A/N: I've been inspired by many of the fine writers here – have in fact, been enraptured by, reveled in and completely enjoyed countless fictions of fandom here. I bow to you all. Please accept my heartfelt thanks for smoothing over the jilted lover syndrome I drifted in, prior to finding this board. Though I loved the series, obsessively so, it seemed… incomplete towards the end.

This is my first fanfic, though I'm no stranger at dipping my quill in ink, placing pen to paper, and trying (with varying levels of success) to breath life into imaginary characters. I've endeavored to slip into their skins, see the world through their eyes, and portray them to the best of my abilities, in hopes of accomplishing a world continuing the Mai HiME universe beyond the original scope of its creators. I write this for the joy of writing itself, but never was there a more lonely creature than a story without an audience.

It is my dearest wish that you enjoy this work as much as I relished portraying it; that you let it sweep you into its arms, dance with you until you're both dizzy, and carry you off to the metaphorical bedchamber. This is a romance at heart, but, as I find mission statements too constricting, I've loosened my collar and snuck a plot in here too. Its purpose is to explore what events might have to occur for a certain lone wolf to find herself, find the closure she desperately needed, and to partake of love in all its ever-varied forms. It is an ode to humanity, a search for happiness, a coming of age. But most importantly, it's the logical extension to rambling, egocentric author's notes.

Should you find errors in the story, please feel free to point them out to me – I'd like to improve my writing skills. I did not edit my own work (having been blessed with the world's most forgiving beta, it would be a Shakespearean shame not to wring every last ounce of sanity from her tremulous grasp), but I'm stubborn. Any grammatical errors are my own. Also, should you enjoy this work, please give me positive reinforcement – I thrive on chocolate flavored Scooby Snacks, encouragement, and constructive criticism. Will work for praise.

Disclaimer: I do not own Mai HiME, its characters, or any other intellectual property rightfully belonging to Sunrise.



If There Be Thorns: Interlude

They say that in the beginning there was darkness, a darkness so complete nothing could exist within it. And from this darkness, things emerged. Life, reason, time, maybe. That's not the way it was at all. In the beginning there was chaos, and from this chaos, the powers that be vied for dominance. Some rose, some fell, some got misplaced along the way. The wages of war are sin, sins that magnified our weakness, blurred lines, bargained hope for balance, and took something from us, each and every one. Something so primitive and vital many of us never recovered. And when the dust settled, everyone lost. Sort the bodies, folks; game over. You look too long into the abyss, the abyss looks back, writes your name in that little black book it carries around.

The war, as we experienced it, was over – all happy happy joy joy, we received our reward. We got back those the darkness took. Thing is, when you've been to hell, you can't smell the roses any more. At least, I can't. I'm not sure about the rest of them; we were all so busy pretending it never happened, you'd think time'd been given a tardy slip, and snuck into class late. A little older, a little wiser – a little colder, a crapload miser. What did I learn? Hold on to those few moments of ignorance before everything comes clean, hold on until you bleed, cause once you know the truth, it never lets go. Love is a venom, its own toxin and cure; never look away, never turn your back, never leave the ones you care for behind.

Yeah. Everyone got back what the darkness took. Like the monkey's paw. Save the world, they said, and I guess we did. No more Obsidian Lord, he moved on, became global corporation. No more Orphans. They became people, the heavy shit you read about in the news, the tragic blurb at the bottom of the CNN ticker tape. No more red star, no more apocalypse now, no more nuclear wedgie of fate. Forgotten, but not gone, oh no. In the beginning, there were thirteen of us. Thirteen little dominos, all set up in neat little rows. Thirteen little dominos, already tipping before we were shoved. No more there can be only one! If you ask me, that's the best no more there is, except sometimes when you win, you lose. No more battling amongst ourselves, the thirteen maidens of heaven. The one we were left with was ourselves, and I don't think any of us have mastered that yet.

