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Paper and Steel

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

"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."

Chapter Text

Fuyuhiko's parents were traditionalists, as were his father's parents before them. The compound's gardens had been shaped over generations. Red maples, pines, and cherry trees grew in precisely beautiful spots around a small pond. The arched bridge that spanned its narrowest point was a perfect counter to the rigid, horizontal lines of the garden walls.

These were the things he needed to think about. The hint of autumn that barely colored the leaves hanging over the water. The glimmering bodies of fish testing the pond's surface for food. He'd think about those things, and not worry about Natsumi. Not in front of the others.

After collecting himself as much as he could, Fuyuhiko looked at his companions. Peko stared at the garden with the purposeful calm that he'd only striven for. Hajime still seemed stunned.

"Thanks," Fuyuhiko eventually said. "Really. Thanks."

"Huh?" Hajime needed a while to recognize that he'd been addressed. He looked at Fuyuhiko like the stranger he was, and nodded jerkily. "Uh. Yeah. Of course."

Silence returned. Only after a few minutes of it did Fuyuhiko realize something odd about the person sitting between himself and Peko. Turning again to Hajime, he said, "My sister was a late transfer into your program."

Hajime didn't argue, but neither did he understand what he was being asked.

Fuyuhiko clarified, "You barely had a chance to know her, but you were waiting this morning?" Not only that, but he'd tried to get her to go to the infirmary, and then to the hospital. It was what he'd expect of a dedicated family servant, not a random classmate.

"It sounds stupid." Hajime glanced in the direction of the personal quarters, though he didn't know which window was Natsumi's. "I know I don't know her, but we talked and... we kind of understood each other. I've been worried ever since I saw the ambulance last week. And I worried every time I saw her empty desk, too."

Apparently, this boy really did know Natsumi. He cared about her well-being despite seeing her temper. His concern remained even though she'd been absent for as long as he'd sat beside her in class. And, if those texts from Chiaki earlier were any indication, he wasn't even acting like this because he'd foolishly locked his romantic sights on a kumicho's daughter. This could be a very valuable discovery.

Impulsively, Fuyuhiko said, "Stay for dinner."

Hajime was too exhausted to argue. He nodded and accepted his fate as a yakuza guest for the rest of the evening. "Thanks." Some additional flicker of courtesy made him offer, "Nice house."

"It is," Peko agreed.

That reminded Fuyuhiko, and he added, "And don't tell anyone we live together."

Still too tired to argue, Hajime nodded again.

Until there was news from the doctor, the three teens watched the earliest autumn leaves occasionally drift into the pond. Peko sat solemnly, like stones in the garden. Hajime scarcely moved more than her, but lacked Peko's composure. Rather than a stone, he was a leaf that had fallen wetly into mud and gotten lodged there. Fuyuhiko, however, twitched with impatient worry. He'd find a new way to sit only for his muscles to rebel a few minutes later. His thumb throbbed again whenever he unthinkingly put weight on it.

Despite their differences, all three turned in unison when the door slid open behind them. A trusted elderly servant looked solemn but not saddened. "Mistress Natsumi has left for the hospital. They do not believe it to be serious, but wish to use an excess of caution.They're going to run more scans."

Even with the mention of the hospital, Fuyuhiko's nerves unraveled. He hadn't heard a siren, so it wasn't an emergency vehicle taking her there. A doctor being concerned was much better than one being outright worried.

"Your mother has gone with her," the servant added to Fuyuhiko. "Dinner will commence when she returns."

After nodding to dismiss the man, Fuyuhiko stood and needlessly dusted off his uniform's trousers. It was intended as a sign, and the others took it.

Peko rose easily. Hajime looked wary about what might happen next as he followed her to his feet. He didn't complain as they returned to the house, but as they wound through the large building toward the living quarters, he increasingly gave the impression of a small, vulnerable mouse in a maze. "Come on," Fuyuhiko eventually said with a gesture toward his door.

Hajime stepped inside with lingering caution but no shortage of curiosity. In some ways, it was probably the room he'd expected to see after that formal garden outside. A woodblock print first owned by Fuyuhiko's great-grandfather rested in a frame older than Hope's Peak. But that antique print hung between two framed movie posters, and the furniture Fuyuhiko sank onto was western-style.

"Did you think we used secret hand signals or something?" Fuyuhiko asked when he saw Hajime outright studying the sleek laptop on his desk. There was expecting a traditional room, and then there was just being dumb.

"Huh?" Hajime's face reddened. "No, it's just really nice."

Now that was an odd thing to say. It wasn't wrong; the laptop was a gift for starting high school and no expense had been spared. Yakuza were professionals, with offices and business cards, and their organizations demanded professional skills. He was much better with electronics than Peko, who had little use for them.

A lot of his classmates wouldn't be able to afford a similar computer. Sonia would, of course, and Ryota had apparently found the funds for an impressive animation setup. But whenever Akane was forced to do something digitally, she just used a school machine, and anyone who paid attention to cover stories could see that Teruteru wasn't the accomplished social climber he pretended to be.

Such variety was normal for the Main Course. Talent could be found anywhere and from any background. It was why admission to Hope's Peak came with free room and board for anyone from outside the area, or even for locals who wanted a more focused or stable living environment. But unlike the variety of the Main Course students, Hajime's class all had a similar background: they could afford to pay the sizable Reserve Course tuition.

