A/N: So we end an adventure.

Ch. 18 Mai

I don't know when it started. I mean, I've always cared about her in the same way I cared about everyone else. There was nothing special about Nao Yuuki. If anything, I found her personality to be aggravating beyond belief and thought that she was a rash, irresponsible time bomb waiting to for the right moment to cause the maximum amount of damage to those around her.

Initially, when I moved in, Nao was extremely resistant. She hated sharing the room with Mikoto in the first place, and another addition simply made the small area even more crowded. If it were not for my cooking skills, I believe she never would have let me in at all.

At the time I didn't really care how she felt about it. I really needed a place to stay, and my recent break up with Yuuichi left me with a broken heart. At best, I felt apathetic about those around me as I wallowed in self pity left over from a failed fantasy.

Yuuichi and I tried to remain friends. It wasn't as if we parted on particularly bad terms. Our romance began with a grand battle for the fate of the world. Sadly, it ended in a way that could only be described as surreal. One day we woke up and realized it was over. With time, I managed to overcome my sadness. It wasn't easy as such things are never painless. People say that time heals all wounds; they never talk about the scar that remained long after.

I buried myself in work. Part of it was that I needed the money; the other was that I didn't really want to think about my new found loneliness. Mikoto was great at keeping me company, but that hardly compensated for a serious relationship. It didn't help that she was almost always bouncing off the wall with excess energy, or couldn't really hold a serious conversation with me. I swear, at times I thought that girl was purposely misleading me. My life had fallen into stasis. It was like I was trying my best to run forward only to realize that the floor beneath me was speeding backward. Life was all about work, and money. Honestly, looking back now, I was a silly person.

When Nao was shot the first time, something inside me clicked. We had fights before about her troublesome habit of luring predators from the streets. I was fairly certain that she pulled more than petty pranks on those fool enough to follow her. There was little I could do about her problem. It was obvious from the beginning she was obsessed with the act, much in the same way a gambler couldn't stop gambling. The rush and excitement from winning over a foe was too much.

Addiction was a dangerous thing. I could see the subtle hints of its effects on Nao: baggy eyes from lack of sleep, faint trembling when not on the prowl and a shorter temper on days where she couldn't get her fix. People didn't really consider it, but behaviors could be addictive too.

To say our early days together were calm would be a blatant lie. She hated my guts, especially after I called everyone together to stop her from getting hurt again. Admittedly, I underestimated her potential reactions. The cut on my arm wasn't nearly as painful as it looked; she obviously hadn't meant to do it. Regardless, even if I chose to leave her alone, I simply could not apply such a decision in reality.

I probably cared about her more than I should have. Calling up Natsuki and forcing her to follow Nao at a distance was quite the feat. Natsuki, being the type of person she was, really wanted to walk up to our red-headed friend and kick her in the face to snap her back to reality. I didn't let her of course. I didn't want to hurt Nao more than necessary, especially after her mother just died.

At the time we thought it was mysterious that she travelled to some random suburb around the city. I thought, "Maybe she's visiting her father." I was surprised to see her throw a rock at some man in front of his home. I wanted to scold her for doing something so asinine. She didn't have to take her anger on a poor stranger. I was very wrong.

It wasn't clear when she fell asleep that night. It was funny how she looked so innocent at that moment while crying into my shoulder. I had to remind myself that she was still just a high school student. Even after all we went through, we were still children in many ways, more than most people in some.

Somehow during all that, I found myself part of Nao's life. She suddenly opened up to me after that, but not in the way most would expect. Where most people opened their front door when welcoming a guest, her front door was undergoing repairs. Instead, she somehow forced me to jump through a window.

Her friendship made me feel special. I liked being the one she wanted to talk to about anything that ranged from arbitrary events to her personal problems. Once more, I felt like I mattered. I hadn't felt like that since breaking up with Yuuichi. It came to the point that she came to me after her sudden epiphany about her dangerous hobby.

We went to confront her worst enemy together. I didn't want her to kill Osagawa-san, and hoped to deter her from acting rashly. At the very least, I was there to warn her of the consequences of her actions. Most of all, I hoped that Osagawa-san had a few redeeming qualities that would force Nao to rethink her resolve. Unfortunately, nothing turned out as planned.

