This fic is a submission to the Shizuru Appreciation Contest held by the Mai-Multiverse community.
Warning: Contains depictions of severe violence.
A Glimpse Beyond
Chapter 1: Capture
The curse was broken with a kiss.
At least, that was what it felt like. It should have been impossible for Natsuki to still care for Shizuru after everything she'd done. Her love was unreturned, rejected, Natsuki's friendship now twisted into hatred after learning everything that Shizuru had done. With nothing left to hope for, the only straw left for Shizuru to grasp at was that for the final moments of her life, when the HiME Star descended at last, she might be able to hold Natsuki in her arms and imagine she had what she never truly could.
It was with this goal that she'd fought to the point of nearly killing Natsuki, and yet, for some reason, Natsuki had moved within her embrace to bring her lips gently against Shizuru's own, kissing her just long enough to pull her out of her spiral of despair. But for the life of herself, Shizuru couldn't possibly explain why.
"Shizuru," Natsuki said, shifting in the embrace to allow Shizuru to rest her chin on Natsuki's shoulder. "You were the first to come to me when I was unable to believe in anyone. But, I can't have the feelings you wish I did. Even then, I'm happy that you loved me." Natsuki pulled herself back, shifting so that she could make eye contact with Shizuru, and she continued, "I love you too, Shizuru."
It was… impossible. There was no way. Even as those words warmed Shizuru's heart and caused a blush to fill her cheeks, she still had trouble believing them. It had to be a lie for her sake. But even then, that would mean that Natsuki cared enough to lie to her… which would mean it probably wasn't a lie after all.
For just a moment, Shizuru let herself believe that Natsuki meant those words romantically. She knew that couldn't possibly be the case though - Natsuki had even just said she couldn't have the feelings Shizuru wished she did - and so the moment was fleeting. Even so, it was a beautiful moment, and worth waiting a lifetime for.
"So…" Natsuki said, pulling Shizuru back to reality. A look of sadness crossed Natsuki's face, but Shizuru wasn't able to guess at what the reason might be before Natsuki turned away. Facing their two Childs, still in the heat of battle, Natsuki called out, "Duran! Load Silver Cartridge!"
Shizuru's eyes widened. She had already prepared herself to die today, but she was expecting that to be caused by the fall of the HiME star, or one of the natural disasters it caused. But if Natsuki was doing what Shizuru thought, then they would both die even sooner than that. Even facing the possible end of the world, even if they both would die soon anyway, Shizuru could never have brought herself to kill Natsuki. She'd fallen too far, and she didn't have the strength for it.
But Natsuki did. "Fire!"
The force of Duran's attack tore both Kiyohime and itself apart. Shizuru knew what was coming next - she'd caused just this to happen to Nao's mother and Haruka, after all, so it was only just that she meet the same fate herself. But it wasn't just that Natsuki had to face it as well. She deserved to live, but as long as she was Shizuru's most precious person, that wasn't a possible outcome of this cursed Carnival.
The explosion tore away at the remains of the church, sending debris shooting past the two of them and threatening to take their lives even before the price of losing their Childs could be claimed. In a final act of love, Natsuki let Shizuru bury her head in her breast. Natsuki's warmth, of both her body and love, enveloped Shizuru as the world began to fade from her. Pain began to fill her body as pieces of it were ripped away, but her mind remained focused entirely on Natsuki, keeping the pain from overwhelming her.
"I'm fulfilled," Shizuru said softly, thanking Natsuki for giving her everything she could possibly ask for in this moment.
In a flash of green light, the world was gone.
"Happy birthday, Mommy!"
Shizuru's eyes shot open just in time to prepare herself for the oncoming hug assault. She smiled and turned toward the young girl - her daughter, Ayane, her mind kindly reminded her - just in time to reach out and return the hug. "Mmm, thank you, Ayane," Shizuru said, acting mostly on autopilot as her mind raced to catch up with what was happening now.
Ayane planted a kiss on Shizuru's cheek and then pulled back from the hug. She reached her fingers up to her hair and twirled a raven-colored lock around as she looked up at Shizuru and said, as if awkwardly reciting the words she'd been coached to remember, "Mama says you can stay in bed as long as wanna, but there's a special breakfast ready for you when you get up."
"Mama?" Shizuru blinked in confusion. Natsuki. Shizuru's face split into a grin. "Thank you, Ayane," she said, reaching out to pat the girl on the head. "You can tell Mama I just need a minute, and then I'll join you and her for breakfast."
"Hehe, okay," Ayane said, smiling as if she were about to deliver a precious secret to her Mama. She got up on her toes and leaned in to plant a quick kiss on Shizuru's lips. "Love you, Mommy," she said as she pulled back. "Oh! And happy birthday!" she said again, as if she'd just remembered it.
Shizuru's grin widened just a bit. "I love you too, Ayane," she said. How could she not, when she had such an adorable daughter? "Now go and help Mama with breakfast."
"Okay!" Ayane said, turning and running off through the bedroom door. She forgot to close it behind her, but Shizuru wasn't sure if that was just an accident, or if that was a hint that Shizuru had better not take long. After all, Natsuki was certainly making sure that Ayane waited to eat until Shizuru got to the breakfast table. It didn't seem like Natsuki to care so much about good manners, but…
...but she'd changed a lot in the last decade, especially after having a daughter with Shizuru. Of course, this meant Shizuru had to be careful about mentioning too much of her wife's roguish past to their daughter until she was older, but it was a small price to pay for such a well-behaved daughter.
Shizuru smiled at the recollection. A part of her wondered though, why her mind seemed to be a step behind this morning. Why did it feel like she was just now remembering so many aspects of her life? Shizuru shook her head as she pushed herself up to a sitting position, trying to give herself a moment to clear her head. Okay, what was she doing last night?
It was a perfect day with her family, like any other.
That… seemed a bit to vague. And too good to be true. Where were the details? ...Okay, what was the last thing she remembered before falling asleep?
"I'm fulfilled," Shizuru said softly, thanking Natsuki for giving her everything she could possibly ask for in this moment.
Was that it? It certainly felt real to her, but… did it make sense for her to think that just before falling asleep? She couldn't even remember trying to fall asleep after that - did sleep really claim her so quickly? And what would have brought such a thought to her mind?
It must have been in the aftermath of a great night of sex. That would explain everything.
No! A blush rapidly filled Shizuru's face. That was ridiculous. She and Natsuki had never had sex before. They weren't even a couple yet-
They'd been married for years and had a daughter together. Of course, they'd had sex many times over the years. Why wouldn't they?
