Disclaimer: Mai-HiME owned by Sunrise, except the characters that aren’t.
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The ceiling was the sameâ€”distant, slanting, gray, and with irregular, black indentations that had Natsuki wondering whether tiny eyes were hidden in the cracks. As shadows wavered around the already dark, bluish gray surroundings, she found that she was tied down to the hospital bed, and fear rose in her throat as events began to unfold with slow familiarity.
Terror finally flooded her senses when she saw from the corner of her eye several long, slender objects rising beside her bed toward her arms and throatâ€”tubes of black and cracked yellow; cold, silvery needles. These blurry tubes and needles moved via unseen hands and began to poke at her arms, throat, and chest. Natsuki attempted to shriek and squirm away but discovered that she could do neither. Between the sharp, stinging prods, she felt a warm liquid pucker from her skin. Glancing down to the tickling sensation, Natsuki saw that her flat chest and skinny arms were covered in growing splotches of black blood. She opened her mouth in a silent scream and struggled harder against the bonds.
Unable to see the attacker, Natsuki twisted her head around and saw, framed in an eerie blue light, the silhouette of her father. Beside him was a shorter shadow of a woman. She could not see his face, but knew that it was him.
“Papa!” Natsuki cried out to him, but the words never left her chest, her throat, her lips. “Papa, help me! Papa!” She couldn’t move a muscle… and apparently, neither could he.
As panic swirled and created white spots around her field of vision and she continually tried to flex sound from her throat, the large shadow remained still against the light. Then Natsuki saw the smaller shadow take her father’s arm.
The silhouette of her father pivoted away easily like a statue on ball bearings, and she watched helplessly as the door closed. There was no sound but the violent pelting of rain that seemed to be pummeling the hospital into oblivion. Indeed, when Natsuki turned to her other side where the entire wall was window, she saw the rain beating away at the glass, then the room. In the black parking lot below, she spotted her father and the woman walking arm in arm away from the room, each of their steps trailed by punctuating splashes of water.
The cold, unforgiving rain was soaking through her thin hospital gown. Natsuki swayed under the crushing and bitter fear that came with the water, her small hands balled up against the phantom glass.
“Come back! Papa! Papa!”
But she could not break through the massive window with her tiny fists, and the two dots of people moved farther away. The roiling fear gave way to despair and confusion as her young mind grasped that the only other person in her life was going away.
He is leaving me behind.
The room filled with dark, brackish water. It was already up to her waist when Natsuki, realizing how short she was, attempted to flee. Splashing and wading through the hospital hallway, she stared up at the white-clad adults who paid no heed to her, their own height granting them present immunity to the rising water. They wandered the halls without resistance as though the water were air.
Keeping her neck above water and panting hard, Natsuki struggled toward an exit and prayed someone would help her. She bumped into something.
Splashing violently into it, the young girl tried to lift up what was obviously a body floating face-down in the waterâ€”a body with long, dark blue hair not unlike her own.
“No, you must be okay…” Small hands tugged and shook the cold, wet body as cries tore through her own. “Wake up! Wake up!”
The body suddenly stood. Staring straight ahead with hollow eyes set deep in the pasty white face, the semblance of Natsuki’s mother didn’t notice the girl clinging to its shirt. Ambling down the hall at a pace that ripped away the girl’s grip, it glanced back only once before pushing open an exit door and leaving the girl sputtering and gasping further down the hall, trying to wade towards the same door.
It was too late. The water level had risen to where young Natsuki’s feet could no longer tiptoe on the floor. Cold, bitter-tasting water splashed over her face, and her eyes bulged in terrified desperation as oblivious doctors and nurses strolled by. Her head slipped under.
A sharp intake of breath awoke Natsuki with a jerk. Her senses immediately focused on the soft pattering of rain against the window near her bed. Sitting up roughly, she ran a sweaty hand through her long, dark hair and sighed. The tickling she felt earlier was her sweaty pajamas sticking to her body.
