Disclaimer: All recognizable characters belong to Tachibana Higuchi. This story is mine with many parallels to the Gakuen Alice manga.

Warning: Spoilers on the ESP/Principal Kuonji. Spoilers about Narumi. Just spoilers. You've been warned.

Note: This is a long, and I mean really long, chapter. It's over 10K words so I would suggest you get a juice box, perhaps a light snack like some chips or something and a sweater if it's nearing the evening. Also, if you have a laptop, hop onto your bed or on a nice couch. If you have a desktop, put a pillow on your seat. Grab some pocky. You're in for a long chapter. Happy reading everyone! :)


Somewhere the Clock is Ticking
Chapter 5.
Game, Set and Match

-;-

"You want to be with Z?" His voice was neutral, but she could see by the look in his eyes that Shiki was hopeful.

Shiki looked surprised she agreed to be a part of their organization, but really, it wasn't too surprising, was it? It wasn't safe for Grandpa to be by himself any longer and just the thought of sitting by and letting the world go up in flames left a dirty feeling at the pit of her stomach.

Her choices were limited. There were already Alice Army personnel coming after her. It was obvious she couldn't stay at Grandpa's or go to school; she would just be asking them to throw her into their ranks. With Grandpa hurt, she couldn't possibly tow him around the world. All she could do was run and hide. She could do that very well with her teleportation, but was that the life she really wanted? Did she really want to be running all of the time?

If she could help at all… if there was a chance for them to make people see that they didn't have to choose between one group or the other, wasn't it best to give it a try?

She wanted that life, the one she spoke so highly about to Ruka.

She wanted to be able to live without looking over her shoulder, without having to be afraid that somebody was going to take away her important people, without having to hide everything that she was. Nobody could call that kind of existence 'living'. Nobody could possibly spend their lives the way they wanted when they were in a constant state of fear and suspicion. She was done with that kind of life. She was done with fear.

The race was over.

No more running.

"I have a few conditions," she said seriously, ignoring the way the bald one looked at Red Eyes with incredulity. "If you'll listen."

"Of course," Shiki responded quietly, inclining his head slightly.

She gestured quickly to Ruka who stood loyally behind her. "Ruka-pyon and his mom are in danger." She could feel Ruka's sputter, but her eyes didn't waver from Shiki's gaze which seemed to soften just the slightest. "I need to protect them. The same goes for Mizuki-chan. If you could find some place, maybe—"

"—Wait a second here," Mizuki protested heatedly, appearing at her side in a second. "Who the hell said I wanted anybody's protection? I don't need protection and I don't need to be babied." Mikan pressed her lips together and watched as Mizuki twisted her long violet hair into a ball around her fist. She looked around the room slowly before her eyes fell to one. "Are you still recruiting?" she nodded to Shiki. "If you are, I'm down."

She turned to Mizuki quickly. "Are you sure?" she asked lowly. "Because I'm thankful for everything you've done until now but Mizuki, this could be really dangerous—"

Mizuki merely waved her off with an eye roll. "Don't worry about it. If you're in, I'm in. You didn't think I would leave you in the hands of people you don't even know, did you? Besides," a slow smirk appeared on her pale pink lips. "I live for danger."

"This isn't something you can decide on so quickly." Mikan turned quickly to the new voice of a boy with blond hair, darker than Ruka's, with a set of thin glasses on the bridge of his nose. He was tall and was wearing some kind of school uniform that fit his frame well. He took his glasses off for a second and Mikan caught kind brown eyes. "I fear you don't understand what you're getting yourself into, Mizuki-san," he murmured kindly. "That kind of reason… to want to live for danger—"

"It's fine, glasses-boy," Mizuki cut him off abruptly. "It's not like I haven't been living out with the wolves on my own. I know how to take care of myself. I doubt whatever you guys are doing here is any worse than what I've done."

"Once you join us, you cannot leave," Hotaru said coldly from her seat at one of the tables. "Not unless you want your memory wiped. You must know the consequences of your decisions. Joining Z, you pledge to devote your time, body and soul to the goal. We live for each other; we die for the cause."

Mikan swallowed thickly at those words before she felt Ruka shift from beside her. She blinked in surprise when he turned to face her with a frown. "Mikan, can I talk to you for a second?" She nodded and he began to walk toward the corner of the cafeteria with certainty in his steps. "Alone," he added, when she didn't follow. Surprised, she jogged to keep up with him.

"Mikan, do you honestly know what you're doing?" Ruka rounded on her immediately once she was backed into the corner of the room. "How do you even know them? How do you even know you can trust them? It's like they told you one thing and you're ready to jump aboard before you even know what's going on."

"Didn't you hear? Grandpa knows them," she replied simply, watching as he remained unconvinced. "If Grandpa trusts them, then I don't see why I shouldn't."

She watched as he ran a hand through his blond hair with exasperation. "How does he know them? We live with alices, Mikan. Anything here is possible. Has it ever crossed your mind that they could have brainwashed Grandpa into answering the way they want him to? What if he isn't himself? I don't think he would want you putting your life on the line for something like this—"

"Something like this?" she asked incredulously. "What do you mean, something like this?"

Ruka backed up before he blinked blue eyes at her. "Mikan, calm down. I'm just saying that this 'Z' thing doesn't sound like it's anything official. Aren't you in the least suspicious that we haven't heard a thing about them? How on earth does Grandpa even know these people? How do we know that we can trust these people? There's a real possibility that someone in this room works for the Alice Army and I don't know about you, but I want nothing to do with them."

"But if they worked with the Alice Army, then why did they save us from those guys that were at Grandpa's? Plus, they're treating Grandpa right now!" She bit her bottom lip and paced in front of him for a moment. "You know how the AA are… they would have killed Grandpa on the spot." She stopped in her tracks and looked up at him helplessly. "Ruka-pyon… you don't have to be with 'Z'. You don't have to be with the Alice Army or the AAO. You don't have to do anything you don't want to but please… don't worry about me. I think I'll be safer here than anywhere."

"You don't know that!" Ruka blurted out angrily. "How can you just say things like that without knowing anything? You can't just rely on what you hear, Mikan. Not now, not during a war."

