A/N (5/9/18): Went back and reviewed my old notes. I've decided to truncate my outline because otherwise there still be 10-ish chapters to go and I don't have the time or patience for that. I'm reducing that to 2 chapters and maybe one or two funny addendums. Bleeh.
I've also replaced all my old chapters with the most recent versions but idk man if there's a difference. Reading my old stuff is painful af. I already spent way more time editing MV14 and MV15 than I'd like (like 5 fucking years for MV14 and another 3 years for MV15). Do you know how long Word has on editing time for just this chapter? 4782 minutes. Fuck that yo.
The first thing I saw when we were resurrected, Shizuru, was you in my arms. I remember—I can't forget, actually—what it felt like to hold you. Your strong, yet slender arms were wrapped possessively around my waist and your head was tucked beneath my chin. Even though your hair was tangled and knotted from our fight before we died, it felt so soft against my cheek. I could still smell the faint flowery scent of your shampoo over the burnt charcoal stench of the church around us. It was an odd feeling, holding you so close that I could feel your heart beat next to mine, but it wasn't a bad one. It felt nice and maybe a little nostalgic. Since my mother died, no one—well, besides you in your bursts of playful teasing—had ever gotten so close to me. It made me feel humble—human—to realize that it was me—me of all people—that's holding onto your quivering form.
But then you looked up at me with those burgundy eyes of yours. You looked so unguarded and vulnerable that it threw me off guard. My grip around you loosened. I'd never seen you like that before and suddenly everything that happened in the last few days came back to me. It also came back to you too, seeing how your eyes widened in recognition and you pushed away from me. You shrunk away from me. Before I knew it, you were standing up with your hands covering your face. You were crying—I'd never seen you cry before.
"Forgive, Forgive me, Natsuki," you had sobbed while I just stood there and stared off to the side, silently wishing that I was still holding your warm body in my suddenly cold and empty arms. You begged for my forgiveness and what else could I do but reach out to you?
"It's all right, Shizuru. It's all right," I had replied, answering your cries for forgiveness with simple reassurances. It just wasn't the time to do or say anything more and I don't know if I even could've.
After all, there's just so much between us that I didn't— and I still don't—know how to bridge the gap, Shizuru. Yet I want to, despite everything you've—we've—done to each other. I don't think that's strange, but it's definitely not normal either, this feeling of mine. Then again, what's normality for girls like us who could once materialize weapons out of thin air and summon monsters to aid us in a desperate battle to save ourselves and our loved ones? For us who had fought each other for the sake of each other? For us who had happily died in each other's arms only to be resurrected together in ruins?
Five days have gone by since that fateful day, Shizuru. Remember how Mashiro and Fumi had appeared a little after Mikoto had regained consciousness? That was after we had destroyed the Star, said goodbye to our Childs, and regrouped around Mai and Mikoto. That wheelchair girl probably figured we needed some time to collect ourselves after the shock wore off. She gave us a week to do so before all of us, the participants of the final Carnival of the HiME, were to reconvene. Remember how we all stood there with blank looks after Mashiro had spoken? It was Midori who had broken the awkward silence.
"I think that's a good idea," the self-proclaimed seventeen year-old had said. She turned towards Mashiro, "This time you'll answer everything?"
"Yes. To the best of my ability," the Chairwoman had answered in her whisper-like voice.
"That's fine then," Midori said before smiling to herself. "It'll give me enough time to finish my thesis and prepare my questions."
The rest of us had responded with our own murmurs and noncommittal agreements. Now that our burst of solidarity had faded, standing there together only reminded us of everything we had done to each other. We were more eager to lick our wounds than anything else.
And that was it: we all went our separate ways without saying another word. I didn't ask to come with you, and you didn't invite me either.
So I wandered around aimlessly after that. Seeing how Nao completely trashed my apartment, I was homeless. With all the broken furniture, shattered glass, and the bad memories that still lingered there, the place was unlivable. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't attached to my apartment, but after all we've been through, it didn't seem to matter on the grand scale. I couldn't get angry about losing all my stuff, even my recently restocked lingerie collection. Can you imagine that, Shizuru? I suppose I was—and probably still am—a bit shell shocked after the whole thing. But even more than that, my priorities have changed since then. I don't know what they've changed into, but I know they've changed somehow.
