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Paper and Steel

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"I trust the tuition payment went through?"

Hajime jumped at Peko's voice. With a hand to his chest, he turned to her. "Don't scare me like that."

She looked levelly back. It was the next morning, and if those clouds above released the rain they threatened, she would have just enough time to make it to her building on time and without getting drenched. "Are you a student in good standing, again?"

Mingled relief and joy filled Hajime's eyes. When he replied, it sounded like he couldn't believe his own words. "Yeah. I am. I can't thank your family enough."

"They're not my family," Peko quickly corrected.

"Right. Sorry."

Before he could explore that topic any further, Peko pointed at a path leading toward the edge of campus. "I've told my normal driver to start picking me up in that lot at the end of the day. We'll ride together, and once your daily training is done, they'll drive you home."

"Training?" Hajime echoed with surprise.

Peko hesitated. "You knew that was part of the bargain they'd struck with you?" The Kuzuryuus were generous to those they considered allies. She herself was still alive because of their generosity, and tried to dedicate herself to them as much as they deserved. However, they were smart about who they choose to help, and mercenary about the process. It was one reason the clan had such entrenched power in the nation: they knew how to find people who would do anything for them.

"I did. I just didn't realize it'd start right away." His brow furrowed. "Or that it'd be real, actual 'training.'"

Once she was sure that he really would show up for their shared commute, Peko nodded uncertainly. Hajime seemed so very nice, normal, and average. It was hard not to question Fuyuhiko's choice of recruiting him. But she wouldn't. She wouldn't. "Well. It will be. Meet me there right after school."

"Got it," Hajime said, then frowned at somewhere in the distance. "I'll meet you there after my classes are over."

The different phrasing nearly got a return frown out of her. "'Til then. Thank you again for your assistance in helping Mistress Natsumi. And as a reminder, do not mention your involvement with the family, nor mine."

He nodded and she spun on her heel to leave. Left to set her own brisk pace, Peko was just able to beat the clouds. The first few drops splattered as she opened the door to the Main Course building. By the time she'd jogged upstairs to their classroom, the sound of pouring rain hummed steadily through the damaged wall. Between losing some of their windows and the dark, grey clouds outside, the room was far dimmer than usual. Chisa normally struck a sunny tone for their classroom. Today instead felt sleepy, quiet, and intimate.

As she entered, Peko firmly steered Teruteru's hands away from Mikan, who'd tripped over something again. The poor thing really was hopeless. After helping the girl up, she took note of a few empty chairs. Even with her side trip to the Reserve Course building, she wasn't the last to arrive. Good.

"He's there," she murmured as she passed Fuyuhiko's desk.

He nodded too briefly for anyone else to notice.

When Ibuki arrived, lugging an amp protected from the rain with a garbage bag, Chisa apparently decided that it was time to start, despite a few stubborn absences. "All right, everyone. I know a lot of you were working on your practical exams—"

Sonia raised her arm and Peko blinked in surprise. What was she wearing? It was like a uniform that the Soviet Communist Party might create, put through a filter of some nonsensical show about magical schoolgirls. When Fuyuhiko turned to look at her, he made a strange, choking noise like he wasn't sure whether to laugh or snort. Sonia cleared her throat and said, "I have a speech I would like to give, if I may. I've been tasked with addressing Novoselic's political future."

"Holy shit," Fuyuhiko whispered. "I need to think of more topics."

Chisa looked just as confused at Sonia's request as she did at the girl's attire. "Sure? But give me a few minutes, first."

Sonia nodded and calmly folded her hands in front of her on her desk. As Kazuichi leaned to tell her how beautiful she looked in her new outfit, and as Fuyuhiko began scribbling on a sheet of paper, Chisa walked to the head of the room. "It looks like most of you have really made excellent progress toward your practical exams. Even though Nekomaru and Akane won't come in from the athletic fields."

"They won't be able to perform well if they come down with pneumonia," Mikan fretted. "We should go get them."

"Doesn't Akane always wear a white shirt?" Teruteru asked with a pointed look toward the rain pouring outside the remaining window. "A thin, white cotton shirt with nothing under it? I think we should absolutely go find her before she catches her death of something."

Peko sighed. Keeping his attention away from Mikan hadn't discouraged him for long.

