For disclaimers (sort of), please see chapter one.
Another calm chapter this time. But things are slowly starting to turn more... serious.
Also, a small plea – if any of you are confused about one or more things at any point, please do share by way of comment, PM, carrier-pigeon, etc. I've been lost in this story for ages, so to me, all the answers are so friggin' obvious that I may just entirely forget to incorporate them otherwise. So, help? I may not answer any questions outright, but I can at least make a note that the answer is something I need to include in a future chapter.
It isn't so much the similarities that get on your nerves, you decide idly as you roll your shoulders and continue your little walk while tugging the warm coat tighter around you to ward off the cold, evening air. No, the similarities between this world and your own – the way in which the people you do recognize mostly look the same and how this campus is apparently a carbon copy of your own – actually make this whole mess a little easier to deal with. It's almost enough for you to forget; at least for a few seconds at a time.
What really manages to chafe at you like a small cut that just never heals, are the tiny and yet numerous irregularities. Your position, your grades, your responsibility and a myriad of other little irritants that grab on and gnaw at you constantly; all serving to repeatedly hammer home that fact that you... Well, that you're not.
Home, that is.
In a way, you reflect as you turn an aimless corner, you're oddly relieved that Shizuru doesn't exist here. Because if you're at the point of honest-to-God hallucinating like you did earlier after as little as three days, then what the hell would you do if she was here, and yet didn't know you? Didn't have a reason to care?
Should that be the case, you sincerely doubt that you would be able to ignore it and focus on finding your way back to where you belong; at least your responsibilities leave your mind once they're actually over and done with. Shizuru, however, is stuck in your head like she's never been before, which is saying something in and of itself given what happened during the Carnival back in your own world. That fact is only confirmed when you realize that during your musings, your feet have taken you into the director's garden entirely of their own volition – even though that's actually a rather substantial detour when going from the indoor pools to the residence of the woman in question.
It doesn't take long before you've found your way along the winding pathways to the tall, slender gazebo, and while you do trail your hand over the cool surface as you pass it, you're drawn irresistibly to a spot not twenty feet away.
There's no explosion of flowers here, of course. No blanket of green leaves and soft, pink petals that wave gently in a warm breeze under a blue, summer sky. It's winter, the sky is overcast and the soil is exposed and barren; the flowers long since wilted and their seeds waiting beneath the protective covering to rise and bloom anew once spring arrives.
There's nothing to look at. Yet you stop... and you look.
You shouldn't do that.
That voice again, and while your shoulders tense painfully, you don't move. Were you to turn, you would either see nothing, or you would see her; only for her to disappear again. You can't decide which would be worse, and so you compromise by not looking at all.
Beautiful flowers are meant to be loved...
"Stop it," you hiss softly, through the words come out sounding more pleading than angry as you rub your temples and close your eyes tightly.
… don't you agree?
"Stop!" you reiterate, this time a little louder.
Natsuki, I'm always thinking of you.
Merciless, you decide, and you can feel your heart racing in your chest as you continue down the path at a brisk walk without daring to look.
Natsuki... The voice fades as you move further away, but you still have to force your breath not to hitch and your eyes not to tear.
Natsuki... It's nothing more than a whisper of the wind against your face when you finally can't take it anymore and start running. I love you.
What, you finally wonder several minutes later - once your heart has stopped pounding in your ears and and your breathing calmed down from a pace that wasn't entirely due to your frantic escape – is causing this? Why are you suddenly seeing her face – hearing her voice like this? Much as it would be nice to think that she's somehow able to reach you from one universe to the next, that can't be it, because then shouldn't you be able to do the same thing?
Is it because you miss her? Granted, you've been missing her the whole time – far more than even you thought you would – but this is the longest you can ever remember going without some sort of contact with her. So maybe that's why?
No matter what the cause, you honestly hope you don't have to deal with it that often, you decide as you climb the steps to the front door of the director's mansion. Every time it has happened so far, it's done horrible things to your body and your mind all at once. It's hurting you in ways that you can't even put into words, and at the same time, it's frightening you as well because you don't know how to make it not happen.
A thought strikes you and gives you pause; your hand raised and frozen in mid-air on its way to knock on the door. Is this... is this maybe somewhat similar to how Shizuru feels around you? Not because you're not there, but because you are; because she loves you, and yet makes herself hide it in fear of scaring you away? Hurting and frightened, much like you are now, if not entirely for the same reasons?
Maybe, you consider, and turn your gaze inwards as you remember several instances from the past month – times when she obviously stopped herself from touching you in ways that you'd always pinned down to the peculiarities of your friendship with her. Stopped, and smoothly resumed whatever the two of you were doing without a single crack in the mask that she wears so expertly – even around you, now. Even though she must have been hurting at a level you're only starting to barely understand. And yet she's never backed away – never distanced herself.
