A/N: Done for the Mai Universe "Carnival of MUses"; this month's prompts were "only human" and "good luck charms" and I used the former. As should be relatively obvious from the story, this is set after the end of the Festival but before graduation...so about 2/3 of the way through Episode 26 or so.

This is a general concept for a fic, I think, that has been done many times by ShizNat writers...but it's my own first time tackling the subject, so that's got to count for something, right?

~X X X~

Natsuki Kuga turned the doorknob and pushed open the door to the student council room.

"Oi, Shizuru—" she called out, but cut herself off at once when she saw the figure of the student council president seated at her desk, head resting on her folded arms. Shizuru Fujino's eyes were closed, and her breathing regular.

Well, she certainly deserves her sleep, after all she's had to deal with lately.

Natsuki walked over to the desk and hopped up on the corner, a position she'd occupied regularly through the past year when she'd come to talk with Shizuru. Sitting there gave her an almost nostalgic feeling; this was the first time she'd been there with the kaichou since the end of the HiME Festival.

She regretted that. Things had gotten so complicated, after all. Since Natsuki's apartment had been basically blown up during Nao and Shizuru's second fight over her, she'd moved in with her friend Mai. Mai already had a roommate, Mikoto, but Natsuki didn't even have to sleep on the couch since Mikoto liked to use Mai as a hugging pillow while she slept. Having Natsuki there gave Mikoto a good excuse to move over to Mai's bed right from the start instead of sneaking over during the night. Almost against her will, Natsuki had found herself being drawn into the orbit of Mai and her friends—Mikoto, Chie, Aoi, Akane, and so on—even Nao, who lived next door as Aoi's roommate. For the first time in her life, she'd been living almost like a normal teenager. Going to classes, hanging out at Linden Baum, going to karaoke, going to the movies or the arcade, and otherwise finding herself one of the group.

Of course, Shizuru had been busy, too. Getting the school up and running again in the wake of all the disasters was no easy task, and given the amount of responsibility the student council held at Fuuka Academy Shizuru had been all but run off her feet dealing with bringing it all back together so that in another week graduation—including her own—would happen on time.

So they'd both had their reasons why they hadn't been able to spend much time together, but those were less actual explanations and more like excuses. Because the elephant in the room, the thing that couldn't be gotten away from, was that the feelings between the two best friends were never going to go back the way they'd been. Shizuru had been in love with Natsuki all along, not the love of a friend but a romantic love, even a—Natsuki found herself blushing—sexual love. And that had changed things. There was no getting around it. The things Shizuru had done because of that love during the Festival weren't half as disturbing to Natsuki's equilibrium as the mere existence of the feelings was proving.

Not that Shizuru seemed to be having an easier time of it. She'd hidden her feelings for Natsuki for so long, perhaps never intending to reveal them at all. Then the Festival had torn away all her artifice and driven her mad with terror, longing, and despair, and now she didn't know any better than Natsuki what she was supposed to do.

Natsuki definitely got the impression that Shizuru had been allowing herself to be distracted from seeing Natsuki the same way that Natsuki had from seeing her.

A little chuckle escaped Natsuki's lips as she thought of all that Shizuru had been doing. From negotiating with backers to working out a schedule for repairs to talking with parents and students alike to get people back to school, to reorganizing class schedules and solving the logistics of how it was supposed to all happen at once and on time, the girl had been all but run off her feet. And the academy administration wasn't being as big a help as it could have been, what with Mashiro playing least-in-sight while Fumi Himeno was taking over as headmistress. Had Mashiro ever really been alive in the first place? Natsuki wasn't sure, but it made things awfully complicated as far as the school went. To say nothing of the fact that when all was said and done, Fuuka Academy had been set up by District One as a stage for the HiME Festival and now District One had pretty much ceased to exist, leaving large questions about financial backing, local government support, and other matters left to be answered.

It was a pretty tireless grind, and not at all funny. Rather, what had made Natsuki laugh was that she knew Shizuru well and unlike everyone else except Reito and Haruka was fully aware that the star student and supposedly perfect president was a fundamentally lazy person who dedicated herself to getting through things she wasn't interested in with an absolute minimum of effort. Indeed, the entire style of her presidency had been "dump all the work on Haruka and just rein her in whenever she got too out of control." Which was kind of funny—or sad—because Haruka had actually run for president against Shizuru, gotten slaughtered in the election, and ended up doing almost all the work anyway.

Since the Festival, "the minimum necessary" had amounted to "work her fingers to the bone," and being lazy was completely impossible. Tea breaks, Natsuki figured, were no longer the norm.

"Maybe this isn't tiredness, just caffeine withdrawal?" she murmured with a grin, and reached out to brush the hair back off Shizuru's face.

Then stopped, her hand still a few inches from touching her.

She wouldn't be casually touching a friend, but a person who loved her. It wasn't the same thing, was it? Would such contact imply anything? Would it convey a message that she was more comfortable with such touches than she wanted to say? Would holding back say that she was more uncomfortable than she actually was, though? Did it change things that Shizuru was asleep? Would that make it some kind of callback to whatever the heck it was Shizuru had done to her that Yukino had been babbling about that night when it had all gone to hell?

Gah, why does this all have to be so damned difficult?

Of course, it would be a lot easier if Natsuki herself could figure out how she felt about it all. Life was easier when she could put things in little boxes. So why did stuff have to be so complicated? Every time she figured that she knew what the hell she was doing, she got tossed another curve ball. Curve, hell; Shizuru's more like a knuckler if I'm using baseball similies.

