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Natsuki no Prelude - English Translation

 

Natsuki no Prelude - English Translation


Natsuki no Prelude English translation by Vicky Ulman aka Midori Sugiura99
Text Correction by PostoronnimV


Prologue ~ from Step: #25~


The waves rolled in, breaking against the cliff, then drew back again.


A starlit street from Fuuka City ran along the edge of the cliff by the sea.


About halfway down the street a bluff stood out, facing the sea. Upon it Natsuki stood, alone.


The wind off the sea blew, ruffling Natsuki's dark hair. Aglow in the setting sun, her school uniform fluttered a bit.


"Mother..."


Natsuki closed her eyes as she let out this soft, almost inaudible murmur.


The events of that one night were resurrected in her mind.


Even though she knew she should forget, she could not erase the memories of what had happened that night 10 years ago at Bihoshi's Iwasaka Pharmaceuticals laboratory. "Mother's Study Room" as she called it.


She remembered how her mother's hand shook her awake, for she had fallen asleep in the laboratory, tired from waiting for her mother’s work to end.


Her mother, who was usually so calm and gentle, had shown a look of desperation for the first time.


With Natsuki clinging tightly to her best friend Duran whom she had begged to bring along, they entered her mother's car and fled on that dark street.


To... ---- this place.


It was here where "they" had waited for them.


These "dark uncles" who went in and out of Iwasaka Pharmaceuticals in their dark suits and sunglasses. They always remained still, as if silently guarding the lab. Yet sometimes they would play with Natsuki or give her candy in secret, while she waited for her mother.


But now they simply stood there, grim looks upon their faces.


It was something Natsuki had not seen before that night.


What happened next, her memory held no images of.


It held only the sound of the high-pitched screech of the brakes, and the feel of the impact as they broke through the guardrail.


And then the feeling of suspension as she could feel something was closing in on them, and then the sound of her mother's desperate scream.


Surely, she herself must have screamed too.


But her screams, along with her mother and Duran, were sleeping in the depths below the cliff.


"So this is where I find you again."


A voice behind Natsuki interrupted her thoughts.


"The same goes for you, Sakomizu, why did you come here again? The First District no longer exists, right?" Natsuki answered without turning around.


"That is true. But before I leave, I'd like to salute someone... if you don't mind?" 


Sakomizu was Natsuki's teacher from Fuuka Academy. He was also an agent working for an organization called The First District - well, had been working, that is.


He held a bouquet of flowers in his hands.


"These were grown in Fuuka Academy's flower bed. I don't know if she will be happy to receive these flowers, but, unfortunately, all the flower shops in town have closed down." 


"Do whatever you want."


Sakomizu smiled, somehow relieved at the typical gruff answer, and with a "Well then, excuse me" threw the bouquet.

The flowers hit the water and disappeared in the blink of an eye. 


"Just like us..." Natsuki whispered softly, raising her eyes.


The huge HiME star entered her field of vision.


The star that brought the power to girls called HiME, the power to materialize higher-order matter from thin air.


It usually shined dully by the moon’s side, but now it was closer than it had ever been before, sparkling ominously, so large that could be seen even the tiniest details. 


To Natsuki, a HiME, one of the last four surviving HiME, it felt like it was proclaiming the end.


Yes. Right now everything was coming to an end. Even Natsuki's fight, which began when she awoke as a HiME that late summer night, was coming to an end.


I


The church bell rang. 


It mimicked a foreign religion as it rang throughout Fuuka Academy, privately owned by a noble family. The Academy, which housed an elementary, middle and high school, led in education in the whole Japan.


But for a young girl, dozing on the school's lawn, it sounded more like an alarm clock bell.


----- School's finally out, huh...


Classes were over. The middle-school uniform clad girl stood up, hearing how the noises unique to after-school time were increasing.


Natsuki stood and stretched. 


Her long dark hair spread across her back. Not an ounce of fat graced her slender figure. Her chest may have been still lacking in size, but her body, hidden under the sailor suit designed uniform, though still girlish, already held promise of future sensuality.


"Is Natsuki skipping class again?" a voice called from behind.


The soft Kyoto accent and daring to address Natsuki by her first name could only belong to one person in the school.


"I had enough patience to attend for the whole morning. Besides, my attendance record is just fine. No need for you to reprimand me, Shizuru."


As Natsuki turned around, a girl wearing a high school uniform stood before her eyes.


A female student who already gave off a mature charm and serenity, as she stood there alone.


Fujino Shizuru, a second year high school student, and the only person Natsuki called a friend in this school.


"Such a meanie as always... but..." 


She approached Natsuki, smiling charmingly, and ran her index finger softly over the girl's cheek.


"...!"


Natsuki couldn't help, but blush unintentionally at those actions.


"Fufu, you're all red... Natsuki really is so cute."


Natsuki shook off the fingertip of smiling Shizuru, which had already made its way to her chin. Cheeks aflame, she shouted angrily, "Gah! Honestly, you just always... always...! Is it really that fun to tease me?!"


Natsuki was at a loss for words, befuddled by Shizuru's gentle teasing.


----- Really, this woman!


Yes, the only one who could so easily get close to Natsuki who usually gave off such an aura of 'cool' and 'unapproachable', was this upperclassman, Shizuru.


What was so enjoyable about her? Or rather, in Natsuki's words, was it really that much fun to tease her? Whatever the reason, Shizuru did it on every occasion.


Why could Shizuru, no matter how threatening or harsh Natsuki could be to her, break her pace so easily and have her at her mercy?


Though, really, it wasn't all that unpleasant to Natsuki.


For someone like her, who intentionally kept her distance from others, Shizuru was quite the exception.


"Oh, I feel so shy when you look straight into my eyes like that..."


"That's not-! Really, you... well, is something wrong?"


Natsuki changed the subject to distract Shizuru.


"Wrong? Well... not really, but Sakomizu-sensei is looking for you. You recently started coming to school on your motorcycle, haven't you, Natsuki? You should be careful not to get caught by the Executive Staff or Sakomizu-sensei."


Natsuki just clicked her tongue at these words.


"Suzushiro, huh..."


The other day she had been reprimanded rather harshly by "the most zealous Executive member of Fuuka Academy, a regular whirlwind" Suzushiro for riding her motorcycle to school.


"What a bothersome person to be caught by. Although, it seems that the Executive Council is being reinforced right now... Sakomizu-sensei has been pretty worried as well."


"Being reinforced? Did something happen?"


The Executive Staff was a branch of the Student Council entrusted with the upkeep of public morals and safety. If they were being reinforced, an unusual event must have happened within the school.


"Stray dogs have been appearing quite often on campus. That's why we need reinforcements." with these words Sakomizu Kaiji, Natsuki's homeroom teacher, appeared.


He was the teacher in charge of her class. He was rather plump, and with an afro that would do well as a bird's nest. His appearance was strong, but his quiet nature just made him a harmless teacher. That was Natsuki's assessment of him.


"Stray dogs...?"


"Yes, very large ones, it seems."


Natsuki mustered a sarcastic smile at Sakomizu's serious expression.


"Whether it’s being haunted by ghosts or attacked by rioting monsters... this school really does have it all, doesn't it?"


"It’s to be expected at a school that has been around so long. But anyway..." 


"Yes?"


"About your motorcycle, Kuga-san, can we come to some sort of agreement? It's written in the school rules that it is forbidden to ride your motorcycle to school. Ah, Fujino-san, please try to persuade her."


"I would try to stop her if I could, but... she doesn't seem to be the most obedient of children, does she?"


"True... Kuga-san is indeed very stubborn."


"Yes. Definitely."


"How troublesome."


Shizuru and Sakomizu nodded in agreement.


"Oi. Don't talk like that when the person in question is standing right here."


"But, Natsuki, no matter how many times we tell you, you just don't listen."


"That's right. And she hasn't been coming to her classes either..."


"Uh..."


Natsuki faltered, being suddenly attacked from both sides. Sakomizu drew in close to Natsuki and whispered in a low voice that only she could hear, "You'd also better stop loitering around the shopping district's bars. Questionable folk go in and out of there. You're a princess, after all."


"Wha...!"


----- How did he...


Natsuki was taken aback. Trying to hide her trembling, she let the truth of Sakomizu's words sink in.


"What?... What are you talking about?" she asked, trying to keep her voice calm.


Sakomizu just smiled wryly.


"Just... please take care. I beg of you. I am responsible for my students' behavior and their actions reflect on me as well."


He spoke in his usual carefree tone and, after wiping his forehead with a wrinkled handkerchief, he left.


"..."


Wondering, Natsuki watched his retreating figure.


----- How does he know? And his tone when he called me a "princess"... from where...?


"Natsuki? You're making such a serious face... what happened?"


"Ah, huh... nothing. I'm going home."


Shizuru frowned slightly at Natsuki's avoidant reply. But soon she shook it off and smiled once again.


"Leaving already? That's too bad. I wanted to be with Natsuki just a little longer..."


She suddenly embraced Natsuki from behind, pressing her body close.


Natsuki felt a soft sensation as she was enveloped by Shizuru's arms.


"He-hey, Shizuru!"


"What is it?"


"That... ummm... hey! What are you doing? Let me go!"


Smiling widely, Shizuru let Natsuki go.


"Your choices of lingerie have become more refined lately. So soft to the touch..."


"Idiot!" Natsuki yelled angrily. Flustered and blushing deeply, she hurried to make her way through the forest behind the school, where she had most likely parked her motorcycle.


Shizuru smiled a small smile of relief, watching Natsuki leave like this.


"Wait, Natsuki. You'll have to change your clothes, won't you? Let me help you."


The teasing apparent in her voice, she chased after Natsuki, ignoring her jeers of "shut up!" and "don't come any closer!", and disappeared into the forest, smiling happily.


*


Unbeknownst to them, a pair of eyes watched this scene.


"Fufu... Soon, my dear Summer Princess. You're the first, Natsuki-chan..." whispered a white-haired boy in a middle school uniform, sitting on a tree branch and smiling smugly.


II


"... First District? That's what they're called?"


"Yes. Whether that's their official name or just an alias isn't known... but that's what they call themselves."


A few hours had passed since the events after school. Natsuki was sitting at a bar called "Rorschach" in Tsukimori, one of the school's neighboring cities' shopping district.


"First District..." Natsuki repeated the words, trying to keep down the excitement in her voice.


Ever since the night her mother died, inside Natsuki's heart there was only the thirst for revenge against those responsible for taking her mother from her, nothing else. From that day on she forged herself, following every trail, hunting down any organization that could be linked to her mother.


But, in all honesty, Natsuki knew a simple middle school student couldn't do much. It was absurd, having put herself into incredibly dangerous circumstances once again and yet being unable to grasp the organization at its heart. Thus Natsuki was constantly tormented by feeling powerless.


This was her chance. Natsuki had met this man, who was sitting now at the only other occupied seat at the counter.


This man was called Yamada.


Where he came from was unknown. His name, Yamada, was most likely a fake name. He didn't even look Japanese at all. It was rumored that he may have been a crafter from another country. Natsuki didn't care about any of these details.


Yamada knew his way around the dodgier parts of the world. When the pay was right, he didn't ask too much about the legality of the information or weapon he placed in Natsuki's hands. That was enough for her.


It was him who sold her the name of the organization that she wasn't sure even existed until today.


----- First District... Could that be the name of the organization that used and then killed my mother?


It felt strange. Previously, her enemy had been as distant as the clouds in the sky. But now, even with just the name, it started to make a concrete sense of presence.


Not sensing Natsuki's hidden agitation, Yamada continued with disinterest.


"They're quite a dangerous group. If you aren't careful, you may just turn the whole country against you."


"The whole country?"


"Yes. There are signs they've infiltrated even the government. Although those are just feelings I've been having."


"..."


Natsuki had already guessed something like this, considering that her mother's death was treated as an accident and no one paid any attention to her desperate appeals.


----- So, it’s as I thought...


Still, Natsuki bluffed and faked a smile.


"Isn't that fun? I can take them on at last."


"Fun..."


Yamada was a man who rarely changed his expression, but now the corners of his mouth raised in amusement.


He then, playing a new card, spoke again.


"The power to materialize higher-order matter. You've heard that term before?"


The term made Natsuki freeze. The power to materialize higher-order matter.


It was the subject of her mother's research at that place, wasn't it...?


"Highly-advanced Materializing Equipment. HiME, for short. That's what those guys are looking for, people with that ability."


----- HiME...?


Her mother and even those dark-suited men at the institute sometimes had called her "hime" ("princess").


Actually, when Natsuki was born that August, her mother had wanted to use the kanji for "summer" and "princess" to make her name, but instead the hiragana was used as per her father's preference.


Her mother still called her "my princess" though.


Back then, she thought it was just a pet name.


"Those guys are said to be gathering people with that power at Fuuka Academy. You know, that school for rich kids in the neighbouring town?"


"...!"


Natsuki could not hide her agitation any longer, hearing the name of her own school coming from Yamada's mouth. She shot back pointedly.


" 'Power', you said. Exactly what kind of power?"


"Well... My investigations have not come that far yet."


"I see... Please continue investigating then."