So I've spent these last few days just driving and wandering around Fuuka. You know how I like being alone sometimes, away from everyone I know, and off doing my own thing. I enjoyed the solitude, or I've at least gotten so used to it that I can't function without it. Sometimes I just have to get away from everyone to remember who I am. I think you probably understand this better than most people, Shizuru, because I get the sense that you're the same way. We're both incredibly good at disappearing and shirking expectations when we want to. You're just more secretive about it than I am.
Even during these days of trying my hardest not to think, trying my hardest not to remember what had happened, my thoughts always seemed to end up on you like they do now. It's kind of scary how even the memory of you can invade my privacy. Then again, I can't blame you or my memories of you completely. It's impossible to try to go on with your life when you know that all the foundations that had once supported you have crumbled beneath your feet. After all, I am at peace with my mother's death. The First District is gone and I am no longer a HiME—the truths, the absolutes that once spurned my existence on are no longer applicable. They no longer drive me so now I really don't have anything, anywhere, or anyone to turn to except you now. You remain as the constant of my life that I have yet to really address. I suppose there's Mai but, not only does she have her own things to deal with, she isn't you. She isn't my most precious person and she doesn't need me in the same way we need each other. In these last four years, I've really become dependent on you, Shizuru. I realize that much now.
I guess that's the reason why I suddenly called you around six thirty tonight, before I could second guess myself. It was random, spontaneous, and probably the only way I could've contacted you without losing my nerves. I was standing on the side of the street in the city, getting onto my newly fixed bike, when I picked up my phone and dialed your number. I had to try twice before you picked up.
"Yes, Natsuki?" you had answered, your voice faint and weak. You sounded exhausted.
"Are you alright, Shizuru?"
"With everything considered, I suppose I could be doing better. But that's neither here nor there. Is there something you want? Are you well?"
"No! I mean, no, not at all," I stumbled, suddenly feeling nervous. "I'm doing well, I just wanted to, you know—I mean, I…I…"
"It's a shame that I am not near you. Natsuki must be wearing the cutest blush now."
"I'm not!" I exclaimed hotly, despite being guilty as charged. I was then only answered by your quiet giggles. Damn it, Shizuru, don't make this harder than it already is, I thought. Then again, if you could tease me, everything couldn't be too bad between us. "Anyway, can I come over?"
There's a pause on the other side. You're hesitant. Did I call too soon? Should I have given you more time to be alone? What should I do if you're—
"If that's what you want, you are more than welcome to. I'm living on the fourth floor of the second dormitory. Room 421."
Right, I vaguely remembered that your place got burnt down. "Great. I'll stop by soon."
I could hear the indecision again in your voice even though you're not the type of person to stumble on words like me. "If it's not of too much of an inconvenience, can you bring me something to eat?"
"Sure. Anything specific you want?"
"I'll leave it to you."
And that was it. Our first conversation since we were resurrected was over just like that. I didn't know what I was expecting but it just seemed sort of anticlimactic. Then again, it's not like we could have an immediate heart-to-heart conversation—spilling out all the dark secrets of our souls—the first time we talked, especially over the phone. And I suppose we wouldn't even if we were face-to-face. We're just not like that: we're both people who hold our cards a little too close to our hearts.
In any case, I stopped by the nearest Family Mart and bought two bentos. I would've gotten something better but, between my bike maintenance and the damage done to my apartment (that I'll probably have to pay for soon), I didn't have the money for it. You know how I'd rather kill myself all over again than call my father and beg for money.
I spent most of the drive to your dorm feeling odd. I couldn't stop my hands from feeling clammy even while I was driving—it was that kind of anticipatory feeling. I mean, had it really been only four days since I last saw you? It felt like it'd been years, somehow. I was also worried about you. You sounded terrible over the phone. My mind was filled with so many "what-ifs" that might be affecting you. After all, you killed hundreds of people in my name and, if you were shocked into tears when we first came back, I can't imagine how you're feeling now that you've had time to mull it all over.
