Hotaru grills Natsume.

Natsume is petulant.


AN: I'm just going to let you know that while I allude heavily to Natsume/Mikan, there is no explicit reference to either his feelings for her or to any potentiality of an impending relationship. You'll just have to make your own inferences.

I can't imagine that either Hotaru or Natsume would ever really be able to hold a straight-forward conversation, most especially when it comes to the girl who perpetually throws them off-kilter. Which made this a difficult exercise, actually, because it just seems so on-face out of character for them to be discussing Mikan.

But whatever.

Someone has to break through to Natsume about his idiotic way of handling his feelings for Mikan, and if it's going to be anyone, then I figure Hotaru is best-suited for the job.

Because she's so damn snarky.

I should warn you that nothing spoken between Natsume and Hotaru should be taken at face value. Double meanings and Innuendo are the name of the game.


Written in an hour, not proofread. Prepare yourselves.)


How to Skin a Cat

Natsume blinked erratically, a powerful spotlight fixed on his person and nigh blinding him as he gradually regained his faculties. Squinting and angling his head sharply, he could just make out the silhouette of the person responsible for having –he glanced down at himself suddenly and fought the very un-Natsume urge to blanch, or otherwise indicate his bewildered incredulity—tied him to a chair.

With chains.

Unnerved, though wholly unwilling to put such feelings on display, he made quick work of blanking whatever emotion may have unconsciously flitted across his face in the infinitesimal moment it had taken him to understand his situation, and he allowed a largely diffident –if not somewhat annoyed—expression to supplant it. Then, blinking against the harsh lighting in an attempt to discover some discerning object or person, he busied himself surreptitiously with twiddling the thumbs on his hands bound behind him, a single, focused thought igniting his alice in silent defiance of the Laws of the Natural Universe, the diminutive glowing bead dancing waywardly in the quiet space above his shackled hands. He shifted minutely in his seat, ostentatiously trying to get a better vantage to peruse his immediate surroundings, though in actuality he was tilting the tiny flame more directly toward the metal bonds.

He grimaced when he realized it was going to be necessary to turn the heat up quite a lot to make any substantive progress in melting the metal into anything malleable enough to allow him a chance for escape. Whoever was responsible for his current captivity obviously knew with whom they were dealing.

Biting his lip, Natsume focused on the impression of the flickering fire at his fingertips, carefully filtering the image over with the most intense blue he could envisage—

"Natsume." The flames blinked out of existence in his surprise, as he realized in the wake of that horribly neutral (though somehow still also condescendingly sophisticated and elegantly mellifluous) voice that his captor was none other than—

"Imai." He growled softly. "What the fu—"

"I wouldn't recommend using your alice." She interjected blithely, bland insouciance shading her tone. "I assure you that even you would have difficulty breaking those chains, and you'll only waste your energy and agitate your condition, besides. If you'll sit quietly and cooperate when necessary, this shouldn't take longer than a few excruciating moments, and then you'll be free to go." While he mulled briefly over whether or not he should be feeling morbidly terrified, severely annoyed, or deeply affronted, he felt his brow ascend before he had a proper chance to stop it, and glared to cover up the lapse. "You've been doing that a lot lately." Hotaru observed cryptically. When his only response was to blink twice, rather more quickly than usual, "Slipping up, I mean." He heard the strangely melodic tinkling of what was probably very fine china as –he assumed—she set aside a cup of tea.

"Is the spotlight really necessary?" He wondered absently, irritation leaking through his curling lip.

"I think it adds a nice effect." She confessed, but switched it off, anyway. When the final blotchy, apparition-like after-images of the light had at last faded, he observed that he was in –what looked to be—a very poorly-lighted laboratory, directly across from the bane of his existence's best friend.

Who, as if on cue, gingerly raised a face-down glossy photograph from her lap for him to behold, and his eyes flickered briefly with a heat not entirely unlike the one he'd attempted to harness earlier.

This was suddenly so much worse than blackmail, he mused darkly, unable to tear his gaze away from the obnoxiously smiling face in the picture, despite his best efforts to throw it elsewhere –anywhere else. He supposed it couldn't matter too much in the end, anyway. Hotaru was shrewd enough to understand that his avoidance of the glossy was just as telling as his keen scrutiny of it.

"We're graduating in four weeks," She said evenly. She held up four fingers to illustrate the point, and then the game was set.

He understood now what this was all about, and he found himself silently agreeing that it was going to be an especially excruciating few moments. Perhaps the longest of his life.

"I'll be happy to get away." He rejoined, just as coolly. Quietly, she lowered one finger, and he narrowed his eyes at her, glowering.

"Plans for the future?" The silent depth of her question caught him off-guard, and it took him several ponderous seconds to answer.

When finally he did,

"Keep away from ugly idiots," was what he settled upon, and even he felt that his reply lacked the same subtle finesse the girl before him had mastered.

Still, quietly, pointedly, she lowered a second finger.

"And Ruka-kun?" He hated Imai, he realized. Not with the same violent, almost mindless abhorrence with which he had reviled Persona, of course, but somehow he found himself likening the ferocious hostility he had –until now—reserved exclusively for that dark man to what he was feeling for panty-girl's best friend.

