Disclaimer: Mai-HiME owned by Sunrise, except the characters that aren’t.
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“Obaa-sama… does this mean that I will not find…?”
The echo of her own voice left her ears as soon as Shizuru opened her eyes. She grunted and rubbed her face, staring up at the familiar hospital ceiling.
A memory lost in a dream…
Rolling herself over, Shizuru surveyed Natsuki’s bed and saw that she had already gotten up. A small, pointed, dark mass by Natuski’s pillow caught her eye, drawing her attention to the splayed wings of the paper crane she had folded the night before. Suddenly, a blinding but fleeting memory of brilliantly colored paper cranes fluttering in the breeze overcame her senses.
“Look at all of these… Would you like to learn…?” she could hear herself say happily.
A painful knot tightened under Shizuru’s ribcage, which she quickly tried to shake off. After the pleasant conversation with Natsuki and an equally pleasant dinner the night before, she had attempted to settle her nerves with some light reading as her younger friend studied. All the while, however, her concentration was effectively scattered by the white card shoved into one of her books on the table, its tiny, foil-embossed blue flower taunting her.
I must get to the bottom of this contact. And I cannot do that with Natsuki here… Shizuru squeezed and tugged at Du-chan’s tail while mulling.
As she began to chew her lip, Shizuru eyed the bathroom door and listened to the familiar and routine sounds coming from it. It was not something she would ever admit to anyone except to Natsuki if she wanted to be punished–or treated to a blush–but Shizuru knew the exact order and timing of how the other girl went about her business behind that closed door. I have about fifteen minutes.
Suddenly, she gasped and lifted Du-chan high above her head. “Of course. I will call in a small favor…” An impish smile lifted her mouth as she picked up her cell phone and scrolled down the stored names.
And nearly fifteen minutes later, Natsuki, in jeans and a fitted, white T-shirt, shoved open the bathroom door and grinned, seeing that her friend was awake. As she opened her mouth to release a greeting, however, Shizuru cut her short. “Natsuki, would you please see if there is miso available?”
“A-eh, of course!” And with that, she was out the door.
The new hospital worker was hesitant to give Natsuki the tray since it was still early for the rounds, and it took much longer than Natsuki anticipated to argue the issue. Luckily, Kimura-sensei had walked past and, in his mild and grandfatherly way, gave Natsuki free rein with some of the procedures. She smirked as she carefully balanced the two bowls and tray with one hand and slid open Shizuru’s door with the other.
Instead of being greeted by a happily smiling Shizuru, however, Natsuki’s vision was stabbed by a familiar, short shock of red hair and a dry smirk. Nearly dropping the tray, Natsuki’s grin immediately dissolved.
“Hi,” Nao answered lazily, ignoring the barely concealed disdain. She wore a spring green skirt and a white denim jacket; her hands, held behind her back, were carrying a large bag.
“I thought you two were friends by now. No?”
“Frie–!” Natsuki snapped to attention with Shizuru’s balmy comment. “Not quite, but I suppose… we don’t hate each other,” she grumbled. “But that’s not the point–” she quickly pointed a glare at Nao, “Why are you here? Did Mai–”
“Oh, I just happened to be in the area,” Nao sighed and carefully inspected her fingernails with a half-smile. She paused and took in Natsuki’s rapidly darkening mood. “Fujino called me herself. Tokiha had nothing to do with it.”
Shizuru chuckled. “Yes, I did, and I expect you two to get along.”
“Expect?” She walked warily around Nao and edged her out of the way to place the tray on the bedside. Peering at Shizuru’s face for an answer, any sign of her intentions, Natsuki narrowed her eyes into green slits. “Shi-zu-ru,” Natsuki punctuated, “what’s going on?”
Shizuru noted that her friend’s hands were still gripping the sides of the tray and that she was leaning dangerously over the bowls. Reaching over to brush away the dark strands of hair hovering above the steam, she began carefully, “Natsuki, I know that you worry about leaving me alone here, but I do need some time to settle certain private affairs.”
Before Natsuki could protest, Nao’s voice interrupted, “Your ham-fisted doting is probably tiring her out, huh? It must take a lot for her to call me to be your babysitter.”
A light cough wiped away both Nao’s smirk and Natsuki’s angry, dangling response. “Natsuki, I called Yuuki-san here to show you a place you had not visited before. We have been relying on Mai-san a lot, and I wanted to give her time to herself.”
“Well, that’s fine, but it’s not like you had to call anyone at all! If you had just asked…”
“I know. But I promise this will be worth it. It is not too far.”
Nao had turned away from the two and was looking out the window with apparent nonchalance. But one of her fists, resting on her crossed arms, was clenched tightly. That place… She furrowed her brows. But I couldn’t say no, not with Mama…
Natsuki clamped her mouth shut upon hearing the familiar finality in Shizuru’s tone, which had a subtle way of enforcing her will by way of veiled threat: “If you do not do this for me, I will take my revenge later. In an embarrassing manner.” Taking a deep breath, Natsuki whirled to face Nao, who had turned back with a relaxed look of amusement. Kuga grabbed her upper arm and propelled themselves to the door with a grunt of defeat.
“I’ll be back by lunchtime.”
