So, I believe this to be my first Gakuen Alice fanfic. I really love the friendship between Ruka and Natsume, so that is what this centers around. It takes place shortly after they arrive at the school, maybe a few months later. There may be slight spoilers if you're not up to date on the manga (I'm not sure about the anime) but nothing too major. I do not own Gakuen Alice or the characters used.

It had happened again. Ruka knew it as soon as he set foot in his friend's room. He hadn't seen Natsume in over three days, and each time he'd come to check on him, his room had been empty. His best friend was missing, and rumours were swirling around the school. Some thought that he had fallen ill and was sent to the hospital. Others thought darker things. After all, it was never good when people went missing at Gakuen Alice. But since this wasn't the first time that Hyuuga Natsume had vanished for days, most just shrugged it off.

Not Ruka.

This was his best friend, the first true friend that he had ever made. It was his choice to accompany Natsume to the academy, so he had to protect his friend as best he could while there. It was proving harder than he'd expected, and although he was trying so very hard to become Natsume's support, he could feel him slowly slipping away. The boy had always been a bit aloof, but not cold. Not like he was lately, and how he was becoming. It had taken a while for Ruka to pry out the reason for the change, but now that he knew, he wasn't sure there was anything he could do about it. He and Natsume would have no chance if they went up against the Academy on their own. They would be crushed like insects, Natsume's missions would grow more frequent, and who knew what would happen to Aoi. It didn't matter to Ruka what happened to himself. By now, he was willing to do anything to stop Natsume's rapid downward spiral.

The room was dark, as expected, yet Ruka knew that he wasn't alone there. He could hear the faint sounds of someone panting, and it bothered him that his friend hadn't responded to his intrusion, though he was relieved beyond words that he was back. Lately Natsume had been short-tempered, even with Ruka, so he'd expected to be snapped at or even had something thrown at him. But there was no reaction at all.

"Natsume?" He asked the darkness, scowling when he noticed that he was whispering. There was no need for that. There was also no need for him to leave the room in the dark, since the light switch was a few mere feet away. He made no move toward it, though.

"Natsume?" He asked again, louder this time, determined not to be beaten by the syrupy heaviness that infected the air in the room. "Natsume, it's Ruka. You've been gone for three days. Are you all right?" There was obvious worry in his voice as he searched the room for any shadows shaped like his friend.

"I'm fine, Ruka." The raspy whisper caused him to freeze, letting out a breath that he didn't realize that he was holding. Finally, a response! Even if the way his voice sounded worried Ruka, it was better than nothing. Now he knew for certain that Natsume was here, that he wasn't lying dead in a ditch somewhere. Breathing became easier now that their tightness had loosened out of his chest, but he was still worried.

"Do you want me to turn on the light?" He asked, trying to pinpoint the direction that Natsume's had come from, without much luck. It had sounded slightly muffled. What did that mean?

"Leave it off."

The quiet response interrupted his thoughts, but led to the realization that Natsume was in the closet. Why was he in there? And why did he insist on having the light off? Uneasy, Ruka began to worry his lower lip between his teeth. He wanted to help his friend, but how? The only things he knew how to do were to stay close to Natsume, be his friend, comfort him at times like this and be someone that he knew he could trust. Was it enough? Ruka didn't think so. There had to be more he could do. Anything was fine. He'd do anything.

"Okay, Natsume." He said, still keeping his voice soft. He moved slowly over to the closet, but there were no sounds of movement from within. Suddenly, panic rose up in his throat. What if he was hurt? What if Natsume had been injured on this mission? Or worse, not done as well as was desired of him, and been punished by Persona?

An involuntary shudder climbed its way up his spine at that thought. Natsume hadn't meant for him to find out about Persona. He didn't know if the other boy was aware that he knew about the man and his disturbing role in Natsume's life. Since Natsume didn't want him to know, he feigned ignorance, but he didn't really know if that was the best thing or not. He wasn't ready to reveal this knowledge in order to find out, though.

Turning, he leaned against the wall beside the closet, sliding down until his butt his the floor and wrapping his arms around his knees and resting his forehead on them. Natsume still hadn't come out of the closet, and he was torn between opening the closet door and trying to talk to his friend, or staying out here and waiting quietly for him to come out on his own. Maybe it would be best to wait. He didn't want to push Natsume if he wasn't ready. Too many people were already pushing the fragile boy.

So he waited. What felt like forever passed as he sat in relative silence, barely breathing so that the room would be quiet enough for him to hear Natsume's quiet breathing from within the closet. The quiet breaths held steady, and every now and then they faded from Ruka's hearing, causing the boy to momentarily panic that Natsume had stopped breathing, before forcing himself to calm down and listen. His ears always picked up on the breaths again and he would sigh silently in relief that Natsume was still with him.

