The Zen’in Curse - sincerelyamee - 呪術廻戦 (2024)

Chapter 1

Chapter Text

You didn’t know what to expect from Tokyo Jujutsu High. Hell, you didn’t know about a lot of things, to be fair. Most of your life had been spent cloistered within the oppressive walls of the Zen’in clan estate. The few times you were allowed out were for stifling gatherings at other clans’ compounds – which didn’t really expand your worldview, given how they were all miserable carbon copies of your gilded prison.

But you supposed as a jujutsu school, Tokyo Jujutsu High would be secluded and heavily warded to avoid curious civilians stumbling upon it. What you hadn’t imagined was that the illustrious institution was quite literally perched on a goddamn mountain. And of course, the clan driver was delighted to dump your ass on the road at the mountain’s base with a cheery “My apologies, Eri-sama. But the car can’t make it up there!”

Must have been bribed by Naoya’s mother to get back at you for that stunt. Whatever.

Anyway, here you were in an ornate yukata and pointlessly dainty sandals, lugging a massive suitcase – all to make the arduous trek up the sh*t ton of stairs snaking an infuriating zigzag path toward Tokyo Jujutsu High’s gates. Sweat already beading on your brow from dragging your crap up infinite steps carved into the unforgiving incline.

So. Many. Goddamn. Stairs.

Couldn’t these great jujutsu minds have conceived some kind of transport system? Maybe a quaint cable car or some damn elevator? Oh no, brute force and determination were apparently a prerequisite at this esteemed school.

As you mentally cursed the school, the stairs, your elders, and pretty much every entity responsible for your predicament, a joyful voice sounded from behind. “Need some help over there?”

You turned to see a guy around your age with dark hair shaped like a mushroom, wearing a bright T-shirt and jeans. He was dragging his own suitcase yet hopping up the steps three at a time with an energetic bounce.

Instinctively, you stopped and stared at the stranger. Growing up in the suffocating confines of the Zen’in clan had instilled that practiced stoicism so prized in their women. Despite your exhaustion and irritation, your face remained an impassive, almost serene mask – just as you’d been conditioned. You had mastered this display to perfection. Your mother often praised you for it, reasoning it was surely because you lacked a soul to emote with, in the first place.

In seconds, the guy closed the distance, sweating but beaming a bright smile as he addressed you again. “My name’s Haibara Yu. I’m a first year! Are you a first year too?”

You gave a small nod and offered your name. “Eri.”

His eyes swept over your ridiculous outfit, completely unsuited for mountain climbing, but he didn’t comment. Instead, Haibara reached out a friendly hand. “I can help you carry your stuff if you don’t mind!”

You eyed him critically, wondering if he could manage both your oversized suitcase and his own without toppling back down the treacherous stairs in a misguided display of masculine pride. But Haibara looked strong – tall and well-built. You deemed him capable enough to haul the double load without plummeting to his death.

With another nod, you accepted. “Okay.”

As the only legitimate daughter of Zen’in Naobito, expression of gratitude wasn’t a thing you’d developed. But Haibara didn’t seem fazed, grinning again as he effortlessly lifted your suitcase. “Let’s get moving!”

The lack of heavy baggage made the ascent marginally easier, though your impractical sandals were not designed for trekking up a freakin’ mountain at any decent speed. Haibara had to reign in his energetic pace despite lugging both suitcases to match your steps instead.

You maintained a reasonable distance away from the overly chipper guy. While your elders would approve of you keeping your space from an unfamiliar man, truthfully you just didn’t want to risk eating pavement should this idiot indeed take a tumble hauling the double load and drag you down with him.

Yet, impossibly, Haibara didn’t seem even slightly deterred as he kept rambling the entire way. You had never met such a relentlessly chatty person before.

“I was scouted last month,” Haibara recounted. “I was just shooting hoops when this random guy showed up out of nowhere claiming I’m some jujutsu sorcerer! How crazy is that?”

Then he spent the next half hour regaling you with a long-winded retelling of his life story – every banal detail since he first encountered a curse at age seven, all the bizarre occurrences leading up to his recruitment, and so on. When he paused to gulp some air, those brilliant eyes found you again.

“What about you?”

Conversation wasn’t your forte, but seeing as Haibara was willingly hauling your crap, you figured you could humor his nosiness with the basics.

“Family legacy recruit,” you stated flatly.

Haibara’s eyes went comically wide. “Whoa, that means your family is some sort of big shot, right?”

You gave a curt nod. “I’m a Zen’in.”

