Mai HiME and all of its characters belongs to Sunrise. This means that they don't belong to me, and that I don't make an ounce of profit whatsoever from tampering with them. So if anybody does sue, I doubt it'll be worth the effort. But yes, there are a few people in this story that come solely from my own imagination.
This is a futurefic, meaning that it starts off a few years after the end of the series. Natsuki and her life is the main focus of the story. If she or any of the other familiar characters (what few there are at this point) seem OOC, then I apologize. The changes are intentional, however, as you can't really grow up without altering somehow.
This is not a Shiznat fic. If all goes well, though, this story will work as the lead-in to one. Enjoy.
Prologue; part I
In a Family Way
The early afternoon sunlight seeped in through the half-closed oak blinds, sending golden stripes into the large office and across the the slate-gray walls and the thick white carpeting. The large, 27th story window was set into the wall above a few low, metal filing cabinets, whose white paint made them stand out against the wall while still fitting in with the cool professionalism of the room's decor. They were flanked on either side by a few of their taller brethren, four drawers instead of two, where the sides of the window ended.
To one side, the wall was lined with tall bookcases – oak, as all the furniture in the room was – all filled to the brim with neatly labeled ring binders and a plethora of various books in every color imaginable. Opposite them was a conference table with three empty chairs on each side, patiently awaiting use.
In the center of the room itself, just a few feet in front of the filing cabinets, was a large wooden desk that faced away from the window. On the desk was a telephone, a computer and a few minor items that were obviously personal knick-knacks; a small glass bowl with a few colorful fish swimming around inside, a few framed photographs, and a dried rose in a clear, crystal vase. In front of the desk were two visitor's chairs, white leather just as the chair placed behind the desk.
The wall opposite the window had been bare before the office had come to use, but now sported several framed drawings, whose shaky lines and bright colors gave a good estimate as to the age of the artist.
The golden light traveled up further as the sun sank a little lower in the sky, and sent its paling rays up along the back of the chair behind the desk before reaching the dark hair of the chair's occupant.
The faint rustling of paper was the only sound in the room as the woman turned a page in the report spread out on the table in front of her, and a small furrow of concentration appeared on the high, strong forehead as she trailed one finger over the text. She tilted her head and exhaled softly as she adjusted the collar of the white lab coat resting on her shoulders, then reached up to push a few errant strands of midnight-blue hair behind her ear before jotting down a few notes on the pad to her right-hand side.
As she bent over the report once more, the stubborn locks fell into her line of vision again, and a sigh escaped her lips as she placed her pen between her teeth and abandoned her task for the moment, instead reaching into the pocket of the lab coat and retrieving a small hair band, which she then used to neatly tie the shoulder-length strands back with.
Glancing up slightly as she did so, her gaze fell on the clock displayed in the lower right-hand corner of her screen, and a smile shaped her lips as she let her gaze track to the side and settle on one of the photos. A handsome, blond man and a small girl with azure hair waved cheerfully to her from the still scene, and she waggled her fingers at them as she reclaimed her pen and twirled it absentmindedly.
Well, it's almost two o'clock...She sent the system clock another glance, then studied her papers once more before she resolutely closed the report and pushed her chair back, twirling in her seat and opening the appropriate drawer in which to store the material. Then she turned back to her desk and pulled the notepad over instead, clicking into her archives and entering the written words with sure, efficient movements that set the keys on her keyboard to clattering rapidly.
There. She saved the information before ripping loose the sheets she had hand-written. Rising smoothly, she ambled over to one of the book cases and pulled loose the most recent of the ring binders dedicated to her notes, which she opened and dutifully stored the papers in before sliding it back into place.
The shelf was up a little higher than normal, she noticed, and glanced down at her feet. Smooth, sheer hose ran up the length of her legs, but other than them, her feet were bare. Whoops. She chuckled softly and backtracked to the desk, sitting down and slipping her feet into the heeled shoes that she'd slipped off beneath, before getting up once more.
With a soft whistle, she then shrugged out of her lab coat and placed it on the nearby dumbwaiter, where it would be collected and replaced by the cleaning staff, leaving a fresh one waiting for her the next morning.
Not that she spent much time in the laboratories these days, but still. Corporate policy was corporate policy. And she did like wearing the thing as it was, so...
