A/N: Happy Valentine's Day! This year, my wife didn't ask for a ShizNat story like she did last year (which story, "Finding Words," details the events of "last year" that the characters are talking about)...but you're getting one anyway, sweetie, surprise!
A Balanced Recipe
"It's a Good Thing No Holidays Feature Blueberries"
(featuring the Kuga-Fujino and Tokiha family pets!)
Kagutsuchi looped and dived in the sky, chasing after the tail of the kite. Mai Tokiha deftly played out the string, making the kite dance in the crisp February air and giving Kagutsuchi more of a challenge.
"I guess you've got to be more creative in thinking up games to play with a flying pet," Natsuki Kuga commented. "I'm glad Duran is a wolf...or maybe dog? I could never be quite sure."
"Why?" Mai asked.
"Well, he looks like a wolf, but he's pretty domesticated, which is the basic difference. I mean, dogs were wolves once but a million years or so of selective breeding by humans have made for some fundamental changes."
"I see. Same thing, though, right? I mean, wolf or dog, he plays fetch and tug o'war and stuff like that?"
She brought the kite down, then let the string she'd gathered in her right hand go. The wind caught the kite and sent it shooting back up; Kagutsuchi's flaming wings beat frantically and he started ascending again.
"Yeah. And skeet shooting, but that's only to be expected for someone with built-in artillery."
Natsuki scuffed her boot against the ground.
"Is something wrong?" Mai asked, catching the shift in posture at once and recognizing Natsuki's "I want to talk but I'm too embarrassed to come right out and say it" mode. Mai was sharp like that.
"No...not wrong, but..."
How do they do it? Natsuki asked herself in frustration. How do people like Mikoto and Midori just come out and say whatever they feel like without hesitation?
"It's about Valentine's Day, isn't it?"
"Wha—? How'd you know?"
Mai grinned smugly.
"I've been your friend for two years and change now. Your number-one source of tongue-tying discomfort is romance, without question. And given that your second Valentine's Day as part of a couple with Shizuru is three days away, and what a big deal you made of it last year, well..." She buffed her fingernails against the front of her jacket. "It was purely elementary, my dear Natsuki."
"You know, just once I wish that I could be the smartass in a conversation. But anyway, yes, I need help."
"Just leave it to me. Hey, Mikoto!"
The dark-haired girl waved and came sprinting back from the hot dog cart, her mouth smeared red from what looked to be a foot-long, double-loaded chili cheese dog.
"I need to talk to Natsuki, so can you take over with Kagutsuchi?"
"Sure!" She took the kite spool and took off like a shot, her braids flying in the wind. Kagutsuchi bolted after the kite.
"It amazes me; she never changes."
"She grew three inches," Mai pointed out. "Still, yeah, it's hard to believe she's seventeen. I doubt she'll be any different at ninety."
"Some people are like that," Natsuki agreed. "I think Shizuru was an adult even when she was in diapers."
"Uh-huh. I can't see Reito as a little boy, either. I guess the Minagis are all-or-nothing." Mai's sometime-boyfriend Reito was Mikoto's big brother. "Whereas I can see Yuuichi growing up, someday."
The friends broke into giggles. Yuuichi Tate was Mai's other sometime-boyfriend, rough-edged and clumsy but sincere and dedicated, opposed to the polished, elegant, and suave, yet often inscrutable Reito. Two more completely different boys were difficult to imagine; the only things they shared were their feelings for the busty redhead. Natsuki figured that they had to be sincere about that, since neither one had given up on Mai despite two years of being in a romantic holding pattern. Maybe she's angling for a threesome, like in some of Midori's steamy romance novels, Natsuki pondered. Personally, I've got enough to worry about with just one love interest, thank you!
"So anyway," Mai said, "what's your Valentine's Day problem this year?"
"I don't know what to do for it."
"That sounds like last year's problem."
Natsuki shook her head.
"No, last year I really wanted to do something to let Shizuru know how I felt about her. I think I've gotten better at that, so I'm not looking for something big and splashy."
"Mmm, okay, so what do you want?"
Natsuki glared at her.
"Mai, what do you think I'm here for?"
"Comic relief?" Mai quipped. "You know what I meant, anyway."
"Yeah, I guess so." She sighed. "I want to do something traditional and sappy, but still kind of special. Nothing terminally obvious like just a fancy dinner out, nothing crude like reserving the honeymoon suite at a fancy hotel."
"Fujino would probably like that," Mai observed.
"She's got three hundred and sixty-four other days to be pervy. I want to do something romantic. Except that I have no good romantic ideas. Argh!"
Mai grinned. It was moments like this when she knew how much Natsuki really was in love.
"Are you the guy or is she?" she asked.
"What?" Natsuki sputtered, causing about eight people to turn and look, curious at why she was screaming.
