Shizuru’s bed.
“Wait just a minute, Yukino!” Haruka glared down at her, causing Yukino to shrink into her chair. “You don’t have to apologize to someone like that, and that woman doesn’t deserve your forgiveness!”
“Wai–” Though Yukino foresaw her best friend would react angrily, she was still awed by her force of will and speech.
“That’s enough!” Natsuki yelled, sharply cutting off both of them. Shizuru sat mutely, unable to react to any of them except with a worried dread.
As Natsuki stood, loudly pushed away her chair, and opened her mouth to continue her counteroffensive, Haruka clenched her jaw, causing a vein to bulge in her temple. The blonde crossed her arms in a challenge. “What are you going on about, Kuga? Didn’t that Fujino do some–”
“Haruka-chan, please stop it already!” Yukino suddenly grabbed her sleeve and pulled hard, an act that both forced Haruka’s attention back onto her and stopped Natsuki. “If Natsuki-san can forgive Fujino-san, then it’s not our business and we should forgive and forget too! That’s what I think.”
No one noticed Shizuru recoil during the exchange. She had pulled up her sheet slightly as though seeking camouflage. Meanwhile, Natsuki moved warily to Shizuru’s bedside opposite the other two. Haruka glowered for a moment before extricating her sleeve from Yukino’s grasp and returned her focus onto Natsuki.
“Is that so? You forgave Fujino’s misbehavior? Kuga.”
“Yes, I did! And,” Natsuki added with a seething emphasis, “I was the one who invited Shizuru to live with me.” She crossed her own arms to shoot back her own challenge. “This isn’t your business, is it?”
From the corner of her eye, Yukino saw Shizuru swallow hard. Still in a combative stance, Haruka leveled her stare at an equally unintimidated Natsuki. “Well. I suppose you could have been tricked.”
“What! You–” Leaning forward as though to lunge across the bed, Natsuki didn’t notice Shizuru’s look of alarm.
“Even if that’s true,” Haruka bellowed over all of them, “ignoring the business between you and Fujino, she still attacked Yukino! Not to mention that hideous green magic–” She pointed accusingly at Shizuru, finally looking at her directly for the first time since entering the room.
In a desperate effort to dampen her friend’s rage, Yukino quickly rose from her chair and wrapped herself around Haruka’s free arm, dragging her backwards a step or two. “Haruka-chan, you don’t fully understand. Firstly, I–I was the one who attacked first. Even if I didn’t want to, I shouldn’t have done that–”
“She would have attacked anyway! We saw the look in her eyes, didn’t we?”
“M-maybe I provoked her, or maybe not, but–” Yukino tightened her grip on Haruka’s arm to keep her attention, “it’s not in my nature to do so, right? It’s not in my nature to just attack people! Haruka-chan, you know that, right?”
This declaration and entreaty seemed to reach Haruka’s senses, and she finally calmed down. Natsuki also finally noticed Shizuru’s firm grip on her wrist loosen.
“No, Yukino, you’re not that kind of person. You’re too kind…”
“That’s not it either, Haruka-chan. But if it’s not in my nature to be violent, and then to do such things along with everyone else during that festival, maybe Natsuki-san is right. It was out of our control from the beginning, and we were made to do things out of desperation. Do you understand, Haruka-chan? Maybe we just weren’t ourselves. The desperation one feels to protect someone else is… Then maybe, Fujino-san–” Haruka grunted, prompting Yukino to hasten. “But I also noticed that Fujino-san has been working extra hard this term to support us, Haruka-chan. I know you noticed too.”
Without releasing Haruka’s arm, Yukino now turned to Shizuru. “I’m right, aren’t I? That was your way of apologizing.” Haruka in turn eyed the former student president grudgingly.
Shizuru released Natsuki’s wrist completely, her hands sliding helplessly back onto her lap. She nodded mutely.
“But you know,” Yukino continued quietly, standing straight but still holding her friend’s arm closely, “without speaking the words openly, that’s probably not enough to settle things properly, is it?”
No one answered, though the following silence was more sedate than before. Shizuru looked up when she felt Natsuki slide a hand around hers and squeeze slightly. Haruka rubbed her head but didn’t try to untangle Yukino from her arm. She had calmed down quite a bit, instead looking rather mystified by her young friend’s unexpected speech.
“You have thought a lot about this, Kikukawa-san.” Shizuru’s murmur fluttered across the silence, barely disturbing it. After a moment of consideration, Shizuru turned to Haruka, also for the first time in the visit. Haruka met that gaze unwaveringly. “You were right, Suzushiro-san, back then.”
Baffled, Haruka raised an eyebrow, but otherwise said nothing to question that compliment.
“That time, I believe you said…” Shizuru closed her eyes and concentrated, “A human’s worth cannot be quantified by this stupid magic. Yes?” She opened her eyes and saw Yukino smiling at her, though Haruka’s expression didn’t change. “Kikukawa-san, I am grateful that you came this way. I do not know if I have the right to accept, but… To you both, I do formally apologise for myself.”
Yukino nodded, then looked up at Haruka, whose expression was clearly conflicted as she stared at everyone in turn, stupefied.
“If…” The blonde’s other hand, unfettered by Yukino’s embrace, twitched into a loose fist as she grappled with some internal struggle. “If it’s going to turn out like this, I have to support Yukino. So if that’s what you really want,” she glanced down at Yukino, whose mousy-brown head was bobbing vigorously, “I accept your apology too. This time!” The last warning, quickly punctuated with a finger jab, made Yukino smile in exasperation, but the air in the room suddenly expanded in relief.
Shizuru swallowed and nodded in return as Natsuki smirked to herself and shook her head. Finally releasing Haruka, Yukino smiled brightly and clasped her hands together as Haruka shook out her arms and resumed her usual, haughty, cross-armed stance.
“I’ll still beat you, Fujino!” she exclaimed.
Natsuki groaned. “What are you talking about?”
“Ha-Haruka-chan.” Yukino half-covered her face in embarrassment.
Shizuru ran a hand through her mussed hair and, meeting Haruka’s eyes, replied, “I look forward to it.”
This unexpected response seemed to throw off Haruka, but she quickly recovered and energetically huffed with pride. “Count on it.”
Natsuki slid the door shut after the two left. Shizuru released a long sigh, collapsing back into her pillow and closing her eyes.
“That… That was…” Natsuki stalked across the room, and dramatically fell face-down onto her bed.
Neither spoke nor moved for a good minute. A shrill, delicate bird song traversed the room through the open window.
“You should resume your study.”
She laughed at Natsuki’s whimpering groan.