“Do not worry about that. Please take care of her for me, Yuuki-san.”
“Bye bye,” Nao purred at length and tossed a wide grin over her shoulder as she was dragged out.
Shizuru smiled brightly and waved as the door slid shut, and then stopped to stare at the tray on the bed. “Oh my. There are two bowls.”
Natsuki finally released Nao’s arm by the time they reached the parking lot. The air was clear and light, filled with the cool freshness of a new day, though lingering clouds dampened the atmosphere. Ignoring her underclassman’s complaints of abuse, Natsuki stopped at a curb and gazed at the horizon. Nao likewise ceased her drama and eyed her.
“I’m surprised you’re coming along quietly,” Nao remarked and rubbed her arm, wandering into Natsuki’s line of sight. “Well, then, I suppose–”
“That’s fine already. Do whatever you want. I’ll just go home.” Natsuki shrugged slightly and strode purposefully to her motorcycle.
Nao blinked and stared at her adversary’s back as that dark hair swirled and flicked somewhat haughtily back at her.
Just as Natsuki reached the motorcycle, however, she flinched as a harsh burst of laughter assaulted her from behind. Turning to stare with annoyance, she muttered, “I thought you’d be happy with that!”
“That’s not… No, you don’t get it,” Nao waved a hand and struggled for breath under her tear-inducing chortling. “Do you really think you can lie about it when Fujino questions you?”
Natsuki blanched. She smacked her forehead at this revelation, more annoyed that Nao had it than the prospect of actually being questioned by that insidiously perceptive Shizuru. “Ugh…”
“Really, Kuga, you give yourself too much credit sometimes.” The redhead continued to laugh, though she barely admitted that she herself feared that Fujino-style perception. She shuddered inwardly, imagining the pair of dark red eyes boring straight through her and that cloaked smile silently whispering her child’s name.
Natsuki clenched her hands onto the helmet and groaned in exasperation. “Shut up! Fine! But you don’t have a helmet.”
Nao shrugged and finally wiped her eyes. “That woman said to be prepared.” She held aloft her bulky bag as the other girl gawped.
Natsuki, in her white T-shirt and jeans, was a lump of tension on the rumbling motorcycle as she and her passenger waited at a stoplight. Her shoulders were stiff, her legs occasionally twitched with the urge to kick something, and under her helmet, a pinched scowl was imprinted into her face as she imagined Nao’s laser-tipped smirk piercing the back of her head. Her gut tightened spasmodically when the arms around her waist squeezed as though in taunting response to the obvious tics of discomfort. After a very long moment, the stoplight finally turned. Suppressing the impulse to toss Nao onto the curb, Natsuki gunned the engine and unleashed her stress through the motorcycle’s roar. In running the machine, Natsuki fled the awkwardness at full tilt.
“Now where?” Natsuki yelled through her helmet at her passenger. She felt one of the arms around her waist lift and then point to the right of an upcoming intersection. “Fine, then.” Leaning into the wind and trying not to squirm from Nao’s arms pressing against her thin shirt, Natsuki guided the howling motorcycle to a steep road. By the time the two girls reached the top, they had already gone through alleys, a residential area, and the odd back road towards a hill overlooking the city.
Natsuki parked her motorcycle near a broken-down wall, which was cleverly if unintentionally concealed from view by a tight cluster of trees, shrubs, piles of white stone, and wood detritus.
“Hey, you can let go now,” Natsuki grumbled as she unsuccessfully attempted a graceful dismount, instead awkwardly hopping off on one foot. The arms around her waist loosened.
“Already? But I was so comfor–”
“Shut up!” Natsuki rapped her passenger’s helmet and rubbed herself slightly to remove the feeling of being hugged.
“You’d better be nice or Fujino will hear about this!” Nao shot back, a sneer clearly registering in her voice. “I’m the one doing a favor right now.” She leisurely slid off the seat and removed her helmet, then carefully unruffled her short red hair. “Honestly, how uncouth. Fujino’s better points obviously never rubbed off on you, huh.”
“Tch!” With a frustrated flick of her dark hair, Natsuki stalked towards what looked like an entrance through the wall. “What kind of suspicious place did you lead me to, anyway…?”
Nao stiffened and fell silent as the other girl bobbed around the rough stone edges, poking spots as though to test the wall’s stability.
“…A place Mama and I used to visit,” she finally replied at length.
Natsuki, who had leaned through the wall opening to peer around, froze at Nao’s strangely muted response. Straightening up and looking back at her, Natsuki was struck by the unreadable expression on her face. “Oh. Is that so…” she murmured, uncertain how else to respond.
Nao merely brushed off her skirt and strode to the wall, past a silently watching Natsuki, and through the opening. Natsuki paused and scratched her head, then shrugged and followed. What is Shizuru thinking?
On the other side of the wall, as the two girls carefully navigated over piles of stone, the debris became covered with rough shrubs and tall stands of grass, all of which suddenly gave way to a brilliantly lush and open area of green with a small cherry tree right in the center. The grassplot was surrounded by wall remnants and piles of stone and branches, lending a haphazardly private atmosphere. It was quiet. As Nao put her bag down by the tree, Natsuki wandered to the furthest end of the grassy area, which overlooked the steep road they had undertaken below. A half-meter wall of awkwardly stacked stones was all that obstructed the cliff edge.
