Nao and Natsuki's cosy little world is cracked open by the return of several Fuuka Academy students, including Nao's new roommate!
"Bloody hell, what did you put into these things? Bricks?" I huff as I carry a large bag over one shoulder, trailing a suitcase behind me. How on earth did I get myself suckered into this? Oh, that's right, I'm supposed to be the nice, considerate girl now. Great.
"It's just clothes and books and stuff Nao," Aoi says, looking over her shoulder at me. "Nothing all that heavy, really."
"My arms are going to be half a foot longer by the time we're done, I know it!"
"All the better for snuggling with!" she says, before clapping a hand to her mouth. It's too late though, I know exactly what she meant.
"So just who have you been snuggling with then Aoi?" My grin is one of my most lecherous, as I seize upon her slip-up.
"None of your business," she says, blushing the whole while. "Come on, just this last set of stairs and we're there."
"Fine," I mutter, accepting the change of subject. I can just corner her about it later.
It's almost the end of the holidays now, only a few more days until the new school year starts, and the students are crawling back to Fuuka Academy. It's been... nearly a week since that night with you. I can feel a blush of my own spreading as I smile to myself, shaking my head. With a grunt of effort, I lift the suitcase and stagger up the stairs to the same floor her old room was on, where all the sophomores live. Lucky sods, they get their own rooms; I'll have to share with some junior brat, which does not promise to be fun. Still, a lackey in the apartment might not be so bad, my own personal slave! No, bad Nao! I'm a good girl now, no bullying the little kids.
Dumping the bag by the door Aoi is unlocking, I lean against the wall. Typical that she carried just a backpack, while I got all the heavy stuff. "You can go to hell if you think I'm going to help you unpack all of this, you know, Aoi?"
"That's quite alright Nao, you've been more than helpful enough already," she smiles. A tune starts to play and Aoi reaches into a pocket, retrieving a mobile phone. As she looks down at the display, I see her smile widen and the tinges of a blush appear. "Hi Chie," she says into the phone, quickly casting a look at me before going inside the apartment. Totally busted. I just knew it!
I quietly tap Aoi on the shoulder. "I'll be going then," I say quietly, "leave you to talk to your snugglebunny." With a wink and a skip in my step, I go downstairs. Pretty much the whole HiME gang is back at Fuuka now, and Mai's holding some sort of party tonight. I've never been one to turn down a free feeding, so I guess I'll go and mooch. And of course, you'll be there...
I go to unlock the door to my apartment, the one I used to share with Aoi, but find the door is off the latch. Quietly I slip inside, slowly taking my shoes off and placing them in the corner. Soft footsteps lead me to the bedroom, where I can hear someone singing quietly. I lean on the doorframe, watching the young girl, long black braids almost reaching her hips, carefully taking clothes out of a large suitcase sat upon one of the beds, refolding them and putting them away into a chest of drawers nearby.
"Yondeiru Mune no Dokoka Okude
Itsumo Kokoro Odoru Yume wo Mitai
"Kanashimi was Kazoekirenai kedo
Sono Mukou de Kitto Anata ni Aeru
"Kurikaesu Ayamachi no Sonotabi Hito wa
Taga Aoi Soea no Aosa wo Shiru
Hateshinaku Michi wa Tsuzuite Mieru keredo
Kono Ryoute wa Hikari wo Dakeru
"Sayonara no Toki no Shizukana Mune
Zero ni Naru Karada ga Mimi wo Sumaseru
"Ikiteiru Fushigi Sinde Iku Fusigi
Hana mo Kaze mo Machi mo Minna Onaji
"Yondeiru Mune no Dokoka Oku de
Itsumo Nando demo Yume wo Egakou
"Kanashimi no Kazu wo Iitsukusu yori
Onaji Kuchibiru de Sotto Utaou
"Tojiteiku Omoise no Sono Naka ni Itsumo
Wasure takunai Sasayaki wo Kiku
Konagona ni Kudakareta Kagami no Ue nimo
Atarashii Keshiki ga Utsusareru
"Hajimari no Asa no Shizuka na Mado
Zero ni Naru Karada Mitasarete Yuke
"Umi no Kanata miwa Mou Sadasanai
Kagayaku Mono wa Itsumo Koko ni
Watashi no Naka ni Mitsukerareta Kara"
-- Itsumo Nando Demo by Kimura Yumi,
lyrics by Kaku Wakako,
from the Spirited Away soundtrack
"In the choir are you?" I ask as she finishes singing the song. She lets out a shriek and turns around, dropping the clothes she had been folding. I fail miserably at holding back a laugh at the expression on her face. "I'm sorry, didn't mean to scare you. I'm Yuuki Nao."
