Author Note: I normally don't like to point out the pairing before a story begins, but given this fandom, I've decided its only prudent. This story is the beginning of a relationship profile for Nao and Natsuki. So if you refuse to read stories that pair Natsuki up with anyone but Shizuru, you have been warned.
Those few of you I haven't lost... onward!
Edit: A revised copy, thanks to my betas KiraDouji and Kieli.
Gray tendrils of cigarette smoke wafted slowly through the air, their noxious odor mixing with the scents of hard liquor and inner city life. Kuga Natsuki waved at the unpleasant cloud absently, carefully nursing her drink. More than anywhere else, this place felt like home. It had been when she was sitting at this very bar that she had listened to choice bits of information from Yamada, and plotted her revenge. It was in this bar that she had truly felt alive.
Now, all that was left were hollowed out shells and long tracts of debris where Shizuru and Kiyohime had obliterated the First District and all of their scheming. What minions of the First District survived had scattered and returned to their normal lives: police officers, business men, researchers and teachers. She could bear them no more malice.
In the end, all that was left of herself was a hollow shell. Shizuru had left for college, though she had promised weekly letters. Mai, Tate and the rest of the friends she had made during dark times were now consumed with school, relationships, and their own lives. As quickly as it had begun, she found herself isolated and alone once again.
Of course, school had started for herself as well. The third and final year of high school was the hardest and most important; the year that would determine what colleges she had a shot at getting accepted to, and potentially the course of her entire life. It was extra difficult for her, going into her third year with miserable grades and previous poor attendance. Now, with the new semester of school in session for just over a week, she vividly recalled why she had rarely showed up for class. Natsuki sure as hell didn't know what she wanted to do with her life; she wasn't even sure she wanted to go to college. Slaving away, studying higher math concepts and English vocabulary lists was fairly anti-climactic after battling for your life and the lives of all your friends and loved ones against an ancient, unknowable power.
All of which left her here, in the Rorschach bar on a Sunday night, taking a slow sip of her fifth glass of alcohol. There was a faint tingling in her extremities: a sign that even with her fairly high tolerance, the liquid was starting to have an undue effect on her. She sighed in discontent; not even the burn of the liquor, nor the soothingly vengeful memories this dingy establishment contained could help her sour mood. She tossed payment and a generous tip onto the counter, staggering to her feet. The room swayed slightly, and she righted herself with only some effort. Her drinks had been headier than expected, and she silently berated herself for getting this intoxicated.
She had wisely left her motorcycle back at her apartment, choosing instead to walk the short distance between her apartment and the bar. The return trip was more difficult; the lights in the narrow street flickered irritatingly, threatening to give her a headache. As she neared her residence, she heard a muted, angry shouting over the mechanical hum of the florescent bulbs: male and female voices that sounded on the cusp of violence. A foreboding feeling set her on edge, and the sound of a shattering bottle acted like a shot of adrenaline through her inebriated body, forcing her into motion. She sprinted forward, turning down the alleyway, hands instinctively rising to form a tight guard as she turned down the alleyway.
The sight that greeted her was terrifying: a familiar red headed girl two years her junior, Yuuki Nao, with one hand over an eye. Her face was set into a grimace, arrayed against three men in their late twenties, one of whom was menacing her with a jagged, broken bottle. Without letting herself think, Natsuki launched into action. Old habits die hard.
Nao tried to open her eyes, but even the smallest part of her body refused to obey. The world was a mottled haze behind her concealing eyelids. Memories of recent events skirted her consciousness, evading her feeble attempts at pulling herself together. There had been bloodshed, and she was vulnerable. As these faintest recollections began to trickle in, she felt a burst of panic and bolted straight up into a sitting position, her hands set to ward off incoming blows. When none of the anticipated blows came, one eye creaked painfully open, turning upwards into the harsh light. She was greeted by a blurry face, framed by dark blue locks, watching over her. Kuga Natsuki? The older girl was standing a few feet away, her arms folded over her chest, sporting a mildly concerned expression. When Nao's mind processed the fact that the danger wasn't immediate, the full weight of her injuries struck her like a wall. She sunk back down onto the couch, clutching a hand to her head. Through a pounding headache, memories sorted themselves out: a jagged bottle, the violent clashing of limbs, her head being dashed against the bricks, and disjointed recollections of being carried in an undignified heap back to Natsuki's apartment.
"Those guys really did a number on you, didn't they?"
Cutting off her train of thought, a crimson film of anger washed over her vision; her despicable helplessness being thrown in her face overwhelmed any other emotions and voided her of reason. Both eyes flew open, heedless of the pain. "Screw you." she spat, affixing Natsuki with a gaze of pure venom. "What do you want, my appreciation?"
