Leebot's Note: Hello hello. Surprised to see me here? Well, the thing is, centauri2002 and I are writing this fic together. It started out as an experiment to see how it might go, spawned from a story idea I had and a random impulse to see what it would be like to coauthor something. It seems to be going pretty well so far, so we're posting this up for you all to peruse. Let us know what you think. Do our styles seem to work well together? Do they clash? Can you even tell what part came from each of us? In any case, hopefully we'll be continuing this before too long; though since we have to fit it into both of our schedules, it might be a bit longer than normal.

Centauri2002's Note: Well, it was certainly fun having a go at co-authoring, especially with an author like Leebot. I'd tell you which parts I did and which he did, and how we spread out the work load but I think it'll be fun to see people guess at it. Heh. I will say though that the plot was all Leebot's idea so kudos to him for that. That's all I have to say for now. Hope you enjoy it, I did.


Title: Ascension

Rating:T (knowing us, will probably rise to M later)

Chapter 1: The Stakes


Raising a fist to the door, Natsuki paused. She always seemed to hesitate when she reached this point, even if it was just for a second or two. She'd become aware of it after a few visits to this particular room and hadn't quite placed the reason why. Deciding it was a habit she needed to break, she tapped her knuckles against the wood, a dull knocking drawing the attention of passers by.

"Yes? Who is it?" the lilting voice of Shizuru drifted through the door, loud enough for both her and anyone nearby to hear.

A sigh pushed its way passed the Coral's lips and she dropped her hand, clenching it at her side. Why did Shizuru have to do this to her every single time she came here? Perhaps this was the reason for her hesitation, that she knew she'd get teased in some manner. She shifted uncomfortably for a moment, glancing from side to side to see the gazes of several other students. They eyed her with barely concealed curiosity and she'd long ago become aware of their attentions.

"You sent for me, you should be able to guess who it is," she forced through clenched teeth, making a poor attempt at directing her voice through the door alone.

An annoying twitter reached her ears and she didn't even have to look to know several excited girls had crowded around one another and were gossiping. She couldn't catch their words but she knew they would be discussing her and Shizuru. She tensed her jaw, trying to keep a neutral expression and stop herself from shouting at them to mind their own business.

What the heck was keeping Shizuru so long anyway? She briefly considered knocking on the door again but that action was rather redundant now. Shizuru knew she was there and she'd answer the door in her own sweet time, whether Natsuki liked it or not. Forcing another frustrated breath out through her nose, the Coral was about to turn on the girls nearby when the sudden movement of the door in front of her caught her attention.

A flash of chestnut was all she could make out before she was quickly enveloped in strong arms and a warmth was pressed against her. Natsuki's eyes widened as soft lips were pressed against her own, their silky texture causing her senses to hone in on them whilst their firm movements caused her to yield to the kiss. She was vaguely aware of Shizuru's breath tickling her cheek and the girl's hair brushing against her skin.

A tender, probing tongue trailed across her bottom lip and she instinctively parted her lips to allow it access to her mouth. She was shocked when the delightful sensations did not come and, instead, Shizuru pulled away as quickly as she had moved to her. Natsuki blinked up at the Pearl, her confused mind starting to register what had just happened. The pink tinge that had coloured her cheeks deepened to a dark red as she realised what Shizuru had done in front of all the other students.

A small smirk now tugged at one corner of Shizuru's lips and Natsuki quickly planted her palms against the older girl's chest and pushed. Surprise appeared behind her crimson eyes before being replaced by an amused glint as Natsuki ushered them inside the room and hurriedly slammed the door shut. Annoyed at Shizuru's lack of decorum, Natsuki glowered at her, a crease marring her furrowed brow.

"Ara? Isn't Natsuki happy to see me?" Shizuru murmured, a sickeningly sweet smile covering the devilish delight she was probably feeling right at that instant. Natsuki knew from experience how much the Pearl relished these little moments.

