Mai HiME, all characters and other related indica belong to Sunrise. No profit made, no infringement intended.
Honestly, I'm focusing on Distortion at the moment, but since I missed writing some face-to-face ShizNat, I decided to finish this one. It's been lurking on my harddrive for 2+ years, anyway.
Lord, some of the images I got in my head; especially while writing the comparison-sections. I only wish I could draw well enough (or at all) to put them to paper.
On a slightly different note, I hope it's not too far-fetched to read where Shizuru got her end-of-fic t-shirt from. I don't know; those sorts of gifts might be limited to my family.
Fujino-san is the queen. Dainty and feminine to look upon; smooth and almost fragile to the touch, yet easily the most powerful piece on the board.
The queen plays well both at defense and offense; sometimes remaining quietly in the background as the game progresses, only to appear suddenly and deal a crushing blow to the forces of the unaware opponent. No distance or direction is too much for it to handle, and it effortlessly tears through anyone who dares stand in its way.
Like any other piece on the board, however, the queen has its weakness. Once it sets a course, it cannot alter its destination on its own.
"Good morning, Fujino-san!"
"Good morning," Shizuru replied, casting a smile to the underclassman who was the source of the friendly greeting before returning her attention to the phone in her hand and tilting it a little further to keep the brilliant sunlight from reflecting back into her unprotected eyes.
You're joking, right?, the brief missive read, and she chuckled as she tapped out a reply, then sent it and settled the phone back into a small pocket on the bag she'd slung over her shoulder.
"Shizuru-san!" The far less formal greeting caught her attention, and she stopped and turned to see Kanzaki Reito – because he'd kept the name - jogging to catch up with her while holding a small collection of books securely under one arm.
It was still a little strange to see him in jeans and a short-sleeved shirt as opposed to his old fukukaichou uniform, she reflected, though he certainly looked no less immaculate than he had during their high school years. Just a little more grown up, a little less out of everyone's league, and a little more approachable. Which probably explained a few things.
"Reito-san," she greeted when he caught up to her and slowed his pace to match hers as she started walking again. "I thought you had a previous engagement with Mai-san this morning?"
"I did," he agreed, and chuckled as he ran a hand through his dark hair in order to settle it. "However, my little sister was in a particularly playful mood after waking, and they're all running a little too far behind for me to walk Mai-san to her classes." The faint smile pulling at one corner of his lips showed that he wasn't too disappointed. "I'll visit the high school campus during lunch, instead. Would you like to join us?"
Shizuru considered that as she studied the way the path passed them by under their feet. Reito had grown to be a close friend, and they had enough in common that he had a tendency to read her a little too well at times. She enjoyed his company, and through his recent courting of Tokiha Mai, she had gained a new appreciation for the cheerful redhead that was different in many ways from how she'd first come to know her as Natsuki's friend. Added to that was the fact that she in no way objected to the at times surprising, and often eerily well-placed insights of Reito's rambunctious younger sister, Minagi Mikoto.
Had those been the only variables, she would have happily accepted the invitation. However...
"I'll pass for today," she told him apologetically. "My afternoon class was canceled, and I have some assignments that I was planning on finishing."
Reito, true to form, wasn't fooled in the slightest. "I was under the impression that things were going well between you and Kuga-san."
"They are," Shizuru agreed, and smiled softly. "She's the closest friend I have."
"Ah." The former fukukaichou considered the unspoken words, and furrowed his brow. "Then I don't understand your reluctance to spend time with her."
"I have no qualms about spending time with Natsuki," she assured him, and settled an escaped lock of hair behind her ear. "In fact, she and I spent all of our free time together only yesterday. She is, however, graduating this year, and I cannot keep playing the role of her keystone." The two of them reached the building where her first class of the day was housed, and she stopped and turned to face him. "Our paths will diverge eventually, and it will be easier for both of us to follow our own if we start to untangle them now."
"May I offer my opinion on this?"
"Could I stop you?" was the amused reply.
"Shizuru." Her former vice-president's hand settled on her shoulder, and while the look in his dark eyes alone was enough to prove his seriousness, the lack of any honorific still helped to bring it home. "Hiding your true emotions won't resolve anything."
"Neither will acting on them," she countered gently, and then surprised him by leaning up to kiss his cheek. "You're a good friend, Reito." She patted his chest lightly and smiled, then turned and made her way up the steps. "See you tomorrow."
Kanzaki-san is the knight; in no way the fastest or furthest-reaching piece in the game, but easily one of the most strategic.
The knight stands in support of the queen, but not directly beside it. It remains instead by the side of the rook, from whose high vantage it gains its information – the knowledge needed in order for it to plan where to strike and when. It cannot move as far as the queen, but it has one major advantage.
The knight alters its direction mid-move, enabling it to move one way, and then suddenly change.
"Shizuru running late?"
Reito glanced up from what remained of his lunch – courtesy of Mai – and watched a third, dark head head join their little group as Kuga Natsuki unceremoniously plopped down at the table.
While Mai was busy fending his little sister away from her own meal, he allowed himself a few seconds to surreptitiously study the newcomer, preoccupied as she was with hastily setting up her lunch. It was obvious that Kuga Natsuki was an attractive young woman – even more so now that she was nearing 20, than she had been when she was closer to 15. The physical attraction he could easily understand, but for Shizuru's feelings for her to have lasted all this time, they were obviously based on something that went far, far deeper than mere aesthetics.
"Well..." he cleared his throat as the young woman looked up and those strangely penetrating, green eyes met his squarely. "She isn't joining us, unfortunately," he explained, and noted the sudden, slight droop in her shoulders with interest. "She mentioned having some assignments to finish."
"Ah, cheer up, Natsuki," Mai chuckled as she patted her friend on the shoulder. "You spent the entire afternoon with her yesterday, remember? Fujino-san can't be at your beck and call all the time," she teased.
"She's not at my 'beck and call'!" Natsuki argued hotly. "She can do as she likes! I just..." Instead of finishing the sentence, she expelled a harsh breath and shook her head, then selected a carrot and bit into it savagely.
Interesting. Reito schooled his features into careful neutrality, and took a thoughtful bite of egg. Very interesting.
