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The Promise Before A Curse

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"Aikawa?"

 

His friend looked up from his notebook, head tilting to relay his curiosity in a way his mask couldn't.  He gave a short questioning hum but otherwise waited to see what was up.

 

And Risu didn’t know what was so disarming about that, but he abruptly lost all the courage he'd spent the better part of an hour trying to build.  

 

Aikawa stayed poised in his caricature of a good listener but when Risu still couldn’t find the ability to speak, he asked,

 

"What, Risu?"

 

And there wasn’t a damn thing in Risu’s head except cobwebs and a thundering sense of doom.  He couldn’t force his mouth to say what he’d been mentally rehearsing for this entire study session, so in a panic he blurted out,

 

"I brought a pack of shrimp crackers, but we should wait 'til we've done more to eat ‘em."

 

Aikawa just tilted his head the other way with an assessing glance before sniffing in faux-sadness and declaring,

 

"Fine.  Snack warden.  But I haven't finished the calculations bit yet so we can't compare our answers.  Guess I'll try and hurry."

 

And it should’ve been a relief that Aikawa wasn’t going to press him for more info, but he couldn’t help frowning at Aikawa’s shitty work ethic and cut in,

 

"Hey, don't rush it though. That's why you keep putting the wrong symbols in for the dispersion stuff."

 

"Yeah, yeah, ~Mr. Star Student~, I'll hurry up and take my time.  Got any other recommendations as my hardass tutor?" Aikawa's voice had a smile colouring it despite the mockery, so Risu let him off with a glare and blew a raspberry at him when Aikawa looked back down. 

 

And even though he was supposedly working on a smoke spray model (truly a joyless task), Risu could see Aikawa's eyes squinted in amusement through the glass panels of his mask.  Risu felt so fond for a second that he felt a weird pressure in his chest like he’d already sent the previously mentioned crackers down the wrong tube. 

 

He looked back down at his own textbook in a futile bid to try and do what they’d booked this study room to do, but the words weren't sticking no matter how many times he restarted the paragraph.

 

If this was what having a real friend felt like, then for once, Risu could understand the hype.  Aikawa was just so different from anything he'd ever thought about. (Hoped for, really.) Maybe it wasn't worth upsetting what they already had-

 

"C'mon, what's eating you?"

 

Risu snapped his head back up to stare at Aikawa.  Who just so happened to be staring at him.

 

"UH- Nothing.  It's nothing. It's stupid.  Don't worry about it." he said, very convincingly.  Risu had taken acting for his gen studies elective for a reason.

 

Aikawa wasn't having it though, and just let out a sigh so forceful that it sounded like a tea kettle whistle leaving through the valve in his mask.  He then brought his pen up in the air just to set it down with excruciating slowness beside his books.  Risu was about to rib him for his theatrics, when Aikawa proceeded to do something he rarely did outside of meals.

 

He reached up, unclipped his mask straps, pulled it off his face, and laid the whole contraption on the table beside him.  After rubbing his cheek, he resumed scrutinizing Risu with no mask as a barrier between them, now aided by his remarkably intense eyebrows.  (No, Risu was not jealous.) 

 

…Though his serious expression was kind of undercut by the little red indentations across his nose and cheeks left by the mask pressing against his skin all the time.  Before Risu could fully appreciate that endearing little detail to its fullest, Aikawa took it upon himself to continue his grilling session and asked,

 

"Risu, seriously, man, come on.  What's the matter? You've been distracted this whole time, just spit it out."

 

"Uh, no, no worries, it's fine, I'm just tired or something."  Risu couldn’t help deflecting again, despite the fact that it was not fine, he’d been up all night thinking that today was the day he’d finally ask, but here he was with nothing to show for it.

 

"Clearly, it's not fine , you've been glaring at your book and huffing for an hour, dude." Aikawa pointed out.

 

"Hey, I don't huff!" he protested.

 

Aikawa's impressive eyebrows raised themselves to a sharp angle of disbelief as the man himself replied,

 

"Uh, yeah you do.  You glare at your book and then frown really big and then you scrunch up your nose and do a little-" Aikawa blew out a short burst of air from his nose, "And chomp on your lip before lookin’ up at me and then doing it all over again."

 

Risu felt a little bit flustered over Aikawa watching him so closely, but objected out of habit,

 

"I wasn't-" before Aikawa interrupted,

 

"C'mon, we're friends, right?  I wanna help, so tell me what's the matter." he said while looking all earnest and serious, before softening the look with an eyeroll, "Unless it's that I need a shower or something, ‘cause you can just keep that to yourself.  Perks of a gas mask means I get to ignore that kinda thing."