"It's not just what I hear, it's what I feel. I feel good about this decision. I want to help… I want to use this power I've been given for something good." She closed her eyes and exhaled slowly. "Don't worry about me and take care of your mom, Ruka-pyon… because she's the only one you have now and—"

Her eyes widened when he took her by the arms in a firm hold and gazed at her imploringly. "Mikan, open up your eyes. Please," he said shakily. "Can't you see? Mom's not the only one I have. I have you. You're important to me, too. I don't want to lose you. I can't lose you. That's why I'm not going to leave you alone," he murmured decidedly. "If you choose Z, then I'm staying with you. You don't know anyone here, Mikan. We've got to take care of each other, right?"

But Ruka couldn't stay with her… he couldn't. It just wouldn't make sense. "But what about your mom?" Mikan asked finally. "You can't just leave your mom in Nagoya. They're coming for you on Sunday and when they learn that you aren't there and you're not at school, they're going to—"

Ruka closed his eyes painfully. "I know. But if that guy is able to find her a safe place…" He rubbed his eyes thoughtfully and turned his back to her. "I don't know. Maybe you could help me? Maybe we could teleport her someplace safe before we join them?" He laughed bitterly and looked over his shoulder with sorrowful blue eyes. "I can't believe I'm talking like we've already decided."

"Ruka," she said softly, reaching up to grab the hand rubbing his temple. "I have decided, but… you don't have to join because of me and this doesn't have to be… this doesn't have to be like a goodbye, right?" She grinned up at him. "I can teleport to wherever you are. I won't leave you alone either, Ruka-pyon. You're important to me too."

He seemed to redden before he cleared his throat and looked away. "You've decided then?"

She nodded and watched as he swallowed before he turned to blink up at the ceiling. "We'll need to find a place for Mom and the caretaker," he said finally, dropping his gaze back at the rest of the room. "We'll have to be careful here. I don't know. I just don't trust them. Not yet." He looked at her sternly, then, and Mikan swallowed. "Trust me, Mikan, I'll protect you."

Without looking back, he began walking toward the group. Mikan merely watched the back of his head with a lump in her throat.

Ruka was such a good friend, her best friend. He really didn't have to worry so much. She could take care of herself, but he was always like this. She remembered running through gardens and chasing birds with him. She remembered his ever-caring personality, the kindness and the fact that he always acted like the big brother she always wanted. He always listened, always gave her advice, always offered help, and was always there for support.

Ruka-pyon was the best.

"Mikan." She looked up to see Mizuki's penetrating black eyes on her stomach. "What's up with the hand-holding?"

Before she could comprehend the question, Ruka pulled his hand out of hers as if he touched fire. Mikan blinked back up at Ruka who refused to meet her gaze. He looked like he wanted to get away from her as fast as possible. She hoped he didn't think she was weird for holding his hand. "Oh… sorry, Ruka-pyon! I forgot. I hope I didn't make you feel uncomfortable."

"On to more important matters," Red Eyes began gruffly, sending a glare in her direction.

"Right!" Ruka turned to Shiki with a determined look in his eyes. "I'll join Z with Mikan if you can find a safe place for my mom and caretaker." He exhaled abruptly. "I have a lot of questions for you."

Shiki nodded and gestured to one of the cafeteria tables behind him. "Please take a seat and ask all of the questions you need." They shuffled toward the table and watched as Shiki took the seat across from them. He passed grey eyes over all three of them before he stopped at Ruka. "What would you like to know?"

Mikan bit her lip and watched as Ruka peered down at her for two seconds. Then he looked at Shiki. "Why haven't we heard anything about Z?" he asked immediately. "It's always been just the Alice Army and the Anti-Alice Organization and it's like you guys just popped up from out of nowhere."

There was a muffled snicker from behind them, but Shiki acted as if he heard nothing.

"When Z was founded, it was to the agreement that only a select few would know about the organization, and those who knew would be loyal to the cause," Shiki responded calmly, his tone was clinical and detached. "We work best with the element of surprise on our side. The workings of Z would prove most difficult if the Alice Army was privy to our aims." His eyes were solemn. "What we do here can be seen as no better than what the AA or the AAO do."

Her jaw almost dropped at that. "We kill people? I didn't… you didn't say anything about that!" she blurted out quickly as her eyes swept around the room. "I can't do anything like that!" She looked at Shiki with wide eyes and felt her heart shrink away. "Why? There's enough killing as it is… why do we have to do the same?"

Shiki didn't flinch; he merely kept his calm eyes on her. "You're right… and wrong, Mikan." There was a hint of a smile on his lips when she pressed her lips together in confusion. "There is only one person we are after. We do not kill people—" He paused thoughtfully before he looked at the blond boy with the glasses. "Tobita, you seem to want to explain this."

"N-No," Tobita shook his head emphatically. "I just thought maybe you should explain his alice first… this person/people idea might be a little less confusing if they understood what his alice was."

Shiki inclined his head and turned back to face her with cool eyes. "His name is Kuonji. Kazu was once his colleague at the Alice Academy in Japan before his brother was killed and many others at Kuonji's shadow hands. The majority of those you see in this room have been affected by Kuonji's actions. Many know him as the driving force behind the Alice Army. What most do not know is that Kuonji is also the driving force behind the Anti-Alice Organization."

"Okay, hold up!" Mizuki exclaimed with irritation colouring her tone. Mikan felt the nudge to her shoulder before Mizuki narrowed her eyes. "Did that make any sense to you? Like, at all?" The violet-haired girl whipped around to look at Shiki like he was stupid. "Are you saying the same person is behind both organizations? Because that makes like, no sense at all."

"Maybe if you shut up for a moment, you would hear the story long enough to understand," Hotaru's voice was icy. "Now stop interrupting him."

Shiki shook his head at her. "Our guests may ask any questions they need. We do not want them agreeing to stipulations they do not understand, Imai-san."