Right, right. They did. Shizuru breathed slowly. What was up with her this morning? It was like she was fighting with herself, trying to resist being here.
She really didn't need to. Natsuki loved her. She deserved this.
Shizuru took one more deep breath. Okay. She'd wasted enough time here. She should get to the kitchen for breakfast before Ayane got too impatient waiting for her. Smiling at the thought of her daughter sitting at the breakfast table anxiously, Shizuru got up and headed to her dresser. She took a few minutes to make herself just presentable enough for breakfast, and then headed out into the hallway and then to the kitchen.
"About time you showed up," came a female voice. It wasn't Natsuki. She was nowhere to be seen. The kitchen was nowhere to be seen, in fact; all the light had vanished as soon as she passed through the doorway. The voice had come from just behind Shizuru, but she didn't recognize the source of it. She tried to turn to see who it was, but for some reason her legs refused to obey her.
Looking down, Shizuru saw the reason why. A bloodied blade stuck out from her chest, having impaled her just moments ago. The sight of it and the realization of what had happened caused nausea to rapidly fill her body, triggering an urge to vomit which in turn caused her to move her chest, prompting a sharp wave of searing pain throughout it.
"Why…?" she tried to say, trying in vain to keep her focus and figure out what had happened. Where had her family gone? Why was she here? Why was she dying? Why was she…
She deserved this.
Shizuru's last grasp on consciousness slipped from her, and the world was gone.
Chapter 2: Captivity
“I have to say, Fujino-san, I’m disappointed in you,” Yukino said. She closed her eyes as she spoke - not out of shyness, but as if she couldn’t bear to look at Shizuru right now. “I was hoping you’d at least show up on time for detention. But I suppose I shouldn’t have even expected that much from you, knowing what I know now.” Yukino let out a deep sigh. Still refusing to open her eyes, she gestured toward the single desk set up in the middle of the student council room.
“Um, forgive me, Kikukawa-san,” Shizuru said, nearly stammering the words out. Her heart was pounding in her chest, but she couldn’t quite explain why. She’d been rushing to get here as soon as possible after realizing she was late. “I’m sorry, I-” She had no excuse. There was no way for her to explain herself. “-I have no excuse.”
Yukino didn’t say a word in reply to Shizuru’s uncharacteristic stammering. Shizuru’s heart refused to calm down even as she took her seat. Her body felt like it did when she’d been in combat as a HiME, fighting to protect Natsuki: Her muscles were tense and ready to react at a moment’s notice, and her senses were alert for the faintest sign of danger. But all that her senses told her was that there was no danger, no reason to be alert. And yet, she couldn’t get herself to calm down.
“Normally,” Yukino said, still refusing to open her eyes and look at Shizuru, “we ask students in your position to either do homework or to help with some mundane student council tasks. But since the school is closed right now, neither of those is an option. Therefore, I’ll be asking you to do a special project for me. Take out some paper and a pen.”
“Yes, Kikukawa-san,” Shizuru said. Perhaps this project would at least give her a suitable distraction and let her calm down a bit. She reached down beside her desk, finding her book bag and taking out some writing supplies. She took out a few sheets of paper and a pen, then placed them on her desk and looked back up at Yukino.
Yukino turned away from Shizuru, and she took a minute setting up an overhead projector. She was careful to keep her back to Shizuru as much as possible, and whenever she briefly turned toward her, her eyes remained carefully closed. At last, when it was ready, she said. “I’m going to display some files for you. You will copy down all the text on each page, and write a description of any images, matching the format of the page as much as possible. When you’re finished with each page, say ‘Finished,’ and I’ll go on to the next one. Understood?”
It seemed simple enough. “Yes,” Shizuru said, nodding. She got her pen at the ready and waited for Yukino to prepare the first page.
Yukino reached down out of Shizuru’s line of sight and picked up a transparency, placing it on the projector. A page came up on the screen; at the top-right was a greyscale image of a woman’s face, and the rest of the page was filled with text. Shizuru began by sketching out a box where the image was, writing a brief description of the woman’s face, and then moved on to copy down the text.
“Name: Kitase Hanako
Age: 28 (deceased)
Cause of death: Smoke inhalation
Details of death: Kitase was working in a basement room of her office when the facility was damaged by an unknown force. The building subsequently collapsed, rendering the elevators inoperable and blocking access to the stairwell. Damaged wiring short-circuited, starting a fire. Kitase seemingly fled to the stairwell to try to escape the fire, but suffocated due to inhaling large amounts of smoke. Her death was likely quite painful, as she tried in vain to breathe, only to further pollute her lungs. The pain would have overwhelmed her until she finally lost consciousness. In her final moments, her last thoughts would likely have been of her pet dog, who was awaiting her at home but would never see her again.
Investigation notes: Due to the events surrounding the collapse of her office, Kitase’s death has been classified as a probable homicide. The investigation has failed to identify any possible suspects who would have both the motive and means to carry out such an attack, and has stalled awaiting possible further information.”
Shizuru took a slow breath as she finished copying down the page. Her heart still pounded away in her chest, though now it had quite a different reason. The description of the death was overly-detailed, and included details that couldn’t possibly have been known by the police. Something was wrong here, though she couldn’t say exactly what. For now though, she still had to get through the remainder of her task. “Finished,” she said.
Yukino switched out the transparencies, and a new page appeared. Another profile, another tragic death with too many gruesome details in it. This was followed by another, and then another, the deaths seeming to get more and more gruesome each time, described in ever-more-elaborate detail. Each had a near-identical “Investigation notes” section: a probable homicide from a large-scale attack, with no known suspect. Even as half of Shizuru’s mind tried to focus solely on her task and put her emotions aside, the other half of her mind was beginning to panic. Her heartbeat picked up its pace even further, and sweat began to drip from her face. Yukino knew.
Shizuru copied down dozens of profiles, then eventually hundreds. Paper piled up on the desk beside her, attesting to the full number of people who had died in this attack. She had to replace her pen numerous times as it ran out of ink. Time dragged on for her; she absorbed the details of each and every death. Each face seared itself into her memory, along with the description of exactly how they died and who they left behind.
The list was seemingly endless, until at last Yukino declared that she only had one final page for Shizuru to copy down. “Here,” she said. “One last one for you.” Shizuru dared to look up as Yukino said this. Unsurprisingly, her eyes were still glued closed, but this didn’t stop tears from leaking out of them now.
As Shizuru looked over of the screen, she saw why.
