This story is not exactly about a date and it's definitely AU at times, or maybe all the time, also OOC and whatnot, even if this might not be so apparent in the first part, although I doubt that.
It is very, very, very likely that I'll raise the rating, but if so, then the reason won't be starting with 'L', so don't get your hopes high ;)
On another note: The suckerz at Sunrise pwn. At least the (Z)HiME-verse. Also, they raped ancient and not so ancient European city and other names, and so do I, because I suck, too.
Anyway, let's start.
Now and Then
~ A Breath of Summer ~
Natsuki put down the document she had been reading, exchanging it for the cup that was standing at arms reach on her desk, leaned slightly back in her chair and carefully took a sip of the still hot tea, closing her eyes while savouring the rich and fruity aroma.
When she opened them again, Shizuru, who was sitting diagonally in front of her on the desk's right side, had turned around a bit, smiling at her with a questioning look in her eyes.
"You like it?" she asked.
"Hm, it's good," answered the raven-haired woman, a content expression on her face. "Really good," she repeated, watching blissfully how Shizuru's smile became more radiant, and took another sip of the tea. It was a variety the older Otome had brought back from a recent assignment in Florince.
Relaxing, Natsuki closed her eyes again, basking in the calm of the moment. She loved the time they shared here in her office, especially in the early hours of the day, when the students were all diligently sitting in their classrooms and the whole school was so unbelievingly quiet and peaceful. She would be at her desk, working, going through the paperwork, while Shizuru would be sitting on her usual place on the desk, giving her company. Sometimes they would talk, sometimes they were just content with each other's presence.
She couldn't remember when exactly Shizuru had started this habit of sitting on her desk whenever they were alone; one day she had just sat down there and from then on it had kind of been her place, and no matter how much paperwork was piling up on her desk, that place would always remain free, even during Shizuru's times of absence from Garderobe.
Thoughtfully mustering the older's back that was turned to her again, the younger took another sip and then put the cup back on the desk. She couldn't quite grasp it, but for some reason, this morning, the other woman was conveying an air of restlessness, which was more than a bit unusual for the always so composed Otome. Maybe it was the weather, mused the Gakuenchou, resting her head on her hand. When looking out of the large office windows and seeing the bright sunlight of this summer day, she herself felt a vague jumpiness that made it hard to sit still and concentrate on work.
With a deep sigh, she turned her attention back to the papers lying in front of her, intending to continue with her reading, but looked up again when she noticed that Shizuru was turning to her, expecting her to say something. But she didn't, only an impish grin spread across her face the moment she had Natsuki's attention.
And then the younger watched quite dumbfounded how she was leaning back slowly, further and further, until her upper body was was fully lying on the desk, head resting next to her documents, brown tresses sprawling around her, a smile on her rosy lips and a challenging glint in those vivid crimson eyes that were gazing straight into her own. And against Natsuki's strong resolve not to, at the sight of Shizuru spread out on the desk before her, she couldn't help but blush, and she well registered the pleased flicker in her partner's eyes and the widening of her smile. In this game, Shizuru was always the winner. Always.
Red eyes followed attentively her every move as she slowly reached out and carefully brushed the brown locks half covering her documents into the direction of their owner, her voice tender as she quietly remarked, "I can't really work when you're lying on my stuff."
"Then don't," came Shizuru's half whispered reply, her hand moving up to lightly touch Natsuki's still entangled in her hair, crimson eyes locking with green.
A fond smile flitted across the raven-haired woman's softened features as she turned her hand, letting her fingertips run over the other's palm, caressing, grazing the fingers that lightly curled around her own, remaining like this for a moment before her expression became serious again. "I'm supposed to know the contents of all these until this afternoon's assembly," she said apologetically, slightly squeezing her love's hand. There was a short pause, and then she added, thoughtfully, "I'd like you to take a look at some of them, too."
Shizuru let out a resigning sigh. "Ok," she said quietly, slowly drawing her hand out of Natsuki's, and sat up again.
The Gakuenchou unhappily watched her back; she'd also prefer doing other things than this bothersome paperwork, but what had to be done had to be done. Her gaze falling out of the window, she thought that, maybe, if they hurried up a little, there might still be enough time to take a walk in the park after lunch.
Once again, the woman on her desk turned around a bit, looking at her contemplatingly for a few seconds before she spoke, in a rather casual voice, "This weekend is the Delm Festival."
"It is?" returned Natsuki surprised.
The older Otome nodded. "Want to go?" she asked, unable to hide the hopeful tone in her voice anymore.
"Hm." A smile spreading on her face, Natsuki leaned slightly forward, resting her elbow on the desk and her cheek in her hand. "Is this a date?"
Bracing herself on one hand, looking directly into the jade green eyes, Shizuru leaned further towards Natsuki until their faces were less than a foot apart. "Do you want it to be a date?" she countered playfully, flashing a smile.
And with a mirthful sparkle in her eyes, the younger replied, "Then a date it is," delighted watching the happy expression on the older's face. Moving down her hand and lifting her head a bit, she wanted to lean closer to her, when Shizuru suddenly took on an alarmed expression, and as she quickly hopped off the desk, straightening her uniform, Natsuki also heard the low sound of footsteps on the corridor outside, and a second later, someone knocked with a short, prominent staccato on the office door.
Natsuki had just enough time to shout a quick "Come in!" before the door was already opened and Miss Maria entered the room.
The grey-haired woman nodded shortly into her direction, greeting her with, "Gakuenchou," before turning to Shizuru. "Meister Viola, I'd like to ask you if you could jump in as replacement for Miss Yukariko in the upcoming combat training lesson, if your schedule permits so. Miss Yukariko is not feeling well, and although it's apparently nothing serious, Dr. Helene advised her to get some rest and wrote her off sick for today."
Miss Maria looked expectantly to Shizuru, and the Graceful Amethyst send an indecisive glance over to Natsuki, who nodded slightly, saying, "Just go, later should still be enough time to discuss things before the meeting will start," not missing how her partner's face shortly brightened up as she gave her consent.
