Disclaimer: I do not own Mai HiME, Mai Otome, Mai Otome Zwei, Mai HiME Destiny, Mai Otome Sifr, etc. Sunrise does, so don't blame me for the lack of TV series in favor of OVAs as of late.

Author's Note: Well, I mentioned that this would come out around Shizuru's birthday a while back, and I wasn't lying. I intended for this to be just two days after her birthday, on what happens to be the birthday of a very special friend of mine, centauri2002 and – coincidentally, I'm sure – also her twin sister, kheprinmatu, who is also getting to be a pretty special friend of mine – also surely a coincidence. This fic is for centauri, though. For khepri's fic, check out Proposal.

This story doesn't take place within the timeline of my other fics, though I have borrowed a few elements from it, such as Shizuru's house. This is just a one-shot, and I'll be focusing most of my efforts on my other fic after this. I'm also going to try to keep this fic at a rating under M, so the portion of the readership here who avoids M-rated fics can enjoy it (assuming such subsection actually exists).

I feel like I had to push Shizuru a little OOC to make this work, but that might just be in my mind. There's a lot of leeway with her characterization, particularly with how she felt about things after the Carnival. It could just be that I'm going in a bit of a different direction with her than I did in my other fics, though.

Title: Shattered Mask

Rating: T

I never could decide whether being around Natsuki back then was more of a blessing or a curse. On the one hand, her presence was the only thing in the world I knew of that could bring me true joy, but there was always the constant reminder that I could never have her how I wanted. For a long time, I was able to keep my feelings hidden from her. She was completely oblivious that I even cared for her as a friend back then, so focused was she in her mission to avenge her mother.

Eventually, in a series of events I'd really rather not remind myself of if I can help it, she found out about how I really felt about her. There was a pretty ugly period where I thought she'd rejected me, but eventually she brought me to my senses and explained that although she couldn't feel the same way for me, she did accept my feelings. She even said it felt nice to be loved like that. At the time, I was hurting so badly from her rejection that it was all I needed to hear.

I thought I could handle things after then. After the way Natsuki had saved me, I owed her to be there for her, however she wanted me. She seemed to just want me as a friend, so I tried to be the best friend for her I could be. I hoped that one day I would be able to sort my feelings out and love her just as a friend, as she did me. It wasn't to be, though. I only fell further in love with her over time.

The one small blessing was that Natsuki didn't seem to mind this. Even though I became more daring with my teasing of her over time, referring quite blatantly to how I felt about her, she never seemed to get upset or uncomfortable. Sure, she might have blushed cutely at my teasing, but I don't count that. That was the whole point of my teasing, and I'm pretty sure she secretly appreciates it anyways. The important part was that she never pulled away from my touch or got really upset. She wasn't lying when she said that it made her feel good to be loved, even if she couldn't return it.

I wish I could say the same for myself. Although my successes in making her blush and act all cute brought me moments of happiness beyond anything else I'd ever found in life, they were always followed by moments of sadness when I had to remind myself of the limits to our relationship. Both of these emotions became more extreme as time went on. I was able to push things gradually further with Natsuki, until I was bordering just below actual romantic contact. The rush of these teases was unbelievable, but coming back to reality was more painful than anything I could bear.

I was able to suppress all my pain around Natsuki, though. I couldn't let her be upset for me. I'd devoted my life to being her friend, and I couldn't burden her with the reality of how she was hurting me. I was good at holding my emotions back, but it was a different story when it came to Natsuki. I'd let her into my heart, and that gave her the power to hurt me deeply. I couldn't ignore that pain forever, and it needed to come out somehow. I eventually had to start letting out all of it in a good cry periodically. I'd curl up in bed, hugging a pillow I dearly wished could have been Natsuki while I bawled my eyes out. I was putting myself through hell when I was alone so I could experience moments of heaven when I was with my love.

I don't know for sure how things would have proceeded if it weren't for what happened one day which changed everything between us. I actually think now that Natsuki might have eventually fallen for me, and let me go just far enough with one of my teases that it stopped being a tease and turned into something more. Things were headed in that direction, I think. But that wasn't how things turned out.

It all came to a head one day, when Natsuki had come to my house for some help on her English homework. Things went about as they usually did between us. I helped her out, she was too adorable for me to resist, I teased her, she blushed, and so on. But there was one particular tease at the end which was just a little bit too much. It was a step up from anything I'd done before, but the situation just seemed to lend itself too well for me to resist.

