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Kanamori Sayaka, from a young age, knows how her life will play out.

By the first year of middle school, she’s a head taller than all of her classmates. Her arms and legs are lanky spindles, her waist all but nonexistent. Freckles pattern her cheeks in blotches and her hair is cut by her mother. Her default expression is a flat, off-putting grimace.

Sayaka does not have many friends, or really, any friends at all. She is keenly aware of this fact about herself, as well as all the things she could do to change it.

“Smile more, dear,” her mother chides sometimes, coming from or going to her customer service job. “Little girls shouldn’t scowl so deeply.”

Sayaka responds the same way each time; tilting her chin down slightly, stretching her lips in a cat’s grin. Her eyes squint when she does this, enhancing the effect. Her mother huffs and pats her head when Sayaka does so. The kids in their neighborhood scurry off in the opposite direction, convinced she’s about to do something terrible.

To be fair, sometimes she does. But only because people are stupid, emotional creatures, making irrational problems every day.

“Young ladies shouldn’t get into fights,” her father sighs, later in evenings, as he hands her an ice pack for her knuckles. He doesn’t ask why she was in a fight; Sayaka never volunteers the information.

She doesn’t give out information without getting something in return. Sayaka grew up in their small, patched up home, seeing bills pile up on the table each month and how carefully her parents repaired items each time they broke, rather than replace them. She hasn’t grasped the specific details yet, but she knows the gist of it regardless.

Nothing in the world is free. So why should Sayaka offer herself up to others, when they haven’t anything to pay for that?

Sayaka doesn’t smile pleasantly at strangers or classmates. She doesn’t let girls or boys gossip about her when Sayaka is standing right there next to them; not without consequences. She looms and watches and glares at all the world around her. Sayaka will not be the one to flinch first.

She doesn’t have friends, but she doesn’t particularly want them. Sayaka collects information- keeps in the know about everything she can- and saves it for when she needs something of someone else. Nobody is looking to give her a handout, so she just takes what she wants.

“Don’t go near Kanamori-san,” her classmates whisper loudly to their friends from other rooms. “She’s a witch with no heart- she’ll trick you into doing horrible things, or force you to give her all your allowance!”

“How scary,” their friends will reply, aghast and excited. “She certainly looks like a witch; what kind of middle school girl is taller than all the boys?”

“Her smile is creepy.”

“Her freckles are ugly.”

“She’s too tall.”

“Too mean!”

“Heartless witch!”

“Greedy monster!”

And so on.

Sayaka pops the joints in her fingers noisily while she sits at her desk. She pauses in the hallway to stare blandly at people until they run away. She marches over to the nastiest of gossipers and whispers a terrible little secret about them, smiling wide as she walks away, leaving them pale and shaking.

Sayaka’s only interest in relationships are purely for business. Her contacts know where they stand with her, it keeps things neat and orderly. She takes jobs for a flat fee. Arranges one student to be in a specific hallway the same time as another after school hours; tracks down a rare flavor of candy only available across the bay; provides information on individuals, or deals with them herself.

Whether she’s liked or not doesn’t matter. What matters is being able to buy her favorite milk and stash away the rest. Everyone else is playing the same game, anyway- working out how to get the most gain for the least amount of loss in life, albeit with fake smiles and false pleasantries.

Sayaka dislikes that sort of person, which by chance means she dislikes practically everyone.

Whatever. She’s better off without them.

 

-/-

 

Asakusa Midori arrives in Sayaka’s second year.

Asakusa stutters and mumbles through her introduction, head bowed and shoulders hunched. A series of snickers and laugh-whispers come from the classroom’s students. Sayaka slides the tip of her nail between her teeth, feeling its shape rather than biting down fully. She watches the transfer student carefully, cataloging Asakusa’s body language and habits.

Asakusa Midori is not a difficult person to research; Sayaka finds out everything useful within the first day.

Asakusa is timid, awkward in conversations. She clings to her camouflage backpack and matching bucket hat whenever they have class breaks; she doesn’t approach others, and stumbles over herself when others approach her. Asakusa daydreams blatantly during most periods, startling whenever she’s called out on it. Except for science and math; those two periods reveal that while she is like a shivering frog, hiding best she can under the foliage, Asakusa Midori is sharper than anyone might think.

Sayaka files away Asakusa’s (curiously high) proficiency with mathematics and various sciences. Should she ever need someone to run numbers that complex, she’ll know whom to intimidate. Sayaka then drops Asakusa from her radar, no longer interested.