“Not a bad place,” Natsuki mumbled after a long pause and turned back towards Nao, who was leaning against the cherry tree and staring at nothing in particular. She watched the younger girl for a long moment, trying to decipher her mood with no luck. Shrugging, she slowly wandered away from the cliff view and cleared her throat. “So you don’t come here anymore?”
Nao broke from her internal musings and blinked at the direct inquiry. “Anymore?”
“Well, you said ‘used to visit’, right?” Natsuki tugged on her jeans and plopped down against the cherry tree, sitting cross-legged.
“Eh…” Nao scowled briefly, then sighed. “That’s right. Mama works at a hospital now so we don’t have as much free time as before.” She shook a blanket from her bag and threw it messily on the opposite side of the tree away from Natsuki, then sat with her back against the trunk.
“I see. A nurse?”
The cherry tree separating them managed to alleviate the weight of the silence that began to expand. Natsuki fidgeted, however, pressing her fingers together and staring at the grass around her legs. Finally, curiosity got the better of her.
“So what do you and Shizuru talk about?” she attempted to sound nonchalant.
Natsuki couldn’t see the unusual array of expressions that rolled over Nao’s face, which eventually settled on one of amusement. “Heh. Are you jealous, Kuga?”
“Tch, as if,” Natsuki quickly rebuked under her breath. “And no, that has nothing to do with it. But I’m still curious. You know, after all that, it’s not like there’s a reason for you two to have each other’s cell numbers…”
“You didn’t think to ask Fujino? I thought you two were friendly,” Nao laced a quick retort with sarcasm.
“Well, it wasn’t the right time,” Natsuki hissed and plucked at a tuft of grass with frustration. Geez, it’s such a wasted effort to talk to this girl.
Nao remained silent for a moment before replying, “I guess not. But she’s better now, right?”
The earnest, reserved tone in her voice caught Natsuki off-guard, who raised a brow and peered around the tree trunk. “Yeah.” Seeing no useful response from Nao’s red hair, she shrugged and returned to slouching against the cherry tree.
Several minutes passed without interaction, at least to Natsuki’s estimation. The lingering clouds and cool moisture had dispersed, leaving only a piercing morning sun that easily filled the enclosed grassplot and sharpened the cherry tree’s shadow. Natsuki stood up and brushed off her jeans. Fluffing out her dark hair and stretching, she wandered to the low wall around the cliff edge and peered out through the wide sky covering the piece of world below. A similar place looks out to sea…
“That time, she was the one who came to us.” Though quiet, Nao’s voice cut through Natsuki’s blank musings, and she whirled quickly to face the cherry tree. The younger girl was busy looking bored, twirling a leaf in her fingers. “The stipend is..”
Nao looked around the large hallway before reaching over to hold her mother’s thin hand as the maid escorted them to the entrance of the Fuuka presidential mansion. ‘Mama lost a lot of weight…’ She sighed.
“Don’t worry, Nao-chan. The stipend itself is still a generous gesture.”
“They just won’t increase it,” Nao grumbled.
“Well, there’s no reason for them to, and the director shouldn’t play favorites, you know? It’s okay! Mama will work hard to finish licensure, and then we won’t have to worry at all.” The woman combed through her short, brownish hair with her free hand. “Hm, I can’t wait for my hair to grow out.”
“But you can’t live with me in the dorms, so let’s find a nice little apartment somewhere, yeah?”
“The dorms are too convenient, Nao-chan. Even if you give me the entire stipend that Kazahana-san had promised, the apartment it can rent would be small and probably not very close. We would have to worry about food and transportation, but your room and board are covered by the scholarship, you know. I’ll look for a job…”
Nao walked in brooding contemplation.
Natsuki had returned to the cherry tree and sat in its shade nearer to the other girl. “The stipend was a good gesture, at least. And since it’s probably from First District funds, all the better.”
“But you don’t need it, do you?” Nao scoffed lightly.
“No, but it also means I can avoid communicating with my father that much longer.”
“Huh?” Nao glanced up at Natsuki, who merely waved a hand dismissively.
“You were saying about your mom?”
They exited the mansion doors in ponderous silence and were greeted by a girl outside. Nao stopped in her tracks and glowered at the silhouette. Her mother peered between them. “A classmate?”
“No,” Nao snorted but caught herself. “Eh, a fellow student.” She turned to the girl, who had advanced towards them. “Fujino, what do you want?”
“Hey, Nao-chan, that’s rude,” her mother protested in vain.
Shizuru wore her patented, slight smile and bowed at Nao’s mother. “I am Fujino Shizuru, student council president. While the board cannot get involved outside of the standard stipend, I have some connections that may be useful in your situation.”
The woman merely blinked before gasping, “Oh, forgive my manners. I’m Yuuki Kumiko, Nao’s mother. But how…”
“I heard some of the particulars from the director earlier.”
Nao, having let go of her mother’s hand and crossed her arms, didn’t bother hiding her mistrust while glaring between them, and Shizuru merely turned her cryptic smile to Nao with greater frequency.
