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Paper and Steel

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"Hey, look," Fuyuhiko hesitantly began as he and Peko walked across campus toward the Main Course building. Classes had begun, and only a few Reserve stragglers were visible in the distance. A handful of Main Course students sat outside to meditate, exercise, or sketch the landscape rather than visit their classrooms. Otherwise, they were alone.

"Yes? Is something else wrong?"

"No." He grimaced. "Yes. Uh... I'm sorry I said this was your fault, earlier."

"You were very worried about the young mistress," Peko said, as perfectly proper as ever. "That much was obvious."

He shoved his hands in his pockets. "Still doesn't make it right."

"I don't mind."

Ugh. Shit. Sometimes he missed being a kid. It wasn't patronizing to get babied when he actually was that young, Natsumi hadn't yet turned into such a holy terror, and Peko... he sighed, even though doing so caught her notice. His parents had steadily shaped them all into their respective responsibilities as they aged. He missed the Peko who wasn't speaking his mother's words with her own voice.

"You should mind," Fuyuhiko settled on.

"Should?" Peko echoed, and damn it, again she sounded concerned that she'd done something wrong. No. Strike that. She sounded concerned that she'd done something improper for her place.

They walked a while in silence as he struggled for some answer that would break through the shell she'd spent years polishing. "I want you to tell me how you honestly felt last summer."

"Last summer?" she echoed, confused, and stopped mid-stride.

"When my parents got in that huge argument over the ship being seized in Singapore." His mother had pushed for the route against his father's wishes, and then he'd changed her plans on how to make the drop. Singapore was a lucrative market, but a damn tough nut to crack, and the crossed wires on that attempt had led to a half-ton of seized goods and the arrests of trustworthy men.

They'd gone at each other like he'd rarely seen. It was always a risk to be in the crossfire between his parents, but he'd never before stumbled away holding a hand to his bloody neck. It hadn't been a deadly wound and wasn't near an artery, but Peko had looked terrified to see blood seeping between his fingers as he clutched his throat.

She'd looked far beyond terrified.

Even months later, the memory greyed her face. "Why are you asking me about that night?" Peko asked in a tight, quiet voice.

"The only thing I did wrong that night was accidentally get too close."

"You did nothing wrong," she insisted. Her loyalty was supposedly to both his parents and him, and so she shouldn't have reacted that way... but he'd known that she would. "You had nothing to do with the situation, you should not have been hurt!"

He looked pointedly at Peko and waited for the connection to come. Though he saw it dawn in her eyes, she didn't admit to the conclusion she'd reached. Fine. He'd say it for her, then. "You had nothing to do with this. I shouldn't have yelled."

His mother would want Peko to deny that Fuyuhiko had made any mistake. Fuyuhiko wanted her to act like the childhood friend who'd argue with him, or lecture that he was about to get into trouble. Fuck, he hoped she was still in there to say the right thing. It was so hard to tell, sometimes.

A hint of a smile edged her voice. "Young master... thank you. That's appreciated."

He cleared his throat and set back into motion. "Yeah. Well." He'd been so good with
words back around that Hinata kid. Peko's awkward gratefulness had him acting all awkward, too. "We're almost there."

Peko nodded, and he knew the words 'young master' would vanish until they returned home. He didn't want his classmates to think he had a hanger-on granted by his family, but he also wanted Peko to be seen as her own person by their classmates, rather than as some extension of him. Did she know that? Maybe he should explain it more clearly than he had, but that'd be awkward, too.

"Is everything okay?" demanded Chisa Yukizome the moment Fuyuhiko opened the classroom door. Nearly the entire classroom loomed behind her like a Greek chorus.

"Everything is all right," Peko confirmed. At their confusion over her presence, she explained, "I was leaving my training and saw him hurrying toward the Reserve Course building. I went to offer assistance, if needed."

Chisa breathed a long sigh and placed a hand to her heart. "I was so worried! And thank you for helping out, Peko." Joy bubbled up to replace her concern. "It's wonderful to see you all acting like friends!"

"Natsumi's fine," Fuyuhiko snapped when he saw the class still staring at him even after he'd taken his desk. Did they expect a full debriefing? "What the hell are you all looking at me for?"

"And he's back," Kazuichi confirmed.

Theirs was a class built on drama and interruptions, and so even this excitement soon smoothed out. They were well practiced in getting over things. Instead, everyone's attention settled on the blackboards covered in notes about their upcoming practical exams. Some people had obvious tasks in front of them: Akane would give a gymnastics exhibition, Ryota would show a completed clip, and Hiyoko would try to convince the media that she was a masterful dancer instead of a sadistic little shit. For others, there was less that Chisa could do to help them prepare. Still, she tried.

