RE:Caterina - Thanks for the comment you left in the reviews. I always like meeting people who are passionate about MH and are willing to discuss different interpretations (as there are many valid ones). I don't want my authorial intent to drive anyone's interpretation, you didn't leave a way for me to contact you back, and I don't think it's appropriate for me to respond to you in the review section. Therefore, I'm going to create a forum for this story and hopefully you check back! I take your concerns very seriously and would love to hear from you or anyone else on what they think of the story so far. ~fireclaw


Natsuki

I don't want this. I don't like this—I hate this. I don't want this at all, Shizuru. This thing—just what is all of this, Shizuru? Why is this all happening? These thoughts keep pounding in my head, pulsing like focused torrential blasts over and over again as I run out of the apartment.

Damn it, Shizuru! Damn all of this. This entire thing since we've been reborn is like a tide deceptively drawing back only to crash harder than ever before. I get lulled into this kind of almost peace with you only to be met in the face of—of—

I feel like we were getting—like we were finally making headway—only for you to shut me out again. Maybe it's my fault for reacting your plans the way I did, but seriously, that was huge! How'd you expect me to respond when you blurt all that stuff about the First District to my face? And the way you did it, so cold, so uncaring, and so calculating and—

Urgh! I don't want this. I hate all of this. This, this, this—just what is all of this? What are you playing me for, Shizuru? What do you want from me? Do…do you even know what you want from me?

This last thought stops me in my tracks and I look up to your room. The lights are still on. I guess you never bothered to close them after I stomped out. You're probably still sulking in your bed. Just remembering that cruel expression on your face is enough to make me shiver. I don't know what would've happened if I stayed there. When you looked at me with those cold eyes, my hands just shook—I probably would've hit you and—

I know there's nothing I can do now so I start the engine of my bike. I have to get out of here. I can't stand this place any longer. My mind's like this spiraling whirlpool of confusion and doubt that just keeps turning and turning and pulling me deeper into the cold waters of my insecurity. I don't know what I'm doing. I don't even know why I am doing all of this. It just builds up and builds up inside of me despite all my efforts and—

Unable to contain it, a frustrated growl escapes my lips. The sound of my anger is melds into the roar of the engine. I get on my bike and drive out of this stupid campus.

I have no idea where I'm going; I'm just driving purely on instinct. I'm probably lucky that no one else was on the road as my hands are still shaking.

I decide to stay at the first hotel I see in the city. The rent's cheap and I don't bother turning on the lights in the room before I crash into the bed. Sleep doesn't come easy to me because there's this thought that keeps nagging me. It keeps eating away at me and—and what am I supposed to do? I thought everything was going well. I thought we had an agreement, that we had an understanding. But I know now that I misjudged you. I must have, somewhere down the line this past week. I was too quick to forgive you, to see all your good parts when I know I should've addressed that cruel side of you as well. Maybe if I could of helped quash it, suppress it, but then how…how could I?

Urgh! I don't understand why people are so difficult—why can't you understand me, Shizuru? Why can't I understand you? I just want to say "fuck it" and give up on all of this, but then I know that's not possible. I started something and I'm going to finish it, even if it's the last thing I do!

These thoughts continue to tear at me until I pass out from the mix of exhaustion and stress.

When I wake up the next day, I don't feel refreshed at all. Judging by the clock, I find that I slept until noon. I doubt I'll get any more so I get up. If you ask me where I stayed, Shizuru, I wouldn't be able to give you the name of the place or even what the furniture looked like. I leave as abruptly and as preoccupied as I came.

Despite everything, I still find myself heading back to Fuuka Gakuen. I know running away won't help me. I need to find you to get all this sorted out. To get rid of all these thoughts in my head. But when I get back to your room, I find that the door is unlocked and no one is there. I remember then that you said something about planning to be at a Student Council meeting for most of the day.

A sigh escapes my lips as I consider my options. I decide it's not a good idea to barge into the meeting like I usually do when I want something. You guys are probably going over the school reconstruction plans and, more importantly, you need the distraction from your own troubles. Even though I don't like it, you seem to take comfort in this project of yours. Seeing that look in your eyes last night when you talked about it, that the sense of clarity it gave to you—I can't take that away from you. I recognized that gleam as one that my own eyes had, back when my desire for revenge consumed me. That's definitely something I can't take away, especially when I have nothing to offer in return. I know how it felt when I got my own sense of purpose ripped away from me and I can't do that to you.