 

Risu choked on a laugh, which got an answering grin from Aikawa, but worry quickly sank its teeth back into him again and he had to look away to gather his nerves.   He should do it. He really needed to say something, he’d been thinking about it for so long, and living in suspense was clearly impacting his studying.

 

It was just… how did people do this?  How was it so easy that people paired off all the time, making and dissolving partnerships like it was as easy as pairing socks in a drawer?  (Not that Risu had ever had a stockpile of socks to worry about… and maybe that was the real reason he was getting cold feet.)

 

He had no idea how to phrase it, or if this was the right moment, or if he was rushing things, or reading too much into their relationship, or if he was misjudging how well they worked together, or if they should know more about each other first, or a million other worries.  He just... had no ideas. He'd never had this before; he'd never thought he COULD have it, before now. And now it might actually happen, and he'd never prepared for it even once in his life.

 

It rekindled the familiar anger that lurked at the edges of his waking thoughts because it just wasn't fair.  Everyone else got to have this as a realistic expectation since they were a kid and had their own naive experiences with partnerships at half Risu's age and yet here he was.  23 years old. Never had a friend before, and now he was doubting if someone liked him enough to want to spend more time together.  Pathetic.

 

"Risu."

 

He looked back up.  

 

Aikawa's expression had shifted into slightly pained as he lifted a finger to point at him.

 

"Your face is getting red."

 

Risu could feel his face get even warmer at that and he grumbled,

 

"Fuck off, the sun hates me and wants what I have."

 

Aikawa just gave a shrug and a nod, before his eyes widened on a thought and he broke into a smug grin,

 

"Yeah, you’re a bright spot in my day.  Though I hafta to point out that it's nighttime.  And we're inside." he quipped.

 

"Can it.  You're an awful person."  Risu snapped.

 

Aikawa put his elbow on the table and his chin in his hand.  He was back to his ‘I am going to keep grilling the fuck out of you, you tiny delicious steak’ voice to say,

 

"Mhmm.  Still here though, so you should tell me."

 

And the thing was, Risu wanted to.  Hell knows he wanted to, there was just a knot in his throat like some devil was playing a prank on him with a wine cork.  He mumbled out,

 

"I just...," before sighing (not huffing, Aikawa, thank you) and scrunching his eyes shut.  

 

Maybe he should just not look anymore.  Maybe that would help. Or talk about something else until he calmed down enough.   Change the topic before his self doubt could catch on; pull a grift on his own damn feelings.  Maybe that’d do it. Or maybe he should find a catapult and exile himself to the fuckin’ moon, maybe that’d be the best option here.

 

With pooling dread, he opened his eyes and tried to look somewhere in Aikawa’s general direction (hello, hoodie string, you’ll do for a focal point) as he started on a thread of thought,

 

“It’s… I… You know how we’re friends n’ all that?”

 

He still wasn’t looking directly at him, so Risu chose not to acknowledge Aikawa’s condescending expression as he snorted and then deadpanned,

 

“Yeah, Risu, I know that we’re friends, ‘and all that’.  I’m glad we’re both on the same page, buddy.”

 

“Ok, you’re also a dick, but we’re friends and I just…. I need you to know…. it’s… you mean… a lot to me.  Like a lot, a lot.  You’re the best friend I’ve ever had and it’s… I need you to know that our friendship means so much to me, and just, yeah.  It’s… yeah.”

 

Aikawa blinked at him for a long moment before his play-arrogance gave way to a small smile and he shook his head.

 

“You mean a lot to me too, Risu.  Gotta know that, right?” he asked.  “Never had someone who’s been there for me like you have, man.”

 

And that was… reassuring to hear.  Risu wasn’t feeling quite so anxious about broaching the subject if they were on the topic of being there for each other.  Though Aikawa followed his heartwarming statement with a baffling riddle,

 

“You wanna get tacky necklaces to celebrate?”

 

And all Risu could do was just stare at him because,

 

“What?” 

 

“You know, like those kitschy friendship necklaces that little kids get?  They’re like 2 puzzle pieces that make a heart or whatever when you put ‘em together?  Those things?”

 

“Aikawa… what in the whole fuck are you talkin’ about.”

 

“Matching BFF necklaces!  You know! C’mon man, I’ve never gotten one either, but at least I know they exist.”

 

“I just told ya, I don’t know what the fuck you’re saying!  Did you grow up in some fucked-up village in nowheresville full of isolated weirdos or something?”  Risu complained, “And I’m not done yet, dickface, don’t distract me, there’s still more I need to get to.”

