No, I do not own Gakuen Alice.
'Cause she's coming down fast
And someone's gotta break her fall,
And a voice in the back of my head calls,
I know angels don't fall that often,
Baby, I'll catch you
Before you hit the ground
-Angels, Jason Damato
I was forced to recover for three days in the hospital, practically chained to the bed by doctors and nurses that didn't appreciate the fuss I put up over having to stay, and so kept a close eye on me as if expecting me to try and make a break for it. I was treated for minor burns, smoke inhalation, a broken leg, and a few cuts and bruises.
My throat was still sore, but that didn't stop me from talking every time a nurse or doctor came in, demanding they release me because I wasn't going to get any better than I was just then.
Natsume and Ruka couldn't visit me. Natsume couldn't because he was practically stuck to Persona, pretending to hate him for killing me, when in actuality he was only pissed at him for trying to kill me. Ruka was hiding, because although Persona said nothing of it to Natsume, I knew that he would try and squeeze the truth out of Ruka if he got the chance.
Hotaru came and visited me on several occasions, but only to go over with me how we were going to present the information to Persona. She was impatient as I was, but for her own reasons; she was convinced that if we didn't do it soon, Natsume was going to wring Persona's neck and end up in jail and all of our hard work would amount to nothing.
She was also pissed because of how I'd ended up in the hospital in the first place. The whole reason we'd gone to the finish line of the race was to blackmail Persona, but with the little twist that had gotten me in a bit of a predicament, we hadn't had a chance to do it.
"You got kidnapped for nothing," she muttered unhappily.
I was still trying to maintain a positive attitude, despite my scratchy voice and the way my throat stung when I talked. "Hey, at least you had a tracking device in his car." I frowned. "I'm actually surprised, knowing you, that you didn't have one on me."
"I did," she said haughtily, folding her arms over her chest and turning her nose up in the air. "But it was in the shoe you kicked off."
Persona remained in the dark about Hotaru being my accomplice, which she enjoyed because she was quite excited to see the look on his face when we showed up at his house. Well, as excited as someone of Hotaru's nature could be.
Hotaru's last visit to me had been the day before I got out. She'd been muttering about preparations before the confrontation with Persona as she left, leaving me alone once more. But since then, Koko and Yuu and Anna and Nonoko and Daichi (who had gotten a little bit teary-eyed when he saw me) and even Sumire had come in to visit me.
I apologized profusely to Koko and Sumire for ruining their date. Koko said something along the lines of, "I'd have been less angry if you hadn't almost killed yourself as a result," and Sumire had stubbornly declared, "It was not a date!"
Koko was with me now, there to take me home after I was discharged from the hospital.
"You're looking pretty rough," he informed me as he walked and I hobbled on crutches down the hospital hallway. "You're not coming back to work, not even to work the cash desk, until that ugly yellow bruise is gone from your face."
I touched my cheek, where the healing cut and bruise reminded me of the blow from Persona's shovel. "Yeah, yeah. I got it."
He grinned, fondly throwing his arm over my shoulders and pulling me against him. Then he kissed the top of my head. "Don't tell Natsume I did that. He'll torture then kill me."
"Oh, quit it. You're making me blush."
"How's he doing, anyway?" he asked, helping me onto the elevator. "Natsume, I mean. Persona must be having a hard time with him, and Natsume must be having a hard time not killing him."
"Persona has Youichi hanging over Natsume's head," I sighed. "He's not going to do anything until Hotaru and I confront him." I turned to Koko excitedly. "Hotaru thinks she's excited to see the look on his face when he figures out she was the one that was with me? Well I'm excited to see the look of pure shock when he sees me, not dead, and realizes just how futile his attempts are, and just how much he's lost by being an asshole."
"He taped you up, threw you in a shed, and set it on fire and the most you can do is call him an asshole?" He chuckled. "That's impressive."
I hadn't told Koko yet. In fact, I'd forbidden Ruka and Hotaru from breathing a word of my relation to Persona to anybody, until I was ready to do it myself. And until I asked Natsume why he hadn't told me. So I had to think before I spoke, more now than any other time.