Natsuki took the envelope out of her pocket and slid it in front of Yamada.


Yamada hesitated, not taking the envelope, but instead just staring at it for awhile. He opened his mouth to ask a question - a strange thing for him to do outside of his work.


"I really shouldn't ask too much about the situations my clients are in, but... please let me ask you one thing."


"What?"


"Why is a young girl like you chasing after such an organization? This is not a game for middle schoolers, these are not enemies to be joked with."


"..."


"A weak strike against them, and you'll be annihilated. Don't threaten them, alright?"


Yamada shook his glass a little in his hand. The unmelted ice made a clear sound.


"I don't care. This is what I live for. I will hunt them down and destroy them. No matter what it takes."


Her tone was deep and deadly.


Yamada looked into Natsuki's eyes, gulping a little. There was a frightening light in those eyes, glowing with pure intensity. Yamada recognized that light from long ago, when he had been trained to serve his country. It was a glow of blind belief. It was so foolish, yet so radiant...


She was a young girl to be reckoned with, and who might just be dangerous...


Looking away, Yamada reached out for the envelope and put it into his pocket.


"I will contact you when I have any new information."


"... Got it." Answering curtly, she took her helmet and stood up from her seat.


The line of her body drawn by her tight leather bodysuit showed a young girl, who had taken her first steps into maturity, but still held on to the firm lines of youth.


Yamada wasn't really someone who enjoyed a view like this, but the tension shrouding the girl was almost palpable as it brewed, leaving no room for relief.


----- She's so much like me... will I cross the dangerous bridge of sympathy?


Yamada smiled bitterly.


Natsuki's words were no threat to him. There had been ominous shadows lingering at the edge of his vision ever since he started investigating the First District. It wasn't anything he couldn't deal with, but them being in the way was bad for his business as an informant.


----- That might be amusing though... a worthy enemy at last.


Yamada felt the dull, long forgotten glow inside of him alight once again. Whether to put it out or just fuel it more... he drained his glass in a single gulp.


*


Having left the bar, Natsuki straddled her motorcycle that was parked in the back alley earlier, and tied back her hair before putting on her helmet.


She loved this vehicle, which she had gotten not even a month ago.


It was a foreign model, the same that her father once owned.


Natsuki wasn't sure herself why she had chosen this model.


Since she hated her father.


After her mother's death, he had put her, seriously injured, in the hospital and just left her. There were also things she only understood later ---- like that her parents worked all the time and fought often, not getting along well. But they always put up a facade of harmony in front of her.


Her father, who loved motorcycles and 80s British Rock, had called his bike "Duran II" as a parody of Natsuki's beloved dog's name.


Even though her father was always busy flying around the world as the manager of a trading company, still he in his spare time had taken Natsuki on his trips or to camp.


Natsuki once loved her father.


All the more, she could not forgive him.


Now her father was living overseas with another woman. It was never made official, but the relationship with that woman had been going on even when Natsuki's mother was still alive.


The stipends for child-support he paid - the living expenses for his only daughter - were very generous though. This motorcycle, the money to pay Yamada for his information - it all came from this source.


She could just as easily throw her father's money in the gutter, but, in reality, she was well aware that without it she would have a hard time earning enough money for her own living expenses, let alone plotting her revenge.


----- I wonder, if revenging my mother would gnaw at my loathsome father...


That would be Natsuki's very personal, happy childhood's revenge.


She pulled her helmet down, grimacing in self-derision, then turned the accelerator and took off.


The bike gave a low roar, and she sped out from Tsukimori's dark alley, heading for the road along the coast that lead back to Fuuka.


The seasons were changing from summer to fall, so the temperature was quite chilly. But to Natsuki, it felt nice.


A full moon was visible in the cold air. Nestled close to it, the red star was shining.


That red star had been visible to her and no one else, since she was very young.


"Natsuki-chan, don't tell anyone you can see this star."


Her mother forbade her from speaking of it, not wanting anyone else to know about it.


----- Mother. What did you know?


The question echoed through Natsuki's mind, and Yamada's words from earlier that night came back to her. "The power to materalize high-order matter. HiME, for short ----"


"Those guys are gathering people with that power at Fuuka Academy, it seems."


It was surprising, but she felt one step closer to the solution.


----- It’s just as I thought, there is something wrong with that school...


She heard a long, ghostly howl.


Was it one of those giant stray dogs? Or maybe something else. Hasn't there been something between the lines of Sakomizu's speech?


Her own enrollment in the school had been somewhat mysterious too, when she thought about it. It had been her father's wish for her to take the entrance exams to a privately owned middle school, and her teacher at the time immediately suggested Fuuka Academy.


"Well, if you have no preferences, let me recommend one for you. If you’ve my recommendation, you'll meet the terms perfectly fine."


Those teacher’s words had been filled with excitement.


"HiME, huh..."


----- That term, what does it have to do with me?


----- This I will find out.


The road across the mountains led to Fuuka City.


The shape of the school towered silently, seeming like a palace from another world in the quiet town.


Natsuki hit the accelerator harder, as if to challenge the school.


Only the roar of her bike could be heard as it cut through the nightly quiet of the town. She rode along the hill road and back to the school.


And then...


As if to answer her bike's roar, a long and loud howl echoed behind the mountain.


The howl drowned out the engine completely, but the sound never reached Natsuki's ears...


III


"Huh...? Kuga-san?"


Having changed back into her middle school uniform, after parking her motorcycle at the school's back gate, Natsuki suddenly heard a voice behind her. She turned around, surprised.


A student in the same school uniform stood before her.


"You are..."


She remembered who this was. A girl who was also in her third year of middle school and was in the class next to hers.


"I--- I'm Higurashi Akane."


The girl who called herself Akane looked at Natsuki, for some reason the former's cheeks flushed as if she suddenly felt ashamed of something.


This girl was the only one who from time to time had bravely attempted to talk to Natsuki, who kept away from her classmates, but was still deemed popular as ‘a beauty but out of reach’.


"You're in class D, right? We have PE together sometimes."


"You remember?!"


Akane's cheeks blushed even more.


"Well, I guess. But why are you out here at this time of night?"


"That is... umm, I--- I forgot some of the notes for my homework, so I came to get them, but there have been so many stray dogs sighted recently. I was only a little bit scared, but then I heard this howl from somewhere, and I could only think "Noooo! I want to go home!", but then I saw Kuga-san, and then I... without even thinking..." she said eagerly in a single breath.


Natsuki made a face at her eagerness, "Okay, okay. I forgot something in the classroom too. I can get your notes for you while I'm in there, if you'd like?"


"Eh?! Ah, but... I want to come too!"


"No, it’s very late. You should go home, and I'll deliver your notes later."


"But, that's... taking advantage of you, Kuga-san."


"Don't worry about it. I'm used to walking alone at night. And besides, isn't it rare for me to offer such a service? You should accept a person's kindness humbly, don't you think?"


Akane stared dumbstruck at Natsuki, rooted to the spot, as if she had just witnessed a divine miracle.


"... Oi, Higurashi? What's wrong?"


"Th--- Thank you, Kuga-san!"


Akane bowed over and over.


"You really don't need to be so thankful. Weren't we classmates before?"


"--- Yes!"


Then, smiling happily, having asked Akane for her cell phone number with a promise to call her later, Natsuki saw Akane off.


Akane kept turning her head back from time to time, as if silently saying "Sorry for troubling you", yet seeming very happy at the same time. She disappeared from views as she walked down the slope leading towards the town at the foot of the hill.


----- I'm really in a strange mood...


Natsuki just smiled wryly to herself. In actuality, she had done this just to remove an obstacle hindering her in her investigation of the interior of the school.


But still, it had been a long time since she had talked that long with a girl her own age. Well, apart from Shizuru, that is.


Ever since her mother's death, Natsuki stubbornly thought of herself as someone who couldn't trust anyone, who needed no friends. But once she had met Shizuru, she started to change, although not fully aware of it herself.


*


The atmosphere of the campus at night was especially eerie.


The daily bustle of student activity and noise had gone, the dark and quiet of the night made everything seem more hollow, leaving a stifling feeling of oppression.


Usually, Natsuki didn't give the school that much thought ---- but the school at night was starting to give her an ominous feeling.


Though the place wasn't completely deserted. Apart from the actual school there were the student dormitories, the school's church (where the priests lived) and the chairwoman's mansion. But since the area that belonged to the Fuuka Academy was surrounded on all sides by the sea and mountains, people were still scarce in the area ---- or, perhaps, it could be said that this wasn't a place that brought forth life's energy.


----- Well, then...


Natsuki pondered what to do next as she stared at the school's entrance hall named the Crystal Palace, because its whole surface was made of glass. The moonlight reflected off of it, making it glitter eerily and beautifully.


Sneaking into the school had been easy, but there was nothing standing out enough that could give her a clue what to do next.


She wasn't someone to buy into the rumors of monsters and ghosts, those just came from the school's fame.


Only the rumor about the stray dogs had strangely wormed itself into her heart, although she still had no idea how it could be connected with the First District or the term 'HiME'.


"I should probably get Higurashi's notes first..."


Natsuki whispered to herself, turning away from the Crystal Palace, when suddenly ----


----- Rooooooooar!!! -----


A long, sharp howl ripped through Fuuka's silence.


----- A stray dog? But...?


The distant howl echoed endlessly, a strange sound that couldn't have belonged to a stray dog. The echo carried, never faltering.


Natsuki's heart beat faster.


----- So hot...


She felt a strange heat on her side, near that strange mark, which Natsuki had since birth...


----- Roooooooar!!! -----


Again, the distant howl.


It resounded nearer and louder than it had been before.


----- What is this... Why is my body... feeling so hot?


Just then, out of nowhere ----


"Hi, pleased to meet you, Natsuki-chan."


Upon hearing the sudden voice, Natsuki nimbly surveyed her surroundings.

Against all common sense, the owner of the voice was standing upon the roof of the Crystal Palace.


"Who the hell are you?!"


"I'm Nagi. Homura Nagi. Pleased to meet you."


He was a white haired boy in a middle school uniform. His lips were in a crooked smile, as if he were greatly enjoying himself. His narrow eyes were impressive.


"Finally, we meet. I've been watching over you always, aren't you glad? You've been trying so hard to figure things out, but, really, I always thought your efforts are fruitless."


"Fruitless!?"


"Oh yes, because when the time comes, you'll understand everything. Who you are... what HiME are...."


"...!"


Looking down at the surprised Natsuki, this boy called Nagi pointed at the sky with his finger. On his fingertip was the edge of the moon ---- and the red star.


"You see, that red star... that's called the HiME star. The girls who can see it, they are a HiME. There's a mark on your body somewhere, isn't there? The shape of that mark... a HiME mark."


The boy drew a figure with his fingertip.


The lines he traced in the air formed the exact shape of her mark ---- were these lines silently glowing?


"That's...!"


She pressed down instinctively on her mark, which was now throbbing with painful heat even more than before. The figure, that the boy had drawn, was exactly the shape of her birthmark.


"Haha... surprised? But the real surprise is still waiting for you. --- Well then, we shall begin. Your child... no, your Child is calling out for you..."


----- Rooooaaar!!! -----


With a roar, a dark shadow descended from the Crystal Palace.


Natsuki held her breath, face to face with the creature.


As if it were cut out from the air around it, it flickered a little. The pitch black beast looked down upon Natsuki.


It had a massive torso that held up by four legs. Just its red eyes were visible where its head should be. It was quite a beast, indeed.


But such monsters shouldn't exist in this world, still the light in its eyes, piercing Natsuki with its stare, was the light of an actual living being.


"I took the liberty of calling this one, as you seemed to have a hard time finding him."


The beast let out a low growl.


"But since I called him so hastily, there might be Orphans close behind him. They may just eat you, a person who holds so much love, if you make a mistake. Your strength will decide if you can tame him, and who is whose master."


Natsuki just stared, as if in a trance... overwhelmed by fear or, maybe, rather by awe of this dark monster. 


"Go on then. This is your Child."


As if on cue, the dark shadow leapt.


"...!"


Natsuki came to her senses and threw herself to the ground with no time to spare, just a second before the beast landed.


It growled deeply, as if to persuade her or, maybe, to intimidate her.


"Ku-...!"


Natsuki stood up and ran, desperation on her mind.


The beast stared at Natsuki's fleeing figure for only a moment, before starting to chase after her in slow strides.


"Do your best, my dear Summer Princess..." Nagi said with a grin, watching after her.


Natsuki's heart, that had started to beat faster as soon as she heard the first growl, was now more and more violently throbbing.


----- So hot...!


Her mark was flaring.


The dark beast was gaining its speed, closing the gap between them.


Nastuki fled to the Academy's forest, gasping for breath.


"Wah---!"


The moment her own gasps for breath distracted her just a little, she had tripped on the root of a tree and fallen to the ground.


She turned around and saw that the beast had her cornered.


Natsuki leaned against a tree trunk and cowered.


It laid its red eyes on Natsuki. It was so close that she would be able to feel its breath had it been a real living being ----


"Kyaaaaaaaaa!"


A shriek escaped Natsuki's mouth, and then...


