A/N: I'll leave a longer note at the end, since I don't want to keep you waiting with reading a block of text in the beginning. I'd advise you read the chapter thoroughly before making up your mind about it. You'll maybe notice that the PoV is handled a bit differently. Only a bit.
Well then, have a pleasant read with the last installment!
Disclaimer: I don't own Mai-HiME/Otome.
Mai timidly knocked on the mahogany door. She was invited to come in. Reito was standing some distance away from her, with his hands folded behind his back, while he gazed down from the window of the tallest administrative building in Fuuka city. He didn't turn to look at her and she took it as a sign to make herself comfortable in the chair in front the young man's dark desk. She fidgeted in her seat, feeling uncomfortable in this huge and cold office.
"Would you like something to drink, Mai-san?" he finally addressed her and turned towards her with a smile. She greeted him with the same, as she was able to tell that he wasn't insincere.
"Yes, thank you. Tea would be nice."
Reito nodded and ordered some before circling around his desk and coming to stand directly in front of her. "Why don't we sit over there? The last thing I want to do is treat you like a business partner."
He gestured at a table with two armchairs at the corner of the vast room. Mai quickly scurried over to them, provoking a light laugh from Reito. She turned to glare at him with a faint blush. A woman brought in the promised tea and excused herself.
The two of them helped themselves to the hot brew and drank silently. Mai couldn't bring herself to break the silence.
"This isn't how I imagined my last year of high school," Reito jested with a shadow of sadness in his eyes. "Could you tell me how Mikoto's doing? Lately I can't seem to be able to get a hold of her."
"Just fine, now that things have settled back to normal. It's… been a year, after all."
"Yes, it has. What do you think of the new headmaster?" he couldn't hide his humour, which made Mai smile.
"I don't know if headmaster Sakomizu is too happy with his new post. He can't take care of his flowers anymore," she let out a laugh, glad that she could lead a normal conversation with Reito again. She cleared her throat. "Yesterday I saw governor Himeno on the news."
"Ah, Nagi's having a blast writing her speeches and Mashiro's enjoying their company, like always. I daresay Himeno Fumi was born to be somebody's puppet," he smiled apologetically at the followed-up frown. "I'm sorry. Maybe I should keep such thoughts to myself."
"Ah, no!" Mai busied herself with her empty cup. "And how… have you been, Reito-san?"
He relaxed back in his chair as his expression softened more. Mai realized that this was the most honest smile he had ever shown her. She felt her cheeks heat up.
"Physically, I'm top-notch. I've a lot of work though – I've to keep the fragile peace we managed to obtain these past months. After we drove Searrs away the crime rate went down a bit, but in the recent weeks different… individuals have started to act up. Nothing serious though. And with the help of the five SENYU I have command over… Let's say I've nothing to worry about. I think Searrs have given up on Fuuka for good," he refilled their cups.
"While I'm glad that you're the one watching over us," Mai quietly began, "I didn't receive an answer to my question."
"Truthfully? Natsuki-san was right. The top is the loneliest place on Earth. Though I'm trying my best not to go insane." He gazed at the steam rising from his tea. "And how's everybody dealing with…?"
Mai shook her head, her eyes closed.
"Sagisawa-sensei said she suffered too much. Despite the fact that we received the original formula for the serum, it was hellishly complex to try and devise a counter-medicine from it," she paused for a moment and met his sympathetic eyes. "But even if she were to recover physically, the doctor said it would be more of a question of whether she would've had the will to wake up. I sometimes wonder if she simply wanted it all to end with her."
"She… Mai-san, if I were in her place I wouldn't have wanted to wake up and face all of you," Reito quietly confessed, provoking a bewildered look. "I can't go into details, but some of the things she did and the decisions she made… they're hard to live with. But then again, she's the most stubborn person I've met."
The small smile returned to Mai's face. "Then you haven't spent enough time with Shizuru-san or Nao-chan."
"I'd gladly spend a calm afternoon with the former, but I've my reservations towards Yuuki-san," his laugh infected Mai as well.
They chatted two hours away before Mai noticed the time and jumped to her feet, apologizing.
"I still can't figure whether it's good or not," Reito hesitantly ventured before the girl could leave, "that life continues, regardless of the participants."
"Any regrets, Reito-san?"
He didn't need to say what it was.
"Maybe… maybe I should bring you lunch next time we meet?"
"Please do, I'll be looking forward to it!"
Nao rested her chin on her palm as she stared out of the window during a particularly boring class of ancient Japanese literature. While the teacher rambled on and on about how much free time the aristocrats of the Heian period had on their hands, Nao thought back to events not too long ago.
It's that time of the year again.
After the small war had ended and all of the political bullshit had been dealt with, life had hit her with the full consequences of her actions. She was behind on her studies and her attendance record was low, which meant that she couldn't obtain a scholarship. At the moment she was relying only on the relief funds given to orphans and the small sum she was receiving for her part-time job as a nun at the campus' church. That duty wasn't her first choice, but the bastard Sakomizu had given her no other option. But even if it was hard, things had started looking up for her.