The light, jaunty tune continued as the woman straightened the elegant, tan skirt on her hips, then made sure that her pale green shirt was tucked in properly before the reclaimed her suit jacket - tan, to match the skirt - from the dumbwaiter, and slid it on over her shoulders. She gave the lapels of the blazer a few tugs to settle it properly into place as she turned back to the computer, and settled into her seat to log out and go home for the day.
A knock came at the door, and she groaned mentally. Please, not now... I have a birthday to get home to, for crying out loud!
However, she briskly untied her hair and ran her fingers through it before raising her voice. "Come in."
A rotund man entered the room just as she spoke up, his own lab coat swishing softly around his tailored slacks and neatly pressed shirt as he closed the door behind him. His gaze tracked to the white jacket hung into place before settling on her, and his gray eyes twinkled slightly as his smirk sent a few, faint lines running from the corners of his eyes and back towards his silvered temples. "Leaving so early today?"
The woman's eyes twinkled right back at her grandfatherly-looking boss. "I was planning on it, yes. It's not every day that my daughter can celebrate her birthday, after all." She glanced down to log out of a few sessions, then looked back up. "I certainly hope that you didn't need me to do something for you, Nakano-san. You did promise me a short day today."
"Indeed I did," the older man jovially noted. "How old is Kaguya-chan now, if I may ask?"
Chocolate eyes sent him a dry gaze from under midnight-blue eyebrows. "She's three, Nakano-san. Which you know perfectly well. Or you should, given the present and card that I have hidden in the bedroom closet, in which you congratulate her on just that age."
"Ah, you are no fun to tease when you're busy, Yukimura-san," Nakano Sato sighed. Then his pale eyes grew serious, and he settled into one of her visitor's chairs before holding out a small envelope. "This came in a package for me, with instructions to pass it on to you, however. It seemed very important that you get it as soon as possible."
Yukimura Akiko sent the small, white envelope a wary gaze as she halted the process of shutting down her computer. "I trust that it's nothing I need to spend several hours working on, Sato-san?" she asked dryly, slipping into the far more familiar form of address that she'd developed with the man after several years of working as his assistant.
"I honestly do not know, Akiko-san," her boss told her with a shake of his dark head. "It came from one of our distinguished presidents, so although I know you're anxious to get home to your family, I do think that you should look at it before leaving." He waved his outstretched hand a little, making the envelope bounce up and down lightly.
Akiko sighed softly and took the envelope from his hand. "Very well. Thank you for bringing it to me." A pause. "Why was it sent to you, however?"
The older man tilted his head. "It did not say in the letter addressed to me, Akiko-san. And I prefer not to question my superiors unless I have reason to do so."
The young woman nodded and turned the envelope over in her hand, but found no return address. "Thank you again, in any case. Are you still coming tonight?"
"Of course." Sato gave her a grin as he rose from his seat and walked towards the door. "How can I resist a night of Akiko-san's wonderful cooking?" he called over his shoulder, just before closing the door behind him.
Akiko shook her head as the VP of Medical Research left her office, and turned her mind to getting through this mysterious missive so she could go home to her husband and daughter, who were surely waiting for her. A letter opener from her desk drawer did its assigned task, and she tugged out the single sheet of paper within, unfolded it and read the brief message.
Then she read it again, straightening in her seat as her eyes widened.
It has lately come to my attention that you have spent a number of years searching for a person with whom I myself was acquainted. Enclosed in this letter, you will find some information that should allow you to complete your investigation.
Please do not assume that I expect any form of repayment from you or your family for extending this aid to you. Consider it instead a small form of penance for a disservice once done by me to the person in question.
I would appreciate that you not mention my involvement, as I am doubtful that she would appreciate my meddling in...
Akiko abandoned the letter and slapped it down onto the table before practically diving for the envelope and opening it wider. Sure enough, there was another, smaller slip of paper inside, and her fingers shook as she pulled it free and studied it.
"My goodness..." she whispered, and fell back into her chair with a small thump. "After all this time..."
Akiko cradled her newborn daughter carefully, gazing down at the tiny body in her arms with wonder in her eyes as she walked in slow circles inside the bedroom of their house, rocking the baby and humming softly in an effort to lull the child into sleep.
