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“Oi! Reserve kid! Wait up.”

Hajime paused in the halls mid-step, turning to face whoever was making a fuss. There was nobody else in the halls; him having come out of a meeting with the Steering Committee after class had started for the day. It was close to lunch, if he remembered the time right.

He stopped cold.

Surprise widened his eyes and choked his breath.

Two main course students strode up to him from the end of the corridor leading outside, both exuding a dangerous aura so subtle he almost missed the way the hairs at the back of his neck rose.

“What’s up?” Hajime said, trying not to back up from the short male with far too much of a resemblance to Kuzuryu Natsumi to be canny. Behind him, a tall female stood poised with the strangest pale hair, red eyes and a sword strapped to her back. Hajime was so shocked he almost missed the black fedora that seemed to come out of nowhere and hook perfectly on the shorter boy’s head.

“We need directions. This place is a fucking maze.” The short boy griped, swinging an arm up to tip his hat in annoyance. The girl seemed to hover like a shadow, silent and scary in every way.

Hajime gulped.

“U-uh, sure. Where do you need to go?”

“Not sure about the exact room, but do you know Kuzuryu Natsumi?”

Hinata felt the sudden urge to facepalm. His stomach twisted into nervous knots.

Of all the days to meet the Ultimate Yakuza

He showed none of his inner turmoil as he nodded absentmindedly.

“Yeah. She’s in my class. I can take you there, now.”

“Yeah, thanks.”

Hajime didn’t wait to be told to move. He twisted around and went on his way down the familiar halls and up a set of stairs to the second floor.

By the time they’d reached the last step, an alert rang over the loudspeakers for lunch. Doors snapped open one by one, students filtering out. Some stopped to stare as Hajime led the Ultimate Yakuza and what had to be his Ultimate Bodyguard or something toward his classroom at the end of the hall near the next set of stairs going up.

Harsh whispers followed their every step. Eyes marred with awe and jealousy trailed after them.

The two ultimates behind him said nothing as he stopped in front of his classroom’s cleared entryway, peering in as raised voices piped up between the gossip.

“You don’t belong here. Hell, I’d bet you don’t belong anywhere. That’s why you’re here and not with your brother in the main building.”

Hajime stiffened. His eyes took in the scene by the window where he usually sat in class.

Natsumi must’ve been waiting for me…

“He must be so embarrassed. I bet nobody would even care if you just disappeared.” Sato hovered before Kuzuryu-san, a scowl making her features look jagged and old.

Kuzuryu-san’s cool smirk seemed close to cracking.

Hajime moved.

“That’s enough!” He fit himself between the two girls, his back to Kuzuryu-san so he could take whatever hits Sato dished out. He looked Sato right in her shocked violet eyes. For the first time, when Hajime looked at her, he felt like he was looking at a stranger. He felt betrayed, somehow. He felt…

He felt angry.

“You can’t just say that kind of stuff.” He almost growled, barely stopping himself from cussing. Sato didn’t seem keen on listening. Her eyes hardened and she directed her hateful words in his direction.

“It’s true, though. Nobody cares about her. She should just give up. She’ll never get into the main course.”

“You’re wrong!” Hajime could feel the eyes of all those who remained in the classroom to watch the scene. He felt them judging him, rolling their eyes as they watched what was effectively the latest show.

It wasn’t like the teachers were keen on stopping it.

“Just because you don’t care about someone, it doesn’t mean others don’t.” He thought he heard Kuzuryu-san gasp behind him. He ignored it. “How about you try being nice for a change? Instead of just wailing on people you don’t like all the time.”

Without waiting for a response, Hajime took Kuzuryu-san’s hand and pulled her toward the entryway where her brother was waiting tense with one of the most murderous expressions he’d ever seen in his entire life. The girl behind him had a hand raised above her head, clutching the hilt of her bamboo sword. As Hajime ducked past them, Kuzuryu-san didn’t pull away.

With numb legs, Hajime led the group up to the rooftop, where only a few other students mingled in far-off corners. His head felt too full, eyes hazed with red.

He felt like breaking something.

He stopped walking only when the hand in his pulled sharply to get his attention.

“Oi, loser! You listening to me?” Kuzuryu-san’s voice cut through the haze like a hot knife through butter. Hajime turned, hand still tightly grasped. She made sure their eyes made contact before continuing, voice much softer, face a little flushed. “You can let go, now, dumbass.”

Hajime’s brain stalled, then kickstarted as he took in their still-held hands. He blinked, then flushed, dropping her hand like he’d been burnt.

“U-uh, s-sorry! I didn’t mean anything by it!”

He wished the floor would swallow him whole. Kuzuryu-san glanced away, looking like she had similar sentiments.

“Jeez, I know that, already. You’re too much of a nice guy to be that forward.” She flicked her hair. “You didn’t have to do that. She’s a bitch.”

“That’s why I did that. You don’t deserve that kind of treatment.” Hajime said it with more conviction than he felt. He was still embarrassed from holding her hand for so long.

Jeez, what a mess…

“Is anybody going to explain what the ever-loving fuck I just witnessed?” Kuzuryu-san’s brother growled, huffing as he sidled up to his sister. He looked about ready to murder someone. The shadow-girl appeared out of nowhere, looking equally pissed.

“Would you like me to deal with her?” The girl said, voice soft as silk but heavy with purpose. Her eyes were sharp in both focus and barely-concealed emotion.

“Ugh, don’t bother.” Kuzuryu-san responded. “She’s not worth the hit.”

“That was fucking bullying.” The short boy raged. “I don’t give a damn what she’s worth. There is no way you deserve that shit!”

It took Hajime an embarrassingly long time to figure out what they were talking about.

“You’re not thinking about killing her…” When nobody responded, he let his eyes wander. None of them looked like they were joking. “Right?”

“Fuyuhiko-nii, meet Hinata-kun. He’s painfully naïve.” Kuzuryu-san rolled her eyes.

“So, what? He your boyfriend or something?” Fuyuhiko—Kuzuryu-kun drawled, fingers nudging his fedora above his brow.

Hajime choked on his own spit.

Kuzuryu-san seemed to do the same.

Oh my God, what the fuck, big bro!?” She seemed to get out, while Hajime barely managed to stutter a single ‘n-no!’. Both their faces looked sunburnt. Kuzuryu-kun didn’t seem to care much; even appeared bored with the conversation.

“You guys don’t have to act like it’s such a big deal. Jeez. It’s almost as if you really are dating.” He rolled his eyes as Kuzuryu-san and Hajime simultaneously internally died of embarrassment. He shrugged their reactions off as he nodded once to the pale-haired girl. She brought out a wide bento box from a shoulder-bag that seemed attached to the sword at her back. In both hands, she presented it to Kuzuryu-san, surprising the embarrassed girl into silence.

“You forgot your lunch. Didn’t want you to starve.” Kuzuryu-kun’s voice was mumbled, as if showing care for someone else were awkward for him. It was a gruff kind of affection that put the previous aggression to rest.

“T-thanks, big bro.” Kuzuryu-san mumbled, equally awkward as she accepted the bento box and shuffled on her feet in a rare display of hesitation.

“It’s nothing. Just tell me if you get anymore trouble in class. I don’t want nobody picking on you, got it?”

“Yes, sir.” Kuzuryu-san teased, a smirk curling her lip upward. Kuzuryu-kun nodded once, then turned on his heel and walked down the stairs. His shadow followed close behind.

When Kuzuryu-kun was fully out of sight, Kuzuryu-san tilted her head in Hajime’s direction.

“My big bro’s the best.” She said it so smug. After everything that just happened, all Hajime could do was snort. A small smile pulled at his mouth.

“I left my lunch in my desk. You wanna meet up at the fountain and eat there?” He offered, feeling maybe the girl needed some alone time after all that. By the miniscule narrow of her gaze, Hajime could tell she knew what he was implying.

“Sure. The fountain seems better than this hellhole.”

“Great. I’ll see you there.”

The smile on Hinata’s face matched the lightness in his step.

Chapter Text

“Ugh. This weather could not get any worse.”

Just as those words left Kuzuryu-san’s mouth, thunder rolled in the distance.

It began to shower.

“Well, so much for that,” Hajime muttered, taking a compact umbrella from his backpack. He instantly held it out for Kuzuryu-san, who was trying to use her bag as a means for cover.

She paused.

A beat.

She huffed.

“Don’t be stupid, Hinata.” She put her bag back on, muttered grievances falling from her mouth. Kuzuryu-san took the umbrella, extended it, then put it on her shoulder closest to Hajime. The umbrella covered them both.

“You really don’t have to—”

“Like I said,” she glared, “don’t be stupid. You’ll get sick in this weather.”

“It’s not like I have that far to go. My house is closer than yours.” Hajime argued, but accepted the offered sanctuary. They were close enough for elbows to touch. Neither seemed bothered.

“I still can’t believe you scored a house in this part of town. Your dad get any good hits lately?”

Hajime tripped on his own feet. He didn’t fall.

“H-how did you—”

“Uh, duh. Who do you think gives him half his income?”

Kuzuryu-san’s answer made Hajime hang his head.

“So, that’s why you talk to me in class.” He sighed. It honestly wasn’t that bad. He could think of worse reasons to make friends with a person. Knowing their family’s history was one of the more tame reasons.

Kuzuryu-san nudged him with her elbow.

“You make a big habit of being stupid, you know that?” She sneered. Still, Hajime detected no malice.

“What do you mean?”

“Sure, I knew about your dad being a hitman. But that’s not the only reason to keep you around.” She hummed. “Maybe I just like keeping low-lives to do my bidding.” It was said absentmindedly, as if she really didn’t put much thought into what she said. When he checked, Hajime noticed Kuzuryu-san was completely relaxed beside him, a content smile stretched across her face. Even her golden hair was tame, having only a light dusting of raindrops decorate her head like stardust.

She’s really pretty…

It was true. Kuzuryu Natsumi was an absolute beauty with unique créme blonde hair and eyes the colour of jarred olives. Her every move spoke of confidence backed by a single-minded determination. Her every word belied her considerate tendencies and the fact that before attending Hopes Peak’s Reserve Course, the only friend she ever truly had was her brother.

It was humbling.

“I don’t know what my dad does, anymore.” Hajime admitted, after walking an entire block in comfortable silence. Kuzuryu-san didn’t seem surprised. Instead, she nodded as if she knew full-well how that felt.

“Doesn’t wanna keep you too close, in case you get hurt. That’s standard procedure in the Kuzuryu household.”

“Yeah…” He trailed. Hajime breathed. “I just wished he didn’t take my little sister with him all the time.”

Kuzuryu-san perked up. She seemed shocked.

“He doesn’t bring her in on his work, does he? I heard your sister was, like, ten.”

“She’s six, and no; he’s not that kind of parent.” Hajime corrected. “Even before my mom got carted, he kept my sister and me as far from the family business as possible.” He snorted. “One time, I got hold of his sniper rifle. I think I was about twelve at the time. When he found me fiddling with his scope, I swear he nearly had a heart attack. Thought I was going to accidentally shoot myself, or something.”

“He never showed you the tough love?” Her mouth quirked up as curious mischief glittered in her eyes. It brought a ghost of a smile to Hajime’s face.

“Nah. He was a pretty passive parent. Never even raised his voice…” A pang hit Hajime in the chest. He felt his lips turn downward. “Sometimes it’s hard… living alone.”

Kuzuryu-san had nothing to say to that. She could only lend a solemn expression as they walked the last stretch between the school and Hajime’s house. All that remained was the entrance to an alleyway and, beyond that, an apartment complex. Kuzuryu-san was right; owning one of the last few houses in this area was insane. His dad had to have paid a small fortune to keep it from being knocked down.

It was these thoughts of amazement that deafened him until they drew nearer.

A grunt; pained and low. It seemed to accent the sound of flesh impacting flesh.

Another accompanied it.

The sounds were coming from the alleyway…

“Do you hear that?” Kuzuryu-san whispered, her head turned slightly in his direction so her mouth wouldn’t carry.

Hajime nodded.

They didn’t slow their pace, nor did they turn around. Instead, the two came right up to the edge of the alleyway and peered in, checking to see if crossing was safe. The last thing either of them needed was a bullet in the head, after all.

Still, it didn’t prepare either of them for what they saw.

“Is that… from the main course?” Hajime murmured, eyes wide as the teenager – had to be a teenager with that uniform – was thrown into a brick wall and laid into by some asshole. When Hajime squinted, he thought the attacker’s movements were erratic and frantic, as if he were terrified of the student he were beating up. It was completely irrational; the student’s head had forcibly cracked against the wall five times, limbs limp as the attacker pushed down on his throat and kneed his stomach.

Blood dotted the ground.

It lined grimy brick walls.

Even from here, Hajime could tell the student was swimming in what had to be his own bodily fluids.

“He needs help.” He murmured.

Are you crazy!?” Kuzuryu-san whispered harshly, nearly drawing the frantic man’s attention. Hajime glared at her, daring her to stop him. Rain was falling in earnest now, soaking their clothes even with the umbrella shading them.

“That guy’s going to die if nobody steps in.” He said, eyes hard with determination. Kuzuryu-san rolled her eyes.

“Yeah, and what about you?”

“What about me?” Hajime shot back, not getting where she was going with this.

“You could get hurt, dumbass. You just said you were never in on the family business.”

“That doesn’t mean I can’t help.”

“But it means you could get killed.”

He could be killed if I don’t do something—”

Their bickering cut off as an eerily familiar ringing noises filled the alleyway. When they looked back, the asshole had pulled out a butterfly knife and was swinging it around wildly, laughing as if crazed.

The metal sang with every jab.

None of them hit the crumpled student.

Hajime felt his heart pounding in his chest. He saw the knife; saw the man take swings at an imaginary opponent who wasn’t standing anymore. Every jab hit the bricks at eyelevel. Chips of mortar stuck to the wall as rainwater hit it.

Hajime gulped.

Kuzuryu-san was right. He was and idiot.

It didn’t stop him from moving.

Before Kuzuryu-san could grab his backpack and pull him forcibly out of harm’s way, Hajime had made it half-way between the crazed man and the alleyway entrance. The man still didn’t seem to notice him. In fact, he seemed to laugh harder, choking on his own breath as full-bellied hysterical laughter filled the area.

Only a few more steps—

Hajime tackled the man mid-jab. As they landed, he thought he heard a sickening crack! before the knife clattered to the side, useless to the broken arm beside it.

The man didn’t stop laughing.

When Hajime looked up, up into the man’s eyes, he swore his heart came to a stop.

Tears ran down crusted cheeks, staining pallid skin in rivulets. Dirt caked in some places, sticking to peppery lashes, getting all over Hajime’s clothes as the man laughed beneath him. A smile cracked the man’s face in half in a harsh gape. And his eyes…

God, his eyes

They were filled with a swirling pattern or red, black, white, red, black, white, red, black, white, over and over and over as the man laughed and laughed and laughed andlaughedandlaughedandlaughed

“Hinata!”

Deceptively-thin arms hooked under his armpits, hands dragging him back as the man turned his laughs into shrieks of agony. Hajime couldn’t take his eyes away as the lunatic bodily jerked to the side, turned on his stomach, and rose as if breaking free from freshly-patted soil. Hajime was sorely reminded of all the zombie movies he watched on a dare in middle school, even more-so when the painful pitch the crazed man had taken turned into deep-throated moans.

Neither high schooler seemed inclined to stop him from exiting the alleyway. Within minutes, he was gone.

Hajime sat there, stunned by what had just happened.

“What in the ever-loving fuck just happened?” Kuzuryu-san asked, monotone inflection belying her confusion. The umbrella lay forgotten by the alley entrance.

Hajime blinked.

He tried to process everything that had happened in the last five minutes, but couldn’t get much further than the way the man’s eyes had swirled

“Ugh.” Kuzuryu-san groaned. “It would suck if the talent-freak died after all that.”

That reminded him.

“R-right!” Hajime stood, limbs jerky. He shuffled as best he could to the downed main course student. Every movement was shaky at best, even as he fell to his knees by the crumpled form. Ice-cold fingers paused an inch from the student’s neck before Hajime found the courage to press them to the blood-slicked appendage. His fingers hooked under the boy’s chin, looking for where he knew a pulse could be found.

Hajime held his breath.

A moment passed.

Then another.

Nothing…

Hajime felt his face crumple as the crushing feeling of failure wrapped around his throat and choked him.

He’s dead—

“Oh, my gawd. You look like somebody killed your puppy.” Kuzuryu-san griped. Hajime could almost picture the way she flipped her hair and rolled her eyes in boredom. Before he could feel the stirrings of anger and grief well in the base of his stomach, she plopped down on the other side of the body—

Corpse.

He might as well call it a corpse, at this point.

He almost told Kuzuryu-san as such before he realized what she was doing.

“Wh—don’t touch it!” He exclaimed, feeling kinda grossed out watching her shove matted blood-stained hair away from fine porcelain skin.

Kuzuryu-san had the gall to roll her eyes.

“Don’t be a baby, Hinata-kun. It’s kinda obvious you don’t know how to find the pulse. I ain’t gonna sit around while you cry over some dead nobody.” She hooked her fingers under the chin, just like Hajime, only… she also wrapped two fingers around the student’s wrist. Kuzuryu-san tilted her head downward, as if listening for something.

Hajime frowned.

He didn’t stop her.

About a minute passed with nothing but the sound of nearby traffic and heavy rain hitting the pavement.

Hajime was glad for the rest, even in this weather. His limbs had finally stopped shaking, even as a wave of exhaustion took its place. Ice had started to crawl up through his fingers and toes, making his hands and feet feel numb with cold. He wondered if he should get the umbrella—

Kuzuryu-san’s eyes flashed open.

“He’s alive.” She said.