The Bridge club had long been suspended, its members going their separate ways. Nao still met with them on occasion, but they all tended to keep their distance from each other. The only people she met up with were Mai, Mikoto, Chie and, of course, her own roommate Aoi. And the idiot-trio, with whom she shared most of her classes, but she had never counted them as a part of the club. From time to time she would catch a glimpse of Fujino and the Executives, but Kanzaki was all but gone. And… another huge part of her daily life was gone.
The bell rang and she quickly made her way to the door, eager to climb up to the roof and have lunch in peace. Of course, somebody had to stop her.
"What is it, Yumemiya?" she turned to regard the girl with agitation.
"I was wondering… All of this time I couldn't bring myself to ask you, but what hap-?"
A hand was slapped over the surprised girl's mouth, preventing her from finishing her question. She muffled in protest and Nina finally let go. Nao would've smiled if she was in the mood. For the past months she wasn't.
"None of your business," she crossed her arms and looked away from her two classmates. "Would've been easier for her to have just died that time. Instead..."
"Nao-san…" Nina's soft tone felt calming to her ears. She hadn't heard her name being called out like that in a very long time. Nao thought that maybe she could try and talk more with her dark-haired classmate. And also, Nina held a slight resemblance to a certain someone.
"My granny once said that dying is like going to a deep and peaceful sleep," Arika added, a shade hopefully, successfully ruining the moment.
"I don't know. I've done neither of those," Nao irritably shot back before turning her back to them and sliding out of the room.
Her trip to the roof was uneventful. When she climbed the final flight of stairs, she opened the door and was greeted with the chilly air. Soon, she wouldn't be able to eat alone like this. She pulled a sandwich from her bag and chewed on it, while she watched the passing clouds. The wind blew and she shivered.
Was this what peace was supposed to feel like? If everything had played out according to plan, what was this feeling of emptiness? She was sure that there were remaining pieces to be fixed here and there, but it wasn't her job to meddle.
And when has that stopped you?
An idea sneakily wormed its way in her head. It gnawed at her until she decided to give it serious consideration.
Let Kanzaki deal with the big-shots. I'm going to get some things done my own way.
Nao finished her sandwich and headed back inside. She was tempted to skip the rest of the classes, but she had to work harder on her records. The long-forgotten flame of excitement sparked to life in her chest.
Shizuru patiently sat through the meeting of the student council. The Head-executive was doing all the talking again, which meant that the only thing she was required to do was to nod and at the end deny all of Haruka's outrageous requests.
"I see the Executives finally caught you," Shizuru took a sip from her steaming green tea and smiled at the rumoured Ice Princess, who regarded her with a scowl.
"You've got quite the reputation going on about you," she continued, determined to get to know better the girl she had met last night.
"Said the person who's known throughout the whole campus," Natsuki grumbled in return. "Looks like you also got caught, though."
Shizuru sighed and put her cup down on the surface of the desk. As it was, they were both waiting for the student council president to come and give out their punishment.
"What, they saw you sneaking about last night?" the dark-haired girl rested her chin on her arms.
"Unfortunately." Shizuru sneaked a glance at her peer. She was taken aback by the colour of her eyes – never before had she seen such a shade of green. "I don't think I thanked you for saving me, Kuga-han."
Natsuki snorted and shrugged. "You bothered to protect that dog, right? I'd say we're even."
"Was he yours?"
"Not really. I fed him a couple of times and he followed me to campus. I suppose he found somewhere to hide during the day."
Snizuru remembered the poor animal and her heart clenched. Last night, when she was sneaking back in campus, she had spotted the shaggy dog being harassed by a group of drunken upperclassmen at the car-park.
She was returning from a long walk around the forest near the city – a walk which should have ended hours ago. Instead, Shizuru had lost track of time (falling asleep under the comfortable shade of a maple tree) and had been forced to run for the last bus. She usually left the campus when she needed some alone time – something her growing fan-club didn't let her have. This time she had outdone herself, though.
It was past midnight when she heard the incoherent shouts and laughs, and the whimpering of a dog. She dared to follow the sounds and was met with the sight of four high school third-years kicking the defenceless animal.
Even if she was alone and knew that stepping-up for the abused dog would only get her in trouble, Shizuru wasn't one to stand idly by in such situations. She ran up to the group and just when one of her seniors was about to hit the animal again, she grabbed his arm and twisted it behind his back. He yelped in surprise – his breath reeking of alcohol – and tried to push her away, but failed due to her training and his drunken movements. His other three friends turned sloppily to face her. Shizuru shoved the boy at them and he fell to the ground, along with the one who had attempted to catch him.
"If it ain't little Fujino-hime," the tallest of them slurred and leaned in towards her. She took a step back. "Whatcha doin' out 'ere so late, eh?"
