Natsuki

Damn it, Shizuru! Damn all of this. This entire thing between us 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 to your plans the way I did, but seriously, that was huge! How'd you expect me to respond when you blurted out all that stuff about the First District to my face? My entire life was dedicated to bringing the First District down and I was just getting over the fact that they were gone from our lives. And then you suddenly reveal that not only did you know they were alive but you're also teaming up with them? After all they put us through? After what you've done to them? And then you go and offer me all their resources to me. So, on top of all of this bullshit, you also want me to work with them?

I've seen you dangle opportunities like this before and, damn it, I'm not someone you can manipulate! Maybe I am I'm no different from anyone else in your eyes. I think back to the way you said all of this, the way you sounded—that smug and calculating voice and—

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 left. You're probably still sulking in your bed. Just remembering that cruel expression on your face is enough to make me shiver and frown. It reminded me of the side you showed during that garden, that high and mighty attitude which you treated Suzushiro and Yukino with like they were beneath you. 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 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 is on the road since 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 onto 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 should've also addressed that cruel side of you as well. Maybe if I could of helped quash it, suppress it, but then how…how could I? What could I have done better?

I also can't help thinking back to the softer side you've shown me the last couple of days as well. I can't push aside the teary-eyed you: the you who seemed so alone, so small when we stood at the cliff. I remember how you clung to me the night after I came back from the hospital and the feel of your head on my shoulder. You seemed so unsure, so different from how you usually are…is that the real you? Or is it the one you just showed me tonight, that calculating monster? If they're both you than how do I reconcile the two?

Urgh! I don't understand why people are so difficult—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 anymore rest so I get up. If you were to 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 of this sorted out. I need to get rid of all these thoughts and doubts 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, the sense of clarity it gave to you—I can't take that away. I recognized that gleam as one that my own eyes had back when my desire for revenge consumed me. That's something I can't take away from you, especially when I have nothing to replace it with. I know how it felt when I got my own sense of purpose ripped away from me and I can't do that to anyone else.

As I resign myself to the fact that I won't see you until later, and get ready to leave your apartment, something catches 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 one or two school trips I attended before my mother died, I've never had such a fancy or traditional breakfast. I usually eat a slice of toast or convenience store bread. 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. There's also note propped against the bowl of rice. "For Natsuki—I'm sorry," it reads.

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 is written by you. After I got to know you, I found that I can recognize parts of your personality in those bold, yet restrained curves that proudly declare the school's motto to "Live Honestly to Achieve Your Aspirations."

This gesture of yours is oddly endearing and it relieves me as well. It's so you in the way that, behind this elaborate presentation, I can see 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. You even apologized for the way you acted before. I know how rare it is for you to honestly ask for forgiveness so I value it. I grab a pen from nearby and scribble a messy "Thanks" on your note before I start eating.

As expected, everything's delicious. I know from experience how good your cooking is. You tend to make stuff for me on weekends—usually something around noon before we go shopping or dinner when we returned. There's all these little touches to the meal that remind 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 figure it's the least I could do for you. Having no place in mind to go, I decide to take a walk around the campus.

The afternoon sun greets me when I walk outside 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.

As I approach the Crystal Palace, I see a couple of trucks parked nearby and a group of adults 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. He's 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 of me interrupting their work.

I'm surprised to see how quickly everything is moving according to your wishes. 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 this and your breakfast, I feel much better than I did before. I don't doubt that this broken land will be renewed. Fuuka Gakuen will get its second chance. And, maybe along the way, we'll have ours as well.

Now that I can think about what happened last night more rationally, I can see how I let my emotions get to me. Now I see the implicit trust you put in me when you revealed the full scope of your plans. After everything that happened this past week, I should've 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. You know how much I can't stand deceit.

At the same time, 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 that you were raised to be the way you are—that you learned how to find 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 and you're not getting paid either. You're also not going to be recognized since the credit is going to go to that pink-haired maid. From the way he was grilling you last night, I think Suzushiro's dad noticed this as well. You also said before that the reason why you're working on this reconstruction is because "it was easier to think of a solution than be reminded of why it was needed." Wait a second—I think—

…damn it, Shizuru. Why couldn't 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 and never once considered your actions to be out of compassion. It's not just apparent in the way you treated me when we first met, but everyone else, like how you brought Tate into the Student Council after his accident. You act all frivolous about it, but no one can doubt how your accomplishments have made this academy a better place.

It's not a weakness, you know, helping people out. It's one of the reasons why you're so respected. I've always admired how you can see what needs to be done and find the best path to accomplish it. What you're doing now will benefit everyone. Just like Tate found another purpose, so will everyone involved in this effort.

