Chapter 29: Elucidation

Hellooo readers! I'm back again with another update. Sure, it's an update that won't make sense unless you reread the last five or six chapters, but it's an update! (That's a hint. Go reread the last few chapters or I guarantee you will come out of reading this chapter with a confused expression on your face, which isn't good news for me.)

Thanks to my beta, Andrea, she's awesome.

This is a super long chapter (can you believe this and chapter 28 used to be one massive chapter? That's over 100 pages) so I recommend taking breaks so you don't go blind from staring at a computer screen for so long or anything.

That being said, please enjoy.

Forgive the reckless one

Who knows well the fear of eternal loss

For they will harm that which is most precious

To protect that which is most precious

Natsuki woke up the next morning feeling awful. Her muscles were sore from her endless workout and it didn't help that she had, once again, dreamt of her lieutenant. Unable to help herself, Natsuki started thinking about her dream, remembering something she wanted desperately to forget.

Shizuru had been standing there, in the middle of her classroom, watching Natsuki with eyes that spoke a thousand sorrows, even more regrets. Natsuki had remained unmoving, unsure of what to do at first. She knew a part of her was angry with Shizuru and so she should not run to the woman like she often did, but the overwhelming desire to embrace her, to hold her close, caused Natsuki to take a step into the classroom.

Shizuru's lips had twitched into a weak smile, but she hadn't moved.

Tick, tick, tick.

It took Natsuki a second to find where it was coming from, and soon realized the incessant noise, which grew louder and louder, was coming from an analog clock just above the whiteboard behind Shizuru's desk. Natsuki could've sworn it was a digital clock. No one used analog clocks these days. Hardly anyone could read them. Time was less complicated now.

Soon the ticking became so rhythmic, so deep, until it had completely transformed into a heartbeat thumping slowly yet powerfully in the classroom.

This scared Natsuki. Since when did time have a heartbeat?

As if reading her thoughts, Shizuru said, "It's strange isn't it? A heart eventually stops beating while time is endless. How could they be one?"

Natsuki then wondered, was this all a dream?

Shizuru fully turned her body to face Natsuki, and extended her arms out to her sides, as if she wanted a hug. Natsuki complied, almost tripping over herself in her haste to reach the Kyoto woman. It was when Natsuki had been safely wrapped in Shizuru's arms for a few seconds that she opened her eyes and stared at her teacher's desk.

An hourglass. Lonely and almost finished, it stood atop Shizuru's desk, right near the edge. Natsuki almost had the urge to push it more towards the center of the desk, so it didn't fall and crack.

What happens when it runs out? Natsuki wondered.

The last grain of sand seemed to tease Natsuki, swirling around and around until it finally fell and joined all the others at the bottom. The rhythmic heartbeat stopped.

And then Shizuru died in Natsuki's arms, or at least that's what it felt like.

Shizuru dropped as if gravity had been turned up a few notches, and Natsuki, who had a strong grip on the woman, caught her and gently lowered her to the ground.

Natsuki kissed her teacher's lips lightly. She had no idea why and she felt her control slipping. She lost herself and became a mere spectator, a phantom, watching herself from a nearby distance.

Shizuru appeared pallid. Her brow was sweaty and there were snowflakes in her hair. Where had those come from? As Natsuki shifted the dead woman in her arms, she noticed more snowflakes falling from her body, as if they had been outside in the snow rather than indoors. They were so much brighter in contrast with Shizuru's regal black uniform.

For some reason Natsuki didn't call out Shizuru's name. She found herself merely staring at the ruby red lips of her love, the dark eyelashes, the lifelessness of this body that had formerly been so full of life and love.

Shizuru's skin, pale but not yet as pale as Natsuki's, seemed to drain of color as time dragged on, and Natsuki suddenly knew Shizuru had been shot and had bled out in a matter of seconds. She had no idea how she knew this, but by now she knew she was dreaming and sometimes you just knew things.

Natsuki looked around and found that they were no longer in the classroom, but in the middle of a forest. The snow was beneath them, thick and cold, seeping into Shizuru's uniform and shifting under Natsuki's boot. The trees, barren of any leaves, reached high into the orange sky. There was no wind, no breeze, no sign of life other than a large black crow with pink eyes staring down at them. Snowflakes continued to fall, and when they touched the snowy ground they burst into splashes of crimson.

Trembling fingers unbuttoned the black uniform top, and when the jacket was pulled back Natsuki found the bullet hole in her love's chest, right through the heart. Natsuki lowered her lips to it and blew into it, as if to breathe life into her love.

Shizuru opened her eyes, but she wasn't Shizuru anymore, another thing Natsuki just knew, could feel even though the body lying in her arms hadn't visibly changed at all.

And that's when Natsuki had woken up. It had been a terrible dream after a terribly long night. She was shivering, and noticed half her body wrapped in her sheets and half her body exposed to the chilly air. A glance at the clock told her it was almost time to wake up, but she had at least thirty more minutes.

I won't be falling asleep again, she thought as she decided to get up early and get ready. Maybe she could actually get a good breakfast this morning. It would help with her training, and she had only brushed the surface of Kiyohime the night before, after Shizuru had left.

It was a slow process. She realized she needed help, and fast. She needed someone to read the book and instruct her while simultaneously observing her and making sure she was mimicking the images in the book, following the neatly scrawled instructions. Natsuki couldn't do both, she couldn't know what she was doing wrong when she wasn't even sure how to do it right.

Nabatame was out of the question. Nao could maybe work, but Natsuki didn't want to be seen with Nao because of what she had yet to clear up with Shizuru. She felt a stab of guilt, and slapped her own forehead a few times.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

It was even worse now, now that Shizuru had claimed to have never been unfaithful. Sure, Natsuki still wasn't sure of that and would need Shizuru to do some serious explaining of all the evidence she had, but she also knew deep down that Shizuru would never lie about something like that. Right?

So, if she's telling the truth, I'm the only one that's been unfaithful.

She decided never to drink again, though she knew blaming the alcohol wasn't really the honorable thing to do.

She slid out of bed and did her quick morning stretches. They weren't anything compared to her morning runs, which woke up both her mind and her body, but they got half the job done. Her mind would just take a little bit longer to wake up, that was all.

After putting on her uniform she headed out to take on the day.

She had taken an extra-long shower that morning, and even had time to fully dry her hair before leaving the bathrooms. Hardly anyone else was in there, which was surprising considering it was smack dab in the middle of each tent sector.

After grabbing breakfast, which was, for once, fresh and hot, Natsuki headed towards her classroom. She didn't know if Shizuru would be in there and frankly, she didn't care. Something had soothed her mind, and she felt like she was on some familiar road of recovery.

She and Shizuru were on speaking terms, at least, so that was good. Maybe they could make some light conversation, and maybe—if Natsuki were lucky—it wouldn't get awkward. Things with Shizuru hardly were awkward, she thought, and she smiled as she pushed back the large double doors and made her way towards the familiar classroom door.

Hearing voices, she paused and listened.

"Tomoe," Shizuru said, trying to keep her voice as stern as possible. Getting through to Garderobe's star student was always difficult for Shizuru. It was like trying to change your voice to let your dog know it had done something bad, and your dog hardly noticing at all. She only used Tomoe's first name because she knew the girl wouldn't respond to anything else. The girl wanted to be treated as above Shizuru's other students, and though it bothered Shizuru that she had to give in to silly whims, she did not have time to deal with Tomoe refusing to respond to her.

Her student had been very early to class that morning. It had been both a shock and a disappointment. Shizuru had been hoping to get some alone time to clear her head before another day. She also didn't like to drink her morning tea in anything other than silence.

Tomoe had sauntered over to her desk, placing her palms down on the smooth wooden surface and staring straight into Shizuru's eyes as she leaned closer.

Intimidation? Shizuru merely continued sipping her tea, pretending to find the papers on her desk interesting.

When Tomoe cleared her throat, Shizuru had looked up. "Yes?" She had asked sweetly, her eyes only briefly staying locked with Tomoe's before they returned to the papers on the desk.

This made Tomoe agitated, Shizuru could tell by the way her fingernails dug into the desk, by the way her body went rigid and by the way her jaw tightened.

"Shizuru, I have a request," the girl stated. She straightened and her lips formed a wicked smile when she knew she had Shizuru's interest.

A chill ran down Shizuru's spine, making her fidget a bit in her chair. What a strange, angry gaze. What had made this child so angry? It surely was not losing her father, though that certainly had made it worse. No, Tomoe had been angry even before that.

"What is your request, Private Marguerite? And may I request—no, demand—that you call me by my proper rank and title?"

Tomoe rolled her eyes. "Okay, Lieutenant." After looking her teacher up and down, Tomoe asked, "Will you teach me Kiyohime?"

The Kyoto-woman almost laughed. Yes, I will teach you a move that could potentially kill Natsuki. Why would I ever help you win? Why would I ever want to be with you, and not Natsuki?

Tomoe could see the amusement swirling in those dark eyes. So mocking, so cruel. Tomoe's face contorted with rage, marring her pretty face and making her appear more like the person Shizuru knew she really was.

"You're laughing at me."

Any humor left Shizuru's face and she stared into gray eyes with defiance and power. "I don't remember making a sound."

"I could see it… in you…" Tomoe murmured. She calmly walked around Shizuru's desk and, alarmed, Shizuru quickly stood up.

And when Tomoe had backed Shizuru up against her whiteboard, Shizuru had uttered her stern, "Tomoe." Though, as usual, the dog never listened.

"So you can call me by my first name but I can't call you by yours?" The teenaged girl was invading Shizuru's personal space, and Shizuru didn't like it at all.

"Yes, I can. Am I not your ranking officer?" Shizuru watched Tomoe with eyes full of daring. Did Tomoe want to make a mistake here? Because if she did, Shizuru would accept it. She would accept Tomoe's mistake and tell everyone about it and get Tomoe disqualified.

Tomoe seemed amused by this, and her gray eyes lit up as she inched closer still. "You are, yes." The student extended an arm and pretended to use it to lean against the whiteboard, though Shizuru knew it was the younger girl's way of trying to look dominant, of trying to make Shizuru feel trapped.

"Return to your seat."

"Class hasn't started yet."

"I am still your teacher."

"I hear you're dating Searrs again, is that true?"

Shizuru swallowed. "Rumor," she said quietly. "I am not, not like my personal life is any of your business."

The younger girl looked relieved. "Oh thank god. You know that woman's no good for you, though I wouldn't have argued against her being a more suitable choice than Kuga."

A small ball that had been forming inside Shizuru's chest had only grown hotter and larger as Tomoe continued talking, and now it felt as though it may burst. Jaw tightened, the Kyoto woman growled, "Leave Private Kuga out of this."

"Out of what? Your personal life? I'm pretty sure you put her in it the second you decided to fuck your student."

And that's when Shizuru smacked Tomoe. She smacked her student so hard that tears sprung from the child's eyes and fell to the ground in mere seconds. When Tomoe looked back up she was grinning, despite the red mark on her cheek, despite the tears still spilling down them, besides the pain that she felt.

Her teacher was so sexy when angry. Such emotion! So fierce! Those cheeks had turned a rosy red, those eyes were threatening and promised danger, and those delicate yet strong, slender hands had formed fists at her sides. Tomoe rushed to memorize the pose, to burn Shizuru's face, the fear and anger she saw there, into her memories. She touched me! She touched me!

Who else got to see Shizuru in such a way? The woman was so closed off, so secretive. All Tomoe wanted was a little bit of emotion once in a while, to glimpse a bit of that fire she knew dwelled within her teacher.

Shizuru instantly realized her mistake and, after forcing herself to release her fists, she reached forward for Tomoe's shoulder and hurriedly whispered, "Are you alright? I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to—ah!"

Tomoe, no longer smiling, had pushed herself into Shizuru, pressing Shizuru's body into the wall behind her.

Shizuru froze, feeling the hot breath on her neck from Tomoe's heavy breathing. She wanted to push Tomoe off, but that would just give in to the games, excite Tomoe even further. She had to show her who was boss. "If you do not get off of me in three seconds," Shizuru growled, "I will break every bone in your body."

There were several rules Tomoe was breaking right now, and Shizuru was sure as hell going to report her to Haruka later. That is, after she broke Tomoe's arm. She really did not want to do that, of course, for she was certain that any action she took against Tomoe would somehow land Natsuki in even more trouble with the Marguerites. Not to mention Natsuki would probably think she did it to stall the final match from happening and that wouldn't be good either.

However, Shizuru told herself she would get violent if Tomoe did not back off. If not for the fact that Natsuki would likely suffer for Shizuru harming Tomoe, Shizuru would have broken perhaps an arm and a leg by now.

Instead of being released, Tomoe just smiled at her. She looked like a hyena. "Wise up, Shizuru. Think about who I am, what I can do. I could've had Natsuki six feet underground by now if I wanted to. Don't you see that I'm just keeping her around for you? That's because I care about you."

Shizuru's blood ran cold. She didn't doubt Tomoe's family involvement with Jin, with harming Natsuki, but she also knew as long as she were protecting Natsuki, Natsuki would be fine.


A feeling that had been slowly destroying her ever since the day Natsuki signed up for the competition began to suffocate her. She hated this feeling. It usually only came at night, when she was so tired she couldn't prevent certain thoughts and fears from consuming her mind.

"Like I said, I could have her buried and forgotten in ten minutes flat. But I don't because I'm honorable, Shizuru. I want to keep her around, I want to prove to her and to you that I'm the best and I can't wait to humiliate her for all the things she's done to me. I'm not only going to win the final match, Shizuru, but I am going to make her suffer until all the blood inside her is soaking into the arena's sand." Tomoe released Shizuru and stepped back. "I'm telling you this because I can make it stop. I can make it all stop if you leave her and love me instead."

"That is not how love works," Shizuru whispered. She did her best to keep her voice from trembling. Why did she always feel so weak these days? So helpless? She felt as though everything that she used to be was long gone and she was merely a shell of her former self. Soon a strong wind would blow her to bits. She needed to gather herself and focus.

"Teach me everything you've taught her, so I can better understand her fighting style. Help me, be with me, and I'll consider letting her leave the arena alive. All I want Shizuru, is for you to give me your life... and in exchange I will let Natsuki keep hers."

What an awful bargain, Shizuru thought. She was willing to give her life for Natsuki's, of course, but… if she agreed to this, it would mean she had no faith in Natsuki, and that was utterly untrue. She believed Natsuki could beat Tomoe, and that terrified her more than Tomoe's threats ever could.

Though it was hard to form, Shizuru managed a coy smile. "If you touch me again, Marguerite, I'll inform Sergeant Suzushiro of your disobedience and you'll be gone from Garderobe for good before you even have a chance to make good on all those threats."

To say Tomoe was shocked would be an understatement. Her eyes were as wide as saucers and it was as if something that had been keeping her standing floated out of her. What was left of her was an exhausted looking shell of a human. Tomoe's nostrils flared and her eyes narrowed in anger. Shizuru was more unbreakable than she thought.

"You better hope she's received some top notch training, Shizuru, because I'm not leaving that arena without my hands covered in her blood," Tomoe snarled, not liking that she lost though she somewhat expected it. She had been hoping Shizuru would break and teach her the Kiyohime in exchange for sparing Natsuki's life, which Tomoe wouldn't have done anyways.

Tomoe had truly thought Shizuru would accept that deal. As much as she hated to admit it, she knew Shizuru cared deeply for Natsuki… deeply enough to do anything it took to keep her safe, to keep her alive, even if it meant training her enemy or even simply giving herself to her enemy. I guess I was wrong, Tomoe thought, and perhaps knowing that was better than being right.

The door opened just then, and in stepped Natsuki herself. She looked at Shizuru, then she looked at Tomoe, then she looked back at Shizuru. After another second, Natsuki decided to stare blankly at Tomoe. "Are you threatening people again?" Natsuki laughed and sauntered into the room. "You're so funny when you do that, acting like you're so tough." She walked past Tomoe and then sat atop Shizuru's desk like it was the most casual thing in the world.

Shizuru blinked.

Tomoe glared.

"Get the hell out of my teacher's face, or I will break yours," Natsuki said calmly as she pretended to examine her fingernails. She looked so nonchalant, so uninterested. Shizuru found it incredibly sexy when she did things like that, appearing so bold and in control when Shizuru could feel Natsuki's racing heartbeat, feel her own match it.

The star student was angry. She had said nothing when Natsuki continuously insulted her. In Shizuru's presence no less! She just wanted to leave.

Tomoe turned her attention to Shizuru, who seemed to perk up when it was apparent she was about to be addressed. "I'm requesting a day off to train for the final match," Tomoe said.

A grateful Shizuru nodded. "You may leave."

Natsuki almost considered asking for the same thing, but she didn't want to right after Tomoe had, it would look like she copied the other girl! Instead, she decided, she would ask to be excused halfway through the class.

Tomoe turned and left without another word.

"So. I obviously missed something big," Natsuki commented, hopping off of Shizuru's desk and walking over to her own. She had heard some of it, but had missed enough words here and there to not fully understand what Tomoe had been asking of Shizuru.

Shizuru's eyes widened at how casual and natural their conversation was being, but she didn't comment on it, afraid she'd ruin it. She swallowed and said, "She wanted me to teach her Kiyohime, to give her special training." Shizuru's eyes followed Natsuki as the girl made herself comfortable in her usual seat.

"Oh." When nothing was said after that, Natsuki went about her business, which was peering outside of the classroom window.

Shizuru slowly slid back down into her chair, though her predatory eyes never left their bored looking prey. Why don't you ask me if I'll train you? Do it, I'll say yes. "And another thing," Shizuru added, feeling relieved when Natsuki turned her attention and met Shizuru's gaze. "I think Jin—"

"Is trying to kill me?"

"No, she was being paid to make life difficult for you by the Marguerites."

"Is that supposed to be a surprise? I thought we knew that already."

Shizuru frowned. "I think something changed… I think Jin and Tomoe's family have ended things." She paused, unable to stand that steady gaze, and looked away. "But that doesn't mean it's over, she's getting it from elsewhere, being paid to do something else."

"Paid to do what?" Natsuki asked, her brow furrowing.

Shizuru sighed and rested her forehead in her hands. "I don't know. I could be completely wrong with this but I just have a feeling… something has changed with her deal with the Marguerites. Did you see Tomoe? She was so desperate for my help… something between her and Jin is wrong…" Shizuru's head was pounding. Maybe she was just imagining it, but Tomoe seemed worried about something, less confident, vulnerable. Jin too was acting different, though in the complete opposite way. Something was up.

"Maybe Jin is going to leave us alone," Natsuki offered with a shrug. "Jin's been really… well she's been kind of relaxed lately. She still wants to mess with us, but something tells me she's only backing off now because she has something else much worse planned." Something much worse than the Marguerites could fathom, something they wouldn't even consider.

"Maybe we're being pessimistic," Shizuru said with a small chuckle. She sent her student a mischievous grin. "Look at us, jumping to conclusions, all based on crazy ramblings of an incredibly disturbed student."

We. Us.

"Tomoe wouldn't threaten you like that if she were confident. She's bluffing now, trying to cut deals because without Jin's support she's worried. At least, that's what I'd like to think. It's all psychological bullshit."

"So if that's true, then why would Jin—"

The door opened, and Aoi Senoh walked in, soon accompanied by Chie and then Nao.

Shizuru and Natsuki exchanged one more look before they returned to their rightful roles of teacher and student.

Natsuki considered sticking around but she knew she had to train. She didn't have much time left. She had politely excused herself and left without looking back.

She could still see Shizuru in her mind, watching her with sorrow-filled eyes as she reluctantly gave Natsuki permission to leave but silently sent her a message… be careful. Natsuki could always read Shizuru's eyes, could always read Shizuru.

Now, in the training room she had been in the day before, she warmed up with some stretches.

That dream flashed through her mind again, and she froze mid-stretch.

It took her a few desperate seconds to get Shizuru's lifeless face out of her mind, and she started up again, this time stretching her calves.

Instead her mind drifted elsewhere, though it didn't make her feel any less afraid. She remembered how Nabatame had looked so broken, how destroyed. She could still hear Nabatame's cries of anguish, her screams of the ultimate loss ringing in her ears, hurting her heart.

Crap, Natsuki thought, trying once again to desperately clear her mind of such negative thoughts, but this time it did not work. Nabatame's blue eyes were in her mind, piercing, angry, dead in a way that only people who've lost their souls could look.

What if that happens to me? Natsuki paused her stretches, unable to continue. She stared blankly at a wall, completely lost in her thoughts. What if Shizuru dies? What if she is captured and tortured for information? What if she's murdered? What if she leaves me here alone? What… what then?

What would be the point in going on? Natsuki wondered. What a tragic, lonely existence that would be, one without the one person that made her heart beat in such a unique way, the only person who made her feel more alive than ever.

Alyssa no longer mattered. Only Shizuru mattered. Natsuki realized their time was limited, and the current issue that was going on between them paled in comparison to the significance of what was going to happen. Did she have time to spare worrying about Alyssa? Questioning Shizuru's faithfulness?

Was this entire thing just… ridiculous when it came to the bigger picture? The picture of Shizuru possibly ceasing to exist… Shizuru going where Natsuki could not follow?

Crippling fear grasped Natsuki's heart in its icy grip, squeezing the air from her lungs, forcing her knees to buckle beneath her, making her shiver from the coldness of her thoughts, of reality. She had never quite felt a fear like this. She could not, having never loved so passionately, so unending before. The possibility of having that ripped away from her was the scariest thing Natsuki had ever had to face. It had already become so much a part of her, interwoven itself into every fiber of her being… without it would she really be her anymore?

She would have begun to weep had she not heard footsteps just outside the room. She looked over her shoulder, half-expecting Shizuru to slide back the door and step in, a soothing smile on her face. Shizuru always knew when to come, always knew the right time, always knew how to make Natsuki smile and be happy.

Instead, Rei Nara walked in and then paused upon seeing Natsuki on the floor. She blinked and asked, "Are you alright?"

Natsuki, disappointed but glad for the distraction, cleared her throat and tried to shove her newfound terror deep inside her, where it had been lying dormant ever since she signed up for the competition. It worked a bit, but she could feel it hammering at her insides, wanting to be unleashed to wreak havoc on her emotions.

Fear was a terrible monster to behold. Natsuki wondered how to defeat it. It stemmed from her thoughts, after all.

"I—" Her voice sounded strange "I'm fine…" She cleared her throat and tried to stand, discreetly making sure the strength had come back to her legs. When she had straightened she looked the third year student up and down. "You're dressed… sporty."

Rei was giving her a strange look, as if she were suspicious, unconvinced of Natsuki's declaration of feeling fine. However, at the mention of her outfit she grinned, completely forgetting her short-lived concern over Natsuki's feelings. "I know, right?" She twirled. "I ordered it online, most expensive and fashionable exercise wear in the country."

Natsuki blinked and then looked Rei Nara up and down again. She certainly did have a way of looking fancy for someone who was about to go to the gym. The first year didn't understand the need to look good for the gym, but decided Rei was self-absorbed in a way Natsuki would never understand.

Tight yoga pants and a sport bra was really all that Natsuki saw on Rei. She had been commenting on the fact that she has only really ever seen Rei in her uniform, not the designer fashion the older girl had apparently decided to wear. Natsuki took another look.

Okay I know designer clothes, and what you're wearing is nothing special, Natsuki thought. Her mind floated to her secret collection of sexy, designer clothing in her armoire back at her tent and sighed at the lack of occasions there were to wear such things. Uniforms were mostly a 24/7 deal, though no one really paid attention to that rule and usually changed into regular clothes later at night when no teachers or bossy blonde sergeants were around.

Haruka didn't even mind that much, really. As long as Garderobe continued producing the best strategists, the best generals, she'd let her students dress any which way they pleased as long as they respected the more important rules, kept it appropriate, and she didn't see it.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" Rei asked, blinking when Natsuki seemed to snap out of a trance.

"Oh, sorry I was just spacing out." She paused, and then added, "What are you doing here anyways? How'd you know I'd be here?"

A coy smile formed on Rei's lips. "Well you told me yesterday that we would train again today, remember?"

Natsuki didn't, but she figured she must've been so out of it that she wasn't surprised if she had. "Right… so how did you know it would be this room? This exact time?"

"I decided to catch you just as your class ended so we could walk here together but you weren't there. I asked Lieutenant Fujino where you were and she said here."

"You asked…"

"Yeah," Rei shrugged and dropped her duffle bag to the matted floor beneath them. "I have no idea what I did to get on your teacher's bad side, Natsuki." The third year took a quick glance at her nails, made sure they were perfect, and then pulled a pocket mirror out of her bag and examined her makeup.

Natsuki stared at her. "Why do you say that?"

"She just gives me these looks. You'd think I was sleeping with her boyfriend or something. Or girlfriend. She's gay right?" Rei's hazel eyes lifted from her reflection to peer at the first year.

Natsuki shrugged. "Is she?"