"Yes, I recognise you, Sister. I'm Mizunashi Kana."
"...Sister? Uh, that didn't really stick you know. Just filling in while Sister Yukariko was on maternity leave. Not that it actually stopped her from interfering all the time."
"Oh... so you're not a nun?"
Now I really can't hold back the laughter. Finally gaining some semblance of self-control back, I note the look on her face. "Sorry, really, I'm not laughing at you. It's just the idea of me as a nun is, well, ridiculous. No one who actually knows me would even be able to conceive of such a thing. Let's just leave it at the fact that I am very un-nunlike."
"Uhm, well, I do admit you don't look much like how I'd expect a nun to, Yuuki-sempai."
I do like the sound of that. 'Nao-sempai, you're so wonderful!' It has a certain ring to it, don't you think?
"Well, anyway, are you all sorted out and everything?"
"Yes, I've got all my things here now, I just need to finish unpacking and then I'll be done."
"Alright, I'm going to take a quick shower and head to work. I'll see you later."
I open up the chest of drawers near my bed and pull a change of clothes out before entering the bathroom. It's only about a quarter of an hour before I emerge, feeling a lot cleaner than I had been. Lugging heavy suitcases and bags up the stairs had left me all sweaty and gross.
I grab my keys, wallet and mobile, before an idea hits me. Quickly writing my number down on a piece of paper, I head into the bedroom where Mizunashi is still packing things away. "Here's my mobile number if you need to get hold of me for something, alright?" I say as I hand it to her. "Gotta run or I'll be late."
As I open the door to leave, I'm gripped by a silly impulse. "Ittekimasu!" I call.
"Itterasshai," I hear Mizunashi reply.
I haven't had the opportunity to say that in years, and the feeling I'm left with as I go is a somewhat bittersweet one. Riding the bus into town, I battle melancholy. It's stupid to get so choked up over such a simple little thing, but I guess that's me through and through. Stupid. Too quick to anger or upset, I realise I'm still fragile, however much I've grown over the last year. But I'm discovering things about myself I never knew, finding out just who the real me is. Not the Nao who cowered in bed every night, dreading the dreams that were sure to come, not the Nao who craved vengeance on those who weren't responsible whatsoever, nor the Nao who refused to let anyone in close to her in fear of losing them. I'm still terrified, however much I'm loath to admit it, of losing what little connection I still have with my mother, or with you. I'm scared of how much you could hurt me if it doesn't work out, and I worry about how I might react, but I can't bear to even think of that. Right here, right now, I love you, and that's what matters.
Lost in my thoughts, I nearly miss my stop, only dragged out of them by someone sitting down next to me. I scurry off the bus and walk the last stretch to the bookstore. I only just make it in time, but that's fine by me, just so long as I'm on time. Since the school year is starting up again soon, my hours are getting cut back to just Sundays, and evenings on a few days during the week. Ironically, since I stopped my late night forays, I find myself coming up short on money a lot more often. It's tempting to roll over the losers I can see on the street, but I know I won't. It's not so much that I'm above that, though in a way I guess I am, but it's more that you'd be disappointed in me if I went back to doing that. Plus, without Julia or my claws, it's a lot more dangerous for me. And you'd certainly never catch me doing compensated dating. The thought of it just disgusts me. So here I am, working at the bookstore. Sure beats working at the school church though, as much fun as I had trying to lead Sister Yukariko's flock astray.
Work passes by slowly, though Yumi-san is amusing to talk to as always. When I first started working here, I couldn't stand her, but I guess she's grown on me as time has passed. I think it's that she mostly went on about her life and that of her husband and children; in other words, normal, everyday things, whereas I wasn't a normal, everyday person. I lived off in my own little demented world, but I've slowly been emerging, and now I can see things her way, understand why the trivial things she goes on about are important in their own silly way.
It's only about an hour until the store closes when my mobile rings. I duck into the cosy staff room and hit the answer button. "Moshimoshi," comes the voice, but I can't place it. "Um, is this Yuuki-sempai?"