As I resign myself to the fact that I won't see you until later and get ready to leave your apartment, something catches the corner of my eye. There, on the living room table, is a meticulously prepared breakfast. I see that you've laid out rice, natto, a raw egg, pickled daikon, grilled mackerel, and a bowl of miso soup. It's a traditional Japanese breakfast all-in-all. There's also a small plate of diced sweet potato that reminds me of the meeting you had with Suzushiro's dad.

The food throws me off guard. Except for the on the one or two school trips I attended before my mother died, nothing like this has ever been prepared for me. At most, I usually eat a slice of toast or convenience store bread if I eat anything at all. Even when my mother was alive this was true since she was always busy with work and my dad never came home if he could help it. So, to find all of this prepared for me is a huge surprise. There's also note propped against the bowl of rice. "For Natsuki—I'm sorry," it read.

I can't help smiling at the note. Your writing is effortlessly pristine and it makes me recall the rumor that the school's calligraphy teacher cried when he first saw your penmanship. I don't know if that's true or not, but I do know that the banner than hangs above the auditorium stage was written by you. After I got to know you, I found that I could recognize parts of your personality in those bold, yet restrained curves that proudly declare the schools motto of "Living Honestly to Achieve Your Aspirations."

This gesture of yours oddly endearing and it relieves me as well. It's so you in the way that, behind this elaborate presentation, is your almost timid gesture of sincerity. You had no way of knowing that I'd come back yet you still prepared all of this for me and even apologized for the way you acted before. I know how rare it is for you to honestly ask for forgiveness so I appreciate it. I grab a pen from nearby and scribble a messy "Thanks" on your note before I start eating.

Everything's delicious, of course. I know from experience how good your cooking is. You tend make stuff for me on weekends—usually something around noon before we go shopping or dinner afterwards—and the things you make are always traditional. All these little touches to the meal reminds me of you like the way the rice is deftly packed into the bowl with no stray grains sticking to the side, the perfectly cut squares of tofu, the taste of your favorite brand of miso, and the way the bowls are set together with the same ritualistic care as tea ceremony utensils.

I clean the dishes after I finish eating. I figured it was the least I could do before I leave. Having no place in mind to go, I decide to take a walk around the campus.

The afternoon sun greets me when I walk out and I can feel the heat against my skin. Since Fuuka is in the southern area of Japan, I doubt the weather will get much colder in the upcoming months. The only places we get snow is way up in the mountains. It's a bit of a pity for me since I like the cold. Despite being born in and named after the summer, Ice is my Element, after all.

Unsurprisingly, the areas I pass through are pretty much devoid of movement. Though it's a strange sight after living on this campus most of my life, there's another thing that bothers me. I find it odd how clear my mind is. I mean, this walk is purposeless; I don't really have a goal or anything in mind right now. And this aimless movement and thought is unusual for me. I used to always marching towards some bigger picture—I was rigidly fixed to my goal and inflexible to any alternation. The world seems different now—more open. The scenery around me seems more inviting—the atmosphere is more relaxed even as I walk around this empty campus. It's like a veil has lifted from my eyes or that my eyes that once only saw in monochrome are now seeing in color. I'm still not too sure it's a good thing or not, Shizuru, but I suppose I have to accept the change. Like I noticed before when I first returned here after the Carnival, I know my priorities have changed. I'm no longer compelled to do anything. Sure there's you, but I don't know how this all fits together: me, you, the rest of the HiME, the school—our future. It's just one answerless question after another. I'm not too sure that I like having no way of answering the questions I have.

As I approach the Crystal Palace, I see a couple trucks parked nearby and group of adults in huddled together. Their bright yellow helmets and blue uniforms make it clear that they're construction workers. When I get closer I see that Suzushiro's dad in standing at the center and barking orders over a map of the campus. He catches my curious gaze and gives me a hearty wave. I respond with a nod before I alter my course. There's no point to interrupting their work.