"This might actually be some training plan of Nekomaru's," Ryota said with a considering stare toward the rain.

"A stupid plan, maybe," Hiyoko agreed. "But even if we tried to drag them inside, I bet those two dummies wouldn't listen."

A few students looked torn between staying and going, uncertain of whether they should test Hiyoko's theory. Unsurprisingly, it was Teruteru who began to move first.

As soon as he did, and before anyone else could follow his lead, Sonia stood. "Wait! Before anyone leaves, I request permission to practice my oratory skills," she reminded them. "I've been challenged to give a speech on why Novoselic should adopt a communist government." Smiling, she inclined her head toward the window. "I believe we can trust our friends to look after their health. They are both quite capable."

"As the wild grizzly stalks the taiga of Siberia," intoned Gundham, "so too shall your words rule this den of academe."

It was a fair argument, Peko admitted: Nekomaru and Akane regularly shrugged off physical challenges that would fell most of the class. Chisa apparently agreed with her, as she relented the floor and Teruteru returned reluctantly to his seat. Buoyed by Gundham's words, Sonia took her spot at the head of the room. Though Peko didn't fully understand why Fuyuhiko's mention of Sonia the night before had filled her with such anxiety, now it was pleasant to see the warming effect the girl had on the normally withdrawn, taciturn Gundham. He even brought out his favorite hamsters to watch her speech. Adorable.

(Still, the fact remained: she and Fuyuhiko had ended up with a very peculiar classroom of people.)

As Sonia's surprisingly coherent speech began, Fuyuhiko folded the piece of paper he'd been scribbling on into many sections, ripped it along the creases, and repeated the procedure with a second sheet. He made no attempt to hide the noise the paper made as it tore. In fact, he moved exactly fast enough to make a sound, but slowly enough to drag out the commotion. It was like he was trying to be obnoxious.

At the end of one long ripping noise, Peko looked back to Sonia. The distraction he was making might as well not have existed. She remained confident and charismatic, and had held nearly everyone's attention even as Fuyuhiko tried to ruin her momentum.

Ah, Peko realized. He'd said they were working together. For a princess giving a speech, this was the equivalent of Nekomaru putting Akane through her physical paces out in the pouring rain.

"Glory to the proletariat!" Sonia finished with one hand over her heart. "And glory to our motherland, Novoselic!"

"I don't know why I'm clapping," Mahiru said, even as she did.

"That was incredibly weird," Ibuki said as she also applauded. "But Ibuki kind of wants to go overthrow capitalism!"

"Thank you for your inspiration," Sonia said, turning toward Fuyuhiko with a beaming smile. "And for your distractions!"

"Next time I could pull the fire alarm," Fuyuhiko said, smirking.

"Oh," Chiaki said just loud enough for Peko to hear, even as Chisa shot a level look at Fuyuhiko that told him he would not do any such thing. "She wanted him to act like that."

"Tomorrow's topics," Fuyuhiko began, and gestured to the small pieces of paper he'd ripped and folded. They covered his desk in a messy pile. "Pick one."

As Sonia walked over, the class seemed bemused by the sight of Fuyuhiko Kuzuryuu actually cooperating with someone. Even Chisa couldn't hide her open surprise. This was the most sociable public mood that Peko had seen from him in years, and it all seemed to stem from how he'd found Hajime Hinata and a way to protect his vulnerable sister.

After Sonia made her selection and, as ordered, held the folded paper without opening it, Fuyuhiko pointed at the slip she'd chosen. "Tomorrow, give a full speech about why that name is your favorite person in this classroom."

Peko shrank in her seat after counting up the pieces of paper: fifteen, including the one in Sonia's hand. It was just enough to include Chisa and every student but Sonia. She hoped that Sonia hadn't drawn her name. Hearing herself praised like that, in front of everyone, would be dreadfully awkward. Being singled out for her practical exam would be attention enough.

With a thoughtful frown at her selected slip, Sonia nodded, then turned to the others. "I hope you realize that this is a prompt, and that I would not rank you all in such a way on my own." She glanced back at Fuyuhiko for permission, and after receiving it, opened the paper. Sounding completely unsurprised, she recited, "Nagito Komaeda."

Nagito beamed back at her.