When this didn’t trigger the expected standard cowering and Haibara simply blinked at you like a clueless idiot, you realized that he, as someone from a civilian family, was oblivious to the jujutsu world’s power players. So you added, “There are three major jujutsu clans: The Gojos, the Kamos, and the Zen’ins.”

Haibara lit up with awe. “Damn! Are you, like, an heiress or something then?”

“No,” you shook your head.

While your father may have been the current clan leader, the Zen’ins were infamously patriarchal – and that was putting their misogyny lightly. Being born a girl in that archaic house was a curse in and of itself. Women were treated as little more than pawns and servants, valued solely for their ability to serve and produce sons.

The only reason you received your due respect was your inherited cursed technique and powerful reserves of cursed energy. Oh, and the influential wealth of your mother’s civilian family didn’t hurt either. While she wasn’t a sorcerer herself, her prestigious lineage held serious sway.

But you weren’t about to unload all the sordid details of your clan’s rampant misogyny on this chirpy stranger you’d just met. So you left it at that, not feeling the need to elaborate further.

Not that your lack of conversational enthusiasm bothered Haibara at all. He steamrolled ahead, letting his racing thoughts tumble out in an endless stream.

“I wonder what it’ll be like studying here? We’re gonna get to slay all sorts of curses, right? Meet fun people? Yeah, it’s gonna be a total blast!”

You let Haibara’s one-sided rambling fill the silence, only humming brief confirmations when he sporadically tossed you a mundane question. He didn’t seem to mind carrying the entire dialogue, happily picking it back up after each of your noncommittal responses.

Surprisingly, you found his nonstop chatter… not entirely grating. There was something pleasant about his voice, his bright smile, his open demeanor – so unlike the stifling murkiness of the people in your clan.

When you both eventually arrived at the school gates, Haibara looked ready to keel over – whether from physical exertion hauling your ridiculous suitcase or just sheer windedness after that marathon monologue, you couldn’t say.

You attempted to take back your crap, but the stubborn idiot was hell-bent on his prince charming persona, insisting on delivering it straight to your dorm room. As you weighed the pros and cons of just knocking him out to end this nonsense, a figure emerged from the school grounds to greet you both.

He was a young man, in his early twenties at best, wearing simple clothes with a sword at his hip. Despite his youthful appearance, he carried himself with an understated grace as he approached with two large bags.

“Hello. You’re the new students, right?” He offered a polite smile. “I’m a teacher here. You can call me Kusakabe. Let me show you to your dorms.”

Sorcerers tended to have rather short lifespans, so a young instructor wasn’t that uncommon you supposed. You and Haibara fell into step behind Kusakabe, Haibara stubbornly dragging your luggage the whole way.

Your room was on the third floor while Haibara’s was closer to the common area on two. You didn’t mind the extra stairs – it would be quieter up there. Before departing, Kusakabe handed a bag to each of you.

“Your uniform. It can be tailored, so check the fit. If anything’s not comfortable, let me know and I’ll have it adjusted for you.”

While Haibara offered profuse thanks, you just gave a succinct nod of acknowledgment. Kusakabe added one final detail as he turned to leave.

“Yaga-sama will be back tomorrow for your first field exercise. So rest well, you two.”

The dorm room was simple and compact compared to your lavish private quarters back at the Zen’in clan’s sprawling manor. But it was clean and had a certain charm in its minimalism – one standard dorm bed, desk with chair, bookshelf, and closet providing just the bare essentials. At least you had your own attached bathroom.

The first rational step was a shower to rinse off the grotesque sweat and grime accumulated from that hellish mountain climb. Once clean and smelling delightful again, you slipped into another yukata because god forbid a Zen’in woman owns anything remotely practical for daily wear.

Your long hair was always an ordeal to properly dry. You’d packed your hairdryer, but the thought of wrestling with this mess on your head right now was just… exhausting. Giving your hair a brief toweling attempt, you decided “damp” was presentable enough. Your aunts and their pursed-lipped disapproval weren’t here anyway.

With basic hygiene restored, you turned your attention to the uniform – a standard white button-down shirt, jacket and knee-length skirt combo. Seemingly normal enough, though you’d need to invest in some new sensible footwear. You wouldn’t survive one curse-whacking expedition in your stupid sandals.

As you began unpacking and arranging your stuff, a sudden rap at the door interrupted your reverie. Of course, it was the Golden Retriever himself, now changed into an oversized hoodie, grinning at you when you cracked the door open.

“Hey, wanna come down to the common room? There’s another first year down there, we should go meet him!”

Before you could so much as tell him to leave you the hell alone, Haibara had already grabbed your arm and started tugging you along with that manic, beaming energy that was downright illogical.