She expects that much, at least, from the transfer student. They have no reason to interact, especially with the rumors about Sayaka reaching Asakusa’s ears. An irrelevance. It’ll be less work in the future when Sayaka needs Asakusa to fall in line.

The tidy way Sayaka tucks away these facts and expectations about Asakusa… it all gets tossed across a metaphorical room, come a day when Sayaka is eating lunch on the school’s roof.

It’s her spot. Third years, both years she’s attended, have attempted to kick her off the sought-after space, but to no avail. This year, it’d been a group of boys. Rude, confident, sure of their ability to scare off the infamous Kanamori Sayaka.

Idiots. She’d said one word to each of them individually, and then launched viciously into a berating lecture of just how she’d go about using those four little words to ruin their last year of middle school, and perhaps their three years ahead of them.

(She couldn’t really. But the effects would last a few brutal weeks at least, and the boys’ panic made it easy to convince them it’d be forever.)

Content on her claimed turf, Sayaka is convinced of her solitude for the remainder of lunch. The door to the rooftop slamming open and then shut doesn’t exactly startle her, but it’s plenty enough to jar her thoughts.

Asakusa leans heavily against the rooftop door, panting as she sinks down into a huddle. She’s tugging on her bucket hat, breathing ragged around her scattered mutterings. Sayaka incredulously realizes the transfer student is starting to cry.

“Oi,” Sayaka says, eliciting a half-stifled yelp from Asakusa. “If you’re here to bawl your eyes out, at least have the decency to do it on the other side of the roof. I’m trying to enjoy my meal.”

Asakusa stares at her with big, dewy eyes. Then, she hiccups and bursts into sobs.

Sayaka sighs, wincing as the girl carries on. Ugh… she hates dealing with emotional outbursts. It’s never been something she was comfortable around, not even with family.

But then, she’s not actually as heartless as people say she is. (No one would believe Asakusa about what she’s about to do, anyway.)

“Here,” Sayaka says, crouching in front of Asakusa and pressing a handkerchief into her hands.

Asakusa is a mess of tears and snot, bewildered by the appearance of Sayaka before her. Sayaka scowls, pushing the handkerchief more firmly into her slack hands. “Clean yourself up already; nothing ever gets better if you just sit and cry about it.”

Asakusa blinks more tears, but takes the offering. The disgusting noise she makes as she blows her nose makes Sayaka wrinkle her nose; that handkerchief is ruined and Asakusa owes her a new one.

Sayaka then realizes she’s hovering, and considers what she should do now. This isn’t her business; Asakusa isn’t her problem. Her precious lunchtime is steadily ticking by the longer she thinks about this.

“Th-thank you, K-Kanamori-san,” Asakusa says in a croaky, wavering voice. She’s still trembling, upset emotions clear on her face, but she’s giving Sayaka a look of genuine gratitude.

For whatever reason, this makes Sayaka’s decision for her.

She moves to the side and sits against the door, a space between herself and Asakusa, but still much closer than she typically gets to a classmate. Which is to say, way closer. “You owe me a new handkerchief,” she tells Asakusa, not looking at the smaller girl. The sky is blue today, with just a handful of clouds on the horizon. Wind blows over the rooftop, ruffling their hair and skirts as Asakusa sniffles and hiccups.

“I-I’ll get you one next week,” Asakusa promises, “soon as I get my allowance.” A pause, and quieter, she adds, “Ah, that would mean I can’t get the nice pencils… Oh well. I guess regular ones will do until then.”

“If you’re saying that to garner sympathy,” Sayaka drawls, tapping her fingers on her folded legs, “then you’re wasting your breath. It’s not my fault you won’t be able to buy new pencils.”

Asakusa jumps. “Ah! N-no, of course not, Kanamori-san, I didn’t mean to imply-”

“You’re noisy. Why are you here, disrupting my lunch?” Sayaka looks back to the girl, tilting her head and smiling just so. “I’m sure you’ve heard by now. I have a problem with people who inconvenience me like this.”

Asakusa’s eyes somehow get even wider than they had been, still glossy and letting a stray tear slide free. Sayaka waits for the girl to scramble to her feet and apologize, to run away and avoid her until Sayaka comes to collect the debt.

Asakusa surprises her by going “AH!” in a shocked voice. “Right! I forgot that you’re-” She cuts herself off by covering her mouth, though Sayaka can hear her still mumbling away.

Sayaka is still waiting for Asakusa to leave.

Asakusa does not. She stays sitting, if fidgety and grimacing, but that’s how Asakusa looks most of the time regardless.

Sayaka narrows her eyes. “…Were you about to say you forgot who I was, Asakusa-san? Right after addressing me by name?”

