Author's Notes:
These are scenes that I wrote for AMR long, long ago, and decided didn't fit in with the story as it is now. Some are long, some are very short, most of them are only bits of a scene, with abrupt beginnings or endings. They all fit under one arc that I'm really not sure I'll even use anymore. If I do, it will obviously be different from the below.

I hope you'll enjoy them either way. Thanks for reading.


"Shizuru?" Natsuki rose from her chair and approached the desk, her brows knitting lightly in concern as she noticed the sudden, ashen tone to her friend's already pale coloring. "What is it?"

Shizuru closed her eyes and seemed to make a staunch effort to compose herself before looking up at the younger woman. "I need to fly back to Kyoto," she told her calmly. Too calmly. "Apparently, my father's been involved in an accident."

-----

She obviously still cares about you. Morio's words from a few weeks ago ran through her head as she stared out of the window, and the glass fogged slightly as she sighed. That much was certainly true. Even if she had stayed away for several years, in her own way, Shizuru had never stopped caring... had never stopped looking out for her.

And apparently, the executive had never stopped loving her either. Natsuki wasn't sure if Shizuru had gotten worse at hiding her emotions or if she simply had gotten better at reading them, but once she'd reunited with her family, she'd soon learned what love looked like. She saw it in Akiko and Morio's eyes whenever they looked at each other. She saw it in Kaguya's eyes when the little girl looked at her parents or at Natsuki herself. She saw it in her sister's eyes when she looked at her daughter.

And she saw it in Shizuru's eyes when her friend looked at her. She wasn't sure exactly what kind of love it was, but...

She cares about me. She rested a hand against the glass and gazed down at the busy streets below. I care about her, too.

Slender fingers drummed pensively against the clear pane.

Maybe it's time that I start showing it.

She pushed the door open and poked her head into the outer office. "Yamuri-san, would you..." Her voice trailed off as she saw the secretary simply lift a small stack of paper and hold it out, and crossed over to the desk to pick it up. "What is... oh." She blinked at the freshly printed e-tickets on the top of the stack. Fuuka-Itami round trip, open return, and with her name in bold at the head of the page. "How about..."

Again, the secretary forestalled her question. "Hotel Granvia Kyoto, two rooms, adjoining. The staff will hold the reservation until midnight."

Natsuki snorted and shook her head as she flipped through the papers, finding amongst them the room details and travel directions not only from Shizuru's house to Fuuka Airport, but also for the thirty-odd mile drive from Itami Airport to the hotel. "Damn, you're good."

Kina looked up at her and smiled a little. "No. You're just predictable."

"Hey." She pointed the papers at the older woman. "I resent that remark."

"That doesn't make it any less true, Kuga-san."

"Hrmph." A shake of the dark head. "No wonder you and Shizuru work so well together. You're just as incorrigible as she is."

The older woman's amused laughter followed her into her office, and she chuckled softly as she closed the door behind her and stepped around her desk. One hand came to rest on the back of the leather chair, and she spent a few moments wondering if maybe... just maybe... she was about to cross a line she ought not to.

That, of course, brought up another question. When the choice stood between either standing by Shizuru - consequences be damned - or respecting the executive's right to her privacy... which one was more important? Should she just force herself into the situation and take the risk of possibly angering the other woman by doing so... or was it wiser to step back and wait for Shizuru to ask for her involvement?

A snort. Like I know for sure that she'd even do that. Damn woman's too stubborn for her own good as it is.

She leaned over her desk and pressed a few buttons on the phone. It didn't take long before she heard a voice at the other end of the line.

"Medical Research department, Yukimura speaking."

"Nee-chan? I need a favor."

-----

A knock sounded at her front door, and she paused in her packing to tilt her head as she gazed out at the hallway. What on earth....

Shaking her head, she carefully laid the last of the items – a few sets of nightwear and her bag of toiletries – into the suitcase and zipped it closed. Taking a few seconds to straighten her hair and adjust her clothing, she then made sure that none of her worry was visible on her face as she made her way out of the bedroom and down the stairs, pausing at the door to take a breath before pulling it open.