"Then I will help out gladly," declared Shizuru, turning back to the elderly woman.
"Well then," replied this one before giving her regards to the headmistress with another nod and walked towards the door.
Shizuru followed her, waiting until the older Otome had opened the door and stepped outside, before she shortly turned to Natsuki again, giving her a thankful smile.
Returning the smile, the younger watched how she left the office and quietly closed the door behind. Then she let out a deep sigh and turned her attention back to the papers on her desk, musing that Shizuru had the more desirable job of the two. Combat training was definitely to be preferred over paperwork, it was something she herself loved just as much as Shizuru. On the other hand, thinking further, teaching was not.
Too often she felt that she was lacking the required patience to explain things over and over again; she just didn't know how to work with the students and how to motivate them. Contrary to Shizuru, who was an excellent teacher, that she knew from her own experience.
Of course they all learned how to fight during combat training, as Corals the basic techniques with and without various weapons, moving on to the advanced techniques as Pearls with two weapons of their own choice. But everything beyond that, all the tricks and subtleties of the Art of the Dance, she had learned them from Shizuru, during their countless training sessions after school.
Sometimes, when Shizuru did the training, Natsuki would sneak over there and watch. Standing among the students, she always felt as if she had been transfered ten years back in time, when she had still been a Coral, admiring her dance with gleaming eyes just like her classmates, wishing to be like her one day.
Back then, when Shizuru had noticed that she was watching, she had always put on a show, no move was too risky, no technique too extravagant, and Natsuki had almost felt sorry for the other Pearls who had to be her opponents in that uneven game.
In the evening, the raven-haired girl would have teased her and called her a terrible show-off, but more often, she would have nagged her to show her the moves over and over again until she had mastered them herself. In case she had called her a show-off beforehand, Shizuru's condition would have been the usual, "One technique - ten kisses, to pay in advance," which Natsuki would have commented with, "Rip-off," but happily complied nonetheless.
Today, Shizuru was more level-headed, even the techniques she used in the show fights were more direct, aimed to finish off the opponent quickly; in the course of the many real battles that decided on life or death she had lost part of her playfulness. They all had.
It was only in their private training sessions where they could fully let go and fool around just like in the early days, when they had still been so young, so idealistic and so damn innocent, oblivious to the hardships that had been lying ahead of them.
Natsuki smiled and shook her head slightly at her own thoughts, telling herself that it had only been ten years.
But the strenuous life as Otome had caused them to mature quickly, had made them realise that real fights were far, far away from game-like training, more than they could have ever imagined. And with that knowledge came responsibility; neither she nor Shizuru nor the other instructors would teach the students moves that would unnecessarily endanger them in a battle.
The raven-haired woman shook her head again, noticing that she was staring at the long closed door, and returned to her work with another sigh.
Clad only in her underwear and a black t-shirt, the hair still slightly wet from showering, Natsuki came out of the bathroom and went over to the bottom of her bed to pick up the jeans she had laid out on the blanket earlier, together with a pair of socks, trying to ignore the amused glances her roommate gave her from behind the book she was reading lying on the bed next to hers.
Mai waited until she had slipped into her jeans before she put down her book and sat up, giving the raven-haired girl one of those waggish looks she had learnt meant nothing good.
"What?" asked Natsuki suspiciously, sitting down on the bed to put on her socks.
With a grin, the other Otome leaned over to her bedstand, opened the topmost drawer and pulled out a flat box. "Let me do your make-up!" she exclaimed cheerily, waving with the box to Natsuki, whose face turned into a frown.
"I don't need make-up," growled the raven-haired girl.
"But you have to look good on your date!"
Natsuki send a dangerous glare to her pushy friend. "It's not a date!" she exclaimed. "And the last time you painted my face, I looked like a clown!"
"I practised...?" Mai tried again, a pleading look in her violet eyes.
"No," was the resolute answer that made clear that any further begging would be in vain.
"Hmm..." Mai put on a pout and the make-up box back into the bedstand drawer. She let herself fall back on the bed, crossing her arms behind her head and stared at the ceiling. "I wasn't going to paint you for real, you know."
"Hey...," started the redhead, turning onto her side, and Natsuki looked over to her, waiting for her to go on, but her friend kept silent, a somewhat undetermined expression on her face, and eventually said, "Nothing," turning onto her back again.
Knitting her brows, Natsuki got up and crossed the small distance between their beds, letting herself plop onto Mai's, next to her legs. "What?" she asked, intensely studying her friends face from above.
The other looked at her hesitantly for a moment and then asked, "Um, maybe, if they have those candied almonds there, would you bring me some?"
And suddenly, Natsuki realised the reason for the even for her friend slightly weird and more clingy than usual behaviour that she had shown throughout the day. "You'd like to go, too, wouldn't you?"
Found out, Mai bit her lower lip and nodded quickly.
"Didn't some people from our class want to go?"
Grimacing, the redhead sat up, back on eye level with Natsuki again. "I only know of Tess and Katrina and so, and before I go with them, I'd rather stay here," she responded gloomily. Then she suddenly grinned, nudging the other Coral's shoulder, saying in a way too cheerful voice, "Now, don't make a face like a drowned puppy. I'll be alright, you go and enjoy your big date."
The d-word showed its desired effect immediately and, distracted, Natsuki grumbled, "It's not a date."
"Yes, yes, no date, sure, whatever you say," laughed Mai, "and now get ready, or do you want to be late?"
"No," mumbled Natsuki and got up again, still a bit thoughtful while moving over to her nightstand and taking the silver hairpin lying on top of it into her hands.
She went back into the bathroom, critically studying her face in the mirror while putting the pin on the shelf under it and picking up the hairbrush to go through her hair again.
Mai wasn't so wrong about the make-up, it was something she had briefly considered herself - very briefly, because she was just as untalented as her friend when it came to this, and she cringed at the thought that they would actually be tested about it. The only reason for even considering putting on make-up was that she didn't know what else to do, her wardrobe mainly consisting of jeans, shirts, sweaters and more jeans and shirts didn't leave much possibilities for variations, or better: none at all.