"Ruka's moving on to bigger and better things." She nodded once, curtly. "He tells me that these days he's rather fond of technology." For an instant, he managed to drag his gaze away long enough to behold the minute colouring of her cheeks, and the creeping surprise in her dark violet eyes.

He smirked cruelly and she dropped another finger in retaliation.

"Will you miss it?" His brows creased in aggravated confusion, and she amended her question. "The Academy, I mean." It took longer than it should have to reply in the negative. "You're slipping again." She noted smoothly, and he felt his teeth grinding. She leaned forward slightly, and he thought –insanely—that he saw some raw emotion there in the set of her shoulders, in the taut line of her jaw, but he couldn't identify what it was. "I'm sure the Academy will miss you. Even though you're selfish and cruel and stupid. Probably only because the Academy's stupid, also, though." His eyes alighted once more on the effervescent subject of the photo. Then, almost as an afterthought, "You were made for each other, really." And then he didn't even try to stop the surprise from flashing across his face.

"What are you—"

"You and the Academy, I mean." She repeated, something like a wry expression transforming her features.

"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard." He snapped, glaring at her with as much ire as he could muster.

Hotaru leaned back in her seat and shook her head disapprovingly. And then elegantly, she tucked her final finger into the curved cradle of her fist, and thereafter returned the photograph to its face-down position on her lap. With no other choice, he leveled his gaze once more on her.

"It's strange how quickly time flies by." She remarked. Then fluidly, she stood, her shadow looming over him imposingly. "Despite the Academy's many, many, many flaws, it's important to me." He saw grim, uncompromising determination in her eyes, and he marveled at the show of emotion. "And if you do anything to harm it, or something equally as stupid and thoughtless as leaving it to forever wonder what it was to you, you will regret it." Somehow, the monotonous, utterly controlled way she threatened him was much more frightening than he would ever willingly admit. She blinked at him, and had he been anyone other than who he was, he suspected he would have shrunk in on himself unconsciously. As it was, that infinitesimally meaningful, involuntary gesture made him feel very, very small. "I see that we understand one another. Consider carefully, but think quickly. Time is short."

It wasn't until she reached up with one hand to flick the purple switch on the black device in her other that he even realized she'd produced the object at all, but by then it was far too late to do anything about it—not, of course, that he'd had many options with which to work, anyway.

And then, the last thing he recalled before his world turned black was Imai, smiling. That alone would have been enough to send him hurtling into shocked oblivion, but whatever it was she'd had in her hand was already doing the job quite nicely.


Ruka had just about given up searching the immediate perimeter of the clearing; assuming that Natsume had wanted to get away badly enough to have somehow managed to avoid detection in only a few short seconds, and to have covered several hundred completely sparse feet in the same amount of time to enable such an escape, he doubted seriously that he'd find his friend skulking about along the line of trees surrounding their temporary hideaway, but it had seemed a worthwhile endeavor at first. It was his first experience with a spontaneously-disappearing-person (Nodachi excluded, naturally, but that didn't count), and he thought that, under the circumstances, he was handling himself rather admirably.

Kneeling, he beckoned forth a nearby field mouse and affectionately explained that he was giving up the search for now, but that he was eternally grateful for the help the little creature and its family had provided. The blushing rodent scampered away with a final, parting pat on its tiny head, and Ruka brushed himself off as he climbed sullenly to his feet, and turned—

--only to nearly be crushed by his best friend, who had literally materialized out of thin air and then fallen –what looked to be rather painfully—to the ground.

"Natsume! Are you alright?!" He exclaimed, feeling stupid and silly for not having anything better to offer the boy who'd just fallen from the sky.

And who was, he realized belatedly, unconscious and…wrapped in chains. He swallowed and looked about apprehensively for signs that he was about to be abducted and made to endure whatever unthinkable horrors to which his friend had undoubtedly been subjected.

When Natsume groaned in what Ruka assumed was pain, however, the animal-pheromone-laden boy forgot his anxieties immediately in favour of dropping to his knee beside his friend to help in whatever way he could.

"N-natsume…? Are you…alright?" Lightly, Ruka brushed the darker boy's hair from his eyes to behold him as he regained cognizance.

"R…Ruka…" He wheezed, and the boy with the bunny wept within for his friend.

"What is it, Natsume? What can I do?" At last, the wielder of fire was focused exclusively on the blonde, and his red eyes burned with some unnamed fury. Ruka's brow furrowed in worry.

He'd failed. His best friend had been captured in less than a second, right beside him, and he'd done nothing but idly wander about, dispatching field mice as a search party in absent indecision as to what he could possibly do to find the other boy. He'd failed and now Natsume hated him. He was sure of it.

"Natsume…" He fought back tears.

"Ruka," Natsume began, voice still somewhat hoarse, though he appeared otherwise fairly lucid and aware of himself. "I've said it before, but please allow me the small pleasure of informing you that your taste in women…" he coughed, grinned wickedly, "really sucks."

::le fin::

Subtext, anyone?

I'm planning to eventually make this into a series; I'd like for there to be three, possibly even four different situations in which Natsume finds himself unable to escape a thorough interrogation on the subject of a one Mikan Sakura. I've already written some of a Tsubasa-Natsume conversation, and another scenario bouncing about in my head involves Koko very amiably holding a one-sided conversation with Natsume's mind.

We'll see what happens.