A/N: My wife is definitely my biggest fan of my "Duran and Kiyohime's Omake Theater" stories featuring Shizuru, Natsuki, their chibi-CHILDs, and occasionally other members of the My-HiME cast—to the point that she specifically asked me if I could do a piece of ShizNat fluff for her birthday with Duran and Kiyohime as guest stars. Thus was born "The Secret Ingredient." Apparently this was a raving success, because she asked for more of the same for Valentine's Day! I have a feeling she specifically likes this pairing because (a) Shizuru and Natsuki are the anime couple most like our "couples dynamic," and (b) she thinks Duran-kun and Kiyo-chan are just so darned cute. So this is dedicated to my very own Natsuki, "Tarma Hartley," who, ironically, has never in our nearly fourteen years as a couple had the problem Natsuki confronts herein.

Incidentally, for anyone who stops and thinks about this a little too much and starts getting confused as to Natsuki's characterization, please note that this story is set on the Valentine's Day before "The Secret Ingredient."

Finding Words

or

"But Does the Hydra Have a License?"

(featuring the Kuga-Fujino family pets!)

"Life was a lot easier when I didn't give a damn about anyone else," Natsuki Kuga groused.

Mai Tokiha, with the prerogative of a best friend, bonked her on the head with her bento box.

"Hey!"

"Quit sulking, Natsuki."

"I was not sulking!" Natsuki lied shamelessly. "I was...reflecting."

"On the depths of your sulkiness, maybe."

"Not being helpful."

"Not being asked for help," Mai countered. "We've had lunch, we've played with Duran, and we've chatted about tests, baseball, and my shrimp recipe, but you haven't gotten around to why you wanted to meet me in the park for lunch on a Sunday afternoon in the first place."

"I could just want to hang out," Natsuki said defensively. Duran looked up from where he was chewing a stick while lying at the girls' feet and tipped his head to the side curiously.

"Even he doesn't believe you," said Mai. She reached down and took the stick from Duran, then flung it. The steel wolf was up and bounding after it in an instant, his paws kicking up snow.

"Oh, all right," Natsuki grumbled. Apparently, she was entirely too predictable. "Mai, what are you doing for Valentine's Day?"

"I'm making nut clusters in milk chocolate for Yuiichi, dark chocolate with black cherry filling for Reito, and a giant block of fudge for Mikoto. With her it's less about the message and more about the quantity. Then, if Mikoto doesn't eat the whole thing in one sitting and make herself sick, I'm going to dinner with Yuiichi and a movie with Reito."

"Shouldn't it be the other way around? I'd have figured Kanzaki would be the better romantic dinner date with his money and his knowledge of fancy foods."

"But it's just as much fun to teach Yuiichi about those things, and being with him I don't feel so out of place. Sometimes when I'm with Reito I feel like a peasant girl the prince invited to court, if you know what I mean?"

"Oh, yeah. I feel like some hick biker chick half the time when I go to fancy places with Shizuru."

"Then you do know. Being with Yuiichi, I feel like I can just relax and be me. And, on the other hand, going to a sappy romantic movie with him is right out. The last time I tried it he made snarky comments until the movie started, then fell asleep twenty minutes in and started snoring. He ended up wearing the popcorn."

"Is that why Shiho accused you of buttering his head? I never did figure that one out." Mostly because I was scared of the answers.

"Yep. Reito actually likes romantic movies, or at least he likes that I like them and can enjoy himself going to one."

"I don't know how you do it, keeping up with two boyfriends and whatever the heck Mikoto is. Just dealing with Shizuru is almost more than I can handle."

"Yeah, but you two are in love. I'm just dating Reito and Yuiichi. You guys might as well be married."

Duran came bounding up, wagging his tail proudly at having fetched the stick. He laid back down in the snowy ground and resumed chewing.

"If you're going to keep laying around in the snow, I should rustproof your undercoat," Natsuki told him. His ears twitched, but he kept chewing.

"So what are you doing for Valentine's Day?" Mai wondered.

Natsuki let out a heavy sigh.

"I don't know."

"Ah, I'm guessing this is what you wanted to talk to me about?"

Natsuki nodded.

"I have no idea what I'm supposed to do," she moaned helplessly. "I can't make chocolate. I destroy things making sweets. And I'm not even sure what the etiquette is for gay couples on Valentine's Day, anyway? I don't want Shizuru to think I'm implying she's somehow boy-like. And besides, this is our first Valentine's Day as a couple. Isn't giving chocolate to someone you like supposed to be sort of like a love confession? We moved in together so...we're pretty well past that stage."

Mai sighed enviously.

"I wish I could get to that point."

"I kinda think you're going to have to pick one person to pull that off."

"You're right, you know. Until I make up my mind—or they decide to stop waiting—we can go out and have fun but not really be romantic."

"I don't think that would stop Kanzaki."

"You don't like Reito, do you?"

"I think he's smarmy. Either that, or I think he's Shizuru with boy parts, which is just too creepy for words."

"Some of us like the idea of our love interest having boy parts," Mai said archly. "But you're right. It's not about the things we do, it's the feelings, the intimacy, and I can't feel intimate or special with any of them while I'm not dating just one person."