“N-no, of course I didn’t forget you, we’re classmates and you’re very memorable- AH, but not in a bad way! You’re so tall, and- and you always sit by yourself, l-like I do, and I heard other people say your name a bunch s-so it stuck with me, and-”

Sayaka keeps staring with a narrow gaze, silent. Asakusa’s rambling trails off, fingers tightly clutching the brim of her bucket hat.

“I don’t listen to rumors much,” Asakusa admits in a more level voice. “I-I prefer my own version of things, too. So. I forgot them. The ones about you, that is.”

“But you still heard them.”

“Yes.”

They stare at each other; Asakusa peeking from under her hat, Sayaka scowling deeper as she keeps waiting, but nothing else happens.

“So are you going to leave or not?” Sayaka finally snaps, though she internally winces at her own tone, not intending to be quite that severe.

“D-do you want me to?” Asakusa asks, voice pitching up.

Sayaka wants to say yes, she wants her quiet back, she wants her space. She doesn’t care about anyone else’s problems, it doesn’t matter to her whether Asakusa will go and find a new spot to keep crying about… whatever it is that drove her up here.

(Sayaka realizes, vaguely, that she wants to know the reason for Asakusa’s tears.)

“…Why did you come up here anyway,” Sayaka says, not answering Asakusa’s question.

“Oh, uh, it’s- it’s dumb.” Asakusa has finally released her hat, but her hands don’t remain still. Sayaka watches Asakusa flutter and flap her hands, a pinched expression on the girl’s face.

“Try me,” Sayaka says, trying for bland disinterest.

Asakusa’s hands flutter again as she gulps. “I… I lost my backpack. I couldn’t find it.”

“And that made you want to be on the roof,” Sayaka says, raising an eyebrow.

“No! Well, mm, after, yes, but I didn’t-” Asakusa stops and takes a couple breaths, seeming to center herself. She drops her hands into her lap, clutching at her skirt. “It got moved, I think, while we had gym. I- I dunno if it was some kinda prank, or an accident, but I couldn’t find it after. My uniform was there, but…” She shakes her head jerkily. “I would’a rather’d I got stuck in my gym clothes, dammnit!”

Sayaka raises both eyebrows at the outburst and slip of accent. Asakusa might have a bit more fire in her than she’d thought.

“So I- y’know, stuck around after everyone else left, an’ I was lookin’ all by myself ‘cause I don’t wanna be trouble, but Kanno-sensei found me in the locker room an’ accused me of tryin’ to steal stuff!” Asakusa jumps to her feet suddenly, making Sayaka startle enough her glasses slip down, ending up low on her nose as she stares.

“She wouldn’t listen! All ‘cause I was askin’ earlier about leavin’ gym class just for one measly moment!” Asakusa has teary eyes again, but her voice is loud and suddenly powerful. “I just wanted to cut a stupid tag off, then I would’a come right back! But she didn’t listen then and didn’t listen when I was tryin’a tell her about my backpack and- and-!”

Asakusa makes a wordless noise of frustration, flapping her hands as the wind flaps her skirt.

“She’s such a JERK!” Asakusa exclaims in a shout, before sitting back down on the rooftop, a short distance from Sayaka. Who is still staring, somewhat stunned.

Asakusa seems to realize that fact, and turns a brilliant shade of red. “S-sorry!” she squeaks, shrinking back down on herself.

Slowly, Sayaka lifts a hand to push her glasses back up on her head. She, for whatever reason, can feel a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.

“Strong words to use about our sensei, Asakusa-san,” Sayaka says, and for once, she’s interested. She doesn’t even get why, but the hidden passion to Asakusa is drawing her in.

“I- I know, sorry, please don’t tell anyone?” Asakusa pleads. “I’ll even get you a- a second handkerchief, just please don’t tell, I’m already on thin ice as it is…”

Sayaka thinks back to their recent gym classes. Asakusa is average in many respects, hardly worth the glance, but Sayaka recalls the girl fidgeting more than usual, at times. The way she’d shade her eyes from the sun as much as possible, that she’d adjust her shirt and shorts again and again. The fact that Kanno-sensei had pulled her aside more than once, reprimanding Asakusa for something or other in a hushed tone…

“Why does Kanno-sensei talk to you, during class?”

“Eh? O-oh, um.” Asakusa wilts further. “She… she says just ‘cause I’m a bit slow doesn’t mean I get to slack off.” She gives Sayaka a look that’s timid, like she’s waiting for backlash.

Sayaka knows the way Asakusa phrases the word, that slow isn’t in regards to Asakusa’s speed in gym. She hums, considering the information.