"Isn't it usually considered pretty damn rude to keep people waiting outside when it's raining?"

Shizuru blinked and felt her mind scramble for a response as she took in the figure standing on her porch. Natsuki was dressed casually in a pair of sneakers and white jeans with several dark spots from the fat raindrops, and had the collar of her leather jacket turned up around her head as high as she could, presumably in an effort to keep the shower from drenching her hair and face too much during the trek to the door.

It really was coming down hard, the executive noted idly as she spotted a familiar, silver sedan parked at the curb. "Kanin na, Natsuki." She quickly stepped aside and opened the door fully as her manners reasserted themselves. "What are you doing here, though?"

The younger woman stepped inside, and obviously took care to drip only on the tiled part of the floor as she removed her jacket. The navy t-shirt beneath had darkened some around the collar, but otherwise looked dry enough. "You didn't honestly think that I was gonna let you drive yourself to the airport, did you?" The green eyes shot up to meet hers briefly as the biker knelt to unlace her shoes. "Akiko and Morio lent me their car."

-----

"I don't think it's wise for Natsuki to go. There is a good chance that you'll end up missing class."

"What, you think you're the only one who knows how to plan ahead?" She watched a slight smirk form on the younger woman's face. "I talked to Kamiizumi-sensei this afternoon, and I'm considered to be on emergency leave until further notice. Any classes I miss, I can make up later." A pause. "Might mean that I have to skip on coming to the office for a few days, but since I'm ditching school for you, I figured you wouldn't mind me ditching work for school."

"Well, no, of course not, but..." Shizuru trailed off and shook her head, feeling a certain sense of dizziness wrap around her mind as she tried to grasp everything. Her friend had, quite literally, dropped everything in order to follow her halfway across the country... all so she could be there if Shizuru should need her.

Her heart swelled at the thought, almost to the point of pain, and she felt a slight stinging at the corners of her eyes as she watched her own hands grip the material of her jeans a little tighter. "Natsuki..."

"Shizuru." The tone of the younger woman's voice made her look up, and she watched as Natsuki turned in her seat as much as she could, facing her completely. "You spent so much time being strong for me when we were younger. Let me try to repay the favor some, alright?"

She couldn't think of a single thing to say. Every minute since that call had been spent steeling herself... preparing to face the situation on her own. To take care of whatever needed taking care of while her father remained in the hospital. To run not one division, but two, if need be. And to take her father's place permanently, should the worst happen.

But now... now the darkness surrounding her thoughts had suddenly been pushed back by the light of Natsuki offering her assistance and so much more. Support, friendship, companionship... an ear to listen and a shoulder to lean on.

And Shizuru truly had no words. Except two. "Ookini, Natsuki."

She couldn't help but smile at the pleased grin those words earned her.

"I always knew you were smart," the younger woman told her as she turned off the car's engine and opened the door on her own side. "C'mon, then. We've got a plane to catch."

-----

She glanced up as one of the stewards sidled over and smiled pleasantly at them. "Good evening, ladies. We'll be serving a late night snack shortly after we reach cruising altitude. Is there anything special that you would like with yours?" His gaze switched back and forth between the two of them, making it obvious that he was asking them both.

"Hmm." Natsuki leaned one elbow on her armrest and folded her hands as she glanced up at the man. "How large are your mayo packages?"

The steward's face didn't as much as twitch. Instead, he simply looked as if the young woman had asked him what time it was, which was quite an achievement to his credit, Shizuru thought as she very carefully did not roll her eyes.

She watched the uniformed man hold up his hands, his thumbs and forefingers outlining a square shape that was slightly larger than an average box of matches. The executive didn't need to turn her head to know that her assistant was currently calculating how much mayo a package that size could hold.

"Five of those then, please."

"Very well." The man unclipped a small pad of paper from his waistband and quickly noted down the seat number and the request. "Anything extra for you, ojou-san?"