Almost immediately after Fuyuhiko had scanned the scrawl on the blackboards, a text popped up in Chiaki's already-busy window. He did help her in the end, right?

He? Oh. Yeah. You're the only reason I'm trusting this Hinata guy, you know.

It wasn't exactly a threat, but she didn't seem fazed by the stern reminder. You can trust Hajime with your sister. I promise.

He sure hoped so. He's riding home with her, so I'd better be able to. This conversation should have ended after the first exchange, but he couldn't turn her down if she wanted to talk. Not after her help.

Chiaki didn't reply immediately, and he risked turning far enough to see her mild surprise. Oh. Thank you for telling me. I would have looked for him after school, otherwise. It's okay if I know where he's gone.

Fuyuhiko raised an eyebrow at his phone. Well, then. That's why she always left promptly at the bell, with focus like she seldom showed. Their trustworthy class rep was crushing on some random from the Reserve Course, who'd just happened to befriend his sister, and was out in front to be chatted with because today happened to be some sort of deadline. These were some wild odds.

After a second of thought, he decided against giving Nagito even a whisper of credit for how all these parts had fallen so neatly together. Not even in his own mind was he going to praise that bastard.

Some hours later, he had to sit next to that same bastard on the floor. In a circle. Like they were friends.

And Nagito kept trying to hold hands.

Nearly everyone with visible skills had already left to focus on their individual practice. Though Chisa usually favored keeping everyone in the same room, for now she wished to focus only on those who hadn't already come up with an exam plan of attack. Peko was off practicing her forms and Fuyuhiko was still stuck in the classroom, sitting cross-legged between Nagito and Sonia.

"Let's all envision our futures," Nagito said, and reached for Fuyuhiko's left hand, "and understand the scale of the hope we need to reach them!"

"Stop grabbing me!" Fuyuhiko snapped. On Nagito's other side, Nekomaru firmly pressed Nagito's outstretched hand against the floor and held it there.

"Nagito is right," Chisa said with her near-permanent smile, though it faded for a moment as her head tilted in confusion. "I... I think. All of you want to be given permission to stay in Hope's Peak for next year. Well, you must come up with a demonstration grand enough to make that dream a reality!"

"That's exactly what I meant!" Nagito enthused, as unflappable as ever. "I'm sure any of you true Ultimates will be able to achieve whatever goals you set."

Fuyuhiko turned to Sonia. "Switch places with me."

Primly, she shook her head.

"It's tricky, though." Chiaki tugged her sleeves over her hands. "You can't reach a high score if you don't know what earns you the most points. Do they want to see some sort of speed run? Or a no-damage run on Ikaruga? Or showboating... maybe I should practice the wind tunnel level with my eyes closed?" The plethora of possibilities clearly exhausted her. "This is hard."

That explained why someone with an simple, observable talent hadn't already left. Chiaki was overthinking it, but at least she had some obvious options. Others of them were seriously in the dark about what to do next, Fuyuhiko included.

Inspiration struck and he sat up straighter. "Can I work with someone else?" ...God dammit, was Nagito wanting to grab his hand again? He wasn't about to look to the left, but he'd put money on it. And that was definitely not who he'd meant with his question.

Chisa hesitated. "I actually don't know the answer to that. Why? What were you thinking of doing?"

"For my practical exam, I could get someone to talk. Then they'd be a handy patient for Mikan to handle. Yeah?" Across the circle, Mikan brightened and also sat up. Even though her skills seemed straightforward enough to demonstrate, she'd been left wondering just what sort of target she was supposed to use. Hope's Peak hadn't promised her anyone battered and bloody for her exams.

"Get someone to talk?" Chisa echoed, then paled. Her hands waved frantically. "No! No! Let's try to think of some other ways to demonstrate everyone's talents, all right?"

Mikan slumped back down and Fuyuhiko grumbled. If Hope's Peak was interested in hosting his sort of talents, they should actually let him show those talents off. He'd seen so many fingers being dissected that he could probably filet one better than Teruteru. And with a Mikan team-up, it wasn't like there would have been any lasting damage, probably.

Sonia tittered nervously. "Agreed. But how will we come up with those ideas?"

"We brainstorm," Chisa decided. "Everyone, pull out a piece of paper."

