For disclaimers, please see part one.

On location
Prejudice


She wasn't sure if it was the lack of warmth beside her that woke her up well before the sun. Maybe, Shizuru considered as she cracked her eyes open and watched the green, muted numbers on the alarm clock across from her practically shove 4:35 am in her face, it was simply the fact that she was sleeping on a mattress whose feel her body identified with an earlier hour of rising. Certainly, once her eyes were open she felt wide awake, and without Natsuki next to her, there really was no good reason to lounge around.

Shizuru sighed into the silence and pushed herself up; swinging her bare legs over the side of the bed and preemptively turning off the alarm with the press of a few buttons. It was full dark apart from the glow from the digital numbers, of course – dawn was still roughly two hours into the future – and she covered a yawn and ran a hand through her sleep-mussed hair to settle it into something resembling order as she idly puzzled over the sudden return of a habit Natsuki had broken her away from years ago.

"Are you absolutely crazy?"

The deep, sleep-hoarse voice caught her attention as she poked at the alarm clock a scant minute before it would actually ring, and Shizuru peered over one shoulder to see the faint, reddish light reflect off of half-open green eyes turned chocolate in the gloom. It was early Sunday morning, the first time Natsuki had stayed over in her college dorm room after the two of them had embarked on a romantic relationship, and that really wasn't the 'good morning' Shizuru had expected.

"I beg your pardon?" was what she settled on to reply with, and raised her eyebrows questioningly.

"Ngrrrrgh." Natsuki burrowed into the pillow with a growl, and Shizuru felt a pleasant shiver skitter down her spine as a bare calf brushed against her own at the younger girl's maneuvering.

Small beds were both a blessing and a curse at times.

"I said," came the voice again, and turned her mind from the subject it was swiftly heading towards, "are you crazy? It's not even dawn yet."

The one green eye that was visible over the top of the fluffy pillow was glaring balefully at her from behind a few locks of obsidian hair, and the sight was so hopelessly adorable that Shizuru couldn't help but smile as she turned to face her companion.

"I usually rise at this time," she explained; leaning on one elbow and settling her head in the palm of her own hand. "I haven't really the time to practice my naginatajutsu during the week, so I try to make up for it on Sundays."

"At half-buttcrack in the morning?" came the grumbling complaint and accompanying scowl, and Shizuru felt a clue fly in the window and smack into the back of her head.

She reached out to brush the hair away from Natsuki's face. "Would you rather I stay here with you?"

The scowl – impossibly – deepened, and she felt a blush heat the soft skin under her fingertips as she traced a single, high cheekbone. And waited.

"...yes."

Ground out from behind clenched teeth. Forced, but... she watched her companion's face soften and flush; the green gaze dropping to the mattress even as Natsuki's shoulders tensed uncomfortably. But unquestionably true.

Shizuru scooted closer – not that there was much closer to get – and crooked one finger underneath her companion's chin. That finger pushed up carefully, and she waited in silence until now shy, uncertain eyes met her own; both of them, since the decrease in distance between them made Natsuki have to turn enough for her entire face to be visible.

"Then I will," she promised softly – simply – and something in the green eyes seemed to click into place. Then they closed, and as she settled back under the covers, she felt Natsuki curl into her arms with a gentle, contented sigh.

Shizuru smiled quietly at the memory as she rose from the still-warm bed and flicked on the bedside lamp to let a low, soft light cradle the small room. The bits and pieces she'd filed away from the very earliest parts of their relationship were some she liked to revisit as often as possible. Everything had been so new then – so uncertain and exciting at the same time, and although the first, tentative steps they'd taken held a sweetness that was all their own, she did honestly prefer the matured, more faceted relationship that she shared with Natsuki now. There was a solidity between them now; a sureness that had built over the years as they both slowly proved to each other in a myriad of tiny ways that their love was the result of not only circumstance, but of the numerous, conscious and unconscious choices they'd both made to commit to it.

She expected Natsuki to be there for the rest of their lives, and knew that Natsuki expected the same of her. It had nothing to do with taking each other for granted, and everything to do with the two of them wanting and needing each other in ways that overruled anything else and saw them through any hardships that they ever had or ever would face.

And that, she considered, as she set about replacing her sleepwear with a the form-fitting but comfortable clothes she'd brought along for just this purpose, was the sweetest part of the whole thing. Even disregarding the whole malarkey about destinies and stars and prophesies, it hadn't been easy for her and Natsuki to get to the point they were at now. The road was long and they were still traveling it – still learning about themselves and each other, and occasionally stumbling as they felt their way forward.

