Disclaimer: The author rightfully respects the genius of Tachibana Higuchi, creator of Gakuen Alice.
Graduates of the Alice Academy are considered to be the elite. When they leave the school, they move on to do great things; they become the best in their fields. They make astonishing contributions to society. They astound the world with feats, unique only to Alices. The moment they step out of the school gates, their special skills coupled with their prestigious education allow them to go very far indeed; further than any normal student. The future of an Alice graduate is sealed.
They all knew it and that's why as this year's graduating class stood in attention during the ceremony, none of them felt particularly threatened about the future. The only qualms they may have are about the things they were about to leave behind: the school that had been a home for most of them since childhood; the security of being in an environment where everybody else understood their unique ability; and the comfort of being surrounded everyday by close friends.
Mikan stood on her toes, trying to see over the sea of people who had been her schoolmates for the past years. She bit her lip as she sought the face that mattered, "Hotaru!"
Hotaru saw her waving frantically and pointedly turned the other way, muttering under her breath, "So loud."
"Hotaru!" She called insistently before abandoning her place, thus upsetting the precise lines they were asked to form as they awaited their diplomas.
"Quiet," Hotaru hissed with an irritated sigh, "You'll draw the teachers' attention."
Mikan smiled carelessly, "It's okay. There's nothing more they can do to us. We're graduating!" She linked arms with her best friend then beamed at the stage. "I have to stand next to you during this special moment."
"Because we've always been together for moments like this!"
Hotaru rolled her eyes though there was a hint of a smile on her face, "You weren't around when I got a special award for my five-year innovation in Robotics. I wasn't there when you won a prize for your participation in last year's Alice Festival. We both didn't show up for the Christmas party. I was busy with a forum. You were off doing god-knows-what with Natsume."
Mikan frowned, "Well we're here now, aren't we? And neither Ruka nor Natsume is in sight. So we're just going to have to keep each other company."
Hotaru huffed, "Fine. But don't stand too close Mikan. It's hot enough as it is."
Mikan beamed then distanced herself a bit though keeping her hold on Hotaru's arm. She continued searching the lines for more familiar people. There was Yuu, tugging on his collar at the front row. As the elected class speaker, he was probably getting anxious for his turn onstage. Abruptly he glanced over his shoulder and caught her eye and she gave him an encouraging smile. On the other side, near the garden fountains were Anna and Nonoko who were busy whispering to each other. They had their heads pressed together, unmindful of the emcee who droned on about the Academy's credo.
"I haven't seen Natsume," Mikan said worriedly, "Is he with Ruka?"
Hotaru shrugged, "I don't know and I don't care."
"Hotaru! Don't be mean," she chided, "Ruka is your boyfriend after all. Isn't it about time that you cared where he is during a certain point in time?"
"I've tried that," Hotaru said breezily, "I've found it easier to not care and eventually he just shows up when I want him to."
There was laughter as Ruka came over to join them, smoothly slipping an arm around Hotaru's shoulders. "Don't bother Mikan, she's stubborn as a mule."
"Take your arm off me," Hotaru muttered, blushing slightly. Ruka quickly obliged then unperturbed, he reached for her hand instead then refocused his attention onstage. Hotaru turned to Mikan, "Let go of my arm,"
"Because it's either you or Ruka," she said shortly, "It's uncomfortable being squeezed in between the two of you."
Mikan laughed, hugged her best friend one more time before deciding to sneak back to her place. Ruka briefly stopped her, "Natsume says he'll find you near the stage after the rites."
"Okay, thanks Ruka," she replied then turned to leave them alone, trying hard to squelch the anxiety she felt at the message.
The fact was she wasn't all that comforted that Natsume had thought of meeting with her. All this week, she'd sensed something was up. Whenever they were together, he seemed distracted. He spoke to her in a strained, wary tone that belied his assurances that everything was fine. He was also always off doing something at Central Town and more than once she'd seen him meeting with the faculty. Two days ago, she had walked up to join him while he was with Ruka and the others and she managed to catch snatches of the conversation they broke off.
"Mikan should know as soon as possible," Yuu had said restlessly, "If you keep acting strange, she'll know for sure something's going on."
"You have to do it soon," Ruka agreed, "You're running out of time."
"I'll do it on graduation day—" Then Natsume interrupted himself abruptly and turned to her with a tensed smile. Clearly, he was determinedly hiding something from her...
"Mikan!" Nonoko called cheerfully from across the courtyard. The ceremony was finally over and the students have separated into groups to say their farewells, "Come take pictures with us!"
Mikan waved gaily then moved to join her friends. She managed to join a couple of shots before Koko called her attention, "Natsume's waiting for you." She turned around and felt her heart pick up its pace. Natsume was standing near the stage, as promised, and he was watching her closely. He had his arms crossed over his chest in an unapproachable stance.
"Is he mad at me for something?" She squeaked.
"Go find out," Koko shrugged. Then suddenly his face broke into a smile and he held out his arms for a hug, which she gratefully returned. When they parted he grinned, "Not too long or Natsume will get violent."
She chuckled nervously then decided to meet with her boyfriend. She didn't get two paces away before she was accosted by Anna who gathered her in a hug and then three steps later it was Mochu's turn. Seven hugs, a dozen pictures and quite a number of warm greetings and farewells later, she finally made it to Natsume who remained unmoving near the stage.