I'm surprised to see how quickly everything is moving according to your wishes, Shizuru. I know neither of you were joking around yesterday but the fact that he's already here in person fills me with a mix of hope and awe. I'm hopeful that the school's reconstruction will succeed and I'm awed by the fact that you had the power to make a multi-million dollar CEO drop everything to do your bidding. I doubt many people—let alone high school students—could do that.

Between that and your breakfast, I feel much better than I did before. I don't doubt that this broken land will be healed. Fuuka Gakuen will get its second chance. And, maybe along the way, we'll also have ours as well.

Now that I can think about what happened last night more rationally, I guess I let my emotions get to me. I can see how that you tried to reach out to me, and the implicit trust you put in me when you revealed all the things you never spoken to other people about. After everything that happened this past week, I should have given you the benefit of the doubt. Still, you should've realized how much of an impact the First District has on me. It didn't help that you framed everything like you were blackmailing everyone into working with you.

At the same time though, I think I'm starting to understand how your mind works and why you framed this project the way you did. You mentioned last night about how you were raised to be the way you are—that you learned how to seek out other people's weaknesses without showing your own. You also said something about losing yourself in your own words if you're not careful. If that's the case, I wonder if you didn't know how to communicate your plan in any other way than making it sound like coercion. I mean, I can't see how your actions would be self-serving: from the sound of it, you don't have much to gain from all this work. It doesn't seem like you're getting paid either; you're also not going to be recognized since the credit is going to go to the maid. This entire thing sounds like more trouble than what it's worth. From the way he was grilling you last night, I think Suzushiro's dad noticed this as well. You also said before that the whole point of you working on this was because "it was easier to think of a solution than be reminded why it was needed." Wait a second—I think—

…damn it, Shizuru. Why could you just say that you're acting out of kindness and your weird sense of obligation? It would've made it a lot easier for everyone. Then again, I doubt you even see it that way. But I know better now. In these past few years, I've seen you reach out with the same purpose you do now and never once considered your actions to be out of compassion. You don't just act this way to me, but a bunch of other students like how you brought Tate into the Student Council after his accident. It's not a weakness, you know, helping people out. It's one of the reasons why you are so popular. Everyone knows that you can be counted on to act for the greater good.

Oh well. These human errors—the roughness in our attitudes and interactions—I guess these things take time to change. As long as we're willing to work through the misunderstanding caused by them, I'm sure they'll become less frequent. I want to believe in that, Shizuru, so I'm going to. Like what you're doing with this campus, I'll follow your example: if we can focus on the future, maybe we can use them to work out our past. I suppose that's the only thing we can do.

I end up heading to the park on the outskirts of the campus. Though the grounds are mostly unharmed from the fighting, you can still see in the distance multiple charred patches of the forest. Even farther in the background, you can make out the scarred mountain path. The land shows the wear and tear it has gone through since this year began.

I continue my trek. The autumn wind blows and I can feel the grass at my feet brush against my ankles. It really is a nice day. As I walk down one of the hills, I spot Mai resting against the side of it. When I get closer, I see that her eyes are shut.

"Hey," I call out to her when I get nearer. It takes a while for her to stir. She must have been napping and I have to call out to her again before she wakes up. When she does, her eyelids snap open and she grins at me.

"Natsuki!" she cries out happily, leaping up and pulling me into a quick hug. "It's great to see you!"

Her smile is infectious and I can't help sharing it while I return her hug. "What are you doing here?"

Mai laughs and rubs the back of her head embarrassedly. "Well, I guess there're only so many times you can clean an apartment, you know? There really wasn't anything for me to do so I figured a walk might be nice."

"Where's Mikoto?"

"She's with Kanzaki-senpai. Apparently there's some kind of Student Council Meeting going on? She took him to it."

"Yeah, Shizuru's there too."

"Oh? That reminds me, I saw a bunch of people on campus today and there was a guy with this really impressively pointy beard," she gestures with her hand.

"That's Suzushiro's dad."

"Hehe. They share quite the resemblance."

"They're here to survey the damage. Shizuru made an agreement with him yesterday that his company would work on the reconstruction. I guess he doesn't like wasting time."

"Like father, like daughter, right?"

"Yeah. Shizuru's trying to get everyone committed to her plan. Everything seems to be moving quickly so far since there haven't been any disagreements."