Shizuru shook her head and sent him a small smile. "No thank you. I'm sure I shall find the food quite palatable as it is."

"May I offer either of you a refreshment, then?"

"Tea for me, please. Some citrus variant, if you have it." She watched the steward nod and return the pad to his belt before she cast a glance at her friend. "Natsuki?"

"Soda's fine."

Another nod. "Any specific kind?"

"Eh." The young woman shrugged. "Surprise me."

He ambled off, and Shizuru took the opportunity to poke the other woman in the side. "You are incorrigible."

"Me?" Natsuki raised a hand to point at her own chest. "Because I asked him to surprise me?"

The CEO leaned back in her seat with an exhale and closed her eyes. "Because you asked for no less than five packages of that dreadful substance."

"Oh, shut up," came the somewhat embarrassed mutter from her right-hand side. "Or I'll tell him that you want ten when he comes back." A pause. "And I'll make you eat 'em, too."

She opened her eyes slowly and turned her head to face her friend. "And how exactly does Natsuki plan on accomplishing that?"

-----

A glance to the right allowed her to catch a glimpse of her boss' face as they passed under a streetlight. The CEO had grown progressively more subdued ever since they'd been asked to buckle up for landing, and was now watching the darkness outside pass them by in silence. The tiny muscles in her jaw tensed and relaxed rhythmically, and her throat worked as she swallowed.

She drummed her fingers against the steering wheel of the rental car and frowned in consideration.

Natsuki hadn't been privy to much interaction between Shizuru and her father aside from the brief clip she'd seen on TV a few months ago, but that, along with the affection in the woman's voice whenever she'd spoken with him on the phone in front of her, made it clear that the two of them cared deeply for each other. So the fact that Shizuru was scared, even though she was obviously trying to hide it, wasn't hard to understand.

Briefly, she entertained the notion of calling the older woman on it and letting her know that it was alright to let it show. But now probably wasn't the right time to make that kind of stab at her defenses.

"Shizuru?"

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the other woman's head turn towards her. "Hm?"

"Tell me about your father." She peered at the mirror on her own side of the car before flicking on the turn signal and changing lanes. "What's he like?"

A soft sound of surprise came from the passenger seat. "Well, I certainly don't mind telling Natsuki about Papa, but I am curious as to why she asked."

I'm trying to turn your thoughts to a more pleasant subject.

Careful to keep her eyes on the road and her face calm, she shrugged one shoulder. "Just wondering, I guess. Seems like he means a lot to you." A sign beside the highway told her that their exit was coming up. "And since I'll probably end up meeting him, I'd kinda like to know what to expect. If I end up stepping into the room and being bowled over with surprise, I probably wouldn't make a good first impression on him."

"Ara, ara." The executive's voice had taken on a lightly teasing tone now. "I didn't know that Natsuki was so concerned about impressing my father. Is she planning to win him over so he will agree when she asks for my hand?"

"Shi-Shizuru!" The low, amused chuckle from her right side did nothing to ease the heat she could feel in her cheeks, but at least it was dark enough that it wasn't easily visible. Damn that woman.

Silence reigned for a while, and she almost thought that the executive had forgotten her question.

"He is a very conservative man in a lot of ways," Shizuru spoke up softly just as she was about to ask again. "And in a lot of other ways, sometimes he's so far outside the box that I don't know what to expect from him. He's a firm believer in upholding tradition without rejecting progress, and has been my mentor in life, school and many other things since I was very young."

"You're close." It was a statement more than a question.

"Yes." A pause, and the faint sound of fabric shifting as Shizuru folded her arms. "Though I have my mother's eyes, I favor him the most in both looks and spirit."

"Ah." She nodded and fell silent as she made the turn onto the off ramp and maneuvered the vehicle safely onto a smaller, less busy road. "So I should basically expect an older, male version of you instead of a three-headed fish with legs, huh?"

The executive laughed. "Essentially, yes, although I hope that you weren't truly expecting half of my genes to have come from something with fins and gills. I do like fish, but I think I would have to be insulted if that were the case."

