Countless stars and trails of white sparkles glittered throughout the cosmic plane of darkness. The chilly, soft breeze of air enveloped the sense of timeless oblivion. It was where the ground met with the skies, the sands rising above the seas. It was the time without day or night, minutes and hours multiplied. It was when whispers and echoes of hollowness rang louder than rambles of great thunders.
Her eyelids fluttered at the distant call that slowly penetrated into her deep, dark, secret world.
"Principal Kruger, I'm afraid it is time."
A gasp escaped her dry lips, and the green eyes shot wide open. The wooden roof above her was spinning, but gradually came to a stop. Her vision took a few moments to adjust to the twilight, and she sat up to look out the window of the tree house.
Beyond the vast forest behind the campus of Garderobe, the sky was red with thick clouds hanging low. Although lightning still flashed across the sky, the rainstorm seemed to have finally lost its fierce power from last night. This dawn looked to have its first break in days.
"Oh, Natsuki-san, I know you're up there," the female voice continued after a long period of silence.
Tucking her hair behind her ear, Natsuki moved her gaze from the scenery, chuckling to herself. Over the past years, Maria always knew where to get her whenever her chamber was found empty. The older woman would have climbed up here to wake her if not for that one time she did but received a deadly glare from the young principal. No one—no other life form—was ever allowed to enter the tree house. Natsuki made sure that she cleaned up, or fixed, if needed, the place herself, fiercely guarding her memory from the outside world.
"All right. All right. You know I'm up here," Natsuki mumbled to herself, climbing down the rope ladder. She was in her white nightgown, warmed with a navy sweater. She felt her throat a little sore, unconsciously falling asleep last night after a star watch that she didn't get to cover herself with the blanket.
Beaming, Maria greeted her with a cup of hot tea as usual. "Good morning, madam."
Natsuki pulled the collar closer and took the drink. "Good morning. It's actually two hours before my alarm clock would ring. I'm not sure the tea will wake me up."
"But today is special, madam. Today will write you into history book. A very special day for you," Maria said as they started to walk down the graveled path, heading back to Natsuki's chamber. The campus was still deafeningly quiet as the students were still fast asleep.
"You scared me there. History book makes me sound ancient. The tea is great as usual," Natsuki said, both hands holding the cup to her lips.
"The guests will be here in three hours. There's very little time for you to prepare, madam… I've always been amazed by your unchanged taste in green tea. You never tried anything else."
Striding in her confident gait, Natsuki placed the empty cup on Maria's silver tray. "Really? I thought I did," she muttered as if she wished Maria not to hear it. The old woman seemed to have learned of the reason after the years, but never quite spoke it outright. "By the way, three hours is a lot for dressing up and getting my hair done. I'm not going to a wedding."
Maria only smiled, and Natsuki pretended that she had successfully shifted the subject back to the celebration that would be held today, concealing away the hinted subtext. Everyone knew that the tree house was almost a forbidden area in the campus, but no one knew why. Everyone was grateful for the fast plan of renovation of the ruined school buildings by the young principal, but no one understood why she insisted on having the burnt library rebuilt precisely the same as the old model, which had been constructed hundreds of years ago, rather than flattering the campus with a modern one.
But as everyone else started to put the past behind them, Natsuki had a few unfortunate souls who still shared the same memories with her, and they knew exactly why.
"Yes… it's today…" Natsuki murmured in front of the mirror in her own large chamber. She stood there, naked, her long, dark hair falling to her back. She could see everything so clearly from the reflection. The gray blanket on the bed behind her was flat and cold, the pillows fluffy without a single wrinkle. If there was a sound in her room, it was only the sound of her breathing. If there was a movement, it was her heartbeat that now beat only for the emptiness inside her.
This extraordinary day came after nearly eight years of brutal and heartbreaking struggles to officially free every Otome fighter from their masters' bond, a tie she considered a form of slavery. She had pushed for freedom for future Otome, getting the decree past the committee. From this moment on, the fighters were free to choose, their loyalty tested through time.
Staring hard into the mirror, Natsuki saw nothing but failure to rejoice the victory. All her life, she was brought up with the ideology of absolute loyalty and honorable death. She had to wonder who now would teach her how to live the freedom she never knew.
"You're going to catch yourself a cold," Maria said, putting a nice, warm shirt over the young woman's shoulders. Natsuki was so caught up in her thoughts that she hadn't noticed Maria's presence until now.
Natsuki nodded a little in grateful gesture, buttoning up her shirt. All the while, she kept her gaze to the carpeted floor.
"She would have been so proud of you. We are so proud of you." The old woman firmly gripped Natsuki's shoulder, reassuring the young principal of her conviction.
But Natsuki chuckled as she began to dress up. "I doubt she would. I inherited her family name, yet I did everything against her will," she said in an almost playful tone. Changing name seemed a superficial new start, but it did her a favor in the political environment she was engaged in. 'Kuga' had become a taboo name for the new era now.
"Don't be so hard on yourself," Maria said, helping Natsuki into the blue uniform. Natsuki looked proper and somber in the long coat, her hair pinned to the side. "Even on her deathbed, she trusted that she was right to pick you as the heiress. Have you forgotten how big of a ruckus the elders create to kill the proposal? You may be young, but also one of the most accomplished Garderobe principals already. We're truly fortunate to have you."
Staring into the mirror once more, Natsuki tightened her coat, studying the Ice Silver Crystal gem adorned on her earring. The Sword of Numen was simply replaced by the symbol of power, the game of politics and preposterous sacrifices that came with the gem. Her life appeared normal and calm after the war, but the hidden burden was as outrageous as ever.
Taking in a deep breath, Natsuki turned to smile at the old woman. "I'm lucky to have you, Maria."
"You have your friends, too. I believe his flight arrived half an hour ago. He should be here by now," Maria said with a wink.
Her face reddening at Maria's tease, Natsuki stuffed her hands in her pockets as she quickly strode out of her chamber. Blushing was a habit she just couldn't seem to kick. Making her way towards the grand hall, where the celebration party would be held in just a few hours, she instantly spotted the tall, brawny figure by the entrance. She took her time moving across the hall among the inquisitive eyes of the maids, who were setting up tables for the event.
"Good morning, my Natsuki." Smiling widely, Frederick Grey greeted the young principal in the way he knew would upset her.
"Quit it." Natsuki strode past the dark-haired man to the beautiful courtyard outside for some privacy.
Hands clasped behind his back, Frederick followed in a leisure gait. "Do you have to wear this boring uniform? It's your special day. Relax. Perhaps, changing into a gown or—"
"Are you here alone? Where's Kumiko-san?" Natsuki asked casually as she admired the rows of colorful flowers. The smell of blossoms and the coolness of the morning breeze soothed her greatly. It was where many students loved to hang out during breaks.
"I know you're blunt, but I never knew how to take it when an ex asked about my current girlfriend."
"It's just a question," Natsuki said, raising her brows shrewdly. Over the years, she was quite accustomed to his teasing and learned to forgive him at times. It was possibly his princely manners and his mystifying, playful side that attracted her to him without her wanting to admit it.
"She doesn't want to see you," he eventually replied.
Natsuki's jaws dropped, her brows twitched.
Frederick laughed and quickly raised his hands up. "All right. All right. She's got a super important meeting with Carl Merlo, the biggest banker from Florence. He'd be here today if not because of a car accident last week. I'm surprised he's still eager to strike a deal on his hospital bed. Kumiko was cursing him for making her miss the celebration."
He smiled again. "She's got nothing against you, Natsuki. Can you please stop worrying?"
Natsuki made a grumpy face of a child. "I can't care less what she thinks about me." However, there was a tint of seriousness and, conceivably, sadness, in Frederick's dark eyes, that struck Natsuki.
"Of course," he muttered. His soft and kind voice always reminded Natsuki of the way someone once spoke to her. It used to anger her, and it was the reason she disliked Frederick when they first met. But she knew she couldn't stay angry for the rest of her life. She just couldn't stand to hate the past as it was the only thing that had kept her alive.
Natsuki let out a sigh and continued to stroll along the path. It was her important day, and the last thing she wanted was the maids to witness the tears that almost welled up in her eyes. For the past year, there had been absolute silence. No one responded to the call of Ira that still ran in her veins. She used to be able to sense the remaining Saints whenever their wills were weak, their spirit downed. The survival of the few Saints was kept highly confidential among a few; Principal Kruger, Maria, Haruka and Natsuki herself.
But all signs of the Saints had vanished a year ago. Either they had mastered their willpower, disconnecting Natsuki from their mind, or something terrible had happened to them. Did someone discover the truth? Was there an underground operation to hunt down the surviving Ira? Did they succeed?
Frederick glanced at her from the side. "You look troubled."
They came to stop in front of the library. The area was still very much quiet and it suited her purpose just fine. She led him inside and proceeded to the wooden bench, a short distance away from the entrance in case anyone was nearby. She waited for him to sit down next to her, studying his face in the pool of dim light that shone through the colored glass windows behind them.
"Did you find anything?"
Frederick suddenly looked ill at ease before turning to her. "I wish you'd stop this fishy business of yours."
"I'm a businessman, not a secret agent. What you asked of me is impossi—"
"Possible. You're an aristocrat. You have easy access to its prisons and underground camps." Natsuki knew she was becoming impatient, irrational even, but the absence of Ira disturbed her immensely so that she had hardly got any decent sleep for several months now.
"I checked up every prison listed, but it doesn't mean she'd be there. Thousands of people migrate there every year. This is crazy." Frederick brushed the back of his head in frustration, clearly uncomfortable.
"So nothing is really happening over there? Nothing out of ordinary? Anything interesting?" Natsuki wouldn't even waste a second of her life asking these silly questions if only her presence in Gulzar didn't make news. She had tried her best to downplay her connection with anyone or places from the past that might rematerialize public's interest in Ira.