“Forget the handkerchief,” Sayaka says, shifting to unfold herself, rising to her full looming height. She’s cast a shadow over Asakusa, but the girl doesn’t seem put off, simply staring with big eyes.

Asakusa isn’t stupid, let alone slow. Sayaka knows this as a fact. However, Asakusa is gullible and meek enough to bend under a teacher’s abuse of authority.

But Sayaka isn’t.

“Buy me a week’s worth of canned milk,” Sayaka says, stepping around Asakusa to go collect her things. “And that’s an undercharge, just so you know, so expect me to cache in a favor sometime.”

“Huh? Wh- what do you mean, Kanamori-san?”

Sayaka doesn’t answer right away. She packs her bag, putting away her mostly eaten lunch and then standing again, slinging the plain thing over her shoulder. “Stand up,” Sayaka instructs, striding past Asakusa.

“Where are you going?” Asakusa asks, flustered as she scrambles to comply.

We are going to get your backpack,” Sayaka states, grinning as smug humor fills her chest. She all but kicks open the door, Asakusa hot on her heels with confused questions.

Sayaka feels excited, something she doesn’t feel often. Not like this. She’s never tried to intimidate a teacher before.

Her low, atypical laughter doesn’t cause Asakusa to shy away. If anything, she sticks even closer.

 

-/-

 

“Thank you so much!” Asakusa exclaims, bowing with her arms extended in front of her. Her trusty camo backpack is hitched over her shoulders once again, secured with the across-chest straps for good measure.

“Yes, yes,” Sayaka says, taking the milk carton from Asakusa’s hands. They’re in the front courtyard of their school, the aged building steadily emptying of students. It’s the end of the day; the only kids lingering are club members and them.

Sayaka has calculated she’ll miss her preferred train, staying long enough for Asakusa to thank her like this. However, jabbing the straw into her milk carton and taking a sip soothes her annoyance. Free is free; Sayaka never turns this sort of thing down.

Asakusa is watching her with expectant eyes. Sayaka swallows another sip and then sighs.

“It’s a sufficient first installment,” Sayaka says.

Asakusa’s expression lights up, giving a wide closed-lip smile that crinkles her big eyes. “I’m glad! You helped me out so much, Kanamori-sama, I owe you my allegiance.”

Sayaka grimaces deeply, the taste of milk suddenly sour on her tongue. “Ugh, don’t say something like that out of the blue. You’re acting like I preformed a far more heroic act than blackmail.”

“Y-you were so cool though!” Asakusa continues to enthuse. “Maybe blackmail isn’t a very mainstream method of heroics, but! You’re obviously more the anti-hero sort! Or perhaps chaotic neutral turned to the side of good by an up and comer who has retained their innocence and tenacity for helping others, drawing the jaded anti-hero to them with persistence and misadventures of circumstance-”

“So noisy!” Sayaka snaps, covering an ear with her free hand. “I just took some photos of her office and your backpack in it- it’s just a routine scare tactic, Asakusa-san, we’re not friends now.”

“Eh?” Asakusa blinks rapidly. “We’re not?”

Sayaka wants to pinch the bridge between her eyes. She settles for saying in a controlled voice, “No, Asakusa-san, we are not. I do not make friends. I invest in future profit. Your grade average in math-sciences is above mine and therefore makes you worth having in my debt. Expect my eventual collection of that debt.”

The odd fascination she’s been feeling about Asakusa has worn off. Sayaka is tired after today, and she’s got homework and housework to take care of tonight. Her socialization limit has been reached, full stop.

“Goodbye, Asakusa-san,” Sayaka says, and walks off without waiting for a reply. Asakusa splutters and makes a series of noises that might be words, but Sayaka isn’t listening. She’s thinking about what to make for dinner tonight, as well as the details she’ll be adding to her analog blackmail notebook.

Sayaka makes a quick, bare minimum meal for herself at home, finishes her assigned worksheets, and does some deep stretches before showering and bedtime. Laying in the dark of her room, she hears her father waking up with the night, getting ready for his hospital shift, and soon after comes the heels of her mother, returning from her own shift.

-was your day? Sayaka left some dinner in the fridge for you, and I’ll be picking up some-” The hushed, passing conversation she hears in the hall comes from her father. Her mother replies with something Sayaka can’t hear properly.

Somehow, even around their busy jobs, her parents still find time to talk and spend a moment together. Sayaka is falling asleep, but her groggy mind can still predict that her parents will linger in the kitchen for another half an hour, before parting ways. Tomorrow in the morning they’ll do the same routine in reverse, for over an hour this time.