"Not like that! I mean, on romantic holidays, when the guy's supposed to do certain stuff and the girl other stuff, who plays the guy? Who gave whom chocolate last year? Things like that."
"Oh, I see. Well...both. Or neither. I mean, we're both girls, so we don't act like one of us isn't one. With things like slow dancing, we switch off who leads."
"That's sweet," Mai said. "So, you gave each other chocolate, then?"
"Actually, we didn't give any..."
"At all?" the redhead was shocked. "It was your first Valentine's Day as a romantic couple, and no chocolate was involved?" She groaned. "Natsuki, innocent maidens everywhere, working up the courage to give their sweethearts chocolate, are weeping at the sound of your story."
Natsuki arched an eyebrow at her best friend.
"Laying it on a little thick?"
"Okay, maybe a little...but after all that you did do, you didn't give her any chocolate?"
"I...didn't want to give her store-bought chocolates. I thought they'd spoil the mood. And as for handmade, you know how I cook. 'Pull back the tab halfway and pour in boiling water' challenges my kitchen skills."
"Point. Well, in that case—"
She got cut off halfway, though. They'd been watching Mikoto, and just then the catlike girl was looking up, playing the kite out of Kagutsuchi's reach, and tried to grab the last bite of her chili cheese dog. This did not leave enough attention for her to watch where she was going, and she cannoned into a tree.
Kagutsuchi helpfully brought the kite back down while Mai and Natsuki raced to make sure that Mikoto was still as resilient as ever.
~X X X~
"I have to admit, Shizuru, that it feels strange to have you coming to me for romantic advice. By rights, it should be the other way around."
Reito Kanzaki (born Minagi, but adopted by the Kanzaki family as part of District One's plot to have he and Mikoto play their roles in the resurrection of the Obsidian Prince) poured tea with smooth movements. It was strong black tea, a Scottish blend, so he added milk to his and Shizuru's cups. The tea shop, Shizuru Fujino had to admit, was a bit feminine for Reito—indeed, the only other man in the place was a waiter—but he managed to somehow blend in, not stick out like a crude intrusion of brute masculinity, yet not surrender any of his essential maleness, either. The handsome, dark-haired college student got more than one interested look from the girls at other tables.
"I know," Shizuru said, "but I don't really have anyone else that I can turn to."
"There's always Haruka," Reito suggested, and they both chuckled. "Seriously, though, you've gotten the girl of your dreams to move in with you. I haven't been able to convince mine that I would make her happier than she'd be with Tate."
"You know as well as I do that you could have half the girls here head off with you to a love hotel after five minutes."
"So could you, and that's with the handicap that there are more straight ones. But that's irrelevant anyway."
Shizuru sipped tea. It was good, though she preferred green tea to black.
"Because it's different when it's love."
The two of them shared a look of complete sympathy. Shizuru could understand how Reito could have steadfastly pursued Mai Tokiha for nearly two years—three, if one counted the year of the HiME Festival, which she supposed that she should. Hadn't she steadfastly, one-sidedly been devoted to Natsuki for close to as long before the Festival's carnage had forced things into the open, demanded change? Love wasn't something that went away just because it would be the easier path.
"So," Reito went on, "what's the problem?"
"It's Valentine's Day."
He nodded, accepting the statement as the obvious preamble that it was and not part of the actual question.
"Last year, Natsuki did something wonderful for me. She went completely outside of her comfort zone and put on an amazing production with a carriage ride and dinner, all in the grand romantic style. I want to do something for her that's as wonderful. But I can't do that."
Reito took a sip of tea.
"Because she doesn't like overdone romantic gestures?"
"Yes, exactly. She's gotten much more comfortable over the past two years, but at heart she is still a quiet, private girl who likes simple things, not grand shows. If I were to try to sweep her off her feet, she'd spend most of her time embarrassed, flustered, and uncomfortable, and while a blushing Natsuki is so incredibly cute I can't help myself sometimes, that isn't a good recipe for a romantic holiday. Especially after last year, when she went to such lengths for my sake. Valentine's Day is supposed to be a holiday where we celebrate our romance as a couple. It's not supposed to be Shizuru Selfishly Indulges Herself Day." She smiled and couldn't resist adding, "We have the rest of the year for that."
The remark drew a grin from Reito, which was good. Their relationship was complex, and Shizuru wasn't entirely comfortable having such a direct conversation without the veil of superficiality over it.
Sometimes, she truly wondered about herself.
"I see. So what you're actually seeking is an intimate evening with the two of you?"
The phrase "intimate evening" sent a tingling through Shizuru as her mind almost by reflex conjured up images and sensations. That hadn't changed at all since the moment she'd met Natsuki, even though she now got to turn those fantasies into wonderful reality on a regular basis.