"So when are you doing it?" he asked me as the elevator surged downwards.
"Tonight, hopefully. We're not going to tell Natsume when we're going to do it because he'll just freak out and say that I'd be stupid going to confront him when I'm in this state. But I have the cast for three months, and I'm not holding out that long."
He snorted. "Natsume can't hold out that long. He'll go mad and kill him, I swear he will."
I cringed at the thought of Natsume killing anybody. "He won't," I said confidently.
I missed Natsume. A lot. Three days of not seeing him when I knew he was with Persona was a different sort of torture. Because Persona had proven to me how dangerous he could be, and had said himself that he would do what he did to me, to Ruka for information. Meaning even those who were seemingly loyal to him – against their will or not – were not safe.
Don't get me wrong, I was a little more than rattled that the end of the night of the fire had ended with Natsume of all people coming to my rescue. I would have preferred Ruka being the one to carry me out, just because it was too cliché to have Natsume be my rescuer.
But I couldn't complain. Because I was alive, and soon he and Ruka were going to be out of Persona's clutches.
And I dreamt about the feel of his arms around me, the fury in his voice as he'd spoken to Persona, the way he'd inspected every inch of my body for injuries, and how he'd kissed my hand in the ambulance and quietly thanked me for the trouble we'd gone through for him.
So yes, I missed him.
"What do you say I take you to the café and we can grab some breakfast?" Koko said, tearing me from my thoughts. "On the house, of course."
My stomach grumbled at the thought of breakfast at Yome's. "Yes, please. I'm so sick of hospital food."
It turns out the real reason Koko took me to Yome's was because he had a bit of a surprise party waiting there for me. Sumire was working, and Anna, Nonoko, Yuu, and Daichi were sitting at the counter. Sumire saw us come in first, squealed excitedly, and came running around the counter to leap on me.
"Oh, finally. I've been dying, picking up all these extra shifts for you. I'm so glad you're back. My social life has-"
"Sumire," Koko said firmly. "She's off for another week, and even then she'll only being doing cash." He nudged my broken leg with his foot. "Not easy to wait tables with this, I imagine."
Anna and Nonoko gushed over me a little bit, demanded I tell them everything that happened, and even got a little bit flustered. But it was Daichi that nearly broke down sobbing as he lumbered over to me and picked me up off the ground in the warmest, most welcoming bear hug I'd ever experienced.
"Oh, Mik, I was so worried."
I patted his back, smiling into his shoulder. "I know. You said that in the hospital."
"No, no, I was worried about you getting over here. Koko drives like a madman."
I laughed, because I knew that wasn't what he'd been worried about and because I'd been in vehicles with Ruka, Hotaru, Natsume, and Hayate's friend that had taken me to the party where Natsume had first kissed me. Not to mention I'd been in the trunk of Persona's car.
"Koko's driving was actually pretty mild," I said once he'd set me down. "Don't start sniffling, Daichi. You're going to make me cry."
He sniffled once more, shook his head, and managed a smile that I could barely see because of his bushy beard. But I could see his cheeks get rosy.
He was like a really big teddy bear. I had to resist hugging him again.
Everyone wanted to talk about what happened, but Daichi was the first one to see how much distress it was causing me just thinking about it, and nobly changed the conversation to me and Natsume. I'd a hundred times rather talk about that – no matter how embarrassed and flustered I got – then continue to talk about what had happened with Persona.
"You know, for the longest time I thought he was gay and trying to cover it up," Anna said thoughtfully.
"Natsume Hyuuga is not gay," Sumire said defensively.
"And I thought that was just wishful thinking on your part," Anna said with a giggle. "But I guess he just had commitment problems until you came along, Mik. I mean, he probably slept with half the school, leaving a trail of broken hearts in his wake, but-"
Koko cleared his throat. "Anna, I think Mikan's got the image."
I shrugged. "I'm pretty confident he's not gay."
Sumire sniffled. "He never slept with me."
Nonoko laughed. "That's because he cared too much about you to want to break your heart. You guys were sort-of friends, anyway."
