Chapter One – Shades of the Past

The soft hues of orange and gold bled across the deep blue of the horizon as twilight gave way to the coming night. Warm breezes flowed like clear water through the tall sliding glass windows of a sparsely furnished penthouse flat atop one of several modern looking high-rise tenements in the Higashiyama District of Kyoto. Laughter and music from those attending the Gion Matsuri Festival filtered up from the crowded streets below. From the balcony, a lone woman sat in pensive silence, wishing that she had managed to enjoy the Festival's parade earlier in the day, as the Naginata Hoko was one of her favourite floats.

Fujino Shizuru leaned back in the fluffy papasan that was positioned on the flat's sprawling balcony for the specific purpose of watching the days start and end. With her usual cup of tea in hand, she stared off into space, meditating in the stillness of her mind. There was a time when that simple act brought her joy beyond measure. It was a ritual for her, to count the hours until she would get to see Natsuki again. However, that pleasure has long since been denied her after that fateful day. It had been almost a year and a half since the chaos that was ironically called the HiME Festival. The Obsidian Lord was no more but many of the HiMEs still were left to try to repair the emotional damage that he left behind in their lives. Although his destruction had returned everything to relative normality, memories remained of the pain that had been caused, the unforgivable acts that had been done.

She would relive those moments over and over in her mind, wondering if she really deserved the forgiveness that her dark-haired friend had given so freely.

Shizuru's brow creased in anguish as she remembered the look on her close friend's face; the pain of broken trust and the possibility that Shizuru had taken advantage of her at her weakest moment reflected in her deep green eyes almost brought the former student council president to her knees.

All of the best laid plans, all of the good intentions…they paled and disappeared like so much smoke in the face of what Natsuki perceived as betrayal. Shizuru's soul had shattered into a thousand pieces. The woman she loved was lost to her in the briefest instant and she didn't know how to get it back, to undo the damage. So she left; fled to fulfill her promise to Natsuki, despite the loss. To defend her at all costs.

First District fell beneath Fujino-san's blade with only a brief fight. They were surprised and outmatched. While it was very tempting to put the women's council to the sword, she had held back. Outright murder was not in her nature. Though she had touched on a darkness within that she never knew she possessed, Fujino-san was not entirely lost to madness. All of Natsuki's enemies were dismantled, their threat to her gone in the blink of an eye. She had to admit, efficiency was ever her strong suit.

A chill rippled through Shizuru and she tightened her grip on the cashmere throw wrapped around her shoulders. "What was that saying?" she mused. "The road to hell is paved with good intentions? Yet, like Dante who followed his guide, 'I entered on that deep and savage road'." She sipped slowly at her tea, her thoughts pitching and rolling through her mind like a storm-tossed sea.

When they had rematerialized in the school chapel, Shiruzu had broken down, begging Natsuki to forgive her for the things she had done. In the end, though, Natsuki had forgiven all without her ever having to explain. But somehow that wasn't enough. She felt the need to justify her actions to her most important person but she could barely justify them to herself. They drifted apart eventually, in part due to Shizuru's graduation but overall due to her feeling that did not deserve Natsuki's forgiveness or her friendship. Her parents had secured her place at Doshisha University in Kyoto so she returned home, convinced that the distance would help them both heal.

But once the semester began, Natsuki started calling her on a weekly basis. "I'm worried about you. You don't call me as much as before. And God knows, I miss you giving me a hard time," she joked. When the silence on the other end had gone on for too long, Natsuki had tried gentle prodding. "Hey, talk to me. I'm usually the monosyllabic one, remember?" The younger girl thought that might get her friend to open up but she remained as mysterious as before. Soon, she stopped returning Natsuki's calls. Guilt and the pain of rejection had taken its toll. She closed herself off from everyone she ever knew and hid out in the flat her parents gave her as a graduation present when she wasn't in class. Natsuki's stubbornness took a different tack; she began to write letters. Shizuru sent a brief missive back after the dark-haired woman had sent several letters; it read only "I withdrew from the world, not because I had enemies, but because I had friends. Not because they did me ill turn, as is customary, but because they thought me better than I am. It was a lie I could not endure." She hoped that Natsuki would understand. That was one of the things she so loved about her; they seemed to know each other's feelings without words being said.

"Fujino-sama, your dinner is waiting."

Shizuru turned her attention from her inner monologue to address the servant that appeared by her side. "Thank you, Touru-san. I'll be in momentarily."

"Very well, Fujino-sama." The young maid paused when her mistress did not move.

"Is there something else, Touru-san?"

"It's just….well, you've been very reclusive lately. You won't receive visitors or calls. I'm just concerned for you." Touru's voice trailed off.

A shadow of a smile flitted across her mistress's face. "I'm fine, just a little under the weather. No need to worry."

"As you wish." Touru replied, bowed and went inside the flat.

Shizuru sighed and rose to follow her servant inside when the doorbell rang. Arguing voices drifted out to her, one she recognized even with her eyes closed.

"You mustn't go out there! Miss doesn't wish to be disturbed by anyone."

"Well, I'm not just anyone. Move!" The brunette chuckled lightly. Some things just never change, she thought. She suddenly felt the presence of someone standing behind her.

"Shizuru! We need to talk. Right now!"