In truth, I honestly didn't—and I still don't— know what to think about you destroying the First District. After all, you just did what I wanted to do. And, when I see that destruction as being separate from myself—the destruction I once dreamed of doing—it's rather frightening, the conviction we both shared, that common goal. You ended up showing me the dangers of my desire for revenge. And maybe that's why I couldn't—and still can't—blame you for it, Shizuru. Maybe that's why I could reassure you, why I instantly forgave you back when we first woke up. To forgive you was, in part, to forgive myself. To recognize your weakness was to recognize my own—it's that kind of thing. That's not to mention how the consequences, the results, of us having ridiculous powers were just as unimaginable as they were. I mean, what are you supposed to feel when your mechanical pet wolf suddenly grows six stories tall in order to do battle with another girl's snake-squid thing? Add to the fact that I was planning a double KO, the fact that it was pretty much a dual suicide and/or I had pretty much planned to kill you…the chain of events would be almost ridiculously absurd if it wasn't our reality.
When I passed through the open gates of the academy, I was reminded by what a mess this place was due to those ridiculous powers. There's debris everywhere and scorch marks from Mai's crazy attacks, as well as chunks of yet-to-be melted ice from my last battle with you. The high school building was also in terrible shape, thanks to that same fight. Fuuka Gakuen had been a warzone and it certainly looked the part.
Speaking of the fight, it felt like it never happened—like it was all a dream. It's just so surreal, yet I could—and still can—recall the single-minded determination I felt when I fought you one-on-one, face-to-face. During that moment, in that mindset, my emotion and my desire to save you matched your own desperate love. I guess that's why Duran got so big then and why he returned to his normal size after that: now that you're saved…now what? Now what are you to me? What are we to each other?
Now that I had time to think about it, the whole fight was amazing—you're amazing, Shizuru. The way you fought, the ferocious grace you possessed—somehow, during that fight, I felt like I understood you more than I had ever before. I don't know how much I buy into that silly shounen manga spiel about understanding your opponent through the trading of fists or whatever, but I know from experience that a person is most true to herself in battle. When you're fighting with your life on the line and, in our case, with our loved one's as well, you don't have the time for pretenses. I didn't have the luxury of thinking like this back then but, damn, anyone would be amazed at how you cut through my bullets using a freaking polearm of all things, Shizuru. But, even then, I did feel that kind of awe—at least I think it was awe—when you pulled me closer, hugging me tightly to your body before you looked at me with those sad eyes of yours. I was still operating on impulse, but I couldn't help smiling to myself, brushing your hair from your beautiful face and…and…
Damn it, why did I kiss you back then, Shizuru? It made no sense to, especially considering what I said afterwards. Honestly, it was just an impulse: I didn't do it to stop you—you had already stopped your destruction the moment you had me and—no—I didn't want to deal with all these confusing thoughts at that moment, especially before I had to meet you. Hell, even now that I'm reflecting over it, I still don't have an answer for it, let alone one that I could tell you. But, I didn't want to present to you my confused face as I got ready to meet you. You were probably confused yourself and I vowed back then, standing at the entrance of the dorm, that I would be strong for you. This time, I'd support you like you've done for me all these years.
As I walked into the building with the plastic bag containing our bentos in hand, I realized this was the same building that Mai, Mikoto, and Nao lived in. I wondered if you knew that when you chose this place, but I shrugged the thought aside as I pressed the elevator button. It's a thought for a later occasion and I needed the time to brace myself for our meeting.
When I reached your room, I noticed through the bottom of the door that the lights were out. "Shizuru, it's me. Can I come in?" I called out cautiously after I knocked on the door. When I didn't get an answer, I tried again. "Shizuru, are you there? It's Natsuki." Again, there was no answer. Finally I decided to try opening the door. "Sorry to intrude," I said as I turned the doorknob. I was half surprised to find it was unlocked. Only half because I figured you were expecting me.