"No, no... no offense meant." She chuckled, but otherwise managed to hide her delight at the far more cheerful note in her friend's voice. "And even if you were the daughter of a fish, I'd say that you've far outshone your parentage in both looks and brains."

"Natsuki is very kind." The darkened interior of the car made it hard to be sure, but Natsuki thought it was possible that Shizuru was blushing. Just a little.

Apart from the sound of traffic, it was quiet again. At least now, she noted with satisfaction as she gave her companion an occasional glance out of the corner of her eye, it wasn't the heavy, oppressive silence it had been earlier.

Small, suburban homes gave way to taller, predominantly commercial structures, and she brought the sedan to a stop at an intersection. A quick look at her surroundings gave her a pretty good idea as to where they were, and while she hated reminding her friend of the cause of the trip...

"You wanna stop by the hospital first?"

Natsuki watched Shizuru swallow a few times, but the other woman's reply came in a clear, strong voice. "No. They said he was stable, and I... I need a little more time. Please. Visiting hours are over, anyway."

She nodded and put the car in gear, then found her hand grasped and squeezed gently as she turned the wheel.

"Ookini."

It was really amazing, Natsuki considered as she turned her hand over and briefly returned the light clasp, just how much meaning could be packed into such a simple word. So she did catch on. Well, that was always a possibility.

The lights from the outside passed them by faster as she sped the car up, and she turned her head enough that she could see the executive's face in the flickering light, and mirrored the small smile she found there. "Anytime."

-----

Thump thump thump.

A soft but repetitive sound managed to rouse Natsuki from her slumber, and she blinked her eyes open in slight befuddlement. The TV in her room was still on, but the Mute icon glared obnoxiously at her from the top right corner of the screen, as if to protest its involvement in the disturbance.

Thump thump... thum-thump.

"The hell?" she muttered groggily, shuffling up onto her elbows and looking around the room in confusion.

Thump thump thump.

Her gaze fell on the double doors to the adjoining room, and she rolled her eyes as she fell back and pulled one of the pillows over her face in a mixture of annoyance and exasperation. God, that woman's gonna be the death of me. Again.

One side of the pillow lifted, and a single green eyeball rolled around to glance at the digital clock on the nightstand. Then the pillow dropped back down, but didn't quite succeed in muffling the groan from the face hidden beneath it.

The bed shifted slightly as she rolled out of it, and she absentmindedly tugged her over-sized sleep shirt into place as she approached the doors with determined steps and quietly slid them open.

Oh, yeah. She's pacing. The biker shook her head as she watched the brunette wander about the room. Shizuru was agitated and weary enough for both to be noticeable in her movements, although she somehow managed to keep her voice in its usual, neutrally polite tone as she spoke softly into the cell-phone that she held against the side of her face.

"Kanin na, Hazukuri-han, but I really do need those files tonight," she was saying, and Natsuki noticed that while the older woman had changed into her sleeping garments at some point, that was obviously as far as she had gotten in the process of actually going to sleep. The bed was painstakingly made, and on top of the covers sat the CEO's suitcase, which had been unzipped, but obviously not unpacked apart from the nightwear.

Oh, hell no you don't. She felt her lips part in a mild sneer as she remembered exactly how exhausted her friend had looked upon their arrival at the hotel less than an hour ago. Why on earth did the stubborn woman persist on working herself so hard when she was obviously tired?

She sighed silently and pushed away from the door frame, her bare feet making virtually no sound against the thick carpet as she crossed the room and raised a single hand when she came to a halt about a foot behind the older woman. Briefly, she considered outright smacking Shizuru in the back of the head and maybe knock some damn sense into her, but that idea was discarded as quickly as it had popped up.

Instead, she tapped the brunette lightly on the shoulder with her index finger.

Predictably, the sudden realization that someone else was in the room with her made the CEO turn abruptly, and Natsuki took advantage of her friend's momentary lapse in concentration to deftly snatch the cell phone out of her hand.

