Disclaimer: All recognizable characters belong to Tachibana Higuchi. This story is all mine.

Author's Note: This is a piece that follows Footprints but it can stand alone which is why I'm posting it as a oneshot. There are a lot of parallels to Footprints though so I hope you guys catch them! :) As ever, let me know what you think. Happy reading! :D

Inspiration: Footprints and Taylor Swift's song, Long Live. It's magical. Read this, then listen to the song. Eep.


Long Live

-;-

All love that has not friendship for its base,
Is like a mansion built upon the sand.
- Ella Wheeler Wilcox

-;-

"Pick up the pace, Natsume!"

Natsume watched as she grinned and stopped in the middle of the park to bend and finger the beginning bud of a pink flower. It was summer and she was wearing a white skirt that flowed against her thighs, a blue tank top and a black cardigan over top. She usually kept her hair up or in a long braid down her shoulder, but today her hair was free from any restraint and with the wind a soft caress, she looked beautiful among the fresh colours of the park.

She stood up once more, grinned up at him and urged him to hurry up before she skipped on ahead—always ahead—and left him behind.

He had known her since high school.

She was one of those girls that you just couldn't hate. Other than the half-hearted bullying she experienced at the beginning of her transfer to Alice Academy, Mikan had charmed everybody she met and those who heard about her wanted to become her friend. She was that big-hearted, loud-mouthed, nosy girl that people couldn't help wanting to be around.

It was no wonder he fell for her fast and hard.

People always said love was complicated, difficult, troublesome. It required time and patience, hurt and heartache, and more effort than anything else—

He watched as she turned around and half-jogged toward him and when she was a meter away, she teased, "For a guy who has really long legs, you sure walk slow!"

He frowned but she threw her arms around his neck and gave him a sweet, chaste peck on the corner of his lips. It was natural and sweet, as innocent as a flower and the affectionate gesture took him by surprise. "Pick it up, Natsume, gee whiz! I'm way shorter than you and even I walk faster!"

He scoffed. "That's because you're the modern day Energizer Bunny."

She smacked him on the arm with a snort before she smiled silkily and batted her eyelashes. "Can we go get Howalons now?"

He rolled his eyes and grabbed her proffered hand. When she grinned, he turned his eyes away from her face. "Idiot," he muttered lowly.

—People always said love was complicated, but falling her was the easiest thing he'd ever done.

-;-

The ball room was large, but it seemed small due to the number of bodies taking up the floor. The annual med student graduate dinner was tonight and Natsume wished he didn't have to attend. Three years of medical school deserved some celebration, Mikan told him patiently, but he didn't understand why he had to celebrate with eighty other people he didn't know when all he wanted to do was celebrate with her.

Where was she?

"Congratulations, Mr. Hyuuga. Dr. Serio has many good things to say about your future," the well-dressed, aristocratic figure before him was still speaking. "As the top student in your graduating class, we expect great success, but I have no doubts you'll make a great asset to whichever hospital you choose."

"Thank you, sir."

His eyes scanned the room inconspicuously as he took a sip of the champagne glass he was given the second he entered the room. He couldn't see her anywhere. She was wearing a green dress, but it seemed many others had the same idea. It didn't help that she was so fucking short. She practically disappeared in this crowd.

"Are you looking for someone?" The familiar voice broke through his search and he turned to see blue eyes and bright golden hair. "Congratulations, fellow graduate," Luna Koizumi raised her glass with a flirty grin. She gave him the once-over before she nodded, "You clean up well. Not that you don't always look good."

He exhaled sharply. "Koizumi, stop."

"I'm just stating a fact," the blonde put up her free hand in surrender. "I know you're not interested, but you know me. I'm painfully honest. I've been told it borders on annoying." She smiled up at him in a friendly way before she too eyed the crowd. "Your sex appeal just upped another ten notches because you're smart as hell and you're going to be a doctor."

"Koizumi—"

She laughed good-naturedly. "Okay, okay! That was the last time." She paused for a beat. "For today." He scowled at her and continued to look for Mikan, but Koizumi put her hand on his arm. "Your girl is wearing green tonight, right?" At his nod, she pointed to the corner where he could just make out the familiar brunette. "I think she might need you. You know how catty Miyabi is. It doesn't help that she's totally in love with you."

He didn't need to hear anymore.

He was already halfway across the room.

