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Kuzuryuu has a tantō that he barely knows how to handle, never mind use, that slides easily under his pillow. Mother is the paranoid sort: their bedrooms are set across from each other, his and Peko's. This means they are together almost twenty four hours a day. It does not bother him. Peko is not like his sister, aggressive at his presence and feminine to a fault. She is steady and regular, obedient. She is a combination of contradictions—her nails well-kept but kept short; hair meticulous but impractical; voice soft but not fond. Peko does not scold him when he is angry like his sister does, but says, quietly,

"Maybe you should take some time to calm down, Young Master,"

and rests her hand upon his shoulder with the level confidence of someone who knows her own control. At twelve Peko is already a head above him, and though Kuzuryuu says nothing, she is well-prepared to soothe in case of wounded pride. At least twice a week, she recites, "Boys tend to have growth spurts at a later age than girls," and lowers her head, "please, give yourself time."

As if having read it in a manual somewhere, or repeating Mother's advice, perhaps.

He doesn't mind these things. He snaps, sometimes—tells Peko I don't care, because sometimes he really doesn't. Kuzuryuu likes it more when she's unaware of him. Peko is different when unguarded, working her clever fingers through the wet mass of her hair, or shelling the skin off an orange in a neat swirl, or caught rough by the last cold front of spring, flashing her eye teeth in a grimace. These are times when Peko shows best how she holds herself alone, and these are times when Kuzuryuu is stunned by the ease of it, of her, this creature of great strength and great restraint.

 

(When he first had the lines shaved into his hair, Peko liked to run her fingers along them. They were seven, oblivious, and she still called him Fuyuhiko when his parents weren't around.

"Sorry," she had said, and her nails tickled along his scalp, the velvet bristle irresistible. "It's soft..."

It had reminded him, then, how fond Peko was of scratching dog's ears, or the soft patch at the cat's neck, and how soothing and gentle her hands were, so much so that her touch was easy to lean into.)

They are fifteen. Peko is still taller than him, but he doesn't mind so much anymore—what Kuzuryuu minds is that she has started addressing him Young Master even when they're alone together. It strikes something dark in the pit of his stomach, not fear, but knotted and tight regardless.

That year they get two letters. The crest of Hope's Peak is printed fine and black above their names. The letter is pleasing to read, soothing, expected.

"Congratulations," his father says.

It doesn't feel like much of a success: this is the power of influence, not talent. Kuzuryuu turns the envelope in his hands. It is not the first time he feels inferior, but it is the first time he feels it so keenly, some deep jealous ache curling in his chest.

"Thank you," he says.

He feels Peko come to his side as he makes to leave, the neat way she trots behind him. Kuzuryuu can imagine her closeness. Her gait in time with his, maybe, hand swinging near with each step. He thinks about reaching back, the contact that had once been so easy, unconscious, now unthinkable.

When he stops, Peko stops too. Kuzuryuu still doesn't turn to look.

"Young Master?" she says.

He can imagine her face. Impassive. Even her voice lacks inflection.

Kuzuryuu turns on his smart heels. Peko is blank, letter pressed between her palms so it doesn't crease. Her face bears its usual openness but he has come to recognise the manufactured nature of her honesty, and it is suddenly abrasive to him.

"It's fine," he says, but he can feel the paper buckle under his grip. "It's nothing."

 

Because he refuses to leave his room, Peko brings food when it's later in the morning and everyone's busy with themselves.

"They're not bad people," Peko says, evenly. She is scanning his face as she speaks. "I doubt anybody is genuinely contemplating murder... though they seem to think you capable of it. I don't think casting suspicion on yourself is the best idea. Perhaps if you stopped throwing empty threats around?"

Her tone is more an order than it is advice, but Kuzuryuu only forks more food into his sullen mouth. Her hands seem to shift towards him before she thinks better of it, folding them back into her lap. Her fingers are long, white, corded. He remembers holding them when they were younger, the hard spalled edge of her nail. Her palms were always warm after practice.

"More than anything, you are making yourself a target, Young Master. I will protect you at any cost, of course, but I would prefer not to hurt anyone," says Peko. She stands to bow, braids falling before her face. She sinks so low that Kuzuryuu can see the complex parting of her hair.