“Name: Suzushiro Haruka
Age: 18 (deceased)
Cause of death: Removed from existence as the price of Kikukawa Yukino’s Child being defeated in the HiME Carnival
Details of death: No body could be found, so details are speculative. It is believed that Suzushiro’s death was agonizing as her body was torn about by the cruel forces which governed the Carnival. She was enraged at the time of her death, and she fought against the injustice of it until the end. Unfortunately, she fought in vain. Despite her strength, she was ultimately a mere pawn, sacrificed not even out of a grand strategy, but out of the refusal of Fujino Shizuru to take responsibility for her actions. If not for this, Suzushiro might well have survived, perhaps not to the end of the HiME Carnival, but at least for another precious day, and would likely have experienced a quicker, less-painful death.
Investigation notes: Although her death was not direct, it was a foreseeable outcome of Fujino Shizuru’s actions, and she is considered at fault for it. As Fujino Shizuru herself died soon afterward, no charges can be brought against her, at least in this life. In the next life, she will surely be judged harshly for this and any other deaths she is to blame for.”
“Kikukawa-san…” Shizuru said. She tried to look up at Yukino, but she found that tears flooded her own eyes, preventing her from focusing properly. “I-”
“Don’t,” Yukino said harshly. She turned to face Shizuru, and her eyelids slowly opened. Rather than revealing her eyes, the eyelids opened to unveil empty eye sockets behind them, which slowly filled with blood as Shizuru watched. “Don’t try to apologize. We both know you don’t mean it, or you never would have killed her in the first place.”
“No, I…” Shizuru said, pushing herself out of her desk and approaching Yukino. “I… I wasn’t myself then…” That was a lie. She could have stopped at any time, but she didn’t. “No, I… I never would have done that normally!” She would have. Shizuru squeezed her eyes shut, taking a moment to try to force those thoughts out of her mind. “I am sorry. I could have prevented it if I had been stronger, but I wasn’t. You can blame me for that if you want to, but please know that I do regret it. Suzushiro-san deserved better.”
For a long moment, Yukino was silent. Just as the blood pooling within her eye sockets was about to spill out, she closed her eyes once more. She brought her arm up to wipe away her tears, and took a few moments to compose herself. “Maybe,” she said. “But I’m not the one you need to convince.”
Shizuru’s heart began to race once more at these words. Her hair stood on end, and she became acutely aware of a presence behind her. She whipped her head around to try to face it, but with a searing pain across her forehead, her vision filled with red. A foot to the chest kicked Shizuru down to the ground, and her assailant planted the foot firmly on Shizuru’s ribcage. The person’s weight pressed down on her, cracking Shizuru’s ribs and making her fear that one of them might soon impale her heart or lungs.
Shizuru tried to get a word out, to cry for Yukino’s help, but a sharp pain across her throat cut off her voice. Blood flooded her throat, cutting off Shizuru’s air supply and causing her to cough futilely in an attempt to live just a few seconds longer. It was in vain though; the cut across her throat had cut off the blood supply to her brain, and her consciousness had already begun to fade from this world.
She deserved this. Many times over.
The sound of a cackle woke Shizuru up. “Well, well, well, who do we have here?” came a mocking voice from in front of her.
Shizuru peeled her eyes open and tried to focus them. It took a solid minute before she was finally able to bring Nao’s visage fully into focus, and even then it gave her a headache to do so. She’d likely received a concussion when Nao had knocked her out in their fight. Shizuru simply gazed at Nao, knowing that nothing she could say could possibly make this any better.
Nao scoffed. “You just couldn’t leave well enough alone, could you?” She began to pace as she spoke, floorboards creaking beneath her feet. Shizuru wasn’t able to focus on much of the scenery behind Nao still, but that clue, combined with what little she could make out, told her that they were likely in some abandoned house right now. “This could all have been over after I took my revenge on Kuga. I wasn’t even planning to kill her, just make things even,” Nao said, drawing out her claws and pointing one at the eyepatch she wore, “and exact a bit more pain as punishment. Perhaps cut off a finger or two; nothing she couldn’t live through.”
The words took a while to sink into Shizuru’s mind. Even the thought of that much happening to Natsuki was unthinkable, especially since the loss of Nao’s eye was due to a misunderstanding. The anger at Nao considering this acceptable gave Shizuru the energy to try to move her limbs, but she found this to be fruitless. She seemed to be caught in Julia’s web now, able only to turn her head. At the very least, this allowed her to see that Natsuki wasn’t here with her. This allowed Shizuru to let out a sigh of relief; whatever might happen to her, at least Natsuki was safe for the time being.
“Oh no, don’t get feeling relieved on me!” Nao snapped, her face twisting in anger as she stepped toward Shizuru. “Do you really think Kuga is going to let her best friend be held here and tortured while she does nothing to help? She’ll be here soon enough, and she’ll fall right into my trap. Then, the fun part can begin. I’ll get to take out my revenge on you and her at the same time - after all, nothing would hurt you more than to see Natsuki suffer right in front of your eyes and to be helpless to stop it.”
Shizuru breathed heavily, biting her lips to keep from saying something and making this worse. Natsuki might be coming to save her, but she was smart enough not to fall into Nao’s trap. Nao wasn’t in her right mind, so she would have made some mistake somewhere, and Natsuki would be able to capitalize on it. She would be fine.
Nao let out a growl, likely in response to the fact that Shizuru didn’t seem to be as upset as she’d hoped. “Fine then, have it your way. I’ll have some fun with you while I wait. Julia!”
A chittering sound came from above Shizuru, and her body tensed. After a moment’s thought, she decided to look up; better to know what was coming after all, than to dread what might come. The giant spider Julia filled her vision, its mandibles - no, wait, the back of Shizuru’s mind decided to inopportunely correct her: pedipalps - moving hungrily, as if to taunt her with what she were about to do.
If Shizuru were an arachnophobe, this moment would have been horrifying. Even as it was, it was all Shizuru could do to keep her calm. She used her mind’s earlier distraction to her advantage, going back to her lessons from biology class to focus on identifying and naming each of the parts of Julia’s body. Slowly, the tactic worked. Even as Julia approached, Shizuru’s eyes dissected her, robbing her of her alienness at the same time that she reminded herself just how hard it would be for Julia to actually do any damage to her without killing her. Julia could only be meant to scare Shizuru, not torture her. Nao was the real threat right now, at least as long as keeping Shizuru alive was in her interest.
The sound of a crash grabbed Shizuru’s attention, and she looked back at Nao. The girl had smashed her claws through a nearby chair, causing the pieces of it to clatter to the ground. “Damn you, Fujino, what does it take?” she said. Her eyes filled with fire as they focused on Shizuru.
