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fool me once

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Karuizawa Kei knows that it’s unlikely her regard for Ayanokouji is truly reciprocated. She’s the person who knows the most about his true self; she knows that it’s true not because she’s conceited but because she has done her utmost best to be as useful a tool as possible for him, and what use is a tool that doesn’t understand its master? Clinging to him when he’d done his best to protect her is second-nature, in the beginning; later, when she’d found out he’d played her, betrayed her, she had seen the reason for it; it’d been a necessary strategy to secure her silence and compliance, and if she’d been in his place she’d have probably done something similar.

(What people often forget is just how dirty people play when they think they have everything to lose. Karuizawa Kei has stooped lower than kicking people around and not apologising, all in the name of survival. It’s not exactly hard to notice that Ayanokouji is doing the same, when he threatens her and manipulates her. And- it feels good, is the thing. To be the one used for another’s survival, rather than the other way around. It’s a sort of power she’d never thought she’d ever experience. What can she do but pay attention to the one who handed it out to her like it was nothing?)

In the end, however, such a thing had been inevitable; if she’d fallen in love with Hirata for his kindness and willingness to protect her, that would have been fine, if inconvenient. Hirata might not be noticing it yet but she’s seen where his gaze darts when he stops paying attention – or doesn’t, for that matter. Karuizawa Kei is very good at reading people, because you need to know when a situation is escalating to get yourself out of it with as little damage as possible, and deescalating is as easy as breathing, now, whenever she decides to involve herself. But- it’d been fun, not having to watch her back, trusting Hirata to do the work for her. It’d truly felt like her middle school years had never happened at all.

But that had only been running away from the past, in the end; and, shamefully, even with all the excitement and tension of the unbelievable school she’d gotten into, Karuizawa Kei had found herself getting bored with the kind of life she had finally achieved. Or, no; it had been more restlessness, paranoia? Who will find out her secret, who will strike at her weak spot now that she’s not watching her back all the time? It’d infuriated her, that she’d felt this way, and it’d been so easy to take it out on others when she thought herself invincible and yet vulnerable.

It had been easy to regress into her old mindset, after what Ayanokouji had done (‘Spread your legs,’ and she’d suddenly remembered why it’s the quiet men in the classroom you have to pay attention to; because if you’re not prepared for what they might want from you, you’d get cornered when you least expect it and they’d take whatever they want from you); it’d been easier, to breathe and to comply with his orders when she’d learned enough about him to know he’d only ever been interested in her as a pawn, not as a woman. She was on his side because he found something in her useful; something in this ugly body and uglier soul that’d appealed to his plans, that he’d rather let exist and nurture than destroy or beat out of her.

(On the rooftop, she hadn’t said anything because: she’d been grateful. Ayanokouji never hurts people just because, never out of spite or hatred. He’d thought the best way to mould her into a useful tool was to break her down and build her back up better, even when she herself hadn’t had the courage to do that, when she’d hidden the broken parts rather than patching them up. He’d built her up stronger and more beautiful, like kintsugi; and you have to chip away from the broken pieces to add the gold. Why should she betray the person who gave her strength? It’s not as much loyalty as it’s debt; a parasite clinging to a host cleans up germs and takes care of its host – if Ayanokouji’s freedom will be threatened by this reveal, then Karuizawa Kei will be the good pawn he wants her to be, and will pay that debt back as fully as she can.)

(On the rooftop, she hadn’t said anything because: he’d revealed himself for her. She’s under no illusions that he did it because he was worried for her, as a pawn or a classmate, but it still makes something in her go ‘pop’ with warmth; he’d calculated everything and decided she was useful enough to beat up Ryuuen for, not with all of his strength but with enough to show he was getting more serious than ever before. She is not – flattered, exactly, and he is still a person with a dark heart who cares only for himself, but is there anything more intoxicating than trust, freely given? Drunk enough on it, it’s a while before Kei pays enough attention to her own heart to notice the beginnings of a crush, and by then it’s too late to nip it in the bud.)

 


 

It’s juvenile, and she can’t believe she hasn’t noticed it until now; how dare a pawn vie for its master’s attention? How dare it be jealous of the other pawns its master wants to have? How dare she put her stupid crush over Ayanokouji’s freedom?

