“---aaand Toge, I’ve got you assigned to a case in Shinjuku. Some graveyard, grade 3 curse, yada yada, we don’t care. It’ll be light work for you, won’t it?”
“Love the enthusiasm, kid! Alright, dismissed!”
As the rest of the first years walked away, the black-haired boy stayed behind, wringing his hands together as he watched his teacher turn around, phone already in hand.
“What’s up, Yuuta?” Gojou responded, sweeping his bandaged eyes toward his student who shivered under his gaze. Yuuta had always gotten the feeling that despite the fact that Gojou’s eyes were covered, they could see everything. He felt the weight of his stare even with the coverings, and it was unnerving every time.
“Well...I’m just wondering why you’re sending Inumaki on his own since you had me go with him last time. Do you need me to shadow him again?”
Gojou laughed, ruffling Yuuta’s hair as he would a dog, “Oh, sweet, sweet Yuuta! If you’re worried for him, just say so!”
Yuuta stammered for a moment, trying to find an excuse or at least a not-suspicious way to refuse. It was true that he was a little nervous about Toge going on his own, ever since he’d seen his cursed speech in action. It gave him something to worry about, now that he had seen the full extent of his new friend’s technique.
“You’re a terrible liar, you know. Toge’s going to be fine. But besides that, you’re doing just great on your own anyways. There’s no need for you to shadow someone you probably won’t be mimicking often. His fighting style is a lot different than Maki and Panda, who I think you’d benefit more from. Especially Maki, since you suck ass with your katana still! I mean, how many losses has it been so far? Sixty? A hundred?!”
Yuuta cut him off before he could continue increasing the numbers exponentially, “Yeah, I think I get it, Sensei. I’ll go see where Maki went then.”
“Good idea, Yuuta-kuuuuun!”
Yuuta sighed as he trudged back towards the dormitories: he really did not want to fight Maki again. Gojou wasn’t exaggerating when he had said that Yuuta had probably lost around sixty times to her in the one-on-one fights he’d been doing with her recently. His form was apparently “improving” but as for everything else: 'Did you just learn to walk?'. That was a direct quote from his classmate, and it had hurt him more than any of her jabs at his sides and legs.
He was used to feeling helpless, being weak. It wasn’t necessarily a new feeling, but it had definitely morphed after his transfer to the high school. Now that he had all these powers and techniques at his disposal and several people that could help him with his curse, he felt even worse for not improving.
He had been given so much, and he was determined to give it all back.
But today, he reaaaaally did not want to fight her.
Mentally, he crossed off the word fight and replaced it with ‘lose’.
I really do not want to lose to her today.
Yuuta took a detour, swerving himself away from the dorm entrance and straight into a bush. He tripped and fell face-first into the flower bed, dirt spraying into his face as he cried out, “Ow!”
He quickly scrambled up, gasping as he realized what he had done: he had crushed some of the freshly planted tulip buds that Toge was taking care of.
Yuuta stared down in horror at the flattened green studs, a cloud of darkness surrounding him as a voice practically dripped next to his ear, “Yuuuuta...hurt?”
At that, he turned sharply, flailing his arms, “No, Rika! No, no! Totally fine! Go back to sleep! Good night! Sleep tight!”
The black mass of curse sulked away, disappearing as Yuuta breathed heavily, wiping at his sweaty and dirty forehead.
How am I gonna explain this to Inumaki?!
A thought struck him suddenly as he remembered that his classmate was probably off preparing to go on his mission, maybe even taking a nap, since he was departing around midnight. He still had time to make this right!
With a newfound determination, Yuuta stomped his way to the little shed in the garden, clicking on the overhead light by its string as he searched for what he needed.
Time for a new beginning!
“Pollock roe.” Shit.
Toge choked on his spit, holding his hand in his mouth to prevent any noise from echoing in the dark mausoleum. Warm blood seeped through his fingers as he suppressed another cough.
“Ta-ta-table for t-t-t-t-two?” The curse blabbered from somewhere outside, wandering the graveyard aimlessly, its unsettling voice drawing nearer by the second.
Well, this was great.
If Toge Inumaki had learned anything about the world of jujutsu sorcerers is that they were all liars.
Satoru Gojou was a liar . A bold-faced, two-faced, shit-faced liar.
‘Just a grade three, nothing too bad!’. Lie. It was very bad. ‘Should be a one and done!’. Lie. He had attacked it more than once, that was for sure. ‘If you need help, just call me!’. Lie. Toge could get no reception out here. The one time his call had gone through, it went straight to his sensei’s obnoxious voicemail.
He learned not to trust exclamations anymore.
Every happy person was hiding something behind their veil of smiles and laughs. Maybe he was being dramatic, but he couldn’t help but feel personally wronged and offended by Gojou’s severe underestimation of the curse at hand.
Given that Toge was being personally attacked by said curse, he felt it was well within his rights to be telepathically sending every curse he knew towards the great sorcerer Gojou.
Blast away, get crushed, get FUCKED for all I care, you dumbass blindfolded fool. You call this a grade three? What grade threes have you been fighting? Does every opponent seem like a grade three to you, Almighty One? If it was so damn easy you could’ve done it yourself, you cackling son of a bitch. I swear if I make it out of this alive, I’ll---
“TA-TABLE FOR T-T-T-TWO?!” The curse roared as it picked up the mausoleum, yanking it as hard as it could out of the ground, spraying dirt into Toge’s face. He watched in horror as his shelter was tossed aside like a leaf in the wind.
He dug his throat medicine out of his pocket, tipping his head back as the very last drops seeped down over his tongue, bringing momentary relief to the pulsing pain in his throat. “CAVIAR!” Shit fuck!
This was it.
The curse, purple and grotesque, leveled its face with his, opening its three mouths to breathe hot air into his face, “Wo-would yo-you like a ta-table for t-t-t-t-two?”
And Toge booked it, taking off in the direction of the edges of the Curtain, in hopes of maybe calling for backup. If not, then simply not dying was definitely on his list of things to do today.