The dog, sensing a saviour in Shizuru's person, limped behind her and collapsed. She threw it a look and cringed. Its blood-stained shaggy fur could be clearly seen in the light of the lamp-post. Shizuru's eyes flicked to the small pocket-knife the boy on the back was holding. The short blade was dark with crimson.
"Hey, ya listenin'? Answer my question." The boy in front her lifted his hand and she readied herself to defend. Instead, a pebble flew past her and hit him in the eye. He hollered and stumbled back, his palm pressed to the place where the pebble had landed. The other boy narrowed his eyes and stared behind Shizuru, lifting his knife in front of him.
"There's more where this came from," a calm husky tone announced and Shizuru turned her head.
The form of a girl (a tad shorter than her, with the same middle school uniform) emerged from the shadows of the trees growing around the parking lot. She was playing with some pebbles, tossing them in her left hand. Shizuru couldn't at first recognize the girl with the long dark hair, but her eyes widened when she remembered the face of her rumoured classmate. Ice Princess Kuga Natsuki had her brows furrowed and was seething with anger.
"Who're ya?" the last boy left standing took on a more aggressive stance and Shizuru's attention shifted back towards him.
Before he could do anything Natsuki had closed in the distance between them and kicked the knife out of his slackened drunken grip. Shizuru's breath hitched.
When did she-?
He fell and cursed. His friends were getting to their feet and were glaring dangerously at the two girls. The sound of a whistle cut through the scene. Shizuru glanced at the direction the sound had come from.
"What's this commotion all about?!"
When she turned to look back at Natsuki, she found with bewilderment that the girl was gone, as was the dog. Only a dark stain was left on the ground they had been. She was pulled out of her stupor by the running steps of the approaching executives.
"Suzushiro Haruka, Junior executive!" a busty blonde girl announced. She stood at the front of a group of white-clad Executives, some of which were already busy apprehending the third-years.
"Ara," Shizuru pinched the bridge of her nose, "what a mess."
And now she was sitting in the same room with the person partially responsible for it. She suppressed a yawn; Suzushiro Haruka – the daughter of one of her father's business partners – had done everything in her power to keep Shizuru up all night, demanding an explanation for what had transpired at the parking lot. Finally, after Haruka had seemed somewhat content with the made-up story, Shizuru had been forced to wait for the student council president's judgement.
"Sorry you got in trouble for this," Natsuki mumbled, effectively startling her.
"No, please, don't be," she said after regaining her wits about her. "What happened to the dog?"
"It died this morning. They caught me sneaking its body out," the emotionless reply made Shizuru uncomfortable. Her mouth opened and as she was about to offer her condolences, the door of the room slid open and the President walked in.
"Are you even listening?" Haruka huffed, her hands on her hips. The whole room was staring at them now. Shizuru successfully hid behind her trademark smile the fact that she had been caught day-dreaming.
"Indeed I am," she glanced down at her now cold tea. "But I'm afraid that this session has dragged on long enough. I'll kindly ask you to summarise the main points addressed today and send them via mail to everybody, so that we can continue next week."
"Already done, President," Yukino quietly spoke from the corner she was sitting in. Shizuru gratefully nodded. Making the girl her Vice had been the right decision.
"Thank you, Kikukawa-han. With this I'll disband today's meeting."
Everybody filed out of the room until only Shizuru and Haruka were left. Distant ruby eyes were met with the unrelenting stare of the Executive.
"Soon we'll be graduating."
"You need to get your act together, Fujino."
"I'm flattered Suzushiro-han's concerned for my grades," Shizuru said with a joking tone. "I assure you that you needn't worry – I've already been admitted to Fuuka University. The school exams will be just a formality."
Her attempt to change the topic and mood this time failed.
"You could've done much better. Fuuka University by far isn't the best in the country," Haruka scowled. Shizuru silently regarded her for a few moments.
"Would that be all?"
Her stare was fixed on the empty bed. She had ended up in that man's clinic without thinking. The old male doctor was smoking a cigarette and was silently observing her with a frown on his wrinkled face. He puffed out some smoke and stroked his bald head.
"Fujino-chan, why did you come here?"
She looked at him as if she had just noticed his presence and gave him a fake smile.
"I wanted to thank you for all you've done," she replied in her ladylike manner and bowed. She then fished a package out of her school bag and handed it to the mildly interested man. "This isn't much, but I'd like you to accept it as a token of our gratitude."
He put it on his desk without opening it. Shizuru bowed once more and made her way to the door.
"Yes?" She turned around, hand already gripping the handle. The doctor shifted anxiously in his chair.
"The formula for the serum and the devised counter-medicine… how did you get your hands on that?"
His question was met with another smile, telling him he'd never have the complete truth.
"A consensus of sentient androids obtained the formula and sent it to us, because they owed us a favour. Then the school doctor, with the help of a 17-year-old history teacher, worked out the way to create and further develop a treatment for the serum's after-effects," she watched the man's eyes widen disbelievingly. "Was that a satisfactory answer?"