"Kaichou-san is impressive as always," Mai hums. "You know, I'm still surprised by how much power the Student Council has. This really isn't a normal school at all."

"I've been here all my life so I can't judge what's normal or not. But I have heard that academy's system attracts a lot of talent since we're the only school in the world that lets students run most of the administration. Fuuka U. is also the only university that is managed entirely by student organizations."

"Really?"

"Yeah. Once of the reasons why our programs are so well funded is because about a fourth of Fuuka U.'s students are headhunted the moment they graduate and they're all in senior positions by the time they're 30. I remember reading in one of Shizuru's financial report that about 40% of our annual revenue comes from private sector donations and individual contributions alone."

"I can't say I'm surprised. There are some really special students here."

"That includes you too, Ms. Scholarship Student."

Mai laughs at this before she lies down. "I don't know if I count," she says self-consciously. "Especially because why I got the scholarship."

The mood gets serious and I can guess that Mai's thinking about what happened during the Carnival.

"You doing okay?" I ask as I glance at Mai's downcast eyes.

"I guess so," she replies mulling over her thoughts, "It's just a lot to take in and I still haven't really registered it all."

I sigh before I sit down next to her. "I know what you mean. So much has changed, but somehow it hasn't."

Mai nods before she looks up at the cloud-filled sky, "It's strange how quiet it is now. Mikoto's always with Kanzaki-senpai these days, Takumi with Akira-kun, and Yuuichi hasn't contacted me in days. After all of this, I'm not sure what to do with myself. You can only clean an apartment so many times, you know?"

When I look at Mai, she seems more quiet and withdrawn. I guess we've all been handling the aftereffects of the Carnival in different ways.

"Are you lonely?"

"I don't know—maybe? I mean…I've spent all my life caring for other people and I thought that was it, you know? That was who I was supposed to be. But in the back of my mind, maybe what Nao-chan said was true. Maybe I resented my responsibility and I just wanted to be seen as a good sister…but I don't even have that now so it's kind of like—what do I do from here?"

She's rambling and I don't mind. There's something refreshing about Mai's personality that I instinctively trust. I can reveal to Mai in seconds the things that took years for me to spit out in front of you, Shizuru. After all, I found myself depending on her more and more this year. Judging by the things she's revealing to me, she feels the same way. Despite the conversation turning seriously, I still find it easy to talk to her and match her wavelength. We've been thinking similar thoughts all this time.

"I know what you mean. You know how obsessed I was with destroying the First District and getting revenge for my mother. And now…I don't know what to do with myself."

"Guess we're both in the same boat, huh?"

"Yeah, and I promise I won't sink it this time."

Mai takes a moment to absorb my comment before she bursts into laughter. "Really," she giggles, "who would've thought that the girl I thought was going to kill me the first time we met would turn out to be my best friend?"

"Wait, I'm your best friend?"

Mai looks as surprised as I am at her own comment. She then sits back up and hums thoughtfully, "Hmm, I guess so. I mean, when I am with you I feel like I could say anything, you know? I just shared all those worries I've been holding in all week without being afraid of what you'd think of me. Isn't that how friends are supposed to be?"

I think this over. Everything that Mai just said was also true on my side. But, if Mai's my best friend…what are you to me, Shizuru? You always encouraged me to open up and I wouldn't be the person I was if it wasn't for you. But the rapport we have is different from what I have with Mai. With you, it seems like nothing is easy. So…what are you to me?

There's this memory I have of you that I cling deeply to, Shizuru. Back when we first met and you forcefully inserted yourself into my life, I asked you why you bothered with me.

"It's because I like you, we're friends aren't we?" The way that you said it was so carefree and honest—just like how Mai said it seconds ago. The simplicity of your statement had startled me because I was unused to anyone's kindness, but I liked it because of how simple it seemed. But now things are different. What's between us is no longer carefree, honest, or simple. The secrets that we hid from each other have caused us to move farther and farther away from each other until we are what we are now. We can't hold a conversation without it turning uncomfortable.

When I look up, I see that Mai is peering at me with concern.

"Are you ok, Natsuki?"

"I'm fine…I just never thought anyone would consider me their best friend."