With that said, he looked back at them patiently. "Your concerns are valid. The driving forces behind both organizations are derived from one person. I'm aware it seems rather strange, but humor me as I explain. You see, Kuonji has the clone alice. It is different than a doppelganger alice in the sense that, when Kuonji clones himself, he must leave a bit of his alice within the body of the clone in order for it to survive. These clones of Kuonji are cloned into a body half of his age and these clones also have the power to clone themselves. Clones from the original Kuonji are called first generation clones and typically have similar interests and ambitions as the original. Clones of the first generation are called second generation clones who are half the age of the first generation with slightly differing interests as their creators. The clones of the second generation clones are half the age of their creators and tend to have very few allegiances to their creators. These clones are third generation clones and as far as Kazu and I know, this is as far as the cloning process can go. The math is inconsistent, because it depends on how much of Kuonji's alice is passed onto his clones. First generation clones may have the alice strength of the second generation depending on how much Kuonji has given to them. Typically, however, second and third generation clones have little to no cloning power to continue the cloning process. Without real alice power, these clones are more like civilians than anything."

Shiki exhaled slowly. "Kuonji typically has full control and obedience from his first generation clones and has strong influence over his second generation clones. These are the clones that have been given roles in most of the Alice Academies around the world. Kazu and I and half of the people you see in this room have known Kuonji or one of his clones. Hyuuga, Imai and Tobita transferred from Japan's Alice Academy, under Kuonji's direct control, to America's Alice Academy, which has a second generation clone of Kuonji as the middle school principal. The clones that aren't principals of Academies around the world are CEOs of manufacturing companies or in other positions of high authority. These clones, under Kuonji, are the ones that began rallying support for the Alice Army."

Mikan caught his grey eyes and his breathing slowed as he continued. "A few second generation clones and the majority of the third generation clones have retained Kuonji's ambitious nature, but have proved to be most rebellious to their original's commands. With no cloning powers whatsoever and the expectation to remain obedient to Kuonji and his powerful clones, these rebellious third generation clones have hoarded some kind of resentment toward their creators. They inherited Kuonji's will to be the superior race, but in their situation, it was the civilians they wished to be superior. They are the ones that began the rally for the Anti-Alice Organization. Most of these third generation clones began political campaigns to create the 'world government' and are behind medical practices and investigative units aimed to exterminate the alice population." He folded his hands together atop the cafeteria table and looked at them calmly. "Kuonji and these clones… they are the ones Z are after. He is just one person, but he has influences everywhere around the world in high positions of authority. Kazu and I believe that once the clones are gone, it will be easier to speak rationally to the rest of the world. Kuonji and his clones are masters in persuasion capable of convincing whole cities into following them with one speech. He is a strong character, an inspiring leader and an incredible actor. Always has been."

"We think," the one named Tobita said cautiously, "—that with Kuonji cloning himself so much, there will come a time when he has nothing left of his alice to give to his clones. He'll be like a third generation clone with the little cloning power he will have left."

"Until then," Shiki continued smoothly, "—we are taking down the clones one by one. Kuonji has shown no real signs of a weakening alice and he is too well protected to stop directly. As the main leader of the Alice Army, it is far too risky to infiltrate the barriers of the Academy in Japan as well as his personal collection of guard alices."

Mikan breathed out slowly and could almost feel the tension in her ears by the end of Shiki's explanation. Was there really somebody so powerful to be able to lead not one, but two world armies? It was almost inspiring if it wasn't so wrong. This Kuonji character… he was a hundred different people, maybe more, and they were trying to stop this person? It almost seemed impossible.

"Does this Kuonji guy know his clones are the leaders of the AAO?" Mizuki asked finally. "It just sounds weird that alices, even weak ones, would want to side with the AAO."

"These third generation clones have no alice power whatsoever. If they were to receive another clone alice stone with enough added power to clone, then perhaps they would not feel as such; Kuonji holds some kind of telepathic power to influence his clones but with these third generation clones, the influence he has is practically obsolete." Shiki paused for a moment with his eyes on Ruka. "If we forced you three to join Z, for example, would you not feel resentment and disloyalty toward us? I suspect it is the same feeling for these clones. They feel no affiliation and no passion for Kuonji and his goals since they do not have his power or the strong bonds he has with the other clones. They feel like civilians and have changed their ambitions to correspond to their own views."

Mizuki settled beside her, thoughtful.

"I feel like…" Mikan paused as Shiki's eyes returned to hers and she fought the nervousness long enough to ask: "When you uh, kill these clones, what happens to their alice?"

Shiki blinked questionably. "I don't understand what you mean."

There was a snicker from behind her.

Mikan flushed, wondering if she was asking a stupid question. Would they laugh at her if she asked? She really knew next to nothing about alices and they all seemed like they knew so much—

"Mikan," Shiki said softly, "—there's no such thing as a bad question. Could you be a little clearer?"

She looked quickly at Tobita who was standing behind Shiki before her eyes dropped back to his. "I just… you said the only way the clones could survive—could be—was because Kuonji put a bit of his alice in them… right? So if you kill the clones, does the alice go back to Kuonji? Is that why he can clone himself so many times?"

She could feel her cheeks warm at the expression on Shiki's face. It was a valid question, right? Oh no, she hoped they all didn't think she was an idiot! She always asked stupid questions. "N-never mind. It was just silly! I don't know anything about alices so I don't know what I'm talking about."

"No," Shiki stopped her smoothly, "It's a good question. I just don't know how to answer it. Kazu and I have never thought of something like that." He looked at her for a long moment, grey eyes intense, before his expression morphed into something akin to pride. For a second, it looked like he smiled, but it disappeared just as quickly as it appeared and Mikan wasn't sure if she imagined it or not. "I'll look into it. You may be on to something, Mikan."

She felt a rush of relief flow through her body and could hear whispers from behind her, but couldn't make out any specific words. She smiled up at Shiki before turning to Ruka. "What do you think, Ruka-pyon? You had more questions, right?"

Ruka exhaled slowly and shook his head. "That was… a lot to take in. My only concern is mom and the caretaker—"

There was a low whisper from behind them. "Rich boy has a caretaker —"

Mikan whipped around to glare at whoever it was but there were too many in the room and she couldn't be sure who spoke up. Ruka continued as if he didn't hear a thing, though his ears were turning red enough to say otherwise. "If money is a problem, my mother has enough to pay for a house or anything. I just want them to have someplace safe… maybe a neutral area?"

"This is a world-wide war," Hotaru said coolly. "There are no safe locations."

"Then what is this place?" Ruka shot back abruptly, eyeing Hotaru with something like indignation. Mikan was surprised to see anything like that on Ruka's face. "Surely there's enough room for her here, right?"