Of all the things to dream about, a disgusted frown creased her face. Damn it, I’m all wet now. She pushed the dark mass of memory far back into her mind, determined to overcome it by sheer force of fury, and tossed a livid glare at the weather outside before sliding out of bed to check on her friend. A glance at the clock as she leaned over the brunette informed her that she should dress, eat, and prepare for the day anyway. Natsuki sighed again at the continuing rain after wiping Shizuru’s face and neck. It’s going to be a long day.
Gently seating her now fully-clothed self on the side of Shizuru’s bed, Natsuki began to calm down, thankful that the rain had lessened a great deal. She surveyed the way the slender hands were clasped over the plush puppy’s floppy body and smiled tiredly. Curiosity got the better of her while she fondled the toy’s furry ear, however, and she leaned forward to sniff it.
Smells like lavender, Natsuki mused. I wonder if she likes that only because of its relation to the color. Doesn’t quite match Du-chan’s coat, though… She fingered the light purple ribbon tied around the white and light brownish red plush’s neck, fondly remembering how they acquired the toy and how Shizuru ended up with him. After a quick poke to each of Du-chan’s pointed ears and his pointed nose, Natsuki settled at the table to study before Mai came.
“She looks happy here,” a boy’s voice commented over a photograph of a sandy brunette holding a stack of plates and walking past a dark-haired girl. The brunette had a blissful smile plastered across her face.
“But who’s that?” an older woman with pale blonde hair, hazel eyes, and narrow, black-rimmed glasses sat beside the boy on the hotel bed and pointed at another photo. Pushing a dull, wheat-colored lock from his black eyes, the roughly twelve-year-old boy inspected a photograph where the girl had the arm of a young black-haired man in a black uniform. Squinting his very dark eyes, the boy grumbled under his breath.
“That is someone from the student council of the Fuuka academy,” a young man spoke up behind them. “Yukio, you needn’t worry about that person. I’m certain that she’s with the dark one.”
“But it looks suspicious,” the boy frowned.
“You should trust Kosei-san on this,” the woman poked Yukio’s head. “After all, he’s been stalking them longerâ€””
“I am not stalking,” the handsome young man growled and ran his hand over his short, thick black hair which had an egg-sized, white patch a few centimeters above his left ear. Kosei appeared to be in his late teens. “It’s a legitimate mission.”
He sighed and turned back to the boy. “Yukio, will you please put those away now? We have some things to do today.”
“Do you know if she got your last letter yet?” The boy began sliding the photographs into a small envelope.
“Honestly, I don’t know, and at this point I’m not sure it matters since she’s in the hospital.”
The woman pulled her pale blonde hair into a neat bun before muttering, “And just what do you plan to do if she doesn’tâ€”or can’tâ€”answer by Saturday? You can’t force her hand, can you? This is cutting it very close.”
A sharp smirk appeared Kosei’s face. “Well, you are only here out of curiosity, right, Azami-san? My family’s business doesn’t concern yours. Things will be worked out by Saturday regardless, so don’t worry about it.”
The woman sighed in exasperation. “So defensive. I’m on your side, remember?”
“…Sorry. Force of habit,” he muttered, then turned to Yukio and raised his voice. “And you’re going home on Saturday regardless of what is happening with her.”
“School starts next week, and your father only knows the timing of our vacation, not the location. Understood?” Kosei narrowed his golden-brown eyes slightly. “If your father finds out that we’re here…”
“Yeah, I understand. But I’m still coming on Saturday, and then Azami and I will leave. You can do what you want after that.” After storing all the photographs, the boy resumed a more formal air. “Father will not know about this, but I’ve waited too long to stop now.” He paused thoughtfully. “You did mention me in the letter, didn’t you?”
“Of course.” As Yukio turned to his luggage, Kosei slid a slanted look at the blonde, who raised a delicate eyebrow. “Anyway, shouldn’t you be… getting to work, Azami-san?”
