Disclaimer: All recognizable characters belong to Tachibana Higuchi. This story is mine with many parallels to the Gakuen Alice manga. Catch 'em!
Dedicated: To all of my readers. All of you. This is the last as a thank you since the first. :) Happy reading!
Somewhere the Clock is Ticking
Chapter 1. Only a Matter of Time
"We need a new recruit."
The statement was met with a roar of objections, but the young man looked on coolly as if the majority of the group didn't just show their scorn. Their organization was a small one, but the members were hand-picked, trained and tested for their loyalty for the group before they were officially admitted. It was a long process that Z could no longer continue.
Time was no longer on their side.
"We do not need a new recruit, Hyuuga," the cold voice of Hotaru Imai rung clearly amidst the other objections. The chatter dimmed appropriately at the authoritative voice. She turned to the head of the table and addressed the slim figure peering thoughtfully out the blinds of the picturesque window. "Shiki-san, we don't have the time or the resources to entertain one of Hyuuga's whims. Our group has quadrupled in size since last year and you can be certain that the needs of the organization will be met by one of my inventions. You need only to give the command."
"I second Hotaru-chan's opinion!"
The inventor shot the wind-user a glare.
Five pairs of eyes rolled at the declaration before Mochu turned in his seat and hissed, "Let me guess: because she's Cool Blue Sky? You're pathetic," Mochu said scathingly, ignoring Matsudaira's squawk. He cast his eyes around the room in exasperation. "Look, I'm not too excited about the idea of a new recruit either, but why don't we listen to why Natsume thinks we need one before writing it off? Aren't these weekly meetings supposed to centre on discussion?"
There were begrudging mutters of agreement before Kazu's eyes scanned the room.
"We don't have a lot of time," a silky voice said from beside the aforementioned fire alice. "Movement from both Alice Academy and the Anti-Alice Organization have increased since January and there have been casualties to both sides. We're caught in the middle in that awkward area—like sand in a baby's…crevices—and we just don't have the resources to keep recruiting new people."
There was a dim wave of snickers all over the room as Tsubasa Andou settled back into his seat.
"Apt analogy as always, Andou." Eyes whipped over to the fire alice, but Hyuuga's voice did not waver. Instead he looked out the same windows as their pseudo-leader and said evenly, "But we need a new recruit. We don't have a problem with our resources. You should know that better than anyone, Imai. Your inventions are raking thousands of dollars everyday and Otanashi's luck with the stock market continues to give us a steady flow of income. We've never had any problem purchasing what we need." Kazu watched as Hyuuga turned to take the room in with dark crimson eyes. "In fact, I heard just last week we received a complementary shipment of materials for you to work with, Imai, and we got it for free so the resource issue is void."
"We can't depend on freebees," Imai riposted scathingly. "The owner of that manufacturing company is a womanizing pig who fancies me. I don't think it's advisable to assume every manufacturer will be as disgusting as that. The war doesn't leave much room for foolhardy whims."
The fire alice looked away from her dismissively. "Be that as it may, this recruit is the investment we need to end this war." Bodies shuffled in their seats at the bold statement, but Hyuuga continued undeterred. "You're a fan of investments, Imai," he continued smoothly, eyes cool. "This might interest you."
Imai pressed her lips together in annoyance, but spoke no further.
There was a still silence that stretched long enough for Kazu to ask, "Who or what are you looking for exactly, Hyuuga-san? I must say, I'm intrigued."
The shadows of a smirk touched the edges of the young boy's lips before he addressed both he and the figure at the window once more. "Yukihira-sama, I've heard of a rumour that you and Masachika-san might be able to make clear." At this, Kazu watched as Shiki stiffened and turned slowly to stand behind his chair directly to Kazu's right. "I also have information about Alice Academy's next move."
Around the long table, the members leaned forward in anticipation, eyes darting from the lone figure at one end to the two leaders at the head of the table. Their eyes, however, were on each other.
"Go on," Shiki said coolly, finally taking a seat to Kazu's right. "Who are you looking for?"