Finished with her hair and slightly frustrated, she put away the brush and took the pin into her hand again, with the other combing the hair out of her face, and then halted, letting go of the strand, slowly turning the pin in her fingers while contemplatively looking at her reflection. Coming to a decision, she returned to the other room.
Mai, who was reading in her book again, gave her a surprised look, when she carefully put the hairpin into the drawer of her bedstand, where she used to keep it overnight. "Trying something different," she explained shyly and still a bit indecisive, and the readhead nodded with a smile.
"Hm, you should do that more often."
The raven-haired girl smiled back and then went over to the wardrobe, opened the side that belonged to her and took out a grey hooded sweater which she slung loosely around her waist. Closing the wardrobe again, she turned around and set off to the door, shortly kneeling down while putting on her sneakers.
"Don't forget about the almonds!" shouted Mai from her bed.
"Won't!" returned Natsuki with a wink and opened the door.
Stepping outside, she heard Mai shouting, "And have fun!", and she turned to her again, wanting to say, "Thanks!", when Mai added, "On your date!"
"Dammit, Mai!" she yelled. "It's not a date!" And then she slammed the door shut, jerking when the bang was louder than intended.
Turning around, her heart missed a beat and then dropped into her stomach when she saw Miss Maria standing right in front of her, looking at her reprobatively with a raised brow.
"G-good afternoon, Miss Maria," stammered the raven-haired girl, the blood draining from her face, and not waiting for an answer, she quickly walked away, down the corridor, her pace getting faster with every step, fearing that the stern teacher would give her a reprimand, or, far worse, withdraw her permission to leave the campus today.
"Good afternoon, Miss Kruger."
Natsuki almost jumped when she heard the teacher's voice from behind, and her feet involuntarily started to run.
"No running on the corridor, Miss Kruger!"
The Coral stopped dead in her track, her heart beating wildly, and then moved on with slow, wobbly steps, expecting the woman to come after her. But she didn't, and when Natsuki dared to look back, she saw that Miss Maria was walking into the other direction.
Breathing with relief, the girl hurried on, to the secret spot in the garden where she would meet Shizuru.
Quietly humming, Natsuki slipped into her black leather jacket and left her apartment that was situated in the same outbuilding as her office, just in the other wing.
Shizuru's apartment was only a few metres down the corridor, and when she knocked at her door, she opened almost immediately. And as she was standing in the door frame, the raven-haired woman could only stare in rapture at her beautiful, slender form clad in a light, cream-coloured summer dress.
"You look great," she whispered, and a little smile appeared on her partner's lips as she stepped back a bit to let her in.
Natsuki entered, and just when she had shut the door behind her, Shizuru leaned closer, putting on a cute pout, and asked in a slightly hurt voice, "Does that mean that I usually don't look great?"
Unable to suppress a smile, the other mumbled lovingly, "Oh, shut up," closing the distance between them to give her a quick peck on the cheek.
The older woman let out a mirthful chuckle and leaned against her, her hands slipping under her jacket and around her waist, up her back, whispering, "And you're as handsome as always," before her lips captured her own, softly kissing her.
And Natsuki lightly held on to her shoulders, kissing her back, her one hand travelling up and around her neck, caressing the soft skin, moving up again to cup her face when they broke the kiss.
"Ready?" she asked in a low voice, her thumb stroking her cheek, and Shizuru nodded, giving her another kiss before she pulled away.
Then she took a short summer jacket matching her dress in colour from a coatrack next to the door and put it on, turning back to Natsuki with a smile. "Let's go."
"Where are we going?" asked Natsuki confused, hurrying after the brown-haired girl.
"To the eastern gate," answered Shizuru.
"But why?" The younger girl gave her a puzzled look. "And isn't that always closed?"
"Well, we won't exactly take the east gate," said the Pearl with a mysterious smile on her lips, determined walking on.
"But the bus station is closer to the main gate! We'll have to walk all the way back!"
"We won't be taking the bus either."
"What?" Natsuki stopped abruptly, now completely baffled.
Halting, Shizuru turned to her, clearly enjoying her companion's confused state. "Other students have also asked for permission to leave the campus today," she started to explain, "and it's very likely that we might run into them on our way to the gate or at the bus station."
Natsuki nodded, slowly understanding what the brunette was getting at. She was right, if they'd run into a group of other students, chances were very high that among them, there'd also be one or more of those annoying girls that were sticking to her like bees to honey until she told them to fuck off. With a sweet smile and different words, of course.
"I understand what you mean," said Natsuki, her face turning into a frown at the thought of all the fangirls they might encounter, the classmates Mai had just told her about were probably only a few of them.
"Hm," mumbled her friend, and the shorter girl suddenly noticed how close she was standing. Her crimson eyes sparkled as she looked at her and leaned a bit forward, softly saying, "You'll get wrinkles."
Shizuru chuckled. "You'll get wrinkles if you keep frowning like that," she explained, reaching up, two fingers lightly nudging Natsuki's forehead, and the raven-haired girl looked perplexed into her smiling face, feeling the blood rushing into her cheeks. "Better," whispered Shizuru, fondly eyeing her now smoothened features.
Natsuki nodded, nervously pushing the strand that was usually held by the pin behind her ear. "So... what's your plan then?" she asked to draw the attention off her.
"We'll climb over the wall near the east gate and then walk to the train station," was the other girl's eager answer. "Come," she added, taking Natsuki's hand and started to go again.
Having no other choice, Natsuki hopped after her until she had caught up with her pace, the blush that had ebbed flooding back into her cheeks when her fingers were curling a bit tighter around the warmth of the other's hand. "The train station?" she asked, thinking loudly. "Isn't that on the other side of the river? That must be like... half an hour or so from here."
Shizuru beside her shook her head. "More like twenty minutes," she said, "it's not that far, actually."
"Hm," made Natsuki, not really convinced but leaving it at that.