He could hear the curse crashing its way towards him and even see it somewhere in his peripheral. He had the stamina to outrun the curse, but for how long, he couldn’t say. Compared to the other first years, who didn’t have to rely on mobility as much as he did, he was significantly faster and agile.
Running was his specialty. If his curses wore out, if his throat closed off, he could do nothing but run and pray. At least, if he still physically could. He was smaller than everyone else anyway; it gave him a one-up in races and overall parkour. He had even been taught some gymnastic maneuvers and flips from his third-year classmates.
So he used it to his advantage, leaping and spinning himself past obstacles as the curse fell behind, tripping over the gravestones, knocking into bushes and water fountains.
Soon, there was a sizable gap between Toge and the curse and he quickly detoured, scrambling up a tree. He took a moment to catch his breath with his nearly numb throat as he leaned against the trunk, his legs dangling over the sides of the branch he was sitting on. He sounded like an old engine in a tractor, gurgling and willing the dry breaths to climb up his equally as dry throat.
In all honesty, he was surprised with himself: that he had the energy and capacity to let out so many curses and still be able to run away. Before, he hadn’t been able to do that. His limit had been about three or four curses before he essentially collapsed.
He was improving …? At least, he would like to think so.
And somehow he knew it had something to do with his new friend Yuuta.
Ever since the team up they had done at the shopping district, he realized just how much he needed to improve before he could deem himself worthy of Yuuta's praises.
‘Inumaki-kun, you’re so cool! ’
Not really. Not when every curse that clawed its way up his throat left behind scratches that inhibited his ability to function.
It was ridiculous, and frankly, pathetic.
This stupid technique that he inherited really was more of a curse than a blessing.
When he had begun fighting this supposed ‘grade 3’, Toge had thought he had somehow regressed. When a series of ‘don’t move’’s and ‘blast away’’s didn’t work on it, he had been led to believe that he really was the lowest of the low, just as his clan seemed to think. That was, of course, before he realized that Gojou was probably lying to him about the curse.
But still, he wanted to build a stronger tolerance to the after-effects of his cursed words, and maybe even learn some more skills so he wouldn’t have to continuously rely on them or on others during a fight.
Toge sucked in a breath, a new wave of determination hitting him as he jumped to another branch of an adjacent tree.
It was time to man up.
Despite being ranked higher than his classmates, he had always felt rather inferior to them. What use were these awful words that could do nothing but harm to others? What use was it to exist, if he couldn’t even communicate with his friends without hurting them?
They made an effort, indeed. Even Panda seemed to perfectly understand him, which he was grateful for. But he couldn’t help but feel like he truly didn’t belong, that his presence was a burden to them and the school.
He still had room to grow, but he felt as if he was taking up too much space when doing so. Especially when the plant that was growing was something that plagued the other plants with its curses.
He shook his head, the analogy scrambling his thoughts, as he willed them to be silent for a moment.
It was...too quiet in the graveyard. Eerily so. He coughed once, twice, suppressing the third as he swept his hair away from his face, the sweat sticking it to his forehead.
There were no sounds, except for the occasional screech of a bat, or the rustling of leaves in the swaying trees. The typical sounds that the nighttime brought.
Toge hated the night.
So very much.
What was there to like about the dark? Where those who wished to be hidden could hide? Where those who wanted him dead could be protected by its void? Where cursed whispers and silent threats swirled around him like ghosts?
He hated it very much.
Not only because of what lurked there but because he was never given a light to shine into the dark, to make sure that no one was standing with a knife in the corner of his bedroom, to make sure that no one was hiding in his closet again, waiting for him to go to bed so they could choke him in his sleep.
The evil was protected by the dark, but he was never protected by the light.
There was no one who would take care of him. Even his own mother had turned on him, embraced the darkness like an old friend, and shunned him.
She was the one who stood in the corner with a knife, the one who hid in his closet like the monsters and curses that normal human babies would cry to their parents about.
But what if the very monster that hid in the closet was your parent?
Toge had woken up in the middle of the night, to his mother standing above him, holding a knife in both her hands, raised above her head. Her eyes were akin to a caged animal, her mouth pulled into a grimace, tears and sweat spilling down her cheeks and onto his doll-like porcelain face.
“Mama?” Toge had whispered to her in the night, the room pitch black.
His mother had winced, both from pain and disgust, “Don’t call me that, you wretched monster!”
Her hands shook as she raised them once more, higher and behind her head.
“Mama, stop,” Toge said ever so softly, bringing his small hand up to rest on her cheek, wiping the tears away with his index finger.
His mother went stock still, her body seizing up, and she sobbed, the knife falling from her hand.
He hadn’t realized it at the time, but he had cursed her then. He had wanted her to stop crying, but instead, his words had frozen her in place.
After that, he was beaten and forced to wear a gag.
They had taken his mother away and placed her in a separate building, but that hadn’t stopped the attacks and attempted assassinations. He had thought nothing of it at the time and honestly thought that he deserved it.
But when someone had told his story to Gojou before he began attending the school, Gojou had leaned back in his chair, clasping his hands behind his head as he became lost in thought.
“Didya ever consider that maybe it was your mom that was ordering these assassinations?” Gojou had inquired.
Toge’s eyes had widened. He really never thought of it like that. In fact, he thought that his mother being taken away was the reason that the others were attempting to assassinate him.
To be honest, after his mother wanted to kill him, it just made sense to him that he would be better off dead.
So he hated the dark, and the uncertainty it brought.
He looked around nervously. The curse was big, which was probably why it was so difficult to break down, but that also meant it would be easy to spot, right? Especially this high up in the trees, it would give him a better view and maybe even an advantage.
Though as he waited a few more moments, his periwinkle eyes darting from left to right, he still couldn’t see it or hear its eerily and unsettling one-liner.
No, he did not want a table for two, thank you very much.
Maybe it went away, he thought stupidly. False hope was still hope!