 

“Well lead the way on the road to enlightenment, oh fiendish guide.”  Aikawa said with a forced wheezy tone, while scrunching up his face and giving an overly stiff nod to mimic Zagan’s headmistress.  Risu screwed up his face to keep from smiling at that, because like fuck he was going to give Aikawa another dose of satisfaction in knowing he was funny when he was trying to make life altering declarations.

 

“Quit tryin’ to make me laugh, I’m being serious here.”

 

Aikawa mimed stitching his lips shut, which earned him another raspberry blown from Risu.  It was a mystery why he liked this man so much, but even just ribbing each other and shooting the shit with him was comforting.  Risu let out a dignified exhale-definitely-not-a-huff and tried to focus again.

 

“ANYWAY.  You're my best friend, and I really appreciate everythin’ you do for me.  Even if we disagree about,” he wasn’t going to get into defending his job, not the time for it, “Stuff, I know you have my best interests at heart, and I wanna do right by you at the same time, too.”

 

He swallowed to get rid of the excess spit that was suddenly flooding his mouth (ew), but rushed to continue to keep his momentum going,

 

“I really care about’cha a lot, and I want us to… keep workin' together on projects and schoolwork, and do combat practice on Tuesdays, and share lunch, and do fun shit, and just…. I think we’re good at looking out for each other.  And I wanna keep doing this kinda thing for a long time, ya know? I want us to be good to each other and be good for each other, and just… get better at like, everything together.”

 

And now he was getting to the meat of it and Aikawa was still staring at him attentively, and all Risu could do was close his eyes and foolishly stumble ahead as best as he could.

 

“And I know it’s a lot, and maybe kinda sudden, but this kinda thing got me thinkin’… about whether we would be a good fit as-,” he stalled out there and almost bit his tongue, but he had to finish, he had to push it out, he had to, “ A-as part…ners.  So. I guess all of this was just my dumbass way of asking… if you… think the… same.”

 

Risu's breath left him in several stuttery bursts, but he couldn't help but feel somewhat relieved.  He’d finally said it, if in a roundabout way. His hands were shaking a little bit from residual nervousness, but it was out in the open, now.  It was up to Aikawa to respond. 

 

Risu cracked an eye open with a wince to see how his friend had taken his serving of word vomit soup.

 

 

Aikawa was just staring at him with his mouth hanging open a little.

 

He looked kinda ridiculous.

 

 

And the seconds kept ticking on and Aikawa was just staring at him in disbelief, and oh.

 

Of course.

 

Risu’s stomach fell in one big terrible swoop and he should have known better than to think that this was the right time, or place, or Devils forbid the right person, even if it hurt to consider that, ‘cause maybe he and Aikawa might not EVER be suited to be partners, and-

 

 

"Oh… yeah?" Aikawa said in a faint croak unlike anything Risu had ever heard from him. 

 

Risu's heart gave a hard thump in his chest as he quickly glanced up to catch Aikawa's expression, which managed to straddle the thin line between cautious excitement and moderately concussed. 

 

"That- I- you want to, then?  Be partners?" Risu tried to say without succumbing to his frayed nerves.  It felt like the emotional whiplash really would launch half his guts up through his mouth in a grisly splash on the table. 

 

Aikawa’s emotional processing had graduated to rapid stunned blinking while looking back and forth between Risu and a point in the middle distance off to his right.  He still looked pretty ridiculous.

 

“I… do, yeah.  It… yes?” he said with a voice crackle at the end.

 

Risu couldn’t help letting out a definitely-not-hysterical laugh over that and chirped,

 

“Hey, don’t get too wordy on me, pal, might not be able to keep up.”

 

“Shhhhhut up,” Aikawa grumbled while bringing a hand up to cover his mouth and continuing to trail off, “Don’t make fun of me jus’ ‘cause I’ve never had one...”  

 

Risu perked up at that.  It wasn’t like Aikawa to be super chatty about himself, and Risu could understand that since he had his own fair share of shitty memories, but he couldn’t help curiosity pushing him to ask,

 

“Really?  You’ve never had a partner before?  You?”

 

“What do you mean, me?”  Aikawa said, looking abruptly shifty, but Risu didn’t have the mental energy to put up with his misplaced modesty.

 

“I mean it’s YOU!  Who wouldn’t want to be partners with you?" he protested. 

 

Aikawa let out a snort,

 

“Thanks for the ego boost, Risu, appreciate that.” 

 

"Yeah, well, don't forget it, dumbass."  Risu said, before the reality of the situation whacked him upside the head and he couldn't help nervously glancing down at the table. 

 

Aikawa wanted to be partners.  Partners with Risu. 

 

It was almost too good to be true. 