(He hasn’t said anything about his past, and Kei doesn’t ask; but as the person who knows his heart the best in the entire school, she notices how sometimes he doesn’t have a reference to base off his own behaviour, for the most random things: food price, clothing quality, social situations in which people act like kids rather than manipulator and pawn. How his expression goes slightly colder when anyone points it out, even if it’s just a joke. How he speaks of Chabashira-sensei, who blackmailed him into doing his best. She’d tested her hypothesis once; teased him about being grown in a lab, and the words hadn’t even fully left her mouth when she’d realised she’d hit the nail right on the head even if he hadn’t said anything.)

She needs to be a better pawn; she needs to help Ayanokouji achieve his freedom, like he helped her remake herself.

 


 

When he uses her first name, her heart climbs in her throat. When he asks her out, she’s so flustered she thinks she’ll combust right in front of him and then he’d run to Satou instead. When he hugs her, he’s warm and sturdy and it almost feels like her regard for him is reciprocated. It’s a foolish notion, of course; Karuizawa Kei is many things, but this version of herself that she’s built on three years of fighting for her life and the months spent an important pawn of the smartest, most terrifying person she’s ever met in her life knows people; more importantly, it knows Ayanokouji Kiyotaka. She is the one who knows the most about him without knowing anything about him; she won’t run away screaming from his true colours, nor will she betray him. If he wants a normal school life like he always says, and he rejected Satou not because he didn’t want a girlfriend, but because she wasn’t useful enough…

(He doesn’t look at her the way other boys do. He doesn’t want her because of her body, nor because of her personality; she’s the closest and most convenient to test love on. A textbook, a tutorial round of the real thing, without any risks because she already knows the dark side he hides. She’s a convenient option precisely because she knows her place, and more importantly, knows his place. It means that whatever this relationship is, it will be progressing slowly; there will be no rush, because this is Kiyotaka on recon mode. He knows her; she knows him; if she says no, he will listen. In the end it’s that, over her crush or anything else, that assures that she doesn’t regret accepting his -confession? Partnership request?

Ayanokouji Kiyotaka is the only man she can trust enough to give her heart to. He will use her to feel like a normal high school student, to learn what love is supposed to be, and she will use him to see whether she can stomach being loved when it’s someone who knows her everything.)

 


 

They’re discreet for a multitude of reasons; Karuizawa Kei is still Hirata Yousuke’s ex-girlfriend, after all, and she has a reputation to maintain and power over the female part of their class to keep away from Kushida’s psychotic little fingers. A couple always attracts attention, as well; it would become so much harder for them both to work from behind the scenes if people know they’re involved in any way.

They don’t go on dates; it’s a precaution against discovery, and neither of them would know what to do on one considering both of them have zero experience in that kind of thing anyways, but it still makes her… sad is not the right word, and neither is disappointed. She doesn’t realise she’s resigned until the realisation hits her over the head, and- what? She expected Kiyotaka to be the one planning dates, when he hardly knows if he’s buying shit cup ramen noodles or not? How is she supposed to be his love textbook if she’s waiting around for him to do stuff??

It’s because this is the first time she knows more about something than he does; this time, in this situation, the one who has to show him how to act and what to do is her, and not vice versa. It’s a surprisingly exciting development, and she wants to show off; wants him to feel what it’s like to be on a date with someone you like.

For all of her planning of dates when she was with Hirata, she’s a bit stumped on what to do. Those dates had been as high-profile as can be; cute selfies, flashy clothes, gossiping where and when they’d go and what they’d do, all with the express purpose of making as many people as possible aware that she’s that Hirata Yousuke’s precious, beloved girlfriend who he is very very in love with and she would absolutely go snitch to him if someone even dared say anything negative about her.

With Kiyotaka, however, this is the furthest thing from what they need; firstly is has to be covert, and secondly, it has to be something he wouldn’t mind doing. Karuizawa knows he likes watching movies, from the shittiest B-Reels to the American cartoons rife with fart jokes to the mind-breakingly complicated ‘this is a reference to a way of life most people wouldn’t get’ pseudo-biographies, but going the two of them alone would be conspicuous, and in a group it’s not really a date, is it?