Mai smiles absentmindedly as she plucks at the grass. "It really is strange how all of this has turned out. Kanzaki-senpai offered me the world and now….now I just have this."

The wind blows and takes with it the tiny pieces of grass from her open hand. We watch as the pieces are carried away.

We just have this, huh? Now that I think about it, I never really cared about the now. I was so focused on regaining—avenging—my past. I never saw what was in front of me, even when there was a prize offered. Come to think about it—I think most of the HiME were like that. Mai was probably the only one of us who ever really considered the end result. Despite the fact we fought in the Carnival, no one really fought for the prize that Nagi told us about. We all just fought from a gut reaction—of wanting to protect what we had—not what we could have. I guess you couldn't blame us since none of knew what the power was given to us was for until it was too late.

Actually, that's not quite true—in the end, Mai fought to win the Carnival. She fought, she won, and she could have had it all. She could've changed the world to suit her ideal. And yet, she didn't take it. She chose to not reshape the world according to her ideology. So now, for all of us, we all have…this.

"Do you regret not taking the offer?"

"No." Mai's responds instantly.

I smile before I shrug, "Then there's no point thinking about it any longer. You made your decision."

Mai looks at me with wide-eyed shock before she laughs. "You make it sound so simple."

Her statement makes me smile before I say self-consciously, "There's nothing about me that makes things simple."

"Still, thanks Nastuki."

"Sure."

We're silent for a little while longer before Mai says quietly, "So…how's everything with you and Shizuru?"

"Am I that obvious? Yukino asked me that too."

"Well, it's clear that something is bothering you and I remember that conversation we had before…before you know."

I sigh before I think back to everything that has happened since I last talked to Mai alone.

"A lot has happened between us. I don't…I don't know what to think."

Mai stays patiently silent as she waits for me to gather my thoughts.

"Hey, Mai? How did you know with Kanzaki and Tate?"

"What do you mean?"

"Um…" I can't help blushing and looking away. After a while, I manage to spit out, "Like how did you know you liked them?"

I can feel Mai recoil from my question out of the corner of my eye. However, she takes my question seriously. "Eh…well, they're both attractive and Kanzaki-senpai was really princely and he was always kind to me. So I really admired him. And Yuuichi was always there...I mean, I found him annoying, and he's a perverted idiot—but he always knew how to cheer me up when I was feeling sad so I really counted on him and found myself relying on him. For a while, I was really torn because I liked both him and Kanzaki-senpai in different ways. I guess I finally realized that I liked Yuuichi more when I started to worry about him. And after that kiss with Kanzaki-senpai, I found myself hesitating and thinking about Yuuichi. So...um, does that answer your question?"

"Not really."

"Ah…mou," Mai complains as she slaps her forehead. "I don't know how to explain it! I guess you know when you like someone is when they're all you think about. And you find that you want to—and you can—kiss them? That's it—you know when you like someone when you think you can and you want to kiss them!"

"Is there another criteria?" I ask quietly. Mai looks straight into my eyes and I quickly look away, blushing uncomfortably. For some reason, I'm suddenly remembering the softness of your lips—the hotness of your breath on my skin. I shift nervously.

Mai's eyes widen and she shoots up. "No way!" she squeals. "Natsuki!"

"What?" I say panicking and hyperventilating as I scramble away from her and her prying eyes. She's suddenly way too close to me and I feel my closely guarded bubble being breached.

"Don't tell me you two already kissed! So did she kiss you or did you kiss her?" she bounces before she leans closer.

Urgh, how did the conversation turn this way? And why is Mai giving me that stupid grin like some stupid high school student? Wait, we're high school students but…butt—argh! My heart starts beating wildly and I suddenly feel like a cornered animal that's seconds away from being captured. Mai's peering at me with the stupidest grin and I almost want to shield myself from her gaze. Unable to take the pressure, I mumble, "…both"

"What was that?"

"I said 'both!'" I shouted before blushing and covering my face in my knees. Mai's squeal was insufferable.

"Hah! I knew it, I knew it! Kuga Natsuki, you are that way!"

"I'm not and it wasn't like that!"

"Oh? Is this one of those cases where the lady doth protest too much?