Finally, he snorted with a scowl and waved his hand dismissively. "Get out of here!"
Shizuru watched Natsuki limp with determination through the main yard and ran up to her.
"What happened?" she greeted with a smile. The only reply she received was a grumble and a glare. "Want to talk about it?"
Natsuki abruptly stopped and turned towards the smiling school idol. A small crowd was following them from a distance.
"What's with you and this interest you have in me?" the Ice Princess lowly whispered, weary of the people around them. Shizuru inclined her head and let out a soft laugh.
"I like you," she easily admitted, forcing a strangled choke from the other girl. "I want to be friends, this is all."
"… Are you okay in the head?"
"My psychiatrist tells me I am."
"You won't leave me alone, will you?" Natsuki narrowed her captivating green eyes and accusingly glowered at her. Shizuru kept smiling.
Suddenly Natsuki's attitude changed, however the small shift was visible only for Shizuru, who was a very keen observer. A soft sigh escaped the Ice Princess's pale lips and she scratched her neck.
"Are you sure?"
"Then you can start by calling me Natsuki and by wiping that fake smile off your face."
Shizuru was taken aback, but in an instant her shocked expression turned to a genuine beaming smile.
"My name's Fujino Shizuru," she happily announced, making Natsuki roll her eyes.
"The whole fucking campus knows who you are!"
"Ara, Natsuki! Language!"
The afternoon dragged on as Shizuru aimlessly wandered back to her new apartment. She had chosen to leave campus earlier than required in order to get used to her new dwelling before university life hit her with full force. Though her new home lacked in furnishing at the moment, she had acquired some comforts that helped in making it less empty and lonely.
"Hey! Congrats on making student council president! Everything's going perfectly smooth," Natsuki cheerfully greeted her as she entered through the window. Shizuru turned towards her with a reproachful look, making her friend flinch in mid-climb, one leg folded to her chest, the other hanging outside.
"What are you doing here?" she hissed quietly and ushered Natsuki inside. Confused emeralds followed her unusually jerky movements.
"Did… something happen?" the troublemaker asked lowly. Shizuru put a hand to her eyes and shook her head.
"No, I… Actually, yes." Her eyes bore into Natsuki, who was now sitting on top of the President's desk. Shizuru didn't miss the fact that the girl was subtly throwing glances at the open database file on the laptop's monitor. She bent forward and closed it, making Natsuki pout at her.
"Whatcha do that for?"
"We need to be more careful from now on," Shizuru whispered. "I think we're being watched."
A frown appeared on Natsuki's face.
"And you noticed now?" she inquired in the same tone. "I can't stop because of something minor like this, Shizuru! If you're scared, I understand, and won't frown at you pulling out. But-"
The newly elected student council president pressed her fingers on Natsuki's lips. She quickly withdrew her hand with a startled motion, surprised at her boldness. Natsuki seemed unaffected though.
"I'm scared, but not for myself!" she heatedly explained. "I'm worried about you, Natsuki."
Natsuki gave her an annoyed look and grumbled something among the lines of 'troublesome'. Shizuru resisted the urge to grab her friend by the shoulders and shake her. Didn't she see the danger she was put in? During the short break they were given between the end of middle and the beginning of high school Natsuki rarely rested. Every three days or so she would have a new injury and always refused to tell Shizuru where and how she got hurt.
"Look out of the window and answer me what you see, if you please."
Her classmate complied with a reluctant frown. Green eyes narrowed disbelievingly as Natsuki asked "Is that Sugiura barfing in the bushes?"
Shizuru inwardly cringed and sighed animatedly. Sometimes the universe had next to no sense of narrative convenience.
"You want to warn me not to become like her?"
"Not the point I wanted to make," she rubbed the bridge of her nose. Natsuki waited patiently for further elaboration. "Look at all those students and faculty members out there, Natsuki. There's hundreds of them and we don't know whom we can trust!"
"I don't need to trust them. I have myself. And you."
Shizuru let a smile tug at her lips. "Charmer. But you still don't trust me, do you?"
Natsuki gave her a long look. "Wanna go have pizza for lunch?"
She turned the key in the lock and clicked open the heavy metal door. After shutting and locking it, she kicked off her shoes and turned to face the vast apartment, its walls still naked, some cardboard boxes left unpacked. She quietly made her way to the living room. At this point all it had was a low table and a couch, and a small kitchen. The last sunrays were pooling through the huge window, its curtains pulled to the side. A lone figure sat on the floor, head turned towards the multi-coloured sky.
Shizuru left her bag on the sofa and snuck a glance at the king-sized messy bed in the dark bedroom before moving to stand next to her silent companion.
"Feeling better?" she gracefully lowered herself to the wooden floor. She absent-mindedly noted that she needed to buy a carpet.