"There were loads of people and activities there that I'd call 'interesting'. What are you trying to do, Natsuki? All I know is that this cousin of yours is the same age as you are, and that Gulzar is probably the only place she'd be. The world is big, all right. There's a nation far west reestablishing as we speak. For a scoundrel, I think that's where she'd go."
Natsuki gritted her teeth. "She's not a scoundrel."
"Prisons. Camps. I don't know what to think. Kuga Satomi? Come on. She doesn't even exist." He lazily sighed, leaning back against the bench.
Natsuki mentally brushed aside his remark. "Chandra River? Anything?"
"This is disturbing. You don't even care that I know that she doesn't exist."
He bit his lips, visibly annoyed by her persistence. There was a long silence between them, and he only continued because of the anxious look in her eyes he seldom witnessed. "Promise me that you're not doing anything stupid—whatever you're trying to do here."
Her determined gaze was the only answer he received, and their gazes locked. He lowered his head a little closer to hers and whispered, "Someone caught me one night I spent out drinking at a local tavern… She knows you're looking for her."
Natsuki froze, her throat suddenly dried. Chill ran down her spine as she gripped her knees so harshly that her knuckles were white. She remembered well of the dark streets in Gulzar, the loud chatters of travelers, thieves and murderers walking among them. Behind the blood-stained walls of the forsaken buildings, the men made their deals against humanity as harsh, cold desert wind blew against their rough faces. Frederick must have learned what it was really like in Gulzar.
Natsuki took a deep breath in. "When did this happen?"
"Six months ago."
"What!" Natsuki was exasperated. "Why didn't you—"
"Are you insane? She nearly killed me! How selfish you were to have put me in that position! Have you ever cared about me at all!" His face was twisted in disgust.
Natsuki's mouth hung open, startled when he jumped to his feet. She was dumbstruck by his anger, but even more so by the revelation. After all these years, the encounter seemed so unreal to her. It took her some times before she could focus again on him.
"I'm… I'm so sorry. I… I didn't know—I didn't quite expect you to really… that she'd appear…"
Pacing back and forth, Frederick stared at her square in the eye, breathing heavily. His rare display of fury proved that whatever that happened that night wasn't pretty, and the event still haunted him. "She's definitely not a distant cousin like you claimed. You owe me the truth."
His voice was low and cold that she had to shut her eyes for a brief moment. A part of her was scared that he had learned too much, but it seemed to be the only way she'd find out about the disappearance of Ira.
"She…" Natsuki paused, and then looked up at him. "I'm sorry that I've put you through the whole ordeal. If there's anyone else in the world that I could trust, it'd be you. I'd have told you the truth, but I think it's best for you not to get involved anymore. Believe me that I'm really sorry."
Frederick stood still, but his gaze softened at her sincere apology. Eventually, he knelt in front of her, clutching her hands on her knees. "I was worried for your safety… But I hope you know what you're doing."
Giving him a restraint smile, Natsuki just nodded. "Thank you."
"The locals always talked about the vagabond, who guarded caravans from place to place. She was quite famous for warding off bandits and thieves. She was… She was like a protector of the outlawed land." Frederick gestured to his face, waving little as if recalling his encounter that night. "Her eyes… It was dark, but I could still see her eyes. They were blood red—" But he paused when Natsuki stared harshly at him as if to stop him from speaking anymore of this business.
"Natsuki…? Very well, as you wish…" Obeying her silent request, Frederick squeezed her hands and stood up. Just before he left the library, he stopped and turned to look at her. "Before she let me go that night, she sent me a few words to you."
Natsuki kept her head down, unsure whether she wanted to hear it or not.
"It's all in the past now. Let it go." With that, Frederick walked out of the building and left her alone with the echoes of those haunting words.
Her hands slightly shaken, she reached for a cigarette in her coat pocket and lit one up, her gaze fixed on her feet. Today was not only the day to celebrate her greatest achievement, it was the day she realized how truly alone she had been. Today was a very special day, indeed.
"I don't think you can smoke in here."
Natsuki froze in her pose at the familiar voice from her left. The memory of the day she was cleaning in this very library flashed before her eyes. The words were repeated, and the scent of the morning air had returned. Days, months and years rushed back to her like a derailed train flying into a building.
Her head shot up, but she stopped short at the sight of Haruka leaning against the wooden door by the entrance.
The woman's eyes shone brightly, Haruka was in a white uniform, her arms across her chest. Her long, wavy hair waved lightly by the cool breeze, although she was a bit pale now for having lived up north for several years. She was appointed Mayor Haruka Armitage by the Republic of Aires, Yukino Chrysant's homeland, for the heroic deed during the war. She had spent most of her time seeing much of the renovation of the country and was satisfied with the accomplishment as Aires eventually returned to the top rank of the loveliest places in the world.
But Haruka's grin was rapidly replaced by a frown. "You look so disappointed to see me!" She grumbled, and strode towards the bench to sit next to her friend. "I saw the dude leaving just a minute ago. What were you two doing here? Don't tell me you guys are back together. Isn't this place a little too creepy for—"
"He met her," Natsuki unintentionally blurted out, clenching her fists. She just couldn't keep it to herself now. At first, asking Frederick to report her of the movements going on in Gulzar was simply out of desperation. Soon, her inquisition quickly turned to obsession, but she didn't want Maria or Haruka to know of her hope, which surely had to be shot down.
For a while, Haruka just watched her without uttering a word in astonishment. She didn't even have to ask who was 'her'. There was only one thing that still held them both back from reaching peace of mind even though they rarely discussed it.
"They all disappeared a year ago and… I needed to know. Frederick has frequent business trips to Gulzar, and he's an outsider." Natsuki looked up at the blonde, a pang of guilt ramming in her chest. Ira was the reason for Yukino's death, and searching for the Saints was the last thing she wanted Haruka to know.
"I didn't want to keep it away from you, but—"
"Does he know who she was?" Haruka asked, her gaze drifting away.
"No. But I'll leave him out of this matter from now on. I was so wrong. I didn't think she would… She almost killed him…"
There was neither display of resentment nor surprise from Haruka. Natsuki was even taken aback at her friend's concern over Shizuru's identity.
Haruka got up from the bench and walked to the row of tall windows a few feet away. Peeking out, gentleness filled her gaze. She tapped the glass with her iron knuckle and turned to Natsuki. "Yukino, Akane and I used to spy on you guys right outside this window. We thought you were going to hurt her or something. Man, we hated your guts." She chuckled, looking out the window again. "We were so young and naïve. It's funny to think about it now. Funny."
Natsuki lifted her gaze to the window and the giant trees outside. For long years, she felt she was the only one cherishing those days. For all the struggles they had gone through, she thought she was the only one foolish enough to long for those lost moments. But the smile on Haruka's face told her that she was, indeed, the only one who hadn't the courage to move on.
Taking a step back, Haruka leaned against the window, sunlight shining over her head and shoulders, casting her in a near silhouette figurine. "Maybe there's a reason they all disappeared. They're not dead, so let's hope it was for a good reason. Maybe… Maybe they're giving you a new start, and I'll always be there when you're ready."
Moments passed, Natsuki studied the genuine determination in Haruka's eyes. When they started to speak in spontaneous unison, they stopped and then burst into small laughs. Both were a little shy and embarrassed, but also relieved to know that they still had each other's shoulder to lean on.
"I see you change your companion very quickly, Madam." Maria's interruption caught both women off-guard. Smiling, she stopped at the door, her hands clasped in a relaxed posture. "Hello, Mayor. It's good to see you again. It's been a while, hasn't it?"
"You've missed me!" Haruka brazenly declared, pounding her chest with one hand.
"We all have. Welcome back." Maria chortled, then turning to Natsuki. "The guests start to arrive now, Madam. Leaving them walking alone isn't such a lovely idea, is it?" She winked at her last remark.
Haruka swung her arm around Maria's shoulder and led the old woman out. "Our Principal offers no compromise. Breakup is a breakup! Can't Grey-san find a woman of his own? I thought he did. He shouldn't bother with my friend anymore."
Rolling her eyes, Natsuki got up and followed them out. Although she couldn't take Haruka's comment seriously, she couldn't help but blush at her friend's bold statement. She did try to keep her relationship with Frederick out of spotlight, but everything she did was news around the globe. Being the young and attractive Principal of Garderobe, she had had more than fair share of 'friends'.
"Let's make a toast to the greatest heroine of our time, to Principal Natsuki Kruger."
Sitting at the head of the long table filled with dozens of influential politicians and high-profile sponsors, Natsuki cringed when Okada-san, the aging billionaire from Ramus, shakily rose from his seat. The white-haired man grinned so widely, flashing his white teeth.
"To Principal Natsuki Kruger!" The honorary guests at her table, along with every student in the grand hall, voiced in unison.
Okada-san had been one of Natsuki's closest allies in the world of politics. All the praises he poured out at this very moment did not surprise her, but strangely comforted her. They had gone through many tests of trust and betrayal. He had his doubts of her unusual aspiration and sometimes childish persistence every now and then, but all of that was at last overcome by her ingenuity. The old man, as if seeking retribution, had helped Natsuki make her dream possible. He was the rarest kind of friend she expected to have.
"As a soldier who risked her life to save us, who lost many she held dear during the battles, who never surrendered to evil even when… even when the biggest obstacle was her very own father… And as an ordinary woman who stood tall with her feet on the ground, her head high in the sky, fighting for freedom of her fellow human beings…" Okada-san lifted his wine glass a little higher towards Natsuki, his thin lips widened once more. "To Kuga Natsuki who has given us hope for better tomorrow."
The cheer thundered the hall, and Natsuki couldn't help but smile. She bit her lips so hard as not to cry. In all honesty, she hadn't expected to enjoy this celebration. She hadn't expected to be able to sit through until now. But the smile on everyone's face was telling her that she had done the right thing even though there were times when she was uncertain of it. She began to appreciate the fact that her life did have a purpose, and all the loneliness she had felt during those years would now be washed away.
Natsuki finished her wine. She finally saw the brighter future ahead. After eight years, she could believe again.