"Ah, yeah it is. What do you need Mizunashi?"
"I was getting kind of hungry and thinking about cooking. Should I wait for you or just cook for myself?"
"I'll be fine, don't worry about me. Actually, don't cook at all. A... friend of mine is having a small welcome back party tonight with plenty of food, so you should come. If that's alright with you, that is."
"That'd be great. Thank you Yuuki-sempai!"
"Please, call me Nao already. I'll probably try and get off work a little early today since I'm getting picked up, so I'll be back in an hour and a half or so."
"I'll see you then... Nao-sempai."
This 'sempai' stuff isn't all too hard now, is it? I quickly enter her number into my massively trimmed down address book on the mobile, before snapping it closed. Pouring two cups of coffee, I head back to the counter, handing Yumi-san one.
"So who was it? Your boyfriend?" she asks, grinning away at me. Even though she knows it was you who picked me up back then, she's still insistent that I must have a young man tucked away somewhere. I'm sure it should be amusing, but I kinda find it somewhat upsetting. I wonder what she'd say if I told her the truth?
"No, just my new roommate at school. It's kinda weird being someone's sempai. I mean, she even calls me that. I never have, not even for Aoi who was my roommate last year."
"Well, if you ever start feeling all nostalgic, you can call me sempai and be my kouhai."
"Longing for your school days now, are we?"
"Well, I certainly wouldn't mind my figure back. I used to be quite slim back then, had plenty of boys fussing over me. It's the giving birth you see, the struggle to get back to how you were before. By the time I popped out my third one, I'd had enough of all the dieting."
"No fear of that happening to me. Can't really see myself being a mother some day."
"You might say that now, but you're so young, you've got so much still ahead of you. Who knows where life will lead you. Ten, twenty years from now, you might well be thinking differently."
"I guess you're right, though I'm still pretty doubtful. Actually, I was hoping to get off work a little early today. We're having a little party tonight for everyone who's come back to school, and I wanted to go visit mama before we went."
"Sure, I'll cover for you with Ken-san. When are you going?"
"As soon as Natsuki gets here, I guess. She usually turns up anyway."
"She's a good friend to you, isn't she?"
"The best," I agree, absolutely meaning it.
It's only twenty minutes before I hear the familiar roar of the bike's engine, simmering down to a purr before cutting out altogether. Grabbing my things, as well as the helmet I left here yesterday, I give Yumi-san a wave and go outside to where you're waiting.
"Skipping out early?"
"Yeah, I thought I'd go see mama before the party. It feels kinda weird to be welcoming everyone back while she's stuck in that hospital bed."
"Say no more, I'll have you there in a flash." You give me a small smile and I'd kiss you if we weren't right outside of the store. We stick on our helmets and I slip onto the bike behind you, before you kick the motor into gear. We've only travelled a few streets though, when I tap you on the shoulder, gesturing to pull over. You comply though I'm sure you're puzzled as to why. As we come to a stop, I take off my helmet and you follow suit, swinging a leg over the bike so you can face me.
"What is it?" you ask, confusion mixed with worry on your face.
"You forgot something, Natsuki." It takes a few seconds before you realise what I mean, and you roll your eyes playfully.
"Fine, if you insist," you say, though your tone and grin put the lie to your words. We press together, mouths hungry yet tender for each other.
"That's better," I breathe as we break apart.
"We probably shouldn't be doing this on the street, you know," you whisper.
"Maybe, but what the hell. I wanted to kiss you back at the store, but I guess I'm worried about being seen too. It's just, well, I love you." I watch you wince slightly at those last words, and it stings, but I know you can't help it. "Sorry, I know I shouldn't say that." I play with some strands of blue hair that dangle around your eyes. "I'm not trying to guilt trip you into loving me. You'll say it when you're ready. And I mean that, you will come to love me, I'm sure of it. It'll just take a little time. You won't be able to help it."
"We'll see," she replies, tapping my nose. "Anyway, hospital."
The rest of the trip is short enough. The lights are on in my mother's room, the sun outside steadily looping downwards behind the horizon. It's always strange to look at her; it's like there have been two mothers in my life. One, vibrant, happy and caring; the other immobile, impassive and unreachable. The mother in my heart always seemed to be doing something, her long red hair always hanging down in her face, before being flicked away, tucked behind an ear as she so often did. Now her hair is cropped short, no fear of it ever serving as in irritant to her. What's left is dull and lifeless, just like the rest of her.