It didn't take long to hear the conversation. It was two against one and Natsume hardly thought that was fair. Miyabi Masami was a fellow graduate and though she was hard-working and smart, she was completely pushy and selfish. They weren't the most admirable traits in a future doctor. She thought she was the cream of the crop and when she was going after Mikan like this, Natsume thought it was about time he made it clear where she stood.

"You don't deserve him," Masami hissed coldly.

Natsume paused in his steps, knowing Mikan was fully capable of defending herself, anxious to hear her response.

She didn't disappoint.

Never would.

"I may not deserve him," Mikan replied simply, her voice firm, "—but until he doesn't want me anymore, I'm going to hold on to him as tight as I can. Until he doesn't want me anymore, I'll be there. For now, please don't approach me like this again. I won't leave him."

"You're being selfish!"

Natsume felt a ball of fire ignite in his veins at the clear hatred in her voice.

Mikan doesn't deserve that.

There was an incredulous pause before Mikan laughed with disbelief. "Yes," she said softly, "—I am. I think love makes a lot of people selfish, but I won't apologize for wanting to spend as long as I can with my most important person. You've made it quite clear that you're smarter than me, so I hope you can understand that."

"You're so…you can't just—"

He stepped out from behind the wall and watched as the colour drained from Masami and some girl he didn't recognize. She quickly let go of Mikan's wrist and stepped back. Mikan gave a start but her angry eyes softened and warmed when he stepped toward her. He felt her fingers brush against his pinky. "Ladies," he said coolly, watching as they shuffled in their evening dresses. "I see you've met my girlfriend."

Masami raised her chin in defiance. "She doesn't deserve you," she said unabashedly. "—She's not as pretty as Luna, she's not as nice as Hana and she's not as smart as me. Open your eyes, Natsume. Can't you see she's just not worth your tim—"

The fire in his veins burst from within him.

"You don't know a damn thing about her," his voice was icy with barely concealed ire. "Before you let your irrational jealously overcome you, know your facts before you jump into a fight. You've met her for five seconds and you've already condemned her for being something she isn't, but I've known you for three years. You can bet this isn't some badly constructed first impression. You're shallow enough to think everybody will like you for your looks. You're pushy enough to think you can force your feelings on somebody else. You're stupid because you think I'd want you over her and selfish? You're calling her selfish? Look in a mirror, Masami. You're the one forcing yourself between Mikan and me; you're the one putting your interests in me above our interests and you're the one throwing a tantrum because you're not used to being denied what you want."

Mikan was holding his hand extra tight and Masami looked like the blood was being drained out of her body.

Natsume tried to reign in the excess anger he felt and waited two beats for some much needed calm. "You'll be a good doctor," he said evenly, watching as black eyes met his. "But if you put aside your selfish tendencies, you could become a brilliant one."

She bowed her head before her friend led her away.

He could feel rather than hear Mikan exhale shakily. "Well that was interesting," she said lightly. He turned to look at her only to see her shoulders were practically up to her ears with tension. Despite that, she looked beautiful in a simple, regal, short green strapless dress and her honey brown hair in a simple up-do. Now if she didn't look so worried…

He squeezed the hand still in his. "You're far too nice to them. I'm surprised you didn't tear her ear out with your loud voice."

She sent him a dry look before leading him out to the open balcony. "Normally I would," she started honestly, letting go of his hand, "But this is your big night and I really didn't want to embarrass you in front of your professors, friends and doctors. Holy crap, they're all so intimidating! I know I'm not as smart as you, but hanging out here makes me feel so small. You're—" she breathed out slowly and leaned her elbows against the balcony railing, looking out at the dark night sky, "—you're definitely not from my world."

"I may not be from your world, but I like being in it."

She looked down at her hands, trying and failing to hide the small smile from her face. He turned away, feeling his neck warm with the confession. It was words like that that made her so happy, but they barely expressed how he felt about her. Even those three words that everybody liked tossing around couldn't measure up to the way she made him feel. There were no words.

"You're far too cute, you know that?" she said wryly, the grin apparent in her voice.

He turned to protest the feminine adjective but her warm lips pressed against his to stem the words and he couldn't complain. It was sweet, slow and too short. A throat cleared in amusement and he heard Mikan's squeak before he turned and saw Koizumi standing by the balcony doors.