He squinted, seeing that the end of the curtain wasn’t that far. If I could just get there!
Then he was jerked to the right, the heavy weight of something tethered to his leg yanking him to the ground. A sharp and hot pain shot its way up his leg as the curse dug its claws into his calf, shocking him to his core as he choked on a cry.
He hit the ground with a loud oomph, the wind suddenly knocked out of him as he struggled to breathe through his dry throat and bruised lungs and blink past the blinding pain and his spinning vision.
“TA-TA-TABLE FOR TWOOO?!” The curse screamed above him, grabbing his leg again to bring him off the ground just to slam him back down, like a bat at a whack-a-mole game. Toge lost count after three before the curse stopped using him as a personal drumstick. He was raised higher, upside down, as the curse hovered him over one of its mouths.
Toge opened his mouth, “Don’--”
He coughed, blood splashing to his nose and eyes, pushed down by gravity.
The curse lowered him, still blabbering about a table. Toge closed his eyes, breathed in once, and decided to focus his efforts on escaping, rather than attacking.
Bending his upper body to his legs, he realized this was a lot like some of the grueling exercises that Maki made him do to improve his ‘core’ or whatever she had called it.
Thank you, Maki, he projected to her as he pried the curse’s death grip off his throbbing ankle. Once a finger was loose, he twisted out of its grasp, feeling his ankle twist as well, before flipping and landing on the ground, quite ungracefully. His head spun, and he fell to his knees as his vision spotted, blackening around the edges.
The curse cried out in surprise, turning back towards its dinner who was struggling just to remain standing, running on pure adrenaline. Toge wasn’t going to back down, though, remembering Yuuta’s unwavering determination in the heat of the battle. His friend was always a little nervous but he never gave in, especially when lives were at stake, and he wanted to emulate that.
With this newfound strength, Toge rose to one knee, his hands spread back like a flower blooming in the bright sun, and screamed, “GET CRUSHED!”
The curse suddenly shrank, pushed from all four sides by an invisible force before it dissipated.
Toge fell forward and into the depths of unconsciousness.
“Why do you look like you’ve been doing the tango with pigs, dude? We just got out of bed,” Panda asked, laughing at Yuuta’s disheveled appearance as he approached his classmates. He had woken early that morning to continue his work in the garden. He was covered in a fine layer of grime and streaked with dirt on both his skin and clothes, all before the sun had barely reached over the rooftops of the school.
“Yeah...just doing some gardening!” Yuuta said abashedly, rubbing the back of his neck. He hadn’t been able to sleep much anyway. “What’s up with you guys?”
Maki twirled her staff in her hands, leaning back onto Panda as she sighed, “Nothing...Toge should be on his way back by now.”
“Oh, really? It’s been a while. Didn’t he leave around twelve last night?” Yuuta asked as if he hadn't kept track of the exact time that Toge had left. Maki nodded in agreement, unable to speak as she gave a rather loud yawn
“We can go ask Gojou-sensei so we know when to meet Inumaki,” Yuuta bounced on the balls of his feet, not sure whether he was nervous or excited. He’d been antsy to tell Toge about the garden and had been preparing how to break the news to his friend. ‘Hi, Inumaki, I know you just came back from a mission and all, but like, I accidentally crushed your plants and I had to replant them! ’
“I don’t wannaaa! Panda’s comfy,” Maki groaned, sinking into his fur, having just woken up, and missing the warmth of her bed.
Yuuta’s laugh was cut off as he caught two figures in his peripheral, briskly walking in the direction of the entrance. Shoko and Gojou were both wearing a terrible grim look on their faces as they listened to a phone on speaker that Gojou held in his right hand. Yuuta couldn’t hear what was being said, but he knew it couldn’t be pleasant.
“Gojou-sensei?” Yuuta called, waving at his teacher who snapped his head towards the first years. The blindfolded man gestured to them but did not stop walking.
“That doesn’t look good,” Maki commented, her tone apprehensive as she stood, gripping her staff.
Panda and Yuuta shared a look before following Maki, jogging to meet Gojou as he made room for them on the path.
“Ijichi, calm down. Just---are you guys here?” Gojou asked, his voice strained, his mouth curled into a frown.
“We’re about to turn into the school! Please, have Ms. Shoko on standby,” Ijichi, their ‘personal chauffeur’ as Gojou called him, cried.
“I’m right here. We’ll meet you at the entrance,” Shoko said solemnly, picking up her pace as she pulled down the hem on one of her gloves.
“Wait, what’s going on, sensei?!” Yuuta braved to ask, filled with a sudden feeling of dread before Gojou could even reply.
His teacher turned to his students, and Yuuta was again shivering under his gaze, though this time, not just from being unnerved. Something was definitely wrong.
“The curse Toge fought...let’s just say it wasn’t a grade three,” Gojou began, his voice already dipping in shame as his students loudly began simultaneously asking him questions.
He interrupted them all, sweeping his hands back and forth as if swatting a fly, “I’ll answer everything later! Shoko and I just need to get there first.”
They all began to sprint.
Yuuta’s heart was pounding in his ears. What did Gojou mean? Was Toge hurt? All this time, he had been worrying about some stupid tulip buds and hadn’t even stopped to worry about if Toge was alright or not.
They reached the entrance, Shoko and Gojou running in front of the first years to meet the black car halfway as it screeched to a halt. Ijichi quickly threw open the driver’s door, turning to greet the two staff members, bowing repeatedly in apology as Shoko opened the back door.
Gojou dismissed Ijichi with a wave as he ducked into the car. When he came back up, he was holding a still figure in his arms.
“Is that…?” Yuuta breathed, the world suddenly crashing down around him. Maki grabbed onto the sleeve of his jacket, her fingers tightening as she softly gasped. That was confirmation enough.
The white spiky mess of hair, the scarf sitting around his throat, the single black shoe. All splotched with red blood.
Those were the only discernible identifying features of their classmate Toge Inumaki.