"Your parents didn't buy you something to start school with?" Fuyuhiko probed. This was weird, and so he wanted an explanation.

Hajime's expression tightened and he bowed his head. "No."

Fuyuhiko frowned. The guy had been skittish all day. He hadn't expected such a blunt response.

A memory floated up and his frown turned more thoughtful. Hadn't Hajime said something about his tuition that morning? Fuyuhiko had always assumed that it had been the richest families sending their children to the Reserve Course, but people straining to pay the bills could also probably enroll. They'd just be dancing along the edge of expulsion every time the family checkbook ran low.

Well, shit. No wonder he looked upset. "Don't worry about it," Fuyuhiko said and swung his legs up onto the bed. He owed the guy some consideration after his concern for Natsumi. "You can sit down, if you want."

That was the excuse to move away from the reminder of his finances that Hajime clearly wanted, and he took it. "I'll get drinks," Peko offered as Hajime chose one of the low, comfortable chairs opposite the television. After watching her leave, Hajime turned to Fuyuhiko in obvious question over her presence.

"You already said you wouldn't talk about us, right?" Fuyuhiko reminded him.

"Yeah, of course." After clearing his throat, Hajime added, "And it's not like I think it's weird that you live together."

His gaze fell on a sliding door that hadn't been completely closed that morning. Beyond it, Fuyuhiko knew that Hajime could see a sliver of a spartan room with muted decor and little but weapons for decoration. Anyone who'd seen both it and Peko would label the space as hers. Hajime visibly swallowed down the next obvious comment: And she has a private entrance into your room. That's totally, one hundred percent normal.

The sympathy he'd felt earlier vanished. Hajime's mind had better not be wandering astray. Fuyuhiko hadn't intended to invite in some goddamn pervert.

Suddenly uncomfortable, Fuyuhiko adjusted the tie to his uniform. It wasn't like they opened that door when either of them was anything but completely dressed. If an enemy of the family got through his window, she just needed a direct route to stop them. That was all. "Of course it's not weird. She works for my family. Peko's been training since she could hold a sword."

Some of the confusion in Hajime's eyes cleared. "Oh! She's your bodyguard?"

Fuyuhiko grumbled, even as the tension eased. Yeah, that's what everyone in the house said. But hearing the term always made him feel like he was some Faberge egg being shipped between museums. "Peko's a hitwoman," he clarified, emphasizing the word.

Hajime paled. Maybe they should have stuck with bodyguard, after all, because hitwoman was a loaded word. "So, uh...." He didn't finish his question, but the concern he'd shown earlier while walking deeper into the compound flickered back to life.

Since he didn't want his visitor to bolt for cover, Fuyuhiko avoided telling him that yes, Peko had killed plenty of people. It wouldn't do for Hajime to be thinking about that when Peko returned, or that he was surrounded by other killers for as long as he was inside these walls. "Pick something," Fuyuhiko offered, tossing Hajime the remote.

Hajime nearly fumbled the catch. The guy was apparently loyal, but not agile. "Sure," he said, glad again for a distraction. After clicking over to the available streaming movies, he hesitated on the category for crime dramas. Fuyuhiko smirked, and kept smirking when Hajime clicked past them to unremarkable fighting movies straight out of Hong Kong.

This guy was sure trying damn hard to pretend that he wasn't being hosted by the Kuzuryuus.

It wasn't a movie he'd seen before, but it soon looked like a good pick. By the time Peko returned with drink options, both boys were leaning forward to follow the whirlwind-fast opening fight scene. "Thanks," Hajime said as he took an offered can, though he barely glanced away from the screen.

"How are they?" Fuyuhiko asked Peko as she handed him a bottle of the lemon tea she knew he favored.

Peko turned and watched the conclusion to the fight onscreen. After considering her assessment, she said, "More skilled than most actors. They weren't visibly terrible."

Bemused, Hajime looked away from the movie. "These guys are famous. Of course they're not 'visibly terrible.'"

"You'd be surprised. Even actors who come from a martial arts background are sloppy, usually." She took a drink of water. "Though that makes sense. Everything they're doing is make-believe. There's no need to be perfect when you can have several tries to get something right."

With just the three of them, in what almost looked like a normal room, Hajime seemed far more relaxed than he had when surrounded by the compound's grand scale. Underneath the startled boy they'd met that morning, and the nervous one who'd arrived that afternoon with Natsumi, there apparently lurked a sharper tongue. "They're famous to millions of people for how good they are at this. They seriously don't look right to you?"

"If I make a mistake," Peko said, "I will not get a second chance."

Hajime frowned, and Fuyuhiko felt worse than Hajime looked. That wasn't the road this was supposed to go down. He didn't want to think about Natsumi's relapse, but neither did he want to acknowledge that every mission Peko went on could potentially end her. He was the heir. He should be the one people really wanted to kill.

As awkward silence swelled, Hajime considered the remote control that still rested in his hands. Then he clicked the volume up a couple of times, like that'd help.

It did make it awkward to continue their conversation, so maybe he did accomplish something. As Peko settled onto the chair next to Hajime's, seemingly unconcerned about the grim statement she'd made, Fuyuhiko's dark mood worsened. He'd never apologized to her for how he'd acted that morning, and now he had to act like even more of the proper, unconcerned son in front of Hajime.