Even though she knew Shizuru to be teasing her, something pulled at her, causing a sinking feeling in her chest and she grumbled in annoyance at her conscience. "That's not the point. Do you have to do that in front of everyone? I don't want them to start idolizing me alongside their 'Shizuru-oneesama.'"

Shizuru quirked an eyebrow at her and let out a low chuckle. "My, how you've changed since I first met you, Natsuki. Back then, you were practically demanding that all your peers address you as 'Natsuki-ojousama.'"

"Oi! I was not!" she barked indignantly and she placed a hand firmly on one hip to emphasise the point. This only proved to increase the other girl's mirth and she frowned as Shizuru raised a hand in a poor attempt to muffle the laughter.

"Well you certainly wouldn't have argued if any of them had. Ooh, and just think, in only a few months you'll be 'Natsuki-oneesama' yourself. You're going to have a fanclub whether I help with your popularity or not." Shizuru said pointedly once the laughter had subsided, though her voice still held an annoying degree of amusement, Natsuki decided.

Several flashes of terrifying imagery passed through her mind and she could just imagine the younger girls swarming around her and crowding her personal space. She shuddered at the thought, wondering if there was any way she could avoid that fate. She'd ask Shizuru for advice but the older girl seemed to do everything in her power to garner more attention and admiration from the other students. That was something Natsuki could never really understand. Privacy was to be cherished and that was one thing that seemed to elude her as of late.

"Ugh, don't remind me," Natsuki sighed pitifully as she lowered herself into a chair. Attempting to force her previous thoughts out of her mind, she looked over at Shizuru who was still gazing at her with a glint of amusement. "What did you want to talk with me about anyways, Shizuru-oneesama?"

At the question, Shizuru's grin instantly faded and was replaced by a slight frown. "What did I tell you last week about calling me that, Natsuki-chan?"

Natsuki was taken aback by the almost hurt expression behind those usually gleaming crimson eyes and she found she couldn't look into them any longer. Dropping her gaze to the floor, she shifted uncomfortably in the chair for a few moments. "I'm sorry, Shizuru, I forgot. You really have come a long way from the oneesama you were back then. If you don't want me to call you that, you've certainly earned the right."

It was true; Shizuru had certainly changed a lot since they had first started to get to know one another. Natsuki had come to learn a lot about the older girl and many of those revelations had shocked her. She'd wanted to know the real Shizuru though, and the Pearl had obliged whole-heartedly, and for that she was grateful. She just had to find a way of expressing that properly to the other girl.

Natsuki's attention was drawn back to Shizuru when she heard her shift and crouch in front of her, a bright smile lighting up her face. That genuine smile always had the same effect on Natsuki and she couldn't help but return the expression. Leaning forward quickly, Shizuru pressed her lips to Natsuki's, pulling back all too soon. "It's all thanks to you, Natsuki. You've been the best heya-gakkari an 'oneesama' could ask for."

The older girl stood and backed away slightly, never once breaking eye contact with Natsuki. She lowered herself into a nearby chair, crossing one leg over the other, and the Coral found herself mesmerised by the action. Realising she'd been staring for perhaps a little longer than was polite, Natsuki quickly averted her gaze, a blush rising to her cheeks. Though whether it was from embarrassment at her own behaviour or from Shizuru's words, she wasn't sure.

"I didn't do that as your heya-gakkari…" she mumbled, attempting to draw attention away from her awkward behaviour.

"Well, then you're the best girlfriend I could ever ask for. I just kissed you like that to make sure everyone knows it." Natsuki didn't need to look at Shizuru to know she was smiling broadly now, she could hear it in her voice.

She squirmed a little from Shizuru's words, the heat in her cheeks intensifying and spreading across her face. No matter how often the Pearl said affectionate things to her, she'd still become flustered and speechless and she wondered if it would forever be like that. She could just imagine an elderly Shizuru teasing her mercilessly and her shaking her walking cane at the older woman in frustration, nagging her to act her age. Hmm, why do I imagine myself to be the old crone? Should I be worried?