You sit beside me, holding my left hand, as my right grips one of mama's hands. "It's been a few days since I've come to see you mama. I'm sorry about that, its just life has been... different lately, and I'm still trying to change along with it. Sure, things could be better, but there's so much good in my life now. At times, it all feels so wrong, to be this happy when you're stuck here, but I know you wouldn't want me to let what happened to you drag me down, like it did for so long. This last year though, everything's been turned on its head, and now I suddenly have friends, people who care for me, and I care for in return. I'm not alone anymore mama, but that doesn't stop it from hurting. I just wish you were here with me."
There isn't really much else for me to say, so we leave. Maybe I'll come back tomorrow, just me and mama, and I'll talk to her about everything that's been happening lately. It still feels kind of weird talking to her with you around, though I've no intention of ever telling you that.
I cling closely to you as we ride back to the dormitories, enjoying the warmth radiating from your back, mingling with that of the engine beneath us. I love stolen moments like this, where I can unashamedly hold you tight against me, no fear of being spotted and judged because of it. I guess we're both still insecure about that, though you'd have thought I'd be beyond caring these days, but that seems to be another of those little changes I've been going through during the last few months. Maybe it's because I have something to lose now, my life isn't about just me anymore.
You go back to your apartment to change, so I head to mine. Mizunashi's in the bathroom, so I go into the bedroom. I'm pretty tired, so I lay my head down for just a moment. Not gonna sleep, just rest my eyes...
"I could stand being woken up like this more often," I whisper, opening my eyes. You're sat on the bed besides me, fingertips lightly running along my temple and cheek. You snatch your hand away, blushing as you turn to stare out through the bedroom door. Note to self: next time she's doing that, pretend you're still asleep. It's cute that you're so embarrassed at being caught, though still a little frustrating. Though, Mizunashi is probably just in the other room, so maybe it's for the best you stopped. "It's time to go?" I ask, sitting up on the bed.
"Yeah, pretty much."
As you get up off the bed, I arch my back, stretching out the kinks, before rolling off the bed. "Alright then, let's go scavenge tonight's dinner!" Mizunashi looks up from the magazine she's reading as we enter the main room, and quickly gets to her feet. "I assume you two have already met?" I ask.
"Yes, we talked a bit before Kuga-sempai went to check on you."
"Sempai?" you say, surprised at the honorific.
"I know, isn't she adorable? I don't think anyone's ever called me that before."
"Ah! Should I not call you that?" Mizunashi cries.
"No, no, by all means, please. I rather like it," I say, smiling beatifically.
"Just don't let it go to your head, Nao," I hear you murmur, so I send a mock scowl your way.
Mizunashi seems pretty nervous as we arrive at the door to Mai's new apartment, though I can't blame her really. I think Octopus-head will be there, and she's in the same year as Mizunashi, so she'll have at least one person her age to talk to. And it's not like I'm that much older than her, either.
You knock on the door, three short, sharp raps, before crossing your arms across your chest. Scuffling noises come from behind the door before it finally springs open, a somewhat frazzled Mai standing in the doorway.
"Are you alright?" you ask.
"What? Oh, yeah, sure, sure. Come on in." She waves us in, closing the door behind us as we comply. She does seem a little spaced out, but I guess that's just down to all the moving and stuff today. Setting up for this party today can't have helped, but I figure she'll be fine. Following her into the main room, I see there's already a few people here. Mikoto and Octopus-head are sat on the two chairs the furthest apart, deliberately not looking at each other; I wonder what the story to that is. On one of the two sofas in here - I assume one of them was brought in from someone else's room - is Aoi and Harada, looking fairly snug tucked in close together. Tate is sat beside Harada on the end closest to Octopus-head, looking somewhat perturbed by her attitude. As one, they all seem to turn and stare at us.
"Uh, I guess introductions are in order," I say. "Everyone, this is Mizunashi Kana, my new roommate." A veritable chorus of greetings arises. One by one I introduce her to all those already here, being as thoroughly witty as usual.
"Funny the three of you coming together, Nao," Harada says.