As predicted, when you and your enthusiastic tour guide tumbled into the common room, there was indeed another guy occupying one of the couches – blond hair, hazel eyes, and a general aura of mild irritation at the world.

His eyes sharpened as he took in Haibara barreling forward, bodily hauling you along in his wake.

Haibara called out an affable greeting. “You’re a first year too, right? I’m Haibara Yu!” Not allowing you any chances for escape, he jutted a thumb back toward you. “This is Zen’in Eri!”

The blond guy inclined his head in acknowledgment. “Nanami Kento.”

Nanami’s gaze slid back to your admittedly ridiculous attire, bewilderment breaking through his aloof veneer as he blurted out the obvious question.

“What are you wearing?”

You stated the simple fact plainly. “A yukata.”

If possible, Nanami’s frown contorted further. “I can see that. But why?”

“Because I can’t put on my kimono without assistance,” you answered with an easy shrug.

To you, there was nothing odd about that. The traditional kimono did indeed require skilled hands to properly dress them. You hadn’t realized how strange it was that your clothing options did not include any casual clothes at all. Growing up in the Zen’in clan’s isolated world, there were many “ways of life” you’d simply accepted as facts. But Nanami’s expression morphed into one of complete incredulity, as if he couldn’t quite process your statement.

You could see the judgy look written across Nanami’s features. Your words must have struck an odd cord. Normally, you wouldn’t devote much thought to such social missteps. But this Nanami would be a classmate for the next four years – provided neither of you met an untimely demise before graduating, that is. The prudent choice would be to smooth over any weird first impressions before he wrote you off as a full-blown loon this early.

Except… not having a soul made navigating social norms rather inconvenient at times like these. You weren’t sure what an appropriately “normal” reaction should be, or what emotions to project.

What would Mother do?

Whenever unsure how to behave, you always fell back on your mother’s poise and feminine wiles. Her refined manners were a reliable blueprint for social graces, even if her motivations behind them could be… questionable – as you would later learn, your mother wasn’t exactly a great role model for appropriate behavior. But that was a story for another time.

For now, as Nanami’s incredulous gaze bore into you, you opted to deploy one of your mother’s favorite moves. Adorable dimples emerged as you seamlessly molded your expression into a demure, gentle smile – one that crinkled the corners of your eyes in a soft, flattering radiance, just as Mother instructed.

“A smile like this can disarm any man, no matter the circ*mstances,” Mother had purred conspiratorially in her velvet tones. “It signals vulnerability, openness...it engages their protective instincts. Smile like this, and you can get away with anything.”

True to her lessons, Nanami’s skeptical frown melted away instantly, replaced by a look you couldn’t quite decipher. But the dusting of red high on those sharp cheekbones wasn’t lost on you either.

Before your carefully cultivated smile could verge into outright unsettling territory or poor Nanami succumb to spontaneous combustion from the intensity of his blush, Haibara swooped in to defuse the thickening tension. He ushered you over to the couch, arranging cushions until you were seated comfortably before plopping himself in the middle, creating a friendly buffer between you and the still-flustered Nanami.

“You look great, Eri,” Haibara grinned easily. “But training in those fancy getups could get tricky. How about we go shopping together after the field exercise tomorrow? Get you some functional gear?”

You nodded, silently grateful for his social energy. “Okay.”

“I wonder what kind of exercise it’ll be though?” Haibara continued breezily. “Any ideas, Nanami?”

Nanami gave a shrug, seeming to regain his composure. “Likely some entrance assessment to gauge our current abilities as sorcerers.”

“You’re probably right!” Haibara exclaimed, clapping his hands together. “Since we’re first years, we should be graded around three or four, yeah? I’m a grade three!”

He proudly whipped out his student ID as evidence, prompting Nanami to produce his own card.

“I’m a second grade, actually.”

“No way, seriously?” Haibara’s enthusiasm was undented as he turned expectant eyes toward you.

Fishing out your own ID from the intricate folds of your yukata’s obi, you held it up so that Haibara and Nanami could see.

Their jaws promptly crashed to the floor upon registering the emboldened “First Grade” over the corner of your photo.

“What… how?” Nanami sputtered, his composure well and truly shattered again.

You calmly tucked your ID away, giving a simple explanation. “Because of my inherited cursed technique and cursed energy reserves.”

Haibara’s eyes practically sparkled. “So it means you’re like, super crazy strong then, right?”

You shook your head, correcting his assumption. “No, it just means I meet certain criteria.”

“There’s no need to be so humble,” Nanami huffed, a hint of admiration tempering his disbelief. “Being ranked a first grade at your age is seriously impressive. You should be proud.”