Rei snapped the pocket mirror shut and flung it into her bag before bending forward, flipping her hair back, and then tying it in a high ponytail. "Yeah, totally." She placed her hands on her bare hips (her stretchy exercise pants were so low, Natsuki was sure had they not been so tight they would've fallen off).

The third year watched Natsuki curiously, as if she were examining her for clues. Should she say something else about the lieutenant to see how Natsuki would react? The first year was acting pretty nonchalant about the whole thing. Maybe they actually weren't that close, and Rei was just over thinking things.

Natsuki felt uncomfortable being stared at and she walked over to her duffle bag to get Shizuru's anatomy book. She cracked it open and scanned a page before tucking it under her shoulder and heading towards the equipment closet where she pulled out a dummy she stashed earlier.

Rei watched Natsuki with interest. What was with the book? And the dummy?

Natsuki placed this dummy standing up in the middle of the room, then stood in front of it. Once again, the book opened and her eyes scanned the page. Closing the book, she reached out and gently touched the dummy on the right side of its neck.

She frowned. Is she doing this right?

"What are you doing?" Rei asked, sauntering over and peering over Natsuki's shoulder. What she saw made her gasp in excitement. "Oooh I get to watch you learn Kiyohime? Can I help?"

Natsuki looked skeptical.

"Come on, the process has to go faster with some help!"

"I… guess so…" Natsuki hesitated, but eventually handed over the anatomy book to an eager Rei, whose hungry eyes devoured the pages. Natsuki was certain that, despite how excited the girl looked to be reading the book, there wasn't much comprehension going on in that pretty head of hers.

"The Lieutenant has some neat handwriting," the third year commented, looking up to see Natsuki's unhappy expression. "What's wrong?" Rei asked, alarmed.

Natsuki felt strange, like she had just told Rei Nara Shizuru's secret. In a way that book made Natsuki feel a connection to Shizuru, and giving it to Rei gave her a sick feeling in her stomach. "Do me a favor and don't read it," Natsuki said sternly. Rei merely blinked at her in surprise. "Just hold it up for me so I can see it."

Hazel eyes drained of their light but a smile formed on her face anyways. Forced. "So bossy. Sure thing." Nara paused, holding Natsuki's eye contact for a few seconds too long, and then turned the book around, holding it up to Natsuki's eye level so that the first year could focus on the images and the notes and mimic the diagrams without having to hold the book at the same time.

Natsuki ignored Rei's obvious irritation at being labeled 'book holder.' Instead she tried to home in on Shizuru's neat and concise notes.

Feet should be kept shoulder's length apart.

Natsuki spread out her feet, lightly switching off which side held her weight for a few seconds like a nimble boxer before steadying and reading on.

Balance is of the utmost importance.

Natsuki wondered, Am I balanced?

If you are not balanced, results can be fatal.

Again, Natsuki wondered. How could she be sure she was balanced? What did balanced mean?

Balance is not just physical. One must be emotionally and mentally balanced to reach the perfect posture.

Natsuki inwardly cringed. She certainly didn't fit the criteria. Without Shizuru she felt completely unbalanced. Lost. She felt an ache in an empty spot. It wasn't sharp but dull and consistent, which in some ways was worse.

Natsuki certainly knew longing well. It was a feeling she had known her entire life. She had longed for her mother's love, she had longed for her father's return to sanity, she had longed for freedom, she had longed for retribution, and now, more than ever, she longed for the guidance she had gotten so used to.

Yes, longing was an emotion Natsuki knew, perhaps better than she knew fear. She did not like feeling lonely, though there was something riveting about being on her own once again. She suddenly felt filled with a newfound determination. She certainly missed Shizuru, it would be crazy for her not to, but she had to focus on important matters. She had a competition to win, and only after that would she bother with her other issues.

This competition… this was about Natsuki, not Shizuru. Just Natsuki.

I have to remember that. If I can make it through this, on my own, I can make it through anything.

Natsuki made sure to place her fingers in the way Shizuru had taught her and then jabbed a few times at thin air. After getting a feel for it she jabbed at the red marks on the dummy's neck. Each time her fingers hit a different spot of the red circles, only sometimes hitting the center, and even then it was only with one hand. She was unbalanced, unfocused, incapable.

No, she thought, glaring at Shizuru's neat notes and then narrowing her eyes at the dummy before her. I can do this.

Rei Nara watched as Natsuki continued jabbing, her arms clearly getting tired and sloppier as time went on. Fascinated, Rei continued staring, her eyes focusing on Natsuki's eyes, that intense stare, that determined focus. Nara was afraid of speaking, lest she break such concentration. Natsuki Kuga knew what she wanted. She wanted to learn Kiyohime.

Unfortunately, Natsuki was growing increasingly frustrated with herself. That much was obvious. Her cheeks soon flushed red at the consistent efforts and her breathing became more and more ragged, though her eyes never left their target.

Like this… Natsuki would hear Shizuru's voice in her head, by her ear, whispering the directions in that sweet, caring tone. Guiding her fingers to their target.

Natsuki paused, took a deep breath, and then, as slowly as possible, formed a trail with her fingers through the air to their bright red targets. Once they hit their mark they couldn't stay steady, and instead of staying centered would slightly move off target.

The private tried again and again and again, soon enough she was letting out an angry cry each time she attempted the move.

Rei Nara looked on, mesmerized. This was why she wasn't a very good soldier, this was why Natsuki was her ticket to success. I was right, she thought, a sly smile forming on her face. Natsuki Kuga has that spark, that raw energy… that talent. She is going to be one of Japan's military heroes one day, and I'm going to be right there with her.

The third year was certain she had become just mere background to Natsuki, who didn't even glance in her direction. Not even once. This was new for Rei, who was very used to being stared at, very used to catching others sneaking peeks. It did wonders for her ego. But Natsuki Kuga… Natsuki had completely forgotten her existence, Rei was certain.

"Natsuki," Rei said gently, taking a step towards the panting and red-faced first year.

The girl turned her head and blinked, further making Rei think that Natsuki had completely forgotten the other girl was there. Natsuki wiped the sweat from her forehead and, after catching her breath and stretching her tiring arms, asked, "What's up?"

Rei got closer again, and this time she noticed Natsuki's tensing muscles, her body going rigid. Ah, I'm too close, Rei backed off but just a little, she liked that Natsuki was on edge the closer she got.

"You look exhausted," Rei purred. "You're working very hard."

The younger girl appeared suspicious then, her eyes narrowing slightly as she peered at Rei. "Look I know you must be bored just watching me practice this. I can do it by myself," Natsuki insisted, "It's fine if you have somewhere to be."

She's trying to get rid of me, Rei thought, her confidence quickly deflating. Was Kuga seriously not attracted to her? Then why did she get nervous when Rei drifted closer?

Or, Rei wondered, was there someone else?

Her thoughts quickly went to Fujino, who she always caught staring at Natsuki when her class was in the library. And then they always seemed to be exchanging quiet words whenever Rei approached them. Having private conversations, instantly stopping when anyone else approached, or even appearing angry when interrupted. Even when General Jin came to the library the other day looking for Natsuki, Lieutenant Fujino had appeared tense and… nervous. Wasn't the Lieutenant usually calm and always smiling? Now she seemed agitated, cold, and, when Natsuki was in potential trouble, worried.

But there's no way. There's no way. Was there? There was that rumor circulating, about Fujino sleeping with both Kuga and Marguerite. That would explain their rivalry, besides that other nonsense Tomoe is always going on about, about her father being murdered by Natsuki or something ridiculous like that.

Then there was the recent rumor that Shizuru was, once again, dating Colonel Alyssa Searrs of Fuuka Military Academy. Maybe, Rei thought, maybe that's why Shizuru kept trying to talk to Natsuki, and whenever Rei approached Natsuki would take the opportunity to escape from her teacher's presence. Natsuki didn't want to be around her… ex? Was that it? It wasn't as if Natsuki could display her emotions–in public—without getting both herself and Fujino in trouble.

Still, that was a long shot. It was worth looking into, Rei decided. After all, if romancing Natsuki wasn't working there was always blackmail, assuming Natsuki had anything worth being black mailed about. No, that's awful. Natsuki saved my life.

But Rei wasn't a good person. She created her own enemies, was attacked by monsters she herself had created. Otherwise Natsuki wouldn't have needed to save her in the first place.

She decided to test her theory.

"No, I quite enjoy watching you actually," the third year said, her voice sultry.

Natsuki appeared uncomfortable. She swallowed and quickly averted her gaze from Rei's. Rei thought this was adorable, and was glad her ticket to success was also incredibly attractive. It wouldn't have mattered if Natsuki was ugly, Rei still would've latched onto her in her efforts to 'network.' But it definitely made things easier especially considering Rei preferred the company of men.

"Oh, um…" Natsuki mumbled, still looking everywhere but at Rei, blatant body language for not interested.

"You know," The third year said, saving Natsuki from having to reply to her earlier comment, "I think your teacher is interested in me."

At that, Natsuki's eyes darted up. She suddenly appeared a lot less threatening than Rei had ever seen her, almost like she was dreading what was coming but didn't know how to stop it.

"Interested in you?" Natsuki repeated quietly, trying way too hard to remain composed. Natsuki was rather easy to read, Rei realized. The girl practically wore her emotions on her sleeve. She supposed it was because Natsuki didn't seem to show emotion on a regular basis, so when she did feel something, something stronger than usual, it became very obvious. Rei was beginning to think maybe the Lieutenant theory wasn't as far-fetched as she thought.

The third year nodded then shrugged, looking nonchalant about the whole thing. She was clearly a much better actress than Natsuki. "Maybe. " She hugged herself and shivered, "I keep thinking about the way she was looking at me." Rei tried to discreetly watch Natsuki's reactions closely. She didn't think the first year had ever paid such rapt attention to her before. Rei continued, "I don't know whether she was glaring or checking me out…" Rei trailed off and then gave a fake laugh, to show the idea was funny, typical. People stared at Rei all the time.

"She was just glaring," Natsuki stated, maybe too quickly.

Rei touched her pointer finger to her chin and looked towards the ceiling, a thoughtful expression on her face. "Yeah maybe. I also feel like she wanted to lie to me about where you were when I went to your classroom earlier."

Natsuki looked away, focusing instead on the dummy. "She doesn't want me being distracted."

"Or maybe she wanted me to stay there with her," Rei offered, giggling while pretending not to notice Natsuki's body go rigid.

Natsuki snapped her eyes back to the third year, now giving her a fierce glare.

Rei blinked and felt adrenaline getting ready to release into her bloodstream, as if she were staring into the feral eyes of a wild animal poised to attack. "Relax, I'm just kidding."

Natsuki seemed to notice the way she was reacting and she quickly reeled her emotions back in, appearing cool and collected yet again. She shrugged to show she didn't care. "I'm relaxed," she defended, "I just don't think Lieutenant Fujino would waste her time romancing students." She folded her arms over her chest and looked away in an attempt to look tough and even more detached. "She's too moral for that. That's something Colonel Lu would do, not the Lieutenant."

That amused Rei. She was now fairly certain Fujino had had some illicit relationship with her student. Natsuki certainly reacted strongly enough to the idea of her teacher wanting someone else. She didn't have to blackmail Natsuki, she could simply repair Natsuki's damaged heart and in doing so form a bond that would give her control over the first year. Rei would just replace whoever held Natsuki's heart. It would be that simple. Rei had done it before, after all.

She had, in fact, used that method on Nabatame. The only reason Nabatame even let Rei get near her was because Nabatame and Tanaka had had a quarrel and had temporarily broken up. That was when Rei swooped in to 'repair' Nabatame's heart. Nabatame was hurting, confused, and lonely. She had been suspicious at first, but let Rei get somewhat closer to her. Of course, Nabatame saw right through her after about a week, as did Tanaka who tranq'd Rei before Nabatame could rip her apart.

Okay so it hadn't worked then, but Rei thought Natsuki's case was different. The lieutenant, unlike Tanaka, wasn't anywhere nearby and likely had a new girlfriend occupying her time. Natsuki was also clearly hurting, much worse than Nabatame had been before, so she was more vulnerable, wasn't she? In any case, Rei was certain Natsuki wouldn't have given her the time of day if she weren't lonely on some level. No, there was no way Natsuki would even give her a second glance unless she was sorely lacking human companionship.

Rei moved forward and gently placed a comforting hand on Natsuki's shoulder. She felt the muscles tense under her palm and tried to offer the younger girl a soothing smile.

Natsuki glanced at the hand on her shoulder and once again met Rei's eyes. The third year saw defiance swirling in those green pools. Defiance and caution.

"You know I was looking through that anatomy book," Rei said, her eyelids lowering slightly as she tried to look as sexy as possible.

Natsuki didn't appear to be affected by Rei's classic 'smoky eyes' look. Instead her brow furrowed, as if surprised Rei had learnt anything from a book she had skimmed for ten seconds, something she had specifically told Rei not to do. She asked, "And?"

"There's some cool facts in there. Like, did you know it takes more than all the muscles in your face to smile?" Rei demonstrated, hoping she looked somewhat enticing.

"Useless information," Natsuki deadpanned. She was discreetly moving backwards, but Rei followed, slowly backing Natsuki up against one of the padded walls.

"Yeah but… do you know how many muscles it takes to kiss someone?" Rei smirked this time and lowered her head, "And I mean really kiss someone?"

"Look I don't have time for—" Natsuki quickly started only to be shut down.

"I don't actually know," Rei laughed and extended her arm, placing her palm flat against the wall by Natsuki's head, blocking off that escape route. She lowered her head to Natsuki's, and waited for the girl to make eye contact. "But I'm willing to find out."

"Rei," Natsuki said quietly, green eyes flickering up to pierce into hazel. "Back off." She said those words with utmost seriousness. She wasn't playing around. She had things to do.

Did she just…? Rei blinked. Rejected? Rejection? Again? No, not again. Rei needed her to be cooperative. "I'm just trying to help you Natsuki," Rei said, trying to sound concerned. "You're worrying me."

"Back off," Natsuki repeated. "I... I don't want to hurt you, but I will if you try anything."

Rei's nostrils flared and her eyes narrowed. "I've tried being a friend to you Natsuki. I offered to help you train, I helped you in the library, I sat by watching you practice, I held a damn book open for you and now you're threatening to hurt me?"

Natsuki's eyes narrowed too, becoming sharp like daggers. "You're getting," Natsuki swallowed, "very close to my personal bubble." In fact, Rei was already all up in the bubble, making Natsuki incredibly uncomfortable. She didn't do well with people forcing their presence on her. "It's not that I'm ungrateful…" She started.

"You certainly sound ungrateful," the third year peered at Natsuki with disappointment. "You can make it up to me, you know." Her lips formed a cold smile that sent shivers down Natsuki's spine. She knew what that smile meant. It reminded her of a man she was trying very hard to forget.

Natsuki hated this stupid feeling, like she was being cornered. It was like she had flipped a switch in Rei somehow, and Natsuki remembered how she had labeled Rei a monster the night she had saved her from Kato. Why, Natsuki wondered, had she ever agreed to befriend someone she already knew was no good? Because she wanted someone to talk to that didn't know her? Because she felt bad for leaving Rei in the dirt that night Nabatame had tranq'd her? Because Rei had apologized? As if that ever meant anything. Once a monster, always a monster, Natsuki should have remembered this.

Rei lifted her other arm and tried to gently caress Natsuki's cheek, except Natsuki turned her face to the side. "Look, you're not making this easy, Natsuki," Rei sighed, sounding frustrated. "In fact you're making this incredibly difficult."

Piercing green shot angrily to Rei's hazel. "You call this being friends? I don't know what you want from me and I don't know why you're pretending you're interested in me when we both know you're not." Natsuki took a deep breath and continued, "I don't have time to deal with you and I didn't even want you to come with me today." Natsuki stared into Rei's eyes, an indignant look in her own. "And I really don't want to hurt you, but you're cutting into my training time and you are in my way." Natsuki's eyes flashed dangerously. "Now I will tell you one more time, back off."

Rei frowned and leaned back a little bit, as if she were giving Natsuki more of her personal space back. "But I am interested in you. The only thing I want from you is you," she lied, looking hurt. She'd be lying if she said the look Natsuki was giving her didn't trigger a flight or fight response. She decided to hold her ground. If she was successful she could gain so much from Kuga, it was worth the risk of a beat down.

Natsuki frowned, not understanding why Rei was so incessant. As much as she flirted, Natsuki knew Rei was full of shit. "You're lying. You don't want me, you want something from me, and I don't have time for this." Natsuki moved to shove Rei. She was done being toyed with. Nabatame had been right about Rei, not like Natsuki had doubted her, but she had been willing to give Rei a chance. Why was she always trying to see the good in people she knew were bad?

And maybe, lately, she was seeing the bad in people she knew were good.

Rei moved quickly, pinning Natsuki back against the wall and then forcefully cupping Natsuki's cheek and bringing their faces closer together. "This is what I want," she whispered, before moving her lips closer.

"Don't," Natsuki growled. She wouldn't be forced into anything, certainly not this, certainly not again. Being forced into kisses, or anything of sexual nature, was something that Natsuki refused to ever have to experience again. The second Natsuki felt Rei on her lips she mentally apologized and kneed the third year in the stomach before shoving her backwards. "Are you stupid? What part of that seemed like a good idea?" She sighed. "I should have listened to Nabatame. She was right about you." Natsuki shook her head at the third year that was keeled over clutching at her stomach. "You thought you could make me want you? You truly have never had someone reject you before, have you?"

The third year looked up and glared at Natsuki, who was standing straight with her fists balled at her sides. "That hurt."

"It was supposed to," Natsuki replied, feeling more than a little annoyed. "Now I don't think I need to make it any more clear that whatever friendship you thought we had is now over, right?"

Rei finally straightened. She calmly fixed her hair, pulled a mirror out of her front chest pocket, checked her makeup, and then replaced the mirror. Angry hazel eyes finally met Natsuki's blazing emeralds. "I'll admit you're definitely the first to reject me. I suppose I wasn't expecting that nor used to it. I did what I thought would convince you." She didn't seem very apologetic, though she certainly looked like her ego was bruised, and most definitely her stomach actually was bruised from Natsuki's kick to the gut.

Natsuki stayed standing tall. The adrenaline in her veins wouldn't let her fists relax and she was still on high alert, as if she had just been attacked. In a way she had been. "That's no excuse. Get out of here before you embarrass yourself further."

Feeling vicious, Rei leaned closer, glaring hard into the one rejecting her. "Why? Afraid Lieutenant Fujino will catch us?"

Rei watched, feeling triumphant as the colored drained from Natsuki's face and the girl stared wide-eyed at her. "W-What are you talking about…?" Natsuki stammered, quickly trying to grasp at the last of her anger and dominance as it slid through her fingers like sand.

Rei smirked as she felt her words turn the tides. She said, "I won't tell anyone, your secret is safe with me, Natsuki." She could see the fear in Natsuki's eyes; practically hear the girl's heart beating fast in her chest. She had placed Natsuki in a tight spot. Either Natsuki could beat the crap out her like she had threatened and confirm that she had had a relationship with Fujino, or she could continue and deny it. Overreacting would be her downfall.

Natsuki seemed to control herself, though now she appeared thoughtful, as if wondering how Rei figured it out. "I still have no idea what you're talking about. Fujino is my teacher, that'd be wrong on so many levels."

Rei blinked. It took her a moment, but Natsuki seemed pretty convincing now. Had Rei been mistaken?

"Now if you don't mind…" Natsuki growled, beginning to push Rei's shoulder.

Rei allowed herself to be pushed to the side and frowned as Natsuki made her way to her duffle bag, pulled out her water bottle, and took a drink. Rei watched her in silence, wondering if she had been wrong about Natsuki and the Lieutenant. She had been so sure… the way Fujino reacted, the way Natsuki got defensive… it all seemed so suspicious.

Natsuki wiped at her mouth with the back of her hand then dropped the water bottle into her open bag. She blinked at Rei. "You're still here?" She truly didn't have time for this. She had no idea what Rei wanted. Maybe it was what Nabatame had said, popularity and something to put on a resume, someone to name-drop. It was probably why she was so incessant on being involved in Natsuki's learning of the Kiyohime.

Okay seducing her isn't going to work. Time for plan B, Rei thought.

"Date me," Rei said quite seriously. "Date me, tell people I'm your girlfriend, and I won't bother you anymore. I also won't tell anyone about—"

"Now that is no way to ask a girl out," Shizuru said from behind Rei. Both Natsuki and the third year turned to see Shizuru standing in the doorway, her eyes cold as steel and her lips unsmiling. She was leaning on the frame of the door, her crimson eyes steadily focused on the third year.

"I didn't hear you come in, Lieutenant," Rei said, clearly displeased with the new company. She glanced over her shoulder at Natsuki, whose eyes were already transfixed on the older woman that had just entered. Natsuki didn't look relieved or even happy to see the Lieutenant. Instead, she looked interested, thoughtful, almost like she was wondering how long Shizuru had been standing there.

Shizuru's lips curved into a deadly smile. "That was the point," she replied easily, gliding into the room and moving her gaze to Natsuki. "Private Kuga, is it really appropriate to be spending your remaining free time kissing girls rather than training?"

Natsuki blinked and then muttered, "You're right. Sorry." Christ, how long were you standing there, Shizuru? Couldn't have said something a little earlier? Would've been nice to spare me the awkwardness.

"Get back to work then," Lieutenant Fujino commanded, before setting her merciless eyes on the third year once again. "And you, stop distracting my student. She has a competition to train for."

Rei frowned. No way. They were just acting now. They were trying to trick her. "I know!" Rei snapped, her eyes desperate now. "I know you're just pretending right now, pretending that you're just her teacher…" Rei watched as Shizuru's eyes slid to the side where Natsuki was. "I won't tell," Rei promised, her voice a hushed whisper now, "I won't."

Shizuru stared at Rei in silence, but it felt like Rei was being scolded. Chills moved up and down her spine and every bone in her body wanted her to turn and run. The feeling only intensified when the first movement the Lieutenant gave in a few seconds was a slow and lethal smile.

"Though I don't exactly know what you're talking about, I can assure you that I have no other interest in Private Kuga than to make sure she survives this competition," Shizuru explained slowly, her face giving nothing away.

The third year realized Fujino was the complete opposite of Natsuki when it came to emotions. She either didn't have any or could completely shut them off. That, or she was very good at pretending she could turn them off.

"Maybe you have no interest in her now but don't tell me you didn't before!" Rei argued. "You look at her like she's your property, you both whisper—intimately—to each other in the library, and I hear a ton of rumors—!"

"I have recently learned," Shizuru interrupted, stepping closer towards the two students, "That you should not believe everything you hear… especially concerning the relationships of other people."

Natsuki cleared her throat and decided to speak up. "Look, this is ridiculous. Not only am I not dating my teacher," she made a face of disgust, "but I have a competition to train for and now you're both wasting my time."

Hazel eyes flickered back and forth between Fujino and Kuga. "This isn't over," Rei snapped, now determined to prove Fujino and Kuga had something going on. Maybe it wasn't a romantic fling as Rei had first suspected, but there was something. Rei set her glare on Shizuru. "I'm going to find out what you're doing with your students, Lieutenant."

Students. Plural. Natsuki inwardly sighed. She hated those goddamn rumors. Just because one of them was true didn't mean the others were!

Shizuru's nostrils flared as she tried to keep her calm. "My relationship with my students is strictly professional and I would appreciate it if you stopped implying that I have inappropriate relations with my subordinates." Although I do, Shizuru mentally added. Did, technically. And it was just one.

Ignoring her, Rei turned to Natsuki. "Consider the deal, Natsuki. I won't give this up until you agree to tell people we're dating. It can be for just a month, I don't care. It would help me out a lot and you can continue doing whatever with Fujino without anyone snooping. And I assure you, me and others will now be snooping."

Natsuki inwardly cringed. "Snoop all you want, you won't find anything worthwhile. You're crazy." Biggest bluff of my life. Please, face, don't fail me now.

Shizuru too was uncomfortable with this. She didn't know what Rei expected to find, but she really didn't need another Jin hanging around, especially not a popular one with buddies to help her out on her silly quest to dig up dirt. There was also the fact that Rei would likely spread even more rumors. She wasn't one to keep her big mouth shut. Well-liked people were often seen as trustworthy sources of information. Rei could be a problem in the near future.

"Your disrespectful attitude and outlandish accusations have earned you a demerit," Shizuru explained calmly. "I will inform Officer Rauschenberg of this and she will handle your misconduct in any way she sees fit. If you continue to linger on these premises I will have Private Kuga remove you by force. Is that understood?"

Hazel eyes widened and lips parted slightly in awe. "You can't do that!"

Natsuki smirked. "Actually, she can, and I'm more than willing…"

Shizuru gave her a stern look. "I will count to three. If you are not gone from my sight you will be very sorry. One… two…"

Rei shot Natsuki a glare then Shizuru and then stormed out of the room.

"Three…" Shizuru murmured the last number, watching as the door slid shut after Rei. "Well," Shizuru hummed. "That young woman is rather bold, isn't she?" Shizuru glanced at Natsuki, who appeared sheepish. "What was that about?"

