Author's Note: First of all, I should apologize to my regular readers. I promised I'd have the next chapter of Oneesama Sidestories out for Valentine's day, but my muse was missing and I just couldn't write. I was able to write this one though, slowly, as it fit what was in my heart much better.
Many thanks to Kampilan for her assistance in helping me get back the will to write. She also gets a bit of an "inspired by" credit for this chapter, stylistically.
Title: Distant Hearts
Shizuru started to relax and drop her mask as she swiped her keycard through the lock. It had been one of her hardest days of training yet. A mining operation in Artai had disturbed a nest of beasts – the type of which no one had yet been able to identify – and Shizuru and the current Third Column, Adriana Massela, who were training in the nearby mountains, were called in for emergency assistance. When they'd entered and reached the trapped miners, Adriana had directed Shizuru to handle the beasts while she escorted the miners out.
Given the ferocity of the monsters Shizuru had to face, this arrangement was the reverse of how one might have expected the two to handle the situation. Adriana was far more experienced than Shizuru and had a superior robe, so she would have been much more capable of handling the beasts while Shizuru took the miners to safety. However, Adriana had yet to pass up a chance to push Shizuru to her limits in their training, and she remained close enough to provide assistance if necessary. Shizuru had indeed felt it necessary on a couple of occasions, but her sensei remained out of the battle and forced her to handle things for herself.
Fortunately, Adriana's judgment had been correct, and Shizuru made it through – though not without a fair number of injuries. It was all she could do to keep from dropping her composure and letting out a whimper or two from the pain when the beasts were finally dispatched and her adrenaline rush faded. By her estimates, she'd broken at least four bones throughout her body in the fight, and it was all her nanomachines could do to hold her body together; healing had to wait until the threat was gone and she'd disabled her robe. At least, as harsh as she could be at times, Adriana wasn't without sympathy, and she'd caught Shizuru in a private hug just as she'd finished the battle, whispering apologies for not helping Shizuru and saving her this pain.
Being hailed as heroes when they left the mine helped a little, though. The Artai government had even shelled out for a stay at a first-class hotel in the nearest city for the weekend, which was certainly a nice break from the lodgings Adriana usually picked out to save the school money. But in the end, the best lodgings in the world wouldn't give Shizuru what she needed tonight. All she wanted to do now was curl up with her girlfriend in bed, but it just wasn't possible.
"Shizuru." Adriana's voice came from off to Shizuru's side, prompting the girl to turn to face her instructor. Her thoughts lingered on Natsuki for perhaps a second longer than they should have, meaning she was a bit late in fully erecting her mask. Hopefully Adriana hadn't noticed, or if she had, she just assumed it was something else, like wincing from her injuries. It really wasn't the Column's place to worry about Shizuru's personal life. Shizuru just had to learn to deal with it on her own if she was to succeed Adriana as the Third Column. Perhaps that was even the lesson Adriana was trying to teach her by keeping her away from Garderobe for so long at a stretch.
"Sensei," Shizuru said with a bow of her head. She kept her voice steady and polite, even as she wished she could be allowed to simply enter her room and collapse.
Adriana looked down at Shizuru, her face softening from its usual mask. "I just wanted to say again, I'm really proud of you today. I'm sorry for putting you through all of this, but it will be over soon, I promise. You've proven enough to me."
Shizuru gave a weak smile of thanks – then she caught herself and turned it into a proper smile. "Thank you, Sensei." Many thoughts passed through Shizuru's mind of how to follow this up, but none was really appropriate. When it became clear that Adriana wasn't going to continue, Shizuru went with the best she had. "And you don't need to apologize. I understand that the life of an Otome is hard – especially for a Column."
Adriana let out a small smile. "True enough." She began to turn away, but she paused halfway, as if something had just occurred to her. If she hadn't done this a few dozen times before this point, Shizuru might have believed that that was indeed the case. Instead, it was just Adriana's way of pretending she was letting a secret slip out. "But we all find our moments of joy on the job. Enjoy this weekend, Shizuru. You've earned that. Perhaps even more, but we'll see."
With a final wink in Shizuru's direction, Adriana was gone to find her own room. There was never any time for questions after her "secrets"; you just had to take what she gave you. By this point, Shizuru was getting pretty good at her mentor's game. Her overt message here was that she had the weekend off, and to enjoy herself. The "hidden" message was that there might be an extra perk in it for her. Perhaps that meant Adriana was finally ready to relinquish her Robe to Shizuru. At this point, using that robe was the only major part of the Third Column's job that Adriana had left untouched in their training. She'd set it up early as a goal for Shizuru to reach; she had to prove she was worthy of being the Graceful Amethyst. Perhaps with her performance today she finally had.