"Not that weird really," you reply. "We're... friends, after all."
"Well, I guess it makes sense, after being stuck together all through the holidays. That or you'd have been trying to kill each other," comments Aoi.
"There was a fair bit of that too, but we... sorted things out," I answer this time.
"Sounds like the two of you had a lot of fun over the holidays."
"That's one way of putting it," you laugh, before sitting down on the sofa opposite them. Mizunashi and I squeeze past, taking up the rest of the space on the couch.
We talk amongst ourselves for a while, before Tokiha starts carrying stuff in. Tate gets up to help her; it seems he'll seize pretty much any chance to get a few moments alone with her, especially since his rival has disappeared. For now... I don't like that train of thought at all, it hits far too close to home. Once she's finally finished carrying all the food in, Tokiha slumps down into a chair next to Mikoto.
"What's up with those two?" you ask Tokiha, leaning in close.
"Mikoto and Shiho? Oh, it's priceless. Guess who's rooming together this year?"
"You're kidding me, seriously? That sounds like a match made in hell."
"Yeah, I'm not sure which one I feel more sorry for."
"Why, that was almost mean, Tokiha," I comment. "Good to see you're learning!"
We talk about all sorts of things through the night, what everyone was doing during the holidays, gossip about relationships and all those sort of things. Your back is to mine as you talk to Tokiha, and I converse with Mizunashi. I feel your fingers skim across mine. I don't look. I don't want to draw attention to it as I interlace my fingers with yours. I just want that connection with you that I don't seem to have with anyone else.
I hear that familiar clicking sound and my blood runs cold. I can sense you stiffen behind me, and as one, we both turn our heads to stare at the opposite sofa. Harada has a grin on her face, that one she gets when she's just received some juicy gossip; both her and Aoi are looking at the mobile phone Harada is brandishing, the one she just used to snap a candid picture of me and you holding hands. You snatch yours away from mine and I can hardly blame you for it, despite the stabbing pain in my heart. We shoot glares at the grinning twosome, yours fixed upon Harada, but mine is straight at Aoi. She blushes under my gaze before reaching out to close the phone, whispering quietly into Harada's ear. She turns to face Aoi, eyebrow raised, before turning back to look at me. I don't think I could hide this grin, even if I wanted to. It promises imminent nastiness if things don't go my way, and I just know it's going to be how I want it. I turn back to Mizunashi and start talking, knowing my work is done.
I'm not sure when it is that everyone leaves the party, but I'm sure it's late. As the three of us walk back to my apartment, the rest of the halls are quiet. As we get back, Mizunashi heads straight for the bathroom, so I drag you into the kitchen, backing you up against the cooker as I claim your lips. After a few seconds, you break away, a wry smile on your face.
"We can't, not here. Don't want your new roommate catching us."
"Good thing you've got your own place then, isn't it?" I grin back. "No interruptions there."
"So, what happened in there?" you ask, changing the subject. "The photo thing I mean. Normally Chie would be running about showing everyone."
"It's all a matter of reciprocity really. They squeal on us, I squeal on them."
"Wait, you mean..." you trail off.
"Yup. Totally. Pretty sure what they said they did during the holidays was a complete and utter fabrication too."
"So we're not the only ones like this?"
I'm not sure I like that question, but I know a part of me feels exactly the same way; relieved that we aren't the only freaks. "It's not really all that surprising, especially those two," I say, deflecting what you really meant.
"Well, I guess not..."
Mizunashi walks into the kitchen, giving us both a small smile as she gets a glass out of cupboard.
"It's pretty late, I should be going," you say. "It was nice meeting you Kana-san. If this idiot here gets too much for you to handle, give me a call, alright?"
"I will, Kuga-sempai."
"And you," she turns to me, "don't give her too hard a time."
"Me? As if I'd do such a thing?" I reply, feigning mock hurt, as I put an arm around Mizunashi's shoulders. "She's so mean to me, isn't she?"
"Um, if you say so, Nao-sempai."
And like that, you're gone, leaving me here with Mizunashi. I hit the bathroom, brushing my teeth and whatnot, before I head into the bedroom. Mizunashi's already in her bed, so I change quickly before slipping into my own.
This isn't too bad really, is it? I can do this. It's just, well, it's all been good, and I guess I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. Good things don't happen to me. It's only a matter of time.