The mark on her side shone so bright that it could be seen through her clothes. Glittering particles flowed from both of Natsuki's palms.


IV


A gunshot tore through the silence of the Academy.


The dark colored beast lowered its stance, then jumped to the side.


The beast avoided being hit, but the child it was pursuing was not the easy prey that it initially assumed it to be. As the foe started its counter-attack, the beast raised its voice in a menacing growl, different from earlier, as a warning.


"What...?"


What happened?


Natsuki, finally, looked down at the objects in her hands ---- whose triggers, she realized then, she just now had pulled, making the gunshot sound. 


Guns...? There were triggers, a gun's handle, but on the gun's rather short body there was a sphere where the gun's moving parts should have been or its magazine should have been if it were a revolver. But these objects definitely had a gun's shape.


Why...? Where did these come from...?


They had materialized in her hands like an illusion, but their recoil and weight were real as they shone clearly and coldly in the moonlight.


"That... is your Element."


A voice came suddenly from the darkness. It was a stifled voice, different from the cheerful voice of the boy named Nagi from earlier. It was a deep, imposing voice. It was as if she had heard this voice somewhere before...


Before she could question who the voice belonged to, the dark beast moved.


"...!"


As if by a reflex, Natsuki raised the guns in her hands.


With a growl, the beast vigilantly lowered its stance.


"Your Element... the ritual weapon given to a HiME. You materialized these arms at your own will. But there is no time to waste, use them to defeat the beast!"


"Ele... ment...?"


"It’s coming!"


Without growling, without warning, the beast jumped at the same time the "voice" encouraged her.


But even without warning and in her current state of confusion, Natsuki's reflexes reacted to the movement.


Without hesitation she raised her guns, these things the "voice" had called her Element, and pulled the trigger.


The throbbing of her heart didn't stop.


Without her noticing that beat had transformed into a sensation of honor.


----- I will fight!


As if to the rhythm of her own heartbeat, Natsuki pulled the trigger of her Element to the limit.


*


How much time had passed...?


It seemed like an eternity, yet also just a moment.


The beast howled and leapt. It jumped to tear Natsuki apart with its fangs and claws.


Natsuki shot and dodged. It was in self-defense ---- but when had she mastered the martial arts skills to put up such a fight?


The dark beast and the girl, her black hair flying, whirled and danced in the darkness illuminated only by the moonlight.


----- This is a Hime...


The owner of the voice, who had earlier called Natsuki, looked at the scene anxiously.


----- Are you afraid?


It was an almost inaudible whisper.


----- But this is a HiME's fate... however blessed a fate it may seem, you must understand you cannot escape the system.


----- ... And yet...


"Wait a moment, isn't this against the rules?"


His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden voice from overhead.


He identified the voice instantly and answered without turning around.


"... Please, would you report to me from up there? Nagi-san."


Only a suppressed laugh could be heard.


"I wouldn't do such a thing. Really, why should I? I'm bound by a contract, why should I oppose 'that person'?"


It was a teasing voice, dripping with sarcasm.


"A contract... and yet, to me it seems, as if you were enjoying yourself quite a bit..."


"I can't help it. To be honest, I have no need to meddle in this world's affairs. But if I must, I'll enjoy it as much as I can."


"... Your power is sealed because of your contract with 'that person', but isn't the administrating of this Festival/Carnival a duty placed upon you because once, in a world far away, you stole the heart of a young girl? At least that's what I heard."


"You're quite the talker, aren't you? But can't that power, even though sealed, swat you like a fly?"


Nagi spoke in a sharp, biased tone.


His limbs stiffened. He was tense, cold sweat running along his back.


Seeing that tension, Nagi laughed.


"Oh, well. You're quite amusing. Watch over Natsuki-chan well. --- The end shall be reached soon..."


The shadow above his head disappeared as the voice faded.


The curse was lifted, and gradually the movement returned to his limbs. He looked up.


It was as if Nagi had never even been there.


----- That was dangerous... my mouth is the root of my problems...


Taking a deep breath, he returned his attention to Natsuki's fight once more.


The dark beast that, to his knowledge, had been worshiped since ancient times as a mountain god or a dog god, and sometimes, it was said, had even been called "Yafusa", towered over Natsuki, unmoving. Natsuki gripped her Element tightly, taking aim.


*


----- Grrrr! ----- 


The beast growled deeply.


But the beast was no longer an object of fear for Natsuki. How this could be, she did not know. All she knew was that while fighting the beast, what it desired had been transmitted to her ---- it could not be put any other way.


Natsuki's uniform was smeared with dirt and torn in many place. There were thin lines of blood where her skin was visible.


Her long hair also was tangled from her struggling.


There was no longer any anger or fear within Natsuki.


Natsuki looked at the dark beast.


Its red eyes sparkled quietly now, focused on Natsuki, as if trying to figure out what she would do next.


"... What am I to you? What do you want from me?"


As she asked these questions, a memory from when she was young came forth in Natsuki's mind.


Back to when Natsuki's father had brought home a puppy with him as a present.


The puppy was so frightened and tense at being brought to an unfamiliar home, all it could do was tremble.


Natsuki did not realize the puppy's fear, only its cuteness and reached her hand out to pet it ---- and was bitten.


The puppy's teeth were already fully grown. Although the bite did not hurt that much, Natsuki cried ---- out of shock, "I don't want this puppy, it’s scary."


Her father then quietly scolded her, "Listen, Natsuki. The puppy is still frightened from being brought to an unfamiliar place. It feels scared and lonely. You shouldn't cry. To become friends, one must take the first step, whether it is with people or animals."


The trembling puppy peeked at Natsuki from her father's back while he was speaking.


----- I see... Just like the eyes from that time...


Natsuki focused on the beast in front of her, feeling slightly irritated that she remembered that detestable man's words at a time like this.


The light shining in those eyes were the same as the puppy's from so long ago.


The beast's red eyes no longer seemed to reflect any will of its own, they were just red voids.


But even then...


Natsuki quietly lowered her Element.


The beast's body twitched and trembled.


Natsuki still just watched the beast, questioning it, but encouraging it.


They tried to figure out what the other desired...


"Do you... feel lonely, too?"


The words spilled from her mouth.


The beast stopped growling and stared at Natsuki.


Natsuki advanced, just a single step.


The beast only watched. 


Natsuki came closer.


When the distance between them was finally closed, Natsuki stood before the dark beast, without a word.


"I see... you've been waiting for me... Duran..."


Natsuki smiled.


----- Roaaaaaar! -----


The beast howled loudly.


It was, as if to answer her, as if raising its voice in happiness.


"You did it, Natsuki-chan. This Child has accepted you. So how about you truly accept this Child, too?"


Nagi asked, once more appearing out of nowhere.


"No matter what your goal is, this Child will become a strong ally. In return, however, you must wager the thing that's most important to you."


"I don't care. I don't have anything that's important to me."


----- That's the truth. I've always been living alone.


----- Living only for revenge.


----- And when I will achieve that...


Natsuki's mark flared brighter. Her heart began beat faster, feeling the end was near.


As if a magic spell was cast, a symbol appeared on the ground, surrounding Natsuki and the beast.


A column of water arose from the pattern, the light radiating from it cut through the campus's darkness and shot up into the sky.


The light took in the chilly air.


And yet, it was strangely warm.


----- Aaah...


Natsuki's abdomen started to ache. The pain resembled that from the time of the month when she was most conscious of her own womanhood.


And then a sudden feeling of bliss ran along her spine.


The beast started to sparkle brightly. In that feeling of exhilaration, Natsuki embraced it tightly, lovingly.


Once an indefinite shadow, the beast started to materialize into its true, substantial form.


It had a body of glimmering silver. Its legs rooted firmly to the ground.


The only thing, that had left unchanged, was its eyes' red glow. They peered at Natsuki.


"Duran..."


----- Rooooooaaaaaaaaaar! -----


Embraced by Natsuki's arms Duran, her Child, raised its voice ---- a newborn's cry.


V


It was three days before Natsuki returned to school.


She had fulfilled her promise to Akane, leaving her notes in her mailbox. She then returned to apartment, fallen into bed and slept for 24 hours.


Even once she had woken up, the events of that night still felt like a dream.


But her Element had materialized in her hands when she summoned it, so that was proof in itself that this couldn't have been a dream.


----- The power to materialize higher-order matter... HiME...


She began to become conscious of her powers to bring forth her Element and Child. These powers brought forth new questions, and Natsuki felt something like terror within her.


Why did she have these powers? Who is this boy called Nagi? Why is the organization called the First District trying to gather the HiME? Since, if Yamada's information was indeed correct, there must be other girls who hold powers like hers...?


And most importantly, why did she and her mother have to flee that night? And why did she have to die?


----- The answers are all here at Fuuka Academy...


And the key, connecting all these clues, had been placed squarely in Natsuki's hand.


Or, more correctly, she had remembered it.


To make sure, Natsuki returned to school, although her wounds had not yet completely healed.


Natsuki headed towards the back of the school building, where there was a flower bed attached to the staff room.


The one she was looking for was there, as she expected. Wearing a straw hat, he tended to his flowers silently as he usually did.


Natsuki tried to match the figure with someone in her memory from 10 years ago.


Yes, she did recognize him. He was one of the "dark uncles" who sometimes secretly played with her and her dog, Duran.


"You've gotten quite fat in these past 10 years. You look nothing like you did back then."


The one she called out to - Sakomizu - had startled only slightly at Natsuki's voice, continuing to water the flowers. Without turning around he answered her, as if talking to himself.


"Well, it’s because of that it was decided I should be the one entrusted with the mission of observing the school and you, well, as far as safety and awakening HiME are concerned. Congratulations, Princess." 


Yes, that tone of voice. The voice that had called her 'princess', whispering to her three days ago...

"You're... with the First District?"


"... I can't tell you that."


Which, of course, was just the same as blatantly admitting it. Natsuki wanted to ask another question, but Sakomizu cut her off, opening his mouth first.


"I know you've sent a strange guy to investigate various things for you. I cannot say exactly why, but you must stop doing this."


"But I need to know! Why, why did my mother ---"


"I understand how you're feeling, but still, give it up."


"What I've become makes possible for me to force answers out of you, but you won't tell me anything even then?"


"Right. If I told you anything, the organization would annihilate me. It makes no difference."


"..."


He was his usual aloof self, but his tone had something far off about it.


"Then why bother to warn me?"


"Why, indeed. I myself do not know that. Yet... "


"Yet?"


"... No, never mind."


And with those words, Sakomizu stopped talking and, as if Natsuki wasn't even there, quietly tended to his flowers.


Natsuki felt irritated by this turn of events.


"You sly fox... one day, I shall make you talk..."


"Go ahead, if you think you can."


"Heh..."


----- For the time being, I'll back off...


At long last, she had gotten some sort of a clue. She must hold onto this clue, no matter what.


"...Oh, one more thing."


"What?"


"Never call me "princess" again."


"... I'll be sure not to."


Natsuki left, Sakomizu's voice was a mere whisper behind her.


*


"Natsuki, what happened? These wounds..."


After school, Shizuru had been waiting, as usual, in her spot at the rear garden, when Natsuki finally appeared. She took one look at Natsuki's bandages and paled.


"Don't worry, they're just scratches."


"How could you say they're just scratches... oh, even your beautiful face..."


The color of Shizuru's face changed even more when she saw the bandage on Natsuki's jaw.


"Did you fall off your motorcycle? If things like that are going to happen, then I must keep you away from that thing, even if I have to strike you---"


Her tone was angry, showing clearly what she was capable of if just one small mistake was made...


It was rare to see Shizuru, who usually seemed so serene as if nothing bothered her, so agitated like this.


"Really, they're just scratches. And they have nothing to do with my motorcycle."


"Honma yaro ne (Really)?"


"Honma da (Really)," Natsuki answered, poorly imitating Shizuru's Kyoto accent.


"Then how, such injuries..."


"I'm sorry, but I can't tell you. And even if I did, I doubt, you would believe me. Really, I'm fine. The wounds aren't deep enough to leave scars, and, honestly, they are kind of like decorations to me."


Shizuru's gaze asked without words if she was really alright. Natsuki held the gaze.


After looking into each other's eyes for a while, Shizuru let out a sigh of acceptance.


"I will not ask any more questions then. Truly, such unreasonable things shouldn't happen, should they? Just seeing Natsuki hurt like this, I felt as if my heart would stop beating..."


"..."


Gazing at Shizuru who was now brushing down her chest, a feeling rose inside of Natsuki.


A feeling of nostalgia, but also delight.


"...? Natsuki, is there something wrong?"


"Oh, no, it... it just has been quite some time since someone has worried about me like this, so I'm a little at a loss for words."


Shizuru answered Natsuki's reddening cheeks with a smile.


"But aren't I worried about you all the time? Also, it isn't just me whose mind is occupied with Natsuki, is it? For example..."


Shizuru continued as a strange seriousness shrouded her eyes.


"... the Kendo Club's captain." 


"...!"


Natsuki couldn't help but flinch at the mention of that person.


Takeda Masashi.