Natsuki shrugged. "It's your fault. She could tell because you were glaring at her or something like that. She said you looked like you wanted to kill her, and that you didn't want to tell her where I was."

"I can't help but glare at those that want what is mine," Shizuru replied smoothly, taking a step closer to Natsuki. "And I did not want her distracting you while you train. The match is tomorrow and I know you have had a hard time without Nabatame to train you." Or me.

"I'm not yours," Natsuki clarified, her voice quiet.

"You were, and I lost you, and I'm sorry."

Natsuki swallowed and averted her gaze. Those dark rubies were always so piercing, yet so hypnotic. It was almost painful to stare into them but even worse to look away. "Shouldn't you be… attending Council business or something to prepare for tomorrow?" Natsuki asked. She lowered her voice and added, "And should we change the subject now? What if Rei is still around…?"

"She's not," Shizuru deadpanned. "I'd hear her."

True, Shizuru had bat-ears. "You didn't hear Jin come in that one time…" Natsuki pointed out, before remembering what exactly it was she and Shizuru had been doing just before Jin had walked in…

Seeing Natsuki's cheeks suddenly flush pink, Shizuru smirked. "Yes but I was… distracted at the time was I not?" And drugged, she mentally added.

Natsuki waved her arms all around with frustration. "Right, right," she waved Shizuru off some more and then folded her arms over her chest as she regained her composure. "So what brings you here?"

"My Natsuki-sense was tingling. I had a feeling some promiscuous third year was about to attack you and I couldn't let that happen…" She trailed off, a sculpted brow lifting and a smirk still in place.

Natsuki pouted. "Be serious, Shizuru!"

A frown appeared on Shizuru's lips, but only for a second. "Yes, well I wanted to see how your training was doing and I… I wanted to see you." Her frown deepened. "Though I am curious… did she actually get to kiss you?"

Natsuki blinked and then peered thoughtfully up at the ceiling, rubbing at her chin with her hand. "I can't really remember… I don't think so. I think I kneed her right before she could." She brought her gaze back down and shrugged. "It doesn't matter, does it? She wasn't doing it because she liked me or anything like that."

Her teacher nodded. "I know. Rei Nara wants the popularity and attention that comes from being your friend. You know," Shizuru passed Natsuki a warm smile, "Natsuki is getting quite popular… and not just with Garderobe students, with the higher-ups, and other teachers as well."

They were likely going to air the final match on national television, as well, like they had done every year before then. In a way, it was like the Olympics. Every year they would air the final match. The victor usually became a well-known Garderobe student to the rest of the country and not just to the higher-ups. It was how Jin Higa was so renowned.

Additionally the final match was also often a bloody and brutal display of Garderobe's power. The state of the world, the country, was fragile, and they wanted to show off their brave young soldiers, the young men and women they had trained to be cold-blooded and efficient killers. It was both a warning to those that want civil war and a call to arms to those that want to fight the rebels. You want to take on the government of Japan? The schoolgirls that are being trained for the military could take down grown men and genetically engineered war dogs. It would not be a wise decision to join the rebels.

Natsuki was popular with the higher-ups? Was it a good thing to have them interested in you or a bad thing?

Natsuki's eyes widened. "Really? Why?"

"You're a first year that managed to make it to the final round against Tomoe. Tomoe everyone was expecting to make it far but you plowed through each match displaying cunning, perseverance, strength, leadership, and great strategic skills." The teacher's eyes swirled with pride. "I am very proud to be your teacher, though I can't say I had much to do with this."

"You did," Natsuki murmured quietly. She wouldn't be half as good as she was without her private training sessions with Shizuru. "You, Nabatame, Tanaka, my other friends… you've all helped me." Hell, even Alyssa's training session drilled some knowledge into her. She didn't feel like mentioning Alyssa yet, however.

"I am glad…" Shizuru trailed off, wanting desperately to hold Natsuki to her and apologize over and over again for the damage she unintentionally caused. "Haruka tells me you're switching out of my class. Most unfortunate. We were going to be starting a unit on sniping soon."

Kuga herself had completely forgotten about that. She blinked once and then gave a slow nod. "Yeah… it seemed like the best idea." At the time. Now I am not so sure.

"Did it now…?" Shizuru murmured, her eyes becoming dull, as if she weren't really seeing Natsuki anymore. "You are still going to transfer into Anh's class then?"

Haruka hadn't told her whose class she'd be transferred into, but it made sense it would be Anh's considering she taught the sister class of Shizuru's. Mai was in Anh's class, so that would be good at least, Natsuki would have a friend.

"I… don't know…" Was it too late to cancel that request? Natsuki had made it when she wasn't thinking properly. At least, that's what she was telling herself. She could still remember the excitement of signing those papers, as if she were signing release forms that would free her from constant torment.

But many things had happened the last two days, after signing that form. Was she still so sure she wanted to run, arms flailing, from Shizuru? Perhaps there was more that could happen today that would change her mind. She prayed that was the case.

"Shizuru…" Natsuki started, feeling awkward. "Yesterday… you said you were never unfaithful to me…"

Shizuru Fujino's eyes stared straight into Natsuki's emeralds. "Natsuki," she said, "There is no one in this world I want, there is no one in this world I need, unless that person is you." She sighed when Natsuki seemed to be embarrassed by her words. "I am not trying to smooth-talk you, if that is what you are thinking. I am being sincere. I never wanted any of this to happen. Natsuki I want you to forgive me for all the harm I've caused you the last few days. I can assure you that I can explain my behavior though you'll have to explain yours, since I am… still rather confused by your doings as well."

Natsuki ran a hand through her dark hair and then flicked it over her shoulder. "I have to train," she said, feeling like being stubborn. She would make Shizuru work for her forgiveness, and she wouldn't complain if she truly wanted it. Besides, what was she talking about, Natsuki's doings? What had Natsuki done?

Oh right there was that Nao thing… Natsuki inwardly cringed. She wanted to explain that too. I'm not completely right in this situation either. I need to remember that.

Just because Shizuru said she hadn't cheated didn't mean Natsuki had to believe her. Natsuki had seen and overheard many things. Shizuru's actions were in a direct conflict with her words, as nice as they were to hear they were not very reassuring.

"Allow me to help you then," Shizuru said, not giving up. She began unbuttoning her top.

Natsuki swallowed. "W-What are you doing?"

Shizuru didn't look up but continued unbuttoning her uniform top. "I am not fighting you in this, it can be awfully tight." Shizuru tugged off her shirt revealing a tight black tank top underneath. She flung the jacket to the side and began stretching her arms, grunting softly when the bones cracked.

"I… I'll train by myself," Natsuki snapped, wanting to avert her eyes from Shizuru's stretching but not having the willpower. Oh my god. Why does she have to—?

Shizuru ignored her and began stretching her legs. When finished she stood up and offered a zombie-like Natsuki a wicked smile. "You may not be happy with me, Private, but I am certainly not pleased with you either."

The student quivered in her boots.

Shizuru got into her fighter's stance and bounced back and forth on her feet, nimble as a boxer. "Now I will not go easy on you. In fact I will defeat you—mercilessly—unless you can fend me off." She nodded at Natsuki's wrist. "I trust you listened to me and got your wrist checked out?"

Natsuki nodded dumbly and rubbed at her wrist. It was now only a little bit sore. A miracle, she was sure. "Okay…"

"Surely you are up for the challenge?" Shizuru looked dubious. It was infuriating.

Natsuki's expression darkened and she lowered her head. "I am," she replied, taking up her own fighter's stance and mimicking Shizuru's agile movements. "I'll try not to go too hard on you," she added, a cocky smile in place though she knew she was about to get her ass handed to her… and she was a little excited about that. It had been too long since she had sparred with Shizuru.

Shizuru threw her head back and laughed. "As if you could," she quipped. "On the count of three."

Natsuki quickly thought of a strategy. Charging headfirst into a battle with Shizuru was silly. She had tried that months ago, when Shizuru had purposefully provoked her in order to let her get out her aggressions through violence. Shizuru had simply tired her out.

I will do nothing at first. That will surprise her. Then I'll defend and only try and land a hit if I am absolutely certain I can land it. It won't win a battle but it's better than her simply throwing me onto my back and declaring the match is over.

"THREE!" Shizuru yelled, though she didn't move at all.

Natsuki inched closer but didn't immediately attack. She could see the surprise in Shizuru's eyes, but it didn't seem to have much of an impact. At least, not a long enough impact for Natsuki to make a move.

Shizuru took the initiative and closed the gap between them, throwing her first punch and smiling when Natsuki successfully dodged it and threw her own towards Shizuru's ribcage. The Kyoto woman easily dodged it, as dexterous as a dancer, and started her own assault of hits.

Natsuki blocked them all, though they were painful to receive. Shizuru had never actually tried to win a match before. Usually she would simply dodge Natsuki until she tired the girl out, or use shove or push methods to fling Natsuki onto her back. Punching and kicking? Shizuru, usually, never even had to do such things.

Natsuki liked it. It was almost like being acknowledged for once by her mentor, like finally being recognized as a worthy fighter who should be dealt with like any other opponent.

"You know it was building for a long time," Natsuki said between grunts. They had managed to spin around each other, switching sides completely. "You two would stare at each other… you were always—" Natsuki ducked and countered with an uppercut which Shizuru also dodged, "—always giving her light touches, or she would gently touch you…" Natsuki managed to ram her shoulder into her teacher, who staggered backwards but quickly recovered. "Like that time she was training me and you guys would share small looks… like I was this silly child who wouldn't understand… or that time I woke up and you fed her."

Shizuru grabbed Natsuki's shoulders and spun the girl around before wrapping her arm under Natsuki's neck and pulling. Natsuki choked and placed her own hands on the arm wrapped around her neck. Natsuki was sure there would never be a time in her life where Shizuru would be slowly choking her to death but then again, it wasn't exactly the most surprising thing that had happened that week.

"A look? A light touch?" Shizuru growled. Natsuki thought she sounded somewhat disappointed, which was a bit worse than angry. "How would you wish for me to interact with my closest friend I've known for years?" Shizuru continued, clearly unimpressed with Natsuki's observations of her and Alyssa's relationship. "Do you consider how I act around you? Do I touch you? I caress you. Do I look at you? I stare at you. I can assure you that anything you thought you saw between Alyssa and I is eclipsed by whatever she sees between me and you."

With that, Shizuru released Natsuki, and watched as the young woman fell forward and gasped for air. Shizuru cringed. Maybe she had been a little too rough with Natsuki. But the girl was trying her best to pummel Shizuru, and Shizuru wasn't going to go down without a fight. In fact she wasn't going to go down at all, certainly not battling her own student.

Natsuki recalled Nabatame saying something to that affect, once.

Natsuki kicked the ground with her feet a bit, moving the snow around with the tip of her boot. "Do you think they act…" Natsuki bit at her lip, "couply?"

Nabatame thought it over for a bit before shaking her head. "Nah. I mean. Sometimes. But they're best friends and ex-lovers… they're completely comfortable around each other. You're just not used to seeing Shizuru like that around other people."

Natsuki frowned. "What, like you are?"

Nabatame shrugged. "She's a lot like that when she's with you. Honestly, you guys are so goo-goo you make me and Tanaka look like we're just friends."

Natsuki frowned. Maybe Nabatame had been right.

"Oh my, have you caught your breath yet?" Shizuru asked, sounding cocky to Natsuki, who shot her teacher a glare in response. The Kyoto woman merely raised a slender brow. "Ready for round two?"

"Round one isn't over yet!" Natsuki barked before charging Shizuru, despite knowing from the beginning that that was an awful idea. Shizuru managed to stop Natsuki's overpowered charge by attacking with an overpowered charge of her own. It stopped Natsuki in her tracks and lessened the impact, which only hurt for a few seconds.

The two gripped each other, trying to tug the other to the ground. "Remember to retreat in angles," Shizuru managed to get out while still holding off Natsuki. "And don't let up on your opponent. Once you stop they have an opportunity to get the upper hand and unleash a flurry of punches that could leave you spent in the first few moments of a fight…"

Natsuki yelped as her grip on Shizuru hurt her wrist. She instantly let go, and Shizuru managed to tackle her to the ground. Shizuru pinned Natsuki's arms above her head, straddling her hips.

"Is it your wrist?" She asked quietly, panting lightly. Her dark eyes traveled from Natsuki's face to the hands pinned above her head. "Shall I check it out?"

Natsuki frowned up at her teacher, feeling weak and pathetic. "You let her take our room," Natsuki murmured, averting her gaze when Shizuru brought hers back down. "I came back to our room, the room I found and only let you in, and you had let her take out all the cool stuff and replace it with all her high-tech stylish crap. You let her in on our secret. It wasn't our room anymore, it was Alyssa's room."

Shizuru's brow furrowed at Natsuki and her eyes filled with guilt. "I… had no idea that is what it felt like to you," she admitted. She gently released Natsuki's pinned wrists and stood up. Natsuki stayed lying on the ground, looking incredibly sad. It broke Shizuru's heart. "I thought I was giving you a gift, Natsuki. I thought you'd enjoy our room more if we could actually relax in there—together—without all the dust and old furniture. I thought we could make it our room by making it more comfortable. Alyssa was the easiest way to accomplish this and I asked her to do so as a favor. After that night she was never to step foot in there again."

Although she had, they both realized, when she showed up to take Shizuru to 'lunch' or whatever her excuse had been right before Natsuki had attacked her.

She made me feel stupid about the looks and the touching, like I was overreacting and being jealous for no reason. And now she says that having Alyssa invade our room was not what she intended at all, but in fact something she was doing for the both of us. I… do believe her. Why is she so convincing… it frustrated Natsuki, who didn't want to give in so easily but found Shizuru's reasons so far for her behavior to be perfectly acceptable.

But Natsuki wasn't done. Not nearly, not even a little bit.

The first year slowly stood up and then stretched her sore muscles. Luckily she hadn't hurt her wrist again. She met Shizuru's eyes.

The Kyoto woman titled her head to the side. "Ready for round three? I must admit, I thought you'd be better at this…"

Natsuki glared at her teacher and scowled. "I told you we weren't finished with round one!"

Shizuru giggled, which infuriated Natsuki even more. "My darling Natsuki, round one was over long ago."

Ouch. My ego, Natsuki thought. She got back into her fighting stance and tried to get her body back to homeostasis. Finally she attacked Shizuru again, this time unleashing a merciless flurry of punches that Shizuru seemed to block effortlessly.

"You told me," Natsuki growled as she dodged a counter-attack and retreated slightly backwards, but at an angle like Shizuru had told her. "You told me Alyssa had a night class, and that she left. You both acted like you wouldn't see each other for at least another day, then I find out she's in your room confessing her love to you!" Natsuki slammed her fist into Shizuru's block. However, rather than Shizuru not seeming to be bothered at all, the Kyoto woman cringed and retreated backwards herself, looking somewhat shocked but also pleased.

"That is going to bruise," Shizuru murmured, though she began dancing around Natsuki again, wanting the girl to continue.

And Natsuki did. "You also made sure I wouldn't go into your room that night… you told me specifically that your room was off-limits and that I should not risk showing up!"

"But you did anyways…" Shizuru said, "I should have seen that coming. You were never one for following rules, were you?"

"Will you just come up with some excuse now? Explain to me why, for instance, she asked you if you were waiting for me just before confessing… did she want to make sure you had told me to not come around? And why… why did you put your hand on hers? You were smiling like…" Natsuki stopped circling around Shizuru and froze, her eyes finding the floor instead. "You were smiling at her like you… like when you look at me…" She trailed off and felt her chest ache with the memory. Natsuki gathered the courage to look Shizuru in the eyes again, and when she did she was speechless, for Shizuru had never looked so torn in her life.

Shizuru was staring hard at Natsuki, looking miserable and regrettable, a stark contrast to the cocky fighter moments ago. She clearly didn't like just standing there, she clearly wanted to move to Natsuki and soothe her, but she couldn't, and she looked like a chained bird. The pain I have caused this girl… I cannot bear it, so how could she?

Shizuru took a deep breath and began her explanation. "Alyssa did leave campusand she did teach her night class like I had said she would. She made an impromptu decision to confess her love to Anh. I had no idea she would be coming back until she knocked on my door. I was ready for bed by then, I had not been expecting her to show up. And of course I had told you my room was restricted, what we had done the night before was incredibly stupid and we won't be so lucky forever. I wanted us to keep a low profile, to make sure our relationship stayed secret, stayed safe."

"You're trying to tell me that Alyssa was practicing confessing her love to Anh?" Natsuki shook her head. "I'm not stupid, Shizuru. Who does that kind of thing these days? That's pathetic."

Shizuru smiled. "Alyssa has social issues. That, and she watches too many sappy movies."

Natsuki growled in frustration. There was no way…

Shizuru sighed and continued, "She asked me if I was waiting for you because when she walked in she saw that my window was left open, which is your usual entrance of choice. I told her no, I was hot so I kept the window open for some cool air. I wasn't lying."

"It was snowing," Natsuki deadpanned, remembering how she had cried while walking home and hating the way her tears practically froze before they could fall off her cheeks. "Don't you have air conditioning in your room?"

"Unfortunately my a/c broke." Shizuru lifted her arms up as if to say, 'what can you do? Bad things happen.' "As for me placing my hand on hers, I was merely trying to comfort her. Surely this entire situation must have looked completely different to you given the incredibly incorrect context you were watching it in. I don't know what to say about the smile… other than I can assure you whatever smile you think I was giving her is almost certainly reserved only for you."

Natsuki continued now, feeling angry that Shizuru had an answer to everything but also relieved. "She confessed! She pointed out that you loved your student, and how she loved Anh…"

"Anh loved her student once, remember? Kagami? And when Alyssa referred to our mutual friend, she was talking about me, how she had loved me once in that way." Shizuru paused and then added for emphasis, "A very long time ago."

Natsuki felt like she was being backed into a corner. "But… she said… you sulk about… that you worry about…"

"Anh never got over Kagami and, due to past events, is still very twisted over the whole situation. Anh may smile often but the woman is very dark and depressed more times than not. She simply does not show that side to others."

"You asked her to sleep over."

"A mere joke. I knew she'd go sleep over at Anh's that night."

"Then who were you afraid of catching you two?"

"Haruka. Alyssa's visitor's pass had expired and Haruka was getting angry about having the enemy colonel of Fuuka Academy on her campus so often."

It was all beginning to make logical sense to Natsuki, whose feelings of anger and frustration were quickly being replaced with relief and understanding. "And Haruka would be the one busy preparing for the match the next day too… not me?"

"Yes," Shizuru said, bowing her head slightly to show how happy she was that Natsuki seemed to believe her now.

Natsuki suddenly frowned at Shizuru, catching the older woman off guard. "But you looked so… seductive…in that really pretty nightgown…"

Shizuru arched a brow. "I was getting ready for bed and I happen to like that 'pretty' nightgown. It's silk and comfortable, I didn't think I'd have company otherwise I would've worn a more modest one." She paused and then gave Natsuki a playful wink. "I like to think I always look seductive. At least to you."

That much was true, though Natsuki wouldn't admit it. She pointed an accusing finger at Shizuru. "Be serious. You sounded seductive too!"

Shizuru felt bad about giggling at Natsuki's expressions but they were so raw and sincere that Shizuru couldn't help it. Natsuki was utterly adorable, with her complete (and unfortunate) misunderstanding of the entire situation. "You find me attractive, correct?" Natsuki gave a slow nod, as if she didn't see where this was going. "Does it make sense that you would often view me in such a way? Does it make sense that… to you… the sound of my voice is arousing?"

Natsuki's cheeks flushed red and she averted her gaze. She couldn't deny that at all. Shizuru's voice, even in her dreams, was enough to have Nao throwing a pillow at her in the middle of the night and yelling at her to, "Stop having perverted dreams and shut up!"

Could it be, Natsuki wondered, that after she had heard Alyssa's confession and thought it was meant for Shizuru, that everything that happened after that was one big mental clusterfuck? Was she viewing the world through 'Shizuru cheated on me' goggles that overanalyzed every little thing Shizuru did and said? It was possible, but she couldn't be sure.

Natsuki decided to try a more basic approach. "You love her." It wasn't a question.


Natsuki felt tears threaten to form. Shizuru loved Alyssa.


"You're… in love with her…" Natsuki tried instead, her tone quiet but more of a question than the previous statement.

"And yet I am here with you, trying to convince you that I am in love with you, and only you."Shizuru hated keeping her distance, especially when Natsuki looked so fragile like that, looked as if she would burst into tears any second. All because of me and my ignorance.

"You slept together."

"She left after she turned off the lights. You must have left before you heard the door open and close."

Natsuki tried to remember and could only recall hearing Alyssa's footsteps after turning off the lights. She had left right after that. "I just want you to be happy, Shizuru, so if you're making all this up for my sake—"

Shizuru's gaze softened. "You are my happiness," was all she said.

Hearing such words… words Natsuki had longed to hear from her teacher (though she wouldn't admit it) nearly broke her right there. Natsuki felt tears forming again but they weren't tears of sorrow or heartbreak. She would release them, but she had more to say, more Shizuru had to explain. Natsuki would not be swayed so easily.

When it became apparent Natsuki didn't know what to do with herself, Shizuru took the opportunity to take a few steps forward, slowly closing the gap between their bodies. Natsuki instantly stiffened as Shizuru drew nearer, but those green eyes were dead set on Shizuru's like some kind of challenge.

Shizuru reached out and gently placed her hand on Natsuki's shoulder. "Your shoulder is for support, Natsuki, try not to use it too much in tackles. You can seriously injure it, costing you your match." She then let her hand slide down the curve of her shoulder to her upper arm. "Your bicep, your upper arm… this part is where your strength must come from. You use this to hold."

"To push," Natsuki corrected.

Shizuru's lips curved down into a small frown. "If you so wish it, yes." Her hand slid further down. "Your forearm is for reaching." Natsuki eyed Shizuru warily, clearly unsure whether she wanted Shizuru's hand on her arm or not. Shizuru's hand then moved to Natsuki's fist, which she wrapped her slender fingers around.

She had to smile at that. Natsuki's hand was always wrapped up so tightly into a little angry ball. Shizuru often had to pry Natsuki's hand open and force her to relax her fingers. A fist wasn't a natural state for ones hand to be in, yet Natsuki's always were. Shizuru had thought she had cured that long ago, but perhaps Natsuki was falling back into old habits.

"And here… these…" Shizuru slowly moved Natsuki's fingers apart, gentle but forceful, until the girls now trembling fingers were no longer curled into fists. Shizuru hesitated, but made the decision to interlock her fingers with Natsuki's. It felt great, despite Natsuki tensing even further. "These are for feeling."

Natsuki stood there in a trance. The feeling of Shizuru touching her so delicately was so powerful she almost felt like she had been a zombie before. It was annoying, she thought, that what once frightened her made her feel so alive. Touch. Being able to feel someone without suffering that burning sensation. Shizuru had helped her get through that. Shizuru had never hurt her. Touching Shizuru had been her only form of physical contact for a while, even before she and Shizuru had confessed their feelings. It was always longed for, making Natsuki's heart throb for just… one… touch.

Finding she did not like how easily Shizuru could manipulate her body, Natsuki gently untangled her hand from the other woman's. Her mind too had problems when it came to Shizuru's close proximity and Natsuki found she had a hard time desperately trying to shake the haze from her head. Shizuru let her go easily enough, and gave her an apologetic smile before backing off and putting a good few feet between them.

"Shall we go again?" Shizuru asked quietly. She lifted a brow at the younger girl and offered a warm smile that made Natsuki's chest ache. "Or did you need longer to recover?" For trying to be provocative, Shizuru's words were spoken as softly as the most affectionate whisper.

Natsuki didn't even bother getting angry over Shizuru's taunts. Instead she began circling around her lieutenant again, trying to think of a good area to hit while also trying to remember what other 'evidence' her mind had archived for later use. Later being now.

"You weren't waiting for me after my match with Kazuya," Natsuki said, her green eyes flashing dangerously in the dimly lit room. "You weren't there, and neither was Alyssa. You're always there after my matches."

Shizuru didn't have time to respond, as Natsuki was already moving towards her, like a vicious dog that had just been unleashed on the meat that it had been teased with. The Kyoto woman nearly got knocked backwards with the force Natsuki was attacked her with and that truly surprised her. She retaliated with a kick that caught Natsuki's unguarded chest and sent the girl flying to the floor.

With Natsuki groaning, Shizuru stood over her and slowly shook her head. "If you leave yourself open like that you will end up on the ground." Natsuki opened her eyes and glared up at her teacher. Shizuru found it cute, of course, but she pretended that she found the glare unsettling and averted her gaze to boost Natsuki's fragile ego. "I lied to you," she admitted, her voice hardly above a whisper.

Natsuki's eyes widened and she lifted her upper body up with her elbows so she could better stare at Shizuru, who wouldn't meet her gaze. "What do you mean?" Ah-hah!