"Hm?" He glanced towards the familiar voice, and chuckled helplessly at the sight of his little sister holding his dessert and staring at him with wide, hopeful eyes that went entirely against her status as a high school student.
"Mikoto!" Mai cried in exasperation. "I made one for you, too!"
"But it's empty!" the girl wailed.
"That's because you inhale your food instead of eating it!"
"Now, now." Reito raised his hands and tried to be the reasonable adult – he was the oldest, after all – and didn't miss the gentle, amused expression belonging to the young woman sitting across from him.
Perhaps, he considered, he should take the time to get to know Kuga-san better; on her own merits, rather than as a mutual friend of the three most important women in his life. She'd never seemed to like him – a fact only reinforced by the rapid shift from a soft smile to a glower when she noticed him looking at her - and for that reason, he had decided to leave her alone.
Had, in fact, never seen anything but coldness on that admittedly beautiful face. But maybe it was this carefully guarded side of her that Shizuru felt so strongly for, whose friendship Mai valued so highly, and whose stolid presence Mikoto enjoyed.
Apparently there was far more to Kuga Natsuki than met the eye of the casual observer, and it was probably a good thing that he was a firm believer in the ability to adjust his own perceptions, or he would have been nursing one doozy of a headache right about now.
"Mikoto." He refocused his attention on his little sister, and carefully lifted the small, plastic dish free of her hands. "Mai-san made this for me, remember? Now, I don't mind giving it to you-"
"-but I'd like to have some of it myself. Alright?"
"Yes," Mikoto agreed readily. "Mai made it for Ani-ue – Ani-ue should eat it!"
"Oh, I won't eat it all," he promised her, and helped himself to a spoonful. "Too much sugar gives me far too much energy."
"Seems to run in the family," came the low mutter from across the table, and while Reito pretended not to have heard it, he did have to hide a smile at the apt observation, as well as pretend to not hear some hushed, heated whispering between the observer herself and Mai.
"There you go," he instead said after having consumed about a quarter of the dessert, and handed it over to his sister, who made short work of the rest. "Since Mai-san was kind enough to make lunch for both of us, I think we owe her something in return, don't you?"
"Really, it was no problem," Mai demurred from her seat just to his right. "Once I'm preparing food for myself, it's just as easy to make something for others."
"Ani-ue is right," Mikoto decided. "Kindness has to go both ways!"
"I couldn't have said it better myself," Reito agreed with a smile. "So if you don't mind being on your own tonight, Mikoto, I'd like to take Mai-san out to dinner to thank her." He turned his head enough to meet a set of startled, violet eyes, and see the faint blush appear. "If she'll let me?"
"Yup," Mikoto nodded before the surprised redhead could say anything. "All good; Nao and I are doing something t—Nao!" She jumped to her feet, and before anyone could as much as blink, she had vaulted directly over the table and was running from the second her feet hit the ground. "I have to meet Nao before class! Bye, Ani-ue! Bye, Mai! Bye, Natsuki!"
"Stop it," Reito heard Natsuki mutter while he waved at his sister, and saw her lightly poke Mai, who had flopped back into her seat in exasperation and was covering her eyes with one hand. "Do you have any idea how boring your life would be if she wasn't like that?"
"True," Mai chuckled, then grabbed the still poking hand and pinched it in return for a hastily muffled squeak and a glare. "I'll admit that she drives me crazy, but I wouldn't change her for the world."
"Well, that was certainly refreshing," Reito commented, and sent both young women a smile, though only one returned it. "Mai-san, perhaps we could speak in private, to further arrange things for tonight?" He waited a beat for the blush, and wasn't disappointed. "That is, if Kuga-san doesn't-"
A waving hand cut him off – rather rudely, in his opinion – and the young woman in question returned to what was left of her lunch; ignoring them entirely.
"I'll see you later, Natsuki," Mai told her as she stood, and a squeeze of her hand on the black-clad shoulder earned her a muffled grunt in reply. "Wait here, ne?"
Reito considered his little conundrum as the two of them walked side by side; abandoning the lunchtime-crowded square for a sunlit, yet leaf-shaded little clearing away from the cobblestones, and mostly hidden from prying eyes. He had – though only in his own head – promised never to reveal anything regarding Shizuru's feelings for a certain, shared underclassman of theirs to anyone. However, he had also promised himself long ago that when it came to the happiness of those involved in the HiME Carnival – the happiness of all the young women whom he had so dastardly wronged, but who had forgiven him all the same – he would do anything within his power to ensure it.
Until today, he had been certain that Kuga-san first of all didn't return his friend's feelings, and furthermore that she was entirely too distant to be able to take part in any sort of romantic relationship even if she had. But once he'd actually seen her around people she was comfortable with; people she trusted enough to let her guard down around... Well, he was having to revise his opinion rather heavily.
She cared. That was the main thing he'd learned, and he felt rather a fool for ever having dismissed the notion that she even could; especially based as it was on only seeing her in passing. She cared about her friends; that much had been obvious from her interactions with Mai, the gentle – if hidden – teasing she'd aimed at Mikoto, and her easy defense of his little sister's at times rather off-beat antics. She also cared about Shizuru; revealed in the slump of her shoulders when she learned that she wasn't showing, and the heated insistence that to her mind, Shizuru's wishes came before her own, though she would – if he'd guessed the remainder of the cut-off sentence correctly – prefer that they included her in some way.
But before he could even think about breaking one promise to help uphold the other, he needed some further assurance that Kuga-san cared about Shizuru in the way that he hoped she did. Fortunately, that might be something Mai could help him with, as well.
"Here we are," the young woman in question spoke up, and folded her arms in front of her as she turned to face him and sent him a curious look. "What was so particular about tonight that we had to discuss it in private?"
"Ah." He hastily redirected his thoughts to what was – to him personally – a far more interesting subject. "I was wondering if I should pick you up at your dorm; around half past six, perhaps? Or if maybe you'd prefer that I just provide you with the directions and we'd meet there?"
The red head tilted, and he watched as a slow, gentle smile pulled at Mai's lips. "That's very polite of you, Reito-san," she told him with just a hint of amusement in her voice. "I don't mind you picking me up, but really, you could have asked me this in front of Natsuki."