"Aw, man," Kazuichi grumbled. "I was hoping she'd pick me."

With a darkly amused expression that was a far more typical fit for their classroom, Fuyuhiko started pitching the other folded-up papers at Kazuichi. After catching and unfolding three, Kazuichi glared at Fuyuhiko, then at Nagito, then back at Fuyuhiko. "Wait. Did you put my name on every piece but the one with him?"

"I'm trying to challenge her."

Kazuichi crumpled the papers in his hand, and slammed the others down as they came. "Asshole."

Mahiru snorted. Like Chiaki, she probably hadn't expected to be audible over the rain outside. "Runs in the family."

Fuyuhiko's good mood melted. He didn't turn to look at Mahiru, but under his desk, he slid his foot silently backwards. Peko'd heard it, too. She lightly tapped her toes against his heel to acknowledge their mutual realization.

Mahiru Koizumi apparently hated Natsumi.

Natsumi had said that a girl attacked her.

This wasn't yet the smoking gun they needed, but it was a significant clue. If the two of them solved Natsumi's attack on their own, perhaps there would be no need to truly rely on Hajime. Peko would prefer that. She didn't want to ruin Fuyuhiko's pride in his idea to hire the boy, but she knew how to protect people. She'd honed those skills for years. Hajime would be a paper shield for Natsumi unless he had surprising hidden depths.

"Oh wait," Kazuichi said as he unfolded the very last slip. "You also put down Hiyoko."

"Huh?" Hiyoko turned toward their side of the room. "Why would it be hard for someone to talk about liking me? Hey! You'd better answer, or I'll pull out all your eyelashes!" She halfway rose from her chair. "Hey!"

Fuyuhiko's hands clutched the sides of his desk. His shoulders tensed.

"Hey!" Hiyoko said, even more insistently.

When Fuyuhiko turned toward her, his voice was a savage growl. The profanity he sprinkled at any provocation now seemed truly threatening. "Shut your fucking mouth."

"Calm down, everyone," Chisa ordered, and started walking toward him. "Especially you."

Mahiru instantly turned to her friend's defense, but when she intruded into Fuyuhiko's line of vision, all words died in her throat. He's ready to kill her, Peko realized with concern. Mahiru certainly looked like a suspect for the attempt on Natsumi's life, but they couldn't yet be positive of her guilt. That didn't matter to him. One day, Fuyuhiko's wild temper was going to get him into very deep trouble.

This time, she kicked the back of his heel rather than simply tapping it. "I'll run her name past Hinata," Peko promised. "And see."

He didn't say anything in return, but she could imagine his answer nonetheless: that bitch tried to murder my sister. Even as Chisa approached him, Fuyuhiko's glare burned.

"This is ill-advised," Peko quietly insisted. "You must wait." Agonizing tension built as she waited for his answer, and the rest of the room let it silence them.

"Fine," Fuyuhiko eventually spat and turned to face the blackboard. Surprise still muted Mahiru. She never hesitated to enter an argument, but had probably never seen a fury like that directed at her before. The rest of the room was left off-balance, too, and even Chisa was unsure of her next words. Her hand hovered uselessly halfway to Fuyuhiko's shoulder.

"As curious as Ibuki is about whatever those two are whispering to each other," Ibuki eventually interrupted, "maybe we could do something less awkward. Right now? Hopefully?" As cued, Chisa began an insistent description of what they could expect from the actual practical exam setting in the gymnasium. With one pointed look toward Fuyuhiko, she returned to the front of the class. Her sheer force of will bulldozed the room's tension.

Even as the class moved on, Fuyuhiko didn't bother masking the occasional glares he shot in Mahiru's direction. Outspoken, fearless Mahiru soon ended up studying the repaired wall rather than face him. Though Peko could only see the back of his head, his glare must be positively murderous.

That meant Fuyuhiko's glare was obvious. In a room full of witnesses. Yes, one day his temper was going to get him into terrible, terrible trouble. At least she was there to help minimize the damage.

Hours passed and Fuyuhiko's anger still simmered like a pot left on its burner. Mahiru ducked out at lunch, supposedly to meet with a friend in the Reserve Course. Despite the rain, she wasn't the only one to leave. Ryota went out in search of Nekomaru and Akane, to make sure that they'd at least had a hot meal in the chilly weather. But while he walked for the door, Mahiru bolted for it.

