Windows of the Soul: Part Ten

Sometimes I wonder whether it would be easier if I just had Shizuru see a psycologist. The problem being, how does she say "I have a huge guilt complex over killing scores of people with my summoned demon named after the legendary Kiyohime" without being put in an asylum? Perhaps the First District has specilised psycologists. Oh, wait. She blew them up. That's what she's guilty about.

Catharsis therapy it is. Poor brave Natsuki.

Time limits.

I have always been very aware of the concept of time in motion, something common to everyone who fights. No, something common to everyone. Night and day, schooldays and weekends, meals, breaks, deadlines and tests, birthdays and holidays all involve the subdivision of time. But I had more than the common experience with time. With Yamada, from the beginning, there was a place and a time, and I was to meet that deadline. That was how he operated. For my part, especially when I was younger, meeting him in the places he clung to always required tracking time. The windows of opportunity he discovered were inevitably brief and specific, and when a plan was in action I had very little time before the response moved. I trained for hours with my Elements to eliminate any trace of hesitation or weakness, because in combat a single moment separates life and death. When injuries occurred, another limit was imposed on me, one that aggravated the lost time of any mistakes. And all of it had to be done in such time that people accepted rather than questioned my absence. When I was younger, I was very bad at balancing the motion of all those limits, but I learned slowly. If you look in a certain way, everything is about sliding windows of opportunity, chances and dangers alike, and that is as true of the school's cafeteria as it is of mortal combat. Once you can see them, you learn that hesitation is the biggest mistake of all. So I always trained my skill and tempered my determination to ensure that I avoided limits. Instead, I embraced the possibilities that they represented.

Even in the Carnival, with the time limit of the world ending, I did my best to stick to that theory. I made mistakes, and those mistakes were aggravated by the importance of the time. In the end, I realised the most important mistake of all, and someone else moved instead. They certainly acted without hesitation. Even if you realise a chance, the outcome doesn't have to be good. Even so, I'll still say it. I won't shy away from those limitations imposed on me by the world. I'll act before them.

Two days. Right now, that's my limit, and I'm faced with an impossibility. How can I complete a mission in that time when the primary means of advancing it appears to be waiting patiently? Isn't that just impossible?

I don't like that word, but this isn't any normal mission. I can't summon Duran and blow things up. If it's something like this, I have no skill at all, and even if there was a way to succeed, I'm sure that I wouldn't be able to see it. At the same time, though, no one but I could hope to succeed, unless I'm mistaken. So what the hell am I supposed to do in this kind of situation, already?

Don't you dare go away, idiot. Isn't that just irresponsible?

Please stay. I'd like that.

Hey, are you sure going so soon is fine? Can't you just stay a little longer?

Since when did a Fujino run away?

Considering you drew up this bloody annoying revision timetable, the least you could do is sit through it with me.

I don't know. I'm no good at this stuff.

I stared at the ceiling, sighing deeply. And then there was a more immediate time limit. She should be here soon… about now, actually. And I had no answers.

I went to check my reflection in the bathroom mirror. My eyes looked as tired as hers have been for so long. I spent far too long awake last night, trying to think through everything that needs to be understood. At least I'd combed my hair this time, though. I'm quite proud of my hair, and I was certainly much improved when it was in good order. That makes me wonder, though, what does Shizuru look like in the mornings? She's seen me in unflattering states often enough, but I can't say I've ever seen her in anything but her groomed princess look, the one that goes with her manufactured personality. Does she get bed hair? How often does she need to get her hair cut, to keep her fringe in exactly the right place? Hell, what does she look like when she's sleeping? In those respects and others, she more or less has an advantage over me. But the idea of Shizuru with her hair all messed up is pretty cute. She'd have a very ladylike night-gown, of course, over that slender figure of hers, all wrapped up in blankets. And does she say things while she sleeps? What does she dream of? Do I even want to know?

It's a charming picture, one that sticks in the mind.