"She'll call you back next week," she spoke into the device. "Get some sleep."

"Natsuki!"

She sent her suddenly indignant boss a bored look as she snapped the phone shut, and unceremoniously sent it sailing through the room with a flick of her wrist. There was another light thump when it landed on the carpet. "You," she told the older woman as she jabbed a finger against the top of Shizuru's chest. "...pay your employees a very decent wage."

"However." Another poke, one that made the brunette take a slight step back as a bewildered look entered the crimson eyes. "No company in the world..." Poke. Step. Natsuki followed. "... pays it's employees well enough..." Poke poke. "...to send them on that kinda half-assed, wild goose chase..." Poke poke poke. ".. at a quarter to goddamn midnight on a friggin' Friday." On the last word, she gave the executive a light shove, and grunted in satisfaction as Shizuru dropped to a seat on the side of the bed.

She sighed and brushed some sleep-tousled hair out of her eyes as she sat down next to her friend and rested her chin on her folded hands. "Not to mention that even big shot CEO's need to sleep." She quirked an eyebrow at the look she was getting from the other woman, which oddly matched the one she'd imagine to be on the face of a person who'd just been introduced to the novel concept of indoor plumbing. "So go to bed."

Shizuru's head dropped slightly as she folded her hands in her lap. "I just don't feel tired, I suppose."

Natsuki digested this. "Hm. Too wound up?"

A soft sigh. "Something like that."

The biker grunted. "Well..." She got to her feet and took a second to give the switch for the bedside lamp a flick before resolutely striding over to the wall and flipping the switches for the ceiling lamps to the Off position, leaving the room far darker than it had been before. Only the soft, golden glow from the small light on the nightstand provided any illumination. "You're not gonna get any more sleepy by prowling around the floor and stressing out your underlings."

The executive gazed at her for a long moment, then reluctantly nodded her head. "True."

"Hrmph." Natsuki nodded her head once in satisfaction as she returned to the bed and leaned over it, zipping the suitcase closed before pulling it off of the soft surface and dragging it over to stand against one of the walls. "Good." She crossed both her arms and her ankles as she leaned back against the wall next to the suitcase. "Then lie down and relax."

"Ara?" The chestnut head tilted as a small glint entered the crimson eyes. "Natsuki isn't going to tuck me in?"

She reached a hand up and pinched the bridge of her nose in hopes of staving off the oncoming headache. "Shizuru, you're a big girl now. You're perfectly capable of tucking yourself in."

The executive pouted but obligingly rose, pulled the covers back and slid under them. "Very well," she sighed. "But I cannot be expected to relax if I have to crane my neck in this way to see you."

"I take it that you don't want me to leave, then."

"I find Natsuki's presence comforting."

The biker felt a soft, frustrated growl leave her throat. "Oh, for..." She rolled her eyes and trotted over to the bed, plopping down on the free side of it and leaning back against the headboard as she stretched out her bare legs and crossed her arms over her chest. "There. Happy now?"

"Hm." Shizuru pursed her lips and gazed pensively at the ceiling as she tapped a single finger against her cheek. "Almost."

Natsuki only barely resisted the urge to pull violently at her own hair. "What.... else?" she ground out.

"Well... how about a bedtime story?"

She felt her jaw drop as she stared incredulously at her friend. "A what? How old are you again?"

"Twenty-four," came the matter-of-fact reply.

Her mouth worked soundlessly for a few seconds. Then she just sighed. "I'm seriously starting to sympathize with Suzushiro right now. Damn bubuzuke woman, indeed."

A low, amused chuckled came from the other side of the bed. "You've never told Kaguya-chin a bedtime story?"

She slid down a little further and let her head drop back against the pillows. "No."

The mattress dipped somewhat as Shizuru rolled onto her side to face her. "You've never tucked her in?"

"Didn't say that."

"Then..." The older woman trailed off.

Natsuki rolled her eyes. "Lullabies."