It was certainly a nice thought, but it didn't do much to ease the aches throughout Shizuru's body. Only Natsuki's touch was ever able to truly do that. She'd substitute for it as best as she could tonight, but it was simply impossible to not wish for the real thing. With a sigh, Shizuru turned back to her door. She brought her key up to swipe through the lock again, wincing slightly at the pain in her shoulder this motion caused.
"Oi! Ow, oh... bad idea, bad idea..." Natsuki cringed, pushing Sara's hand away from her shoulder. She'd gone a bit overboard in a duel with Mai when it had become clear that neither of the two girls was clearly winning this one. Both of the Pearls had started fighting more and more recklessly to try to eke out an advantage, with the only result being the two of them simultaneously disabled by injuries. They'd both left scowling at the fact that they had to call it off as a tie for fear of getting a scolding from the nurse for heavily injuring themselves in a simple duel.
At least Natsuki didn't have to face her heya-gakkari's wrath as well, unlike Mai. Sara Gallagher had learned early on to take a strong hint to back off when she was faced with the Kruger Death Glare. Mai had tried to develop her own weapon to hold off her own heya-gakkari, Rosalie Croder, but she just didn't have it in her. It was just as well, as Mai was better with taking concern than Natsuki was. Even so, she did feel bad about pushing Sara away, and so she came up with the "brilliant" idea of asking if Sara could try massaging her injury.
The coral grimaced at the results of her effort. "I'm sorry, Oneesama," she said. "I just really don't have much experience with massage, and practicing while you're injured is probably as likely to hurt you as help."
Natsuki sighed and patted Sara's knee. "I know, it's alright. Guess I'm just too used to having Shizuru around for when things like this happened."
"Your Oneesama..." Sara said. "She was a good masseuse then?"
Natsuki paused before answering, taking the moment to try to get her mind off of Shizuru and onto the current situation. She really didn't want to keep comparing Sara to Shizuru; they had a completely different relationship. It was just a bad decision to ask Sara to try to help her shoulder out, due partly to missing Shizuru so much right now and not thinking straight. But it really wasn't fair to force her worries onto her heya-gakkari as well. Sara was quite the capable Otome in her own right; she just didn't have Shizuru's skill set.
"Yeah, but don't worry about that," Natsuki said. "I can just get by with some good rest."
"Ah, well alright then," Sara said, taking this as her cue to leave and pushing herself off of Natsuki's bed. "Hope you feel better in the morning, then."
As the Coral bowed and left the room, Natsuki let herself fall back to her bed. Her thoughts drifted to Shizuru as she turned her head to the side, gazing at the large pillow she kept on her bed. Thoughts of Shizuru steadily filled her mind, pushing out her worries of the day, which faded with the sounds of Sara's footsteps in the hall.
Footsteps behind her, quite soft, but enough to alert Shizuru's ears. Not the footsteps of someone sneaking, though, simply someone who was rather light on their feet with a smooth stride. A girl then, someone who worked here most likely. A smile crossed Shizuru's face now; she knew what this had to be.
"Are you alright, Miss Viola?" a voice came from behind Shizuru. It was female, soft, and sweet, just as Shizuru had predicted. "You've been standing there for some time."
Shizuru turned around, giving a soft smile to the girl who'd come up behind her. She was a fair bit shorter than Shizuru, though not as young as her height might indicate, and she carried a large pillow and some blankets in her arms. Curiously, she wasn't wearing a maid's uniform, but instead what looked like exercise sweats. "Ara, I appreciate the concern," Shizuru said. "But I'm quite alright. It's nothing but a brief ache from my injuries today."
A brief look of concern flashed through the girl's eyes, but it was quickly covered by a mask of professionalism. "Alright then. I brought up the pillow and blankets you requested, so I hope they'll help you with your injuries tonight."
"Thank you," Shizuru said. Her hand found the doorknob behind her and she pushed it open, gesturing for the girl to follow her in so she could drop off the pillow and blankets for her. "It was quite kind of you to bring those up for me so quickly. I'm sorry for any trouble this may have caused you."
"Oh! No, not at all!" The girl said, giving Shizuru a nervous smile as she entered the room. She passed by Shizuru to drop off her load on the master bed. "I actually requested to be the one to come up with this for you."
"Is that so?" Shizuru said. For a moment, her curiosity at this revelation overwhelmed her desire to shoo the girl out of the room and collapse into the bed.