I've noticed this before, but that's another part of her aura. Shizuru is… something… mentally photogenic. That's the best way of putting it. Oh, she's literally photogenic as well, god knows, but you can easily envision her in your head. From the accent to the bearing to the posture Shizuru is someone you'll notice and remember, but more than that, she tends to linger on the mind. Like a clinging cold that refuses to do the decent thing and expire. I think about her, at odd times and in odd places, now more than ever before. When I'm alone and inert, it's a given. But when I'm with Mai and everyone, as well, someone will crack a joke or smile and I'll be reminded of her. And I often wonder what she's doing. If I was to say why, it would surely be for the other fact of her, which completely contradicts the first. Just as she's striking, she's also a mystery. The more you get to know her, even just a little, the more you realise that you don't actually know anything about her at all. And trying to work her out is like trying to solve a Rubik's cube when someone keeps on swapping the stickers around while you aren't looking. So she's never far away from my thoughts, and in that respect she haunts me. But apart from the painful recollections, it's okay. Especially now, my imaginings can be a lot more innocent and happy than the real thing. Life's like that, and I don't know why I used to think she'd be an exception to the rule.

My phone rang. Checking my watch, she was on time to the minute. Not even Shizuru can do that naturally, so she's probably been waiting. Or maybe it's just dumb luck? If it's a matter of dramatic entrances, Shizuru is the type who'd never be a minute late, after all. I flipped it open, answering. "Hi, Shizuru."

"Good morning, Natsuki. Are you ready?"

"Of course. Who do you think I am?" I turned, walking towards my bedroom to pick up my bag.

"Well, quite. I'll wait outside."

"Don't bother, just come up." I pushed on the door to my bedroom, looked around, and wondered how things had managed to get back to this state so fast. It's like a law or something. The mess in my room is in complete disproportion to what logic dictates it would be, and even then, only in one direction. "In a minute, actually. I'll say when."

"Ara? Are you sure you're ready, after all?" she asked teasingly. She sounded her normal self again, damned inscrutable.

"I'm fine, I'm fine. Just taking care of something," I said, kicking a crumpled T-shirt under my bed for safekeeping and picking up the instant noodles from the floor. If she saw that, I'd certainly never live it down. "How are you? Did you get enough sleep?"

"Ah, you're so motherly and kind. Don't worry, I'm fine."

"Don't make it sound dramatic," I said. "It's just that it would be a pain for me, if something happened to you." I also took out the DVD I'd been trying to watch last night, in an unsuccessful attempt to distract myself. I slipped it back into its case with my free hand, then picked it up and concealed it behind the television. I definitely couldn't afford to let Shizuru see that.

Not in that sense, though. Midori had entrusted her Sailor Moon DVDs to me before she left and apparently expects me to watch them. Even a few minutes were enough to convince me that her kindness was misplaced.

"Ara, is that so?"

I looked around, nodding in satisfaction. "Okay, you can come up. Well, when I think about it…" I frowned slightly, stopping.

"Very well. I'm coming up. I'll see you in a second."

"See yas." I folded up my phone and walked out of my room, considering things. The problem was enclosed spaces. Even though I was surrounded by people, logically speaking, and it was nothing like that strange empty house she borrowed from someone… anything but public places, I have a block about it. I've never put it in so many words, of course. I suspect she understands, all the same, and it probably saddens her. So was it really okay? Well, what was the worst she could do? She doesn't even have any power any more, after all. So runs the theory, but I'm not so confident in practise. Her throwing 'Kiyohime' around like it's a new swearword doesn't help with that impression. Nor does her dominating gaze.

Two day time limit. And I'd already played hard with her very limited trust, so I should probably show some back.

A knock on the door, so I dismissed thoughts and opened it. "Yo."

"Hi." This time, she was wearing a white shirt and a matching long skirt. It looked good on her, playing on her good-girl kitsch and those striking eyes.

I suppose that makes me the bad girl, by the classical perspective. Pretty fricking ironic, if you ask me anyway. But I'm easy to please. "As I thought," I said critically, staring at her face. "You don't look like you got much sleep at all."

Shizuru shook her head. "More books, I'm afraid. I can really get into these things in the holidays."

I'll bet those clothes of hers stain really easily. Well, it's not like she goes near dirty things enough to be affected, and she has a knack for avoiding ruffling.

I turned away, letting her step in. "Oh? You weren't very enthusiastic about it around me yesterday…"

On top of that, of course, its not like she can't just buy a new set every time, if she wanted to.