He was probably the most atrocious being I've ever laid eyes on, a disgrace among men. We couldn't just stand aside and watch him hurt his family. They jerked in surprise as we barreled through the front door. Nao took the initiative by attacking. I couldn't stop her, nor did I want to. The best I could do was offer a few words of comfort to the woman and her daughter. The wife looked at me with eyes renewed as she processed the situation. Before I knew it, she had lunged at Nao with a frying pan. My heart lurched with fear as I cried for her to look out.

Finally, everything drew to an end. We reported the situation to the local police. The unconscious monster was wheeled away to an ambulance while his battered family looked on with relief and confusion. When Nao told me of Osagawa-san's fate, I couldn't bring myself to feel sorry for him. A part of me was actually glad of this form of vengeance she managed to achieve.

That time when she begged me to feign a relationship; I felt my heart suddenly beat faster. It wasn't as if we were particularly attracted to each other or anything. Perhaps it was just the rush of sneaking around, though not in the traditional sense. Yet, in a week's time, I found myself alone again.

Without explanation, she suddenly disappeared from my life. Why I suddenly became such a hated person was a mystery. Wasn't she the one who wanted my help? Was all that drew us together Asahara-san's obsession? Was I just some sort of tool? It was hard to accept that despite what I thought, I wasn't all that important to her. I wanted to track her down and force some sort of answer from her, but I let her do what she liked. Nao was never one to listen to reason anyway.

To combat my growing feelings of neglect and loneliness, I threw myself into work again. The café owner was overjoyed to see the return of his hardest worker. It didn't help that I was constantly depressed as I remembered the few times she had visited me during work.

Still, things were tolerable until one day, Asahara-san burst through the front door with tears in her eyes. She slapped me, and blamed me for changing her senpai into a monster. I quickly concluded that Nao had done something dumb again. The problem was that she was actively avoiding me.

My body moved on its own. Before I knew it, I was on the ground bleeding as she was holding me and begging me to stay alive. She was a silly person. Why would I live if death promised such sweet release? I wouldn't have to hurt anymore.

Then she confessed.

I couldn't say that I was really all that happy at the time; my mind was more focused on the sharp pain shooting through my body. The sirens got louder to the point where her voice was drowned out. In the end, I wasn't sure if the confession actually happened, or was an illusion brought to life by a mind in a dying body.

The next thing I knew I was awake in a hospital bed, feeling weaker than I had ever been. The doctor was there to calmly explain to me that I had been shot, but my attacker had died. I suppose he said that to calm any fears I would have about a repeat attack. I sighed, thinking back to the Carnival. Compared to that, a man who tried to murder me wasn't frightening anyway.

They let me see Takumi first. I was glad to see he was doing fine and living healthy. Akira was taking good care of him. Of course, he couldn't stop tears from flowing down his face when he saw me in such a state. I couldn't blame him, though had to admit that Akira also did well in toughening him up a bit. His past self would've bawled uncontrollably at the site of his hospitalized sister.

After everyone offered their congratulations on surviving, a feat that I did not think deserved praise, they each left some gift before returning to their normal lives. The only person that I wanted to see did not appear. Maybe her confession was not just a product of my imagination after all.

When she finally showed up, I wanted to hit her over the head for waiting so long. I swore that she was nothing more than a spoilt child trapped in a teenager's body. Yet in that sense, her admission of love was too cute. I couldn't turn her away. While I didn't quite return her feelings, a part of me felt something that I didn't recognize.

When she left my room that night, I couldn't bring myself to follow. What Nao said was true. All we were doing was playing pretend. I didn't even deserve to call her my friend anymore, not after I toyed with her feelings for so long. It felt good though. She was attentive, and gave in to all my requests. I knew it was unfair to her. She gave everything only to receive nothing in return.

It wasn't as if I didn't try. I searched the depths of my heart to find the feelings that could properly return Nao's. I openly flirted with her, testing both our boundaries. I thought that maybe something inside would wake up and realize how wonderful she was. No, that's not it. I knew that she was wonderful in her own way. I simply couldn't accept her love.

Love was the indescribable thing that eluded me. I thought I had it once with Yuuichi, but was that truly love? Our breakup left behind a larger wound than I had originally believed. It wasn't his fault of course. We had our time together. It didn't work out. That was all. He was neither rude nor neglectful. He didn't cheat on me or beat me. We just realized one day that things weren't working out. It was as if we woke up from a dream.