“Naturally.” She smoothed out her nurse’s uniform with a playful grin.
Natsuki stretched her arms out and waved them around, pleased to have the extra space and fresh air. She walked in time with Mai towards a small picnic area in one of the Fuuka Academy gardens.
“Aoi and Chie aren’t here this time?”
“Ah, they have a special trip together today, but they said ‘hello’. Akane messaged me the other day and also said ‘hello’,” Mai chirped.
“Oh, really? How are they doing?”
“They’re at the beach,” Mai winked.
“Hm. Well, I think they deserve some happiness.”
“Indeed,” a thin, sly drawl suddenly interrupted them. Natsuki jumped and swore, instantly twirling around to face a girl with short red hair.
“Yuuki,” she hissed.
“Kuga,” the younger redhead replied coolly.
Chuckling nervously, Mai quickly came between the two. “I bumped into Nao-san earlier, and she had some time off, so I invited her for lunch…”
“Using me as bait?”
“Ah, well… No! It’s not like that!”
“Ahh, never mind. Come on, then.”
“Don’t boss me around. I’m here to sample Mai’s famous cooking.”
“Don’t just use her like that, you!”
“Then what are you doing?”
“You don’t underâ€”never mind, already. Come on, Mai.”
“Y-yes.” Mai positioned herself between the two as they found an appropriate spot for lunch on the grass. She didn’t know what was going on between them, but after her long conversation with Natsuki, apparently Nao was in the thick of it as well, though she had no part in the drama between Natsuki and Shizuru. However, trying to determine the nature of the Natsuki-versus-Nao dynamic was far too dynamic for her well-being, she decided, and she was better off attempting only an occasional nudge, as in this case. Attempting to figure Shizuru into the equation would probably cause an aneurysm. Besides, it’s not really my business, right? Still, we were all HiMEs once, so our pasts and fates are attached somewhere… Ah, being involved without being nosy is so hard, so hard…
With barely concealed worry, Mai offered identical bentos to both of them. At least this makes it easierâ€”they like some of the same things!
Natsuki, on the other hand, had a very good idea of Nao’s way of doing things, though admittedly even she was thrown off here and there in the last trimester. I guess having to baby-sit Mikoto, that “rehabilitation” stint with the church, and having her mother around has softened her edges a bit. You’d agree, wouldn’t you, Shizuru? Ah, her mother…
An odd thought settled behind Natsuki’s eyes, and she stopped the piece of sushi en route to her mouth to roll the idea around her head a bit. How would I change if my mother was around?
“So, Kuga, I heard that you have some kind of special exam to determine whether you actually get to the second year. Hmmm, we might be classmates, huh?”
The jab was expected, but irritating nonetheless. After months of this, Natsuki had gotten more used to it. Growling, Natsuki popped the tasty bit of sushi into her mouth and didn’t deign to respond.
“Oh?” A venomous smirk developed on Nao’s face as she watched the vein twitch on Natsuki’s forehead. “Going to ignore me today? I guess you really are getting soft, Kuga.”
Ignore, ignoreâ€”all that matters right now is Shizuru, nothing else. “This is really good as usual, Mai,” Natsuki grunted.
Nao began to laugh at this pathetic attempt to change the subject. It was a low yet piercing laugh, oily but acidic enough to get under anyone’s skin.
“Ahh, but Natsuki will definitely pass, so there’s no problem,” Mai interrupted with a helplessly cheerful look.
“Oh, right, I heard that a teacher who is connected to you somehow is giving the exam. How convenient,” the sly tone continued to waggle.
“He’s overseeing it, but he didn’t write it, and he’s not grading it,” Natsuki decided to answer in a business-like tone. “Besides, the tutoring and exam are just to officially make up attendance time. I was passing fine before all this nonsense…”
“Ah, but having your ass covered by that Fujinoâ€”you sure have connections in the right places, hmm?”