Nearby, a throat is cleared softly, and it startles you so badly that your interrupted motion instantly changes from knocking on a door to defending against an enemy; your fist and arm turning and cocking in the blink of an eye before sweeping out at a dangerous speed. Your hand, however, is caught, and your movement stopped so abruptly that you'd think you'd been trying to punch a mountain. It's followed by that glow again, although on her, you don't spot even a fraction of that disgusting, rotten color.
"Natsuki-san." This world's Himeno Fumi smiles warmly at you in spite of the fact that you could've just bashed her face in. "You rarely show up unannounced – is something the matter?"
Fumi is older here, you realize. Her face has several, subtle lines of the variety that comes along with life as it lengthens, and although her hairstyle is the same, the soft pink color of it is also sprinkled with the faintest dusting of white. She looks, you decide, as if she's somewhere in her late thirties or early forties, but aside from that, she's exactly as you remember her – kind blue eyes, a friendly, open smile and gentle, caring words. All of which belie a sophisticated mind and a work ethic you've yet to see matched anywhere.
And, you muse as you eye the hand she's caught firmly in her own, a grip that could probably grind a rock into dust.
You open your mouth to say something – ideally planning on starting out with an apology – but pause again when you realize that Fumi is studying you curiously. There's the faintest of furrows between her brows as her eyes burn into yours with surprising intensity, and she keeps your gazes locked for several heartbeats, during which your face grows steadily more heated and your thoughts steadily more confused.
Then she blinks, and that penetrating look disappears entirely when she releases your hand and steps back; gesturing toward the open front door. "Won't you come in, Kuga-san?"
The change in her mode of address for you doesn't escape you, though it doesn't exactly surprise you, either. For one, the Fumi you know has always been aware of a lot more than her friendly, easy-going nature would make anyone suspect. For another, this version has known your counterpart for well over a decade by now, and though you've never seen evidence of a particularly close ward/guardian relationship, it's hardly astounding that she can tell the difference.
Good, you decide after a few long moments of mental review. Granted, you didn't come here with the intention of revealing who you really are – all you were hoping for was the chance to maybe wheedle some information out of her that might have proven useful. However, if she's figured out on her own that something weird is going on, that means that you're free to be honest and talk freely. Ask freely.
So you enter with a nod.
"It is Kuga-san, isn't it?" Fumi asks with remarkable calm as she shuts the door behind the two of you.
"Yes." You briefly wonder what the social protocol is for making an unexpected visit to the alternate-universe version of your recent-headmistress-slash-fellow-HiME, who is apparently your counterpart's long-time-headmistress-slash-legal-guardian. Eventually, you settle on simply bowing politely. "Sorry to come by unannounced, Himeno-san."
"Ah. Well..." Fumi smiles brightly, through her eyes hold a twinkle of amusement when she regards you. "In one meaning of that phrase you presumably didn't have much of a choice, and as for the other, at least you're acting like she would."
Well, that is just absolutely flippin' dandy. Another comedian.
"I was hoping that the things I did recognize meant that much," Fumi continues blithely; preceding you down the hall and gesturing for you to follow, which you do. "Don't misunderstand, Kuga-san – the similarities are numerous, but something in your eyes tells me that life has been kinder to you than it has to the version of you that's under my care."
Kinder?! You goggle at the back of her head; halfway to vehemently objecting to that description until you realize that she's absolutely spot-on in a lot of ways. It's true that your counterpart never had to deal with her mother trying to sell her, with living the life that comes with a constant quest for vengeance, or with fighting to the death all to appease some half-baked prophecy. On the other hand, in spite of those blessings, she's far more emotionally closed off than you because she never had the one thing that truly kept you from turning your back on the world: someone to find and save her early enough to keep her from doing just that.
Even with everything that's happened to you, your outlook on life is generally a positive one now. You have no idea exactly how to put a price on something like that, but you do know that you wouldn't switch places with your counterpart for anything in either world, for all that she's apparently had it easier.
"Do sit down, Kuga-san," the director offers as she guides you into what looks like a small study – complete with a workspace set between two large, now heavily-curtained windows, three recliners in front of a fire that's already going, and rows of stuffed bookcases lining the walls.
You do, and manage to feel only somewhat awkward when you immediately stand back up to remove your heavy jacket, which is then slung haphazardly over the back of your chair. Fumi is thankfully far too polite to comment, and instead merely gives you another smile as you re-take your seat; settled comfortably in her own chair on the other side of the low, circular table.