"I told you I wasn't there to congratulate you on your match because of Council business," Shizuru explained, slowly bringing her eyes to meet with Natsuki's. "When you won… you don't understand… what that means to me…"

To Natsuki's horror, Shizuru's fingers began trembling slightly. No one would have noticed, Natsuki was sure, but Natsuki's senses were very tuned in to Shizuru's every move, and so she was especially observant when it came to her teacher. "Shizuru…" Natsuki wanted to stand up but Shizuru's kick had left her a bit winded and she was afraid any sudden movements would scare Shizuru.

Scare Shizuru? Nothing scared Shizuru!


Shizuru, for the first time all day, seemed to want to distance herself from Natsuki all of a sudden and she took a few steps back. Natsuki was sure Shizuru didn't even notice, being so wrapped up in the whirlwind of her thoughts.

Finally wine-red eyes snapped to Natsuki's, "You do not know what you signed up for, do you? You're here worrying about Alyssa Searrs when you may very well not be alive after tomorrow."

Natsuki blinked. Was she being scolded now? "Um…"

Shizuru continued, looking more like Natsuki's teacher than her girlfriend. "You are facing Tomoe Marguerite tomorrow in the arena, Natsuki. Private First Class Tomoe Marguerite. And you couldn't just be a normal opponent to this girl, no, this girl already hates you and has declared her desire to humiliate you, to beat you, to kill you." Shizuru looked like a statue, as if she needed to focus completely on what she was saying and couldn't spare a thought to move her body.

Natsuki, on the other hand, managed to stand up.

"Tomoe doesn't scare me," Natsuki said, folding her arms over her chest and appearing cocky. She'd be lying if she said she truly believed her own words. Tomoe was scary.

"She scares me," Shizuru whispered, looking desperate for Natsuki to understand her. "I am afraid of what she's going to do to you. I'm afraid that…" Shizuru froze as a tear managed to break through her defenses and roll down her cheek. She swallowed the baseball in her throat and wiped the tear from her chin. "Natsuki, if I lose you tomorrow…"

Natsuki's heart was beating much too fast, as if she had just nearly dodged something and was still recovering from the adrenaline rush. Seeing Shizuru cry, even if it was one tear, was a terrifying experience. "Shizuru," Natsuki said, alarmed. "Have some faith in me."

"I have the utmost faith in you Natsuki," Shizuru said, looking shocked that Natsuki had even accused her of not 'having faith.' "I am always thinking of you Natsuki. I believe in you, I believe you have the ability, the power, the will to beat Tomoe… but that doesn't change the fact that the girl is set on killing you." Shizuru couldn't bear to look at Natsuki anymore, for all she saw was a walking corpse, and she stared at the floor instead. "And if you do win, you will be killed regardless. There is a very good chance I will not survive this mission, Natsuki, and neither will the person cursed with coming with me."

"If that were true, then why wouldn't they send someone expendable? Why would they send a student that beat out all the other students in the competition just to die? Is that not a waste?"

"The mission is not useless, I am to gather plenty of information and I am very capable of doing so. My mission will be successful, but I will likely not come back. To ensure the mission is a success, they will entrust a bodyguard, you, to make sure I don't fail. You would be the one best suited for keeping me alive while I conduct the mission, as proven with a victory in the arena. With a talented guard, the mission is more likely to be successful. It would be hard to focus on my mission if I'm constantly looking over my back, and if my bodyguard dies I will be more likely to be aware of an approaching danger and be able to make it back." Shizuru paused and then added, "I have a 22 percent chance of survival. All things considered, that isnot the worst percentage I've ever heard."

The news was a crushing blow. Natsuki hadn't even known that they gave chance of survival percentages! That's… crazy! And incredibly inaccurate. It had to be. It didn't factor in the lengths Natsuki would go to keep Shizuru alive.

Natsuki straightened and swallowed hard, trying not to let off just how terrified she really was. "I won't let you go then." Twenty-two percent wasn't even close to good enough. Natsuki would only accept 100 percent.

Shizuru's lips formed a smile void of all humor. "Natsuki I have sworn an oath to protect my country, my people. I cannot run away from my duties." Indeed, if she refused not only would her family be held as traitors but she would be put to death for treason. Garderobe was a safe haven, in some ways. The rest of the world, the rest of the country, was a scary place. Many of the students had no idea yet just how safe they were inside their Garderobe bubble.

Natsuki found breathing had gotten rather hard. "This is why you've been so… different."

It all made sense. Shizuru hadn't been sleeping because she was worried for Natsuki. She hadn't been thinking clearly because all her mind has been thinking about was the mission, the competition, Natsuki being in danger.

"I have been in a state of perpetual chaos," Shizuru agreed with a small nod. "I think I've gone quite crazy. I haven't truly slept for weeks now… I only get a few hours. You haven't noticed, you sleep like a baby wrapped in my arms." Shizuru smiled. "It is alright, because I have spent many of my nights holding you."

"Shizuru stop!" Natsuki cried out, fearing her own eyes would fill with tears. "You have to get a hold of yourself." Because if you lose it, I will lose it, and I can't handle that now!

"I just want to protect you, Natsuki," Shizuru whispered, once again looking exhausted. "Which is why I haven't been… myself lately. I've been looking for loopholes, a way out, a way to ensure your safety." Shizuru let out a long sigh. "I've been… busy… very, very busy." Shizuru raked her hand through her long hair and looked as if she were struggling to stay awake.

Always looking out for me. Always guiding me. Always protecting me. Shizuru, why?

But Natsuki knew why.

I've been gone from you. You've spent nights alone, staying up at night with fear growing in you. We may not have much time left and we've been spending it apart, Natsuki's eyes widened, her heart hammering in her chest. She wanted Shizuru to explain the rest now, because even if Shizuru did love Alyssa, even if Shizuru preferred the other woman, Natsuki would spend the rest of her time around Shizuru regardless. Natsuki realized it didn't matter who Shizuru 'chose.' If Shizuru wanted Natsuki, great, Natsuki would still try her hardest to win the competition and go along with Shizuru to protect her. If Shizuru wanted Alyssa… well… nothing changed. Natsuki would still try and win the competition and protect Shizuru from everything.

"I wish I had noticed…" Natsuki murmured.

Shizuru shook her head. "Nonsense. I am a master at keeping my emotions hidden, Natsuki. There was no way of you knowing unless I told you, which I just did. Besides, you needed to focus on the competition, not my fears. Practice is more important." Shizuru seemed to fit her mask back in place. "Now I would like to see some push-ups."

Natsuki blinked. "How many?" She asked quietly, feeling claustrophobic in a room that usually felt so big. She was soon acutely aware of the smell of sweat, the feel of the soft mat below her feet.

"Thirty?" Shizuru asked, unsure of where Natsuki's training was.

"I'll give you forty," Natsuki said eagerly, dropping to the floor and beginning her push-ups.

Shizuru let out a shaky breath and regained control of herself, reeling in her emotions and inwardly scolding herself for letting Natsuki see her in such a way. She felt so vulnerable, so weak-minded. How could she have been so blind as to Natsuki's pain? Pain she was causing? Yes, Shizuru had been hardly paying attention to anything around her in her desperate search for a way out, but was that really any excuse for the way she's treated Natsuki? It was unintentional, wasn't it?

Maybe, Shizuru wondered, she had subconsciously drove Natsuki away, hoping this would somehow deter her from risking her life in the competition. But that made no sense either. Shizuru knew Natsuki would compete with or without Shizuru. Then again, love was irrational.

"Fifteen…" Natsuki said under her breath, going down again and coming back up, "Sixteen…"

"When you won the match against Kazuya… when you first told me you and him had worked out a deal…"

Natsuki continued her push-ups, but she was listening attentively. Shizuru's face flashed through her mind, and she remembered how uneasy Shizuru had looked at hearing the news that Kazuya was going to throw the match. She had also looked relieved and surprised, but there had been another emotion there that Natsuki had seen but ignored. It had been deep-seated fear of what that would mean, Natsuki realized.

"That meant," Shizuru continued, her voice growing quiet, "that you would move onto the final match. That meant you would go against Tomoe. That meant… that meant you now were so much farther from my protection." Shizuru sighed. Natsuki continued her push-ups, though she had stopped counting under her breath. "When you won it was as if all my fears were about to be realized. It all became so real, the things that kept me up at night. I panicked, Natsuki, and I ran before anyone could see me. Losing control of my emotions in front of everyone would give me away. Alyssa saw me and followed to make sure I was all right. By the time Rauschenberg and Anh caught up with us I had recovered."

"Forty," Natsuki breathed out, allowing her arms to collapse. She lay on the floor, panting and sweating. "But I saw you… you two," Natsuki looked up from the floor, her eyes accusing, "I saw you just outside the teacher's office building… you almost kissed, you and Alyssa. You would have kissed if Anh hadn't distracted you." Natsuki sat up, deciding she would sit down until she got her breathing under control again. Her arms were burning.

Shizuru looked incredibly confused. "What are you…? Oh." She blinked in realization, and suddenly appeared apologetic. "Oh, Natsuki… Kannin na, but that is not what happened. Haruka has been discussing a plan to get through the follow-up trial with General Mazuka, a plan that would make Jin look foolish. Alyssa and I would look like we were dating so Jin would fail during the trial… I told her I wouldn't do it until I had spoken to you first. That day, Alyssa was trying to distract me from you winning the competition. We began talking about Haruka's plan and it came up that we might have to kiss to be convincing. I remembered how Nao had faked a kiss between you and her the day of the festival, under the kissing-dart in my classroom, remember?"

Natsuki looked suspicious, but gave a slow nod. "Yeah…"

"Alyssa wanted to try it, and so I explained how it was done, with the thumb covering the lips of the other person. We were about to try it out but Anh had gotten the wrong idea and stopped us."

"The wrong idea?"

"That night, after Alyssa had practiced her confession on me, Alyssa had spent the night with Anh. The next day Anh acted like nothing had even happened between them, which is why Alyssa is… upset right now. They are not happy with each other, last I checked. But I suspect Anh was jealous when she thought me and Alyssa were going to kiss, or perhaps she was looking out for you." Shizuru sighed and said, "Regardless of Anh's reasons for interrupting us, you must know I never wanted to kiss Alyssa and was not going to, not for real."

"And you just had to test out the fake kiss in public?" A likely story!

Shizuru frowned. "Alyssa's idea. I was too out of it to care, really. It was a welcome distraction from your fate. Our fate."

"When I entered your offices both of you ignored me. Alyssa even seemed guilty." Natsuki stood up and stretched out her arms until she heard a satisfying pop. She continued stretching her limbs.

"I was not ignoring you, Natsuki," Shizuru said calmly. At least, she hadn't been ignoring Natsuki on purpose. "Trust me, I hardly noticed you even entering… when I say I was distracted I mean my mind was a million miles away and had been ever since that morning, when you told me of your dream about Akio turning into me…" Shizuru shot Natsuki a very unhappy look, showing she didn't appreciate Natsuki sharing that dream with her. "You winning the competition made it worse."

Natsuki realized how much of a low blow that had been. In essence she had compared Shizuru to the man that had sexually, physically, and mentally abused her. Natsuki may have been hurt by Shizuru but she did not warrant that parallel. There really was none. No wonder Shizuru had been acting so off that day, other than her panicking over the competition, of course. If Shizuru told Natsuki that she reminded her of, say, Jin, Natsuki would've been distant and weird about it the rest of the day too. Hell, she'd be pissed.

"As for why Alyssa looked nervous… she thought I was going to reveal Haruka's plan to you at that moment. We didn't know how you would react. I decided not to share the plan with you, however, when it became even clearer that you were having difficulties with… something."

Natsuki remembered how cold and distant she had been to Shizuru that entire day, how completely caught off guard Shizuru had been to Natsuki's strange behavior. It was no wonder why Shizuru didn't tell her anything; Natsuki had been completely unreceptive, aloof.

"It wasn't the right time with you so emotional over something and so unwilling to tell me about it, whatever it was. I had no idea you were hurting over me at the time. I didn't realize I was doing anything wrong, and so the thought never crossed my mind. Like I said, I was living life half-dreaming, through clouded eyes. I saw nothing but death." Shizuru gestured for Natsuki to do some shadow boxing, which Natsuki promptly started. "Alyssa wanted me to tell you Haruka's plan, she just didn't want to be around in case you became angry. She knew I'd be able to deal with that alone."

"I thought she looked guilty because of what you two were… apparently not doing behind my back…" Natsuki admitted. "Shizuru, if you noticed something was bothering me…"

Shizuru shook her head. "It was hardly noticing anything Natsuki. It was more like I noticed you were becoming distant and cold towards me, but I… well a part of me thought it had to do with Nao. And that morning you had acted so strangely, dismissing me, not even looking at me… I couldn't handle you being like that and the Council at the same time." Shizuru's red gaze found the ceiling. "I ignored your pain, Natsuki. I ignored it because I thought it might be a way to save you or because I was already so stressed out about your future that I couldn't focus any attention on the present." Shizuru slowly met Natsuki's green eyes. The girl had stopped boxing the air and had instead simply stood staring at Shizuru. "I am not as strong as you think I am."

Natsuki remembered Shizuru begging her to tell her what was wrong and suddenly felt guilty. Shizuru really was completely clueless when Natsuki had acted cold to her. She remembered how she suddenly realized that she had left Shizuru without receiving one single kiss and how shocked she had been. But like Shizuru said, maybe she just picked up on Natsuki's bad mood and was being cautious around her. It's not like I was being subtle about it, Natsuki realized, having moved away when Shizuru reached out to her and not even offering the women any emotion. Shizuru's coldness hadn't been because of Alyssa, it had been a direct result of Natsuki's own coldness. Shizuru simply had had no idea what was acceptable anymore.

I can't be blamed, Natsuki decided, I had no idea Shizuru was so stressed out, and even so, she hurt me and I… I had every right to act the way I did.

"But then the next day… when I was waiting for you in our room… you acted so cold, not like the day before, but like you were angry, completely dismissing me." At least the first day Shizuru had looked like she wanted to touch Natsuki. The day they had their worst confrontation was when Shizuru's entire personality had changed, like she had turned into this ice-cold version of herself that had no feelings for Natsuki other than dislike.

"This was after the festival, correct?" Natsuki nodded. Shizuru sighed and continued her explanation, "Earlier that day I had heard rumors… rumors that I shouldn't have believed. I should have asked you about them first, before losing my head. But, Natsuki, I had already lost my head days ago and the way you had acted the other day seemed to… make sense with the rumor."

Natsuki's brow furrowed. "What rumor?" It was certainly weird that Shizuru would so easily buy into a mere rumor, especially considering there were rumors about them all the time. But, Natsuki realized, I had been acting weird for two days and Shizuru had no idea why since she, apparently, didn't even realize she had been doing anything wrong. Which means, whatever the rumor is, Shizuru seemed to think it would explain the way I was acting towards her.

"As I said, I was not in the right state of mind," Shizuru continued, "I have heard rumors like this before, but this time… the timing was all wrong. I was already not thinking clearly and I couldn't stop thinking about the way you had acted the day before, so distant and… you wouldn't let me touch you…" Shizuru's eyes were filled with raw emotion now. Finally, Natsuki thought, she looked alive. "I heard it from Anh, who I trust deeply. I had heard students earlier that morning talking about you and… and Nao." Shizuru quickly sent Natsuki an apologetic look, "I know I said I would forget about it and trust me, I believe you, I had faith in us but I also know that Nao is… different to you, and I am only human, Natsuki. Irrational as my feelings were, I could never make my jealousy quite go away. Not completely. The thought was always there, nestled in the back of my mind, and I had done a good job ignoring it until you became distant and dismissive. Then they became mixed together. Maybe, I thought, maybe you had truly decided you wanted to be with Nao and were now trying to act in a way that would send me the message. I had to know if the rumors were true so I went to Anh…"

"How would Anh…?"

Shizuru looked away, blushing slightly. "I… told Anh to keep an eye on you and make sure you were safe the night of the festival," Shizuru admitted, looking ashamed. "I didn't want to risk you getting hurt right before an important match," she quickly explained, frowning when Natsuki didn't look pleased.

"So you had her spy on me," she deadpanned.

Shizuru shook her head. "It was protection. It was to make sure you, who is too young to consider the consequences of your actions, did not make any mistakes that would jeopardize your spot in the competition."

"So which is it? Are you trying to get me to stop competing or trying to help me win?" Natsuki asked, frustrated. As for 'too young to consider the consequences of your actions'… did dating her teacher fall into that category?

"Both," Shizuru replied, knowing how confusing that was and offering a rueful smile. She didn't quite understand it herself, but was doing her best to explain the inner workings of her tortured mind.

The room was becoming much too hot for them to bear. All this talking, and there were no windows in the room. Was this room always so small? It felt small.

Natsuki growled and sat on the floor, throwing up her arms as if she'd given up. "Whatever."

"Anh didn't answer me," Shizuru murmured, her gaze dropping to the floor when Natsuki's snapped up to meet hers. "But the look in her eyes… like she pitied me." Shizuru finally met Natsuki's eyes, but she was glaring, piercing. "Anh's eyes told me all I needed to know, that she had seen you and Nao… do something. I couldn't breathe when I realized this. I felt like all the air had been sucked out of the universe. With just a look I was winded." Shizuru licked her dried lips and wished she had brought something to drink. It was stuffy and her throat was parched. "That was it, Natsuki. I snapped under all that pressure. The mission, the competition, the way you had been acting, like you didn't care, and then hearing that you had been caught with Nao…" Shizuru could hardly get Nao's name out.

Natsuki stood up again and unwittingly took a step forward, her hand outstretched towards Shizuru. She quickly caught herself and retreated back to her former spot. She had never seen Shizuru so torn up before. It was as if even Shizuru didn't know how to act, didn't remember how to wear her mask so convincingly. Natsuki recalled their confrontation in the secret room, when she showed up for a Kiyohime lesson with Nabatame by her side. Shizuru had been late. Hadn't been able to look at her. Had been… had heard about Natsuki and Nao the night before and was trying to control herself and her emotions.

"Why did you ask me to forgive you? Why did you say 'I cannot do this'?" Natsuki didn't want to apologize for what had happened with Nao just yet, not before she was sure.

"I was sorry for mistreating you, for making you hate me, for doing what I was doing to you. I couldn't stop myself. I could not do this… I could not watch us fall apart. I did not mean to say that out loud, honestly."

"I asked you if you loved me."

"There is only ever one answer to that question."

"You said yes."

"It is the only truth. I would be lying if I had said anything else."

"You didn't sound like you meant it," Natsuki said, suddenly feeling like a small child again. She tried not to shrink into herself, but she felt her defenses begin to crumble and a softball formed in her throat.

Shizuru stared at the girl she had hurt so badly. She could see the torment Natsuki had gone through. The pain was etched in her eyes, the way they looked at Shizuru in that, 'how could you do that to me?' way. Shizuru's heart beat fast in her chest. "I was dead that day, Natsuki. The only two things I could feel were fear and love. Only one of those things is constant. I didn't ask you why you asked me such a question, why you were so incessant that my answer was a lie. I did not ask you because I did not want to know why. I didn't want you to tell me that you didn't feel the same, or that you felt what I felt for you for Nao instead. I didn't want you to leave me. I was afraid to speak, Natsuki. If I said anything wrong, I could lose you, if I said anything at all, you might respond, and I might lose you. It was a risk I was not willing to take. I am a coward."

Natsuki's muscles began to ache. She had paused her workout for too long and the lactic acid was beginning to wreak havoc. She groaned and rubbed at her own arms. "You're not a coward, Shizuru," Natsuki murmured, staring at the floor and wishing she had something else to say that wasn't so… lame.

"I am so a coward." Shizuru insisted. "I began to think, why must she ask if I love her? Perhaps I haven't made it clear, perhaps I've done something to make her think otherwise, and that would mean Natsuki's suffering is my entire fault. I hated myself."

Natsuki didn't know how to respond to any of this. She thought everything Shizuru was saying was ridiculous. Everything Shizuru had felt was crazy. Why would Natsuki ever leave her? Why would Natsuki ever love anyone more than she loved Shizuru?

But Natsuki had to keep asking questions. She had to keep going or else she'd always wonder, and if she always wondered then there would never be any return to what they had been before. "Alyssa showed up," Natsuki said, feeling brave enough to make eye contact. "You tried to get me to leave once she got there."

"I had spoken to her on the phone just before meeting up with you, which is why I was late. She could tell I was… in a poor state of mind, and knew it was best if she… came to get me. What was going on between us was destroying me Natsuki. I could not… I could not bear being around you, knowing I was causing you so much pain, drawing you farther and farther away from me. I wanted to be alone. I wanted time to think. I was angry and I knew the way I was responding to you was cruel in my state. I wanted to have that conversation with you when I was… better. Like now."

"I tackled her," Natsuki said thoughtfully, as if recalling a fond memory. "You cried out her name, as if you were afraid I'd hurt her."

Shizuru laughed, but it wasn't her usual laugh. It was bitter, humorless. "I was warning her not to hurt you, actually," Shizuru said when she no longer found Natsuki's backward interpretation funny. "I tried to stop you because I knew Alyssa, despite knowing better, would let her ego get in the way and put you in your place. She doesn't handle disobedience well."

Natsuki swallowed hard. Shizuru had an answer for everything so far. Everything Natsuki's mind had archived as 'evidence!' was now filed under the never mind section. A lot of what Shizuru said still confused Natsuki, like how Shizuru was unintentionally causing Natsuki pain, but when she was angry she was being cruel on purpose. But when it came to Alyssa… Natsuki seemed to have missed the mark on that one. But wait, Natsuki thought, remembering something, hadn't Shizuru confessed already?

"I was angry," Natsuki said, standing. "I didn't mean the things I said to you… I didn't mean to hurt you."

"You told me you hated me," Shizuru said, suddenly appearing intimidating and somewhat scary. "You accused me of messing around with other girls behind your back. This is, if you recall, what I had been hearing about you doing all morning." Shizuru let out another bitter laugh. "I think that is what hurt me the most. That revelation. I was hurting over you for so long and you thought me unfaithful. I had sacrificed so much for you, was risking so much for you, and you accuse me of such a thing I had promised you I would never do. For the first time since meeting you I was truly angry with you, Natsuki. That's why everything that happened afterwards was a mess… because a part of me wanted to lash back at you for that, even if I hated myself and blamed myself for even making you think I would do such a thing."

Natsuki did shrink back into herself this time, as if her mind was yelling 'retreat!' She stepped backwards and had to fight every fiber in her being to keep eye contact with Shizuru. She felt that, if she looked away, she would be dismissing everything Shizuru was saying, running away from what she knew was the truth.

And Natsuki did feel guilty about that. She had since the beginning. Shizuru had done so much for her and here Natsuki was, accusing her of being unfaithful. Then again, Natsuki had made sure to gather as much evidence as possible. She had given Shizuru the benefit of the doubt more times than not. She had tried as hard as she could to believe in Shizuru's love.

But hadn't Shizuru said that Natsuki was supposed to confront her if she were ever angry about something? She had said, 'Natsuki, if you are ever angry with me let me know. You are allowed to be angry with me, it does not matter what we've done for each other, you are allowed to feel anger towards me. You are not indebted for me because I love you.' Maybe those weren't the exact words, Natsuki couldn't remember, but she had said something along those lines the first time they fought over Nao and, who had it been? Oh right, Jin and Tomoe.

The confession. Shizuru had confessed to sleeping with Alyssa. That's the only reason Natsuki had been so certain!

"When I mentioned Alyssa you looked like something had suddenly made sense, like you finally realized I knew what you were doing. Then you said it was a mistake, and acted like you regretted it, whatever it was." Natsuki's eyes narrowed, her green eyes piercing straight through Shizuru.

"Yes," Shizuru nodded, "what did you think I was talking about?" She tilted her head to the side, eyes searching.

"I thought you meant sleeping with Alyssa was a mistake…" Natsuki trailed off, brow furrowing slightly. What else would she have meant? "I thought you were confirming what I had overheard that night…"

"The only person I would ever dream of being that intimate with will always be you," Shizuru admitted. She didn't really want to say something so open like that to Natsuki, knowing Natsuki was still young in certain ways, but now was no time for hiding the truth and beating around the bush. It had to be honesty. Shizuru did, however, enjoy the blush spreading like wildfire across Natsuki's cheeks.

"So then…" Natsuki's frown deepened as did her confusion. "What 'mistake' were you talking about?"

Shizuru's lips curved downwards into a small glower. Shizuru inwardly sighed, she supposed she ought to tell Natsuki before this entire thing got even more muddled and out of control. "I had been feeling guilty over something that happened a few days ago. Natsuki I have never been unfaithful to you. My heart is yours and yours alone to do with what you wish. But one night, as I was sleeping, a woman climbed through my window and walked to my bedside and I assumed she was you. I kissed her, without thinking, and it turned out to be Alyssa." Shizuru tried to say this as calmly as possible, but she couldn't help wincing when Natsuki's clear green eyes looked like they were on the verge of tears again.