Yuuta didn’t know what to do.
Painful memories were suddenly brought back, being replayed in high definition in his mind. He watched as Rika’s body on the pavement transformed into Toge, whose lifeless lavender eyes bore into Yuuta, a halo of ruby glowing around him.
He couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe.
Every logical and cohesive thought was smashed by the feeling of utter despair at the state Toge was in.
It didn’t even matter if he could be healed by Shoko’s reversal technique. The very fact that Toge was this hurt in the first place, that he had suffered through immense pain, and Yuuta had been unable to stop it. That was what was running through his head.
That to this day, he couldn’t protect those he cared about most.
That’s what his brain hyper-fixated on.
When Panda ran forward with more emotion on his face than Yuuta had ever seen and took Toge into his arms. When Maki strode up to Gojou and slapped him across the face with more force than she had ever used against Yuuta in a fight. When Yuuta remained frozen in place and he still couldn’t do anything to help, still couldn’t protect.
That was when it hit him.
That this world would never accept him. That he would never be allowed in. That there was no place for a useless burden like him.
Because he was the one who stood still on the pavement. The one who stood and watched as the paramedics took Rika away. The one who stood and watched as Panda carried Toge to Shoko’s office.
The one who would just continue to curse anyone around him.
He couldn’t even move when it really mattered most. He was a terribly selfish being, and he hated himself for it.
Yuuta Okkotsu had no right to live. His very existence was taboo. He had been spoiled. He had overstayed his welcome.
Was this directly his fault? No. But he couldn’t help but let the ‘what if’s’ tangle him in its black abyss.
What if he had gone with Toge? What if he had cared more? What if he trained harder?
He had trampled on the poor tulips, and in doing so, it felt almost as if he had trampled on Toge himself.
Those tulips probably would’ve grown up to be healthy and strong, maybe just as purple as the beautiful amethyst of Toge’s eyes. But Yuuta had stepped on them, taken their lives. Yuuta and his sack of burdens and worries had broken them under his weight. Toge, who had nourished and cared for those tulips. And Yuuta, who had diseased and destroyed them.
It was as if everywhere he went, he left a trail of disasters and regret.
He was a fool to think that this school was any different. That maybe he had a chance at a somewhat normal life, with friends that he could call his own. Ones that he wouldn’t hurt, or misfortune with his troubles.
But Toge was hurt. Not just ‘rub some dirt in it’ kind of hurt.
His face was...unrecognizable. His clothes were torn beyond repair and he was missing a shoe. His leg was bleeding just as much as his mouth was. But that was just the worst of it. The countless bruises and scratches were just as impossible to ignore as the bigger wounds.
After Maki had finished screaming at Gojou, who faced her as she did so, she grabbed onto Yuuta’s limp arm, dragging him forward behind Panda and Shoko. Yuuta let himself be carried away as he shook himself awake.
“How many fucking times do I have to tell you to not call me that ?” Maki seethed under her breath, her voice wobbly. Yuuta snapped his mouth shut, not used to Maki sounding anything less than commanding and confident.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. About everything. Maki. I have caused you all so much pain and it’s all my fault. And I’m sorry, I…” His voice hitched into a sob as he slowed on the pavement, nearly stopping before Maki yanked on his arm as hard as she could, bringing him dangerously close to her face.
“Don’t tell me you think that this has anything to do with you? How vain are you, you dumb fuck? It’s either that or you’re truly a tragic being,” Maki snorted, practically carrying him at that point.
“I...I think it might be the latter,” Yuuta offered, his voice just barely above a whisper.
“I think that might be it too.”
“But I really am. Sorry, I mean.”
Maki stopped at that, softening her grip on his arm, “Yuuta, really. There’s nothing for you to apologize for. You’re one of us, whether you like it or not. Now, can we please focus on what really matters here?”
Yuuta was stunned, expecting her to agree that he didn’t belong. She had always complained that he was too easy of a competitor, that she hated having to train him. Was that all...a lie?
Had she been...joking?
He hadn’t spent enough time around people or had any friends to know the difference between seriousness and when someone didn’t mean what they said. It was, just as Maki said: painfully tragic.
“You’re right,” Yuuta responded, though didn’t specify which part he agreed with. This time, he dragged her forward as he began to sprint to catch up with Panda.
God, Inumaki...please, be alright.
“What do you mean we can’t see him?” Yuuta cried, more than a tad outraged.
“I mean you can’t see him ,” Shoko nagged back stubbornly, taking a quick swig out of the ‘water’ bottle she had sitting on her desk (Maki had bet Panda that it actually had vodka in it. She won. Yuuta was forced to take the deciding sip and he confirmed that it was indeed alcohol).
“She’s right...I doubt Toge’s even conscious enough for us to talk to him,” Panda said sullenly, his voice so deep and weighted by sadness that Yuuta felt as if he was suffocating under the heaviness of his words.
Shoko had been inside the room for around half an hour. She had healed as much as she could in under five minutes, but the rest was the necessary patching up that she couldn’t do with her technique.
“Yeah, I don’t even know if he can even spout his stupid recipes right now. He took significant damage to his brain. The curse fractured his skull,” Shoko stated plainly, scribbling her signature at the bottom of the report she had filled out for her patient.
Yuuta and Maki winced.
The supposed ‘Grade Three’ curse was anything but gentle, they had learned. Shoko had run out of space on her report when listing the injuries Toge had endured.
“But it’s all good. I fixed him. He’ll wake up soon enough, but you vultures bothering me and hovering over him isn’t going to make him rise from the dead any faster. A watched pot never boils, they say,” Shoko droned monotonously, bringing a finger up as if to further emphasize her stupidly wise yet bland quote.
“I wish you hadn’t put it like that,” Yuuta faltered, his voice very quiet.
“He’s not coming back from the doors of death. I swear you’re like a walking circus whose only act is a clown being sad and depressed,” Maki goaded, ruffling her classmate’s hair affectionately. Yuuta cringed a bit, not sure whether to take all of what she said as a joke or in seriousness.