“You should know by now that she’s made of sterner collateral than you, Yuuki-san.”
Shizuru blinked. That was Haruka’s voice - misspoken word and all - but right now she should have been helping with the evacuation. There was no way she would have left that behind to come and save Shizuru.
Apparently, Nao was just as surprised. “What the fuck are you doing here?” she said, looking past Shizuru, toward the source of Haruka’s voice.
“I’m here to make sure justice is served,” Haruka replied. Shizuru could hear her take a few footsteps forward, until eventually she came into view just beside Shizuru. “You have no good reason to torture Fujino-san. She simply got in your way,and I’m not going to let you hurt her for a pathetic reason like that.” Haruka turned her head, meeting Shizuru’s gaze for a moment. Despite the heroic tone of her voice, her eyes revealed that she was suppressing a deep anger right now. She looked back at Nao and said. “Especially when I have a much better reason to balance the scales of justice with her. She has to pay the price for killing me, after all.”
Wait, that wasn’t right. Shizuru shook her head. This was happening out of order. Her fight with Nao had been before she defeated Diana and killed Haruka. She hadn’t killed Haruka at all, obviously. Right. Something must have been wrong with Haruka right now. It was the only explanation for why she would have abandoned the evacuation and come here, thinking she’d already been killed by Shizuru.
“You seriously expect me to believe that?” Nao said, letting out a laugh. “You’ve lost your mind. Fine then. You’re not even a HiME. It’ll take Julia no time at out to get you out of my way.” Nao looked up, silently signaling at her spider to make its move.
Just as Nao looked up, Haruka spoke a word. “Komokuten,” she said. Her voice was calm, but Shizuru could hear an undertone of anger within it.
Within seconds of Haruka speaking this word, the sound of a massive crash came from above Shizuru. Shizuru shot her gaze up, but by the time she could see anything, Julia was gone, replaced with the open sky above. A black creature leapt past, but it wasn’t in sight long enough for Shizuru to make out its shape.
The sound of something pounding on the ground pulled Shizuru’s attention back to Haruka. While Shizuru’s attention was on the new hole in the ceiling, Haruka had materialized a giant mace, which she now held out in front of her with one hand. The end of its handle rested on the ground, and was likely the source of the sound that Shizuru had heard.
“It can’t be…” Nao said, taking a step back. “You’re not…”
“Maybe not out there,” Haruka said, grinning at Nao. “But in here, I can be whatever I want to be. You, on the other hand, can never be anything more than you are right now. Just be thankful that you’re not the one I’m here for, and get out of here before you give me a reason to do something about you too.”
Out there. In here. Haruka’s words made no sense. She must have lost her mind. But then, why did she have the power of a HiME now? Could it be that she was telling the truth? No, she was clearly insane. Shizuru was just hallucinating all of this in the hopes of letting her mind escape from the torture she was suffering right now. Shizuru shivered unconsciously. That was… Was she really losing her mind? What was Nao doing to her right now?
Nao let out a growl. “Why do you all have to be out to get me?” she said, her voice unsteady. She looked around, at Haruka, then at Shizuru, and then toward a door behind her. “Gah! Fine. I’ll just go and head off Kuga right now. Fujino, you can have fun imagining just what I’ll be doing to her.” With a mocking wave, Nao dashed out the door.
As Nao’s footsteps faded into the distance, so too did the tension in the room seem to slowly fade. When the sound of Nao’s footsteps had ceased completely, Haruka let out a deep breath. She turned to Shizuru and met her eyes for a moment. She brought her mace forward, and Shizuru instinctively closed her eyes, expecting Haruka to attack her with it in revenge for her imagined murder at Shizuru’s hands. Instead though, Haruka said, “Here, let me help you out of this web.”
Peeling an eye open, Shizuru caught sight of Haruka turning her mace around and using its handle to pick away at the web which suspended and immobilized Shizuru. At last, she dared to allow herself to speak. “Doesn’t Suzushiro-san plan to get her justice for me killing her?”
Haruka paused for a moment, and she looked over at Shizuru with an inscrutable expression, seeming almost sad at this moment. After a second, she shook her head and returned to work, picking some of the strands of web off of her mace. “I don’t see any need to punish you,” she said as she did this. She brought her mace back up to scoop at another bit of the web. “If you could only see yourself right now… You might be a Shizuru Fujino, but you’re not the Shizuru Fujino who killed me. She’s the one I’m here for.”
Shizuru furrowed her eyebrows. There was only one of her, right? Right. She nodded. Haruka was clearly insane right now. If she were in her right mind, she would be taking over for Nao in trying to torture Shizuru for what she’d done. Shizuru winced, looking down and away from Haruka.
“Hey, hey!” Haruka said. Her hand grabbed Shizuru’s chin, and she pulled Shizuru’s face up to make eye contact with her. “Don’t listen to that voice in your head. It’s trying to trap you, to keep you from asking too many questions.”
Shizuru raised an eyebrow. Haruka wasn’t exactly giving her a reason to trust her instead. Wait, was that what she was talking about? No. She was just having an internal dialog with herself. But that did sound like what Haruka was talking about. But she couldn’t be trusted. But what if she were telling the truth, and it was the voice that couldn’t be trusted? Obviously she could trust a voice in her own head over Haruka. But none of this was normal, so maybe she couldn’t. She could. She couldn’t. She could. She couldn’t!
Suddenly, the world around her seemed a bit clearer, as if a haze had vanished in an instant. Shizuru focused her gaze on Haruka, who smiled back at her, but just for a moment. Haruka’s eyes then suddenly showed a flash of fear. “Damn it!” Haruka pulled away from Shizuru and held her mace upright. Light focused around it for a moment, then released in a blast, shooting over Shizuru’s shoulder. Judging by Haruka’s frustrated look, the light hadn’t hit its target.
Shizuru wasn’t going to simply wait around though. While Haruka hadn’t finished freeing her yet, she had just enough freedom now to be able to swing her body around and get a look at the intruder.
A look was all she got though. Just as soon as her eyes took in the figure’s silhouette, it swung its arms, slashing its weapon at Shizuru. The blade struck true, slicing through Shizuru’s neck and severing her spine even before her mind could alert her to any pain.
In the seconds Shizuru had left before her brain expired, it flashed through various images: Her parents, her favorite cousin, Natsuki, Natsuki, Natsuki again… Finally, it settled on the silhouette of the person who had just killed her. There was no mistaking it.
It was Shizuru herself who had come to take her own life.
Chapter 3: Continuance
"Happy birthday, Mommy!"