"You kissed Alyssa…?" She hated picturing that, and had to squeeze her eyes shut to get the image out of her head. That backfired, as it was all she saw behind her eyelids. She opened them again and glared at Shizuru. She mentally tried to calm herself down. On the brightside, at least she only kissed Alyssa and didn't sleep with her like I originally thought. That was certainly a soothing thought. Somewhat.

"Please understand, Natsuki, I thought she was you," Shizuru said quietly, but desperately. She took a step closer and then froze when Natsuki took a step back.

"How long ago did that happen?" Natsuki demanded to know.

"A few days," Shizuru admitted, appearing guilty once again. "I can't remember. It was the night after you defeated Seiji Yamamoto in your first one-on-one match."

Natsuki's eyes narrowed. "And you decide to tell me this now?" It wasn't that long ago but it certainly felt like forever ago, as much had happened since then. Shizuru had had plenty of opportunities to tell her something like that.

"I didn't want to distract you," Shizuru replied, knowing her excuse was weak. "I also… well I know you found out that Alyssa and I used to date when we were students. You were upset with me for not telling you, but you also didn't seem to care much back then. That was around the time Jin had taken that picture of us. I think it was the day after. I… Alyssa and I agreed after it happened that we would pretend it didn't happen. I thought that… that if I also pretended that it wouldn't hurt anyone. And I was right, seeing as how you didn't even know about it until now." Shizuru paused and then added, "I was going to tell you, Natsuki. I almost did a few times but… it never seemed like an appropriate time."

"You were going to?" Natsuki asked, doubtful. She was still glowering about the fact that they had kissed, but also inwardly cheering at the fact that they didn't have sex. Kissing Alyssa was preferable to sleeping with Alyssa. Especially since it was accidental kissing… right?

"Eventually," Shizuru tried lamely. "It happened long enough ago that I honestly think I must have just forgotten. Especially with everything else going on… an accidental kiss that was, quite honestly, meant for you just didn't seem important in the grand scheme of things. How was I to bring that up anyway? And I wouldn't want you acting awkward around Alyssa, since you seemed to get along with her very well, and might be training with her again soon."

Natsuki groaned and rubbed her face with her hands. "You've got to be kidding me…" She then looked up and grumbled, "Alyssa… Alyssa is… do you wish I were more like her? Be honest." Who wouldn't want that? Alyssa seemed so perfect all the time it was damned annoying.

Shizuru eyes narrowed. "Never. I would not change a thing about you, Natsuki. I would never prefer her to you. She is my friend and nothing more. You are my everything, Natsuki, do not be so quick to forget that."

Natsuki's cheeks tinged red, and she hated herself for it. This wasn't over yet. "You didn't even chase after me when I left."

Shizuru raised a brow at that. "Would you have chased after you? I know you, Natsuki, and if I had chased after you, not only would we be making a scene in public but also you would not have believed me anyway. That entire episode was one of the worst moments of my life, I was glad to have it end even if it meant you walking away. You also… well…" Shizuru looked to the side. "You got violent…"

Natsuki's body froze as she remembered slapping her teacher hard across the face. "I… I'm really sorry about that, Shizuru… I should have never… I will never forgive myself."

Natsuki remembered Shizuru having a similar mark before, except Jin had been the one that had given it to her. Jin had shown up in Shizuru's room the first night Shizuru and Natsuki confessed and Natsuki had escaped before Jin had seen her. However, she soon learned the next day that a drunken Jin had gotten into a fight with Shizuru soon afterwards. It was the mark on Shizuru's cheek that had spurred Anh and Rauschenberg to take anti-Jin measures.

I'm no better than Jin, slapping Shizuru like that. Natsuki felt like crap again.

"It was nothing," Shizuru replied, offering Natsuki a small and gentle smile. "I've been hit much worse before." Natsuki began to argue but Shizuru simply shook her head and said, "Your slap woke me up and it was well deserved. I truly needed it to snap out of my foggy existence." After all, it wasn't like Natsuki had given Shizuru a roundhouse kick to the head. A slap seemed reasonable.

Natsuki didn't look too convinced. "You know… you asked me who I loved…" Natsuki trailed off, waiting for Shizuru to remember. That had been a particularly hurtful moment, being asked by the one woman she had ever loved who she herself loved, as if she didn't make it obvious by all the pain she was going through. She knew the other woman did when her eyes widened and she quickly began to apologize.

"I should've never—"

"No, you were right. The way I was acting… I was not acting like someone in love, I was acting like a child."

"People in love often act childish," Shizuru pointed out. "I was acting silly as well. I believed rumors before asking you. I didn't come to you when I needed reassurance. I got angry at you when you accused me, I didn't even try and ask you what was wrong when something very obviously was. I told myself I'd never hurt you and I ended up doing that anyway." Shizuru idly wondered if, in a way, that was Natsuki saying she was in love with Shizuru. It wasn't the direct version she was hoping for, however.

"I let things get to me," Natsuki admitted with a remorseful sigh. "I saw things that weren't there, I drew my own stupid conclusions from hardly any evidence and I didn't go to you either when I needed the reassurance. If you are at fault then so am I."

Shizuru didn't like Natsuki blaming herself. Shizuru fully accepted all blame. This entire mess was her fault, her careless mistake. She vowed to never be so foolish again. "I was blinded by fear," she concluded. Fear is what led her to her half-alive state. Too much was going on in her life that terrified her, she couldn't handle it all effectively, no matter how hard she tried. She was… normally good at such things but… when Natsuki had entered her life so many things altered. A fearless person now had something she feared for. "Your conclusions were hardly stupid," she added as an afterthought. "I probably would have come to the same ones if it had been me witnessing all of this."

Natsuki, to Shizuru's surprise, smirked. "You were mean to me during class."

Shizuru quirked a brow. "You were late."

The Kyoto woman, watching Natsuki's small smirk, staring into those lively eyes… she realized that she was in a much different point in her life than Natsuki. Shizuru had felt love and knew how to love. She can tell people she loves them and risk getting hurt. Natsuki, on the other hand, is lacking a lot of this knowledge. She had never been in love before Shizuru and it was likely she still wasn't even sure if she was in love with Shizuru. Natsuki is young, younger than Shizuru, and Shizuru failed to remember that. All Shizuru had wanted to hear Natsuki say the last few days is "I love you," and when those words never came Shizuru just sunk lower. Selfish. She was selfish and wrong.

"You know the other day, at the library? Jin mentioned you and Alyssa dating again and you said you didn't discuss private relationships. Why didn't you just say you weren't dating Alyssa if you weren't?" Natsuki asked this in a way that was less 'interrogation' and more out of curiosity, as if she had just remembered it.

Shizuru smiled. "I was not going to talk of such things in front of my class, let alone to Jin of all people. Besides, she knew nothing was going on between me and Alyssa, she simply said that to get a rise out of you, not me."

Natsuki had to admit, that made sense. Jin had been the one to make Natsuki even angrier, that time in the locker room. She knew even then that Jin was just intentionally making things worse, because Jin could pick up on people's emotions and play with them. She sighed. This entire thing was a mess. A confusing mess.

"So to be clear… you never slept with Alyssa."

"Well not never…"

"I meant recently!" Natsuki snapped, fists clenched at her sides.

"I wouldn't dream of it."

That's more like it. "And you… were confused by my behavior because you didn't realize I had seen… something that I… misinterpreted…?"

"Yes," Shizuru nodded, "I had no idea why you were acting so cold and distant. The irrational part of me thought it might have to do with Nao…" She paused and added, "As you know, Nao's small crush on you and your special relationship with her has always bothered me a bit… you acting strangely, for some reason, made me think the two were connected, which in turn made the rest of that day awkward for me, which was more hurtful for you. Usually I have a rational side to tell me that that kind of thing is ridiculous but with the way I've been… it wasn't there. The next day I heard rumors that confirmed my paranoid thoughts concerning you and her…" Shizuru looked away, as if afraid to meet Natsuki's eyes. "And if a part of me realized that you were hurting, I think I subconsciously must have ignored it in the hopes that it would cause you to not bother risking your life in the arena. Nabatame told me you were fighting for me and I thought that if you didn't have me…"

Natsuki let out a deep sigh. She had known this part was coming. "That was stupid," she said after a moment. "A part of me is and always will be fighting for you, Shizuru, nothing you say can stop that." Natsuki looked around the workout room and realized just how awkward a place this was to have this kind of conversation. Then again, at least they were having this conversation, finally. "You were right to realize that no matter what, I would keep competing. You know me well enough to know that."

Shizuru locked Natsuki's eyes with her own and gave a small nod. "I shouldn't have had Alyssa over so much. I feel very secure with her, she always has things under control when I can't handle them, but I should not have had her around. She is my ex, yes, and I thought it would be okay. I don't know how I could've been so naïve, to think you would be the same with her as you were before you found out we had been together." Shizuru shook her head. "That was reckless and insensitive. I act overly… comfortable with her. I know this. I know it must have looked… bad. I don't think I realize how I act around her because I'm so used to it. I didn't want to lean on you when you were so busy so I leaned on her instead and it showed. You have every right to be angry with me, and I should not have had Alyssa around so much. I should have been thinking more of your feelings rather than ignoring them for my own personal comfort."

"She's your best friend," Natsuki murmured. Though she had to admit, she agreed. Shizuru had dated Alyssa and did act overly comfortable with her, even flirty. There was no reason to have Alyssa over so much recently, especially not with Natsuki just finding out about their past together. It also irked Natsuki that Shizuru had, in a way, sacrificed Natsuki's feelings in order to feel a comfort Natsuki apparently couldn't provide, but Alyssa could. "But… you're right… you do act differently around her… it's… well I had noticed it a lot. I lost my concentration during the match against Yuechi, that girl was the poisonous blades, because I saw you two getting cozy on one of the screens…"

Shizuru blinked. She remembered watching as Natsuki just stood where she was, even after the match had started, for a good minute before seemingly snapping out of it and finally participating. She would also occasionally look upwards and then freeze, which is when Yuechi got the upper hand. Even then? Shizuru wondered. It has bothered you that long? Shizuru realized how the insecurities must've been building in Natsuki ever since finding out about Alyssa. Alyssa must seem magnificent to Natsuki. Shizuru knew as well that Natsuki, before finding out about Alyssa and Shizuru, had in some ways looked up to Alyssa as a role model. How does one compete with their role model? You strive to be like your role model and pray you are lucky enough one day to be even half as good as they are. Is that how Natsuki felt?

"I am so sorry, I wish I hadn't blinded myself like a fool but…" Shizuru buried her face in her hands and rubbed, as if trying to wipe the emotion from her face so she could concentrate. She met Natsuki's eyes again. "You didn't deserve the way I treated you, unintentional and misguided as it was." Natsuki was much too good for her. She didn't deserve to be loved by such a magnificent person, didn't deserve the forgiveness she knew Natsuki was trying to give her.

How could Shizuru have forgotten something like this? Natsuki had a hard life, a difficult past. Shizuru should've been more careful, she should've paid attention. Natsuki fears abandonment because so many have abandoned her. Natsuki fears loving because nearly everyone she loved has left her or has hurt her in horrible ways. If Shizuru had been thinking clearly, if she had not been so lost in her own thoughts, then she would have remembered these details. Anyone would have been upset at the way Shizuru acted with Alyssa, but it must be ten times worse for someone like Natsuki, who had been through so much already and, in a way, was witnessing her fears materializing where she had almost been convinced that they never would, where Shizuru had been so close to convincing her that she'd never have to fear loss again.

But if Shizuru had fully convinced her, if Shizuru had made Natsuki believe her words about loving her forever, protecting her, never leaving her, then Natsuki would have no problems telling Shizuru, out loud, that she loved her. Except Shizuru had never truly convinced Natsuki, had she? And so she had yet to hear such words of love from Natsuki, because Natsuki was still afraid, still afraid of loved ones leaving her.

I am such a mess, and here Natsuki is, trying her best to understand me. She's even trying to defend some of my foolish actions when we both know my excuses are flimsy at best.

"Natsuki is so noble," Shizuru stated. "When I picture you in my head, you are a knight."

Natsuki blinked at that. "Really? What are you then, the princess?" She asked the last part jokingly, trying to lighten the mood. The intensity of the conversation was wearing her out, making her head hurt. She was still incredibly confused, but at least they were getting somewhere.

Shizuru quirked a brow. "I am your armor, your sword, and your shield," she replied. "I protect you, block your enemies from harming you to the best of my ability, and will vanquish anyone that threatens you." She sighed and said, "Well, that is what I wanted to be. There was a chink in the armor, a crack in the shield, heaviness in the sword."

Shizuru had her own weakness and in being weak had hurt Natsuki. She hadn't been able to protect Natsuki from herself.

"I'm selfish, Natsuki," Shizuru murmured, her sad eyes lifting to meet with Natsuki's emerald. "I am selfish in the worst way possible. I worry over you, I want to protect you, but not for your sake but for mine. I can't fathom what I would do without you, and so everything I do I do for my own selfish purposes… because if I let something happen to you… I will lose myself."

Well. That certainly was different. Natsuki didn't know what to say to that, but she knew she had something else to say. "I… don't love Nao like that, Shizuru," Natsuki said quietly. She had been dreading this part, this explanation. Shizuru kissed Alyssa, yes, but at least she had thought it was Natsuki she was kissing. Natsuki knew she was kissing Nao, had done so willingly.

Shizuru's dark eyes flashed and her expression seemed to shadow. "Natsuki has told me this once before. Do you remember?"

Natsuki swallowed and nodded. She did. "That was because you were acting jealous without having any reason to."

Shizuru frowned. "The way I acted around Alyssa bothered you, correct?" Natsuki nodded slowly. "The way you acted around Nao bothered me… no," she shook her head. "The way Nao acted around you bothered me. I trusted you. I didn't trust her."

"I know this is a dumb excuse but I was drunk. I had been drinking, despite you telling me not to, and I guess… well I was hurting over what I thought you and Alyssa were doing. I thought you were going to break up with me, I thought in a way you already had…" Natsuki flicked her dark hair over her shoulder and tried to keep her voice clear and calm. The more she thought about how messed up she had felt that day the more it came back. "I wasn't thinking clearly, I guess kind of like you… I was upset and hurt and Nao was there…"

"Who kissed who?" Shizuru asked.

"I kissed her," Natsuki admitted. "She didn't want to, I don't think. But I…" Natsuki looked away from Shizuru. Instead of looking angry Shizuru just looked sad, which was worse. "I don't really remember," Natsuki admitted quietly, still staring hard at the floor. "She was there, I knew I could probably kiss her without her getting upset because—" Natsuki froze as she realized she likely had hurt Nao as well. She had… used Nao to forget about Shizuru, and in a way to get back at her. If Nao still had any feelings at all for Natsuki that were romantic, then that must not have felt great at all. "I… I've really messed up," Natsuki finished. "We were both drunk, otherwise it wouldn't have happened."

Shizuru stayed silent. Her heart ached in her chest but she ignored it. Natsuki may have messed up, but it was a direct result of Shizuru messing up. "I forgive you," she said after a moment. "My behavior caused you to feel that way, caused you to act that way. I am at fault."

Natsuki looked up. "Yeah, but so am I."


"I'm sorry about the Nao thing though." Natsuki peered at Shizuru with pleading eyes. "I know that must've hurt you and I… I never wanted that." She didn't want to hurt Shizuru or Nao.

"I love you," Shizuru whispered, cursing her vocal chords when she had wanted to say it loudly, like a declaration. "I am in love with you,Natsuki Kuga." Crimson eyes steadied themselves on Natsuki's emeralds. I love you, and only you, please know that. "That is the one constant… as infinite as time."

Um… Natsuki's mind went fuzzy and she couldn't take her eyes off of Shizuru. Shizuru had certainly told Natsuki before that she loved her, but she didn't say it often. Not that Natsuki ever minded, since she couldn't bring herself to say it at all. At least Shizuru could say it, and she said it in a million different ways at that. She didn't need those three words, it was in everything else she said and everything else she did.

Hadn't she heard something similar before from Shizuru? After the first time she declared her love?

"I do," Shizuru said simply as she tapped her pointer finger to Natsuki's cute nose. The girl made a face in response, but continued watching Shizuru curiously. "I'm serious you know," Shizuru said again, her tone lowered as if it were a deep, dark secret. "I am irrevocably in love with you, Natsuki Kuga. My love for you is timeless… and for as long as I live and for as long as time exists… and even when time doesn't exist my love for you shall be the one constant thing in the universe you can be sure of."

"I…" Kuga blinked and then swallowed the rest of her words down, inwardly hating herself. Why was she always such a coward? What was she afraid of? She hadn't said those words to Shizuru and had lost Shizuru anyway. So what is the harm in saying them now, before she loses Shizuru for good?

Shizuru hadn't expected Natsuki to respond. She was used to it, Natsuki not being able to say it. As long as she felt it… right? No, something so trivial was not important. It… it did not… it did not bother Shizuru that she could not say it.

"Lieutenant, this is Sergeant Suzushiro. Come in, Lieutenant Fujino."

Shizuru glanced at the walkie-talkie buried in her discarded jacket. She sent Natsuki an apologetic look and went to go get it. The fact that Shizuru was using their titles meant something important was going on. "I read you Sergeant Suzushiro," Shizuru said, "This is Lieutenant Fujino. What do you need?"

"General Nagi Homura has just arrived and I need you here to greet him," Haruka explained. "Get here now. Over."

"I will be there shortly," Shizuru replied, carelessly dropping the walkie-talkie back to the floor. She glanced at Natsuki. "I must go."

Natsuki nodded. "Alright."

"Take care of yourself. Go easy on your hand, your wrist may still be easily damaged," Shizuru said, going back into teacher mode. "Don't train for much longer. You will be too exhausted for tomorrow's match and…" She frowned, "You have no idea how those run, do you?"

Natsuki gave her a sheepish grin. "Not even a little bit."

Shizuru sighed and glanced at her watch quickly. Okay, she had a minute to spare. She looked at Natsuki and explained, "The final matches are not like any other match. Competitors can bring any weapon they want, no real bullets as usual, and you each have the entire arena. Often times the final match can last for a day or two, with the audience sometimes leaving to sleep and then return when they've woken up. The Council must be present throughout the entire thing, of course."

Natsuki blinked. "The final match can be two days long?"

"If that is what it takes. The competitors are usually evenly matched and often find themselves in a stalemate. A lot of it is waiting patiently for your opponent to make a move."


"As usual, killing your opponent is not allowed unless it is an accident, this is why it is imperative that you don't knock Tomoe's gun from her hands or else—"

"Shizuru…" Natsuki said quietly but sternly, shutting Shizuru up. "You know we'll end up fighting without the guns. There's no way. She's been looking forward to this for so long, you think she's going to be content with us just shooting each other and ending it like that?"

Shizuru swallowed. Natsuki was right. I am still living in a fog, she realized with a sigh. "Natsuki, please, try and end this as quickly as possible. It is not uncommon for a competitor to die in the final match, which is why it is not punished as harshly. It's become almost expected, even encouraged, in a way. The victor is, of course, the one still conscious. She can do anything she wants to you as long as you're conscious and she'll drag that out as long as possible before she tries to…" Shizuru swallowed, "kill you."

During a time where war was on your doorstep, violence, any violence, was encouraged. Sure it meant losing promising recruits but the main philosophy of Japan these days was weed out the weak, which military academies across the country were doing. Molding perfect warriors and getting rid of useless stragglers. It was strength, perseverance, and a sort of thirst for blood they needed in soldiers. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Natsuki sighed and ran her hand through her hair. "I'm a bit nervous," she admitted. "I remember fighting alongside her during round two… with Bear and his mutant dogs… she was able to take on two of Jin's highly trained soldiers at once. I got my ass handed to me."

"They unfairly teamed up on you," Shizuru pointed out. "Jin rigged it, remember? And likely each match you've had after that." Jin had told her soldiers to go after Natsuki, she had jammed Natsuki's gun in her two on two match, and then Jin had emptied her gun of a few bullets for her match against Gun-Com guy. Shizuru also knew, from Anh, that Jin had approached Kaori Yuechi and threatened to harm her family if she didn't harm Natsuki. They had no proof, of course, but the fact that Natsuki kept getting handed the short end of the stick during each match was a little suspect. Especially with Jin smirking all over the place when accused of it.

What was the point of this, Shizuru wondered. Tomoe wanted Natsuki to MAKE IT to the final round, so why was Jin trying her hardest to get her out? Tomoe's parents were, after all, paying Jin at the time. Maybe they just wanted to hurt Natsuki, but they were willing to risk eliminating Natsuki from the competition? Unless, of course, it was Tomoe's mother who had arranged for Jin to 'take care of' Natsuki and not Tomoe herself.

Interesting, Shizuru thought, her mind buzzing.

This entire thing brought up another interesting point. "What if…" Natsuki's brow furrowed, "You think Jin would…?" Would Jin rig the final match?

Shizuru frowned. "I don't think so, but I don't know. Like we speculated earlier, there's a good chance Tomoe no longer has Jin's back up. Besides, I think Tomoe wants to take you on completely on her own. If there is anything fishy going on in the arena tomorrow, I have my suspicions it would be due to Tomoe instead."

"You're probably right, though I think she'd want to beat me fair and square." She became thoughtful. "Maybe I'll hit the shooting range early tomorrow and get some practice in."

"Sleep is more important at this point, once you enter that arena you won't get to sleep again until you have won or…" She trailed off, her eyes becoming dull and lifeless, "or you are dead."

Natsuki nodded slowly. Great. This was going to suck, especially with Shizuru zoning out every few seconds. Totally not helpful.

"And you're going to win," Shizuru added lightly, making sure she gave Natsuki a pointed look that said, 'correct?'

Natsuki nodded hastily and gave a dismissive wave. "Right."


The two stared at each other. Shizuru idly wondered if Alyssa had been right. Was Shizuru truly the one that had been holding Natsuki back from winning the competition? Maybe she knew that already. Maybe she really was the one keeping Natsuki from unleashing her true potential. Maybe Shizuru just didn't want Natsuki to have to unleash her true potential, and was that really all that bad?

"You know," Shizuru said, turning and then bending down to pick up her jacket. "I spoke to Dr. Nakada about this… about our situation." She looked up at Natsuki quickly, "I of course did not mention your name, or the fact that my… problem was with a student." The less people knew about their relationship the better. Nakada was trustworthy and, by law, wasn't allowed to share the private things her patients told her, but Shizuru wasn't going to take that risk.

Dr. Nakada… oh right, Natsuki remembered. Curly blonde hair, bright blue eyes, sleeping with Anh, Alyssa-look-alike, and Garderobe's head psychiatrist. "We met briefly," Natsuki said, remembering how she had gone up to see Dr. Nakada on Nabatame's advice and had found Anh in the office instead.

Shizuru put the jacket on, straightened her collar, and then buttoned it up. "She told me that my behavior is very similar to wives of soldiers, or even mothers who send their children away to school." Shizuru peered at Natsuki, exhaustion very clear in those once beautiful eyes. "She told me that it is common to push away those we care about when we know they're going to be leaving us soon. In being cruel to this person, in getting into arguments, in pushing them away we were unconsciously preparing ourselves to be without them, to soften the blow their absence will create."

Natsuki swallowed hard. "Oh," was all she said. She couldn't think of anything else.

"There's… more," Shizuru added, her brow furrowing slightly, as if she were seeing something that confused her.

She was thinking of a text she had received from Anh the other day at the library. It had said, 'did you really think she wouldn't notice?'

At the time Shizuru thought Anh had been talking about Natsuki. Did she really think Natsuki wouldn't have noticed what Shizuru was doing with Alyssa?

But no. Anh's 'she' had been referring to Alyssa, not Natsuki. She was implying that Alyssa had to have noticed her presence's effect on Natsuki, on Shizuru and Natsuki's relationship. Shizuru's mind was foggy but Alyssa's mind was always sharp and clear. If Shizuru didn't see it, Alyssa had the clarity of mind to see.

But Shizuru didn't want to think about that, to think that her first love and best friend had purposefully allowed this to happen, allowed Shizuru to hurt Natsuki. Alyssa wouldn't do that. Alyssa wouldn't… would she?

Shizuru felt sick again. Anh seemed to think Alyssa would do something like that… but could Shizuru really blame Alyssa? After all, it was Shizuru's actions that caused this mess, not Alyssa's. But if Alyssa saw it happening, if Alyssa, being the observant and overly intelligent woman that she was, saw what Natsuki was going through when Shizuru could not… wouldn't she also be to blame?

"Shizuru," Natsuki stepped forward, her voice tense with concern, "are you alright?" Shizuru had completely spaced out after saying that there was more, which wasn't a good sign. Natsuki didn't want to push her, however, and was ten seconds away from reaching out and grabbing Shizuru before the teacher snapped out of it and met Natsuki's eyes once more.

Shizuru forced a smile then ran a hand through her chestnut tresses. "For now," she replied. "I must go," she gave Natsuki a look of regret. "But I… I want you to know that I am sorry and will forever ask for your forgiveness."