"The Stealing Alice or the Nullification Alice. Both if it's possible," Hyuuga said immediately, clear and cool, with his sharp eagle eyes gouging the reaction to his answer. It was as he suspected. Members around the long table shared equal looks of intrigue and confusion, but Hyuuga pressed on. "There are rumours that both alices are real," he said carefully, "—and that the both of you have had the pleasure of knowing a pair of them firsthand."
He and Shiki shared a guarded look before Kazu nodded slowly. "Where did you hear that from?"
Hyuuga leaned back in his seat and pressed one elbow on his armrest almost arrogantly. "My classmate Kokoro Yome has the mind-reading alice. I told him to keep an ear out to the thoughts of those our team suspected to be part of the AA." There was another upheaval of objections.
"You told someone about us?" Imai's voice was icy. "Why the hell would you jeopardize our operation like that? You've gone through the training, Hyuuga! You know better! The war is flighty as it is and it just makes matters worse when we can't even trust each other!"
Natsume raised his eyes heavenward out of irritation. "His sister died in the fray last year. He's just as dedicated to the cause as we are except he knows nothing about Z. I told him to keep an ear out because we need as many leads as we can get and Koko follows me because…Well, haven't you heard, Imai?" Hyuuga raised a brow condescendingly. "I'm the rebellious troublemaker with a horrifying past. I'm supposed to act out in despair and hate." He said this so airily, it sounded like a joke. "Koko just lost his sister. He wants to follow in my footsteps and wreak havoc. Who am I to stop him?" The cold sneer was chilling. "He doesn't know anything about us. He shouldn't anyway. That is, as long as everybody has kept their Silencers on them." As if to make a point, Hyuuga lifted his right hand up so that the glint of Imai's silver invention flashed in front of the group's eyes.
There was a collective sigh of relief before he could feel Shiki's eyes on him.
Kazu knew the extent of the situation.
The entire world was at war.
Alices and civilians used to be able to coexist peacefully decades ago when times were easier. There were occasional conflicts between the two, but the different methods of prosecution set for alices and civilians dealt with most matters cleanly. There were far less alices than there were civilians and in order to keep the peace, there was an agreement to prevent alices from endangering the lives of the civilians with their gifts. Alices were meant to do great things. With their powers, they could reach heights no civilian could ever dream of reaching. Despite their clear advantage, alices knew better than to use their gifts for reasons outside the necessity or the greater good, but it wasn't long until the peace was disrupted irrevocably.
Civilians grew jealous and resented alices for their power.
Alices became restless and didn't understand why limits and restraints were placed upon them by weaker beings.
The conflict started as a disagreement, progressed into the occasional brawl before it became a full-on, worldwide debacle. The civilian-dominated world wanted to get rid of alices once and for all so that they could live their lives as equals to each other. Weapons of mass destruction and biological warfare were employed to decimate the Alice population until many were forced into hiding.
Some succeeded…it was difficult to distinguish Alices from civilians unless their Alices were made known. Others, however, weren't so lucky. The slightest suspicion of being an Alice could result in prosecution and with rewards being given to those who managed to find an alice, it was disgusting how many civilians denounced their family, friends, neighbours and strangers to the world government.
The process was arbitrary. There was hardly an ounce of cold, hard proof to display, beyond a reasonable doubt, if an alice was an alice or not. But the world government was suspicious and their suspicion caused them to exact extreme measures. Any word of treason or peculiarity from other civilians could be reason enough to prosecute a person.
Those found guilty of being an alice were killed if they were lucky, but imprisoned and tested upon if they weren't.
The conflict was getting out of hand.
Kazu closed his eyes and pressed his lips together before he gave Shiki the go-ahead. With the acknowledgement, Shiki clasped his hands on the tabletop and scanned the room to make sure he had everyone's attention. The last thing he needed was to repeat himself. He glanced quickly at the clock to see he had less than fifteen minutes to tell the story.