I was sitting next to Natsuki at the time. In a previous tease, I'd moved right up against her under the pretense of getting a better view of her homework. Her pride wouldn't let her say anything about it, but it seemed to be affecting her somehow. She'd been getting a bit tense and nervous. She didn't seem scared, though; if she had, I never would have gone through with it. Maybe it was because of how our proximity was affecting me that the thought popped into my head, but why I did it doesn't really matter now.

"Natsuki," I said softly, getting the girl to look over at me. I confirmed then that she wasn't really afraid of me being that close to her when I gazed into her eyes. I even let myself imagine that she was getting aroused from it, much as I was. It was through these little fantasies that I was able to allow myself the purest moments of pleasure. "I just wanted to congratulate you on how well you're doing today."

Natsuki opened her mouth to reply, but words failed her. It was then that I lost myself to the fantasy. In my mind, she was definitely aroused by our contact, so I took advantage of it to see how far I might be able to push things. I turned slightly in my seat to face her, and I leaned my head in. My eyes locked with hers as I approached, and I tried to put as much of my love for her as I could into them.

I watched carefully as I neared for any sign of fear or rejection from her, but I didn't see any. Natsuki was frozen in place as my lips neared hers, as if my gaze had put her into a trance. She wasn't rejecting me. I don't know what might have been going on in her mind at the time, but she was ready to accept my show of affection for her. It was probably just an extension of how she was willing to accept my affection for her in general, but it was further than she should have had to go.

Of course I didn't go all the way through with it. I couldn't burden Natsuki with having to silently put up with me kissing her romantically when she didn't feel anything for me. But I did go far enough to know that she didn't plan to resist. I made it to the point where our lips just barely touched, and I paused there. It wasn't quite a kiss, but it was close enough that she would have moved away if she weren't ready for an actual kiss.

Content in this knowledge, I quickly withdrew. In one fluid motion, I pulled my head away from her and stood up from my seat. Glancing at the clock as if I'd just noticed the time, I said, "Ara ara, it would appear that Natsuki had better get going soon. It's been longer than I thought."

As soon as Natsuki realized what I'd done to her, her face turned an adorable shade of red. "Shizuru!" she grunted, and I met her protest with a soft giggle. My laughter faded, though, when I caught the look in her eyes. It was relief. Natsuki was relieved that I hadn't actually kissed her. I guess it made sense for her to feel that way, but it still tore at my heart. It was all I could do to hold myself together in front of her.

Shaking her head and sighing, Natsuki pushed herself up from the table. She strolled reluctantly to the door which led to the main hallway of my house. Before she passed through it, she turned back and gave me a smile that caused a pang of need in my heart. "Thank you for the help, Shizuru," she said. Her voice was sincere, and I knew that she really didn't mind about how I'd been teasing her previously.

"Of course, Natsuki," I replied. I gifted her with one of the smiles I save just for her. I called this one the "I'll do anything for the one I love" smile. Maybe it was just my imagination, but I thought I saw Natsuki's smile grow a bit wider in response.

With a slight nod, Natsuki left through the doorway. A few seconds later, I heard the front door open and close as she left me. All at once, the emotions I'd bottled up flooded over me as I knew that Natsuki was gone. I collapsed to the table and held my face as tears poured out. I cursed myself for taking advantage of Natsuki and almost kissing her. I could never have her, and I shouldn't have been acting as if I could. It hurt like hell to just be her friend, but if that was all I could get from her, then I would take it and be grateful for it.

All the usual thoughts passed through my mind as I sat there and cried. It seemed all the worse this time, with how close I'd gotten to actually kissing her. I felt pathetic, to break into tears so quickly after she'd left, to completely lose control over myself like that. I didn't even have the ability to move to my bedroom to hug my "Natsuki pillow," like I usually did when I got upset.

"Shizuru?" I froze between sobs at the sound of Natsuki's voice coming from just in front of me. My mind whirled into a state of panic. What was she doing there? She was supposed to have left. I couldn't let her see me like this, but it was too late… "I just realized I forgot the keys to my bike and…" Natsuki trailed off.