"I realize that," he admitted with a slight smile of his own. "Honestly, the main reason I asked you for a more private conversation was because I had a question about Kuga-san herself."
"Oh?" The violet eyes studied him. "Well, you can ask. I can't guarantee that I'll answer, though."
"Fair enough," he agreed with a brief nod, the feel silent as he tried to find the best way to word his question. "Why..." He started, paused, and then tried again. "To be perfectly frank, I'm wondering why the two of you are friends," he commented, and then hastily raised his hands when he saw the hint of a dangerous fire starting behind the otherwise friendly eyes. "Please don't misunderstand, Mai-san, I don't mean to offend anyone," he hurried to reassure her. "Kuga-san is just so – so blunt. Granted, so is my little sister, but at least her actions are usually born from enthusiasm, while Kuga-san just seems to be rude."
To his relief, the young woman's proverbial hackles seemed to settle at his explanation – never let it be said that Tokiha Mai didn't stand up for her friends – and she looked off to the side as she considered his question, then chuckled softly.
"Mikoto is the way she is because she still has very little experience with social protocol," Mai explained with a slight smile pulling at her lips. "Natsuki knows the rules – she's just decided not to bother with them for the most part. That doesn't make her rude; just honest. In fact..." A finger raised to tap lightly at the center of his chest, and she was so close now that he could smell the scent of her perfume. "I think it's a lot more honest to show your true reactions, than it is to shield them behind good manners."
"I hadn't considered that," Reito admitted thoughtfully, and raised a hand to carefully brush a few strands of stubborn, fiery hair out of the young woman's eyes. "Does that apply to me, as well?"
Mai laughed quietly, and her touch shifted until her hand was resting fully on his chest. "If it applied to anyone in this world, it would be to you and Fujino-san," she told him teasingly. "Both of you do the whole 'proper' thing just a little too well."
Reito chuckled as well, because really – she did have a point. "Well, then," he told her softly, and cupped her cheek. "I suppose I'd better be more 'honest' from here on out, yes?"
Whether it was his touch or something in his voice, he didn't know. Something, however, caused a tiny shift in the deep, violet eyes – a softening – and she leaned subtly into his hand.
"Maybe you should," she agreed.
That was all the encouragement he needed, and though he was sure Mai had expected it, he still felt the small shift of air as she gasped quietly just before his lips brushed lightly against hers. He was going to leave it at that – honestly – but then her hands were moving to the back of his neck while she came closer still, and he couldn't resist wrapping his arm around her waist or threading his fingers through her hair as he kissed her again.
It certainly was honest, he idly considered as they continued the gentle, lingering contact right there out in the open. He'd wanted to do this since the day he'd met her.
It had been worth the wait.
"Well." Mai's breathing, he noted, was a little uneven when she pulled back just enough to rest her forehead against his. "Um... thank you."
"'Thank you'?" he echoed with a chuckle, because he certainly wasn't above teasing her a little. "I think maybe you're the one that's too concerned with social protocol now, Mai-san, although you are certainly very welcome."
He got a little swat to his shoulder for his cheekiness, along with a giggle that made him smile. "After that, I think you can drop the 'san', Reito," she told him. "And you're right, but I was distracted and running on empty; I didn't know what else to say."
The admission, along with the resulting blush, made him laugh. Being around her made him want to laugh half the time just because of how she made him feel, so it hardly surprised him that it didn't take much to nudge him the rest of the way.
"I should probably start heading to class," Mai then noted a touch regretfully. "See you tonight, though?"
"Unquestionably," he promised. "Though if you have a few more minutes, I did have a point to my asking you about Kuga-san."
"Sure." Mai, to his disappointment, pulled out of their loose embrace, but he didn't mind so much when she instead leaned against his side and slipped an arm around his waist. "But if the point was you having a friend who wants a blind date, forget it. I'm pretty sure she's taken – at least in her own mind."
"Really?" he wondered, halfway distracted by how easy it was to slide an arm around her shoulders in turn as they slowly started making their way back towards the shaded table. "She doesn't seem to be the kind to not act on her feelings."
"She isn't," Mai agreed with a faint, downwards twist of her mouth. "But when she was told that her feelings weren't returned, well..." She trailed off with a small sigh. "Natsuki isn't the type to push herself on others, either."
"Ah." Reito considered that. "So she confessed, and was turned down?" He could certainly sympathize with that; both with Kuga-san, and with Shizuru, who had apparently been right.
"... not exactly," Mai hedged, and then stopped with a thoughtful frown on her face, turning towards him as she tried to explain. "She... well, it's someone she's cared about on a different level for a long time. Someone who... cared a little deeper for her than she thought, but whom Natsuki rejected when she found out." Pause. "When she later found herself returning those feelings, she went to sort of get a feel for where she stood, but..."
"... she was told that things had changed," Reito finished thoughtfully, and watched the young woman nod.
There was, he determined, the definite hint of things starting to click into place, because that certainly sounded like something Shizuru would do.
"Mai?" He waited for her to look up and meet his eyes. "Who was it?"
"I can't tell you that," she answered with a shake of her head. "I promised Natsuki not to tell anyone."
That honestly worried him a little. "Is she ashamed?" he asked, and didn't bother to hide the concern in his voice. "Of her feelings for this person?"
Had Mai still had her powers, he then decided, she probably would have flared up all over. As it was, she gave a very decent impression of having done so, all the same. "Of course not!" she whispered heatedly. "Natsuki hasn't run from anything in her life – she'd shout this from the top of the tallest building in town and hold her head high! She just..." A sigh, and the young woman deflated a little. "She doesn't want to cause any trouble for anyone else involved."
"Alright." Reito exhaled slowly as well, and felt the tension in his shoulders loosen. "Mai." He captured her hands and gave them a little squeeze. "I need you to break the promise you made to Kuga-san."
Reito gently stopped the protest with a finger to the young woman's lips.
"I'll be breaking a similar promise, if that helps," he assured her. "Unspoken as it is, I nevertheless take it as seriously as you do yours. If the person Kuga-san wanted to confess to was a certain, former kaichou-" He watched the violet eyes widen as Mai physically jolted in surprise, and smiled in relief. "- and from that reaction, I think it was, then I can break my promise by telling you that Shizuru-san was lying."