He decided to sheepishly laugh, giving her a half-hearted haha before turning back to his supposed one-man show of morose.
“That was your cue to leave,” Shoko offered, gesturing to the door without looking up.
Maki sighed, “Let’s go, guys.”
Panda and Yuuta stood, following her reluctantly out of the medical building into the open courtyard where Maki and Yuuta often sparred.
Panda waved goodbye to his friends to go spend some time with the principal, leaving the two alone as they waited in silence, the unasked question on the tip of their tongues.
In the end, neither of them asked it. Yuuta simply picked up a thick wooden stick, and Maki drew her staff and they fought in silence.
Maki didn’t taunt him and Yuuta didn’t ask for any extra rounds. They just knew to continue whenever Yuuta’s stick was knocked out of his hand, or his feet were kicked out from under him. They kept going and going until they felt as if their arms would fall off, and the sun was boring down on them from above.
It had been a full twelve hours since Toge had departed on the mission.
Gojou had explained everything to them already: he had received a mission from the higher-ups stating that there was a simple Grade Three curse that needed to be taken care of. It was like taking out the trash; it would’ve been very easy for Toge. A one and done, just like Gojou had said.
But something had gone horribly, horribly wrong.
Said Grade Three curse had been gobbled up by a rivaling Grade One, a curse that had wandered onto the Three’s territory.
And here they were. Waiting for their friend to wake up. Wallowing in the feeling of utter hopelessness. Remembering that they were still quite young. Brutally reminded that life was a fickle thing.
It was really stupid.
They had all watched movies about teenage life, though had always felt so detached from the troubling creatures played by grown adults on the screen. The teenagers in these films were always struggling with something, always taking a good fifteen minutes to talk about how important life was, how it was something that they had all taken for granted. Something as simple as a character grazing their knee could’ve instigated the suddenly somber conversation.
They’d laugh, joke about how overdramatized the scenes were, or about how fake the makeup looked.
But they sure weren’t laughing now.
“Hey, first-years! He’s awake!” Shoko called from an open window.
Both the students were already breathing heavily but paid their exhaustion no mind as they raced each other to the door, pushing through the office to meet Shoko.
The older woman practically rolled her eyes at them as she unlocked Toge’s door, putting a finger to her lips as they entered the brightly lit room.
Toge looked significantly better and just seeing him, so peaceful and tranquil on the white sheets was enough to calm Yuuta’s beating heart.
He was sitting up in bed, staring out the window with a placid expression on his face. With a pang, Yuuta noticed just how much darker the curse marks on his cheeks suddenly looked against his ghastly pale complexion.
But it didn’t matter.
He was awake!
Toge turned to them, his hair uncharacteristically flat, his gaze characteristically indifferent as he blinked, taking in his flushed and heavily breathing friends. “Mustard leaf?” Are you alright? He was genuinely asking, his eyebrows a little raised at their bright and sweaty red faces.
Maki stepped through the doorway, making her way over to ruffle his hair, “Good morning, Sleeping Beauty.”
Yuuta, who had somewhat understood what Toge was trying to ask, gave a lopsided smile as he joined Maki at Toge’s bedside, “We’re alright. More worried for you than anything!”
“Are you all better?” Maki asked cautiously, her arms open with her hands clenching and unclenching as if waiting for permission for something.
Toge brought his right hand up into a peace sign, blinking slowly, “Salmonnn.”
Maki’s eyes went glassy as she threw herself over him, grabbing him into a hug before he could say anything else. Toge’s eyes squinted as his mouth curled into a small smile, his lips habitually pressed together, dropping his hand to pat her on the back.
“Mustard leaf.” I’m fine. He said softly, placing his other hand on Maki’s hair, stroking it gently.
Yuuta’s lips pursed, unsure what to do. A hug didn’t feel like the right thing to do, and neither did a simple wave or shake of the hand. While he stood there (rather awkwardly, it was important to note), Toge rolled his eyes, watching his stress-filled friend debating with himself.
By the time Yuuta had reached some sort of decision, he turned back toward Toge, who was waiting patiently to see what he had settled upon. Yuuta brought his hand down on top of Toge’s head and patted, slowly and deliberately. Toge sat there, Maki still in his arms, being patted on the head by one of his best friends. The slightest changes in his features were evidence enough to show just how unimpressed he was with Yuuta’s efforts. His eyebrows curled downward and if he could speak in full sentences, he’d be sarcastically chewing him out.
My name is Toge, not Doge.
Yuuta attempted a smile that came out more as a cringe before Toge rolled his eyes, pulling him into a hug, right on top of Maki. She protested before moving aside, making room for him as he cried out in surprise.
Toge laughed a little, a surprising sound, as he didn’t do it often. At first, neither Maki nor Yuuta had recognized it and didn’t acknowledge that it came from their smaller friend. He giggled again as Yuuta struggled with the placement of his hands, unsure what to do with them.
Maki squeezed him a little tighter, “You should do that more often.”
Toge flicked her on the forehead gently, “Bonito flakes.”
“TOOOOGE!” A loud cry boomed through the small room and Toge’s eyes widened at the incoming intruder.
Suddenly, all three of the students on the bed were scooped up into Panda’s grasp, the lumbering giant squeezing them all until Yuuta was tapping his arm as he did whenever Maki had him pinned on the ground.
“KELP!” Hello to you too! Toge coughed out, his lungs suffocating and his body aching at the sudden movement.
Panda quickly let go, dropping all of them onto the ground like sacks of potatoes, “Sorry!”
Toge landed on top of Yuuta with a grunt, his chest pressed to the other's, his nose nearly touching Yuuta's. He stayed like that for a moment, and Yuuta felt as if it had lasted years.
Had Toge's eyelashes always been this long?
Toge, meanwhile, paid him no mind, rolling off and leaving his classmate a blushing mess on the floor. Toge stuck his arms and legs out, stretching and laughing loudly, “Salmon, tuna tuna!” It’s alright! Nice to see you too.