"It's that time of the year," Shizuru continued, as no reply followed. This time a glance was sent her way. "Tomorrow's a Saturday and I'm free, so…"
"Knowing you, I thought you... might want to go out? After all, the weather won't be getting any better."
A slow nod followed her offer.
"Do you have a particular place in mind?"
Nao had her hands shoved deep in her pockets as she headed back. The graveyard was deserted, as it was a national holiday and it was said to be one of the last sunny and calm days before the winter frost came. A sense of fulfilment was budding inside Nao's chest as she strode with determination.
When she reached the wooden gates she stopped dead in her tracks. Both her brows lifted at the person who was patiently waiting there.
"What're you doing here, Fujino?" Nao asked as she neared her upperclassman.
"Ara," she touched her cheek, a slightly surprised expression dawning on her face. "Didn't you two meet?"
Nao felt her throat go dry and without a second glance, she spun around and ran back where she had come from.
It can't be!
She ran up and down the gradins on which the stone tombs of many families lay. Row after row, monument after monument, she madly searched for that one person. And at the very top row of tombs she saw the familiar silhouette.
She quickened her pace and finally stopped a few meters away, catching her breath.
"We buried your ashes here three months ago," Nao finally said. "You just can't stay dead, can you?"
Natsuki, leaning heavily on walking stick, turned to look at her friend. She was wearing a long dark-blue overcoat, buttoned up to her neck and collar pushed up, so that it hid half her face. Her raven-black hair was the same length as it always had been, waving freely in the weak wind. As for her eyes, they had lost some of the spark they held before. If possible, they had become more serious and darker. But they weren't apathetic; no, a deep understanding was lurking behind them.
"I see I wasn't the only one that was laid to rest next to mother," her raspy voice barely reached Nao's ears. The flame-headed girl nodded slowly.
"We decided we'd go ahead and give Alyssa one last chance to be with her family. Sorry for not asking first," she tugged on her jacket's fluffy collar. Natsuki shook her head, a smile pulling at the corner of her mouth.
"No, thanks. We all needed this." She paused. "What're you doing here?"
"The same as you – visiting my family."
Realization crept onto Natsuki's stony face. "They gave back your mom's body?"
"Yeah, a few months back," Nao said before she mockingly smiled. "You didn't think I'd actually come to your grave, did you?"
Natsuki indignantly huffed and glared. After a minute of unyielding staring at each other, they broke out in quiet laughter at the same time. They stood motionless for a while.
"When'd you wake up?" Nao asked at long last.
"A few weeks back," Natsuki limped pass her and motioned for her to follow. "I made it back before Shizuru's birthday," she added matter-of-factly.
Nao walked slowly beside her, watching her descend the steps with obvious difficulty. She didn't dare to offer help.
"Most of the ex-gang members think you dead, except for Tokiha, Aoi and Chie," she watched how Natsuki grimaced and stopped, panting. "You okay?"
"I… have trouble walking, breathing, and I get tired easily," she clutched at her heart and took a deep breath. She smiled bashfully. "Guess this is how normal people feel, huh?"
"Yeah, when they're seventy!" Nao sneered at her companion. She was granted another glare in return.
"Life can't be easy, can it?" Natsuki resumed her slow descent.
"Do I hear you complaining you're still alive?"
"Shut your ears, cuz you won't hear the end of it any time soon," the ex-gang leader barked a laugh.
"Kuga," Nao seriously began, her tone enough to make Natsuki stop and look back at her. "One lifetime won't be enough for you to atone for everything you've done."
"I know. That's why I woke up," green eyes pierced Nao with the sheer determination. "Alyssa's death… I can't let her feelings go to waste. I may not have much time to live, but… Oh, don't give me that look! I knew all the risks when I started hunting for revenge, Nao.
"And now that we have a state of peace, I have the duty to look after the legacy left by my family. I plan on helping Kanzaki, actually."
"Give yourself a break," Nao smirked. "I'll be doing some enforcing of my own."
"… Is it going to be the supporting-the-law kind or the kinky kind?"
"Cuz I think the kinky kind will suit you better," Natsuki could barely keep a straight face. "Yuuki Nao, the Leather Mistress of Fuuka, the Terror of all men, women and children. You gonna make Mikoto your sidekick? And Mai won't stand for it, so she'll have to become your altruistic maid. Or will you form a special unit with the idiot-squad?"
"Shut up! Just sit back and watch!"
It was a warm spring morning. An indignant wail resounded in the dormitory's corridor.
"It could be a torture room, or a secret government laboratory, or a hole in space-time continuum!"
"Midori, it's Yuuki-san and Minagi-san's room!"
"See, Yohko? You completely agree with me!"
Sagisawa put her hands on her hips and intently stared at her 17-year-old (this trend was on-going for 5 years now) friend. Midori was holding her head in her hands and was crouching in the corner of the corridor, refusing to move from her spot.
"Why do I need to do this?" the teacher whined helplessly under her friend's reproachful look.
"You're their homeroom teacher!"
