Natsumi wasn't in her room.
"Shit," Fuyuhiko Kuzuryuu said when he realized that his sister, stubborn and prideful as she was, had returned to school. He slammed her door closed and darted for the garage security monitor, heedless of the demands his mother made not to run in the house.
Her favorite towncar was gone. The driver had already pulled away to take her to Hope's Peak, and back into striking distance of whoever had left her concussed and bloody not even a week earlier.
Didn't she care how much it had hurt to get that call that she'd been rushed to the hospital? Fuck! She wouldn't tell anyone who'd done it, she'd barely accept any help even though she still got dizzy, and now she'd strolled back into danger. Either her arrogance or anger was in control, and both could get her killed for real this time.
"Young master?" asked a quiet, concerned voice behind him. "Are you leaving already? You haven't eaten breakfast."
He turned to Peko, who held up a piece of toast with a thin layer of jam in one hand and a small mug of coffee in the other. "Come on, we need to go," Fuyuhiko ordered and grabbed the bookbag he'd left near the garage door.
Surprise bloomed in her eyes. He always wanted them to take separate cars to arrive at the academy, but there was no time for that. "Nozaki!" Fuyuhiko called to his usual driver. "Get the car out, now!"
The man leaned backward out of the servants' dining area. "You haven't eaten breakfast," he said, pointing a broad finger toward the toast in Peko's hand.
God damn it! Everyone in this house treated him like a fucking child. "Now," Fuyuhiko growled and shoved his feet into his shoes. Peko obediently found her own and didn't bother returning to her room for her bookbag. Her shinai was, as always, already strapped on.
It took several blocks before he realized that Peko had brought the toast and coffee with her into their chauffeured ride. He turned away from the window, his gut twisted in a knot from worry. She looked just as concerned as he felt... but her hands still balanced his breakfast.
With a sigh, he took it and nibbled at a crust.
"Young master?" she prompted in the silence after he'd eaten a little and washed it down. "You're acting as if there's an emergency, but no one else in the household was on alert."
"Natsumi went to school. I can't believe that stupid bitch." His baby sister was going to get herself killed, and she'd never even let him try to help. "Why didn't you stop her?"
Dismay painted Peko's face. "I'm sorry. I didn't feel as if it was my place." Because she was his shadow, not Natsumi's, and so Fuyuhiko was the one who lived with her constant murmured reminders of what might pose a threat. Even though it truly wasn't Peko's responsibility to keep Natsumi at heel, Fuyuhiko's anger cowed her. Her head bowed. "I am very sorry."
Damn it. This wasn't right. He wanted to apologize for snapping, but Nozaki was listening silently from his driver's seat. His father spent the whole day mad whenever he heard that his heir hadn't maintained the 'proper relationship' toward 'his underlings.' It'd have to wait for campus.
"You're going to miss because of training," Fuyuhiko decided as he pulled out his phone and considered the list of contacts. "When you left after being satisfied with a form, you saw me arriving late and came to see if something had happened." He was never late. It'd pique anyone's curiosity.
He couldn't give his own excuse of an injury on the way to school, or Mikan would try to strip him down to inspect it. Freak. Same with the excuse of his driver hitting a stray dog; Gundham would want to strike them all down for cruelty against 'one of the city's most vulnerable sentries.'
Sometimes the simplest excuses were the best. Family business, he texted Sonia. Tell Yukizome I'll be late. No one else knew about complicated family obligations better than the princess.
She'd already replied with some custom glittery emoji when he slid his phone away. "She's probably gone straight to her building," Fuyuhiko decided as they approached the campus. Students streamed out of the dormitories for out-of-towners, and groups of chatting friends filled the sidewalks. In theory, the attacker could have been any of them, but he did have his suspicions. "I think whoever went after her came from the Reserve Course."
"Why is that?"
It was a fair question. Natsumi wanted desperately to get into the Main Course, though she tried to hide the intensity of her desire from the family. With her hot head, she might assume that killing some Ultimate Whatever might open up a spot. Maybe that Ultimate had fought back.
But there was a more likely option. "The people who'd want to kill Natsumi," Fuyuhiko theorized, "are probably the people who spend the most time around her."
It was Peko's duty to be loyal to the Kuzuryuu clan, but even she couldn't argue with that.
"I believe you are right, young master," she said as Nozaki turned into the commuter lot's driveway. "If there was suspicion that she was involved with someone from the Main Course, you likely would have been interviewed."