The marks have faded, but the scar is in the soul. No more HiMEs? Maybe. Like I said – we were all so busy trying to forget it ever happened, for some of us, it never did. You can't see the mark any more, but it's there, buried in the skin, fused to the bone, carried by the blood, killing us by inches. We lost some of the abilities, and none of the skill. No more HiMEs? Maybe. No longer Valkyries, but we sure as shit aren't human. We're like… Pinocchio – we cut our strings to be free, but we're not real. Not to them, not to they, not to ourselves.

My scars are deeper than others'. Midori got her professor. Nao got her mother. Haruka got Yukino and not the other way around, I don't care what they tell you. Takumi and Akira became much like Akane and her Kazu – attached at the heart, attached at the hip, attached at the loins. If love can set you free, obviously the first counter measure is to bind oneself to another; a token, a leash, buy a ring. I don't want to go into what happened to the nun. Not even Nao freely broaches that subject, and we all know how talkative she can be. Even the marionette's touchstone was returned to her, which is, I suppose, fitting, since it was by her hand that we were returned to ourselves, and really, who else but an android could care for someone like Alyssa.

Mai was the luckiest of us all – her sacrifice returned not one, but two; her suffering gutted the demon bare, stole the keys of hell, reunited lost siblings, redefined affection, blah blah blah. The list goes on, but I'm not the one to tell that story. I'll leave that for Shiho, who, deserving nothing, got nothing in return. They say she had a mental breakdown, and in a fit of passion, locked the dorm doors before setting the blaze which took her life. I suppose I should feel sorry for her, but somehow I can't. Mai was in there, and Mikoto. Only Yuichi survived. Irony has a sense of humor, ne?

But me, I gained and lost. I don't like to gamble – I deal in absolutes. I killed my most precious person because it needed to be done. I wouldn't give that task to Mai – she was mine to love, mine to forgive, mine to save. I wanted to go with her, on her journey into the darkness, I wanted to be her redeemer, her companion, her strength. I wanted her to realize she wasn't alone, because… she wasn't. Perhaps it was selfish of me to want to be the last person Shizuru saw, to hold her while we died, but I don't care. I deal in absolutes. I had no regrets then, I do now.

Did I gain more than I lost? I'm still not sure. Of the thirteen maidens of heaven, who by second death or second chance slipped destiny's noose, of those of us left who choose to remember, only we, she and I, gained and lost. Shizuru gained acceptance, and realization of my love. She lost her will to live. I gained my heart and the ability to see beyond the exclusion of purpose. I lost my only friend. They say revenge is a dish best served cold. They say, that which doesn't kill you, makes you stronger. They say the war is over, but I know better, I always have. The war hasn't ended, just changed form. There is something they say that's true though. You always end up right where you began. In the beginning, there was chaos.



Chapter I

Never ever. Never ever. The words swirled around in her mind, consumed her consciousness, plagued her dreams. Never ever, forever. The air was too warm, too thick, dark and claustrophobic – it pressed in upon her from all sides, burying her under the oppressive weight. She moaned in her sleep, thrashing amidst the grungy, sweat-stained sheets, lost in her own world. A very small world, one getting smaller with each passing second, constricting, suffocating, crushing – a moment of fear as the darkness descends upon her, resonating maddeningly as her confinement sealed itself around her. The sleeping figure's thrashing grew less animated, as if her body were recollecting the memory as well as her mind.

Her breathing labored, her body stretching, pulling against invisible restraints, stumbling forward against her will. An unwanted dichotomy, trading one imprisonment for another, fighting for life long enough to die. It was a game, a game with no winner, and when the restraints were replaced with softer, more yielding chains, in that moment everything changed. Why? Why had it changed? It was easier to forgive than forget – in her dreams, the object of her attention, her contest, her affection, turned away in the final moments. Reversed the roles, became aloof in quiet dissatisfaction. Denied the offering because it wasn't … what she wanted.

In her dreams, in that moment before they were both consumed by frozen flame, she'd offered Shizuru everything she was capable of giving, had forgiven her with a kiss, opened her arms, and taken her in, pressed close – to let her know she was loved, absolutely and completely. And in this realization, in her self-discovery, her act of compassionate affection, she'd wounded Shizuru again; locked the screams of hurt and rejection behind those strawberry-hazel eyes, locked them tight within Shizuru's chest. In her fumbling attempts to break the walls around her heart, she'd excused her best friend's infatuation, because that's what friends did; ignorance kills - well intended words that stole Shizuru's will to live, as cleanly as if she'd drawn a scalpel across her heart.