"I made sure that the place is clean and ready," Natsuki said as she walked out of the grand hall, Okada-san by her side. After the luncheon, the guests were walking about, enjoying their desserts and cocktails around the courtyard. Live musical band was playing soft tunes. The sun was high, but soft behind the patches of white clouds.
Okada-san raised his brows and studied the young woman for a few moments. "Are you sure about this? It was—"
"I'm certain. We signed the paper." Natsuki laughed, sipping more wine.
"It's too much of a present. It was… your home."
The glass lingered to her lips a little too long for her liking, but Natsuki continued to hold it up and decided to have another gulp before responding. "It hasn't been for many years. I live here."
Okada-san moved a few steps from the entrance for other guests to walk through, gesturing for her to come closer. "You can pack your belongings away, but not your memories. I've got more than seventy-five years of four wives and thirteen children. They're far too much to just pack and send it away. Trust me. I tried."
They both laughed, strolling into the courtyard among the milling crowd.
"I…" Natsuki paused a little to recollect her thoughts. "I suppose I'm not…" A smile eventually replaced the vacant look in her eyes before she said, "I really want you to have it, Okada-san."
"Now, are you certain the place is tidy? Have you thoroughly checked it? I cannot believe that you trusted the lawyers and the laborers to take care of it. My grandson is about to move in next week!" Okada-san pretended to pout.
"Oh, all right." Natsuki chuckled. "I'll make sure to arrange that."
"You make the time. The party is nearly over, but you can always change your mind."
"The paper was already signed," Natsuki said, smiling.
"It's only a paper. It can only hold so many words you cannot say." He winked as he was escorted by his bodyguards to greet his business partners.
Natsuki nodded to him, feeling slightly dizzy from the wine effect. Apparently, she had consumed a lot more than she intended to. But it was her special day; she wasn't about to close the door and be alone again. A little fun could not hurt.
'WHERE ARE YOU, EXACTLY? I've been calling you for twenty times! You left the campus without telling ME!'
Her cell phone tucked between the right ear and the shoulder, Natsuki cringed at the voice blaring through the line. "I'm sorry. I left my cell phone downstairs. I'm at my parents' house. Okada-san's grandson will move in next week. Oh, my God, I can't believe they still left the rugs here! I told them to haul everything out! Do these things look like new furniture to them!"
Natsuki now marched around in the backyard, carrying around a torn box she found in the garage, trying to collect the trashes. She was upset enough to see a few, empty buckets in the guest bathroom on the first floor, an old, red t-shirt (presumably belonged to one of the construction workers) hanging over the rim of the window on the second floor of her bedroom window, and a pair of dusty sandals tucked away under the rug. Those were to name a few. Trashes were scattered about the corner of the kitchen.
"I am so going to kill him!" Natsuki growled into the phone.
'Mmmmm… Who? MmmMmmmm.' Haruka was audibly chewing food on the other end of the line.
"I told Kato to tell his men to clean up! CLEAN AND READY! What is wrong with these people!"
'Chill out, Ok? Just call the dude. You got a week, right? Besides, I think the old man was just tricking you. Who knew? He finally got you dropping by. Change your mind?'
Natsuki let out a loud, frustrated sigh. It was her own fault for having paid Kato and his team without checking up on the place, trusting his reputation. It was her fault for acting like a coward. She would surely have Kato come in first thing tomorrow morning. Okada-san had scheduled to move in the new set of furniture for his grandson in the next three days, and the condition right now was not nearly good enough to present this mansion as a gift.
"Yeah, I'm gonna call that bastard now. Talk to you later."
'Eh, need help? I can—'
Natsuki cut the line, and dialed Kato's number right away. As soon as he picked up the phone, she delivered a long, breathless lecture that could have put the guy out of business right then, receiving profuse apologies in return. Kato swore to bring his men to clean up tomorrow and would return the last payment as an apology as well.
'Seven in the morning, yes, Madam. Seven o'clock in the morning. I promise we will be there, Madam. I promise.' Kato had been repeating himself for the past few minutes like a madman.
"Seven, it is, and if I don't see you at seven o'clock sharp tomorrow morning, you do know what will happen to you." Red in the face, Natsuki couldn't quite believe hearing herself at the moment.
Threatening people was a habit she had long forsaken. Shouting hadn't actually made her feel this good in years. No longer suppressed in serious meetings, or stressed over having people's lives on the line, she was just getting back to the mundane, daily life she had lacked. With or without her consent, being here did suck her back in, awakened her and somehow made her feel real.
Natsuki hung up the cell phone and put it into her coat's pocket. After the furious phone conversation and marching about the mansion, she found herself in the hallway to the living room, a large mirror her mother once bought from an antique shop hung up on the wall in front of her. Seeing herself in casual clothes had always felt quite relieving. She had changed into her favorite, beige coat before she had left the campus, wearing a blue sweater and a pair of jeans. She liked to look ordinary whenever she was out of campus.
Slowly, she stepped forwards and raised her hand. Her palm touched the cold mirror as she looked into the green eyes, staring at them as to search for a sign of comfort. If there was a reason Kato hadn't moved this large piece of furniture out, she failed to object now. It had been many years since she last admired it, and the gold paint along the thick, wooden frame had now faded. She remembered it to be one of her mother's proudest collections, and her father's pleasing gift to his wife. She was so young back then, and all she could see in the mirror was how happy they were.
Resting her forehead against the cold plane, Natsuki closed her eyes and breathed in. "I miss you, mother… Father…" Even if it killed her to smile at the old memories, she just couldn't help it now. If anything, both her parents always taught her to be strong—strong enough to stand on her own and fight on her own. If anything, they would have been so proud of her now.
Exhaling a long breath, Natsuki straightened herself up, her heart filled with strength to move on. There were still some litters scattered about the mansion, and the most amusing thing was that the newspaper boy still delivered stacks of newspaper every morning even though nobody had lived here for years. Natsuki thought she did cancel the subscription, but Maria, as busy as the old woman was, probably forgot about it. She could only blame it on her own lack of credit card management.
Natsuki made her way out the front door, intending to clean up the garbage in the yard. She took a few, hasty strides down the white steps, but was stopped by the sight of an intruder just a few feet before her. The hooded figure in a worn, gray coat bent to pick up some of the old, yellowing newspaper. Natsuki opened her mouth, ready to scold so loudly the whole street could hear her at the trespasser.
Disregarding the old headlines, the intruder turned and faced the mansion owner. Both were caught by surprise the moment their gazes met. There was no external force present. There was nothing left to fear of losing. Natsuki wasn't being dragged away by her mother, and the homeless girl wasn't brought in by Kuga Hideaki. If that day fourteen years ago went by in a rush, they did take their time today to study each other.
Standing a few steps above the other woman, Natsuki lowered her head down a little to get a clearer look, unable to believe her eyes. The intruder looked tanner and healthier than what she remembered. The deep, crimson eyes were full of energy, the gaze comfortably intense.
One hand in her pocket, Shizuru clutched the newspaper in her other hand. Her beautiful lips parted slightly, but then compressed again, unsure of what to say. Natsuki's gaze dropped at the act. The dark-haired one wasn't about to start speaking, fearing the illusion might just vanish. She didn't want to reach out for fear that the strength she had found today would disappear at the first touch.
The night had set in and the town people of Gulzar began to flood the main road, enjoying their leisure time. Several policemen in navy uniform began the routine check along the streets, keeping order and security for the citizens and travelers alike. Merchants and gypsies went about their businesses. Travelers and tourists were looking for their favorite restaurants tonight.
"I told you. Leave her alone. Don't ever go near her."
The black-hooded figure at the corner of the tavern was seated alone, a cup of wine in her gloved hand. Even in this packed, noisy place, the bartender's voice was loud enough for her trained ears to catch.
"So that's the one, huh?"
The crimson eyes glanced up to meet with the dark gaze of a gentleman at the bar. The young man looked every inch of a complete foreigner in this foreign land. He was in a nice, gray coat, proper with a black hat and tie. He was staring at her, clueless and harmless in his curiosity.
"I warned you, gentleman." The bartender caught her gaze then and quickly turned away, pretending to be cleaning the mugs with a towel. "It's her…the vagabond they always talk about," he whispered to the young man.
Years passed by, and people had given her many names. Some were out of admiration, others out of fear. She was more than certain that she had topped the blacklist for the bandits around Chandra River. Even the polices didn't bother to come near her. Although she had tried to live a low profile life, sometimes she wondered why she couldn't seem to keep herself out of troubles. For every life of the thieves and murderers she took, she couldn't tell whether it worsened or lessened the burden in her heart. But she did not deny the satisfaction of momentary ignorance as she tried to fend away the darkness from Gulzar.
The gentleman walked towards her with easing confidence, apparently ignoring any warnings he must have heard about her.
"May I join?" He sat himself opposite to her, comfortable in his own space without her permission. He even brought with him a bottle of expensive wine she was sure he had gotten it from anywhere but Gulzar. A smile on his handsome face, he poured himself a cup and gestured if she would like some.
She didn't respond.
"I'm Frederick Grey. I've heard a lot about you. Good things, of course." Frederick observed her in discretion, trying not to intimidate her. He even looked relieved. "You have no idea how many times I've been here just to get a chance to meet you. Actually… Actually, I wasn't so sure if it was you I was looking for. But your stories are one of the most interesting around."
Shizuru continued to sip her wine, looking elsewhere. It wasn't him who finally got to meet her. It was her who decided to show up. The chase had gone on for far too long, and it began to create attention she didn't want. Tonight would probably be the first testament that curiosity was a deadly crime.
Frederick gave her an apologetic smile. "Oh, please, I've been so out of luck. I'm doing my friend a huge favor. It's more like a gift for her." He cleared his throat a bit. "You see, I really need to find someone, and if you're not her, then you might know her. You seem like you really know this place. You're one of the people here."
"I don't know anybody."
"Did you kill them all?" he said, raising his brows.
Shizuru slowly lifted her gaze from the cup in her hand and stared straight at him.
