Disclaimers:
Mai HiME and all its characters belong to Sunrise. No profit made, no copyright infringement intended.

Author's Utterly-Irrelevant-To-The-Story-Itself Notes:
My old Latin teacher was fun. He always told us to make it sound dramatic when we spoke Latin.

Him: Make it swell up! SWELLLLLL!
Students: O.o;; *twitchsnicker* WTF?

Ah, things that sound dirty but aren't.

As always, this is for askim. Thanks for reading.

Variation on Our Theme


"So, uh..." Natsuki folded her arms across her chest and watched the stones move past below their feet as they walked. "Congratulations." A pause. "On graduating."

"Thank you." Shizuru regarded the diploma in her hand, then glanced up as she heard her name called and gave a little smile to the source of the outcry – a girl a few years her junior, who waved back to her almost too enthusiastically.

She heard a derisive snort from her right side, and glanced over at her deeply scowling companion. "Is something wrong?" she wondered, and was fairly certain that she knew what the source of the girl's discontent was.

"Stupid fangirls," was the muttered reply.

"Ah." She had to smile a little at being proven right. "Well, those should slowly disappear once I leave for university," she commented. "So Natsuki won't have to worry about them for too much longer."

"Hm." Natsuki grunted and returned her attention to her own sneakers. "Which one are you going to?"

She couldn't quite tell what the slight undercurrent in the other girl's voice was. All she knew for sure was that it was one she hadn't heard before. "I have a few options," she stated, and hoped to end that thread of conversation there. Right now, she didn't really want to think about leaving.

But Natsuki either didn't pick up on her wishes, or simply ignored them. "What are they?"

"Well…" Shizuru swallowed a sigh and fixed her gaze on some indeterminate point ahead of them. "Both Todai and Handai are possibilities." She heard a small noise of comprehension. "As well as of course Kyoto University, and the one here in Fuuka."

She felt the weight of those green eyes on her, if only for a brief second.

"And which one have you chosen?"

"What makes you think that I've made a choice?"

"You're you," came the wry answer, along with a heavy exhale. "Jeez, Shizuru… for someone who's so good at guiding others onto a subject, you're almost impossible to do it to, y'know?"

"Indeed?" She studied the profile that was as familiar as her own reflection, and tried to will the averted eyes to meet her own. "Natsuki was trying for a specific topic of conversation?"

The younger girl huffed and muttered something about 'either too subtle or not subtle enough', and kicked a hapless pebble into the bushes that lined the pathway they were following.

"It can be difficult to find the middle ground in that particular area," Shizuru remarked with a soft chuckle.

"I'm trying," her companion grumbled. "I'll figure this stuff out eventually."

"I'm certain of it."

"Hrmph." For a long moment, only the rustle of leaves and the distant chatter of other students filled the air. "So?"

"Pardon?"

"Rrgh!" Natsuki scowled and kicked another pebble – this time with enough force to send the small rock sailing a fair distance away. "You're impossible," she growled, coming to a halt and setting her fists on her hips. "What… school… did… you… choose?"

Shizuru clamped down on a sigh and bent her neck, taking a few seconds to peer at the path between their feet. The physical distance between them was less than 3 feet, but it felt like miles upon miles somehow. "Natsuki, please... could we talk about this later?"

"So it's not Fuuka." Natsuki's comment came after a few seconds of silence between them, and Shizuru raised her head to meet her eyes. "Is it?"

"No," she confirmed quietly, and now let the sigh out as Natsuki closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. "Natsuki... I'm sorry." She placed a light hand on the younger girl's shoulder. "But if you can't love me-"

The dark head jerked up, and suddenly those fiery eyes were staring into hers. "I told you that-"

Shizuru shook her head. "Allow me to finish, please." She took a breath. "If you can't love me that way I love you..." her voice trailed off, and she swallowed silently. "Then... I need to leave. To – if not move on – then learn to live with being what I can be to you. And I cannot do that where Natsuki is." A small, resigned smile. "You affect me."

The warm breeze rustled past them, and from the corner of her eye, she saw how strands of dark and fair hair mingled together so perfectly, only to separate completely as the wind died back down. She resisted the urge to pull the other girl into a hug, and instead squeezed Natsuki's shoulder. "Forgive me."

"No." Natsuki lowered her eyes and sighed softly. "I... nothing to forgive. I... understand."

"But it still hurts you." Shizuru pressed her lips together. "Doesn't it?"

Natsuki shrugged the shoulder she was holding. "You had to find the courage to leave," she replied. "Pretty sure it hurts you more. That way."

There wasn't really anything she could say to make things better for either of them, so she kept quiet, biting her lip as she gently cupped her friend's chin and tipped Natsuki's face up, hoping that the younger girl wouldn't take offense to such a personal touch, in spite of everything.

"I am not abandoning you," she promised quietly, and saw in those beautiful eyes a burst of pain that rivaled her own in its intensity. "I promise that I will write and call several times a week. No matter what."

The dark head nodded stiffly, and Natsuki rubbed a hand over her face and took a step back, folding her arms over her belly as they stared at each other in silence. Both of them were hurting, but it was – Shizuru knew – sadly not for the same reasons.

"Come on, then." Much to her surprise, Natsuki grabbed her hand and gave it a tug. "You can at least walk around the campus with me before you go."

"...alright."

It couldn't make it any worse, really.

xXxXx

"I'll miss you," were the quiet – and first – words, as they reached the gazebo in the director's garden.