"This place is for Z members only," somebody voiced from their left. "We can't take your mom here, rich boy."

"Stop talking to Ruka like that!" she rounded on the table behind her where a bunch of boys, including Red Eyes and the blue-haired boy, were sitting. "Just because there's a war going on, doesn't mean we all have to be so mean to each other! You judge him like you know something, but you don't know him at all. So stop that!"

"Stop that," somebody mimicked from her right.

She could feel irritation coursing through her veins, but before she could act on it, Shiki spoke, low and commanding. "Stop. All of you." She turned around quickly at the command and could feel his eyes looking past her shoulder at the boys at the other table. "Now. If you can't behave, then leave. This isn't the type of behaviour any of you should be exhibiting, not for eighteen year olds and older."

When he finished, he turned to Ruka. "Your mother can stay here for the time being, but she can't stay for long. This training lodge is for Z members only." Mikan felt a frisson of injustice, but Shiki continued smoothly. "There is a safe house that belongs to Kazu. Once Sakura is treated, that's where he is going as well. I believe it will meet your expectations when we bring your mother there."

"And the caretaker?" Ruka rushed to ask with the tips of his ears reddening.

Shiki inclined his head to say the caretaker could accompany her.

"Shiki-sama," Tobita murmured softly from behind him. "We need to perform the tests of loyalty. They could be anybody—"

"The tests of loyalty take much too long. We don't have a month to enlist them," Shiki responded politely, ignoring the squawks of protest from all around. She watched as he took the ring off of his finger and looked past her. "I understand that you are all frustrated since you were all put through the tests of loyalty, but I've come up with a suitable alternative." When the protests died down, Mikan watched as a brown-haired boy, with a wolfish grin on his face, walked up to them before sitting beside Shiki. The ring was pushed back onto his finger.

Brown eyes immediately zoomed in on Mizuki and his grin widened. "I don't think calling me 'creepy' is very nice," he said brightly as his grin turned into a smirk. "And no, I don't have a problem with my face. I've enjoyed your… racy thoughts throughout your entire internal monologue, but how about we settle the matter at hand?"

"Ah," Mizuki sighed thoughtfully. "Mind reader, huh?"

"Koko, focus," Shiki murmured sternly. "Koko is a mind reader, yes. I ask that each of you spend the night here. Koko works his best when his subjects are sleeping."

"Isn't that an invasion of privacy?" Ruka stuttered quickly, eyeing the mind reader with a glare on his face. "I have… personal thoughts in my head!"

"You must understand… an organization like ours, it would be disastrous if anybody found out about what we are doing. In wartimes like these, it is difficult to discern who we are able to trust and who we must treat with suspicion," Tobita said quickly, adjusting his glasses. "When the rest of us joined Z, the test of loyalty lasted two weeks at least. Question period with lie detectors, sleep interrogation and the use of other psychological alices to see where our motivations lie, etc. This is a faster way to do so."

"But we don't have anything to hide," Mikan said thoughtfully. "You guys are the ones that came to recruit us."

"No," Hotaru said easily. "We came to recruit you. Not the other two. As far as we know, those two can't be trusted. Besides," her eyes immediately glinted, "If you have nothing to hide, you have no reason to be afraid."

"I'm not afraid," Ruka snapped quickly, "—there are just some things I'd rather keep to myself."

"And I know why," Koko snickered from in front of them, a Cheshire grin on his face. Ruka whipped his head back to him with horror in his eyes. "Don't worry, Ruka-pyon, I won't tell anybody about that. Your secret is safe with me…" His brown eyes slid to Shiki before a thoughtful expression crossed his face. "Oh, and Shiki-sama and Kazu-sama and whoever else is in charge of Z. You know… for insurance purposes."

Ruka groaned and stood up, tossing a glare at the boy. "Well, now that you know that, I don't see why I need to worry about my privacy being invaded," Ruka murmured sarcastically. He turned to her, then, and his eyes softened. "Don't do anything until I get back, ok, Mikan?"

She cocked her head to the side before nodding which made Koko's eyes land on hers. "I can't read her mind," Koko said suddenly without tearing his eyes away from hers. "It's like she's not thinking anything at all."

"She's the nullification," Red Eyes threw in from behind her. "Maybe you'll have better luck while she's sleeping."

Mikan bristled at that but Shiki caught her eyes before she could speak the words on the tip of her tongue. "As long as she's suspicious or defensive, you won't get anything with her nullification active," Shiki explained calmly before his eyes dropped to the tabletop. "You don't need to read Mikan. Kazu and I have reason enough to believe she will be loyal if she's anything like her parents."

Mikan swallowed quickly and looked away.

A tense silence fell upon the group until Koko sat up quickly. "Okay, I might as well get this over with. This guy's going crazy with questions and I'm getting a headache," he nodded to Ruka who was looking at her questionably. Koko turned to Mizuki. "You might as well come too."

A clatter of feet interrupted their departure as Sakurano and Kazu appeared once again with a black-haired boy in tow. Mikan stood up quickly and watched as Kazu's grey eyes immediately found hers. "He's fine, Mikan. He's sleeping now. Our own Subaru Imai healed all of his wounds."

She turned to the unknown boy who had violet eyes like Hotaru's. "He will need two days of sleep at least without physical exertion to repair the damages sustained. He will make a full recovery, however."

Shiki stood up, then, and addressed Subaru. "Koko is heading out with the other two to try sleep interrogation. Will you accompany him?"

Subaru inclined his head politely before his gaze fell on the trio standing by the doors. "Sleep interrogation?" His voice was as smooth as butter and as cool as metal. "May I use a sleeping drought?"

"If they are fine with a sleeping drought, then by all means," Shiki said finally after sharing a knowing glance with Kazu. When the four of them left, Shiki walked up to Kazu and all three men began speaking in low whispers.

Mikan had never felt like she was on display until then. With Ruka and Mizuki gone, she was like a freakshow on exhibition. The scrutiny was making her shuffle with anxiety and it didn't help that she kept feeling a dark chill down her spine whenever she thought about what she was doing here.

She almost screamed when a boy fell into the seat beside her with a grin. "Okay, I have to ask," he said quickly, propping his chin up with a hand and black eyes on hers. "Just how powerful are you?"

"Uhh," Mikan swallowed, "I don't know?"