"You have it, Shizuru," Natsuki said quietly. "But we're not… we need to talk more. And I'm not ready to…" Natsuki trailed off, her face scrunching up cutely. "To… be… as we were before… I don't think I can yet."

"Thank you." She knew Natsuki wasn't ready to jump back in to a relationship with her, not after that. They both needed space, though Shizuru wanted nothing more than to wrap Natsuki in her arms and stay like that forever. The final match was tomorrow and so a 'break' was very untimely, but she knew it was necessary. Neither of them was in the mental state to be in a relationship and they needed to take some time and work out their own issues.

Natsuki needed to focus on winning and Shizuru needed to focus on keeping Natsuki alive or at the very least, not freaking out as Natsuki kept herself alive.

"I will see you tomorrow morning," Shizuru promised, wanting desperately to hug Natsuki goodbye, to kiss her before she left, but knowing it was a bad idea. She turned and began walking away. She knew Haruka would kill her for being so late, but General Homura could wait. Letting Natsuki know what was going on had been way more important.

Natsuki watched Shizuru head for the door. Her soul was at ease. Shizuru had decent explanations for most of the things Natsuki had witnessed… but it still bothered her that Shizuru was having such struggles with the future that it nearly crippled her here in the present. Seeing her so weak terrified Natsuki, but she knew that if there was ever a time to be strong for Shizuru it was now.

"Shizuru, wait," Natsuki called as she ran over to Shizuru.

Before Shizuru could turn around she felt arms encircle her waist and a cheek gently press itself between her shoulder blades. Shizuru tried not to tremble, but the overwhelming sensation of getting what she had wanted for so long, contact with Natsuki, made her knees feel weak.

She opened her mouth to speak but her vocal chords seemed temporarily out of order. Instead she moved her hands over the hands of Natsuki, who had her hands locked tightly around Shizuru like a belt.

"I'll follow you," Natsuki whispered into Shizuru's uniform. She vowed it on the inside as well. She would follow her light into the darkness, even if it killed her.

Invigorating. That was how it felt. Even though it hadn't been that long since they had affectionately touched each other, it still felt like it had been centuries. It was like electricity, and Shizuru, for the first time in a few days, felt alive. Ready. It was amazing, she thought, the affect Natsuki had on her.

They stood like that for what felt like forever, a peaceful kind of forever. Both of them had their eyes closed, only wanting to focus on the feeling of the other, the slow breathing, the rapid heartbeats that seemed to, eventually, become one.

Shizuru slowly unwound Natsuki's fingers and then removed the girl's hands from her waist. She turned around and peered into Natsuki's eyes, noticing a glint of surprise and wondering what was so surprising.

Natsuki found Shizuru's eyes to have a familiar sharpness in them, the kind of awareness that had been missing before. Relief flooded Natsuki's system. Shizuru was already on the road to recovery. She'd be back to her old self in no time. Right?

Is that because of me touching her? Natsuki wondered, unable to tear her eyes away from Shizuru's gaze and finding she didn't really mind.

Shizuru felt a new kind of weightless… as if everything that had been bearing down on her soul, dragging her towards the center of the Earth had lifted. This was good. This she could work with. Natsuki still wanted her, it seemed, and that meant Shizuru could stop worrying about it and focus instead on her mission from before: cheating fate and stealing Natsuki away before her thread was cut.

"Natsuki, I will see you tomorrow," Shizuru said, gripping Natsuki's shoulder and giving it a comforting squeeze. "Know that I fully intend on… making things right."

Natsuki gave a curt nod. "Me too."

With a small smile, Shizuru turned and left. She didn't really like the idea of her and Natsuki being on a 'break' but she knew it was better than the other alternative, broken up indefinitely. Of course, being together again would be another alternative, but that wouldn't have worked either. Not yet. They needed to talk more, repair things… get through the competition, which was much more important at the moment.

With Shizuru gone and after a conversation like that it was very hard to focus on training. So much had already happened that day and Natsuki could hardly focus on keeping correct form, let alone throwing a decent punch.

She had reopened Shizuru's anatomy book and was once again practicing the Kiyohime, something that seemed to get more difficult as training continued. She regretted not asking Shizuru for some pointers beforehand but the woman had been in a rush and given the topic of their conversation it would've been awkward to bring up.

Still, Natsuki was beginning to think that practicing the Kiyohime was a waste of time. There was no way to tell if she was performing it correctly since she was practicing on dummies. No matter how many times she hit those red circles with the tips of her fingers there was no reaction. The dummies couldn't be paralyzed if they weren't alive. She could be practicing the wrong thing and not even know. This disheartening fact coupled with what happened with Rei earlier and now the thing with Shizuru… Natsuki knew she had to sort out her thoughts.

Unsurprisingly, Shizuru had seemed to make sense. She always had such a good excuse for everything, and she seemed genuinely apologetic and ashamed. It was undeniable that Shizuru had driven herself nuts in her efforts to protect Natsuki from their inevitable fate… and in doing so was completely blind to Natsuki's feelings. She had been too focused on protecting Natsuki and ended up hurting her instead. Additionally, Shizuru had said and done things that were completely misinterpreted by an angry and hurt Natsuki.

I never think correctly when I'm angry, Natsuki thought as she struck at the red circles drawn onto the dummy's neck. There are things I've overanalyzed… things I did wrong too.

Natsuki had definitely imagined some things and assumed things that apparently weren't true. She had seen things that weren't there simply because she had found out not too long ago about Alyssa having dated Shizuru when there were students. Thinking back on it, she was sure there were smiles and looks before Natsuki knew they had dated, but she hadn't been looking for them so she probably didn't care. She had been confident, back then, that Shizuru loved her and only her. After finding out Shizuru's past with Alyssa… maybe that's when her insecurities started to truly fester and gain momentum

Shizuru also mentioned something about subconsciously pushing Natsuki away in order to lessen the blow of Natsuki being killed. It was hard to really decide whether she bought this or not. She didn't understand psychology or how people worked… but it did remind her of something that had happened in high school. She had a friend that was an upperclassmen and had gotten accepted into a university far away. She was leaving for college soon, and as the departure date loomed closer, the friend started to increasingly get into more fights with her mother. Usually the two never fought, but perhaps they had been pushing each other away in order to better cope with their eventual distance. Maybe that is similar to what Dr. Nakada had told Shizuru.


The plastic dummy fell to the floor once again with another strike from Natsuki's hands. She was sure she was getting right on target. Her fingers were so sweaty that some of the red ink was coming off and making her look like she had dipped the tips of her fingers in blood.

She let out a sigh and then wiped the sweat from her brow. Where did she and Shizuru stand right now? They weren't back together, she knew that, but were they going to get back together? Shizuru seemed to… she seemed to want to make things better.

But Natsuki wondered… is that what she wanted? Would that be a wise decision?

And why on Earth was Shizuru so sure Natsuki was going to be killed? It certainly didn't make Natsuki feel any better, or any less nervous considering the match was tomorrow…

"Crap!" Natsuki yelled as she quickly checked the clock on the wall. It was way too late for her to be up, especially now that she knew the final match could last for days if the competitors found themselves in a stalemate.

She quickly decided to do a few more stretches to make sure she wasn't sore the next day and then she would head to her tent.

It was windy. Windy and cold. Shizuru fought back the shivers and continued stalking towards the academics building, where she knew she'd find an impatient Haruka and a bored looking Council.

Oh, and General Homura. He'd be there too.

She vaguely remembered finding out about how Nagi Homura had requested her file, how Reito had predicted Homura wanted to offer Shizuru a job, a new position. Shizuru sincerely hoped that that wouldn't happen. She wasn't really allowed to say no to an offer like that. Not to a general, especially not one as highly decorated as Homura.

Of course, a position with Homura meant he expected her to survive the mission. Shizuru then wondered if Homura was the one that assigned such a mission to Garderobe. She'd have to check in with Reito later, he knew all the details like that.

A vibration in her pocket distracted Shizuru from her thoughts and she idly flipped her phone open and murmured a distant, "Hello?"


Shizuru stopped in her tracks, blinking once, blinking twice. "Alyssa?"

As usual, the blonde Colonel was quick to business. "Where's Anh?"

"The last time I saw Anh was when I sent her after you yesterday," Shizuru replied, starting up her walk again. Haruka was going to kill her. "Why? Is she not picking up her phone?"

There was a snort. "As if she'd pick up her phone for me. I wanted to check if she was still hanging around Garderobe but I guess she actually went." There was a hint of surprise to Alyssa, but there was also satisfaction. The kind of satisfaction someone that knows everything can feel.

Shizuru's brow furrowed. "You guess she actually went… where?" Wasn't Anh at the Council meeting with Haruka, Homura, and the others? What did Alyssa need to talk to Anh about yesterday? Shizuru never did see Anh after that to ask, and Alyssa, obviously, had left by then.

"Nowhere. Never mind. I'll talk to you later—"

"Don't you dare hang up on me, Alyssa Searrs," Shizuru growled into the phone, feeling invigorated once again from her conversation—and contact—with Natsuki she had just experienced. She must have sounded pissed, because Alyssa remained silent for far too long.

Icy cool. Alyssa's smooth voice finally came through again. "And what, Lieutenant, did I do to deserve such a command from you?" Razor sharp. A warning.

"Tell me something. Honestly," Shizuru replied, keeping her tone level and strong.

"I am only ever honest." The other woman sounded bored, which was unsurprising.

"Natsuki." Saying the name felt like a relief, like she could finally say the name she so longed to say.

"What about her?" Alyssa asked dryly. She probably wasn't even paying attention.

Shizuru frowned. She could already sense Alyssa was going to be difficult. Fujino saw the fountain up ahead, the one decorating the center of the circle of the main Garderobe buildings and let out a slow exhale as she continued her journey. "You noticed."

"Noticed what?" Alyssa sounded impatient now. Shizuru could just see her, sitting in her office chair, her legs propped up on her desk and her ankles crossed as she absentmindedly flipped through a tech magazine.

"You noticed that Natsuki thought we were sleeping together." There. Shizuru said it. Now she would know for sure if her suspicions were correct, that Alyssa had noticed and hadn't said anything.

"Don't be ridiculous, Shizuru." But there was an edge to her voice. Defensive. Alyssa Searrs was an amazing liar, but not when it came to Shizuru Fujino.

Shizuru would have come to an abrupt stop yet again had she not already been late. "You knew. You knew what your presence did to her when I could not and you said nothing—"

There was more silence from the other end. Unnerving. Shizuru took it as a guilty admission and opened her mouth to—quietly—tell Alyssa off. Instead, Alyssa spoke.

"You were obsessed with looking for a way out of the mission and then you were checking for loopholes in the competition rule book. You meticulously read over every little detail day in and day out and were too exhausted to even pay attention to the thing you were trying so hard to protect."

"She is not a thing," Shizuru snarled. Now she did come to a stop, her hand squeezing around her cell phone. She had to ease up for fear she'd break it in half. "I know you view people as objects, that you are selfish and competitive, that you have a God complex because you think your intelligence puts you above everyone else… but Natsuki should not be a casualty because of your ego."

"What do you want me to tell you, Shizuru? I did not sabotage your relationship if that is what you are accusing me off. I merely decided not to intervene. It was your business. I was not going to get involved. I would just be a spectator."

"This is my life, Alyssa," Shizuru cried, angry tears forming. "It is not a TV show. If you see me crashing, if you see me burning, if you see someone I love hurting because of me you are supposed to 'intervene' and 'get involved.'"

"I didn't see the point," Alyssa murmured, seemingly shocked by the raw emotion in Shizuru's words. "Kuga has issues, you know that, you should've seen them. You should've seen the problem before it even happened. But you were reckless. If I intervened you wouldn't have learned from your mistakes." There was a pause before Alyssa added, "I'm helping you by teaching you."

"You are not my teacher," Shizuru growled. "Anh was right about you. You're too competitive. This isn't about teaching me a lesson this is about the fact that my first girlfriend after you happens to be a student, a girl that is, to you, inadequate in comparison. Your brain can't compute why I would want to be with Natsuki and not still pining over you, correct?"


Shizuru continued. "So you saw the damage I was causing, yes me, because I accept full responsibility. I was reckless. I was stupid to have you around. I was cruel to spend so much time with you. I was blind to Natsuki's pain, again. But you… you took advantage of the situation. You made it worse. You purposefully acted… flirty with me because you knew I wouldn't even realize, with all the things I was doing to ensure Natsuki's safety…" Shizuru trailed off.

This was a betrayal. A very huge betrayal.

"You are correct about a few things. I am overly competitive, and you're right initially it made no sense to me why you were dating a student. It seemed like a very late rebound to me. However, there is one issue with this theory," Alyssa said, her voice as sharp and as dangerous as the edge of a sword. "I broke up with you remember? Me feeling jealous of Natsuki would only make sense if I still wanted you."

Shizuru laughed at that, but it was bitter and harsh. "I never said you were jealous, I said you were competitive. In your mind I've 'replaced' you and so you didn't care to tell me when you saw me unknowingly using you to self-sabotage my own relationship."

"And why, Shizuru, would you self-sabotage your relationship?" Alyssa asked, her tone quiet now, as if she were gently nudging Shizuru in a certain direction.

Shizuru swallowed hard and trembled as a particularly chilly breeze blew by. "Because if Natsuki didn't love me, if Natsuki thought I no longer loved her, she would be able to live. She wouldn't compete in any competition. She wouldn't go on any mission. She would… she would be safe. I am… I am the one that weakens her… I bring her down…" I am the reason she so bravely marches to her death.

Alyssa hummed. "You didn't intentionally hurt her, Shizuru. It was a defense mechanism. Your brain is preparing you for the loss of Natsuki Kuga. It is basic biology… chemistry… physiology. Why is everyone so muddled with emotions and whatnot these days? Can no one see that our feelings, our actions, are all due to chemical reactions in the brain?"

Shizuru stood staring at the Academics building in the not-so-far distance. She could see a few students walking by but mostly the courtyard was quiet save for the occasional rustle of leaves. What was Alyssa rambling on about now? Shizuru wasn't sure. All she was sure of was that a part of her, a part of her she was previously unaware of, had purposefully tried to shove Natsuki away while another part was desperately trying to keep her close. Maybe it was another defense mechanism? What if her brain or body couldn't take the abuse of Shizuru staying up so late, stressing out, feeling constant terror just to protect Natsuki and so took matters into its own hands?

But that's crazy. This entire situation was crazy.

"I have to go," Shizuru whispered, her eyes closing briefly as she composed herself. Was Alyssa to be blamed or was Shizuru just looking for a scapegoat? But Alyssa had purposefully made the situation worse… in order to help Shizuru… but… Ugh. My head hurts.

"I will see you tomorrow. I will be there for the match," Alyssa said everything as if nothing had just happened.

"Will Anh be there?" Shizuru found herself asking. She didn't really care, but her mouth was trying to make up for all of the clutter in her head.

Alyssa made a thoughtful humming noise. "Hmmm. Well I suppose it depends…"

"It depends on what?"

"On how she is received at Kagami's house."

Shizuru blinked, her confusion temporarily forgotten. Kagami? Anh's Kagami? The student she had loved, had had to punish, had blinded in the arena and had never seen again? "What? But Kagami refused to see Anh… didn't she move just to get away from—?"

"Correct, but I tracked her down and gave Anh her address. I'm hoping it doesn't all go to hell but Anh is bound to screw it up somehow," Alyssa sighed, "Well anyway…"

"That was very… kind of you," Shizuru said, taking slow but steady steps towards the Academics building. Haruka was going to have her beheaded in the arena for being so late. It was beyond rude and unprofessional. "Perhaps they will reconcile."

Alyssa huffed. "Maybe. Maybe not. I don't care. I just figured she might want the address."

"Right," Shizuru chuckled, and it felt good. Sure it was partly a nervous chuckle, but a chuckle nonetheless which was loads better than yelling at Alyssa. "You know if you…"

"I am not taking advice from you."

"It was wrong of Anh," Shizuru said quickly, "to do that to you."

Alyssa didn't say anything for a while, and only the sound of her breathing came through the phone. "She did nothing to me I did not allow," Alyssa declared, though Shizuru saw right through it. "I really have to go now. Go have epiphanies elsewhere."

"Good bye, Alyssa," Shizuru said.

Click. And she was gone.

Shizuru rolled her eyes and replaced her phone in her pocket. She quickly strode up the steps to the large doors and pulled them open. The hallway was open and empty of any students. Her boot heels made a familiar, somewhat relaxing noise that echoed up and down the corridor as she walked to Haruka's office.

Stopping just in front of it, Shizuru took a deep breath and got ready to face the dragon. Haruka really was going to kick her ass for her lateness. When she had reached the required amount of courage to open the door, she exhaled and did so.

Haruka's office was a large room, and as usual the blonde master sergeant was seated at her wooden desk. The certificates, awards, and trophies lining the walls and shelves were always the first thing that caught Shizuru's eyes. She never did get to read all of them, but she made it her mission to do so one day.

It was the people she noticed second.

The room was technically very full for a room of its size, but it managed to not look crowded due to where everyone was positioned. The Council, with the exception of Anh, was to the left. Rauschenberg had her back leaning against a glass cabinet full of even more trophies and Reito was sitting on the couch next to her, his laptop open and on his lap. Jin, who was not a part of the Council officially but followed them around anyway, was sitting beside Reito, one leg crossed over the other and a smug smirk on her lips. Her golden eyes met Shizuru's red briefly before she turned her attention to the center of the room.

The center of the room was where the strangers were. There was a man in a long black trench coat. He was rather short, so Shizuru thought the jacket was a poor choice. It made him look shorter. With pale skin, light blonde hair, and pinkish eyes, Shizuru briefly wondered if he was an albino.

"Ah, Lieutenant Shizuru Fujino," the short man said, standing up and walking over to Shizuru with his pale hand outstretched. "I've heard so much about you and look forward to working with you. It's great to finally meet you."

Shizuru returned the firm handshake and offered the short man a brilliant smile. He was clearly General Nagi Homura, one of the most decorated—and controversial—military figures in Japan. Shizuru couldn't understand why she didn't recognize him right away. Perhaps it was due to his lack of military uniform?

But he had a pistol attached to his hip, so he definitely came prepared.

"It is an honor to meet you, General Homura," Shizuru replied. They stepped back and saluted each other.

"Likewise. You have quite the impressive record," Nagi said, his voice somewhat whiny and childish. Shizuru would certainly feel strange taking orders from a man that reminded her of the word 'brat.'

"Thank you," Shizuru said, nodding and smiling.

A tall figure appeared behind Nagi on the right, and then an average sized one on the left. Shizuru looked up to take a better look at them.

Nagi gestured to the man on his right. "This is Lieutenant General Dazir."

Dazir was ruggedly handsome, with chiseled features as if from rock and a square jaw. He had sun-kissed skin, tanned only in a way someone who spent many hours outside would be. Shizuru deduced that this meant he had been on the battlefield recently and was probably only recently reassigned to be Nagi's right-hand. She wondered what he did to deserve such an honor.

Dazir's hair was short and neatly trimmed, charcoal in color and clean looking. His face had several day's worth of beard growth. Surprising. Most soldiers were clean-shaven. His eyes, a deep viridian, were almost too pretty to belong to a man, though they were filled with a stern focus that seemed to balance it out. Unfortunately, they were nearly the same shade of Akio's, though there was intensity, a resolute sense of pride that Akio's eyes had not had.

Unlike Nagi, Dazir was wearing his uniform, black and highly decorated with multiple badges and patches speaking of his honorary deeds.

Whoever this man was his steady, unwavering gaze pierced into Shizuru's. He meant business.

Shizuru saluted him. "It is nice to meet you, Lieutenant General Dazir."

A man of a few words, Dazir made a show of slowly lifting his hand to a sturdy salute, still not taking his intense watch from Shizuru. She felt like he was looking right through her. It was somewhat unnerving.

"And this," Homura gestured to the average-sized man to his left, "is Specialist John Smith."

Unlike Dazir, Smith was a troll of a man. Not handsome in the least, Smith had beady blue eyes that peered at Shizuru with an infuriating smugness from behind small pince-nez spectacles. An odd fashion choice, Shizuru thought, but Smith didn't really look like the kind that worried about his appearances.

He had messy blonde hair that stuck up in strange places and was flat in others. There was evidence of a receding hairline and Shizuru wondered how long it would take until he was completely bald. Despite his pointy chin, sallow cheeks, and large nose, Smith was wearing, not a uniform, but a dark blue business suit. It was the one good-looking thing about him.

"Nice to meet you, Specialist Smith," Shizuru said, offering him a salute.

He saluted back but moved in for a firm handshake. "Please, call me John."

Shizuru blinked. John Smith? How generic could you get? Maybe his parents were exceptionally lazy people and couldn't have even been bothered to give him a semi-decent name. Or perhaps they just had a sense of humor.

A polite smile and a returned handshake. "Apologies but I'd like to earn the honor of calling you by your first name," Shizuru replied smoothly, hoping he wouldn't realize that she just really didn't want to be on a first name basis with him. He already gave her the creeps.

"You flatter me, Lieutenant," he said, flashing her a toothy grin. Surprisingly, his teeth were straight and white. Well, Shizuru thought, if the rest of him was so horribly unattractive, something about him had to be somewhat decent, right?

"Not at all," Shizuru replied, her gaze sliding back to meet that of General Homura. "It is an honor to meet you three."

"The honor is ours," Nagi said, smiling. Dazir stood silently beside him, his relentless stare still intently focused upon Shizuru and making her feel naked. Smith too, was watching her, but neither of the stares were those of lust… just… evaluating. Which in some way felt worse.

Nagi continued, "After all, you are the teacher that trained Garderobe's two most promising recruits, correct? Private First Class Tomoe Marguerite and Private ah, what was her first name. Natsuki? Natsuki Kuga?"

"Yes she is," Haruka said, having lifted from her desk chair to stand beside Shizuru. She placed her hand on Shizuru's shoulder. "Shizuru is one of the most talented teachers here. As you mentioned, the two remaining competitors in the competition are her students… both first years as well."

"Intriguing," Smith murmured, his blue eyes flashing.

Shizuru began to feel nauseous again, that familiar feeling of her world inevitably coming to a screeching halt making her sway a bit on her feet.

"Hopefully they both make it out alive this year," Nagi said. For some reason, everything he said sounded like he found it amusing. A smug bastard, that was what he was. Of course Shizuru knew she was just being harsh and judgmental, but she had never quite liked Nagi from the things she heard about him and the things she saw of him on TV. On top of that, any time the competition was mentioned so casually it bothered her to no end.

"Hopefully," Shizuru agreed, her voice a few decibels lower than she would have liked it. She cleared her throat and tried again. "They are both very talented young students. I haven't seen soldiers quite like them in a long time. It was… a pleasure to train them." She paused and added, "It would be a shame to lose either of them, as they are both promising students… so I am confident that they will both make it out… alive."

Haruka gave Shizuru's shoulder a reassuring squeeze, letting her know she was handling the conversation quite well. Haruka knew what Shizuru was going through. Haruka was far from stupid and very observant, especially when it came to the Council member she had come to rely on most, especially when Shizuru needed to be strong, not for Natsuki or the Council, but for Yukino… for Haruka. It was a heavy burden, but Haruka had to know Shizuru could do it.

"Yes I've watched them both," Haruka chimed in. "Private Marguerite has always been talented."

"And Private Kuga?" Dazir asked, shocking almost everyone in the room except for his other two companions. It was the first time he had said more than one word or a mumble.

Shizuru watched his face intently. He was watching Haruka for an answer, but his gaze flickered over to Shizuru's for only a split second.

"Private Kuga," Haruka said, "is something else." She folded her arms and shifted her weight to one foot, eyeing Dazir with a cool sense of calm that was uncommon for the usually boisterous blonde.

They all waited for more to come, but Haruka seemed content with that answer.

Natsuki was 'something else.'

"I see," Nagi said when it became apparent no one was going to say anything more. He turned to Shizuru and offered her a sly smile. "I would love to know who you think is going to win tomorrow."

Shizuru offered a polite smile but shook her head. "I honestly could not tell you, General Homura." And she really couldn't. Who would win? Tomoe was strong, very strong. She was highly skilled, extremely well trained, had been groomed to be the perfect soldier her whole life. It was said that she would have gone on to one day become a high-ranking officer after graduation from Garderobe.

But Natsuki was… well… something, as Haruka had said. She was truly something. A lack of strength was made up for in speed and Natsuki was a fast learner. She had a strong will, a stark determination, an inspiring determination to never give up that Shizuru adored.

However. Natsuki would very clearly be the underdog in this match. But she had been the underdog in all of her matches and had come out on top. The girl was clever, perhaps more clever than any of them really knew. But when it comes down to it, is the arena a test of strength and skill or does resilience and an iron will determine the winner?

Shizuru truly didn't know.

Jin, who Shizuru had completely forgotten about, walked up and offered a quick smile to General Homura. Shizuru knew that Jin had worked with Homura before. They were seen on TV together a few times.