“Wh—you sure?” Hajime couldn’t keep the surprise from his face. A bubble of hope formed in the pit of his stomach, overriding the anger and grief that previously sat there. He swore his ahoge perked with his mood.

“Yup. He doesn’t have long, though.” Kuzuryu-san tilted her head to the side, looking almost annoyed. “Those injuries guarantee some serious internal damage. It’s almost like that creep banged him up with a crowbar.”

Hajime ignored that last remark. He was too focused on digging through his pockets for his phone. He found it in his left pocket, unsure why he put it there as he was right-handed.

He shook the thought off.

Now’s not the time to get distracted.

“Oi, loser. What are you doing?” Kuzuryu-san watched him unlock his phone and begin dialing the emergency number. It took a few tries as the rain kept messing with his screen’s sensitivity. Hajime blinked and looked up.

“You said he didn’t have long.” Hajime explained, feeling a little like he was missing something, if only for the way Kuzuryu-san was eyeing him. “The hospital isn’t far from here. If we call now, he might have a chance.”

“You’re calling the hospital.” She drawled. Hajime thought she wanted to call him an idiot, again. It certainly looked like it was on the tip of her tongue.

“Uh, yeah?”

Jeez…” She took out her own phone, pressing a number on speed dial. She spoke into the receiver too fast for him to understand her over the roar of the rain.

Hajime stared.

Am I missing something, here?

I gotta be. Why wouldn’t I call the hospital—

Hajime nearly facepalmed.

Yakuza. Right.

Kuzuryu-san had only just ended the call when a sleek black limo parked at the entrance to the alleyway nearest to Hajime’s house. Two familiar figures dressed in the main course uniform stepped out moments later.

Hajime blinked.

“Hey, Peko. Think you can carry him?” Kuzuryu-kun nodded to the impossibly still form between Kuzuryu-san and Hajime. The shadow-girl behind him nodded.

“Of course, sir.” Her voice was still as smooth as earlier, this time without its deadly edge. It seemed as though she wasn’t looking to kill anybody, right now.

Kuzuryu-san moved out of the way for Peko to come and do her job, coming around and pulling Hajime to his feet just as the sword-wielding girl stood with her cargo. Hajime didn’t want to think about how the downed student’s blood soaked into the shadow-girl’s pristine white shirt and tan skirt, nor the way it dyed the tips of her braids a shade of red too similar to her own eyes.

When the group moved to the limo where Kuzuryu-kun was waiting, the Ultimate Yakuza swore.

“You know this loser?” Kuzuryu-san picked up the downed umbrella, reverting it into its more compact form before pressing it into Hajime’s stiff hands. He only barely managed to keep it from falling.

“Didn’t expect to see this fucker out here.” Kuzuryu-kun nodded, tilting his fedora to keep the rain from his eyes. He otherwise didn’t seem to mind the rain.

“Komaeda-kun has quite the luck.” Peko agreed, entering the limo once her boss nodded her in. Kuzuryu-kun looked Kuzuryu-san and Hajime over.

“You guys okay? Natsumi filled me in about that psycho.”

The way Kuzuryu-kun studied them made Hajime think of his dad. It was like looking at a shorter, more aggressive version of him, in a way.

Not that I’ll ever say that out loud…

Believe it or not; Hajime didn’t have a death wish.

“We’re fine,” Kuzuryu-san flicked her hair, looking a little off-put by the interrogation. Water stuck yellow strands to her forehead. “Pretty sure the dumbass is still in shock, though. He’s been out of it since the rescue.” She nudged her head in Hajime’s direction. He didn’t have the heart to deny it.

Tch. Fine. We’ll deal with that once we get home.” Kuzuryu-kun gave them both a hard look. “You two; in the car.”

Hajime only followed the order when Kuzuryu-san grabbed his hand. He hadn’t realized he’d been staring into space until his face nearly made contact with the expensive leather seats inside the vehicle.

“Move over, Hinata. We still gotta get in.” Kuzuryu-san nudged him further in. Hajime could only do as told while his mind drifted over the afternoon’s events. All he could think of was those swirling red eyes…

Ugh. I think he’s broken.” Kuzuryu-san griped, taking a spot next to him and slouching. Kuzuryu-kun ducked into the limo and closed the door behind him. He didn’t seem too bothered by the remark.

“Just leave him,” the Ultimate Yakuza drawled. “Pretty sure he’ll be fine once we get some booze in him.”

“D-don’t you… don’t you mean ‘food’?” Hajime managed to stutter through the strange haze that had coated his mind. Shivers wracked his body from the air conditioning. Nobody else seemed too bothered by the temperature, though.

Kuzuryu-kun just raised an eyebrow in Hajime’s direction.

“Uh… yeah. Sure. That too.”

Hajime was not convinced.

Chapter Text

If one had to describe how Komaeda Nagito felt in this moment, he’d describe it as pure, iridescent hope marred with the vestiges of poison-licked despair.

Had he been conscious, he’d go on to say how the world spun and sunk around him, taking him with it even as his eyes remained fixedly shut. Perhaps he’d top it off with a wish for a raft made of fine stardust, woven from the very heavens holding what was left of his crumbling sanity.

A wish for sanctuary from the trauma that nipped at his heels; forever chasing, forever gnawing at the strength to continue on.

Some days he wondered why he bothered opening his eyes.

Certainly, the scene that flickered beyond fluttering pale eyelashes was less than ideal; revealing a nondescript room with little more than the bed he was on and a heart monitor beside him. Attached to the same pole as the monitor was an IV bag, hooked to a cannula in his left arm.

That was bothersome.

He was left-handed.

Still, he supposed it could be worse. As it were, he felt drearily heavy and numb to the wounds beneath thick bandages stretched across his covered form. It was hard to move his head. The room spun each time he tried but reassembled after a moment dedicated to blinking away the stress. Breathing was certainly an experience, aided by an oxygen mask strapped to his head. The elastic strap was almost suffocating; claustrophobia never truly affecting him until now.

He felt muzzled.

Wasn’t that an experience.

In the corner of his eye, Nagito thought he saw a tiny, blinking red light.

A camera…?

Somewhere outside of his field of view, a door opened. It was a Western door, with hinges that swung and a handle that could lock. He heard the creak in the hinges and the rattle of the handle as the newcomer closed the door behind them, locking them in.

Distantly, Nagito was aware of his heartbeat picking up. The heart monitor betrayed every pulse.

Whoever the newcomer was, they paused just outside of his vision, as if hesitant. It was one way to let Nagito know that wherever he was, he was surrounded by non-enemies, though also by unknowns. Had he been in the hospital, the walls would be sterile and while, as would the floor. There would be more medical equipment around him and a nurse would check up on him every hour to administer fresh medicine.

At least, Nagito supposed, he wasn’t in pain.

That would be quite bothersome.

No matter; his luck was more fickle than the people he surrounded himself with on a daily basis. Surely, this couldn’t be worse than a meteor shower in the middle of an aircraft hijack.

He couldn’t find himself to care if he were jinxing himself. Those sentiments stopped mattering when he finally understood the nature of his luck cycles.

“Uh… hey. Are you awake?”

Nagito felt his heart skip.

That voice…

It wasn’t often potential captors spoke to him so softly, nor were they ever this young.

The speaker stepped into Nagito’s field of view, allowing him to confirm that, yes, the person was a teenager, perhaps even his own age…

How interesting…

Regardless, they were of ordinary colouring; deep green eyes, brown hair and healthy glowing skin. Nagito had half a mind to say it was slightly tanned. It was a shame they wore a fitted suit, covering what must’ve been well-toned arms. As it stood, Nagito felt the suit’s jacket did the other boy no favors in that department.

Despite the lack of originality in their appearance, Nagito couldn’t help but admit there was a certain charm in that simplicity.

“I don’t believe we’ve met,” Nagito said, a sly smirk stretching his covered lips as he eyed the newcomer. He couldn’t say he was too disappointed with what he saw. After the beating he took earlier, good luck was sure to come eventually. He resigned himself to simply be patient. “I’m Komaeda Nagito. And you are…?”

“Hinata Hajime,” the boy – Hinata-kun – said, looking more than uncertain with the situation. He seemed to shuffle on his feet, slipping gaze away so Nagito could not meet it. It was incredibly inconvenient when trying to get a read on the situation.

Well, I suppose I’ll have to rectify this, then.

“Hmmm… Hinata-kun…” He let his voice lower, eyes slipping to half-mast as he sighed the name. Sure enough, the other boy snapped his eyes back to Nagito. There was a tenseness in his posture, one that indicated agitation. It had been there before Nagito had spoken, though, so he surmised it to be relating to their shared circumstance. “I take it you know what’s going on here?”

He was fishing for information. It was obvious. However, in the instance he was dealing with the less-than-talented, Nagito had to compensate.

It would truly pain him if Hinata was ordinary.

Oh well. That would be just my luck, now, wouldn’t it?

“You don’t remember?” Hinata-kun was cautious, that much was evident. But now, he seemed to stop fidgeting, for lack of better words. Body turned fully to the boy in the bed, his piercing stare seemed to search for answers that Nagito was all too willing to endow.

“I remember being beaten within an inch of my life, if that is what you are asking.” He smiled. “I don’t suppose you’re the one who saved me?”

“Yeah. Kuzuryu-san and I were walking by, at the time. You’re lucky he didn’t kill you.”

Lucky… I suppose that would be my good luck in this cycle.

How despairing.

Nagito let out a chuckle, only to regret it as soon as the sound escaped him.

That was… a mistake

Pain flared through his chest, stabbing all the way down to his spine and then past his knees. Electric shocks made breathing that much more difficult. The heart monitor blared at Nagito’s head, though to him it was like a distant wail. Tears pricked at his eyes. It seemed he couldn’t get enough air in before the next wave took him.

Nagito thought he saw Hinata-kun’s bleary form through the tears. The pain distracted him from much else. Even if Hinata-kun spoke out – asked what was wrong – Nagito wouldn’t have been able to answer him. To the bed-ridden boy, all he could bear to focus on was the way his body seemed to tear itself apart, suffocating from its own frailty.

It were as if he were being stabbed, all too many times, then having each knife twist at once.

Over and over.

No end…

…no end…

No…

He was being dragged into the deepest pits of darkness, mentally floundering for salvation. He knew none would come, as it never did. He knew he’d have to pull himself out eventually, even though he was physically strained and mentally exhausted. In the end, it would be enough, regardless of the scars left behind.

Despair truly was a blight to humanity.

Despite this – despite gasping for breath not one second ago – the pain was taken from him. Ebbed, really. Sapped from his bones and marrow, leeched from his very core. Every nerve sang as it strained to unwind; too tense to ever be truly comfortable.

Breathing became little more than a chore.

Nagito was quite good at chores.

H…how…?

When he finally managed to peel his eyelids open partway – they were too heavy to open further – he noticed the gleam of pale light onto familiar pale hair. He noticed warm red eyes not unlike the ones belonging to the man who attacked him. The only thing stopping him from another spiral was the empty syringe clutched into calloused hands.

Nagito felt a phantom sting in the crook of his elbow.

Ah… A sedative. How quaint.

“Are you lucid?” Smooth, dangerous words spoken from a smooth, dangerous woman.

Nagito was blessed to be in the presence of those talented.

Truly.

“Yes, Pekoyama-san.” He replied, a little breathless, voice wheezed through burning lungs. Still, he smiled. “I am grateful for the assistance of one far better than I.”

Pekoyama-san said nothing, though she did turn away. When Nagito followed her gaze, he saw Hinata-kun by the foot of his bed.

“You’re still here,” Nagito couldn’t help but acknowledge. “That’s a surprise.”

Hinata-kun looked shocked to be told such a thing. It saddened Nagito to see. It were as if this boy wasn’t used to the idea of his own self-importance or was simply taught to submit to those more talented. Such a shame; society builds paradise around those with talent yet there are still those who were swept under the rug. Perhaps such a thing had befallen…

Nagito blinked.

Talented…

No. It can’t be.

Unless…

Slowly, the pieces fell into place until Nagito could no longer ignore the terrible fact this ordinary boy was, truly, untalented.

I suppose my luck had to sour, eventually…

Before more words could be exchanged, Pekoyama-san pushed another syringe into Hinata-kun’s hand. She murmured something, perhaps a brief set of instructions on how to use the thing. Nagito wouldn’t put it past an untalented nobody to not know how to use one of those.

Disappointing, though not unexpected.

Pekoyama-san left the room shortly after, granting Nagito a brief nod on her way out. He cherished the acknowledgement, savoring the way it felt to be seen by an Ultimate such as she.

“Komaeda-kun?” Hinata-kun’s voice grated, despite it feeling as dulcet and indulging as ever. His perfectly ordinary body moved in nearer to the bed’s head. The closer he came, the softer his voice seemed. “I still need to know a few things. Are you okay to keep talking?”

Nagito mourned how such a voice belonged to an absolute nobody. He hated himself for enjoying its tone.

These musings irritated him beyond anything his attacker could ever accomplish.

“I do wonder why you linger.” Nagito said, avoiding the question. “Don’t you have anything better to do? I’m assuming you’re in high school. Shouldn’t you be doing your homework instead of doing dirty work for the Yakuza?”

“I—what’s that got to do with anything?” Hinata-kun’s voice took on a confused, if agitated, tone, raised in all but volume. His brow furrowed, green eyes narrowed; lips quirked into something not unlike a frown.

Nagito hated the way that expression didn’t irritate him.

“This conversation is placing stress on my already-dying body. I don’t suppose the doctors in this facility know how to put together ruptured organs, hmm?” Nagito didn’t bother to smile as he said this, choosing instead to cool his gaze and deepen his frown. It wasn’t a scowl, though it wasn’t far from it.

“You’re not dying. The doctors said you’ll be fine in a few weeks.” Hinata-kun huffed, rolling his eyes as if he had a right to his irritation.

“I wouldn’t expect an ordinary person to understand the intricacies of the human body.” Nagito sniffed, not bothering to enlighten this no-doubt dim child into the harsh realities of cancers and brain damage. It was obvious the information would only go right over his head.

“I just wanted to know what was up with the swirling red eyes!” Hinata-kun exclaimed, throwing his hands up as though washing himself of this situation. The syringe was in an enclosed fist. Its grip didn’t falter.

Nagito paused.

“… what did you say?”

Hinata went quiet, breathing in a way that was supposedly to help calm himself down.

Nagito narrowed his eyes.

“Hinata-kun, what about ‘swirling red eyes’?” Nagito said the words slowly, tracking every twitch of Hinata-kun’s face with his eyes, watching for the faintest reactions. All he could track, though, was the way all the tension bled from Hinata-kun’s frame, forcing him to slump in a chair Nagito hadn’t noticed until now. Hinata-kun brought a hand up to run through spiky brown locks. Nagito had to pretend he wasn’t glued to the sight.

“The guy who attacked you wasn’t sane.” Hinata-kun said, voice resigned. It wasn’t, Nagito noticed, without inflection. “He brought out a knife to stab you, but just stabbed at the air above you. I got in there before he could realize you were knocked out.”

Exhaustion seemed to paint every word.

None of them were laced with despair.

How…?

“There was so much blood…” The words were whispered, disturbed. Hinata-kun looked haunted, pale, though not even Nagito could fault him. In this modern era, in a time of false peace and evolution, young Japanese citizens did not have to face blood nor war nor violent strife to the extent of desensitization. There was always a lace of horror, a trace of fear, associated with violence in any degree.

Still, Nagito had far more pressing concerns.

“You said something about swirling red eyes.” Nagito repeated, waiting for Hinata-kun to leave whatever memory he seemed to be reliving, waiting for those ordinary green eyes to meet his own, before continuing onward. “The man who attacked me… he had them? He had swirling red eyes?”

Hinata-kun nodded.

“When I broke his arm and made him drop the knife, all he did was laugh and get up. It was like he wasn’t human.”

Nagito hummed. He dragged his eyes away from Hinata-kun’s form for a brief moment to collect his thoughts.

It was true, he remembered the briefest flashes of red in his vision before he was pulled into that alleyway. He could also remember the way pain flared at the base of his spine the first time he was pushed to the ground. Though, admittedly, after the third or fourth toss across the alleyway, Nagito couldn’t say his memory could be trusted beyond the sharpest stabs of pain where limb met concrete.

“You know something.” Hinata’s voice broke Nagito from his thoughts.

He didn’t even have the energy to be angry, anymore.

“You’re right.” Nagito acquiesced. “I do know something.”

A beat.

Hinata-kun stared at him from the bedside chair. Nagito withheld a chuckle, not wanting a repeat of earlier.

“Aren’t you going to tell me?” Hinata-kun demanded.

Nagito smiled.

“No.”

Hinata-kun sprung from his chair, exhaustion seemingly forgotten. His face was painted in a myriad of emotions, nauseating Nagito in all their intensity. Hinata-kun gripped the bed’s frame, leaning over the side as if to see Nagito’s face better.

“Then why aren’t you saying anything? That information could be really useful!” Hinata-kun’s voice rose, though it was hardly a whisper to Nagito’s fading hold on reality.

Nagito wasn’t proud enough to deny staring into those painfully ordinary green orbs.

They were unlike anything he’d ever seen, even in the eyes of the few ordinary people Nagito had had the displeasure of knowing in his youth.

If he were being overly sentimental, he’d say they reminded him of his mother’s eyes.

Or what I can remember of them, at least.

There’s no telling the exact shade after all this time.

“H-hey! Are you still listening to me?” Hinata-kun’s voice brought him back from whatever daydream he’d fallen into. Nagito tore his eyes away from the ones in front of him, shutting them and simply breathing. He could still feel the way his heart pounded in his chest; still hear the rapid pace in the heart monitor.

Hinata Hajime…

Who are you?

A beat.

“I see no reason to continue this conversation.”

“No reason—?!”