He was a male student, in the same class as Shizuru, class D. He had aimed to become the captain of the Kendo Club. One day, even though they had never really talked to each other, he had suddenly appeared in Natsuki's class room, flower bouquet in his hand, and with a beet red face asked her out in from of the entire class. A strong character he was, so to speak.


Of course, he was met with a soul-wrecking defeat. But he did not give up, using everything he could think of to continue his clumsy advances. He seemed to be a honest guy, and even though being treated so cruelly made his heart ache a bit, he felt that, although regrettable, it couldn't be helped. For Natsuki was someone who seemed pretty opposed to embracing the opposite sex.


As summer approached, so did the Prefecture-wide Kendo tournament. He became so involved with his club activities that his advances finally came to a stop. Now summer vacation was over, and she hoped he had finally just given up and moved on ----


"... Sorry, I hate being reminded of that big idiot, making a fuss about me."


"Oh, really? But if I'm not mistaken, didn't it make you just a little happy?"


"No, it absolutely definitely did not!!"


At Natsuki's profuse refutation, Shizuru gave a small smile, and any anxiety she had been feeling about the situation washed away.


"Besides, he has given up, hasn't he? I haven't seen him since he became second-year."


"That's because the prefecture's kendo tournament is about to begin and some things have happened within the kendo club. He can't make a move if those affairs aren't settled. Besides, he doesn't really seem like the kind of guy who would give up..."


"The kendo club? Oh, right, now that you mention it, it was Tate... Yuuichi, right? He was injured or something..."


She hadn't been all that well informed about the incident, but they were in the same class their second year of middle school, so she knew of him. He was the future ace the kendo club had set all their hopes on.


"Seems to be quite a severe injury... Takeda-kun told me how heartbroken he is that he isn't able to see Natsuki while he is busy dealing with these affairs..."


"Well, what’s bad for Tate is good for me."


"Please, do not say such things... it is a very serious matter for Tate-kun."


"... I guess. But... I'm grateful, I can't help it."


"Mou... Natsuki is such a meanie."


Even though her words were scolding, there was relief mixed within Shizuru's tone.


With this subject finally over, Natsuki approached the topic she actually wanted to ask Shizuru about.


"Um, Shizuru... you're the class representative, right?"


"Yes, I am... why do you ask?"


"I've heard that the class representatives have a higher access level on the school's intranet than normal students do..."


"However, I cannot change the number of one's attendance days..."


"I wasn't asking for such a thing... There are just a few things about this school I'd like to investigate."


Natsuki tried to sound as casual as possible.


There were still so many things that were unclear about the First District and the HiME's powers. She didn't really want to get Shizuru involved, but she was the only one she could ask such a personal favor of.


That was why she had asked Shizuru, but ----


"I probably shouldn't be asking you why you want to know this, should I..." Shizuru said suddenly, saddened.


"You shouldn't, I'm sorry."


"Well, what is it you want to know about the school?"


"... The state of the administration, the director's name and personal record... A list of the staff members and students. And if possible, their personal records too."


Shizuru just sighed at these words.


"That is quite impossible. The access level of a class representative is not that much above that of a regular student."


"I see... well, forget it then."


"I see..." Shizuru responded, bleakly.


Although after she said these words, she looked at Natsuki and beamed, as if she had suddenly come to a decision.


VI


The months that followed seemed to pass in the blink of an eye.


Although to one person, it didn't seem that quickly at all.


For Natsuki, these were very hard days.


Her first fight occurred ---- an encounter with a monster called an "Orphan" that had appeared on the school's campus.


Not only was she hunting down the First District, trying to get answers out of Sakomizu who just evaded her questions like a slippery eel, and having Yamada and other contracts gather information for her, but she was also burdened with second semester's midterm exams and later end-of-semester exams.


Her attendance rate was incredibly low, but the results of her written tests and exams gave her teachers no cause for complaints. That was Natsuki's policy.


As a reaction to the extreme stress, she found herself buying large amounts of lingerie she would most likely never wear. Nevertheless, somehow she passed her exams. It wasn't long until the year had ended, and elections for the student council were being held ---- rather late compared to other schools.


And when Natsuki found out who one of the candidates was, she was almost as surprised as she was when she awoke as a HiME.


*


"Congratulations on the election, Shizuru."


"Thank you, Natsuki."


Shizuru smiled gracefully, sipping her tea. The differently colored uniform of the student council president adorned her body.


Shizuru had been elected the high school's student council president, thoroughly destroying her opponent, Suzushiro Haruka, in a landslide victory.


She was already carrying herself with an air of dignity, and it would just be stating the obvious to say that it suited her well. Just like it would be stating the obvious to say that this was indeed unexpected.


"... I didn't take you for someone who is striving for power."


"I'm really not, this is just a trait everyone seems to attribute to me."


"Well, it will certainly be better than having Suzushiro as a president... but..."


Shizuru smiled as she watched Natsuki's mind wander off and then said, "Shall we talk about more pleasant things then? The student council president's access to the school's intranet is very much more higher than of a normal student."


"...!"


Natsuki brightened a bit when she heard this, but then winced, remembering what she had said a few months ago.


"It can't be, Shizuru... did you do this just because of what I said...?"


"What do you mean?"


"You know... that I, um, want to investigate about the school."


Shizuru's answer to the question Natsuki mumbled was one that seemed quite out of character for her ----


She laughed loudly, so hard in fact that she had tears forming in her eyes.


"... Shizuru"


"I'm sorry, but Natsuki was saying such a crazy thing... So funny..."


When Shizuru finally stopped laughing, she said in a protesting tone, "Natsuki, I will do many things for your sake, but why would I take on the responsibilities of the student council president just for that reason?"


"I... guess. Yes, you're right."


"I just felt like I needed to do this. It will look good when I apply for work in the future. So... Natsuki shouldn't worry that I'm using my position for her gain."


Hearing Shizuru talk like this, Natsuki gave in and gazed at the laptop resting on the desk ---- given to Shizuru as a part of her new position as president.


"I need to enter the password, please wait a moment."


Shizuru, who was standing behind Natsuki, reached for the keyboard.


Natsuki felt Shizuru's full breasts rest against her back as she tried to concentrate on the screen, not daring to make a move.


After the password was entered, a new window appeared.


Natsuki's eyes brightened as the data, normally not available to a normal student, was revealed to her. Letting the mouse cursor run all over the screen as she looked through the school's intranet.


Shizuru, still behind Natsuki, smiled in satisfaction at her reaction and, overcome with emotion, she softly and stealthily kissed Natsuki's hair.


VII


"... That's the car...?"


Standing on the large bridge that connected the area with the mainland, Natsuki, wearing her biker suit, was watching this car that was her target.


"Yes, the number's the same too. No doubt about it."


Beside her, Yamada answered, looking through binoculars.


"But will you really do it? No matter how you look at this, it’s a crime."


"... Who cares. Keep going as planned."


Natsuki's answer was curt.


"Roger... you're such a dreadful soul."


As Yamada smiled slightly, a voice within Natsuki's heart answered him silently.


----- It might be that I have just become stubborn...


A few months had passed since Shizuru had become student council president, and Natsuki had already started high school.


During these few months, the number of strange occurrences at the academy had increased. Natsuki and Duran defeated countless numbers of Orphans.


She had almost died during a few of these encounters, but somehow she had always made it through.


But she had not yet found out the First District's true purpose, and the organization's core was still shrouded in mystery.


Finally, she chanced a meeting with the board chairman, an 11 year-old girl named Kazahana Mashiro. A girl who spoke with such strange maturity about the First District and the HiME. Natsuki was surprised the girl knew the truth and requested Natsuki to defeat the Orphans. At that request, for a moment, she considered if this could be the reason for gathering up the HiME at the school, but...


----- No, there had to be something else behind it...


She hadn't stopped distrusting the First District.


Or rather, she could not stop distrusting the organization is more correct.


What were they planning by gathering all the HiME?


If just defeating Orphans was their goal, why not just say that openly to them from the start?


And also this whole roundabout way of calling the girls to the academy seemed incredibly unnecessary, if that were the case.


----- I must not let them gather the HiME in this place.


After much consideration within herself, Natsuki had come to this conclusion.


She had been able to find out through Shizuru's computer that a new student would be arriving at the end of April.


Minagi Mikoto, a transfer student who would be in the middle school, attracted Natsuki's attention because it was a bit odd to transfer once the school year had already begun.


Sakomizu, being cross-examined, had finally confessed.


A new HiME was coming to the academy.


"Okay, we've completely re-routed all the other cars, there shouldn't be any obstacles for about 300 meters."


"Understood."


Natsuki straddled her motorcycle and turned the accelerator.


The motorcycle took off with a jump.


The car they were targeting reached the halfway point of the bridge.


----- If I don't do something, nothing will happen... right, let’s going to wait until I can feel the ground vibrating...


She thought to herself, believing that preventing more HiME from coming would benefit them as well.


Natsuki materialized her Element and aimed for the car's tires.


The more she fought, the more the gun started to feel like just another part of her body, making her able to hit a target with extreme accuracy, even while riding her motorcycle at full speed.


----- What's going to happen... this is quite the gamble...


As the car passed, Natsuki pulled the trigger.


The bullet hit perfectly, catching one of the tires, making the car flip sideways and skid, coming to rest on its side.


Natsuki stood on her bike, turning to look at the vehicle.


After awhile the sound of the engine of the wrecked car came to a halt and died, suspending all activity of the car.


A number of painfully slow seconds passed ----


A small figured appeared from inside the car that had crashed and was lying on its side.


A girl wearing a sailor suit. It had to be the transfer student, Minagi Mikoto.


----- And maybe even... a HiME.


Her premonition was turned into actual fact in a split second.


The girl gripped a sword that seemed almost ridiculously too large for her body, the body that was so small, yet overflowing with the will to fight ---- no, with an incredible lust for blood.


----- She's already awakened...? Damn, they have me fooled again...


Natsuki gave a small, bitter smile and quietly raised her gun, taking aim.


The two girls stood facing each other atop the bridge.


Dusk approached, the only thing watching over the girls was the faintly visible moon.


At its side, the red star was shining, and for just a moment, it twinkled.


Epilogue ~ from step: #25~


Thinking about it now, that time, that first fight with Mikoto may have been the beginning of everything.


This bitter thought kept Natsuki company as she, looking at the huge star glittering next to the moon, stood on the cliff, the one that had taken her mother from her.


----- What if we never fought then...?


Maybe she shouldn't have chased Mikoto so persistently after the girl fall from the bridge, to make up for the wounds she had suffered from her hands...


----- Could fate change, I wonder...


Thinking about this did no good anymore.


The "her" of the past knew nothing, didn't want to know anything.


Didn't want to know anything about Shizuru's feelings, about the HiME and, most of all, about herself.


"Why such a smart young woman would do such things is beyond my comprehension... But Dr. Kuga did truly treasure you. If nothing else, I am certain of that."


Sakomizu whispered quietly.


Was it to comfort her? The sounds of pity in his voice was irritating, but strangely comforting nonetheless.


"I believe in the mother inside of me. So... it’s all okay now."


Natsuki smiled faintly.


What had her mother been planning with Searrs? Why had her mother fled with her? The truth, all of it, was below this cliff.


---- I will just believe... that my mother wanted to save me. Even if I am wrong...


"It’s probably because people care about their precious ones... and because they're so precious to them that they lose themselves and make mistakes..."


"... You could be right about that. Because Fujino-san has, well, fallen in love with you... and you're so precious to her, she caused all that."


Love. A feeling Shizuru held for her. When her feelings were rejected, Shizuru fell apart.


Love was a feeling that, to Natsuki who had not yet truly desired anything, was still something all too remote.


Seeing Shizuru's violent emotions, and the feelings that both Mai and Shiho had for Yuuichi, it just made the word something to be scared of.


"Then love is something I never want to know."


Why was this so. Why did people desire another...? And why were these feelings so strong that they could hold this maddening power...?


Even though she may have still dreaded the strength of these feelings, but to be told "I like you" ---- being the object of someone's affection, just this far, was something that made her happy. She was certain of that.


"But... it's probably because of love that people find the strength to live..."


Sakomizu's awkwardly blurted out words showed that even he had these feelings himself.


Natsuki smiled.


Distancing herself from Takeda's feelings had been an easy task for her. As she thought about it, she felt relief and even a little nostalgia. She hadn't given him any reply, besides sending a short message that said "Thank you. I'm sorry." before he left when the school was closed down.


There was someone else for Natsuki ---- someone whose feelings, she knew, she wanted to truly accept.

Even if she didn't fully understand these feelings, she had to try her best to answer, she wanted to answer.


----- I have decided which path I want to take...


Even if she might not hold the feelings Shizuru desired.


She loved Shizuru ---- that was the truth.


"I'll be praying for your good luck."


With that final whisper, Sakomizu left.


She turned towards the cliff, perhaps to absorb his words.


Below the steep cliff ----


The waves rolled in, breaking against the cliff, then drew back again.


The wind off the sea blew, ruffling Natsuki's dark hair. Aglow in the setting sun, her school uniform fluttered a bit.


Natsuki stood there alone, quietly watching the HiME star.


----- The moment of fate had arrived.