Her voice was full of concern for me, but that just made everything harder. I might have been able to pass off my state with some excuse if I'd been able to keep my cool, but I lost it at the sound of her sweet voice, caring so much for me. But she couldn't care the way I needed her to, and it was torture to be so close and yet so far. The flow of tears from my eyes resumed once more. I didn't want to let Natsuki see me like this, but there was nothing I could do anymore.

"Shizuru…?" Her voice was even more full of concern now, and there was even a little pain in it. That pain was exactly what I'd been afraid of, why I'd tried to hide my own pain from her. I didn't want to hurt her with the knowledge of how she hurt me. I'd tried so hard to keep her blissfully ignorant, but I'd finally slipped up and blown it all.

"What's wrong? Please… you can tell me…" No, I couldn't. If there was a chance to keep her at all in the dark about the pain she was causing me, I had to take it. She'd probably figure it out before too long, but it would still be some more precious time she wouldn't have to know the truth.

After a few painful minutes while she waited for a reply and I prayed for some sort of reprieve, I heard Natsuki's footsteps start to approach me. I think she probably planned to give me a hug, but I didn't give her the chance. I didn't think I could stand being any closer to her at that time; it would only hurt more. And so I ran away. I bolted from my chair and into my bedroom, locking the door behind me. I curled up on my bed with my pillow and squeezed it as tight as I could, weeping into it.

I was horribly ashamed with myself at the time. I was supposed to be strong, to be the cool, collected kaichou. But Natsuki broke down all of my barriers, and her catching me with my guard down had sent me running to my room like a pathetic little girl. So I lay there, hoping she might go away and we could pretend this had never happened. Of course, I knew better in my heart. Even if it wasn't the right way, Natsuki did care deeply for me, and she would never be able to let this go.

So, it was no surprise when Natsuki knocked on the door and called out to me, "Shizuru, please. Let me just talk to you…" Nor was it a surprise when Natsuki tried the doorknob a few seconds later and cursed when she found that it was locked. I just lay there in as much silence as I could manage through my sobs, determined to wait her out. She'd have to give up eventually, and then I could try to proceed with things as if this hadn't happened (though I'd have to be a lot more careful in the future, of course).

"Damn it, Shizuru!" Natsuki cried out. The pain and frustration was particularly evident in her voice now, and it served to prompt a fresh wave of tears from me. I couldn't stand to hurt her like this. I rolled over to look at the door, trying to decide if it might actually be worse to leave her outside. She probably wouldn't be able to let this go in any case, so we'd have to talk eventually. Perhaps I could at least stop the pain my pushing her away was causing.

"Shizuru, we are going to talk about this one way or another," Natsuki said, causing me to sigh in resignation. "I'll break this door down if I have to so I can talk to you."

Would you? Would you really do that, Natsuki? From her words, it sounded like she just might have been serious, but I suspected she was really just trying to sound tough to get me to open the door for her. It didn't really matter, though. I believed her when she said that we would end up talking about this. There was no point keeping her in agony any longer than necessary.

With another sigh, I rolled off of the bed and walked to the door. I went slowly, as if I were walking to my own execution. In a sense, I guess I thought I was. I feared it would be the end of any possible close relationship with Natsuki. There was no way she would let me continue hurting myself for her sake.

I never ended up opening the door, though. Apparently Natsuki hadn't heard me getting up and had assumed I wasn't coming. The door jerked on its hinges with a fierce noise as I approached, causing me to jump back with a yelp. Natsuki was quite serious about breaking the door down if she needed to, it seemed.

I know I should have opened the door for her then, but I succumbed to another moment of weakness. Deep down, it made me feel a little better that Natsuki was this concerned about me. So desperate was I to stop the pain I felt, I let myself once again imagine that it was because she really did love me. I wanted to give her the chance to fully prove her love. Having her come busting through the door to console me appealed to the hopeless romantic within me, I guess.

Natsuki crashed into the door again, and it looked like the door was actually straining against its hinges this time. I believed in Natsuki's strength, and I figured that she might actually be able to do it after one or two more tries. But I started to realize then how selfish I was acting. I was hoping to indulge my fantasy at the cost of causing Natsuki pain as she slammed her body into the door.

With a sigh, I started to approach the door once more, so I could open it for her and face whatever was to come. I stopped myself, though, as I realized that Natsuki might be charging into it again very soon, and it would be a very bad idea to stand behind the door just as she broke through. I wanted to yell out to her to wait, but my voice failed me, and all I could manage was a weak wail. Giving a mental apology to Natsuki for the pain she'd endure on her third impact, I stepped to the side and waited for her next attempt to come.