"The Stealing Alice and the Nullification Alice did exist," Shiki informed vaguely, watching as Hyuuga's expression dropped at the past tense. "Kazu and I have had the honour of knowing them both before they died. They are rare Alices, as I am certain you all are aware. They both turn up once in a blue moon…perhaps more rare than a blue moon." He paused to blink away the curtain that fell over his eyes. "It was chance they met the both of us. I would count yourself lucky if you lived long enough to meet one, much less both of them."
Shiki paused to look out the window.
An image of Izumi flared behind Kazu's eyes.
…I'm so sorry.
Shiki stared at them with his usual, cool expression and continued as if he hadn't stopped. "The Nullification Alice is as potent as it sounds. It is different than a barrier alice like mine. With my barrier, I can suppress the use of your alices by spreading my alice across extended distances like this room." He looked around pointedly. "The Nullification Alice can completely neutralize your alice. It doesn't matter if you've mastered and honed your skill for decades. It doesn't matter if you're the strongest user of your kind," he looked at Hyuuga emphatically, "It doesn't matter if you've got the Curse or the most deadly alice on earth; the Nullification Alice will make your powers useless to you. An alice, if it's strong enough, can overcome the barrier…but nothing can overcome the Nullification Alice. The one I was acquainted with died a decade ago by another alice. I would advise you, Hyuuga-san, not to keep your hopes up on finding another one in this half-century."
Hyuuga scowled and looked out the window before he muttered, "The Anti-Alice Organization is looking for them."
Kazu straightened immediately in his seat and fixed his eyes firmly on the boy. "What have you heard?" His voice was patient but hard. "Why would they…" A thought flashed behind his eyelids before the meaning was clear.
"Koko heard the AA members say the AAO is looking for the Nullification and Stealing Alices in order to neutralize the army of alices they believe are coming," Hyuuga informed darkly. "If what you say is true, the Nullification Alice will have the ability to render the alice army completely useless. They'll be like sitting ducks waiting to get shot in the face."
Nobara Ibaragi visibly winced.
Hyuuga merely shrugged in apology. "According to Koko, the AA want to find this alice before the AAO does. I don't know whether they want to kill this alice so as to destroy the threat or keep the alice alive just for insurance purposes. You know the world government… They're cutting deals with Alices right now to help them with their cause."
"Which I really don't get, by the way," Andou cut in with a snarky snort. "Why in hell would an alice willingly help out with the destruction of its own kind? It sounds counter-intuitive to me. Besides, if the world government wants to kill off alices so badly, doesn't it say something to those alices that they're going to be next in line if the others are dead and gone?"
Imai scoffed darkly, clearly unimpressed with the discussion at large. "It's called a compromise, Andou… a leap of faith. They don't know whether or not the WG will keep their word but they've clearly weighed the odds and have concluded there is more to gain with the AAO. Besides, who says they don't have some kind of insurance plan worked out in case the WG doesn't pull their weight in the deal? My money is on power. Those alices are willing to decimate the entirety of the alice population to become the only alice left and I'm willing to bet they've been promised triple their weight in gold and endless power over political affairs."
The words hung heavily in the air before Mochu cleared his throat feebly. "I know you guys are going on about the Nullification Alice, but I really want to know what's up with the Stealing. What's the deal? The guy can actually physically take your alice from your body?"
"It was a girl," Shiki responded without thought. If he was surprised by his sudden, quiet outburst, he didn't let on. Instead, his eyes reverted back to the window.
Kazu took over easily. "The Stealing Alice is just as rare as the Nullification. As you can imagine, a world full of this alice would cause mass chaos. Thankfully, the Stealing Alice we knew was neither power-hungry nor vindictive. The Stealing, as far as my knowledge goes, is always coupled with the Insertion Alice. This means that when this person steals an alice, either completely or partially, an alice stone is made containing the alice. If compatible with other alices, these stolen alices may be inserted into their bodies and the person will acquire this stolen alice for an indeterminate amount of time depending on the strength and length the alice can last."
"That's wicked," breathed Matsudaira with a wide grin on his face. "I would want Hotaru-chan's alice!"
There was a dark pause as eyes swung to the velvet-eyed girl who was glaring daggers at the wind alice. "Are you threatening me?" Imai hissed coldly.