Shizuru turned to the single window in the room as she tied her hair back and out of the way, and watched her own reflexion eye her wryly. It also made them miss each other all the more when they were apart, of course, but that was at least an acceptable trade-off for the simple joy that being together brought them both. She crossed her arms and shook her head a little as she peered out of the window at the surrounding houses – dimly and only partially lit by the lamps lining the street. There was the thinnest layer of frost on the rooftops outside, and it glittered in the yellow light while the power-lines moved in what she deemed to be a slight breeze.

Joy in life. Shizuru's breath coated the glass in front of her face, and her gaze turned inwards while the opaque mist spread rapidly out, and then slowly contracted again. There was a time where she'd thought that was something she'd never have again, and it startled her a little to realize how far back that time really was.

Nearly a third of her lifetime, actually.

The red gaze refocused, and she studied her own reflection in the glass again – almost surprised at the sight that met her. She certainly wasn't a teenager anymore, she decided as she peered at the dimly lit, somewhat unfocused figure mirrored in the window. The last vestiges of what was commonly known as 'baby-fat' had faded years ago and left both her face and body with a slender tone that was only enhanced by the addition of a little extra height to a frame that – for most Japanese women – was already taller than average. Dressed as she was now in a sports-top that exposed her arms and encircled her torso tightly, the mass of elongated, slender muscle adorning her figure was also more easily visible than usual; certainly more so than they had been during her high school years. She didn't look buff, per se, nor did she particularly want to – appearing merely strong and sturdy was absolutely fine.

Much like Natsuki, which wasn't all that surprising since they usually worked out together and tended to follow mostly the same routines.

"Definitely not a teenager any longer," she noted to herself, and then turned her head as there was a soft knock on the door. "I'm up, Papa."

"Ah, good." Hiroshi ducked around the door with a smile, and closed it softly behind him in deference to his wife. Shinju was still sound asleep and likely to remain so for at least another hour and a half, since she in no way shared her husband's and daughter's penchant for rising 'earlier than birds who'd practically drowned themselves in espresso'. "I padded the staffs last week in case I'd get the chance to spar with my Shi-chin."

Shizuru smiled. Her father had always referred to the detailed, wooden practice naginata he kept as 'staffs', for reasons he either couldn't or wouldn't explain. The padding wasn't for safety reasons. It was more a matter of soundproofing out of politeness, since no rooms in the house were large enough for father and daughter to spar in, and the sound of heavy clacking was very likely to wake up the still-sleeping neighbors when they remedied that by sparring outdoors.

"I'll collect them on my way out," she told him, after correctly identifying Hiroshi's clothes as the ones he slept in.

"Very well."

Shizuru watched her father leave, and seated herself on the edge of the bed as she silently pulled on a pair of warm socks in deference to the cold weather. She considered wearing a jacket – or at least a long-sleeved shirt over her current one – but eventually decided against it. The chances she got to spar with her father were few and far between, and the slow warm-up that she partook in when sparring with Natsuki was usually bypassed entirely so they both could make the most of the opportunity.

"Tell me again why I need my hands wrapped?"

Shizuru chuckled at the exasperated tone as she continued with that very task; carefully circling strips of soft, white cloth around Natsuki's left palm, while the younger woman studied her already wrapped right hand curiously. "Because Natsuki isn't used to handling pole-arms," she explained. "Prolonged use for beginners can result in splinters, obviously, but also bruises, blisters and enough wear to cause bleeding."

"Hm." Natsuki was regarding the bandages with a look that suggested that she wasn't entirely convinced. "I've never seen you use them."

Shizuru finished in silence and tucked in the end of the cloth before testing the sturdiness of the wrapping with a slight tug. "I'm not a beginner," she then responded, turning her hand over and displaying the subtle calluses that lined her palm and the inside of her fingers. "Naginatajutsu has been practiced by my family practically since the weapon was invented – I've been training since I could stand on my own."

Soft, cool fingertips trailed over her own skin, and Shizuru felt a faint, pleasant shiver make its way down her back – both at the sensation and at the easy way in which Natsuki now did something like that.

"These always kinda gave you away."

"Hm?" The soft voice pulled her from her idle enjoyment of the touch. "How do you mean?"

"These," Natsuki repeated, and ran a finger over the extra layers of skin at the base of her palm. "You don't get this from holding cups of tea." A pause, and a faint twitch at the corner of her mouth. "Not even as many cups as you grab during a single day. That's how I first knew you were more than you made yourself out to be."

"Just from those?" She let her face fall just slightly, but it swiftly turned into a half-grin when the green eyes rolled in response.

"I meant in regards to fighting," Natsuki groaned, and then sighed. "But yeah, I knew there was more to you in other ways long before that." Pause. "Happy?"