"Sorry. Bad joke." He looked down instantly, gulping down his drink.
Shizuru suppressed her sigh. She already felt uncomfortable enough as she was rarely seen socializing with anyone in public. Studying Frederick Grey, she couldn't quite fathom what business did this oblivious man wanted with her. However, the code word 'Kuga Satomi' he had been spreading around had her attention and finally got her to appear tonight.
"A friend of mine claims that she has a long lost cousin here in Gulzar. The funny thing is that I think her cousin is of illegal status. Perhaps, a dangerous fugitive or someone of that sort. I didn't actually expect to find this person, really. But I just figured something out lately. I think I'm getting there." He nodded vehemently as if trying to convince himself. "You see, this place got thousands of people coming in and out all the time, but not too many actually settled here. There are tons of places in this world to go and hide, but she said it has to be Gulzar—"
Shizuru pulled out her gun from her holster and pointed at his face, causing Frederick to stop dead in his seat. He clutched his cup so tightly that he spilled the wine onto the wooden table. His jaws clamped shut. His widened eyes never left her. But Shizuru was surprised that he didn't fear her or the gun in his face enough to stop.
"For a while, I debated whether this person really exists. What's going on? Why…? Now, I think I know. I don't think you are Kuga Satomi… but that you do know Kuga Natsuki."
The moment Shizuru's gun involuntarily lowered, even in the slightest bit, she realized that he caught her. He leaned in even closer across the table, fear not of the gun pointing at him. His intense gaze tore into her, searching and searching.
"Who are you—"
A loud gunshot sent the crowd screaming and stampeding out of the tavern, leaving only the frightened bartender and the two figures at the corner table.
Frederick had sat back, his head as far back as the wooden chair would allow. His breath ragged, he stared at her with utmost disbelief. His hands were visibly shaken. The bullet hole on the wooden plane behind him was just an inch away from where his head was.
Shizuru rose to her feet, the anger inside of her rising to the limit. She was unable to stop now. Her index finger on the trigger pulled in a little.
Frederick shot out of the chair, scurrying and falling to crawl on the floor. "No! No! Please, don't kill me! I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"
She stalked towards him and grabbed him by the collar. With ease, she dragged him out of the tavern and threw him into the dark alley nearby. The milling passersby had spotted the quarrel and immediately hurried from the area. The poor young man would be just another victim fall to Gulzar's untamed spirit.
Standing over his crawling form, Shizuru raised her gun and hit him repeatedly in the face. His blood splattered onto her glove and sleeve. His face was red as she tightened her grip on his neck. His crime was to speak the name she had tried to forget.
When Frederick was already flat on the ground, hopeless to protect himself, Shizuru stopped to catch her breath. She lifted the gun up and checked for the ammunition. The gun was still hot and ready, she aimed down at the back of his head.
At the hard touch on his skull, Frederick squeezed his eyes shut. But Shizuru stopped at the sight of the slender frame by the entrance of the alley, watching them from afar. Without second thought, she raised the gun at the intruder. She could smell the woman miles away. She could sense their anger, their shared shame heartbeats away.
"You haven't changed much at all. How disappointing," Nao Zhang said, giggling. She was dressed in a black cloak, her face very much hidden behind the hood. Shizuru wasn't by far the only one having much to hide in Gulzar.
Frederick took the chance to hastily crawl away, snatching a broken bar scattered on the ground and swinging it at Shizuru. Quietly easily, she caught the bar with her other hand and kicked him in the chest, sending him back down on the ground.
Cursing under his breath, Frederick got up to his feet and tried to run out of the alley, only to find Nao standing in the middle of the narrow path, blocking his way.
"Oh, not so fast, Grey. Let us have some fun with you. Didn't Natsuki-chan prep you of what you got yourself into?"
"You know… me? Natsuki…? You know her?" Frederick breathed, his eyes widened in terror. He kept looking back and forth between Shizuru and Nao, dreadfully trying to prepare for another attack.
In the dark, Shizuru stood still for a moment before turning the gun back at Frederick.
"No, please—please! I can explain this! I—I can…" Frederick backed away until his back was pressed against the brick wall.
"Go on. We're waiting," Nao said, smirking. "In fact, we're missing Natsuki-chan dearly."
Shizuru wasn't sure what made Natsuki send this man here. 'Kuga Satomi' was likely just a ploy to lure the remaining Ira out. Although they were believed to have been dead for years, anything could still happen. At the thought, her finger moved once again to the trigger. She thought of all possible ways to frame a thief for this man's death, avoiding any link to Ira.
"I—I'm engaged to Natsuki! We're getting married! Please don't kill me! I—I swear I will never tell anybody about this, I promise! Please, let me go…" Frederick practically fell to his knees, sweating in this cold night.
Nao burst out a laugh, but Shizuru knew that the redhead wasn't really laughing at Frederick, but her. For some reason, the gun in her hand felt oddly heavy that her arm began to fell to her side. She just stared down at the ground, unable to look at him now. For all the news concerning Natsuki, Shizuru had not heard about the engagement. But then again the young Principal Kruger was a very private person, and her personal life was rare to appear in the news.
"Grey is a quite well-known figure in Windbloom. I'm surprised you don't know him," Nao said, and then turned to Frederick. "Well, I think you've just got yourself off the hook. Tell Natsuki-chan that we miss her."
Frederick madly nodded like an obedient child as he got up to his feet and ran for the exit. Reaching the safer zone of the sidewalk, he glanced over his shoulder, panting heavily.
Shizuru didn't follow. She only watched him backing away, horror in his eyes. Perhaps, he just couldn't figure out what his dear fiancée had to do with the likes of her and Nao. What he encountered tonight was probably one of the last things he imagined to happen to him.
"She… She needs to see you."
His words were soft, and they would have been lost in the crowd. He was almost whispering, almost as if he didn't really want her to hear it.
But Shizuru did.
"It's all in the past now. Let it go," Shizuru stated.
Strangely, the look in Frederick's eyes turned almost enraged at her words. He then turned and ran into the crowd, disappearing from her sight. For the past six months, Shizuru and her honor-bound sisters had been able to suppress the power of Ira and cut their bond from Natsuki. It was for the best, and the news Shizuru had just received firsthand from Frederick ensured her that she had made the right decision.
For as long as she would live, she would always remember how she faltered and betrayed her Natsuki. Often times that the fear hidden deep in Natsuki's heart would surface in Shizuru's dreams. They were filled with Natsuki's blood and screams, and they scared her so profoundly that she refused to sleep for days at times. Natsuki never forgot, consciously or not, and Shizuru would never forget her crimes.
"Let it go? You're a bad liar." Nao's giggles broke her train of thoughts, but Shizuru chose not to respond.
There was an amused expression on Nao's face as she continued. "Natsuki-chan is as reckless as ever. This threatened to expose our identity. This is dangerous."
Shizuru put her gun back into the holster behind her black cloak. "I won't stop you."
Nao burst into another laugh. "You want me to kill him for your own good, but you won't kill him yourself because that would hurt Natsuki. You're cruel, Fujino. That never changed."
"He is not my concern." Shizuru stalked out of the alley without looking back at the redhead.
"You can't hide forever, Fujino. I see your dreams. Hers! We're one!"
Shizuru just walked away, secretly relieved that Nao didn't follow.
We're not one. We're not.
But she still saw it. The deep fear was palpable in her dreams—Natsuki's dreams. Even though the remaining three Ira had grown strong enough to suppress the dark influence, Natsuki was still fragile. They could sense her, penetrating her thoughts if they tried hard enough.
She needs to see you.
Frederick's words continued to echo in her head as she trudged through the endless, sandy road along the outskirt of Gulzar. The wind was chilly, and the night was quiet under the starry sky. Shizuru pulled the scarf tighter around her neck. Her humble, brick home located just half a kilometer ahead. The only sign of civilization around the area were the streetlights and a well nearby, but she was contented that way.
She needs to—
"She doesn't," Shizuru muttered to herself. If there was any hope in her heart, she readily buried it. Natsuki's troubled dreams had become increasingly frequent for the past six months, the time when she began to repress their bond, only for Natsuki's sake. But the dark-haired one appeared threatened and frightened in those nightmares. The same, incoherent flashes of wartime memories kept dominating those dreams, with or without Natsuki's awareness. And, in those weary nights, Shizuru had seen herself in the face of evil serpent for far too many times that she could not quite look at herself in the mirror anymore. Natsuki still remembered her that way.
"I'm home." Shizuru whispered as she entered her home. She hung her scarf over the hanger by the door and glided through the candle-lit living room to pour a cup of tea.
"Welcome home..." The greeting female voice was coarse and low.
Shizuru quickly turned around to the old woman by the bedroom door. "I thought you were asleep. How are you feeling now? Do you feel better?"
"Much, much better," the old woman said. She smiled when Shizuru moved beside her to take her arm, gently helping her to the wooden chair.
"I'll get you a cup of tea." Shizuru proceeded to pour another cup and brought it to the old woman.
"Thank you, Rabbit. You were gone for almost a week. I was worried…" The old woman gazed up at Shizuru, studying her in the dim light.
Sighing, Shizuru sat herself on the closest chair, debating if the old woman was ready for the news. Ever since the old man fell ill and passed away two years ago, Shizuru was more than paranoid for the old woman's fragile health.
"I know what you've been up to. I've heard about the news," the old woman said.
Shizuru promptly reached out and grabbed her hand. "Leila. Leila. You're the only family I've ever had. I'll never leave you behind."
"What's its official name? They did announce it, didn't they?"
Shizuru was only able to smile at Leila's persistence. "They call it, 'Alya'. The new nation for anyone. People like me."
King Krawcyzk found all his allies and, after several years, successfully created the new country for the Children of Darkness, but also welcomed all who wished to start anew in the faraway land. The announcement was made a few months ago, and Shizuru had been contemplating the idea since then. However, she didn't want to risk Leila's health through the long and hard journey. She couldn't possibly imagine trading anything with the family she had now. Leila had become much more than just a mother, but the only person she could trust to share her deepest fears. The old woman not only learned who Shizuru really was, but of the crimes she committed. Shizuru even expected Leila to turn her in to the police, but the old woman insisted to stay by her side.