Obediently, most of them reached for something to write on. They'd pushed the desks aside when Chisa felt that a circle on the floor would be more congenial. Maybe it had worked, maybe not, but the changed arrangement had left some people without their bookbags handy. Across the circle, Mikan smiled gratefully at the pen and paper Chiaki offered her. After seeing Nekomaru ready to write on his own large palm, Chiaki forced a piece of paper on him, too.

As Fuyuhiko opened his bag, he became uncomfortably aware of a face smiling at him in, well... hope. "What," he asked flatly, and without actually looking up at Nagito.

"Would it be all right if I borrowed something to write on?" Nagito's voice sobered. "Although I don't want to be more of a burden than usual."

Peko had been raised since infancy to be Fuyuhiko's right hand, and she didn't idolize him half as much as Nagito Komaeda. The guy could turn the simplest of requests into something fucking weird. "Fine," Fuyuhiko grumbled and pulled out his two notebooks. One had blank sheets, while the other was full of ideas for potential fundraising opportunities among Japan's corporate leaders, like his father had asked him to think on.

He flipped through the top notebook and frowned. Nope, this was the full one. He set that aside, then frowned again at what seemed like folded scrap paper under it. "Oh, right," he murmured after unfolding the sheets enough to see the Hope's Peak logo at their top. This was the information about Hinata's program. He sat that aside, too, and flipped open the second notebook to tear out two pieces of paper.

"What's this?" Nagito asked, tilting his head to see the academy's logo on whatever Fuyuhiko had just set down. "A permission form?"

Seriously, the guy had zero boundaries. "It's not mine," Fuyuhiko said and shoved the blank paper toward Nagito. "Here." If it wasn't a program that Fuyuhiko himself was doing, then hopefully Nagito wouldn't want to talk to him about it.

Nagito didn't take the paper. He'd locked onto a line on the form's front page and was squinting in thought. "Something about this...."

"Paper." Fuyuhiko noisily waved the sheet in front of him. "Take."

Nagito did take the paper, but didn't look up from the permission sheet and those few characters that had caught his attention. The fingers of his free hand reached out to trail the form's edges. "Thank you. I know this is terribly presumptuous of me, but would you mind if—"

The wall exploded.

Chisa and the girls had clustered in one part of the circle, near the head of the class. The explosion spanned the back half of the room. Glass and wood shrapnel flew in, ready to spear any unlucky students in their path.

As the noise faded, Fuyuhiko looked up warily from where he'd curled into a protective ball. That wouldn't have been enough on its own to keep him safe, but Nekomaru's huge form had instantly turned to block any danger from reaching the bodies behind him. Only a few splinters and glass shards had found a way past. They'd sliced Nagito's jacket and the paper he'd just borrowed, while Nagito himself was—of course—uninjured.

Stunned, Chisa turned to the smoking hole. As Nekomaru began plucking shards out of his armor-like muscles, Akane lowered herself down from the outside wall and stepped through the destruction she'd caused. "Huh. Well, that's not what I wanted."

Mikan's trembling shock wore off and she lunged to check on Nekomaru. "Wah! Are you all right?"

"No problem," he dryly said, not looking away from Akane. Mikan took him at his confident word, despite the flecks of blood, and turned her anxious energy toward Nagito's less brawny form. Even without any injuries under his damaged uniform, her concern clearly touched the largely unloved boy's heart. In return Nagito smiled at Mikan like she seldom experienced, and so her careful inspection dragged over every inch of his head and torso. Thankfully, that kept her wandering hands busy with him and off of Fuyuhiko.

After a long inspection of the damage, Akane folded her arms below her breasts and turned to Chisa. "Y'know, this is why I don't try to figure out a routine beforehand. Something always happens."

"We just repaired that wall," Chisa whimpered.

Chiaki tilted her head and studied the hole. "How did it explode?"

"I'm fine," Fuyuhiko muttered as Sonia dusted him clean of any tiny bits of glass. Her fretting continued well past what was reasonable, and he soon felt foolish. "I'm fine," he insisted, sat up, and shoved his belongings back into his bookbag.

His jaw clenched. Okay. Fuck. Ow. God fucking piece of shit ow. He'd just jammed a long sliver of glass into his thumb as he scooped everything off the floor, but he definitely wasn't going to let Sonia know that. With grim determination, he waited for an unnoticeable time to pry out what felt like a sword jabbing through him.

"I believe I've just come up with my practical exam demonstration," Nekomaru said and stood. "Akane! You're as sloppy as ever!"