"How about this?" he said, twisting so that he could explain with his hands. "Can I use my alice on you?" Before she could understand, he backpedaled quickly, "I promise I won't do anything weird. You know, I could just toss you really slowly in the air or something! Something simple like that!" At her confusion, he continued quickly, "It'll be fun. Nothing weird. I want to see what you're capable of!"

He stood up quickly before he threw his legs out from underneath the bench. He offered her a hand to her feet and grinned. "I won't hurt you, I promise," he put his hand up like a scout would. When she didn't move, he pouted. "Would it help if I said 'please'?"

Mikan narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "What's your alice?"

"Levitation," he grinned easily, demonstrating by lifting the garbage can at the end of the table without taking his eyes off of hers. "Nothing too scary, right?"

"Try 'not scary at all'," laughed a voice from behind them.

The bald boy tossed a glare over his shoulder, "Says the one with shadow manipulation as an alice."

Mikan sat quietly and watched as the two exchanged taunting words at each other. She started when she felt a hand on her shoulder and looked around in time to catch Kazu's quiet gaze. She kind of wished he was her uncle, but she was still skeptical. While the guys continued to argue, Kazu looked at her with soft eyes. "I'm sorry you had to see Sakura like that, Mikan. I didn't want you to witness any of these kinds of things so fast."

"I'm a big girl," she shrugged quietly, looking up and wondering if her dad looked like him. "I guess I've been lucky to go a decade without seeing the war in front of my eyes. I used to just hear about it and see it on the news and think it was happening somewhere far away from me, but that… I guess that opened my eyes."

He continued to look at her before a smile took his lips. "You look so much like your mother," he said softly.

She didn't know why it happened, but a blush stole across her face. She could feel it inching up her neck and into her ears. Was it strange that she felt so proud to hear something like that? I look like mom. It was enough to make her heart fill with warmth in her chest. "Was she pretty?" Mikan laughed softly before she caught Shiki's eyes from Kazu's other side.

It was he who responded with a distant look in his eyes and warmth in his voice. "She was more than pretty, she was beautiful."

Before she could understand the look in his eyes, the bald one came to a skidding stop in front of the three of them with a polite grin on his face. "Shiki-sama, Kazu-sama," he bowed quickly, "—is it okay if we play with her?"

Mikan's jaw dropped.

"Wow, I feel like I'm asking my mom to play with the neighbour's dog again," the blue-haired boy muttered from under his breath.

Kazu merely looked at her. "It's up to you, Mikan."

"His idea of 'playing' is throwing me around the room, apparently," Mikan said doubtfully, eyeing the drooping smile on his face. "You guys said I have those other two alices, right?" she said, looking back at the two adults. "How does that work, exactly?"

"Well you've already used your nullification, Shiki has told me. I'm sure you've used it quite a bit without even knowing you did. The nullification usually works when you feel the need to protect yourself. It also comes with the feeling of suspicion and defense. If you feel threatened in any way, your body tends to fall into the categories of fight or flight. This reaction, I believe, will trigger your nullification," Kazu said thoughtfully, sharing a look with Shiki. "As for stealing, I think that's something you'll have to discover on your own. Perhaps you could talk to Shiki about it. He knows much more about it than I do."

She eyed the bald boy. "Do you think it's safe for me? I don't even know how to control it and if they're using their alices…"

"If they harm you in any way," Shiki said in a low voice that seemed slightly threatening, "They will face the consequences."

Mikan blinked. "Okay… but what about my control? Is there some way I can control them before I—"

"Mikan," Kazu interrupted calmly, "The only way you can strengthen and control your alice is through practice with other alices. You'll never know the extent of your control until you put yourself out there."

"Which in normal-speak," the bald one spoke up, "—means you should let us play with you!"

Mikan swallowed.

-;-

She really didn't know how she got herself into this situation.

It appeared after Mochu, the bald one, was finished with her, everybody wanted a try to see if she could nullify their alices. Even Shiki and Kazu wanted to see the extent of her alice and called upon a girl named Nobara with piercing onyx eyes and a tumble of gorgeous midnight blue hair. She had to admit, it was exhilarating to see a flash of ice crackling dangerously close to her face only to be stopped by her own sheer will.

The looks on their faces, both impressed and in awe and then others with determination, also made a thrill of pleasure run down her spine.

Mochu, Tsubasa and Nobara had all been suitably impressed by her nullification. Natsume, the one she called Red Eyes, and Hayate, a wind alice, were both frustrated and determined to see her alice fail. Well, Natsume at least. He seemed to want to blast her with fire until her nullification let up. Hayate merely refused to believe his wind alice was futile.

"Okay, that's enough," Kazu's voice boomed from across the room.

Natsume immediately let up on his stream of fire and as if summoned, Mochu threw open the screens of the skylights and windows before Hayate pushed a cool breeze through the room to air out the smell of smoke and the sweltering heat inside the cafeteria. When it was a little cooler, Nobara immediately cut off her icy mist and sat down at the closest table.

Mikan teleported to an empty table and rested her head over her crossed arms. "That was insane," she breathed out quietly, feeling Kazu hover from behind her. She looked up, then, to face the alices that just exhausted the energy from her veins. "You guys are really… something," she said finally, looking up when Shiki put a hand on her head affectionately.

"You should talk, Tiny," Tsubasa chuckled easily. "At least it's a good thing to know you're effective against all offensive alices."

At that, Mikan pressed a hand against her stomach where Hotaru hit her with some kind of gun. It hurt like a paintball gun would without the spatter of paint. "Except guns," she said wryly, pouting when Hotaru merely shrugged.

"And just about anything that doesn't come from the alice itself," Kazu explained. "Your friend Ruka could use his alice against you because, with his Animal Pheromone alice, he's manipulating the animals to do what he wants and they are free to hurt you in any way. It's only if you touch him and render the use of his alice useless, at the source, can he cease to manipulate the animals to his will. The same thing goes for Imai's invention alice. Once she's created her inventions, you cannot stop them. But if you nullify her while she is creating her inventions, her alice will not affect the inventions the way they usually would."

Mikan nodded in understanding and exhaled again with the adrenaline just beginning to ebb from her body.

"So we know you've got a good grasp on your nullification," Shiki said thoughtfully. "Now all there is to find out is how well you cope with your stealing."