Leila raised her weak hand to brush Shizuru's hair gently. "Don't let me stop you. You deserve that new chance, Rabbit."
Her lips curving up into a smile, Shizuru shook her head and tucked the woman's hand closer, kissing the back of it. "I'll never leave you, Leila. I'll find a way for us to go together."
The small smile on the old woman's face lit up a little, but quickly faded. "It could be months, or years before I—"
"Don't talk like that. I don't care if I have to be in Gulzar for the rest of my life only if I have you with me."
Leila chortled, breathing harder to catch her breath. "I cannot argue with you. But when the time comes, promise me that you will give yourself another chance."
Shizuru lowered her gaze to the floor, her mind hazy at the thought of being all alone again. She wanted to scream like she did in her dreams. She wanted to cry like when no one was around. She knew she couldn't bare it, but she would never show it to Leila. She would not want the old woman to worry anymore than she already did.
"I meant for you to give yourself another chance with that girl."
Her eyes widened at the notion, Shizuru stated without second thought, "Impossible."
Leila raised her brows in surprise. "Do you not care for her anymore?"
"Impossible." Shizuru retracted her hand and turned to drink her tea instead.
Leila gazed at the young woman knowingly. "You still do."
"I…" Shizuru couldn't help but stop herself from denying outright. "It's been years. She's better off without the past, and it's for the best. I'm contented with the way it is now. Nothing good—nothing good ever came between… between us…" She took another sip before putting the cup aside. "It's for the best."
Leila appeared grim, her gaze filled with concern. "She was the best thing that ever happened to you, wasn't she? Why can't you forgive yourself? I understood what happened, and perhaps, she did, too."
Shizuru bit her lips, clutching her hands on the wooden table. The air suddenly felt very cold, but she was heated by the thoughts of the best things in the past and the best things that could possibly come.
"Come now, Rabbit. Please don't get upset." Leila leaned in closer to Shizuru and caressed the young woman's hand.
"I'm not upset," Shizuru whispered, smiling slightly.
Leila tiredly rested her head on Shizuru's shoulder, her eyes narrowing in fatigue. "She did love you, Rabbit. And quite honestly, I believe she deserves a goodbye if you ever were to leave for good."
Shizuru grabbed Leila's hand back, pulling the old woman closer. The idea of farewell scared her like nothing had ever done before.
The simple, greeting words absently rang in Natsuki's mind. Only then, she looked up again, reassured that she wasn't imagining it. She let a moment pass—a moment long enough to see the questioning look rising in Shizuru's eyes.
Natsuki perked her chin up. "You look familiar." Surprisingly, her small exchange brought a smile to Shizuru. They both chortled, their gazes never leaving the other.
But as the sound of leisure footsteps and giggly chatters from the street passing behind her, Shizuru pulled the tip of the hood down, and winked. "May I come in?"
The pang of hollowness suddenly hit Natsuki. Although Shizuru had asked in such a playful manner, the danger of the situation was real. Natsuki promptly stepped aside and let the taller woman slip into her home.
Shizuru was cautious to watch Natsuki locking the door behind them, not trusting anyone or allowing any mistake. She proceeded to the window, peeking out for any suspicious sign or any stalker. It took her a little while before she realized that Natsuki was watching her.
"It's just a habit whenever I… I don't always do this." Shizuru tried to ease the worried look in the younger woman's eyes, but failed miserably.
Her back leaning against the door, Natsuki tried to imagine what kind of life Shizuru had led for the past eight years, and the only answer she found was 'a life without her'. She did not move away from the door. She did not respond to the awkward excuse. She only watched the uneasiness danced in the crimson eyes, secretly begging it to intensify to match her own hidden one.
Shizuru then took a step closer to Natsuki and offered a small, sincere smile. "How have you been?"
Natsuki remained silent, unable to look away. Her shoulders slumped a little when Shizuru stopped in her track.
"You… You look wonderful, even more so than in the newspaper. I've read a lot about you."
"Read," Natsuki echoed. It angered and amused her at the same time that Shizuru managed to compliment her while staring down at the floor instead. Was it so hard to look at her? Did it scare Shizuru to be near her again? She couldn't answer the questions for Shizuru, but she had to admit that she was scared herself.
With caution, Shizuru remained behind the curtained side of the wall, leaving Natsuki to bath in the pool of sunlight coming through the window. In the shadow, she evaded any intruding eye from the outside.
"I see you're well. I'm glad. Truly." Shizuru eventually glanced up at the dark-haired one. The fresh pain in her gaze took Natsuki by surprise. It looked as if she was about to cry in defeat or scream in fear. She started to rub her gloved hands, looking elsewhere again. Looking over her shoulder, she studied Natsuki's expression for a brief moment for a silent permission to inspect the place.
Permission granted with a refrained nod from Natsuki, Shizuru took a good look around the empty floor, noting the thick dust on the built-in shelves along the entrance hall. Further in, she took a left turn and headed into the private library, where all the Kuga kids used to spend time there, studying at night. The books were all gone, the tall shelves uprooted and sold. The library looked much larger now when it was completely vacant of its history.
"I loved spending times here," Shizuru murmured, tilting her head back to look at the high ceiling. Rays of glorious sunlight shooting down through the glasses forced her to narrow her eyes.
After a moment of silence, she turned to Natsuki, who had been following her quietly. "Congratulations, Natsuki."
Natsuki glided around the room, seemingly content with the absence of all things. "You're congratulating me for tearing down this house and throwing away what you loved?"
Shizuru rested her left shoulder against the wall by the entrance, her expression grim as she looked away.
Natsuki stopped in the middle of the room and turned to stare hard at the guest, her clenched fists by her sides.
"Why?" The question was simple, yet complicated enough that Shizuru offered her no reply.
At Natsuki's persistent gaze, Shizuru looked elsewhere. "Why what?"
Natsuki had to grit her teeth. She spent all her mental strength not to scream aloud. "Why didn't you contact me? Why now?"
"I… I understand this is rather abrupt. I wasn't sure if I should inform you beforehand but… I didn't actually plan to disturb you. In fact, I just… I thought about visiting you for some times now. No, I didn't try to—"
"Why?" Natsuki interrupted. Shizuru's incoherency couldn't feed her curiosity fast enough.
"I couldn't—I shouldn't trust myself," Shizuru replied bluntly, finally looking straight at the dark-haired woman. Her eyes narrowed as she crossed her arms across her chest as if trying to guard herself from danger. "I didn't have the rights to see you again after… after I hurt you, Natsuki. I'm responsible for many deaths. I… I murdered… I couldn't trust myself again."
Natsuki could never forget what happened that day that left her physically blind. Overtime, she understood and tried to forgive Shizuru for it, but there was still a part of her that constantly reminded her to be extremely mindful. Consequently Shizuru must have felt it through their bond. How silly she had been all this time to hope that Shizuru would actually have the courage to come back to her with these bitter feelings left between them. Even if love could overcome anything, it could not undo the past.
Natsuki eventually turned her back to her long lost companion. "Are you still afraid? Of yourself? Of us…? Fear is an awful thing, and we both know that… Maybe you shouldn't have come back here at all." She bit her lips as she heard Shizuru's rushed footsteps approaching her from behind.
"You shouldn't have come back. You shouldn't have come back," Natsuki repeated sternly, trying to shut that voice out of her head.
Shizuru had stopped in her track. "But I—"
"It's been eight years, Shizuru. I'm sure you were so busy reading that you haven't noticed. Has it ever crossed your mind that you might not be welcomed here anymore? You read about me? You never wrote me. Not a single word. Not a sign. I have given up!" As the words poured out, Natsuki regretted none of it. She had to let it all out before this day would be over. If Shizuru were to be dissolved into dust at this very moment, she would rather silence her plea for their lost years than to let Shizuru go without knowing that it wasn't life without her.
The taller woman looked utterly lost for words. "I… I just wanted to congratulate you for your achievement. Today must be very important for you and… and I didn't want to pass this opportunity. I didn't mean to upset you—"
"You have," Natsuki said curtly.
Shizuru paused for a long moment before nodding lightly in resign. She tightened her coat, her hands slightly shaken. "I must apologize then. It's probably best that I should leave—"
"You are not here to congratulate me," Natsuki said almost in an accusing tone, only there was very little hope deep in her heart only she knew.
The statement successfully stopped Shizuru from reaching the door. There was a tinge of reticence in her eyes as she admitted, "No."
Natsuki held her breath as Shizuru, for the first time this afternoon, dared to come near her. Their breath hasted in blissful anticipation. Standing right in front of her, Shizuru took her hand and softly caressed the back of it. The touch that had grown unfamiliar brought tears to their eyes.
"I wished all the best for you. I wanted to be happy for you, your new life with him, but I can't. So I'm here for your blessing, Natsuki. I'm leaving for—"
Hotly brushing the hand away, Natsuki took a step back to clear her head, refusing to believe Shizuru's confession. "New life with him? What? No, Frederick told me about that night! You cut me off, Shizuru! For a year, I was worried every night if you were dead or alive! Now, you come back just to say goodbye? Are you out of your mind? You know that of all the things that we went through together—of all the…" She momentarily stopped to catch her breath, panting as she looked into those eyes. "Of all the things—everyone that I've lost, you were… you…"
But Shizuru's cold stare froze Natsuki to the core. "Yes, I was. You know why, Natsuki. I could hear your screams in my dreams. Every night, it reminds me why I can't be a part of your life."
Natsuki paused. Shizuru's admittance left her no leeway to ignore the painful memories between them. Did Shizuru sense only her fear? Her forgiveness?
"It endangered my life and his when you sent him after me. I only spared him because…" Shizuru then looked away, slowly breathing in and out to calm herself. "We've led very different lives, Natsuki, from the very start until now…" Her words then trailed off, her gaze involuntarily softened a bit. "I'd tried to let you go. Now, you must let 'us' go."