She smiled as she watched the baby's eyes slip shut, and continued her humming for a few more minutes before changing to a soft whisper. "That's right... go on and close those pretty eyes, Kaguya-chan," she murmured softly as she gazed at her sleeping daughter.
"You know you're in good hands, don't you? Your Morio-papa and I will take good care of you." She sent a fond thought to her husband who, after having dropped her and the baby off at their house in one of the suburbs of Fukokua, had left again in search of the last-minute supplies needed with a new baby in the house.
"I'm sure you will," came a soft, distinctly male voice from the doorway, and Akiko turned her head to send her father a smile as he entered the room. Beyond the door, she could hear the faint sounds of her mother puttering around the kitchen, no doubt busying herself preparing a meal for them all, and she felt a small trickle of gratitude at her parent's willingness to make sure the house was prepared for the new addition to their little family.
"So will you and Mama," she told the older, taller man as she gently shifted her hold on her daughter and let her father hold the child. "Just like you've always taken care of me." Always was a stretch, she considered, since Yuu hadn't been a full-time father to her until she had been ten years old, but he had more than made up for it since then.
"Family takes care of family," her father reminded her, but there was a trace of regret in his eyes as he spoke. He spent a few minutes holding the little girl before walking over to the crib set next to the large bed in the room, and gently settled the baby into it.
"Yes... family is the one thing you should always be able to count on." Yuu studied his sleeping granddaughter in silence for a few seconds before lifting his gaze to meet his daughter's. "Akiko-chan..." He took her gently by the arm and guided her towards the living room. "Thirteen years ago, I did something very foolish..."
Akiko tilted the small piece of paper slightly, and let the sunlight spill over the information written on it in a neat, elegant script. Three lines was all there was on it, and yet that familiar name, along with that phone number and that location... that information could change the lives of her entire family for good.
How old is she now? Akiko mused as she idly rubbed her thumb over the corner of the paper. 20, 21... somewhere around there, probably. And at Fuuka University, too. My goodness. A small smile curved the corners of her mouth upwards. Father always did say that intelligence runs in the family. It seems that she's no exception.
She rose from her seat and carefully unlatched her briefcase, placing the letter on top of her papers before closing it again. The note, however, she kept in her hand, and studied it pensively as she left the building for the busy streets of Fukokua.
Three years. Three long years of searching. And now, if the Fates were kind, that search would be over.
Kuga Natsuki... I wonder who you are, little sister...
"This is not who I am!"
Tokiha Mai sighed and crossed her arms over her chest as she leaned against the wall outside the dressing rooms. "You won't know that until you try it on," she called back to the stubborn young woman behind the wooden doors.
"Mai, this thing has frills. Frills!"
"It has fringes, Natsuki. Fringes. And it's leather." Mai shook her head and sent the slightly shorter young woman next to her a glance as she heard a small snicker. "Don't you start," she told her younger friend quietly. "You're next."
Mikoto looked at her with an expression best described as highly worried as she straightened her high school uniform, which was a distinct counterpoint to the older girl's more casual skirt and top. "Mai is not nice today," she noted sadly.
Mai grinned and stuck her tongue out at the girl. Then she raised her voice so that Natsuki would be able to hear her. "Aren't you semi-tough biker types supposed to wear fringed leather jackets?"
"That goes for country western bands, too, you know," Kuga Natsuki remarked with a scowl as she exited the dressing room with a few articles of clothing folded over one arm. She, too, was dressed in casual clothes like Mai herself, although hers consisted of a pair of jeans and a pale green polo shirt.
The tan leather jacket, which was, indeed, highly fringy, was held between two fingers of the hand on her free arm, which was stretched as far from her body as she could possibly get it. "And what do you mean by 'semi'-tough?"
Mai held back a laugh as she watched the blue-haired woman eye the jacket as if it were a small, thermo nuclear device. Mikoto didn't bother.
Natsuki sent the brunette a stern glance and opened her mouth to speak, but the younger girl caught the look and beat her to the punch.
"Mai means that Natsuki-san's toughness is less now that she's studying bioinformatics," Mikoto cheerfully informed the taller woman. "So Natsuki-san can no longer be 'fully' tough."
Natsuki raised an eyebrow at the girl, then shook her head and chuckled. "Alright, alright. I suppose biology isn't the most badass major I could've chosen," she remarked, and then flicked her arm, sending the offending leather jacket sailing through the air.