"It's one night," Koizumi admonished laughingly, "Keep your hands off her long enough to let us catch up, will you, Natsume?" She approached Mikan hesitantly, as if she was an untamed lion. "Hey, Mikan." She moved in to put her hands around Mikan's shoulders in a hug. "It's been a long time."

"Yeah! I've probably seen you a handful of times since we graduated from the Academy!" Mikan exclaimed, hugging her warmly. "How are you?"

They made small talk. Natsume wasn't very interested. He spent enough time with Koizumi to know her well and obviously Mikan…

He could barely believe it. They were turning twenty-five this year; they met eight years ago and yet it felt like his feelings never dimmed and like he knew her all his life. They started off as friends, became the best of friends and he couldn't ask for a better girlfriend, partner, whatever people called it. He could spend the rest of his life with her.

Too bad she was afraid of marriage.

He watched as Koizumi left with a wave before Mikan stepped toward him. He straightened up from the railing and watched her lift her arms languidly and hook her hands around his neck. "What are you thinking about, emoboy?"

He scowled at her, but it was half-hearted, especially when she smiled like that. "Putting a ring on your finger," he said softly, his heart beating in his throat when the smile slipped from her face.

"You want to marry me?" she teased, wide brown eyes sparkling with something more than amusement.

He grunted.

She kissed him swiftly on the lips before she leaned back to look at him. "I don't understand why we need that. Marriage is just a way to prove that I'm yours, Natsume, and you know I've been yours since the beginning. We don't need a certificate to make it official."

He looked at her closely and knew she meant every word.

She dropped her hands to hold both of his before she raised her eyes once more. "It's always been you and me. It'll always be you and me. Remember? We'll take over the world together. I'll seduce the men. You'll seduce the women. It'll only be you and me. Us against the world. Nobody will be able to stop us."

He snorted at the teenage mantra she started when they were still in high school.

She smiled.

The dinner bell rang out, shrill and clear, to call everybody to the dining room. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair at the thought of having to sit through an hour long dinner. No doubt many would have questions for the top-med student and he wasn't one to make conversation. The thought made his appetite die and his mood plummet to his feet.

She dropped his left hand and squeezed his right.

"Let's go!" she chirped easily, pulling on his right hand. She stopped at the entrance to the balcony and inhaled deeply. "Us against the world," she said softly, no doubt remembering the warm welcome she received from Masami. "Us against the world." She darted a quick glance to his face. "All right."

It was two days later that he would see the bruise in the shape of a hand on her wrist.

-;-

As a top graduate med student, Natsume was in high demand and it wasn't long until he realized he didn't have a lot of time for the other things he loved. When he wasn't working, he was looking into different techniques for an upcoming surgery or reading up some more about the heart. If he wasn't working or doing research, he was catching up on much-needed sleep. If he wasn't catching up on much-needed sleep, he was eating or showering. When he wasn't doing either of those things, he was hanging out with Mikan or his friends.

The latter didn't happen nearly as much as he would like.

After four months of hospital work without seeing so much as a hair of Ruka and Koko, Natsume heard Shouda decided to hold a barbecue at her place and invited the whole gang along plus her gossipy girlfriends. Natsume wouldn't have been interested if Mikan wasn't going, but she was just about to jump out of her skin in excitement and whatever made her happy, made him happy.

It was as simple as that.

When they arrived at Shouda's place, it was already packed with people.

Umenomiya was a permanent addition to the kitchen.

Mochu was flipping burgers on the outdoor grill.

Ruka was starting a big fire and Shouda was setting up chairs around it.

Mikan squeezed his hand when she saw Imai already eating beside Iincho. Having moved into his apartment, he supposed Mikan didn't see Imai as much as she would like. She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek before she bounded over toward her best friend and Natsume made his way over to Ruka.

It wasn't long until he strolled back to her.

"Hyuuga," Imai said darkly, ignoring Mikan's wails of don't tell him Hotaru! Natsume merely sent her a questioning glance before the velvet-eyed girl grabbed Mikan's arm and pushed her cardigan sleeve up. Her arm was pale, as it usually was, but it was decorated in new and old bruises. Natsume's eyes widened with incredulity.

"Where the fuck did you get those?" Natsume hissed firmly, grabbing her wrist gently and surveying the expanse of porcelain skin. Some were turning green with age and others were still purple with life. His eyes flashed up to meet her wide brown ones and his tone left no room for evasion. "Who touched you? Who gave you these?"