“Though the director would like to help due to the unusual events recently that have placed some of us under stress–I am sure Nao-san can explain–getting involved would, as you might surmise, be unfair to the rest of the stipend recipients. Now, I was told that you want to finish your nursing education, correct?”
“Yes. I began the education before, um…” Kumiko hesitated and looked at Nao with distress, “s-something bad happened, so I couldn’t finish. And actually I’ve forgotten everything, so I need to start over.” She ended in a despondent sigh.
“If you are willing to start over, that simplifies things,” Shizuru nodded encouragingly. “My family employs a senior physician who is also an executive of a private hospital near here. I am certain something can be worked out to continue your education as well as, possibly, provide work at the hospital before licensure. The hospital is expanding, as it were.”
Kumiko stammered while Nao gaped, stupefied and suspicious. ‘Well, if this isn’t too good to be true…’
“Shizuru just went up to you with that offer? Mmm.” Natsuki leaned against the tree trunk while she pondered. Maybe she felt guilty?
“So it worked out?”
“Yeah, pretty much. Mama is in some kind of nursing training program with that Fujino doctor and works part-time at the hospital gift shop–”
“Wait a minute,” Natsuki twisted to peer at Nao, her dark hair cascading over a shoulder in a sheet. “This Fujino family doctor, do you remember his name?”
“Eh? Oh, it was a Ki… Kimura, I think. Yeah, that’s it. Why?”
Natsuki’s eyes immediately blazed in recognition, but she looked away and rubbed her head. “No, nothing.” So that’s the connection. “Does your mom work at the same hospital Shizuru is at since it’s close?”
“You’re awfully curious. Yes, but she’s in the maternity ward.”
“Whatever. And you’re living in the same apartment?”
“Yup. Fujino even helped us land a good location and lease.” Nao looked over at Natsuki, who was fiddling with a piece of her dark hair and looked deep in thought. A sly grin spread over Nao’s lips. “Could it be? Kuga is lonely because Fujino has been giving us so much attention?”
Natsuki snapped, “Don’t suddenly change the topic to something useless like that. You should spend more time with your mother, ingrate.”
“Tch, that’s none of your business. What about you and your parents, huh?” Nao quickly scoffed. “Sucking money out of them, living high and mighty in that expensive apartment–” She stopped herself as Natsuki jerked forward and stood up, slapping grass off her jeans.
“Shizuru never told you, eh? Well… I trust her discretion.” There was no hint of anger in her voice as she wandered towards a nearby pile of stone. “Money doesn’t buy much of anything, you know. I’m envious because you have your mother back to begin with, so shut up already.”
She didn’t look back at her underclassman, who still sat on the blanket by the tree trunk. Nao pursed her lips and ruffled her hair with a hand, looking both irritated and awkward.
Natsuki held a hand above her face as she surveyed the slightly hazy vista, noting how the city was laid out neatly below them, its borders fading into the fold of horizon. “There’s another overlook by the coast, one that’s above the sea. You might remember it.”
“Eh, that’s a generic description.”
Natsuki rolled her eyes. “That road where you first attacked me while I was on my motorbike, you idiot.”
“Ohh, that road. How nostalgic.”
“That scenic overlook,” Natsuki continued and ignored the younger girl’s jab. “Our car flew over that cliff into the sea some years ago. Oh, and she’s dead. My mother, I mean.” She turned away from the view to look at Nao’s reaction, which was one of blank astonishment. A slight smirk tugged at Natsuki’s mouth, but she felt no delight in shocking the other girl on this point.
“Oh… Sorry. ‘Our’ car? You were in it too?”
Natsuki stuffed her hands into her pockets and shifted her attention to a nearby clump of grass, slouching slightly as she scuffed at it with the toe of her sneaker. “Me, mother, and our dog. Father was… elsewhere.” She hesitated before continuing in a low voice, as though talking to herself, “I remember the car speeding while we were being chased, then swerving, a crash, and water rising.”
“That’s right,” Natsuki looked up. “Mother was murdered, at least indirectly.”
“Ah…” Nao’s eyes had widened as she watched Natsuki’s lone, lean figure crouch, hovering with a strained anxiety like a coiled snake. By the time I got back home, Mama was the only one…
“I spent months in the hospital, where my loving father abandoned me to move to another country with his mistress,” Natsuki continued flatly as though practiced in the recitation, but her heart was pounding painfully in her chest, her words spilling out with bitterness. Her rising, directionless anger needed an outlet, and Natsuki could only sharpen her words.
“So all those expensive things you saw before? Father sends those funds, but that hardly makes up for it.” She suddenly stood up straight and violently kicked the clump of grass, sending a small divot careening away. Although I couldn’t hire that guy without it, I guess.
Nao gripped the edge of the blanket and mulled, familiar feelings of hate and anger filling her gut like lead as she remembered her own family. “Did you find out…”
“Yeah.” Natsuki flopped cross-legged over the clump of grass she was abusing and glanced over at Nao with a half-smile. “First District, the group my mother was working for.” She plucked a few blades of grass and tossed it into the light breeze.
“Then, your revenge?”
