The past is history and tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift – that's why it's called the present. – Kung Fu Panda

Um. Sorry?

Disclaimer: I do not own Gakuen Alice.

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Chapter 11

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At Mrs. Imai's insistence (and also because Natsume was too tired to argue), the teenagers spent yet another night under her roof. Neither she nor Mr. Imai asked any awkward questions, for which Natsume was relieved. He had had enough excitement for one day.

This time, however, he pointedly refused to sleep anywhere near the bedrooms, opting instead to sleep on the kitchen's cold stone floor with only a rug as his bedding and a thin blanket to cover him. His friends' protests fell on deaf ears; he considered it a compromise for his earlier acquiescence.

If the room he shared with Ruka was cool, the kitchen was chilling. Cold drafts blew past him from under the door and the ventilators wedged between the wall and the ceiling. The stone floor cooled along with the decreasing temperature and ended up very cold, sending icicles up to Natsume through his makeshift bed.

Uncomfortable but determined not to give up, Natsume brought his limbs closer to his body and folded the blanket twice over himself, resigned to a second restless night.


Unlike the previous morning, Natsume woke up relatively early, having been deprived of sleep by both the cold and the constant worry that gnawed at his heart. He looked around the kitchen and heaved a sigh of relief when he saw nothing had been burnt during the night. The scarcity of flammable materials in the kitchen – besides the gas stove, which he had removed the night before – was the reason he chose to sleep there in the first place. That, and also because the kitchen was isolated from the rest of the house, a tiny space tucked in the upper left wing of the building away from the bedrooms in the lower right.

He got up and folded the blanket and the rug, painfully aware of how his joints seemed to have rusted overnight. One night outdoors and one night on a cold floor without sufficient protection against the cold left him with aching muscles, stiff joints and a minor headache that grated against his skull.

Slowly, he stood up opened the door, knowing that it would lead to the small garden Mrs. Imai cultivated. The morning air blew past his face, bringing with it the scent of the many flowers that bloomed in the garden. Natsume looked up. The sky was splashed with all shades of blue and white, still dark with the essence of night. He could still see a few stars glimmering in the endless canvas of the heavens.

He walked around the garden, letting the scent of the flowers and the peace of the morning wash over him. The occasional breeze teased his already messy hair into knots and chased away the last dregs of sleep. Leaves rustled above his head, bringing his attention to the gnarled, lonely old tree that guarded the garden.

For the first time, he noticed that it was a fruit tree, a mandarin orange tree to be precise. Its leaves drooped from the branches now, crisp and dry after exposure under the autumn sun. The tree bore neither fruit nor flowers at this time of the year.

Natsume ran a hand down its rough, flaky bark, admiring the numerous scars near its roots that were probably afflicted by strays sharpening their claws. The wounds had closed up and healed over time, but the scratches remained a tad paler than the rest of the bark. He couldn't help but feel a bit sorry for the poor tree.

His train of thought was broken by a sudden clamouring in the house followed by a cry of surprise. Natsume was about to dash into the house when the door to the kitchen was flung open roughly.

Ruka looked very flustered, his clothes dishevelled and his blonde hair messy. He stared wide-eyed at Natsume who was standing under the tree. Natsume could hear Ruka's heavy breathing from where he stood. Clearly Ruka had run all the way from his room.

Natsume watched his friend with a tiny smile. "Morning, Ruka," he said, bemused. Ruka continued staring at him as though he had grown two heads.

"I'm sorry, I thought…the folded blanket…" Ruka stammered. Natsume looked away to hide a grin, though his eyes mirrored his sadness. Yes, he could have left unnoticed that morning…why did he not?

Perhaps he just got tired of running. At least, that was what he preferred to think.

Still gazing at the sky, Natsume said, "Don't worry. I haven't gone."

He could almost sense Ruka's relief; it was easy to imagine the smile on his face. He heard Ruka take a few steps backward.

"Come on, I think I hear the others waking up."

Natsume nodded. They would leave after breakfast. Walking back to the house, he tried to think of the future and not what they were leaving behind – a shelter, a haven, and family (in Hotaru's case).


Breakfast was a silent affair. No one spoke aside from the standard greeting of "Itadakimasu", and even that was said without much cheer. Mrs. Imai's eyes were slightly red and puffy; Natsume knew without a doubt – and thus felt more guilty – that she had been crying.

He got the impression that the adults were trying to drag time, to maximise the amount of time they could get to be with their daughter. He closed an eye to that.

The meal lasted longer than an hour. Hotaru offered to help her mother clear up in a rather awkward manner and took the plates from her without waiting for an answer. Mrs. Imai looked as though she would start crying anew.

Praying that Hotaru would not delay them for too long, Natsume went with Ruka into their room to retrieve the backpacks Mrs. Imai had given them as a parting gift. They had decided to travel light and find or buy anything else they might need later, so their backpacks weighed close to nothing.

Natsume paused to look around the room for one more time before leaving, taking in as many details as he could remember. A dull ache settled in his chest. He would miss this place, even though it had only housed him for a few days. It felt more like home than anywhere else in the world. Excluding the home he once had, of course.

Hoisting his backpack over one shoulder, Natsume beckoned to Ruka and stepped out of the room. Their footsteps sounded awfully loud in the dismal-looking corridor. It was as though the house itself was sad at the idea of their departure.

The family of three was waiting for them in the middle of the living room. Mr. and Mrs. Imai both had one arm placed on either of Hotaru's shoulders, with their daughter holding their elbows in a gentle grasp. A touching sight, and a gesture Hotaru would not be willing to part with for a long while.