Natsuki tore her gaze off the taller woman, fiercely looking around the library hall. If only she had known that she had been waiting for years for a bitter farewell, she would have lived her life differently. She would have no regret. She would have brushed this meeting off her mind so easily without second thought.
But looking at Shizuru now, Natsuki failed to find any trace of arrogance in those eyes. Shizuru came here neither for forgiveness, nor to repent to feel better about herself. If anything that they went through together was testimony, Natsuki knew that Shizuru would rather be hated than dragging her down to a disgraceful life of fugitive. All those years were intentionally lost because Natsuki's well being was Shizuru's priority. Even now, Natsuki wasn't even sure how to join their paths together, or was there a chance for it. Could she be wrong?
"Where is it? Where are you going…?" Natsuki couldn't quite believe her curiosity, much less her audacity to ask. To her pleasant surprise, Shizuru's eyes lit up with a hopeful smile.
"It's been official. Krawcyzk has restored a nation in the west, welcoming all immigrants. There will be lands given to who first arrives. Imagine that there will be millions of people with new names and faces. A new life for everyone. I'm going to Alya, Natsuki. I'm returning to where I'm from. We all are."
The Children of Darkness had scattered around the world for centuries without a country of their own, their ancient land locked away until the three sword bearers freed it from Princess Marguerite's curse. The Meshkners were finally heading home.
"We? You meant Nao-sempai and… Commander Chie? They're still alive?"
"Strange, isn't it? We do contact one another from time to time now, but…" Shizuru paused to think a little, and then grinned. "I'll leave them to their own decision. But I have a good feeling that every Meshkner will unite again."
Shizuru's smile wondered Natsuki how the relation between Shizuru and her honor-bound sisters had been. Time had changed, and people must adapt. "You would welcome Nao-san?" Natsuki asked, raising her brows almost in amusement.
"It isn't as bad as it once was, but I'm not going to live under the same roof with her anytime soon," Shizuru said, shrugging a bit.
And Natsuki smiled, too. She couldn't stand being bitter when the love of her life seemed so blissful. She couldn't make herself angry when Shizuru finally had hope of beginning her life. Taking a step forwards, she came to stand in front of the taller frame. This time, she wasn't going to back away. She looked into those eyes and cherished every single moment of their reunion.
"If you're so determined to leave everything behind… then let us remember today for the rest of our lives," Natsuki said. Her voice was calm in its growing confidence.
Shizuru remained still, her gaze absent of all emotions. But being so close to each other now, Natsuki could sense the hidden sorrow through their eternal bond. Ira had morphed into more than a bond of angry souls, but of all emotions alive in them. It took Natsuki one long intake of breath before she reached for Shizuru's hand, realizing what Shizuru could not—would not ask of her.
"I've done everything I wanted for Windbloom and the Otome warriors." Natsuki then cupped the woman's warm cheek with her other hand. "My time here is over. I want to go with you to the place where no one knows us, Shizuru. No title. No honor. No past. I just want to start over again. Only with you."
No one would have been able to read the thoughts behind the crimson gaze, but Natsuki could see it so clearly now. The astonishment, the relief and deep joy had flooded those eyes as they were watching her.
"But Natsuki…" Shizuru blinked a few times as if to try and wake from this dream. "But you have a life here. Your career. Your friends. It's not fair to take it all away from you. I don't want you to live the way I—"
"I'm not a teenager or just your classmate anymore, Fujino. I, the headmistress of Garderobe, make my own decision," Natsuki interrupted with a fingertip on Shizuru's lips. And it amused her to see Shizuru blush a little at the sudden touch. If those absent years did not make them bitter, it made them grow fonder of the lost time.
All of a sudden, Shizuru looked away, deep in thought. Her gaze darkened. "What about him?"
At the frown on Shizuru's face, Natsuki felt utterly relieved to be able to smile so genuinely for the first time in a long time. She put her arms around Shizuru's shoulders, prompting the taller woman to embrace her in return. "Jealous?" Natsuki's big grin caused Shizuru to look the other way.
"Is that so?" Natsuki smirked.
"Very." Shizuru stubbornly turned away as Natsuki tried to look into her eyes. "Very jealous."
Her eyes widened as Natsuki giggled. It seemed amusing to her now that Shizuru only stood there and watched her, perhaps waiting for her to deliver a reassurance needed. She then tightened her arms around Shizuru and said, "I'm not sure what he told you that night. But I've stopped trying for a year now. Ever since our bond disappeared, I've stopped lying to myself… because I know that it can't be without you."
The uncertain look in Shizuru's eyes gradually sank deeper and vanished behind that crimson veil. She took Natsuki's hand and planted a soft kiss upon the palm. At the tingling feeling on her skin, Natsuki would have usually withdrawn from the touch, but not today. She let herself open and free to every emotion rushing through her, and smiled. She felt secured and blissful in the arms around her.
Not only Shizuru who was rather speechless of what was happening right now, Natsuki, too, found it so unreal. The moment their bodies pressed against each other, their hands intertwined, the sun was kind and the night was warm again.
"Natsuki… Natsuki…" Shizuru whispered into Natsuki's ear, smelling the dark hair.
Natsuki turned her head a little to find Shizuru's lips, but a near distant shout erupted from the hallway.
"HEY, YOU'RE STILL HERE? NATSUKI!"
At the trademark voice, Shizuru quickly backed away from Natsuki and went to hide behind a column, facing the row of windows. It appeared that Shizuru wasn't the only one alarmed by the intrusion. Natsuki found herself in an awkward position, standing alone in the middle of the room with no excuse to offer the intruder.
Haruka peeked into the library and was glad to see her friend inside. "You're here! Why didn't you answer me? I saw the trashes, and now I get why you're so upset. Damn those guys! You should sue them!" The woman marched into the library towards Natsuki.
"Come on. Nobody sues construction workers for leaving the trashes around." Natsuki began to walk towards the door, unprepared of how to handle the situation.
"Hmm—Oooh, you got new perfume?" Haruka stopped in the middle of the room. Turning around in circle a few times, she finally stopped and her gaze met with Natsuki's.
There was a moment of silence between them that irked Natsuki. Haruka appeared not skeptical, but dull at her own assumption. "What new perfume? Like you know what I usually wear. I change all the times," Natsuki said, trying to keep her voice even.
Haruka nodded to herself, eventually following Natsuki to the door. "Weird, huh? I walked into your secret, little meeting for the second time today."
"What—what secret meeting? Don't be ridiculous." Natsuki burst out in panic.
"The first one with him, and now this. You know I smell people like a dog!"
Inwardly cringed, Natsuki didn't quite like to imagine what Shizuru was thinking right now. "Fine. New perfume, it is."
"You admit it's not yours! Haha," Haruka stated in triumph.
Natsuki growled, "Look, why don't you—"
"It's—hmm—mysterious, yeah," Haruka mumbled. She shut her eyes and continued to sniff.
Rolling her eyes, Natsuki was a little puzzled at Haruka's attempt to define it.
"It's too mysterious and calm. You don't wear something like that," Haruka said, her nostrils flaring.
"Whatever. Grow flowers already." Natsuki decided that she had had enough of it, fearing any word that would come out of Haruka's mouth. She spun on her heels and walked down the hall.
Haruka followed suit. "Oooooh! Aren't you going to tell me about the new guy! I thought you were reconsidering taking back Grey, but I'm glad you're not. So who is it? Anyone I know—"
"Huh. Come on—"
"Just shut up!" Natsuki snarled, blushing furiously.
At the calm voice interrupting from behind, both Natsuki and Haruka stopped in the middle of the dim hallway. Natsuki turned around to see Shizuru standing by the library entrance, but Haruka remained absolutely still. There was no expression on Haruka's face as silence fell upon them. Surely, Haruka recognized whose voice it was. Natsuki inwardly flinched to see Haruka's steel hand beginning to clench slowly.
The blonde spun on her heels, gun drawn.
"Wait!" Natsuki jumped in front of the pistol's way.
Haruka tried to keep her friend at arm-length with her other hand, but Natsuki clung on to her stoic arm. Her gaze sharp, she stared straight at the unmoving figure at the other end of the hallway.
It took Shizuru a few moments to speak again. "You have every right to hate me, and I'm not going to run away."
Shizuru's resigned tone alarmed Natsuki even more. Even if Natsuki couldn't agree with Shizuru more, she couldn't bare the thought of losing Shizuru now. She put herself in front of Haruka, panting. "Haruka, wait, we can talk about this. Please, put the gun away. She—"
"Am I seeing it right…? Could it really be you?" Haruka muttered to herself as if in trance. "Fujino Shizuru. You. I thought I'd never see you again, but you dare. You have the nerve to show up here, right here where you betrayed your friends."
Shizuru looked down, her lips quivering slightly. Somehow, it struck Natsuki deeply to see Shizuru so shaken like that. "I did terrible things, and for that, I am so sorry—"
"It's too late now! Your apologies can't bring her back!" From the look in her eyes, Haruka must have been frightened by her own fury even. For years, the pain had subsided, but Shizuru's unexpected presence must have triggered the deepest scorn in her heart. It wasn't easy to forget, and definitely harder to forgive.
It took only a split second as Haruka pulled the trigger, but Natsuki could see it all in slow motion. She leapt to push the gun away as a gunshot blasted through the hallway. She reached Haruka's hand only then, terror washed over her face as she slumped against her friend, both stumbling down to their knees. She spun around to Shizuru; the woman was bending a little, her eyes squeezed shut.
Clutching Haruka's arms, Natsuki found her voice small. "Shi…Shizuru…?"
Shizuru took a few seconds to regain her bearing, breathing heavily as she looked up again.
Natsuki let out a deep sigh in relief to see Shizuru unharmed. The bullet hole was visible on the door of the library to Shizuru's left. For all the trainings Haruka received over the years, she wasn't one to miss. Natsuki embraced her friend tighter, anxious when she felt Haruka's shivering shoulders. It must have taken enormous strength on Haruka's part to betray Yukino's memories—to finally allow herself to let go.
