I've woken now to find myself
In the shadows of all I have created
I'm longing to be lost in you
(Away from this place I have made)
Won't you take me away from me?
From the song Away From Me (the Fallen album), by Evanescence
It was the day after graduation. I found myself wandering through the hallways of Fuka Academy, bitterly amused by my belated realization that I would actually, truly miss it.
Without intending to, I found myself in the Student Council Room. I sat down at her old desk. I could always count on finding her there, in those days, sipping a cup of tea. I leaned my chin on my hand and gazed out into the sunset, the blood-red orb reminding me of her crimson gaze.
"Ara, the scene seems somehow incomplete without my laptop on the desk and Natsuki's dirty fingers all over it."
I couldn't help smiling, in spite of everything. Her teasing me now was such an intensely comforting reminder of old times. "Dirty or not," I drawled, "I bet your laptop was grateful to have any fingers touching it at all, given your propensity to avoid real work."
There was a dangerous curve to her lips as she walked towards me. "Oh, I'm sure it was grateful. I wouldn't mind having Natsuki's fingers touch me either, the dirtier the better."
I had forgotten just how good she was at this kind of wordplay. Without thinking, I responded: "Maybe you wouldn't, but I'm sure Solomon would."
I regretted the words the instant I spoke them. She shook her head slightly, her eyes concealed by her bangs. "That's one of the things I love about my Natsuki. She's always concerned about my virtue even when I'm not." Her voice was light, but there was just the slightest quaver.
"I'm sorry, Shizuru." I said helplessly.
She waved away my apology and made her way towards the window. "And how has my Natsuki been?"
I gazed at her silhouette, the fading light bathing her in a crimson glow. "I've been better," I answered, my voice low.
She turned towards me then. "And what is making my Natsuki unhappy?"
I stared at her in silence while a million thoughts ran through my head. Do you really not know what's making me miserable? Do you even realize that I've never congratulated you on your engagement? Has it ever occurred to you that the two years you disappeared were the most wretched years of my life? Isn't it obvious to you by now, you maddening woman, that I'm head-over-heels in love with you?
Seeing that I still wasn't saying anything, she walked towards me and sat on the edge of the desk. She bent until our heads were nearly level, then very gently tipped my chin up. Looking straight into my eyes, she said: "If there is anything at all in the world that Natsuki desires that I can give, I would give it to Natsuki."
You! My mind screamed. The only thing I desire in the world is you! I so badly wanted to say it, if not for the intensity I saw in her crimson eyes.
Because I suddenly had the conviction that if I asked her to run away with me, that if I asked her to abandon Solomon Goldsmith, abandon the Fujino name, and abandon the Fujino Corporation, she would. And I knew she would do it without a second thought, without a backward glance.
And somehow, knowing that I had the power to change the trajectory of this woman's life - knowing that I could alter this utterly bewitching, entrancing, captivating woman's destiny - terrified me. She was the Shizuru Fujino. She was the sun around whom countless worlds wobbled, and stars didn't abandon their positions for mere...asteroids. What if I'd made a mistake? What if she'd made a mistake? What if everything we'd felt and dreamt with such frenzied anguish was nothing but the product of a youthful infatuation?
She saw my hesitation and understood my terror with a single swift glance. She touched my cheek, gently and tentatively, then allowed her hand to drop.
"Take as much time as you need to think about it, Natsuki. When you come up with an answer, I'll be there to hear it. And if after that you come up with another answer, I'll be there to hear it as well. And I will continue to be there, whatever your answers are and however they change."
When she left, I felt an overwhelming despair and resentment - toward her for giving me such a burden, and toward myself for being unable to shoulder it. Give me time, Shizuru. I begged in the silence of my mind. Don't marry him. At the very least, don't marry him just yet.
When the invitation came, it had felt like a good, hard punch to the gut. Mai, on the other hand, was tittering with excitement.
"An engagement ball! A real, honest-to-goodness, formal, dress-up ball! We have to go shopping, Natsuki."
I considered my response carefully. Refusing to attend the engagement party would only raise Mai's suspicions. On the other hand, I wasn't sure if I could maintain a façade of normalcy through an ordeal like shopping.
"Um, why don't you go with Midori and the rest of the gang?" I asked. "There's just some stuff I have to take care of this weekend."
Mai pouted. "Don't be such a Natsuki, Natsuki. It's been ages since we went out together. Besides, if I don't force you to come with me, I just know you're going to go wear any old thing."
As it was, I was already at the end of my psychological tether, and Mai's emotional blackmail was the last thing I needed. "Please, Mai? I promise I will get something suitable to wear, and I promise that we will go shopping together some time soon. I really just need to handle a couple of things right now." I said this while giving her the most imploring look I was capable of (something I'd only ever used on Shizuru) and was gratified to sense an immediate surrender.
"Well, all right," she relented. "It's as good a time as any to catch up with the girls anyway." She smiled at me fondly then let herself out of the room.
Sighing, I lay back on my bed and retreated under the covers. Shizuru, I thought, how much more cruel can you get?