They continued their walk in silence, following the gravel paths lined with low hedges and trees through a part of the school's park, past well-kept lawns and colourful flower beds, now and then seeing parts of the coliseum flashing through openings between the trees in the distance.
Eventually, the eastern gate came into sight and the path lead them onto the asphalted main road. A few metres later, Shizuru said, "This way," motioning to the side, and they left the way again, walking over grass and under trees until the high stone wall enclosing the campus was rising before them.
And while Natsuki was looking up the wall that must have been more than three metres high with worried and skeptic eyes, Shizuru explained, "We'll take a few steps run-up and then jump to reach the wall ledge and pull ourselves up." Noticing her friend's worried expression, she lightly squeezed her hand, saying, "Just concentrate on jumping high, the rest will come alone. It's not that hard."
"You've done it before?" asked the Coral, puzzled looking at the older girl who nodded, a faint grin appearing on her face. "Why?"
Shizuru shrugged slightly and then said the obvious: "To get off the school grounds."
After staring at her in bewilderment for a moment, Natsuki exclaimed, "Don't tell me you left the campus without permission!"
The brown-haired girl's half proud, half sheepish expression told her that she had hit the mark.
"And I thought you were a model student!" she continued with pretended disapproval.
"You're not the only one," answered Shizuru, now grinning freely. Putting on a serious expression again, she asked, "I'll go first, ok?" letting go of Natsuki's hand.
The younger girl agreed with a nod and watched how Shizuru went a few steps back and then started to run, pushing herself off the ground shortly before the wall, leaping high into the air, shortly grabbing the ledge with both hands, her feet stemming against the wall, before she pushed and pulled herself further up in one swift motion, drawing her feet up, onto the ledge, eventually straightening up.
Then she turned around with a sure step, looking down to Natsuki.
And slightly agape, Natsuki looked up to her, how she was standing there, her hair and dress lightly flowing in the wind, smiling, insouciant, as if she was standing in a field of flowers and not on a high, narrow wall.
"Come," she said, and the girl on the ground gulped, her heart sinking. She couldn't jump like that. Never.
Her doubtful eyes fixed on the wall, she went a few steps backwards for the run-up.
"Just concentrate on the jump, don't think of anything else," shouted Shizuru, her voice a bit unsure, as if she was sensing the other girls uneasiness.
Natsuki nodded, trying to look confident, even though she wasn't. 'Just concentrate on the jump' - that was easier said than done. The ledge was so high above, what if she missed and just crashed into the wall? She'd get hurt, fall down, maybe break something.
She closed her eyes, taking a deep breath, trying to calm down and concentrate, trying to drive away her doubts and fears. She couldn't stand here like this forever, what would the other girl think of her if she wimped out?
She opened her eyes again, one last time glancing at the ledge, taking aim, before she started to run, quickly accelerating, and then pushed herself up into the air with a powerful leap.
Her hands barely reached the ledge, her elbows and knees painfully banging against the wall, followed by the rest of her body. Then she hung there like a flour sack for a moment, recovering from the impact, clinging to the wall with her fingers that threatened to let go, trying to ignore the pain.
"Natsuki?" came Shizuru's worried voice from above.
"I'm ok," she growled back, remembering that she had feet which she quickly stemmed against the wall, clumsily pushing herself up while tensing her arm muscles, pulling, until she was on her straightened arms, half leaning against the wall. She draw one leg onto the ledge, and the rest of her body followed shortly after.
Breathing heavily and with wobbly knees, rubbing her elbow, she was finally standing on top of the wall, next to Shizuru.
Glancing sideways, she noticed the worried, concerned look in those crimson eyes. Quickly averting her gaze again, she mumbled, "I'm ok," half lying. For what was more bruised than her body, was her pride. She wanted to look good in front of Shizuru, impress her. And what did she do? Crashing into the wall like a klutz.
"Ok," said the older girl quietly. Then, a bit louder, "Let's get down, before someone sees us. I'll go first again?" looking questioningly at the girl beside her.
Natsuki nodded and her friend jumped, one moment standing next to her, the other landing on the broad patch of grass between wall and pavement, absorbing the impact of the fall with her knees, crouching.
Straightening up, she turned around to Natsuki, smiling and spreading her arms. "Come, I'll catch you!" she shouted giddily.
"I can do it on my own, you don't need to catch me!" protested the raven-haired girl.
"Ah, come on," begged Shizuru. "Please?"
Natsuki hesitated a moment, but then thought, 'Why not?' She wouldn't give in so easily though. "Are you sure you can can catch me?" she asked, teasing.
"Of course!" exclaimed the brunette with pretended indignation, stemming her one hand against her hip and flailing the other in best Haruka manner. "I could even catch you with just one hand! But I'll use both, just in case."
The girl on the wall let out a laugh, and the one down on the grass stretched her arms towards her again. "Come," she said quietly, her expression more serious now, and hopeful.
"Ok," replied Natsuki, "I'm coming."
She slowly pushed herself off the wall, letting herself fall towards waiting arms, feeling the draft tear at her hair, Shizuru's smiling face coming nearer and nearer. Then her hands were under her arms, catching her, whirling her around and pulling her closer, while Natsuki held on to her shoulders. Bumping into each other when the shorter girl's feet touched the ground, they lost balance, and stumbling, turning, dancing a bizarre waltz, they went down, the brunette falling backwards in a slow, controlled movement, taking Natsuki with her.
And the raven-haired girl was landing on top of her, shielded by her body, barely noticing the impact. Lifting her head however, she noticed that the girl under her had her eyes closed.
"Shizuru?" she whispered hoarsely, worried studying her solemn face.
Crimson eyes opened, sparkling, looking at her, and her lips curled into a smile. "See?" she asked, her smile widening.
"Idiot," mumbled Natsuki tenderly, the words that wanted to tell her that she had been worried keeping stuck in her throat. Gazing down into those intense red eyes, she suddenly became aware of the fact that Shizuru was lying under her and she was lying on top of her, and heavily blushing, she pushed herself up and off her, getting back on her feet, offering Shizuru her hand and pulling her up.