Mikan tugged her arm away and smoothed the cardigan down her arm before she bit her lip. "I don't think anybody did this to me!" she said quickly, looking around and lowering her voice so that she didn't attract attention from the others. She looked at him earnestly, "I don't remember. I think it might have been me. You know how clumsy I am! I just bruise really easily!"

How could he have missed this?

He saw her everyday when he came home and yet this was the first time he was seeing it?

The raw guilt in his blood made his voice scathing, "How long have you had these?" he snapped furiously, tugging her arm back over and running his fingers over the marred flesh. "When were you planning on telling me? Why am I only learning about this now?"

"I didn't want you to worry." Her eyes were wide and soft. "You're always coming home so exhausted. You don't need an extra thing to worry about."

The guilt made him feel raw. "How long?"

She gulped audibly. "I don't know. A while."

Natsume ran his free hand through his hair before he looked at her carefully. His heart was squeezing against his chest at this stupid, idiotic girl. Why wasn't he there to make sure she didn't hurt herself? She was such a hazard. She was still so used to taking care of herself. Why couldn't she just let him take care of her? Sighing, he pressed a soft kiss to one of her bruises. "Don't hide this from me," he said softly, looking at her firmly. "Not from me, ok?"

Mikan merely smiled indulgently. "They're just bruises," she said lightly, tugging her sleeve down. "They'll go away in a few days!"

A thought hit him suddenly that made his blood go cold.

His eyes flashed to Imai's and she rolled her eyes as if to say, about time!

He swallowed thickly. "Tomorrow, you're coming with me to the hospital."

Her brown eyes visibly brightened and the excitement radiating from her was palpable. "Cool! So I'll finally get to see you work your magic, huh?" She grinned broadly. "I'm so excited! To think I was one of your first treated patients!"

Natsume shook his head, letting a wry grin grace his lips. "Not exactly, Polka Dots."

-;-

Natsume was a cardiologist and dealt with matters of the heart so he let one of his colleagues oversee Mikan's check-up.

When she realized what was going on, Mikan gaped at him with a telling look of betrayal and fury in her eyes. "Natsume," she shouted shrilly when he turned to leave the room. She whimpered and pointed at him furiously. "Needles, Natsume! Needles! How could you do this to me? I—" she made a sound of protest before she wailed, "I hate needles! When we get home, I'm going to…I'm going to—"

He raised an eyebrow at her and the attending med technician tried and failed to hide a smile.

She threw her hands up. "I don't know what I'm going to do but whatever it is, you're not going to like it!"

He merely waved a hand in the air and snorted. "Try it," his voice was daring. "Have fun, Polka Dots."

She harrumphed when he closed the door and when the lock gave its final click, the smirk fell from his lips and he closed his eyes. He had such a bad feeling, it was making him nauseous. He would take anything from her: her wrath, her ire—just as long as she was okay.

-;-

He was working the day Mikan's results came in.

She called him earlier to say she was coming in to talk to the doctor and he promised to drop by as soon as he was done his shift. He had the worst feeling and terrible thoughts plagued him for the majority of his shift. When he finally managed to track down Mikan's room, he entered in time to see her eyes were red-rimmed and her feet were dangling from the hospital bed.

"Hey," he said softly from the doorway.

She looked up at him from under her eyelashes and lifted her arms up like a child asking for a much-needed hug.

He would have resisted if he didn't catch the slight tremor in her lips. He knelt down in front of her, lifted her in his arms and sat down with her cuddled against his chest. There was a dark, foreboding lump in his throat and when she looked up at him with watery brown eyes, he knew.

They were silent for a long time.

"You like my hair, don't you, Natsume?" her voice was quiet.

He couldn't speak. You knew her family had a history of cancer!

She pulled softly at the ends of her hair and he felt a dark heat press against the back of his eyes when two long, brown strands came loose. Her fingers trembled before she pressed her hand into a fist. "I think I'll donate my hair," she said decidedly, looking away from his eyes. "Before it all falls out, you know? I'm sure somebody will like it."

He nodded with his cheek pressed against the side of her head.

"You'll…you'll still like me when my hair's cut short, won't you?"

Of course, he closed his eyes. I like you much more than I like your fucking hair, you stupid, angel girl.

But he couldn't say that, couldn't say a word. He hummed against her hair and held her a little tighter and thought vaguely, I hope she doesn't bruise.