"No! It's just, I have this impression she kissed me while I was asleep and…and maybe did more than that," I say quietly. Mai's face instantly falls. "Shizuru killed for me, because of me, and I get the feeling that she would do it all again if she felt she needed to. And that scares me and I…when I kissed her, it wasn't like that. She defeated me when we fought, said I belonged to her, but after all of that…when she finally caught me, she just took me in her arms and looked at me with that helplessly kind expression of hers. Even after all she's done, everything she said… she still had the nerve to look at me like she's about to cry and when she did that I just couldn't…" I trail off, unable to contain my emotion. I bury my head into my knees again, trying to suppress all the conflicting feelings inside of me.

Minutes pass in silence before Mai pats me comfortingly on the shoulder. "It's okay, I shouldn't have teased you. I should've known it would've been like that."

"I really don't know what to do, Mai," I plea, "I care about Shizuru a lot—she's all that I think about these days, but I don't know how to handle her at all. I don't understand her."

I hate how stupid and weak I sound, but I can't help it. All the things that have been welling up in me all week are suddenly released and I find myself revealing it all to Mai. She takes all of this in without judgment before she stares up at the sky. After a while, she says finally:

"You know, Natsuki, maybe you're making things more complicated than they really are."

Of all the things she could say, that threw me off.

"What?"

"Maybe it's not worth thinking too much about all the little details. I mean, just look at me: I spent so much time agonizing between Kanzaki-senpai and Yuuichi and where did that leave me? In the end, I chose Yuuichi and I don't regret it but here I am. Do you see Yuuichi next to me? Despite all those cool words he said, he's still been busy taking care of Shiho-chan and is at the Student Council meeting instead of being here with me. I've been alone for most of this week and I spent so many days agonizing and waiting for him, but did that change anything? No! Ah!" she shouts, shaking her head before standing up. "It really bothers me that I've seen Nao-chan more than I have him this past week. Stupid Yuuichi!"

"Mai?" I ask cautiously. I'm not sure how to treat her outburst.

"Sorry—actually, no, I'm not sorry! But uh, what I'm trying to say is sometimes it's not worth over-thinking things. I realize it now: sometimes it's not worth trying to be overly considerate."

"Yeah…"

Mai smiles almost motherly at me before she squats down to pat my head. "It's different for you and Kaichou-san, I suppose. By the sounds of it, you two are trying your best and that's all that matters. You know, we spoke for a while after you left."

"Really?"

"Yep. She said a lot of mean things to me and even threatened me. And then she tried to force me to take you in."

I gave her a startled look. Suddenly the way she acted two days ago when I brought Mikoto back made sense, "Sorry."

"What are you apologizing for? Anyway, I thought about Kaichou-san's words and then I kind of realized that's just how she was." When she looks at my baffled expression, she continues. "I've had a lot of time to think lately, and I came to the conclusion that's how Kaichou-san shows how much she cares. It's kind of scary and a little strange, but I don't doubt her intention was genuine. She asked me take care of you because she felt she couldn't."

"That idiot…sorry"

"Why are you apologizing for her? You're not Shizuru-san. Still I don't think it's a bad idea. You can stay with me if you want."

"Thanks Mai, I'll think about it."

Mai grins happily and it's the first time in this entire conversation she looks like herself. She sits back down before she says, "I kind of like this. I feel like I could talk to you forever."

"Yeah. I feel the same way."

"You've helped me come to a lot of conclusions too."

"Really?"

"Yep!" she says before clenching her fists together empathetically. "I've decided! I'm not going to care about what that stupid Yuuichi is doing! Or what Takumi or Mikoto want to do with their lives—I've made my decision. I'm going to start living for myself and enjoy the things I want to!"

We both laugh at this and I say to her, "That kind of thinking suits you."

"What about you, Natsuki? Is there anything you want to do?"

"Um…" I think about what Mai has said, "I guess want to be more considerate to others."

Mai smiles encouragingly at me before she giggles. "You know, it's strange how our positions have swapped since the start of this year. I was always too concerned with other people and you didn't care what others thought. Now look at us."

"…yeah."

Mai pauses for a second, before she studies me carefully. "Say, Natsuki, about Shizuru-san, does it bother you that she's a girl and she likes you?"