Fuyuhiko nodded silently. That was also solid logic.
"Come on," he said as soon as they'd parked, and climbed out of the car. Peko set his mug neatly down in a drink holder and followed. "The Reserve building is this direction, right?"
The full campus was so much bigger than he remembered. Natsumi didn't want him seeing her 'ugly trash classmates,' so he'd never gone to the Reserve quadrant to visit her. Whenever he did cross all of campus, it was with the distraction of walking with others from Class 77-B. Now it seemed like a well-manicured, expensive marathon before he could see if his sister was all right.
Peko could have easily left him behind. She stayed level at his side. Holding to a walk was infuriating, but they couldn't draw too much attention. "Morning is the busiest time of day," Peko murmured, "with the most arrivals from unexpected parties. It would be the least likely time to launch an assault."
That helped a little. Peko was very good at threat assessment.
Though he'd anticipated bursting into Natsumi's full classroom to see if her seat was occupied, Fuyuhiko didn't need to bother. His sister was in front of the building's main entrance, chatting with a classmate and looking for all the world like she hadn't skimmed along life and death a handful of days earlier. She'd even used concealer on her neck's lingering bruises.
"What the hell are you doing?" Fuyuhiko demanded, running up to her. A few passing Reserve Course students looked curiously at him and Peko in their Main Course uniforms. "You're not supposed to come back for another week. At least!"
Even if Natsumi refused to share any information about her assailant, with another week he was sure he could have tracked the target down on his own. Knowing that she was coming back to a pacified environment would have been the ideal. At the very least, he could have turned some of these students into reliable informants.
Naturally, Natsumi didn't appreciate his concern. She never did. "What are you doing here?" She leaned forward, trying to put bit of height she had over him to use, but he wouldn't be cowed. He was clearly in the right, and that tactic only worked when they were both wrong. (Which, to be fair, did happen a lot.)
"It makes more sense for me to be here than you, today," Fuyuhiko snapped with a gesture toward the Reserve building. "What the fuck are you thinking? Someone tried to kill you!"
"And you think I'm going to just take that?" Natsumi's lip curled. "Lying down in my room like some pathetic invalid? She thinks she can take me on, but—"
"Another girl," Fuyuhiko said with satisfaction. "I knew it."
Natsumi's mouth twisted into an even more sour expression and she said nothing.
"Identify yourself," Peko said abruptly and laid her shinai on the shoulder of Natsumi's acquaintance. Only then did Fuyuhiko pay any mind to the boy. He was staggeringly normal and obviously posed no threat, and so he'd just been a background object to their conversation, like a trash can or a bush.
As if she'd held a gun to him instead of a bamboo sword, the boy swallowed and his voice shook. "Uh. Hello. I'm Hajime Hinata, and I was just leaving."
Trying to leave? That must have been why Peko snapped to attention.
"I'm guessing you're the brother she keeps talking about," Hajime said weakly when they waited for more.
Keeps... talking about? Fuyuhiko turned to Natsumi, his eyebrows high, and waited for an explanation.
Her blush deepened. "No one asked for your input," Natsumi muttered toward Hajime.
Hmm. That was far less aggressive than she'd be toward most people, and she'd apparently had multiple conversations with him. By choice, too. Maybe Natsumi had made some semblance of a friend in her classroom. That meant that this normal kid might know something about who'd gone after Natsumi. And unlike a pampered yakuza princess, normal kids tended to talk when they realized who was asking the questions.
"Run through the exercises the doctor gave her, Peko," Fuyuhiko ordered. When Natsumi began to protest, he snapped, "Fucking do it, or I'll tell Dad you snuck out against doctor's orders."
After a poisonous glare, Natsumi started tracking Peko's moving fingertip with her pupils.
"So, you know my sister?" Fuyuhiko asked Hajime when the girls were sufficiently occupied.
"Kind of. A little, I guess." Hajime looked ready to put up his hands. If he knew Natsumi well enough for a casual conversation, and saw Fuyuhiko's Main Course uniform, then he'd know perfectly well that he was standing in front of the heir to Japan's largest criminal clan. And that heir was in a remarkably bad mood.
But he didn't actually raise his hands, and he stood his ground. Brave. No wonder he was able to tolerate Natsumi. This guy would definitely have useful intel.
Fuyuhiko began with the obvious: verifying that the source was trustworthy. "Almost everyone is in the classrooms already. Why were you out here to wait for her? Did you know she was coming?"