“This is a waste of my time.” Nagito smiled. He didn’t care if he interrupted the other boy. All he wanted was to get Hinata-kun as far away from him as possible, if only for his own sake. “I wish to sleep. You may leave, now.”

Wh—

“Wow, and I thought Hinata-kun was bad.” A feminine voice piped up from the doorway. Only Hinata-kun was able to look.

“Kuzuryu-san…”

Nagito hated the way Hinata-kun’s voice softened for her.

He hated himself for feeling that way.

“You heard the rice cake. Come on. You still never had that booze.” Both the order and the language was rougher than Hinata-kun could ever manage, though Nagito could definitely see it being akin to Kuzuryu-kun’s use in words.

Considering the name, Nagito wouldn’t be surprised.

Still, Hinata-kun listened. He dropped a brief but polite ‘sleep well, Komaeda-kun’ then left, the door clicking shut behind him. Nagito heard the click of the lock in the handle.

Finally.

I’m alone.

He hated it

 


 

“Don’t laugh at me,” Hajime frowned, darting his gaze away from the blonde beauty beside him.

I can’t believe that guy…

He could’ve died, but he goes around acting like an asshole.

Still, Kuzuryu-san’s snickers continued.

“That was better than what they got on tv.” She declared, eyes glittering in mirth. Hajime rolled his eyes.

“What was his deal?” He griped. “He was fine one moment, then he turned into a dick.”

Kuzuryu-san gave Hajime a meaningful look. He didn’t know how to interpret it.

“I’m guessing you know why.”

“Oh, I know exactly why.” She flicked her hair back. The action was familiar enough that Hajime’s hackles lowered slightly.

“You gonna tell the rest of the class?” He sniped. Kuzuryu-san smirked.

“It’s because he figured out you weren’t an Ultimate.”

“What!?”

You’re still here, that’s a surprise.” She imitated the way Komaeda-kun uttered those words, doing a poor job at the exact tone, though nailing the surprise and enamored confusion the boy had seemed to exude. “Then he was wondering why you were with the Yakuza, and big bro said it was ‘cause Peko was there. It’s, like, so obvious.”

When Kuzuryu-san said it like that, with her usual abrasive tone and sly smirk, Hajime seriously felt like an idiot.

“Ugh. I’m guessing they teach all that elitist bullshit in the main course too, huh.” He facepalmed, unable to bring both hands to cover his face as he still held the syringe. He handed it to Kuzuryu-san, who took it without question.

At least now he had both hands free.

“Big bro says it’s worse in the main course.” Kuzuryu-san confided. “He says the big wigs even don’t give a damn if the students go to class on time as long as they’re working on their talents.”

“So, your brother gets to just chill with the Yakuza all day?”

“Yup!” Her smirk turned contemplative. “Though, recently he got a new homeroom teacher. She’s real big on going to class every day. He says she’s trying to teach them that talent ain’t everything.” Kuzuryu-san snorted. “As if.”

“… yeah…”

Hajime felt his face shift into a more docile frown, absentmindedly following Kuzuryu-san as she led him into a large recreational room littered with couches and coffee tables. Some setups had ottomans while others were stacked with magazines. There were a few other groups in the room, some tattooed and buff while others looked more casual. None of them seemed to care about newcomers.

Kuzuryu-san all but shoved him into a couch near the entrance. She took up the spot next to him, despite there being plenty of room elsewhere. Frankly, though, Hajime didn’t mind. His hands still had the slightest of shakes, even after so many hours since the attack and rush to get Komaeda-kun to a valid doctor.

I can’t believe all of that happened today. Not to mention all that drama with Sato…

“Oh, by the way,” Kuzuryu-san nudged him out of his reverie. “You’re staying with us, tonight. Fuyuhiko-nii says we got a spare room that’s ready for use in our flat.”

“Oh, that’s really not necess—” Hajime started to deny, but Kuzuryu-san elbowed him in the gut. Hard.

“Nuh-uh. You ain’t getting out of it. You even said you got no one waiting for you at home.” She went on, not noticing how Hajime wheezed in what breath he could.

I’m starting to regret telling her that.

Still, with the way she was smiling, Hajime didn’t have the heart to say no.

Chapter Text

“That is all for this lesson. Your assignments are due in two days. I expect them in by morning lecture. Please remember to do homework questions…”

The end-of-class announcement sounded over the loudspeakers, drowning out Ms Koze’s dull, lifeless voice. With the building pressure behind Hajime’s eyes, he couldn’t be more glad. He could barely think past his throbbing brain, besides the one thought that repeated in his mind since he woke that morning:

I am never drinking alcohol ever again.

He was just glad he’d managed to quell his tumultuous stomach for breakfast. It would’ve been a stupid reason to miss school, let alone the one meal he usually managed to eat every day.

He didn’t even think he drank that much.

Barely a whole glass…

Hajime felt betrayed.

This betrayal stuck with him for the rest of the day, slamming into his head with every bump in the corridors to his homeroom and the violent mistreatment of school textbooks. Natsumi had had to hide her smirk twice to keep from being called out in class. Some vengeful part of him wished the teacher had noticed it.

“Oi! Hinata! You in there?”

Speak of the devil…

Hajime looked up. He had to squint through the sun’s overbearing glare coming in through the windows as it reflected off Natsumi’s créme blonde hair and made her eyes sparkle more than usual. He knew she was beautiful, but now that brilliant beauty just might blind him.

It just made his head pound harder.

“Say it a little louder.” He sassed. “I don’t think America could hear you.”

She snorted. It wasn’t elegant, nor delicate, nor any sound that would better-match the strange rough grace she seemed to exude. Still, it was genuine, and it was enough to let Hajime know she was making fun of him.

“Come on, loser. Let’s blow this joint.” She nudged her chin at the door. Students lingered in clusters just outside, some still packing away their things. Still, it didn’t seem like leaving the classroom would be as hard as entering it had been.

“Coming,” Hajime mumbled, packing his things with a robotic kind of efficiency that sometimes scared even him. By the time he blinked again, his things were safely tucked away into his now-slung bag and he was shifting out of his desk’s chair. Natsumi had slung her backpack on as well. She leaned casually on the edge of someone’s desk with her arms crossed comfortably across her chest. Thanks to last night, he now knew she did it to stop her hands from trying to fidget with nearby objects, as she was wont to do in times of extreme boredom.

Together, they made their way through the maze of desks toward the classroom’s entryway, where a cluster of students had yet to make room for them to pass. Upon closer inspection, there was a person in the middle of the group holding up a large sheet of paper.

Hajime tensed.

Sato.

“Ugh.” Natsumi made a face. “Not this, again.”

“You know what it’s about?” Hajime jerked his chin in the group’s direction. Natsumi scowled further.

“She harassed me this morning while you were puking your guts out in the boy’s bathroom, before first period.”

That was all she was able to get out before Sato’s voice reached a volume that caught their attention.

“We aren’t safe, here! It doesn’t matter what the teachers say if they can’t stop one student from dropping razors in our desks.” Sato’s head snapped up, nose pointed at Natsumi. A twisted scowl marred her crumpled features. “It sucks how we all know who’s doing it, but nobody’s stopping it!”

This close, Hajime could make out what was on the paper Sato held for her audience to see. On it, there were neat bolded characters saying something along the lines of ‘bitches get stitches’, though Hajime was confused if he was even reading that right. The page quivered in Sato’s shaking grip.

“So far,” one brave male piped up at Sato’s right, “it’s only really affected the girls. The guys are fine.”

“For how long?” Was all Sato said. Nobody responded.

Natsumi scoffed.

Everyone’s heads swiveled her way. Hajime could only barely stop from taking a step back; he wasn’t used to being in the spotlight, even if he wasn’t in the direct line of fire. He almost gave in to the urge to push past the crowd, dragging Natsumi along with him.

He was too frozen to follow through.

He wished he wasn’t.

“You’re pathetic, Sato. Pinning this on me?” Natsumi snorted. It was inelegant, like always. Her voice was colder than ice. Derisive. Acid to the ears. “Man… You must be desperate to see me gone.”

Sato didn’t even bat an eye.

“We all know it was you. You’re the only one with the kind of temperament to do this sort of thing.” Sato’s mouth curled into a cruel smirk. “Maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll get transferred to a school with less competition. I wonder how your brother will feel.”

A beat.

When Hajime turned to look, all he could make note of was the way Natsumi’s hair framed her face, darkening her scowl and making her look so much older than what she was.

It was chilling when that scowl smoothed into a crookedly perfect smile.

Her eyes gleamed.

She puffed out a breath. It could hardly be labelled a laugh. Nearby students shuffled back a little.

“You know, Sato,” Natsumi murmured, “-it’s kinda weird how obsessed you are with me. You might wanna be careful. Someone might think you’re into that sort of thing…”

“Wh-what? What are you talking about—?”

“I mean… here I am, minding my own business, and here you are…” Natsumi leaned in, “framing me for shit I didn’t do, trying to rub whatever dirt you think you have on me.” She snorted, though it was perpetually derisive, cold, cruel. This was a side Hajime knew existed yet hadn’t had much reason to see before now. He could only watch, stunned, as Natsumi applied pressure to live nerves, rooting out weakness after weakness, tearing her opponent to shreds. “You’re so desperate to prove your worth, you don’t see you’re just… like… me.”

“That’s—that’s not true!

“I don’t see how not.” Natsumi flicked her hair. The reflecting light from the dying sun encompassed her in a dim halo. Others stared. Some whispered. Sato could see her support dwindling. “If anything, I’d say you’re worse. Because, unlike me, you’re willing to tear down whoever you can to protect your pussy-ass friends. I already know mine can take care of themselves.”

Sato paled.

Natsumi’s smirk was cold, cruel. The gleam in her eye turned sharp, reflecting an internal promise for ruin.

It promised a killing blow.

Hajime’s gut bottomed out.

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were fucking the photo-bitch into next century. Now, there’s some serious dirt to throw.”

Whispers and chitters passing along onlookers raised in volume, drowning Natsumi’s soft murmur with their intensity. Sato balked, her eyes widening in horror as she absorbed what Natsumi said. A green tint donned her flesh.

The world seemed to shutter around her. Something about her dismay raised the hairs on the back of Hajime’s neck, even as Natsumi resumed walking forward, through the parting group, brushing Sato’s shoulder on the way out. Sato was like a rubber band pulled too tight, flinching from Natsumi’s touch as though finally snapping apart.

Hajime saw it before it happened.

A lump lodged its way into his throat. He jerked forward, pushing Natsumi’s back with his shoulder. She cried out in surprise, stumbling out the entryway and into the hall. Dwindling onlookers turned back to watch a new show. Natsumi spun around, face curled in an expression that screamed all kinds of pissed off. It morphed into surprise, then understanding, then a pain that couldn’t have been her own.

Hajime could only really focus on the sharp razors sticking out of his right shoulder, dotting and lining his arm down to the elbow. They were small, impossibly small, screwed out of generic pencil sharpeners; only the sharp points of their ends poking through his bleeding uniform. Hajime could only flinch as Sato’s grip on his wrist tightened, another razor added to the mix. The pain was burning but not, washing over him in waves and spreading to other regions in his body as his nerves screamed.

He didn’t cry out.

He couldn’t move.

Nausea washed over him. Hajime didn’t think it was from the hangover. Tears pricked at his eyes but didn’t fall. He let out a puff of air, dimly surprised he didn’t puke then and there. The cramping in his stomach said he had nothing left to puke.

Hands, smaller than Sato’s yet far more worn and calloused, wrapped around his other wrist. They tugged none too gently, all but ripping Hajime from Sato’s iron-willed grasp. His shoulder protested the movement.

He didn’t cry out.

He stumbled.

He thought he could hear raised voices, though they were muddled through the pain. He could hardly do more than follow as his left arm was pulled along. His knees shook and trembled beneath him. Hajime couldn’t think straight. He thought he walked down a set of stairs, though ‘walking’ was a strong term. Most of his body was draped across a smaller frame. It made using his legs next to impossible, though it wasn’t like he was able.

His head spun.

The pain pulled him under.

Chapter Text

I can’t believe that guy. He takes shit from everyone, all the time. He’s meant to be a fucking normie, not some super high school level hero or some shit. What the fuck, Hinata.

Natsumi worked to pull the razors out, peeling skin back when they dug in too deep to see clearly. The work was tedious, irritating, and stained her skirt in dark blotches when shaking, gloved hands refused to cooperate. She ignored the way Hajime’s bare chest barely moved through her administrations, even to breathe. His school blazer and shirt were in a soiled pile in one corner of the room.

The nurse was out for the day, leaving Natsumi to do all the work. It was only luck that left the cupboard with potent drugs open to anyone who walked by. As it was, she’d already had to use a light sedative to help numb most of the pain so Hajime wouldn’t squirm unconsciously every time she yanked out another razor.

She dabbed at fresh blood, willing it to stop welling and spilling out of gory pits, skin stained purple from bruising. Her stitch work binding flayed skin was patchy at best, but it would do until Natsumi could get Hajime to one of her own doctors.

Natsumi hissed. For a painful second, her eyes were blurred and stung with salt.

Her nose burned.

Seriously. What the fuck, Hajime.

What the fuck.

You jerk.

“Dumbass. Why did you do that?”

By now, most of the razors were out. There were only a few to go, dotting his elbow like cheap stick-on plastic diamonds. With the way Natsumi’s fingers felt slicked even through the gloves, she was glad she’d already called Fuyuhiko-nii to pick them up. Even if she couldn’t get all of them, there was no doubt her brother or Peko could finish the job.

There was only so much she could do with tear-blurred vision.

Pphhh…

Natsumi stopped.

She stiffened, hand paused midmotion as she glanced up from her work. Her gut clenched.

Hajime’s eyes were open, glazed over and roaming. It was obvious the sedatives were wearing off, though not enough to make him lucid.

He’s still out of it. Hope he doesn’t feel this…

She yanked out the next razor, watching as Hajime’s eyes widened then fluttered shut, breathing hitch then turn ragged.

Three more. Just three more, Hajime.

Natsumi knew most people didn’t have a high pain tolerance. She knew normal people didn’t have a reason for it. Likewise, she knew that even as she stitched the wound shut, the boy in front of her was in a world of hurt that wouldn’t fade without some top tier painkillers.

Painkillers that weren’t in the cupboard with the rest of the medicine.

All she had was another bottle of sedatives.

Half-tempted to use the new bottle, Natsumi resumed pulling out the remaining razors and stitching the gaping wounds shut. She was on the last one when Hajime spoke up.

“… you’re really good at that.”

Natsumi paused mid-stitch. She glanced up but Hajime’s eyes were still firmly shut. She tied off the last stitch, admiring her work. Then came the cleanup.

“You gotta be,” she said. “If someone’s bleeding out in front of you, ya gotta know how to patch ‘em up.”

“Not a lot of people know how to do it, though.”

It was mumbled – slurred, really – but legible.

Natsumi huffed.

“…” She couldn’t speak past the lump in her throat. Instead, she stood from her stool, gathered her tray of razors. Every tiny ‘clink’ they made brought her nerves that much closer to snapping. She didn’t look at the patient bed as she stood, not wanting to see how sticky red patches had bled into the thin fabric.

Her stomach felt like it was trying to swallow itself. It tied in knots that were hard to ignore. Nausea made her dizzy.

Natsumi was so, so angry.

“I’m going to kill that bitch.” She declared, voice low, rippled with malice and a dark type of promise she knew Hajime would never accept.

Natsumi Kuzuryu intended to do more than kill.

“Don’t.”

One word.

It was one word.

It was enough to make Natsumi want to shoot someone.

“Give me one good fucking reason, Hinata.” She snarled. Her hair stuck to her face in awkward places, sweat and blood clung to her hands and clothes and she was pretty sure she looked like a murder show. Still, she didn’t explode like her brother was wont to do when protective. Instead, Natsumi put the tray of razors on the edge of the sink at the side of the room and peeled her gloves off.

They came off with a sickening ‘pop’.

She wished that was Sato’s head.

“It’s not worth it.” Hajime breathed. Natsumi saw his head loll to one side out of the corner of her eye, following the sounds she made even with closed eyes. He tried to open his eyes, but it wasn’t more than a brief crack in dark lashes. He gave up soon after. “None of this is worth it.”

Her hands were clean. They stayed under cold, running water. In a way, it was to clean the itching ants that had settled beneath the skin, eating away flesh like crawling maggots. Her stomach threatened upheaval. Everything that happened in the last half-hour flickered behind her eyelids every time she closed her eyes.

She wished she could forget the way his breathing stuttered when in pain.

She wished she could forget how the blood slipped under her gloves.

She wished she could forget what it was like to hold his life in her hands.

This is what guilt feels like…

Natsumi understood that much.

This was because I pushed Sato. This was my fault. He’s hurt because of me.

“It’s not your fault.”

Natsumi whirled around.

Hajime met her gaze evenly, even with drooping, pain-hazed eyes.

She turned the tap off.

The next thing Natsumi was fully aware of, she was slumped at Hajime’s side, the one with less blood. Exhaustion dogged at her heels, leaving her head fuzzy and eyes bleary even under the painful fluorescent lighting overhead.

Still…

“Don’t say shit you don’t mean.” Her words were harsh, thick with anger and a dozen other things she was hoping Hajime didn’t notice, none of them good. Still, when she felt a tug at the hem of her soiled white school shirt, she felt some of those feelings dissipate into some semblance of ease.

There wasn’t any danger, here.

It was just them.

They’d be okay.

Still, when she turned her head to look at Hajime, she felt at least half those emotions come back full-force. She could read that face like an open book. It was hardly because of their time spent together, and more to do with Hajime having such a blunt personality.

He didn’t regret a thing.

She figured as much.

That didn’t take away the flare of white-hot anger that overwhelmed any feeling of safety the room had taken on.