"I didn't ask for it! Can't we shove the work onto the student council?"
Midori jumped around, her hand pressed on her chest.
"You need to stop sneaking around people!" she pouted at Akira and Takumi, who were both holding paper shopping bags. The two teens regarded her with confusion. The history teacher coughed in her fist and straightened up. Behind her Yohko sighed.
"Anyways, you two know where those troublemakers are off to?" Midori asked, sneaking a glance at the door they were standing in front of. "Since there's nobody in their room, we thought we might help ourselves inside and wait for them in there…"
"We?" the doctor threateningly loomed over her friend's shoulder. Midori stiffened. "It was your idea and since you thought you'd be bored, you made me come along, like I don't have tons of work to do. Then you chickened out!"
Midori sent her a bashful smile and chuckled nervously. Takumi and Akira simply shook their heads, quite used to her antics.
"And why are you looking for them?" the boy inquired, unhidden curiosity in his voice.
"Well, I thought tomorrow will be a good day to go and watch the blossoms?" Midori shuffled in her spot, still being glared at by her friend. "And I needed to talk to them about their future university options, since they didn't show up to any of the events organized to help them choose what's best for them. So, as their homeroom teacher, I'm a bit concerned."
Takumi and Akira shared an unreadable look and then smiled at the discouraged teacher.
"I'm afraid they both have plans for their future. Don't know about tomorrow though," Akira, now wearing a proper girl's high school uniform, inclined her head. "Why don't you call them or ask Wang-san?"
"Can't," Yohko crossed her hands in front of her chest. "She and her friends are also gone for the weekend. We don't know where they went either."
Sudden realization shone on Midori's face so bright, the other three participants in the conversation were almost blinded by it and were deafened by the follow-up reaction.
"They didn't invite meeeeeee! How could they?!"
"Wanna go out tonight?" Nao leaned in as they walked up the hill.
"Gosh, you're so persistent!" Nina continued to strut ahead, blushing. They could both hear the sound of voices up. Nao only chuckled knowingly and put her hands behind her back. She gazed at the lone cherry blossom tree at the top.
Under it were sitting and arguing Mai and Natsuki. Shizuru was leaning on the tree's trunk, a hand hiding her smile as she watched her lover's hair being pulled by a red from shouting Mai. The angry menace was hitting Natsuki over the head with an empty plastic bottle, while the victim tried to pry the girl off. It didn't seem she was putting a lot of effort, though. Mikoto had already run up to the three friends and was joyfully jumping around. Mai stopped her assault to greet the energetic girl and Natsuki used the opportunity to slip away.
"Hey, what's the commotion all about?" Nao lazily raised her voice and all heads turned towards her. Everybody, except Natsuki, smiled and waved. The ex-gang leader regarded her with boredom, but it was a secret to no-one she was happy to see her. They hadn't met in a month, after all.
"Hasn't she told you?" Mai pointed an accusing finger towards Natsuki, who scratched her cheek and looked away. Nao lifted a brow.
"Told me what?"
Her question was met with a heavy silence, which was broken when Nina greeted everybody, albeit a bit awkwardly. Shizuru beamed at them as she shuffled through a basket and offered them rice-balls.
"Can't we have a nice, quiet cherry-viewing for once?" Natsuki asked, her voice unusually low. She coughed and shifted in her spot. Her cane was lying next to her on the blue blanket. Nao plopped herself in front of her and crossed her legs.
"Then pull out the booze already," she demanded, knowing perfectly well that she would be one of the first to get drunk. If somebody wanted to note that, they had kept it to themselves. Natsuki offered her a bottle and a small cup.
"Pour, Kuga. You're the host, since you invited us here." Nao shoved the cup in Natsuki's face and, as was predicted, it was swatted away. Natsuki glowered at her.
"Help yourself, Zhang," she threateningly said. Shizuru gently sat next to her and rubbed a hand on her back, then leaned in closer. Natuski's expression immediately softened and she lovingly glanced at the other girl. Nao rolled her eyes.
"Why'd you choose Zhang, anyway?" she asked, while absent-mindedly watching the others choosing places to sit under the tree's shade. Natsuki smirked.
"It means 'cockroach' in Chinese," she declared and crossed her arms, as she observed the different shades of pink that Nao displayed on her face.
"I thought you liked to call me a spider!"
"The word's too long."
The soon-to-be-graduate threw a rice ball at Natsuki's face; the attack was efficiently dodged.
"Ara, Yuuki-han shouldn't waste food," Shizuru playfully chided. Everybody laughed.
In the distance they could hear Midori and doctor Sagisawa arguing. When they turned their attention to them, they saw Takumi, Akira, Irina and Arika trailing behind them, chatting excitedly.
Nao drowned her cup and sneaked a peek at Mai. Both of them exchanged knowing looks; something was wrong.