After a moment, she shifted and looked him in the eye, smiling a light, genuine smile. "When do you get off work?"

He stared back at her carefully and felt himself warming at the smile on her face. "I'm already done."

She moved to slide her legs to the ground. "Let's go home," she murmured, grabbing his hand and giving it a light squeeze. "I think…I think I need to visit mom and dad."

His heart twisted and he nodded quietly. "We'll pick up some flowers."

And some voice at the back of Natsume's mind said darkly, soon you'll be buying flowers for her too.

-;-

She had two years.

She said it casually like she wasn't talking about the length of her life and it made Natsume want to twist somebody's arm off. Couldn't she drop the act for one second? Couldn't she see he was being torn apart?

What could he possibly do without her?

"I'll beat it," she said confidently, twisting the noodles around her chopsticks. "I'm a fighter, Natsume. You know that. I'm not going to let something as small as this get to me. You'll see." When he didn't speak, she sent him a dry look. "How else are you going to rule the world if you don't have me at your side, huh? Us against the world, remember? I'll be damned if you take my world domination plans and leave me out of it."

He snorted softly and picked up a piece of chicken and deposited it on her plate.

"Hey! I can get my own food!" she squawked.

He sent her a dark look. "Eat up, Polka Dots. You're getting too skinny."

She scowled before setting her plate down and crossing her arms. If she was trying to look scary, she was doing a poor job of it. In actuality, she looked nothing short of sweet in a white long sleeved shirt and her tiny boxers. "You're doing it again," she remarked darkly. "Don't pull that innocent look on me, mister. Don't you remember what I told you when we first met?"

He scoffed at her. "You said a lot of things with that loud mouth of yours."

She tossed a rolled up napkin at him but he dodged it easily. "You don't have to treat me differently. You treated me differently when you found out my parents died. Now you're treating me differently because I have cancer." She narrowed her eyes at him and drummed her fingers against her knees. "Please, Natsume. Don't treat me any differently. I'm still here, aren't I?"

His heart softened and he gave her a resigned nod. "When are you going to tell Imai and them?"

She winced at the thought before she pulled her plate back onto her lap. "Sometime after Yuu's birthday party. I don't want to ruin it, but I guess the sooner they know the better, right?" She tossed a piece of celery in her mouth before she looked at him once more. "I really, really don't want to tell Shiki. He's going to go ballistic." She shivered and paused thoughtfully. "Yeah, he's definitely going to fall apart."

Natsume looked at her carefully. "I'll come with you."

Her eyes brightened considerably. "You will? Really?"

Natsume rolled his eyes at that. "I'm not that cold to leave you on your own."

She threw her head back and laughed out loud. "Thanks, Natsume," she said with a smile. "You're a really good friend. You're the best."

-;-

"So what's the news?" Koko chewed loudly, looking curiously at the two of them. "Wait, don't tell me! You're engaged!"

Ruka whirled around in his seat to glare at him. "You asked her to marry you and you didn't even consult me? What the hell, Natsume!"

"I love weddings!"

"They didn't say they were getting married," Imai said coolly, popping a grape into her mouth. Her eyes narrowed to slits. "I would have been the first to know."

Mikan giggled quietly and tightened her hand around his.

"Five bucks says they're getting married," Koko announced with a laugh. "You wouldn't call a gang meeting for no reason."

Idle chatter resumed until Mikan said lightly, "Actually, I have cancer."

The stunned silence that followed made Natsume swallow and turn away from the shocked looks and the blanched faces. Even Imai looked at a loss for words, but she was the first one to react. She stood up from the table and stepped out of the room and with an 'eep!', Mikan followed in a hurry.

His hand immediately cooled at the loss.

"How…" Koko shook his head and looked down at his hands. "Surely…surely not her?"

Natsume swallowed.

Ruka looked at him imploringly. "Did the doctors say anything? Like if she can…how long…"

Natsume shook his head. "It's hard to tell. It's spreading, but they think she can overcome it. If it metastasizes too fast, she'll have two years at most."

"Can't you do something?" Shouda asked breathlessly, tears thick in her voice. "I mean, you're a doctor right? You know the little secrets that can help her live longer…"

Natsume shook his head silently.

He wished.

-;-

He tried to be patient with her.