"That's because no book can be more interesting than Natsuki," Shizuru replied promptly. She'd definitely returned to form.

"You must be reading all the wrong books," I said dryly. "I'll ask Mai to lend you some. Anyway, I was thinking, but there's no point in staying in the library, is there? We don't exactly use any books but the textbook right now. And going out for lunch every time is expensive. Wouldn't it make more sense just to stay here?"

Shizuru glanced at me for a moment, then smiled. "Ara. Wasn't it Natsuki who said that I needed to get out more as it was?"

I groaned. Trust Shizuru to remember every little detail. "Well, that's your responsibility," I said tartly. "Like the sleep thing, if you're not going to listen then-"

Shizuru sneezed.

I blinked at her, then turned and put a hand on my hip. "You see what I mean? How the hell did you manage to get a cold in summer? It's lovely and warm out."

She took out a handkerchief, delicately rubbing her nose and shrugged lightly. "Well, there isn't actually any connection between the common cold and weather, you know," she said. "Of course, it is infectious, so perhaps I shouldn't stay around you."

"Do your worst, it won't effect me," I said dismissively. "It's you I'm worried about. You're not exactly robust."

"I'm stronger than you'd think," Shizuru chided. "I'm not, despite appearances, of a delicate constitution."

"If you say so," I said idly. "You certainly do a good job of looking like it, though." I opened my bag, putting my books on the desk again and beginning to clean away some of the mess.

"In any case, don't worry about me. I don't, after all." She seated herself on the sofa, watching me with interest.

"I know that," I replied irritably. "That's the problem. Oh, there should be a folding chair somewhere. I think I left it in that closet. Can you go and get it?"

Shizuru nodded, going that way. I noticed one of the Takeda letter drafts that had escaped extinction, and hurriedly crumbled it up, tossing it into the wastepaper basket. "And don't go poking around too much," I warned. "You may not like what you fine."

"I'll bear that in mind," Shizuru replied, her voice muffled by the closet. After a few moments struggle, she came out holding the chair. "As ever, you're a master of least resistance housekeeping."

"Well, you aren't allowed to criticise me for that," I warned. "We can't all be Mai. You certainly aren't."

"Of course. I find it rather endearing, myself." Shizuru smiled. "Messiness is a very human characteristic. It speaks volumes about your ease with yourself, which is a good thing."

"Huh," I said, trying to work that one out. "Well, don't trip over my ease with myself or anything. You could do that weak body an injury."

Fate blessed me with another sneeze from Shizuru's new-found cold. She sighed, brushing herself off. "Well, now I'm all dusty, anyway."

"Oh, don't be a girl," I said. "It won't kill you."

"Don't be a girl? Despite this and that, I'm rather afraid that I am one," Shizuru said thoughtfully. "But I'm surprised that you'd use a sexist term like that. It doesn't fit your character."

"As a tomboy? Isn't that another stereotype?" I shrugged. "Say girl as in young child, as opposed to woman. Isn't 'girl' in the other sense the first sexist meaning?"

Shizuru chuckled. "Perhaps. As expected of you." She unfolded her chair next to me, sitting down and folding her hands in her lap. "I suppose it isn't very important, though…"

"Right." I sat down myself, stretching my arms idly. "And anyone with feminist pretensions shouldn't act like you, to be sure. Aren't you the ultimate girly girl?"

"In a position of authority, bossing classic dominant male types around?" Shizuru teased. "And Kanzaki-san as well, no less. I just fight with every weapon at my disposal, including the feminine ones. Anything else seems like doing myself an injustice."

"How modest…" I said wryly. Shizuru smiled back. Things are always best, when we can simply banter like this. It's easiest.

"In any case, we should probably begin," Shizuru suggested. "We're starting with Physics today, right? One of your stronger subjects, if I recall correctly."

But is the easiest option the right one? It's a shallow and simple interaction, but is that really okay right now? Or would pressing any more after yesterday be the right thing to do? The problem is that I can't answer those questions, forget working out what to do from there. If it was any other complex social question, I'd ask Shizuru. But that isn't really an option right now.