END

 

 



Natsuki no Prelude - English Translation


Natsuki no Prelude English translation by Vicky Ulman aka Midori Sugiura99
Text Correction by PostoronnimV


Prologue ~ from Step: #25~


The waves rolled in, breaking against the cliff, then drew back again.


A starlit street from Fuuka City ran along the edge of the cliff by the sea.


About halfway down the street a bluff stood out, facing the sea. Upon it Natsuki stood, alone.


The wind off the sea blew, ruffling Natsuki's dark hair. Aglow in the setting sun, her school uniform fluttered a bit.


"Mother..."


Natsuki closed her eyes as she let out this soft, almost inaudible murmur.


The events of that one night were resurrected in her mind.


Even though she knew she should forget, she could not erase the memories of what had happened that night 10 years ago at Bihoshi's Iwasaka Pharmaceuticals laboratory. "Mother's Study Room" as she called it.


She remembered how her mother's hand shook her awake, for she had fallen asleep in the laboratory, tired from waiting for her mother’s work to end.


Her mother, who was usually so calm and gentle, had shown a look of desperation for the first time.


With Natsuki clinging tightly to her best friend Duran whom she had begged to bring along, they entered her mother's car and fled on that dark street.


To... ---- this place.


It was here where "they" had waited for them.


These "dark uncles" who went in and out of Iwasaka Pharmaceuticals in their dark suits and sunglasses. They always remained still, as if silently guarding the lab. Yet sometimes they would play with Natsuki or give her candy in secret, while she waited for her mother.


But now they simply stood there, grim looks upon their faces.


It was something Natsuki had not seen before that night.


What happened next, her memory held no images of.


It held only the sound of the high-pitched screech of the brakes, and the feel of the impact as they broke through the guardrail.


And then the feeling of suspension as she could feel something was closing in on them, and then the sound of her mother's desperate scream.


Surely, she herself must have screamed too.


But her screams, along with her mother and Duran, were sleeping in the depths below the cliff.


"So this is where I find you again."


A voice behind Natsuki interrupted her thoughts.


"The same goes for you, Sakomizu, why did you come here again? The First District no longer exists, right?" Natsuki answered without turning around.


"That is true. But before I leave, I'd like to salute someone... if you don't mind?" 


Sakomizu was Natsuki's teacher from Fuuka Academy. He was also an agent working for an organization called The First District - well, had been working, that is.


He held a bouquet of flowers in his hands.


"These were grown in Fuuka Academy's flower bed. I don't know if she will be happy to receive these flowers, but, unfortunately, all the flower shops in town have closed down." 


"Do whatever you want."


Sakomizu smiled, somehow relieved at the typical gruff answer, and with a "Well then, excuse me" threw the bouquet.

The flowers hit the water and disappeared in the blink of an eye. 


"Just like us..." Natsuki whispered softly, raising her eyes.


The huge HiME star entered her field of vision.


The star that brought the power to girls called HiME, the power to materialize higher-order matter from thin air.


It usually shined dully by the moon’s side, but now it was closer than it had ever been before, sparkling ominously, so large that could be seen even the tiniest details. 


To Natsuki, a HiME, one of the last four surviving HiME, it felt like it was proclaiming the end.


Yes. Right now everything was coming to an end. Even Natsuki's fight, which began when she awoke as a HiME that late summer night, was coming to an end.


I


The church bell rang. 


It mimicked a foreign religion as it rang throughout Fuuka Academy, privately owned by a noble family. The Academy, which housed an elementary, middle and high school, led in education in the whole Japan.


But for a young girl, dozing on the school's lawn, it sounded more like an alarm clock bell.


----- School's finally out, huh...


Classes were over. The middle-school uniform clad girl stood up, hearing how the noises unique to after-school time were increasing.


Natsuki stood and stretched. 


Her long dark hair spread across her back. Not an ounce of fat graced her slender figure. Her chest may have been still lacking in size, but her body, hidden under the sailor suit designed uniform, though still girlish, already held promise of future sensuality.


"Is Natsuki skipping class again?" a voice called from behind.


The soft Kyoto accent and daring to address Natsuki by her first name could only belong to one person in the school.


"I had enough patience to attend for the whole morning. Besides, my attendance record is just fine. No need for you to reprimand me, Shizuru."


As Natsuki turned around, a girl wearing a high school uniform stood before her eyes.


A female student who already gave off a mature charm and serenity, as she stood there alone.


Fujino Shizuru, a second year high school student, and the only person Natsuki called a friend in this school.


"Such a meanie as always... but..." 


She approached Natsuki, smiling charmingly, and ran her index finger softly over the girl's cheek.


"...!"


Natsuki couldn't help, but blush unintentionally at those actions.


"Fufu, you're all red... Natsuki really is so cute."


Natsuki shook off the fingertip of smiling Shizuru, which had already made its way to her chin. Cheeks aflame, she shouted angrily, "Gah! Honestly, you just always... always...! Is it really that fun to tease me?!"


Natsuki was at a loss for words, befuddled by Shizuru's gentle teasing.


----- Really, this woman!


Yes, the only one who could so easily get close to Natsuki who usually gave off such an aura of 'cool' and 'unapproachable', was this upperclassman, Shizuru.


What was so enjoyable about her? Or rather, in Natsuki's words, was it really that much fun to tease her? Whatever the reason, Shizuru did it on every occasion.


Why could Shizuru, no matter how threatening or harsh Natsuki could be to her, break her pace so easily and have her at her mercy?


Though, really, it wasn't all that unpleasant to Natsuki.


For someone like her, who intentionally kept her distance from others, Shizuru was quite the exception.


"Oh, I feel so shy when you look straight into my eyes like that..."


"That's not-! Really, you... well, is something wrong?"


Natsuki changed the subject to distract Shizuru.


"Wrong? Well... not really, but Sakomizu-sensei is looking for you. You recently started coming to school on your motorcycle, haven't you, Natsuki? You should be careful not to get caught by the Executive Staff or Sakomizu-sensei."


Natsuki just clicked her tongue at these words.


"Suzushiro, huh..."


The other day she had been reprimanded rather harshly by "the most zealous Executive member of Fuuka Academy, a regular whirlwind" Suzushiro for riding her motorcycle to school.


"What a bothersome person to be caught by. Although, it seems that the Executive Council is being reinforced right now... Sakomizu-sensei has been pretty worried as well."


"Being reinforced? Did something happen?"


The Executive Staff was a branch of the Student Council entrusted with the upkeep of public morals and safety. If they were being reinforced, an unusual event must have happened within the school.


"Stray dogs have been appearing quite often on campus. That's why we need reinforcements." with these words Sakomizu Kaiji, Natsuki's homeroom teacher, appeared.


He was the teacher in charge of her class. He was rather plump, and with an afro that would do well as a bird's nest. His appearance was strong, but his quiet nature just made him a harmless teacher. That was Natsuki's assessment of him.


"Stray dogs...?"


"Yes, very large ones, it seems."


Natsuki mustered a sarcastic smile at Sakomizu's serious expression.


"Whether it’s being haunted by ghosts or attacked by rioting monsters... this school really does have it all, doesn't it?"


"It’s to be expected at a school that has been around so long. But anyway..." 


"Yes?"


"About your motorcycle, Kuga-san, can we come to some sort of agreement? It's written in the school rules that it is forbidden to ride your motorcycle to school. Ah, Fujino-san, please try to persuade her."


"I would try to stop her if I could, but... she doesn't seem to be the most obedient of children, does she?"


"True... Kuga-san is indeed very stubborn."


"Yes. Definitely."


"How troublesome."


Shizuru and Sakomizu nodded in agreement.


"Oi. Don't talk like that when the person in question is standing right here."


"But, Natsuki, no matter how many times we tell you, you just don't listen."


"That's right. And she hasn't been coming to her classes either..."


"Uh..."


Natsuki faltered, being suddenly attacked from both sides. Sakomizu drew in close to Natsuki and whispered in a low voice that only she could hear, "You'd also better stop loitering around the shopping district's bars. Questionable folk go in and out of there. You're a princess, after all."


"Wha...!"


----- How did he...


Natsuki was taken aback. Trying to hide her trembling, she let the truth of Sakomizu's words sink in.


"What?... What are you talking about?" she asked, trying to keep her voice calm.


Sakomizu just smiled wryly.


"Just... please take care. I beg of you. I am responsible for my students' behavior and their actions reflect on me as well."


He spoke in his usual carefree tone and, after wiping his forehead with a wrinkled handkerchief, he left.


"..."


Wondering, Natsuki watched his retreating figure.


----- How does he know? And his tone when he called me a "princess"... from where...?


"Natsuki? You're making such a serious face... what happened?"


"Ah, huh... nothing. I'm going home."


Shizuru frowned slightly at Natsuki's avoidant reply. But soon she shook it off and smiled once again.


"Leaving already? That's too bad. I wanted to be with Natsuki just a little longer..."


She suddenly embraced Natsuki from behind, pressing her body close.


Natsuki felt a soft sensation as she was enveloped by Shizuru's arms.


"He-hey, Shizuru!"


"What is it?"


"That... ummm... hey! What are you doing? Let me go!"


Smiling widely, Shizuru let Natsuki go.


"Your choices of lingerie have become more refined lately. So soft to the touch..."


"Idiot!" Natsuki yelled angrily. Flustered and blushing deeply, she hurried to make her way through the forest behind the school, where she had most likely parked her motorcycle.


Shizuru smiled a small smile of relief, watching Natsuki leave like this.


"Wait, Natsuki. You'll have to change your clothes, won't you? Let me help you."


The teasing apparent in her voice, she chased after Natsuki, ignoring her jeers of "shut up!" and "don't come any closer!", and disappeared into the forest, smiling happily.


*


Unbeknownst to them, a pair of eyes watched this scene.


"Fufu... Soon, my dear Summer Princess. You're the first, Natsuki-chan..." whispered a white-haired boy in a middle school uniform, sitting on a tree branch and smiling smugly.


II


"... First District? That's what they're called?"


"Yes. Whether that's their official name or just an alias isn't known... but that's what they call themselves."


A few hours had passed since the events after school. Natsuki was sitting at a bar called "Rorschach" in Tsukimori, one of the school's neighboring cities' shopping district.


"First District..." Natsuki repeated the words, trying to keep down the excitement in her voice.


Ever since the night her mother died, inside Natsuki's heart there was only the thirst for revenge against those responsible for taking her mother from her, nothing else. From that day on she forged herself, following every trail, hunting down any organization that could be linked to her mother.


But, in all honesty, Natsuki knew a simple middle school student couldn't do much. It was absurd, having put herself into incredibly dangerous circumstances once again and yet being unable to grasp the organization at its heart. Thus Natsuki was constantly tormented by feeling powerless.


This was her chance. Natsuki had met this man, who was sitting now at the only other occupied seat at the counter.


This man was called Yamada.


Where he came from was unknown. His name, Yamada, was most likely a fake name. He didn't even look Japanese at all. It was rumored that he may have been a crafter from another country. Natsuki didn't care about any of these details.


Yamada knew his way around the dodgier parts of the world. When the pay was right, he didn't ask too much about the legality of the information or weapon he placed in Natsuki's hands. That was enough for her.


It was him who sold her the name of the organization that she wasn't sure even existed until today.


----- First District... Could that be the name of the organization that used and then killed my mother?


It felt strange. Previously, her enemy had been as distant as the clouds in the sky. But now, even with just the name, it started to make a concrete sense of presence.


Not sensing Natsuki's hidden agitation, Yamada continued with disinterest.


"They're quite a dangerous group. If you aren't careful, you may just turn the whole country against you."


"The whole country?"


"Yes. There are signs they've infiltrated even the government. Although those are just feelings I've been having."


"..."


Natsuki had already guessed something like this, considering that her mother's death was treated as an accident and no one paid any attention to her desperate appeals.


----- So, it’s as I thought...


Still, Natsuki bluffed and faked a smile.


"Isn't that fun? I can take them on at last."


"Fun..."


Yamada was a man who rarely changed his expression, but now the corners of his mouth raised in amusement.


He then, playing a new card, spoke again.


"The power to materialize higher-order matter. You've heard that term before?"


The term made Natsuki freeze. The power to materialize higher-order matter.


It was the subject of her mother's research at that place, wasn't it...?


"Highly-advanced Materializing Equipment. HiME, for short. That's what those guys are looking for, people with that ability."


----- HiME...?


Her mother and even those dark-suited men at the institute sometimes had called her "hime" ("princess").


Actually, when Natsuki was born that August, her mother had wanted to use the kanji for "summer" and "princess" to make her name, but instead the hiragana was used as per her father's preference.


Her mother still called her "my princess" though.


Back then, she thought it was just a pet name.


"Those guys are said to be gathering people with that power at Fuuka Academy. You know, that school for rich kids in the neighbouring town?"


"...!"


Natsuki could not hide her agitation any longer, hearing the name of her own school coming from Yamada's mouth. She shot back pointedly.


" 'Power', you said. Exactly what kind of power?"


"Well... My investigations have not come that far yet."


"I see... Please continue investigating then."