The silence stretched between them for a few seconds, and Natsuki let her eyes slip shut as the soft bed seemed to gather up her tired body. The sound of Shizuru's breathing was steady and even, and she figured that maybe the other woman had fallen asleep. She should probably get up herself... go back to her own room and...

The mattress dipped again, and she felt a hand lay itself lightly on her arm. "Hm?" She opened her eyes and gazed up at the familiar face hovering not all that far above her own. A slight flutter of... something... hit her in the stomach, but she ignored it. "What?"

"Sing one."

Natsuki groaned. Definitely gonna be the death of me. She studied the familiar features and found no trace of humor or teasing in the older woman's eyes. For all intents and purposes, the executive's request seemed to be genuine.

A mental sigh. Whatever. The sooner she goes to sleep, the sooner I can. "Fine. Any requests?"

"No." Shizuru shook her head and smiled slightly. "Whatever Natsuki wants to sing is fine by me."

The biker sighed and closed her eyes. "I'm not singing a single note until you lie the hell down and relax."

Shizuru obeyed immediately, and Natsuki cracked one eye back open to peer wryly at the head that now rested comfortably on her shoulder. That... wasn't exactly what I meant. She watched a slender arm lay itself over her waist and exhaled. Ah... hell with it.

A song came to her with surprising ease, and she felt herself sink further into the comfort of the bed as she began singing softly.

"In the sunset light, the mountain glows with autumn leaves
Deep scarlet and light gold everywhere
Maples and vines, vivid among the pine trees
The foot of the mountain a woven brocade"

Even though the song was a short one, she heard the older woman's breathing deepen even before she'd made it through the third line, and once she finished, she lifted her head a little.

Shizuru was curled peacefully against her side, and her chest moved slowly as she slept. Her hair fanned out over the pillows, and the faint light from the bedside lamp almost made it glow.

Light gold everywhere, huh? She couldn't keep the small smile from forming on her face as the thought struck her, and without really thinking about it, she let her own arm come to rest atop the one Shizuru had wrapped around her. Her other hand toyed idly with a few strands of the soft, tawny hair as she peered up at the ceiling, knowing that she should probably return to her own bed. How to go about doing that, though... she wasn't sure.

Well, all I have to get free of is her, she considered, peering down the length of their bodies. While Shizuru had the covers pulled up to chest level, her own body was spared that particular restriction, resting as she was on top of the smooth material.

Yeah, she thought, blinking sluggishly as her body started to succumb to the oddly seductive comfort of both the bed's softness and the pleasant heat of the form resting against her. I really should get up. Wouldn't be that hard to pull away.

Slow, relaxed breathing warmed the top of her chest through the material of her t-shirt.

But I don't want to.

A yawn made her eyes flutter closed, and she rested her cheek against the top of the head laying on her shoulder, sighing contentedly into the stillness of the hotel room.

Before long, she too was welcomed into the arms of Morpheus.

-----

"Kuga-han."

Curiously, she turned around with one hand still on the doorknob. "Sir?"

The man raised his uninjured arm and waved her over. "Come. Talk with a tired old man for a little while."

The thought of refusing entered her mind as all she really wanted to do was track down Shizuru, and her gaze fell to the floor as she considered how to do so without outright offending the man. But as she opened her mouth to politely excuse herself and met his eyes, something about the look in them made her pause.

"Though I have my mother's eyes, I favor him the most in both looks and spirit."

Yes, the color of those eyes was different. But the expression in them, although simply one of serene patience to the casual observer, was one she had seen before. And if Shizuru had told the truth, then her father was currently... a little nervous... worried... pleading.

The door closed with a snick, and her shoes thumped softly against the floor as she walked over to the bed and stood beside it. "Yes, Fujino-sama?"

"My Shi-chin is an exceptional woman, Kuga-han. I would recognize that even if I didn't have a father's love for her." His eyes glittered with paternal pride as he spoke, and a small smile came forth. "But she is also too stubborn for her own good, and tends to forget that no man is an island."