"Not really. I told you before I didn't have time to think about love. Now I…" I pause in mid thought, trying to think of what to say.

I told you, Shizuru, back before we died that I couldn't have the feelings you wanted from me. It was—and probably still is—true: I'm not sure if I want to know how it feels to love someone. I know I'm still apprehensive of the emotion and how irrational it and the crazy things people do because of love. I turned you down because I knew we were both going to die. The most I could do was to show I was grateful for your emotion.

Since the start of middle school and the whole puberty thing, I've always turned away the confessions and love letters I got from both boys and girls. I didn't—and I still don't— care about any of that. But with you…it's difficult. I turned you down but I still can't completely ignore you. Every single time you say something to me, I feel like I'm compelled to answer you in some way.

"I still don't know what to think," I finish awkwardly.

"Well, if you don't know what to think, why not try at least try it out? It can't be that bad."

"Isn't that disingenuous? I'm not going to lie about what I feel."

"Mou, Nastuki, you're as thick as Mikoto when it comes to these things. And here I am giving love advice while my own is in shambles."

"It's not love advice!"

She ignores my retort and gets up. "I still think you should give it a shot. I mean, if you're asking me, it means you're at least considering it. Anyway," she says as she stretches and pulls out her cellphone. "I think we should head back. Mikoto and Kanzaki-senpai are coming over for dinner so I should start preparing. Oh, if neither of you have plans, you and Kaichou-san are welcomed to join us. Just let me know in advance so I can prepare more food."

"Ok. Thanks Mai."

We walk back towards the campus. As we do, we see Suzushiro's limo drive past us. Yukino waves to us but the vehicle doesn't stop. It looks like the meeting ended earlier than expected. As we get closer to the high school, we can see Tate far in the distance as he heads in the direction of his dorm. Mai frowns at the sight but makes no move to chase after him. Just then Kanzaki and Mikoto come out of the building. Mai freezes before she waves at them.

"Mai-san, Natsuki-san, it's a pleasure to see you both," that guy says as he bows in his wheelchair. Mikoto wordlessly leaves his side to give Mai a hug.

"Kanzaki-senpai, this is a surprise," Mai says as she affectionately pets Mikoto's hair. "I thought I wouldn't be expecting you for at least another two hours."

"Considering the scope of today's agenda, I thought so as well. However, there was less discussion than I anticipated as we all agreed on Shizuru-san's arrangements for the most part. We thus ended early to work on our individual action items."

"That's good, I guess," Mai says with a laugh.

"If you don't mind the intrusion, would you mind if I came over earlier than planned?"

Mai glances over at me. However, before I can say anything, he smoothly turns to me.

"Natsuki-san, I think Shizuru-san is still in the Science Laboratory wrapping up. Knowing her, she has likely traveled to the Student Council Room by now."

I can feel Mikoto's unblinking yellow eyes on me and I can't help frowning at his words. "Fine," I spat out as I head towards the building. I can feel anticipation and unease build up in my stomach. His words are implicit enough that I can catch his underlying meaning. I wonder what happened now with you, Shizuru.

"Um…let me invite Nao-chan and her mother over to keep you company while I cook. I'm sure it'll be boring just waiting for me," I hear Mai say behind me.

I feel a little bad for abandoning her, but I can't ignore that slimy guy's words or that odd look in Mikoto's eyes. If something has happened to you, Shizuru, or whatever crazy thought is in your head now—I'm the only one who can be there to help you. That's the only thing that matters right now to me. The last thing I hear before I enter the building is Kanzaki's reluctant agreement to Mai's offer.

When I head over to the Science Lab, I find only your belongings there. I guess he was right: you're probably in the Student Council Room. Before I leave, I curiously look up at the whiteboard. What I find there makes my eyes narrow and my fists clench.

I see your meticulously planned timetable for the next four months on the whiteboard. That's not what bothers me. What bothers me is, according to that thing, you're planning to head over to Tokyo in the next two days and stay there for at least three months. Anger wells into me. I slam to the door shut and I head over to the Student Council Room.

In the end, no matter where or who I turn to, I always end up coming back to you, Shizuru. So why the hell do you keep running away from me? I'm not letting you go without a fight.