Sitting down in a café and sharing a cake as they chat is also out of the question; too many variables around them, and the things they’d come round to talking about would not be the most pleasant; a walk in the park and a picnic face the same problem of being too public…

In the end, the solution comes to her during lunch – after all, what makes a date a date is that it’s considered one, right? So even if she, say, invited her boyfriend and cooked him dinner while they watched a movie or -something, it’d still count as a date, wouldn’t it?

 


 

Come over for dinner sometime,” she texts him one day after school, barely able to keep her hands steady from nerves. “I’ll show you how to cook your tasteless noodles.”

Okay,” he answers not even two seconds later, and Kei has to go run to the store because she said sometime but Kiyotaka might come today.

(He does not. Instead, he texts her a few days later with a time and a picture of those pricy spicy noodles, and Karuizawa is both astonished at his choice – that brand of ramen is infamous for its especially spicy packets – and excited to try them out, because she’s been eyeing them since she stepped on Advanced Nurturing School’s soil.

By the self-satisfied light in Kiyotaka’s eyes, he’d known this, and it makes Karuizawa flush red like burning.)

(There is no change in expression when Kiyotaka finishes, but he helps her put the dishes away and, on his way out, asks if she can only cook noodles.

As if. Karuizawa’s grandmother didn’t raise a savage! Kei tells him he can find out what she can and can’t cook on his own, and three days later she gets an obnoxious picture of frozen fish, obviously taken at the frozen aisle at their supermarket.

She has to run to the store again for side dishes and barely makes it back on time, but it’s worth it even when she has to bear Kiyotaka’s amusement at her antics, because he makes sure to eat every drop of food.)

 


 

(“Uhm, stupid question but maybe, if you’d want, canyouteachmehowtofight! Not a lot, and I know that I’m never going to be as strong as you or even Horikita, but – please?”

Kiyotaka tilts his head just the slightest bit, like he’s amused at the notion of Karuizawa Kei wanting to learn how to punch people. Then again, it’s not an unwarranted reaction – Kei herself is sure she’d be looking at herself the same way, if she was able to.

“You don’t have the physique needed for straight-up fighting,” he says, and gets up from the table.

Karuizawa has nigh had time to berate herself for being stupid enough to ask such a thing, when the dishes clank in the sink. It’s routine by now – Karuizawa cooks, and Kiyotaka does the dishes. The domesticity of it is lightly disturbing – like a daydream just a step to the left from being idyllic.

“We’ve already eaten.” He continues after a few seconds, words coming out of his mouth slowly like honey, like he can’t be bothered, and Karuizawa perks up despite herself. This is Kiyotaka thinking things over in real time – not waiting until the best path is revealed but searching for it still. “Next time, before dinner, I’ll teach you how to throw your attacker down.”

“Ah, yes! Thank you!” Her mouth trips over the words, but her heart is in overdrive – this feels like growth.

They say growth is painful, but Karuizawa finds she doesn’t mind the feeling.]

 


 

It’s pure chance that Karuizawa stumbles upon the situation; she’s heading out to meet up with Satou and the others, when she hears it – the unmistakable cadence of someone who’s tormenting someone else and is enjoying it. Karuizawa freezes in place despite herself, and for a moment the hurtful words she can’t even hear aren’t directed at this mysterious person, but rather at herself as she’s on the floor on the girls’ bathroom in her old middle school, soaking wet. It’s only through practice at pretending she’s something that she’s not that she finds the strength to take a deep breath without choking, but her hands are still, traitorously, trembling.

There’s a clatter from the direction of the voices, and then a very quiet squeak – someone who’s been like this long enough to become resigned and quiet, but not nearly long enough to actually give up completely. Maybe it’s that that makes her finally move, or maybe it’s not; in the end, however, Karuizawa finds herself witnessing a well-known scene from a surprisingly different angle than she’s used to.

Manabe from 2-C and her cronies are crowded around a girl sitting on the ground; Manabe herself has grabbed her by the hair and is dragging her up by it as she hurls all kinds of slurs at her; Karuizawa’s scalp tingles with sympathy. The girl herself is – tiny, is a word. Not only physically, though she’s absolutely smaller than Karuizawa herself, but her presence as well is as unobtrusive as possible; if she’d stood up on the school rooftops and shouted, ignore me, ignore me! it’d have been less obvious she didn’t want anybody to pay attention to her. Her eyes are glistening with tears, but they’re see-through like glass; there’s nobody home, and likely there won’t be until the girls get bored with her and finally leave.