Mai was lying on her back giggling at nothing at particular, while Mikoto snored on her chest. Chie and Aoi, having arrived at the midst of the mayhem, were also sprawled on the grass, gazing at the stars and talking (slurring) quietly to each other. The others were pretty much in similar positions around the cherry-tree, all lost in their own world. The night wind blew through the blossoms and swept some away in the dark.
Natsuki, her back against the trunk, watched them until they were out of her sight and sighed. She weaved her fingers through Shizuru's tresses, as her beloved had laid her head in Natsuki's lap and had fallen asleep.
For the future head of Fujino Group, she sure looks innocent and relaxed, Natsuki mused and lifted a cup to her lips. She halted her motion when she noticed a figure was sneakily approaching her, a bit wobbly in the legs.
"Hey, Kuga." For once Nao was considerate of the situation and made as little noise as possible when she crouched down next to her friend. "What's all this about?"
"I hear your vigilantes are wreaking havoc in Kanzaki's perfect little system," Natsuki quietly spoke, now again staring ahead. She completely ignored Nao's question. "Which is a good thing, since he needs to remember where he stands."
"I was thinking yesterday…"
"Say, if Kanzaki were to screw up, what should we do?"
"Kill him, obviously," the reply came without a second's hesitation. Nao wasn't surprised.
"I don't know, you think of something this time."
"Poison," Nao replied with a satisfied smile; she could picture it already. Though she hadn't given much thought to what she'd do after another city leader died.
"Yeah. Death by poison – it can be hidden behind something else. It's much harder to claim that his guts simply spilled out, you know," she paused. "Though, I really hope for Tokiha's sake that we won't need to go that far."
Another pregnant pause followed. Nao sleepily turned her head to look at Natsuki. She had a distant look on her face, as she continued to stroke the sleeping girl's head. Her right leg was bent in an unusual way. There was something Nao noticed, even in the moonlight.
"You've got quite the few grey hairs, granny. Watch out, or Arika will turn you into a role model, citing you everywhere."
They both shared a muffled laugh. The wind blew again and they shivered; it dropped a single petal in Natsuki's drink. She looked down at it.
"Since I woke up," she started in a melancholic voice, "a lot has happened, hasn't it? Kanzaki pretty much pulled everything together, Mai and Shizuru graduated and are now in university, you started your own little squad… And I could only help with commanding the SENYU; only small things."
"Yeah, like that time when you rammed an ice-cream truck in those thugs' car. Remember, the ones that had tried robbing the central bank?" Nao played with a blade of grass. "That was insane, by the way. I don't know how Fujino let you off the hook."
"She didn't," Natsuki visibly winced.
"What were you thinking?"
Natsuki cringed in her favourite spot on the couch. This time Shizuru was really angry.
"You weren't thinking at all, were you?"
They were both in Shizuru's apartment, the evening after Natsuki's escapade with the ice-cream truck. Shizuru was standing in front of her cowering girlfriend, her hands on her hips, as her eyes were burning a hole through the other's head. Natsuki licked her lips.
"The police wasn't going to make it there in time. Our savings were also endangered, you know," she tried to defend. Shizuru's expression softened and she exasperatedly sighed. Sometimes Natsuki admired how composed she was in public and how her behaviour took a one-hundred-and-eighty when they were alone. This time, however, that admiration was the last thing on her mind.
Shizuru sat on the couch, making Natsuki instinctively slightly pull away.
"I know you can't stand sitting and doing nothing, Natsuki," Shizuru leaned back and turned to look at her. "But your health…"
"Won't get any better. I want to be of help! After all the shit we went through, after all those deaths, if I don't continue giving my everything, what point would there be in me surviving?" Natsuki curled her fist. "I need to make most of my time!"
"Then be with me!"
Natsuki was taken aback when she was faced with such an outburst by the other girl. Shizuru was on the verge of tears, determined to not let them spill out.
"I… I will," she heard herself say. "I'm sorry I let myself forget how much you also suffered."
Shizuru silently watched her, not moving a muscle. This was obviously something, which had bothered her for a long time. Natsuki wanted to hit herself over the head with a brick for being so insensitive towards the most important person in her life. Shizuru deserved so much more. And she was going to get it.
"That's not what I'm trying to get to. What I mean is that I frequently find myself wondering whether I really carried on with Miyu and Alyssa's will. Whether I was able to do something to redeem myself."
"Have you-," Nao bit her lip. "Have you talked to Fujino about this? You know I'm not that good with the touchy-feely parts of our relationship."
Natsuki merely smiled.
"Nao, it was a miracle I managed to wake up and that I made it this far. This body did its best for the last three years," she at last turned to look at her friend's confused face. "I know I don't have much left. I've been wandering like a ghost, saying my good-byes, making sure not to leave any unfinished business; but now it's finally time to let go. I fixed what I could."
"You're taking the easy way out, aren't you?" Nao choked at the end of her question, but still managed to cover the slip-up. Natsuki shook her head.
"It's not so easy. I already died once, before I was pulled back."