"I'll miss you, too." The fact that Natsuki had been the one to say those words surprised her, but she hid it with a small smile at the other girl's blush. "Although I think you might be too occupied with studying to miss me too much."

"Hm." Natsuki sat down on the gazebo's steps and crossed her arms, leaning back against one of the sturdy pillars. "I don't think so." The green eyes looked up at her, but cut back down after a few seconds. "Mai and the others... they're okay. Just..."

She waited for her friend to finish speaking, and studied the way the fingers on Natsuki's left hand kept picking at her sleeve. "Just?" she eventually prodded.

A few more seconds of silence, during which a gentle breeze carried the scent of flowers to her nose. Then Natsuki was looking at her again, her eyes bright with determination even as her cheeks flared red again.

A sigh, and a small scowl. "They're not you."

Something in her chest tightened abruptly. The words sounded as if Natsuki had needed to forcibly grind them past her lips, which was presumably true. But still, she had said them, and Shizuru wondered what the price had been for her tender dignity.

"I know," she said as she sat down next to her friend, and settled her gaze on the trees in the distance. "No one else can replace Natsuki, either."

"Mm."

Several minutes passed them by as they sat there, and the silence – that damned, insufferable silence just weighed down the air around them as if the world was suddenly shrouded in lead. It choked out the very existence of sound, and they were helpless to fight it. Just... helpless.

Shizuru closed her eyes against a pang of emotion that felt as though it had run her straight through. She had always been helpless where Kuga Natsuki was concerned. From the first time she'd set eyes on a lonely young girl years ago and right up until this very moment, there had been no control left in her own all too human hands. She'd clung to the adoration as it grew in her heart; tried to hold it close and keep it hidden, but she might as well have been trying to grasp a ray of sunlight.

Futile. Her secret had been spread across her face for the world to see soon enough.

"I love you," she whispered into the scent of flowers and approaching warmth, and wondered how words that were supposed to be so wonderful to say could possibly make her feel as desolate as they did.

Fabric scraped against stone, and Natsuki shifted until she had her elbows resting on her knees and the heels of her palms pressing against her forehead. Her eyes were tightly closed and her jaw clenched, and Shizuru could hear the sound of her swallowing convulsively. All were clear and well-known signs of serious frustration.

"I'm sorry." It was a different murmur this time, but it felt no better passing her lips than the other one had.

"Idiot..." Natsuki's voice was hoarse when she spoke. "Don't apologize for being honest." She fell silent again for several long moments, and then: "I don't want you to go."

Shizuru swallowed in the hopes of alleviating the prickling sensation at the corners of her eyes. It was such a simple thing to say; filled with agony and lined with a fine thread of desperation, but she freely admitted to herself that just hearing it made her heart stutter.

"I know," she replied, and left unsaid the fact that she would have to, regardless.

"Don't," Natsuki pressed, and although the sound of her voice cracking ached, it was the most beautiful ache she could ever have conceived of. "Don't go." A hand grasped her arm tightly. "Shizuru, please..."

She covered that hand with her own and twisted her neck until their foreheads were touching. They were so close that she could taste the sweetness of Natsuki's breath and see the tiny, white-hot flecks in her eyes. Those pleading, lovely eyes that were as open and vulnerable as she'd ever seen them, and she... oh, she wanted to give in so very badly, to give her everything she asked for and more. She wanted it so much she could feel every last nerve in her body screaming at her to just do it, for heaven's sake!

"I can't," she whispered brokenly, and struggled for breath for a myriad of wonderful, agonizing reasons as she was pulled into a tight embrace. The bruised, battered organ behind her ribs wept in despair, and its mate pounded against her chest while Natsuki's short, hitching exhales warmed her shoulder through the layers of cloth separating them. Her arms came up all on their own, and she returned the hold just as closely through several seconds of Natsuki's scent and softness invading her senses, until she was abruptly pushed back and held at arms length.

"One year," said the other as she held her firmly by the shoulders, and Shizuru was hard pressed to figure out what she meant as she studied the set, resolute features in front of her. "Go to Fuuka, stay for just one year and..." A blush. "And let's see what happens."

"Natsuki, you..." Her tone was protesting, and however half-hearted it was, she meant it. "You're too kind, but no. I don't want you to do this just for my-"

"Listen to me, damn you!" The grip on her shoulders tightened until she winced, and Natsuki shook her roughly. "It's not for your sake, you stupid idiot! I need you!"

She had never seen her this way, and it had outright robbed her of the ability to speak.

"I-" Natsuki's face softened slightly. "Shizuru, I want you here." Pause. "By my side." Even teeth worried briefly at a soft, pink lip. "I don't know what.. what that means." Another blush – though only a faint one now. "But damned if I'm gonna let you run off before I figure it out."

"Ah..." She tried to say something – anything – and couldn't. Her head was spinning from the sudden invasion of new possibilities, and all she could do was stare at the younger girl in complete and utter shock.

"One year, Shizuru," came the reiteration. "Just one. Please? Give me a chance." A beat. "Give us a chance."

Us. Perfection in two letters, and apparently also the key to unlocking her vocal chords.

"Yes," she said with perfect clarity, and felt her incorrigible heart flop around like a fish out of water as her companions face simply lit up from within.

And there, in front of anyone who cared to look, in the warm sunlight of a beautiful spring day, Natsuki kissed her.

xXxXx

END – "Variation"