"So is that why you summoned me? So you can prove to everyone in the hall that I'm yours?" she managed to ask once the power of speech had returned to her. Her tone was perhaps a little more forced and stern than she had intended but Shizuru didn't take it personally; the giggling was evidence of that.

"First of all, I'm yours, not the other way around. Secondly, no that's not it. It's just something I wanted to make sure I did before I graduated." Shizuru's tone remained light but Natsuki could feel the meaning behind each word. She could easily pick out the sincerity and adoration from the lilting voice and she knew Shizuru was allowing those emotions to seep into her words.

Although she was happy to hear those first words from Shizuru, she couldn't help but focus on the last of them. The top Pearl would be graduating from Garderobe soon and that may very well take her away from Natsuki. Far, far away. She hated the thought of that. It made her stomach churn and a deep ache form in her chest.

"Oh," Natsuki almost whispered, unable to hide the dread that had crept its way into her mind. She just hoped Shizuru hadn't picked up on it, though she knew that was unlikely.

"What I really called to talk to you about has to do with my graduation. As you probably know, the Meister examinations took place yesterday. Normally it takes a while to sort out those of us who pass and don't already have an agreement to work for our sponsor, but I got my assignment just this morning." Natsuki looked over at the other girl, whose expression was impossible to read at that moment. She could have been about to tell her about her dinner plans, for all she could read.

"Oh. So what is it?" Natsuki tentatively asked. Had Shizuru been assigned to some far off dignitary, in some obscure, little-known state? How would that affect their relationship? Would they even be able to have a relationship? The questions plagued her thoughts and she wished Shizuru would hurry up and answer her question.

Instead of acquiescing with her unspoken plea, Shizuru sat calmly in her chair, merely watching Natsuki. This only proved to further frustrate and worry the Coral, as she could never tell what Shizuru was thinking when she was like this. She could very well be toying with her, waiting for her to squirm and finally relent. Or perhaps she really did have bad news and she was trying to find the best way of telling Natsuki.

She shifted a little uncomfortably in her chair once more, smoothing down the front of the red and white uniform, her palms feeling slightly moist from perspiration. Her hair was suddenly irritating her neck and it felt itchy. She reached up with a hand and brushed it away irritably, her gaze focusing upon Shizuru as the Pearl uncrossed her legs and leant forward a little.

"I'm going to be replacing the current Third Column," Shizuru said deliberately, each syllable pronounced slowly and Natsuki could hear the pride that laced each word. "After graduation, she's going to take me under her wing and teach me everything about her job, and in about six months or so, I'll be taking her place. I wanted you to be the first to know, Natsuki."

A smile spread across Natsuki's face, born from relief and a swelling pride in her girlfriend. The dread that had been building quickly faded away and she allowed herself to feel the happiness that replaced it. There was a pretty high chance that they'd be able to see each other often with her being assigned as a column. "Really? That's… that's great, Shizuru!" she almost stammered out, her excitement causing her to lose her usual stern tones.

In her glee, Natsuki launched herself forward, wrapping her arms around the neck of a surprised Shizuru. She smirked to herself, having caught the top Pearl off-guard. Soon, she felt warm hands upon her back, their heat seeping through her uniform and causing the skin beneath it to tingle. She pulled back a little and found herself drowning in a sea of crimson, Shizuru's eyes full of emotion. She closed the gap between them, unable to resist the urge to feel the other girl's lips any longer.

The soft sensation of Shizuru's mouth moving slowly against hers left her breathless. It always had that effect on Natsuki, no matter how often they kissed or for how long. Natsuki brushed her tongue against those full lips, the need to taste them almost an overwhelming one. Shizuru responded with a slight whimper and parted her lips, giving Natsuki access to the heated depths of her mouth. She slipped her tongue between Shizuru's lips and flicked the tip of it over the other girl's, feeling a little jolt of pleasure shoot down to the pit of her stomach.