There’s a lump in Karuizawa’s throat that makes it difficult to breathe, and a white noise that’s buzzing in her ears; but she’s stronger now than she was a year ago. What use is it saying you’ve changed for the better when in the end you’re in the same place as before?

“Manabe-san,” Karuizawa says when she manages to unstick her tongue from the roof of her mouth, “do you mind? There’s a teacher patrol coming up soon.”

Manabe’s face twists in a grotesque mix of delight and disgust; it’s the sort of look a bully gives to a victim that’s intentionally stumbled into them, like ‘I’ll have fun breaking you but I’m also annoyed you deigned to make yourself known, you useless trash’. “Karuizawa. Truly, I can’t say I expected anything less from– you.” She’s holding back impressively well for how much she must be itching to grind Karuizawa’s face into the ground until she’s begging for mercy. The girl on the floor doesn’t even twitch, and for a second Kei is overwhelmed by the desire to crouch down in front of her, take her hand and say, I know what it’s like, I’m on your side so please lift your head–

Karuizawa pulls the faux calm that comes from, This is nothing you haven’t experienced before, and if the worst comes to pass Ayanokouji will protect you. You aren’t the one being ground into dust right now, and you never again will be. “As Manabe-san wishes to see it, I suppose. I just wanted to warn you, but who am I to continue insisting when you clearly aren’t welcoming it?”

Manabe sneers. “You think you’re fucking hot shit because you’ve got D’s leader protecting you, coward? In the end the parasite is still you!” She spins on her heel and motions for her groupie to follow, kicking the girl on the floor one last time. She doesn’t make a sound. Karuizawa has to shake herself out of the mind-numbing panic and makes herself crouch down next to the girl; just because Manabe is right in this case doesn’t mean…

Karuizawa is going to think long and hard about what that means and what it doesn’t later, when she’s safely locked inside her room where she can panic to her heart’s content.

“Are you okay?” She asks quietly and determinedly stuffs her trembling hands behind her back because now is not the time for that. “Can you stand up?” What had she wished to be told, those numerous times she’d fantasised about getting saved by someone, anyone? ‘Everything is going to be okay now, nobody will ever be able to hurt you anymore’, something like that for sure. Karuizawa cannot promise that though; hell, she herself still can’t believe she’s in that kind of situation, guaranteeing something like that so facetiously would be impossible for her. “What’s your name?” She asks when it becomes clear the girl won’t answer her previous questions. Soften your voice, make yourself appear smaller than her, if she doesn’t answer yes-or-no questions try to ascertain whether she’s all there or not by asking simple things. The chance of a head injury is miniscule, but it’s better to double check just to be sure. Her light, short hair is absolutely rumpled, so is her collar in a way that suggests she might have been slammed into the wall a few times.

The girl finally moves. “….Maeda Sayuri.” Not a name Karuizawa has ever heard mentioned in any sort of discussion about Class 2-C, whether from Kiyotaka or from anybody else, Kushida included. She’s either so far below the others in the social ladder that she hasn’t ever been a pawn in one of Ryuuen’s schemes, or she’s somehow caught his ire and is paying for it now. Somehow, Karuizawa doubts it’s the second; Manabe is not the sort of person who’d get sent for punishment because she frequently goes overboard… or, maybe, considering this is indeed Ryuuen Kakeru’s class, this is exactly why they’d sent her to discipline their wayward classmate.

“Ah, I’m Karuizawa Kei from class 2-D. Would you like me to go with you to the nurse?” Karuizawa introduces herself, inwardly scolding herself for imitating Kiyotaka’s way of thinking yet again. She’s here to help, not to interrogate the poor girl.

Maeda’s eyes dart around – classroom doors, stairs, windows, the gap Karuizawa intentionally left open so it doesn’t look like she’s cornering her – and shakes her head.

“If you run into any problems again, just call me, okay?” The words come out of her mouth, but not nearly seriously enough. Maeda walks away briskly, without looking back; she’s favouring her left leg.

Karuizawa grits her teeth and she reminds herself that Manabe is right, after all; if it wasn’t for Kiyotaka swearing to protect her, she probably wouldn’t have gotten involved. It leaves a bad taste in her mouth and a kind of helpless anger she really, really doesn’t like.