For a long while, Haruka just stared at the gun in her hand, and then looked up at Shizuru. "The neighbors must have heard the gunshots, and they will call the police. Leave now, or stay here and die."
Shizuru took a hurried step towards the blonde, but Natsuki quickly shook her head.
"Shizuru, go now," Natsuki urged. "Now!"
Shizuru turned left and right, knowing her time was running out. She looked over her shoulder at her friend one last time. "I'm sorry…"
With that, Shizuru disappeared into the library again. At the clinking sound of glass window and the soft gush of cool wind flowing in, Natsuki knew that Shizuru was gone. All the things that had happened today went as fast as they came. In silence, there were just Haruka and her left in the abandoned house with not much left for them to hold on to.
Natsuki slumped down next to Haruka, staring at nothing in particular. "She came to bid me farewell… She's gone."
Haruka gradually looked up from the floor, observing her friend. "Farewell? Why didn't you follow her then? Weren't you going to leave with her?"
Natsuki must admit that Haruka wasn't as dense as she was back in high school years. The blonde caught onto a lot of things much faster as living with huge responsibilities in the north had forced her to adapt.
"I wanted to, but I can't leave you here alone," Natsuki muttered, sighing in defeat.
Haruka scoffed. "Duh. I should have killed her."
A sigh from Haruka meant something, and usually it was a good thing. "You're not obliged to stay just because I spared her."
Natsuki looked a little puzzled.
"I know Yukino wouldn't be proud of it," Haruka said, offering Natsuki a determined smile, "Yukino loved us. She loved us."
At that moment, Natsuki and Haruka just looked at each other, and then laughed together. As amusing as it was, their friendship didn't start out the best way, but was destined to be a lasting one.
As expected, the cops soon arrived, but Mayor Armitage gave them a false report and easily got rid of them. With very little time left, Natsuki headed out to the banks and whatnot, bringing with her every valuable items and cash. She would need all of these to start her new life. Tomorrow would see no more of Natsuki Kruger. Tomorrow, she would become Kuga Natsuki once again.
"The papers are done, Maria. Could you please fetch me a glass of water? I'm so thirsty." Natsuki ran around her chamber, collecting and packing her things amidst the bewildered eye of Maria.
"May I… May I ask what's going on, ma'am?" Maria calmly interrupted, eyeing the old passport scattered with other documents on the bed. It wasn't the privileged passport every Garderobe Principal was granted for legitimate entry of every existing country in the world, but Natsuki's old one.
Natsuki threw her clothes into a large suitcase and then turned to the older woman. "Please, Maria, accept this," she said, handing out a white paper. She knew it was late in the night, and it was a bother to Maria as the woman typically turned in rather early.
Maria appeared relaxed. She took a deep breath in and fished out an envelope out of her pocket. She received Natsuki's as she handed the Principal hers. "I received the anonymous letter this evening. Normally, I would never hand you a letter of this kind in person unless it's been tested for poison. But seeing you clearing out the closets like this, the letter might be, indeed…, urgent."
Natsuki felt a lump in her throat as she observed the item. At a dismal thought erupting in the back of her head, she tore the envelope open in haste.
She was right. I betrayed all of you.
I could only wish you happiness from now on.
Forgive me, Natsuki.
Natsuki's face turned as white as a sheet. She slouched down onto the edge of the bed, her hands still holding the letter. She read and reread again, refusing to believe it.
Shizuru escaped in a hurry today, and Natsuki had waited for some sort of contact. However, this was not what she had expected. Was it too late now? She didn't know where Shizuru was tonight. She had no idea of Shizuru's travel plan, and the destination, Alya, was so vast, foreign and faraway. Over the years, she had come to realize that she would never be able to find Shizuru if the woman did not want to be found.
But Natsuki was Natsuki. If she could fight the world for the freedom of her people, she would not let one letter stopped her from achieving her own. She wasted no more time and stuffed in all her belongings into the suitcases even faster.
Maria could only sigh to see her headmistress in such a pathetic attempt to race against time. She left Natsuki for a moment to go fetch a glass of water and came back again to offer the tired woman her drink.
"Thank you. You're a dear." Natsuki washed down the glass in one big gulp.
Maria took the empty glass with a smile. "The night is still young, Madam. I'm sure you're not the only one packing tonight."
The subtle suggestion did gain Natsuki's attention. The dark-haired woman stopped and turned to Maria.
"I didn't read the letter," Maria said with a straight face.
Natsuki smiled. "Of course not."
The old woman softly chortled. "I just thought that you've finally caught onto the trend. You'd been too busy for other people's good and neglected your own. Alya is a promise land everyone has been talking about, but you rarely paid attention to it. At least, you never mentioned it."
Natsuki grimly shook her head. "I'm not going to—"
"That won't work with me, Natsuki-chan."
Natsuki stopped. It had been years since Maria last called her in such manner.
"You can hide it from anyone but me. Don't you remember how we first met?" Maria took a step closer to Natsuki and gently caressed her arms. The motherly touch unexpectedly warmed Natsuki's heart that she could almost taste the tears in her throat. "You freed me. You freed those souls, and now, it's your time to be free."
Biting her lips, Natsuki couldn't help but clutch Maria's hand back. "Maria…"
"You should finish packing soon and catch a train there. Tickets will be extremely hard to find, not to mention how pricey they'd get. Have you got enough cash?" Maria proceeded into the bathroom. "Did you get your favorite bathrobe? You might want to keep a towel or two just in case."
"Phoebus…" Natsuki echoed as she continued to gather her other belongings. Phoebus, ninety miles south of Windbloom, was the largest, international port town, which was the only place so far that held liners to far destination like Alya. But hundreds of thousands of people traveled through Phoebus everyday, and it'd take a miracle for two people to find each other there.
"This is crazy. I don't even know if… Considering… Considering that… No, she might have other ways to get there… other means… Ah, I could miss her. I very well could." Muttering, Natsuki closed the suitcase and pushed it aside. The thoughts only dispirited her.
"If it's meant to be, it's meant to be. If you don't find her at Phoebus tomorrow—"
"Don't say that. I will find her." Natsuki turned around, her voice stern. Her gaze flashed with full determination.
"That's my headmistress," Maria said, winking and flashing a grin as she handed Natsuki her bathrobe.
The sun gracefully rose above the horizon at Phoebus. It was half past six, and already nearly a hundred thousand passengers had flooded the terminals. Almost a dozen ships were waiting by the docks, beautiful and grand at the shore of golden sand. On the crowded platforms, there were several street displays by the gypsies, and many passengers began to buy their breakfasts at the kiosks. Newspaper boys rushed around the crowd, shouting for customers. Several men were yelling and waving tickets to attract any potential buyers, offering rare tickets, with exceptionally high prices, at the earliest convenience. The liveliest day had just begun.
In her blue attire, headscarf and a pair of sunglasses, Shizuru occupied a small table in the patio area of a coffee shop. She found her little solace in the less busy terminal. The scenery of the clear, pink sky meeting the endless, sandy plane managed to keep her calm among the noisy chatters from the passersby.
Sipping her tea, Shizuru looked out to the milling crowd, cautious as ever. The cool, morning breeze washed her face and she felt her hands a bit stiff and cold even though she was wearing gloves. The table had been her quiet spot since she arrived at Phoebus at four in the morning. She was having some breakfast now to reenergize herself and stay awake until she could board the ship and secured herself in a room, which she booked under a false name and passport. A black, leather luggage stood by her table, safe within her reach. She didn't need many belongings, only a loaded gun in a holster behind layers of her cloak.
Putting her teacup on the table, Shizuru rubbed her temple a little. Headache was looming, and she felt it was going to be a really nasty one. It wasn't due to the lack of sleep for the past days, but rather the stress she foolishly put herself through yesterday. No matter how hard she attempted to convince herself that it was the right thing to confront Natsuki, she found herself to admit it a grave mistake in the end. Not only Natsuki could never leave with her, the circumstance had forced her to face the fact that Haruka, once her best friend, would never forgive her. It broke her heart over and over again, and she knew she had to live with it.
The footsteps are gone now. The sound of hustling footsteps…
Shizuru inwardly sighed. If it was only her usual paranoia, she had every right to be. Trained as a warrior, skilled as a killer, and cursed as an Ira, she could sense her enemy miles away. Someone was on that train with her throughout the night, someone with intentions that she couldn't seem to decipher. There was no attempt to attack her, but the fast train wasn't the best place to hit and run. It had been a long, rough journey to get here today, and, ironically, she knew she wasn't going to find peace until she reached Alya.
It's back again…
Her head snapped. Her back was against the wall, Shizuru leaned back into her chair. She glanced left and right, monitoring any irregular movements around her. The stalker was so close now that she could hear his breathing in the mass. He wasn't hiding this time, and her heart raced faster and faster. She reached behind the first layer of her cloak for the gun. No more chasing game.
Lifting her gaze up, Shizuru stared ahead as the full figure of the stalker began to emerge among the crowd.
"Are you going to shoot me?"
Suzushiro Haruka, in a black coat and a hat that helped partially veiled her face, marched towards the table, both hands in her pocket. Her eyes were red and she looked visibly pale from fatigue. Haruka surely had one hell of a task of chasing a fugitive all the way from Windbloom to Phoebus. None had ever succeeded to do so, and it was why Fujino Shizuru had remained dead, in theory, until now.
"Are you going to shoot me?" Haruka still stood, looking down at Shizuru.
"I will if you don't stop attracting attention. Sit down."
Haruka idly looked around before sitting down opposite to Shizuru. The fugitive noted how Haruka's hands were still in the pockets.
"Standing next to a coffee table is calling for attention? I can't imagine how you've been living all these years."
"Why did you follow me?" Shizuru rubbed her face in tiredness. Unsure of what Haruka had in mind, she grew restless by the seconds.