Ryota was back in his seat as soon as lunch concluded. Mahiru wasn't. Even though the rain never stopped and the light was poor for photography, she didn't come back for the afternoon session. If Natsumi weren't safely home in bed and surrounded by guards, it would be a concerning development. Now, it simply looked damning.

Unsurprisingly, by the end of the day, Fuyuhiko's suspicion had boiled down to absolute certainty. "Start his training," Fuyuhiko told her before they went their separate ways to different parking lots. "And see what he knows about Mahiru."

Peko nodded. "Of course. But young master... we don't yet know that she's the culprit. They did used to go to school together." Mahiru Koizumi was another local. She'd met Natsumi as a fellow student in junior high, before either girl knew they'd be at Hope's Peak one day.

Fuyuhiko looked unimpressed. "Exactly. So she has a motive. We're going to find out what it is."

"Or she simply has a shared history that could explain her insulting comment." Who knew what sort of interactions the two girls had shared? Natsumi Kuzuryuu could make her brother look polite.

He still looked annoyed under his umbrella, so Peko explained her reasoning along a different line. "We'll do what we need to, but killing a Main Course student would be attention-grabbing. Especially right now, with the media around."

Fuyuhiko obviously didn't want to admit that, but with three television vans in view for the senior exams, he had to. After a day spent raging, his anger began to steady out into something still tight, but manageable. "Yeah. I guess so." One of Hope's Peak's shining stars disappearing immediately before her practical exam would draw no shortage of questions. Thanks to his display in class earlier, he'd get a police visit if anyone thought to interview Mahiru's fellow students. Fuyuhiko's father did not appreciate that sort of attention.

For a long while, Fuyuhiko studied the television vans. When he continued, the words were sharp, like they'd been bitten in half. "Just work with Hinata, then. For now. I'm going to go check on Natsumi."

"For now," Peko agreed and walked toward the Reserve parking lot.

Hajime wasn't there.

Frowning, Peko turned, lifted her umbrella slightly, and peered through the rain and mist. She knew that her own slim, grey figure tended to disappear on stormy days, but Hajime seemed unlikely to do the same. After another minute spent checking the area, she concluded that he really hadn't shown up as she'd instructed.

Perhaps he was questioning Mahiru, Peko told herself as she turned back to walk toward the heart of campus. Rain dripped off the edges of her umbrella with each quick, sure step. Perhaps Mahiru had shown up at the Reserve Building this afternoon, acted suspiciously, and Hajime was trying to tease out the truth of what she'd done. Perhaps he was taking initiative, as a bodyguard should.

Or perhaps he was chatting with Chiaki Nanami at the central fountain, instead of doing what she'd told him to.

With a tight mouth, Peko closed her umbrella and slid behind a nearby bush, so she wouldn't be seen. She'd known this was a mistake.

"Here," she heard Hajime say to Chiaki. Peko could just see far enough around the bush to watch him hand Chiaki a small plastic bag, like one a corner store might give to its customers. "You'd been looking for these, right?"

Under her umbrella, Chiaki opened the bag, retrieved whatever was inside, and gasped. "You found them?" Hajime appeared to have given her media disc cases. Peko squinted, trying to make out the specifics of whatever she was holding. She hated data stored on discs and hard drives. It was impossible to know the significance of most things at a glance, and although these cases did have labels, they were in English.

"I thought I'd check the store again at lunch, just in case some came in."

"Let's play them!"

Play them? Oh. With a sigh, Peko replaced her caution with much flimsier annoyance. Video games were inside those mysterious cases. Of course. She should have known.

Hajime smiled apologetically. "Sorry, I can't right now. I have to go help—"

"Fuyuhiko's sister, right." Chiaki's good mood barely deflated as she offered the games back to Hajime. "Well, we can play at lunch tomorrow, all right?"

He refused to take the cases, and gently pushed them back toward the girl. "No. They're yours." At her obvious shock, Hajime added, "Take them. I got some money yesterday and this is how I want to spend it. Call it an apology for not being able to see you after school any more."

Yesterday? Surely he couldn't mean the tuition money. Right, Peko realized a moment later: the bribe that Fuyuhiko had given him when they first confronted Natsumi. Apparently, Hajime hadn't needed much time to decide to spend that windfall on Chiaki.