Natsuki took the envelope out of her pocket and slid it in front of Yamada.


Yamada hesitated, not taking the envelope, but instead just staring at it for awhile. He opened his mouth to ask a question - a strange thing for him to do outside of his work.


"I really shouldn't ask too much about the situations my clients are in, but... please let me ask you one thing."


"What?"


"Why is a young girl like you chasing after such an organization? This is not a game for middle schoolers, these are not enemies to be joked with."


"..."


"A weak strike against them, and you'll be annihilated. Don't threaten them, alright?"


Yamada shook his glass a little in his hand. The unmelted ice made a clear sound.


"I don't care. This is what I live for. I will hunt them down and destroy them. No matter what it takes."


Her tone was deep and deadly.


Yamada looked into Natsuki's eyes, gulping a little. There was a frightening light in those eyes, glowing with pure intensity. Yamada recognized that light from long ago, when he had been trained to serve his country. It was a glow of blind belief. It was so foolish, yet so radiant...


She was a young girl to be reckoned with, and who might just be dangerous...


Looking away, Yamada reached out for the envelope and put it into his pocket.


"I will contact you when I have any new information."


"... Got it." Answering curtly, she took her helmet and stood up from her seat.


The line of her body drawn by her tight leather bodysuit showed a young girl, who had taken her first steps into maturity, but still held on to the firm lines of youth.


Yamada wasn't really someone who enjoyed a view like this, but the tension shrouding the girl was almost palpable as it brewed, leaving no room for relief.


----- She's so much like me... will I cross the dangerous bridge of sympathy?


Yamada smiled bitterly.


Natsuki's words were no threat to him. There had been ominous shadows lingering at the edge of his vision ever since he started investigating the First District. It wasn't anything he couldn't deal with, but them being in the way was bad for his business as an informant.


----- That might be amusing though... a worthy enemy at last.


Yamada felt the dull, long forgotten glow inside of him alight once again. Whether to put it out or just fuel it more... he drained his glass in a single gulp.


*


Having left the bar, Natsuki straddled her motorcycle that was parked in the back alley earlier, and tied back her hair before putting on her helmet.


She loved this vehicle, which she had gotten not even a month ago.


It was a foreign model, the same that her father once owned.


Natsuki wasn't sure herself why she had chosen this model.


Since she hated her father.


After her mother's death, he had put her, seriously injured, in the hospital and just left her. There were also things she only understood later ---- like that her parents worked all the time and fought often, not getting along well. But they always put up a facade of harmony in front of her.


Her father, who loved motorcycles and 80s British Rock, had called his bike "Duran II" as a parody of Natsuki's beloved dog's name.


Even though her father was always busy flying around the world as the manager of a trading company, still he in his spare time had taken Natsuki on his trips or to camp.


Natsuki once loved her father.


All the more, she could not forgive him.


Now her father was living overseas with another woman. It was never made official, but the relationship with that woman had been going on even when Natsuki's mother was still alive.


The stipends for child-support he paid - the living expenses for his only daughter - were very generous though. This motorcycle, the money to pay Yamada for his information - it all came from this source.


She could just as easily throw her father's money in the gutter, but, in reality, she was well aware that without it she would have a hard time earning enough money for her own living expenses, let alone plotting her revenge.


----- I wonder, if revenging my mother would gnaw at my loathsome father...


That would be Natsuki's very personal, happy childhood's revenge.


She pulled her helmet down, grimacing in self-derision, then turned the accelerator and took off.


The bike gave a low roar, and she sped out from Tsukimori's dark alley, heading for the road along the coast that lead back to Fuuka.


The seasons were changing from summer to fall, so the temperature was quite chilly. But to Natsuki, it felt nice.


A full moon was visible in the cold air. Nestled close to it, the red star was shining.


That red star had been visible to her and no one else, since she was very young.


"Natsuki-chan, don't tell anyone you can see this star."


Her mother forbade her from speaking of it, not wanting anyone else to know about it.


----- Mother. What did you know?


The question echoed through Natsuki's mind, and Yamada's words from earlier that night came back to her. "The power to materalize high-order matter. HiME, for short ----"


"Those guys are gathering people with that power at Fuuka Academy, it seems."


It was surprising, but she felt one step closer to the solution.


----- It’s just as I thought, there is something wrong with that school...


She heard a long, ghostly howl.


Was it one of those giant stray dogs? Or maybe something else. Hasn't there been something between the lines of Sakomizu's speech?


Her own enrollment in the school had been somewhat mysterious too, when she thought about it. It had been her father's wish for her to take the entrance exams to a privately owned middle school, and her teacher at the time immediately suggested Fuuka Academy.


"Well, if you have no preferences, let me recommend one for you. If you’ve my recommendation, you'll meet the terms perfectly fine."


Those teacher’s words had been filled with excitement.


"HiME, huh..."


----- That term, what does it have to do with me?


----- This I will find out.


The road across the mountains led to Fuuka City.


The shape of the school towered silently, seeming like a palace from another world in the quiet town.


Natsuki hit the accelerator harder, as if to challenge the school.


Only the roar of her bike could be heard as it cut through the nightly quiet of the town. She rode along the hill road and back to the school.


And then...


As if to answer her bike's roar, a long and loud howl echoed behind the mountain.


The howl drowned out the engine completely, but the sound never reached Natsuki's ears...


III


"Huh...? Kuga-san?"


Having changed back into her middle school uniform, after parking her motorcycle at the school's back gate, Natsuki suddenly heard a voice behind her. She turned around, surprised.


A student in the same school uniform stood before her.


"You are..."


She remembered who this was. A girl who was also in her third year of middle school and was in the class next to hers.


"I--- I'm Higurashi Akane."


The girl who called herself Akane looked at Natsuki, for some reason the former's cheeks flushed as if she suddenly felt ashamed of something.


This girl was the only one who from time to time had bravely attempted to talk to Natsuki, who kept away from her classmates, but was still deemed popular as ‘a beauty but out of reach’.


"You're in class D, right? We have PE together sometimes."


"You remember?!"


Akane's cheeks blushed even more.


"Well, I guess. But why are you out here at this time of night?"


"That is... umm, I--- I forgot some of the notes for my homework, so I came to get them, but there have been so many stray dogs sighted recently. I was only a little bit scared, but then I heard this howl from somewhere, and I could only think "Noooo! I want to go home!", but then I saw Kuga-san, and then I... without even thinking..." she said eagerly in a single breath.


Natsuki made a face at her eagerness, "Okay, okay. I forgot something in the classroom too. I can get your notes for you while I'm in there, if you'd like?"


"Eh?! Ah, but... I want to come too!"


"No, it’s very late. You should go home, and I'll deliver your notes later."


"But, that's... taking advantage of you, Kuga-san."


"Don't worry about it. I'm used to walking alone at night. And besides, isn't it rare for me to offer such a service? You should accept a person's kindness humbly, don't you think?"


Akane stared dumbstruck at Natsuki, rooted to the spot, as if she had just witnessed a divine miracle.


"... Oi, Higurashi? What's wrong?"


"Th--- Thank you, Kuga-san!"


Akane bowed over and over.


"You really don't need to be so thankful. Weren't we classmates before?"


"--- Yes!"


Then, smiling happily, having asked Akane for her cell phone number with a promise to call her later, Natsuki saw Akane off.


Akane kept turning her head back from time to time, as if silently saying "Sorry for troubling you", yet seeming very happy at the same time. She disappeared from views as she walked down the slope leading towards the town at the foot of the hill.


----- I'm really in a strange mood...


Natsuki just smiled wryly to herself. In actuality, she had done this just to remove an obstacle hindering her in her investigation of the interior of the school.


But still, it had been a long time since she had talked that long with a girl her own age. Well, apart from Shizuru, that is.


Ever since her mother's death, Natsuki stubbornly thought of herself as someone who couldn't trust anyone, who needed no friends. But once she had met Shizuru, she started to change, although not fully aware of it herself.


*


The atmosphere of the campus at night was especially eerie.


The daily bustle of student activity and noise had gone, the dark and quiet of the night made everything seem more hollow, leaving a stifling feeling of oppression.


Usually, Natsuki didn't give the school that much thought ---- but the school at night was starting to give her an ominous feeling.


Though the place wasn't completely deserted. Apart from the actual school there were the student dormitories, the school's church (where the priests lived) and the chairwoman's mansion. But since the area that belonged to the Fuuka Academy was surrounded on all sides by the sea and mountains, people were still scarce in the area ---- or, perhaps, it could be said that this wasn't a place that brought forth life's energy.


----- Well, then...


Natsuki pondered what to do next as she stared at the school's entrance hall named the Crystal Palace, because its whole surface was made of glass. The moonlight reflected off of it, making it glitter eerily and beautifully.


Sneaking into the school had been easy, but there was nothing standing out enough that could give her a clue what to do next.


She wasn't someone to buy into the rumors of monsters and ghosts, those just came from the school's fame.


Only the rumor about the stray dogs had strangely wormed itself into her heart, although she still had no idea how it could be connected with the First District or the term 'HiME'.


"I should probably get Higurashi's notes first..."


Natsuki whispered to herself, turning away from the Crystal Palace, when suddenly ----


----- Rooooooooar!!! -----


A long, sharp howl ripped through Fuuka's silence.


----- A stray dog? But...?


The distant howl echoed endlessly, a strange sound that couldn't have belonged to a stray dog. The echo carried, never faltering.


Natsuki's heart beat faster.


----- So hot...


She felt a strange heat on her side, near that strange mark, which Natsuki had since birth...


----- Roooooooar!!! -----


Again, the distant howl.


It resounded nearer and louder than it had been before.


----- What is this... Why is my body... feeling so hot?


Just then, out of nowhere ----


"Hi, pleased to meet you, Natsuki-chan."


Upon hearing the sudden voice, Natsuki nimbly surveyed her surroundings.

Against all common sense, the owner of the voice was standing upon the roof of the Crystal Palace.


"Who the hell are you?!"


"I'm Nagi. Homura Nagi. Pleased to meet you."


He was a white haired boy in a middle school uniform. His lips were in a crooked smile, as if he were greatly enjoying himself. His narrow eyes were impressive.


"Finally, we meet. I've been watching over you always, aren't you glad? You've been trying so hard to figure things out, but, really, I always thought your efforts are fruitless."


"Fruitless!?"


"Oh yes, because when the time comes, you'll understand everything. Who you are... what HiME are...."


"...!"


Looking down at the surprised Natsuki, this boy called Nagi pointed at the sky with his finger. On his fingertip was the edge of the moon ---- and the red star.


"You see, that red star... that's called the HiME star. The girls who can see it, they are a HiME. There's a mark on your body somewhere, isn't there? The shape of that mark... a HiME mark."


The boy drew a figure with his fingertip.


The lines he traced in the air formed the exact shape of her mark ---- were these lines silently glowing?


"That's...!"


She pressed down instinctively on her mark, which was now throbbing with painful heat even more than before. The figure, that the boy had drawn, was exactly the shape of her birthmark.


"Haha... surprised? But the real surprise is still waiting for you. --- Well then, we shall begin. Your child... no, your Child is calling out for you..."


----- Rooooaaar!!! -----


With a roar, a dark shadow descended from the Crystal Palace.


Natsuki held her breath, face to face with the creature.


As if it were cut out from the air around it, it flickered a little. The pitch black beast looked down upon Natsuki.


It had a massive torso that held up by four legs. Just its red eyes were visible where its head should be. It was quite a beast, indeed.


But such monsters shouldn't exist in this world, still the light in its eyes, piercing Natsuki with its stare, was the light of an actual living being.


"I took the liberty of calling this one, as you seemed to have a hard time finding him."


The beast let out a low growl.


"But since I called him so hastily, there might be Orphans close behind him. They may just eat you, a person who holds so much love, if you make a mistake. Your strength will decide if you can tame him, and who is whose master."


Natsuki just stared, as if in a trance... overwhelmed by fear or, maybe, rather by awe of this dark monster. 


"Go on then. This is your Child."


As if on cue, the dark shadow leapt.


"...!"


Natsuki came to her senses and threw herself to the ground with no time to spare, just a second before the beast landed.


It growled deeply, as if to persuade her or, maybe, to intimidate her.


"Ku-...!"


Natsuki stood up and ran, desperation on her mind.


The beast stared at Natsuki's fleeing figure for only a moment, before starting to chase after her in slow strides.


"Do your best, my dear Summer Princess..." Nagi said with a grin, watching after her.


Natsuki's heart, that had started to beat faster as soon as she heard the first growl, was now more and more violently throbbing.


----- So hot...!


Her mark was flaring.


The dark beast was gaining its speed, closing the gap between them.


Nastuki fled to the Academy's forest, gasping for breath.


"Wah---!"


The moment her own gasps for breath distracted her just a little, she had tripped on the root of a tree and fallen to the ground.


She turned around and saw that the beast had her cornered.


Natsuki leaned against a tree trunk and cowered.


It laid its red eyes on Natsuki. It was so close that she would be able to feel its breath had it been a real living being ----


"Kyaaaaaaaaa!"


A shriek escaped Natsuki's mouth, and then...