"Appreciation?" Natsuki echoed in mild surprise. "Not particularly." The flat, emotionless response sucked the heated anger out of Nao. Silence reigned. A quick flush of guilt passed over the redhead, though she concealed it well. No matter how frustrated she might be, it didn't feel quite right to lash out at her rescuer. Nao glowered up at Natsuki, who gazed back evenly. The older girl didn't seem perturbed by the unwarranted outburst, as much as she had the right to be. I suppose she understands. Nao thought glumly. In many ways, she is just as proud... and she has been brought just as low. Nao scowled but looked away as her host finally turned and walked into the small kitchenette in the back of her apartment.
"How do you take your coffee?" Natsuki's voice rang off the walls.
"Black." The word was loud enough to be heard, but a shade nicer than Nao's usual acidic tones, offered as if it were a peace treaty.
"Just like me then." Natsuki returned with a hint of amusement. She walked back into the room bearing a plain black mug, steam wafting in a small cloud. She offered the mug, which Nao accepted sullenly. Pulling a chair over from the kitchenette, the blue haired girl spun it so the back faced Nao and sat in it reversed. She folded her arms over the back of the chair, nestled her head on them, and watched Nao take a tentative sip. "Nice outfit. Isn't it a little outdated?"
Nao swallowed the burning hot coffee and sighed with relief as the caffeine worked its way into her system. Processing the other girl's comment, she looked down her own body, looking at the old middle school uniform, torn and muddy. The previous year, she had graduated and moved on to high school, and Natsuki knew that. She pondered over her response, finally settling on the truth. "The high school uniform doesn't bring in the pedophiles quite as well."
"I'd imagine not." Natsuki replied with a wry smile.
Nao lay on the couch for a time as her headache eventually subsided into a mild throbbing pain. Natsuki had taken off the bodysuit while she was unconscious, and now she was wearing a deep blue long sleeved shirt with yellow English letters, plus a pair of faded jeans. How the hell did that girl manage to make such simple, boyish clothes look so good? Nao averted her eyesto keep her stares from being obvious. Looking at Natsuki's body brought up too many unpleasant memories from the nightmarish times of the Festival.
"That's going to leave quite a mark." Natsuki pointed out, breaking the uncomfortable silence. She gestured to Nao's eye.
Nao reached to tentatively touch the swollen skin around her eye. It was bruised and puffy around the entire socket, and extremely tender to the touch. By the morning, it would be shaded purple, testament to her combat. "I've had worse." she replied with a shrug.
"That eye isn't very lucky." Natsuki remarked wryly.
Nao couldn't help but crack a small smile in return, even if it was sardonic. The injured eye was her left, the same eye that had been punctured and destroyed by errant debris from their battle against one another; the same eye that had been given back to her by the Crystal Princess, after the defeat of the Obsidian Lord. "I guess I should take better care of it."
"That would be my advice. Your type of sport is a bit more dangerous now that our Elements are gone." The older girl advised with uncharacteristic tact. .
The redhead snorted. "You expect me to stop with my revenge just because it has become more challenging?"
Natsuki eyed her. She didn't respect what Nao did, but listening to the girl speak of revenge reminded the erstwhile HiME of herself. Given a different time and context, she could even see herself saying those words. "I suppose that's true."
Nao yawned widely. "What time is it? I should give Mama a call."
Natsuki stood and retrieved the mobile phone on the wall, handing it over before going back to the kitchenette to pour herself a mug of coffee. Though she didn't try and eavesdrop, she couldn't help but notice a different quality in Nao's voice as she talked with her mother. It was softer, and almost kind. It lacked the affronted tone Nao managed to inject into even the simplest sentences. She rounded the corner holding her mug, glancing over to see Nao with closed eyes and a gentle smile on her face. So she's capable of those expressions too. Who would have thought? Nao mumbled a goodbye into the phone, then ended the call and tossed the handheld unit to Natsuki. "So…" she drawled.. "What do you have to do in this place?"
Natsuki hung the phone back in its cradle and pondered Nao's request. She had never entertained guests before. Her mind raced. What would Shizuru do? Probably some sort of tea ceremony, which wasn't really an option. She bit her lip nervously as Nao watched her contemplate. All she really had in the apartment were her various collections, and Nao probably wasn't into lingerie. "Well… do you like horror movies?"
"I like anything that makes me squirm." Nao intoned without a trace of humor.
Natsuki's face froze in confusion. What the hell does that mean? Nao snickered as she watched her reaction. Natsuki got the distinct impression that Nao was teasing her. "You would." she shot back. "Anyway, I've always been a fan of the early Hollywood black and white horror movies. They aren't the greatest production quality, but given their time period, they're actually really amazing. You have to forgive a few things…" she shrugged.