"Huh?" She frowned at him, taking in all the damage she'd inadvertently dealt to her closest companion in the room. "You're the sloppy one! Look at you, your shirt's all torn up!"

"If you don't beat me downstairs," Nekomaru said with ever-rising volume, "I'm gonna make you run a dozen laps before we even get started on the real work!"

"A dozen?" Akane laughed.

"You're right, that's far too easy! Two hundred, then!"

"That's—" Akane grimaced, but didn't argue. As Nekomaru bolted for the door, she leaned forward to follow but immediately shook her head. Before any of them could reach out a hand to stop her, Akane dove through the hole she'd just ripped in the building's exterior.

"Wait!" Nagito cried after Akane, then sighed as he leaned far enough over that he looked ready to lose his balance and fall to the ground below. "It's no use if Nekomaru trains you for his practical exam without a tape to show to the judges." He hesitated, then straightened. "Maybe someone like me can actually be of some use!" he enthused, grabbed his phone, and ran after Nekomaru.

With a great, heaving sigh, Chisa collapsed back to the floor. "Well... at least Nekomaru thought of something to do." Her strained smile looked like someone had tattooed it on her. "Um. Everyone take out your papers. Like I said, we're going to brainstorm. And I'll get the broom and dustpan while you do."

Goddamn, this was a fucking weird class Fuyuhiko had landed in. As the girls in the circle returned to their brainstorming, Fuyuhiko discreetly turned and tried to grip the end of the glass sliver between his teeth. Ow. Ow fucking hell ow, it felt like it was an inch long and it didn't want to let go of him.

Barely a minute after Nagito had run off in pursuit of Nekomaru, the door slammed open again. It stayed flat under Peko's splayed fingers. Worry filled her eyes as she took in the destruction that covered the classroom: glass shards and wood splinters, a layer of dust, and even bloody splatters. The tension of Peko's search only eased when she located Fuyuhiko on the floor. Her chest still heaved; she must have taken all the stairs at a run.

That was exactly when he dislodged the glass shard, spat it out, and sucked the glob of blood that welled up. "We're fine," he said around the taste of copper. Shit, it really had been nearly an inch long, laying right under the skin of his thumb. Okay, maybe Chisa was right: he wouldn't filet a finger as part of his practical exam.

Peko didn't look wholly convinced, but with only his single injury she discarded any remaining visible concern. "Is everyone all right?" she asked Chisa. "I heard a loud noise, then looked up and saw damage to our classroom wall."

"We're all right," Chisa said with forced cheer as she began sweeping. "Although I suppose we'll need to repair the wall. Again."

Peko's brow furrowed as she stepped further into the room. "I could stay and help."

"No, no. You need to go practice." Chisa swatted at Peko's legs when she walked toward her. "Go prepare for your exam. Let your teacher do this work."

Peko scanned everyone as she turned—the girls were a bit dusty, but otherwise untouched—and once again settled on Fuyuhiko. He shook his head almost imperceptibly, knowing she'd get the message: everything was secure, she didn't need to stay, it was simply an accident. Just as Peko nodded and moved to leave, two more arrivals blocked her exit.

"Oh my," Mahiru said. Her eyes widened as she took in the hole.

"Wow," Hiyoko said with false innocence after counting up who was still left in the room. "Did the men fall through the hole and die?"

Fuyuhiko glared at the hellspawn, only to realize he was still sucking the hole in his thumb as it bled its last. He whipped it away from his mouth.

"Like I said," Hiyoko giggled, "did all the men fall out?"

"I don't think we're getting anything else done today," Chisa groaned from the back of the room.

They didn't. The span after lunch had started off obnoxious and became something entirely pointless. The only consolation was that their practical exams weren't yet imminent. The graduation exams for the third-years would start the next day, as they were expected to be the grandest and most spectacular for the media. Second-years would come the week after, and only after they'd finished would the first-years step up.

Fuyuhiko glanced over his shoulder as he left that afternoon. Kazuichi had boarded up the hole, just like its predecessor. The machines he planned to show off were already built and tested, and so he'd been happy to help. It was convenient that at least some of Class 77-B was ready to go. Though he barely admitted it even to himself, it was also a little dispiriting. That was one day down, and he wasn't any closer to a plan.

Someone snagged his sleeve before he could leave behind the Main Course quadrant. Confused, Fuyuhiko turned. It didn't have any feeling of a threat.

It wasn't a threat, but it was someone that he never should have texted about his late arrival to class. Between that and their shared adventure with the exploding classroom, Sonia Nevermind apparently thought that they were friends. Which was stupid. Fuyuhiko didn't have friends. "Give me a speech topic!" she demanded.