The mark on her side shone so bright that it could be seen through her clothes. Glittering particles flowed from both of Natsuki's palms.


IV


A gunshot tore through the silence of the Academy.


The dark colored beast lowered its stance, then jumped to the side.


The beast avoided being hit, but the child it was pursuing was not the easy prey that it initially assumed it to be. As the foe started its counter-attack, the beast raised its voice in a menacing growl, different from earlier, as a warning.


"What...?"


What happened?


Natsuki, finally, looked down at the objects in her hands ---- whose triggers, she realized then, she just now had pulled, making the gunshot sound. 


Guns...? There were triggers, a gun's handle, but on the gun's rather short body there was a sphere where the gun's moving parts should have been or its magazine should have been if it were a revolver. But these objects definitely had a gun's shape.


Why...? Where did these come from...?


They had materialized in her hands like an illusion, but their recoil and weight were real as they shone clearly and coldly in the moonlight.


"That... is your Element."


A voice came suddenly from the darkness. It was a stifled voice, different from the cheerful voice of the boy named Nagi from earlier. It was a deep, imposing voice. It was as if she had heard this voice somewhere before...


Before she could question who the voice belonged to, the dark beast moved.


"...!"


As if by a reflex, Natsuki raised the guns in her hands.


With a growl, the beast vigilantly lowered its stance.


"Your Element... the ritual weapon given to a HiME. You materialized these arms at your own will. But there is no time to waste, use them to defeat the beast!"


"Ele... ment...?"


"It’s coming!"


Without growling, without warning, the beast jumped at the same time the "voice" encouraged her.


But even without warning and in her current state of confusion, Natsuki's reflexes reacted to the movement.


Without hesitation she raised her guns, these things the "voice" had called her Element, and pulled the trigger.


The throbbing of her heart didn't stop.


Without her noticing that beat had transformed into a sensation of honor.


----- I will fight!


As if to the rhythm of her own heartbeat, Natsuki pulled the trigger of her Element to the limit.


*


How much time had passed...?


It seemed like an eternity, yet also just a moment.


The beast howled and leapt. It jumped to tear Natsuki apart with its fangs and claws.


Natsuki shot and dodged. It was in self-defense ---- but when had she mastered the martial arts skills to put up such a fight?


The dark beast and the girl, her black hair flying, whirled and danced in the darkness illuminated only by the moonlight.


----- This is a Hime...


The owner of the voice, who had earlier called Natsuki, looked at the scene anxiously.


----- Are you afraid?


It was an almost inaudible whisper.


----- But this is a HiME's fate... however blessed a fate it may seem, you must understand you cannot escape the system.


----- ... And yet...


"Wait a moment, isn't this against the rules?"


His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden voice from overhead.


He identified the voice instantly and answered without turning around.


"... Please, would you report to me from up there? Nagi-san."


Only a suppressed laugh could be heard.


"I wouldn't do such a thing. Really, why should I? I'm bound by a contract, why should I oppose 'that person'?"


It was a teasing voice, dripping with sarcasm.


"A contract... and yet, to me it seems, as if you were enjoying yourself quite a bit..."


"I can't help it. To be honest, I have no need to meddle in this world's affairs. But if I must, I'll enjoy it as much as I can."


"... Your power is sealed because of your contract with 'that person', but isn't the administrating of this Festival/Carnival a duty placed upon you because once, in a world far away, you stole the heart of a young girl? At least that's what I heard."


"You're quite the talker, aren't you? But can't that power, even though sealed, swat you like a fly?"


Nagi spoke in a sharp, biased tone.


His limbs stiffened. He was tense, cold sweat running along his back.


Seeing that tension, Nagi laughed.


"Oh, well. You're quite amusing. Watch over Natsuki-chan well. --- The end shall be reached soon..."


The shadow above his head disappeared as the voice faded.


The curse was lifted, and gradually the movement returned to his limbs. He looked up.


It was as if Nagi had never even been there.


----- That was dangerous... my mouth is the root of my problems...


Taking a deep breath, he returned his attention to Natsuki's fight once more.


The dark beast that, to his knowledge, had been worshiped since ancient times as a mountain god or a dog god, and sometimes, it was said, had even been called "Yafusa", towered over Natsuki, unmoving. Natsuki gripped her Element tightly, taking aim.


*


----- Grrrr! ----- 


The beast growled deeply.


But the beast was no longer an object of fear for Natsuki. How this could be, she did not know. All she knew was that while fighting the beast, what it desired had been transmitted to her ---- it could not be put any other way.


Natsuki's uniform was smeared with dirt and torn in many place. There were thin lines of blood where her skin was visible.


Her long hair also was tangled from her struggling.


There was no longer any anger or fear within Natsuki.


Natsuki looked at the dark beast.


Its red eyes sparkled quietly now, focused on Natsuki, as if trying to figure out what she would do next.


"... What am I to you? What do you want from me?"


As she asked these questions, a memory from when she was young came forth in Natsuki's mind.


Back to when Natsuki's father had brought home a puppy with him as a present.


The puppy was so frightened and tense at being brought to an unfamiliar home, all it could do was tremble.


Natsuki did not realize the puppy's fear, only its cuteness and reached her hand out to pet it ---- and was bitten.


The puppy's teeth were already fully grown. Although the bite did not hurt that much, Natsuki cried ---- out of shock, "I don't want this puppy, it’s scary."


Her father then quietly scolded her, "Listen, Natsuki. The puppy is still frightened from being brought to an unfamiliar place. It feels scared and lonely. You shouldn't cry. To become friends, one must take the first step, whether it is with people or animals."


The trembling puppy peeked at Natsuki from her father's back while he was speaking.


----- I see... Just like the eyes from that time...


Natsuki focused on the beast in front of her, feeling slightly irritated that she remembered that detestable man's words at a time like this.


The light shining in those eyes were the same as the puppy's from so long ago.


The beast's red eyes no longer seemed to reflect any will of its own, they were just red voids.


But even then...


Natsuki quietly lowered her Element.


The beast's body twitched and trembled.


Natsuki still just watched the beast, questioning it, but encouraging it.


They tried to figure out what the other desired...


"Do you... feel lonely, too?"


The words spilled from her mouth.


The beast stopped growling and stared at Natsuki.


Natsuki advanced, just a single step.


The beast only watched. 


Natsuki came closer.


When the distance between them was finally closed, Natsuki stood before the dark beast, without a word.


"I see... you've been waiting for me... Duran..."


Natsuki smiled.


----- Roaaaaaar! -----


The beast howled loudly.


It was, as if to answer her, as if raising its voice in happiness.


"You did it, Natsuki-chan. This Child has accepted you. So how about you truly accept this Child, too?"


Nagi asked, once more appearing out of nowhere.


"No matter what your goal is, this Child will become a strong ally. In return, however, you must wager the thing that's most important to you."


"I don't care. I don't have anything that's important to me."


----- That's the truth. I've always been living alone.


----- Living only for revenge.


----- And when I will achieve that...


Natsuki's mark flared brighter. Her heart began beat faster, feeling the end was near.


As if a magic spell was cast, a symbol appeared on the ground, surrounding Natsuki and the beast.


A column of water arose from the pattern, the light radiating from it cut through the campus's darkness and shot up into the sky.


The light took in the chilly air.


And yet, it was strangely warm.


----- Aaah...


Natsuki's abdomen started to ache. The pain resembled that from the time of the month when she was most conscious of her own womanhood.


And then a sudden feeling of bliss ran along her spine.


The beast started to sparkle brightly. In that feeling of exhilaration, Natsuki embraced it tightly, lovingly.


Once an indefinite shadow, the beast started to materialize into its true, substantial form.


It had a body of glimmering silver. Its legs rooted firmly to the ground.


The only thing, that had left unchanged, was its eyes' red glow. They peered at Natsuki.


"Duran..."


----- Rooooooaaaaaaaaaar! -----


Embraced by Natsuki's arms Duran, her Child, raised its voice ---- a newborn's cry.


V


It was three days before Natsuki returned to school.


She had fulfilled her promise to Akane, leaving her notes in her mailbox. She then returned to apartment, fallen into bed and slept for 24 hours.


Even once she had woken up, the events of that night still felt like a dream.


But her Element had materialized in her hands when she summoned it, so that was proof in itself that this couldn't have been a dream.


----- The power to materialize higher-order matter... HiME...


She began to become conscious of her powers to bring forth her Element and Child. These powers brought forth new questions, and Natsuki felt something like terror within her.


Why did she have these powers? Who is this boy called Nagi? Why is the organization called the First District trying to gather the HiME? Since, if Yamada's information was indeed correct, there must be other girls who hold powers like hers...?


And most importantly, why did she and her mother have to flee that night? And why did she have to die?


----- The answers are all here at Fuuka Academy...


And the key, connecting all these clues, had been placed squarely in Natsuki's hand.


Or, more correctly, she had remembered it.


To make sure, Natsuki returned to school, although her wounds had not yet completely healed.


Natsuki headed towards the back of the school building, where there was a flower bed attached to the staff room.


The one she was looking for was there, as she expected. Wearing a straw hat, he tended to his flowers silently as he usually did.


Natsuki tried to match the figure with someone in her memory from 10 years ago.


Yes, she did recognize him. He was one of the "dark uncles" who sometimes secretly played with her and her dog, Duran.


"You've gotten quite fat in these past 10 years. You look nothing like you did back then."


The one she called out to - Sakomizu - had startled only slightly at Natsuki's voice, continuing to water the flowers. Without turning around he answered her, as if talking to himself.


"Well, it’s because of that it was decided I should be the one entrusted with the mission of observing the school and you, well, as far as safety and awakening HiME are concerned. Congratulations, Princess." 


Yes, that tone of voice. The voice that had called her 'princess', whispering to her three days ago...

"You're... with the First District?"


"... I can't tell you that."


Which, of course, was just the same as blatantly admitting it. Natsuki wanted to ask another question, but Sakomizu cut her off, opening his mouth first.


"I know you've sent a strange guy to investigate various things for you. I cannot say exactly why, but you must stop doing this."


"But I need to know! Why, why did my mother ---"


"I understand how you're feeling, but still, give it up."


"What I've become makes possible for me to force answers out of you, but you won't tell me anything even then?"


"Right. If I told you anything, the organization would annihilate me. It makes no difference."


"..."


He was his usual aloof self, but his tone had something far off about it.


"Then why bother to warn me?"


"Why, indeed. I myself do not know that. Yet... "


"Yet?"


"... No, never mind."


And with those words, Sakomizu stopped talking and, as if Natsuki wasn't even there, quietly tended to his flowers.


Natsuki felt irritated by this turn of events.


"You sly fox... one day, I shall make you talk..."


"Go ahead, if you think you can."


"Heh..."


----- For the time being, I'll back off...


At long last, she had gotten some sort of a clue. She must hold onto this clue, no matter what.


"...Oh, one more thing."


"What?"


"Never call me "princess" again."


"... I'll be sure not to."


Natsuki left, Sakomizu's voice was a mere whisper behind her.


*


"Natsuki, what happened? These wounds..."


After school, Shizuru had been waiting, as usual, in her spot at the rear garden, when Natsuki finally appeared. She took one look at Natsuki's bandages and paled.


"Don't worry, they're just scratches."


"How could you say they're just scratches... oh, even your beautiful face..."


The color of Shizuru's face changed even more when she saw the bandage on Natsuki's jaw.


"Did you fall off your motorcycle? If things like that are going to happen, then I must keep you away from that thing, even if I have to strike you---"


Her tone was angry, showing clearly what she was capable of if just one small mistake was made...


It was rare to see Shizuru, who usually seemed so serene as if nothing bothered her, so agitated like this.


"Really, they're just scratches. And they have nothing to do with my motorcycle."


"Honma yaro ne (Really)?"


"Honma da (Really)," Natsuki answered, poorly imitating Shizuru's Kyoto accent.


"Then how, such injuries..."


"I'm sorry, but I can't tell you. And even if I did, I doubt, you would believe me. Really, I'm fine. The wounds aren't deep enough to leave scars, and, honestly, they are kind of like decorations to me."


Shizuru's gaze asked without words if she was really alright. Natsuki held the gaze.


After looking into each other's eyes for a while, Shizuru let out a sigh of acceptance.


"I will not ask any more questions then. Truly, such unreasonable things shouldn't happen, should they? Just seeing Natsuki hurt like this, I felt as if my heart would stop beating..."


"..."


Gazing at Shizuru who was now brushing down her chest, a feeling rose inside of Natsuki.


A feeling of nostalgia, but also delight.


"...? Natsuki, is there something wrong?"


"Oh, no, it... it just has been quite some time since someone has worried about me like this, so I'm a little at a loss for words."


Shizuru answered Natsuki's reddening cheeks with a smile.


"But aren't I worried about you all the time? Also, it isn't just me whose mind is occupied with Natsuki, is it? For example..."


Shizuru continued as a strange seriousness shrouded her eyes.


"... the Kendo Club's captain." 


"...!"


Natsuki couldn't help but flinch at the mention of that person.


Takeda Masashi.