“Don’t talk about Shizuru,” Natsuki muttered sharply. I don’t care for what reason, but she’s not coming into this conversation. She wasn’t particularly happy about leaving her helpless friend back at the hospital, but a promise was a promise.
“Ah, there we go. Just how is that woman? Have you two… done anything interesting since last we spoke?” The directed animosity had left Nao’s tone, but Natsuki found her teasing to be nearly as unbearable, and certainly not the same quality as Shizuru’s teasing, which she secretly enjoyed to some extent but would never admit it lest the brunette take full advantage of it.
“Ah, Nao-san, we shouldn’t talk about that…” Mai raised her hand and tried to steer the younger girl to safer territory.
“Why not?” The girl’s expression was neither one of malice nor contempt, but of genuine curiosity. “Or does Tokiha not knowâ€”?”
“That is absolutely none of your business.”
“I can call to ask, you know,” Nao’s patented sly grin reappeared. “We sometimes talk about school issues.”
This stopped Natsuki cold, and she pulled her face away from the bento to stare. “What did you say?”
“It’s true!” Nao laughed as the dark-haired girl gawked. Mai gawked as well, but mostly out of confusion. “She would call to make sure everything was going smoothly, especially since Mama woke up and things were hectic for a while. We had to move and figure expenses and all that.”
I see. So that was one of your many projects that you kept from me, huh, Shizuru? Natsuki returned to her bento progress in silence, mulling over this bit of information. Well, Nao does seem a lot more… a lot more what? Settled? Stable? Who knows? I suppose it’s for the better.
“Hm, I suppose I should thank her for that. That woman…” Nao’s eyes narrowed slightly as she shifted the uncomfortable balance between the fact that Shizuru killed her mother first and the fact that Shizuru helped them rebuild afterwards. A frown appeared and the redhead decided to shrug it off. It was the HiME festival, after all; she wasn’t without guilt either. Instead, Nao turned her attention to bothering Natsuki, which provided endless entertainment. “Well, I don’t know what that woman possibly sees in someone like you, Kuga.”
“I wouldn’t know either.” Natsuki’s reply was quick, soft, and straightforward. Now it was her turn to be gawked at.
“So clueless,” Nao rubbed her temple and continued to work through the food.
Mai ate as well, developing a thorough mental indigestion at the tension between the girls. What did I get myself into? Aoi, Chie, I wish you were here…
“Everyone has to look out for you. And even poor Tokiha here has to feed you.”
“N-Nao-san,” Mai stammered sheepishly, “I really do enjoy cooking, and Natsuki paid for the food hereâ€”and I’ve been teaching her!”
“Oh, now that’s a chore, I’m sure. I hope you’re getting paid by the hour.”
“Shut up. It’s not like you’re any better. And you should thank both Mai and myself for the food.”
“TouchÃ©. I wonder why Fujino isn’t teaching you… Oh, but she’s too busy tutoring you, I suppose. Even my attendance was better.”
Natsuki rolled her eyes and finished consuming the bento. “Thank you, Mai.”
“Ah, finished? How about you, Nao-san?” Mai was relieved that the actual eating period was winding down.
Mai turned eagerly to Natsuki. “We have over an hour, so let’s make the most of it and do a little shopping. Nao-san, you can join us for dessert, if you’d like.”
“An hour before what?” Nao inquired.
Ahhh…. Mai blanched and looked back to Natsuki, who eyed her a bit.
“None of your business.” Then standing brusquely, she immediately softened her gaze on Mai. “Thanks a lot, Mai. I’m going to head to my apartment to pick up some things, actually, so I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Uh, yeah, okay…”
With that, a sharp cloud of deep navy hair whipped about as Natsuki turned on her heel. Nao stared at her disappearing around a building corner.
“Chased her off, hmm?”