"I thought you already knew," Haruka said with a straight face.
"Enlighten me. You were shooting at me yesterday. I'd be surprised if you followed me all the way to Phoebus just to talk." Shizuru continued to look pass Haruka for any sign of reinforcement. At the worst case scenario, the place might be surrounded by police already.
"You'll just let me do it? You'll just let me shoot you?" Haruka raised her brows in astonishment.
The question succeeded in gripping Shizuru's attention. She gazed at her friend and studied the curious look in Haruka's eyes. She had her firm hold on the gun, unrelenting. Nothing could stop her from boarding the ship. Absolutely no one could.
Shizuru's gaze grew cold. "No. You had your chance yesterday. Today is mine."
Biting her lips, Haruka tore her hand out of the suspicious pocket. The feat at best gained only a flinch from Shizuru. After a small moment, a smile then lit up Haruka's face when it was clear that Shizuru had made no move to draw out her own gun.
And to Shizuru's surprise, Haruka wasn't holding a gun either; the steely hand held nothing but thin air in its grasp. It was the first time Shizuru had a close look at the permanent mark she left on her friend, and she realized why her instinct failed to function the way it normally would—why she could not pull out the gun on Haruka yesterday and now. She owed her friend so much so that it hurt just to sit here in Haruka's presence again. Suddenly, she felt the world wasn't big enough for her to hide, that Alya wasn't as far as she would like it to be.
"I… I don't know what to do or say to make you—"
Haruka shook her head. "Stop, Shizuru."
Shizuru paused at the gentle tone, surprised at the bittersweet feeling that was welling up in her heart.
Leaning back in her chair, Haruka appeared relaxed and calm. "Let's not talk about it. Let's… Let's tomorrow lead us and not the past."
Shizuru could only nod, tasting the tears in her throat.
"You got a place to go, I assume."
There was a short moment before Shizuru revealed. "I'm leaving for Alya. I'm never coming back here again."
"Just you and the poor suitcase?" Haruka tapped the leather suitcase on the floor with her knuckle, observing the tears and patches over it. "What's in it?"
Shizuru's lips curved up in a wide grin. "My dreams."
And the two women chuckled with each other.
"Oh?" Haruka quickly fished out the cell phone from her pocket. "Hello… Hah! I was wondering where you… Oh… What do you think? They didn't make me Armitage for nothing!"
Shizuru lifted her teacup to her lips, sipping the hot drink. Though she wasn't particularly fond of the loud phone conversation her friend was making, she tried to act as casual as possible as to not drawing any more attention.
Haruka swiftly shut the phone, cursing under her breath, and then looked up at Shizuru again. "I would have wished you good luck and goodbye and all that, but—"
"Can you keep your voice down a little?" Shizuru glanced around, leaning forwards towards her friend.
"But I think you can, perhaps, fit my extra luggage in your empty slot. They allow each passenger two suitcases, don't they?" Haruka drummed her fingers on her chin.
Shizuru almost spat her tea. "Excuse me? What—what suitcase?"
All of a sudden, Shizuru caught a series of footsteps hurrying towards them. In the crowd, no one looked suspicious. But she was rather certain that more uninvited guests would soon appear.
In the raucous, crammed terminal, the crowd began to split, revealing a dark-haired woman hastening towards her, with three large suitcases in her hands. An old woman was closely behind, dragging another two suitcases.
Shizuru's eyes widened as she involuntarily stood up and left her table. A few steps further, she found herself standing face to face with the out-of-breath Natsuki.
Natsuki, in her white coat, had to stop and catch her breath, her face reddening. "God… My God… I need air."
"Natsuki, what's this? What're you doing here? I—I told you—" Shizuru began, but was silenced with a rough, anxious embrace from the smaller woman. A hug would have been a common display in this port town where lovers and families bid their tearful farewell, and Shizuru allowed the thought to let her stand there, not pushing Natsuki away. She kept reminding herself that no one was watching and permitted herself to feel at ease for once as she was blessed in those arms.
Natsuki pulled away lightly, gripping Shizuru's arms so tightly. Her face grew into a frown. "Don't do anything stupid like that again. I won't accept it. I'm leaving with you. This is final. We're leaving together, Shizuru."
Shizuru found herself speechless, her mouth open wide. She found no words to describe it but eventually a smile. She snaked her hand around Natsuki's neck and pulled the woman closer to kiss on those warm lips. She could feel Natsuki's grips on both her arms that gradually moved to her back, holding onto her. With Natsuki next to her, there were no other places in the world she would like to be.
'Attention please. AL1 is now ready for boarding at platform 14. All passengers, please proceed to the boarding area immediately.'
"Ahem." Maria cleared her throat, causing both Shizuru and Natsuki to break away from the kiss. The two blushed a little at the public display.
Maria extended her hand to Shizuru, and they quickly shook hands. "So we meet again. You have not changed much. I hope you've been well."
Shizuru smiled in return. "I'm good. Thank you for taking care of Natsuki."
"Natsuki took care of me, too. She was kind."
Shizuru glanced at her love, and had to chortle when Natsuki blushed furiously.
"It'll be a long trip, but I wish you good luck and a safe journey. Your secret is safe with me. You needn't worry," Maria said, and winked. "I owe you much."
"Hey. Hey. Hey. I'm still here!" Haruka butted in, frowning. "I see you got my things. You didn't leave anything behind, did you?" She began to check for her suitcases.
"Haruka?" Shizuru was baffled, uncertain of what to say.
"I'm going with you two. What do you think? I need early retirement anyway," Haruka said, dragging her suitcases out of the coffee shop. She briefly turned and waved the tickets in the air. "What are you standing there for? Platform 14! Hurry, or they'll leave without us!"
Maria, Shizuru and Natsuki promptly followed. "She really did get the tickets," Maria commented, smiling. "Surely, they must be expensive."
Shizuru raised her brows in secret awe. It was extremely difficult to find tickets even when she tried a few months ago. "Even if you told her that she was ripped off, she wouldn't believe it anyway."
"Just hope that she didn't terrorize anyone for it." Natsuki shrugged.
"Well, but that's just what I thought she did," Maria said.
Shizuru laughed, and she felt a slight clutch on her arm. She looked down to find Natsuki's hand on hers and was warmed to see that her laughter had brought out Natsuki's as well.
Soon they reached the designated platform and lined up for boarding. The sun was warm and the wind was cool. With nearly a thousand people already lining up at platform 14, thrice the numbers of the present passengers were gathering on the other side of the long rail, shouting and waving goodbye. Haruka ushered the suitcases in front of her, while Shizuru tightened the scarf around Natsuki's neck to keep the woman warm as they moved along line. Shizuru found that both Natsuki and Haruka were traveling under their new names as well. It was always a safe plan for influential persons or politicians to have several passports to go with them, and they came in handy now.
As soon as Shizuru and Haruka moved passed the red line and started to walk up the stairs that led up to the liner, Natsuki stopped.
"Wait!" Natsuki spun on her heels and ran down the stairs back towards the platform.
"Where are you going!" Haruka squealed.
Shizuru tried to push her way through the passengers, but Natsuki was too fast and slipped from her grasp.
Along the edge of the platform, Natsuki hurried towards Maria, who was still standing by the rail, watching them. Shizuru only hoped that the guards could not tell or notice Natsuki Kruger in those sunglasses and headscarf.
Natsuki eventually found Maria, and the two readily opened their arms and embraced each other. "Thank you. Thank you, Maria," Natsuki whispered over the old woman's shoulder. "You, take care, all right. You'll hear from me again."
Maria shut her eyes tightly. "Don't do that."
Natsuki looked aghast by the idea. "Maria—"
"Don't you worry about me. Don't you worry, Natsuki. I survived Alya, remember?" Maria gradually drew back from the embrace to take a good look at the dark-haired woman. "And now it's your turn. Be safe, Natsuki. Godspeed."
Tears in her eyes, Natsuki quickly nodded and then took the earring off. She handed the gem to Maria, the great deep blue shining in the brilliance of the desert sun. "May our friendship last for as long as the stone, Maria. Godspeed."
Many years later, Maria still remembered the embrace with Kuga Natsuki before she turned and ran up the stairs to join her love and friend. There were talks and investigations that followed the disappearance, but they never succeeded, as Maria always went her secret ways to make sure they would not. For a woman who had lived to be nearly a hundred and ten years old, Maria still relived the memories of that day in Phoebus in her mind—the same warmth in her heart. She still recalled the moment the sun was so strong and love was in the air, and since then no one had seen or heard from the three, holy sword bearers again.
Thank you note to all:
It's been 3+ years since I started writing this fic over at shoujoai forum in Nov 2005. It'd been a tough time and I had several ups and downs and lots of absences in between. I always thought about the day I'd finish this story. I thought about it for so long, but I finally did it. I did it! LOOOL!
So, first, I'd like to thank you all my beta readers, who I'm not sure if they're still around (This fic has been going on for that long. Lol). I thank you Whistler (most of the chapters), Nuggi, and Chocolatt. The names listed in order as they came, but chapters as noted in each update. Thank you so much for your efforts and time!(if any of you happened to read this, then cookie rain for you!)
I also want to thank every reader, old and new! Thank you to those who had stuck with me and given me encouragement since day one. I cannot thank you enough, seriously. And thank you new readers who dropped by and made me realize that there were people who still read it. Lots and lots of giant cookies to you all :D
Also, big thanks to (most have already gone, I think) the fanarts and song contributions in the past (at SA forum). I collected them all and labeled the arts after your names so to give you proper credits. It's been so long you might not even remember them, but I still do appreciate all your efforts. You guys made Whisper the most fun experience in writing for me so far. Thank you!
Last but not least, thank you Yami, who helped me with Latin words and phrases since the old SA days. But you were more than a translator, dude. I lost count of how many times I lost faith in writing this story—how many times I whined and never thought that I'd actually finish it, but you always listened. I'd never finish this story without you. Thanks, man. I really do. It's been a pleasure to know you. Cheers!