"Probably because she didn't want Natsuki to worry about her hurting over... Oh, heavens, what a mess," Mai groaned, and much to his surprise, simply fell against him and pressed her face into his shoulder. "I swear, those two..."
"Well..." Reito wound his arms around her again, and marveled once more at how simple – how right – it felt to hold her like this. "They were acting with what they thought were the other's best interests in mind," he commented as she peered up at him, and raised one hand to brush his fingers over her cheek. "I can't really fault them for that."
"No." Mai smiled at the caress, then caught his hand and twined their fingers. "I guess I can't, either."
They shared a chuckle, and then Mai leaned up to kiss his cheek in roughly the same spot Shizuru had kissed earlier. "You're a good man, Kanzaki Reito," she told him, and gave his chest a pat before she winked at him and stepped back. "I'll drop a few hints; let's see what happens. See you tonight."
He watched her go, then tilted his head in question when she stopped, turned on her heel and returned.
"One more thing." Mai held up a single finger as she reached him. "How did you guess?"
Reito chuckled, then cleared his throat and allowed the grin pulling at his lips to break free. "I've spent over five years learning how to read Fujino Shizuru," he whispered conspiratorially. "On that scale – much as I respect her – Kuga-san doesn't even register."
Mai's clear, gentle laughter stayed with him all the way back to the university campus.
Tokiha-san is the rook; the cornerstone of the board, and usually the last line of defense before the king can be captured.
The rook doesn't lend itself to sneaky maneuvering; its attack and defense both move in direct, straight lines. Simple, but easily powerful enough to withstand the direst of battles when used correctly and in all ways a stalwart defender of its team, the rook's limitations in movement are best strengthened by the more underhanded skills of the knight.
Protective and with a high vantage point that leaves it a clear view of the entire board, it takes a truly powerful move to trick the rook into leaving the king exposed.
"So Kanzaki finally grew a pair and asked you out, huh?" Natsuki mused. "Took him long enough."
"Be nice, Natsuki." Mai cuffed her friend lightly in the back of the head, and ignored the resulting glower that was aimed her way. "He asked me out after the Carnival, but I chose Tate, remember? Then, after that was over... the timing just wasn't right."
Natsuki, she was sure, had a cutting remark on the tip of her tongue, but Mai made sure to catch her eyes and give her a look; one that was meant to specifically reminded her friend that she herself had been in a very similar situation for the past long while. Sure enough, after a few seconds and a clear shift in Natsuki's attitude, whatever she had intended to say seemed to die in her throat, and her mouth shut with a faint click of her teeth.
"Yeah," she muttered a few dozen steps later, now noticeably more subdued. "I guess I can understand that."
"Thank you." Mai wrapped an arm around her friend's shoulders for a quick, one-armed hug, and decided not to notice the eyeroll that earned her. "And I'm sorry for bringing that up."
"It's fine." Natsuki backhanded her lightly in the stomach, the shifted the same hand into a dismissive wave. "I was being an ass."
"And you do it so well," she teased, and chuckled when this time, it was only answered with a half-hearted glare and a faint smile. "Seriously, though; how are things with Fujino-san?"
The smile vanished. "Same." Natsuki shrugged one shoulder. "I get why she's kinda pulling away, y'know? Even I don't know where I'll be this time next year. Better to start the weaning process early."
Mai squeezed her eyes shut, and rubbed the heel of one hand rapidly against her forehead. "I did not need that mental image," she complained, and managed to land a blind clout to her friend's shoulder when she heard the low laugh. "And you'd better be in university with everyone else."
"Duh," Natsuki snorted. "Past performance doesn't always indicate future action, Mai. I'm not a friggin' idiot."
"With how your ranking shot up after the Carnival, I should hope not, number 1," she replied dryly. "But then what did you mean about next year?"
"Just that I might not attend here." Her friend jabbed a finger in the general direction of the ground beneath their feet. "Maybe it's better to put some distance between us, you know? Might make it easier to get past the whole thing."
"Possibly," Mai agreed, and was quietly grateful that Reito had told her what he had. "So you might not go to Fuuka University?"
Her friend's face scrunched briefly; a sign that Mai instantly recognized. "Yeah."
"Natsuki..." She drew out her companion's name warningly. "I know all your weak spots by now; don't make me drag it out of you."
"Drag what out of m- YOW!" A carefully aimed tweak to her side had Natsuki leaping practically a foot into the air. "Okay, woman - damn! You break it, you bought it, alright?!"
"It isn't possible to buy lay-away items – especially not the self-classified ones," Mai reminded her, and wagged a finger at her for emphasis. "Or should that be 'lay-by' items?" She watched the sudden flush travel all the way down Natsuki's throat and under the collar of her jacket, and snickered.
"I never shoulda told you that," Natsuki grumbled, and folded her arms across her chest. "You're getting way too many easy shots in, Tokiha."
"Yes, yes." Mai waved her off. "The next thing out of your mouth better be an answer, Kuga, or I'm helping myself to another sample," she warned, and watched in amusement as the threat alone was enough to make her friend twitch.
"God - fine!" Natsuki took an instinctive step to the side purely for self-preservation, and kept a wary eye pointed her way as she breathed in deeply. "I might've... gotten a couple of invitation letters from other universities."
"Congratulations," Mai chuckled. "Well done, but hardly a surprise. I've gotten a few myself; you've seen them."
"I should hope so," she mused. "So the letters themselves aren't the secret here, hm? Is it the number of them? How many?"
The fiery eyebrows lifted. That certainly wasn't bad, but... "Natsuki, I don't mean to bring you down, but I'm number 2, and I've gotten five so far."
"Not... three letters." Natsuki's face was starting to turn red again, and she was playing with the ends of her hair in a way that Mai could only translate to her being very embarrassed. "Three countries."
"Wow." Mai blinked. "That's... definitely impressive."
"Not including Japan," came another low mutter.
"Natsuki, that's incredible."
"And you have no idea how to deal with the level of praise those numbers translate to, do you?"
The dark head shook. "Not a goddamn clue."
Green and violet eyes met, and then they both started laughing. It took a little while for them to get themselves under control; then their eyes met again, and eventually they were just leaning against each other at the side of the path as their giggles wound down and they tried to catch their breath.
