Disclaimer: I know nothing, I see nothing! I own (fill in the blanks).
Dedicated to Heartbroken Confession because I asked her to give me prompts and she gave me "Like the cat suckled the monkey." Yeah, I WTF-ed, too. Yeah, this is for you, Jai. The things I do for you, dammit.
Prompts: monkeys, "Don't you have some poor soul's soul to eat?", camping, squirrels, Starbucks coffee, books, braces, Twitter, snowballs, study groups and superheroes


The Odd One Out

-;-

We grew up together, all four of us, Natsume, Ruka-pyon, Hotaru and me.

Of course, I was the latecomer. They'd all met in pre-school while I'd come in second grade. To say that I'm the odd one in the bunch would be an understatement. While the three of them frolick in their own planet, I'm on a whole other galaxy. I never feel like I truly belong because we're just so… different.

For one, they are exceptionally smart. Hotaru and Ruka study like any normal human being and are, more often than not, rewarded with the grade. Natsume, on the other hand, doesn't even have to work and usually manages to get within the top five in his classes. It isn't to say that I don't study myself because I do… but for some odd reason, even when I study my butt off, I still manage C's and D's. If I'm lucky, I might get a B-.

Unless we're talking about math… then I'd get an 'F', hands down. It doesn't make me feel any better to know that Natsume skipped to Advanced Advanced Math (he should've skipped a grade, really) when he does nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Smartass.

Then, if I think about our outer appearances, I differ from them again. Hotaru has always looked pretty. I may be biased, but she's always had this hauntingly beautiful look going on and it was only when she hit middle school that the boys in our class started to notice. Even Ruka-pyon looked at her once and sputtered at how pretty she looked.

She never let him live it down, of course.

Ruka-pyon and Natsume have been the two best looking boys in class since well, since I came to Alice Academy and seemed to gain more fans to their fan clubs as years passed. To be honest, I never really noticed them in that way until middle school when my friend, Sumire Shoda, asked me to set her up with Ruka. For the record, I thought Ruka was more good-looking than Natsume (only because his golden hair and ice blue eyes reminded me of Prince Charming).

And again, this is where I differed. I was the only one out of the four of us that had to wear braces—yes, braces—I hadn't been gifted with pin straight teeth and the blinding white smile and had to keep the metal fence in my mouth for a good three years (my orthodontist said two years! TWO! But since my teeth were so messed up, I had to have them for another painstaking year). It had come off last year, just before class pictures.

(Yes, there is some justice in the world!)

If we talk about popularity, Hotaru, though rather laconic and sarcastic, is among the popular, only because she can dish out threats and mocking comments at our two best friends with startling speed and unparalleled wit. That and I have a startling suspicion that the drama between her and Ruka intrigue many girls in our class.

Maybe… quite possibly,

… definitely.

I blame it on the braces, but popularity was another thing I didn't share with them. Where Natsume and Ruka were the two most popular boys in class, I was the second most unpopular, only beating out Hoshio Hoshino (the boy that sat in the front row and scraped all of his boogers on the underside of his desk), but then he ended up transferring out of Alice Academy and I had to take up where he left off.

That, and I had a sneaking suspicion it was Natsume's fault no one liked me. He always made me look like an idiot in front of the class.

"Here."

Speak of the devil, I glare at him and watch with mild satisfaction when he blinks at my expression with surprise.

His eyebrow rises and he nods to the Starbucks coffee he's just placed on the table. "You're going to need that, Strawberries," he says flatly, taking a seat across from me. "Or else you might just fall asleep and drool on the library books again."

"That was once!"

"Shut up, will you? God, it's a library for Christ's sake!" screeches a voice from the corner.

I press myself down against the table and glare at the smirk on Natsume's face. "You're not allowed to bring drinks in here!" I hiss at him.

"Strawberries," he gives me a look that clearly states he doesn't care. "It's Friday. Hurry up and finish your math so we can get out of here."