That was the only acceptable way to treat her now, but this was all too much. She was dying. Mikan Sakura was dying and all he could do was sit back and watch her. He watched as she lobbed off twelve inches of her hair. He watched her lips turn paler and her skin become mottled with bruises. He watched her cuts bleed profusely. He watched her wither away in front of his very eyes.

He never pretended to be selfless.

He wanted her to stay with him. Was that really so much to ask? He knew her for eight years, since high school, and he would only have two years more if the doctors predicted correctly. A decade with Mikan Sakura. It was really too little. He needed more.

"Is that the reason you never agreed to marry me?" His voice was a scathing hiss directed at her back.

She stepped back as if she was slapped and bit her bottom lip, briefly bringing back a little pink colour to the fleshy cartilidge. "Natsume, I didn't know I was going to get cancer," she said patiently, resting her arms on the kitchen counter behind her. "You know that."

"You love me," he said sharply. It was a statement, not a question. "You love me, so why don't you want to marry me? Every time I've mentioned it, you've never wanted to. Why not? It's…time is running out, Polka Dots, and you've never given me an answer."

She turned back to the dishes. "Do we really have to fight, Natsume? You know how I feel about us fighting."

"Maybe you should think about that before you just ask for one."

She was quiet for a long time and he was one second away from storming over and throwing her in a chair so they could hash this all out once and for all when she spoke over her shoulder. "Well, it makes things easier, doesn't it? If we got married, things would be so much more complicated."

"Explain that," he hissed.

She turned around fully and pinned him down with unrelenting brown eyes. "You know this as well as I do, Natsume. You've seen your dad set the table for four for years." The statement made him freeze as puzzle pieces dropped into place. "Mom was the same. She was half of a whole. The widow…the one that lost. I don't want that for you."

"I asked you before you found out you were going to die and leave me," he said bluntly, ignoring the way she flinched away from the words. "You said it yourself. You didn't know you were going to get cancer. You didn't know we'd be separated, so why?"

She looked up at him, unrepentant. "Maybe I didn't want that for me, too."

They glared at each other for what seemed to be a lifetime before Mikan wilted before his eyes. Her shoulders drooped and she looked at him in defeat. "Don't you ever get that feeling?" she said softly, taking a step toward him and resting her hands against one of the kitchen chairs. "—that feeling that life is a little too good to be true?"

His knuckles whitened as his grip on the table increased.

Her brown eyes met his, honest as always. "I didn't realize until the year we graduated at Alice Academy, but I always knew you were too good to be true. What was that saying again? If it's too good to be true, then it probably is?"

"Stop it."

"All of my best memories are with you, Natsume," she continued sincerely, her voice wobbly with tears. She ducked her head down. "The one time you let me take you to a picnic on the beach or when we went on that trip to Australia with your family. Even that first time—when I fell down hard chasing after you and you bandaged all of my cuts—"

"Stop," he said firmly.

"—I know we're…we're really good together, you and me. So doesn't it make sense? I'm glad we didn't marry, Natsume. You won't have to look at your ring finger all the time and see me. You won't have to explain to our kids that I'm never coming home. You won't have to—"

In a flash, he had her in his arms. "Stop," he said quietly, feeling her shake against him. He could feel his throat closing up as pained, wracking sobs were muffled against his shirt. "You're such a…" he exhaled shakily and pulled her close, wanting more than anything to crawl into her body so that they would never have to part. "Stupid girl."

-;-

It was a testament to how much he loved her, he thought, as he sat by her hospital bed and watched her die.

Chemotherapy did nothing more than buy her a couple more weeks, and those weeks would fly by faster than the two years did. Her arms grew thinner, her cheeks were bonier and the colour from her body was almost nonexistent. She looked a shade of the girl he fell in love with, but it seemed she would be Mikan until the very end.

They all knew she was going to die and so did she.

She did whatever it took to make everything as normal as possible, but she didn't fool him.

When everybody left and he stayed back, she said softly, "You know I love you, don't you, Natsume?"

He grunted.

It had sounded like a secret, but he had known for a long time.

"You love me," she said confidently, grinning a soft grin as she turned to look at him sitting by her bedside. He didn't say a word, but he pressed a soft kiss against the back of her hand. She giggled quietly, weakly, and opened her eyes to look at him. "Can you make me a promise?"

He sent her a dark look. "If you're going to ask me to promise you to find some other girl or some other ridiculous shit like that, I'm going to rip someone's kneecaps out."