“Of course. While your real targets were impossible to reach because they were in jail, I guess, mine was a shadow group that I discovered was behind the cursed HiME festival. I struck out on my own to take the bastards down because, like you said, the only person you can trust…”
“…Is yourself,” Nao murmured.
As though all the pent-up stress left her body, Natsuki sprawled onto her back and gazed up at the sky. She broke into weak chuckle. “Ahh, it was all so ridiculous when I think about it now.”
Nao leaned back into the trunk, biting her lip. Her thoughts wandered swiftly across her own past until she imagined the rooftop where Shizuru had pinned her down. She saw clearly in her mind’s eye Natsuki’s back and flowing, raven hair.
“You and I are alike.”
When silence settled once again, time flowed seamlessly. The air had warmed and lightened considerably, carrying with it Natsuki’s heavier mood. Seeing only endless, clear blue from every corner of her eyes, she marveled at the peaceful atmosphere. I can see why Shizuru would like this pl–wait a minute, why would Nao bring Shizuru to a place like this? Several more minutes passed, but she couldn’t make heads or tails of the mystery and began to doze off.
Suddenly, Natsuki felt something smack her face and land on her chest. She jerked awake and saw that it was a bun. Nao stood with her arm in the finishing position of a pitcher’s throw.
“Well, that woman said to bring this. You missed breakfast, right?”
Natsuki’s instinctive growl guttered out as she blinked, puzzled by the rather serious expression on Nao’s face. “Uh, thanks.”
Shortly after Natsuki left with Nao, Shizuru had finished both bowls of miso soup. She gingerly combed through her mussed hair with a hand and turned to the nearby stack of papers and books, where her eyes settled blankly on the corner of a white card jutting out from the stack. She reached to it with dread, but then broke into an amused half-smile.
The card was stuck inside a worn, little book with Shin Kokinshu printed delicately down its spine. Gently pulling the book from the stack, Shizuru ran her fingers along its corners and edges, which were lightly tanned and fuzzy from years of handling. Now ignoring the card, Shizuru pulled it out of the book, which opened naturally in her palm to an oft-read page.
In the early morning light diffusing through the room like tarnished silver, Shizuru traced the words of a poem with her eyes, feeling their familiar sounds and emotion through her mind rather than reading them as laid on paper.
O my bejeweled thread of soul,
If it must snap, let it now,
For should it endure,
Shizuru allowed herself to linger over the page a moment longer before sighing and snapping the book shut in her hand, which sent glowing particles of dust flitting away within the path of dim light. Her attention then quickly shifted to the white card in her other hand as though just remembering it. Tracing the card’s blue, foil flower with a thumbnail, Shizuru smiled ruefully, “Too late.”
With a decisive snap of her wrist, Shizuru flicked the card open and steeled herself to the neatly written, thick-lined text within.
I hope this note finds you well. We understand that you have been very busy lately with school responsibilities at the close of graduation and have thus left you alone, but our beloved family now needs your help as well. A sudden emergency has arisen, one that is best attended by your particular expertise. Father is doing his best, but things are beginning to escalate (you know how he is). We realize that university is beginning very soon and the timing is inconvenient, but please remember Grandmother’s will in the matter and that provisions have already been in place for your transfer to Kyoto University. For these reasons, we will facilitate your return to Kyoto, to the family compound, so we can deal with this as a family. I will contact you again.
Shizuru had sat down on the bed and rested her head on her hand as she read the note. “They want me to transfer at this time? This is too much…” She bit her lip and fanned herself with the card, her mind groping for feasible responses. Too sudden–what if I transfer at the end of the first term? But Kosei says it is a sudden emergency. The card’s fanning motion stopped. Just how sudden? This card was mailed… Shizuru frowned at the odd, prickling sensation at the back of her neck: something was off about this.
She looked at the clock on the table and picked up her cell phone, staring at it momentarily while preparing herself. After dialing, Shizuru waited and hunched over slightly, gripping the card with her other hand. I have not heard his voice in a while, she thought anxiously. Is he angry?
The click by her ear petrified her stomach and sent it sinking through her gut. “K-Kosei?” her voice cracked before the other person could speak. Shizuru cringed and chided herself for not maintaining composure, then cleared her throat and tried again in a more even tone, “Kosei? This is Shizuru.”
(“Ah, of course. How are you? I hope you are doing well?”) The young man’s warm tenor sounded quite mellow.
This welcome put Shizuru at ease but at the same time increased her suspicion. She waved the card around as though he could see it. “Kosei, I received your note.”
(“You read it just now?”)
“Yes.” Shizuru raised an eyebrow at his completely unperturbed tone, something that reminded her often of Reito and vice-versa. “I have been ill, but you should know that.”
An awkward pause followed as Shizuru grappled with his terseness. Taking a deep breath, she measured out her response word by word. “Kosei, this is… This is a very abrupt expectation. If this is truly a dire situation and one that happened suddenly, why did you not contact me directly by phone? Please explain this emergency and how it transpired–and please do not be cryptic about it. Is there no other way besides my permanent return to Kyoto? We had agreed that I could study at Fuuka, and related fees have been paid. Of course, I am more than willing to help. A hikari train trip takes no more than two hours.”