What met me was a dark room. It was about seven o'clock and the late autumn sun had almost set. The room looked more dark blue than orange. As I carefully moved through the apartment, I noticed that it was a little smaller than Mai and Mikoto's place, probably given that it was supposed to be for a single person. It looked about the same as your old room, except the furniture was arranged differently and none of your belongings were here. It was like a weird déjà vu: surreal in that it looked familiar but it wasn't.
I found you sitting at the center table, your head resting on your arms. You were dressed in the school tracksuit and your hair was tied up into a loose bun. Upon closer inspection, it seemed like you were fast asleep. That would explain why you didn't answer the door. The school laptop was in front of you and the screen was dark, indicating that it hadn't been used in a while. I couldn't see clearly, but there were papers and binders everywhere: on the table and also scattered around you. There were also a lot of empty bags of potato chips, bread, and other junk food which caught me by surprise. Weren't you the one that said you disliked them, that these things ruined your "delicate digestive system?"
I didn't turn on the lights because I thought it would be cruel to wake you up like that. So I just walked up to you, carefully avoiding stepping on the papers, and shook you gently on the shoulder.
"Oi, Shizuru, wake up."
You didn't answer—you just shifted slightly and continued to sleep. I could see your face and what I saw worried me. I could tell that you looked paler than usual even without the lights being on and there were dark circles around your eyes. For a moment I considered leaving you like that but I decided that, since you asked me to bring you something to eat, I should wake you up, especially if all you've been eating was junk food these last few days. Sheesh, take care of yourself more, Shizuru!
"Come on, wake up," I said louder and shook your shoulder more roughly.
"Iya-dosu," you complained groggily, lifting your head slightly before collapsing again. Despite the situation, I had to smile. It's not often that I got to see your childish side.
"Come on," I said, persistent. "If you don't, I'm going to leave." When you didn't move, I sighed. "Fine, be that way," I said and started to get up. Before I could stand, however, your hand reached out and grabbed my arm.
"I'm awake," you replied sleepily, finally stirring. You then let go of my captured limb.
"Took you long enough."
"What time is it?" you asked as you rubbed your eyes.
"About five past seven."
"Already? I thought I just set my head down and…" you paused and stared up at me. You then smiled your trademark smile and tilted your head to the side. "Hello Natsuki," you said, fully recovering from your disorientation.
"Hi Shizuru," I replied, unable to hide my amused grin.
"You look well."
"I wish I could say the same to you. You look terrible."
"I do, do I?" you asked gamely, bringing your hand to your forehead and, in the process, brushing your bangs upwards. You then sighed, "I certainly feel that way."
"You mind if I turn on the lights?" I asked even as I walked towards the switch.
"By all means," you replied as you started collecting the papers around you. "You will have to forgive me for the mess. I have been preoccupied."
"What've you been working so hard on that you haven't been eating or sleeping properly? This isn't like you at all." When you didn't reply immediately, I grabbed a few of the loose papers from the table. "These are lists of school sponsors and previous bank loans…Shizuru?"
"I've been drafting a proposal for the reconstruction of the academy," you replied simply as if you're talking about planning a picnic trip or something equally frivolous. I stared in disbelief.
"I thought it would be best if we started immediately planning for the Gakuen's reconstruction," you said pleasantly as if everything these last few days had been just a dream, as if you weren't affected by any of it. If I was anyone else—and if the entire room didn't scream otherwise—I probably would've been fooled by your act. You continued on, "After all, the more time passes, the harder it would be to regain both our investors and students' trust. We should act quickly and decisively and—
"Is this really worth risking your health over?" I interrupted.
"I have a meeting with the Chairwoman tomorrow."
Your deflection caused me to pause for a moment; I wondered why you had—or Kazehana had—chosen to have a meeting before the HiME one. I decided it didn't matter.
"You didn't answer my question."
You just stared at me and I'm again struck at how tired you looked. In these last few weeks, I've seen more of your expressions—your personality—than I had in four years. You turned away from me.
"It's easier to think of a solution than to be reminded why it is needed," you replied after a while, your voice whisper-soft and cracking slightly. I wanted so much to embrace you then but, now that you're awake, I was painfully aware of what and who we were.
"Oh, right," I trailed off, looking down to my feet, not too sure what to say or feel.
"In any case, may I see what you brought to eat?" you asked guardedly, breaking the silence.