Peko would understand when he did say something. She always understood.

(He wished she wouldn't. Not so easily, anyway.)

"Maybe I'll put on a different movie," Hajime abruptly said and raised the remote again.

He chose something funny. That was probably a better idea.

By an hour in, the only tension left was over Natsumi's lingering absence. The boys sprawled, and even Peko had relaxed in her chair. Between the steady flow of drink options and the movie, Hajime had apparently decided that the two of them at least resembled normal students, despite everything that he'd seen and done that day.

If Fuyuhiko was going to grill him about what had happened to Natsumi, this would be the best time possible. By now, Hajime seemed to trust them. If they took the worst-case view of his comments earlier, then he wouldn't ever be on campus again. Fuyuhiko should be prying for information about who'd attacked Natsumi. If prying didn't work, he should forcibly carve it out of the boy who'd been foolish enough to let down his guard.

But... it wasn't like Hajime was going to flee the city tomorrow. He'd responded well to simple questioning earlier. Between whatever heartbreak he'd faced at Hope's Peak and the drama of keeping Natsumi healthy, the guy had faced one hell of a day already.

"Hey," Fuyuhiko said. The others looked at him, startled; he'd interrupted some key dialogue. "Give me your number. I'll let you know how Natsumi does over the next few days, since she'll be home again for a while."

"Huh?" Hajime blinked, then straightened to take Fuyuhiko's offered phone. "Oh! Oh, sure." He obligingly typed in his contact information and returned it. "Thanks, I appreciate it. I hope she'll be okay when she can go back."

The worst-case view was right. Because Hajime's tuition payment had run out, he didn't expect to be returning to her class. Ever.

Fuyuhiko considered that, and what Hajime had done for Natsumi and the information he still held, but said nothing. He could see a picture of some grander scheme, but wasn't yet positive of the details. It would be unfortunate if he assumed something of his father that ended up not being true.

Right. He'd shut up, and just send these two texts.

The first one went to his father. Once he sent the second text, the expected tone chimed next to him a moment later. Hajime glanced at his own phone, surprised.

"Just checking that you typed it right," Fuyuhiko explained. "And now you have mine."

Hajime didn't seem upset by that. Good.

After a few minutes, Fuyuhiko's phone vibrated. This response was from his father, who agreed with the short assessment his son had typed about Hajime Hinata: he seemed trustworthy. That was rare praise from the head of the clan, and valuable.

"Mistress Natsumi has returned," a servant told them after an abrupt knock several scenes later. "The doctor will stay here tonight. She's resting in her room and will not be joining you for dinner. There is apparently nothing to worry about, however."

"That's good!" Hajime said, only to be surprised at Fuyuhiko and Peko both rising. Apparently, he hadn't recognized that as the call to dinner it was. He hurried to join them.

"I'll let you know how this goes," Fuyuhiko murmured before Peko slipped off. She looked at him curiously, but accepted that a plan was in motion and nodded. Then she vanished through the sliding door into her own room, where she would freshen up before dinner. Not with him and his parents, of course; they'd never allow a servant to sit and eat next to their children.

It wasn't that Fuyuhiko looked forward to his father dying, but when he ran things, Peko wasn't going to be shooed away like some employee.

"Let's go," he then said, turning to Hajime. Like when Peko had left for the kitchen earlier, it felt momentarily strange to be standing alone in his room with someone from outside the family. However, Peko wouldn't step away if she didn't trust their visitor. It was another indicator that his instincts about Hajime were correct. "We don't want to be late."

Hajime obligingly followed. After a few steps outside of Fuyuhiko's room, his impression of a mouse in a maze returned. As they approached the dining room, Hajime began to look instead like a mouse in a roomful of hungry cats. Servants ducked out of Fuyuhiko's way and guards tracked Hajime with their eyes. Fuyuhiko, in a surge of foolish goodwill, hung back to encourage him when he slowed. It wouldn't do to have Hajime delay the start of dinner because he got nervous.

As promised, Natsumi was still in bed. Her customary spot at the table lay empty and so Hajime saw exactly zero friendly faces waiting for him inside the dining hall. With a shaky stride on shaky legs, he walked in, anyway.

With a much lighter heart, Fuyuhiko followed. He could have told Hajime that this would all work out, but this meal was probably going to be entertaining.

It soon was.

If they'd been trying to impress or menace a guest, dinner would be held in the main hall. Expensive artwork lined the walls and carved columns in the shapes of twisting, fierce dragons framed both exits. The table was a long, low slab of flawless rosewood, with legs that matched the guardian columns. Eighty years ago, a woodworker had been grateful to have his life spared.

The family dining space was much smaller, and the artwork was only worth about half as much.

Hajime stared at the small bowl of pickled vegetables in front of him and tried to force himself to lift a bite. With no distracting movies in a comfortable student bedroom, he'd been freed to think again about the full reality of his situation: Hajime Hinata was sitting in the home of Japan's most powerful criminal family, with guards at the sole door and no other way out.

At both ends of the table knelt Fuyuhiko's parents. His father was a pale, sharp-eyed man with features more angular than his children's, and he wore a suit that looked every bit as expensive as it was. His mother had a sweet, cherubic face. Her eyes were even harder than her husband's, though, and made Peko's sharpest glare look gentle. They studied Hajime with the same hawkish intensity they used when talking with corporate leaders who'd soon pay billions of yen for protection.