I send him a sour glare. "Well if my best friend would—oh, I don't know—help me and keep to his promise about being my personal study partner, then I wouldn't have to suffer Mr. Jinno's evil, evil wrath."

He shakes his head. "I feel sorry for your best friend. He wouldn't be able to get anywhere with that brain of yours."

I can't believe him. "You practically threw me out of my old study group and said you'd help me if I needed it, you little… awkward turtle!" I seethe for a moment before pressing onward. "Look at what an awesome best friend you are. God, if I still had my braces, I'd rip 'em out and throw 'em at your face."

Natsume looks amused. "Charming as always."

I huff and am trying to focus on the math problems in my textbook (and fail) when Ruka-pyon and Hotaru show up. I can't help the excited whisper of "Hotaru!" from coming out of my lips. Natsume rolls his eyes and the urge to hit him intensifies fivefold.

"Still working on your math, Mikan?" Ruka grins slightly, sliding a chair out to sit. "Well, I was thinking we could go camping this weekend, right after we get out of here. I haven't been able to see the mountains up close for a while and Honshu island is right there and I heard there are incredible squirrels there now… Or we could go to Nagano. It'd be amazing to see what animals we'll see, especially after seeing those Snow monkeys—"

"Nogi, I am not going to the mountains to look at nature under thick piles of snow," Hotaru sneers wickedly, her eyes bland.

"Don't you have some poor soul's soul to eat or something, Imai?" Ruka grates sullenly. "Honestly, you really have to let it go. Just because you're horrible at packing snowballs, that doesn't mean you should take everyone else' fun from it." He snickers lowly, "Or are you still sore from the fact that I managed to hit you square in the face with several snowballs and you never managed to land one on me?"

Without batting an eyelash, Hotaru clasps her hands together. "If you test me, I will post those pictures of you in your superhero jammies on the internet," she says easily. "It takes only a second for me to update my Twitter and by then, all of your little fans will be dying to see them."

Ruka reddens and ducks his head. "Imai, can't you just… ugh, you're infuriating."

Hotaru smirks, then tosses a bland stare in my direction. "Hurry up, stupid. We're all waiting on you." I bite my lip to keep the crass comment itching to climb out of my throat and glare. "If I rush, I'm going to get them all wrong!"

"If you take hours to think you'll get them all wrong, regardless," Hotaru returns easily. I growl at her indignantly, but she has already reached over to grab my notebook and slides it easily to Natsume. "You finish it. Just write something stupid and you'll probably be closer to getting it right than her guesses."

"Hello?" I wave sarcastically. "Her is right here. You don't have to talk like I'm not in the room, Hotaru Imai."

"Ohh, she said your whole name Hotaru," Ruka grins boyishly, turning to her. "What are you going to do?"

"Don't be patronizing, Nogi," Hotaru says acerbically. "Hyuuga, what are you waiting for?"

Natsume looks at her blandly, almost as if to say, "Who do you think you're talking to?" but then looks at me, sighs, picks up my mechanical pencil (the one with the tangerine hanging off the end) and starts writing fluidly across my page.

I gape at him. "W-what are you doing? I'm going to fail! Give it back to me!"

Without looking at me, he drawls sarcastically, "Like you weren't going to just fail anyway."

I gape at all three of them. Ruka is laughing silently with one arm across the table and the other pressed against his forehead, Hotaru is smirking triumphantly while she tinkers with her Blackberry and Natsume is doing some kind of mass calculations in his head with my pencil in his hands.

The three of them have never looked more evil.

"Oh, thanks for being so supportive of me," I snort. "I just barely passed last year's math because of my exam mark but I doubt I'll be so lucky this year. Could I—I don't know—pass in class so that I don't fail this semester? God, you guys are awful!"

Ruka laughs but Natsume has already slapped my notebook closed and has pushed it back towards me. I lift my gaze up to glare at him when he states, "I purposefully got a few questions wrong so that Jinno doesn't suspect anything but that's a definite pass." He raises an eyebrow, "Happy now, Strawberries?"