"Perhaps Hyuuga should volunteer," Hotaru suggested with a smirk. "He's the one who was so keen on recruiting a stealing alice in the first place."

"I'll pass," was his gruff, sarcastic reply as he stood leaning against the table with his crimson eyes turned to look expectantly at Mikan. "She has an unstable alice. Even knowing that she has the ability to insert alices back into a body, it's still unnerving if she has never done it before. Her nullification is only working well because she's had enough practice living in fear with her grandfather."

"Was that a compliment I heard coming from your lips, Natsume?" Tsubasa said with a taunting laugh.

Natsume rolled his eyes before his eyes fell on hers once more. "Don't look so smug, little girl. It was an observation and nothing more."

"Like I would take a compliment from you seriously anyway," she scoffed warily, closing her eyes when his gaze dropped to Mochu who began to say something more. "How does the stealing work exactly?" she asked Shiki curiously.

Vaguely, she was aware of people coming and going from the cafeteria but her eyes remained on Shiki's. He peered down at her thoughtfully. "I know more about the inserting process," he said honestly with a nostalgic upward tilt to his lips. "However, I would imagine just the will or the want to take the alice from somebody would be enough."

"I would like to make a request." They turned to see Subaru Imai standing with Koko at his side. With their full attention, Subaru's eyes fell on hers. "There's the matter of Narumi's hand."

For those who remained in the cafeteria, the statement was met with a dim wave of chatter and immediately, Mikan thought back to her dreams of a man with a blackened hand. Was this the Narumi they were talking about? What had happened to his hand? It looked like he caught it in a fire because it was black enough to be charred.

"You've already tried to heal it," Shiki reminded calmly.

"We know what caused it," Subaru countered easily. "With the mark of death, there are very few who have lived through it to tell anybody how to survive it. I suspect the only reason I survived it was due to my alice. Narumi is different. If my theory is correct, Sakura-san might be able to take the alice affecting Narumi's hand and create a stone from it."

Shiki shared a look with Kazu, still unconvinced.

"Stealing an alice depends on concentrating on the person and trying to suck as much of the alice from every part of the body," Subaru said knowingly as he looked with relentless violet eyes at Shiki. "If Sakura-san was to concentrate on taking the mark of death from Narumi's hand, just Narumi's hand, I don't see why it cannot work."

Shiki looked like he wanted to say more, but Kazu put his hand on his shoulder and peered down at Mikan with soft eyes. "I suppose we can give it a try," he said before he returned his gaze to Shiki's. "Right?"

With a sigh, Shiki began striding toward the door behind Subaru and Kazu offered her a hand up before the two followed them. Mikan wondered why Shiki had his hand clasped into a tight fist by his side. She looked up at Kazu thoughtfully and he offered her a small, encouraging smile. "Is Shiki alright?" she murmured softly, keeping her voice low so that it only reached his ears.

Kazu looked ahead and smiled wryly. "Your mother had the stealing alice," he said simply, peering down at her. "You already look very much like her and you act similarly too. I suppose he just isn't ready to see so much of your mother in you. He hasn't seen her in more than a decade and Shiki… he hasn't had much of an opportunity to get over her death either."

"They were best friends?" she asked curiously, feeling her heart rise in her chest when Shiki turned to look back at her.

"That's right," Kazu responded. "He cared about your mother very much."

She looked up at him and smiled before a thought occurred to her. "But you're fine, right? You know, because you're dad's brother and he died too…"

Kazu looked at her with a wry look to his face. "I've learnt to channel my loss by making this organization. Both of your parents died as a result of one man's actions and I intend to make certain they did not die in vain. Izumi… he wished more than anything that the war could stop for good and I need to make his wish come true." He paused before he looked forward, "It makes me feel a little better that we have you with us now. Izumi was the only family I ever knew, and I certainly didn't know him long enough," his voice dropped into a quiet murmur, "—it feels like I get to have a second chance with you, his daughter."

She could feel a bubble of warmth spread into her chest that made a smile want to break across her face. She could barely contain it… could she remember ever feeling happy like this during the war? How was she supposed to reign in feelings like this? She paused before a small voice at the back of her head asked her, do you have to? Without overthinking it, she reached for his hand and gave it a tight squeeze, grinning when he looked down at her with stunned grey eyes with lips parted in equal surprise.

A slow smile overtook him before he squeezed her hand back in return.

"Grandpa's in here, too," Uncle Kazu said with a grin, gesturing to the doorway Shiki was slowly entering. "We can visit him before or after you take a look at Narumi."

"Okay," she said softly.

When they entered the hospital wing, Mikan's eyes fell first on Grandpa to see that he was sleeping soundly. She let go of her uncle's hand before striding purposefully toward him. He was all wrinkles and pale skin, but he was still so Grandpa. He was no longer bleeding and she couldn't have been happier. Sleeping like this, he looked the way he would after eating watermelons and drinking tea on a hot summer day.

She missed easy days like that.

She grabbed his hand softly before running her thumb over the back of his wrinkly hand.

"Mikan," Uncle Kazu called from across the room.

She set his hand down quickly before walking where the group was converged. She missed it when she first came in, but Ruka and Mizuki were in here also, still sleeping soundly on their own white beds. When she neared the group, she could just make out the slender figure of a pale man with blonde hair that she could remember seeing in her dreams. When she arrived, his eyes rested on hers and he sat up slowly with a smile on his face. "You must be Mikan-chan," he singsonged cheerfully, brushing his blond hair off of his left shoulder with his good hand.

She nodded with a grin at his enthusiasm only to gasp when she caught a glimpse of his hand. It was all black, even his nails, and the black seemed to be spreading up into his wrist. It looked like his entire hand was rotting.

"Your hand," she blurted out without tearing her eyes away from the blackened appendage.

"Oh this?" the man named Narumi said airily, using his good hand to examine the other. "It didn't always look like this," he laughed before his violet eyes reached hers. "It looks much worse than it is," he reassured her. "It doesn't hurt."

"Much," Natsume snorted from beside him. "Stop trying to downplay it, stupid teacher."

A dry smile spread across the man's lips before he covered his blackened hand with his good one. He smiled up at her again. "I hear you're going to try for the impossible," Narumi said with a smile. "It's all right, though. Having this hand isn't so bad. If I lose one of my gloves, then no big deal right?"