Natsuki felt her lips twitch in wry agreement. "She can get a little... immersed sometimes." she offered.

Hiraku chuckled. "A very diplomatic answer." One lightly graying eyebrow quirked. "My daughter must be rubbing off on you."

She coughed softly and knew that she was blushing, but managed to not look away. Before she could think of a reply, he gestured to the chair placed next to the bed, and with a slight nod, she sat down and folded her hands in her lap as she studied him.

There was a small glint in his eyes now... one that she recognized. She'd seen it a thousand times before.

Yeah. She let her face relax into a small grin, and saw Hiraku's do likewise. That's definitely where she gets it from.

"I've learned a lot from Shizuru," she acknowledged, leaning back in her seat and folding her arms loosely. "She was a good friend to me when we were younger." A pause. "She still is."

"Hm." He nodded. "And you? What do you mean to her?"

"I..." The question caught her off-guard, and she blinked a few times as she considered it.

"I'm not sure," she finally admitted, briefly lowering her eyes. "I'm... important to her... I guess... since she didn't object much when I wanted to come up here with her. But if you're asking how important..." She thought back over the time that had passed since Shizuru's return, running through a number of moments between them where the older woman's words or actions could be interpreted in different ways. Remembered the instances where she'd caught those red eyes watching her with a gentle expression that made her wonder if maybe...

She sighed, and shook her head. "I don't know, Sir."

"That's my Shi-chin." The expression on the elder Fujino's face was a cross between bemusement and mild exasperation. "Always playing her cards close to her chest."

Natsuki couldn't hold back a small snort of amusement. "She could clean out a Las Vegas dealer."

Hiraku laughed outright at that, and nodded his head in agreement. "Yes, I believe she could." He studied her for a moment, and there was a challenge in his gaze that she forced herself to meet head-on. Exactly what he was looking for, she didn't know, but the smile he eventually gave her made it seem as if he'd found it.

"There are two people in this world that my daughter will allow herself to show her weaknesses to, Kuga-han." He cocked his head at her as his face took on a more serious expression. "But she will not remove her mask in front of the person that she's wearing it for. No matter how much she needs to."

Hesitantly, she nodded. "I understand."

"Good. Then I won't lay claim to any more of your time." He gave her a small smile and gestured to the door. "Go find my daughter and give her your permission to be selfish."

The last sentence struck her as a bit odd, but knowing the man's offspring, there was probably a clue in there somewhere that he thought she could use.

"Yes, Sir." She was back at the door before she paused again, and glanced back over her shoulder. "Is there anything you need at the moment, Fujino-sama? I can have a nurse come by if you wish."

"No thank you, Kuga-han." Hiraku pressed a button on the small remote attached to the railing of the bed, and the head of it began lowering with a quiet hum. "I am as well as can be expected, so I think I shall rest for the night."

She nodded and opened the door, slipping into the hallway beyond with a curious sense of... something. What the hell was that all about, anyway? She pondered the brief conversation as she continued down the hall, which was as good as deserted at this hour. Only the occasional orderly or nurse passed her way, some giving her a friendly smile, and others seeming a bit more harried as they rushed by.

Okay, she wasn't a complete idiot. She'd understood the fact that Shizuru would only allow herself to truly relax in front of two people; her father, and Natsuki herself. She'd also understood that since Hiraku was the one that Shizuru was currently being strong for, those two people had been narrowed down to one person.

And he wants me to find her and make sure that she lets herself... react, I guess. She chewed her lower lip pensively, hardly noticing her surroundings as her gaze turned inwards. Okay... I can do that.

She came to a halt where the current corridor was intersected by another one, and rested her hands on her hips as she looked first to her left, then her right. If I can find her.

"Ojou-san?" A young man in an orderly uniform stopped next to her. "Are you lost?"

"No, I'm fine, thanks." She raised her hand to wave the man off, then changed her mind and held up a single finger instead. "But... if a visitor wanted to be alone without leaving the hospital... can you tell me where they could go?"