“Why the fuck did you do that, asshole?” She growled, feeling her face twist into something that hurt more than the roiling in her gut. She clenched his uninjured wrist, squeezing until she felt the steady thrum of a pulse beneath her fingers. Her lungs burned with the urge to scream until her voice grew hoarse. She felt like crying. Everything sucked and the one person she considered a friend in this hellhole was hurt because of her. “Why do you always take her shit? I can take care of her, myself. I can… I’m not someone you can just protect all the damn time. I’m in the fucking Yakuza, asshole. I’m tough. You… you just…”

“I know.”

She hadn’t realized she’d actually started crying until his hand escaped her grip and reached up to brush away salty beads from her cheeks.

She stopped. Tears still beaded her lashes and her eyes were bloodshot, but she stopped. Even her breath seemed halted.

So, he continued.

“I know… you’re strong. I know you can take care of yourself…” He met her eye, unwilling to back down. Even as his breath hitched and his jaw clenched through what must’ve been the waning sedative, he pushed on, as if telling her this was more important than dealing with his own pain. “It doesn’t mean you deserve to be beaten up every time… someone wants to hurt you. You don’t deserve that.”

Her jaw clenched. Her open vulnerability was replaced with fury. All the mushy feelings inside were discarded for something more familiar, safer, than the way Hajime made her feel.

“So, what? That means you get to take my place? Like some fucking white knight from a fucking fairytale… like I need saving?”

“No.” He shook his head. “You’re wrong.”

She didn’t see how. She could’ve taken it. He didn’t need to push her out of the way like that. She could’ve handled Sato—

“You said you wanted to get into the main course, right?” He sharpened his gaze until it was like all he saw was her. Natsumi stiffened, back straight. It was like he was looking right through her.

“What about it?”

“You can’t get in if this shit gets on your record. You’ll never even come up on the scouting list.”

Suddenly, Natsumi got it.

She got it.

She let him go, then backed away, stepping from the bed until her back hit a wall and she slid down. Her face was lined with horror, mouth covered by a hand, arm wrapped across her side, as if she wanted to stop herself from falling to pieces.

She couldn’t even look at him.

“You’re sacrificing your own chances… you let yourself get hurt… For me…”

“You said you’d do anything, right?”

Fucking… Fuck you, Hajime.

“That’s… this isn’t what I meant.”

I never wanted you to get hurt, she tried to say. She couldn’t get past the first syllable.

Hajime didn’t seem to be having problems with that, even when the pain came back to him and screwed his mouth into a thin line, even as it crinkled his eyes and forced tears into them.

“Yeah… well, it’s happening. Sato’s not sabotaging you… Not for this.”

“… you’re such a fucking dumbass, Hinata.” She choked on sob part-way through her words, breath hitching in a way that was unmistakable even to the most dense person on the planet. Said dense person threw a helpless look her way, as if her tears actually hurt him.

She didn’t know how anyone could be this stupid.

She could actually kill Sato right now and it wouldn’t make her feel better.

Chapter Text

When Fuyuhiko-nii finally found them, Natsumi’s tears had dried and Hajime had been lulled into a deep sleep.                                             

Natsumi sat with her back against the wall, knees drawn up as she watched the door and Hajime from her vantage point. Her face was completely blank; still caked with sweat and tears and a few smudges of blood from when she’d tried to wipe her tears with her shirtsleeve.

Fuyuhiko-nii had instantly gone to her side, asking if she was alright and if she was bleeding anywhere. A girl draped in bandages and a main course uniform accompanied Peko through the doorway.

“Come on, Natsumi. Talk to me.” Her brother plead while she woke up from her numbed mindset.

She let out a breath.

“I’m fine.” She muttered, jerking her head in Hajime’s direction. “He needs to get cleaned up and proper medical attention. I couldn’t do much.”

The other girls nodded and moved to Hajime’s side, getting to work. Her brother stayed at her side and clasped a hand on her shoulder, looking like he wanted to scoop her in for a hug but didn’t know how she’d take it in public.

She didn’t care.

Fuyuhiko-nii let out a small ‘oof’ as her arms encircled him, pulling him down from his kneel to hug her in earnest. He was quick to respond, curling into the hug and letting her rest her head against his chest. She breathed, letting the sound of his heart against her ear soothe her. She felt how her brother put his chin atop her head, just like when they were kids.

Softie, she wanted to say, but kept her mouth shut. Now wasn’t the time to start shit.

“You gonna tell me what happened? You didn’t say much, besides needing medical attention.” Her brother murmured into her ear, bringing a hand up to run through the knots in her hair. She just held him tighter.

“Sato came at me.” She felt the way his muscles tensed under his vest. “Hajime got me out in time.” She was quick to assure. Her brother’s shoulders slumped against her.

She didn’t know how he could take this so calmly.

Still, she didn’t say anything as he pulled away, letting him go without a single twitch of hesitation. She knew if she showed it, her brother wouldn’t quit babying her.

“You alright to stand?” Fuyuhiko-nii asked, glancing away awkwardly.

“I wasn’t the one cut up.” She grit her teeth, copying her brother’s nervous tick despite her irritation.

Before the conversation could go further, a shadow came over both siblings. They looked up, eyes taking in the sight of Peko’s bloodstained hands and grim expression. Unease coiled in Natsumi’s gut.

“He’s stable,” Peko informed them. “Shall we move him?”

“Yeah. We might as well take him with us. It ain’t like he got someone waiting for him at home.” Fuyuhiko-nii nodded. He stood, then held out a hand to help his sister. Natsumi took it then went over to where the new girl stood over Hajime. Peko and Fuyuhiko-nii followed moments later, likely having been giving each other meaningful looks when they thought nobody was looking.

Seriously; they think they’re being sly.

It was a shame their clan would never let them be together.

Natsumi listened as the girl in front of her stuttered out a brief set of care instructions on the stitches, indicating where she’d had to redo them, before apologizing profusely for being so forward. Natsumi didn’t listen; she moved past the nervous girl and tapped Hajime’s cheek. She frowned

Nothing.

Not even a twitch.

“U-uh, I gave him some p-painkillers, f-for the, uh, the p-pain. I’m sorry. He—he looked like he n-needed them. I-I’m so-sorry.” The girl blubbered. She went on to beg for forgiveness and tear up, shaking like a leaf.

“It’s fine, Tsumiki-san.” Peko interrupted, coming to stand on Hajime’s good side. “Is it alright to move him, now?”

“U-uh, no-not yet. I need t-to get him a s-sling. One moment.”

One moment truly was one moment; the sling appeared out of the girl’s – Tsumiki-san’s – skirt pocket and was tied securely to Hajime’s neck, cradling his right arm to his chest so it wouldn’t jostle in transit. When done, she nodded to Peko, who hooked an arm under Hajime’s knees and another supporting his shoulders, his bad arm kept on his open side.

Hajime was still shirtless.

Natsumi was sure he’d die from embarrassment if he were awake for this.

“There won’t be anyone outside, so we shouldn’t really worry about modesty.” She said, not bothering to look when Tsumiki-san left the room. Beside her, Fuyuhiko-nii snorted.

“What, he a prude, or some shit?”

Now, Natsumi snorted. A real smile pulled at her lips, but it was a ghost to her usual smirk.

“Yeah, even when drunk. You’d think he’d let loose a little more.”

Fuyuhiko-nii led the way out the door, Natsumi hot on his heels. Peko took on a slightly more sedate pace, conscious of her charge’s discomfort when jostled, even with a sling on. The siblings discussed sleeping arrangements, agreeing that Hajime could take the spare room in their apartment, like last night.

“We might as well just call it his,” Natsumi flicked her hair. “It ain’t like he’s going anywhere anytime soon.”

“That might be easier. We’ll need spare clothes, though.” Her brother nodded.

“I know where he lives,” Natsumi shared. “If we use his key in his bag—”

She stopped.

Natsumi facepalmed.

“What is it? Something happen?” Fuyuhiko-nii’s attention snapped to her, eyes looking for danger in the middle of the first floor’s hallway. Natsumi shook her head, groaning.

“We left our bags in our homeroom. It’ll take me a second to get them.”

“… Alright.” Her brother looked like he wanted to argue but thought against it. “We’ll have our ride come to the gates.”

“Awesome. I’ll see you, then.”

She took off without waiting for a response, reaching the staircase at the end of the hall and taking three steps at a time. She barely breathed as she got to her homeroom, a block of ice forming in the pit of her stomach where her nerves were acting up. At the handle, she hesitated. She looked down.

Her mouth felt dry.

There’s still blood…

Sure enough, shiny drops stuck to the ground, even as she rubbed her foot against the stains. Natsumi fought down a shudder, resolving herself.

She pulled the slider open…

… and promptly let out a breath of relief.

The room was empty. Dark, but empty.

When Natsumi went to Hajime’s desk at the far side of the room, she picked up his bag and opened it, rifling through it to see if anybody messed with his stuff. After a moment of this, she decided it wasn’t any messier than a regular guy’s bag and there wasn’t anything too out-of-place.

She sighed.

It was more relieved than anything.

Natsumi picked up the bag and was just about to move away when she paused. Slowly, achingly slow, she moved back to the desk.

“So far,” that one random guy had said, “it’s only really affected the girls. The guys are fine.”

… But what if they weren’t…?

She gulped but hardened her resolve. Without dropping the bag, she slid into Hajime’s seat and stuck her hands in his desk, rooting around for anything sharp, anything suspicious.

Anything that could hurt him. Just… anything—

Nothing.

She found nothing.

Natsumi had never been so happy to not find anything.

She didn’t spend anymore time at his desk, after that. Instead, she got up and walked to her own desk where her bag was still on full display on the desktop. She stopped.

I didn’t leave that there…

She grit her teeth. Her eyes darted to the door, suspicion beginning to creep in. The air felt stale when she breathed.

It was in the chair… I left my bag in my chair…

She reached out to her bag with shaking hands. Opening the zipper was a struggle when the slider kept slipping from her fingers. Still, she managed. She peeled at the opening until she could see its contents, then rooted around for anything that shouldn’t be there. Natsumi noted nothing missing, either.

If the bag was moved but not used, then… why was it taken from the chair in the first place—

!

This time, she didn’t bother getting in the chair to look through the desk. She bent down until the opening was at eye-level and stuck her hand in, wincing when it was struck with something sharp. She brought the hand out, looking at the blood streaking her fingertips.

The razors…

She stuck her hand back in, ignoring whatever pain that sliced her fingers and palm. With a clean swipe, her arm collected whatever had been put in her desk and toppled it out of the cubbyhole.

Tiny clinks accompanied glinting metal as they hit the ground.

A note fluttered shortly after. It landed face-up. Natsumi sucked in a breath; bolded letters hitting her harder than anything she, herself, could’ve said.

It should have been you.

Natsumi picked bent down. She picked up the note and read it for what had to be another dozen times over.

“Don’t worry…” She whispered, knowing the note’s writer wouldn’t hear or care. “I know.”

Still, she refrained from tearing the page into a billion pieces. Instead, she stuffed it in her bag, took a picture of the razors glittering around her desk and chair, then left the room with the two bags.

She didn’t bother closing the door.

Chapter Text

16 hours earlier…

Ugh. You’re heavy.”

“N-no, I’m… not. You are.”

“Who’s carrying who, loser?”

“M’not… loser…”

Natsumi didn’t think she’d ever be this glad to not be spotted as she dragged Hinata’s wasted ass back to hers and Fuyuhiko-nii’s apartment.

I guess Peko lives there, too.

She rolled her eyes.

If ‘refusing to sleep on a bed’ counted…

Still, Natsumi strained under Hinata’s weight as he hung off her like a pack of cinderblocks. She’d given up reasoning with Hinata when the second shot glass had been shoved into his hand, somewhere between the beer and margaritas. Natsumi refused to admit she might have gone overboard. This was Hinata’s first booze night; they had to go all-out.

Or… at least until his hands stopped shaking.

Which they hadn’t.

“You… y’can lemme… go.” He slurred into Natsumi’s ear as she rounded the last corner, tickling her ear as his lips brushed the shell. “M’fine. Can walk.”

Natsumi rolled her eyes.

“Your walk is as good as your talk, dumbass. I ain’t letting you walk back by yourself.” Natsumi lugged Hinata’s arm so it rested better on her shoulder. She heard him mumble something, but it was both too quiet and too jumbled for her to make out. Still, Hinata settled into her hold, leaning his head against hers as their sides remained practically glued through the walk.

The next time Natsumi looked up, their designated apartment was only a few feet away. She leaned Hinata against the wall while she fished her keys from her skirt pocket. Unlocking and entering her apartment was a painless act, complete with her charge flopping onto the couch as soon as she nudged him in the right direction.

“I gotta check if your room’s set up. Wait here.” She ordered, not bothering to check if Hinata listened. She instead strode into the hall, looking for the door to the spare room Peko refused to take up. When she peeked in, Natsumi noted the fresh sheets tucked into the king-sized bed, pressed and folded back for someone to slide right in.

Guess that’s half my job done.

Contrary to popular belief, Natsumi still had to do her share of the chores. They normally consisted of cleaning and maintaining the bedrooms. She was just glad she didn’t have bathroom duty.

“Alright! Everything’s there, so you can get up—” Natsumi blinked. She’d walked back into the main room to collect Hinata, only to find said boy passed out on the lounge. Remembering how heavy he was, Natsumi could already feel her arms groan and creak at the thought of lifting him up.

She clicked her tongue.

“Nope! No! Not gonna happen.” Natsumi marched over to the couch and kicked the side with as much force as she had without breaking the frame. Once, twice. It was only after the third kick that Natsumi’s foot started to get sore. Hinata groaned, turning so his back faced her.

Natsumi huffed.

“Oi! Asswipe! Come on, we’re going to your room!” She ignored the implications forcing heat to her cheeks and instead grabbed his arm, turning and tugging until Hinata wavered on unsteady feet.

“Wh…” He couldn’t even make out the whole word.

“Your room. We’re going. Jeez, don’t tell me your brain died back at homeroom.” She didn’t wait for him to gain his balance. Natsumi just draped his arm across her shoulders and walked in the direction of the spare room. It seemed to work, too, until Hinata decided the wall was a better crutch than her.

“What the fuck, dumbass. Come on. Room’s this way.” She jutted her thumb over her shoulder in the room’s general direction. Still, Hinata didn’t move from the wall.

He didn’t even twitch.

Natsumi frowned.

She reached out, eyes wary but searching as she tried to figure out what was wrong.

“… Hinata—?”

He shied from her touch.

It was more of a tentative flinch than any particular move away from her. All the same, Natsumi instantly took her hand back as if it’d been burned. Olive eyes turned searching.

“… You okay?” She tried, voice low, like she’d seen in a few of the animal documentaries they used to show in middle school. She didn’t try to touch him again.

Hinata didn’t look up at her. Instead, his shoulders slumped, and he seemed to sag into the wallpaper like he wanted to join it. He mumbled something, but she couldn’t hear what.

“What?” She asked, taking a small step closer but not reaching out. Hinata curled in on himself a little, so now she was taller by a bare inch. Still, she refused to back down. “What did you say?”

“Hajime…”

Natsumi blinked.

What…?

“Your name?”

He nodded.

“What about it?”

Despite the hair that hung over his eyes in choppy spikes, Natsumi could see his eyes narrow into a heated glare until they screwed shut. His fists clenched, though they remained at his side.

“Hinata—”

“It’s Hajime.”

“Wh—”

“Not ‘dumbass’, or ‘loser’, or ‘asswipe’, or… or whatever…” He was breathing heavily, teeth gritted and words slurred as he swayed against the wall. “It’s ‘Hajime’. Hinata Hajime… I’m not a nobody…”

Natsumi could only watch with wide eyes as Hinata’s body shook against the wall, breathing hitched in awkward places with a twisted anger she knew wasn’t all for her.

“I’m not a nobody… I’m not… I’m not nothing. I’m… I’m not a failure, or a mistake, or… I’m not—” His voice cracked on the word. His lips trembled. Hitched breathing became outright gasps, as if there wasn’t enough air to go around.  

His hands shook harder.

“…I never said you were a nobody, Hinata.” She kept from filling the blank with another insult.

Hajime.” He corrected. Stressed, really.

Apparently, he was taking no shits from her.

Natsumi flipped her hair, clicking her tongue in irritation.

Fine.

“Alright. Hajime. Whatever. Guess we’re on first-name basis, then.” She rolled her eyes, trying to cover up her discomfort. It was weird addressing someone outside the family by their given name. Peko didn’t count – she never counted – she was family no matter how you look at it. Natsumi shook off her thoughts. She needed to get Hinata—Hajime to bed before he decided he wanted an honorific along with the name-change. “We good?”

Hajime opened his eyes. He stared blankly at the ground for a moment before nodding.

“Yeah… we’re good…”

This time, when Natsumi reached out to help Hajime the rest of the way, he didn’t back up. Getting him into the room was a short process, after that.

“Get your ass comfy, I guess.” Natsumi shrugged. She tilted them both, so they landed bodily onto the oversized bed. When she looked to the side, Hajime was already snoring.

Natsumi pouted.

“I am not changing you out of your uniform, Hinata.” She declared, elbowing him until his eyes blearily opened with mild cognition.

“Wh…”

“Sit up. You gotta get out of your day clothes.”

“Mmm…” came the noncommittal grunt. Still, he managed to get into a half-seated position before giving up and propping himself on his elbows.

Natsumi rolled her eyes.

She lifted herself from the bed and rummaged through some of the spare clothes in a nearby cupboard. She couldn’t find much besides some new-looking bed clothes that were a few sizes too big for Fuyuhiko-nii but too small to be her father’s.

Natsumi shrugged.

These will do.

She tossed them over her shoulder, eliciting a whined ‘hey!’ from her friend.

Natsumi smirked.

“You really gotta get better at dodging.” She quipped, turning around without thinking. She instantly regretted it a moment later.