I glare at him. "When you said you'd help me out, I thought you'd help me understand the stuff, not do the whole thing for me."

"I will," he rolls his eyes, "—but we don't have time for that today."

Ruka's already throwing my books into my bag and hefting it onto his shoulder before I understand what he's just said. "Wait what? It's September 8. What's so special about it?" I frown.

They all just shake their heads with grins or smirks on each of their faces. "You really do have a terrible memory, Mikan," Ruka sighs, pulling my arm so that we're linking arms. "Natsume, you should get her to eat more fish."

"Why would I do something like that?" Natsume grates irritably, walking on Ruka's other side with his hands in his pockets.

Ruka just hums secretively and nudges me in the arm. I growl at him in annoyance.

"Really, Hyuuga," Hotaru asserts from my other side, "—For a genius, you're terribly stupid."

I laugh and I can easily feel the dark glare he directs at my back before he sneers, "How about we move the plans to your house, Imai?"

Hotaru doesn't react but returns coolly, "Over my dead body."

Though her parents are rather well off, when we gather at Hotaru's house and make a mess of things, her parents make her clean up everything and as a result, Hotaru gets rather… irritable. Things aren't good when Hotaru is irritable.

Our houses are not too far but not too close to the school, so after handing in my assignments, we head to Natsume's house by foot. We're only sixteen, not yet old enough to drive and Hotaru absolutely refuses to bike. It's funny now that I think about it. Our houses are all almost equally far away from the school, all on separate corners. If our houses made a square around the school, my house would be adjacent to both Ruka and Hotaru's and right across from Natsume's.

Natsume's house is the biggest, next to Ruka's, and my favorite of all of ours, but what I hate the most about going to Natsume's house is making the long walk back, after dropping Hotaru at her house.

It feels too… lonely, like I'm even more of the odd one out.

I sigh.

"So," I drag out the word, "—is anyone going to let me in on what's up today?" I turn to look at Ruka abruptly. "We're not celebrating your half-birthday early are we? I haven't gotten you your gift yet!"

"No one but you celebrates half-birthdays," Hotaru remarks with a snort, "So no."

I cross my arms when Ruka just laughs and am practically bouncing on the tips of my toes by the time we reach Natsume's house. They don't make a fuss of covering my eyes, though I have the feeling Ruka wants to, and open the doors in time for a whirlwind of confetti to fall unceremoniously to the floor.

I gape at the inside.

Aside from the confetti decorating the floor, there are errant balloons in the foyer and by the time we reach the living room, I'm astonished at the sight of a humongo-sized cake and chips and pop on the table. "What… what's this all about? It's not my half birthday… is it?"

Natsume snorts. "Just look at the cake, Stupid girl."

I take a tentative step towards the table and read:

Ten year anniversary of
SHIN

"What the heck is 'Shin'?" I ask with a frown. I think I should be surprised and overjoyed and elated because there's cake but I'm too muddled in the brain to understand what the heck it is we're celebrating.

"You tell her, Hyuuga," Hotaru sits on the couch, "This is your house, after all."

I swear Natsume colors just a bit before riposting, "Ruka should. He's the one that made up the horrible thing in the first place."

I tilt my head at Ruka whose cheeks have turned an admirable shade of pink. "Well, Ruka-pyon?"

He clears his throat and points at each letter, "Sakura, Hyuuga, Imai and Nogi. Today marks the tenth year we've all been friends… together. I kind of," he shrugs with embarrassment, "I thought it was important enough to note."

I blink. "But SHIN? As in 'hey you, you just kicked me in the shin!' Shin?" I shake my head, "I think we can come up with a better acronym than that!"

"If Nogi just married Iincho like I told him to, we'd have no problem with that," Hotaru sneers acidly, smirking at the way Ruka reddens. "Instead, we'd be—"

"THIS?" I say, raising a brow. "How is that any better than SHIN? I think that's worse!"

"SHIT," Natsume cuts in.