The closet door opening caught him by surprise, causing him to give a small cry of alarm as he jerked violently. Turning his head so fast that the muscles hurt, he stared up at Natsume, who had finally ventured out.

For a moment their eyes met, before Natsume looked away. Walking stiffly and carefully, he moved to Ruka's other side and slid down the wall until he was sitting next to the blond boy, their shoulders gently bumping into each other from the motion.

Ruka was completely tongue-tied from uncertainty. What was the best course of action now? Should he speak or stay silent? Mental wars raged on in his head as he sat there and sweated, trying to come to a decision. Neither he nor Natsume looked at one another, which didn't do anything to ease his nerves. When Natsume had walked past him, Ruka could tell from his movements that he was hurt. The darkness had prevented him from being able to tell how badly, but no one who wasn't in pain would walk with such a jerky gait. For a moment, Ruka felt an intense, passionate hatred take a hold of him. He hated it! He hated the school. He hated that horrible man in the mask who took pleasure in Natsume's suffering. He hated the feeling of not knowing what to do, of utter helplessness. He hated himself for not being stronger and more decisive. And for a brief, regretful moment, he even hated Natsume for shutting him out like this.

A warm hand cupped his cheek, and Ruka was again startled from his thoughts with a surprised jolt. "You're crying." Natsume's voice was flat and unreadable, and Ruka was horrified to discover that the statement was true: Hot tears were streaming down his cheeks.

"S-Sorry!" He stammered, batting Natsume's hand away and rubbing at his eyes with both sleeves. How embarrassing! Tears would do nothing to help Natsume. They were completely useless, and would only make the other boy feel worse for upsetting him. And yet here he was, crying like a child. He was eight already! He should have outgrown this by now!

"You don't need to apologize." Natsume said quietly, gently grabbing Ruka's chin with one hand and dabbing at the streams of tears with his free hand's sleeve. Ruka momentarily froze, but then relaxed and let Natsume take over, sniffling quietly. He was always so weak. Even though he wanted to protect Natsume, it always wound up being Natsume who protected him. Just like now, the one that wound up doing the comforting was Natsume. It wasn't fair. The world was so unfair.

To his shame, the thought made him cry harder. The sniffles he'd managed to reduce the crying to erupted into full-out sobs. "H-Hey!" He heard Natsume say in surprise as the hands wiping at the tears became more frantic to keep up with the increased flow. Hiccuping, Ruka tried to make the tears stop. This was only making things worse.

"Why?" He choked out, unable to stop himself, surprising Natsume into halting his valiant effort to catch all of the tears. "Why is it always Natsume?" Ruka continued, grabbing Natsume's hands and holding them tightly. "Why does every bad thing have to happen to Natsume? All the pain, all the suffering; why must it always fall on you?"

They wouldn't stop. The tears wouldn't stop. The words wouldn't stop. Ruka found himself spilling out all of the thoughts and feelings that he'd kept so tightly in his heart, determined to keep them hidden, while Natsume listened to him in silence.

""It's okay." Natsume said when he was finished and had exhausted himself into taking quiet, choking breaths. "It's better this way. I'd rather be the one in pain than have it be you. None of this is your fault. It was my choice to go through with this." He said firmly.

"It wasn't a choice!" Ruka said fiercely, surprising Natsume with the fire in his eyes. "When have they ever given you a choice? You do it to protect me. To protect Aoi. You do it to keep us safe, and to try and get Aoi out of the school's clutches. They purposely set our town on fire to take your choices away, so don't you tell me that you chose this!"

For a moment, Natsume just stared at him. It was really rare for Ruka's temper to get the better of him. The fact that he'd lost it was probably a sign of how tired he was – how tired both of them were.

"You're right." He said finally, sliding an arm around Ruka's shoulders and pulling his friend close against his side, feeling a hint of satisfaction when Ruka leaned in. He was still sniffling, but managed to get himself mostly under control. "I didn't choose this. Neither did you. But we're stuck here, and all we can do is survive until we get out. Which we will, because we won't give them the satisfaction of seeing us die here." He said firmly, feeling Ruka nod against his shoulder, accompanied by another sniffle.

"I won't die." Ruka promised quietly, slipping one of his own arms around Natsume's shoulders, careful of any injuries that might be there. "So you don't die either, okay? I won't forgive you if you die." He warned, trying to look serious despite his red eyes and tear-stained cheeks.

"I wouldn't die and leave you to fend for yourself." Natsume said, a faint hint of a scowl beginning to form. "And I still have to save Aoi."

"Okay. It's a promise, then." Ruka said sleepily, nuzzling his head against Natsume's shoulder. All that crying had completely worn him out, and he couldn't keep his eyes open, no matter how hard he tried.

"Yeah, it's a promise." He heard Natsume agree as his eyes slid shut.

"Don't forget."

"I won't."