For disclaimers (sort of), please see chapter one.
Egads, but the snow! And down to minus twenty centigrade during the night this week. Think maybe I can work from home and stay under a blanket, or should I just bring the blanket to work with me?
"Dammit, I'm fine!" you insist for the Nth time in the half hour you've been firmly relegated to bedrest.
"My name isn't Dammit," Nao responds wryly from the small kitchenette.
"You're right," you growl and fold your arms angrily across your chest; only to wince. "It's impossible." Alright, so your ribs are actually pretty sore right now, but none of them are either broken or cracked – you've suffered those injuries enough times to know explicitly what they feel like, and this isn't it. If anything, they're bruised, and that certainly isn't enough reason to just lie here like an invalid.
"Hiya, Pot – Kettle speaking," is the dry reply as Nao fills your mug with tea and ambles closer. "You died in there, alright? Your heart stopped beating," she intones seriously. "Are you following me here, or have I lapsed into some obscure dialect of otaku-ese all of a sudden? Why aren't you worried about that?"
You merely glower in return. Alright, so you possibly died for a while – it's happened before, hasn't it? Old news, and besides which, you came back - also something that's happened before, albeit not thanks to Nao. Certainly not something that warrants suddenly being treated like fragile glass.
"I'm fine," you insist. "I can't just friggin' sit here! There's stuff I'm supposed to do, and the sooner I figure out what, the sooner we can have this whole mess fixed."
"Yeah, nice to meet you, too," Nao snorts. "Whatever it is those creepy whatchamacallits want you to get up to for their sake, it'll keep for half a day. You can go back to playing Nancy Drew on steroids tomorrow – it's not like they gave you a time limit."
You scowl at her in irritation, because she's right and you both know it. You told her as much on the walk back to the dorms, which you made somewhat awkwardly under your own power, because to have the kaichou need to be supported like that was bound to raise more questions than either of you would be inclined to answer.
"Fine," you reluctantly agree after several moments of your eyes fencing. "Today, but that's it. At least gimme the laptop so I can do some research; unless you think me too frail to type on that?"
Nao rolls her eyes, but sighs and fetches the object in question from the desk before handing it to you – the slight flinch you give when you bear the weight of it in one extended arm doesn't escape her, but she merely raises an eyebrow in silent commentary.
"Shut up," you mutter.
"Didn't say a word," she returns with a smirk.
You shake your head and settle the computer on the sheets next to you, and then hold out your hand for the mug of lightly steaming liquid that Nao's now offering. As you take it from her, your fingers brush briefly, and only your own fast reflexes keep the hot tea from spilling onto the floor while you blink rapidly.
Did Nao just... glow?
"What the..." you stare at her in return for a curious look, and then set the mug on the nightstand. "Gimme your hand," you insist.
Got both red eyebrows raised on that one. "Why you little devil, you," Nao returns coyly, and bats her eyelashes at you. "I didn't know you were such an aggressive flirt."
"Tha- wha..." You let your head fall back onto the pillows and lower your voice to an unintelligible grumble while doing your best to ignore both your own blush and Nao's laughter. "Idiot!" you finally recover. "That's not what I meant!"
"Oo, touchy," your companion returns through her own snickers. "'Samatter? Got someone waiting for you back home?"
Maybe, your mind whispers, though your mouth doesn't deign to answer. "Listen," you tell her instead. "I saw something when I touched your hand. I just wanna see if it was a trick of the light, alright?"
"What?" Nao's amusement finally winds down, and she cocks her head at you instead as she takes a seat on a nearby chair. "You didn't mention anything like that back in the cave."
You groan and exhale sharply through your noise. "Back in the cave, I wouldn't have seen a full-grown elephant if the gods-be-blasted thing was about to cop a squat right on my chest," you reply testily. "Now give me your damn hand!"
"Jeez, what crawled up your butt and died?" Nao mutters, but obligingly – finally – extends her hand and clasps yours loosely.
It definitely wasn't a trick of the light, you determine somewhat dazedly, and can only watch in absolute amazement when a gentle, shifting glow suddenly outlines Nao's entire body as a result of the physical contact. It doesn't extend more than a few inches in any direction, but it's definitely there. Silvery for the inner half – a clean and surprisingly warm shade given the color, but also outlined in a darker, bruised purplish-black that mostly reminds you of rot. Joy, you realize abruptly, and sorrow respectively.
Is this something the Childs let you take back with you, you suddenly wonder – a way of positively identifying the people belonging to the group you're supposed to better the lives of?
"You're a carrier," you whisper in... well, not shock, because you suspected as much. Confirmation, maybe?
Either way, it fast becomes irrelevant when all the color suddenly drains from Nao's face, and she yanks her hand away as though she was burned. "What?" she hisses at you, and honestly looks like she's about to keel over on the spot. "Carrier of what?!"