 

But as Risu sat frozen in his disbelieving joy, Aikawa seemed to be, shockingly enough, doing some thinking of his own. 

 

He scratched his neck and mumbled,

 

“So… uh.  Do I need to… submit an application form or something?”

 

“What?”  Risu found himself blindsided once again by the wack shit that emerged from Aikawa’s mouth sometimes.  Was this guy an alien from a different planet or something?

 

“I dunno, don’t look at me like that, I just heard there were forms or some other bullshit involved.  Questionnaires? Scouting reports? I dunno.” he struggled to explain.

 

“Well you know I haven’t, what would I know about it?” Risu complained.

 

“I don’t know, you’re the one asking about it!” Aikawa was looking increasingly troubled and normally Risu would mock him but this wasn’t making sense ‘cause Aikawa wasn’t like Risu, he has so much potential!  Like, why wouldn’t he know anything about this? Everyone else seemed like they were in on some secret that Risu was always kept from.  Aikawa was so normal by comparison!

 

“What, so you’ve never thought about it before?  Never looked into it?” Risu asked.

 

And Aikawa looked poised to argue over it, but he stopped short and frowned at the table for several seconds instead.  His voice was a little strained as he replied,

 

“I… no.  I didn’t.” he paused then and looked up at Risu, who just tilted his head a bit in confusion.  Aikawa grimaced and looked back down again. He shrugged and looked distinctly uncomfortable but tried to expand on that,

 

 “It’s just… like why think about it if it’s not specific?  No one’s ever said they wanna work with me like that, so it’s… kinda useless.  Causing myself trouble when I don’t need to. I dunno.”

 

“Oh.”  Risu said blankly.

 

Aikawa tensed defensively,

 

“What.  What’s so ‘oh.’ about that?” he ground out.

 

Risu’s eyes widened comically and he was quick to try and reassure his friend,

 

“No!  It’s just- I… I get that.  I’ve felt the same way. About it never seeming like an option.”  he said, and then looked away for a bit to gather his thoughts because this still didn’t seem like it tracked. 

 

“But I just… you know I’ve never been to real school, before this, right?  Just temple class a bit as a kid for reading…” he muttered as an aside, “And it’s not like I had some mentor or someone telling me about the partner process or whatever.  All I know about partners is from like, radio dramas in dives n’ shit…” he trailed off and cleared his throat before asking Aikawa more directly,

 

“Didn’t you ever have some kinda… a class or some bullshit to tell you?  Like, you went to school for a bit as a kid, right? Don’t they tell you what partner shit you need to do and how?”

 

Aikawa was still avoiding looking at him, and his reply was so stilted it seemed like he was pulling teeth out along with the words,

 

“No, I…. no.  Never had it. I don’t really know much about partners.  At all.”

 

Aikawa just glanced up at him cautiously after declaring that, like he was checking whether Risu would accept his answer or keep pressing.  He broke his gaze to fiddle with the hem his sleeve.

 

Risu huffed.  (He would concede that to Aikawa this one time.)  Well. Fuck.  

 

Fuck. 

 

Neither of them knew anything about being partners.  Now what? 

 

Aikawa seemed to have clammed up in a way that precluded his typical “I have a headache” exit strategy if Risu continued with a particular subject.  So, wisely, he said nothing. No point continuing with something if Aikawa didn’t want to talk about it right now. They could always come back to it in the future, they had time.  

 

They sat in silence once again. 

 

Risu wished he’d had more restraint and saved his last bottle of lemon soda for tonight.  He could really go for something to sip on to distract from the tense atmosphere they’d created.

 

Then he couldn’t help feeling exasperated at the direction their conversation had veered off in.  He smiled wryly at Aikawa and kicked him while saying,

 

“Got off topic a bit, huh?  ‘Sposed to be talking about how we can be partners, but instead we’re grilling each other about book smarts and background knowledge.”

 

Aikawa stared at him for a beat and then broke with a softly mumbled,

 

“Yeah.” then he gave a smirk of his own and commented, “This is probably why Prof. Mori hates us working together on presentations, you know.”

 

“Ha!  He can bite my ass.  Our particle model slides were great.”

 

“Fuck yeah they were!  Hana and Le wish their transition animations were half as good as ours.”

 

Risu laughed a triumphant “HA!” at that (not a honk, as he frequently corrected Aikawa), before he couldn’t help breaking into a smile as it sunk in again and leaned forward onto the table, 

 

“So… partners, huh?” he asked, and there wasn’t a devil in the realm that could keep the happiness out of his voice. 

 

 Aikawa’s face still looked partly shell-shocked at that as he scratched the back of his neck.