I smiled at the way Sumire perked up, and at the way Koko rolled his eyes, then finished my plate of food and patted my stomach. "I should really be getting back to my apartment," I said. "I'm going to rest up in a bed that's bigger than me and that doesn't smell like someone barfed on it."
Koko offered to drive me home, even though I insisted I could walk, and with a promise to see everyone again soon, we left the store, Daichi saying, in his booming voice, to make sure Koko didn't drive like a nutcase and to make sure I got up to my room safely.
Not having an elevator in the apartment started to suck a little bit at that moment. I stood at the bottom of the stairs, glaring unhappily at them like it was their fault my room was all the way on the third floor, Koko behind me.
"I'll carry you," Koko offered.
I turned my glare on him, who blinked innocently back at me. "You'll do no such thing. I'm not going to always have someone to carry me up here. It's just going to be a bit physically demanding."
Physically demanding was a huge understatement. I had to take a break at the top of every flight of stairs, panting and massaging my underarms where the crutches rested. Eventually I just gave up on the crutches, handed them to Koko, and crawled the rest of the way up, which had Koko laughing behind me.
"Thanks for picking me up, Koko," I panted sincerely when we reached my room. "It would have been a pain in the ass to take the bus."
He wrapped me in a one-armed hug. "Take it easy, Mik. And let me know how it goes tonight. And be careful."
"I'll be more than careful," I vowed, and waved at him until he disappeared down the stairs.
My room was stuffy and warm, so the first thing I did was open every window and turn the fan on. Then I stripped out of the pair of pyjamas Hotaru had brought to the hospital to let me wear, into my own pyjamas, and fell into bed.
The familiarity of it all had me asleep before my head hit the pillow.
I was distantly aware of my phone ringing through my sleep, which jolted me awake so fast my head spun. I raked my hands through the sheets on my bed, trying to find the source of the ringing. With a muttered oath, I tossed the sheets up, saw my phone go flying, and rolled off the bed to catch it before it hit the floor.
"Hello?" I said into it.
"You've spent three days sleeping, so you go home and sleep all day?" Hotaru said blandly. "I'll pick you up in half an hour. Apparently Persona keeps making pokes at Hyuuga by saying something about how tragic it is that you're not around, and every time Hyuuga starts to get pissed, Persona brings up Youichi."
I groaned and got up. "Natsume's going to kill him if he keeps it up."
"Exactly. Besides, I'm tired of waiting. I want to see the look on his face."
But there was no denying I was nervous. Nervous because he was my father. Nervous because our last confrontation hadn't gone well. Nervous because this could all turn out horribly if we made one mistake.
I had to keep reminding myself that Hotaru was pretty much incapable of mistakes and that everything would go well.
It hadn't felt like I'd slept the whole day; I still felt tired and sluggish but I was sure that that was just because worry was draining any energy I'd managed to acquire.
Hotaru called me again when she arrived, which didn't surprise me because she was far too lazy to get out of her car and ring up my room. I cursed having to go down the stairs, which took about three times longer because if I wasn't careful I would fall head first.
I was surprised to see Ruka's ordinary sports car sitting in the parking lot, Ruka in the driver's seat and Hotaru in the passenger seat. Both looked solemn, but Ruka smiled at me when I struggled to climb into the backseat.
"How are you feeling?" he asked.
"Wonderful," I said, mostly honestly. My leg wasn't bothering me; it was my stomach that was in knots. "What about you? How have you been holding up?"
He sighed. "I've been bored. Persona called me yesterday to ask me to do a race for him, and you can imagine how hard it was to come up with an excuse."
"What did you say?"
"That I had chicken pox and was very contagious. Then I talked to Natsume. There was no race yesterday. Persona just wanted to see me."
"Thank God for chicken pox," I said with a light laugh.
"Enough talking," Hotaru said. "We need to go."
I didn't know where we were going, and I didn't really pay much attention on the drive over. My heart was pounding uncomfortably hard in my chest, and the more I thought about seeing Persona again, the less excited I got to see the look on his face. He'd be furious. And I'd experienced what could happen when he was furious.