"Sounds sort of interesting." Nao said cautiously.
Natsuki went over to her movie cabinet, scanning down the shelves of ancient VHS tapes, settling on one and put it into the player. She walked back towards her chair, but Nao had drawn herself up into a sitting position and was patting the recently vacated half of the couch. The couch was big enough to fit both of them with a decent gap, Natsuki reasoned, so she sat down in the softer seat.
"Sorry about the lack of subtitles." Natsuki warned as the movie began. Neither of them paid enough attention in English class to have any hope of understanding what the characters were saying.
Nao chuckled during the opening scene, as a woman screamed in horror, standing petrified in the path of a slowly oncoming mummy she could have easily fled. "If the dialog is half as bad as the special effects or the acting, I don't think we're missing much."
Natsuki narrowed her eyes, protective like a mother bear of the cheesy classics. "Hey now, these movies spawned a generation of…"
"Yes yes." Nao shushed her. "Believe it or not, I'm actually enjoying myself."
Nao had tried valiantly to stay awake, but even strong willpower and caffeine combined couldn't override her battered body's need for rest. Down and down her mind spiraled, into a consuming, murky abyss. What small part of it that was still conscious felt a familiar rush of mixed dread and longing as the red haze of memories' timelessness came over her mind's eye; the haze that always accompanied clouded dreams of when she was bound to Julia. The times were jumbled in her head, confused by the boundless pain. She could feel the cold metal against the gaping pit in her head where an eye had once been, a searing ache that pierced her to the soul. Hate, desire, pain, loathing, passion, betrayal, love; emotions bombarded her without anything coherent attached to them, but ultimately, all of the dreams always returned to a single point: pressing against helpless Natsuki, metal claws parting the thin material of the black bodysuit, leaving small red trails down pale exposed skin. Haunting eyes stared back at her unseeingly as she leaned in, drawing in to steal a kiss, wanting so badly that her entire being ached.
She gasped awake, sweating profusely, with the slow realization her head was nestled in Natsuki's lap. She half rose, but her vision swam and she collapsed back into her previous position, wincing in pain.
"You make funny noises when you're asleep. Nightmare?" the faintly amused voice above her asked.
Nao looked up, finding the lifeless eyes from her dream replaced by lively emerald orbs looking down at her with concern. "Of a sort." she replied evasively. "Are you comfortable like this?"
"I wasn't about to toss you, head wound and all, off my lap." Natsuki shrugged noncommittally. "I've been in worse positions. You sort of collapsed on me right around the good part of the movie."
She looked over to the screen; the movie was entering its final credits. Faint tickles of the dream not moments ago were becoming more difficult to brush it away. All the composure and mental control she had managed to regain after her initial angry outburst at Natsuki was slipping away. "Sorry."
Natsuki cocked her head to the side with a curious expression. "It's not like you to apologize for something silly like that."
Nao tried to match the other girl's curious gaze, to act like nothing was wrong, but she ended up swallowing guiltily. The imagery from the dreams assaulted her, and her cheeks felt as though they were aflame. She wanted to scream, cry, even choke the life out of the woman who destroyed her sanity without even realizing it. Most of all, she just wanted to steal that kiss she never had the courage to take. Instead she lay there and blushed. "I hate you."
Natsuki's smile vanished. "For what?"
"For what happened during the Festival. For... everything." She had to stop talking there, before she went into any more details. She tried to breathe deeply and calm herself, but her breath kept catching in her throat, silently choking her. Her voice sounded hoarse to her ears. "For making me feel like I need to apologize."
The dark haired girl above her was silent for a time, and every second was an agony. "Nao... look. You don't need to apologize. I forgave Shizuru, I forgave Yukariko and I forgave you. I don't know exactly what happened; I don't remember and I don't want to remember. So... just don't think about it, okay?"
Don't think about it, she says. The words cut through her like a knife. And what if those times, as horrible as they were, were the only times in my life worth living? She coughed, taking a deep breath. She could feel moisture at the corner of her eyes, and she tried to tell herself it was from the breathing difficulties. "It's hard not to." She swallowed hard, managing a bitter smile. "You taught me a lot about myself."
"Then remember the lessons, but don't think about what happened." Natsuki gently extracted herself from under Nao and stood, laying a blanket over the younger girl's body and smiling. "Simple, right?"
Nao watched the movie's final credit scroll by, the logo of the studio. They called the movie black and white, but it wasn't. Like everything in life, it was shades of gray. "Simple? I wish." Before sleep came to claim to redhead, she heard Natsuki intone a single word in response. It was Nao's favorite word, but from Natsuki, it sounded almost soothing.