Crap! Mistakes were made! Abort!

There really was no saving her from what she saw. Her eyes would now be forever tainted by the sight of a half-dressed Hinata Hajime struggling with his dress shirt as the sleeves caught at his elbows and bound him in a writhing mess on the bed, eyes clouded, and face flushed from the booze as sweat clung to lightly bronzed skin and glistened atop his freckles.

Oh my god—what the fuck—why wasn’t I thinking

Not even covering her eyes could delete that.

A mournful groan on the bed mirrored her sentiments.

Against her better judgement, Natsumi peeked from between her fingers.

Hajime had given up in his struggles to extricate himself from his shirt and lay panting atop the fresh linen. Perspiration dotted at his brow and stuck short hair to his forehead. Exhaustion was evident in the heaving breaths he tried to suck in through the dress shirt stretched over his skin, stuck in place by only a few stubborn buttons that almost cut into the skin.

Natsumi’s face felt too warm for the room’s tepid temperature, but she managed to gain hold of herself and make a somewhat mature decision.

Jeez…” She muttered out a litany of curses, giving up what remained of her sanity. With a heavy sigh, she took her hands from her face and ran them through her hair. She leveled Hajime with a clean deadpan. Then, she stepped forward. “Just… pretend you’re helping Fuyuhiko-nii… after a really bad night…” She nodded. “You got this.”

She hated the way her face heated up as she moved in to take out the last buttons of Hajime’s dress shirt. When the last button came undone, the shirt slackened, freeing Hajime’s arms and falling the rest of the way so his chest was completely bare. Natsumi had to admit there wasn’t anything special to look at; no scars, no toned muscle to speak of. In fact, the skin was baby-soft under her fingertips as she nudged Hajime into a more seated position. He groaned and swayed at the new elevation, but otherwise stayed up.

“You gotta change your pants. There is no way – I repeat: no. way. – I am going to be touching down there. Capiche?”

All he did was grumble.

Natsumi didn’t think he could even understand Japanese, anymore.

Natsumi sighed. She put a hand to the bridge of her nose and massaged it like she’d seen her brother do when he was stressed.

It didn’t help.

“May I be of assistance?”

Natsumi whirled around, spine snapped straight at having been caught doing something she probably shouldn’t. What that was, she didn’t fully know. She just knew the scene didn’t paint her in a flattering light.

“Ugh—Peko! Yes!” Relief washed over her. “I need your help changing him out of his uniform.”

“Of course.” The older girl nodded, glasses gleaming in the light but in a comforting manner.

Natsumi was allowed a moment of rest as Peko took over caring for Hajime’s drunk ass, complete with a bucket placed at the bedside and a damp towel to wash away perspiration.

Thankfully, it was Peko that found them and not Fuyuhiko-nii, or this would’ve gone a lot worse.

Soon enough, Hajime was tucked in and muttering enough random bullshit to incarcerate a person for the next 10 years, all the while listing into Peko’s hand every time she wiped away a fresh sheen of sweat. Natsumi watched this from the safety of the far wall, arms crossed and leaned back.

Eventually, Peko left, and it was just Hajime and Natsumi in the room; one rambling in slurred iterations and the other quietly sitting at the bedside, hand carding through spiky hair, waiting for the ramblings to die down.

At least his hands had stopped shaking.


Now…

It felt like years had passed since last night. Time was distorted and stretched out like bubblegum when Natsumi tried to recall all that had happened in the last 24 hours. If asked, she wouldn’t be able to distinguish between waking up and falling asleep, the moments blurring into endless motion.

Good thing she didn’t get motion sick.

“Got everything,” she said, presenting her prizes as soon as she shut the limo’s door behind her. A quick glance told her Hajime was blinking blearily on the far set of car seats, lying on his back. Someone had placed a blanket over him in lieu of his shirt. She sat by his head. His head lolled to the side, but he otherwise didn’t speak. With his blank eyes clouded over, Natsumi wasn’t surprised.

“Great,” her brother said from his seat by the back doors. Peko sat dutifully next to him. “We’re going to his place to pick up his shit, now.”

“Thanks.” Natsumi replied, knowing full-well her brother didn’t have to go through all the trouble for her. Especially when she was so far from proving herself.

Not that had ever stopped him…

“No problem. Your boyfriend woke up a couple minutes ago. Seemed pretty out of it, though.” Fuyuhiko-nii said, tone blasé as always.

Natsumi felt her entire face flare up.

“H-he’s not my boyfriend, big bro! Jeez…” She couldn’t help but stammer, not when her brother’s face twisted into a familiar smirk.

“Yeah. Sure.” Came Fuyuhiko-nii’s unconvinced response. Beside him, Peko glanced away. Natsumi made out a wry tilt of her lips even from across the cabin.

She huffed.

“You guys are so stupid!” She complained, slumping against the backrest. Natsumi put her uninjured hand on Hajime’s forehead, absentmindedly brushing away stray hairs. Beneath her ministrations, Hajime sighed, relaxing into her touch. His eyes fluttered before finally falling shut. After a moment, Natsumi heard his breathing deepen.

The two Ultimates didn’t say anything. Instead, Natsumi saw them share a knowing look from the corner of her eye; the kind of look adults have when they think they’re sharing an inside joke.

She rolled her eyes.

Honestly… I love my brother, but sometimes he can be really blind—

“What the fuck happened to your hand?” Her brother’s voice drowned out her thoughts.

Natsumi blinked.

“H-huh—?” Confusedly, Natsumi glanced down at her sluggishly bleeding hand. It wasn’t too bad, all things considered, but it would need a bandage when they got home.

“Don’t ‘huh’ me. What happened to your hand?” Apparently, Fuyuhiko-nii wasn’t up for jokes, tonight.

Natsumi frowned.

Guess he’s only blind when he wants to be… Damn.

“It’s fine. Just a scratch,” she said.

And it was. The razors hadn’t dug too deep when she’d poked her left hand into her cubby. The cuts wouldn’t even need stitches. The pain was manageable.

Fuyuhiko-nii didn’t seem to agree.

“You weren’t bleeding back at the nurse’s office, Natsumi,” he said, bringing out his ‘big bro’ voice he only used when plowing through her deflections.

Natsumi loved her brother. She really did. It was her whole reason for trying so hard to be better.

For him.

But she hated it when he used that voice on her.

Not fair, big bro…

Tch. Fine.” She huffed, feeling her mouth fold into a pout. “There was a stupid prank in my desk. I triggered it when I looked through my junk.” Natsumi gave her brother a petulant glare, wanting to close this subject as soon as possible. “Happy?”

Happy!?” Her brother mimicked her, incredulous. “Somehow, I don’t think pranks are meant to leave you bleeding.”

“Yeah, well, all the girls in my class have been dealing with it this past week.” Natsumi explained, shrugging. With her injured hand, she unzipped her bag, not wanting to disturb Hajime now that he looked semi-peaceful. She didn’t want to think about how much pain he was probably in, right now. In any case, Natsumi slid the sheet of paper out from her bag, getting bloodied fingerprints along one of the corners as she went.

She couldn’t care less.

When she presented the sheet of paper to the Ultimates, Fuyuhiko-nii took it with a raised eyebrow.

“What’s this?” He asked. Natsumi could tell the instant he read it; his face darkened into a deep fuchsia, mouth opened into an affronted gape. His hands even bunched up around the page’s edge, as if he wanted to tear it to shreds. The sound of paper crinkling under his grip filled the cabin. The image before her was one of undiluted fury.  

Natsumi winced.

Fuck…

“This was in my desk, along with the razors.” Natsumi saw Fuyuhiko-nii mouth the word ‘razors’ but fished out her phone before he could fully react. Leaving muddy brown streaks across her screen, she unlocked the password and opened her Photos app. She flipped the screen so he could see.

Fuyuhiko-nii froze.

His eyes took in the sight before him; razors from a pencil sharpener glittering dangerously sharp from Natsumi’s chair the floor around it. She saw his face morph, saw the frown turn into a single line pressed white where his mouth should be. His face turned back into its original colour, and with it, his gold-gleaned eyes turned hard.

They flicked up to hers.

“Who the fuck did that.” It was an order, not a question; growled low as if it would make her answer faster.

The worse part is: she couldn’t.

“I don’t know.”

She really didn’t.

Chapter Text

Everything was still.

Quiet.

Safe.

There was no true noise other than the far-off hum of an air filter, providing a muted lullaby to the quiet space. The only thing that could truly be felt was the brush of filtered air against the tops of flushed cheeks, between parted lips, through strands of sleep-mussed hair.  

A soft cocoon of warmth battled whatever chill came from the working filter. It was a thin shroud yet kept the mind content in a drowsy kind of bliss.

Hajime hardly felt a need to combat the woozy spell weighing heavily on his mind, dragging him deeper and deeper into murky depths, leaving him suspended within the abyss. The burning lacerations along his arm had long-since numbed, nerves silenced with pain medication. Any stress gifted through the day, whether it be homework or from people, was robbed by the heavy feeling laced through his body.

Still, he turned, unconsciously curling in on his uninjured side. He brought his punctured arm closer under the covers, hearing the way the bandages rubbed against his quilt. It was a quiet sound, not unlike regular day clothes brushing against a drooping curtain. The familiarity served to sink him further into the sheets, breathing out in relaxation and nuzzling his cheek into the hollow of his pillow, chasing the warmth that pooled there.

Everything was still.

Quiet.

Safe.

There was no need to worry about school, or the Steering Committee, or the Kamukura Project, or Sato…

… wait…

Sato…

Pinpricks dug into his bandaged arm, one at a time. When Hajime’s eyes fluttered open, he swore he could see frizzy hair the same colour as dried seaweed, skin ashen and almost glowing in the darkness, vivid violet eyes rimmed red with rage

Not safe.

Hajime’s breath hitched on the inhale, catching at the back of his throat as he pushed himself up with his uninjured arm, head whipping around as creeping pain stabbed into his arm and burned.

He had to get away—

Warn Natsumi

Get out—

Stay

It’s not safe—

Distract her

Flee

Natsumi’s in danger—

I don’t want to die.

Hajime tried to gasp around the crippling pain sending jagged streaks of electricity up into his brain; sizzling zaps down to the tips of his fingers, making them spasm. Heat pooled into his eyes, blurring his vision as panic held him in place. The heat spilled over, scoring his cheeks like a lump of softened clay. It dripped down, down, until the quilt’s material reached up to drink it. His chest refused to move, refused to allow air into him, refused to let him breathe

Hands clawed at his throat, trying to remove the invisible string tied to his neck like a noose, getting tighter and tighter as his whole body convulsed and shook and strained from the lack of access to the air around him. He felt smothered by his own fear, locked in place while his dominant arm was mauled by dainty, clawed hands.

One by one, rusted – jagged – pieces of metal were stabbed in, twisting upon entry, then yanked from his arm; each one leaving him with a small but sickening squelch. He watched through squinted, pained eyes as those steady, small hands tossed metal shards across the room with abandon. They glinted in the dark, cartwheeling through the air before they hit the floor with a quiet rattle.

His arm still burned, still felt like a chew toy even after the torture stopped. Removing the metal was almost as bad as putting it in. Hajime felt relief loosen the string keeping him from air. Cool air trickled in and blurred vision began to clear.

Then it tightened, nearly decapitating him.

Hajime gasped—or, he would have, if there was air to suck in.

Instead, his mouth opened in a toothy gape, mixed between a grimace and a silent cry. Nausea churned in his stomach, twisting it in knots. Hajime imagined bile, green and gloopy like cartoon snot, burn at his esophagus, threatening to leak out if the string ever disappeared.

Hajime felt the string jerk, saw black spots dance across his vision. A manicured hand dug deep into his hair, right down to his scalp, until it clawed at the skin there. It grasped and pulled and yanked at the strands until his eyes watered and his head was looking directly at his lacerated arm.

Hajime felt himself grow cold.

Sato’s hand – the free one, the one not keeping Hajime’s head in place – was splayed across several of the wounds. There were no stitches, no bandages. In fact, the bandages were nowhere to be seen. Instead, Sato’s fingers were splayed, knuckle-deep in several of the wounds.

Hajime felt like throwing up.

I bet nobody would even care if you just disappeared.” Her voice hissed in his ear, layered, thick with malice. It was like a thousand people were there with them, whispering the same words like a demonic litany long after her voice had passed. “Just die, already. Nobody cares about you. He abandoned you, Hinata.” Her voice changed into something darker as she spoke, moving from what she’d uttered to Natsumi’s face a few days ago; moving to personal territory Hajime had only ever encroached during his darkest days.

Suddenly, it didn’t matter if he could breathe.

Sato’s hand was yanked from his arm, but he didn’t feel the burn. The hand in his hair softened its grip. His head didn’t – couldn’t – move as a larger, older hand petted the strands back. A woman’s voice, soft, dulcet, painfully familiar, silenced the echoes around them.

When was the last time you’d seen me, Hajime? When was the last time you’d visited?

Hajime didn’t answer.

He wouldn’t have, even if given the choice. There was no answer that could justify how he felt.

Suddenly, Hajime wished the string would pull tighter. He wished his neck would snap from the strain, or his lungs would combust or give out or just stop begging for air. He wanted the string to cut his neck clean through, to feel the way his blood spilled through and bubbled and gurgled as he finally took his last breath.

He didn’t want to be here.

He didn’t want to be near her.

The guilt clawed up too much like the nausea and bile, nearly tearing through the string wrapping his neck. It wasn’t fair on either of them to think it, but Hajime was repulsed by this woman. There was nothing that could change how he felt, and he hated it.

I miss you, Hajime… do you… miss… me?

The hand lovingly carded through his hair. It felt like someone had poured battery acid into his scalp.

Everything started to cut out, from sight to hearing to his will to struggle. He gave himself over to the call pulling him closer and closer to nothingness. His lungs burned, but he didn’t care. He just wanted this to end.

Hajime?

He wished she would shut up.

“Hajime?!”

The voice changed again. Higher in pitch, a little rougher in tone, younger. The hand carded through his hair, caress much rougher than the woman’s. Sobbing reached his ears.

“Hajime! For fuck’s sake, wake up!” The hand at his injured arm squeezed, as if using the pain to try rousing him, despite him already being awake.

He was floating, sinking cartwheeling through the abyss. Everything felt more and more out of reach, distant. Even the voice – still feminine, still gruff, different and warm and safe – was fading.

Shit—Peko, that’s it. He ain’t wakin’ up. He needs a doctor.” A male voice, equally gruff. It was just as safe as the girl’s voice. It was just as faint…

“… master… solution…” This voice was safe, though too similar to the dulcet tone of that woman.

“…do it.” The male voice was a sharp pierce through the haze that weighed at Hajime’s mind. Then the silence swallowed him whole.

There was a moment of stillness.

Quiet.

Safe.

He felt detached from his body; floating, like nothing and everything pressed and weighed on him. It was like a warm hug from an iceberg, or a brief kiss with a black hole.

Tugging, pulling, pushing, shoving…

Stabbing.

Chest, arm, head—hurts.

Pinned down by something heavy.

Too heavy.

Screaming.

I never scream.

Why am I—

“Hajime!” Hands, dainty and soft with small rough patches of leathery callouses, pushing against the sides of his head, stabilizing it against the pillow beneath him. There was something heavy pinning his legs down, pressing against his stomach and gripping his wrists until they creaked.

The light was like needles against tired eyes, driving deeper into his brain with each blink.

Hajime coughed. The air felt bitterly cool against the insides of his throat, colder yet against his sweat-streaked face. The weight made it hard to breathe. It grounded him, took away the feel of course string around his neck. Hair stuck plastered to his forehead. It was brushed aside by careful fingers as blazing eyes peered into his own, the colour of jarred olives.

Natsumi…

Sato—

Safe. We’re safe, here.

But Sato—

We’re okay.

Something pressed into his face, around his mouth. It was bulky and dug into the skin, almost like a muzzle. Hajime’s mind buzzed with a disoriented kind of clarity as he struggled to understand the situation. Humidity from his own breath made the inside of the thing on his face feel stuffy. Each breath was full and heavy, filling his lungs and clearing the strange dizzying sense of vertigo that threatened to set in.

One by one, his muscles – coiled, strained, aching and pulled tight – relaxed as the weight across his body was identified; people – Pekoyama… Kuzuryu-kun… Natsumi. He was pinned down to the mattress, their hold on his body unyielding. He knew he should’ve felt panicked in this situation, but after the horror that had just passed, Hajime was glad to see some friendly faces.

“Wh—” His voice cracked, mouth dry and scratchy. Hajime tried to swallow but came back dry. The thing on his face – an oxygen mask? – was making it kinda hard to work his mouth. He continued, anyways. “What happened?”

Slowly, Pekoyama loosened her grip on his wrists, raising herself from Hajime’s stomach. His cheeks flushed when he realized she was in little more than a form-fitting chemise. She kept her gaze sharp, professional, ignoring his reaction as she picked him apart with barely more than a glance. Beyond her, the Ultimate Yakuza was sprawled so his torso and arms held Hajime’s legs. With a nod from Pekoyama, he, too, released his hold.

Above him, Natsumi didn’t budge.

“…Natsumi?” His voice was loud to his ears, but it was also harsh and barely more than a hiss. Still, those eyes atop his refused to break contact. Hajime felt like he was invisible; like his skin was translucent and Natsumi was staring long and deep, beneath the blood and bone and squishy human organs and right down to his soul.

Still, he didn’t look away.

“You’re awake.” She said, quiet, nasally as though her nose was stuffed. The soft cotton of her pajama shirt’s long sleeves brushed against Hajime’s face in time with her breaths, pastel pink fabric littered with tiny black kittens. Her eyes were rimmed red and her voice caught much like Hajime’s. Still, it was less like she was talking to him and more like she was affirming a thought.