Sayaka realizes, with an uncharacteristically wandering thought, that the longest conversation she’s had all year was with Asakusa today. Everyone else has been quick, curt, and to the point. Asakusa rambled for nearly five minutes about the qualities of her backpack alone, never mind the dozen other subjects she’d gone on about.

Sayaka frowns even as she drifts off, uncertain why she can’t stop thinking about the other girl.

 

-/-

 

The next day, in full possession of her mental facilities, Sayaka puts Asakusa out of mind.

Until the girl appears before her once again.

Sayaka unwillingly puts her croquette back into its bento, staring accusingly at the figure peeking through the rooftop doorway.

“H-hello, Kanamori-sama,” Asakusa says, then winces, “Ah, I-I mean Kanamori-san, sorry-”

“What do you want?” Sayaka asks, considering going over there and forcing the door shut. Asakusa is distracting, for whatever reason. Sayaka doesn’t know what to do with that; she doesn’t like it.

Asakusa emerges fully from behind the door. She has her backpack and bucket hat, as always, but she’s also holding a neatly wrapped two-tier bento box.

“I request permission to partake in lunchtime dining in your presence!” Asakusa states boldly, not stuttering even once, even as her hands shake.

“Denied,” Sayaka says immediately.

“Ack! But- just hear me out!”

“I already spelled it out for you, Asakusa. I don’t-”

“I know you don’t! I know you’re looking for profit, not friendship. But-” Asakusa puffs out her chest and dramatically marches forwards, coming to stand in front of Sayaka, for once reversing their statures.

“What if a profit can also be a friend? Or, I guess, what if a friend doesn’t mind also being a profit?” Asakusa seems to have a thought as she says that. “Oh! Friendship can also be considered a profitable arrangement! A mutual partnership of trade and resource pooling; ensuring both parties benefit and increase their net worth over time-”

“Your metaphor has lost it’s way,” Sayaka cuts in, “and are you truly an idiot? You’re disregarding everything about me in this equation. I am not your bodyguard, Asakusa, nor am I a thug for hire, contrary to popular opinion.”

“Of course not!” Asakusa says.

“Then why?”

“Why what?”

“Then why would you want me as a friend?” Sayaka exclaims in exasperation. Asakusa falls silent; Sayaka huffs and looks at the chain-link fence of the roof, not wanting to look at Asakusa’s stupid fake-earnest face.

Sayaka is not nice. She is not pretty, she is not polite, and she is not a charitable person. She is very, very aware this makes her as far from desirable as a friend as one can get, short of assaulting random passing students.

“Because you’re really cool.”

It takes her a moment to process the answer. She looks back to Asakusa, who is giving her a kind sort of smile, soft and honest and naïve. Sayaka never receives looks like this; it stalls her thoughts completely.

“You’re really, really cool, Kanamori-san,” Asakusa emphasizes. “You’re so tall, and smart, and brave! And, y’know, a lot nicer than people make you out to be. I… haven’t had a friend before, that wouldn’t think I’m too weird to be around, or- or wouldn’t blame me for the stuff I can’t help. You didn’t make fun of me yesterday at all, Kanamori-san.”

“The supposed weirdness of someone is irrelevant,” Sayaka says, responding on automatic. “Evaluations should be based on contribution and capabilities.”

That reply makes Asakusa grin, a cheeky giggle escaping her as she does. “You’re right,” Asakusa agrees easily, “and I think the same thing about you.”

She kneels down carefully, folding her legs and sitting with her back straight. The formality of it is ruined by her bucket hat and mirthful eyes. Asakusa holds out a hand in invitation.

“So, would you accept my offer, Kanamori-sama?” Asakusa asks, definitely teasing with the honorific.

Sayaka rolls her eyes and decides Asakusa might just be stupid after all. She takes the girl’s hand.

“There will be an initial trial period,” Sayaka says firmly.

“Thank you for this opportunity!”

Asakusa beams so wide and happy, Sayaka has to glance away, cheeks hot.

 

-/-

 

“Kanamori-kun? You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

“Why not san or sama? Specifically speaking, I mean.”

Sayaka puts her head firmly into her palm, looking at Asakusa from a tilt. “I don’t care for those,” she says plainly, and doesn’t elaborate further. It is far too early in the friendship for her to even consider telling Asakusa the details.

Asakusa, unlike some might, doesn’t press. She just nods and passes Sayaka her milk for today, starting up a chattering one-sided conversation about the pasteurization of the product, and how it’s been refined for thousands of years.

Sayaka pops the lid of her drink and tips it back, tuning out most, but not all, of what Asakusa is telling her.