Standing in front of each other, Natsuki nervously tucked the stubborn strand of hair behind her ear. Unable to hold the taller girl's gaze that was lying on her again, her eyes fell to the ground, out of the corners noticing the grass and dirt smudges on the side of the other's dress. She looked up again, aghast saying, "Your dress got dirty."
"Your clothes, too," replied Shizuru quietly, not even taking a look at her own.
Natsuki looked down herself, seeing the nasty scratch marks on her jeans where her knees had scraped the wall. The other girl must have spotted them immediately.
"You don't have to hide that you're hurt," whispered Shizuru sadly, and Natsuki twitched slightly when her fingers touched one scraped elbow - not because of pain but because of the tingling sensation her feathery touch had caused.
"I'm sorry," she continued, "I shouldn't have made you climb the wall, we should've just walked out of the main gate."
"No," answered the raven-haired girl hastily. "No... they're just bruises... they'll go away... and... and I wouldn't want to run into the other girls either." She paused, her fingers nervously playing with the sleeves of the sweater around her waist. "I.. I want to spend the day just with you," she whispered eventually, her cheeks reddening.
The face of the brunette lightened up at those words, a warm smile appearing on her lips, radiating. She didn't say anything, but her eyes and smile were telling enough, and Natsuki thought featherbrained that, for that smile, she wouldn't mind climbing the damn wall again.
They stood like that for a moment, in silence, until Shizuru quietly said, "Let's go."
And so they moved off again, walking down the at this time and day almost deserted roads of the office district neighbouring the school grounds. Only when they came closer to the residential houses did they encounter a few pedestrians; and also more cars were passing by now.
And then they could see it, the gigantic bridge leading across the river Iria, which was meandering from east to west through the northern part of Windbloom's capital, separating the academy's grounds and the surrounding districts from the town centre.
Cars were hurrying on four lanes over the bridge, and at one side was a separated bike and foot path. Even after the three months she had now been here, Natsuki could not quite get used to the fact, that here, in Wind City, everything was bigger, more grandiose, and more daunting. The bridge was larger than the ones she knew from home, and yet, here, it was just one of many.
On the bridge, a soft wind was blowing, a welcomed change to the heat radiating from the asphalt in the streets. The air was smelling different here, too, heavy with the sweetish scent of the river below, and even though it was different, it reminded Natsuki of the sea, a promise of the endless wide that would await one if one followed its flow.
Only a few barges could be seen in this part of the river, transporting goods between the outlying harbour and the cities in the inland, up to the mountain range forming Windbloom's natural border in the east, where the Iria rose from its spring.
They had been walking in silence since they had left the school grounds, and even though it was not unusual for the raven-haired girl to not talk that much, hercompanion tended to be more talkative when they were together. She inconspicuously eyed the brunette from the side: Shizuru was staring ahead, looking as if she was deep in thoughts.
But Natsuki's initial intent to find out what was preoccupying the other girl was forgotten when the wind suddenly blew a bit stronger and got entangled in their hair, playing with it, uncovering a small, delicately formed ear and the silvery GEM of the Pearls in its lobe, and green eyes involuntarily traced its contours, catching a glance at the slender neck and beginning of the jaw line beneath.
Only a few seconds and then the spell was broken as they were veiled by brown locks again, and, blushing, Natski quickly averted her eyes when Shizuru turned her head, gazing questioningly at her, a gentle smile forming on her lips.
Busy with blushing, the younger girl kept her eyes fixed on the asphalt before her, looking up again when she felt the older taking her hand and squeezing it lightly.
Shizuru was still smiling at her, but there was also something else in her expression that the raven-haired girl couldn't quite grasp, it reminded her of earlier, when they had been standing at the wall. Her steps slowing down, the Pearl moved closer to the balustrade of the bridge, pulling Natsuki along.
And then they came to a halt, at the middle of the bridge, and the cars and passersby behind them seemed so far away as Shizuru was so close, looking at her so intensely with her beautiful crimson eyes, making clear thinking so incredibly hard.
Another gust came up from the river, dishevelling Natsuki's hair, covering her eyes for a moment, and the brunette reached out, gently brushing the strand out of her face and tucking it behind her ear. She had a somewhat enraptured smile on her lips as she quietly noted, "I think today's the first time that I've seen you with your hair down and without your hair pin."
"You like it?" asked Natsuki shyly, her cheeks glowing more pink than before.
"Hm." The other girl nodded, still smiling, before her expression grew more serious again, hesitant and indecisive, so that Natsuki wondered what was up. "When... when you were jumping up the wall," she started slowly, looking unsure at her, seemingly having trouble to find the right words. "You were scared, weren't you?" she eventually finished the question, her eyes carefully studying the younger girl's face.
Natsuki's cheeks were burning again, this time of shame, and something in her instinctively wanted to deny it, but Shizuru's concerned look made it impossible to lie, and so she vaguely nodded, avoiding her eyes.
"Why?" asked the brunette.
'Why?' she asked, thought Natsuki bitterly, suddenly feeling very much like jerking her hand out of Shizuru's. Wasn't it obvious? It was a very high and hard wall, that should be enough of a reason, shouldn't it?
"There's no need to be afraid," said Shizuru, and if it wasn't for her sincere voice, the raven-haired girl would have snapped at her, thinking she was mocking her. "You can jump high enough to get easily onto the wall," continued the brunette quickly, sensing the other's withheld anger. "I've seen you in training, when you made a jump kick against the highest hanging sandbag. If you can jump like that, the wall should be absolutely no problem for you."
Natsuki just looked at her in disbelief.
"Trust me," said the Pearl quietly.
"But... but that's completely different!"
"Because... because!" spluttered Natsuki angrily and paused, taking a deep breath and trying to calm down. "When you go for the sandbag and don't jump high enough, you miss the bag, nothing more," she continued more composed. "When you try to get over the wall and don't jump high enough, you crash against the stone. It's not the same at all!" She slowly removed her hand from Shizuru's and defensively crossed her arms in front of her chest, ungraciously looking at her.