In her dreams, she watched the only person she'd ever loved die a raw and merciless death, one which began with Shizuru's limbs as she pulled away that fraction to remove herself from the circle of warmth, crept through her body like ice water, turning her into an apparition of herself, and the words she'd whispered into the scorched air hadn't been ones of pleasure – they were relief. Shizuru had given herself last rites.

In her dreams, Shizuru was always turning away, turning her back on Natsuki, as Natsuki had done so many times. Returning the favor. The sleeping figure's arm lifted a fraction, the fingers reaching for something it could never hold, her breathing labored, as if she were running to catch up. And perhaps she was. Running to catch up to herself, the one that wanted Shizuru close, dragging the part of herself that couldn't handle intimacy of any sort kicking and screaming behind. Please… please don't make me choose between being alone and … please. I don't want to be alone any more.

Natsuki cried out, sitting up abruptly. She could feel the scream coiled in the back of her throat Shizuru!, and there it would stay, forgotten, until she returned to unconsciousness. Her head swam, and she looked around the squalid room with bleary, uncomprehending eyes. It was too hot. Much too hot. She scratched her stomach, still mostly asleep, and was just about to roll back into a sleeping position when a subtle shift in the atmosphere of the room snapped her into complete, adrenaline boosted awareness. Her hand inched under the pillow, curling around the reassuring weight of the gun.

"If you didn't want company, you shouldn't leave your door unlocked."

Nao. Fuck. "I didn't," she snapped tersely, pulling the gun out and leveling it at the shadow standing in her bedroom doorway.

"No?" Nao walked a few feet into the room, running her fingers through the accumulated dust on the dresser distastefully. The room was small, and had only two pieces of furniture in it; the dresser and the bed. "It was open… to me." Natsuki got the impression she was smiling; she could hear it in the tone, even though her unexpected visitor was facing away from her. Deliberately ignoring the implied threat of the gun pointed at her.

"You picked the god damn lock," Natsuki huffed indignantly.

"Mmm, yes, I did."

Natsuki rolled her eyes, lowering the heavy gun to her lap. She sighed and rubbed her temples with her free hand. This conversation was giving her a headache. "What did you want, Nao. I've got better things to do than get wrapped up in one of your cat and mouse games."

"You have so little free time on your hands? I doubt that. After all, you're sleeping alone. You've graduated, you don't have a job, a life, or any apparent ambition other than locking yourself up in this pig sty." The redhead brushed the dust off her fingers, turning around. Natsuki had been correct – the familiar half-sneer half-smile was firmly in place. She was silent for an unbearable length of time, eyeing the disheveled woman in front of her, the sweat rumpled sheets, the dark, damp smelling room. Natsuki ground her teeth in frustration, her patience wearing thin. She stared at the interloper with undisguised hostility, their eyes locked with one another. Nao lost interest in the staring contest first.

Sighing wistfully, Nao raised a shoulder in a partial shrug. "I was worried about you. After you left school, things got so very boring, and I wanted to know what you were up to." She smiled sweetly, setting Natsuki's nerves even more on edge; her headache kicked up an octave. Nao's Cheshire smile widened accordingly. Make that two octaves.

"Get out."

Nao pouted. "So mean. Can't I be interested in what happened to the infamous Natsuki? After all, we have so much in common. Isn't that what Natsuki said? We were the same?" The object of her questioning remained silent, though she'd developed the most adorable twitch under one of those striking emerald eyes.

Natsuki took a deep breath to repeat her command at a more respectable volume, but something Nao'd said struck her as odd. Obviously she was lying – Nao couldn't care less what happened to her, which meant she was working under someone else's curiosity. Her teeth closed with an audible snap, wrestling with her innate desire to get up and kick the pouting girl out on her snide little ass, preferably breaking a few bones in the process. She exhaled, calming herself.