I nodded. "And one of your weaker ones, right? I don't have high expectations…"

Well, I guess something like this is fine as well.

Natsuki would make a terrible housewife, really. She is too herself, and too intense, so much so that it's just as I say. Natsuki fills space literally with her things scattered everywhere, as if an explosion had occurred in a mechanic's garage where the mechanic also happened to live. And also metaphorically, because she has such a presence and force that it beats herself into her surroundings. This flat is her flat, absolutely. I suspect that even this time next year when she's preparing to leave herself the walls will radiate her aura for some time to come. And in the meantime, it's a portrait of her soul. Messy, comfortable, bold and surprisingly forceful at times. Conventions and expectations don't weigh very heavily on her, because Natsuki is Natsuki. The opposite of me, who recreates the self for the sake of meeting people's proper image. Or so I like to think, anyway. It's possible that she's just untidy, but I prefer my version.

She passed me a plate of her salad, and I took it gratefully. It wasn't exactly Caesar Salad, but it had more meaning to it, all the same. Even if I had to eat with my hands, plate balanced on my lap, that had a charm to it as well.

Sometimes I wonder whether I could find charm points in a Natsuki mugging someone in a dark alley. I tend to think these things, when I'm around her. When I'm in a good mood, anyway, and most importantly not thinking too much. This helps with that, as well.

I sneezed, raising a hand to cover my mouth and nose. How inelegant. I took out my handkerchief and rubbed myself dry, sighing. Colds did not suit me, certainly not in mid-summer.

"Don't breathe on my food," Natsuki said warningly, sitting down next to me. "Actually, don't breathe on me either. Even if it's me, probably best not to risk it."

"Okay," I said, smiling pleasantly. I picked up a piece of cucumber, looked at it speculatively, then ate it. It wasn't too bad. "You worked hard this morning, though. I was quite impressed."

"Well, if you say so," Natsuki said uncertainly. "Now I'm tired, anyway. This stuff doesn't get any easier."

"Technically, it gets harder," I warned. "So you should definitely get some help after tomorrow. It's hard to motivate yourself without someone to force you, I know."

"After tomorrow, huh?" Natsuki said slowly.

I nodded. "Well, Mai-chan could be quite good. She's smart, isn't she?"

"I guess so," Natsuki said slowly. "I don't know, though. She has Tate now, and Mikoto to worry about. Is it really okay?"

"Ara, how considerate," I said wryly. "Not bad, for you. You're right, though, I suppose. The ideal is someone like me who has nothing else to do." I put my fork down, considering. "Well, Kanzaki-san is the obvious choice, but I've already set him to work babysitting for Mai and I don't know whether he's going anywhere. Besides, if I recall correctly, you hate him."

"Well, it's not like I hatehim, as such," Natsuki said thoughtfully. "I just think he's a slimy, untrustworthy bastard."

I giggled. "Oh, I see. Well, that's true enough. But you should know, right?" I glanced at her, eyes half-amused and half-serious. "If I was to choose between the two of us in those respects, I think I have a little bit of an edge."

"Well, yeah, but it's still different," Natsuki said uncertainly. She shrugged when I raised my eyebrows. "I mean, he's a boy, for a start. That's something that makes things a real pain in the ass."

I frowned slightly, trying to work out what that would rightly make me. "It's not important, though. If you don't like him, that's that. Hmm. That boy… Takeda-kun, right? His grades weren't bad-"

"Impossible," Natsuki said abruptly, looking away.

"Really?" I asked thoughtfully. "Well, it's not like he doesn't have the spare time, or the inclination. It's a little mercenary, but-"

"Totally impossible, believe me," Natsuki said forcefully. "Just trust me on this one. Takeda is not an option."

"Okay." I frowned. "Well, let's see… Haruka's no good. I can't imagine what she'd do to your grammar. How about that teacher you know somewhat? Sakomizu-sensei?"

"Hey, Shizuru."

I groaned inwardly at those words, though I was outwardly serene. They were coming up more and more recently. "Yes, Natsuki?"

She looked at the floor uncertainly. "Do you really have to go so suddenly?"

"Well, for my part, it isn't very sudden," I said cautiously. "I just didn't think to raise it before. But more or less, yes."