I stood there waiting for many seconds before I realized that it wasn't coming. Natsuki had given up on me, just when I was ready to let her in. As tears struck me again, I managed to stumble back to my bed and curl up with my pillow once more. We would have to talk about this eventually, and now I had an extra day or so to dread the inevitable death of our friendship.

Maybe I should have known better that Natsuki wouldn't give up so suddenly. I was quite surprised when I heard the click of my door unlocking a minute later. Jerking my head over to the noise, I saw Natsuki coming into the room, wielding a clothes hanger she'd deformed to use as a makeshift lock pick. The expression on her face seemed to be a mixture of frustration, concern, and sadness. I didn't know which of those was harder for me to see.

I rolled onto my back and opened my mouth to say something to her, but no words came to mind. There just didn't seem to be anything I could say that would make things any better. Depressed once more at my failure, I dropped my gaze from Natsuki and choked back a sob. Not being able to bear letting her look at my face in this broken state, I rolled back onto my side to avoid her direct gaze.

I didn't have any illusions that I would be able to avoid her for long though, and so it was no surprise when I felt Natsuki crawl onto the bed behind me. It was also no surprise when I felt her squeeze an arm in underneath me while the other came around on top of me to wrap me in the hug she'd been planning to give me earlier. I had to choke back a sob as she pulled me against her body. The contact was just as I feared: painful in how her physical proximity reminded me of her emotional distance, and it was all I could do to keep a fresh wave of tears from breaking out.

"Please, Shizuru," Natsuki said softly. Although frustration had been on her face when I last saw it, only concern and sadness remained in her voice now. "Talk to me about this. I don't want you to feel you have to run away from me. Please tell me what's hurting you, Shizuru."

I was pretty sure that Natsuki already knew – or could at least figure out easily – what was causing me so much pain. Maybe she just couldn't think of anything to say, or maybe she was just trying to get me talking. I still waited a bit, hoping she might not force me to say it out loud, but she seemed content to wait me out. When I was able to figure out the shortest way to describe my feelings, I choked out the words, "I love you, Natsuki. But my love is inappropriate, and I can never have you."

Natsuki was silent for a painful minute, but the pain eased when she finally spoke sweet words to me. "No, Shizuru," she said. "I told you before, your love isn't inappropriate. I'm happy that you love me, and I will never be mad at you about it." Her left hand loosened a bit from the hug and started to stroke my side – tenderly, just as a lover might. I trembled from that thought.

I knew that her words were true, that she was fine with me loving her. But as long as she couldn't love me back, my love would still be inappropriate. That was the real problem. "And you also told me," I said, "that you couldn't love me the way I wanted."

"Yeah…" Natsuki sighed, bringing a wave of agony to my heart as she reaffirmed her inability to love me. After a painful minute, she continued, "I couldn't." A small flame of hope flickered to life from her use of past tense, but it was surrounded by fear. I silently begged Natsuki not to extinguish it; I couldn't take any more pain. "Now… I don't know…"

I choked back another sob, though it wasn't of pain this time. She still didn't love me how I wanted her to, but it was a step towards it. It was hope, and I clung onto it desperately like a life-raft she'd thrown out to me. Even if she was only saying it to help ease my pain, I was going to hang onto this hope for dear life.

"I'd do anything to keep you from feeling such pain, Shizuru," Natsuki said after a minute, her voice now filled with pain of its own. "I was going to let you kiss me earlier. I really wouldn't have minded."

That's not true, Natsuki. "No…" I said. "I saw the relief in your eyes when I pulled away. You didn't want to kiss me, and you were glad when you didn't have to."

There was another painful silence after I pointed this out to Natsuki. It was the relief I'd seen in her eyes that had brought all of this on in the first place, after all. I wouldn't forget it that easily. Eventually, she spoke up. "I was afraid," she said weakly. "Ever since my father left me, I've been afraid to open up my heart to anyone. But somehow, you managed to sneak your way in, and I'm afraid of how I might feel about you."

"Might feel"…The words echoed in my mind, and they tenderly stoked the flame of hope that had sprouted there. I tried to stop myself from dwelling on it, though. Natsuki had just made what must have been a very difficult admission for her, and I had to say something to her. Eventually, the words came to me. "You don't have to be afraid of me, Natsuki. I'm never going to leave you, however much it hurts me."