That rapid string of questions had Hajime swallowing even harder. "No. But this is the last day I'd be in class. I've been worried about her ever since we heard she got hurt. I wanted to wait just in case she showed up today."
"Last day?" Odd timing. It was the middle of the term.
Hajime's gaze dropped. "Uh. Yeah. Today's the deadline for something. I was thinking about signing up last week, but then Natsumi got hurt and... I guess I wanted to wait as long as possible, so that I could hear that she was okay before I did anything."
"Deadline?" Fuyuhiko echoed. "What deadline?"
"It doesn't matter," Hajime said after a long, pained pause. "Just a school program. People keep telling me I shouldn't bother with it. It doesn't have to do with anything that happened to your sister."
Whatever. He wasn't here for the drama of some random kid's personal life. At first that had all sounded mildly intriguing, like there was subterfuge going on in the Reserve Course, but it was safe to say that Hajime Hinata's personal crisis was irrelevant. "I don't want her going to the hospital again," Fuyuhiko said in a softer, lower growl. "Or the goddamn morgue. Do you have any idea who might have done this?"
Hajime swallowed uncertainly and looked away. "I... it seemed like kind of personal business...."
Oh, hell no. This kid knew something and he wasn't going to get away with hiding it. Just as he leaned in to draw the full story out of Hajime, Fuyuhiko's phone buzzed incessantly. He always kept it silenced by habit, and it felt like he had a hive of angry bees in his pocket. "For fuck's sake, Sonia," he snapped and dug it out. Before checking his texts, he pointed at Hajime. "You: don't move."
It wasn't Sonia sending the string of concerned texts about his family. She'd apparently informed the class, who'd heard last week about the attack, and their oh-so-helpful representative was now transcribing an entire room's worth of questions. Mikan was convinced that Natsumi had suffered an aneurysm and Nekomaru wanted to help her with any needed physical therapy. "For fuck's sake, Chiaki."
"Chiaki?" Hajime repeated with surprise. "Chiaki Nanami? You're in her class?"
"Huh?" Fuyuhiko blinked. A second later, he brought his phone up and snapped a picture of Hajime's face.
"What are you doing?" Hajime sputtered.
Fuyuhiko ignored him. Do you know this guy? he replied to one of Chiaki's many texts. From the obviously startled reply he got, yes, she did. His hand flew over the keyboard. Is he trustworthy?
Yes. He was.
"You're not leaving," Fuyuhiko ordered Hajime. He reached for his wallet and flipped to the part of the billfold he reserved for family business. "You're sticking by my sister's side, getting her out of the class the second the bell rings, and coming home with her."
Hajime's huge eyes said that no, he very much did not want to do all of that.
"And," Fuyuhiko said, pressing the bills he'd retrieved into Hajime's palm, "the Kuzuryuu clan will be grateful for your assistance."
Hajime's eyes boggled more at the money in his hand.
"I. Uh." Hajime swallowed, then moved to return the money with a shaking hand. Didn't this fucker know not to refuse a favor? "I... I might be busy...."
"With something more important than my sister's life?" Fuyuhiko snapped.
Hajime swallowed again. His hand dropped to his side.
Shit. The guy was about to freak out and run. It was time to violate the no-call rule in class. "Chiaki!" Fuyuhiko snapped the second she responded, then slapped the speaker phone button.
"Is your sister okay?" Chiaki sounded concerned, as did the murmurs behind her, and Hajime sucked in a breath at her voice. If there'd been any confusion over whether the school might have two Chiaki Nanamis, he was now fully convinced.
"No. She shouldn't be here, but she's going to sit around where she nearly died. Like a goddamn moron!" His fingers clenched around the phone. "Look. You apparently know a guy who's friends with her, and Hinata wants to bail on keeping an eye out for Natsumi until we can get her home tonight. Convince him."
She considered that. "I'll hang up. Accept the video call." Fuyuhiko did, and tilted the screen toward Hajime when Chiaki appeared on it. "Hajime, why won't you look out for his sister? That doesn't seem like you."
"I... it's not that I don't want to," Hajime said and pulled on the straps of his bookbag. (Even though the thought of becoming embroiled in yakuza business obviously terrified him.) "I just... today is busy."
"Busy?" Chiaki repeated with dismay and disbelief.
"It might be busy," he amended. "I'm still deciding."