"Who are you checking up on me for?"

"Ara! Suspicious too. Paranoia is one of the first signs of sexual frustration… I'm sure I could find you someone suitable… the real question is, would you prefer male? Or female?"

"NAO!"

The red head giggled, enjoying her torment, though, to be sure, she didn't find the brilliantly flushed face nearly as attractive as the horrified anger. She bit her lip thoughtfully, as if debating whether or not to continue this course of conversation and relaxed again, smiling a little to herself. Her eyes narrowed. "I don't do other people's gruntwork. I'm not a lackey. If you can't figure out why I'm here, I'm sure I don't know either."

Of course, Nao had her reasons for allowing the blackmail to succeed – the angst, the emotional torment was too delicious, too good an opportunity to pass up. So she'd allowed herself to be manipulated into this position of intercessory, negotiator. Devil's advocate. But she wasn't going to tell Natsuki these things; it would spoil the fun. She waited patiently for the raven haired girl to catch on, pulling out a file and shaping her nails. So incredibly slow. She had no idea how Natsuki survived, being this oblivious. She should have been run over by an ice cream truck, or wandered into the middle of military testing grounds by now. She was beginning to wonder if she'd have to drop even more obscenely obvious hints, go over and smack the back of Natsuki's head, reset the thinking processes what few of them she has, but by the somewhat shocked, guilty expression on her face, two plus two finally equaled four.

"Shizuru," Natsuki mumbled in a numb voice.

Nao pointed her nail file at the figure slumping on the bed. "Bingo!" She resumed nonchalantly filing, humming to herself a little. She enjoyed knocking the anger out of Natsuki, now that she knew which buttons to push.

"But what… why?" Natsuki looked down and away, frowning, unable to look at her 'guest' any longer. "Why would she send you? If… if she was wondering about me, why wouldn't she just come herself?" The tone was dejected, listless, somewhat hurt, and very very timid. It was precious, priceless.

"Oh, as to that, I've no idea." Nao sniffed, slipping her file back into the pocket she'd manufactured it from. "Maybe she's too busy… doesn't have any free time, like you." Natsuki winced. "Maybe she doesn't want to seem like a crazed, maniacal stalker, set you running off again." Natsuki's head sank into her shoulders, now physically shrinking away from the other girl. "Or maybe… mmm…," Nao paused dramatically before twisting the knife. "Maybe she's finally realized you… don't… want… her any more. That it's easier when she's not around. Maybe she knows she's not welcome," she whispered, leaning forward to follow the retreating figure.

The oh so familiar sense of panic was closing in on her, making it hard to breathe, harder to think. It had been months, months since she'd experienced this horrible, crushing inertia of wounded futility. Yes, it was easier when Shizuru wasn't around, easier to believe she was happy, easier to put aside her feelings of terrified loss, of self recrimination for not being able to do, to become whatever Shizuru wanted, needed her to be. But it wasn't true that she wanted to be alone. She didn't… she was tired of being alone, tired of trying to stand in the middle of the river with only her own strength to keep her from being sucked into the undertow. It wasn't… it wasn't true that she didn't want Shizuru, the one person she'd ever trusted, the only person who'd ever been there for her when she really needed it.

"I can't deal with this shit," she whispered to herself. She had things to do, people to see, secrets to beat into submission. Natsuki brushed fingers through her hair angrily, painfully, cursing the weakness. Her fingers were trembling as she propelled herself off the bed, walked stiffly over to the closet and changed into her riding clothes. She grabbed the gun from its abandonment on the bed, angrily tore open the top dresser drawer to retrieve its twin, and stuffed them both roughly into the back of her pants, snug against the small of her back, collected the extra clips and put them in the short mini-jacket she wore, and stormed through the front door, slamming it hard enough to make the flaking plaster sift through the air. She never once looked back at Nao, who quietly watched the process of Natsuki running away, again, without comment.

Nao barked a short burst of laughter, curling her hand into a small paw shape, flexing its claws. "Meow, little kitty. Meow."