He blinked up at her. "Why governments should reduce mandatory racketeering sentences."

At least she could tell that he was kidding. "Please?" Sonia asked. "The two of us should work together to plan our exams! No one else is demonstrating leadership skills, after all."

That wasn't quite true; Nekomaru was off steering Akane into acting like slightly less of a wild animal. But since Sonia probably wasn't going to be asked about fiber consumption or bowel movement regularity, it didn't make much sense to ask him for direction.

Regardless, the princess had come up with a good idea, and he could use the help. This didn't make them friends. This was just strategy. After thinking about it more seriously, Fuyuhiko said, "Explain why Novoselic should adopt a communist government."

Sonia blanched. "What? That's super lame! We would never!" Not to mention, adopting such a government would remove her family from power. It was no wonder she didn't want to consider the idea, which was exactly why he'd said it.

Smirking, Fuyuhiko folded his arms. "So you can't give a speech on that? You can only say things you totally agree with?" She'd chosen a display of charisma and eloquence for her demonstration, but had no idea what impromptu speech the judges might request. It'd do no good to pitch her an easy ball for practice.

Sonia's large, pale eyes blinked back at him a few times before she smiled in realization. "Oh, I see! You're truly challenging my ability to think on my feet!" Straightening, she nodded and balled one fist. "Then I shall meet your challenge! Over the next twenty minutes—"

"Actually, I need to meet my sister," Fuyuhiko reminded her, and hooked his thumb toward the parking lot. The skin of the thumb's pad had finally stopped throbbing. Small favors.

"Your sister? Oh! Yes, check on your sister. And I shall prepare a more polished speech for tomorrow morning." Sonia saluted him and spun on her heel. "'Til then, comrade!"

Once again: he'd landed in a fucking weird class. At least he was local and didn't need to stay in the dorms. Nearly everyone in their class had come from outside the greater metro, and so they lived the Hope's Peak life every hour of every day. If he was locked away with all these people, even the ones he liked, he'd probably snap.

Fuyuhiko Kuzuryuu could admit his faults to himself, sometimes, and one of those faults was that he was not exactly the most patient person in the world.

Groups of students in Main and Reserve uniforms walked past him, chatting and talking about plans for their afternoon. As the crowds thinned, he still waited at the edge of the parking lot. Peko stood in the distance, but eventually migrated in his direction too slowly for anyone to notice. "Come on," he snapped when his ride failed to appear. Checking a traffic app gave the explanation of a construction delay, but that didn't make the wait any less annoying.

Through that annoyance, he realized Peko had asked him something and tried to pull the question from his memory. Right: she wanted to know how the wall had been destroyed. "Oh, it was just Akane being... Akane."

"I see." Peko frowned and looked back toward their building. "She should be more careful."

His thumb throbbed again with the memory of the shrapnel. "Akane should do a lot of things," Fuyuhiko snorted. Like read a book, or wear clothes that fit. At least she'd gotten Nagito out of his hair.

Peko gripped one elbow with the other arm's hand. "It makes me reluctant to go off and work on my practical exam."

"Hey," he said. "No. Absolutely not. You're going to go and practice. I don't need you there."

The fingers gripping her elbow shook, then tightened until they stopped.

Shit, that came out wrong. "I don't want you to flunk your exam because of me," Fuyuhiko tried. "Go and do what you need to do, all right? It's fine."

Peko's expression still looked downcast at the inadvertent dismissal, and goddamn, he needed to find some way to talk with her without fucking everything up. "If we're both to be here next year," she eventually said in what sounded like agreement, "then yes, we must both pass our exams."

She'd probably meant that as encouragement for herself. To Fuyuhiko, it was mostly an unpleasant reminder that he had no idea what to do for his own demonstration.

"Oh. I can walk," Peko said when only Nozaki's towncar pulled up in front of them. They'd forgotten to summon her driver after he'd gone ignored that morning, and apparently no one at the compound had thought to make the afternoon correction on their own. "Or call and wait for my own ride."

"Don't be stupid," Fuyuhiko said and gestured her inside. Peko hesitated, then climbed in. "I'm not going to make you stand out there and wait. Besides, Natsumi's probably already plotting her revenge." A wild grin flashed. "I can't look out for her and wrangle Hinata at the same time."

Just like that morning, it took him several blocks before the truth of something sunk in. Ever since starting at Hope's Peak, he'd wanted the two of them to cut the ties his parents had wrapped between them. They were two unrelated individuals who just happened to live in the same house, and so should be judged on their own merits.