"Shit what?"

Natsume rolls his eyes. "Imai means SHIT."

I laugh, only because Imai does not mean shit. It means something like… new residence or the like. I'm about to say as much when Natsume just shakes his head and sends me a look that clearly states he doesn't believe how stupid I'm being. I stick out my tongue and he looks half-amused and half-frustrated (like he wants to tear my head off and feed it to Hotaru).

I cross my arms. I'd like to see him try.

The nerve.

-;-

The fact that Natsume doesn't like sweets and the fact that Hotaru would rather eat seafood than the cake leaves Ruka and I devouring it like it's nobody's business. But Ruka-pyon feels nauseous half-way through his second slice and has to go to the bathroom, which leaves me with the pleasure of eating it.

It almost disappoints me that we don't get halfway through the cake before the night is up.

Another thing that separates me from my three best friends is the fact that they're allowed staying up for however long they want. Me? I'm the only one with a curfew and have to be in bed by eleven, regardless if it's the weekend.

Life is beyond unfair.

Life is even more unfair when Hotaru's parents come over to pick her up. I almost accept their offer to drive me home until I see just how pretty it looks at night, especially when the sky looks so clear. Ruka-pyon offers to walk with me partway, since his house is on the way to mine and I agree because Hotaru's already gone home and it'd be nice to talk to Ruka-pyon without him bickering with Hotaru.

"I'll come too," Natsume is pulling his shoes on. "I promised your mom I'd visit soon," he says to Ruka.

Ruka frowns, "But isn't it a little late—uh… I mean, yeah – I remember that too. Sure. Yeah."

I can feel my eyebrow rise and Natsume just shrugs before following us out of his driveway.

It's only Ruka-pyon and me talking the whole walk to his house and whenever I try to add Natsume into the conversation, he says something uncommitted and stares resolutely ahead of us. He has a look of concentration on his face as we near Ruka's house and his eyebrows are slightly furrowed in a slight V-shape and I'm about to ask him if he's alright when he looks at me, his face clears and he continues to look straight ahead.

Strange behavior, if you ask me.

Sometimes I worry about that kid.

"Well, I'll see you two when I see you!" I wave when we stop at Ruka's house. I'm on my way home when I hear footsteps behind me and Natsume's face pops up from behind. "Weren't you just—"

"I'm going to walk you home, No-Star," he walks ahead. "I'll save those perverts around here from kidnapping a stupid girl like you."

"I'm not going to get kidnapped, Natsume. I always walk home alone."

"You shouldn't."

I frown. "Walk home alone?"

Natsume refuses to answer and burrows his hands deeper into his pockets with a scowl on his face. It almost makes me laugh when I see it. I walk ahead, turning to walk backwards so that I can see Natsume's face and I bring up a hand from behind me to poke his scowl. "You shouldn't look so miserable, Natsume! You'll ruin the mood."

"Like I care," he returns moodily.

"What's your problem?" I put my hands on my hips. "You were fine a moment ago!"

His eyes soften just the slightest before he turns me back around and tilts my chin up. "Shut up, Polka Dots, and just watch the sky with me."

I roll my eyes. "Sap," I murmur quietly, darting my eyes to him before I focus back on the sky. "I knew you were just a huge mess of sappiness."

He whacks me on the head, "Stupid girl."

"Jerkwad."

He retorts easily with 'Strawberry Panties Freak' and I fumble with words before bringing my chin up. "You know, I could come up with so many names for you but it'd just be a waste of my time. Hmph!"

He chuckles and I think I feel him hook our pinkies together for the faintest of seconds before we're at my door and he's turning back with an uncommitted wave as goodbye.

"Happy SHIN day, Natsume!"

He grunts but doesn't turn back and I'm pretty sure, even in the dark, the back of his neck is turning pink while lit up by my porch light.

It's when I'm halfway up the stairs that I realize… walking home with Natsume, being with Natsume, made me feel like I belonged in the group more than I ever have before.


My Hopeless Romantic