Natsuki could feel Shizuru respond more and more to the kiss, her body relaxing into the embrace and her mouth moving with increasing passion. The younger girl succumbed to the desires that were now fuelling her, deepening the kiss further, letting a low growl form at the back of her throat. She felt Shizuru's fingertips press into the muscles of her back and she reactively arched into the other girl's body.

All too soon, Shizuru pulled back from the heated kiss, her breath heavy and ragged, her pupils dilated to almost blot out the darkened red. Natsuki pouted a little, disappointed that the kiss had ended. Shizuru shot her a smirk before giving her a reassuring squeeze. "Before I get too lost, there was one other thing I wanted to talk with you about, Natsuki."

Natsuki heaved an overly dramatic sigh and climbed off of Shizuru, back-stepping to her chair and sitting down once more. "Okay, but after that you better remember where we were," she muttered, a grin pushing at her lips.

Shizuru shook her head a little as she let out a low chuckle. "Of course, Natsuki. Now, I understand that you and Mai are going to be Haruka and my opponents for the graduation battle."

Natsuki's previous joviality instantly faded as she heard those words. "Oh, that," she muttered dejectedly. The idea of getting pummelled into nothingness by her girlfriend did not appeal to her in the slightest.

"Ara? Why so glum, Natsuki? You should be proud that you and Mai were so easily able to win all the preliminary battles. Participating in this is quite an honour," Shizuru said, her tone earnest.

"Pfft! A ritual defeat is more like it. No Coral team has ever defeated the Pearls, and with good reason. You get better robes, years more experience, and we've learned all we know about battling from sparring with you. What do they expect us to prove with this battle?" There wasn't one thing about this battle that Natsuki could like. She'd be humiliated, in front of the entirety of Garderobe. And for what?

"Now, that's exactly the wrong attitude to have, Natsuki," Shizuru scolded, adopting the tone she often used when correcting underclassmen. "The point of this battle isn't to see who can win, it's to demonstrate that we can all battle with grace and beauty. Even if you have no hope of winning, you can still put on a good show and impress people with how well you do." Natsuki shifted uncomfortably under that disapproving look and tone, hardly taking in the words themselves.

"Well, they could at least make it a battle between teams of one Pearl and one Coral. At least then it's interesting, and if it's evenly matched it should take longer and be more exciting," she mumbled grumpily, her own thoughts drowning out Shizuru's words.

"Natsuki!" The abrupt change in pitch of Shizuru's voice snapped Natsuki back to what the Pearl was saying. "Be that as it may, this is the way it is, and you have to deal with it. I don't want you to give up before the battle begins and end up embarrassing yourself and Mai."

Natsuki snorted, bringing her arms up to tightly cross them across her chest. "I still don't see what the point is."

Shizuru sighed and let her gaze fall to the ground for a moment. Almost instantly, her eyes found Natsuki's face once more, a light sparkling within the crimson pools. "Alright, how about this then, Natsuki: You can try to impress me. Most of these battles are decided within the first five minutes. Why don't you see if at least one of you and Mai can last that long against Haruka and me?"

"Hmph, I guess," Natsuki said cautiously, acutely aware of that glint in her girlfriend's eyes. Even with the incentive of trying to impress Shizuru, she didn't want to humiliate herself in front of everyone.

Standing slowly, Shizuru walked with deliberate grace over to where Natsuki was seated. The younger girl could do nothing but watch as Shizuru neared, the light in her eyes joined by something far more mischievous. "I guess I could sweeten the deal a bit, though." Natsuki let out a small squeak as Shizuru bent down, placing a hand on the armrests on either side of the Coral, bringing her face close to the other girl's and whispering breathily, "If you can do this, I'll let you have anything you want from me." As soon as the words had been spoken, Shizuru leaned in and pressed her lips to Natsuki's, quickly silencing any retort she may have formed.