 


 

It should’ve been easy, after that, to completely forget about Maeda Sayuri, who is studiously avoiding her. It should have been a one-time thing, where Karuizawa Kei squared up and got over her trauma and helped someone the way she hadn’t been helped in the past, and yet–

Manabe Shiho’s words are stuck in her head. No, if what she said was untrue she would be able to brush them off fairly easily, but it’s her own thoughts given voice – you decided you wanted to change but you’re still clinging to Kiyotaka. In the end, is this false strength and safety all she wants for herself? Will she be satisfied only by the protection of others, not her own? Then why even ask to be taught how to defend herself, if all she’ll do with it is hide behind Kiyotaka’s back and pray that her safety isn’t in the way of his plans?

It takes her a while, mostly because she doesn’t want to bring attention to it, to Maeda Sayuri, but – the most popular girl of 2-D finds a bullied girl from 2-C and decides to help; it’s a nice narrative, isn’t it? It pushes her compassion and standing so that she’s kinder and more assertive, less attention to draw to the fact that she herself had a few undesirable moments last year. This is the reasoning she’ll bring to Kiyotaka, when and if he deigns to ask what the hell she thinks she’s doing, with the added hidden bonus of having ears in Ryuuen’s class who aren’t Shiina (who he is aware of). She has no doubts that Kiyotaka already knows the other reason that Karuizawa is never going to say herself; that this is a test for herself.

Well, he did say she could do whatever she wanted as long as it didn’t disturb his plans; time to see if she knows enough about them not to.

 


 

Maeda Sayuri: bottom rung of class 2-C; no friends or classmates who’d be willing to lend a hand in anything. Her academics are good; if it’d been Kiyotaka instead of Ryuuen, he’d have probably stopped the bullying so she could focus on studying better, and so that the class doesn’t have such an obvious rift, but Ryuuen is Ryuuen, after all. She doesn’t wear accessories or nice clothes when not in school; in fact, she’s out very rarely and always in her school uniform. Karuizawa can sympathise; it’s hard to wear something you like when you know it’ll just get ruined the moment someone sees.

Loudly yelling to get her attention will only spook her; so will insisting to meet up. Having lunch together is out of the question, at least for now; she’d think she was a charity case or that she’s being  made fun of.

In the end, what Karuizawa, imitating her shadow puppeteer boyfriend, decides to do is this: nod and smile at Maeda whenever she sees her in the corridors, maybe wave if she feels like the moment is adequate; dismantle some of the crueller pranks just by accidentally being in the right place at the right time (she studiously avoids thinking about how badly her hands were shaking when she was pouring that bucket of ice-cold water down the drain; some things are better left alone).

The result she gets is this: one Maeda Sayuri, not completely safe but not as threatened as she was; Manabe’s group, pissed that she’s interfering but unable to do anything, and one Ayanokouji Kiyotaka, who doesn’t even blink when Karuizawa sighs during one of their dinner dates and says, resigned,

“Maeda-san has a crush on me.”

Kiyotaka’s eyes shift like, yes, and? and he takes a bite out of the tempura Karuizawa had specifically said is hers. She graciously ignores the insult, and continues, more hesitantly,

“How do you think it’d be best to reject her, if she ends up confessing?” She hopes she doesn’t; it wouldn’t be good for the progress she’s made these past weeks. But it’s still something she’d like to prepare herself for, rather than be thrust into a situation she doesn’t know how to handle.

“Why would you need to?” Kiyotaka asks calmly; the light in his eyes is one she recognises easily; it’s the I have a plan now. Are you smart enough to figure out exactly how you fit into it?

“Maeda isn’t nearly up to date enough with what happens in her class to be an useful informant,” Karuizawa shoots out immediately. Not to mention that leading her on for information is going to utterly destroy her, whenever she winds up finding out about it – because she inevitably will. Someone will find out exactly what is happening, and then Maeda is going to be in a world of hurt she’s never imagined could exist.

“Is that so,” Kiyotaka hums, but his posture says, you just have to nurture her a bit in the right direction, the way I did with you. Karuizawa can feel an ugly flush climbing up her cheeks, because that’s a low blow she hadn’t been expecting.

“Are you considering breaking up with me, being so interested in me and her together? Even if that’s the case, I’m not playing honeypot like this, and especially not when I can accomplish the same thing just by being friends with her.”