Shizuru's eyes shot open just in time to prepare herself for the oncoming hug assault. With a nervous chuckle, she turned to the young girl and reflexively caught her in her arms. Her mind raced to catch up with what was happening right now, trying to reorient itself to the current reality. She must have been wakened in the middle of a dream, and her mind was still trying to adjust itself. "Um, thank you," she said, going along with things until her mind could catch up with where she was now.
The young girl planted a kiss on Shizuru's cheek and then pulled back from the hug. She reached her fingers up to her hair and twirled a raven-colored lock around as she looked up at Shizuru and said, as if awkwardly reciting the words she'd been coached to remember, "Mama says you can stay in bed as long as wanna, but there's a special breakfast ready for you when you get up."
"Mama?" Shizuru blinked in confusion. Her mind had yet to cue her in to who this girl was, or about much of anything for that matter, so she was at a loss as to who the girl might have been talking about. "Um, you can tell your Mama I just need a minute, and then I'll join you and her for breakfast," she said at last, hoping it would buy her some time to come to her senses.
"Hehe, okay," the girl said, smiling as if she were about to deliver a precious secret to her Mama. She got up on her toes and leaned in to plant a quick kiss on Shizuru's lips. "Love you, Mommy," she said as she pulled back. "Oh! And happy birthday!" she said again, as if she'd just remembered it.
Shizuru smiled at this, trying to at least put on a brave front for this girl - her daughter, apparently. "Thank you. Oh, and um, I love you too," she said, widening her smile a bit. As lost as she was right now, she wasn't going to offload any of that confusion onto this girl, so she did her best to play along. "Now, shouldn't you be going to help your Mama with breakfast?"
"Okay!" the girl said, turning and running off through the bedroom door. She unfortunately forgot to close it behind her, so Shizuru didn't quite have the privacy she wanted right now, but at least she was alone for the time being.
Shizuru took a deep breath, searching her mind for the last thing she remembered. She felt like she'd just awoken from a nightmare, so she pushed past the nightmarish images and to a more realistic memory. In it, the young girl had woken her up just like this, also wishing her a happy birthday. Shizuru had called her Ayane then, so that must have been her name. Well… probably. It couldn't have been Shizuru's birthday yesterday as well, so that memory must have been another dream.
Okay, so what was before that? The next thing her mind brought up was a memory of her dying in Natsuki's arms, which had to have been a dream as well. Except... the more she dwelled on that memory, the more details emerged around it, and the more real it seemed. It couldn't have been just a dream with a lot of imagined history behind it. It felt too real.
But then, what did that mean about where she was now? Was she dreaming now? Perhaps she hadn't died at all, and just thought she had. Testing the waters, Shizuru reached her hand over to her arm and gave it a solid pinch, feeling a sharp pain in response. Well, she could feel pain now, and that certainly felt as real as ever.
So if it wasn't a dream, what did that mean? Had she jumped forward into the future, losing years' worth of memories? Her remembered death was certainly rather magical, so it was hard for her to rule out anything. If all that was possible, what was to stop leaping forward into the future from being possible as well?
At last, Shizuru closed her eyes and let out a sigh. She wasn't going to find any answers staying in bed like this. Her best bet was to find someone to talk to about this, and go from there.
With this resolve, Shizuru got up and headed to her dresser. She searched through it for clothing that looked like hers, then took a few minutes to make herself just presentable enough for breakfast. Steeling herself with a deep breath, she stepped out into the hallway. Looking down it, she caught sight of the kitchen through a door at the end, and headed toward it.
Just before Shizuru reached the door to the kitchen, she froze. The hairs on the back of her neck were standing up in anticipation of something, and the back of her mind was screaming at her to stop. Something was wrong. She'd been in exactly this position in her dream, and as soon as she'd walked through the door to the kitchen, the world around her had vanished and she'd been stabbed through the back by an unknown assailant - unknown at the time, that was. A later dream had revealed it to be Shizuru herself.
But that was just a dream, right? A nightmare. She had nothing to worry about now.
Despite her justifications, Shizuru couldn't quite manage to fully reassure herself. Something in her was certain that as soon as she stepped through that door, she was going to be attacked. Or perhaps even before it, if she didn't move.
Nervously, Shizuru turned her head, checking out the hallway behind her. There was no one there. Letting out a breath she just realized she'd been holding, Shizuru took a moment to simply listen to the sounds around her. It sounded like someone was working in the kitchen right now, presumably making her breakfast. Who was it though? Ayane had referred to her "Mama," but who was that? Chances are it was someone Shizuru hadn't even met yet. Her heart was still back in high school, so she found herself wishing it might be Natsuki, but Natsuki had just told Shizuru she couldn't love her that way, so that couldn't be possible, could it?
Ayane's face flashed in Shizuru's mind. Raven hair, emerald eyes… She did look like she could be Natsuki's daughter. So maybe… No! Shizuru shook her head, squeezing her eyes shut. If there was even a slight chance she was with someone else now, she certainly couldn't go calling out the name of the girl she'd had a crush on in high school.
Just as she was resigning herself to having to call for Ayane instead, Shizuru mentally slapped herself. There were so many possible clues here she was ignoring. All she had to do was look around the house to find a picture of her and her partner, and she could confirm whether it was Natsuki or not. Deciding to start with the hallway, Shizuru turned back to look along its length, but it was simply decorated with a few paintings.
The bedroom would be more likely to have at least one picture of her partner, though. Shizuru turned back and made her way to the bedroom, but she found herself freezing again at the doorway. What if going through this doorway triggered her attack as well? It seemed ridiculous to think like that, but Shizuru just couldn't get that thought out of her head. She tried to convince herself that she was just imagining things, but her mind kept pushing back with painful memories of her being killed by her doppelganger. She couldn't go through that again, whatever it took. Even if it meant staying in this hallway until she could figure out a solution.
That voice… Shizuru turned around. From the other end of the hallway, Natsuki was peeking out from the door to the kitchen to check on Shizuru.
Without giving her mind a chance to doubt anything, Shizuru dashed toward Natsuki. Whatever was going on here, she could trust Natsuki. Natsuki would be her lifeline through this.
Natsuki seemed a bit caught off-guard when Shizuru pulled her into a tight hug, but it took her only a second to relax into it. "It's okay… it's alright, Shizuru," she said. She wrapped her arms around Shizuru in turn, then leaned in to rest her head on Shizuru's shoulder, planting a comforting kiss on it. "I'm sorry it took so long, but I'm here now."