Fuyuhiko considered Hajime as he ate. If you hadn't grown up around all this, it'd be pretty intimidating.

"We would like to offer you our gratitude for assisting our daughter," said Fuyuhiko's father once he'd finished his small plate. That was the sign for the main courses to be brought out, though no one else had finished theirs, and a servant obediently disappeared for the kitchen.

"I was glad to help," Hajime said. It sounded convincing, but he couldn't bring himself to meet the man's eyes. "I've been worried about her."

"We would also like to set up a... more formal arrangement. You've proven yourself trustworthy. My son has vouched for you. My wife and I would be grateful if you would continue to keep Natsumi's safety as your top priority when she returns to class." He took a sip of whatever drink he'd chosen that evening, then reached for a sliver of meat from the first plate the returning servant offered. "Your very top priority."

Hajime's fingers clenched white around his chopsticks. It was hard for Fuyuhiko to not rest his chin in his palm and watch the show play out. The kid was about to shit himself.

"Do we have a deal?"

Fuyuhiko's mother also looked up and silently waited for an answer. Just as with her husband, she clearly expected Hajime to agree. No one ever said no to the two of them, except for the other.

"I... I'm sorry," Hajime said. His gaze stayed fixed on his vegetables. Oddly, the tension in his voice sounded more like pain than fear, even with the heads of the clan staring at him. Was the thought of leaving Hope's Peak truly that agonizing?

"You're sorry?" The question from his father made Fuyuhiko want to cringe. That was not a good sound.

After closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, Hajime explained in a soft voice, "My tuition payment ran out today. The... scholarship I was going to apply for didn't work out. It's not that I don't want to help her, but—"

"Done."

Hajime looked up, blinking, at the single word. "Done?"

Fuyuhiko's father sipped his drink again, unconcerned. "Done. Consider it payment for assisting my daughter."

"Payment?" Hajime repeated blankly, but awareness dawned a second later. This time, his hand shook so much that he had to set down his chopsticks. "Sir?"

"Go to school tomorrow. Everything will have been handled so long as you and my daughter are at Hope's Peak."

Tears actually beaded in the boy's eyes, though he blinked rapidly so they wouldn't fall. "You're paying my tuition?"

"Don't make me repeat myself. And I am assuming you'll give me no reason to change my mind over the years. I... dislike being disappointed in people." The man studied him. "You're letting your dinner go cold."

Hajime obligingly began to shove more food into his mouth without even looking at what was on the plate.

Fuyuhiko smiled to himself in satisfaction as he ate. His instincts had been right. And being right meant that he was learning more about how things worked. It was a good feeling.

Actually, seeing Hajime about to cry like a little baby felt good, too, and not just because it was funny. The guy did seem pretty decent, and this new arrangement would work out for all of them. Hajime would have his tuition paid, with only the obligated pain of dealing with Natsumi. She would have someone visibly watching her back, limiting the chances of a second attempt on her life.

And as for the rest of the family... as Hajime settled into his new responsibilities, he would share what he knew about the attack. Who spent time around Natsumi. Who he suspected. Who had motives. Who had opportunity.

Fuyuhiko pushed his first bowl aside and reached for another dish.

For his practical exam, maybe he could show the judges how the Kuzuryuu clan dealt with revenge.

Chapter Text

"Adjust your grip."

Peko slowly opened her eyes and turned to the familiar voice. She'd been working through her forms blind. It could be useful to rely only on the guidance of how her muscles felt. She was nowhere near perfect, though, and sometimes an outside observer was needed to make corrections.

Michio Hashimoto was a thin, grey man with his remaining hair pulled into a topknot. Lean muscle under speckled skin and a soul of tempered steel marked the decades he'd spent as the master for the clan's training hall. Four years ago, his right hand had been replaced by a metal prosthetic. His left sleeve was knotted below the stump of that elbow. One of the family's enemies had made a lucky capture and wanted to send the Kuzuryuus a message.

They'd sent a message in return. It had been Peko's first assigned solo kill.

Annoyed with herself after the needed correction, she looked down at her hands. He was right, of course. The angle of one wrist wasn't quite as it should be. She'd lose power in a strike, and possibly jolt the tiny bones of the joint.

"Like this?" Peko showed him after an adjustment. While she'd grown, his strong hands had placed hers properly on a sword. Michio was good with most arms, but mid-length blades were his favorite. A sword had been the weapon given to her by default; his passion for them had kept her on that path. Otherwise, she might have ultimately ended up with knives, or a polearm, or as some creeping shadow ready to pull out a garrote.

"Better. Go again. Like before."

Nodding, Peko closed her eyes and slid back into the form she'd been practicing. Calm flowed through her. In her mind, every new angle blocked another enemy. She could see dozens pour into the clean, empty hall. Some came through the main door from the garden; others slid through the windows that faced the perimeter walls. With eyes closed, she spun to meet them.

Michio was kind enough to grunt as a warning. Peko opened her eyes, already instinctively repositioning her shinai. The metal star vibrated as it impacted the bamboo and lodged there.