"Please, Hajime," Chiaki said softly. "I know things have seemed hard recently, but this should be an easy choice. You care about people. You're good at it, I can tell."
"Good at it," Hajime echoed, like that meant something bigger.
"There's nothing more important than taking care of people. Don't you think?"
Hajime looked mutely at the phone.
"And there's nothing to make anyone prouder of themselves. Right?"
He wilted under her questioning.
"Don't you think?" Chiaki repeated. Much of their class had clustered in behind her. "Fuyuhiko can't be with his sister all day. You're the only one who can, Hajime. You're the only one who can do this. We're all counting on you."
"Yeah!" enthused Akane in the background. She turned to Ibuki. "Who are we talking to?"
"You're the only one who can do this," Chiaki repeated. Fuyuhiko stared at Hajime as the words settled in.
It looked like the guy was bearing the world on his shoulders, and it had just cracked in half. The weight was gone, but it wasn't good news. "I'll do it, Chiaki," Hajime agreed with a rough laugh. His eyes grew glossy, but the tiny smile that appeared seemed real. "I guess... this can be my talent, instead."
Huh? Whatever. The guy'd agreed to it. "Thanks," Fuyuhiko said and hung up without waiting for a response. He instantly clicked over to a map of campus. "Her driver comes to this parking lot at the end of the day. Don't let her linger. Do not let her go to the bathroom afterward. Take her straight there, get in the car with her, and ride home with her. Then we'll figure out what to do tomorrow."
That wiped the tiny smile off Hajime's face. "I. Uh. Won't be in class tomorrow."
"The hell you're skipping!"
"No. It's not that." Hajime smiled again, lopsidedly. "My tuition payment runs out today."
"The hell you're skipping," Fuyuhiko repeated, his eyes blazing, and Hajime began to look very much like a cornered animal. "Are you going to be in that car tonight?"
"I don't think I can say no, at this point," Hajime said. Just in case he could, he tried to return the money Fuyuhiko had given to him.
Fuyuhiko closed Hajime's fingers around the bills. "You can't. I'll see you then. You should get to class. Natsumi will be there soon," he added with a pointed glare toward his sister.
She and Peko had finished their tests in the middle of the conversation, yet she hadn't argued during any of Hajime's instructions. Peko looked calm and resolute, while Natsumi was sulking. He knew what that meant: she'd bombed the health checks and given him all the blackmail material he could want.
Hajime looked between the trio, sighed, and nodded. Before he entered the Reserve building, his footsteps heavy with resignation, Hajime opened the bookbag he'd gripped so nervously and pulled something from it. The stack of papers received one lingering inspection before he slid them into the trash.
"If you don't want me telling Dad how badly you fucked up your checks just now," Fuyuhiko said as soon as Hajime was gone, "you're going to go along with everything you just heard."
Natsumi scowled, but said nothing.
"Do not go to the bathroom alone. Peko will come over here at lunch and take you. And she's going to walk you to your classroom now." It wasn't like these Reserve Course kids would blab to his classmates about her escorting a Kuzuryuu.
"Of course, young master."
"Are you serious?" Natsumi demanded.
"Do you want me to tell Dad?" Fuyuhiko reminded his sister.
Her fists balled. "You're going to pay for this," Natsumi promised. Yeah, he would. She'd still be alive to make his life hell, and that was good enough.
"That was all very well managed, young master," Peko murmured before she left with Natsumi. After a moment, Fuyuhiko allowed a smile to inch into existence. His ego certainly felt better while waiting for Peko's return than it had back at the house.
Eventually Peko left the Reserve building just as she'd entered it: unquestioned. Though Natsumi wasn't allowed to come visit his building, Main Course students had nearly the full run of campus, for whatever reason they wished. To his surprise, before returning to Fuyuhiko's side, Peko silently reached over and retrieved the documents that Hajime had thrown in the trashcan. Her brow dipped as she scanned the front page.
"Why'd you grab that?" Fuyuhiko asked. The sheets were obviously for Hajime's 'program,' but it had sounded like some Reserve-level class trip, or something else similarly irrelevant.
"I... cannot be certain, but I got the feeling as Hinata spoke that this program was significant." Peko frowned, then neatly folded the papers and offered them to Fuyuhiko. "If you would not mind, young master. I did leave my bookbag at home today."
Fine, fine. He slid the papers for Hajime's project between two notebooks, then re-fastened the cover. It still might be nothing, but there was no reason to distrust Peko's instincts.
She was very good at threat assessment.