“Well, you were pretty, uh, charming today, Nao-san. You really should be kinder to Natsuki. She’s going through a lot right now.”
“Oh, really? The exam I heard about?” Nao shifted her posture with cat-like grace and gazed at the older girl with a cool curiosity.
“Well…” Mai sighed. Natsuki obviously doesn’t want her to know. What should I say? Finally, Mai’s shoulders slumped a bit, and she turned to the redhead. “Nao-san, pleaseâ€”just don’t push Natsuki.”
A thin, red eyebrow rose as Nao continued to study Mai’s manner. “Maybe I’ll push Fujino.”
“Ah, Nao-san! Will you never stop? You’ve got to leave both of them alone.”
“I don’t know. It’s spring break, and it’s pretty boring.”
Mai groaned in exasperation. “Can’t you find a hobbyâ€”a good hobby?”
“But bothering Kuga is my hobby,” the redhead purred.
“You really mustn’t right now, okay?”
Nao stopped at the older girl’s sudden serious tone and examined Mai’s face. “…Why is that?”
“Nao-san, this is really, very serious.” She fixed a most pleading look on the younger girl, hoping to get her point across indirectly. Please leave this alone.
This caught the wayward girl’s attention, and she settled back on her hands. Mai couldn’t discern what sorts of gears were turning in Nao’s head; she didn’t know the girl that well, even though Nao had within the past few months turned up more often at their makeshift “HiME alumni” events.
A full minute passed before Nao piped up, “Then it must have to do with Fujino. Since Kuga wasn’t grumbling like a rainy cloud, I’m assuming they didn’t have a fight.”
Mai raised an eyebrow while packing the bento boxes away. Pretty sharp, huh.
“…Yes?” Mai felt her nervousness rise sharply. Oh, drop it.
Nao continued to eye Mai, then casually dug her hand into her pocket and pulled out a small cell phone. Mai fidgeted as the redhead flipped it open and deliberately punched numbers.
“Ah… well, if we’re finished…”
“I’ll just ask Fujino,” Nao yawned, clearly enjoying drawing out the little drama with or without Natsuki present.
Moving with greater swiftness than Nao ever expected, the older girl snatched it from her hand, snapping it shut.
“If that isn’t suspicious behavior, I don’t know what is,” Nao narrowed her eyes.
Mai muttered, “Well, that’s…” She stared at that girl with great uncertainty. “You won’t let this go?”
“My curiosity is at full force now,” a low laugh taunted.
Steeling herself with as much resolve as possible, the older girl decided to give her version of events lest the troublemaker stir up too much fuss along the way.
“So that’s how it is.”
Amethyst eyes warily studied the redhead. “D-don’t let Natsuki know that I told you,” Mai mumbled. “She doesn’t want anyone to know, if you couldn’t tell. This is Shizuru-san we’re talking about. And all the HiMEs know that she… and Natsuki… eh…” True, the HiME ‘alumni’ all know now that Shizuru and Natsuki were each other’s most precious, but not the true nature of it. Does Nao know? Hmm.
Nao raised her hands in surrender. “Right, right, I understand.” After all, I do have Mama back thanks to Tokiha and the others. I’m not stupid… “Will she be all right?”
“We really don’t know,” Mai replied quietly.
They remained silent for a while, letting the breeze ruffle the sea of rich green around them. Mai noted how Nao’s demeanor slipped into a contemplative brooding at this realization. Does she actually care about either of them? Mai wondered. She’s pretty good at hiding it if she does… Or maybe she’s worried about losing her toys. The fiery-haired girl quickly stifled a smirk at the thought.
“This may not mean much from me,” Nao suddenly grunted, “but you can trust me on this.” Nao sighed and picked herself up and stretched a bit, her soft, red hair puffing slightly in the breeze. Things are a lot better now. “I won’t tell anyone.”
“Ah, thank you.” Mai stood up with her bag as well and waved Nao off with widened eyes. Will wonders never cease?