There is another long silence. She straightens up with a sigh.

"It was, after all, your idea to conceal our... our association. I'd prefer to not have to reveal it if possible. I'm sure you feel the same. Oh, and also," she says, hand pausing upon the door frame, "I won't be able to visit you tonight, because of—"

"—Because of the fucking party, yeah. I can look after myself."

This time, Peko does not respond. Her gaze lingers on him till she leaves, double-triple checking as she slips out through his cabin door.

It closes. Kuzuryuu bristles and has to suppress the urge to throw his plate.

 

Kuzuryuu flips the photos out on the desk as if revealing a hand of cards. The sudden hard flash of blood is enough to make his arm jolt back. It shoots all the way up his chest, the cruel realisation that he is not ready for this, that he never was or will be, for all his vicious bravado.

Peko's face falls. She twists it quickly into a grimace. "Are you sure it's... real."

Her voice shakes, betraying her calm restraint. Kuzuryuu stops in his pacing to grip the edge of the desk.

"Of course! I mean—I—!" His face contorts, grief-stricken, furious. "I don't know! I should remember, but I don't fucking remember anything!"

Peko's face slides back into its mask at his frustration. Her practicality is usually something Kuzuryuu appreciates, but now he wants her in pieces, scrambling, as desperate for an excuse as he is. She folds the photos into her hands.

"What do you want to do?" Peko asks. She keeps shuffling between them, pausing at the slumped frame of his sister to run a thumb over her blooded face. She doesn't let Kuzuryuu answer. "This is his, his game, you know. It would be rash to do anything because of these photos. They could so easily be—be—"

"Fake?" he says. It comes out like an accusation. Peko does not flinch, but her knuckles whiten.

"Pass me the envelope."

She slots them back in. There is a hollow sound as she taps it against the desk, the photos settling, aligned.

"I know who took them," he says.

"... Young Master."

Her voice is small but steady. When Kuzuryuu doesn't reply, she lowers her head, obedient.

"I am at your disposal."

 

He wants to tell her. He needs Peko, he can't do this if she isn't here. If his bones hadn't gone to water once Hinata's accusations rung loud, once Kuzuryuu remembered the blood harsh on her bare skin, the liquid arc of the bat as it swung. He had been surprised by the hoarseness of his own voice, then, but it seems so obvious now.

It is too late.

He's crying. There is a pain running hot along one side of his face while Peko cradles him. There is regret in her eyes, and grief, and shame, but no fear, though Kuzuryuu can see the rising line of silver beyond her shoulder.

She's so warm.

She's so warm.

 

He never really knew what he was to her, but he couldn't figure out what she was to him, either.

 

Sitting in the hospital for the second time, his eye doesn't hurt as badly as it did. Tsumiki explained it somewhat—that the brain responds to the most recent severe injury or something. Kuzuryuu curls a hand about his stomach, skin hot where the stitches are. He regretted it almost as soon as he felt the steel on his flesh. Prickling shame floods him: it was not the soothing penance he thought it would be.

Isn't it because she protected you, Nanami had said, her head at a curious tilt.

Ah, he had said back. Just ah, and then curled in on himself, one hand pressed between the pillow and his forehead, gauze rough under his fingertips.

Kuzuryuu is scared. Scared, because—because he doesn't want to live but he doesn't want to die, either. Because he owes this to Peko, doesn't he, and he knows how deeply that kind of debt runs. Because he can't fucking do this. Not on his own, not like this, not when he's killed two people.

Oh. Three.

There is light streaming in through the window. He closes his eyes and tries to sleep.

 

Hinata borders on aggressive with his friendliness, even when Souda makes him out as prime suspect and they are half-starving and Kuzuryuu is going mad with his eye bothering him, without sleep, without food, without—Peko. Everything is over-bright, here, saccharine pink and green. It puts his teeth on edge. Yet, Hinata keeps pulling out these antique dolls, and then shimmering vials of star sand, stupid things. When Kuzuryuu asks, he only shrugs: the machine on the beach dispensed them, as if that makes sense enough.