He was a male student, in the same class as Shizuru, class D. He had aimed to become the captain of the Kendo Club. One day, even though they had never really talked to each other, he had suddenly appeared in Natsuki's class room, flower bouquet in his hand, and with a beet red face asked her out in from of the entire class. A strong character he was, so to speak.


Of course, he was met with a soul-wrecking defeat. But he did not give up, using everything he could think of to continue his clumsy advances. He seemed to be a honest guy, and even though being treated so cruelly made his heart ache a bit, he felt that, although regrettable, it couldn't be helped. For Natsuki was someone who seemed pretty opposed to embracing the opposite sex.


As summer approached, so did the Prefecture-wide Kendo tournament. He became so involved with his club activities that his advances finally came to a stop. Now summer vacation was over, and she hoped he had finally just given up and moved on ----


"... Sorry, I hate being reminded of that big idiot, making a fuss about me."


"Oh, really? But if I'm not mistaken, didn't it make you just a little happy?"


"No, it absolutely definitely did not!!"


At Natsuki's profuse refutation, Shizuru gave a small smile, and any anxiety she had been feeling about the situation washed away.


"Besides, he has given up, hasn't he? I haven't seen him since he became second-year."


"That's because the prefecture's kendo tournament is about to begin and some things have happened within the kendo club. He can't make a move if those affairs aren't settled. Besides, he doesn't really seem like the kind of guy who would give up..."


"The kendo club? Oh, right, now that you mention it, it was Tate... Yuuichi, right? He was injured or something..."


She hadn't been all that well informed about the incident, but they were in the same class their second year of middle school, so she knew of him. He was the future ace the kendo club had set all their hopes on.


"Seems to be quite a severe injury... Takeda-kun told me how heartbroken he is that he isn't able to see Natsuki while he is busy dealing with these affairs..."


"Well, what’s bad for Tate is good for me."


"Please, do not say such things... it is a very serious matter for Tate-kun."


"... I guess. But... I'm grateful, I can't help it."


"Mou... Natsuki is such a meanie."


Even though her words were scolding, there was relief mixed within Shizuru's tone.


With this subject finally over, Natsuki approached the topic she actually wanted to ask Shizuru about.


"Um, Shizuru... you're the class representative, right?"


"Yes, I am... why do you ask?"


"I've heard that the class representatives have a higher access level on the school's intranet than normal students do..."


"However, I cannot change the number of one's attendance days..."


"I wasn't asking for such a thing... There are just a few things about this school I'd like to investigate."


Natsuki tried to sound as casual as possible.


There were still so many things that were unclear about the First District and the HiME's powers. She didn't really want to get Shizuru involved, but she was the only one she could ask such a personal favor of.


That was why she had asked Shizuru, but ----


"I probably shouldn't be asking you why you want to know this, should I..." Shizuru said suddenly, saddened.


"You shouldn't, I'm sorry."


"Well, what is it you want to know about the school?"


"... The state of the administration, the director's name and personal record... A list of the staff members and students. And if possible, their personal records too."


Shizuru just sighed at these words.


"That is quite impossible. The access level of a class representative is not that much above that of a regular student."


"I see... well, forget it then."


"I see..." Shizuru responded, bleakly.


Although after she said these words, she looked at Natsuki and beamed, as if she had suddenly come to a decision.


VI


The months that followed seemed to pass in the blink of an eye.


Although to one person, it didn't seem that quickly at all.


For Natsuki, these were very hard days.


Her first fight occurred ---- an encounter with a monster called an "Orphan" that had appeared on the school's campus.


Not only was she hunting down the First District, trying to get answers out of Sakomizu who just evaded her questions like a slippery eel, and having Yamada and other contracts gather information for her, but she was also burdened with second semester's midterm exams and later end-of-semester exams.


Her attendance rate was incredibly low, but the results of her written tests and exams gave her teachers no cause for complaints. That was Natsuki's policy.


As a reaction to the extreme stress, she found herself buying large amounts of lingerie she would most likely never wear. Nevertheless, somehow she passed her exams. It wasn't long until the year had ended, and elections for the student council were being held ---- rather late compared to other schools.


And when Natsuki found out who one of the candidates was, she was almost as surprised as she was when she awoke as a HiME.


*


"Congratulations on the election, Shizuru."


"Thank you, Natsuki."


Shizuru smiled gracefully, sipping her tea. The differently colored uniform of the student council president adorned her body.


Shizuru had been elected the high school's student council president, thoroughly destroying her opponent, Suzushiro Haruka, in a landslide victory.


She was already carrying herself with an air of dignity, and it would just be stating the obvious to say that it suited her well. Just like it would be stating the obvious to say that this was indeed unexpected.


"... I didn't take you for someone who is striving for power."


"I'm really not, this is just a trait everyone seems to attribute to me."


"Well, it will certainly be better than having Suzushiro as a president... but..."


Shizuru smiled as she watched Natsuki's mind wander off and then said, "Shall we talk about more pleasant things then? The student council president's access to the school's intranet is very much more higher than of a normal student."


"...!"


Natsuki brightened a bit when she heard this, but then winced, remembering what she had said a few months ago.


"It can't be, Shizuru... did you do this just because of what I said...?"


"What do you mean?"


"You know... that I, um, want to investigate about the school."


Shizuru's answer to the question Natsuki mumbled was one that seemed quite out of character for her ----


She laughed loudly, so hard in fact that she had tears forming in her eyes.


"... Shizuru"


"I'm sorry, but Natsuki was saying such a crazy thing... So funny..."


When Shizuru finally stopped laughing, she said in a protesting tone, "Natsuki, I will do many things for your sake, but why would I take on the responsibilities of the student council president just for that reason?"


"I... guess. Yes, you're right."


"I just felt like I needed to do this. It will look good when I apply for work in the future. So... Natsuki shouldn't worry that I'm using my position for her gain."


Hearing Shizuru talk like this, Natsuki gave in and gazed at the laptop resting on the desk ---- given to Shizuru as a part of her new position as president.


"I need to enter the password, please wait a moment."


Shizuru, who was standing behind Natsuki, reached for the keyboard.


Natsuki felt Shizuru's full breasts rest against her back as she tried to concentrate on the screen, not daring to make a move.


After the password was entered, a new window appeared.


Natsuki's eyes brightened as the data, normally not available to a normal student, was revealed to her. Letting the mouse cursor run all over the screen as she looked through the school's intranet.


Shizuru, still behind Natsuki, smiled in satisfaction at her reaction and, overcome with emotion, she softly and stealthily kissed Natsuki's hair.


VII


"... That's the car...?"


Standing on the large bridge that connected the area with the mainland, Natsuki, wearing her biker suit, was watching this car that was her target.


"Yes, the number's the same too. No doubt about it."


Beside her, Yamada answered, looking through binoculars.


"But will you really do it? No matter how you look at this, it’s a crime."


"... Who cares. Keep going as planned."


Natsuki's answer was curt.


"Roger... you're such a dreadful soul."


As Yamada smiled slightly, a voice within Natsuki's heart answered him silently.


----- It might be that I have just become stubborn...


A few months had passed since Shizuru had become student council president, and Natsuki had already started high school.


During these few months, the number of strange occurrences at the academy had increased. Natsuki and Duran defeated countless numbers of Orphans.


She had almost died during a few of these encounters, but somehow she had always made it through.


But she had not yet found out the First District's true purpose, and the organization's core was still shrouded in mystery.


Finally, she chanced a meeting with the board chairman, an 11 year-old girl named Kazahana Mashiro. A girl who spoke with such strange maturity about the First District and the HiME. Natsuki was surprised the girl knew the truth and requested Natsuki to defeat the Orphans. At that request, for a moment, she considered if this could be the reason for gathering up the HiME at the school, but...


----- No, there had to be something else behind it...


She hadn't stopped distrusting the First District.


Or rather, she could not stop distrusting the organization is more correct.


What were they planning by gathering all the HiME?


If just defeating Orphans was their goal, why not just say that openly to them from the start?


And also this whole roundabout way of calling the girls to the academy seemed incredibly unnecessary, if that were the case.


----- I must not let them gather the HiME in this place.


After much consideration within herself, Natsuki had come to this conclusion.


She had been able to find out through Shizuru's computer that a new student would be arriving at the end of April.


Minagi Mikoto, a transfer student who would be in the middle school, attracted Natsuki's attention because it was a bit odd to transfer once the school year had already begun.


Sakomizu, being cross-examined, had finally confessed.


A new HiME was coming to the academy.


"Okay, we've completely re-routed all the other cars, there shouldn't be any obstacles for about 300 meters."


"Understood."


Natsuki straddled her motorcycle and turned the accelerator.


The motorcycle took off with a jump.


The car they were targeting reached the halfway point of the bridge.


----- If I don't do something, nothing will happen... right, let’s going to wait until I can feel the ground vibrating...


She thought to herself, believing that preventing more HiME from coming would benefit them as well.


Natsuki materialized her Element and aimed for the car's tires.


The more she fought, the more the gun started to feel like just another part of her body, making her able to hit a target with extreme accuracy, even while riding her motorcycle at full speed.


----- What's going to happen... this is quite the gamble...


As the car passed, Natsuki pulled the trigger.


The bullet hit perfectly, catching one of the tires, making the car flip sideways and skid, coming to rest on its side.


Natsuki stood on her bike, turning to look at the vehicle.


After awhile the sound of the engine of the wrecked car came to a halt and died, suspending all activity of the car.


A number of painfully slow seconds passed ----


A small figured appeared from inside the car that had crashed and was lying on its side.


A girl wearing a sailor suit. It had to be the transfer student, Minagi Mikoto.


----- And maybe even... a HiME.


Her premonition was turned into actual fact in a split second.


The girl gripped a sword that seemed almost ridiculously too large for her body, the body that was so small, yet overflowing with the will to fight ---- no, with an incredible lust for blood.


----- She's already awakened...? Damn, they have me fooled again...


Natsuki gave a small, bitter smile and quietly raised her gun, taking aim.


The two girls stood facing each other atop the bridge.


Dusk approached, the only thing watching over the girls was the faintly visible moon.


At its side, the red star was shining, and for just a moment, it twinkled.


Epilogue ~ from step: #25~


Thinking about it now, that time, that first fight with Mikoto may have been the beginning of everything.


This bitter thought kept Natsuki company as she, looking at the huge star glittering next to the moon, stood on the cliff, the one that had taken her mother from her.


----- What if we never fought then...?


Maybe she shouldn't have chased Mikoto so persistently after the girl fall from the bridge, to make up for the wounds she had suffered from her hands...


----- Could fate change, I wonder...


Thinking about this did no good anymore.


The "her" of the past knew nothing, didn't want to know anything.


Didn't want to know anything about Shizuru's feelings, about the HiME and, most of all, about herself.


"Why such a smart young woman would do such things is beyond my comprehension... But Dr. Kuga did truly treasure you. If nothing else, I am certain of that."


Sakomizu whispered quietly.


Was it to comfort her? The sounds of pity in his voice was irritating, but strangely comforting nonetheless.


"I believe in the mother inside of me. So... it’s all okay now."


Natsuki smiled faintly.


What had her mother been planning with Searrs? Why had her mother fled with her? The truth, all of it, was below this cliff.


---- I will just believe... that my mother wanted to save me. Even if I am wrong...


"It’s probably because people care about their precious ones... and because they're so precious to them that they lose themselves and make mistakes..."


"... You could be right about that. Because Fujino-san has, well, fallen in love with you... and you're so precious to her, she caused all that."


Love. A feeling Shizuru held for her. When her feelings were rejected, Shizuru fell apart.


Love was a feeling that, to Natsuki who had not yet truly desired anything, was still something all too remote.


Seeing Shizuru's violent emotions, and the feelings that both Mai and Shiho had for Yuuichi, it just made the word something to be scared of.


"Then love is something I never want to know."


Why was this so. Why did people desire another...? And why were these feelings so strong that they could hold this maddening power...?


Even though she may have still dreaded the strength of these feelings, but to be told "I like you" ---- being the object of someone's affection, just this far, was something that made her happy. She was certain of that.


"But... it's probably because of love that people find the strength to live..."


Sakomizu's awkwardly blurted out words showed that even he had these feelings himself.


Natsuki smiled.


Distancing herself from Takeda's feelings had been an easy task for her. As she thought about it, she felt relief and even a little nostalgia. She hadn't given him any reply, besides sending a short message that said "Thank you. I'm sorry." before he left when the school was closed down.


There was someone else for Natsuki ---- someone whose feelings, she knew, she wanted to truly accept.

Even if she didn't fully understand these feelings, she had to try her best to answer, she wanted to answer.


----- I have decided which path I want to take...


Even if she might not hold the feelings Shizuru desired.


She loved Shizuru ---- that was the truth.


"I'll be praying for your good luck."


With that final whisper, Sakomizu left.


She turned towards the cliff, perhaps to absorb his words.


Below the steep cliff ----


The waves rolled in, breaking against the cliff, then drew back again.


The wind off the sea blew, ruffling Natsuki's dark hair. Aglow in the setting sun, her school uniform fluttered a bit.


Natsuki stood there alone, quietly watching the HiME star.


----- The moment of fate had arrived.


END