"So," she speaks up when you've stopped shifting around and managed to get at least somewhat comfortable yourself. "How may I be of assistance?"
Ten thousand different answers to that inquiry, and instead of listing them all, you decide to respond with another question. "What do you know about the Carnival?"
The director's head tilts faintly, and she settles her elbow on the chair's armrest; leaning her chin on a loosely curled fist as she studies you. Apparently that wasn't the answer she was expecting.
"I take it that you know something about it?" she eventually retorts, and keeps nicely with the theme you set.
"I lived through it," you reply shortly, and fold your arms loosely across your chest. "Can't get much more educated than that."
"I suppose not," Fumi agrees softly. "You won?"
"No." You shake your head, and feel the corner of your mouth twitch in wry amusement at the confusion now evident. "We all did. I was one of the ones who died, but we were brought back along with our most important ones. We defeated him in the end."
"I suppose," the director comments after a long moment of contemplative silence, "that this may end up becoming a very long talk." Pause. "Long, but hopefully educational for both of us, because if I'm understanding you correctly and the Obsidian Lord is permanently destroyed where you come from, I would honestly love to know more about how that was accomplished."
Quid pro quo, your mind whispers – an expression you've heard Shizuru use – and you only barely restrain yourself from shaking your head in an effort to dislodge it; instead limiting your response to a quirked eyebrow.
"Then I think I'll prepare some sort of repast for us to enjoy in the meantime," Fumi comments as she rises gracefully. "Do you drink tea, Kuga-san?"
Not until very recently. "Sure," you nod. "Green, if you have it."
Several hours later, your throat is raw from all the explaining you've found yourself doing. Even the fact that you're now on your fifth consecutive cup of tea doesn't seem to be helping all that much, but it's hardy surprising, given how much - or rather how little – time you usually spend talking. At least you spend a lot more time thinking, so it would take significantly more than this to give you a headache.
So far, you've been the one to monopolize the conversation in a way; Fumi has a lot of questions about the Carnival as it happened back home, and is genuinely curious in regards to the HiME in general. In the spirit of the whole 'tit for tat' thing, you've been explaining it all to the best of your ability, which is very well indeed, given that you were probably the one at least somewhat in the know for the longest.
The director hasn't been stingy with information of her own in return, either. For instance, you've learned so far that you were born in the same year as your counterpart, who missed a year of school thanks to the accident just like you did, but was able to make up for lost time and catch back up before entering high school. She had no cause to focus on revenge, and so used all that time on her studies instead. A habit that's apparently still with her, since Fumi's also informed you that she's essentially being courted by several universities from all over Japan.
You've also learned a few key things about the Carnival as it happens here. Right now, Fumi informed you earlier, this world is about at the halfway-point of the 300-year cycle – something that explains both the position that the hands on the library floor were set to, as well as the physical appearance of the Childs in the In-Between. Fumi herself is very well-versed on at least the theory of the subject, owing to the fact that the academy itself was built over Fuuka no Miya by her family shortly after the last Carnival (and for that very reason), and that the position of Director has consistently been held by her relatives in that time.
"I wouldn't presume to say if the rules connecting a Child to its master are different in the world you know, Kuga-san," she's saying right now. "Albeit from what you've told me, that does seem to be the case." Fumi sets down her cup and folds her hands in her lap. "Here, however, the same twelve Childs apparently reincarnate, and they connect to a HiME chiefly via their Elements; though there's an emotional link as well. All HiME – when the Carnival nears in their lifetime – will be guided onto a path that gives them experience in fighting practically from the moment they can walk. Gennai will choose whomever is the most familiar with the kunai or similar weapons, while Miroku will link his loyalties to the HiME who has the most talent with a sword of any kind."
"And Duran?" you ask.
"Projectile weapons," she replies. "I take it he was yours?"
"Then I can tell you that he wouldn't choose you - or your alternate, rather - here," the director tells you, and an apologetic expression forms on her face when she presumably notices how this upsets you even if you'd been expecting to hear it. "I'm sorry, Kuga-san, but she mastered the martial art of sōjutsu years ago."
"... sōjutsu?" you ask, because it's not a word that means anything to you.
"Performed with the yari," Fumi explains, and you feel yourself nodding not only because of what you saw in the In-Between, but also because of how Nao revealed that your counterpart trains with it regularly. "Were the Carnival to happen in her lifetime, she would probably be chosen by Kiyohime, whose preference lies with polearms."
"She would," you confirm absentmindedly – only remembering all too well how comfortable she seemed with the cobra. How she was able to apparently understand it, while you could only understand the wolf.