Peko studied the projectile that could have buried itself into her shoulder, then gave him a rare, small smile as she removed it. "Your throwing has improved." Controlling tiny items like that demanded the most control, and it'd been the last skill to return.

The metal fingers of his prosthesis clacked. "I've had time to practice. And not much else to do."

Not much else? He still guided her training. He assessed new recruits and designed their training regiments. How could this man, who'd held this vital position for decades, feel the slightest hint of emptiness?

As soon as she asked herself the question, Peko tamped it down. It was a bad road to wander.

Her dinner had been a quick thing: simple grilled fish, vegetables, and rice. She'd wanted something light before she crossed the gardens to the training hall. Normally she would have fit in her practice before eating, and skipping a day was unacceptable.

It had been at least an hour and a half since the call to dinner had come, and the window to the family dining hall was still lit. Whatever was going on in there must be complicated. Her curiosity was piqued, though she knew it wasn't her place to concern herself with such business. It seemed like Fuyuhiko had more responsibilities to worry about every day. He—

She chided herself. Using his own name, even in her thoughts, was a habit she should break. She knew that his mother would prefer for Peko to never think of any label but 'young master.' But... it wasn't what Fuyuhiko wanted, that much was obvious. Perhaps it was her own selfish weakness, but Peko didn't want it, either.

Right, then: Fuyuhiko obviously had some plan for this Hajime boy. All that Peko could think of was that Hajime was being groomed as an informant, or browbeaten into the role. Either approach would help keep Natsumi safe, she supposed, so the path to get to the information was irrelevant. She couldn't imagine what else they'd do with him. He was too weak to be brave, but too stubborn to be meek.

"And now you're dead."

With a jolt, Peko realized she'd stopped mid-form. Her thoughts had dragged her into stillness. "Apologies," she said with warm cheeks, and continued under Michio's watchful eye. Her role was to be Fuyuhiko's sword when needed, not to uselessly ponder what he might be thinking about.

Michio was a good reminder of her role, and a painful one. He'd been Fuyuhiko's father's personal bodyguard. Once, he'd needed to fight off a dozen attackers single-handedly while cradling his infant charge with his other arm. (The small, fading clan that had sent that desperate ambush no longer existed.) When his charge grew up and took a more prominent role in running the Kuzuryuu clan, he didn't want a bodyguard hovering over him. He thought having Michio as a constant shadow made him look weak to the thousands of men he needed to lead.

When Peko was small, she hadn't understood how that could happen. Michio had been by the boy's side every day of his life. But suddenly....

Yes, this was a painful road to go down. This time, instead of stopping to nurse her thoughts, she poured her pain into her swordplay. Her body moved as fluidly as the fish in the garden pond. She would kill who needed to be killed, protect who must be protected, and serve as she was told.

Besides, it wasn't as if Michio had been cast aside. He'd been entrusted with a valuable, prominent role for decades. He still lived with the boy—now man—he'd once protected. It was a good, honorable life to look forward to. It was all she could ever want.

Fuyuhiko's mother would be proud of how well Peko convinced herself of that.

"You'll impress the judges," Michio concluded as Peko finished her forms. He didn't sound impressed, but she'd only managed that a handful of times. She could only aim for satisfying her instructor, and he did sound satisfied. "Hope's Peak would be fools to throw you aside."

Peko bowed slightly. "Thank you."

"We'd never let them kick you out, anyway."

With newly warm cheeks, Peko turned to the hall's doorway. Fuyuhiko leaned against the frame, watching her with a small smile. How long was he there? Peko wondered and hurriedly put away her weapon. "Dinner's concluded then, young master?"

"Yeah. I just put Hinata in a car to go home. He'll be back tomorrow, though."

"For information on Mistress Natsumi's assailant?"

"Eventually, but I don't want to rush it. I just talked with the doctor and it sounds like Natsumi's going to be safe at home for at least a couple of weeks." Fuyuhiko's smile slid into a smirk. Oddly, he directed it at Michio. "You're going to have some work to do."

"Work?" echoed both Peko and Michio.

"We've found someone that Natsumi trusts. Someone that she talks to. Someone who'll put her safety above his own. But he can't fight for shit, yet." Fuyuhiko looked proud of himself for whatever plan he was implementing. "Fortunately, you're a good trainer."

It wasn't Peko's place to second-guess Fuyuhiko's instincts about family business. She couldn't help it. Hajime Hinata? Really? "I watched him move," she said uncertainly. "I didn't see athletic talent."

"He'll be good at something. I'm sure you can find it." Fuyuhiko said that to Michio, then added to Peko, "And, uh... maybe you could help?"

She blinked. "Of course." She'd never turn down his requests, but fulfilling this one would be a challenge. Well... Hinata did seem decently muscled under his uniform, and was tall enough to have good reach. He probably had better defensive instincts than offensive. There must be some real raw (unshaped, untouched) material to work with. After considering that, Peko turned to Michio and nodded. "I'll give you my assessment. I spent the afternoon with him."

Before Michio could nod back, Fuyuhiko cleared his throat. He'd never stepped wholly into the hall, as he hadn't bothered to remove his shoes. "Wait until tomorrow. Peko, can I talk to you?"

She moved instantly toward the door. The only thing that outranked her instructor's permission was a request from the family. "Certainly."

"We'll talk then," Michio agreed in a clear dismissal.