"So what's the plan?" I asked.
"We're going to the production house," Hotaru explained. "They're having a meeting there now. I have the video on my phone, so we can show Persona that we have valuable information. Otherwise, I'm doing all the talking. You two are going to keep your mouths shut."
I wondered how hard that would be.
Ruka parked across the street, where we'd parked days ago. Hotaru looked impatient, but Ruka came around to my side to help me get out of the car. I thanked him, looked warily at the house, and then down at my feet.
"Are you sure you want to do this, Mikan?" Ruka asked, frowning.
I nodded. "I have to." I started forward on my crutches. Hotaru and Ruka quickly matched my stride. Hotaru reached the door first and rang the bell.
I wondered if she was nervous. She didn't really strike me as one to get nervous, but she knew full well what Persona could do, and I was sure that that knowledge even worried her a little bit.
Kudos to her for being able to keep it off her face, though.
I tried to mimic her expression, but I wasn't sure I pulled it off quite right.
The door swung open and Reo stood there. At first he looked surprised, and then he saw me – who shouldn't be alive, according to Persona, he was probably thinking – and Hotaru's smirk and the color drained from his face.
"We have important matters to discuss with Persona," Hotaru said.
"He's in a meeting," Reo said pathetically, and then saw Ruka. "Ruka, you know they can't be here."
"Sorry, Reo," Ruka said, although he didn't sound sorry at all. "This is important."
A look of fury mixed with disgust twisted his features, and the scorn on his face was scary as he turned and walked back into the house, leaving the door open behind him. Hotaru walked in first, I took a deep breath and followed, and Ruka closed the door behind us.
The meeting was taking place in the kitchen. My heart was beating fast and hard as we stopped in sight of the people around the table. Hands clenched, I studied the faces.
Most of them were ones I'd never seen before, but then there was Natsume, looking calm as his eyes met mine, and Persona, who had his back to us.
I tried to control the surge or anger.
"Persona," Reo said. "They claim it's important."
He must have known that he was in trouble, since this was all going to be his fault. That would explain the sheen of sweat on his face.
Persona turned in his seat. He was wearing his sunglasses – thank God, because I didn't want to see my eyes on him ever again – so it was hard to see his expression. But his mouth hardened when he saw me and when he turned to Natsume, Natsume was smirking.
"Well, this is an interesting twist we have here," he said, standing up. "Hotaru Imai, you must be the unknown accomplice of Mikan here."
Hotaru snorted. "You're a little thick, Persona, for taking this long to realize it." She held up her phone, with the paused video of the meth lab on the screen. "I think you know what we're here for."
He turned back to Natsume. "Natsume, I'm rather disappointed in you for not telling me that Mikan got out of that fire okay."
"Just so you could try to kill me again?" I growled.
He spread his hands out calmly. "It's your own fault, my dear. If you hadn't been so nosy…" He sighed tragically. "I'm afraid I'll have to kill you all, now. And Natsume, I'm afraid you'll have to watch." With a wave of his hand, he motioned for the men around the table to stand.
Natsume got up from his chair, too, but he was scowling at Persona. "You lay a hand on-"
"Hyuuga," Hotaru interrupted coolly. "Do you really think I wouldn't have prepared for this threat? I should hope not." She turned her icy gaze on Persona. "I have copies of this tape in envelopes addressed to your top buyers, sitting in my mailbox right now, ready to be picked up. The mailman will be arriving at nine o'clock tonight. It is eight o'clock right now." She strolled forward, ignoring Ruka's sharp intake of breath, and circled once around Persona. "If I'm not home by nine o'clock, Persona, then those tapes will get out."
I saw Persona's jaw clench.
"And sending someone to my mailbox to try and break into it and get the tapes will be useless. Why? Because then it gets worse. I've sent another tape to a friend of mine. This friend, he's a cop. If my mailman finds my box empty without notice from me, he will call this friend of mine, and give him the okay to open the package." Her smile was sly. "And then you'll go to jail."