Realizing yet another misunderstanding was brewing, you opted to clarify matters fully this time. “No, it’s not impressive. I’ve never actually exorcised a curse before. I don’t have any training in that regard, either.”

Cue their jaws dropping to the floor once more while Nanami squinted at you suspiciously, trying to detect any hint of deception on your part. But of course, your expression remained an open, impassive book as always.

Haibara’s brows furrowed quizzically. “But you said you’re from some big powerful clan, right? Why wouldn’t they have trained you if you’ve got an inherited technique and that much cursed energy?”

You smoothed the sleeves of your yukata, considering how best to summarize the Zen’ins’ signature assholery in a succinct manner. Deciding a brief overview would suffice for now, you explained.

“I had basic training on cursed energy control to make sure I wouldn’t accidentally blow up anything. But that’s it.”

“But why the hell would they not train you properly? That doesn't make any sense!” Nanami said incredulously.

Taking a measured breath, you gave them the abridged reason. “Because I’m not meant to be a powerful sorcerer. My role is to be married off to another prominent clan or family, to help consolidate the Zen’ins’ standing.”

Despite your matter-of-fact delivery, the subject seemed to weigh heavily on Haibara and Nanami, if their wide-eyed expressions were any indication. From your experience in reading people, you could guess the roiling waves of emotions radiating off them were something approximating pity and sympathy.

Something you had little to no frame of reference for. How were you meant to react to that? You frantically attempted to channel what your mother would do in such a situation before realizing just how ludicrous that thought was. No one would dare regard Mother with anything resembling pity.

Mercifully, Haibara seemed to shake off the awkward tension as he flashed you his usual bright grin.

“Well hey, now that you’re here, you can get all the proper training you’ve been missing out on!” He looped an arm around Nanami’s shoulders, roping the guy into the plan whether he liked it or not.

“Nanami’s already got experience exorcising curses, right? Between him and me – even if I’m just a third grade – we can help you catch up. It’ll be way more fun working together as a team!”

Nanami made a half-hearted attempt to wriggle free of Haibara’s grasp before giving up with a sigh, realizing there was no deterring this human embodiment of enthusiasm. “Yeah, sure, I guess. We’re gonna be going on missions together anyway.”

His words lacked Haibara’s bright inflection, but you could detect no disdain or judgment in Nanami’s tone – perhaps a hint of that same inscrutable emotion from earlier when you’d deployed your mother’s disarming smile. But it didn’t seem to be pity, at least.

An odd sensation bloomed in your chest – light, almost effervescent. You made a mental note to analyze it more closely later.

For now, you inclined your head, allowing a small smile to tug at your lips, since smiling always seemed to do the trick. “I’d appreciate your help.”

Your smile somehow managed to elicit curious physiological reactions in both guys this time.

Nanami’s face combusted into a furious crimson blush, abruptly averting his gaze as if finding the nearby wall decorations positively riveting. Even Haibara’s cheeks flushed slightly pink, though it didn’t deter his motormouth tendency as he swiftly filled the air with an aimless stream of chatter.

Allowing yourself to sink back into the plush couch cushions, you watched Haibara’s animated babbling with an unfamiliar sense of ease settling over you. If your aunts could see you right now – slouching so inelegantly amidst two civilian-born young men with nary a chaperone in sight, they’d surely clutch their pearls into stunned immobility. Good thing they weren’t here, you mused.

In this moment, surrounded by the strange warmth of your new… friends?... you found yourself making an executive decision to stick with them going forward. Call it a whim, a gut instinct, or maybe just recklessness. Because for reasons you couldn’t quite articulate yet, you knew that as long as you were with them, you’d be okay. And for now, that peculiar certainty was enough.

Chapter 2

Summary:

The day Yaga decides he's done with these crazy clan kids.

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

The derelict warehouse loomed ahead, an eyesore of crumbling brick and shattered windows. Even from the outside, you could feel pulses of foul cursed energy washing over you in sickly waves.

So this was Yaga’s idea of an “entrance assessment” – maybe he got his teaching credentials from a cereal box.

Haibara looked psyched. He was vibrating with excitement at the prospect of curse pest control, like a kid being handed the keys to a candy factory. Nanami, on the other hand, just wore his usual vaguely annoyed expression, par for the course. You, though? Your priority was to manage expectations upfront.

“Before we get started, I think there’s something rather important you should know.” You raised your hand to get Yaga’s attention. “I don’t know how to fight. Never exorcised a curse in my life.”

Yaga’s bulging eyes made it look like his eyebrows were trying to escape his face in sheer bafflement. “The hell you mean? Ain’t you a goddamn first grade?”