"Ah, well." Mai thumped her head against her friend's in exchange for a soft snort, then pushed off and leaned against the low stone wall that lined the path instead. "Even for us, everything worked out in the end, huh?"
"Hm." Natsuki waggled her head from side to side as she turned her back to the wall, then settled her hands on top of it and boosted herself into a seat. "Almost everything," she conceded.
"That could work out too, you know."
"I'm serious." She leveled a stare at the other woman. "Have you told Fujino-san about the letters?"
"Of course not." Natsuki sighed and crossed her legs at the knees. "What would that do – guilt her into asking me to stay?" She shook her head. "I'm not gonna do that to her. It's over eight months off, anyway."
"True," Mai agreed with a dip of her head. "So are you going to spend those eight months moping, or trying?"
"Trying what?" Natsuki demanded exasperatedly, and threw one hand into the air. "Mai, she doesn't feel that way anymore, she told me that! What can I 'try' to do anything about?"
"Just that," she insisted gently. "Even if Fujino-san's feelings for you have changed, there's something called wooing, Natsuki – or courting, if you like. Also known as 'winning someone's affection'." She watched the green eyes turn away stubbornly, and sighed. Apparently she'd have to go for the trump card. "Besides, can you be absolutely sure that she was being honest when she said that?"
That got the dark head to snap back around. "I very much hope you have something to base that accusation on," Natsuki growled softly.
"Down, girl." Mai waved a hand at her. "Just answer me this: has Fujino-san ever hidden her true feelings from you in the past?"
"Has she ever not told you something because she thought knowing it would hurt you?"
"When you asked her if her feelings had changed, did you in any way indicate to her beforehand that yours had?"
"Then what would keep from her lying to you in order for you to – from her perspective – be more at ease?"
Natsuki puffed out a breath and ran a hand through her hair. "It's a hell of a long shot."
"I don't think so." Mai shook her head. "In fact, I think it's reasonable enough for the two of you to sit down and talk it out." She waited a few seconds, and sighed herself when there was no reply. "Natsuki, think about it. Even in the worst case scenario, you're no different off than you are now."
"Go talk to her." Mai patted her knee lightly, then started walking towards the academy's main building. "You've wasted enough time, right?"
"I have classes!" Natsuki called after her, then cursed and slapped a hand over her eyes as even she realized how weak and unconvincing that argument was. Since when had she let school stop her from doing anything?
"So skip, Oh Highly Coveted One," was Mai's amused reply from further down the path. "If she asks, say that old habits die hard – I'll think of something to tell the teachers."
She blew out an agitated breath and pressed her palms into her knees, one heel tapping rapidly against the wall as she watched the redhead walk off.
"You SUCK!" she finally decreed into the warm air.
Natsuki settled her elbows on her knees and rested her chin in her hands; her toes wiggling idly as she considered the situation. Alright, so Mai had a pretty good point, she admitted to herself as she watched small groups of students pass by; their speeds increasing steadily as the lunch period drew closer to its end. There was actually a good chance that Shizuru could have lied to her about her feelings; especially if she thought she'd been protecting her.
Damn, would she be pissed if that was the case, though. Understanding, sure – but still pissed.
She tugged on the strap resting over her knee until she had her bag in her lap and could fish out her phone. A few presses and flicks had her staring at the messaging window, and at the small handful of messages she'd sent to Shizuru since the same morning without getting anything in return.
Would a woman in love ignore messages from the person she was in love with? Natsuki re-read the messages – both her own and Shizuru's – and tried to find any kind of hint without success. Yeah, probably not, but would a woman who was pretending not to be in love do it?
Could she risk not finding out for sure? Gamble that she was right and Mai was wrong, and turn her back on this? Wonder, for only the heavens knew how long, if that had been the right thing to do?
Natsuki sighed as she hopped off of the wall and slung the bag over her shoulder; hoping that her distinctive, predominantly black uniform would at least keep anyone from questioning her leaving.
Need to talk to you, she tapped into the phone as she decisively set off in the opposite direction of the main academy. Now.
Kuga-san is the king; the ultimate prize of the game, and always, always under the watchful eye of the queen.
Like the queen, the king doesn't limit itself to only the dark or light squares, or to a specific direction; it moves to where it feels needed, and stands as the silent, fierce defender of any other piece under its protection. Unlike the queen, however, the king can shift only one square at a time, and needs a far larger amount of moves to make its way across the board.
Resolute and stronger by far in its position in the background, the king rarely enters the game unless its final defenses have been whittled away.
There had been no response from Shizuru in the time it had taken her to drive across the city to her apartment complex. Just to make absolutely sure of that, Natsuki checked her phone once again as she jogged up the stairs to her friend's top floor residence, but no – there were still no new messages – and she put the phone away as she continued her stubborn ascent. The elevator, she mused as she heard the low hum of its movement pass her by in the opposite direction, had also been an option, but it hadn't been on the ground floor when she'd parked her bike and entered the building, and she hadn't been willing to wait for it to show just to save herself the trouble of a few hundred steps.
She reached the eleventh floor soon enough and without taking too hard of a toll on herself, though she did end up having to loosen a couple of her uniform jacket's highest fastenings in order to let some cooler air under the high, straight collar. There was a faint coating of sweat on the back and sides of her neck that made her grimace when she touched it, but luckily it was something that could mostly be removed by way of a paper towel dug from the depths of her school bag, which in turn was dropped into one of the few waste baskets that lined the hallways.
Shizuru's apartment was located in the northeastern-most corner of the building; perfect for a crack-of-dawn riser, since the placement meant that even during the short winter days, she always got the earliest sunlight. Natsuki had been here numerous times since her friend had moved in, but still, knocking on that front door today was enough to make her palms clammy and her heart pound. At least until the door actually opened, at which point she had to work very, very hard to squelch a grin.
For as long as she'd known her, Fujino Shizuru – at least when out in public - had been the perfect image of grace; immaculate skin, perfectly cut and styled hair, neatly fitted clothes and the very essence of manners and politeness. It was an image that served as a shield in many ways, and it had taken a long time before Natsuki had been allowed to see the perfectly normal girl hidden beneath all that poise. When Shizuru had still lived in the Fuuka Academy dorms those glimpses had been few and far between, but once she'd moved out, she'd started to relax a bit more.