An unhappy expression grew on the brunette's face. "But in the end, both times it's just a jump, right?" she asked quietly. "It's not the wall made of stone that's the problem, it's the one in your head, the thought that you can't do it. If you're in doubt, if you think you might fail, you will most likely do so. But if you confide in yourself and your abilities, and have no fear, the rest will come alone."
The raven-haired girl snorted, shaking her head. "That's easier said than done."
"I know," whispered the other apologetically.
Natsuki let her arms drop in resignation, her eyes searching Shizuru's. "Are you never scared?" she asked, a desperate tone resonating in her voice.
A smile appeared on the taller girl's lips. "Very often," she admitted and her counterpart frowned, confused.
"But I try to not let my fears get into the way. Most of the time, it works." Shizuru was still smiling, apologising, and the raven-haired girl's anger vanished completely when she realised that her friend wasn't perfect either and really just trying to help her.
Her face becoming more serious, the Pearl tentatively put her hand on the younger one's shoulder, who looked surprised at her gesture, and quietly started to speak again. "On the battlefield, there's no place for doubt or fear. When you're scared, you hesitate, and then you lose. Never be scared. Never."
"O-okay," stammered Natsuki, taken aback by the graveness and urgency of her words, unsure what to reply.
"Okay," whispered Shizuru, her features softening again, her hand slowly letting go of her shoulder. Cautiously, she reached for Natsuki's hand, visibly relaxing when the younger closed her fingers around her own.
They got going again, walking further down the bridge, and now it was the raven-haired girl who was deep in thoughts, the things Shizuru had said occupying her mind. A light squeeze at her hand stirred her out of her thoughts and she looked to the other girl, seeing a questioning and maybe worried expression on her face. Natsuki gave her a shy smile which she returned. Everything was alright.
Once across the bridge, the train station was not far. Here, there were a lot more people on the streets, and she didn't know if Shizuru had sensed her slight discomfort caused by their occasional stares or if she was feeling uncomfortable herself, but she let go of her hand when they reached the square in front of the station.
It was one of the old market squares that had been built in earlier centuries and still remained until today, and on certain days of the week, merchants would still set up their stalls, mainly farmers from the surrounding villages to sell their products. And even though today, there were no stalls set up around the circular stone fountain, there were still many people out and about, on their way from or to the train station, strolling over the square, sunbathing on the benches or sitting at the tables of the small cafes opposite of the station.
They crossed the square, Natsuki closely following the older girl, and climbed up the steps leading to the roofed platform area.
In one of the corners, between the underpass to get to the opposite platform and the ticket machine, stood an elderly man, silently, holding up a magazine in front of him, like a hawker his goods. "Behold!" it said in bold, curved letters, and beneath, in a smaller font, "Cyborgs from outer space! Are they among us?"
A very common sight these days in the capital of Windbloom, where a sect of quasi-religious nutters who believed that, at the turn of the millennium, a gigantic meteorite would crash into Earl, extinguishing all life in its wake, only sparing the chosen ones, had gained immense popularity.
They ignored the man, like everyone else, and lined up in front of the head-high, green-metallic box that was the ticket machine.
Even though electronic cash was widely established in Windbloom, the predominant method of payment, especially at machines like this, was the traditional one, using coins or notes, not only because of the many foreigners passing through the city, but also because of the many natives that were rejecting the new technology completely, preferred real money, or simply didn't meet the requirements for such a plastic card. Some did not even have a bank account.
Natsuki watched how Shizuru in front of her pressed a few buttons on the machine to choose a ticket and then inserted a few coins into the money slot. Then a low 'pling' sound could be heard, caused by the change falling into a small compartment below the money slot, and, almost simultaneously, a ticket appeared in the main compartment below the control panel.
Shizuru took both ticket and change and stepped aside to make room for her friend. The raven-haired girl made a step forward, one hand in her pocket, nervously fumbling for coins while her eyes were anxiously scanning the countless buttons and the price tables in four languages, wishing she would have paid more attention to which buttons Shizuru had pressed earlier, but it had all been so fast.
Finding the button for the adult single tickets, she breathed with relief, but her heart sank almost immediately again when she was helplessly looking at the colourful map with the thousand different price zones, and the customer behind her impatiently tapping his foot didn't help. Not at all!
Shizuru was suddenly at her side again, standing so close that their shoulders almost touched. "We're going from the yellow zone to the pink, so it's price class five," she explained quietly and leaned forward, pushing the right buttons.
"Thanks," mumbled Natsuki, her cheeks flaming red of embarrassment as she quickly shoved the money into the slot and then grabbed ticket and change just as hastily.
Walking together with Shizuru to the platform, she badly wanted to crawl into a mousehole. The other Otome must surely be thinking that she was the biggest moron on Earl, and not for the first time, Natsuki was cursing her backward home country.
The brunette was unsurely eyeing her from the side, looking as if she wanted to say something but didn't.
Eventually, Natsuki couldn't bear it anymore and stared at the dusty stone tiles beneath her feet. "We didn't have such machines at home!" she uttered suddenly, biting her lip when she realised that she had hit the wrong tone, directing her frustration at the one person who had absolutely nothing to do with it and who was the last she wanted to snap at.
"You could have just said that you're not familiar with them," replied Shizuru sadly in her calm voice, "then I would have helped you from the beginning."
The raven-haired girl didn't know what to answer. That it was completely embarrassing? That it was already bad enough that Mai and the others had been teasing her on the few occasions they had left the campus and went into this damn city that was too often just too big, too foreign, too different and too damn everything? And that it all was even worse when something like that with the ticket machine happened and she was with her?
Shizuru stepped closer again, tentatively taking her hand. "It's nothing you have to be embarrassed of," she said softly, letting her fingers entwine with Natsuki's. "Absolutely not."
"I think it is," mumbled the younger, a bit solaced, her fingers slowly curling around the other's.
"Silly," said the brown-haired girl, playfully nudging her friend with the shoulder.