You nodded. “Technically, yes. But the extent of my jujutsu training amounts to basic cursed energy control exercises. No combat training whatsoever.”

His brow furrowed like a roused bloodhound catching the scent of utter bullsh*t. “But why?”

Ah, here we go again.

You could sense Nanami and Haibara tensing in preparation for the tragic backstory. Keeping your tone matter-of-fact, you aired the dirty laundry. “Because my elders believe that being able to make ikebana and play the koto is more beneficial for my future marriage prospect than fighting curses.”

Yaga’s disgusted huff said it all. He got the picture, alright. The quaint Zen’in traditions must be rather well-known in the jujutsu high society. Waving a dismissive hand, he said in pithy reassurance, “Well, you have an inherited technique, don’t you? Being a sorcerer is 80% innate talent. You’ll be fine.”

“I certainly hope so,” you answered with a nonchalant shrug. “I just feel obliged to warn you – if I do happen to die in there, my elders will most certainly use my death to make your life miserable, perhaps as leverage against the school, too. Best be prepared for that possibility.”

An awkward silence followed your blunt disclaimer. Then, impatience won out over decorum. Yaga shooed you all toward the warehouse. “For cryin’ out loud, just go already! Those are third-grade curses. You’re not gonna die!”

The sparkling confidence was, indeed, reassuring. The three of you filed into the abandoned warehouse at Yaga’s impatient order. The air felt even thicker with cursed energy inside. As you crossed the threshold, Haibara gave your shoulder a gentle pat.

“Don’t worry. I’ll look out for you. It’ll be fine.”

You nodded, unsure if his buoyant determination was meant to bolster you or himself.

Nanami, ever the pragmatist, surveyed the interior with a calculating sweep. “There are two floors,” he assessed in a clipped tone. “Let’s split up and get it over with quickly.”

Jabbing a finger at Haibara, Nanami began delegating roles. “You take the first floor. I’ll handle the second.”

Turning his penetrating gaze on you, Nanami asked, “Who do you want to go with, Zen’in?”

But your focus was locked onto a particularly ominous rust-colored splatter adorning the far wall. Grotesque imagery of past carnage flickered through your mind’s eye as you tried to make sense of the stain. The longer you stared, the more it seemed to slither and pulse. Nanami’s question slipped by unheard.

“Damn it, Zen’in!” He barked your name like a reprimand. “Pay attention. We’re on a mission here!”

You startled at his raised voice, blinking as you turned toward his glower. “What?”

“I said,” Nanami groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose in exasperation. “You need to pay attention, Zen’in.”

“I’m paying attention,” you countered. “I’m just not used to being called Zen’in.”

Deflect blame. Never admit fault. The true Zen’in way. Your elders would be proud.

Nanami’s brows knitted. “But you are Zen’in,” he stated, as if that fact should resolve the matter.

You met his gaze flatly. “Where I lived, there are 30 other Zen’ins.”

He sighed roughly through his nose, agitated by your unhelpful explanation. “Well what are you used to being called then?”

“Eri-sama,” you answered.

Nanami leveled you with a glare that made it clear your answer did not sit well with him. “I’m not calling you ‘Eri-sama’,” he grunted, putting derisive air quotes around the honorific.

You wondered why Nanami always seemed to have a stick jammed up his ass. He asked you a question and you answered. Why was he getting so riled up?

Mother said men were simple creatures, but you found there was nothing simple about this perpetually vexed specimen before you. It must have something to do with your lack of a soul. Perhaps being soulless affected your ability to fully comprehend and navigate interactions, even though you had learned to read and interpret emotions proficiently enough.

You resisted the urge to frown. But then you remembered that your aunts weren’t here to scold you. You could frown and talk back all you wanted. So you let the crease settle between your brows.

“Why are you mad at me? I answered your question, didn’t I? I was not telling you to call me Eri-sama.”

Nanami’s scowl deepened. “I’m not mad at you!” He snapped.

Sensing the rising tension, Haibara inserted himself between you and Nanami. With one hand pressed subtly to Nanami’s chest – both a calming gesture and a physical barrier keeping him from looming into your space – he angled his body partially in front of you in a protective stance.

A defensive move, you noted clinically to yourself. Interesting decision.

Haibara regarded Nanami with a placating smile. “Okay, okay. Let’s not fight with each other!” His voice took on a soothing tone as he sought your gaze. “We’ll just call you Eri then, alright? You can call me Yu.”

You nodded, recognizing Haibara’s action for what it was. He must have assumed Nanami’s sudden flare of aggression had frightened or unsettled you in some way. In reality, you felt no such fear or discomfort – just a mild curiosity at the brusque interaction. But it would be far too complicated to try and explain that you didn’t experience such pesky emotions like other people. So you settled for your trademark minimalist response.