She laughed at that and beamed up at him. She was so pale. "Everyone knows I have a special place in your heart," she teased half-heartedly, giving his hand a squeeze. "But no, not some other girl. I know how mad you would get if I said something like that. You'd probably cry too."

He gave her a warning look that she pretended to ignore.

"No, I have a different promise for you." She motioned for him to help her sit up and when she was, she clasped his left hand in both of hers. "Promise me you'll be happy," she said softly, smiling hopefully. How could she still have hope after these two years? "You have your whole life ahead of you. You've just become an amazing doctor and you're too handsome for your own good. Everybody who meets you falls in love with you. You don't know how many girls I've had to smack away with a broom."

"You said you wouldn't do this," Natsume accused, feeling the pressure against his eyes at her words.

"I didn't say to promise me to find yourself a girl," Mikan said with a grin.

She reached to the little box she placed beside her pillow and put it in his hands. She gave his hand one last squeeze before she leaned back and watched him open it. It was one of those silicone bracelets popular in North America, but instead of the Live Strong slogan he saw on TV, it said Long Live, Never Stop Smiling. When he looked up at her, she smiled and slipped the bracelet over his fist before holding his hand once more.

She was making it hard for him to swallow.

"I just want you to be happy. Don't cry for me or grieve for me. We've had a good run, Natsume. Ten years. I've been told anybody that can deal with my personality should get an award for patience." She laughed lightly at this and pressed her nearly white lips against his hand. She looked up at him and smiled. "You're the best thing that's ever happened to me, you know. The best friend I could have ever asked for. But don't let me hold you back—"

He moved to protest but she shook her head. "Don't let me hold you back, you hear? Not from anything. Don't let me hold you back from becoming the best doctor you can be. Don't let me prevent you from befriending anybody else." She drummed an unvoiced tune on the back of his hand before tracing a line against his ring finger like she was making a promise. "Don't let me ruin you for any other girl. Koko and Ruka told me I was the first girl you've ever loved outside your family and Natsume, trust me, I won't be the last. I'm proud to be the first, but I'd like to think I warmed up your heart to make it easier for the next girl—the one that will sweep you off your feet and never give you a moment's rest…the one that will never let you down."

"You never let me down."

"I'm dying on you, aren't I?" Her voice trembled with regret. "I held out for as long as I could but Natsume, you're ready. You have to let me go."

The statement alarmed him and he sat up straighter in his seat to look at her closely.

She shook her head. "I can feel it. It won't happen today but it's coming and I didn't want to surprise you. I want to say everything so that I don't ever regret it." She squeezed his hand. "I know I always said we would always be together, us against the world. I wanted us to take over the world together, but I suppose you're going to have to do that without me, huh?" He could feel his stomach sinking at the weak smile on her face. "You always said you'd have to do most of the work anyway."

She laughed lightly as she leaned back against her pillows tiredly. "You and me, us against the world. You'll tell them, won't you?"

"Tell who? Tell them what?" He asked softly, leaning down to brush his lips against her hand.

"Your kids, silly," her voice held a laugh. "You'll tell them about me, won't you? Tell them about me—your best friend—and tell them about all of the trouble we used to get into. Tell them how much of a hardass you used to be. You would have the most adorable kids."

Her comments were all over the place, but he didn't care.

She was drifting right before his eyes and he could do nothing about it. She thought he could be happy without her. She thought he could fall for somebody that wasn't her. He wanted to tell her she was insane, completely naive if she thought that was possible. She was the only one, the only one he could ever want. There would be no one else. There couldn't be.

Nobody could make him feel like she did.

What was he going to do without Mikan?

"Promise, Natsume?" she said softly, cracking a hazel eye to look at him. "Don't think I didn't notice you not promising."

He remembered his first promise to her and how difficult he thought it was to say the two words. It almost made him want to laugh. But looking at her now as she waited for him, Natsume closed his eyes and licked his lips. "I can't promise that." At her sound of protest, he squeezed her hand. "I'll promise to try to be happy. Let's leave it at that."

She pouted at him, and he leaned over to kiss her softly on the lips. "I'll love you forever…you know," he said honestly, feeling a slight heat at the back of his neck and tears press against the back of his eyes. He didn't even have to force out his next words: "Best friends."

She smiled like a ghost. "Always you and me," she said softly. "Us against the world."