“Yeah…” he said, anyways. For a while, it was like that; Natsumi looking while Hajime relaxed into her hands. It was okay, now. Sato was gone. Hajime closed his eyes—

Don’t!” Her voice was sharp. Hajime’s eyes flew open, wide with the sudden need to run

Natsumi’s hands pressed harder against his head, down into the pillow, effectively pinning his aching body with barely any effort. The pressure happened to help calm his racing heart.

“What—” He tried. She wouldn’t let him finish.

“Don’t go to sleep!” She cried, olive eyes as wide as his, as if she had every reason to be scared. Hajime’s mind briefly supplied Sato’s glowing form, hovering malevolently behind Natsumi’s shoulder. One blink and she was gone.

“Lady Natsumi—” Pekoyama tried. Natsumi’s gaze snapped away from his, turning into daggers against what must’ve been a perceived threat.

“No! He’s not going back to sleep!” Her hands tightened against his head, fingers curling into his hair. Her actions were almost… protective. “He was fucking possessed!”

“I’d say he was a lot more than that.” Kuzuryu-kun griped, straightening the sleeves to his yukata. “That was one hell of a nightmare.” He said, gaze levelled Hajime’s way. Hajime stared back, mouth agape.

A nightmare…?

“I… it was just a dream?” He breathed. There was a hollowness in his chest. Relief threatened to fill it.

Something must’ve shown on his face, as Kuzuryu-kun’s gaze softened and he glanced away, suddenly vulnerable. Hajime struggled to swallow. The nervous tick was so much like his dad’s it hurt to watch.

“What happened?” He asked again, if only to distract himself. His eyes met Pekoyama’s; the only person in the room who didn’t look shaken. She nodded. The action brought some measure of comfort to him.

“You were thrashing in your sleep,” she began, “with obvious signs of distress. We came as soon as we could. By the time we realized what was happening, you had begun to asphyxiate, with no signs as to why.”

Hajime remembered the string, tugging, cutting, digging deep into his neck. He swore he could still feel it against him loose and waiting. For what, he didn’t know.

Still…

He did know one thing.

“Natsumi,” he said, voice a little stronger, “Natsumi, I need you to listen. It’s serious.” With his words, he began to push himself up, arms shaky beneath him. He ignored the twinges in his right arm. It was barely an itch compared to the agony from his dream. Natsumi’s hands wrapped around his shoulders and attempted to push him back down. She nearly succeeded.

“No. You’re staying in bed. We still don’t know if you tore your stitches.” She said, wrestling until she got the upper hand. She shoved him down by his shoulders. Her hands lingered, as if she were prepared to keep him down.

She probably was.

Ugh, fine.” He grunted, arms trembling from the strain despite being free of weight. “Just listen up.”

What?” She hissed, cheeks puffed out. Her eyes held confusion, though there was an underlying layer of…

Concern…?

Hajime shook off the thought.

“It’s Sato.” He blurted. Natsumi blinked, concern dissipating until there was only confusion.

Sato… what? Wait—was that what had you all psycho? That bitch?”

Even hearing her name from another’s mouth was enough to bring a cold sweat to his skin. The air felt too hot to breathe, tearing through his lips like icy spikes to the skin. He didn’t know how to articulate his intention to forget, to ignore the sharp jabs in his arms as they pulsed beneath the bandages.

“You need to stay away from her.” He blurted, the memory of Sato’s fingers digging into his lacerations causing shivers to run down his spine. “She’s dangerous. Unhinged. She wants you dead.

Natsumi rolled her eyes.

Hajime felt something uncomfortable curdle in the pit of his stomach.

She’s not listening.

“Natsumi—”

“Uh, no offence, Hajime,” she interrupted, “but I know.”

Hajime’s brain screeched to a halt.

“Wh… what?”

“She’s been suspended.” Kuzuryu butt in. Him and Pekoyama hovered nearby. “The family’s been discussing whether to take action.”

“Take… action?” Hajime’s eyes widened. “You can’t mean—!”

“If she’d gotten Natsumi, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Sato’s life would’ve been forfeit.” Kuzuryu confirmed, closing his eyes as if to shield himself from Hajime’s reaction.

Nausea threatened to kick in. It churned in his gut, threatening to rise, much like his dream.

Hajime swallowed.

He hadn’t thought he’d be saving both girls by shielding Natsumi; he’d just been thinking about keeping her safe.

He blinked.

There was a palm against his forehead, brushing away his bangs and soothing the dull throb that had begun to build in his temples. Hajime’s cheeks felt like they were prickling, as though it were too hot. The rest of him began to tremble, a chill seeping deep into his bones. Something clawed at the base of his neck, threatening to creep up and choke him out like that invisible string. The hand pressed harder. He leaned into its touch.

“He’s running a fever,” Pekoyama said, voice smooth even as it shocked him out of his spiraling thoughts. “His arm is straining against the bandages. Swollen, perhaps. I’ll need to unwrap them to check.”

“Go ahead.” Kuzuryu-kun nodded, eyes sharp as he came closer.

Hajime didn’t bother protesting when Pekoyama deftly picked at his bandaging, unwinding the strips until tender skin was properly visible. Sure enough, several of the stitches had popped and several of the wounds were gaping from the way the skin was pulled. Pekoyama pressed a finger against the skin near one of the lacerations. White pus bubbled to the surface.

“Infected. Perhaps the razors were not properly disinfected before use.” Pekoyama murmured. Natsumi snorted, a twisted smile cutting across her youthful features. Hajime said nothing.

Pekoyama stepped back from the bed then leaned down, reaching for something that was below the edge of the bed. When she came back up, her hands were gloved, and she held a small bottle of disinfectant. She leaned over Hajime’s body.

“I apologise in advance, Hinata-san.” Her voice was grave. “This may be quite painful.”

Hajime winced. Natsumi patted his cheek in a silent show of support. After a moment, he nodded.

It was almost as bad as the dream.


“We’ll need to alert the clan elders that Hinata’s awake. Also, we need to figure out what we’re gonna do about Komaeda,” Kuzuryu said, body already half-way out the door. “Don’t wait up.”

“… okay.” Natsumi said from her position at Hajime’s side. Hajime nodded numbly. He focused his efforts on breathing.

With one last look, Kuzuryu left, Peko following like a silent shadow.

She took the medical kit with her.

Hajime shivered.

“You’re cold?” Natsumi’s voice filtered through. Hajime had to go over the words a few times to make sense of them. Fatigue made everything feel fuzzy.

“… not exactly.” He admitted, too tired to pretend otherwise. A hand passed through his hair. Everything tilted when he listed into it.

Unease coiled in his gut.

The hand in Hajime’s hair pressed hard as it ruffled the strands, causing them to spike up in knotted messes. Hajime jerked away with a shout.

“H-hey!” He futilely ran his good hand through his hair, trying to get the knots out. He knew, deep down, that there was no saving it. “What was that for!”

“You were spacing out. Duh,” Natsumi did an overexaggerated facepalm, as if to show her own annoyance. Hajime rolled his eyes. His vision didn’t improve.

“Well, I’m tired. I’m pretty sure that makes a person space out,” he snarked, a tick forming atop his brow. He levelled Natsumi a deadpan. “Unless you’re a coffee addict…”

She didn’t even bat an eye.

“We’re having an anime marathon. No ‘but’s.” Natsumi declared. She was already extricating herself from Hajime’s bed, feet padding quietly to the open doorway. Hajime frowned.

“Don’t we have school in the morning?” Then, he added, “and homework. I’m pretty sure the teacher assigned homework.”

Natsumi rolled her eyes, turning so she could walk backwards.

“Correction: I have school in the morning.” She jutted her thumb. “Your ass is staying right here.”

Hajime quirked a brow. He’d noticed she hadn’t said anything about actually going to school…

“And you?”

“Taking the day off.” A self-satisfied smirk accompanied her words.

“I need notes.” Hajime deadpanned.

“You need sleep.” She shot back.

We need notes.” He felt the need to stress, as if it weren’t obvious enough. Natsumi snorted, looking at him as if he’d grown two heads.

“What are you, a study whore?”

“We have school, Natsumi.” Hajime had to look up, holding his good arm out as though praying to any deity that would listen. He didn’t know what he did to deserve this.

“Oh, my gawd. Fine! I’ll go slave away while you mooch off our wifi.” Natusmi huffed, her annoyed declaration ruined by the twitching of her lips. There was a gleam in her eye belying her playful mood.

“Won’t I be sleeping?” Hajime asked, his own mouth forming a smile. Natsumi snorted, spinning around before she could hit the doorframe.

“I’m leaving.”

“I demand anime.” Hajime thumped his good hand on the bedsheets for good measure.

“I’m coming back!” She shot over her shoulder, pastel pink pajamas ruffling as she moved into the hall.

Hajime snorted.

Chapter Text

The next week was somewhat of a blur.

Most mornings, Hajime would find himself waking in a cold sweat, pain lancing through his arm, sharper than any dream his mind could gift him. The stitches didn’t pop again, though the fever had worsened. All Hajime could really remember from his week under Natsumi’s care (Peko’s, really) was the waves of pain that dizzyingly meshed with hot and cold flushes.

He could remember more than one ice bath, though thankfully, his memory was blissfully blank on how he’d entered the bath in the first place. Hajime could also briefly remember through the medicated haze; mere snippets of Natsumi’s favourite anime playing from her laptop as she scribbled her homework down nearby with little care.

It was during those times, where there was nobody to judge or usurp her, that Kuzuryu Natsumi truly shone.

In the low lighting, Hajime remembered how her whole form would wilt and how her créme blonde hair had glinted as it coiled around littered pens and pencils as though in an effort to seize them. Her eyes would soften when she’d finish a question, fatigue piling on top of her bit by bit until, finally, she’d finish, loudly declare so, and then flop onto one side of the oversized bed as though it were her own. The anime would finish shortly after, unwatched and unappreciated in all but background noise.

These soft moments, filled with nothing but contentedness, were where her beauty was most prevalent. There was no need to stand ground, nor fight for any particular goal as that goal did not exist. Her hair would instead reflect the light like a stream of white-gold, jarred olive eyes mischievous but relaxed. Her voice would lower to a soft murmur as she spoke of her day, nimble hands idly fiddling with Hajime’s hair.

Hajime had almost forgotten what those moments were like; stress-free, hazy, idle and content. He hadn’t had a moment like that since his family had splintered. It was soft, gentle, safe.

It was nice.

Hajime hadn’t known he’d needed that feeling of safety until he’d been forced into this mess. He hadn’t known he’d needed the closeness of another, nor time to truly process all that had happened in the past few weeks.

He hadn’t known he’d needed to really think through his participation in the Kamukura Project.

It had seemed like a great idea at the time; being personally picked by the head of the Steering Committee, becoming the embodiment of talent… it was all he’d thought he’d wanted…

Until now.

This past week, however unintended, however unplanned, had given him this little thing called ‘perspective’. It was something he hadn’t thought he’d really needed when he’d signed the preliminary contracts to the project; the code of silence, to be exact.

When he’d truly thought about it, Hajime realized some flaws in this supposed gift the Committee was willing to bestow upon him in the name of Hope.

For starters: his parents’ signatures. When he’d first heard that both parents had signed their consent for him to participate in the project, it had initially struck him as odd, though he’d quickly ignored the feeling. It was a school committee that had constructed the project. It hadn’t seemed like the conspiracies from any of the movies he’d watched, human experimentation notwithstanding.

Although…

His parents’ signatures? It seemed a little farfetched. Yes, he’d seen the signatures. They’d looked authentic, as though from their own personal hanko…

He realized, now, after a week to mull over his choice as his arm became easier to use and complete bits of homework, that hanko could very well be forged, and that it would be impossible for the school to get in touch with his parents as one was presumably overseas and rarely used their private phone, and the other had no access to the outside world.

Still…

One lie didn’t mean the whole project was a sham…

Right?

These doubts had been going in circles in his head all day, causing his focus to drift in class and a need to be stopped twice from falling down the stairs when his wandering mind had extended to his overall awareness.

Natsumi had had to manually sit him down by the fountain between the Hopes Peak campuses and order him not to move before she’d deemed it safe to go and buy them lunch. She hadn’t even waited for him to fish out his wallet before she’d taken off in the direction of the school store, calling out once again to stay put.

Hajime would’ve been more annoyed if he hadn’t been hit by an intense sense of vertigo, accompanied by a wave of nausea that left him curled fetal on the bench, willing his stomach to stop cramping and his head to just stop spinning.

He was just glad he hadn’t curled on his injured side. It had stopped hurting less than a day prior, but unnecessary pain was something he’d hoped to avoid when he’d been officially released from his room (thanks, Peko).

Hajime hadn’t realized he’d closed his eyes against the vertigo until he felt a weight land on his shoulder, nudging him in a gentle manner.

“Hajime,” a soft, dulcet voice spoke, “are you alright?”

Peko

All he could do was groan. The movement had caused his head to feel light and full of cotton, worsening his sense of balance even with closed eyelids.

“Guy can’t catch a break,” A male voice spoke. Hajime instantly recognized it as Kuzuryu’s.

“His arm appears fine. I didn’t feel any damp spots. Though, his complexion is pallid compared to this morning.” Peko explained, hand firmly pressed against the fabric of his blazer, directly above his stitches as she felt for lasting tenderness. The infection had faded before his fever broke a few days ago, but she’d said that there was a chance it would return.

Hajime sorely hoped that wasn’t the case.

“He ain’t sick, right?” Kuzuryu asked, mirroring Hajime’s own thoughts. He didn’t really get why the Ultimate Yakuza cared about his wellbeing, nor why he got his Ultimate Swordswoman to keep him in good health. However, at this point, Hajime couldn’t really care about semantics. He just wished—fleetingly, childishly—that Natsumi would come back. He never felt like he was dying when she was around.

Hajime pointedly ignored the phantom pains crawling up his arm at the thought.

Sato wasn’t at school, today. She hadn’t been at school for a while, last he’d heard.

He could handle it.

“… I believe we should fetch Tsumiki-san. She would be most equipped, in this regard.” Peko finally said. It was without reluctance; words thought over for what had to be a thousand times before being uttered. Still, they were quiet and smooth. Hajime appreciated it.

“Alright,” Kuzuryu said, no doubt nodding as he was wont to do when deciding something. “I’ll keep an eye on him. You go get Tsumiki.”

“Yes, young master.”

The weight on his arm disappeared.

Peko was gone with barely more than a whisper, clothes rustling before the quiet of nature took over.

Water trickled overhead, bubbling as it hit the pools beneath. Birds chirped, hidden in between tree branches. If Hajime focused, he could hear his own breathing, as well as another’s.

Feeling some of his nausea abate, vertigo calm for a moment, Hajime cracked his eyelids open.

There, beyond hazy and somewhat blurred vision, Kuzuryu Fuyuhiko stood, back straight and arms crossed. His gaze was somewhere off to the side, looking in the direction Hajime remembered Natsumi bounding down. Kuzuryu met his gaze a second later.

“What?” He said, eyebrow raised, voice clipped. Still, Hajime could see the way the shorter boy’s gaze picked him apart, burning through skin and bone and marrow to find the cause of this ailment. His expression shifted, eyes lowering into something more contemplative than hostile. “…you’re not all there, are you?”

People skills be damned; Kuzuryu had a way of reading people.

Hajime didn’t answer, fearing his nausea might return should he open his mouth. Instead, he blinked, eyes opening barely more than a sliver. Breathing felt more tiring than it should, as did keeping his eyes open.

He blearily watched Kuzuryu from his vantage point as his vision greyed out then faded into grainy static, matching the white noise that filtered through his ears. Greens and blues, cobalt and pebbles and the sound of water in his ears; all muted and gone.

However…

There was still something tethering him to the waking world.

Hajime could still feel a soft breeze against the backs of his hands, brushing his exposed cheek and rustling through his hair. It was cool, almost cold. It served to keep him anchored, however vaguely. There was a brief illusion of feeling weightless, air currents hitting against his body like currents of water.

It was almost like he was floating…

After an unknown amount of time, Hajime dimly felt something warm press against his forehead, brushing his bangs aside in a way that was oddly detached. It was nothing like how Natsumi would languidly graze his skin with the tips of her fingers, nor how Peko treated those under her care like fragile glass vases. This was more sure; more adept with handling others.

He flinched away from it.

Hajime tried to breathe through his growing panic. This was a person he didn’t know; didn’t trust. Everything in him was telling him to get back, but he couldn’t move, let alone run.

Take it slow. Breathe. Focus…

Don’t let your fear distract you.

Words, aged and long since passed, trickled into his head. They fell, slowly, only being processed when they hit the bottom of his cavernous mind. The deep timbre, the soft tone; the memory served as a lesson he could never forget, even if he tried.

He didn’t want to forget.

Slowly, listening to the advice of someone no longer in his life, Hajime managed to make out chatter through the static. His own breathing filtered through, making it hard to hear beyond his resting place, but when he focused, he could make out voices.

“I left for, like, five minutes! How is he half-dead?” A familiar feminine voice groused, frustration and worry easy to pinpoint if one knew what to look for.

“I’m just saying; we found him like that. Tsumiki thinks he’s reached his limit for the day.” A male voice, much like the feminine voice, groused. There was a placating tone to the words, granting Hajime a second-hand soothing effect that left him almost woozy.

“Would it be best to return him to the apartment?” A soft, dulcet tone inquired. “If his exhaustion overcomes him, it would be best not to push him at this point in his recovery.”

“U-um, e-e-e-excu-cuse me… I… I may h-have a suggestion…” A meek, feminine voice stuttered. It was unfamiliar. That was enough to raise his hackles.

“What is it?” the familiar feminine voice piped, causing the meek voice to squeak. They seemed to recover fairly quickly, though.