Natsuki's body tensed against mine, and her hand came back to squeeze me in a hug again. "But I don't want it to hurt you, Shizuru," she said. She paused a moment. With a sigh of frustration, she backed off a bit from me and used her grip to force me to roll over and look into her eyes – her beautiful emerald eyes, which I knew cared for me so much. From the moisture in them, I realized that she'd been crying as well, and it tore up my heart to know that I'd made my love cry like this.

"Natsuki…" I whispered, trying to get across an apology in my voice. Natsuki shook her head slightly, telling me to just be quiet and let her talk now. I gave a small nod to let her know I understood, and I then waited in painful anticipation of what she might say.

At last, Natsuki said, "Seeing you in pain like this, Shizuru, is worse than any fear I might possibly feel. I don't know if that means I love you, but I'm not going to let my fear hold me back from finding out."

I gazed deeply into her eyes, trying to see if there was any hint of hesitance in them. I couldn't see any. She meant what she said. Natsuki might actually be able to love me, and for my sake, she was going to try to find out. It was more than I'd allowed myself to hope for. I almost couldn't take it. "Natsuki…" I said, sweet thanks lacing my voice.

"I guess…" Natsuki said, a bit nervously, "I could kiss you right now, if it would help you… Maybe it could help me figure out how I feel…" A small blush tinged her cheeks, and my usual loving response to seeing her cute blush fought its way to the top of my emotions. I pushed it back down, though. Now wasn't the time to tease her.

"Thank you, Natsuki," I said. "But I don't want you to kiss me just to make me feel better, and I don't want it to be awkward and planned like this…" Natsuki nodded a bit uncomfortably, and I tried to smile back at her to let her know I appreciated the thought. She really was too sweet in trying to help me. She'd already given me more than I'd ever expected just by letting me know that there was a chance for us, and she still wanted to give me more.

"But… I need to do something to figure things out…" Natsuki said as she drifted off into thought. I couldn't help but notice how cute her face got when she scrunched it up in thought. I guess I was really getting better by that point, if I could allow myself to appreciate those little things again. "Maybe… we could try the 'couple thing,'" she said at last.

"The 'couple thing'?"

"Well," she said as another blush made its way to her cheeks. "I mean, we could go out on dates or something… I don't know, I've never done this before."

Natsuki was just irresistible at that moment. She was being thoughtful, sweet, cutely blushing, and it was all part of trying to figure out her feelings for me, just to keep me from feeling anymore pain. I don't think I'd ever been more in love with her than I was then. "Alright, Natsuki," I said, allowing a smile to grace my face. This was a brand new one, which my mind instinctively named the "Thank you for being so sweet" smile.

Natsuki's blush only deepened at my reply, and she smiled nervously. "So… we're a couple now, then? You're my girlfriend?"

Hearing the words from her caused joy to leap its way through my heart. I hadn't been thinking of things quite that way. I only saw it as plans to try out one date and see if things would work out between us, but Natsuki seemed to have more on my mind. There was no way I was going to turn it down, though. "Ara, if Natsuki wants," I said.

Another nervous smile. "…Okay," she said as her face filled with red. I was barely able to hold myself back from teasing her, and I just gave her a loving smile. "Shizuru," she said after her blush had settled back to a manageable level. "I'm really going to try here. I want to be able to love you as you love me. I'm still a bit afraid, but…" She looked deeply into my eyes. I felt like she was gazing into my soul and measuring my love for her. "It's worth it."

"Natsuki is too sweet," I said, as a blush made its way to my cheeks.

That blush was the first of many Natsuki would elicit in me while we did the "couple thing." We went on our first date the following night, and we shared our first kiss as a couple at the end of it. Natsuki still wasn't sure of her feelings at that point, but I swore I could feel love in how she kissed me. I was in my own personal heaven from that point on.

Eventually, we stopped doing the "couple thing." No, we didn't break up; we became lovers. We committed to each other; we gave ourselves to each other. I never hide my emotions from Natsuki anymore, and I never run away from her when I'm upset. I run straight to her now. She's the only one who can ever heal my heart.

Author's note: Happy birthday, Cazzy! It's been hell waiting for your birthday to roll around, but it's finally here. Hope you enjoyed this. :) Oh yeah, and: -lots and lots of gift-wrapped huggles-