"Quite."

Shizuru's palm tingled all over again as she stood and claimed a pair of well-worn trainers from the suitcase that lay opened on the floor. It was, she admitted to herself, just a trifle on the ridiculous side. Only lovesick nitwits would miss someone this badly after less than twelve hours spent apart.

She exhaled against the windowpane again, and carefully drew the kanji for Natsuki's name in the mist. A few seconds passed in silence as she studied her work, and then finally traced two simple, slightly curved lines around it.

"One nitwit," she muttered wryly as she eyed the heart, then spun on her heel and headed for the door. "...en route."

xXxXx

Well. Shizuru eyed the passing traffic with as much of an annoyed look as she allowed herself to show in public; waiting as she was to cross the street not far from the offices of a Kyoto-based production company where she'd just whiled away the better part of the afternoon. That was about as productive as spending two hours beating my head against a brick wall. She glowered at the light as it refused to change to green, and resisted the urge to rub at her temples.

She'd secured an appointment within the largest Kyoto-based production company, in the hopes of extending the reach of FNK Productions from southern Japan into the center of the country. It had taken a few tries – the better part of them fruitless and met with firm, somewhat snobbish resistance – but she'd finally gotten somewhere once she tried contacting them again a week after the Yamagata Film Festival. The award they'd won there, much as Shizuru had expected, had turned out to be her foot in the door, and she'd finally nailed down one of the upper echelons for an extended meeting that was supposed to end in contract negotiations, with FNK taking on a few, sample projects for the larger company.

What had actually happened was that she'd been kept waiting for an hour and forty-five minutes, and then spent the remaining quarter hour being talked at by an older man who hadn't taken kindly to her gender, her age or her sexual orientation – the last of which was certainly common knowledge in the business by now. The entire experience had held all the charm of a bag of poisonous snakes, and to say that Shizuru was angry would be putting it mildly.

Honestly, it annoyed her to have her otherwise good mood derailed in this way. The day had started off so pleasantly, too. She'd spent a few hours sparring with her father until she felt an old, familiar ache in muscles that just didn't get that kind of challenge most of the time. Then they had all had breakfast together before her parents had left for work, and she'd whiled away the rest of the morning alternately playing with Sumi-kun, loitering in the reaches of cyberspace on her laptop and – once it had gotten late enough – trading messages with Natsuki. Then she'd left for – and arrived at – the offices of EI-ga Incorporated, and the day had just gone downhill from that point on.

Prejudice wasn't new to her; she'd encountered various forms of it all her life. Even when the true nature of the relationship she shared with Natsuki had been kept under wraps in their professional life, there had been instances of them facing narrow minds outside the office – both in regards to themselves, and also aimed at their friends.

"Hey! What the hell do you useless little halfwits think you're doing?!"

Shizuru counted a round half-dozen of them – older high school students judging both by their uniforms and the fact that they'd come across them on the campus of the public high school in Fuuka – all standing in a narrow, closed-off area behind a high fence and one of the gymnasium walls, and all surrounding a similarly dressed, downed figure with familiarly shaggy, black hair.

"Kenji." She took advantage of the moment of surprise and confusion their arrival had caused, and used it to grab the boy's hand and quickly pull him to safety. "Good to see you," she told him softly as she guided him to a position a few steps behind Natsuki, and felt a hot cord of anger lash at her at the sight of the blood staining his white shirt and the lurid bruises already forming on his face. "I'm glad we thought to come looking for you when you were late."

"Double that here," the boy groaned, and spat a mouthful of red onto the ground while leaning on his knees. "Bastards started following me after classes let out. I tried to lose them."

Shizuru patted him on the back. "Stay here," she advised, and got a grunt in reply that she took for agreement; then stepped back into place next to Natsuki. It was a very touch-and-go situation, she decided. As in, the touch the two of them applied to it would determine the direction in which it would go. Diplomacy seemed to her to be the better thing to try first, since she doubted that the two of them, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and slacks and a blouse respectively, seemed particularly threatening.

"Well?" Natsuki demanded. "Are the lot of you little brats mute and stupid? Or do you only have any guts when it's six against one?"

Shizuru shrugged mentally as that drew a chorus of snarls from the group of boys facing them, and felt her own balance shift subtly without any conscious prodding on her part. Well, diplomacy had never been Natsuki's strong point.

"You two better run unless you want a helping of fag-boy's dinner, too," one of the boys growled menacingly; stepping forward and cracking his knuckles. He, Shizuru inferred, was apparently the leader of this little gang of wannabe thugs.

"Yeah," another one spoke up. "Beat it, bitches, 'less you wanna taste of our style of nightmares."