"You didn't have to do that," Chiaki protested, but neither did she return the games. "Thank you so much. I'll just try one, okay? And then we can try the other for the first time at lunch."

"Sure." A genuine smile grew on Hajime's face, but then he pointed insistently toward the walking path near Peko. "Hey, I need to get going, all right? But I'll see you tomorrow."

"Tomorrow," Chiaki agreed with a smile brighter than she ever used in class.

Peko let Hajime get well away from the fountain and Chiaki before she slid from her hiding spot and spoke up behind him. "You weren't where I told you to be after school."

Startled, Hajime dropped his umbrella. "You really need to stop sneaking up on me," he said as he leaned down to retrieve it. "Sorry. Chiaki was just really excited about these imported games, but no store could seem to get—"

Peko did not want to hear about Chiaki's video games. "Your job, as agreed, is to be a tool in service of Natsumi Kuzuryuu's safety. You need to show up when and where you're instructed."

He took a long, awkward while to reply. Peko looked levelly back as she waited. "A 'tool?' That's a strange way to put it." No, it wasn't, and so Peko didn't correct herself. Hajime swallowed when she remained silent, and eventually looked her sodden form up and down. "I won't be late tomorrow. Again, I'm sorry. Uh... we can share an umbrella, if you want."

"I have one. But I'm wet enough by this point that there's little need to use it. Come on, I'm sure our driver is waiting." To his credit, Hajime fell in dutifully beside her, and although he extended his umbrella enough for her to step under it if she chose, he didn't press the matter. After his earlier mistakes, he might be learning.

The driver didn't comment on her soaked hair and clothes. The seats were leather, not cloth, so she slid in without concern for the upholstery. After shaking out his umbrella and hesitating for just a moment, Hajime slid in beside her and buckled his seat belt.

Peko had started to feel chilly by the time they arrived at the parking lot, but the car's heater was on, as she'd known it would be. It was as much comfort as she needed. She stared out the car window, toward the faded grey city beyond, and watched puffs of humidity ebb in and out on the glass. Rain etched an unknowable map on its outer side. Under the dark clouds, other cars' headlights brightened in a spotty rhythm.

Her thoughts churned. If they found out that Mahiru had attacked Natsumi, she had to die. Without question. But if Mahiru died, everyone would suspect Fuyuhiko. Unless it looked like an accident, Peko silently mused. She wasn't trained in falsifying crime scenes, but she could probably figure out some way to muddle the truth of a murder. The important thing was to move quickly once they were sure, so that Fuyuhiko's hands remained clean.

With a jolt, Peko realized Hajime had been asking her something. Damn. She'd questioned his suitability for this task, and then she'd let herself become oblivious to the world around her. Inexcusable, even if her thoughts had been occupied by something more important than him. "I'm sorry, could you repeat that?"

"It's nice that you get driven home," Hajime said. It was a blatant attempt to counter the awkward silence inside the towncar, but he was able to make the small talk feel sincere enough. "Since your house isn't that far away, I mean. It seems like everyone within a few miles just walks home, or takes a bus."

That was true. The handful of students who drove or were dropped off tended to be ones from smaller nearby towns, who were close enough to avoid the dorms but far enough away to make transport a hassle. After a moment of thought, Peko decided to tell him the truth. It was important for Hajime to know the reality of his new arrangement. "We did used to walk home together."

"Until?" Hajime prompted.

"A family enemy realized it was a vulnerable time. The young master and I had a van pull up beside us and we were nearly forced inside. Fortunately, we got away." Peko gestured to the car interior. "After that, it was decided that he should be driven to school."

Hajime swallowed. "Oh. I hadn't expected... a kidnapping story. Sorry."

"He and I really have been abducted before. But that day, I helped him avoid it." Very seriously, Peko met Hajime's eyes. "Now that's going to be your role, should such a threat arise to Mistress Natsumi. Can you handle that?"

She was sure that he'd say yes with his words, but his body language would betray that instant bravado. It was how most teen boys acted. Instead, Hajime sat and considered her question. From the way his eyes went distant and unfocused, he was imagining such a scene playing out in front of him. "I think so," he eventually said. "I think that if I saw someone trying to grab her, I would try to stop them."