“Hmm,” Kiyotaka says, and then, looking up from another bite of food: “Even if I recede my promise of protection?” The words are said very nonchalantly; like someone who cares neither for Cola or Pepsi trying to choose between the two. Karuizawa’s heart drops to her heels.

Would she do something like that for safety?

If it had been the Karuizawa Kei from middle school, the answer would have been an instant yes, even if she’d suspected it was a trap; it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you survive, and the benefits outweigh the risks. If it’d been the Karuizawa Kei who’d entered Advanced Nurturing High School, she’d also do so; hell, she’d done that herself by going out with Hirata.

But would the Karuizawa Kei she wants to become do such a thing?

Kiyotaka’s eyes are boring into hers, and it’s both a challenge and an expectation: what are you going to do, little parasite?

The words stick in her throat, but is this not the way it’s supposed to be? If it was easy, she would have done it a million times already. “No, not even then.”

“Hmm,” Kiyotaka says, and nonchalantly plops a tempura into Karuizawa’s rice. The set of his shoulders is neither rigid nor relaxed; it’s been a while since she’d last seen him this guarded around her. “Eat,” he reminds her duly, and Karuizawa is hungry enough to obey for now.

The tempura tastes like ash in her mouth, but she swallows it with no complaint; the taste of fear is familiar, but Karuizawa Kei refuses to revert to the powerless thing she used to be back then.

 


 

The first time Manabe actually realises that nothing will happen to her if she pushes Karuizawa around, it’s when she sees Kiyotaka walk away disinterestedly when he catches her gang argue with Karuizawa.

Maeda’s shoes are full of thumbtacks, and Karuizawa is calmly collecting them all and putting them in a cutely-decorated plastic box (there are stickers of different kinds of sweets on the sides and lid, and it’s Karuizawa’s favourite everything-box), but Kiyotaka doesn’t even blink when Manabe loses her temper and kicks in her general direction.

The next three days, Karuizawa doesn’t see Manabe or her groupie anywhere; Maeda is too smart (too experienced) to relax, and Shinohara and Matsushita corner Karuizawa one day after classes with worried faces.

“Manabe Shiho from 2-C is asking all about you,” Shinohara begins, direct as always, as Matsushita leans on Koenji’s empty desk. Karuizawa already knew that (she’s the eyes and ears of Class D’s shadowmaster; not hearing about something like that would be awfully remiss of her), and she can’t help but notice the little sliver of dread that’s always twisting in the back of her mind rear up.

But in the end, what can Manabe Shiho do to her that’s never been done before? Karuizawa will just have to make sure she doesn’t allow any of it to occur. Faking bravery isn’t as difficult as pretending three years of your life hadn’t happened.

So she shrugs like it doesn’t bother her, and allows, “She’s probably angry that I meddled with Maeda Sayuri from 2-C. You know people like Manabe don’t like when people take away their prey.”

Shinohara makes a disgusted face, but it’s Matsushita’s reaction that draws Karuizawa’s attention: something in the shifting of her posture says that some sort of prediction has just been confirmed for her. Matsushita’s always been sharp that way; there’s a reason why Karuizawa insisted on being on good terms with her even before she started to work for Kiyotaka, and it looks like her intuition hadn’t failed her.

“If Manabe’s crowd decides to make trouble for you,” Matsushita begins slowly, eyes sharp, “what do you plan on doing?”

“Is there anything else to do other than stopping them?” Karuizawa asks, partly because she’s curious if Matsushita has a point to all of this questioning other than confirming whatever suspicions she has.

“Are you planning on doing that alone?” There’s something prodding in Matsushita’s gaze, but Karuizawa doesn’t really want to guess what she’s implying – not when there are other witnesses, at least.

“Should I not? Maeda’s not going to be of much help.” In fact, it’d probably be a lot easier if she was removed from the equation entirely. She’s made a lot of progress the last few months, but she’s not ready for this kind of confrontation.

“I’m not talking about Maeda.”

“Who else then?” If she’s trying to figure out who Class D’s actual leader is – or, more accurately, confirm it, given the circumstances – Kei isn’t going to give her anything.

“She’s talking about us, okay!” Shinohara explodes, slams her hands on the desk and cuts through the tension like a gunshot. “Why are you going around trying to do everything yourself? We’re friends, aren’t we! We can help you just as well as someone from another class!”