She slid her shoes back on and they walked down the few steps together. Night came earlier, now, and she felt an abrupt chill settle in with the darkness. Despite that, Fuyuhiko led her not back to the house, but toward the pond. Peko was too confused and curious to question the path he set, even when they walked onto the small arched bridge and stopped there.

He needed a while to say something. When the words did finally come, they were simple and hesitant. "Hey, I wanted to say... thanks for earlier."

"Earlier?" she echoed.

"This morning. With Natsumi." At this point in the evening he'd changed out of his uniform into more casual clothes, but Fuyuhiko still tried to straighten his tie like a nervous habit. Realizing he'd grabbed for empty air just knocked him more off-balance. "And it really wasn't your fault, you know."

Oh. This again. "It's all right."

"No. It's not. Look, remember what I said about that fight between my parents?"

Her hands gripped the bridge. Even though the chill was nothing yet like winter, the skin stretched tight over her knuckles felt as if it might split in the cold. She never wanted to remember that day when his parents had fought over Singapore. She never wanted to remember him stumbling away with blood staining his shirt. "It's fine," Peko said tightly.

"It's not fucking fine! Will you shut up and let me apologize?" Fuyuhiko looked ready to snap again, but abruptly brightened and turned to Peko. "You don't want me talking about that."

Her teeth clenched. No. She didn't. But he obviously had a point to make.

"Do you?"

"You may talk about anything you wish, young master." Her voice almost sounded steady.

Anger flashed through his eyes again. "Fine. If Mom had been an inch to the left, she would have cut right here." He gestured with his thumb like it was slicing through his jugular. The thought weakened Peko's knees. It was the same surge of terror she'd felt that afternoon when she realized the classroom wall had exploded. Today, he'd only hurt his hand; that night, he only took a minor wound to the neck. But there were so many sources of danger out there... so many things to protect him from....

"I would have bled out," Fuyuhiko continued. "You almost watched me die."

"Stop!" Peko cried. Her eyes slammed shut behind her glasses. "Stop," she repeated more quietly, but with the same urgency.

He didn't reply for a long while. Peko needed the time to collect herself.

"Was that so hard?"

Her watery eyes looked at him in confusion. "What?"

"You disagreed with me. Eventually." Fuyuhiko's confidence seemed shaky, like he worried that he'd made a misstep, but he still inched forward. "You... you can do that, you know."

"Young master...." Peko shook her head. This hurt. It hurt badly. Why had he done it? "I don't understand."

"It's. Well." He seemed so uncertain. This wasn't at all like him. "I want you to do well on your practical exam."

All right, he was just throwing out topics at random, now.

"I mean. Shit. I want you to do well for your own sake. I was watching you from the training hall door, and... you're good. People should see that. They should see how good you are, all on your own." Even in the darkness, she could see his face blazing red.

She was used to seeing that from anger, but this seemed more like embarrassment. What in the world was going on? Peko shook her head again. "I still don't know what you mean."

"Just... be your own person. Go pass your exam. Argue with me if you want. Sorry I brought up the Singapore fight again." Fuyuhiko folded his arms, leaned on the bridge's railing, and resolutely refused to meet her eyes. His blush hadn't ebbed. "That's all."

Her heart sank and Peko's gaze dropped to the pond below them. Be her own person. Go away. Both of those meant the same thing, right? It was probably what Michio had heard decades earlier.

Yes, it would be a noble life to watch the Kuzuryuu's training hall. Only a garden would separate her daily life from the main house where Fuyuhiko busied himself with the responsibilities of a leader. "I understand," she dully intoned.

"Huh?" Fuyuhiko caught her sleeve before she could leave. "Wait. What the hell did you think I was just saying?"

"I understand," Peko repeated. It felt like a rock had lodged in her throat. "After today, it's obvious that you have become a leader, young master. You obviously have little need of me."

"What?" His hand gripping her sleeve balled into a tight, desperate fist. "What the fuck? No! Goddammit, why can't we ever talk like we used to?"

Whatever Fuyuhiko's intentions, he sounded so emotional that she couldn't bring herself to apologize again. Bewildered, Peko turned to meet his eyes. What was happening? So much from that day hadn't made any sense, and this was the most confusing.

"I need you," he said after a long breath, "to be there for me... as you. I know my mother tells you not to think for yourself, but I need you to, all right? Look, today showed me that I can't do this on my own." His determination began to wilt and Fuyuhiko turned aside, sighing. "Fuck. I don't really know what I'm trying to say. So much for my fucking checklist. Just... argue with me, if you want to. Have your own opinion. You don't always have to listen to me. That's it."

Peko looked down as his fist released her sleeve. What he'd just said ran counter to everything she'd been instructed in over the years. But... he did obviously care about her, unlike she'd feared. "I'll try," she ventured when he waited for a response.

"Okay. Yeah." Fuyuhiko sighed, scrubbed a hand across his short hair, and looked toward the main house. "It feels like they're still listening out here, doesn't it? It makes it hard to say things."

She looked at the lit windows and wondered where his parents were behind them. She owed them so much—both of them did—but they could be terrifying.

"Anyway. Make your own decisions." Fuyuhiko's voice managed to locate a sliver of humor. "If I say 'that's an order,' will you take it the right way?"