Kosei leaned against a pillow, sitting with his legs crossed over the hotel bed. Yukio and Azami had gone out. He wasn’t surprised that Shizuru was the one who contacted him, nor that she would be against the request, but her broken voice had immediately caught him off guard and seeded a feeling of worry.
“She also told me that she got the letter but hasn’t read it yet.”
Yukio’s dark eyes seemed to brighten a bit, and the boy leaned his light, tawny head back to peer up at Kosei.
“But there’s something I need to tell you,” the black-haired young man carefully maneuvered.
“About the letter…”
The boy’s eyes instantly narrowed.
“I am sorry, but I couldn’t mention you in the card after all.”
Reddening with anger and looking crestfallen at the same time, Yukio cried, “Why? You promised! You said this was a good opportunity for both of us.”
Kosei knelt by the boy and continued as gently as he could, “I was wrong in that assessment. You should realize that while it certainly is a good opportunity for both of you, the timing must be right as well. I know you have waited for a very long time, Yukio. But she still hasn’t gotten over what happened back then, and I need to lure her back first. At this stage, I believe she will handle the news better at home. What do you think?”
Yukio remained silent as he struggled with his emotions, and then finally nodded firmly. “I… I think you are right. But if you thought it was too early, why did you tell me to come with you?”
The attentive query brought a smile to Kosei’s face. “I thought you would be happy to see her, right?” He gestured at the neat stack of photographs on the nearby table. “And, some new keepsakes.”
Yukio mulled this reply and nodded silently again. “Very well,” he handed the binoculars back to Kosei rather stiffly. He hovered by the window with uncertainty.
A click at the door did not interrupt this tentative mood, and Azami strode inside, tossing her bag into the corner with a light thump. “What is this? Yukio, you look down.” She walked over to pat the boy on the head, who turned a frown towards her. “Kosei-san, have you been bullying him?” she gasped in mock fury.
“He said he didn’t write about me after all,” Yukio mumbled and cut her short.
Azami blinked. “Oh, I see.” She tousled his hair again and contemplated. “Say, there is a café near here that I believe Shizuru-san and her friend visits from time to time. Why don’t we get a treat there and head back to the hotel? Or go shopping?” She smiled and shook Yukio’s shoulder.
He seemed to consider this and broke into a small smile. “Okay.”
As the woman steered Yukio to the door, she shook her head at Kosei. “I simply do not understand your planning, Kosei-san. Is there a method to your madness?”
“Rest assured,” he replied and nodded. “Things will turn out for the best. I am certain of this.” His tranquil but keen confidence seemed to lift the boy’s spirit, who took Azami’s hand and looked back with a lopsided grin.
Shizuru’s voice snapped him back to attention. He cleared his throat. “Actually, I had expected the card to reach you earlier and intended that the note give you time to absorb the information. I did not want to shock you with a sudden phone call. Yes, the timing of our communication had been postponed because of your illness, and Kimura-sensei had been keeping us apprised, but that should not be a surprise to you. We decided it was best to leave you alone for a little while at this juncture. As for the emergency, this is a delicate situation that is best dealt with face-to-face, and there is a complication.” Kosei ran a hand through his thick black hair and paused to let everything sink in. “The first order of business is that Father is being pressured by someone who wants to shut down our shop and buy the local shopping arcade and surrounding land.”
(“What?”) Shizuru’s low exclamation betrayed a new sense of urgency.
“You understand now? Father isn’t good with this kind of negotiation. Everyone knows it is your special skill. Moreover, the complication I mentioned… Well, let’s just say it is a family matter. And our beloved family,” Kosei subtly drew out the word, “would like to present a united front with our best negotiator in things like this. I think Grandmother would be proud, don’t you?”
Despite his external, absolute composure, Kosei took great effort in translating the appearance to his voice. The silence following ratcheted up his worry. Did I say too much? Too little?
(“…A family matter?”) Shizuru sounded dubious. (“I am not entirely convinced. Please be more specific.”)
Kosei slumped slightly, recognizing the determined timbre in her voice. She won’t let this go now. “Well… It is doubtful… but there may be parties involved whose connections may reach back to that time.” Kosei closed his eyes tightly and spoke very gently. “We want you to be with us, not only for the sake of unity, but… to also protect you. I know this does not make sense now,” his voice became more firm, “but you know that I would always make decisions I believe are in your best interests along with ours, right?”
After a painfully long pause, he heard a shaky sigh blown into Shizuru’s receiver. He likewise released his own breath that he had been holding.
(“I… Yes, of course. B-but this is all happening so quickly. I will–I will do anything you wish, especially if there is anything from the past that threatens us now… I assume you have everything arranged, then?”)
A feeling of relief swept away Kosei’s burden of worry. “Of course. Thanks to Grandmother, provisions are in place and you can transfer your attendance easily, since you did take the entrance exams and did quite well. Our connections to Kyoto University are solid. Moving and fees are not issues, and I will work to negotiate refunds minus whatever reasonable penalties. And,” he pushed the inertia of his train of thought to cover what Shizuru might think, “as for your friend, she should be able to handle herself because secondary student friends usually split up at graduation. And you will still be close enough to visit her with some regularity, if you wish.”
(“Kosei… How did you… Are you here right now?”) Shizuru’s voice carried a hint of amusement.