"What happened to her?" The question was posed by Hyuuga who was looking intently at Shiki as if there was something he didn't quite understand. His eyes didn't stray despite the continued whimpers from the wind user. "What happened to the Stealing Alice?"
Kazu opened his mouth to respond but Shiki beat him to it.
"She perished in an explosion," he answered tonelessly, turning to pin Hyuuga with his hollow eyes. "Her alice was more defensive than anything. Alices aren't invincible against many physical attacks like that. It was… unexpected. She didn't stand a chance."
A quiet fell over the table…it was almost stifling in its weight.
Kazu scrutinized his right-hand man before the sound of Imai's watch began to blare with the sounds of a chicken quacking obnoxiously. His eyes trained carefully on the girl as she pressed two buttons on her watch and looked up to meet his gaze. "It's time," she informed respectfully, pushing her seat back and bowing slightly. "Good day."
Several more chairs pushed back as the first set of four students wearing the customary Alice Academy uniform left the room to begin returning to classes. Vaguely, Kazu could already hear the raised voice of Matsudaira commenting heatedly about how terribly difficult Math was.
It was a rule. There would be no talk about Z outside of conference meetings.
The remaining members made conversation among themselves while they waited for their cue.
Kazu watched the proceedings until Shiki moved and caught his eye, looking vaguely frustrated—or as frustrated as he was capable of being—about the events of the meeting. Kazu couldn't blame him. They'd wanted to prolong the inevitable as long as they could but it seemed the time had come.
The sound of Andou's watch went off before he mimicked Imai, turned the contraption off and got to his feet along with a handful of other students. They too filed out the door with a respectful bow. The process continued until the last two were left. Vaguely, they could hear the dull thrum of the school bell's warning toll to indicate the students should begin making their way back to classes from lunch.
Both Shiki and he watched as Hyuuga and Subaru Imai slowly pushed back their seats and bowed before leaving the room.
Before the door closed completely, Kazu called out to the former.
The crimson-eyed boy pushed the door open arrogantly and bowed very slightly again before he waited for further instruction. Kazu didn't make him wait much longer. "For our next meeting, please bring your friend Kokoro Yome along with you."
The boy smirked and nodded once. "Was that all, Yukihira-sama?"
"Yes, thank you for your work."
When the door closed behind him and several beats passed, Shiki spoke up quietly, grey eyes solemn. "They're looking for her." Kazu nodded thoughtfully and waited for Shiki to continue. "We knew this day would come, Kazu. There's a lot at stake. We can't leave her alone any longer. The longer we wait, the greater the likelihood someone will get their hands on her. Whether it's the AA or the AAO, they're going to use her in malicious ways. That can't…won't happen. Not while I'm still breathing."
Kazu rubbed his eyes and gazed out the windows, staring at the grounds of one of Alice Academy's hidden schools. "I know. I just didn't want it to happen so soon," he responded equally weary, getting up from his seat and walking to the invisible adjoining door. He pressed his palm against the side panel and waited as the doors slid open to lead to his office. "I'll make the call. We'll give her the choice."
"She knows nothing," Shiki said, watching as the Z leader set up his laptop on the table facing the long couch and hooked it up to the speakers. "Does she even know she has an Alice? Does she even remember who we are? She won't trust us and I can't blame her. We're complete strangers."
He knew…oh Kami, he knew. He wished he could have been there for her as she grew up.
Izumi, you have to understand…
"It was too dangerous," he forced out through his teeth, trying to focus on connecting the right wires and typing in the right codes. "You agreed with me. It was the best way for her to grow normally. She'd be a sitting duck otherwise!" His grey eyes flashed up to meet lighter greys before he sat quietly on the couch.
The sound of a ringing phone traveled from the speakers.
Shiki took a seat on the couch next to Kazu without a word. He could feel his heart slamming in his chest and could practically feel the square photo he kept in his breast pocket searing his lungs. He both dreaded and anticipated this moment, the moment when he could finally see her face again…
The sound of the dial clicking made both men catch the breath in their throats before the elderly face of a man came into view.