"Hm," mumbled Natsuki, nudging her back, trying to fight the smile that threatened to creep onto her face. But when Shizuru nudged her again, a giggly grin on her lips, she couldn't hold back the happy chuckle she had tried to cage in her throat.
And they would have probably continued their goofy game for all eternity, if it wasn't for the arrival of the softly buzzing maglev train that came swiftly gliding into the platform, bringing with it a gust of warm, of electricity smelling air that was lightly tearing at their clothes and hair when the train was halting in front of them.
Then its doors slided open and they stepped back a bit, giving way to the passengers that were streaming out and dispersed on the platform, heading towards the exit.
After climbing into one of the coaches, they found an empty four seat compartment and sat down on the seats at the window, facing each other. Not long after the train had started to move again, Natsuki realised that taking opposite seats had not been such a good idea; she found it hard to look at Shizuru when the other was smiling at her so endearingly, watching her with those entrancing eyes. And when she felt herself blushing again, she turned her head, watching the buildings and streets flying past the window.
Like many other cities, today's City of Wind had evolved from a fusion of several neighbouring towns and villages.
Once a small settlement near the banks of the river Iria, Wind quickly gained in economical importance in the Duchy of Windbloom when its strategically advantageous position between the water and land-based trade routes from the coast to the inland attracted more and more merchants and craftsmen.
It soon received its town charter, and when Duke Guilhelm d'Aurosia chose Wind as his residence in the sixth century, and built not only the castle that was still home of the royal family but also initiated the construction of the Windchester Cathedral, the city flourished further and suburbanised the surrounding villages.
By the time Duke Frederik d'Aurosia-Fontus crowned himself as King Frederik I. Blan de Windbloom, and proclaimed the Kingdom of Windbloom, the City of Wind had almost reached half of its present-day size, already being one of the most prosperous and technologically advanced cities on the Western Continent.
The newly founded kingdom faced war only shortly later, when the Ten Year's War broke out which brought about the fall of the First Cardairian Empire; but Windbloom could successfully defend its autonomy and lands against the imperial troops and assaults of its neighbours.
It was the first war the Kingdom of Windbloom was involved in but by far not the last, and the many conflicts did not pass by without leaving traces, and many, many times were large parts of its cities destroyed, and also the City of Wind, being the aggressors' main target, had to suffer severe damages, where whole districts had been razed to the ground.
This repeated destruction and rebuilding of parts of Windbloom's capital, that had lasted on until after the Dragon War forty years ago, had resulted in a very multi-faceted cityscape. In Wind, one could find modern constructions made of steel and glass next to districts where the buildings had stucco plastered facades and bays; there were skyscrapers and half-timbered houses, broad six lane streets and narrow, winding alleys paved with cobblestone.
During the summer months, there were several traditional and newer festivals held on various places scattered all over the city, and even though the Delm Festival was by far not the largest, it did have its own unique charm, not least because of its historical ambience. Located at the northern bank of the Iria, the district of Delm was one of Wind's oldest boroughs and had been able to preserve great part of its original character throughout the centuries.
From the former guild houses around the old market square and the Gothic stone church to the banks of the river, everywhere festive crowds were moving over the cobblestone pavement, between the old, mostly timberframed buildings and the many stalls and food booths (the main attraction being beer and grilled sausages). The air was filled with cheerful chit chat and the wind carried snatches of the music coming from the wooden stage set up in front of the ancient town hall far into the surrounding streets and alleys.
Shizuru by her hand, Natsuki let herself drift in the crowd, not for the first time welcoming probably one of the major advantages of the Otome uniform: without it, no one would recognise you; and with the GEMs hidden under their hair, their cover was perfect.
They had been walking down the broad street along the riverside for a while, when Shizuru pulled her over to one of the stalls. "Wanna play?" she asked, eyes gleaming happily. "See who's better?"
It was a simple game: at the rear wall of the booth, there were mini basketball hoops installed into which one had to throw a mini basketball. Five balls - one Gulden, five hits and one could win a plastic rose.
"Hmm...," made the raven-haired woman, pretending to have to think about it first. "What about?"
"If I win, I'll get a kiss from you," explained the other Pillar cheerfully, and Natsuki played along, asking, "And if I win?"
"You'll get a kiss from me."
"Hm, that's like you always winning, even when you're losing."
"Or like you always winning, even when you're losing," was the brunette quick to answer.
"Alright...," said the Gakuenchou, leaning closer to her love. "But no cheating this time."
"I don't know what you mean," said Shizuru, managing to sound and look completely innocent.
"You know what I mean," whispered Natsuki softly into her ear, "and to make sure, your turn first."
Natsuki slowly took the first ball from the counter, turning it in her hands, nervously glancing to the brown-haired girl beside her who gave her an encouraging smile.
How on Earl could she have ever agreed to such a stupid bet? It couldn't even really be called a bet, since the outcome was practically always the same, no matter who would win. And yet, maybe there was a way out: if she was the one winning, then she could still say that she'd waive her prize.
Slightly enlivened and with new found determination, the Coral gripped the ball a bit tighter and took carefully aim for the mini hoop. This shouldn't be too hard, she had played this game a lot at home, just with bigger balls and hoops, basically the same.
She threw the ball and her brows twitched in irritation when it just hit the basket's rim and then dropped to the floor.
"A miss," commented the stall-keeper unnecessarily and returned the ball with a friendly smile.
The raven-haired girl angrily snapped the ball out of his hands and send deathly glares to the mini hoop on the wall. 'Great start!' she thought. But still... Shizuru could miss, too, maybe it would be alright.
She aimed and threw again, breathing out in relief when the ball hit the basket.
The next one went in more smoothly, and the remaining two were a sure thing. If only she hadn't missed the first!
Grumpily, she said no when the stall-keeper asked if she wanted to play again to get more points, and then stepped aside to make room for Shizuru.
The older girl took the mini ball and threw it without further ado, and - how else could it be - scored. And Natsuki's bad mood didn't lighten up when she witnessed how she sunk the two next balls as if she was spending her days doing nothing but throwing little balls into just as little baskets.