"Oh yes!" The girl gave a quick bow before Shizuru. "You see, my cousin was one of miners you saved today. I just had to thank you."
"Ah, I see. It was truly nothing," Shizuru said. "Anyone in my place would have done the same to help."
"Ohhh! So modest too! You truly deserve to be the Third Column!" Shizuru could see that the girl was starting to go into fangirl mode, though she was a fair bit more restrained than the girls she usually had to deal with at Garderobe. Perhaps her restraint came with maturity, or it could have been typical of girls from Artai. "But still, you must let me thank you!" The girl returned quickly to a poise of professionalism as she said this. "I work here as a masseuse, and I feel bad for all the injuries you must have suffered. I would really be honored if you'd let me help you work out some of those pains."
Shizuru's suspicions were immediately raised about the girl's intentions, but then just as quickly dropped. She could detect no ulterior motive there; this girl was simply thankful and wanted to show her thanks. It might have been a good way to tease Natsuki if she were around, but alas... "Thank you for the offer," Shizuru said, pushing away those worrying thoughts. "Perhaps I'll take you up on it tomorrow, but tonight I just need some rest."
The girl smiled pleasantly. "Alright then. I'll be here all weekend, so just ask for Rita. And please don't be afraid to ask for anything else you might need to make your stay here more pleasant." With a final bow, the girl was gone, leaving Shizuru in peace.
Shizuru hadn't predicted what a relief it would be to finally be left alone. As appreciative as Adriana was, and as sweet as Rita was, it felt like a colossal burden had been taken off of her shoulders when they were gone. She didn't have to keep her mask up anymore. She was free to just be herself, to just collapse. To curl up with the pillow Rita had brought her and pretend it was Natsuki.
Natsuki... Shizuru drifted over to the bed and started to trace her fingers along the pillow Rita had brought her. One of the many difficulties of being out on training like this was that she couldn't take any luggage of her own. She was reduced to simply biding with what she could carry in her pockets, so she kept it to the bare essentials. In her right pocket, she kept a wallet with identification, some cash, and credit and debit cards suitable for a wide variety of nations. In her left pocket was a framed picture of Natsuki, which she now took out to place on the bedside table.
Perhaps it was the sight of Natsuki's face in the picture. Perhaps it was her injuries finally getting to her after a long day. Perhaps it was simply the fact that Natsuki wasn't present in the room with her now, or even all of those reasons catching up to Shizuru. Whatever the reason was, Shizuru couldn't help a couple of tears slipping from her eyes.
She tried to turn away before Natsuki noticed the first tear slipping out, but it was hard for her to put anything past the girl when she wasn't in a teasing mood. With how experienced Natsuki was at seeing through her masks, catching a display like this was nothing for her. She'd probably even noticed it coming before Shizuru did.
As always, Natsuki was quick to act when Shizuru displayed real pain like this. She caught Shizuru's hand in a motion too quick to follow by eye. "Don't, Shizuru," she said. "I know how it feels... I'll miss you too, but... don't hide from me right before you leave."
"Natsuki..." Giving in and baring her soul to the girl, Shizuru turned her head and opened her eyes fully, gazing straight at Natsuki. "I... I love you. I just..." Shizuru took a moment to gather her senses and wiped away her tears. "I'm sorry. It's just hard. I've been with you almost constantly for the past week... It's just frightening to imagine not being able to see you at all for weeks on end."
Natsuki's eyes dropped down. "I know," she said softly. She stared at the floor for a good time, as if she was searching for just the right words. Eventually, her eyes closed and she let out a sigh. If it weren't for the reddening of her cheeks, Shizuru would have been worried by that display. "Alright, how 'bout this: You can take... my heart" – cue further reddening of Natsuki's cheeks and nervous shuffling of her feet – "...with you."
Shizuru stifled a whimper in the back of her throat, caused by this display of utter cuteness. "Natsuki?" she said instead, asking her girlfriend to explain what she meant. The thought of teasing Natsuki about this self-inflicted blush didn't even cross Shizuru's mind. She was just being so adorable... so sweet. It was the proper time to be sweet back, not mean, so Shizuru gently brought her hand up to Natsuki's cheek and brushed her fingers across it, finally trailing her index finger over and around her love's ear.