I guess it can't be helped. These human errors—the roughness in our attitudes and interactions—I guess these are things we need to change, adjust, and adapt to in order to better understand each other. 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 it 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 trace the outline of the scorched mountain path.

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 find Mai napping against the side of it.

"Hey," I call out to her when I get nearer. It takes a while for her to stir. I have to call out to her again before she wakes up. When she does, her eyelids snap open and she immediately perks up.

"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 as 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 impressive 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 major 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 the academy's system attracts a lot of talent. We're the only school in the world that lets students run most of the administration and Fuuka U is the only university that's managed entirely by student organizations."

"Really?"

"Yeah. This place is a rich kid's school for a reason. About a fourth of Fuuka U's students are headhunted by major corporations by the time they graduate and I remember reading in one of Shizuru's reports that almost 35% of our funding comes from individual and private sector donations."

"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 says self-consciously, "I don't know if I count. Especially because of why I got the scholarship."

The mood gets serious and I glance at Mai's downcast eyes.

"You doing okay?" I ask.

"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, Takumi is 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 know?"

"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—like what do I do from here?"

She's rambling and I don't mind. There's something refreshing about Mai's open personality that I immediately trust. I can reveal to her 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 while we drifted apart. Judging by the things she's revealing to me, I guess Mai feels the same way. Despite the conversation turning serious, I still find it easy to talk to her and match her wavelength.

"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 the 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 than 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 and I liked it because of how easy it all seemed. I know things are different between us now, but I can't let go of that moment and what it means to me.

I believe there are these moments in time that forever shape the people we become, Shizuru. These are the moments that define who we are and how we treat the world around us. For me, the death of my mother was one of them. The next one is that time when you reached out to me, back when we were first getting to know each other. That friendship you offered—that kindness—saved me and I'll never forget that.

But what we have now is not that simple thing that we once had. It's so intricate and complex and, now that I'm reaching out for you, you're the one pushing me away. And for me, I…I'm a little scared of what happens next.

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

"Are you ok, Natsuki?"

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

Mai smiles absentmindedly as she plucks at the grass. "It's 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 they 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 of 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 that 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 us knew what the power that 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've had anything she ever wanted. 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 own ideology. So, for all of us now, we just have…this. It's not quite a step back, but it's not a step forward either. We're right where we left off.

"Do you regret not taking Kanzaki's offer?"

Mai's response is instantaneous. "No," she says.

I smile at her reaction before I half-heartedly shrug. "Then there's no point thinking about it any longer. You made your decision and you can't change it."

"You make it sound so simple," Mai laughs.

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

"Still, thanks Natsuki. It's kind of a relief that you think so too."

"Yeah. Despite everything that's happened, I think you made the right choice."

Mai hums her agreement and we're silent for a little while longer. She then 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. I'm not sure what to think."

Mai stays patiently silent as she waits for me to gather my thoughts. All of this that surrounds us, Shizuru—how do I explain it to someone? All the tension, all the conflict and misunderstanding between us with these scattered moments of peace—where did it all originate from? When did we start drifting apart and get entangled in all these conflicting feelings? Was it when you started liking me? Maybe Mai can help me understand.

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

"What do you mean?"

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

Mai recoils in surprise at my question. However, she still answers it 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. I really counted on him and found myself relying on him more and more. I was really torn for a while 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 I kept thinking about him. And after that kiss with Kanzaki-senpai, I found myself hesitating. So...uh, 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 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?" Mai looks straight into my eyes and I quickly look away, blushing uncomfortably. For some reason, I'm suddenly remembering the softness and the fullness of your lips and the feeling of your breath on my skin. I shift nervously.

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

"W-what?" I panic and scramble away from her and her prying eyes. She's suddenly way too close.

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

Urgh, how did the conversation suddenly 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—argh! My heart starts beating wildly and I suddenly feel like a cornered animal that's seconds away from being devoured. Mai's peering at me like a playful predator and I almost want to shield myself from her gaze. Unable to take the pressure, I mumble, "…both."

"What was that?"

"I said 'both!'"

Mai's squeal is 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 like 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'd done and everything she'd said… she still had the nerve to look at me with those teary eyes of hers. So I just couldn't hate her and..." I trail off, not knowing what else to say. I bury my head into my knees, trying to suppress all the conflicting feelings inside of me.

All of this would be easier if I could just shove your concern and everything about you away from me. But I can't and that's what makes this all so difficult. When I think about you, my heart and insides just seem to twist around into all these bunches and loops and I want scream, cry, punch something—do anything—so I can get rid of all this pent up energy. But I can't, just like how I can't leave you alone.

Minutes pass in silence before Mai reaches out and pats me comfortingly on the shoulder. "It's okay, I shouldn't have teased you."