Natsuki's words didn't make much sense to Shizuru right now, but she was so relieved to have a source of comfort that she didn't much care. She simply allowed herself to squeeze Natsuki within her hug, taking solace in the feeling of her friend's body against her own.
As the hug went on, Shizuru's mind slowly began to piece things together. Natsuki was here, so apparently Natsuki was indeed her partner now, however that had come about. If that was the case, then Shizuru could safely confide in her. Of course, it was probably best to talk in private, so as not to worry Ayane too much.
Finally pulling back from the hug, Shizuru found Natsuki's gaze and allowed herself to hold it for just a few seconds before she spoke. "Natsuki… can we perhaps go to the bedroom to discuss something in private? I don't wish to worry Ayane."
"Ayane?" Natsuki said, blinking in confusion. Shizuru glanced over Natsuki's shoulder, finding the young girl sitting at a table in the kitchen. Natsuki turned her head to follow Shizuru's gaze, and her eyebrows raised as she saw the girl. She turned back to Shizuru after a second and nodded. "Yeah, sure," she said, giving Shizuru a comforting smile.
Shizuru wasn't able to make any sense out of Natsuki's reaction, but she could handle that later. She looked over to Ayane and called out, "You can start breakfast without us, Ayane. Your Mama and I have something to discuss first."
"Okay!" Ayane said, grinning as she proceeded to dig into her breakfast.
Smiling at Ayane, Shizuru turned back to Natsuki to find that her friend's eyebrows had gotten stuck in the raised position. "Mama?" she whispered.
So Natsuki was at as much of a loss here as Shizuru. "Apparently," Shizuru whispered back. She turned back toward the bedroom. "Let's go," she said.
"...Right," Natsuki said. She followed behind Shizuru as they headed to the bedroom.
Shizuru found herself pausing for just a moment at the doorway, worried once more that something might happen when she crossed the threshold. But Natsuki was with her now, following behind her. As twisted as her doppelganger might have been, there was no way it would attack Natsuki, or do anything to cause her pain, like attacking Shizuru herself. With this thought in mind, Shizuru stepped through the door and into the bedroom.
Breathing a sigh of relief as nothing happened, Shizuru continued into the room and took a seat on the bed. She patted the spot next to her, inviting Natsuki to join her. Once her friend was seated next to her, Shizuru spoke. "So… is Natsuki at as much of a loss as I am as to what's going on here?"
Natsuki let out a chuckle at this. "Only about here in particular… here here, I mean. This house. ...Sorry," Natsuki furrowed her brow. "I don't have quite the vocabulary to describe it. But I ran into Suzushiro-san before I found you, and she explained to me what's going on here."
Shizuru's eyes widened, remembering one of the scenes she dismissed as a dream. Perhaps it was more real than she'd thought. "Ara? I ran into Suzushiro-san as well… was she playing at being a HiME when you met her too?"
Natsuki nodded, smiling at this. "Oh yes. She's having quite a good time here, getting to play the hero's role she always dreamed of. ...Although, I'm not sure everyone else is doing quite as well as her."
An image of her own death at the hands of her doppelganger passed through Shizuru's mind at these words, and she winced and turned away from Natsuki. Her friend was silent for a long moment, and at last Shizuru got up the courage to ask, "So, what exactly is this place?"
"Well, I don't think it's the afterlife, at least not exactly," Natsuki said. "Those of us who were sacrificed in the HiME Carnival are here, and we can see… I don't know, replicas, or something, of other people. But not their real selves. I spent some time trying to search down my mother, but when I found her, it soon became obvious she was just a copy, and not the real thing. Suzushiro-san, however, felt quite real to me. If this were the real afterlife, there's no way that would be the case. This is something else, just for us."
"...I see," Shizuru said. It was hard to know what to make of that. Were they going to be trapped here forever instead of truly dying? Or were they perhaps just being held until the Carnival finally ended? There was no way to know. Whatever it was, she just had to find a way to get through it.
"Um, Shizuru…" Natsuki said. She shifted on the bed, and she placed a hand on Shizuru's thigh. "Are you alright, though? Before I called out to you, it looked like you were terrified of something."
Shizuru squeezed her eyes closed. She couldn't burden Natsuki with this. It was her role to protect Natsuki, not the other way around. "It's nothing to worry about, Natsuki," she said, trying to keep her voice as genuine as possible. "It was just a strange, momentary worry I had."
"...Are you sure?" Natsuki said. "It didn't have anything to do with… I don't know… a violent copy of yourself?"
Shizuru's head shot around to look at Natsuki, wondering how her friend could have known this. But Natsuki wasn't looking back at her. Instead, her friend's gaze was fixed on the doorway. Following it, the reason for Natsuki's insight became abundantly clear: Shizuru's clone was standing in the doorway, Element drawn.
For a moment, Shizuru's panicked thoughts went to Ayane, worried that something might have happened to her. But no, although there was evidence of blood on the blade of her Element, it was dry; it hadn't been used recently. That didn't mean it wasn't about to be used very soon, though. But… her clone hadn't moved from the doorway yet. She simply stood there, facing Shizuru and Natsuki with blank eyes.
Shizuru breathed deeply. She wasn't going to let herself show fear in front of Natsuki. But she also didn't want to let Natsuki see her clone like this. The figure was wearing the same purple kimono Shizuru had worn on the night she'd defeated Diana and gone on to massacre the First District. It was Shizuru at her absolute worst, most despicable.
"Is this it, Shizuru?" Natsuki asked. Even now, her hand remained on Shizuru's leg, only having tensed up just a bit.
"...Yes, it is," Shizuru said. There was no point lying to Natsuki now. Her heart beat in her chest as she spoke, but she tried not to let on about her fear, or give in to the voice within the back of her mind that was yelling at her right now. "She's come to kill me three times so far."
Slowly, Natsuki turned her head to face Shizuru, only finally peeling her eyes off of Shizuru's doppelganger once she'd turned her head all the way. Natsuki took an audibly deep breath, and she squeezed Shizuru's thigh within her hand. "Well, I'm not going to let her kill you a fourth time," she said.
Shizuru shook her head on instinct. "No, it's alright, Natsuki," she said. She took a breath to steady herself. The voice within her head was getting louder and harder to ignore, but she pushed past it. "I don't need you to protect me."
Natsuki let out a growl. "Do you think I'm going to just stand by while my best friend is killed over and over again? Don't be an idiot, Shizuru. I'm staying with you, and that's the end of it."