"Yes, I believe so," she said, giving no sign of what was going on in her imagination. "Something small and personal that she can feel comfortable with. Something that I can do for her that will make her feel special and loved rather than uncomfortable."
They both drunk more tea, as if mirroring each other's movements.
"Perhaps you're thinking of it wrong."
"You were talking about 'something you can do for her.' But that doesn't sound exactly right."
She didn't quite get it.
"But last year..."
He shook his head.
"That was different. That was Natsuki making a special effort because she was uncomfortable with open displays of affection. That was her acting to deal with her problem, to give you the open assurance she didn't feel she was doing enough of. But you're very different. You tell and show Natsuki how you feel all the time. She isn't seeking reassurance about your feelings, or a pledge of your love. You said it yourself before, just a little while ago, that you want to celebrate the romance between you.
"Ah, I think I see. I didn't want Valentine's Day to be a one-sided holiday where Natsuki gives to me, but I kept trying to think of a way to balance it by exchanging my one-sided gesture for hers. What I should have been doing was trying to think of something we could share together."
She smiled at him.
"And so now that I have succeeded in redefining the problem, I can start all over again with finding a solution."
"Which is a much more difficult project."
"You should know," Shizuru teased.
"Yes, I should. If I had an easy answer to that, I wouldn't be sharing time with the girl I love with Tate."
"Ara, it is a good thing, then, that I have one advantage over you."
"Yes; you don't have to come up with your ideas on your own."
They were not talking about the advice Reito was giving her.
~X X X~
The scent of melted chocolate was carried through the kitchen on the warmth from the stove.
"This was a really good idea, taking a class in candy-making together," Natsuki said, concentrating on the dish in front of her.
"Well, giving hand-made chocolates to one's sweetheart on Valentine's Day is a girl's tradition," Shizuru said. "And I've never done it before, so it sounded fun when Natsuki mentioned it."
"You've never given anyone else chocolates? Not even in middle school?"
"Well, I gave my father and my teachers obligation chocolate in elementary school, but that's all."
"I know your fan club gave you a bunch every year, though."
"Jealous?" Shizuru teased.
"Hell, no. You always used to bring it over to my place and we'd pig out together 'cause you couldn't eat it all. Free chocolate is not to be scorned, whatever the source, and—hey, wait a sec! That means you were giving me chocolate on Valentine's Day."
Shizuru giggled, that little fufufu sound that suggested she thought she was being clever.
"Natsuki did ask if I'd ever given anyone else chocolate for Valentine's Day," she pointed out.
"You do realize that you just confessed to regifting to your love interest on Valentine's Day?" Natsuki quipped back. Two years as lovers had allowed her to develop the confidence to...not "hold her own," precisely, but at least show up for these little battles of wits with Shizuru.
Caught momentarily on the defensive, Shizuru went for the nuclear option and leaned in to give a long, caressing lick to Natsuki's ear. A trembling shiver ran through Natsuki's entire frame, and her face turned beet red.
"W-wha-what the heck are you doing, Shizuru?"
Laughter sparkled in the older girl's crimson gaze.
"Natsuki had a spatter of chocolate on her face. I was merely removing it in the most efficient way possible."
Natsuki shivered again. She had very sensitive ears, and the tickle of Shizuru's breath against one—
A loud woof interrupted them, and they swiveled back towards their teachers. Duran, seated on the kitchen floor next to the stove, had the cookbook sitting open on his head, braced in place in front of his ears and between the barrels of his rifles. Kiyohime was sitting on the kitchen cabinet next to the stove; her first head leaned over and turned the page. The fifth head tried to sneak a bite of the pecans that were going to go into some of the chocolates, but the sixth reined it in with a whap from the wooden spoon it held in its mouth.
Heads two, three, and four, like Duran, were giving their mistresses a pointed stare that suggested more paying attention and less flirting would be good.
"It is Valentine's Day," Shizuru pointed out. The first head hissed at her.
"Be nice," Natsuki told her girlfriend. "We did ask them to help teach us, so we wouldn't have any kitchen disasters." Six snaky heads bobbed up and down and Duran's tail thumped on the floor while wagging. "Besides, they say that chocolate is an aphrodisiac and you want me in the right frame of mind for lingerie modeling later, right?"
"Ara, ara, am I not supposed to be the tease in this relationship?"
"Our friends are right; it's good to have balance," Natsuki said with a wink. Even Duran groaned.
"Only because I love you will I allow you to get away with lines that awful."
"I love you, too," Natsuki replied. Shizuru's arms slipped around her waist and they leaned in towards one another, eyes closing as their lips met softly.
Kiyohime, recognizing a teacher's responsibility, got the melted chocolate off the heat before it had a chance to ruin the moment by spattering.