 

“Um, yeah…. partner.” he replied.

 

And then they were both just smiling silly little wobbly grins at each other for several more moments before Risu's curiosity reared its troublesome head again and he couldn't help but ask, 

 

“So, what do we do now?"

 

Aikawa blinked, 

 

"What do you mean?" 

 

"If we’re partners, should we be doing more?  Or like, different stuff with each other?” he asked.

 

Aikawa looked ready to brush it off with a dismissive joke before he too pulled up short and presumably thought about it.  His face was looking a little pinker than usual, but that might have been the temperature of the tiny room they were currently holed up in.

 

“I mean, I already said I dunno.” he said shortly.

 

“Yeah, I know, me neither.  But I guess that means we gotta decide ourselves?  Like, do we wanna just keep doing the best friend thing but with a different name?  Should we make up a secret handshake or something?”

 

Aikawa squinted at him, 

 

“Do you... want a secret handshake?” he asked cautiously. 

 

“Well, I mean, maybe?  But… I dunno, I just wanna keep spending time with you, you know?”

 

“I… yeah, Risu.  I know. Wanna hang out with you a bunch, too.”   

 

“Yeah?” Risu replied hopefully (and so what if he was fishing for validation here.  Sue him, it was nice to hear Aikawa talk about his feelings for once). Aikawa looked kind of awkward, but still opened his mouth to go on, 

 

“Yeah, I guess… I see you try really hard with school stuff and I wanna help you out.  Even if I’m not the best with studying or writing shit, I wanna keep you company or like, cheer you up.  You’re too much of a downer, sometimes.”  he said with a quick smile up at Risu, but went back to saying his own piece,

 

“And I guess it feels like people are kinda making fun of me if they try to help me with magic stuff I don’t know about, but if it’s you… I don’t mind.”

 

“If it’s me?” Risu asked, partly confused.  (Since when did Aikawa actually learn shit?)

 

“Yeah.  It’s… I guess it’s just… you’re the only person that’s cool about correcting me about whatever and not have it feel like I’m an idiot for not knowing, or like I’m the one who’s supposed to be the expert, y’know?”

 

“What?”  Risu frowned, “That ain’t special, you know some shit, but you also know jack shit.  What’s hard to get about that?”

 

Aikawa snorted out a laugh, but his face quickly dropped with frustration and he just shrugged, 

 

“Look, I don’t get it, but yeah, it’s like that.  So, I’m glad you think we can be p-” he gulped, and went on in a strained tone of voice, “Partners.” 

 

They stared at each other for a few beats of silence.

 

“Partners.”  Risu parroted back blankly.

 

Aikawa squinted at him a bit, 

 

“Yeah, Partners.” he said again, this time approaching the sound of a normal person.

 

“Partners.” Risu confirmed with an overly solemn nod.

 

They both paused for a beat before Aikawa broke eye contact to try to cover his growing smile with a hand.  Risu felt like he was going to get a headache he was grinning so wide. 

 

And all at once Risu felt like the luckiest guy in the world.  He gets to be partners with his best friend, and they were both agreeing on it, and they were going to be partners, and just... Risu couldn’t help getting stuck on that one thought, going round and round in his head on an infinite loop: Aikawa said yes.  

 

He wanted to hold onto to this moment and squirrel away every part of their conversation this evening; everything Aikawa had shared with him; every little tidbit of confessed feeling and admission of his life beyond the school walls.  

 

He wanted to know everything about Aikawa, and share everything with him about magic, and knowledge, and personality.  And if they're going to be partners now, then they'll have the time for all that.  They'll have plenty of time to discover things about their magic types, and plenty of time to work together on being stronger spell casters. 

 

They were going to be tied together from now on with a promise, and later with a contact.  

 

At that thought, Risu glanced up at Aikawa with a small smile, 

 

“Too bad bio isn’t ‘til next term, though, huh?” he asked. 

 

Aikawa looked confused once again, 

 

“What?  Why d’sat matter?  You trying to study ahead or something ‘cause you’re a big nerd?” 

 

“Fuck off, am not,” Risu griped around a smile, “But I mean it’s too bad ‘cause they’ll probably say somethin’ about the physical part of partnerships, like the contract organs n’ stuff like that, right?” 

 

“Uhhhhhhh-” Aikawa’s eyes bugged out of his head a bit as he scrambled for a response.  Risu took pity on him and kicked his foot under the table, 

 

“Rhetorical question, I know you’ve never read a syllabus in your life.” he said. 

 

Aikawa looked relieved but tried to hide it with an aloof shrug, 

 

“Good, ‘cause I never will.” 