"Of the HiME gene," you hastily explain, because to you it certainly looks as if she's suspecting something else entirely.
"...oh." Nao slumps in her seat in almost violent relief, and rubs a barely trembling hand over her face. "That."
"Yeah," you agree, and eye her. "That. What'd you think I meant?"
Nao rests her elbows on her knees, and then her forehead against her folded hands as she closes her eyes. "My mother's been in and out of hospitals since I was in pre-school," she explains hoarsely, after several long moments of tense silence. "It's cost her a lung, a bit of her colon, a few skin grafts and I won't even bore you with how many bills since we have no insurance, but they're cautiously optimistic that the cancer's in remission now."
"... oh," you echo her earlier mutter. "No wonder you don't like her smoking."
"Does she know?"
"About my mother?" Nao queries, and waits for you to nod. "Well, she knows she's been sick." From one of the flashes you got earlier, you guessed as much. "But does she know exactly what it is?" A thoughtful pause before she shakes her head. "No, I don't think so."
"Why haven't you told her?" you wonder.
Nao spreads out her hands. "To what end?" she responds. "To guilt her into quitting? She's already gone above and beyond to help pay the bills – wouldn't even call it a loan until I'd practically browbeaten her into it. I can't do that to her."
Incredible, you muse privately, that she can watch your counterpart do something like that and still be convinced that there's no emotion involved but lust and maybe friendship. Sadly, you remain with the distinct feeling that you could argue your point of view until you were blue enough in the face to qualify for Smurfhood; Nao still wouldn't believe it until she heard it from your alternate's own lips.
Something else occurs to you then – the treatments Nao's described would certainly be costly; much more so for someone who has no insurance at all.
"She's well-off," you guess, and force down a shudder as you remember another flash – that of the accident as it happened here, which probably resulted in at least a similar payment of life insurance. "How much?"
"I don't know," Nao responds with a shrug; seeming far more at ease at the change of subject. "I haven't asked, but she's certainly never seemed short of money." She nods towards the laptop. "Pretty sure she has online banking, though, so you can always check." A wry look. "You are her, after all."
Fair point, you concede with a nod, and lift the computer into your lap. You have to spend a while considering what her password would be – another reference to Nao, as it turns out – but you manage, and then practically choke on your own tongue. Your counterpart, you realize while your head spins, is far, far beyond simply being 'well-off'. Well, she's not a multimillionaire... anymore. She's a friggin' multibillionaire. You even manage to find the transfer that presumably paid for Nao's mother's care in full, and large as it is, it's barely a drop in the bucket. No wonder she was fully prepared to simply give it away.
You remember her voice saying something about investing, and sure enough, there's several individual accounts set up entirely for that purpose – the original signer for the start-up being one Himeno Fumi. They're all managed by the same man; a name you don't recognize, but under whose authority the original insurance sum has grown by leaps and bounds every single year since your counterpart would've been five or six years old. Ten years plus of careful investments and returns combined with little to no spending means that at this point, she's pocketing a profit of close to a hundred and fifty thousand yen on a daily basis by simply letting her money – and her banker - work for her.
"Damn," you mutter as you turn to face Nao, who's politely not looking over your shoulder. So this is what happens when there's no informants and the like to spend the money on; not to mention a distinct decrease in living expenses, since she stays in the dorms and - as you see no tuition payments - is apparently here on a scholarship. "Well, I guess getting you a new jacket shouldn't be a problem."
"That much, huh?" Nao mumbles bemusedly. "I figured."
"You have no idea," you tell her solemnly. "Trust me, she doesn't miss the loan to you at all."
"Seriously?" Nao blinks. "We're talking quite a few yen, you know."
"Trust me," you repeat. "She doesn't miss it."
"Damn." Nao echoes you this time.
There's a sharp, brief knock on the door at this point, and you quickly click out of the current window – if only out of a sense of propriety for you counterpart's sake – before closing the laptop entirely. Just in time, too, because within a second, the door's opened halfway, and another head of read hair is poking around it.
"Ah, our remarkably anti-social kaichou," Mai grins. "Thought I'd find you here, Natsuki." She steps in, and only then seems to notice the now third occupant in the room – with some surprise, too. "Nao-san?" The fiery head tilts. "What are you doing here?" Another glance at you. "...and what are you doing in bed at this time of day?"
Oh, brother. You exchange glances with Nao. Judging by Mai's surprise, she definitely doesn't know anything about your alternate and Nao spending time together, and being practically horizontal at this time of the day obviously isn't entirely in character for her, either. So how to explain this?