"Catchy." Natsuki slid forward in less time that it could've taken any of them to blink, and backhanded the second speaker into the fence. "Come on then, dream-boy."

"Ara." Shizuru easily noticed and identified the intent of one young man, and deftly stepped in front of him before he could close in on Natsuki's back. She nailed him with a savage elbow to the jaw that actually lifted him off of his feet before the impact sent him reeling. "You really should watch your step." A swift heel to the gut made him cough violently, and the following, vicious jab of a pointed shoe to his kidney incapacitated him sufficiently. "You might hurt yourself, hm?"

"Pays to have the best watching your back, boys." Natsuki ducked under one hook and landed a series of gut jabs in reply – then sent her current focus to the ground with a teeth-rattling uppercut.

"Natsuki does say the nicest things." Shizuru weaved around a clumsily aimed high kick and grabbed her assailant's leg at full extension – pulling sharply just as she made the boy's other knee buckle with a well-placed kick of her own. He wavered as his balance was summarily destroyed, and a carefully planned and elegantly executed fist to the temple dropped him like a rock.

Some deeply ingrained instinct honed from a lifetime of martial arts warned her, and Shizuru dropped to a crouch a split second before a punch whizzed through the air above her head. A foot emerged in her peripheral vision, and she shifted her weight onto her hands and lashed out with a powerful leg sweep that caught the second bully off-guard and sent him onto his back. He scrambled to his hands and feet...

...and ran away.

Shizuru cocked her head curiously as she looked around – not quite believing what she was seeing. There were three figures on the ground, her own latest adversary was out of sight already, and she barely caught the tail end of Natsuki's first opponent as he tore around a corner at the end of the building. The accounted for five of the six, and the last one – the one she'd pinned as the leader - was currently being pinned again; this time to the wall by her glowering lover.

All in what she judged to be around thirty seconds. Shizuru shook her head. Amazing, or perhaps merely pathetic; depending on whose performance one was judging, of course.

"Typical fairy," the leader spat. "Hiding behind some skirt, huh?"

"Behind these skirts?" Kenji straightened painfully, and wiped at the steady trickle of blood running from his split lip. "Considering that either of these two ladies could kick all of your asses to kingdom come while blindfolded and with both hands tied behind their back?" His choice of words caused two very similar twitches on two very different faces. "You bet. I'll hide behind their skirts any day."

"Stinking fa—gllgh!"

"I suggest you watch your mouth," Natsuki growled; twisting her grip on his shirt lapel and constricting his throat further. "Or I might just see exactly how long it'll take me to turn you into Julienne Human Being." A beat, and a disgusted look. "If you can be classified as that."

"He does seem a little dim," Shizuru noted as she got to her feet and offered a handkerchief from her pocket to Kenji. The glare of the lead bully didn't escape her, and she regarded him dryly in response. "Well, you do," she told him firmly. "You've hardly even noticed that there's now three of us..." she indicated herself, Natsuki and Kenji. "... and only one of you."

"And considering that it only took two of us to wipe the floor with the six of you..." Natsuki smiled humorlessly. "I don't think the odds are in your favor. So here are the terms." She pointed towards the injured Kenji, who was pressing Shizuru's handkerchief to the cut in his lip. "If anything happens to him again, we'll assume it was you. Believe me, it takes a long time to heal from something like the broken shoulder I'd be happy to introduce you to, and you strike me as the type of idiot who's made lots and lots of enemies." Pause. "They'd probably love to see exactly what you're made of when word comes out that you and your sniveling little tagalongs got your asses beat by a couple of 'skirts'. So if you have any brains in that over-inflated head of yours, you will shut your mouth, say 'yes Ma'am' and piss off. Are we clear on that?"

Shizuru read the sudden tension in the bully's shoulders as clearly as she would an open book, but she could also tell from the faintest of twitches in one exposed arm that Natsuki had interpreted it as well. So she stayed her own reaction, and instead merely winced as the blow that would have knocked pretty much anyone else back was simply redirected, and answered with a powerful knee to a very sensitive area.

"All things considered, are you alright?" she asked Kenji, while she watched Natsuki pick the now crumpled and squeaking boy back up by the front of his shirt with an annoyed grumble.

"Apparently the words I'm using are too big for you," the younger woman snarled. "So let's try it again." She curled her hands tightly in the clothes covering the young man's chest and lifted him clean off his feet before shaking him vigorously. "Kenji go hurty, you go ow-pain-no-have-kids! YOU GET POINT?!"