"How was it? Dying, I mean."
"Hah, not telling," Natsuki played with the petal floating on her drink's surface. She finally put her cup down, not taking that sip. "That's something you'll have to experience for yourself. It happens once in a lifetime, after all."
"You just said you already died once."
"I was lucky, I guess?"
Nao stretched and pulled herself up. She popped her neck and yawned. Her eyes flickered to Nina's sleeping form, next to Arika; she decided to cover them with a blanket and get to sleep herself.
"Was that the reason why Tokiha was acting up earlier?" Nao turned to look back at the couple at the base of the tree. Natsuki nodded and Nao chuckled. "You probably dropped it instead of a 'hello', didn't you?"
"You know me," Natsuki spared her a crooked smile.
"Fujino okay with all of this?"
Nao stood there, watching how her friend glanced down at her lover, still gently tracing her fingers over Shizuru's hair. At long last emerald met with lime, as an answer wasn't needed to be spoken.
"Do you want me to gather the idiots up?" Nao asked, her mind blank.
"No, don't. Let them stay. And Nao?"
"If you say something sentimental, I just might lose my cool. So zip it. A snotty fare-well doesn't suit us."
"I won't say anything, then."
Nao slowly nodded and without another word went in Nina's direction. Natsuki gazed at her retreating back and pulled out a deck of cards out of her pocket. She shuffled through it with one hand and retrieved the Joker and the Ace of spades. Her hand put the deck down and spread out the cards in a fan. Each suit, each number, each face card had somebody behind it. Her memories ran across the small arc, until her gaze landed on the cards she had first put away. For a short while she just looked at them.
After putting the Joker and Ace back, Natsuki shifted her attention to Shizuru. She swallowed and licked her lips. Then the wind reminded her it still wasn't summer and she pulled Shizuru's blanket up. Her cold hands brushed against her beloved's warm cheeks.
"Thanks for taking care of me all this time. I've caused you nothing but suffering, however I hope that these last few months I managed to make up for it, even a little bit. If I could, I wouldn't go. I know that I can be saved with Searrs's technology, but then it won't be me anymore and we're both aware of that. I want to stay my despicable human self till the end, you know. Otherwise, it won't feel right. I would've turned into a cheater.
"Shizuru, I can't ask you to forgive me, only to remember me. I know that there's going to be somebody out there who'll help you out and love you. But not like me, never like me. I'm tired. Also, very, very happy I could tell you all of this. Remember I promised I'll always come back? I'll have to break this one. Instead I'll offer you another promise. I believe that soon I'll meet with mother, Alyssa, Yamada and… everybody. This time I need you also to believe we'll meet again, in the distant future. Just trust in that and live a beautiful life. Smile from the bottom of your heart, even when you're hurt or want to cry."
Natsuki wiped away with her thumb the tears from Shizuru's face.
"I love you. You were always so warm," she whispered and her lids slowly dropped over her eyes. "So warm."
Shizuru quickly reached up and caught Natsuki's cold hand before it could slip off her face. She gave it a squeeze and pressed her lips against it. After that she laid there, eyes closed, and waited for the dawn to come.
I'll believe in Natsuki.
I know, I know. I'm an evil person, so don't point out the obvious.
Finally, the long ride is over. For the past three years and something I've had the pleasure to write this story for you guys. It started slowly and not very confidently, but I'm glad that I was able to gain such loyal readers and reviewers. I deeply thank you all!
During the course of the story I learned many things. I leapt through many topics, introduced many problems, and tried to portray different characters. The whole gang plot-line was taken up on nothing more than a whim and I worked with it, but after some research at the university, I discovered that there were some issues from my fan-fic that were spot-on in reality. I was immensely happy back then - everything I wrote about wasn't purely irrelevant. I hope I made this story believable, even if it was an AU.
Why I had Natsuki die at the end, after I had her saved earlier? She deserved a better closure. With her death she paid for everything she did, as did the other characters, who were closest to her. Mai, Shizuru and Nao's hands weren't clean and with losing a person very important and close to them, I think they have achieved a... closure of sorts. And a new beginning. But that's for you guys to decide.
From the very start I thought long and hard whether the story needs a 'happy-end'. This is the solution I came up with. It may not be perfect, but I'm content with it. I won't change it, no matter the feed-back. I'm sorry if I've missed a plot-point and for those that liked the Bridge terms, I'm sorry I left them fade away. But at the final parts of the story, they weren't needed anymore.
I want to extend my special gratitude towards Crosswood. Even if she may have stopped reading this story, she is an irreplacable part of it. Without her, I wouldn't have made it this far. Crossy, I'm truly grateful to you for guiding me through the world of fan-fic writing. Thank you!
And to all my faithful reviewers, who also very considerately dropped a comment after every published chapter, making me write more, thank you! I won't cite pen-names, since you know who you are. You're the reason why this story reached its end.
I love you all and I hope you're not disappointed that you've wasted time with my story.