How did it change things that Natsuki knew Shizuru's feelings? Could she accept that? Could she deal with a close friend who loved her that way, be comfortable around her? Did it matter that Shizuru had gone stark, raving nuts on Natsuki's behalf? Or that Natsuki had shocked her out of it with a kiss—right before blowing them up (albeit temporarily)? Or was none of that actually the issue at all, but that Natsuki had at long last realized just how precious that Shizuru was to her?

No wonder Natsuki was so confused. Hell, confused didn't even begin to cover her feelings.

She slipped down off the desk. Waiting around here for Shizuru to wake up was just making her thoughts churn hopelessly without getting anywhere, like a car spinning its wheels in the mud.

She could do this another time, she thought.

That was when Shizuru screamed.

She jerked bolt upright, eyes wide and unfocused. The convulsive movement nearly threw her off the chair, and it would have had Natsuki not sprung to catch her.

"Shizuru!"

The other girl clung to her, hands fisting like claws in Natsuki's orange uniform vest.

"Natsuki..." she whimpered. Then, suddenly, as if saying the name had been a kind of talisman, she looked up at Natsuki with stricken eyes. She let go at once, as if Natsuki's clothing was, instead, something red-hot to the touch, and jerked her body back so sharply that again she'd have fallen if Natsuki hadn't caught her by the shoulders.

"Shizuru...Shizuru, it was only a dream!" Natsuki said at once, trying to steady her. "Only a dream," she repeated.

Shizuru's eyes began to clear, the seemingly brighter red of conscious thought—maybe because sleep-dilated pupils were contracting, revealing more color—returning to her gaze.

"A dream..." she murmured. Then her gaze dropped and she turned away. "No, it wasn't a dream. It was a memory."

Her hands were trembling; she looked at them as if, Natsuki thought, they were alien things.

"The Festival?"

Shizuru nodded.

"Do you want to tell me about it?"

Shizuru looked up at her in surprise.

"Natsuki?"

"Hey, it could help."

"I...don't think that would be appropriate in this case," Shizuru told her softly.

"Why?"

"The dream...it was of when I attacked you."

"Shizuru..." Natsuki shifted uncomfortably, then straightened up. "Well, I lived through the real thing, so I figure I can handle the memory." To her surprise, she found that she actually felt almost as calm and casual as she sounded.

"Natsuki?"

She reached down and took one of Shizuru's hands in hers.

"Come on. If it's making you feel that badly, then it must be a pretty big dose of poison, and if you swallow it back down...you're only human, Shizuru. You can only be expected to take so much."

Shizuru let out a deep, ragged sigh. Her hand was cold in Natsuki's.

"Do you really mean that?"

"You know me better than anyone. Since when do I go around saying stuff I don't mean just to be nice to people?"

A smile flickered across Shizuru's lips for a second.

"I suppose that is a point."

"Yeah. So...?"

"Very well, then. In my dream, I was reliving our last battle, beginning with when you crashed through the doors so dramatically on your motorcycle. Only, everything was slowed down to a crawl, so I could feel consciously all the thoughts within me, all my emotions. It was so strange. Sometimes I was trying to kill you, because you'd rejected me and the idea of you caring for someone else...it nearly broke me. Then in the next moment, I didn't want to kill you at all, but capture you so that I could make you mine, by force if necessary. What is the phrase, 'if I can't have you, no one will'? That applied, and yet I simply couldn't tell which of those options I was trying to achieve. I woke just as I had pulled you into my arms there at the end, but before Natsuki got a chance to begin her so surprising confession of not-quite-love. In the dream, you see, I didn't remember what would happen next, but only my intent in that instant..."

She shuddered, the recital leaving her trembling.

"That's when I screamed, at what I thought I was about to do."

Natsuki sighed.

"Come here."

In the next instant she stepped forward and pulled the still-seated Shizuru into an embrace, cradling the taller girl's head against her breast.

"Wha—? Natsuki?"

"Shizuru, if you can forgive me for not seeing what was right under my nose for years, and obviously so to the point that anyone less terminally clueless than me would have noticed long ago, then I can forgive you for having a complete breakdown under stress no one should have had to bear."

"I can't just set it all aside like that."

"I know," she said, just as she also knew that Shizuru would never admit that to anyone except her. "Mikoto's the same way, you know. She may seem happy-go-lucky, but the more she comes to understand about what it means to love someone, the more regrets she has for the things she did." Come to think of it, what she was doing right then wasn't that different than what Mai did for Mikoto when the feral girl woke up sobbing: held her close and reassure her that she was loved.

Loved.

Natsuki let her hand rest on the back of Shizuru's head, gently stroking her hair. There was no hesitation this time. As, she realized, there shouldn't be.

"So don't worry. I'll be here to tell you as often as you need to hear it."

"Thank you, Natsuki," Shizuru murmured against her chest.

The Festival had complicated things, Natsuki thought. It had dug up all the worst parts of the HiME and given them power to harm others. It had, just as ruthlessly, dug up their best parts and exposed them with equal clarity. Natsuki had learned the truth of Shizuru's feelings for her, and she'd also been shown her own feelings, how important Shizuru was to her, giving the lie to her claim that there was no one she trusted, no one she cared for.

Complicated. But also simple. Shizuru was her most precious person. What, exactly, that added up to...well, they'd figure that out eventually. But she wasn't going to back off just because of that confusion. And it had been stupid of them both to keep ducking the questions.

Not any more, Natsuki thought. After all, while it might only be human to look back, she, Shizuru, and all of them deserved to dream of the future rather than the past.