It was a better answer than she'd thought Hajime could give. It admitted to his shortcomings: right now, he couldn't be sure of his chances at anything. After rolling that over in her mind, Peko reassessed his eventual likelihood of success. Training couldn't happen if a student wasn't honest to himself about what he needed to work on. Saying he could only 'try to stop them' was a solid foundation for learning how to actually do so.

Whether he could do that on any sort of reasonable timeline, of course, was a different matter.

When they returned to the underground garage, Hajime barely acknowledged the cavernous space as they extracted themselves from the car. It was already a marked difference from the day before, and if not a guarantee of eventual success, still a positive sign. What concern he did have to spare went not to himself, but to Peko. Another good indicator. "Do you need to change before we get started?"

She was still damp, and now that they were out of the heated car, it did feel chilly again, even inside the complex. Autumn had settled in with sudden greed. "I'll show you to the training hall," Peko decided, "and have you meet Master Hashimoto. Once you two have begun, I'll step away for just a bit."

Hajime nodded uncertainly as they began climbing the narrow stairs. A service route on the main floor took them around the perimeter, and they emerged near the gardens without removing their shoes. If she didn't trust Hajime, Peko wouldn't have shown him that hidden path. All of Peko's instincts screamed that he was trustworthy; still pitiful, but trustworthy. "Is your master nice?" Hajime asked as they approached the hall.

"He's very good."

"That's not what I asked."

"A sharp reply," noted a third voice. Peko instantly straightened, turned to her trainer, and bowed. "So," Michio said, and looked Hajime up and down. "You're the one who has agreed to stand guard for Mistress Natsumi."

"I... I guess so."

"Answer clearly," Peko murmured.

Hajime swallowed and squared his shoulders. "Yes. I am."

Michio nodded, satisfied with his latter response. "Tell me what you're good at and I'll test their strengths. We should start building upon the firmest foundation." His bushy, silvered eyebrows drew together at Hajime's lack of reply. "I asked a question of you, boy."

"Answer clearly," Peko reminded him in a sharp whisper, "and promptly."

"What are you good at?" Michio asked again. The words flew like knives.

Instead of encouraging him, Michio's question seemed to unravel Hajime in front of Peko's eyes. The nice, if awkward boy she'd known for two days slid into a downcast, muddy lump. It was a startling change. "I'm... not good at anything."

"I expect a real answer." Michio always sounded a little terse. It had taken a long time with the man before Peko had learned to tease out the subtle flavors of his moods. Most often, he wasn't truly annoyed; his tones instead betrayed excitement, or caution, or unease.

This time, he really was irritated.

"I'm honestly not good at anything," Hajime said more clearly, though he still stared at his feet as he did. "It's sort of why I was almost going to leave Hope's Peak." Deep inside himself, he found the courage to look up and meet Michio's steely gaze. "But... I'll try."

After a long, silent stretch of assessment, Michio nodded. "Very well. You say you're not good at anything."

"I know that I'm not," Hajime corrected.

Michio snorted. "My young master oversees thirty thousand men." It was always disorienting for Peko to hear that term used for Fuyuhiko's father. "Most of them were aimless and useless before they joined the clan. Then they found structure. A purpose." With a crisp nod, Michio walked away and studied the bounty of weapons mounted on a nearby wall. His metal hand rested neatly at the small of his back. "I've had hundreds of them come through here. There wasn't a man among them who wasn't good at something."

Hajime's uncertainty fell away again, just as it had waxed and waned over the past days. Even if he never did master a weapon in this hall, no one could deny that he had a resilient personality. For Natsumi's bodyguard, that would be a valuable skill. "Really?"

Michio looked away from the wall. A razor-thin smile shaped his lips. "Let's find a talent for you...."

"Hajime Hinata," Peko offered.

As a much larger smile blossomed on Hajime's face, Michio's thin one sharpened. "If you're ready to earn it."

Now, any sliver of hesitation remaining in Hajime had vanished. His shoulders squared again, his chin lifted, and Peko was reminded of the athleticism that she'd guessed his body might possess. "Master," Hajime said formally. Just in his line of vision, Peko nodded her approval for the title. After bowing, Hajime finished, "I am. And I'll do anything."