Afterward I couldn't help but doubt myself. He was my most important person. If the love I felt for Yuuichi was so easily forgotten then was it really love? Was love nothing more than an illusion that was fooled ourselves into believing? Were humans even capable of such an emotion? As HIME's we saw the worst that humanity could offer, yet none of us could testify of the best.

I found my answer when policemen answered Nao's cell. Fear overwhelmed me. I knew in an instant that I cared more about her than anyone else. It broke my heart to see her lying still in the hospital bed trapped in dreams. Immediately, I regretted everything. Why was I so stupid not to realize that she had become my most important person?

Every time she stirred in her slumber, my heart hammered in anticipation and hope, only to be crushed once more after realizing that the movement was nothing more than an involuntary twitch. She was stable, but gone. Even as I did my best to coax her back to the waking world, every moment that passed sent me further into despair. Would I never get a second chance?

Finally on the third day, she spoke. It was dry and rasp from lack of water and use. I nearly jumped out of my seat in joy. Without thinking, I grabbed her into a tight hug.

"Thank God," I cried. I would have confessed my feelings right then too, but she gasped in pain and asked to be released. Ashamed, I let go somewhat reluctantly. Her voice too, seemed calm and lacked that sweet tone that she once used to address me when we were together. Disappointed, I excused myself to inform the doctor. A flicker of hope rushed through me as she grabbed my arm and begged me not to leave. Maybe her lack of emotion was due to exhaustion rather loss of affection.

Calmly, I promised to return, wishing I didn't offer to go in the first place. Nonetheless, the doctor had to be told in case anything important needed to be done. I didn't want to put Nao at risk for a few more selfish moments with her.

While she talked with the physician, I took a walk around the hospital to distract myself. In the lobby I ran into Natsuki, who decided to stop by after work. She was happy to hear that Nao finally awoke.

"What do you plan to do now?" she asked. Of course, Natsuki was referring to my relationship. She saw me break down by Nao's bedside as she lay in a semi-comatose state. It didn't take much to realize that I returned Nao's feelings. It frustrated her too, knowing that we couldn't do anything to help the red head.

I stared at the ground trying to formulate my response. "Tell her how I feel, and hope she forgives me."

Natsuki smirked. "Well, I don't know. Nao's the type to hold a grudge," she said jokingly.

I smiled in return, but was unable to bring myself to laugh. Her words didn't quite alleviate the situation. "Natsuki," I chided softly.

She gave me warm smile. "Nao will definitely forgive you if you tell her the truth." Then the woman glanced behind me. "Isn't that her doctor?"

Sure enough Nao's doctor was walking down the hall towards us. She nodded her head to acknowledge our presence while passing by on her way to do continue working. This also meant that Nao was lying in bed alone now, waiting for me to go back. I quickly said goodbye to Natsuki, who decided it was better that she leave without greeting the redhead.

I bought a couple of juice boxes from a vending machine before heading back to the room. Nao looked helpless in the bed, mostly because half her limbs were in casts. She also appeared quite unhappy with her situation. She reached over for the juice I brought in, only to be rebuked. Like a child, she pouted and refused to cooperate. It didn't help that I found her behavior cute.

Then she asked, "How did I get here?"

I tried to explain to her the events as it was told to me. It wasn't particularly complicated. "Fumi-san said she walked in on the boys beating you. They decided to attack her too, but were 'quickly dealt with'." I quoted the school chairman's last words on the subject.

Nao bit her lip and turned away. "Did they…" she paused, as if afraid of something.

It didn't take much for me to grasp what she meant. I told her only what I knew, which hopefully, would be some comfort. "She also told me that you were still fully clothed." I thought it strange at the time when Fumi emphasized that detail. Now I knew why. "I thought they did a test too; didn't they tell you the result?"

At this, Nao visibly relaxed. She shook her head, choosing to face me once more, though I could still see remnants of her tears of fear. So, I decided to change the subject to something far more lighthearted.

"But Nao," I spoke. "I didn't expect you to still be a virgin."

She gagged, and visibly turned red. Sounding indignant, she asked, "Who told you that?"

"Natsuki," I answered calmly.

Nao snorted. "She doesn't know shit."

"Oh, does this mean that I won't get to be you're first?" I teased, secretly hoping for a positive response.