Shizuru was prepared for Jin to say something that would piss her off, but instead Jin offered them all a rueful smile and said, "Apologies, but I must go. It was nice seeing you again, General Homura."

"And it was great seeing you again, General Higa," Nagi replied, giving her a curt nod.

Shizuru tried to catch Jin's eye but the woman simply turned and left. Natsuki was right. Something was going on with Jin. Something changed. If she truly wasn't working for the Marguerites anymore then what was she up to? She still was appointed by the judge to gather information on Shizuru and Natsuki's illicit relationship, but she hadn't even mentioned that in a while, which was immensely unusual for the wicked woman.

It was late when Shizuru, Rauschenberg, and Reito walked back to the Teacher's residence hall. They were all so tired that they didn't even speak on the walk over, and only mumbled quiet 'see you tomorrow's before disappearing into their respective rooms. All the schmoozing with Homura, Dazir, and Smith had been exhausting. Dazir didn't say much and mostly let Nagi do all of the talking. Smith seemed quite interested in Shizuru and kept asking her about all kinds of random topics, her thoughts on multiple philosophies, politics, new research studies… things that Shizuru could answer but was rather uninterested in considering that tomorrow was the day her world ended.

Natsuki finally headed back to her tent. The walk back was refreshing, if a bit chilly, but it felt cool on her sore muscles. She hoped she hadn't overworked her body. She had been trying a light workout, though she did take a beating when Shizuru showed up. If she woke up sore tomorrow, the day of the final match, she'd already be at a disadvantage.

I'm already at a disadvantage, she thought as her soul sighed.

Even though her mind was focused on the final match, going over stances, moves, and aiming procedures, she was also thinking of Shizuru. A part of her was ecstatic. Shizuru hadn't cheated on her. She hadn't been unfaithful. She only acted strangely because of the way Natsuki was acting. Another part of her, however, was terrified. She was partly worried about the future, Shizuru's mission, but she was also worried about Shizuru now.

Shizuru didn't look like she slept at all. She looked like she couldn't be bothered to get dressed in the morning. Natsuki noticed medals and pins missing from Shizuru's uniform. Shizuru didn't look any less pretty, of course, but there was something so defeated about her. It was so… opposite of the way Shizuru usually was, which was warm and ready to take on anything that came her way.

Is that all because of me? She's so worried about me, and then I go and mess things up further.

But another thing that was interesting was that Shizuru had said something strange. It had been something about Alyssa noticing and not saying anything. That would make a ton of sense. Alyssa had a competitive streak, the kind of competitive streak that made you a very unpleasant person to be around when you were feeling like a sore loser. Did Alyssa feel like she had lost to Natsuki?

Why did those two break up? Natsuki still had no idea. I'll ask Shizuru next time I see her.

But still. Alyssa Goddamn Searrs. She'll be filed under the possible blame file.

There was relief though. Shizuru had cleared her name so to speak. Sure, she definitely messed up. Big time. But Natsuki understood. She understood now especially, facing Shizuru's possible death in the near future? Yeah, Natsuki could see going a little nuts too. She knew she'd do anything to protect Shizuru, too, even if it meant not getting sufficient sleep or something more serious, like having to push Shizuru away.

She thought it might be nice to crawl into Shizuru's bed tonight and kiss the one woman she knew she would ever want to kiss… maybe that would be the best solution for the both of them.

There was thinking. They both had to think. Shizuru had to clear her mind and convince herself that Natsuki wasn't going to be killed, and Natsuki had to convince her heart that Shizuru wasn't going to abandon her.

I hope I live long enough to get through these issues, Natsuki inwardly mumbled as she unzipped her tent and entered. Surprisingly, Nao was nowhere to be found. Whatever. That was probably a good thing. Natsuki still had to apologize to her and she needed to sleep now anyway. She needed her rest. The match was tomorrow.

It was odd though. She figured Nao would be waiting up for her, ready to wish her luck and say sentimental things as they fell asleep for what could be the last time being alive in the same tent. In fact… the fact that Nao wasn't there made Natsuki worried a bit. And maybe, just maybe, she was a little disappointed.

Whatever. Natsuki moved for her book bag, which lay against her bed. Inside she found and pulled out her notebook before sitting at her small desk. She flipped through it, pausing briefly to look at a smiley face Shizuru had jokingly doodled on one of her exams she had scored highly on. She couldn't help but chuckle at that. Dating your teacher sure was embarrassing. Especially when she's so smart and her job is to judge you on your intelligence.

Finally she flipped to the back where there were still a few blank pages left. She then grabbed a pen from her pencil holder and began writing things down. This was important. She couldn't mess this up. It very well could be her last chance. It would be for Shizuru.

Fifteen minutes and a sore wrist later, Natsuki quickly glanced over what she had written. The word 'love' had not been written once. Good.

Natsuki folded and placed what she had written into an envelope and left it laying on her desk. She slowly stood up, stretched, and glanced over at Nao's bed. Still empty. Where was that troublemaker anyway? Shouldn't she be here? Was she okay?

Natsuki headed to her wardrobe and opened it up, glancing at her tired face in the mirror and thinking how different she looked. She no longer had even an ounce of fat, not that she had been chubby before, but now she was completely lean and no traces of her baby fat remained. Her skin had all kinds of scars now. But they weren't bad scars. They weren't the kind of scars that made her sick to look at nor the kind that took her mind to dark places she had gotten quite skilled at avoiding.

These were scars of her time at Garderobe. They were small, tiny, most of them were very hard to see. Each one held a new memory. Her finger slid across a tiny mark just below her ear. That had been from a combat knife being thrown during a training session with Nabatame and Tanaka when they were preparing her for her match with Kaori Yeuchi. Sliding lower to just under her chin, Natsuki's fingers moved across another small dent in her flesh. This one had been from Yamamoto's gun, but she had defeated him, in the end. Again, her hand slid to her shoulder, where a particularly thick scar was. It was the same color as her skin, however, so you didn't know it was there unless you felt it. She recalled that this had been from a particularly bad tumble. When had that been? Ah, yeah, that morning she fell while doing her usual morning run.

Fingers weaved into her dark locks and she felt around for the scar on the back of her head. That had been from when Tomoe bashed her head into the ground multiple times during the Survival Hike… but it had also been the day Shizuru had rescued her from Alyssa and had carried her off to safety.

Yeah. They were scars, but they weren't all that bad.

She unbuttoned her shirt and found that she couldn't recall half of the marks, though the ones across her stomach she remembered all too well. Those ones were inflicted by a sick man. There was no silver lining when it came to these ones, no good memories attached. She had gained nothing from receiving such marks aside from daily reminders.

"Natsuki," someone called from behind her. She hadn't even heard anyone come in and she didn't immediately recognize the voice, which meant potential trouble.

Kuga quickly spun around, her shirt hanging open and Duran already in her hand as she pointed to the tall woman standing opposite her.

"Jin," Natsuki snarled. Why was Jin calling her by her first name, again? It was weird. "What do you want?"

Jin was standing calmly by the entrance of Natsuki's tent, everything about her steady and relaxed yet she didn't appear any less threatening. If it was one thing Natsuki hated about Garderobe, it's that the school's administrators didn't believe in privacy. Or doors.

The brigadier general stepped into the tent, her golden eyes set steadily on Natsuki and her jet-black hair tied back into a short ponytail. She was wearing her black uniform and looked as tough and as lethal as ever. "A good soldier doesn't get distracted by their own reflections," she said, a small smirk tugging on her lips. "It would be wise to be aware of your surroundings from now on."

Natsuki didn't move, her grip tightening on Duran. "I am well aware, thanks. I was…" Well, she had been distracted by her reflection. But not in a narcissistic way! She shook her head. "It doesn't matter." She lowered her gun—a little bit. "What are you doing here?"

Jin took another step into the tent, her feline-like eyes never leaving the emeralds from across the room. "I came to deliver you a warning." Jin looked Natsuki up and down, slowly, before offering the student a coy smile and adding, "Though you might want to button your shirt first."

Natsuki, now beet red as she remembered she had unbuttoned her shirt before Jin had come in, holstered her weapon and quickly began buttoning her shirt yet again. When she was finished, she glared at Jin and crossed her arms over her chest, trying to act as if that hadn't been incredibly embarrassing. "What is the warning?"

"You are going to die in the arena tomorrow, Natsuki."

The words, though they had passed through Natsuki's mind several times, had never seemed so terrifying before. It was as if Jin's words were ice-cold water and Kuga's head had been mercilessly dunked into a bucket of it. It took her a few seconds, but her mind came up for air, gasping.

"What?" She croaked. She hadn't meant to sound like a frog, a scared frog, but her vocal cords seem incapable of doing their job. Why? Why now? She had been fine all day. She had been convincing Shizuru that she would be fine. And yet Jin says ten words to her and she's panicking?

Jin's face was unsmiling, grave. Her head cocked slightly to the side, and for the first time Natsuki noticed Jin was wearing her military cap. It looked good on her. "Tomoe is stronger than you, faster than you, more bloodthirsty than you, crazier than you, smarter than you, and better than you. You cannot beat her, Natsuki, and whoever told you you could has lied to you."

"Are you trying to break me?" Natsuki asked, the panic quickly disappearing. She still had unease in her stomach, but for some reason the fact that Jin was in her tent, telling her Tomoe was going to kick her ass tomorrow, was somewhat funny. Maybe she just really needed sleep.

"No," Jin replied quite seriously, appearing bored now as she eyed Natsuki with an unimpressed expression on her face. "I am telling you the truth in the hopes that you will change your mind in competing tomorrow."

"Don't you want me to compete?" You know, so Tomoe can kill me?

To Natsuki's surprise, Jin looked conflicted, as if two vastly different desires and emotions were fighting for control of her face. Finally, as if she had been practicing Shizuru's expressions, Jin appeared rather neutral and uninterested. She was a blank slate except for her eyes, which burned with the usual mocking intensity. "You can't win, Kuga. I just thought I'd tell you this now before you embarrass yourself tomorrow and get yourself killed."

Natsuki's eyes narrowed and she inched closer to her bed, her hand twitching near her holster. What was this about? "Awww," Natsuki cooed, trying to appear as cocky as possible, "Don't tell me you're starting to like me, General." She knew that wasn't it, Jin wasn't trying to protect her. But then what was the point in trying to get Natsuki to somehow get out of the competition?

Lips pursed into a thin line, Jin looked furious but contained. "Not likely, Private Kuga, but know that you will meet your death tomorrow, whether Shizuru tries to rig it in your favor or not."

Would Shizuru do that? Natsuki wondered. Shizuru had been driving herself crazy looking for loopholes, ways to save Natsuki at all costs. What if she rigged the competition, just like Tomoe and Jin had done? No, Shizuru wouldn't do that.

Would she?

Natsuki appeared confused then, her brow furrowing slightly as she pondered this some more.

Jin rolled her eyes and when Natsuki met her gaze yet again the two shared a moment of silence. Then Jin said, "You're going to need to get to sleep if you want to stay awake for the entire match tomorrow. You know the match doesn't end until one of you is unconscious, or dead, and the final match can take multiple days in some cases."

"I've heard," Natsuki mumbled. "And I was planning on sleeping until you barged in here," Natsuki snapped, fists balled at her sides.

"No," Jin said, closing the gap between her and Natsuki, making the younger incredibly uncomfortable at their close proximity. Jin didn't seem to think much of it, and reached for Duran so quickly that Natsuki couldn't stop her.

Natsuki instantly put her hands up, as if she were about to be arrested.

Jin's eyes narrowed "Put your hands down, idiot. I'm not arresting you." When Natsuki lowered her arms and frowned to show her disapproval of being held at gunpoint, Jin pulled the gun away and emptied out a tranq. She then twirled the tranquilizer between her fingers, the green liquid sloshing around the insides of the casing.

"Are you just going to stare at it all day? It's a tranq."

Golden eyes lifted to peer into indignant emeralds. "This is your last offer, Kuga."

Natsuki folded her arms over her chest, trying to look tough but really, she just wanted to go to bed and rest up for the match. "Last offer?"

Jin appeared thoughtful then, as if she were second-guessing herself. Finally, she said, "The injection before. It could save your life in the arena tomorrow."

"And since when did you start worrying about my life, General?" Natsuki asked, quite seriously. She dropped the 'tough' act and stared into Jin's eyes, searching for an answer. A genuine one. "Or is this not about my life? Are you trying to get me disqualified?" Oh. That was totally it! "I bet there's a pee test or something that they make the competitors take before the final match… specifically to make sure we aren't on any performance-enhancing drugs." A smug smirk appeared on Natsuki's lips, but Jin appeared unimpressed.

"It's your funeral," Jin growled.

But then it all made sense to Natsuki. That look in Jin's eyes. That was the look someone got when thinking fondly of their love, their significant other. "Shizuru. This is for Shizuru," Natsuki whispered, eyeing Jin through new eyes.

At the accusation, Jin appeared aghast, her eyes widening and an involuntary step backwards. "Excuse me?" She mustered, trying to look intimidating but failing.

"You're trying to keep me alive now for Shizuru's sake. Is that it?" Natsuki asked, no longer trying to appear smug or playful but instead looking serious and even understanding.

"Don't be ridiculous, Kuga," Jin sneered, "I have my reasons. Your precious Shizuru is not one of them. Tell me, did you two kiss and make up yet?"

Natsuki's eyes narrowed and she said nothing. Her glare would suffice.

A cruel smile twisted its way onto Jin's lips. "And when you kissed her, did she taste like Alyssa still?"

"Get out," Natsuki snarled, taking a menacing step forward and reaching her hand out so quickly, Jin almost flinched. "Give me back Duran."

"Such a brat, thinking you can give your superior orders," Jin hummed, back to her old self it seemed. She watched Natsuki, amusement dancing in her eyes. She twirled her fingers in the air. "Turn around, Private."

Natsuki didn't move. "What?"

"As your superior, and the superior of your commanding officer, I command you to turn around. If you fail to comply I will be forced to give you a demerit and—"

Natsuki's jaw tightened and she didn't stop glaring at Jin until she had done a complete 180. She didn't like turning her back on Jin. It felt like she was going to be attacked any minute. Being a bottom of the barrel grunt had its drawbacks. Natsuki hated taking orders… but now wasn't the time to test Jin's patience or tempt fate to ruin her chances. It was already so rare for her to get a favor from fate.

"Change," Jin commanded, seemingly bored though her tone didn't lose an ounce of her usual authority.

"What?" Natsuki asked, her husky voice on a borderline growl. Her fists clenched at her sides again and she pictured Jin's head being squeezed. Not turning around, Natsuki's gaze bore holes into her wardrobe.

She really wished Nao was there. Natsuki had a feeling Jin wouldn't try this kind of bullshit in front of anyone else. Most had no idea why Jin had even arrived on campus on the first place and Natsuki liked it that way.

"Change your clothes, Private. It's past curfew and you're still wearing your uniform."

Natsuki swallowed hard. This was… not the first time she had been forced to change in front of someone. Someone she particularly hated. Before the memories had a chance to flood her mind she reminded herself that Jin's intentions weren't perverse. She knew that much. Jin was trying to humiliate her, but she wasn't going to leer at Natsuki like some lecher. Jin Higa was power tripping, as usual. Natsuki would put up with it for now, if only because she couldn't risk much. Too easily could the competition be taken away from her.

Of course, Jin had known Natsuki wouldn't know about the rule that says a soldier could disobey orders they consider unlawful. Forcing Natsuki to change in front of her would certainly be considered unlawful, and Natsuki, if she knew the rule, could've told Jin to shove it if she wanted to. But, of course, Natsuki had no idea about this rule.

"Don't look," Natsuki muttered, holding her chin up and calmly finishing what she had been doing before Jin rudely walked in.

"As if," Jin rolled her eyes. "Your ego has gotten huge, huh? To assume I would stare at you while you change. I'm not Shizuru." Jin turned her eyes toward the wall that was Nao's. She decided to stare at the redhead's bed and idly wondered where the roommate was.

Natsuki let out a sigh of relief. Knowing Jin wasn't making her change to be a creep made her feel significantly better. She changed quickly and, when she had finished, stood straight and awaited more orders. "Anything else, Higa?"

Jin returned her gaze to Natsuki and chuckled. "Are you really going to wear boxers to sleep? You're such a child. It concerns me that Shizuru is attracted to you."

Natsuki rolled her eyes and then shot the general a glare over her shoulder. "They're comfortable," she defended. "It's not like I wear them during the day or anything." The daytime was for lacy panties and girly undies. "Why am I defending my sleepwear choices to you? Are you done power tripping? Can I go to bed now?"

Jin smirked and then, not replacing the tranq she had taken from Duran, handed the gun back to Natsuki. She watched as the girl quickly held Duran to her chest, as if the gun were something other than a weapon, and then gently placed it beside her bed, on her end table. Why did she treat that gun like it was a pet? Hell, why did she even give her gun a name?

Natsuki, deciding that she couldn't care to wait for more of Jin's bullshit, got into her bed and got comfortable, completely ignoring Jin's presence. She needed to sleep, damn it, or she'd be screwed tomorrow. At one point she peered at Jin from her pillow and grumbled, "If this was part of your plan, sleep deprivation, it just may work."

Jin's eyes lit with amusement at that and she walked to Natsuki's bedside, causing the younger to sit up in bed, suddenly alert and ready to defend herself. "It was not part of my plan," Jin replied. "In fact, it was the opposite."

Natsuki stared at her, confusion etched into her features.

Jin looked into Natsuki's eyes, smiled, and said, "Sleep tight, kid," before stabbing the tranq into the side of Natsuki's neck and holding it there even while Natsuki struggled against it.

With one last look of complete outrage, Natsuki's eyes closed and her body went limp in Jin's arms. Jin tucked Natsuki into her bed, watching the sleeping private's face with a strange sort of nostalgia that she couldn't explain. "The effects of the tranq wear off in about an hour, as you should know by now," Jin told the unconscious Natsuki. "Hopefully, when it wears off, you'll stay asleep."

Jin took one last look at Duran on Natsuki's end table and headed for the exit. "Hopefully you can get more sleep than I did before my final match," she murmured as she walked into the chilly winter air. The best part about using tranqs as sleep medication was that it prevented dreaming, which meant you didn't have nightmares either. And if you were Natsuki, Jin assumed that would be a more than welcome gift.

Mai blinked into the darkness of her tent when she heard the front being unzipped. She grabbed her rifle (which she kept by her bedside like any dedicated soldier) and promptly aimed it at the tent's entrance. "Who's there?" She called out. The tent flaps opened, letting in the cool night air. A figure stepped in.

"Calm down, Mai," Nao grumbled, kneeling down to zip the flaps up behind her, "It's just me."

Mai stared at the redhead before her, her brow furrowing as she tried to make out the shadowy figure before her. "Nao?"

"No. It's Santa. Ho, ho, ho."

"What are you doing here?" Mai asked, bewildered and somewhat annoyed that Nao had randomly entered her tent in the middle of the night.

She could make out Nao's form in the dark, barely. The other girl had her hands in her pockets and she was looking at the floor, as if ashamed. "Just walking around I guess."

Mai's eyes narrowed and she finally remembered to lower her rifle, leaning it up against her end table yet again. "Isn't Natsuki's final match tomorrow? Shouldn't you be over there with her?"

At that Nao's head jerked up, and Mai could clearly make out the shimmery olive green that belonged to the pretty girl. Nao walked over to the side of Mai's bed and frowned. "No."

Then it hit her. Mai's gaze softened and she reached out to tousle some of Nao's hair. "You can sleep here tonight, if you want. I don't have a roommate anymore, so…"

Nao nodded and silently headed over to the empty bed on the opposite side of the room. She had no idea who it used to belong to, having never cared enough to ask Mai. She got under the covers and got comfortable.

Mai waited until there was silence before saying, "She'll be fine, Nao. Natsuki is strong and one of the most talented privates I've ever seen. You don't need to freak out like this."

A low guttural sound was heard from the other end of the tent, making Mai chuckle.

"Shut up, Mai."

"Remember her first day of class? She got her ass handed to her by Tomoe. You really think Natsuki would let that happen to her again?"

"Yeah, I do, the girl is borderline masochistic and Tomoe is sadistic. It's a match made in heaven," Nao snapped. She sat up in bed and shot dagger eyes over at Mai's side of the tent. "She's going to get herself killed, she's going to die, and I'm not going to have a roommate…"

Mai sat up as well and peered over at Nao. "Don't you think she can do it, Nao?"

"And then she gets sent on some mission with that crazy bitch Fujino? Yeah, much better."

An uncomfortable silence fell between them.

Finally, Mai spoke. "Nao I know you love her. I know she loves you. I know you two are best friends and I know… I know you care for her a lot. I do too. So does Chie and so does Aoi. As much as you don't want to believe it, Lieutenant Fujino cares about her too. We all are worried for her. But we have to be strong for her. We have to support her. We have to believe in her abilities. Now why don't you go back to your own tent? She's probably confused about where you are and probably upset that you're not there. If tonight really is Natsuki's last night, Nao, don't you want to be there with her?"

When Mai looked over, Nao was gone. She smiled to herself and snuggled into her covers. Silly Nao.

It was late, but neither Aoi Senoh nor Chie Harada could sleep. It wasn't because their twin beds, which they had shoved together to form a double (against school code, of course) but it was because their best friend was going to die tomorrow.

"Chie… pssst… Chie?"

"I'm up, Aoi," Chie replied. By the tone of her voice, very awake and alert, Aoi could tell Chie wasn't lying this time. She really was wide-awake.

"I can't sleep."

"Neither can I."

For a few moments only the sound of the wind could be heard.

Aoi snuggled closer into Chie, resting her head on the other girl's shoulder and wrapping her arms around her waist. She let out a shaky breath. "Natsuki will be okay, won't she?"

Chie didn't say anything at first, not wanting to lie to Aoi. She pulled her girlfriend closer to her and then bent down to kiss her on the forehead. "I don't know, Aoi, I really… I just don't know."

Natsuki was strong, but could she beat Tomoe?

Chie hated to admit it, but she didn't think Natsuki could. There were plenty who did, of course, but … Tomoe? Private First Class Tomoe Marguerite? Chie had witnessed Natsuki do some amazing things, but then again, the girl was just plain lucky half the time. And clever. She was definitely clever.

The feeling of moisture on her bare shoulder pulled Chie back into reality and she glanced down at the naked girl now clinging to her. "Aoi?"

The other girl only responded with a tightened grip around her girlfriend's waist, digging her fingers into Chie's skin as if she were afraid to let go. Sniffling could be heard and it wasn't long before they turned to quiet crying, her body trembling against Chie's.

Chie let out a deep sigh and held Aoi tight to her chest. "Come on, Aoi. It's Natsuki we're talking about. She'll be fine. That girl has a head harder than anyone I know. She always makes it out in the end, doesn't she?"

So much for not trying to get Aoi's hopes up. Chie wasn't usually so pessimistic, but she did feel like she was lying to Aoi, giving her hope when, frankly, she was right to have none in the first place.

Aoi never responded, and eventually the two girls fell asleep.

Alyssa hated teaching night classes. They were for the third years, whose days were spent training for their specific missions or for whatever branch of the military they wanted to join and specialize in. That meant at night they were exhausted, lazy, not interested in doing anything else.

But Alyssa didn't tolerate laziness or disobedience. They may be third years and they may be graduating soon enough but they were still soldiers, her soldiers, and they weren't ready until she said they were ready.

"Really?" Alyssa repeated, her cold blue eyes shooting an icy glare all around the room, at the various faces of her students.

They were all staring at her, mostly because they didn't want to be punished by the scariest colonel to walk through Fuuka's halls, but they were also clearly spacing out.

"None of you know the best maneuver in this type of situation?" She asked again, pointing to the diagram she had crudely drawn on the wall behind her. She let out a deep sigh full of disappointment. "Why am I stuck teaching such cretins? If you are all our future then the rebels will win with no problem."

A brave soul slowly raised a hand. "Colonel Searrs," Nina said, her amber eyes always half-lidded, as if she were bored. "I know the answer."

Normally Nina hardly answered questions because she had answered all of them in the beginning of the year and Alyssa already knew Nina knew what she was talking about. Hell, Nina reminded Alyssa of her younger self sometimes. Way too smart for her own good, a beacon of hope amongst a bunch of dim Neanderthals.

Alyssa sat her butt on the edge of her desk and folded her arms. She looked around the room one more time and then finally settled her gaze on Nina. "Nina," she purred the name. This earned the stoic student in question jealous glares from other students. "Private Wang, what is the answer?"

Nina, unaffected by the stares as usual, stood up from her seat and met Alyssa's eyes. "The weakest soldiers are to go in the middle of the crescent shape," she explained, "the strongest soldiers would be on the outer curves of the crescent. The two platoons would collide and the enemies would cut easily through the middle, where the weak soldiers are, without realizing that the strong soldiers are encircling them from behind."

A ghost of a smile appeared on Alyssa's face and the rest of the class shuddered. "Excellent answer," the blonde colonel replied, giving the student a nod of approval.