Awkward, and entirely unsure of what feelings were swelling in her chest, Peko nodded. It seemed like the safest response. Another safe option was to focus on the important business ahead of them, and she took that path next. "We should discuss our plans for Mistress Natsumi's new guard, young master."

He gladly dove for the formal end to whatever conversation he'd just been trying and failing to hold. "Yeah. Let's go inside, it's getting cold."

The freedom he'd granted her loosened Peko's tongue. Before she could consider whether this was truly a wise move, she said, "Yes, you should be particularly mindful of the changing seasons." He'd stopped at a small size and probably didn't have any growth spurts left. She didn't mind—he was exactly as he should be—but she knew that he often resented his own slender form. Regardless, the fact remained: cold that only licked at her body would bite into his.

Fuyuhiko stopped mid-stride. Through a glare directed at the side of the house, he said, "See? An opinion."

Peko hesitated. He didn't sound pleased. At all.

"That's... good. Do... that."

As he resumed walking to the house—though now, it was more like stalking—Peko tried to file all of this away. He did actually seem to want her to make independent decisions. Perhaps it would be prudent to make those decisions without raising sensitive topics, however.

But it was starting to get cold. She'd need to bother him about wearing a jacket, soon. And he'd just given her permission to be a bother. Right? This had been a very confusing exchange.

"Have you decided on an approach for the practical exams?" she asked when they'd returned to their rooms. As they'd aged, the door between them stayed shut more and more. It was open now while she brushed out her hair, but that was as much as Peko would attend to her own needs with the rooms connected.

"Not yet." Fuyuhiko didn't sound worried, exactly, but there was a small but definite ribbon of tension in his voice. Depending on how long the third and second-years needed to complete their exams, he might have as little as two weeks to construct an approach and perfect it. As he slung his bag onto his bed and sat next to it, he continued, "Sonia and I are going to work together to plan our exams. Apparently."

"Oh." The image of the beautiful, statuesque princess filled Peko's mind. She frowned.

"It's a good idea," Fuyuhiko admitted. "She locked onto me this afternoon and I realized it'd be stupid to turn her down."

The strange, wormy feeling inside Peko intensified.

As Fuyuhiko was digging through his bookbag, he didn't notice whatever expression was on Peko's face to betray her roiling emotions. "Hopefully, Sonia and I can plan things out before Gundham decides to show off his animal routine. She's useless after he gets near her with something cute."

Gundham? Blinking, Peko recalled how Sonia cooed over the animals Gundham brought to class, and how well the two students had gelled. They all knew that Kazuichi had locked his romantic sights on her, and he'd started treating Gundham like his rival.

Yes. It was likely that Sonia had some form of romantic intentions toward Gundham.

The unexpected tension in her chest began to ease. That had been very odd.

Still oblivious to her struggles, Fuyuhiko flipped through his notebook and sighed. "Look at this. It's exactly what they want to see, but I can't show them any of it."

Peko took the offered notebook and read through his notes. One of the clan's primary sources of money and power was to secure influence over corporate and political leaders. It was far more pleasant to get orderly, peaceful cash payments rather than dealing with the messy business of theft and assault. Those were still necessary to maintain their dangerous reputation, of course, but the family liked to outsource showy, wanton violence to smaller (and disposable) gangs of thugs and delinquents.

Payments made directly to the family tended to be under more genteel cover stories. Some people liked to enjoy themselves with drugs or women, and would pay for access. Others had made mistakes in their lives and would pay anything for those mistakes not to be publicized. Sometimes, the mistake was that a corporate division leader had paid for their drugs or women with company money. These types of targets were very profitable. Blackmail was a bountiful crop.

Inside this notebook were all the ideas that Fuyuhiko had come up with for collecting the latest harvest. A politician with his eye on someday being Prime Minister didn't want his sex scandals to hit the press. In return, he'd squash bills that the Kuzuryuus disliked. A branch manager at Nissan had started embezzling funds to cover what he owed the family, and was now in deeper than ever before. He was ready to hand over more each quarter in the guise of a business investment. A head of one of the Togami divisions, desperate to keep his drug habits hidden from management, would find them small, unnoticeable smuggling spaces on their import and export vessels.

The ideas in this book were doable, smart, and profitable. Her heart swelled with pride at seeing everything he'd been able to assess within the family's sphere of influence. However, Fuyuhiko was right: he couldn't possibly show the judges this. There was no way he could trust them not to run to the police and ruin his plans.

"Yes, this is a challenge," she mused as she returned the book. "Or, perhaps... is there a way to find out who your judges are beforehand?"

He considered that. "You think I could figure out if one of them would blab to the cops? I had an idea about what happened with Natsumi, but this could work, too."

Peko shrugged. "Or, if you convinced them not to...."

"Oh, hey! Yeah. That could be my 'exam' right there." Fuyuhiko nodded slowly, closed the notebook, and thumped it a few times against his leg in idle thought. "Good idea, Peko. I'll try to find out if these guys would be impressed if I did that, or if they'd expel me."

Warmth swelled where she'd earlier felt tension over Sonia. "You're very welcome." If the 'convincing' route looked more risky than they wanted for Fuyuhiko's exam, then at least it did feel like they could think of something else to do. The world was suddenly optimistic.