Natsuki couldn't help but let out a moan at this and shuffle closer to Shizuru, temporarily forgetting her place. "Zuru..." she muttered as she met her girlfriend and wrapped her in a hug. She nestled her head under Shizuru's chin at first, but she pulled it back after a minute and looked up. "Here, take this," she said, and she got up on her toes to plant a kiss on Shizuru's lips. "There, that's my heart. Wherever you find yourself, just give that to a pillow or something nearby, and that will be me for the night. You'll always have a Natsuki pillow to keep you company, even if not me in full."
"Natsuki..." This was just too much. It was too precious a gift from a girl who had such trouble with making romantic gestures. Had she been planning this, or did her instincts just push her through? It didn't really matter. Such gestures had to be rewarded. As Natsuki started to look away in embarrassment, Shizuru placed a finger under the girl's chin to hold her gaze, and then she brought her own face down to meet her love's.
A kiss, long and sweet, just how she always gave to Natsuki, and the deal was sealed. This would be her Natsuki pillow for the night, so Shizuru could hold a little piece of her girlfriend close to her as she slept. She didn't know what she would do without this gift of Natsuki's; she just found it impossible to get to sleep anymore without her arms wrapped around something. She'd been infected with her lover's need to cuddle, it seemed.
Giving another quick kiss to her pillow, Shizuru gently placed it on the bed while she picked up the blanket she'd requested from the hotel. This part wasn't quite so important, but it was still nice to have something soft to bury her face in, even if it couldn't be Natsuki's hair. It was all about the illusion though, on nights like these, and Shizuru would do whatever she could to convince herself that Natsuki was here to hold her and take her mind off of her wounds.
"Natsuki..." Shizuru traced her fingers up and down the pillow, imagining just how Natsuki would react if it were her lying there. Her eyes would drift closed at the touch, and she'd allow herself to melt into it, her body becoming more and more relaxed every time Shizuru's fingers passed over it. Maybe a sweet little moan, or an utterance of "Zuru," Natsuki's special cuddly nickname for her. But pretty soon though, her arms would be reaching up to pull Shizuru down with her.
Of course, Shizuru couldn't help but comply with such an invitation from a cute girl – assuming, of course, that the cute girl was Natsuki. She pulled the blankets back and slid into bed with her Natsuki, wrapping her arms around her girlfriend as she buried her head in her hair. "Mmm... Natsuki-suki..."
Her girlfriend moaned back and pressed her back against Shizuru's body. She was completely relaxed, and she felt so soft in Shizuru's arms. But even as cute and cuddly as she was right now, there was still one thing Shizuru could do to make her even cuddlier. She knew Natsuki's buttons perfectly by this point, and one of her favorites was the one guaranteed to bring her girlfriend into what Shizuru liked to call "puppy mode."
Gently nudging Natsuki to roll over – which didn't take much convincing, as it allowed Natsuki to wrap her arms around Shizuru – Shizuru brought her hand up to Natsuki's cheek. She gazed into her love's eyes for a moment before stroking her fingers back, just over Natsuki's ear. She was never sure exactly why this worked so well, perhaps because it was like a stroke one might give a puppy, or perhaps it balanced out the feeling of the hairpin on Natsuki's other ear – one of the girl's most treasured gifts – but it never failed to turn Natsuki into the most adorable, cuddly little puppy.
Natsuki actually knew quite well what Shizuru was intending whenever she stroked her that way. She wasn't sure quite how that had developed as Shizuru's signal, but she was fine with it. It certainly did make her feel quite puppy-like to be stroked like that. In response to this, she nuzzled forwards into Shizuru, murmuring contentedly. Shizuru responded by leaning her head down and planting a kiss on Natsuki's head. She kept her lips pressed up against her girlfriend as she murmured "Ara" into Natsuki.
Shizuru was always so sweet like that. She knew just what the sound of that word always does for Natsuki, and she used this knowledge well. She used it just as much during their cuddling time as Natsuki used her nicknames for Shizuru. Natsuki was never more at peace than when she could wrap her arms around Shizuru and murmur back and forth with her, as embarrassing as it might be to ever admit this to anyone else.
Breathing in and then out deeply, Natsuki pulled her Shizuru pillow closer to her body. Even without Shizuru here in person, this was still nice. Shizuru had given this particular pillow her blessing before leaving, and Natsuki could always feel something special in it. Late at night like this, it really felt like she could connect to Shizuru through this pillow.
"Love you, Zuru," she whispered. I hope you're thinking about me right now, too...
"Ara... love you, Natsuki," Shizuru whispered. I hope you're thinking about me right now, too...
Author's Note: Much love to all my readers. As always, if you want updates on my writing progress, you can watch my Twitter feed. The link's in my profile, or you can search for Leebot there.