Kosei hesitated before flushing and smacking himself in the face. “I, uh… Yes, I am nearby. S-sorry.”
(“You worry too much.”)
“You can have all the time you need up to the point where school begins, which is soon, of course,” he mumbled.
The silence on the other end of the call was broken by a small chuckle. (“I forgive you for this… situation. I trust you will take care of me for the transition, and that you will allow me some time to settle personal matters.”) There was no mistaking the barely disguised, commanding tone in Shizuru’s reply.
“Naturally,” Kosei broke into a broad smile. “That is what big brothers are for.”
After exchanging closing remarks, he carefully shut his cell phone and stared at it, cradled in his palm. Ah, I sort of lied… Please forgive me.
Twilight had begun to weigh down the sky and darkened the Fuuka campus.
“In any case,” Shizuru continued smoothly and nodded at Nao’s mother, “I would like to contact you soon to set up a meeting between our doctor and yourself. At the moment, I would like to speak to Nao privately, however.”
Nao felt a chill run through her body but said nothing as her mother exchanged contact information with the council president. After Kumiko thanked Shizuru profusely and wandered towards the gate, the brunette finally fixed her attention onto Nao while wearing the same cryptic smile. Nao felt a combination of frustrated anger and fear. She twisted open her mouth–
“She seems like a very nice woman.” Shizuru’s smile widened slightly as Nao clamped her mouth shut. As the younger girl eyed her warily without responding, Shizuru added, “You wish to know why I do this, perhaps if I am thinking, ‘What is in it for me?’ Correct?”
Fighting the urge to openly sneer, Nao coldly nodded, “So, what’s in it for you?”
“Nothing at all.” Shizuru stood at ease in front of Nao with her hands clasped loosely in front of her waist.
“You do not believe me,” Shizuru shook her head sadly.
“Of course not! If you don’t have some ulterior motive–”
“If there is one thing Natsuki should have taught you, certainly it is that not all actions require personal gain.”
“W-what is this? Do you expect me to forgive you for killing Julia, Mama, and then attacking me?” Nao spat incredulously.
Her senior underwent a swift change of mood, rapidly cooling the atmosphere between them to one of sharp, deadly silence. The knuckles of her clasped hands turned white. Nao took an involuntary step backward. Shizuru’s wine-red eyes didn’t seem to change at all while her faint smile deepened. “And do you expect me to forgive you for attacking Natsuki directly while she could not call her child?” Her voice was low, melodic, and calm–as though she could summon Kiyohime any moment.
Nao remained tense and on guard as Shizuru paused, then closed her eyes briefly. Her body seemed to loosen as she opened her deep red eyes and fixed them again upon Nao, who raised an eyebrow at the sudden subsequent mood change. Shizuru looked only tired with not a trace of the previous cold rage.
“I will not apologise for killing Julia and hence your mother,” the council president spoke evenly and firmly. “That was all fair play under the laws of the HiME festival, as so many others have suffered the same. However, this particular act reflects my love for Natsuki.”
“Wha–?” Nao’s eyes widened.
Shizuru raised a hand. “Allow me to finish. Did Natsuki have anything to gain by standing between you and me?” Nao remained mute. “What did Natsuki say to you at that time? I believe she would not–could not deny you because to do so is to deny herself. So perhaps helping you is like helping her… And I have no doubt that you two will see more of each other now that the festival is over,” Shizuru ended with a small, coy grin.
With the student president’s dangerous aura gone, Nao gawked openly and raised her hands in confusion. “What the hell does that mean?!”
“Well,” the older girl glanced at her watch and tilted her head, “I suppose your mother is waiting. We will talk later.” As she turned on her heel and began to glide away from a frozen and bewildered Nao, she added, “You should properly thank Natsuki sometime… for saving you.”
The consistent rumbling of Natsuki’s motorcycle puttered down as the two girls pulled into the hospital parking lot. They had spent a little bit more time exploring the grassplot and discussing useless things before awkwardly trailing out of the hidden area and back onto the motorcycle. Both had remained silent during the entire trip, with Nao only pointing out turns. The day was now at full strength and beat down as though interrogating both of them.
Natsuki parked and slouched in the seat, pulling off her helmet and fluffing out her long, dark hair. Nao released her arms but didn’t otherwise budge. The same silence filled the space between them.
“So,” Natsuki finally muttered into the helmet that she gripped between her hands, “why did Shizuru send me to that place?” As though conversing with herself, she continued, “Well, it wasn’t a bad visit or anything…”
“I should hope not, since that’s my and Mama’s spot,” a voice interjected from behind, startling the other girl slightly. “What, did you forget I was here? Idiot.”
Another contemplative and awkward silence ensued, with Natsuki occasionally muttering, “It wasn’t bad. Not bad.”
Nao hopped off the cycle, shoved her helmet into her bag, and crossed her arms with impatience. “Did you forget already? Fujino wanted to get you out of her hair.”
“Well, that’s the obvious part, but–” Natsuki twisted to eye the redhead’s unimpressed look. “Never mind, you wouldn’t understand.”
“Understand? What’s there to understand? Fujino is… is… weird,” Nao threw her hands up in exasperation. “I don’t know what she wants either, putting me with you!”