Tsubasa chuckled with him, but otherwise, nobody laughed.

Mikan bit her lip and stepped toward his bed. "If I want it enough," she said to Shiki curiously, "—I should just want to take it?" At Shiki's nod, she looked back at Narumi with a hesitant smile. "May I?" she asked, gesturing toward his hand.

"Oh my," Narumi grinned before winking up at her, "A pretty girl asking for my hand? Of course, you may!"

With a grin, Mikan reached hesitantly toward his hand and clasped it with her own. His hand was so cold, much colder than she expected. She didn't know how this was supposed to work, really. How was she supposed to take something that was doing this to his hand? What was it supposed to look like? Maybe if she watched a video or read about the technique she would be a little more prepared but…

She closed her eyes and exhaled slowly. Let me take the alice from his hand… let me make it better again. Let me take the alice from his hand, let me make it better again. Please please please.

Her eyes widened when she felt a warm hand seize one of hers in a death grip. Her eyes snapped open to fall on Natsume's red ones. "That's enough," he snapped roughly, letting her hand go so that it fell to her side. He looked over at Narumi who was grinning at her apologetically. "You were practically squeezing the life from his hand and he was too stupid to tell you to let it go."

She looked down at her other hand to see it was gripped white as well.

She let him go quickly and backed up a step until she stumbled into Subaru who steadied her politely. "I'm so sorry!" she bowed once, eyes wide with shock. "I didn't mean to! I was just trying to get it out of your hand but I guess…" She rubbed her eyes to ease the sting. "I guess I can't do it. I'm so sorry."

"It's fine, it's fine," Narumi said quickly, laughing at her apologies. "I told you it was impossible, right? The mark of death is a powerful alice and the stealing alice is very complicated. No harm, no foul."

"But I did harm you…"

Narumi paled slightly before he raised both hands and shook his head. "That's not what I meant," he reassured quickly. "Don't worry about it, Mikan-chan. I'm fine. I promise." Searching for a change of subject, Narumi turned to Uncle Kazu. "So… will Mikan be enrolled in the Academy with Natsume and Hotaru?"

Mikan stepped back once more until she was standing in between Shiki and her uncle as she looked sorrowfully at the blackened hand. She had wanted to help him, she really had. It was just her luck that she'd ended up hurting him in the process.

"She can't," Kazu shook his head immediately. "It's far too dangerous and with the Alice Army already looking for her, I don't see any reason we have to subject her to so much scrutiny. She'll stay here at the training lodge and hone her alices."

Somebody put a hand on her shoulder and she peered over to see Tsubasa's kind blue eyes. "Don't worry, Little One. I'll help you out with your alices since I'm graduated and all," he winked cheekily. "Hayate comes and goes from the Alice University beside the Academy so we can all hang out while those ones," he gestured to Natsume and Hotaru, "—are stuck in school for the next few weeks."

"And Ruka? Mizuki?" Mikan asked immediately.

Kazu turned to look at the two, still sleeping on the hospital beds adjacent. "I'll have to talk to Koko about the interrogation. I'm sure if anything went wrong, he would have told me already, but it's good to just be sure. If nothing strange was found, then I have no problem having them here as well. Your friend Mizuki has an alice that I believe will be of much use and Ruka would be good for information gathering. I'll have to speak to some others, but they could both be very good assets to Z."

Shiki looked down at her. "I suppose you want to stay with your grandfather for a little bit?"

She nodded and watched as her uncle and Shiki both headed toward the door. "All right. If you're hungry or anything, you know where the cafeteria is. There's bound to be somebody in there, so ask anybody if you need help finding anything." When she nodded again, Kazu sent her a small smile. "You were very impressive today, Mikan. We're very proud."

And just the way he said it, it sounded like Dad and Mom would have been proud too.

The room began to clear but Natsume remained speaking to Narumi, though it sounded more like they were arguing. When the last of them left, she walked back toward them. Narumi looked up at her with a grin. "Come sit," he gestured to the chair on his other side. "Join us! Talking to Natsume for too long makes me have a headache."

Natsume stood up easily. "Bastard," he said smoothly, a glare on his face, "If you didn't want to talk to me, all you had to do was say so. I don't like talking to you either."

"Oh, Natsume," Narumi sighed, "You know I didn't mean it like that."

"How did you mean it?" Natsume asked dryly. "I don't think there's any other way you can interpret that sentence."

Watching them banter made a smile push at the edges of her lips. "I didn't think you were so sensitive, Natsume," Mikan said with a grin, but it wilted slightly when he shot her a glare, a real one. She shrunk back slightly at the hostility. "Whoa, put that away before you hurt someone," she grumbled.

"You're mistaking sensitivity for rhetorical sarcasm," he responded coolly, though his annoyed red eyes belied his nonchalance.

She felt a spark of heat at the back of her spine at the tone he used, as if he was speaking to a child. "Well excuse me. You didn't strike me as the type of person to use rhetorical inflections since I'm certain you were the one who yelled at me when I asked a rhetorical question," she glared back, watching as he flicked his red eyes away.

"The situation didn't call for it," he said simply.

"Is that your idea of an apology?"

"Who the hell said I was apologizing?" He smirked, looking at her like she was the world's biggest idiot. "Idiot," he confirmed her thoughts.

She scowled and looked down at Narumi, who had a thoughtful look on his face. "Is she usually like that?"

"She?" Natsume interrupted abruptly.

Mikan didn't even notice she called him a 'she' but she certainly wasn't going to take it back, especially after the jibe he sent her way. "If the shoe fits," she smirked easily, ignoring the glare he was throwing at her. "Maybe if you didn't act like such a girl, my brain wouldn't have called you one unintentionally."

"That's a witty comeback," he said sarcastically, sitting back down on the other side of Narumi's bed and draping an arm around the back of his chair. "When out of insults, go for the gender or sexuality jokes. That's old, little girl. When you run into somebody like Narumi here, you won't be able to explain yourself."

Mikan opened her mouth to respond but closed it again in confusion. "Wait, what about Narumi?"

Narumi chose to reply this time. "Natsume has this ridiculous idea that I'm gay," he said dryly, before he paused, suddenly thoughtful. "Either that or I'm a part-time pedophile."