“Okay.”

Nanami seemed to realize he had overreacted. He took a step back and coughed awkwardly, hand ruffling through his hair. “Um, you two go together then. I’ll check out the second floor.” He jerked his chin toward the shadowed corridor leading upstairs, tone softening slightly. “Let’s meet here after twenty minutes. Call out if you need me.”

Without waiting for a response, Nanami turned on his heel and strode away, disappearing down the corridor branching deeper into the warehouse. You watched his retreating back until it faded from view before glancing sidelong at Haibara.

“That was weird, right?” You asked, looking for the perspective of someone who experienced emotions more typically. Perhaps you had missed or misread some subtle cues.

But Haibara just smiled, though you detected a faint tightness around the corners of his eyes. “I guess he just had a bad day. Don’t take it personally.”

“But it’s only morning,” you pointed out.

With a vague handwave, he brushed it off. “Well, maybe he didn’t sleep well last night then.”

Ah, lack of proper rest – a reasonable explanation for foul moods and crankiness.

“I see.” You filed that situational context away as you nodded in acceptance.

With that, you and Haibara ventured deeper into the main floor. All around, decay and abandonment seemed to watch with silent hostility. Shelves and stalls leaned at precarious angles, thick with cobwebs and grime. Broken crates and rusted machine parts lay strewn about in hazardous piles.

The silence could only be sustained for so long before Haibara’s natural inclination toward chatter got the better of him. As he turned to subject you to more of his incessant babbling, his brow furrowed when he noticed you walking a step behind him.

“Why are you always walking behind me?” He asked, pausing as if carefully considering his phrasing. “Does this have… anything to do with your, um, upbringing?”

Haibara was more perceptive than his idiotic antics let on. You hummed a neutral acknowledgment. “I was taught that women should always walk behind men…”

Haibara looked startled, stopping abruptly in his tracks. “That’s not true! You don’t have to—”

You smoothly cut off his budding outrage by clarifying, “I know. I don’t believe that, either. I’m only walking behind you now so that when a curse attacks us, it’ll get to you first.”

You delivered the morbid pragmatism with such a deadpan expression that it short-circuited whatever Haibara intended to say next. He gaped at you, gobsmacked, for a long beat before bursting into peals of laughter that echoed raucously off the metal struts and girders.

“Damn, Eri,” he gasped out, wiping at his eyes with the back of one hand. “Please never change.”

You watched him impassively. Haibara was probably the only person in the world who would find it amusing to be used as a human shield.

Unfortunately, his amusem*nt was cut short as the energy in the air suddenly shifted. A curse manifested from thin air – a writhing, amorphous blob with far more eyes than strictly necessary.

“Stay back, Eri!” Haibara barked, instantly all business as he shoved you behind him.

Then, with a scream, he launched himself at the curse and started… punching it. With his bare fists.

You watched the bizarre display with slight bemusem*nt and perhaps a hint of unimpressed judgment. Was this how one was meant to exorcise curses? Haibara’s method seemed rather…stupid, if you were being honest.

But then, what did you know? Not that you had any practical experience to judge from. Haibara was the experienced sorcerer here. You shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss his expertise.

The glaring problem, however, was that Haibara’s aggressive punching was only serving to splinter the curse. With each meaty impact of his knuckles, the blob shuddered and split, fragmenting into smaller hostile pieces like an aggravated microbial culture.

Within moments, what started as a single curse was now a dozen disgusting blobs oozing around, their multitude of eyes glaring with escalating malice. A few were already starting to slither around Haibara’s flanks, positioning themselves to strike at his exposed blind spots.

Before they could attack, you raised your hand, activating your technique.

“Shadow Puppeteering: Paralysis”

At once, all the blobs stopped moving. Haibara spun around with a dumbfounded look, taking in the scene of over a dozen curses stilled mid-lurch.

As he gaped at the frozen blobs, you provided a brief explanation.

“My technique is called Shadow Puppeteering. It allows me to manipulate anything with cursed energy as long as shadows are present.”

Paralysis was the most rudimentary application of the technique – locking targets in place. The duration, range, and number of targets one could hold depend on their skill and cursed energy reserves compared to their targets.

Shadow Puppeteering wasn’t necessarily a rare or fancy technique. Many sorcerers in the Zen’in clan possessed it. But due to their generally limited cursed energy, most could never utilize its full potential. Which was likely why you had been ranked as a first grade despite your complete lack of experience.