Nina, whose outward expression didn't change at all, seemed to have a new spark in her eyes as she sat down once again, her fingers nervously fiddling with the holster on her hip.

Alyssa opened her mouth again but then paused and glanced at her watch. Class was finally over. She looked up yet again to address the class and fought back the urge to laugh when they all straightened in their seats. "Class is dismissed. Get out of my sight before I count to 5 or I'll have you all running laps outside…" A beat. "Naked."

She reached behind her and grabbed some documents and began to pretend to be reading them, ignoring the panicked rustle and bustle as her students rushed to flee her classroom. "One…" She murmured. "Two…" she scanned the document for real. It was a report Anh had submitted after having investigated the prison break not too long ago. It listed all the high-profile Renegade members that had escaped. Some of those names were familiar.

This wasn't a good sign for the Prime Minister. It had happened at two other jails since then. Someone was releasing the rebels, the Renegades old members, and disappearing with them somewhere.

"Three." Alyssa placed the document behind her on her desk and looked up. She wasn't surprised to see an empty classroom, reminding her of a ghost town from an old Western movie. There was, however, one person left. "Nina," Alyssa greeted, giving the student a salute. "I hope you have a good reason for still being in my classroom?"

It was weird sometimes, talking to Nina as if she were just any other student when they both knew they were closer than that. Not ever moving beyond the teacher student relationship, not even friends, but they had developed a bond that Alyssa rarely made with her students, simply because she normally refused to spend any personal time with them. Nina, on the other hand, had spent plenty of time with Alyssa. Doing all the dirty work, all the chores, all the assisting. Alyssa couldn't help feeling a minor fondness for this girl, a mild favoritism.

Nina sometimes reminded Alyssa of Natsuki. She was always looking bored but had ferocity in her that, if sparked, could consume the world. But she wasn't Natsuki, Alyssa thought. Natsuki would never dig that haircut.

"Colonel…" The third year said, looking somewhat uneasy. Her cheeks flushed a light pink and, for the first time in a long time, she couldn't make eye contact with Alyssa and instead looked at the Colonel's black boots instead.

Alyssa stood up from her desk and looked down at her shorter student. "Yes?"

Nina seemed to gather her wits about her and she seemed to force herself to turn her chin up and peer into Alyssa's intimidating eyes. She involuntarily shivered at the ice within them. "Where have you been going?" She asked, her tone unwavering.

A blonde brow arched. "Excuse me?"

"Where have you been going the last few days? You're hardly here unless you have class. I've heard Master Sergeant Greer throwing a fit about it in her office—"

"Why were you hanging around outside Greer's office?" Alyssa inquired, her arms folding over her chest and her manicured nails tapping at her arm.

Nina frowned. "There's a rumor going around…"

Always with the rumors in these schools, Alyssa thought with a sigh. "A rumor," she repeated, arching a sculpted brow and appearing unimpressed. "You are going to waste my time with a rumor?"

"Are you…" Nina began quickly, before stopping abruptly, as if she didn't have the courage to finish asking the question. Amber staring into blue, fists clenching at her sides, Nina finished. "Are you sleeping with Greer?"

For some reason, Alyssa wondered if she was Shizuru and Nina was being Natsuki. She blinked once. Twice. Then frowned. Normally she would mercilessly knock out any student with the gall to ask her such an inappropriate question but this was Nina. Nina was… special.

"That's none of your business, Private."

Nina's brow knitted together and she almost looked as if she were in physical pain.

"Are you alright?" Alyssa asked softly, feeling awkward. She very rarely felt concern for someone else, especially one of her students, but she had spent a lot of time with Nina. The girl had been her assistant in a way, helping her out with the Garderobe attacks, acting as her right-hand, doing all the little things Alyssa didn't want to do.

"Colonel…" Nina whispered, staring at the floor yet again. Her hands were clasped together and she nervously cracked her knuckles. "You… must know how I feel about you…"

Unfazed, Colonel Searrs peered at her student with a slight frown on her face. "Yes, and?"

Nina's eyes snapped up, widened and filled with discontent. Could anyone truly be that cruel? That heartless? "What do you mean and?"

"What do you want me to do about it, Private?" Alyssa's eyes narrowed. "I do not have illicit affairs with my students. I can only tell you that I appreciate your feelings, as misguided as they are, and that one day you will find someone who can return them. Preferably someone who is not your superior." She paused, and then added, "Or your father."

Nina's face twitched into a vast array of emotions—all negative—before settling on a blank slate. The girl stepped forward anyway, invading Alyssa's personal bubble. Alyssa never backed down, never showed that she was uncomfortable or vulnerable. It was weakness.

"What are you—?"

"Kiss me once and I'll never bring it up again."

Normally, if anyone said such a ridiculous thing to her, Alyssa would laugh in his or her face and walk away. But this was Nina, and Alyssa had never seen so much raw emotion on this girl's face, on anyone's face. It looked as if this request was her last before she would die. She had to have this kiss, or she would die right then and there.

And for some reason Alyssa thought of herself. She thought of herself laying her soul bare to Anh and asking for release from a desire she had had for as long as she had known the other woman.

Suddenly, Alyssa grabbed Nina, spun their bodies around, lifting Nina effortlessly onto her desk, and pressed her lips against her student's.

Nina was obviously surprised. It took her at least five seconds to realize what had just happened before she started returning the kiss.

But she only got to kiss her teacher back for two seconds before the taller woman had taken a step back, eyes half-lidded and lips slightly parted as she let out a slow breath. "Now get out of my classroom," Alyssa growled. "Or I'll pull you off of the next Garderobe invasion."

"You're planning another one?" Nina asked, still sitting on her teacher's desk, not wanting the night to end just yet, willing to act like what had just happened hadn't if that's what her Colonel wanted.

"Maybe, if I have the time. Depends on how tomorrow goes." Depends on if Kuga lives, is what Alyssa meant, because if she died, then it wouldn't be worth invading Garderobe again so soon. No challenge. No fun.

"The final match in Garderobe's annual competition," Nina said, as she realized what tomorrow was. "You're going to watch?" Alyssa always seemed like she had something more important to do than watch two students kill each other.

"I have to," Alyssa replied. "It's a part of something bigger."

Nina's brow furrowed. "The competition is a part of something bigger?"

The corner of Alyssa's lips curved up in a smirk. "No, the outcome is a part of something bigger."

Nina peered curiously at her teacher. She was always so cryptic. It got annoying sometimes, but like most things about the Colonel, it intrigued Nina, made her want to know more about her teacher. "Is there someone there you are… interested in?"

"Yes," Alyssa replied. She sighed when Nina's expression dropped. "But not in the way you are thinking. I'm too busy for… such things." She waved her hand dismissively.

That seemed to boost Nina's mood. If she couldn't have Alyssa, she was at least happy to hear that no one could, at the moment, anyway. Alyssa didn't seem particularly interested.

"Now are you going to get out of my classroom or am I going to have to tranq you and leave your body in Greer's office for her to find tomorrow morning? She would not be too happy about that, a student sleeping in her office."

Nina slid off of Alyssa's desk, once again getting too close to her teacher. Alyssa fought the urge to back up, and instead stared down into Nina's eyes, appearing as emotionless and as icy as ever.

"Goodnight, Colonel," Nina said, appearing equally as stoic. No one would have ever guessed that one of her dreams had just come true. She simply turned and stalked out of the room.

Alyssa watched her go, not moving until the door had closed shut behind her and she was finally alone. She let out a long sigh and rubbed at her temples, feeling a headache coming on.

She thought of her kiss with Nina. Honestly it had mostly been curiosity rather than pity or an act of kindness. Alyssa never did anything for the sake of being kind, or because she pitied anyone, but she did things because she wanted to learn something, find out something, understand something and experience something. She did things because she liked to find out the outcomes, see cause and effect, chain reactions, ripple effects. Her every action was to sate her natural curiosity, her desire to discover what made people tick.

It was that, and wondering what it felt like to be Shizuru. It was exhilarating, kissing someone she shouldn't be kissing. She couldn't and wouldn't deny that. Then again, it was still different for Shizuru, who had feelings for her student. Alyssa had no such feelings to speak of, not for Nina.

But that look in Nina's eyes… she wondered if that's how Natsuki looked at Shizuru, if that's the kind of love and devotion Natsuki felt. Would Natsuki die for Shizuru? Would she be willing to give her life to prove her worth? Give her life to protect Shizuru?

Could love truly do that? Make someone faster, stronger, reckless maybe, but only to protect his or her most precious person? Was that the power of love?

Alyssa knew she would find out this answer for herself tomorrow.

If you die Kuga… I will never forgive you.

Seeing Kagami again had been a truly… interesting experience. Anh couldn't wait to tell Shizuru how that went.

And I also have to thank Alyssa for the address… Anh begrudgingly admitted to herself. She still couldn't believe Alyssa would do such a thing, especially after what Anh had done to her.

She smiled to herself, the key to her apartment swinging around her finger and she strolled away from the garage and towards the faculty's resident hall.

It was cold and quiet. Even though it would be getting warmer soon, she couldn't help but think of December. It was the combination of cold, silence, and dark. She had never seen Garderobe's campus so empty, so void of any life.

Then again, it was almost three in the morning. She hadn't meant to get back so late but she had made a few stops on the trip back to the academy. It had been so long since she left Garderobe. The last time was to investigate the jailbreak of ex-Renegade rebel soldiers, and that was a short trip. Driving out to find Kagami had been different. She got to stop and look around, see what the building tension between the people of Japan was doing to everyday life.

Everyone was afraid. Fear had managed to seep into every aspect of life. So many stores were selling all of their things at ridiculously low prices. Families wanted to move to another country, like birds fleeing a coming storm that only they could sense. There were rumors of a draft and Japan wasn't even at war yet. Yet.

Anh knew. She knew war was coming…. But it wouldn't be with the other nations like everyone thought. War would be fought here first, when everyone broke, when the fear became too much and the paranoia drove everyone to turn on their neighbors. Of course this would be ideal for the Renegades to make their comeback. In fact, Anh wasn't sure if they had ever truly disbanded to begin with. Maybe they had been lying low, waiting for the social temperature to reach a critical state before making their first move for power for the first time in years.

Whatever. She didn't want to think about this now, how her country was slowly falling apart, how the government could no longer promise that civil war wouldn't happen, how if they managed to win the civil war, they would be too crippled to defend from any foreign invasions.

Anh opened the door to the residence hall with a huff and began walking down the corridor. Council members all lived on the first floor, it's where the biggest rooms were and they didn't have to walk far or take the stairs to get to their rooms. Perks.

At this rate, all high schools would be converted to military academies like Garderobe had been years ago, when the first signs of another World War became apparent. The Prime Minister of Japan was just as paranoid as his people these days. He wants a draft now? He wants an army that can protect him, not civilians that adore him.

Have a strong army to put down rebel forces but lose the favor of the people, or pretend as if nothing is brewing within your own borders and risk losing half your country to a rebel organization?

Anh paused outside Rauschenberg's door, realizing the light inside was still on. She weighed her options. Knock on Rauschenberg's door and have a chat with her buddy or go to her own room and get some much needed sleep?

Before she could even decide, the door opened revealing Rauschenberg on the other side.

"Anh," Harris greeted, a bored expression on her face. She gestured to her apartment. "Coming in?"

Anh blinked. Rarely she was caught off-guard but this was surprising. "How'd you know it was me?" She asked as she stepped into the apartment and headed straight for the couch. She sat down on it and sprawled out, watching as Rauschenberg took an armchair opposite her.

"For a soldier that's supposedly good at sneaking around, you have some pretty heavy footsteps," Rauschenberg replied, offering Anh a bottle of red wine that had been standing on the glass coffee table between them.

Anh shook her head. "No thanks." She stretched out and then rolled onto her side to better face her friend. "And you knew they were my footsteps? That's impressive."

The officer had an amused smirk on her face and then took a sip of her wine before replying, "Actually, I knew it was you when you stopped outside my room… who else would it be?"

Anh laughed and sat up. "Okay you have a point there." Harris had friends, but only Anh she considered close enough for it to be okay if she decided to drop in unannounced at three in the morning. "So," Anh said, leaning back and crossed her ankles. "What are you doing awake, Officer?"

The other woman ran a hand through her jet-black hair and Anh took a second to admire the streak of gray that ran through it. "I can't sleep. The final match is tomorrow."

Actually, Anh had completely forgotten about that. "Shit," she said, standing up. "I have to see Shizuru—"

"Relax," Rauschenberg said, gesturing for Anh to sit down. "She's sleeping now. Or at least trying to. If she's made any progress then you don't want to ruin it. Tomorrow will be hard for her."

"Hard for Shizuru? All she has to do is watch, it's Natsuki who is going to have a hard time, you know, with a psycho trying to kill her and everything. On national television."

"Yeah," Harris agreed, "Whose idea was that anyway?"

"They started doing it when there weren't enough recruits."

"Seeing a soldier get hunted and killed by another soldier on TV would make more people want to join the military? What kind of fucked up reverse psychology is that?"

Anh sighed. "I don't know, but it worked. Fuuka Military Academy had to get new buildings built and had to clear more land for their tent sectors… place filled up like crazy. Garderobe too had nearly triple the applications than it normally got but it also transformed Garderobe into a more 'elite' and 'private' academy. Gave them a chance to be more selective." She shrugged. "Kids see the final match on TV and want to be the action heroes. They watch it when they're young, when they have no idea what it's really like, and want to be standing over the body of their fallen opponents, with the crowd cheering and the fame thrust upon them after that."


Anh nodded. "So… what did I miss? How is she?"

"Not good. She disappeared for a bit today, so I think she went to see Natsuki."

Anh swallowed. She wondered how that went, but was more concerned for Natsuki's life.

Rauschenberg continued, "If Kuga dies tomorrow—"

"She won't," Anh stated, her expression hardening. "Private Sexy Pants has more luck than me and I consider myself fabulously lucky."

"It takes more than luck to survive the competition," Rauschenberg reminded Anh, the atmosphere becoming somber.

"She has…" Anh tried to find a word, "heart. She has heart. Have you seen the way that girl fights? She isn't fighting just for herself, she's fighting for those she loves and wants to protect. I've never met a more determined gir—woman. Who so loves believes the impossible, and if you have passion you are fearless."

Rauschenberg looked doubtful. "I hope you're right. I believe in Kuga's skills, I just don't believe that Marguerite chick is going to play by the rules."

"There are no rules in the arena," Anh said, "Not in the final match and not when you know your opponent is trying to kill you."

"Speaking of which, we should make sure Jin isn't up to something," Harris said, glancing to the side where her walkie-talkie stood on an end table next to her seat.

"The Anti-Jin Revolution!" Anh agreed vehemently, nodding like an excited child. "Alyssa will probably be here for the match tomorrow… we should talk to her about Jin and what precautions we should take to make sure she isn't giving Marguerite some unfair advantage."

Rauschenberg flung Anh the walkie-talkie, who caught it and held it in her lap, looking at it with disdain. Harris tilted her head to the side. "You wanna contact Golden Eagle or should I?"

Anh snickered at 'Golden Eagle' but then frowned as she handed the walkie-talkie back to Harris. "I'd prefer if you did it. I don't think she wants to hear from me."

Rauschenberg gave Anh a look that said, 'you are SO telling me that story once this is over.' She then brought the walkie-talkie to her lips and said, "Golden Eagle this is Lone Wolf, come in Golden Eagle."

There was silence for a few moments before a crackling sound was heard.

"You're going to be a DEAD wolf if you ever contact me at such an abysmal time ever again. What the HELL is so important that you'd risk pissing ME off?"

Rauschenberg's eyes widened and she shot Anh a desperate look that asked for help. The time had completely slipped her mind, and by the look on Anh's face Rauschenberg could tell Anh hadn't.

Anh snickered. "Ever the joyful one, isn't she?"

Rauschenberg huffed and then responded, "Sorry. But just a heads up, tomorrow we'll be doing some Anti-Jin Revolutionizing. Got it?"

"Silly me for thinking that such a plan was already obviously expected without needing to contact each other to confirm it first. I frequently forget you both are idiots."

"Goodnight Colonel Grumpy Pants," Anh sing-songed as she stole the walkie-talkie from an annoyed Harris and flicked the thing off before tossing it to the other end of the couch. "I'd swear that woman has a stick up her ass."

"And if she could she would use that stick to beat us to death."

"She's not such a bitch when I have my fingers in her—"

"La, la, la I'm not listening!" Rauschenberg yelled, quickly placing her hands over her ears and squeezing her eyes shut.

Anh chuckled and eventually they both sat back and relaxed.

They both stared at each other in silence for a minute, both seemingly reflecting on their earlier conversation. It was a comfortable quiet, a sense of calm, a lull before the approaching storm.

"Hey Rauschenberg?"


"Promise me something," Anh said, leaning forward and appearing serious, something she rarely ever was. Her violet eyes pierced into the brown of the officer sitting across from her.

Rauschenberg looked skeptical. "Okay…"

"If Natsuki is killed tomorrow, promise me you will help me take Shizuru down before she does anything stupid."

The officer looked disturbed, her eyes widening and her back straightening as she realized just the kind of hell that would break loose if Natsuki was killed in the arena. "I promise I won't let Shizuru kill one of her own students in the event of Kuga's death."

Anh, looking satisfied, gave a curt nod and smiled at her friend. "Good. And if she tries something and you manage to get a good shot on her, I give you permission as your Colonel to tranq her."

Officer Rauschenberg looked uncomfortable now, shifting so that one slender leg crossed over the other. "Let's pray it doesn't come to that."

"Pray all you want. When Shizuru is a demon she doesn't care how much you've prayed."

"Demon Fujino?" Her dark brows rose in fascination. She had heard amazing things about the so-called 'demon' that was said to dwell within their soft-spoken, Kyoto-born friend. She'd never seen said demon, but then again she didn't really know Shizuru that well until after joining the Council as Yukino's replacement.

"It's been a while since she's emerged, but yeah. I wouldn't be surprised. With the way she's been acting recently… yeah… we may lose Shizuru to the demon again, especially if anything bad happens to Natsuki. We need to be ready."

Rauschenberg glanced at her rifle, which was leaning up against the side of her bed on the other side of the room. "I'll be ready," she said quietly, returning her gaze to Anh's.

Anh nodded once. "Let's hope Natsuki is too."

There had been too much crying going on in Nabatame's tent. She hated it, really. She felt like she was being weak for Tanaka, like she was helpless, like she was abandoning her girlfriend.

But she knew deep down this uselessness was not her fault. If Garderobe were to give her Tanaka's last recorded location she would go hunting for the French woman herself, take down the Renegades headquarters brick by brick, mercilessly kill anyone that got in her way. She would save her girlfriend.

But such a thing was denied to her. She had checked. She had asked. She was told that she could not interfere with a military investigation, that she was small time, that she was still just a student when it came down to it.

So was Tanaka, she had argued. Tanaka was still a student when they encouraged her to take this high level mission, this path to capture and surely death.

Was she still alive?

Yes, she was.

Nabatame could feel it… feel Tanaka's heartbeat match her own, feel Tanaka's breathing… frightened but stable. She could feel it. The woman was alive. Her heart, wherever it was, was safe.

For now. For as long as Tanaka had information the Renegades wanted, or as long as they found her useful, she would live.

Then again, they didn't even know it was the Renegades. The Renegades were never officially back in action. It was just reports of recent, mysterious activity. But the evidence was piling up, even Nabatame paid enough attention to the news to know that much. They weren't back to the public, but they were back, and they were in that forest, capturing and doing god knows what to soldiers.

"Goddamn it!" Nabatame growled, punching her fist into a punching bag she had set up in her room on Dr. Nakada's recommendation.

To get her anger out is what the doctor had told her.

Instead the damn thing took up what would have been Tanaka's side of the tent had they not pushed their beds together months ago. It pissed Nabatame right off. Yeah, she was angry. The punching bag made it worse.

To top things off, one of Nabatame's only friends, a first year named Natsuki Kuga, was going up against Garderobe's star student tomorrow in the final match of the competition, often a life or death situation, and there was yet again nothing that Nabatame could do about it.

She was helpless. Useless. She couldn't do a damn thing to help anyone.

The third year stepped away from her punching bag and looked around her lonely tent. Most of Tanaka's stuff was gone. She had packed most of her clothes, not having had much to begin with, and took all of her computer supplies as her mission was supposed to be a fairly harmless position in Intel. All she was supposed to do was sit in a military tent somewhere and stare at a computer screen all day.

How could that have possibly gotten her captured by the enemy?


Nabatame fell into her desk chair, leaned her head back, and closed her eyes. Maybe, just maybe, if she was in darkness long enough, she'd forget about all of this bullshit and everything would be fine.

Tanaka would be back in her bed, holding her close, and Natsuki would kick Tomoe's ass tomorrow in the competition.

Nabatame had never really fought Tomoe, but she knew from watching her that the girl was special. She's the kind of girl that had been trained all her life for the glory of military life, or as glorious as it got before dying.

And Natsuki was just a girl from Fuuka City. No special training, no famous politician dad, no large sum of money, no pedigree, no blood thirst.

But she had anger. And spunk. And determination. And love.

And she had Shizuru. And Nao. And most of the Council on her side.

And me, Nabatame thought. She has me.

Come on, Kuga, you have to do this. You have to win. I couldn't bear losing you too.

Haruka tossed and turned all night. She woke up several times, her sleep plagued with dreams involving Yukino sometimes and Natsuki others. Her room was more lavish than the others, but despite her expensive sheets, comfortable bed, and fluffy pillows… sleep continually seemed to evade her.

Eventually she got up, stalked to her kitchen, got a glass of water, and returned to bed.

Kuga. You have guts but do you have what it takes to win a competition? Haruka wondered, sipping her water as she sat atop her bed, staring into darkness. Shizuru will be destroyed if you lose. If you lose I will lose my Lieutenant as well.

Because if Natsuki lost she was dead, there was no way Tomoe would let her out alive. Haruka knew that, but there was nothing she could do. It was almost expected for the final matches to end with death. They tried to prevent it the best they could but usually the remaining competitors were so afraid of being killed themselves that they couldn't control themselves. Their survival instinct, the instinct the government was trying to instill in all of their young soldiers, was what kept one competitor alive. The strongest wins. That was just the world they lived in these days, with total war right around the corner.

They needed to create fearless warriors that wanted survival above all else and would kill no matter what to achieve it. Tomoe had that survival instinct. Natsuki had that survival instinct. But whose was stronger? Who desired life more? Who feared death more? These were the questions the competition sought to answer, the answers were what determined the winner.

Forever changed, no one ever came out of their final match the same.

In a way, Haruka thought, they both die. No one comes out of the arena the same person they were when they first entered.

It's a dog eat dog world these days. The country had to see that. Kill or be killed, that was the philosophy, that's the kind of thinking that would breed the best soldiers. The winner will receive honor to last a lifetime. The final match was aired nationally as a form of recruitment video. Glory. Honor. Strength. Power. Survival. This is what Garderobe, joining the military, serving your country offered.

Haruka placed her glass on her end table and got under her covers again, staring blankly at the ceiling now. Her mind still wouldn't shut up, all these stupid questions. They were making her mad.

"Yeah there's no way I am going to get any sleep tonight."

It came as no surprise to Shizuru that sleep evaded her as usual. Staring up at her ceiling was beginning to get boring again. She turned onto her side and stared at her window, imagining the silhouette of a girl appearing before the glass slid open and in climbed her student.

She shivered, pulling the covers tighter around her and squeezing her eyes shut.

She didn't like this. She didn't like it from the beginning but now… something changed. There was something different, worse than before. Was it Tomoe's confidence? Jin's strange behavior? The arrival of General Homura? Something… wrong was happening, and she didn't know what it was but knew it wouldn't be good for her or Natsuki.

That name. Natsuki's name. It was always in the forefront of her mind and though she wanted to sleep, knew she needed to sleep, that silently whispered name lingered.

Please. If there is anything I can ask of you… survive. Survive and come back to me.


Shizuru's eyes instantly opened at the sound of her alarm clock. When had she fallen asleep?

And suddenly, Shizuru realized, this was it.

It was the morning of Natsuki's execution.

It's hard to have a character that makes mistakes without making them seem stupid, naïve, or selfish.

I hope Shizuru's explanations weren't incredibly confusing. Just trust me when I say she was a little whacked out. Think psycho Shizuru but non-violent and more panicky. Basically I wanted to parallel what happened in Mai HiMe, where Shizuru went crazy over trying to protect Natsuki who she was fairly certain was going to die unless she succeeded. Or something like that. Love is irrational and makes people do dumb things, especially when fear is involved.

This chapter made a LOT more sense in my head.

But I'm glad it's over because I'm SUPER pumped to start working on chapter 30, which is the 'finale' of Part II and chock full O' action rather than angst. I'll be trying to get that out as soon as possible in an attempt to make you all forget this chapter. No big deal.

Chapter Song: Fallen by Sarah Mclachlan

Promised Andrea years ago I would use this song in a chapter of Monster and I could think of no better time it would fit. Poor Shizuru.

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Thanks for reading!