She looked shocked at my subtle confession. "Mai, are-"

"I'm sorry," I interrupted, and buried my face into the bed covers next to her. "I'm sorry for using you. I'm sorry for not trusting you. I'm sorry that I didn't respond to your feelings sooner. I'm sorry for not running after you that night, and not realizing how much I cared about you."

"Mai," she said softly.

I continued my rant, hoping to explain myself and maybe, get her to forgive me. "I was so afraid before."

She raised an eyebrow. "Of what?"

"Of losing my love the way I lost it with Yuuichi." I wrapped my hand around hers. "But I know now," I said, "it's worth taking the chance. I really want to take a chance with you Nao."

It was hard to believe, but tears started welling in her eyes. Instantly, I felt my heart wrench with her reaction. Insecurity overcame me; it was now or never. She bit her lip in a feeble attempt to control herself. I braced for rejection.

My dearest spider broke into uncontrollable laughter. "That was," she said, before wincing in pain as tremors traveled down her body. "That was the corniest thing I've ever heard." Even though it hurt, she didn't try to stop.

Using her good arm to wipe away the tears, she let her amusement subside. After a few seconds, a devilish grin surfaced on her face. "I'll be glad to take you back if that's the case," she said as if to taunt me. Only Nao would be petty enough to care who broke up with whom. As soon as the grin appeared, it morphed into a sheepish smile as her eyes suddenly studied the window with immense interest. "I lied," she said, continuing before I could respond, "I am a virgin."

A little surprised, but altogether happy, I let her slowly regain her confidence. "I know," I confessed. Replying to her confused look, I said, "I know what you're like. You hate men too much." While it was a shame she didn't really give good men a chance, I was glad that it led to this opportunity for the both of us.

The following weeks were difficult. Fumi visited a few days later informing Nao of her suspension from school. The school board had moved to have the girl expelled for possessing a weapon on campus, but the chairwoman was able to change their minds. However, she was not able to get the red-head back to school. By then, Nao had become well known for killing two men, and an armed fight on campus only worsened her reputation. The local parents had become aware of Nao's existence, and were far from amused with her actions. It had taken great effort on Fumi's part to defend Nao from further punishment from both the school and law enforcement. They told her she could graduate, on the condition she not attend class. For the moment, she was still allowed to live on campus. It didn't help that nearly all the students avoided her like the plague.

As for the boys who attacked her. They were quickly charged with attempted murder of a fellow student and the chairwoman. All of them worked out plea-bargains. While I wanted them to face the full punishment of the law, the fact that Nao did not have to relive the event to testify was definitely a benefit. She claimed she was fine and would gladly do it, but I did not want her to risk it.

Sawatori-san visited a few times. He brought along some expensive looking gifts. I even felt a little jealous of the extra attention, but noted that he seemed to unconsciously cover his groin every time he was near the bed. Nao said something about hitting him, and I think I knew where.

We decided to move in together. As for where, it had yet to be decided. There were, of course, the little details that needed to be worked out. While romantic, the idea of living together existed for far more practical purposes. The two of us simply couldn't afford to live alone, not in a decent place at least. We began scouting areas together during free time. The most promising option, thus far, was a place close Natsuki's office. It wasn't the safest area, but affordable, and near where we worked.

When graduation came by, she wasn't allowed to attend. Numerous objections from parents successfully barred her from the celebration. Nao didn't seem the least bit upset at the decision. She actually appeared quite satisfied as she no longer needed to attend a ceaselessly long ceremony that meant as much to her as it would to a rock.

With her newfound extra time, she dedicated more effort to learning more from Natsuki and expanding the small time business. I finally managed to get a permit for my own Ramen stand. The hours were long, but Nao frequently dropped by for breaks, partly because I opened up shop a couple blocks down from the office. Soon enough, regular customers would stop by for lunch or dinner.

It wasn't easy, but we've made it work. As far as I know, she doesn't actively hunt perverts anymore, unless hired to do so. Due to her unusual expertise, the police have often recruited her for special investigations. I don't believe any of them know of her past.

Nao and I still get into arguments of course; we are human after all. Still, I'm happy now and look forward to the future.

Final Notes: I'm not quite sure what to say. Thanks everyone for faithfully following the story and kicking my ass to update. Hopefully, I didn't disappoint you too much with this last chapter.

For those of you who occasionally glance at my blog, I'm preparing a humorous review of this story mixed with insights into my writing process. It'll be up in a couple of weeks.