"I can't sleep here," he admits once, when Hinata comes to meet him. He rubs at his stomach, sore from the morning's exercises. Tsumiki's absence keeps making itself well known; Kuzuryuu is not very good at dressing the wound himself just yet.

"I guess it's the room. You got stuck with one of the cheapest ones, right? You're probably not used to that kind of rough sleeping," Hinata muses.

It makes Kuzuryuu laugh, a little, that Hinata is at once so candid but so careful. It reminds him of Peko, the deliberate way she'd phrase things to avoid offence. All the well-manufactured promises: you'll get taller, stronger, braver. You won't need me. You won't need them.

It isn't the room. It's that he dreams, too long, too deeply, and they are dreams of Peko, where her wounds aren't fresh but she is still torn through. Her carefully tended hair is fanned out beneath her, soiled with blood, matted and hot in his palms. She takes them—his hands, his terrible, wet-black hands—and kisses them slowly, reverently, her mouth streaked red. Peko is saying something as she does it, something desperate, her white fingers wrapped tight around his. But he can't hear her.

Kuzuryuu braces himself on the counter, folding a hand over his mouth. Hinata watches, and while his gaze is clear, analytical, it is easy to relax in his company. Kuzuryuu feels his own smile behind the press of his fingers as he speaks.

"Yeah. Could be."

 

Conversation is difficult but it is no longer the obstacle it once seemed, and Hinata is a willing listener even when he's slow. Kuzuryuu talks about his sister, the weight of his family name. About Peko. While these things aren't any easier to talk about, they hurt less keenly than they did, once. Hinata's responses are never very wise or enlightening, but he is simple and honest and regular. Kuzuryuu enjoys conversation with Hinata.

"You're always helping me with some problem," he says, a little self-deprecating. "Maybe that's what your talent is, after all. Super High School Level Advisor... something like that."

"That's not even funny."

They both laugh. It is the first time since they've been here that Kuzuryuu actually feels—okay. He feels normal. Peko was grounding, a security, but she'd never call him a friend. He'd tell her, now, if he could. There are so many things he could have told her. Regret churns in his stomach.

Hinata seems to notice his brooding, because his laughter winds down into silence.

"What's wrong?"

There is concern in his voice. Just a little, just enough, his brow knitting. It feels—enormous, somehow. Hinata cares for him, and Hinata is not servant nor family nor subordinate. It's a thought that settles painfully between his ribs.

Kuzuryuu shakes his head.

"It's nothing."

 

(Hinata finds him at the peculiar shrine left behind by Saionji. There is nothing much complex about it: Kuzuryuu is sat on a chair, hands folded before himself, staring ahead. His eyes are shining.

"I'm just looking," he says, as Hinata approaches. He is almost bent double, elbows on his knees as if in prayer. "At the photos."

There is something about the rough knot of his fingers. It is like walking in on a memory that doesn't belong to him, the air is so fragile, fraught with remorse, grief, anger.

Hinata leaves Kuzuryuu alone.)

 

It's funny that a cup of water can be weighted with so much. Hinata sits across from him, face bright with both surprise and amusement.

"Because we're under age, huh," he says. He looks down at the clear liquid, gives it a conspiratorial sniff.

"Low alcohol tolerance, too," Kuzuryuu admits, a little flushed. He waves his hand to dismiss the thought. "C'mon. This is important."

And it is, because it is. Because Hinata is important, and he's afraid, just a tiny bit, of mockery at this unnecessary ceremony. All Kuzuryuu knows is ceremony. He wants to impress upon him the gravity of their friendship, and this feels the best way to do it.

He says sworn brothers. It has a certain pull, even if it doesn't quite match with what Kuzuryuu feels. He hasn't got a name for this other—thing, that burns hotly in his gut, when he looks at Hinata. He isn't sure what it is.

Their cups clink. Hinata bumps his shoulder, gentle, just enough to have Kuzuryuu press back.

 

There are about a hundred things he wants to say when Hinata cups his face in both hands, thumb catching the band of his eye patch.

"Does it hurt?" Hinata asks.