"I really don't know what to do, Mai," I confess, "I care about Shizuru a lot—she's all that I think about these days, but I don't know how to handle her. Every time I feel like I have a good grasp on the situation, she throws something new at me."

I hate how stupid and weak I sound, but I can't help it. All the things that have been welling up in me this week finally have an outlet. I find myself revealing everything to Mai, everything that has been bothering me. All my worries, my fears, all my concerns for you, I reveal everything to Mai.

Mai listens patiently to me before she stares up at the sky. After a while, she says:

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

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

"What?"

Mai smiles almost tiredly at me; there's a glint in her violet eyes that makes her seem a lot older than she actually is. "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? I chose Yuuichi and I don't regret it but do you see him next to me? Despite all those cool words he said, he still decided to take 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've spent so many days agonizing and waiting for him, and did anything change in the end? No! Ah!" she shouts, shaking her head before standing up. "It really bothers me that I've seen Nao-chan more than him! Stupid Yuuichi!"

"Mai?"

"Sorry—actually, no, I'm not sorry! Who cares about that idiot anymore!" she complains. "Anyway, Natsuki, what I'm trying to say is sometimes it's not worth overthinking things. Sometimes it's not worth trying to be overly considerate, you know?"

"Yeah…"

Mai composes herself before she sits back down. "I suppose things are a little different for you and Kaichou-san. By the sound of it, both of you are trying your best and that's all that matters. You know, she and I spoke for a while after you left."

"Really?"

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

I gave Mai 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 realized that's just how she is." When she looks at my baffled expression, Mai 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? You're not her. Anyway, 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 her usual cheerful self. She sits back down before she says, "I like talking to you like this. I feel like I could go on and on forever."

"Yeah. Thanks for letting me confide in you."

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

"Really?"

"Yep!" she says before empathetically clenching both her hands into fists. "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. "That kind of thinking suits you," I remark.

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

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

Mai smiles encouragingly at me before she giggles. "It's a bit mysterious 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 begins to speak, but then stops herself as if she's suddenly thought of something. She studies me carefully before she says, "Hey, Natsuki, about Shizuru-san, does it bother you that she's a girl and that she likes you?"

"No. I told you before that I didn't have time to think about things like love. Now I…" I pause in mid thought, trying to think of what to say.

Since the start of middle school and the whole puberty thing, I've always rejected confessions and love letters no matter where they came from. I never gave it any thought whether they were a boy or a girl since none of that mattered to me: they just got in the way of my objectives. There wasn't a place for them in my mind. I didn't—and I still don't— care about any of that. I really don't get romance and that kind of stuff. But with you…it's different, difficult. I turned you down but I still can't completely ignore you like I do other people. Every single time you say something to me, I feel like I'm compelled to answer you in some way.

I told you, Shizuru, back before we died, that I couldn't have the feelings you wanted from me. We were about to die so I thought that was it. And now…I'm not sure if I want to know how it feels like to love someone. I'm still apprehensive of the emotion and how irrational it makes people and all the crazy things people do because of it. Back then, the most I could do was to show you that I was grateful for your emotion. I decided, after rejecting Takeda's feelings that I had to accept yours.

And now, what I thought was the end wasn't the end. Our lives have continued on. And because of that…

"I still don't know what to think."

"Well, if you don't know what to think, why not try it out?"

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

"Mou, Natsuki, you're as thick as Mikoto when it comes to these things! It's not going to work if you just keep thinking about it!" Mai complains. She then self-consciously adds, "Then again, here I am giving love advice when my own is in shambles."

"It's not love advice!"

She ignores my retort and gets up. "Well if you're asking me, it means you've at least considered it. So I think you should give it a shot. Anyway," she says as she stretches and pulls out her cellphone, "we should head back. Mikoto and Kanzaki-senpai are coming over for dinner so I should start preparing. 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."

"Thanks Mai."

"Anytime," she says before she gets up and offers me a hand. "So cheer up, Natsuki! Take it from me—there's no point in moping around!"

I take her hand and get up as well. We end up walking back to the central campus together. As we do, we see Suzushiro's limo drive past us. Yukino waves to us as they drive by, but the vehicle doesn't stop. It looks like the meeting had just ended. As we get closer to the high school, we see Tate far in the distance as he walks 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 school.

"Mai-san, Natsuki-san, it's a pleasure to see you both," Kanzaki 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, Mai-san. However, there was less discussion than I anticipated."

"That's good, I guess," Mai says.

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

Mai glances over at me. However, before I can say anything, Kanzaki 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 spit out as I head towards the building without another word.

"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 thoughts are in your head now—I'll be there to help you. 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 are 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 on that board your timeline for the next four months. That's not what bothers me. What bothers me is that you're planning to head over to Tokyo in two days and stay there for at least another three months. I head over to the Student Council Room as my emotions start flaring up again.

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