"I talked Kuga-kaichou into demonstrating the use of the yari," Nao speaks up, and the mention of the weapon that was also your counterpart's Element makes you have to force down a surprised jolt. "But I got in the way, and she ended up hitting herself to avoid hitting me." This with a regretful look so genuine and yet not overdone that you're honestly impressed. Nao being a good liar isn't all that astounding, but still...
"I caught myself in the ribs," you continue. "Nothing bad – just a little sore."
"Ah? Okay, then," Mai nods, apparently swallowing the tale without the faintest hint of indigestion. "Well, I'm glad to run into you anyway, Nao-san - Mikoto is looking for you," she then informs your companion. "Something about a project the two of you were working on?"
Nao rolls her eyes. "Figures that she wouldn't forget about obligations," she mutters.
You, meanwhile, are wondering why Mai knows the number of this room when Nao doesn't – or rather didn't know - and as Mai turns and ducks back outside briefly, you send the younger of the two redheads a questioning look.
"I figured that if she wanted me to know," Nao tells you both quietly and rapidly, "she would've told me herself."
Urgh. You choke back a groan and pinch the bridge of your nose. Honestly – these two are impossible. Talk about lines crossing. Not to mention headaches.
"I'm off, then," Nao speaks up in a louder voice when Mai re-enters bearing a bag not dissimilar to the one you've used for school so far, and you hope to God there isn't some project that you missed entirely. "I'll try to find the junior Kanzaki near the middle-school dorms. If she comes by here, send her that way."
"Will do, Nao-san!" Mai waves cheerfully after her while hanging halfway out the door. "Don't let her run you ragged, and if my brother turns up, tell him to call me, already!"
So Mikoto is a Kanzaki here, you decide, and half-catch Nao's muffled response floating down the hall before Mai shuts the door. That probably means that neither she or Reito – since they're apparently still siblings – was a Minagi at any point, because why send one child into hiding without a Carnival?
"Why is Mikoto working on a project with N- Yuuki-san?" you ask Mai, and watch her settle herself in the seat that Nao vacated.
"Ah, right, you probably haven't heard about it yet," your guest grins – much to your relief – and pulls a few books from her bag. "Well, Nao-san's been caught breaking curfew a little too often lately – even for her – and Mikoto's energy went through the roof once Reito-san joined the kendo club this semester. He just doesn't have as much time to keep her busy anymore."
You try to picture the fukukaichou in hakama and a keiko gi. Something isn't computing.
"Yeah, I know," Mai's bemused voice intrudes, and you turn your head to see a somewhat sad smile on her face. "He's never really been that interested in kendo before, but apparently it's a sport practiced by most men in the Suzushiro family. He decided it was important to Suzushiro-san that he try to find some common ground to discuss with them." She falls silent and stacks the three books she's removed into a neat pile on the nightstand next to you. "He's good at it, though," she tells you quietly.
You feel your brow furrow. Why in the world would Kanzaki Reito worry about impressing Suzushiro Haruka's family?
"Haruka-chan?" Kanzaki is saying as he disposes of his teacup and straightens to offer his arm. "May I escort you?"
Now, your brow is furrowing in an entirely different manner as your eyebrows climb high, rather than inch down, because how in the name of all that is good and holy did those two end up as a couple? They've got about as much chemistry together as a goat and a pig would, for chrissakes!
It does, however, explain the look on Yukino's face the last time you saw the three of them together – especially if she's carrying a torch for Haruka in this reality as well – and you spend a few seconds wondering if maybe the HiME gene mutates more than people think. Your counterpart, Nao and Yukino... isn't it generally supposed to be closer to one in ten, rather than three in twelve?
"Anyway," Mai interrupts your musings. "The director decided that having Nao-san and Mikoto work together might get rid of some of the excess energy they apparently both have, so she's tasked them with making up for their missed Gym lessons together."
"That's an odd project," you note.
"Isn't it?" Mai half-muses. "But it seems to have worked so far, so I guess we shouldn't question it." She grins cheerfully, then, and claps her hands. "Now, let me make sure that you're right about your ribs only being sore, hm?"
"Wha-!" Mai's hands are carefully examining your ribs from above the material of your turtleneck before you can get any further in your protests, and the glare you send her is – as ever – merely met with a smile.
"Relax, Natsuki," she tells you, and reveals herself as another one of the passive vessels when she's outlined with the same glow that Nao was earlier. "Sagisawa-sensei has the weekends off, remember? I'm your best bet – it's not like you've ever had a fractured rib before."
"And you have?" you manage to argue, instead of insisting that you have tried breaking bones of that kind. Several times.
"No!" Mai laughs. "But Takumi has. Remember last year when he wanted to try running the hurdles, knocked one over and landed with his lower ribs right against the edge?" She presses clinically against your side, and you study the shimmering outline curiously. There's more of the warm silver in hers, you note. Here's it's only roughly the outer quarter that's made up of that rotten, purplish color, and you take that to mean that Mai has more joy in her life than Nao does – even if she's not completely happy.