"Why?" Natsuki demanded, glancing irritably at me. "Well, the fact that you should have told me aside, but you've been here for ages, right? What kind of difference does a few more weeks make?"

"Well, it's been ages since I last saw my parents, so that's why," I said cautiously. "My mother, in particular… she's been fretting ever since the Carnival. Making her wait even longer before I came home, then flying off to University so soon after, would not be kind."

Natsuki frowned unhappily. I'd played a rather cruel card, as if it's about mothers, she doesn't like to argue the point.

"Well, that's how it is," I said with forced casualness. "In any case, I know you want as much help as you can get with your studying, but you'll manage. I can probably find someone."

Natsuki glared. "That's not the point, I could care less about that. But still, flying away so soon after years… even if it's you, I'll still miss you. And I don't have to be happy about it." She pouted at me in a glorious contradiction, pained pride and raw sulk warring for supremacy on her face.

I closed my eyes, sighing and smiling tiredly. "Shouldn't you be glad to get rid of me?"

"Idiot," Natsuki said reproachfully. "Don't push it too far."

"Well, it's not like I will completely cut you off," I said with affected coolness. "I'll write, and we can communicate in various ways. But I have to go sooner or later, anyway. Surely a few weeks doesn't make any difference?"

"Well, it's not like I don't know you're going eventually," Natsuki retorted, "and it's not like I don't know that we can keep in touch. I'm going to make you do that. But a few weeks do make a difference… I think so, anyway."

I allowed myself to frown a little, tilting my head a little back. This time, I would remain in control. "Why?"

"Why… well, even if it's a few weeks, it's still fun, right?" Natsuki said uncertainly.

"Setting our arguments aside, I can't justify that to myself. Even if it's for you, to worry Ka-sama any more…" I closed my eyes. "Well, for my part, I don't think I can justify that to myself for much longer. And she has such expectations, now. I've left it too late, so it's my fault."

"I could care less," Natsuki said stubbornly. Her hands twisted on her lip. "Shizuru, is this really alright?" she demanded.

I just tilted my head, looking at her expectantly.

"Well, doesn't it feel kinda wrong, like this?" Natsuki continued, trying to keep her uncertain anger alive. "It's like everything's unfinished, between… you, and everyone, and me. If you're going anyway with everything like that, aren't you just running away again?"

"Even if I do, or if I don't, does it make any difference?" I asked quietly. "I've said this before, but a lot of what I've done is unforgivable, and in any case there's too great a distance between me and everyone else-"

"You'd going it again!" Natsuki accused.

"Yes?" I asked politely.

"You always, always do this. You're criticising yourself, but aren't you sparing yourself as well? You don't know what's unforgivable until you try! And even if you can't cross that gap, you try and try!" Natsuki glared at me, frosted with cold passion. "You want to suffer, right? You hate yourself, right? So isn't that the only way you'll ever forgive yourself?"

"That's very earnest, but," I leaned forwards slightly, face equally intense. "Even if it's Natsuki, it's not yours to say… I don't intend to do anything like that. I know my limits."

"The limits of your pride?" Natsuki challenged.

"No, my mental capability," I shot back. "If you were talking to someone else, it's bold advice. But you're reckless, and you always have been reckless. That's why I've always protected you."

"Oh, you're just wrapping things up in smart words and neat phrases again," Natsuki said, eyes narrowed. "But it's still what I said, aren't you just being a coward?"

"If you go to a swordfight with a cracked blade, that isn't courage," I replied sharply. "That's just plain idiocy."

"Oh? Does that even mean anything?"

I put a hand on the sofa, leaning more closely. "It means that I might be the one breaking, if you make me do anything dramatic. You should know, right? You've been prodding me in dangerous places before, after all."

"Well, if you can reply that sharply, you aren't that badly off," Natsuki shot back. "But that's not the point. Even if you don't want to do anything dramatic, nothing's finished, between us. For me as well, if it's my relationship with you-"

"Are there even any questions left to ask?" I said in a measured voice.

Natsuki stopped short, glaring at me. "Yes. There are. Mostly, they're about you, and that's important to me."

"Haven't I already shown you all the answers?" I said. "You've seen it, haven't you? I'm afraid all my lies are my best features."