Shizuru squeezed her eyes shut, her stomach twisting as she heard these words. "No, Natsuki, I… I don't…" deserve "...I…" I deserve this. "No! I… I…" I deserve this! I deserve every death she deals me, every time she stabs me, slices me, crushes me, decapitates me, strangles me, skewers me! After what I've done, I deserve no mercy.
"Shizuru… Shizuru!" Natsuki's voice broke through the chaos of Shizuru's mind, and she soon found herself embraced within Natsuki's arms.
It was too much for her. Unable to maintain a strong facade any longer, Shizuru turned around and clung tightly to Natsuki, burying her tears in her friend's shoulder. She wanted to silence that damn voice in her head again, but she couldn't fight it off this time. Its wasn't just trying to convince her of this illusion; it was reminding her of her own crimes, crimes she couldn't deny. If this was meant to be her personal hell, she deserved it. What she didn't deserve was Natsuki's comfort right now, but she couldn't find it in herself to pull away. Natsuki was always her one weakness, even now.
Eventually, with a little help from Natsuki slowly stroking her back, Shizuru managed to get her emotions under at least enough control to speak. "I think…" she said, "I know why she's coming for me."
"Hm?" Natsuki replied.
Breathing slowly to steady herself, Shizuru pulled back from the hug so that she could make eye contact with Natsuki. It made it harder for her to confess this, but she had to do it. "She's coming to make me pay for what I did in the Carnival."
"What?" Natsuki said, shaking her head. "Shizuru… You can't blame yourself for that. We were all being manipulated into fighting each other. The First District has been doing this forever; they would have found a way to make everyone fight sooner or later. They're the ones to blame, not you."
Shizuru winced at the mention of the First District. It seemed that Natsuki didn't know yet about what Shizuru had done to them. But she had to tell her. "I… I know…" she said. She gulped her worries down and closed her eyes for a moment. This was it. Opening her eyes, she pushed through. "But they certainly didn't manipulate me into killing them all. I did that myself…"
"Shizuru…" Natsuki's eyes widened. She seemed to pull back from Shizuru, but not as much as Shizuru feared she would. "I… I mean, as I said, they're the ones to blame for all this, so they…"
Shizuru shook her head. The files that Yukino had forced her to copy down flashed through her mind. "They didn't deserve to die. That… shouldn't be how we do things. They were humans. People. They had family who didn't deserve the pain of losing them. I lost myself and went overboard…" Shizuru glanced over at the figure of herself in the doorway. For some reason, its eyes were no longer blank now. Instead, they gazed at her with a sad expression. Holding this gaze, Shizuru said, "I have to pay for my crimes."
Natsuki shook her head, pulling Shizuru's focus back to her. "No, Shizuru. And definitely not like this. They manipulated you to your breaking point. It's not your fault you broke; it's theirs," she said, holding Shizuru's gaze firmly, and even moving back in toward Shizuru.
Part of Shizuru wanted to accept this, but she couldn't. "...I'm sorry, Natsuki," she said, looking away from her friend. "As much as I want to blame them for it… I have to take responsibility for my own actions."
"Take responsibility!?" Natsuki said. She turned back toward the copy of Shizuru waiting in the doorway and pointed to it. "Is that what you call killing yourself over and over here? That isn't taking responsibility for anything. That's just beating yourself up over your own mistakes."
"I…" Shizuru looked over at her clone once more, as if it might have some answer for her. But none was forthcoming, so she looked back at Natsuki. "What else can I do? This is it for us! We aren't even in the same afterlife as them. There's nothing I can do for them now."
Natsuki turned back to Shizuru, and her gaze softened. "I… I guess I'm not saying you have to forgive yourself. But…" Natsuki brought her hand back and sought out Shizuru's hand. She brought it up between them and gave it a tender squeeze. "There are people here you can do things for. I'm here. And if you want to do something for me, you can start by not repeatedly killing yourself."
That look from Natsuki couldn't help but melt Shizuru's heart. The world seemed to fade away from her and Natsuki in this moment. "...Okay," Shizuru said at last. "If that's what you want, Natsuki. I'll try."
Natsuki smiled softly at this. "I guess that's all I can ask."
As Natsuki smiled at Shizuru, it felt more and more like there was nothing else in the world but the two of them. It took Shizuru a good few seconds to realize that this was indeed the case: The world around them, her doppelganger included, had fallen away, leaving just the two of them sitting together on Shizuru's bed, without even a floor beneath their feet.
"Ara…" Shizuru said, looking around at the emptiness that now surrounded them. "I don't suppose Natsuki knows what to do about this?"
"Er… not exactly…" Natsuki said. She pulled herself back up onto the bed, away from the void surrounding them. "This hasn't happened to me here before. I've just been using doors to get around, and every place I've been to has been more or less complete."
Nervously, Shizuru leaned forward, peering at the emptiness below. Without any floor beneath her feet, she supposed she could leap off the bed and see where that would take her, but that didn't feel like a particularly smart idea right now.
"Shizuru!" Natsuki said. She tugged at Shizuru's arm, beckoning her to turn around. Following Natsuki's gaze, Shizuru looked up to see what looked other shards of reality floating in the void, slowly spreading outward amidst a cloud of green sparks. "I… I think this is it."
Shizuru stared upward, watching as the cloud of sparks thickened, spreading out to encompass her and Natsuki as well. "Natsuki, I…" Shizuru began to say, her instincts taking over and wanting to get out some precious words in what might be her last chance, but fears of how Natsuki might take it cut her off.
Natsuki looked over at her. "I know, Shizuru," she said, smiling softly. "I love you too. I always will. And whatever happens next, you can trust in that."
As the world began to fill with a green light, Shizuru focused intently on Natsuki's gaze, holding it until she could no longer make out her love's eyes. The feeling of the bed beneath her soon vanished, and Shizuru felt herself being pulled away.
Pieces of herself began to fade, Shizuru's body dissolving once more. Even her mind felt like it was dissolving, pieces of memories from what had happened here disappearing from her.
No, she couldn't forget this. She had to hold on to it, or it was all for nothing. Shizuru focused, trying to hold on to everything Natsuki had said to her. She wasn't going to let this memory fade from her mind like a dream. She was going to take responsibility for-
Chapter 4: Closing
“This part takes a while, Sa-chan,” Natsuki said to her daughter, making sure to keep her voice low enough that she wouldn’t disturb Shizuru while she prayed. “Your Mommy has quite a long prayer to make. We don’t need to stay for all of it, though. I’m just going to make a short prayer myself, and then we can go to the office to pick out some charms for the year.”
“Why is Mommy’s prayer so much longer than yours, Mama?” Sakura asked, looking up at Natsuki with big, crimson eyes. Her voice was just a bit too loud, so Natsuki gave her a quick motion to be quieter before she replied.