"So pick one. Or drop the lot and start over. Either way, you haven't got the mindset for polyamory, right? It's been ten months, so grow some ovaries and pick one. Or decide that you're not looking for intimacy and taking the next step and trying to tell me stories about your sex life that I absolutely do not want to hear and everything else that tries to come with serious romance, and keep on as you are. Your call."

"You're helpful."

"Hey, I called you to ask for your help with my problem, not the other way around."

"And if you'd 'grown some ovaries' as you put it and come out and asked earlier, the topic of my love life would never even have come up." Mai was not willing to let Natsuki wiggle off the hook.

"...Dammit."

Mai smirked. Duran dropped the stick and panted eagerly up at his mistress.

"Don't you start, too."

"Anyway," Mai continued, "the bottom line is that you want to do something properly big and romantic, right?"

"Right, but not something too stupid or boring, because me blushing like a tomato isn't romantic and neither is me pulling a Tate and yawning through the whole thing." She sighed and sagged forward, burying her chin in her gloves. "I just...I just want to show her, somehow, how I feel about her. That's the whole point, right, to say 'I love you' in a way it's absolutely, definitely going to be believed right down to the bone? She does that every day. I just want to be able to pull it off once."

Mai was silent for a while.

"Wow," she finally marveled. "That's kind of amazing, Natsuki. To feel that strongly for a person..." She frowned thoughtfully. "But I think you said something wrong, there, too."

"Huh?"

"At the beginning, when you were talking about not 'pulling a Tate'—which line I must not let get back to Reito, I may add—I think you might be off a bit."

"How so? I don't want to ruin her evening by snoring or putting mayo on some food it's not supposed to go on or something."

"Well, it seems to me that if you just stay with what makes you comfortable and confident, then you're just being like me. If you want to really send a message to Shizuru, then you ought to be taking a risk or doing something extraordinary, right?"

Natsuki blinked at her.

"How so?"

Mai shrugged.

"I don't know. This is your Valentine's Day present, right? I mean, I'm not giving her the gift."

"Not helping here."

"Friends don't let friends give their sweethearts romantic gifts thought up by somebody else."

Natsuki groaned. Worse yet, she knew that Mai was right. Shizuru had an instinct about this stuff. She'd spot something Mai thought up coming from a mile away.

"So you think I should take a risk, get outside my comfort zone?"

"If you're trying to make a big deal out of how much you love her. It'd be different if you were trying to show her a special time, or if you were trying to arrange something that's the most fun for the two of you together. Different gifts for different goals, right?"

"Yeah, I guess. You're doing that 'have the most fun together' thing with Kanzaki and Tate, right?"

"Uh huh."

"Maybe in a couple of years that'll be for us," Natsuki mused. "Y'know, with all the hearts and flowers stuff just as the theme for the evening." She shook her head. "Argh! I can't get caught up thinking about next year!"

Duran bit the stick in two with a crunch, then looked up at Natsuki and woofed.

"What, do you want me to find something else for you to chase?"

He woofed again, enthusiastically wagging his tail.

"You ought to try being more helpful, if you want to get what you want. Why can't you—"

She stopped suddenly as the idea hit her.

No, that was just silly.

But she had to admit, it was definitely outside of her comfort zone.

Natsuki pulled out her cel phone and dialed rapidly.

"Hey, Yamada? It's Kuga. I need to know if you can get me something, and if you laugh I'm knocking off ten-K yen before we even start talking about price."

~X X X~

Shizuru Fujino examined the letter again closely. She'd found it taped to the cupboard where she kept the tea when she'd returned after her meeting to the home she shared with Natsuki. She was aware that Natsuki had something in mind for Valentine's Day—she'd told Shizuru to keep her evening free—but not exactly what. The letter seemed part of it.

Please be waiting at the south entrance to the park at 7:30. Wear something fancy. Love, Natsuki.

It was very unlike Natsuki. The terse phrasing, yes, that was normal, but things like "please" and especially "love" were not usual at all. In fact, Shizuru could even see how the lines were shaky on the latter word, and she smiled at the image of Natsuki making herself write it despite being uncomfortable.

Still, Shizuru was very curious, so she found herself eager with anticipation as she waited by the red brick gateposts of Kazahana Memorial Park. She was wearing a red wraparound evening dress under the long cashmere coat that had been a graduation present from her parents, soft black leather boots and gloves, and fuzzy earmuffs.

I hope this is what Natsuki meant by "fancy." She was not particularly specific... Shizuru thought even as she bounced slightly on the balls of her feet, not able to completely contain her excitement. This was, after all, their first Valentine's Day as a couple, and she was very eager to see what Natsuki had done. She herself had gotten Natsuki a new suit of biking leathers, black slashed with green that matched her eyes. It was not to her mind a particularly romantic gift, but Natsuki did not like the usual kind of particularly romantic gifts such as jewelry and it did not seem very loving to Shizuru to get Natsuki a gift that she would not want. Her concession to traditional romance was to add a little gold heart locket to the zipper, plain outside but that opened to reveal an extremely sappy message. She suspected that Natsuki would prefer to be able to read things like Natsuki, you are the one joy of my heart. Always and ever your love, Shizuru in private instead of having it openly written for any passerby to glance at. When it came to Natsuki's emotions, she was not very comfortable sharing them with others.