Matsushida’s prodding eyes disappear, and she laughs. “You sound like you’re jealous of Maeda-san, Shinohara.”

Shinohara sputters. “Well! Who’s been your classmate for two years, huh, Karuizawa! Isn’t it obvious if you have a problem that we’d come help!”

Oh. Kei has no idea what kind of expression she’s making, but it’s obviously enough for Shinohara to tackle her with a cry. Matsushida doesn’t follow, but she steps closer to the wailing Shinohara in a show of partiality that’s rare for her.

That’s right. She’d forgotten, foolishly, but the Karuizawa Kei she wants to be has friends.

 


 

Manabe corners her in the girls’ bathroom; as if Karuizawa can’t tell what she’s doing with that bucket of water she thinks she’s sneakily trying to fill; the sound of water filling buckets is always going to be a sound she recognises.

Kiyotaka’s words echo in her head: use your opponent’s attacking strength against them. This is not judo, but the principle is the same; Karuizawa waits, opens the door of the stall so that the bucket destabilises in the wrong direction, and-

“Argh!” Manabe coughs out, soaked. Karuizawa’s bangs and shoes are wet, but that was a worthy sacrifice. “You!” She snarls. “You made me believe he was done protecting you just so you could get back on me!”

“No such thing,” Karuizawa makes sure not to get too close to the bucket, and tucks her trembling hands in her sweater. “You heard correctly, he’s not protecting me anymore. I am.”

Manabe’s Morifuji Rika raises a hand – girls rarely punch in the face, it’s most often a slap hard enough to rattle someone’s teeth or a kick – and Karuizawa grabs her wrist and squeezes. She doesn’t have the ability to sprain it or even bruise, most likely, but Morifuji’s mostly spewing insults rather than physically hitting; she won’t be used to the pain of a ‘real’ fight.

“Don’t touch me,” and it’s said with just enough disinterest to make them all doubt if they’re not actually outmatched.

Karuizawa has no illusions that she’ll be able to take them all down, but she doesn’t really need to; Manabe is rattled enough, and threatening her second-in-command like that is going to put Nanami Yabu and Yamashita Saki on the spot. They’ve never needed to think for themselves, so no matter what their actual abilities are, they should be floundering at least a little, which leaves an obvious opening. She tightens her grip on Morifuji’s wrist for just a second – any more and it’d show that her own hand is trembling from the effort – and then lets go entirely.

Nobody stops her when she walks out of the door; the school hallways are full with students as always, chatting obliviously like nothing’s happened in the girls’ bathroom. Karuizawa used to resent that view – she’d be soaking wet and humiliated, and nobody would balk at it because it was normal; it was yet another time Karuizawa Kei got what she deserved.

Today, it is the same – Karuizawa Kei got what she deserved. She finally freed herself from the shackles of her past, with her own power. There is no fear in her anymore, because now she knows she can win against anyone who dares try to put them back on her.

 


 

Kiyotaka is in her room when she finally gets back to her dorm, and Karuizawa doesn’t even have the energy to be surprised anymore.

“Are you done with your test?” she asks, riffling through her school bag.

Kiyotaka leans on the wall beside the door. “If you clearly saw it was a test, then you wouldn’t have given it your all.” In other words, no.

She knew that would be the case, but it still stirs something in her chest. “If you’ve taken back your protection, then I don’t have to work for you anymore,” she says; Kiyotaka’s eyes are sharp and empty as they meet hers. “If we make a new deal–”

“No,” Kiyotaka replies immediately, and Karuizawa is– puzzled. As a pawn, she’s one of the most useful in Kiyotaka’s possession precisely for the fact she knows what and who he is without knowing anything incriminating; not to make a deal would–

Oh.

Oh.

“A trade, then.” Karuizawa decides, heart hammering. “One question, to both of us, and we both need to answer it as honestly as we can. One from me and one from you.” Kiyotaka should have no reason for accepting; even if there was something he’d like to know, it wouldn’t come from her because he knows everything, and yet – he nods once, and his eyes say, as planned. “I’m going first: what are your true and honest feelings about me?”

Kiyotaka doesn’t look surprised. “You’ll be disappointed,” he warns evenly, as if Karuizawa has any delusions about her place in Kiyotaka’s world.