"Don't you look cheerful?" She said, putting on a teasing smile. Natsume didn't smile back but he reached out and took her hand.
"We need to talk," he said softly and she felt her heart plummet. As Sumire told her years ago, that phrase was never a good sign.
"Let's go some place quiet," Natsume said gruffly. Another bad sign. Together they moved through the crowd and as happy greetings came to them from all sides, Mikan felt her disposition drop as Natsume stayed silent next to her.
He allowed her to pause once and a while to take pictures with people she knew. They also stopped long enough to converse with Ruka and Hotaru who were going off to celebrate at Central Town with the rest of the gang. Hotaru looked at her worriedly for a moment then in one of her rarest caring moments she gave Mikan's arm a reassuring squeeze.
Before Natsume and Mikan could go some place secluded, they were waylaid by some of their teachers who addressed them quite eagerly.
"Always been a brilliant student Natsume… if not a bit difficult…"
"From a no-star to a three-star! I've always been quite proud of that…"
"So what are your plans?"
"Did you accept that offer abroad Natsume?"
Mikan turned sharply so fast, she upset Natsume's hold on her. She felt her legs begin to quake as the imprudent teacher shed light on her misgivings, "What?"
"We need to go," Natsume said roughly, gripping her arm again vise-like. He nodded to their teachers then almost forcefully, he led Mikan away.
When they were quite alone, Mikan sat down on a wooden bench situated on the rise not far from their old dorm rooms. Natsume stood for a long moment with his back to her. He looked rigid, edgy, like a man being forced to do something incredibly difficult.
Mikan snapped and desperately sought a reprieve, "I think I see Sumire and the others. Let's go take more pictures with them—"
"Sit down," Natsume hissed turning around and quelling her with a single look. She went back to her place then waited. He continued to stand in silence then he took a deep breath, steeling himself.
"Where are you going?" She burst out before he could speak.
"France," He said shortly, "It's a good offer."
"How long have you known?"
"Two weeks," He stared at the ground, "It wasn't much of a choice. The Academy is making me go. They have a long-established relationship with this client. He's… taken an interest to me."
"You shouldn't have to!" Mikan cried, "We're done with this school."
"You know we'll never be totally free of them," Natsume said coolly, "But that's not important. Because I think I want to go."
"Why didn't you tell me?" She asked. His expression was unreadable. "I'll go with you."
"You can't," He said flatly, "They won't allow any… distractions."
He said it so stoically and yet she heard the meaningful note in his tone. Immediately, she stiffened then shot to her feet, "I don't believe this…"
"This is the problem, isn't it?" Her eyes threw daggers at him, "This is why you've been acting strange and what your friends were warning you about. You were running out of time to—"
"What are you talking about?" He cut in, eyes narrowed.
"Don't think I don't know!" Mikan jabbed a finger at his chest, "You arrogant… pig-headed… you couldn't be bothered to tell me first before you talked to your friends?"
Natsume looked baffled, "I thought I'd ask for advice—"
"You insensitive jerk!" She went on hysterically, "How could you? And on our graduation day too!"
"What better time could there be?"
"Natsume, you will always be my favorite moron," Mikan said tersely then she started to turn away from him. He caught her arm.
"What are you so mad about?"
"Just spit it out and get it over with!" She fumed and when he looked positively mystified she practically shouted, "Are you breaking up with me?"
Tears welled up in her eyes and she wrenched her arm free but he caught her again and kept her from running, "Fine! Go off to France or Italy or Croatia or wherever. I don't care! You're nothing but a tactless, inconsiderate, unfeeling ape anyway! There are other idiots I can waste my time on!"
"Other idiots?" He looked at her dryly. His unruffled composure stung and Mikan pulled away again, intending to run off. Natsume tugged her back.
"Let me go—"
Instead of obliging her, Natsume chuckled softly, "You silly girl." Then he suddenly bent down and touched his lips to hers. It was the last thing she had expected him to do, particularly when they were about to say goodbye. The touch was gentle, purposely meant to sooth her indignation. When he finally lifted his head, he looked down at her confused expression with amusement.
"Don't be stupid. Sit down," Natsume ordered and she was glad to follow, seeing as her knees had become weak. "I'm not breaking up with you, idiot."
As she lowered herself to the bench, Natsume followed her down, dropping to one knee. She stared at him in bewilderment. Then slowly he reached into his pocket and pulled out a beautifully cut diamond ring. Her mouth fell open. Natsume held it up to her with a self-satisfied smirk and she knew what he meant by it even before he asked.
"Will you be here when I come back?"
Mikan grew perfectly still, too shocked to answer sensibly at once. She stared at Natsume for a long while, still close to tears despite this assurance that he had never meant to be parted from her completely. Natsume waited quietly for her response.
She swallowed, "We'll still have to say goodbye."
"Will you wait for me?"
It was a silly thing to ask. He probably knew the answer even before the tearful smile broke across her features. No matter how hard it would be, there was only one response she could give. Mikan fell against him in a tight hug before giving her promise.
Natsume released his breath then hugged her back as she began to cry. Chuckling softly, he pressed an affectionate kiss to her temple, silently sealing their engagement, "And don't you dare waste your time on other idiots. I'll be sure to hear about it."
Graduates of the Alice Academy are considered to be the elite. When they leave the school, they move on to do great things. They make astonishing contributions. They astound the world with incredible feats. The moment they step out of the school gates, they go very far indeed.
But that doesn't mean they never come back.
- END -