And Kuzuryuu wants to say yes and no and I don't notice much anymore and only in the shower and I love Peko and I love you until it coils about his brain, indefinable, inextricable. He just nods instead.

"I don't know," says Kuzuryuu, lamely.

Hinata laughs, and this close his smile is a powerful thing. "You don't know?"

It's hard to think when he can feel Hinata's breath on his throat, but he doesn't say that. "Yeah. Shut up."

Hinata hums, thoughtful, rubbing the line of his jaw. Kuzuryuu feels himself lean into it. He wants desperately to touch him. He wants to grab fistfuls of Hinata's shirt so tight it hurts and pull until they are pressed line to line. He just wants.

Hinata laughs again. Kuzuryuu follows his gaze as it settles on the freckles across the bridge of his nose, then lower.

"I thought you said this kind of thing was inappropriate for our age," he says. The rough warmth of his palm against Kuzuryuu's pulse has him swallowing.

His ears grow hot. "That was with a girl," says Kuzuryuu. He switches his gaze to the wall behind Hinata's head, trying to focus. "That was different."

"Was it?"

Kuzuryuu feels frustration well in his chest. Hinata is good at making him feel small. Smaller. "What part of shut up didn't you understand, asshole?"

Hinata looks as if he might answer back, but he must sense either Kuzuryuu's frustration or his intent because he does go quiet. His hands move up the back of his head. Kuzuryuu processes the scrape of his nails vaguely, as if feeling through a veil, till Hinata kisses him.

It's softer than he expects, but he feels bruised all over.

 

Komaeda is like gunpowder waiting for the match to strike and he explodes when it does, brilliantly, in a great arc of fire and blood and swooping laughter. He watches Hinata break under Nanami's gentle insistence, pick me pick me pick me. He can't do anything.

None of them can. They watch Nanami die and everything

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falls apart.

 

There is a terrible desperate hope that claws through him at Enoshima's words, a tiny spark that billows out to a fire in his belly and threatens to rend him in two.

He thought he could get through this once, that this loss would strengthen him. He remembers Hinata's fingers about the cup, and the promise, and how Peko's name still sat raw in the back of his throat like a burn. He'd been so sure then, of what he'd learnt and gained from her. Of what Hinata had taught him.

Kuzuryuu's palm hovers over the button, retracts. Hovers. For the hundredth time on this stupid island he feels hopeless, helpless, repulsed at his own weakness. Enoshima calls him Young Master in her saccharine voice and it—it hurts. He feels it pulling at his bones. A familiar despair.

It's easy to give in to, so he does.

(And this is what Peko is saying, her mouth a slash of red in the darkness. Her voice rings through him with a shocking clarity, now:

"Will you always need me?"

It is warm with affection, with gentle scolding.

"Come on, Young Master. You're acting like a child. You're—strong, stronger than you know."

He's afraid. He's the most afraid he's ever been. But there is light.)

 

Waking is a painful process. It is like being reintroduced to each limb individually: everything feels tighter, heavier, slower. He's got the knack for holding his head up when the door to his capsule is flung open.

Hinata. It is—Hinata, bathed in the strange phosphorous glow of this place, his hair over-long and wild. Memories rush madly forward, but there is only one thought that surfs to the top:

"You need a haircut."

Out of his line of vision, he hears Sonia laugh—damp, happy. Hinata smiles and yanks him forward into the room, wobbling.

"Thank god, you idiot," he says, soft like. "We've got to wake the other two, still."

There is grief, but also laughter. They chop off Hinata's hair, long black lengths snaking underfoot, and burn them. They ride the roller-coaster till Souda is absolutely, incredibly sick, retching into the trashcan. Kuzuryuu cries until his eyes hurt, until it feels like he's cracked a rib, forehead slid to the cool panel of Peko's capsule. Hinata's eyes are red, too, but he doesn't know if it's from crying or staring at the monitor.

They're broken, a little. Kuzuryuu knows this. But then Hinata's broad hand is at the nape of his neck, and it is just them—the five of them, or even just the two, sometimes—and the hope coiled in his chest unfurls. The fear and grief and anger abates. If only for now.