"Oh, yeah, of course. Go ahead," I said and practically shoved the bag towards you.
"Ah. You bought bento," you replied conversationally, taking one of them before handing the other to me.
"It was quick and cheap."
"And I saw that they had potato salad in them and I know that you liked potatoes so…"
"There's chicken katsu with mayo here as well."
"Exactly! Both of our favorites!" I blurted out before turning red. You smiled fondly at me and said absentmindedly:
"You're as spontaneous as usual."
Both of us instantly stiffened and your smile transformed into a look of horror. I shivered and remembered the last time you had uttered that phrase. When I looked at you I suddenly saw that crazed, broken girl in front of me. I saw your twitching, empty eyes and the same vacant expression you had when you turned around to face me in the garden: the you who had confessed to me in the same breath you killed Suzushiro. I saw the insane and psychotic gaze you had on your face when you prepared to kill Nao. I saw your cool and disturbingly calm expression that you wore when I crashed into the Student Council Room. My heart started beating wildly and I realized that I was afraid of you. That I was in the same room with a mass murderer.
You looked down and all those illusions—all those terrifying memories—disappeared. You looked so small and vulnerable then. Despondent.
"Forgive me, Natsuki."
"Just eat your bento," I replied roughly, suddenly feeling incredibly exhausted. I resisted the urge to wrap my arms protectively around myself, to bring a barrier up between you and me. I'm not sure if it was to protect myself from the sad and exhausted you who was in front of me, the crazed and broken you from a few days ago, or the kind and playful you I remembered from our shared past. All of them—all of you—unsettled me.
You just smiled sadly before you closed your laptop and set it to your side where all the papers and binders were now neatly gathered. As you did so, I opened the plastic covering of the bento, snapped the chopsticks that came with them in half, and started eating.
I would be strong for you. This time, I'd support you like you've done for me all these years—had I really thought that only a few moments before, standing outside of this building? It's amazing how easily my defenses and plans fell flat in front of you, Shizuru. I could talk and think big but, when it came down to what really mattered, I haven't changed enough. I was foolish to think I could confront the enormity of your love with my barely understood one. Now that I'd stopped your rampage—what's next? Now what? I can't ask you for your help like I usually do so I've just end up in this weird suspended state of wherever. I'm stuck between running away from you or sticking by you—both were equally strong impulses to me. Still, now that I was here, I had to try—you don't get anywhere by just standing there and thinking.
"Shizuru," I began, but when I looked up to face you and your half eaten bento, I saw that you were shaking, crying silently.
"I'm sorry," you said as you quietly sobbed. "I'm sorry, Natsuki. I thought I could be strong enough to face you, but I am not."
Damn it. Why were you thinking along the same lines as me?
"I feel like I should be the one to say that." My words were the wrong ones as they made you cry harder. I couldn't help feeling awkward and helpless. I was powerless in front of a crying you, Shizuru. That crying girl before me seemed so unlike the you I knew, but that only goes to show how complete the mask you created was.
Even though you hide it so well, you're just another teenager scared to lose everything she held dear, aren't you? Now that you've lost all those pretenses and airs that you once protected yourself in, you're probably feeling incredibly vulnerable. You haven't had the time to reconstruct or regain your bearings yet so you can't hide under them. And, because you're in front of me, you're further stripped of any facades you could have worn. This time, there's also no Kiyohime to call to protect you—you have no defenses in front of me. But that's okay, Shizuru—I want to see the real you instead of the mask you present to everybody. So please, let me be there for you. I wish I was better at expressing myself so I could have said these things to you back then.
Instead I got up and this time I followed my impulse to embrace you. I brought us back to the same position we died and were resurrected in. I had to fight back my urge to scream and run away—I had to push the frightful nightmares I had of you away—which only resulted in me clinging onto you tighter. You returned it with the same kind of trembling fervor, though I could feel how you seemed to fight against the embrace the same way I was. What a ridiculous situation we were in—a terrible parody of what we once were.