He offered her a smile that few people ever got to see: broad, unconcerned, and real. As he thwapped his notebook firmly back onto the bed, it disturbed some of the other materials he'd pulled from his bookbag. Papers fluttered to the ground. Peko bent over and scooped them up. "Here."

"Huh?" Fuyuhiko asked as she handed him the stack, but recognized them a moment later. "Oh. Right. The papers you took from Hajime," he explained as he studied the pages.

Ah, yes. Hajime's program had felt significant, somehow.

"Well, whatever this is," Fuyuhiko decided as he flipped through the dense text, "what he's doing with Natsumi is a lot more important. This is just some reserve program. It's gotta be."

He sounded like he meant that, but there was some odd undercurrent in Fuyuhiko's voice. "Young master?"

Fuyuhiko grimaced. "I hate to say this—I really fucking hate to say this—but Nagito's not stupid."

Well. No. He most certainly wasn't. As for why Nagito Komaeda's intelligence mattered, though, Peko had no idea.

"He saw the front page and got interested in it," Fuyuhiko explained at her silent confusion. "There might be something here worth paying attention to." As he began scanning the dense text more closely, Peko read over his shoulder to help locate whatever might be of interest.

More than anything else, the simple formal name of the project held Fuyuhiko's attention. "The Izuru Kamukura Project? What the hell is this supposed to be?"

Peko's brow dipped in thought. "That name sounds familiar."

"Yeah. It does." Fuyuhiko hesitated, then slid off his bed and crossed the room to his laptop. He took the papers with him so that he could reference the proper characters when he typed it in; it was an uncommon spelling. Peko obligingly followed.

The search results answered that question. There was a good reason for the name Izuru Kamukura to sound familiar: decades earlier, he'd founded Hope's Peak Academy. Now that she saw his face in the image results, Peko realized that she'd seen portraits and sculptures of the man scattered throughout the school grounds.

Both of them leaned back from the screen. Their confusion persisted.

Peko tilted her head. "Why would a project named for the founder himself—"

"—Go after a Reserve Course student?"

After a few moments of thought, Fuyuhiko leaned forward and searched again. This time he typed in the full project name, not simply the person, and demanded an exact result. Not a single match existed for "Izuru Kamukura Project" anywhere on the Internet.

Fuyuhiko didn't look away from the monitor. His frown deepened. "Hey... with this... do you still trust Hajime?"

Peko didn't reply until she'd thought through every step of their encounters with Hajime Hinata. "Yes. Whatever this is, I get the feeling that Hinata had only scratched its surface. He needed a push to convince him to give up on the project, but he did genuinely seem to abandon it. As well, if he were trying to hide something, he wouldn't have thrown these papers away where anyone could pick them up."

"Good point," Fuyuhiko mused. "Yeah. Probably."

"If you want," Peko offered, "I could ask him about it tomorrow."

"No," Fukuhiko said after more thought. "He won't be alone with Natsumi right away, anyway, and the first priority is to find out who attacked her. Get Hajime in and train him, but while you do, judge whether he's really on the level. Once Natsumi is safe and we know he's at least capable of watching her in class, then we can ask him about this. By then, you'll know whether he's telling the truth."

She nodded. It was a big task to be handed. Peko was being entrusted with Natsumi's life as surely as Hajime was.

After another long look at the screen, Fuyuhiko leaned back and resumed flipping through the overview of the Izuru Kamukura Project. Peko couldn't make out anything past the first page. It was all in dense legal terminology that she'd never had cause to study. "What a pain in the ass," Fuyuhiko soon concluded, pinching the bridge of his nose. "There's no way Hajime even understood what was in this. I guess that's a good sign."

"Can you?" It was possible. The yakuza liked to stay smartly within the boundaries of some laws, and violate others in ways the police would ignore. To someone outside their background, Fuyuhiko's occasional rigid morality might seem odd. To Peko, it only made sense. With him growing up studying exactly when and how to break the law, there was a chance that he might be able to wade through the legal jargon swamp this document clearly and deliberately was.

"After the exam," he decided, and leaned down to file it away in one of his desk drawers. "I need to do that first. I get the feeling that when I start trying to read about this thing, I won't be able to think about anything else."

"Let me know if I can be of assistance," Peko offered, though there was no real way for her to help with that project. Her true role was to assess how sincere Hajime appeared once his training began. "For now, we should probably get some sleep. I'm sure you'll want to get up early tomorrow to check on Mistress Natsumi before school."

It could be risky to try to steer Fuyuhiko's behavior like that. Whether it was trying to force breakfast on him or suggesting a jacket, he so easily felt babied. This time, though, he nodded in thanks. "Good idea. See you tomorrow."

"Tomorrow," she agreed and retreated to her room. The door bumped against a peg as she slid it shut, and stopped.

Peko's mind soon wandered as she stared at the ceiling, where moonlight shadows from the sole narrow window danced above her. So much had happened in so short a time. If Natsumi's assailant had actually killed her, the household would have been thrown into mourning, but this turmoil was a challenge all its own. Investigations. Training. Background checks. And eventually, vengeance.

Well, then. What she was entrusted with, she would master. Fuyuhiko had a lot to handle. It was up to her to not make him worry about anything else.

She doubted that Hajime Hinata would be admitted to the Main Course any time soon, but between herself and Michio, perhaps they could turn him into somewhat of a swordsman.

Chapter Text

"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."