Natsuki was, however, quite certain that even at her most stressed, Shizuru would never have opened her dorm room door looking the way she did right now. Not that the view was in any way a bad one, and not that she personally minded; it was just significantly more of a rumpled appearance than her old friend liked to show to the public in general, dressed as she was in fuzzy, bright purple socks, a pair of very well-worn jeans and a loose, untucked black t-shirt with a decidedly un-Shizuru-like saying printed on the chest.
The messy updo she'd pulled her hair into and the pillow-crease running along the entire left side of her face didn't hurt, either.
"Yo." She lifted one hand in a slight wave, and finally lost her struggle with the grin as she pointed to the older woman's t-shirt. "If I had balls, they would be bigger than yours?" she quoted. "I don't remember seeing that one before."
Shizuru, much to her amusement, colored faintly, but chuckled easily enough. "No, you wouldn't have," she agreed with a slight smile. "It's a fairly recent acquisition."
"Please don't tell me it came from your father," she pleaded only half-jokingly as she entered the apartment, and set about removing her shoes.
"Actually, it was a gift from my mother." There was another chuckle, followed by a quick, steadying hand on her shoulder when she almost fell over at the admission.
"God help me if I ever meet your parents," she sighed as she straightened, and followed the older woman into the kitchen after setting her bag aside. "I don't think I'd survive three of you in the same room."
"I'm sure you'd be fine," Shizuru disagreed as she leaned against the stone countertop on one hip, though the slight, upwards tug at the corner of her mouth seemed to indicate otherwise. "Tea?"
"Only if you let me make it." Natsuki folded her arms across her chest and angled her head stubbornly when she saw the protest forming. "It's fine," she argued. "I promise I won't blow up the kitchen, and I know you want to make yourself a bit more presentable – I can see it in your eyes."
The obstinate set to Shizuru's features remained for a few heartbeats longer; then she relaxed and let a faint grin show instead. "I wasn't exactly expecting company," she noted apologetically.
"I can tell," Natsuki commented dryly, and stepped close enough to trail a careful finger over the crease the ran the length of the older woman's cheek in exchange for a subtle, startled widening of the red eyes. "That's what you get for not checking your phone."
"I suppose so." To anyone else, Shizuru looked completely at ease and utterly composed as she curved her lips into a soft smile and backed away. "If Natsuki will excuse me, then."
Natsuki, however, watched her go with a silent apology in her eyes. She knew she was being unfair to her; picking as she was at the tiny cracks in the older woman's carefully constructed, emotional armor. Something that was obviously working, she reflected as she found and filled the kettle – at least if the third-person mode of address was anything to go by. Aside from when it was simply used in a teasing tone, that was the oldest trick in Shizuru's book of protecting herself, and one Natsuki was very familiar with.
No, it wasn't fair, she admitted privately as she set the kettle on the stovetop, turned it on, and then set about retrieving two mugs and deciding which tea to use. In fact, it was decidedly unsportsmanlike, but if she was to have any hope of coaxing Shizuru into discussing something that she presumably kept extremely close to her chest, then she needed to keep her off balance. With her shields at full capacity and raised all the way, any questions she aimed at her would undoubtedly be deflected with that same, easy smile, and probably a variety of teasing comments that would eventually leave her completely distracted and unable to focus. So no – her best bet was to keep up a slow, carefully aimed barrage of little jabs that would ease her old friend's shields down, and keep them there long enough.
And it was working, Natsuki mentally reiterated as she hoisted herself onto the counter with a sigh. She'd certainly never thought she'd see the day where the usually unflappable Fujino Shizuru tucked her proverbial tail between her legs and ran. Even if it was only as far as to another room.
Mai's theory was looking better by the moment, she decided, and let her head fall back against the cabinet with a soft thump as she regarded the white ceiling. She just couldn't quite figure out if she was more relieved that this visit might end the way she wanted it to, nervous about having to spill her guts, or irritated at the now very real possibility that Shizuru had lied to her.
Natsuki watched the slow, gentle plume of steam begin to rise from the kettle, and listened to the muted sounds coming from the next room with her heart in her throat.
Between the king and the queen, the queen is the obvious aggressor; it moves faster and further, while the king must take its time as per the rules of the game. The queen can strike down the king entirely; corner it with a minimum of strategic maneuvering, and deal the final blow to secure a decisive victory.
But sometimes, it's more about the moves – the learning – than the end result. Sometimes, the queen can drop its guard while the oft-underestimated king works itself exactly as close as it needs to be. Sometimes, if the strategy is subtle enough, even the powerful queen can be backed into a corner and rendered helpless against a direct, point-blank attack.
And with the knight and the rook standing solidly at its back, the king is left to finish the game.
By the time Shizuru emerged once more, Natsuki had settled herself on the low-slung, comfortable couch in the living room; accompanied by two mugs of steaming tea, and a book she'd almost stepped on and was now idly perusing.
"Psychology?" she questioned when she heard the soft sound of bare feet, and glanced up. "Like you need any more tricks up your sleeve."
Shizuru, she noted, was looking a lot more relaxed than when she'd left the kitchen. And while she had obviously fixed her hair into a neat updo that more closely resembled the one she'd normally sport and removed the fluffy socks entirely, Natsuki was nevertheless gratified to see that aside from that, all she had done was tuck the same t-shirt into the same jeans she'd been wearing earlier. It was a sign of their overall ease with each other that even dressed to far less than the nines, Shizuru could feel comfortable in her presence.
"I needed a humane sciences credit for the semester," her friend explained as she settled herself a polite distance away. "And as you so tactfully suggested," she continued dryly. "It seems to be a subject that I should do well in without having to spend hours studying every day."
"That's for sure," Natsuki chuckled as she set the book down on the low table, and instead traded it for the two warm mugs of tea. She handed one to Shizuru, and took care to let their fingers brush during the transfer. "Sorry to just barge in like this," she then offered, settling one leg under herself and twisting slightly in her seat in order to better face her host. "I was kinda bummed not to see you at lunch. We haven't been hanging out as much this year, so..."