Kenji snickered quietly. "Believe it or not," he muttered. "I've never been better." He smiled without thinking, winced slightly as the motion jarred his injured mouth, and then settled for a crooked smirk that pulled at the other corner of his lips. "These guys have been hounding me for months. Not to this point, but today..." He trailed off, and shook his head. "Watching you two take them out was very... satisfying."

"Mm." Shizuru met his warm, brown eyes and gave a slight smile of her own in reply. "Answering violence with violence is never the ideal solution." She cut her gaze back to her lover and her prey – who was now looking a little green around the gills as Natsuki continued to shake him almost cheerfully – and felt a surge of satisfaction herself, that they'd been able to help this young man who'd become a good friend to them both. "But sometimes it is the most readily available and efficient one."

"Only if you're good enough," was the low answer, and she acknowledged the compliment with the quirk of an eyebrow.

Whump!

"Stupid little bleeping sons of bitches," Natsuki cursed fluently as she joined the two of them after having dumped her previous entertainment on his rear.

"Ara, such language," Shizuru tsked. "Natsuki is setting a horrible example for Kenji-kun."

She got a definite 'look' in response. "Natsuki could always set a better one by tickling Shizuru until she begs for mercy."

Shizuru giggled, and heard Kenji's deeper chuckle from her left. Her intent had been to break her lover's concentrated irritation, and judging from the way the tension now eased from Natsuki's body as a smile tugged at her lips, it had worked.

"C'mon, kiddo." Natsuki slung one arm around Kenji's shoulders. "Let's get you cleaned up."

Shizuru met the free arm that reached for her as they walked, and let it wind around her own before their hands met and their fingers twined. "You," she whispered very, very softly, right against a well-shaped ear. "Are an absolute crusader. I love you."

And Natsuki blushed. Badly.

The light finally changed, and Shizuru crossed the street along with a few other pedestrians, light as the crowd was since the official work day wasn't over just yet. The motion seemed to help in draining away the anger, and she rolled her shoulders under her jacket to loosen them while mentally reviewing the brief time she'd actually spent with the man she'd come here to meet.

He'd called her every name in the book – not outright, as he had been smart enough to realize how that could potentially lead to legal problems – but the smarmily polite and underhanded way in which he'd so thoroughly offended her - offended them - had pushed all the wrong buttons, to a point where she'd lost her temper enough to make several pointed promises. Ones that, Shizuru admitted now that she'd cooled down some, she probably shouldn't have made.

Promises like that only held any weight if one could follow up on them, after all, and to have FNK Productions take over EI-ga Inc. was... well, a bit of a tall order at this point.

Not much purpose in crying over spilled milk, however. Shizuru pulled her phone from the inside pocket of her jacket as she turned into the Shijo subway station and made her way towards the ticket gates. Sometimes, she reflected as she slipped her mother's railcard into the reader, stepped through the gate and reclaimed the card on the other side, being the constant underdog just got really old, really fast, and that probably also helped explain why she'd lost her temper earlier. As much as they'd managed to establish their company in the industry, they were still new, still small and still on shaky ground in terms of permanence. They were seen as 'negligible' by many other Japanese firms, and it was tiring to constantly have to bite and claw their way to any notable recognition.

But... Shizuru thumbed her way into the messaging application on her phone and started composing a missive while leaning against a concrete pillar. She figured that she should at least warn Natsuki that they certainly weren't going to secure a bite of the central Japanese market by way of EI-ga Inc. Not now, at any rate.

That done, she pushed away from the pillar and gave it a little pat as she continued towards the tracks; weaving her way through the thin crowd of tourists and commuters as she went. The railcard found its way into the purse slung over her shoulder, but the phone remained in her hand. She knew, after all, that Natsuki was up and awake, and busy though she might be, Shizuru was nevertheless quite certain that a reply wouldn't be long in coming.

As if on cue, the phone buzzed gently.

Fuck 'em, the message read in Natsuki's typically blunt style and Shizuru smiled as she could practically hear her lover's voice speak the words. If their shirts are that heavily stuffed, they're not worth your time, anyway. I'll see what I can do about helping you make good on your promise. But you owe me one, Fujino.

She stopped in the middle of the floor, and felt her eyebrow quirk in way that would have made Natsuki twitch nervously if the younger woman was able to see it. Her lips pursed thoughtfully, and then pulled into a faint grin as she composed a message containing several creative suggestions as to how she could return the favor, and sent it on its way.

The reply was nigh-instantaneous.

Saucy wench. Come over here and say that.

Shizuru chuckled as she slid into an available seat on one of the evenly distributed benches. Her focus centered on the phone in her hands and the tenuous connection with her absentee lover, and she let the other travelers, the overhead announcements and the sound of the trains fade into the background.

This was far more entertaining, anyway.