But then a crisis happened with Natsumi and that all went out the window. He assumed Peko would be at his beck and call again, and that she existed to receive the orders he gave. She'd tested Natsumi so obediently, and escorted her at lunch with similar compliance. She'd acted like the tool he'd just told her not to be, and he'd gladly used her. Fuck. This would be something else to apologize for. It had been so much easier when they were kids!

Okay. First, Natsumi. Then, dinner. Finally, Peko.

Shortly after they climbed out of their own towncar, Natsumi's pulled in. It was as huge and glossy as Fuyuhiko's, with white leather seats inside instead of the charcoal grey he favored. Both rested low on their suspensions; bulletproofing added significant weight to the cars' frames. Neither was the sort of vehicle that other students took to Hope's Peak. Fuyuhiko and Peko both silently turned to watch the Kuzuryuu daughter return to the family compound... and then, just as ordered, Hajime Hinata followed her out of the vehicle.

The boy looked beyond intimidated. He'd almost certainly never been in a home garage this large; the compound's underground level held a dozen parking spaces, an armory, and a safe room for the family. Though it was still warm outside, Hajime wore his black uniform jacket in the stuffy garage. Sometimes, people did that to hide how they'd sweated through their shirt.

Indeed, there was a faint sheen visible on his face under the harsh lights. His hands trembled almost imperceptibly. At the sound of the garage doors sealing them underground with a heavy, metallic sigh, Fuyuhiko could practically see Hajime's heart rate speed.

Natsumi took a step forward and stumbled. Hajime caught her before she could fall any more than that.

"I think he's got her," Fuyuhiko said to Peko a second later, though worry tightened his throat. She'd nearly run forward to help, and looked as surprised as he felt. The boy was more useful than expected.

Now, Hajime was too consumed with watching Natsumi to worry about his own fate. He slowly guided her across the concrete floor. To Fuyuhiko's great surprise, she let him.

"She was not like this at lunch," Peko murmured with concern.

They'd shuffled just close enough to hear that, and Hajime nodded slowly at Peko. "About an hour ago, she got dizzy. Some words got... tangled, too. We tried to take her to the infirmary, but she refused to go anywhere. And now she wouldn't let me tell the driver to take her to the hospital."

"I'm fine," Natsumi insisted, though Hajime still had his hand at her waist and she didn't complain about the intrusion. "Fine."

Goddamn fucking hell. "Peko, run upstairs. Tell them to call a doctor. Hinata, can you carry her?"

Nodding, Hajime scooped up Natsumi, who protested with a slurred tongue. Fuyuhiko set a quick pace toward the stairs, but reconsidered and walked past them to the elevator. Her head bobbing up and down while Hajime ran up a flight of stairs wouldn't help whatever was going on inside her skull, and god fucking damn it, why had Natsumi crawled out of bed that morning?

"Is she going to be okay?" Hajime asked in a shaking voice after the elevator doors closed. It was a tight, claustrophobic placed lined with stainless steel. In his arms, Natsumi struggled to stay awake. At Fuyuhiko's dark glare, the drivers had taken the stairs after Peko, rather than crowding into the small space with them. It already felt hotter in there than the garage had been.

"Of course," Fuyuhiko said. It was all he could manage; any more and his voice would start shaking. Besides. He was right. She'd be fine. His sister was tough.

"Don't close your eyes!" Hajime said urgently when he looked down and saw Natsumi's eyelids drifting shut.

With a deep breath, Fuyuhiko closed his own. She'd be fine.

"This way," he told Hajime as soon as the elevator doors opened. The household was already on high alert from the warning Peko had given, and they gasped to see the two boys exit the elevator with Natsumi sliding toward unconsciousness.

Halfway to Natsumi's room, one of their father's massive bodyguards scooped Natsumi out of Hajime's arms and took the rest of the distance at a run. Others followed, chattering and shouting. Hajime still kept his arms extended like he didn't know what to do with them, and stared uselessly at his own hands.

"Help is coming," Peko said in a quiet voice, returning from the direction of the living quarters.

Good. That was good. But it did mean they wouldn't be welcomed in Natsumi's bedroom. The doctor would be there soon, and he'd want plenty of space and even more silence. Adrenaline still flooded Fuyuhiko's body, numbing his fingertips and speeding his heart, but he couldn't let that panic show to the household. "Come on," he told them both and turned toward the back yard. "We'll wait outside."