A/N- ...Take heed, all who enter here. Fluff is dead. Hm...not dead, just not really here. At all. I'm expecting three people to understand, and one to kinda sorta get it. I've had this idea in my head for over six months now, so it had to get written. That's pretty much it, save for an apology. I'm working on chapter 15, so expect it soon, just...not today. Oh, and the flashback is fairly obvious (At least, where it is. As to what happened...vagueness), but just so no one gets horribly confused, the rest of Natsuki's thoughts are happening in the present. It's just that one bit that's not.

As always, thanks to Sayosi. I re-read it several times, but I'm sure she'll find what I may have (definitely) missed. And, if she reads it, my deepest apologies to Kryssa's Flute for, well, yes. Also, if it takes out every 'girl' I wrote in one more time, I'll kick the computer.


The room (always room, never cell) is still too small, the one dull light in the left-hand corner of the ceiling casting a sickly glow over the figure seated in one of the two hard-backed chairs allowed to an area. A low table sits in front of her, upon which two napkins lie in a meticulously arranged fashion. The table is metal, the napkins the frailest paper imaginable. It took her days of urging to get even those placed in here.

Natsuki forces down the flame of anger that smolders anew in her chest every day, every time she sees the living conditions, the drab greys varying no further than lighter or darker shades before settling back into their dull shadow. Even the clothes are the same colour as the walls, as everything in this God-forsaken excuse for an institution. Wasn't that what they'd said this was? Lies, formalities, no matter. It was all unforgivable, no matter what the circumstances.

Looking up, she meets the ruby eyes boring holes into her. Shizuru is smiling, but there is almost nothing of her behind it.

"Would Natsuki like some tea?"

The question is asked softly, but the smile is still there. And her heart almost breaks, because there's no tea there, hasn't been for a long time.

"No, that's fine."

"Well," Shizuru accepts with grace, "I am going to have some." She nods, pleased with her decision, and reaches toward the table, her hand placing itself on the handle of something that isn't there. She holds it in front of her, falters, and turns her gaze to Natsuki once more.

"Is Natsuki sure? It's good tea, really…"

The eager, slightly glazed look in her eyes wrenches something in Natsuki's chest. That, combined with the hesitancy with which the question is asked, is enough to make Natsuki's chest tighten again, and she can only say that yes, she'd love to have some. She reaches for a cup, wonders which side has the handle, and wants to laugh. She would, but she hasn't yet, and she knows if she did she might not be able to stop. So she holds up her cup, her figment, and waits for Shizuru to fill it. And suddenly that impossibly young smile is back, and she almost drops what isn't there.

Natsuki holds the cup to her lips and imagines it's green tea, so badly wants it to be green tea that she's not as alarmed as she should be when she can smell, almost taste it. As Shizuru drinks and Natsuki wants, the former fills the room with a recitation of the day's events. It's routine by now, this listen-and-answer session, so Natsuki lets her eyes droop and wonders if she could taste the tea if she tried just a bit harder...

"I don't like it here."

It's so sudden, so out of the blue, that at first she doesn't know how to respond. There are several things she wants to say, several things she would say if she thought...

Of course you don't... Why would you...? Thank God...

Would it mean anything? Was that a random statement, something so simple as commenting on the weather, or... The look in Shizuru's eyes tells her it's none of those, and she's so wonderfully, inexplicably relieved that she blurts out the first thing that comes to mind.

"I'll get you out of here as soon as I can."

It's sudden, it's forceful, it's what she's been thinking every day for the past year and a half.

"Promise?"

"I promise."

Don't make promises you can't keep. But she wants to keep this one, has to. Will.

As suddenly as the sharpness enters Shizuru's eyes, it leaves. The conversation returns to the mundane, to things such as Midori's teaching career, the fact that Shizuru's parents were here yesterday (they weren't, but if wanting to think they were will make her happy, Natsuki will nod and say she must have missed them), what the man down the hall did to get in here, what Natsuki's GPA is. It's the first and the latter two that make her hope and think that maybe...

To her surprise, Natsuki doesn't have to force a smile. It comes by itself, sneaking up on her while she's absorbed in the animated look on Shizuru's face. So absorbed that she forgets, breaks the taboo, and says it.

"Nao said Mai was-"

Then Shizuru's posture grows rigid, and she drops her cup. It shatters, it must have, because for a moment Natsuki can almost hear the crash. What scares her is that she wants to. But there's no time, not with Shizuru shaking. The silent cup forgotten wherever it may have decided to lie, Natsuki moves forward, taking the older girl into her arms and stroking her hair. Hands cling to her back; it's a silent plea for comfort, and Natsuki gives it.

"Shhh, she's not here, she's not here, she's not…"

It's a senseless litany, but it's true. For that, Natsuki is sad and grateful. Slowly, the body in her arms stills. Good.

As long as she keeps smiling, it's okay.

And it almost is. It really almost is.

Mai's voice is hoarse, first from screaming and then crying, and is now a bone-dry whisper of accusation. 'She's not right, Natsuki. She's all wrong…'

Nao says nothing, but her eyes are enough. They hold an odd mixture of scorn and pity, and Natsuki wants to ask, but there's no need. 'You fool, I tried to tell you.'

Akira would say nothing anymore, and Takumi... Takumi is… No. Just so, then.

It's Mai who stands out the most, because it's she who can never be compensated. Never, no matter how many times she tries to apologise, because 'sorry' just won't cut it anymore. To be fair, she was never expecting it to.

'It's not her fault, he was- he-'

'Are you going to tell me he was in the way!?'

Nao and Midori were the only ones who would speak with her now. And Mikoto, sometimes, but then only to ask her questions she couldn't answer. Haruka, she suspected, would soon start asking too. But she won't leave, can't leave, because despite it all, she loves Shizuru. Loves her, wants to protect her, wants to keep her from slipping away.

"Natsuki...?"

"Shizuru."

It's a reassurance, an answer, and a way to convey feeling all in one. She wants to stay longer, wants to keep holding her, but she can hear footsteps coming down the hall.

It's too soon, always too soon.

So she draws Shizuru closer, kisses her, reassures herself that she's still there, lingers, and pulls back only when the steps turn a corner and start down the hallway. The sheer happiness shining from usually unreadable eyes is reward enough for her, and even when the older girl hears the footsteps too, and fear replaces joy, Natsuki is happy.

Happy because there's more of Shizuru (pain, sadness, awareness) in that look then there's been in a while. But then the keys are rattling in the door, and Shizuru stiffens again even as Natsuki hugs her, tells her she'll be back the next day, yes, she's sure, no, she's not going to leave. Just for tonight, because she has to. But what she doesn't say is that the visiting hours can go to hell, that if there were a way to stay here she would.

Then she's being ushered out, the guard's questioning stare enough to make her want to snap his neck. They're all like this. Everyone here, they don't understand. 'How can you spend eight hours of your day here?' their eyes would ask. 'You've just begun college, why...?' 'How can you stand it; why would you stand it?' She hates them for that, because they have their mothers, wives, husbands, children waiting for them at home. So she ignores the man, ignores the voice that says she'll be in a cell (room) of her own before long, and walks out.

She'll be back tomorrow though, next week, next month, and maybe then things would right themselves. Maybe then the cups would be real, not confiscated in case someone got the bright idea of using one as a weapon, maybe then Shizuru would be able to come home with her, live with her, stay with her, smile the way she used to when she and Natsuki talked. Until then…

You waited for me, Shizuru. Now I'll wait for you, for as long as it takes.