Panda didn’t hesitate a second longer, picking him back up to hug him, gently this time. He swung him once, twice, before placing Toge up on his shoulders for an impromptu piggyback ride.
“I leave you idiots alone for five minutes and you’re already harassing my patient?! What about skull fracture didn’t you get?” Shoko scolded, tapping Panda’s back with her pen aggressively. Toge swung his feet, resting his chin on the top of Panda’s head, sassily saying, “Tuna maaayo.” Alright, Mooom.
“What did he just say, Panda?”
Panda snickered, “I’m not telling!”
“I swear, you lot are just like Gojou. How he managed to make an army of mini-him's is beyond me,” Shoko sighed, helping Toge down from Panda’s shoulders.
“Don’t lump me in with these losers, Ms. Shoko,” Maki grumbled, extending a hand to Yuuta on the ground, whose face was still a furious bright pink from the earlier interaction.
Toge stuck his branded tongue out at her, walking back to his bed. Though there was a slight limp visible, the bandages on his leg were just a precaution. Shoko didn’t want to take chances, encouraging him to get some more rest, especially considering the mounds of head damage he had suffered.
Yuuta shuffled his feet as Toge and Panda conversed, as well as they could anyways. He really didn’t want to ruin the cheerful atmosphere with the news about the garden, so he snapped his mouth shut.
Toge gestured for him to sit at the foot of his bed while Panda told him a story that had no particular relevance.
When Yuuta sat at the very corner, as far away from the rest as possible, Maki drew him in closer, pulling him so that he was almost on top of Toge’s thighs.
Yuuta cried out before scrambling to sit straight, while the rest laughed at him. He gave them all a wobbly smile before relaxing into the warm embrace of friendship, letting out his own throaty laugh at the ridiculousness of his behavior.
They would worry about the rest later.
Later came quicker than Yuuta wanted it to.
The students had been sent back to their dorms, Toge still in the infirmary just for another day before he could be released.
And of course, Yuuta couldn’t sleep.
He never could anyways. It was better for him to stay awake than for him to go to sleep, just to be awoken by the nightmares that disrupted his slumber.
He stood on the wooden tiles of his room, practicing different thrusts with his katana, readjusting his footing as necessary. To encourage himself, he pretended each thrust was piercing through the flesh of the curse that had attacked Toge, even if it was dead.
Gojou had gotten Toge a tablet to transcribe all that had happened that day. Even though the first years weren’t permitted to read it, Yuuta somehow knew what had happened, just based on Gojou’s reactions when he read it.
The life of a jujutsu sorcerer was a difficult one, and Toge knew that. He had chosen this path and had honestly been content with what had happened, virtually apathetic about the suffering he had endured.
Yuuta was a little bewildered, thinking that Toge would be at least a little bit bothered by the encounter. Or even angry at the fact that he had been played. But Toge shrugged as if to say ‘It is what it is.’
It was almost as if Yuuta was more contemptuous about it than Toge.
Which was probably true.
He sighed, sheathing his katana and grabbing for his water bottle, which was completely empty. He let the last few drops fall onto his parched tongue before glancing at the clock. It was twelve in the morning.
It had been twenty-four hours since Toge had gone on his mission.
It also meant that it was too late for anyone to enforce the curfew, given that his superiors were probably asleep or in Shoko and Gojou’s case, out drinking.
Grabbing his robe and coin purse, Yuuta embarked on a mission to the vending machines, willing his aching muscles to move into his slippers.
Quietly he crept out of the dormitories and into the blistering cold. He had somehow forgotten it was November.
So much time had passed since he had started going to school here, and he had really gone through it. He had made friends, went through new experiences, learned how to do something as simple as giving someone a hug.
As much as he wallowed in his own self-pity, and hated himself for being such a hassle, he couldn’t help but indulge in the happiness of it all.
He finally had friends. A life. A purpose. He didn’t feel like an aimless ghost, haunting everywhere he ventured.
Wearing a big, stupid-looking smile on his face, Yuuta turned down the path that led to the vending machines. He would scold himself later, yelling about how he shouldn’t be so selfish, and get attached too quickly. He didn’t deserve all this. People were giving him the benefit of the doubt.
But right now, he let himself hum, spinning like a little kid, the belt of his robe dancing like petals in the wind.
Then he froze, catching sight of another figure on the path, shoulders slumped and hands in pockets as they rounded the corner where the vending machines were housed.
Yuuta recognized him almost immediately, overcome with a mixture of glee and worry. What was Inumaki doing out here so late? Especially in his condition?
He picked up the pace, jogging to meet him. As the distance closed, Toge’s back still turned to him, Yuuta raised a hand to place on his shoulder, “Inumaki, what---”
“DON'T MOVE!” Toge cried, spinning around, hands extended, irises rather small against the white of his eyes.
And time stopped, almost as if Toge's words had been directed at it.
Sudden rigidity seized Yuuta’s body, freezing him into the ground, like a plant spreading its roots. The command inhibited his movements, so he couldn’t turn his face away from the weight of Toge’s pain-stricken grimace.
The purples of his eyes were as good as gone, wilted away by his panic. His stance was identical to the first time Yuuta had met him, save for the fact that he wasn’t wearing his scarf.
The gaze was exactly the same though, and that’s what hurt the most.
The wild-eyed glare that screamed ‘I don’t trust you ’. The defensive pose that blared the warning ‘Don’t get any closer ’. The shaking raised fists that meant ‘Take another step, and you’re dead. ’
Time had stopped.
Yuuta, frozen in place, a little scared at the weird feeling of paralyzation and Toge...
Then Toge gasped, bringing his hands up to his face as if he could stuff the words back into his mouth. Yuuta was still stuck, hand extended, like a statue in a museum. With his own shaking fingers, he gently touched Yuuta’s as if to confirm that he had gone under his curse. When he didn’t move, Toge gasped again, this time a sob ripping out of his throat as he realized what he had done. His hands were reaching at anything and everything, first his hair, then his clothes as he opened and closed his mouth in silent screams, nearly hyperventilating.