Then again, Shizuru had gone two years without sharing her feelings with their object, so she understood that kind of thing.

But she liked it a lot better the way things were now.

A soft creaking noise, as of wood on wood, caught Shizuru's attention, and she turned her head to look up the path.

No, she thought, it couldn't be.

But it was.

An open carriage, the kind that was a hundred years out of date and only used now for, well, romantic tours of parks and other landmarks, was coming up the path. Only instead of being drawn by a horse, Duran was harnessed between the shafts, almost strutting. Kiyohime, for her part, was perched on the driver's seat of the landau, the reins in her mouths, each neck decorated by a bow tie and each head by a tiny top hat. The carriage came to a stop precisely in front of Shizuru and Natsuki rose from her seat, flipped the step down with her foot, and bent over, extending her hand.

"Would you care to join me, Shizuru?"

Shizuru bit her lip to keep from laughing. It was so cute, the CHILDs, the carriage, everything! It made her want to burst out in laughter, but she had a feeling that Natsuki would not appreciate that reaction. Besides, Natsuki herself gave her more than enough distraction. Her long, dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail by a bit of cherry-red ribbon, and she was wearing a full-length black leather coat that looked to be as soft as butter to the touch. It fell open to reveal that Natsuki was actually wearing a tuxedo underneath it! Avidly devouring her girlfriend with her eyes, Shizuru wanted to let out a very un-Fujinolike squeal.

"Natsuki!"

Ignoring the outstretched hand, she sprang up the step, wrapped both arms around Natsuki and all but tackled her back up into the landau's rear seat. She rubbed her face avidly against the ruffled front of Natsuki's shirt, making little happy sounds.

"Um...I take it you like it?"

"Mm-hm, mm-hm, mm-hm!" Shizuru was still too giddy for words, and went on to prove it with a firm kiss in the general vicinity of the lips (Natsuki was squirming too much for good aim), then another, then another, then another. Natsuki was rather breathless, and blushing a striking red, when Shizuru finally let her go and sat back in the seat.

"You look amazing, Natsuki, and all this is so cute!" she caroled, gesturing to indicate Duran, Kiyohime, and the carriage. "You have to let me get a picture of everything, and you, please."

"All right."

Shizuru blinked.

"Ara? I was expecting a bit of resistance. Natsuki does not usually like to be photographed while doing such things."

Natsuki blushed even redder, if that was possible. She took a deep breath, then let it out.

"I know, but...there's not much point in doing something special for you if I'm not going to let you enjoy it, right?"

Shizuru flinched.

"You did all this just for my sake?"

"It's Valentine's Day, right? You're supposed to do sappy, romantic stuff for—wait." She held up a hand. "No, sorry, I'm not going to do this again."

"Do what again?"

"Beat around the bush. Get all grumpy and huffy to cover up how damned nervous I am at this romance stuff. I mean, you can do this kind of thing in your sleep, you're so good at it." She paused, took a deep breath, then reached out to take Shizuru's hands between hers. "I just wanted to show you, really show you, how much you truly mean to me. You're the one who taught me that people could be kind, that they could care about someone else. For the first time since my mother died, you made me feel something other than anger. You didn't just love me; you taught me that I was capable of feeling love, myself. You showed me that love could be giving and selfless, and you showed me that it could be passionate and selfish, too. I mean...here I am, wearing a tuxedo, sitting in a carriage, about to go to a ridiculously fancy dinner at the Lotus Garden—we have a reserved table by the glass wall, overlooking the pond—and I...I want to do these things because I love you and seeing that happy face you had when you just glomped me makes me feel all warm and gooey inside."

"Natsuki..."

She shook her head.

"Don't say anything or I'll lose courage. You're the best thing that ever happened to me, Shizuru. I don't know why you fell in love with someone who's always crabby and isn't good with feelings and pushes people away and gets angry a lot and sometimes is full of herself, but you made me believe it and you go out of your way every day to make sure I know it. I'm not very good at giving anything back, but...I really, really want to try and get better at that, because I want you to know how much I care, to know I love you the same way that I know you love me, so that you never have to worry or doubt again."

Natsuki let out her breath in a long, shuddering sigh. Shizuru wondered what kind of effort it had cost her to say all that.

"Natsuki..." she began again.

Green eyes, wide and almost pleading, looked up at her.

"This is the best present I could imagine. Not dinner or you dressing up or this carriage, though I love them, too, but what you just said."

Natsuki blinked.

"Really?"

"Really."

"Does this mean we can just go get a burger or something instead?"

"No," Shizuru said, smiling. Natsuki grinned back at her.

"Too bad," she said, and both girls broke into giggles.

Kiyohime flicked her heads, shaking the reins to tell Duran he should start. As the landau began to move, Shizuru leaned close to her girlfriend.

"Happy Valentine's Day, Natsuki."

And, because lovers show small kindnesses to one another, she spared Natsuki the effort of trying to come up with a decent reply by covering the younger girl's lips with her own.