Mikan narrowed her eyes on amused red ones. "That's not very nice. Are you always this judgmental?"

"Believe what you want," Natsume responded easily, propping his legs up onto Narumi's bed, shoes and all. "What you think about me doesn't faze me in the least."

"Hey!" she stood up quickly, knocking his feet off with a scowl. "Don't be rude. He's an adult. You have to show some respect."

"Listen to the pretty girl, Natsume," Narumi laughed easily. "Respect me."

"Yeah, like that's going to happen any time soon," he scoffed coolly before his eyes slid back to Mikan. "So… you can't use your stealing alice, huh? That's kind of useless, isn't it?"

Oh, she just knew he was going to bring that up. It didn't make her feel any better about her complete failure in front of everybody. She was already beating herself up about it; she certainly didn't need Natsume adding any fuel to the fire. "How do I even know I have the stealing alice? It's not like I've ever used it before," she couldn't help the defensive edge to her voice.

"When Kazu Yukihira says you have an alice, you have the alice," Natsume deadpanned, his eyes darkened almost threateningly onto hers. "It could be such a powerful alice and yet you don't even know how to use it."

"You can stop putting me down now," she muttered under her breath, shooting him a sour look. "It's not like I don't know how much of a failure I am."

There was a harsh smack before Natsume grumbled. "You weren't supposed to cave so quickly," his voice was low. She looked up, then, to see that he wouldn't meet her gaze. "Look, Naru isn't mad at you about bringing his hopes up, so it's no big deal. I'm the only one that's pissed."

Mikan looked up at the ceiling in disbelief. "So you're mad at me?" She dropped her gaze to look back at him thoughtfully, taking in the way his black hair fell into his eyes, slightly, and the bold glow of his red eyes. "What's your problem with me, anyway? It was like you hated me the second you saw me."

He blinked slowly before his voice escaped in a drawl. "I don't hate you… yet. I just have a problem with you."

"Why?" She was curious.

Natsume smirked with an edge of annoyance in his lips. "Does it matter? I don't like you, so I certainly don't have to explain it to you." His eyes gleamed with amusement. "Don't tell me you're getting sensitive about it. You're such a girl."

"I'm not getting sensitive," she scoffed quickly, turning her eyes to Narumi. "Wouldn't you want to know why somebody decided to hate you?"

"Of course," Narumi replied indulgently. "Though I don't know if anybody chooses to hate somebody. I believe it's just something that happens without much careful thought. Much like falling in love."

"Like that has anything to do with what we're talking about," Natsume scoffed easily before his eyes fell onto hers again. "I didn't bring up the stealing alice to make you feel like a sack of shit, though that does make me feel a little better—" Natsume started speaking, his voice low, "—I brought it up because I think you should try again. You're not going to get any better controlling your alice if you won't give it a try."

Mikan blinked in surprise and watched as he turned his gaze away.

Narumi spoke the words that she couldn't. "Are you encouraging her?" he had an edge to his voice. "That's new."

"I've said it once and I'll say it again," Natsume responded gruffly. "I don't want to recruit liabilities into Z. The better you control your alices, the more useful you can be to our cause. I'm a selfish person," he said this to her. "Everything I do has a reason. So don't think I'm doing this to make you feel better or some sensitive girly shit like that."

Mikan rolled her eyes. "Okaaaay," she muttered sarcastically. "Thanks for clearing that up." She stretched out her hands and asked with her eyes if Narumi could put his hand into hers. Watching this time, she held his left hand with her right and placed her left hand gently over top. She tried to concentrate on stealing the alice, but how was it supposed to feel exactly? She didn't feel anything, couldn't feel if she was trying or not.

She looked up at Natsume and watched as he raised an eyebrow insolently. "That's all you've got?" he drawled with ill-concealed disappointment. "That's perfect," his voice was flat.

"I'm trying here!"

"Doesn't look like it," he murmured flatly, turning his gaze to the chart hanging beside him. His lack of interest in her efforts made the blood in her veins rush through her body. "It just looks like you like holding his hand," Natsume continued.

"Why you—" her eyes blazed.

"You don't need to get so sensitive about it," Natsume drawled, turning back to look at her. "I'm sure Narumi likes that you're touching him, too. Once you get to know him, you'll see his true colours but for now, I suppose it's fine for the both of you—"

"Hey," Narumi said easily, sending him an easy glare, "Leave me out of this."

"You know," Mikan bit out sharply. "You're just a pocket full of sunshine, aren't you? You act like that kid everybody knows that likes to kick kittens on the way to school—"

"Never kittens," Natsume responded flatly. "Puppies maybe."

She narrowed her eyes even further before the venom escaped her. "Do you like making babies cry everyday? Do you—"

"I don't know, are you calling yourself a baby?"

She could have sworn she saw red when another smirk pulled at the edges of his lips. "I've had just about enough of you, Natsume—"

"Just about?" Natsume retorted easily. "That's all?" There was another pull of heat at her neck before she narrowed her eyes once more onto his crimson ones, but he was no longer looking at her, but at her hands. Her heart caught in her throat with expectation and when she looked down at her hands and lifted her left off of Narumi's, it was to see that his hand had reverted to a pale peach colour.

She pulled her right hand out from underneath his palm.

Nestled inside the curve of her fingers was a black stone the size of a walnut.

She lifted her eyes, then, and smirked at Natsume. "Eat your words, jerk."


Apparently something went wrong with the chapter, so I went back only to see that it was missing? Uh, weirdness. ANYWAY, here it is again! This chapter took me longer than I expected but I hope this chapter was satisfactory for the longer wait :)

MakesMeZingy, you don't have your Private Messaging enabled so I couldn't reply but thank you for the kind words! Bolajv, the world government bit is actually from a long political science section last year, but I've read Anthem by Ayn Rand (about two weeks ago, actually!), and really liked it. Have you read the Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged by her? She's amazing.

Keep the questions and predictions coming! I love hearing where you think this story is heading. I don't know when the next update will be, but I won't be able to post between August 25-September 2 at least due to no internet connection at my new apartment, but hey! I'll give you guys at least one more juicy chapter until then, so let me know what you think and I'll see you next time!

Check out the poll on my profile if you're interested in having a say about what happens with Hotaru in this story.