Your immense cursed energy reserves alone should, in theory, allow you to overpower most curses through sheer force. As long as you could keep them frozen, then you could exorcise them by… stabbing them or something. This was actually how most users of Shadow Puppeteering employed the technique in battle – a small supporting trick, but a deadly one. Even if they could only hold their opponent for a couple of seconds, that was enough to deal the killing blow.

Haibara looked awestruck as he poked at one of the paralyzed blobs. “This is amazing!”

“Try punching it again.” You gestured to the blob horde.

His brow furrowed skeptically. “But it didn’t work before—”

You shook your head. “I don’t think it can keep splitting forever. It’s just a third-grade curse, after all. There must be a critical limit. I’ll hold it still. You punch it until it can’t split anymore.”

Haibara rolled his shoulders and cracked his knuckles. “Alright, let’s do this!”

With your technique immobilizing the curse, Haibara’s unrefined barrage of punches eventually took its toll. The blobs disintegrated into ashy remnants coating the cracked floor.

Haibara skipped back toward you, looking quite pleased with himself. “Thanks, Eri! I’d have been totally screwed without you!”

You gave a mild shrug, prodding his back lightly with one finger. “You watch my back, I watch yours, right?”

That was how friendship was supposed to work, you believed.

Laughing, Haibara twisted around and caught your hand in his own with an easy grin. “You’re right!”

You glanced down at where his hand engulfed yours, blinking slowly as you calculated how to react to this new development. What would Mother do?

Before you could properly channel your mother’s wisdom, however, Haibara noticed the curious look on your face. He dropped your hand, letting out an awkward sort of chuckle as a flush crept into his cheeks. Waving his hands in an exaggerated gesture, he stammered, “Um, let’s… let’s keep moving!”

You nodded your agreement. Best to stay focused on the mission at hand. You didn’t want to give Nanami another excuse to fly off the handle again. Speaking of which, you couldn’t help but wonder how he was faring upstairs.

There were no further unpleasant surprises as you and Haibara methodically cleared the rest of the ground floor. With the main level secured, you climbed the rickety stairs to regroup with Nanami on the second story. You found him standing in the middle of one of the empty rooms, brow creased in a pensive frown of concentration.

“Hey Nanami! What’s up?” Haibara called out as you approached.

Nanami’s gaze swiveled toward you, expression perplexed. “You’re done already?”

“Sure thing!” Haibara flexed an arm. “We got some gross blob curse but I punched the sh*t out of it! Oh, and Eri’s technique is super cool…”

He prattled on enthusiastically as usual, but Nanami didn’t seem to be listening. He looked distracted, almost… unsettled about something. You studied him briefly before cutting to the point.

“What is it?”

Nanami’s sharp eyes flicked to you and then quickly away again. “Something feels… wrong. I’ve exorcised the curses hiding up here, but it still feels like…”

You walked closer to where Nanami was standing, pressing a hand to the dingy wall and feeling the lingering tingle of cursed energy. “Like there’s still a curse somewhere,” you finished for him.

Indeed, while the curses were gone, a heavy malice still clung to the building. You took a slow breath, trying to pinpoint the exact source as Haibara looked around with sudden wariness.

“You’re sure?”

And then it clicked.

It felt like a curse was somewhere... everywhere. Because the whole building was the curse.

No sooner had the realization struck you than it manifested. Hundreds upon hundreds of spikes burst from every surface. The ceilings, the walls around you – a forest of deadly quills primed to impale the three of you.

“Get down!”

Nanami’s shout was unnecessary. Haibara had already tackled you both, throwing his weight over your bodies as the spikes launched.

It was pure chaos after that spike trap triggered. One second you were standing there, the next it felt like the entire damn warehouse was trying to turn you all into human pincushions.

You got slammed to the ground in a tangle of flailing limbs as Nanami and Haibara essentially dog-piled you. Nanami clutched you to his chest while Haibara wrapped his arms around you both, shielding you with his body in a desperate attempt at protection.

There was a breathless eternity where the only sounds were the thunderous barrage of metal spikes punching into the floor all around you and your own ragged gasps for air. Your lungs burned from the compression, ribs creaking against Nanami’s vice-like grip. You were legit starting to see stars when Haibara’s trembling voice broke the cacophony.

“Are… are we dead yet?”

The plaintive question prompted Nanami to slowly creak his eyes open, blinking in wonder as he murmured, sounding just as uncertain, “We’re… not dead.”

Which was about when you managed to wheeze out from your undignified position, “You’re not dead… but I’m about to be.”

At your strained voice, Nanami instantly tried to loosen his stranglehold. But with Haibara still fiercely clinging like his life depended on it, the ensuing scuffle to disentangle yourselves proved difficult.