"Takumi-kun doing okay these days?" you ask on what's only half-way a whim.
"Oh yeah – he's fine," Mai responds as she keeps examining your ribs like a proper, mother hen. "Well... he's still having a bit of a time juggling the demands of the track team with those of the cooking club, but he manages." A grin. "And our parents are still somewhere between impressed and confused at such opposite interests, but oh well, ne?"
"Mm." You give a somewhat preoccupied, appropriately agreeable noise. Track team... meaning that Takumi definitely doesn't have heart problems here, because if he did, no doctor worth their salt would allow that sort of activity. Nor would his sister, for that matter – or their parents; both of which are apparently alive and well.
"Does this hurt?" Mai asks.
"Hm." Pause. "This?"
"Grmph." Your nose twitches. "It's alright."
Mai retracts her hands with a smile, and the glow around her fades into nothingness as she settles back in her seat. "Well, I guess you were right, Natsuki," she tells you. "Nothing broken, and simply bruised at most."
"I told you so," you mutter at her.
"Yes, yes." She waves one hand dismissively at you. "But making sure doesn't hurt." Mai pats the low stack of books she deposited earlier. "Good timing for me dropping these off, hm? You can always read them while resting, because you probably should take it easy for the rest of the day if you want any hopes of not killing yourself at the diving club tomorrow afternoon."
Books your counterpart apparently wanted to borrow, you infer from that, and nod while you make a mental note to find out exactly when you're supposed to make your way towards the indoor pool. "Thanks," you tell her. "Should be more interesting than staring at the ceiling, anyway."
Mai grins. "Hopefully," she agrees, and rises from her seat while claiming her bag. "I'll let you rest, then. See you tomorrow!"
"Yup." You pick up the first book, and wonder why your alternate would want a novel-sized, non-fiction work on the Roman Empire. "See you then."
Several hours later, night – or at least darkness – has fallen, and you rise for the third time in the past hour and suppress yet another wince as you set the second tome down. All the books Mai brought with her are on ancient empires, and surprisingly, you're actually finding them to be pretty interesting reading. Apparently, you decide as you plod over to the kitchenette and start preparing yet another mug of tea for yourself, an interest in history is something else you seem to share with your alternate. It isn't something you can claim to have noticed in yourself before, you consider as you wait for the tea to steep, but then again, when have you had the time to just sit down and read for hours on end?
Not that you've spent the entire time since Mai left on the books she dropped off; you've done productive work, too – such as looking up the names of the people you've yet to either hear of or encounter yourself in the Academy systems. At least the names of those who were directly involved in the Carnival, since Duran told you that the ones you'd have to help would all be here, and all ones you knew. The people you were able to actually find, however, were surprisingly few, but at least that should simplify things somewhat. It's easier to influence a lower number of individuals than a higher one, after all.
No, the only familiar faces here who were HiME back in your world are your counterpart, Yuuki Nao, Kanzaki Mikoto, Tokiha Mai, Kikukawa Yukino, Okuzaki Akira and of course Himeno Fumi – seven rather than twelve – and you add a little milk from a container resting in the small fridge to your tea as you think. Fujino Shizuru, then, is obviously not the only one missing. Munakata Shiho isn't here, and neither is Higurashi Akane, Suguira Midori or Sanada Yukariko. Seven passive carriers instead of twelve active ones, and while you stir the tea slowly, you determine that it must have something to do with the fact that the Carnival isn't happening. Yet, anyway.
And you really only have to worry about five of the seven, you remind yourself, since Duran said outright that your counterpart would have to be the one to take care of Nao's happiness. Furthermore, you can't do much about hers either; she's certainly not here for you to focus on, and she won't be until you leave.
Exactly what it is you're supposed to do still escapes you, but there's always tomorrow for that - at which point you have every intention of paying a visit to Himeno Fumi; 'your' guardian in this reality.
You claim the mug of tea in one hand and amble over to the single window in the room. The small table below it is nudged aside, and you open the large pane fully to draw in a lungful of the chilly air. Then you settle your elbows against the window sill, and lean on them as you cradle the mug in front of your face and watch the gentle mist rising from it curl lazy patterns in the air before your eyes.
Natsuki. That lilting voice in your head again. I'm always thinking of you.
"Yeah," you sigh, and send the steam swirling frantically before sipping the green tea slowly. "Me too."
Come now, little one – did you really think it so easy? Those frail figures hold no power here, but I still do. Far moreso than them, and I must admit that you're catching my eye, lovely one.
Mind my words, you who crossed the border – you will be mine.