Yuuta wanted so badly to reach out and reassure him. To tell him that it was okay, that he understood. That it wasn’t his fault.
After another two seconds of him watching Toge break down in front of him, Yuuta could move again and he snapped his hand away as if he had touched a hot kettle, holding it to his chest.
At that, Toge let out a woeful moan, realizing that Yuuta was probably terrified of him now. That he had cursed yet another being. One that he cared for, even.
“Tuna. Caviar! Bonito flakes, tuna!” Sorry. Fuck! I’m so sorry. Please, forgive me. Toge fell to the ground on his knees, arms outstretched, his shoulders losing all their rigidness as he let out a shaky sob into the pavement. He was speaking more than Yuuta had ever heard. Usually, it was an average of two ingredients per interaction, but this time...
Yuuta’s hands fell limply at his sides, twisting at his pajamas as he watched Toge lose all sense of sanity, his breaths coming out in shuddering gasps, and realized he recognized this.
The pale complexion, the sunken eye bags, the shaking shoulders, and staying up late. The apologizing, the look of pure agony, the sobs and screams.
Toge looked exactly like him.
Bringing himself down to Toge’s level, he raised a hesitant hand up. Yuuta again gently grasped Toge’s shoulder, slowly moving his hand back and forth in an attempt to comfort him.
“Inumaki...calm down, please. It’s alright, I promise. Breathe, please,” Yuuta didn’t know what else to say, on the border of falling into his own panic. How could he reassure Toge that this was fine? He knew from personal experience that the simple, ‘It’s okay' never worked. He would always carry around the guilt that he had hurt others and he knew that Toge probably carried that around too.
Panda’s words flashed suddenly in his mind.
‘Toge had his hardships in the past. Like cursing people when he didn’t mean to. It’s actually similar to your circumstances, Yuuta.’
“BONITO FLAKES!” No! Toge cried, his head still down, balling his hand into a fist and slamming it onto the concrete, the other grabbing at Yuuta's shirt roughly. The movement was similar to the way he had been beaten when he had accidentally cursed others back at his family’s estate. In a way, he felt as if by punching like this, he could instill the punishment on himself. He punched downward again and again, until Yuuta circled his wrist, halting the punishing movement.
“Are you...Are you alright, Inumaki?” Yuuta faltered, feeling the other boy relax into his touch, despite himself. Toge’s strength was dissolving. He was shaking so hard that Yuuta was scared he was having a seizure. He unclenched his fist, bringing it down to rest on Yuuta's thigh, next to the other hand still holding onto the latter's shirt.
“...Salmon,” He affirmed after a moment’s hesitation, a shiver running through his body. He was fine. But Yuuta on the other hand…
He had cursed Yuuta.
He had cursed Yuuta.
He had cursed Yuuta.
He had cursed Yuuta.
I CURSED YUUTA.
Yuuta acted quickly, slipping off his robe to wrap around Toge, bringing him into his arms without hesitation.
He knew how this felt. To be so utterly alone and scared and cold. Especially after what had happened at the cemetery, Toge was still understandably jumpy. He probably couldn’t sleep as well, maybe not used to the feeling of fear or the awful recurrence of memories as reality. His sleeplessness had gone so far as to make him use his curse words.
It didn’t matter.
In his own personal experience, Yuuta had always felt a sort of emptiness whenever he woke up from nightmares or remembered things he didn’t want to. He realized now that that feeling was him craving this warmth he was embracing now. That the emptiness was his body wanting to hug someone. Since he had never had the pleasure of hugging anyone in quite a while, it was a foreign feeling to him.
He would realize later that this hug wasn’t just for Toge, but for himself as well. He would hate himself all over again, curse at himself for being so selfish, but right now, he could do nothing but melt.
Yuuta felt Toge’s smaller hands tighten on the back of his shirt, pushing his face deeper into his chest. He let out a sigh, borderline a sob, practically liquifying in Yuuta’s arms, before he whispered, “Tuna…” I’m so sorry.
“Inumaki, really. It’s okay. I’m fine, see?” Yuuta pulled back slowly to show him that he was completely unscathed.
Toge’s face quickly flushed red hot, embarrassed at the disgustingly vulnerable position Yuuta had caught him in. Snot was uncomfortably building in his nostrils, his cheeks sticky with tears, his eyes puffy and watery, and he was still holding onto Yuuta. He shouldn’t have reacted like that to Yuuta spooking him. Even if the memories of the curse sneaking up on him and the familial assassinations were fresh on his mind, he was stupid to lash out as he did. He wished he could aim his curse words at himself.
He'd tried that before.
Back at the estate.
Back when everyone was set on killing him, discreetly or otherwise.
He decided to make it easier on them.
In his bedroom, in the middle of the night, in his nightwear, young Toge walked to the tall mirror up against his wall. The light of the moon shone through his open window, casting its milky glow on the mangled body of a man on the floor. Another attempted murder.
Toge tried to let it happen, but somehow the cursed words flew out of his mouth, sworn by oath to protect its master, even if its master didn't want to live.
So he resorted to using them against himself.
He stood in front of the mirror, his face still blotchy and red from the tears he had cried over the man, his sleeve hanging off his shoulder...the curse marks the darkest kind of black against his skin, like a permanent stain. His mouth pulled into a grimace as new tears pooled in his eyes.
He opened his mouth, glaring himself down, and screamed, "DIE!"
It hadn't worked.
It was as if the world was spiting him. That now that he actually wanted to die, he wasn't allowed to.
In a way, this was one of the reasons Yuuta had grown on him so quickly. Yuuta had wanted to kill himself as well, but he had a curse that wanted to keep him alive, tormenting him until the day he died.