“Um… I… I think it would be b-b-best if he was m-moved to t-t-t-the Reserve Course’s nurse’s office. I c-can keep an eye o-o-o-on h-him while you’re a-all in c-c-class a-and… and, um...”

’and’?” the male voice urged, voice clipped. The meek voice squeaked again.

“I-I’m sorry. U-um, I just… I just thought maybeIcouldhelp!” With words blurted out in a rush, the meek voice began to sniffle. “I-I’m so sorry! I j-just w-w-w-wasted your time! I’m terrible! I know! I-I promise I’ll be better!”

“… jeeze…” The male voice huffed, after a moment of quiet.

Hajime cracked his eyes open, grainy vision clearing with some effort.

It was still blurry, but he could make out the glint of créme blonde hair, the flash of wire-framed glasses, beige and tan Main Course uniforms next to the bland take on a Reserve Course uniform.

Hajime blinked, trying to clear out the rest of his vision. He was unsuccessful.

“Oh, hey. He ain’t dead.” One of the taller, more feminine figures muttered, voice gruff. It took a moment for Hajime to identify them.

“… Natsumi?” He tried, hating the way his vision greyed out before colouring, again like an 80s tie-dye shirt. By the time he’d opened his eyes again, Natsumi appeared before him. She was much closer, now; at eye level – as though she were crouched.

“Ultimate Nurse says you’re exhausted,” she said, voice low. Her eyes picked him apart, expression matching her brother’s. It was as if she was willing him better with nothing but the power of her own determination.

Hajime nearly snorted.

Natsumi’s determination was unmatched.

Hajime’s vision doubled, wavering and spinning until his stomach flipped. He felt faint.

“Wh—Hajime!” Natsumi’s voice was dim to his ears, but at the same time, too loud. He winced. A hand cupped his exposed cheek, rough callouses digging into soft flesh. Hajime didn’t mind. The contact helped him focus.

“I… I don’t feel too good…” he muttered. The wind picked up, cutting into his skin like cold knives. The simile gave him goosebumps.

Hajime shivered.

“Tsumiki, we’re sending him home,” the male voice – Kuzuryu – ordered. “You’re going with him.”

“I-I am?!” the meek voice squeaked, shocked.

“Peko, take ‘em to the gates. There’ll be a car waiting for you.”

“Yes, sir.”

Hajime felt an arm wind under his knees, another around his shoulders. A moment of weightlessness, and his side was pressed flush against a thin, unyielding figure, strands of pale hanging hair tickling his forehead. The movement gave him a headache, triggering another wave of vertigo. The nausea became near-overbearing.

Hajime refused to open his eyes.

“I’ll bring our bags after class,” Natsumi promised. Hajime could barely wheeze out a simple ‘okay’, fearing his stomach would rebel at any second.

The next time Hajime opened his eyes, the fountain was nearly out of sight. To the side, he saw the flash of a beige and tan uniform, topped with sakura-pink hair. A gaming console hung from loose hands, flashing screen left unchecked as sakura-pink eyes stared straight at him.

They made eye-contact; soft pink with sharp green.

He saw her mouth open, eyes blank with shock.

“… Hajime?”

Chapter Text

“So, you’ve been here all week?” Nanami’s voice was even, calm; it made Hajime feel slightly better about the whole situation.

The hum of the room’s air purifier droned in the background, lulling Hajime into a sense of safety the Kuzuryu residence always seemed to do. Out of the corner of his eye, Hajime made out the baby blue wallpaper edged with white kittens.

It was obvious who’d decorated.

“Uh, yeah. Pretty much.” Hajime winced. “Sorry we didn’t get to play games.” I was busy, went left unsaid. It was obvious by how much fuss Tsumiki (she’d insisted on no honorific) placed in his right arm. The cuts had healed into ugly purple scars, jagged where Sato’s hand had shaken. They still throbbed every time he moved his arm wrong.

Needless to say, Hajime had stayed far away from pencil sharpeners since the incident.

Natsumi had gotten Hajime a set of mechanical pencils, later, to make him feel better.

Decorated with kittens, of course—one mechanical pencil for each species.

Hajime used a different one every day.

“Games are for fun. Your health is so much more important, Hajime.” Nanami said, voice too soft to come off as a lecture. However…

Coming from Nanami Chiaki, Ultimate Gamer, her words spoke volumes.

Hajime’s mouth tilted up.

“Yeah,” he agreed, mostly so they’d stay amicable, “I guess you’re right.”

Still, her words forced his thoughts back to the Kamukura Project.

It seemed he wouldn’t be able to keep things as amicable as he’d hoped.

“Hey, uh, Nanami?” Hajime said, breaking the brief pause that had settled over the pair as Tsumiki fiddled with a clipboard. She seemed to be more focused on her notes than their conversation, so Hajime felt it was as good a time as any to bring this up. “I know how you feel about talent, but…” he gulped. “What would you say if… if…”

If…

If…?

He just…

He had to talk about this; ask for a different take on the situation. It was too big a deal to think on his own. He’d be an idiot not to ask for advice, especially from an Ultimate.

But…

Telling someone, after signing the contract…

It didn’t sit right with him. There was a reason he was made to sign it. He could get Nanami in trouble if she ever decided to act on this information.

He couldn’t do it.

He just… if Nanami ever got hurt… because of him—

No.

He’d signed an oath to silence. There wasn’t any way he could tell her without sabotaging his own chances, let alone her own.

Though, if his meager suspicions turned out to be something bigger… wouldn’t it be best if he confided in someone? Nanami Chiaki had never shied from giving her own opinion – not to him, at least. She was the most honest person Hajime had ever had the chance to meet and know—

“Hinata…?” Nanami murmured, mouth turned down ever so slightly as her brow creased. She’d looked up from her game since the last time he’d looked at her. Hajime belatedly realized he’d been quiet for more time than he’d thought. His back felt prickled with nerves, hairs standing on end as he geared himself to—

“Lunch is ready.” Pekoyama Peko stood in the doorway, a tray with four bowls of some foreign pasta dish balanced in her hands. At once, the mood was shattered, all the participants snapping their attentions to the steaming food in close proximity. None of them had had lunch, if Hajime remembered correctly. He realized it was because they were too preoccupied with his drama.

Damn…

Guilt was a real killer.

“Uh, yeah. Thanks, Peko.” Hajime nodded, feeling his resolve slip away. The time to confide in Nanami had passed; the least he could do was ensure she had a decent meal. Heavy conversations could wait for another time.

Or never. It wasn’t like they really had to have the conversation.

Before Nanami came into his life, Hajime was just fine with making ‘big’ decisions; living alone, attending Hope’s Peak, making something of his life. Those were just a few. He was sure there were more, if he’d bothered to think back far enough.

The perks of having absent parents, he supposed.

In a way, that in and of itself was a red flag that the Kamukura Project wasn’t all it seemed. He still didn’t know how the school had gotten ahold of his parents. If this had happened a few years ago, he wouldn’t have questioned it. But…

Under these circumstances, Hajime had to admit – if only to himself – that not all was as it seemed when it came to gaining artificial talent.

He’d noticed it most during his meetings with the Steering Committee.

At times, the members he’d met with would gain a strange glean in their eye, as though they were looking at their next meal and they’d been starved for weeks prior. There was also the way their questions would be said – repeated, almost – as though waiting to trip him up and ensnare him in a verbal bind. He almost had to walk on eggshells around them just to keep atop of their transparent mind games.

So transparent, he’d had to forcibly convince himself they weren’t there just to continue with the meeting.

Then, there was the strange pressure placed on him to accept, despite the Project being labelled as ‘voluntary’. It was almost as if he really didn’t have a choice at all. Even when he’d initially signed up to the project, there was a clause in every contract that he could leave at any given point in time with no repercussions on his enrollment in the Hope’s Peak Reserve Program.

Pfft. Yeah, right.

All of this was ignoring the fact that the Steering Committee had written off his involvement with Sato’s attack as ‘collateral damage’ and were willing to speed up the project if it meant ‘mitigating future altercations’.

Whatever that meant…

“Hajime.” Peko’s voice cut through his thoughts, voice edged and putting him on alert.

Hajime perked his head, eyes drawn to the predator in the room. In such a dangerous presence, Hajime felt incredibly small – something he’d hadn’t had the displeasure of feeling since he was 13 years old. Every nerve in his body was tense, almost aching as he held his breath in trepidation—

“There is no need to be wary,” the Peko assured, voice much softer, now. Her eyes lost that jarring edge. “I was merely concerned. You have not touched your food…”

“Huh?” Hajime looked down. The others were nearing the bottom of their lunch bowls, while his plate was the only one still completely full. Hajime felt a warm flush in his cheeks, embarrassed at being caught out. “Oh…”

“I-i-it’s n-not good to m-miss your meals,” Tsumiki said, shyly peering through her uneven bangs. “Y-y-y-y-you’re still r-recovering, s-so you really n-n-need to keep up nutritional d-d-diet… i-if only t-t-t-to get b-better…”

Well…

She’s not wrong.

Hajime’s flush creeped up to the tips of his ears. The way the girls practically ganged up on him, even if it was just with their eyes, made him feel like one of those taxidermized insects that Westerners were always seen showing off in those old detective shows.

They want me to explain myself, he realized. He held in a grimace.

What do I even say?

Hajime took a deep breath.

“I just…” Hajime stopped, biting his lip. He knew he had to say something, or they’d think he had a serious problem and wasn’t sure how to say it. It wouldn’t be wrong, but it wouldn’t be completely right, either. He didn’t want them to worry over him, either. He’d honestly had enough coddling this past week to last a lifetime. He just… didn’t want to get on any of their bad sides. Usually, when you didn’t confide in people you kept close, they tended to get upset with you, especially if you didn’t have much of a reason to keep them out of the loop. That was his experience, at least. The only odd person out would be Tsumiki, and for obvious reasons.

Tsumiki wasn’t exactly someone he’d call ‘close’, but Peko had explained how she’d taken care of him directly after Sato’s attack as well as during the worst of his fever. He clearly owed her an explanation of some kind.

Hajime sighed.

There was only one option.

“I’ve… I’ve just had a lot on my mind, recently.” Hajime admitted, not going into details in case they were only concerned on a surface level. The last thing he wanted was to blurt everything out and make things awkward.

It made him selfishly wish they didn’t want to know—that they didn’t care.

It was always easier when they didn’t care.

He could do this on his own.

Hajime had to believe that.

“If it’s bothering you, you can always vent at us.” Nanami suggested with a shrug. Her free hand was expertly playing Mario Kart on her phone, owning first place as if she belonged there. Her eyes were glued to the screen, but Hajime knew how good she was at multitasking. “Sometimes it’s good to let it all out. Makes it easier to breathe.”

As always, she knew just what to say. Her words destroyed whatever self-made barriers he’d tried to build in the last ten seconds, as though they were made of nothing more than rice paper. It was almost as if she’d memorized his thoughts long before they’d crossed Hajime’s mind.

If Nanami wasn’t the Ultimate Gamer, Hajime could’ve sworn her talent was ‘Ultimate Mind-Reader’.

Hajime felt the corners of his lips turn up, even as his brow furrowed into a complicated expression. He felt a twist of anxiety jerk his stomach out of place. It left him feeling a little sick.

“Well…” Hajime said. “When you put it like that…”

Tsumiki’s timid nod had not gone unnoticed. “Y-yes. S-s-sometimes, when a p-patient is feeling stressed, i-it can hinder their recovery.” Her words were stronger than they usually were, despite being nothing more than a quiet stammer. Still, her reassuring smile crumbled Hajime’s resolve.

Despite not eating anything since breakfast, Hajime felt was though he might throw up. He swore the room was a little smaller than before. His heart pounded in his ears. He felt each breath wheeze through collapsed lungs.

Hajime’s hands shook.

“We will not force you into speaking. However, we will not judge your words, should you confide in us.” Peko nodded her head, having said her piece. She eyed his hands, glancing up when she felt his eyes on her. She gave him a brief smile, a mere ghost on her lips. The way she then leaned back in her chair indicated she wouldn’t push Hajime into speaking, that he could sit in silence should he choose and she would never judge.

Hajime sighed.

The air was a little easier to breathe; room not as small. It didn’t feel like his heart would jump out of his chest any time soon.

His hands still shook.

Hajime regarded the three girls in front of him. The words sat on the tip of his tongue, waiting to be freed. Hajime felt something akin to vulnerability, only the kind that came when in trusted company. He bit his lip, chewing as he thought it over.

Nanami was his gaming buddy; someone to cut loose with. She also happened to be a walking-talking fortune cookie when the need arose. Her game-given wisdom was something he probably needed to figure out where he stood with the Kamukura Project.

Tsumiki was new to him, but according to Peko, the timid nurse had had a hand in his treatment and recovery after Sato’s attempted assault on Natsumi. She’d done so without question, merely to lend a hand. The information he had could potentially hurt her if she were to speak to someone about it, especially if they were in charge…

No. I can’t think about that. I have to believe that she’ll be fine.

It was the only way he’d ever speak out.

Peko was already a known variable. If Hajime’s memory could be trusted – which, really, could it? – then, Peko was taking care of him a majority of the time he’d been high on pain medicine and fever. Also, if the information led back to her, Hajime was 100% certain she would be just fine. At the very least, he owed her the truth. The whole truth.

With that, Hajime sighed.

He figured he didn’t have much left to lose.

“I…” He began, words getting tangled in his throat, even as the fought to get free. Hajime let out a nervous chuckle, wincing when it sounded more like a scoff. “I have no idea where to start.”

“You could try the beginning,” Nanami suggested. It would’ve been sassy if she hadn’t been completely serious. “That’s usually when the main story is established in my RPG’s.”

That’s… probably the best place.

Hajime grinned. It was a small thing, but stretched his mouth nonetheless. Sass or no sass, Nanami was a blessing.

Hajime ran his left hand through his hair, not willing to pull his right arm too much after Tsumiki cleared it.

“Then… I guess I should start with the Kamukura Project.”

“Kamukura…” Peko frowned, looking down in thought. “I believe that is the name of the school’s founder.”

Hajime nodded. “Yeah, that’s the one. It’s named after him.”

“I d-don’t think I’ve e-e-ever h-heard of it, t-though.” Tsumiki squeaked. She then threw up her hands, waving them as if to dispel a bad smell. “B-b-but don’t t-take my word f-f-f-for it! M-my brain is r-rotten a-a-and I’m s-stupid a-and ugly, s-s-so if I h-have heard o-o-of it, t-then I’ve p-p-probably j-just forg-g-gotten!” Her lower lip trembled. She looked close to tears. “I-I’m s-s-s-sorry!”

Hajime winced.

Crap! What do I do!?

Nanami came in for the save.

“Don’t worry. I haven’t heard of it, either.” She said, quelling the bout of tears from Tsumiki’s eyes.

Tsumiki sniffled.

“R-really?” She asked, eyes shining.

“Uh, it was pretty top secret,” Hajime revealed, hand clamped at the back of his neck. He used his right hand to idly shovel some food into his mouth, appetite suddenly making its debut. He chewed and swallowed before continuing. “In fact, nobody else in the Reserve Course would know about it, either.”

“I see,” Peko said. “Hence, your reluctance to speak out.”

Hajime nodded.

“Uh, yeah…” He sighed. Frustration laced his words. “It’s just… The thing is, nothing’s adding up. The project was founded by The Steering Committee. They keep saying it’s voluntary, how it’s an amazing opportunity and that I should be grateful for being chosen, but I’m the only one who’s been picked out, even in the preliminary round.” Hajime frowned, tapping his fork against the rim of his pasta bowl. “… and I still don’t know how they got my parents’ signatures…” He couldn’t help but mumble, staring at his lunch as if waiting for it to burst into flames.

“Your parents?” Peko perked her head. He glanced up, seeing her red eyes bore into him. Hajime didn’t mind.

He nodded.

“Yeah. I saw their signatures for myself. It looked legit.” The image flashed in the back of his mind.

“Was it their written signatures or did they use a hanko?” Peko inquired, giving Hajime even more reason to worry.

“Hanko. Definitely hanko.” Hajime nodded, eyes hardening when he realized what Peko was getting at. “You think they were forged.”

“Considering all the facts?” Peko hummed. “Yes, that might be the case.”

“Is there a reason why your parents wouldn’t sign to the project?” Nanami asked, giving room to decline giving said reason.

Hajime smiled. He felt some of his frustration bleed out.

He was around friends, here.

“Yeah,” He said. “One of my parents is always out of the country, the other one is… away.”

He felt uncomfortable letting people know. He knew Peko already knew – would be impossible for her not to know – but he didn’t think it would be okay letting everyone in on his business. It was hard enough without getting pitying looks. He’d had enough of that in middle school.

Still… it was obvious why my parents couldn’t give their signatures…

“Oh, I get it. It would be difficult to imagine how they got your parents hanko if they weren’t present to grant them.” Chiaki said, verbalizing Hajime’s thoughts. He nearly snorted.

Ultimate Mind-Reader…

“W-what d-d-did the project e-entail?” Tsumiki asked. “I-if you d-d-don’t mind me a-asking, o-o-of course!”

“Not at all,” Hajime’s smile grew lopsided, strained.

Here goes nothing.

“The Kamukura Project was intended to grant a regular person all the talent that had been studied at Hope’s Peak.” Hajime said. He quieted, eyes glancing away from the girls. “It was… the reason the Reserve Course even exists. To fund it.”

The girls said nothing. It seemed they knew there was still more to the story.

Hajime sighed. He placed his fork in his bowl, making it so that the handle remained clean.

“I was enrolled to participate in the Hope Cultivation Program in exchange for free tuition. They weren’t allowing any other way in, at the time. This essentially meant I’d need to agree to the Kamukura Project – to become a lab rat – if I wanted to enroll in the school.”

There is no way I could’ve worded that any worse.

Hajime didn’t feel hungry, anymore.