Kiyotaka doesn’t break promises; he’s that kind of person. If he’s hesitating… “It’s difficult to keep your eyes on me when I’m not doing everything for you.” She begins, and Kiyotaka’s eyes snap to hers, lightning fast. “But I too want to find a path to better myself for me, not only for you; and to stand on my own two feet.” She’d tried to accomplish that by herself a few times; in the end, the one who always gave her the final push was Kiyotaka. She rolls the last of the words she wants to say in her mouth, doubtful, but – when else is she expected to say them? “Doing that without compromising the class and our partnership seems impossible.”

She doesn’t say, you have plans and I’m not sure if I fit into them, because that’s exceedingly arrogant. Kiyotaka’s plans end with him being free, and Karuizawa has no intentions of becoming a shackle when she was only recently able to free herself.

Kiyotaka’s gaze flickers to the side for the briefest moment, like he’s conceding something to himself rather than her, and then he raises his head and pins her with his usual dark stare. “Fluctuations in usefulness are acceptable as long as you continue working alongside me.” He glances to the side again, just as lightning-quick as before. “No, more concretely, it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you’re mine.”

Oh. Karuizawa flushes from the roots of her hair to her neck. She’d suspected – she knew he saw her as a useful pawn, and as a love textbook, but – saying it like that, it really does sound like–

The slope of Kiyotaka’s shoulders shouts out his confusion very, very blatantly. “Why?” He asks, as if he can’t be bothered to finish the sentence, but Karuizawa knows that’s not actually the case.

“That sort of regard, from you…” Karuizawa’s face burns even more, if possible, but she continues without pause; this is Kiyotaka, after all: “It kind of sounds like a confession, coming from you.”

Kiyotaka blinks – the most blatant expression of shock she’s ever seen coming from him. “A confession,” he repeats, and then: “this is ‘love’?”

Karuizawa can hear the quotes on the last word.

“Well,” she says with a shrug, “the way different people love should stand to be different, right? To the you who sees people as tools first, isn’t it obvious that your love is going to reflect that?”

Something in Kiyotaka’s posture shifts to conceding. “So as expected, the ‘shoujo manga’ type of love…”

“I don’t think it exists,” Karuizawa bluntly interrupts. “And even if it did, it’d be for people that are a very different sort than you or me.” That kind of love feels naïve and without substance; what she feels about him is a lot more real to her than butterflies in the stomach and bubbly crushes.

“I don’t mind it,” Kiyotaka says, eyes intense as they meet hers. The light in his eyes shifts; do you?

“I don’t mind it either,” Kei answers; her heart is beating so fast in her chest she’s almost sure it’s loud enough to be heard across the room. She wonders- If you’ve learned what ‘love’ is, then does that mean–

Kiyotaka crosses the distance between them with a few quick steps, bends down–

His lips on hers are cold and dry, and his expression doesn’t change, but his eyes as they meet hers are anything but emotionless.

It’s a short kiss – a peck more than anything – but when Kiyotaka straightens and murmurs a quiet, “Thank you for the meal,” Karuizawa is positive she’s going to die with how quickly she flushes up to her roots. She'd never expected to actually- it's her first kiss- Kiyotaka just kissed her-

Her mouth moves on her own, opens to stutter out a, “Um! Seconds, do you want any!” before she can stop herself, and-

Kiyotaka bends down again, eyes half-lidded, places a hand on her cheek. Stops just a hair's breadth away from her lips, warm breath hitting her skin. He smells nice and clean, a fresh smell that Kei associates only with him. Impatient, she shifts a bit, and brushes her lips against his.

Neither of them really knows what to do, she knows, but it's less about the technique and more the person she's kissing that makes her head spin. Kiyotaka hums quietly and moves away, and his cheeks, she notices, are lightly flushed, but there's a dissatisfied light to his eyes that means he's not content not knowing what to do and how to do it.

"Practice makes perfect?" she suggests off-handedly, because Kiyotaka doesn't stop doing something until he's mastered it, even if said something is useless, because he's a big perfectionist. Then it occurs to her just who he'd be practicing with, and starts stuttering out a denial that gets silenced very quickly and very, very firmly.

(Kiyotaka does end up being a quick study, but Kei can't bring herself to mind it when he starts teaching her as well.)