"So you decided to turn over an old leaf and skip your classes?" Shizuru wondered over the rim of her mug.
"Old habits die hard," she quoted with a smirk, and turned the mug in her own hands slowly. "Besides, give me a break; up until today, my attendance over the past two years – not to mention my grades – have been perfect."
"I know." The red eyes twinkled warmly at her through the gentle mist as Shizuru sipped her tea. "How is Kikukawa-kaichou doing?"
"She has about as much trouble keeping the current Executive Director under control as she did Suzushiro-san," Natsuki admitted with a tilt of her head. "But at least she's got a lot of experience."
"Ara?" The fair eyebrows rose a fraction. "Last I spoke with Haruka-san, she led me to believe that the two of them worked together quite well."
"Oh, they do," she agreed easily. "But you know Nao; even with her stint at the church, she definitely has her own way of doing things."
The older woman chuckled. "I can only imagine," she conceded. "At least she has you to rely on, as well. Even Haruka-san is impressed with you, by the way."
Natsuki snickered into her mug. "Thanks for telling me." She grinned. "I'll make sure to hang that over her head next time I run into her."
"Still such a meanie, though." The red eyes warmed knowingly. "But that outfit does suit you a lot better than the regular one ever did."
Natsuki looked down at herself, and studied the form-fitting, charcoal-black jacket and skirt with the blood-red piping and embroidery that made up her fukukaichou uniform. "You mean I look like a walking advertisement for a bad attitude," she translated wryly, and then smirked. "You're right, and thanks. I'm just glad the color scheme isn't reversed."
"Red was never your shade," Shizuru teased.
"Nope." Natsuki raised the mug to her lips, and met the very distinctly crimson eyes with a smile. "Weird, since it's been one of my favorites for a while."
"Indeed." It was clear from the standard response that Shizuru didn't know how else to reply to that, and Natsuki was content to watch the wheels turn while she sipped her tea. If she knew her friend as well as she thought she did, the next thing that would happen was that the older woman would change the subject to a safer one, and she listened with carefully disguised interest as Shizuru cleared her throat and set down her tea. "So what made you decide to skip classes in order to visit, Natsuki? As much as I enjoy your company, at this point I imagine it would take a rather serious subject to make you do so."
Bingo. She mentally awarded herself a point, and then dropped her gaze to watch the the steaming liquid slowly swirl around the inside of the mug she was holding in her lap. Oh, she knew exactly what she needed to ask, but she wasn't entirely convinced that asking outright was a good idea. Bluntness – though hardly something she usually had a problem with – probably wasn't the best course of action right now; chances were that Shizuru would be able to dodge it.
But then how should she ask? She searched her memory, then found an option, and took a breath.
"Do love songs make any sense to you?"
"Excuse me?" Shizuru blinked at her in obvious confusion.
"Do they?" she pressed. "Just think about it – when you hear a song and it's about being it love, do you get it? Do you understand what they're singing about?"
"Well, yes, but wh-"
"Then which ones make more sense?" Natsuki cut her off. "The ones that are happy and about walks in the park, kisses in the rain or whatever? Or the sad ones about loss and longing?"
"The..." Shizuru was obviously floundering, which, as much as she hated to see it was exactly what she'd wanted to accomplish, and though Natsuki set her cup aside while she waited, she never took her eyes off her face. "The sad ones, I suppose. Natsuki, what-"
"Chie once told me something," she interrupted again, though more softly this time. "Something she'd seen on a clip from an American TV-show. A child was asking his father how he would know if he was in love." She folded her hands in her lap, and very deliberately did not clench them. "His father said that 'All the songs make sense'."
Shizuru was far from stupid, Natsuki considered as she fell silent. In fact, she could see the older woman catching on to her meaning – translating her questions into a sensible cause – before her very eyes. It was in the tiny hardening at the edge of her mouth, the extra strain around her eyes and the faint curling of her fingers. Shizuru knew, and she was not happy.
"So honestly, my question is very simple." She pulled her other knee onto the couch as well, and leaned against the sturdy back while she met the stormy, red eyes head-on. "Before I decide what to do next year – before I make a choice as to whether I stay in Fuuka, in Japan or even go overseas – I need to know one thing." A breath. "When you said that you were no longer in love with me, were you lying?"
And just as she'd expected, Shizuru's eyes gently slid shut.
"I am not currently prepared to discuss this with Natsuki," she enunciated carefully, though the change in mode of address, the added formality to the way she spoke and the fact that she'd closed her eyes combined to be all the younger woman needed to figure out the answer on her own. "And if we've otherwise exhausted that particular subject for the time being, I do have a number of assignments that I've yet to finish."
"Dammit, Shizuru, no!" Natsuki shot onto her knees as Shizuru started to rise, then clamped both hands over the jean-clad thighs and pushed down. "You just gave me the answer whether you wanted to or not, and we are talking about this - now!"
She entertained no illusions that she was holding the older woman in place. There was a solid, wiry strength beneath her hands, and she knew that the soft cotton of the black t-shirt hid a set of deceptively powerful shoulders. If Shizuru decided that she wanted to be left in peace, Natsuki had no doubts that she would be outside the door in ten seconds or less – voluntary or not. This was, after all, the only person who had ever been able to handily defeat her.
The only thing really keeping Shizuru in her seat was the fact that she cared about her, and Natsuki knew that. Given how physically close they were due to their current position, she could easily see the internal struggle happening behind the wine-red eyes. She also knew very well that while she needed to press her temporary advantage, she still had to be careful how far she pushed, lest the entire thing blew up in her face.
"You are such a fucking idiot," she whispered on the tail end of a sigh, consciously gentling her voice as she lightly bumped their foreheads together. "In fact, you're probably the second-biggest idiot I've ever known."
The coiled tension beneath her hands lessened, and she shifted a part of own weight off in return, though she didn't actually move away.
"Who might the biggest one be?"
That was easy to answer. "Me."
"No." Her voice remained soft in spite of the cut-off, and she shook her head in reply to the frown aimed her way. "Don't tell me that it isn't true, Shizuru; I know you. I'm probably the only person on the planet that knows you this well." A beat, then another, and then finally, the fair head nodded once. "I know how you think, and I damn well should be able to read you after everything that's happened. I should have figured out that you were lying a long time ago."
