"Have you felt anything unusual? Any vertigo or nausea? Any physical pain or discomfort?"
I shook my head. I had been at Solomon's headquarters for nearly a week already, and Julia had been seeing me practically twice a day. If she had been expecting any additional "physiological changes" in me, as she'd put it, there had been none that I could see.
She was scribbling at her clipboard when the door to my room banged open and a harassed-looking intern barged in.
"She's woken up," he told her tensely. "And she's trying to get out."
Julia's lips tightened. "Does Solomon know?"
The intern nodded. "He's on his way now."
Julia nodded and stood up. "You'll have to excuse me for now, Natsuki-san. And please forgive me if I confine you to your room while I attend to this."
She left with an apologetic look. As the door closed, I heard the lock turn. As soon as she left, I slipped out of bed and began jiggling the knob. As I worked on it, I heard Solomon's voice.
"You're in no condition to leave these premises! Your wounds haven't even begun to close!"
The arguments that ensued were done in voices too low for me to follow. Then there was Solomon's voice again, urgent and pleading.
"I'm not letting you go. I watched you nearly die once. I'm not going to let it happen again."
With a final burst of concentration, I jimmied the lock and opened my door just a fraction. Through the opening, I could make out the backs of Solomon's and Julia's figures. I couldn't see the face of the figure they were talking to, but it looked tall and slender, and it was leaning heavily against the wall for support.
"Please Solomon...I have to get back to them, find out what they did..."
The figure attempted to elbow its way past Solomon, but it was far too weak and it ended up collapsing in his arms instead. Solomon swore, and as he lifted the figure in his arms, the light fell on it and revealed a face - a face that had haunted my dreams day and night for the last three years; an impossible face.
What happened next happened very quickly, and very slowly, all at the same time.
I remember walking out into the hallway, the floor cold under my bare feet.
I remember Solomon stopping in his tracks, the dismay evident on his handsome face.
I remember Julia shouting at the interns, the worry apparent in her straining voice.
I remember whispering her name, my throat dry in dazed disbelief.
Most of all, I remember how her eyelids had fluttered open then, the look of tender recognition in her crimson eyes, and how her voice sounded when she'd said my name. "Natsuki...."
What I can't remember, can't remember at all, is when she stopped smiling and lost consciousness - only that Julia had stopped shouting and Solomon had begun to run.
"Is she going to be alright?"
There were a thousand pressing questions I wanted to ask Solomon at that instant, but for the moment they could all wait. The most important thing was to find out if Shizuru was going to be fine.
For the first time since I had met him, Solomon looked suddenly vulnerable. "We're not sure."
I looked at Shizuru lying pale and unconscious on the bed. Her entire torso was swathed in bandages, and so were her arms.
I clenched my fists. "Did the Searrs do that to her?"
Solomon looked at me sadly. "No, Kuga-san. You did."
"The whole story, Solomon. No half-truths this time."
We were in the waiting room; me sitting, pale and rigid; Solomon pacing, agitated and restless.
After a brief pause, he spoke.
"To save Shizuru that night at the ball, I turned her into a vampire. I saved her, in effect, by...killing her. It was her choice to keep her continued existence a secret. She knew her being a vampire was the only advantage we had over the Searrs. If it hadn't been for her, this war would have been long over."
He looked at me then with a pained expression. "After we rescued you and you woke up, I considered telling you that she'd survived. But it was her secret to tell, not mine. And frankly speaking, she hasn't been in any condition to divulge any secrets. Ever since her last battle with the Searrs, she's been drifting in and out of consciousness."
"So all this time," I whispered, "the vampire-hunter was Shizuru?"
Solomon nodded. "Her powers are almost unimaginable - a hybrid of HiME and Chiropteran abilities. She can create Elements just like a HiME, and she has a Chiropteran's speed and strength and fighting and healing abilities. What she is now is precisely what the Searrs want to achieve by vampirizing the HiMEs. But they don't know it's her. All this time, they've thought it was me."
"But if she's as powerful as you say..." I trailed off, thinking of how frail Shizuru had looked in her bed, and how light she had appeared in Solomon's arms.
Solomon sighed. "Against humans and other vampires, Shizuru is almost indestructible. It's to the Searrs' credit, much as I hate to admit it, that they realized how futile it was to keep sending artificial Chiropterans against her. What they unleashed against her, instead, was the one thing that has always been the scourge of vampires everywhere."
I looked at him in confusion. "And you're trying to tell me that this...‘scourge' happens to be me?"Solomon smiled sadly. "Not you as you were, Kuga-san, but as what the Searrs turned you into. A werewolf."