"Hm. Beaten at your own game," I said. "How does it feel, Persona?"
He ignored me. "I highly doubt your mailman will stand a chance against my men."
Hotaru held up her finger. "My cop friend has been given permission to open the package under two conditions. One, if my mailman calls him if he finds the mailbox empty without prior warning from me. Two, if he doesn't hear from me by nine o'clock. So you best not be killing anybody, Persona."
Persona's composure cracked. Plain fury was evident on his face, which made me nervous and made Natsume step around everyone else, who looked shocked and mad, to stand by me.
"So this is my proposition," Hotaru went on calmly. "I will remove those tapes from my mailbox, and I will tell my cop friend that he does not have permission to open the package, if you do exactly as I say."
She got no objection from Persona.
"Hyuuga and Nogi are no longer obligated to work for you," she said. "You will not contact either of them ever again. Ruka is turning his car shop into a business, not a storage house for your cars, so you're going to need to find another place for them. Yuu Tobita is to be left alone, and so are Koko and Youichi. None of them are to be threatened, because if they are, you'll be ruined. That goes for anyone we are close to, and that also means that nobody you work with can do any threatening, either." She turned her gaze to me.
I forced myself to look at Persona. "I won't go to the police about what you did, as long as you stay away from my mother. Don't ever contact her again. I don't need you feeding her lies and getting her hopes up about thinking you've changed."
Hotaru's smile turned deadly. "You are to leave town. Find somewhere else to set up shop. I don't care how much it costs you, or how much trouble it is, you are not staying here. Move somewhere closer to your buyers, for all I care. Just get out of here." She tucked her phone back into her pocket. "Violate any of these conditions, and I'll make damn sure that you regret it."
Persona's voice, when he spoke, was cooler than hers. "Anything else, Imai?"
"No, that will be it." She turned around, calling over her shoulder, "Be wise, Persona."
Natsume turned me around, but no sooner had I taken two crutch-aided steps back towards the door, I heard Persona say in a voice full of power, "Hope your leg feels better, Mikan."
Natsume cursed, turned around, and before I could stop him, punched Persona squarely in the jaw with so much force that Persona went reeling backwards and crashed onto the floor.
I reached for his arm, attaching myself to him and pulling him backwards because Persona's men looked partly shocked, partly furious. Struggling to hold onto my crutches under my arms, I tried to take a step back.
"Natsume, let's just go," I whispered. "Please."
He looked like he was going to ignore me for a minute, shake me off and pounce right back on Persona and beat him to a bloody pulp, but the look eventually passed and he half-carried, half dragged me towards the door.
We'd barely gotten out of the way when I heard, followed by someone's curse and the sound of a hand on a body, and then a yelp. I turned around, saw the little three-legged dog scamper away from one man's hand, and then come running across the hardwood floor towards me.
Delight overpowered any other emotion, and I dropped my crutches in order to catch the dog and pull him up into my arms. "I'm taking your dog," I announced. "I think he likes me better anyway."
Natsume rolled his eyes, picked up my crutches in one hand, and then grabbed my elbow with the other and helped me hop out of the house. The minute I stepped onto the cement step out in the cool evening air, I felt as though a huge weight dropped right off of my shoulders.
"Seriously?" Hotaru said, eyeing the dog.
I held the dog up in front of my face, grinning. "Oh, you're so cute."
She rolled her eyes and walked down the steps. "You can ride with Hyuuga. I'm not sitting in the same vehicle as that thing."
"All right." Still cooing over the dog, I hopped on one foot down the sidewalk to Natsume's car. For a moment, I stood staring at the window, and then down at my cast, and then back at Natsume.
"You can manage," he decided, throwing my crutches through the back window and going around to the driver's side.
"You have to hold him," I said, leaning in through the window and handing him the dog. He did not look entirely pleased, but I ignored the look and struggled in through the window, then buckled up the harness before taking the dog back. "What should I name you?"
"Tripod," Natsume said dryly.
I gasped. "Don't be mean!" I kissed the dog's nose. "You're not a tripod, are you? I'll call you…Jabberwocky! I had a stuffed animal named Jabberwocky once. You kind of look like him."