That word, she noted, was enough to make the older woman flinch.
"Would it have mattered?" Shizuru finally asked, and her breath was warm and smelled faintly of citrus. "If I'd told you the truth?"
"Of course it would have mattered!" she growled before she could stop herself, then squeezed her eyes shut and deliberately moved back into an almost seiza-like position while she pinched the bridge of her nose. "Sorry," she breathed, and swallowed harshly against a suddenly tight throat. "But I'm really, really pissed off right now."
"I noticed." She heard the creak of leather just before a familiar hand settled on her shoulder, and the faint hint of wry amusement in Shizuru's voice made her chuckle wanly. "Natsuki, I'm sorry."
"I know," she sighed, and blinked several times to clear her stinging eyes as she wrestled her flaring temper back under control. "It's okay. Like I said, I should have known better." She rested her loosely balled fists on her own thighs, and lifted her head enough that she could meet the worried crimson eyes through her own admittedly blurry ones. "I do know better. So it's as much my fault as it is yours."
Shizuru shifted closer, and the hand moved to the back of her neck; tugging lightly until her forehead was resting on a cotton-covered shoulder while a warm, slender arm circled her back and squeezed tenderly.
"At least there is that," came the soft voice next to her ear, and one of her hands was caught and clasped. "I do despise having you angry with me, though; whatever the cause."
"You're missing the point," she informed her – or at least her shirt - quietly. "I'm not mad at you, Shizuru. Just at the situation." That only earned her another squeeze, and she drew in a slow breath. "What pisses me off is the fact that we both - that I - wasted so much time before we finally talked about this. Really..." She straightened and shifted, then cupped her friend's cheek in one careful hand and watched the rapid flicker of a thousand different thoughts behind the eyes across from her own. "I could have saved us both a lot of time and worry just by doing this."
And with the only sound being the sharp rush of air that quickly became a muffled gasp, she kissed her.
With strength and swiftness often being the key elements that make up the scale, the king hardly registers when compared to the queen. Logically, with only those two pieces pitted against each other, the queen should win every time.
Logic, however, is easily left by the wayside when the heart is a major factor in the game. What's more, the experienced player will have learned a few simple, yet valuable lessons very early on.
Even the easiest target can become a fearsome opponent. Even the weakest piece can have a massive impact.
And even an ambush can result in a surrender.
It was far more relaxing to sit next to Shizuru now, Natsuki decided lazily, and wiggled her shoulder into a more comfortable position against the couch's padded backrest. In addition to that, it was easier to meet her eyes and hold her gaze as well, and she figured that the cause of that was probably the fact that they were no longer hiding anything from each other. In fact, they'd just sat there and gazed into each other's eyes for only the gods knew how long, and she was honestly grateful that there were no cameras around to capture the incredibly stupid, sappy, outright lovesick little smile on her own face.
The one on Shizuru's... Well, that was just making her feel warm all over. No worries there.
"So..." She pushed her head into the gentle fingers combing through the hair at her temple, and studied the wondering, soft look in Shizuru's eyes while she angled her head enough for their lips to brush. "Which songs make more sense now?"
"Hm?" The fingers shifted to trace her features almost curiously; from the curve of her eyebrows and down the bridge of her nose, over her cheekbones and along the sides of her jaw, and it was almost strange how the sensation left her feeling just a little out of breath.
Then their lips were meeting more firmly, and Natsuki decided to stop worrying about songs and what they meant to anyone for the moment. Instead, she pressed closer and trailed her own touch from Shizuru's hand up along the length of her mostly exposed arm, and had just managed to free the long, tawny hair from its bindings when the world shifted slowly around her. Somewhere, she registered the soft sound of her uniform jacket dragging against the pale leather, along with the feeling of the back of her neck coming to rest on the low, curved armrest.
Chiefly, however, she was focused on the tender lips that moved with almost agonizing indolence against her own, the silky strands of long hair between her fingers, and the single, warm palm that had settled on the skin of her waist. An innocent enough touch to be sure – even under the circumstances – but all the same more than enough to send her blood rushing through her veins that much faster.
"You were saying?" came a low murmur against her lips, and she opened her eyes to see Shizuru peering down at her with warmth, amusement, and not just a little mischief.
"Huh?" She was almost to the point of remembering what she'd asked when the tawny head dipped again, only this time the soft lips found a spot below her ear that made her hands clench in the cotton that covered Shizuru's back.
"Natsuki had a question for me." The words washed over her skin, along with a slow, moist breath that sent a very pleasant shiver down her spine. "What was it?"
"Uh..." She fished blindly through her memory. "I w-" The light nip of even teeth on the skin of her throat made her have to bite her lip, though that didn't keep a low, encouraging sound from escaping. "Da- Buh- Dammit, Shizuru, I can't think when you do that!"
She felt more than heard the laugh that her words caused, but the older woman did take pity on her, and lifted herself back up with a light kiss to her cheek.
"You're entirely too distracting," Natsuki complained halfheartedly, and carefully shifted all of Shizuru's long hair onto one side of her neck so that she could better watch the sunlight sparkle in the tiny hairs on her cheek.
She got a low, devious chuckle in return. "I do try," was the thoroughly amused reply.
"Don't try so hard," she returned, and obligingly slid further towards the edge of the couch when she felt a nudge to her hip. "You're obviously a natural."
"I'm glad you think so." Shizuru stretched out on her side next to her with a very satisfied look on her face, and their legs twined when Natsuki herself turned to better face her. "What was the question?"
"Ah." She sniffed thoughtfully. "Well, now that you're no longer causing all the blood to leave my head-" The faint quirk of a tawny eyebrow spoke volumes. "... yet, anyway – the question was which songs make more sense to you right now?" Her hand found a newly created gap where cotton and denim had parted, and she felt the subtle shifting of firm muscle beneath soft skin when her fingers explored below the fabric. "The sad ones?" She watched the corners of Shizuru eyes crinkle, and felt the warmth in her chest grow. "Or the happy ones?"
"The happy ones." Two warm, familiar hands cradled her head, and their noses bumped gently as they both smiled. "Definitely the happy ones."
"Better be," Natsuki managed to murmur just before her lips were otherwise occupied.