 

Risu laughed incredulously, 

 

“How the seventh fuckin’ circle do you even pass anything ever, that’s what I wanna know.” 

 

“Gut instinct, baby!  Hasn’t failed me yet!” he replied smugly. 

 

“Yeah, whatever, your guts are a bottomless pit, so it makes sense there’d be something useful buried in them somewhere.”

Aikawa stuck his tongue out at him for that, so Risu made the only mature choice available and stuck out his own right back at him. 

 

“But I guess we have time to find out about the ceremony stuff, Blue Night and all that.”  Risu continued.

 

“Oh yeah.  I guess we have to wait a couple years before we can be official, huh?” 

 

“Yeah… guess that’s true.”  Risu mumbled with slight disappointment.  Would’ve been nice if they’d met last summer, then they could already have the ceremony done by now. 

 

“Hey, think of it this way, we got a whole 2-point-whatever years to-” 

 

Aikawa was interrupted by the sound of a portal to hell groaning open at max volume, with the most agonizing slowness.  He looked down at his stomach with a thoughtful,

 

“Huh.” 

 

A sharp crack of laughter slipped out of Risu’s mouth before he could muffle it, and he just kept wheezing.  He flailed his hand around in the bag beside the table leg, brought out a beaten-up chip bag, and proceeded to whip it at Aikawa’s face. 

 

“Fuckin’! -” he laughed, “Take me to hell in a handbasket, man, just have ‘em.”

 

“Hey, you know I won’t say no to free food, but didn’t you bring them to share?  Don’t you want any?” 

 

Risu just shook his head, 

 

“Fuckit, what’re partners for, huh?”

 

Aikawa was already opening the bag and had stuffed a fistful of fried shrimp puffs in his mouth, 

 

“Well we haven’t actually made the deal, though, right?  Like don’t we hafta shake on it for it to be true?” he asked, while spewing some crumbs as he talked. 

 

Risu looked down at a crumb resting on his notes, then back up at Aikawa with a blank stare. 

 

"Oh, fuck off," Aikawa glared with a smile, before gulping down his mouthful of food and continuing, "We gotta shake though, to seal the deal, yeah?  Promise ain't a promise without shaking on it." he said sagely. 

 

Risu just nodded, 

 

"Uh, yeah, sure.  If you say so." he agreed.  And then looked to where his hands were resting flat on the table in front of him.  

 

He looked up at Aikawa, who still had the snack bag protectively guarded with both hands.  He squinted at him. 

 

Aikawa raised his eyebrows in return, before glancing down and seeming to remember that doing hand gestures required the use of minimum one (1) hand. 

 

"Oh yeah, one sec," he said, before bringing the bag up and tipping the entire remaining contents into his mouth, and then tossing the empty bag behind him.  

 

Risu kept staring at him with his eyes half mast in a look of flat judgement.  This was the guy he was tying himself to for the foreseeable future. 

 

But he couldn't help the fond smile that broke through his act as Aikawa forced down his last gulp of shrimp puffs with a "Phew!" and then stuck out his hand to Risu across the table. 

 

"Alright, put 'er there, partner." he said, back to his usual bravado.

 

"Sure.  Pleasure to work with you, partner." Risu replied while reaching out with his own. 

 

 

Only to be met with open air as he closed his hand around the space where Aikawa's had been hovering. 

 

"Too slow!" Aikawa gloated with a jaunty wave, before softening a bit as Risu huffed a laugh.  He brought his hand back in front of himself, and Risu went to shake on it for real, only to have Aikawa dodge him again, 

 

"Aikawa, quit dickin' around and-" Risu started, but Aikawa interrupted as he twisted their pinky fingers together, 

 

"It's a promise, right?  So we gotta swear on it." he said, while gripping Risu's finger tight with his own. 

 

"What?" Risu asked in blatant confusion, "What do you mean, what's this finger thing gotta do with that?"

 

Aikawa huffed his long suffering 'Woe is me for having such a social outcast for a bestie' sigh, but went on to explain, 

 

"No, man, pinky swear.  You make a promise, you gotta pinky swear to really mean it.  You swear you'll keep it, or you'll eat your finger or something.  I dunno, it could be hardcore if you think about it like that." 

 

Risu frowned, 

 

"Oh... Is this a thing that people do a lot?  For every promise?" he asked without letting go of the grip they had on each other.  

 

"Uhhhh I dunno, I just know it's a thing you're supposed to do with promises with your friends.  So, I'm doing it." 

 

"Alright." 

 

"Ok." 

 

They kept their pinkies locked for several more moments in silence. 

 

"So, we make a promise now?" Risu clarified.  

 

"Yeah I guess." Aikawa confirmed. 