It didn't take long to get back to my apartment, but once we did I realized that Natsume and I still had a lot of talking to do.
He came around to my side of the car, took Jabberwocky when I handed him to him, and then grabbed my arm and helped me out of the car. I took Jabberwocky back, and then turned to look at him.
"Why didn't you tell me?" I asked quietly.
He reached out to brush his hand along my bruised cheek before he tucked his hands in his pockets and looked up at the sky. "He didn't want you to know."
"I know that, but don't you think that I had a right to know? He-"
"He would have killed you for it," he interrupted. "Persona didn't want to have a daughter. That would make him come across as vulnerable. As long as you didn't know, then he didn't see the need to dispose of you."
I wanted to argue, but I knew Natsume would never have jeopardized my safety just because I wanted to know something. So I nodded, accepting this. "Then what do we do now?"
His strange red eyes that had captivated me from the moment I'd met him, captivated me now. "What do you want to do now?"
"I'll tell you what I don't want," I said. "I don't want you to leave. You and I, we have something. I don't know what it is, or how long it will last, but it's there and I think that while it is, we should give it a shot."
He nodded once.
Satisfied, I reached into the back window with one hand and brought my crutches out, handing them to him. "You're going to have to come up to my room with me. I can't carry all of this."
"There are other ways to get me into your room, Polka," he said with the ghost of a smirk.
I grinned at him over my shoulder. "This one seems to be working pretty good."
I had to put Jabberwocky down so I could crawl up the stairs, Natsume rolling his eyes behind us. I made a comment about both me and the dog only have three limbs, and how we struggled to the top of the stairs together. We both made it, both breathing heavily by the time we got there, and Natsume scoffed at both of us.
"Just leave the crutches by the door there," I told Natsume. "I'm going to get Jabberwocky something to drink. Do you want anything, Natsume? I have some frozen dinners if you're hungry. I don't really have anything to cook with, so you're on your own if those don't cut it for you, but-"
"Polka," he said, in a voice so smouldering that I turned to him in surprise. That was when I noticed that his knuckles were bleeding.
I hobbled over to him, picked up his hand. "Exemplary punch, by the way. Totally impressive. It's funny. I should be mad at you for punching my dad, but here I am wishing I'd punched him first." I tugged him over to the sink. "Come here. I'll clean this for you."
He pulled his hand away. "He deserves a lot more than what I gave him."
I sighed, propping my hands on my hips. "Natsume, I'm the one he tried to kill and I'm ready to let it go already. You need to let it go, too."
"Why?" he demanded.
"Because right now it's just you and me." I grabbed the front of his shirt and hopped one step closer, so that we stood toe to toe. "And I don't want Persona ruining that anymore."
His jaw flexed, and I thought he was going to argue, but he just dropped one hand to my waist, the other to my cheek, and kissed me until neither of us could breathe anymore.
"You're still thinking about him," I accused.
Frustration made itself evident. "It's hard not to when you're standing on my foot with that cast."
I looked down at our feet, saw he was right, and took my foot off of his, and then looked back at him. "You know, I really don't appreciate you thinking of another man while you're kissing me," I said light-heartedly, smiling. "It makes me think Anna and Nonoko were right when they said they thought you were-"
He kissed me again, harder and more passionately, one hand raking through my hair, the other forcing my broken leg around his waist. I pulled my other leg up and wound my arms around his neck, smiling when he broke away from me.
A/N: So here it is, the end of Before You Hit the Ground. I'm actually very sad to end it :( I enjoyed writing this very much, and I hope you all enjoyed reading it as much! The song Angels was actually what sparked the idea for this song, and the title, and I couldn't wait to put it in here. Give it a listen! It's the sweetest song, ever :)
So in three months time, I have completed 25 chapters. I hope that makes up for any of you who read All Star, who I kept waiting for a year and a half. :(
Thank you all for every single review and personal message that made writing this story so much easier and so much more fun. Your support was amazing, and I really can't thank you enough.
Until next time!