Sorry about the delay, guys…I had MAJOR writer's block on this story. As in, even I had no idea what would happen next. XD And I'll make up for this short chapter in the next one!

"Things have been quiet without you around, Roy. So there's nothing to report. But what about on your side? I'm sure there's a lot going on at that school you're teaching in, considering that every student there is supposedly gifted in some way…"

Roy drummed his fingers on the surface of his bedside table, an inch from the telephone. "Not really. There's nothing to report here too. But that's actually a good thing, because that means getting things done more quickly. I seriously can't understand how this Narumi guy and all the other teachers stand all the work they have to take care of everyday." He stretched out one of his arms and yawned before adding, "Listen, Maes, I have to go. I'm really tired…"

"No problem. Have a good night then, Colonel."

"The same to you, and don't let it get to your head. You are just covering for me, after all."

"Oh, that's something I won't forget. You know that."

"Good night, Maes."

The substitute teacher put down the phone and sighed, stretching out and yawning again. He had earned himself a good night's sleep, and there was no delaying his reward any longer. But before he could flop onto his more than comfortable bed, he saw something move outside his window. There was just something about the movement that was quite a bit suspicious…

Roy stood up and peeked through the glass pane. It was dark, all right…dark except for a few lampposts that marked paths through the Academy's grounds. But there was something else – it looked like a person moving through the foliage. Roy wondered if said stranger was just a groundskeeper or someone similar…and yet, the latter seemed too secretive to be staff, and looked as though he (or she) was trying to hide something, or simply hide.

You're just being paranoid again;the Flame Alchemist scolded himself sternly as he tried not to reach for the ignition gloves he kept locked up in the bedside table drawer. The Alice Academy is full of strange people; maybe even the gardeners are strange like that. Or your eyes are playing tricks on you. It's dark, after all…

With a sigh, Roy finally lay down and was asleep in the blink of an eye.

He kept this matter to himself even as he entered the classroom, where he was greeted with a resounding, "Good morning, Mr. Mustang!" which helped him briefly forget what he had seen last night.

"So then," said Roy, dumping all his things on the teacher's desk, "have you all finished the homework I gave yesterday? It's very easy…"

"No, it wasn't!" whined a nearby student.

"Yes, it was!" argued her seatmate.

"I think you'll love reading my homework," announced Sumire gaily, "as much as I loved writing it." She stood up proudly and handed in her paper personally before flouncing back to her seat. Everyone followed suit – although a lot less flippantly, led by Mikan, who was beaming as she submitted.

Last to stand up was Natsume, who scowled as he thrust his work into the stack of papers on the desk as though his homework was a ticking bomb. He had only moved when Ruka did, rabbit in one hand and paper in the other, and with a small smile on his face. Ruka glanced at Natsume, who just stomped back to his place in the back.

But before he sat down and stared at the surface of his table, Natsume gave Roy one last glare. Either the teacher didn't seem to notice, or purposely took no notice of it, as he arranged the homework alphabetically and got everyone's attention again. "All right, open your textbooks to chapter seven…" He picked up a piece of chalk and scribbled the page numbers on the board for everyone to follow.

Ruka was surprised to see Natsume comply right away – albeit grumpily, as though he would rather jump off a cliff than do whatever Roy said.

The rabbit's ears twitched, as though trying to tell its master something, but either Ruka didn't get the message, didn't need to, or simply ignored it. His friend, after opening the book to the required pages, let out a huge yawn. But he struggled to keep his eyes open; his strategy was to maintain a defiant stare as their teacher began writing more than just page numbers on the blackboard.


The boy opened his eyes and saw the familiar pigtailed girl staring down at him as he sat underneath a tree. He sighed, but then again, she was blocking the sun, which meant making things shadier, so he kept his mouth shut about it and said, "What is it?"

"Can I sit down…there?" Mikan pointed to the empty spot beside him.

"Go ahead."

He shrugged and didn't even watch her make herself comfortable. Natsume could feel déjà vu tugging at him slightly, but once again, didn't say anything about it. The two children were silent; Mikan reached out for a small daisy in the grass, while her classmate was busy twirling a stick he had found and stripping it of its leaves. At last, Mikan broke the ice.

"Where's Ruka?"

"Running an errand. Where's Hotaru?"

"In her lab, and she told me to stay out while she worked."

"Oh." Natsume yawned and tossed his stick aside, crossing his arms as he leaned back against the tree trunk. It didn't take too long for Mikan to ask another question – one he would never expect.

"Natsume…do you like Mr. Mustang?"

He sat up abruptly and stared at her as though she had asked him to jump off a cliff. "Did you just ask if I liked Mustang…as in, our substitute teacher?"

Mikan nodded.

"Why are you asking?"

"I guess I sort of got curious," she answered, looking veritably innocent. "So…"

"What about you? Do you like him?" he mumbled, knowing full well that this was a dumb question.

She smiled. "Of course I do. He's really nice and smart, and he helped me study, and…"

"When I first saw him, I thought he was a bigheaded bastard. And I was right. Look how he walks whenever he enters or leaves our class, or when he passes through the corridor, and especially when all the other girls follow him around. I think he even knows he has a fan club. I can't wait till he's gone – I can't stand him."

Mikan was silent, but not for long. "Really?" she said, her grin fading, replaced by a more concerned expression. "But…he's a good teacher. How can you not like him?"

Raising an eyebrow, Natsume retorted, "Do you really have to ask me? It's none of your business. Can we talk about something else?"

She was slightly taken aback by his reaction and wanted to ask why he was asking why she was asking him, but Mikan just said with a glance at her pink wristwatch, "Oh…sorry. Anyway…I think I'll go see Hotaru now. Maybe by now she's finished with whatever she's working on…"

"Sure, go on ahead. See ya."

"'Bye, Natsume!"

Natsume glanced up into the canopy of leaves above them and heard Mikan stand up and walk away, her steps dying as she got farther and farther away. He heard another noise – something that sounded more like the rustling of a bush than anything else. Glancing around him, he found no one, and shrugged.

Roy stretched out his arms after undoing his fire tie, looking over his shoulder and through his window. It had been a couple of hours since the sun had set, and darkness reigned.

Something moved.

The Flame Alchemist could feel a strong sense of déjà vu and opened his window. When he did, there didn't seem to be anything at all disturbing the premises.

Maybe some gardener is doing a little overtime, or students like sneaking out at this time of night…but what was there to do at night on the academy grounds? Roy thought of some possible answers to that question, and chuckled. The middle school students would probably have something on their mind tonight. And then again, perhaps the teaching job was beginning to get to him; probably the paperwork…

But it didn't seem to be stress at all. He knew himself, and knew that when he was stressed out, he didn't start seeing things.

A shadow flickered on the grass and shifted before disappearing from sight, but Roy didn't think too much about it, preferring to close his window and draw the curtains before changing and flopping into his bed.

Only this time, it took slightly longer for him to fall asleep.