The young man peered at her. "Is everything alright?" His voice was politely concerned. "Do you need to sit down?"

Natsuki shook her head. "Not me. I'm looking for a friend."

"Ah." He smiled and seemed to consider the question for a brief moment. "Well, at this hour, the most private, public part of the hospital is probably the roof garden. It's open as long as the weather allows it." He pointed down the hallway to the right. "The closest elevators with access to it are that way, around the first corner."

Well, that seemed like a likely place to look, alright. "Thanks."

"Not at all, ojou-san." The orderly gave her a quick bow. "Have a nice night."

"Yeah. You too," she called back over her shoulder, having already started down the hall he'd indicated. There was, indeed, a small collection of elevators just around the first corner she reached, and the area in front of them was blissfully clear of waiting people, leaving her the opportunity to pick and choose as she wished.

Green eyes studied the floor indicators above the different metal doors, and she quickly settled on the elevator that not only was just two floors below this one, but also seemed to be heading upwards still. Perfect. She hit the call button, and had to wait less than a minute before the doors opened and two women who looked like doctors stepped out, giving her polite smiles as she passed by them and entered the now empty cart.

The roof was another ten stories up, she noted, and leaned back against the wall after pressing the corresponding button. None of the buttons for the floors above were lit, and it wasn't long before the silence around her made her thoughts turn back to the brief audience with Shizuru's father.

"What do you mean to her?"

Why, she wondered, had he asked that question? From what he'd said not two minutes later, it certainly looked like he already knew the answer. And if he wanted to know what she meant to his daughter, then why not ask the woman herself?

Shizuru, she knew, rarely said or did anything without there being a well thought-out reason behind it. And if what she'd seen so far was any indication, it was probably safe to assume that her father was the same way.

I guess he wouldn't need to ask Shizuru if he already knows, she considered as she idly watched the floor numbers slowly climb higher. And he seemed satisfied with my answer, even if I didn't actually have one to give him.

So what had he been going for?

Natsuki closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. Damn those Fujinos. Why can't they just say what they mean?

There were five more floors to go, she absently noted as she continued pondering Hiraku's vague words.

"Okay." She straightened and began to pace back and forth as best she could in the small compartment. "Let's think about this logically. He wanted to know what I think I mean to Shizuru... I couldn't tell him because I don't really have a fucking clue since the damn woman is so careful with her emotions, which he also said something about."

She blew out a breath. "I don't know exactly what she thinks of me... and he said that she always plays her cards close to her chest." Pace pace. "Okay... so what he's inferring is that I probably mean more to her than I realize. Got it. What else?"

"There are two people in this world that my daughter will allow herself to show her weaknesses to."

Three floors left.

"Two people. Me and him. Just us out of the entire six goddamn billion and-then-some people on the face of this planet that she's willing to open up to." A brief pause. "Stubborn ass."

Two floors.

"Ugh." She rubbed the heel of her hand against her forehead in frustration. "Alright. Shizuru can just about read my damn mind... and he seemed to have a pretty good idea of what was running through my head, too, especially with how he kinda stared at me and then smiled. So he probably figured out that I was thinking about..."

One floor.

"... whether to interpret how she acts around me as just friendship or something more." Pace pace.

Pace.

"... and I... mean more to her than I realize."

Stop.

"Oh boy."

She almost missed the ding of the elevator as the doors opened in front of her, but thankfully managed to shake herself out of the astounded haze enough to jump out of the cart before they closed again. The fact that she was now standing in a small, sharply lit hallway with only one door at the other end registered somewhere in the back of her mind, but didn't take precedence.

She's in love with me. The thought made her heart pound. Shizuru... is in love with me. Still? Or again?

A mix of both?

Another thought. Does it matter?

No, it probably didn't, she decided as she eyed the door to the roof. She'd known that Shizuru had never stopped caring, never stopped loving her. She just hadn't known in which way. She still wasn't sure if the older woman's feelings had changed during their time apart. But she knew what they were now.

She's in love with me.

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