As intended, it landed on Mai's head, making the redhead yelp.
"So," the biker went on as she ignored the glare Mai was sending her way. "I'm hanging on to these." She hefted the jeans and various tops and shirts on her other arm. "But that... thing..." here she pointed at the jacket that Mai was now straightening out, "... has got to go."
"Fair enough," the redhead agreed with a small grin as the three of them trudged off to put the jacket back where they'd found it. "I consider it enough of a victory that you had it in the dressing room with you for more than two minutes."
"Bah." Natsuki made a face as she looked around the mostly empty store. It was late afternoon, and as most people were either heading home from work or had made it home already, there were very few other shoppers around.
While Natsuki studied the surroundings and Mikoto plodded on steadily beside her, Mai took the chance to study her friend. She knew that both herself and Mikoto had come a long way in the three years that had passed since the Carnival, as had those of the other HiME that they had stayed in touch with through the years, but as was often the case, Mai found herself wondering if Natsuki wasn't the one who had come the farthest of them all.
Oh, she was still stubborn as all get out, blunt to the point of being brash, downright antisocial at times and had a fuse shorter than the strings of DNA she'd no doubt soon be studying, but slowly, over time, she had shifted. Just a little bit. Enough that now...
Mai shifted her gaze and paused in mid-stride as Mikoto stumbled and Natsuki reached out her free hand, catching the girl by the arm. The redhead saw the questioning glance, the nod from the high schooler and the slight pat on the arm from the college girl, before the trio continued.
Enough that now, when Natsuki was around people she trusted, every once in a while that tough shell faded, and the gentle woman underneath peeked out.
Natsuki jumped slightly as a low, buzzing noise issued from the pocket of her jeans. "Arh, shit."
Hm. Mai scratched her nose. Then again, the more things changed, the more they stayed the same. But it couldn't be all bad since Natsuki was, after all, the one who had suggested this little shopping trip.
There was an ulterior motive to that little suggestion, of course, Mai considered privately as Natsuki pulled the vibrating phone from her pocket and wandered off a little ways to take the call. The third anniversary of a certain, former Kaichou's leaving was right around the corner, and her friend did always seem to get extra antsy around that time. Not that she could blame the other woman for it, the redhead reasoned as she idly listened to Mikoto talk as the two of them browsed through the selection of clothing available in the younger girl's size. Shizuru not contacting Natsuki at all for those three years was pretty extreme.
It wasn't that any of the others had heard from her either, but... Mai tried to picture leaving Tate for three years without any form of contact, and felt her chest clench. No, she definitely wouldn't be able to do that. Apparently Shizuru was stronger than she was.
She could understand how painful and frustrating it must have been for the former Kaichou to be around the biker when she knew that her feelings weren't returned, but leaving without as much as a goodbye to the one she'd professed to love hadn't exactly been a good solution either.
And to say that Mai was miffed at Shizuru for reducing Kuga Natsuki, of all people, to tears, would be putting it mildly.
"Hm?" The redhead was pulled from her thoughts as Mikoto laid a hand on her arm. "What is it?"
Mikoto sent a puzzled glance over her older friend's shoulder and raised a hand to point. "What's wrong with Natsuki-san?"
Mai turned and blinked in surprise as she caught sight of her friend. Natsuki was standing in the middle of one of the store's aisles, staring at the still open phone in her hand with an ashen-white, completely blank face. The clothes she had been carrying lay limply on the floor beside her feet, and before the redhead could so much as speak up, the woman snapped the phone shut, shoved it back into her pocket and stalked angrily out of the store.
"What the... Natsuki!" When the other woman didn't appear to hear her, the redhead took her cue from the already running Mikoto and chased after her. "Natsuki!"
The two of them made it outside just in time to see a familiar Ducati pull away from the curb and tear down the street with an ominous roar.
"Is Natsuki-san gonna be okay, Mai?" Mikoto asked worriedly as she stared after the motorcycle, and then turned her gaze on her remaining friend.
Mai exhaled heavily and ran a hand through her disordered hair. "I hope so, Mikoto." She shook her head, knowing that once Natsuki was in that mood, there was nothing to do but wait her out. "I hope so."