Thoughts flitted across her mind, fighting for dominance as the sweet sensations Shizuru's lips elicited threatened to clear all of them away just as quickly. What had the older girl meant by that exactly? What did Natsuki want from her? All she wanted she already had, didn't she? As Shizuru's mouth moved with increasing fervour against hers, Natsuki's thoughts began to get hazy.

As the desire rose within her, Natsuki realised just how much Shizuru had been holding back over their time together. Even now, her hands barely wandered from their position on the armrests when Natsuki couldn't help but trail her fingers over the older girl's back. So is that what Shizuru had meant? She wanted Natsuki to give her permission to go further? The tingling in her skin and the aching in her stomach were all she needed to be able to know that was what she wanted.

Natsuki let out a small whimper as Shizuru pulled away once more, hovering just in front of the Coral's face. "Okay, Shizuru, we can do that," the younger girl said quickly, glancing away as a blush spread across her cheeks.

Shizuru smiled broadly. "Thank you, Natsuki," she murmured and leant in quickly to press a chaste kiss to her lips once more.

Natsuki watched dumbly as Shizuru backed away again and retreated to her chair, sitting and crossing her legs slowly. She always seemed to do everything at her own pace, even the inconsequential things. Almost everything, she corrected, realising she was going at Natsuki's pace when it came to their relationship. That must have been quite a hard thing to do for her, seeing as Shizuru was used to always having things her way. It was something she'd have to thank her for one day.

Natsuki took in a deep breath, attempting to calm her body. "I'll let you go now. I think you and Mai are going to have a lot of practicing to do if you want to put up a good show," Shizuru said suddenly, her voice almost making Natsuki jump in her chair.

Natsuki nodded weakly, "Yeah." She pushed herself to her feet, her legs feeling a little shaky still. Shizuru always had that effect on her, it seemed. She took a few steps towards the door before turning back to look at the older girl once more. She let a smile pull at her lips and Shizuru beamed back at her. Sometimes, no words would be needed at all between the pair; they could communicate what they wanted with a mere look. She then made her way to the door.

"Hmm, I wonder what I could have Natsuki do for me if I win…" The words caused Natsuki to stop in her tracks, mid-step. Shizuru had spoken them as if she'd been wondering aloud but Natsuki had a feeling this had been planned all along.

Slowly turning around, Natsuki stammered out, "W-what?"

"Ara, well that's how these things work, isn't it?" Shizuru responded coyly. "If you win, you get a favour from me. If I win, I get a favour from you." The sentence was punctuated with a closed-eyed smile and Natsuki could feel a cold sensation in the pit of her stomach.

"You didn't tell me about that last part!" Natsuki protested, waving her arms slightly to emphasise her point.

"Didn't I? Oh, I can be so forgetful sometimes," Shizuru muttered, her tone sweetly innocent. "Well, I guess this just gives you more incentive to win our little bet. Then again, I think you'll quite enjoy what I have in mind for you…" And then the façade was all but dropped and Shizuru gave Natsuki a suggestive wink.

Perhaps Shizuru hadn't wanted to hold herself back after all; perhaps she wanted to go further with Natsuki without waiting for her to say she was ready. Even though she was considering giving the go ahead to Shizuru, now that she didn't feel in control of the situation, she could feel the fear gnaw at her. She knew she shouldn't be afraid of anything to do with Shizuru, but there was always that apprehension there when it came to intimacy. She just wasn't any good at that kind of thing. "Shizuru…" she almost whined pleadingly, hoping Shizuru was merely teasing her. It would make sense after all; she teased her all the time.

Shizuru gave her a smile that only confirmed her concerns. She was being serious. Natsuki shook her head, knowing she wouldn't get any more out of the Pearl, so she turned once more and headed for the door. She needed to get some fresh air; she suddenly felt a little flustered. She opened the door and stepped out into the hall, closing it quickly behind her without looking back at the other girl. "Damn it, Shizuru…"