 

"Ok, well, uhh, I guess I gotta go first since I asked first, so," Risu stalled while he thought of some appropriately formal declarations, "I promise to be your partner, through pain and whatever, and all the bullshit that happens to us, around us, and because of us." he started, "I, uh, promise to share my shit with you, and help you, and not keep secrets between us so we can always work better together.  I promise to be the best partner I can be even if I dunno jack shit about being a good partner." he finished with a nod. 

 

Aikawa blinked a bit as he took that in and then said, 

 

"Uhh, I, guess same goes for me, man." 

 

Risu kicked him under the table. 

 

"Ah!  Hey!  I'm kidding, I'm kidding." he reassured Risu, then took a deep breath.  "Ok, so, I promise to be a good partner too, and I promise to be there for you and look out for you.  I promise to care about you and work together on a buncha stuff." 

 

Risu nodded and was about to loosen his grip when Aikawa tightened his to keep their swear going as he continued,

 

"And," he stressed, "I promise to always give you at least one-" he inhaled painfully, "At least one bite of whatever I'm eating.  Whenever." he rushed out in a single breath, while scrunching his face up like it was causing him physical pain to offer that much. 

 

Risu's mouth dropped open a bit in shock, 

 

"Holy shit, dude." 

 

Aikawa cracked one eye open at him,

 

"Well?" he asked with a strained voice, "You gonna take it or leave it?"

 

"Take it, I'm taking it!  I promise!  You and me?  Partners from now on." Risu said in a rush, before Aikawa could take back his end of the bargain. 

 

"Okay, good." 

 

"Good." 

 

Risu gave a squeeze of their linked fingers. 

 

Aikawa squeezed back. 

 

They traded finger squeezes back and forth before that graduated into shaking their linked hands up and down several times. 

 

"So..." Aikawa trailed off. 

 

"So." Risu replied. 

 

"Partners." 

 

"Yup." 

 

And they gave one last shake before locking eyes for all of 2 milliseconds and then breaking into simultaneous giggles. Their hands loosened and dropped apart, but almost simultaneously they both stood up with screeches of chair legs across tile floor and crashed into each other in around the side of the table. 

 

Risu's heart felt full to bursting as he and Aikawa laughed and hugged in their tiny little study cubicle, and he revelled in the moment for as long as he could. 

 

 

Risu and Aikawa were partners now.  

 

Aikawa and Risu, Risu and Aikawa.  Two peas in a pod, the bane of every single person sitting behind them in every single class, and now they had even more of an excuse to do everything together. 

 

Risu was over the moon.  This barely felt like reality, but here it was, happening to him right now. 

 

Aikawa squeezed him tightly one last time before backing up a bit to look at Risu for a second, then over at their pile of papers and books on the table. 

 

“Fuck this noise, let’s get the fuck outta here!” he said, “Time like this calls for some kickass food to celebrate, doncha think?” 

 

Risu felt a bit like a broken record when all he could do was laugh at everything Aikawa said, but he nodded and managed to choke out around his chuckles,

 

“Yeah, fine, sure, I’ve got like, 100 Nik on me.  We can use it and get the ‘good’ instant ramen, does that do it for ya?” 

 

Aikawa just pumped a fist and spun around to kick his chair back under the table, 

 

“Oh, FUCK yeah, cup noodles with onions!” he crowed. 

 

He slapped his mess of papers and pens he’d “borrowed” from various classmates into his bag, before turning back to Risu with an expectant head tilt as he slid his mask back on.  Risu snorted another laugh before moving to stack his own books in their carrying strap at a more reasonable pace.  

 

His fingers kept missing the latch, but he couldn't summon up the feelings to really be pissed about it like he usually would.  He just tied everything together and swung the bundle over his shoulder before following Aikawa out the door and into the hallway beyond.  Into the world outside that would get to see how great their partnership would be.  How great Aikawa and Risu would be, together and as individuals. 

 

He bumped shoulders with Aikawa every so often as they wandered down the twisting corridors to get out of the library wing. 

 

Aikawa was his usual silent self for a bit, before abruptly linking elbows with Risu to swing him around a bit, while starting to belt out some old broom shanty he knew.  Risu hummed along and laughed at Aikawa's antics as he continued stumbling along with his new partner in a bit of a daze. 

 

They'd done it. 

 

They were partners now.  

 

They emerged from the school building, Aikawa still singing ridiculous lyrics about 'slaying ere'y foe' and Risu smiling fondly at him every few seconds.  Ghost Convenience was about a 10-minute walk away, and it seemed like even the weather wanted to cooperate with them out of joy on their behalf.  The typical Zagan windstorms that started up after dusk were nowhere to be found, only a steady breeze lingering to push them along down the street. 

