Fujino Shizuru.

I was used to being lonely, amidst a crowd of people.

Schoolmates looked up to me, as though I was perfect and untouchable.

She's so calm and beautiful. I bet she'll be student council president in the future!

Adults wondered at me.

My, she's so young. How can she be so poised and elegant?

I never understood it, really. I just accepted it, like I accepted everything else.

The smiles came easy, even when I was sad, even when I was angry.

Traditional girls from Kyoto do not twist their faces in rage or cry out in despair.

When I met her, she was standing in the flower garden, eyebrows furrowed, anger in her eyes. She reached out as if to touch a flower, but she surrounded it with her fist and curled her fingers around it.

I had to stop her, so I spoke out. The anger turned to shock as she whirled about to face me.

What was this feeling?

I said something silly about beautiful flowers blooming, but I just wanted to keep looking at her looking at me. For once, my smile was genuine.

It was an odd friendship. She came to me when she needed support or help, and I gave it without question. We did not often go shopping or go to movie theatres or do many of the activities normal friends seemed to do together. Then again, we were not very ordinary.

She brought out my teasing nature in full force. It was delightful that a well-placed comment could break her expression away from the almost constant look of defiant determination.

Step by little step, she began to open up...just like that beautiful flower blooming.

It did not take much longer until I realized she was a HiME. She borrowed the laptop quite often in search of information. There were many days she was absent from school.

Every time she ran off or disappeared, worry caught in my throat. But every time I asked, she would dismiss any importance or say she did not want me involved.

It was hard not to run after her, to make sure she would be all right, but it seemed best I kept it from her as she kept it from me. After all, it was just another secret...and one that seemed pale in comparison.

...Because if she asked, I would bring down the moon for her. It would have frightened me, had I stopped to think.

And then, the dreams began.

Dreams of love, dreams of lust, dreams of dreams, of warmth, touch, heat, sweat, skin. Dreams of sin.

They were nice dreams while I was sleeping, but I always woke up in the end, remembering, realizing. Tears sometimes filled my eyes, threatening to overflow, but the shame was always there.

I kept it all inside, of course. I kept on smiling.

I liked to look at her...gazing when we talked, stolen glances, unnoticed stares.

Perhaps I should have felt guilty for leaving the silly cooking test up to my executive director, but it was impossible. It was rare that I could simply watch her out of the corner of my eye, interacting with others.

Occasionally, she dozed off in front of the laptop in the student council room. I could gaze at her uninterrupted if I chose. Merely her sleeping presence behind me when I turned to look out the window was enough. I never knew content until then.

I wished in passing, that she would never wake up and the moment would last for eternity. Of course, she always woke up, and she always left soon after.

The room was cold and empty without her.

I gave in tonight...at the festival. I tied a ribbon in the arena and prayed.

I cannot say I hold much faith in the old legend, especially applied to my feelings, but it made me feel better.

For a little while.

When the wind blew change, it was a hurricane.

Disaster after disaster struck the school...incidents involving monsters and destruction, tanks and soldiers occupying the grounds. Students transferred in droves.

I learned about the carnival and what would happen to her if I failed.

I could not fail.

On the night of the fires, I watched her run away from me, towards the explosions in the forest.

Knowing what I knew, seeing what I saw, I could not stay behind waiting this time. Fear and adrenaline flooded my senses. I was barely in time to block an attack aimed at her. My child smothered the other child as I strove to avert further danger.

I was able to hide myself behind the flames, but the deception would not last.

A little white bird told me she was in trouble. A dangerous bird, but none of his chirping had become lies yet.

I raced to her, fast as I could go. My eyes took in the ruined motorcycle, the cracked helmet discarded on the side of the road, but mostly her, hanging limply from a grotesque arachnid. Her attacker stood before her, a claw poised above her eye.

Rage flared inside of me, but my voice rang calmly in my ears as I interrupted. I smiled.

Her attacker did not stand a chance.

Had I stopped to think, it should have terrified me, how easily I cut the cliff and condemned her attacker to the rocks below.

All I could think about was getting her to safety, tending her wounds, warming her from the wet cold.

It was nice in that empty house, just her and I. It was almost as though I could forget about what was happening outside.

When I brought her back, I helped her clean up and change into fresh clothes. She was barely conscious from fatigue, so I guided her to a futon as quickly as I could and tucked her in.

I watched her sleep, moonlight bathing her face.

She woke up once, briefly.

It hurt when she said she had not cared what would happen to her.

I watched her sleep the entire night. Something told me our time was short.

She spent the next day resting. I brought her food, and she played with the dog that belonged to the owner of the house.

It hurt when she said her child had not answered her cries.

I wanted to wipe away her tears.

Despite the sadness, I wondered how long I could make the delusion last...her and I...in the empty house.

I had only walked out to tell her to come inside before the cold of night fell. After I had spoken and she failed to reply, I realized that she was asleep. My eyes refocused on her form, leaning against the side of the house.

The light of the setting sun was causing her skin to glow. Ebony hair, still gathered in a braid, cascaded down along her side. Her head was resting back against the house, her face slightly tilted up, away from me. My eyes caressed her face, long eyelashes, arched eyebrows, delicate nose, gentle cheekbones, lips ever so slightly parted.

I lifted my hand to her face, barely daring to brush my palm along her cheek. My mind's whispered protests were drowned out by the thudding of my heart. I gently turned her head towards mine and slowly leaned towards her, ever closer, ever closer, breathing in her sweet scent.

It will be...just one...stolen...

A shriek and a rustling sounded behind me. I spun around, ice clenching inside of me. My eyes landed on the shocked faces of the executive director and her assistant, half hidden in the bushes.

Oh, Shizuru... What have you done?

I stood up and smiled.