“But you, are you okay? You’re not hurt or anything, are you?” Yuuta’s blue eyes were filled with so much worry that it hurt Toge to look at them for too long. He didn't deserve someone to care for him the way Yuuta did. Toge had been the one that wanted to care for Yuuta, not vice versa. He deserved anger, hatred, and contempt from Yuuta but his blue eyes were anything but angry. The color was the same shade as the tulips Toge had been growing in his garden, and just that thought alone crushed him.
In a way, the tulips reminded Toge of Yuuta. He liked tulips and he liked Yuuta. He had wanted to take care of Yuuta, just like he had the tulips. Plants were like a new beginning. They always grew, even if they did slowly. They blossomed up to the sun and opened their petals to the inviting warmth. But Toge had stomped them to the ground, blocking it from the sun. His curses had poisoned Yuuta’s tulips. His very existence was a taboo amongst not only the jujutsu sorcerers but the hypothetical garden he had created in his mind.
He brought a hand up to his face, using the other to wave at Yuuta. “Mustard leaf.” Don’t worry, I’m fine. “Tuna.” I’m sorry.
“Look at me,” Yuuta commanded.
When Toge turned his head further away, his chin digging into his shoulder and the hood of the robe, Yuuta tightened his grip on Toge’s arms, his fingers just about encircling the other’s biceps.
Had Yuuta always been so big?
At that, Toge drew his gaze to him, reluctantly so. Yuuta had never called him by his first name before.
“It’s okay. You did nothing wrong; just relax, please. You’re not one to make mistakes often. You’re so reliable and---and I just want you to know that even if you do that again to me, I will one hundred percent trust you,” Yuuta was almost pleading now, trying to get his point across without placing any blame on Toge.
The latter’s eyes welled quickly with tears again as he lowered his head to hide them, banging it on Yuuta’s knee, moaning, “Bonito flaaaakes.”
Yuuta brought an unwavering hand up to Toge’s hair, running his fingers through it ever so slightly as if calming a spooked animal. Earlier, he had patted Toge awkwardly, hesitation in every rise and fall of his fingers, but this time, the motion was fueled by Yuuta’s sheer affection, sure and secure as his fingers glided against silky soft tendrils of white.
Suddenly he grew rigid, his hand freezing as he remembered: the tulips!
“Inumaki…I--I don’t know how to say this,” Yuuta grabbed at the ends of his bangs, bringing them down to cover his eyes as Toge slowly sat up, bringing the robe closer around himself.
He didn’t say anything, but his eyes glinted with nervousness.
“I...When you were gone on your mission, I accidentally smashed your tulips. I’m so sorry, I replaced them and everything and I made sure to follow the instructions very carefully and didn’t put that much fertilizer, I promise! I’m so sorry, please, please, please, forgive me!” This time it was his turn to bow, folding over his knees and clasping his hands together.
Toge was silent for a moment before he chuckled a little, tapping the top of Yuuta’s head to bring him back up, “Bonito flakes! Salmon roe!” No, it’s fine, you idiot!
Yuuta joined in, laughing a little hesitantly, though not sure why.
Toge stuck his tongue out in concentration as he pondered on what he could do next. Trying to convey this was going to be hard.
He pointed at Yuuta’s eyes and Yuuta flinched back, unsure what Toge was trying to do. With an exasperated sigh, the latter pointed again before Yuuta cautiously responded, “Eyes...no? Oh, blue?”
Toge nodded, “Salmon.”
“What about it?”
Toge made a gesture with his hands, like a flower blossoming, his hands clasped in prayer before he separated his fingers slowly. He wiggled them until they were apart and just the base of his palms were touching.
“Blooming? Oh! Oh, the tulips?” Yuuta felt like he was playing a weird game of charades.
“Ok, the tulips, they were...blue?”
Toge vigorously nodded, stabbing his finger into Yuuta’s chest, “Yuuta. ”
Yuuta’s eyes widened at his name in Toge’s voice. It was so foreign, he had never heard Toge call anyone by their names.
“Me?...” He breathed.
“Yuuta,” and Toge did the same motion he had done before, with the tulips blooming.
“I’m...I’m the tulip?”
He brought up his fingers, holding up four of them before pointing at Yuuta, “Yuuta .”
Yuuta had never heard that one before and was left completely baffled at what Toge meant. Unbeknownst to the former, Toge had purposefully used an unknown word, that he scarcely spoke, so that Yuuta wouldn’t be able to translate it or use any past experiences to understand what it meant.
“Is it bad I don’t know what that means?” Yuuta sheepishly asked, bringing a hand up to scratch at his neck. Toge laughed again, his eyes scrunching and his teeth showing just a little bit.
Yuuta failed to see how he was anything but a curse. A taboo, a burden to any and all around him. And Toge felt the same way.
They were taboos in a garden of tulips.
People were weird.
How could a person who tormented the very ground they walked on be able to bring tranquility and happiness into someone’s life? How could someone who deserved nothing but the worst life had to offer, be given so much?
What had Gojou said?
‘Love is the most twisted curse of them all. ’
Yeah, that was it.
Maybe they had been cursed. Besides Yuuta’s Rika and Toge’s speech, I mean.
Maybe their hearts had been cursed.
And maybe this curse wasn’t... bad.
Maybe it shined a light down on the budding tulips in their gardens. And maybe they would venture into the depths of each other’s hearts and out of every tulip they saw in the garden, they picked the other’s. Yuuta would always pick purple, while Toge would always pick blue.
Maybe this curse overpowered their own weaknesses and showed them there was more to this life than their troubles.
Maybe they were thinking too deeply about it.
Because, plain and simple, these were two people, sitting on the pavement in the cold, suddenly infinitely times lighter.
Two people who deserved to live.
Two people who were just that. People.
Two people whose hearts burned brightly with the power of thousands of suns as their tulips were handpicked by each other.
For a moment, there were no curses, or techniques, or sorcerers, or taboos, or even tulips.
It was Yuuta Okkotsu and Toge Inumaki.
And that was all that they needed.