As for the emotional connection that the director mentioned, well, what does she have in common with Shizuru? You ponder that, and fiddle idly with the cup in your hands all the while. Aside from the fact that they've both either taken or been given the responsibility of seito kaichou, they're both very poised individuals – both apparently entirely to good at projecting one thing while feeling something else entirely. At wearing masks.
"You sound remarkably certain for someone who's never met her," Fumi remarks, and effectively draws you from your thoughts.
"I met her," you inform her bluntly, and watch the blue eyes widen just a fraction. "Apparently the Childs brought me here to fix... something." You sigh, and rub at your forehead. "I'm not sure exactly how, but they pulled me to this world, and her to their own. She's there now, and when I... visited..." For lack of a better word. "... earlier, I met her."
"You visited Asgard?" The director sounds flabbergasted to say the least, and you're not above feeling just a little amused at the whole thing. Even if it is a morbid kind of amusement. "How?"
"I don't know," you admit thoughtfully. "I started hearing things in my dreams." And while awake as of today, but you're not about to bring that up. "Turned out it was the Childs trying to reach me somehow. They asked me to come find them, and when I entered the circle of pillars... well." You shrug. "There I was."
Apparently Fumi is still having a bit of time wrapping her head around that fact.
"They seem to call it the In-Between more often," you supply against the edge of the cup, even as her words bring to mind something else. "Why Asgard? Why Norse mythology?" Those parallels were never drawn where you come from, but here it seems to be par for the course – even Duran called it that, and if you're correctly identifying that hiss that also took over your own voice, so did Kiyohime.
"I don't think anyone knows for sure." The director takes a sip from her own cup, and apparently centers her thoughts as she does. "At least not anyone currently living or available for questioning. The best we have is a half-formulated theory from long ago, based on some far older writings that have apparently been lost to time. Someone once claimed to have found a short text written by a HiME, who in turn speculated that the Norse gods had a hand in the Carnival somehow." Fumi regards you pensively, and curves her lips into a small smile. "Of course, it's equally possible that the idea of a final, major battle, the world ending and then rising from the ashes was just given names from that religion because of the similarity with Ragnarok."
Ragnarok isn't something you know much about, but you have heard of it once or twice. Something about it being the end of the world in that belief, wasn't it? "Doesn't every religion have some sort of explanation for that?"
"I believe so." Fumi shrugs. "As I said, it's only a half-formulated theory. No one really knows for certain."
"Mm." You give a small sound of general agreement as you take another drink of tea. Well, at any rate it isn't crucial – just a difference that a little curious, but nothing you can find an absolute answer for. No sense in wasting time on it.
"You said that the Childs brought you here, Kuga-san?"
"That's what they told me," you agree. "I can't really see who else would, so..."
"Hm." Fumi nods and watches the swirling liquid in her cup for a few seconds. "What is it that they want you to repair?"
"Apparently, it's the HiME themselves," you sigh. "Or the passive carriers of the gene here, anyway. You're one, by the way, but you don't seem to need any kind of fixing."
You're confusing the hell out of the poor woman, you soon realize, but can't help being a little amused all the same. Still, you explain the theory about how happiness for passive vessels may just tip the balance in favor of the active vessels, when their time comes. You also tell her how you're apparently able to recognize the carriers after your return from the In-Between – in as few words as possible.
"When I'm touching them, they glow."
Thankfully for your aching throat, it doesn't take much longer for your visit to wrap up. Fumi's effectively cemented herself as another ally in helping you find your way home, and while there's not much she can do actively, it certainly can't hurt to have the help of not only the head of the academy, but someone who's probably the only one here who knows more about the HiME and the Carnival than you.
"But please keep your eyes open, Kuga-san," she tells you as she opens the door for you again. "If the Childs can reach you, a certain other someone may be able to, as well."
Those words are stuck in your head as you walk back to your dorm in the darkness. It's not that you don't know who she's referring to – more that you're berating yourself for not thinking of that in the first place. Even Duran warned you, after all, that 'the other side' might interfere if you don't complete your tasks before attempting to return home. And if the Childs have the power to bring you here, then what's to keep someone ultimately more powerful from poking their nose in even now, right in the middle of everything?
You're definitely frowning by the time you're crawling into bed and falling into an exhausted sleep. Hopefully, you decide murkily, the Obsidian Lord will stay away.
You don't even realize how much power I hold here, do you, little one? You... you are fascinating. You are strong and clever; ruthless and cunning. Far more of a worthy bride than the rest.
Mayhaps you would like to join me? Mayhaps I shall simply take you.
Oh, don't be afraid, Natsuki-hime. I can give you everything you ever wanted.
Even the one you miss so dearly.