Her winning streak threatened to break however, when the fourth shot hit the basket's rim, hopped into the air - and still landed in the net.
"Ooh, close thing. One to go."
The stall-owner gave the ball back to Shizuru, and the younger girl noticed well the tautness that had taken hold of her; she didn't seem to be as relaxed as she had been before when she took aim again and made her last throw. The little ball flew through the air and Natsuki held her breath for a second when it hit the rim again. But this time, Shizuru was out of luck and the ball bounced off, missing the hoop.
"Ah, so close... maybe you want to play again?"
"No, thank you," answered the older girl with a sweet smile and pulled the younger away from the stall.
"So...," said Natsuki somewhat relieved as they were standing at a few metres distance. "I guess we can forget about the bet now?"
"Why?" was Shizuru's surprised question.
"It's a draw."
"Exactly." The taller one looked at her with sparkling eyes. "Don't you know what happens on a draw?"
"No," mouthed Natsuki, foreboding creeping over her. "What happens on a draw?"
A happy grin on her face, Shizuru exclaimed cheerfully, "I get a kiss from you and you get kiss from me!"
"What? Wait! No! What about no-"
"Shizuru-sama! Shizuru onee-sama!"
The raven-haired girl's protest was cut off by loud squealing, and harried she looked around to locate the direction of its source.
"Come!" Shizuru quickly grabbed her hand and dragged her along, diving into the crowd and then out again, running into a narrow alley leading away from the hustle and bustle of the festival.
Natsuki watched how Shizuru deftly sunk one shot after the other, there was no doubt that she'd score them all. The more was she stunned when the last ball bounded off the hoop rim and missed.
"I missed," said the older woman, genuine surprise in her voice.
The younger hesitated shortly, studying her face and then nodded. "Ok, my turn."
She took the ball into her hands, thinking for a moment, then making a decision. She had never intended to win this game anyway.
Natsuki surely sunk the ball, and also the next shots scored without problems. Now everything depended on the last try. Had things been relatively easy till now, the last throw would not, and the raven-haired woman was still surprised how Shizuru had managed to pull it off so inconspicuously back then.
Breathing in deeply, Natsuki took aim and threw the ball with more force than before and in a different angle, her lips curling up for the blink of a second when the ball rebounded from the backboard and missed the hoop. It wasn't too obvious, she thought.
Turning around to Shizuru, she said, "It's a draw," ignoring the babbling of the stall-keeper.
The older looked at her with a baffled expression and then smiled. "Didn't you say no cheating?" she whispered as she took her arm and led her away.
Natsuki slowed down and frowned. "I'm that bad of an actress, huh?"
Giggling, Shizuru put an arm around her waist and pulled her closer. "Yes, you are," she said softly, her warm crimson eyes searching for their jade counterparts. Leaning in, she whispered, "So tell me... what happens on a draw?"
"Geez! You guys really never change, don't you?"
The Gakuenchou didn't need to turn around to know that this voice belonged to no one else but Haruka Armitage. She and Yukino were coming towards them, dressed in plain clothes like themselves and friendly smiling. Well, Yukino was smiling, Haruka was rather grinning as she stood before them, wildly gesticulating as she continued with her tirade.
"There are people around, watching! Children! They could suffer severe drama!"
"Trauma, Haruka-chan," sighed Yukino.
"That's what I said," nodded Haruka, still grinning at Shizuru like a Cheshire cat.
"What are you doing here?" asked the brunette surprised but looking just as happy as the other one, without the goofy grin.
In the beginning, when Natsuki had just arrived at Garderobe, she had thought that the two were arch rivals and even the pure presence of the other would be enough reason to start a quarrel. It had only been after a few weeks, when she had got to know them better, maybe also due to her own friendship with Mai, that she had realised that rather the contrary was the case, and that the constant challenging and fighting was more like a children's game the two were playing in public. When they had been among themselves in their room, it had become apparent that the two of them were getting along very well, actually, and back then, Haruka had been one of her closest, real friends, and she still was.
"Next week, there will be preliminary negotiations about the new trade agreement between Windbloom, Airies and Florince which demand my presence here," explained Yukino, "and when we noticed that they coincide with the festival, we spontaneously decided to come a few days earlier."
"It's been ages since we've last seen it," added Haruka.
Shizuru nodded. "Same here," she said quietly.
Then there was a pause, in which Haruka looked shortly to Yukino before she continued, "We just were on our way to Mayer's, would you like to join us?"
Mayer's was a long-established coffeehouse not too far from here which was famous for its large selection of coffee specialities and waffle creations. It was a place where even Shizuru would renounce her beloved tea and order coffee instead.
Shizuru looked at her and Natsuki could see that she wanted to go, so she nodded, saying, "Yes, we would."
And so they were leisurely sauntering along the river promenade, there was no need to hurry, they had plenty of time before they had to get back to see the fireworks.
Two bridges were directly leading into the district of Delm, and on the day of the festival, the smaller one would be closed and after dusk, fireworks would be set off from its middle and everyone would gather at the banks to watch their grand display.
After following the river walk for a while, the four friends took a side street leading away from the festival. They were maybe half-way down the street, when suddenly, on the parallel street lying ahead, a fat grey cat with a sausage in its mouth was running by. And then a small, lavender-haired, white-cloaked, "Mikoto!" shouting person wearing gigantic sunglasses and a ridiculous straw hat. Directly followed by another, equally small, "Mikoto! Mashiro-chan!" shouting person in baggy work pants and a plain shirt, the long auburn braids flowing behind.
Natsuki decided that this was a very good moment to start believing in all the deities of Earl and praying to them at once.
Well, it seemed the Earlian gods didn't think much of last-minute conversions, for shortly later, Arika came back into sight, a struggling cat under her arm and a grumpy queen by the hand.
"Shizuru-san! Gakuenchou! Junshou! Yukino-san!"
Well, I promised myself to update this one fast¹, we'll see if I can keep it.
¹) 'fast' meaning something like a month