Natsume's footsteps sounded ominously loud as he left the corridor. They boomed and echoed in the confined space, ricocheting off the cement-plastered walls numerous times before fading away. Like a church bell, he noted absentmindedly. Except without the serenity a church bell brings. He tuned the noise out after that.

"So." Mrs. Imai paused. Her lower lip trembled a little. "So. You'll be leaving now, then?"

"Yes." Natsume nodded his reply. "Thank you for your kindness." Beside him, Ruka echoed his words. Mrs. Imai reached out and held Hotaru gently by her shoulders.

"Take care, all right?" she whispered, more to her daughter than to anyone else. With an obvious effort, she patted Hotaru and forced herself away.

"Bye, okaa-san."

Mr. Imai grinned bravely. "Have fun, Hotaru-chan…." Then he burst into tears. Everyone sweat-dropped at the peculiar sight. Come on, how often do you see a man crying?

Rather hastily, the other two said their goodbyes and exited the house, unwilling to watch any more drama. Their brisk pace only slowed after they had long lost sight of the roof of the house. The sun had climbed to its zenith by that time.

They stopped for a while for lunch, something Mrs. Imai had packed for them before they left. Natsume was touched; the lunch was simple and they were given only small portions, but each spoonful seemed to melt in his mouth. And ignorant he might be of the price of household goods, but he knew strawberries were costly and possibly rare in this district.

It made him wonder just how much Mrs. Imai considered them her own children. He felt squeamish about it, but at the same time he felt indescribably warm, as if he had consumed some wine. Never mind that he was not supposed to know the taste of wine yet. The life of an undercover agent for the Alice Academy had its ups after all.

As they continued down a less worn path leading out of the village, Natsume mulled over their plan again. It was so flimsy, so full of gaping holes the enemy could exploit. It was still the best plan they could come up with, though, with their information count so close to nil. Just one scrap of cloth! What good would that do?

None to them, but someone might be able to sniff out some good. And that 'someone' was man's best friend – a dog. According to the plan, Ruka would coax a dog to follow the scent and hopefully lead them to Mikan. Hotaru's own tracker would be a backup plan should the dog fail. Natsume had voiced his objections and pointed out many weak chinks in that plan, but Hotaru just looked at him witheringly and said, "Do it or ditch it."

Her cool statement had stunned Natsume into a grudging submission. Now that he took the time to think about the pros of the plan and not the cons, it actually looked okay. It made hope bubble up within him, something he hurried to quash. The last thing he wanted was to feel broken because of a lost hope. It definitely wasn't needed; certainly a hindrance to the cold, bitter fire alice.

They reached the clearing whence so many events had unfolded lately with a stray dog trotting faithfully at Ruka's side. It was a mangy mutt, a mixed-breed, with messy black fur and a patch of white around its eye that looked more yellow or brown. Its left ear looked the worse for wear, having been partially chewed off a long time ago. Natsume ignored it as well as he could.

Drunk on Ruka's soft and captivating murmurs, the dog followed them to the middle of the clearing, wagging its tail all the while. It allowed Ruka to pet it and sniffed the cloth Ruka offered with interest. Natsume felt another stab of doubt. Dogs had to be trained before they could properly follow a scent, especially old ones, and this dog they got was but an inexperienced stray. He wondered if it could live to up their expectations.

The dog went into the woods willingly enough, nose to the ground, sniffing out a scent no human sans tracker alices could follow. Excited yips and barks were their only indication of the dog's location, though it never strayed too far from Ruka. As such, Ruka walked further ahead than the other two, with Natsume and Hotaru following at a more leisurely pace.

The atmosphere dimmed the deeper they went into the woods, the canopy filtering most of the sunlight that would have reached the leafy ground. Natsume looked at Hotaru from the corner of his eye. She occasionally clicked a button on her handheld gadget – a self-mapping device, Hotaru said, to keep track of their location. For that he was grateful. Getting lost in the woods was the last thing he wanted.

Natsume halted in mid-step when the dog ahead emitted a low warning growl. Rushing to Ruka's side, he found the stray glaring at something he could not see yet, its fangs bared in anger. Ruka failed to calm it down, though not for lack of trying. Its growls grew louder, more ominous.

And then there was an answering growl.

Natsume's awareness shot sky-high. His muscles tensed and he narrowed his eyes, scanning the immediate area for a predator. Beside him, he dimly registered Hotaru kneeling to plant something into the ground. Slowly, slowly, he took a few cautious steps forward so that he stood before Hotaru and Ruka. I can shield them better this way, he thought grimly.

The growling continued on both sides with no sign of an approaching predator. Natsume flexed his arm muscles in preparation to conjure a fireball as a last resort. He had no control over it now; it was no longer safe. It hurt to think of it that way. Fire had been his friend for as long as he could remember – and his worst enemy. Natsume almost chuckled at the irony of it all.

"Don't move," he cautioned the other two. Both nodded silently. Natsume took a deep breath and allowed his instincts to take over.

Abruptly, everything was silent.

Caught unaware by the sudden change, Natsume straightened and allowed himself to relax a little, watching the area like a hawk. Nothing seemed to be out of place.

"Looks fine," he started to say, but Hotaru intercepted him with a warning. "Look out!" she said urgently.

Natsume turned just in time to see a very impressive set of teeth directly in front of his face, ready to strike.

….

I'm not really pleased with this despite checking over and over again, but since an update is long overdue I'll just post it and revise later if necessary.

Hope you enjoyed it nevertheless. Sorry if you've lost the gist of the story; it was unintentional.

Please read and review!

Notes: 1. I am not sure if mandarin oranges actually grow in Japan, mind.

2. Are strawberries rare in rural areas of Japan? No idea.