"This blasted thing…how could they possibly believe I could understa—hello? Hello? …useless contraption…my word… Kazu, I can see your faces!" The old man said loudly with a frustrated frown on his face. "Hello? Hello! …really how mus—"
"Ji-chan," Kazu said softly, a quiet smile on his face. "Sakura, you need only to speak to me as if we were on the phone."
The face cleared before a wide grin made its way on the old man's face. Wrinkles snaked from his eyes to his cheeks as he bellowed, "Kazu! Boy, I haven't seen your face for years! You handsome boy! How are you?"
"Same as last week," Kazu replied respectfully, remembering the phone call. "Sakura, is Mikan home?"
The smile faded from the face on the screen before he nodded solemnly. "So it's time…is it?"
Kazu nodded, equally solemn, and watched as Ji-chan turned away. "She's safe with me," the old man protested quietly, eyes earnest. "They haven't come for her. Nobody has. Surely she can continue to stay here?"
"They're coming for her," Shiki clasped his hands together anxiously. "Alices and the AAO both want her. Everybody is getting desperate now," he said quietly. "She'll be safer with us."
The old man's face paled. "What for? She's just a child! Just…what could they possibly want with her? I know she's one of you… one of you alices but surely she can't—"
"You knew her mother," Shiki looked down calmly. "You knew what she was capable of. According to Kazu, she has two rare alices. She needs to come with us. Nagoya is a small village but with wartimes as they are right now, nobody is safe for long."
He felt sorry for the look of distress on the old man's face, especially when he began wringing his hands together in his lap. Kazu watched him knowingly. "I will keep her safe. Sakura, you looked after me when I was younger," Kazu said quietly, grey eyes locked onto brown. "It's time for me to return the favour. You trust me, don't you?"
"Of course," he said immediately, eyes softening. "Of course. I understand. If I hear about anything happening to her," the old man warned, "I'm holding you two responsible. I may not get to look as young as you, Kazu, with whatever alice you have, but I could probably throw the both of you with one hand! Don't think I'm joking." With a small nod, he turned his head and bellowed, "Mikan-chan!" There was a muffled assent before he continued, "Come down here, child. There's somebody important who wants to talk to you."
There were muffled footsteps and a feminine voice as the old man stood up and blocked the screen. "What's going on?" she inquired curiously. They had a view of her legs clad in what looked to be a pair of pyjamas littered with cows.
"I'll leave you to speak to these two men, ok?" Ji-chan said patiently. "Don't be afraid. They're very nice."
There was a drawn out 'okaaay' before the door closed and the girl flopped down into a crouch.
Kazu could hear Shiki's sharp intake of breath and barely restrained his own heartbeat threatening to pop past his ribs. For a long second, Kazu could only look at her. She'd changed drastically in thirteen years…from a little toddler to a blooming, young adult. Her eyes were large and brown in her face, sparkling like Izumi's, with pale, delicate skin like her mother's.
He couldn't speak…his heart was so full. To think, this beautiful niece of his didn't even know about him.
"Hi." She tilted her head to the side, slightly, before her wide eyes calmed into a more peaceful, though curious, expression. She smiled warmly as she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.
"I had a dream about this," she said slowly, eyes inquiring. "Always one of the same dreams…every night." She pointed to him and said quietly, "You tell me you're my uncle…and you tell me you're Shiki. We talk and you tell me about my parents before a cell phone goes off over where you are and you—Uncle—" she laughed with a hint of disbelief, "—you tell me I can help you save the world."
1) Mikan takes Ji-chan's last name. Kazu and Grandpa are acquainted from long ago, since Ji-chan is pretty flipping old and Kazu's 60 years old, I just thought that fit. 2) There are some allusions to Soviet activity from our 20th century and topics from psychology and political science so ask away if you are confused. I'll be glad to explain. 4) Adventure/Drama/Romance/Humor/Friendship/General 5) According to Wikipedia, Mikan might have a premonition power because in some instances in the manga, she can see possible future events through her dreams, which explains that last bit.
Thank you for everything up until now, guys. :)