I don't know how long I held you, but it felt like forever. Slowly we both relaxed into the embrace. Slowly your incessant sobs lessened into hiccups before they fully subsided. And as I felt you push away from me and stand up, I abruptly said, "Why don't you go to bed? It's been a long day and it seems like you could use the rest. Everything else can be left for later."
You looked at me and, for a moment, your vulnerable eyes hardened. You almost looked like that girl sitting in the Student Council Room the day we fought: you were pretending to be composed but you seemed to be brimming with all sorts of conflicting emotions. But then whatever was holding you fell away and you nodded in agreement.
"I think that would be best. I'll just make a fool of myself if I remained like this any longer."
"You don't have to pretend for me, Shizuru," I replied urgently. "Please don't—I want to see the real you."
You smiled but I could tell it was insincere. "Thank you, however," you paused and then decided against whatever you were going to say. You then turned around and walked towards your bed. "It was good to see you, Natsuki. It's a relief to see that you're doing well."
"Yeah, same to you." I muttered. It didn't seem like we'd get any farther tonight. "You don't mind if I crashed on your couch, do you?"
My question caused you to freeze where you stood.
"You still trust me that much?" you whispered without turning to face me.
I shivered again. Your words brought back unwanted memories, dark silhouettes against the shoji screen. Images I can't figure out whether or not they were nightmares or reality—something that scared me to no end.
"Of course I do," I said roughly, wishing my words matched my feelings. "You'll never do anything to hurt me."
"Despite reality being to the contrary."
"That was different—it's different now," I said, more to myself than to you. I think I was trying to convince myself that it was true.
Urgh—why was it always so all-or-nothing with you? You never played fair.
"You want it to be different, don't you, Shizuru?"
"But I don't feel any different. I would still do everything I did all over again," you replied sadly, still not turning to face me.
"But I do!" I practically shouted, causing you to flinch and finally turn around to face me. I blushed and looked to the floor. "At least, I know that this time I won't recoil from your feelings and, even though I don't understand it, I'll accept it. So you won't go that far again, and I'll stop you even if you do. So…so…if you won't be strong for yourself, can't…can't you be for me?"
After my outburst, I felt like I just wanted to sink down to the floor and disappear. Why do I always go and blurt out these weird things? My face felt so hot and I just sat there, unmoving, until I felt your cool, trembling hand against my burning cheek. You turned my face up to meet yours. It was such a light touch: it's as if you're afraid that you'd break me.
"Why are you so good to me, Natsuki?" you asked, your voice as unsteady as your hand. Your eyes were still watery and the look in them made me want to cry as well.
"I don't know," I answered truthfully. "But when I asked you that question a long time ago, you answered, 'Because we're friends'—it's that kind of thinking, maybe? I don't…I don't know."
Even though I said that, we aren't friends any longer—are we, Shizuru? We can't take that step backwards. We risked—I risked everything to make this step forward. I forcefully made myself reach your level of…of…whatever this is.
"'Because we are friends,' is it?" you echoed, smiling faintly. "Yes. I suppose that is true."
We both knew it wasn't. I wanted to say something more, but I didn't know how or if I even wanted to. So I just smiled and said, "Yeah, it's a start."
Our conversation continued a little while after that. We didn't talk about anything in particular or important. We finished eating and, despite my hatred for housework, I even helped you clean the apartment. While we did that, you told me how you raided the school cafeteria for the food because none of the nearby stores were open. I laughed at how ridiculous you must've looked carrying all those plastic bags full of food out of the cafeteria. In return, I told you about how I've been staying mostly at cheap hotels and all the shady people I ran into, which caused you to chide motherly at me. Somehow, it felt almost like it used to be, back when we first met and were first getting to know each other. We were just two teenage girls joking about our lives then. At least, it made me feel like we had a chance, that we could live our lives correctly this time.
It's twelve o'clock now. I'm staring at your sleeping form bathed in the still moonlight, repeating to you all these things that I don't know how to express to your waking self. I'm repeating all of this to you and hoping somehow, in the process, the pieces will suddenly make sense and I'll see them more completely. I hope they'll give me a clue for the next step of how we can continue to build off this incredibly shaky beginning.
After all, we're alive now. We have to move on, live on, no matter the cost.