The girls stared at each other for a blank, mysterious moment before Natsuki broke into a laugh. “Weird? Absolutely true.” Nao’s jaw dropped only momentarily before she, too, smirked and laughed at the shared revelation.
“I–I still don’t know why–” Nao stammered through her laughter, “why Fujino would get involved, but…” she wiped away a tear, “it’s true that if she didn’t butt in, Mama and I… We would be in a very difficult situation.”
Natsuki’s laughter faded and she hopped off the motorcycle as well, leaning against it for support. Her line of sight focused on a small, weedy flower struggling through a crack in the pavement. “You should, you know, go build good memories with your mother.” She raised her eyes to look directly at Nao, perhaps for the first time. “That’s a good place to do it.”
Nao hesitated before meeting that piercing gaze with her own, realizing that Kuga Natsuki wasn’t such an unpleasant presence after all. “Well, it’s also true that… with Mama’s new work and study, we don’t have that much free time right now. But,” she dropped her gaze, “we haven’t gone back there because… Eh, it’s awkward.”
“Time didn’t move for Mama for years, but I’ve grown up. So much has changed, especially me, and… and she still treats me as a child, or she doesn’t know how to treat me at all,” Nao rubbed her head as though remembering some uncomfortable things. “I’m not the kind of kid from back then who didn’t know anything about the world.”
Natsuki eyed her underclassman and pondered briefly before shrugging. “Give it a little time. The opportunity you have now is to get to know each other better than before, right? Your mom must be feeling lost too, but I guess she’s doing her best, and so should you. How many people,” she tapped her chin, “have a real chance to start over?”
Nao’s hand left her short red hair as she gazed at her sempai incredulously. “That… that couldn’t be as wise as it sounded.” The comment immediately slapped a glower onto Natsuki’s face. “That’s better,” Nao grinned almost disdainfully.
Hefting the motorcycle helmet over her shoulder, Natsuki snorted and waved Nao away with her hand. “Go on, now. I should be with Shizuru.” She began to walk towards the entrance.
Silently, Nao watched the other girl amble away; Natsuki’s lean figure was far more relaxed than it was during the trip to the grassplot or during much of their conversation there. “Hey,” she called out.
“Yeah?” Natsuki stopped and looked over her shoulder.
“Eh, for what?” Natsuki raised a brow.
Nao flushed slightly and clenched her jaw, though the expression quickly passed. “…F-for saving me. Back then.”
It took Natsuki a moment to realize what the younger girl meant, but she gave a small smile. Then turning back to the hospital entrance, she raised her arm in a casual wave. “Maybe I’ll introduce you to my mother sometime.”
“…Sure.” Nao paused, gave an awkward wave that Natsuki wouldn’t see, and turned on her heel to trot across the parking lot.
Shizuru had washed up in the bathroom after her conversation with Kosei and laid back down on the hospital bed. She stared blankly up at the ceiling, feeling completely drained. Her mind reeled at the new information, and she slowly realized that her comfort zone had shifted. If there are people involved who might have connections back to that time… Yes, I think they can keep me safe. I miss Kyoto, but… Natsuki. We will be parting soon after all. After your exam…
A light rap on the door shook her out of her musings. “Yes?”
“It’s just me.” Natsuki slid the door open, tossed her helmet onto the table, slid the door closed, stalked across the room, and dramatically fell face-down onto her bed.
“I assume it went well,” Shizuru remarked blithely and sat up in her bed.
Natsuki turned her head to glare at her friend. “What are you doing?” she hissed. “And don’t say such misleading things. It’s not like we were on a date!”
Shizuru laughed. “I am,” she carefully plucked a book from her stack, “reading poetry.” She peered over at Natsuki’s irritated expression. “You are unconvinced.”
“What did you think of that place?” Shizuru easily interrupted.
“It–it was very nice,” Natsuki closed her eyes and sighed into her pillow in defeat.
“What did you talk about?” the older girl asked the question so smoothly that she could have been indifferent.
Unwilling to play Shizuru’s game but unsure how to avoid it, Natsuki gave up and told her, in as much detail as she could remember, her conversations with Nao. With her eyes closed, she didn’t notice the more focused and almost pained look of interest on Shizuru’s face.
“Do you feel as uncomfortable around Yuuki-san as you did before?”
Natsuki’s eyes remained closed for a long moment before she blinked them open, the undertone of the simple question dawning on her. “You…” For what, to make us understand each other better?
Though Natsuki’s question remained unsaid, Shizuru smiled and nodded from across the beds. “Surely you remember as well. At that time, you had spoken the truth about our relationship, yes? How we influenced each other and saved each other…”
“Well, I remember mentioning how you and others saved me. And, you mean–what I said about Nao and I being alike?” Natsuki propped herself up on her elbows.
The brunette leaned back into her pillow again and rested the book on her chin. “Ah, perhaps I felt that with such similarities, it was a shame to let the opportunity go to waste. After all, how many people have a real chance to start over?”
Natsuki nearly rolled off her bed. “You felt that, huh?” she grinned somewhat helplessly.
“Perhaps,” Shizuru replied airily and opened the book of poetry.