“That’s a long story, Sa-chan,” Natsuki said, “which your Mommy will tell you another time. The short version is that there are a lot of people she says a prayer for when she comes here each year. More people than she even knows the names of, so she has to count them all out, offering a prayer to each one.”
It was obvious from Sakura’s expression that she didn’t fully understand it, but that was to be expected. “...Okay,” she said at last. She looked over at Shizuru again, chewing on her bottom lip as the thought about something. “...Um, can I make a prayer too?” she said at last.
Natsuki’s eyes widened a bit at this, and she gave her daughter a smile. “Of course,” she said, reaching a hand out to pat Sakura’s head. She shifted her position, kneeling down alongside her daughter so she could be on level with her. “Let me tell you how to do it, then,” she said. She reached into her pocket and fumbled for a couple 100-yen coins, then took them out and gave one to Sakura. “First thing is, when we get to the offering box, drop this into it as a gift for the kami.”
Sakura took the coin, her eyebrows furrowing as she looked at it. She then looked back over at Natsuki and said, “Do the kami need money?”
“Well, not really,” Natsuki said, smiling at her daughter. “The purpose of it is in the intention. And to be honest, we don’t even really know if the kami exist.” Images flashed through Natsuki’s mind of the Childs and Orphans she’d dealt with as a young girl, but that was certainly too complicated of a subject to get into today. Instead, she continued, “We do most of these rituals for ourselves. At least, that’s how your Mommy and I see them. But the kami certainly might exist, so it’s a good idea to be respectful.”
Sakura’s eyebrows furrowed even more at this, as she tried to puzzle out this concept. Eventually she shook her head, then looked back over at Natsuki. “Okay, what’s next then?”
Natsuki let out a brief chuckle, silently blaming herself for confusing the young girl. Shizuru was always much better at these difficult subjects than Natsuki was, so hopefully she’d have a chance to talk it over with Sakura later. Perhaps the car ride home would be a good time for that. Natsuki made a mental note to bring the subject up then, but for now, she had the rest of the explanation to get. “Well, next, you want to ring the bell to greet the kami…”
“How was she today, while I prayed?” Shizuru whispered to Natsuki just after closing Sakura’s bedroom door. She’d been waiting all day for a chance to talk with Natsuki about what Sakura seemed to think of her yearly ritual.
“She was good,” Natsuki said, smiling at her wife. “She even wanted to say a prayer herself. Did you notice?”
Shizuru shook her head. She walked with Natsuki down the hallway, heading to the living room. It had been a long day, and though she could certainly use some sleep, she wanted to take advantage of the fact that she could finally speak with Natsuki one-on-one. This day always made her quite emotional, but the fact that she was sharing it with Sakura for the first time made it even more significant this year.
Although she’d wanted to speak with Natsuki, the right words just didn’t seem to be coming to Shizuru right now. Instead of forcing them though, she simply made her way to the living room and took a seat on the couch. Their dog, Kiyoran, was already curled up on it, though he had just enough energy to roll over and press his body up against Shizuru’s leg once she sat down. Shizuru returned his affection with some slow pats; he’d been quite a good boy today too, according to Mikoto, so he certainly deserved some affection now.
Natsuki took a seat beside Shizuru, opposite the dog. She placed a hand tenderly on her wife’s thigh and said, “I don’t think Sa-chan really understood why you’re doing this, though. I’m sure she’ll figure it out a bit more with age, but, well, of course she won’t understand it all unless we tell her about the Carnival…”
“Mm, of course,” Shizuru said, smiling a bit as she thought of her daughter, even despite this tricky question. Whether or not to try and tell Sakura about the Carnival was a question the two of them kept going back and forth on. It felt like something she should know about, especially if she ever asked how her parents got together, but it would be hard to expect her to believe it without any proof. Finally, Shizuru let out a sigh. “I suppose that’s a question for another day, though.”
“Yeah,” Natsuki said. Her hand gave Shizuru’s thigh a quick squeeze. “A question for today is: Any special requests for your birthday? Last chance to ask if there’s anything you want in the morning.”
Shizuru chuckled at this. She’d lost count of how many times Natsuki had asked her this. “Ara, if Natsuki is going to be this insistent, then I might just have to let her do something special,” she said, looking over at her love out of the corner of her eye. “But to be honest, I can’t think of anything I’d like more than to spend the day with my loving family.”
“Yeah yeah, you say that every year,” Natsuki said, cracking a slight grin. “And every year I come up with something special at the last minute anyway.”
Shizuru turned toward Natsuki, raising an eyebrow. “At the last minute?” she said. “Something tells me that the trip to Kyoto last year would have taken a fair bit more planning than that. Natsuki wouldn’t be trying to throw me off-guard by pretending not to have anything planned, now would she?”
Natsuki’s eyes widened, and she quickly pouted. “O-oi! You’re supposed to pretend not to know!”
Letting out a laugh at this reaction, Shizuru leaned over and planted a kiss on Natsuki’s cheek. “Forgive me, Natsuki.” With a smile on her face, she leaned back against the couch and let her eyes fall closed. “I do mean what I say, though. Back when I was in high school, I would have considered having a family like this to be my personal heaven.”
“Mm,” Natsuki said. She leaned in, resting her head on Shizuru’s shoulder, and Shizuru rested her head against Natsuki’s in turn.
Shizuru’s words had caused a memory to flicker from deep within her mind. It felt like she was remembering a dream she’d had, but it didn’t quite feel like a dream. And the timing of it was rather suspicious. “...Natsuki?” she said after a few minutes of thinking about it.
“Hm?” Natsuki said.
“I think I might have even dreamed about something like this back then. I think it was sometime around the end of the Carnival. But back then I ended up convincing myself it couldn’t possibly be real. I don’t think I’ve ever been more happy to be wrong.”
“Mm,” Natsuki said. She was clearly half-asleep at this point, so Shizuru probably shouldn’t expect much more than this from her.
“Ara… well, before you fall asleep then,” Shizuru said. “Thank you, Natsuki, for what you said in that dream. You really saved me back then.”
“Mm,” Natsuki said once more. But this time, she followed it up with, “You’re welcome, Shizuru. I knew you could do it.”
Shizuru’s eyebrow raised at this last bit, but she decided to let it pass without comment. Smiling, she wrapped her arm around Natsuki and gave her wife a loving squeeze. “Alright, Natsuki, Kiyo-chan, time for bed,” she said at last.
“Happy Birthday, Mommy!”