If Aikawa cared about Risu’s quiet demeanor right now, he didn’t show it, just kept strutting along and humming little ditties, and Risu couldn’t help it if he tried.  He was just too in his own head about how much potential this whole evening had for him.  For them both.

Everything would change for the better from here on out.  

 

Maybe not without some effort, but hey.  Risu had done plenty of that just to pass the tests to get into the academy, let alone keep up with course work.  He knew all about making an effort.  All it would take was commitment to talk about shit with Aikawa and help each other find solutions.  And they had that, they had just made that commitment to each other.  

Risu tried not to get his hopes up about his magic as a general rule, but his imagination had already taken free reign for the rest of the night.  He couldn’t help jumping to possibilities like finding out he had transformation type, or erasal, or healing- it was all just so exciting.  And finding something out was a real possibility for him now, more so than going to school had been.  Partners help each other develop their magical abilities, refine spells; practice, and train, and succeed, together.

He wasn’t some idiot kid anymore, running around like not having smoke didn’t matter.  He might not have any now, but having a partner would change that, it had to.  Partners were supposed to be more powerful together than apart,

 

Having Aikawa there to help him meant he was that much closer to breaking free from his limitations, and finally being somebodySomeone who could get shit done.  He’d be someone with real magic, and a life, and a great partner, able to take on anything.

 

Risu clocked back into the present, but Aikawa was still humming as they kept walking down the road.   A sudden, silly idea struck Risu.  And he had a new partner he could go to for advice…

He looked over at Aikawa and elbowed him in the ribs,

 

"Hey, question: partner to partner- should I cut my hair?  Like do you think it'd look good shorter?" he asked while running a hand through his shaggy spikes.  His hair had reached the point where he’d usually have to gel it more to keep it from tickling his forehead, but maybe it was time to change it up, keep in the theme of the evening. 

 

Aikawa just scrutinized him with a hand rubbing his mask in thought, 

 

“I dunno... probably, man.  You’ve got the kinda ‘look good with any haircut’ face goin’ on,” he said, “Oh, but maybe you could do it not all short?  Like half-short half-not? That could be cool.” 

 

“Huh… maybe, I’ll think about it.”

 

“You should do it; bet you’d look hard as fuck.” 

 

“Ya think?” 

 

“Dumbass, I know.” Aikawa said smugly as he hooked an arm over Risu’s shoulders. 

 

Risu just laughed at that, and they continued ambling their way to Ghost, stumbling to the side every so often as they kept up their random roughhousing over nonsensical bullshit.  Risu’s cheeks were already sore from grinning so hard, but nothing was going to keep it off his face on what was so far the happiest night of his life. 

 

-

 

And after they were full of junk food and had parted ways with more hugs and smiles, Risu practically jogged back to his apartment.  It was late, he should really just go the fuck to sleep, but instead, he made a beeline for his kitchen. He set to work moving aside the loose brick behind his fridge to recount his meagre (though growing) pile of cash savings.

 

Tickets to the festivities had been the same price for years, so he was reasonably sure that all he had to do was work a couple extra assignments and he'd have enough for both of them, easy.  (And worse comes to worst, he had a feeling they could make a fun occasion of breaking into the festival grounds, with or without advanced smoke techniques.)

 

His thoughts kept running him in giddy little circles, leading him back to the same thoughts over and over.

Risu had a partner, and not just someone who was settling like he'd always worried about, either.  Aikawa was so strong, and skilled, and just great that it felt like a dream that he'd agreed to work with Risu.  That he felt the same way that Risu did. 

 

It didn't matter that Risu had never had a partner before now, that he didn't know enough about the process or all the proper things you should do.  They could look it up, or make their own partner traditions, they could make those choices as a pair.  All the stupid bastards that had ever looked down their noses at him could eat shit, because Risu had a partner who cared about him.   


He didn’t have any smoke right now, but it didn’t matter, because Aikawa wanted to work with him anyways.  Somebody choosing to be Risu’s partner was practically proof that he wasn’t as much of a genetic freak as he feared.  He could have a partner like anyone else and it’d be great.  


He was going to make good on his promise and try his hardest to be the best partner to Aikawa that he could be.  No big secrets, and always there for each other, the whole shebang.

 

As he went about undressing and going through the motions of getting ready for bed, Risu was still riding the emotional high the best imaginable outcome happening.  His mind was alight with fanciful imaginings of kicking open the door of the black house, arm in arm with Aikawa, ready to sign their bargain in ink and blood.

 

Blue night couldn't come soon enough.