“This was before you enrolled, correct?” Peko asked, after a beat of silence. Hajime sighed, then nodded.

“It was just before my final year in middle school. I didn’t really know what else to do, so I accepted.”

“Your father would have left the country shortly before that,” Peko nodded, a hand on her chin as she thought it over. “You were in a vulnerable position, and they saw that.”

“Uh, yeah. There was a scout from the Steering Committee that came to my middle school. They said I was a perfect fit. Like any stupid kid, I believed them.”

“That’s odd…” Peko hummed.

“Yeah, for sure.” Nanami agreed.

“T-t-t-that never happened to me,” Tsumiki said. “The Steering Committee isn’t supposed to have scouts.”

“W-what do you mean?” Hajime lifted his head, looking at the girls in the room. They all seemed to share an uneasy look, as though all of them were in on a secret and it wasn’t a pleasant one.

“Hajime…” Peko began, mouth curved into a frown. “The Hope’s Peak scouts do not tie enrollment to participation clauses.” She paused, as if thinking through her words. When she opened her mouth, again, her words weren’t any easier. “When Natsumi enrolled to the Reserve Course, she was not required to go through such trials…”

Not required…

Required…

“So… you’re saying…” Hajime began, unable to fully get the words out.

He felt cold.

“Perhaps it would be best if my young master knew about this.” Peko suggested.

“Kuzuryu’s got a bunch of contacts that can get the information without raising suspicion, right?” Nanami asked.

Peko looked at her in alarm.

Nanami didn’t pay her any mind. She won yet another game of Mario Kart.

“I’ve played Yakuza games, before. They were really cool.”

Peko sighed. Her whole demeanor relaxed.

“I would suggest you not speak of such matters outside of this room,” Peko cautioned.

“Kay, kay,” Nanami easily agreed.

“I-i-if that’s all,” Tsumiki said, timid voice gaining strength as she stood. She looked directly at Hajime. “P-please finish your food. I-I’d l-l-like to do a b-basic medical check b-b-before Kuzuryu-kun r-returns. H-he asked m-m-me to show h-him a progress r-r-report, back a-at the f-f-fountain.”

Hajime sighed, feeling the stress and shock of the last few minutes drain from him as he picked up his fork.

No more questions.

I can deal with that.

“I guess there’s not much of a choice, then.” His voice sounded hollow, even to him.

Hajime winced.

He must’ve let something slip, because suddenly Nanami’s free hand – the one that used to be in charge of her fork – was atop his, and her eyes were lit up with a passion not much different from when she talked about games.

“There is always a choice, Hajime,” She reminded. “We can pretend we’re trapped and that we’re okay with it, but really, it’ll only make us unhappy. The only way we can break free is if we remember that we always have a choice.” She smiled. It was the kind of smile that made his own lips turn up, as well. “We’re not going to let you do this alone, Hajime.”

“Nanami-san is right.” Peko nodded, even as she stood and collected the bowls that were finished.

“Y-yes.” Tsumiki nodded.

“Oh! And before I forget!” Nanami’s eyes flew wide open. She put down her game, having won yet another round. Nanami placed both hands flat on Hajime’s quilt, standing so that her upper body was supported by her hands. Their heads nearly collided by the sharp movement.

“H-huh?!” Hajime yelped, not expecting their faces to suddenly be so close.

“You can call me ‘Chiaki’.” Nanami declared.

“Chiaki?” Hajime tested. He felt his face turn into bewilderment.

“Yeah. It’s my given name. It’s not fair how I’m given permission to call you ‘Hajime’ but you’re using my last name.”

“B-but—!”

“Oh! A-a-are we all on a f-first name b-basis, now?” Tsumiki glanced up from her clipboard, timidly peeking over the top.

“Sure!” Chiaki stood to her full height. Her eyes practically sparkled like cut gems in this lighting. “We’re all friends, right?”

“Y-you r-really mean i-i-it?” Tsumiki’s lower lip quivered. At Nanami’s – Chiaki’s – and Peko’s nods, Tsumiki beamed. A few tears dripped from her eyes. “T-then y-y-y-you may c-call me ‘Mikan’!”

“Mikan, then.” Chiaki tested. In the corner, Peko softly smiled.

“O-oh! Um, usually w-w-when people s-say we’re friends, they w-want m-m-me to take o-off my c-c-clothes. D-do you w-want that, too?” She reached a hand up to the bow resting at her collar, fingers already on one string, ready to remove it.

W-wait—!

“What?! N-no!” Hajime was so confused. His cheeks blazed as he looked away, not wanting to seem like a pervert.

“E-eh?” Tsumiki seemed to take that badly, tears beading at the corners of her eyes as her voice stammered.

“I believe that won’t be necessary.” Peko mused, placing the gathered plates onto the tray she’d brought in. “Hajime is not one for nudity.”

“Oh, that’s g-good!” Tsumiki – Mikan­­ – seemed relieved. “Y-y-you truly are amazing, Hajime!

Huh?!

“I am?!” He still refused to look up, for fear that she’d actually stripped.

What did I do to deserve this?!

“Mikan! You should see Hajime’s game stats! They’re always super balanced.” Chaiki – a true blessing – dug her hand into one of her bag’s pockets, procuring her spare gaming console for whenever Hajime forgot his. He watched out of the corner of his eye as she dug out one of the games, not checking the label before putting it into the available slot. Within seconds, she had one of his stats pages on display. “The best part about having balanced stats is, even though you don’t have any strengths, you don’t have any weaknesses, either. You can’t be one-tapped or be affected by crits as often.”

Hajime had a feeling she was trying to make him feel better about his situation. There wasn’t anything special or extraordinary about his stats, he knew. And yet…

And yet…

It’s not always a bad thing…

Nanami gushed over the various game stats, facing her body to Mikan. When Hajime let his head raise, he saw that everyone was fully dressed and the only thing that seemed to be happening was Mikan learning about gaming lingo. Peko leaned against the far wall, simply content to watch.

Hajime sighed. He felt a smile pull the corners of his mouth up. Seeing Chiaki so fired up was always a treat, given her otherwise docile nature. Watching her so animated, Hajime let the words flow overhead as he slowly ate his food.

He felt his appetite return to him in bits, not realizing he’d been hungry until he’d reached the end and was barely satisfied. When he looked at the clock hanging on the wall, he saw it wasn’t long until Natsumi and Kuzuryu would return from school. He didn’t bother asking for more food, knowing he’d be provided an afternoon snack soon enough.

Hajime listened to Chiaki’s excited chatter, letting it wash over him. The words were more familiar to him than anything he’d learnt in class. That familiarity soothed his mind, as well as the butterflies that had decided to make a home in his stomach. He felt his hands go still in his lap, their shaking forgotten. A new-found security quelled his whatever anxiety still lurked within him.

He still had to tell Kuzuryu and Natsumi about the Kamukura Project, as well as his suspicions about the circumstances of his enrollment. Peko had brought up some good points earlier; points he hadn’t even thought to look into until now.

Hajime sighed.

He smiled.

Whatever happened, happened. He knew that, with Kuzuryu’s help, it would work out fine. At the very least, he now knew what he was going to do.

Hajime nodded.

He had to pull out of the Kamukura Project.

Chapter Text

“Run this by me again.”

“K-Kuzuryu—”

“And I mean ‘slowly’, because I don’t think I heard anything after ‘human experimentation’.”

Hajime felt his face flush, a bead of sweat trailing his forehead. He felt like a little kid being scolded for bad grades or cheating an exam. At least I would’ve gotten away with it, Hajime thought, despite himself. Kuzuryu continued to pace the length of the living room.

“What the fuck, Hinata. I mean, what the fuck.” He said it without inflection, making it more of a statement than anything. It sounded eerily like something Natsumi would say…

Regardless, Hajime didn’t think he’d be able to answer, even if it was a question.

Natsumi sat at Hajime’s good side, looking equally pissed. Peko stood leaning against the wall behind Kuzuryu. She eyed the situation with the ease of a well-fed cat.

He wished he could be like that.

“I was a kid.” Hajime weakly defended. “Like, thirteen.”

“That doesn’t mean it wasn’t stupid.” Kuzuryu shot back.

Hajime felt heat crawl up his neck, prickling at his ears and eyes and even the top of his scalp. He felt itchy all over, compounding the feeling of embarrassment and anger until his fists shook in his lap. He was just glad Chiaki and Mikan had been sent home long before this conversation had started, else Hajime would’ve probably died from embarrassment.

The worst part was that Kuzuryu wasn’t wrong. He was completely right; even the manga Hajime sometimes read had warning labels when it came to human experimentation. It was something he’d taken care to avoid after signing the preliminary contracts, if only to keep himself resolute.

And now, Kuzuryu threw all of it in his face, forcing him to watch as his life choices were torn and roasted, served to him like flavored ash. Hajime was an idiot; there was no way to counteract that.

“I know! Don’t you think I know!?” He shot up from his seat, pinning Kuzuryu’s gaze with sharp green eyes. “I know I was an idiot. I know they went after me because of my circumstance. I know they were acting suspicious but I ignored it, anyways.” He ranted, distantly aware of the way his hands flew around, gesturing to various points as if they were physical objects and not personal admissions he’d thrown around like confetti. “I know they just wanted a nobody—just some dumb kid to sign themselves away. I just wanted to be somebody…”

Hajime felt the fight drain out of him. He was suddenly awash with resignation, realizing exactly who he was speaking to. He closed his eyes and sighed.

“I wouldn’t expect any of you to understand. You all know exactly who you are—what you are.” Hajime had to correct himself. It wouldn’t be right to ignore that they were more than a person; they were their talents. It was hard to look past it, sometimes. “You’ll never know what it’s like to be born talentless; to have no passions, or hobbies, or be so bad at everything it deserves an award.” He chuckled bitterly, remembering the gold stars he’d get in elementary school for always coming last, for only focusing on his studies, for doing group assignments by himself because nobody else would pair up with him. A consolation prize, because not even his teachers could handle the embarrassment of keeping him in their classes.

Not until Hope’s Peak…

He was so absorbed in his rant, he didn’t notice the way Kuzuryu froze or the way Peko stood straight from her position against the wall. Instead, he turned, choosing to face the couch and Natsumi’s lounging form as he ran a hand through spiky locks. His breath hitched a little, coming out rough as he sank into Natsumi’s side. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her level a disconcerted look at him.

He didn’t bother addressing it. Like he’d said: they wouldn’t know what he was going through. They’d be pretty pretentious claim they did – something Hajime didn’t feel was applicable to anyone in the room.

Not even Natsumi.

When he next looked up, Hajime saw Kuzuryu rubbing the bridge of his nose, taking deep calming breaths. Peko stood at Kuzuryu’s side, giving him a knowing look. They seemed to trade words without really looking at each other, having entire conversations in the spans of seconds, miniscule twitches containing words and sentences. It was intimate – showing they’d known each other for what had to be forever, closely tied and bound deeper than what propriety would probably allow.

Hajime bit his lip, suddenly nostalgic, if a little sick.

The sight reminded him of his parents after a particularly bad day.

It made him feel like a dick for blowing up at them.

“Look,” Hajime began. Kuzuryu didn’t look up from his stewing. Peko shifted her gaze to pick up both Kuzuryu and Hajime, keeping track of both conversations. “I’m… really sorry for pushing this onto you. If it’s too much…” he took a deep breath. It hurt him to give up so soon. “If it’s too much trouble, you can forget about it. I’ll just find another way.”

He had to cut his losses. He’d learned that the hard way. If it meant that these people wouldn’t speak to him anymore, then Hajime guessed he’d just have to live with that. He was good at breaking ties. The last thing he’d wanted was to become a burden, but it seemed as though that was unavoidable—

“Big bro, I swear to god, if Hajime cries—” Natsumi’s voice cut through Hajime’s cloud of self-hate, snapping him out of his self-imposed sense of loneliness. Hajime gaped, feeling his chest hurt as that loneliness drove home without any input from his spiraling thoughts. He felt the briefest flash of embarrassment at having being caught in his musings before Natsumi stood from the lounge, leaving a cold crater where her warmth once sat.

Despite himself, Hajime felt truly alone.

“What the fuck do you expect me to do? Give him a hug? Do I look like I give those out for free?” Kuzuryu’s voice grated at Hajime’s ears, but they seemed miles away. “This is bullshit! I can’t believe we let you enroll there.”

“Don’t make this about me, big bro!”

“They’re willing to recruit a thirteen-year-old kid for human experimentation! If we’d known sooner, we wouldn’t have ever let them get their shit near our people.”

“Yeah? Well, what about Hajime? The dumbass would’ve been stuck going through with it if we hadn’t met. You saying we just abandon him ‘cause you’re scared?” There was a derisive snort – one far from the dichotomous picture of pure grace and caustic battery acid Hajime had come to associate with Kuzuryu Natsumi. “What the fuck, Fuyuhiko-nii. Grow some balls.”

“But—that’s—argh!

The arguing continued overhead; arguments pegged at each combatant like bad takoyaki with grating intensity. It was as though every sound was impossibly loud but someone had hit the mute button, so everything just hurt. Hajime’s head began to throb.

Let me leave…  

Please—I don’t want to be a burden.  

Let me deal with this, myself…  

I won’t bother you again, I swear— I swear I won’t be a burden…  

Just forget about me. It’ll be easier on all of us.  

I’m better off forgotten.

Hajime felt the dizziness from earlier return, but not from exhaustion. The pounding in his head got worse. Bile rose in his throat but the burn was comforting. The toxicity of these thoughts helped him find some sort of equilibrium in the chaos. He felt deliriously free as the words came on repeat in his head.

I’m better off forgotten.  

I’m better off forgotten.  

I’m better off—  

He could’ve laughed. Everyone had been telling him he was a forgettable human being since the end of middle school; that he was boring, and lame, and a waste of space. It was only natural that he’d eventually share their sentiments.

I’m a nobody. A useless nobody.

Nobody, nobody, nobody, nobody, nobody.

I’m better off—

I’m… I’m better off…

I’m better off dead

“Hajime…”

Hajime felt something warm clasp his shoulder. It woke him up, forcing him to rise from the numbing words and painful truths. His throat felt all closed up, but his eyes worked fine, being dry as they were. He spotted Peko at his right side; a steady presence beneath the loud arguing going on in the centre of the living room. Hajime felt the tension in his wired limbs loosen somewhat, leaving him weak and somewhat stressed.

The pounding in his head abated.

“What is it?” Hajime said, voice equally quiet so as not to disturb the siblings.

Peko eyed him. Her glasses gleamed in the light. She seemed to be contemplating something but then opened her mouth, as though coming to a decision.

“We will not abandon you.”

A beat.

Hajime blinked.

… what?

He felt somewhat put-off for having his thoughts so cleanly sliced. It felt like someone had dealt a blow to his stomach, knocking all the air out of his lungs. It took him a moment to find his words.

“… how do you know?”

He felt like an ass for doubting her. It was obvious that Peko’s confidence was born from experience and that she wasn’t just saying it to make him feel better. Still, she took it in stride. A small smile tilted the corners of her lips, making her seem deceptively soft.

“Fuyuhiko-sama won’t leave you to fend for yourself, now that he knows.” Her smile turned grim. “If anything, he’ll be more motivated to ensure they do not go after Lady Natsumi, next.”

Hajime stilled.

Then, he sighed. A smile tugged at his lips; the soft kind.

They really love her.

If Hajime were being completely honest, he felt so much better knowing they were more worried about Natsumi than about him. It was easier to think he was alone than to think that people actually cared about him. It was easier to stay in his own little bubble and never have to worry about people caring for him. Once this was dealt with, everything would blow over. He’d be left alone, again. He’d have room to breathe.

A weight lifted from his shoulders.

Then a realization hit him.

In his musings, he’d completely forgotten about the way Natsumi had bulldozed into his life, refusing to leave him to his own devices. She’d taken all of his defenses and made it so that they were formed directly behind her; that she’d never be forced to leave, that he’d stay committed just as stubbornly as she would.

It left a warm feeling in Hajime’s chest, filling the empty cavity and slowly replacing the numbing cold that had long-since settled after all these years.

I guess there are always exceptions…

Hajime could have laughed.

It was Natsumi. He didn’t mind.

Hajime came out of these comforting thoughts in time to notice the arguing die down. Both siblings were pink-cheeked, chests heaving. Still, there seemed to be no animosity between them as they turned to face Hajime in sync.

“I think we’ve come to an agreement,” Natsumi said, confident smirk and all. She flipped her créme blonde hair for good measure.

Kuzuryu snorted.

“That’s one way to put it.” He groused. “You’re free to go. Peko and I’ll take it from here.”

Hajime gaped.

I… j-just like that?!” He couldn’t help but ask. It’d really sounded like Kuzuryu was against the idea five minutes ago.

Kuzuryu just rolled his eyes.

“Yes, ‘just like that’.” He mimicked Hajime’s turn of phrase. “Now, beat it. Both you and Natsumi have homework and I ain’t dealing with letters from teachers because you assholes decided to piss them off.” He jut his thumb in the direction of the study, indicating his expectations clearly. Natsumi took this in stride.

“Okay. Just call us when dinner’s ready.” She said, coming over to the couch and hauling Hajime up with one hand. Peko’s solid warmth disappeared. Hajime strangely didn’t mourn the loss.

“Alright.” Kuzuryu said, seeming content. Then his face shifted, as though realizing who he was talking to. “But no dicking around! Peko’s gonna mark your homework when you’re done.” Kuzuryu threatened, knowing Natsumi was more likely to watch anime than do the homework if left unsupervised.

Natsumi’s step faltered but then continued on as if nothing happened.

It was too late. She’d exposed her true intentions.

Hajime snorted.

“Busted,” he snickered, earning himself an elbow to the gut. Although winded, Hajime smirked.

Worth it.