"No, it's not that simple." She folded her arms obstinately. "You're not a saint or an angel, I noticed that. But that was my mistake, forever thinking you could be. And you aren't a demon, either. You're just Shizuru, that's all, and it's that person that I'm interested."

"An angelic demon," I said ironically. "A pretty phrase. But I'm foremost a fallen one, so the darker part is the inner self…"

"I didn't ask for your opinion, either. I know you, Shizuru, enough to know that you don't know yourself." Natsuki shook out her hair, glaring at me. "This kind of nonsense makes that clear. So that's why I want to work it out myself."

"Well, I'd rather you didn't," I said, leaning back and regarding her coolly. "It's an unpleasant desire, Natsuki, to try and force your way into someone's mind. And I can't wait forever."

"You can't wait? Isn't that my line? I've been waiting and waiting for you to get over yourself and show some godamn honesty for once in your fucking life-"

"And that's probably impossible, for me," I said sharply, "in that same way that the unclean part of me is forever waiting for something you can't ever give. What do you expect to settle, and just what would our ending look like? We won't be having a happy ending, so can't just let me go? Instead of all this unsightly argument, blowing us apart-"

"I know that," Natsuki said steadily. "And I know you don't like, and I'm sorry. But even if it's bad, I have to finish things, or I won't forgive myself… that's who I am."

"That's another difference between us," I said shortly, turning away and taking a steadying breath. "You should understand that."

"I know, but that doesn't make me happy either. And it doesn't look like it makes you happy!" Natsuki stopped for a moment and sighed, rubbing her forehead. "Man, my head hurts."

"I know what you want, and it's noble," I said quietly. My gaze shifted again and embraced her. "But you've noticed, I'm not a kind person. I can't give you closure or peace of mind unless I fake it for your sake, and as I am right now, I don't think even that's possible."

"Well, that would be meaningless anyway," Natsuki said sarkily. "But thanks for the thought."

"So, I'm going, on my terms, which is quietly." I folded my arms. "Is that too much to accept?"

"Even if it's something I can accept, I'd still fight. You said it. That's a difference between us."

I set my barely touched plate aside and turned away, sighing deeply. "It must be nice, to have such strong convictions… all my strong feelings are the wrong ones."

"Wrong by what standard?" Natsuki demanded, looking up at me. "You go on and on about it, but in the end it's just something you decide for yourself."

"I always decide everything for myself, another of my unpleasant features," I said absently.

" I know-"

"But this time, I'm not wrong," I said, turning and looking down at her. Hair ragged, pale skin flushed with passion, eyes animated and sharp as they returned my stare. Natsuki's mesmerising strength and intensity…

"Oh? Is that so?" she challenged, eyes defiant.

"Yes, so," I returned softly, my body absolutely still. And then I embraced the wave of that feeling, planting my right arm against the cushions and leaning down. Her eyes widened but my left hand touched her face before she could say anything, and I kissed her. Our teeth clashed, I'm not practised, but that wasn't the point either. I held it for a few seconds until she broke free, shoving me away and staring up at me with an unsightly, confused face. "That," I said calmly, "is the most unpleasant part of me."

Natsuki wiped her mouth with her sleeve, looking up at me with angry eyes. "Shizuru!"

I turned and crossed the apartment, pulling open the curtains and letting light shine through the window. "I know myself a lot better than I did before. And that part of me is the same as the feeling I had before…" I looked out over the school grounds, seeing fire and death, "when I killed."

Behind me, she stood, and I could feel the anger radiating off her. "Always so fucking unilateral."

I ignored her, staring at the forest with tired eyes. So many clouded memories. How can I explain it, when I felt the power rise up and the screams when they suffered and died, wondering if that was her? But waiting turned out to be the only best decision…

She grabbed me by both shoulders from behind. "Well, fine. If it's the only way to make you stay, then-"

My eyes met hers over my shoulder, coldly. And I turned; taking her left wrist with my hand and sliding it downwards, gaze intense as my hands met in the middle around hers, for once no hesitation and no fear. A clarity.

"Don't insult me."

Her face and my heart fractured, but I have to believe that this was for the best.