Nanami hissed out through gritted teeth, “Dammit Haibara! Let go!”

“S-Sorry! Sorry!” Haibara scrambled free, limbs flying everywhere.

After some awkward flailing, the three of you managed to separate with much panting and mussed hair and clothing in disarray.

It was only then that the guys seemed to clock the reason you weren’t all perforated meatloafs: You had managed to encase everyone in a thick dome woven from solid shadow.

Haibara’s eyes went saucer-wide, hand coming up to touch the undulating barrier.

“W-Whoa…” he breathed, fingers trailing over the rippling surface. “You’re an absolute beast, Eri! This shield is insane!”

And it really was. Even as the spikes continued raining down relentlessly, not a single one could pierce or even scratch the surface of your shadow shield.

You gulped in a grateful breath of fresh air, lungs finally able to fully reinflate. At that moment, you were struck by the realization that the life of a jujutsu sorcerer was truly fraught with peril. Less than twenty minutes into your first mission and you’d already nearly met an inglorious demise – crushed to a pulp beneath your own partners. Definitely not the ladylike way you had been raised. Mother would not approve.

Once you had recovered enough air to speak and Haibara had finished fawning over your shadow shield, the three of you hunkered down to strategize a way out of this literal deathtrap. Nanami was the first to ask the pragmatic question.

“How long can your shield hold up?”

You shrugged one shoulder. “Until this curse gets bored of shooting at us, I guess? Don’t worry, I have more than enough cursed energy to spare.”

Haibara chimed in next. “Can you do that paralysis thing again then? Freeze the whole curse so we can exorcise it?”

A reasonable suggestion, but you shook your head. “I can freeze it, but you can’t just punch a building.”

Nanami let out a frustrated huff. “Or you freeze it and we’ll get the hell out. Let Yaga-sama deal with this mess.”

You stared at him. “But this is our assessment task.”

Nanami stared back, expression conveying you had missed the point entirely. “Yaga-sama said there would only be grade-three curses here. This is clearly way beyond that. I don’t think he intended for us to take on something this strong.”

You could understand the logic there. But that was not how Zen’ins ran things – Zen’ins started a fight AND finished it.

“Doesn’t matter,” you said firmly. “A task is a task. We need to complete it.”

To your mild surprise, Haibara nodded in emphatic solidarity. “Eri’s right. We can’t just quit! Let’s at least give it a real try before calling for backup.”

Nanami gaped at you and Haibara like you’d both grown second heads, utter disbelief written across his features. “You can’t be serious! I’m not throwing my life away over some bullsh*t training op!”

You tried to reassure him. “You won’t have to. I think I could exorcise this curse with the second form of my technique.”

His skeptical stare was downright withering. “But…?”

You blinked. “How’d you know there was a ‘but’ coming?”

Nanami’s glower intensified to truly impressive levels. “Because if you could just do that, you would’ve led with it already.”

You had to hand it to him. The guy was as sharp as he was prickly.

“You’re really smart, Nanami,” you offered with an approving nod.

Mother said that men loved to feel intelligent and receiving compliments stroked that ego, flattery was key to keeping men engaged and amenable. But Nanami seemed immune. Instead of preening at your praise like he was supposed to, his glaring only got worse.

“Stop dodging and spill, Eri,” he bit out sharply. “What’s the damn catch?”

You guessed his apparent lack of sleep had prevented him from being receptive to the compliment. No matter, his loss. You decided to lay it out straight.

“The second form of my technique requires way more skill to pull off than I currently have.”

Nanami crossed his arms with a sour expression, inadvertently clouting Haibara with an errant elbow in the cramped space. The poor guy squawked in surprise.

“So what’s the point of even mentioning it then?” Nanami demanded, unmoved.

You persisted, unruffled. “Because I might be able to brute-force it with a binding vow.”

You pulled up your sleeve, revealing a small dagger strapped to your forearm. But before you could even draw the blade, Nanami’s hand clamped down on your wrist with bruising force.

“What kind of binding vow are you talking about?” His voice was apprehensive.

You glanced pointedly down at the dagger. “A blood vow, of course. It’s the most effective.”

You tried to tug your arm free, but Nanami refused to relinquish his grip. His fingers tightened, uncompromising. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not letting you hurt yourself for some stupid exercise.”

Reaching with your free hand, you patted his shoulder in what you hoped came across as a reassuring gesture. “I’m not hurting myself. It’s just a little blood. Nothing dangerous, really.”

It wasn’t quite the whole truth. Blinding vows were all about equal exchanges. The blood was merely a ritualistic gesture to initiate the vow. The price you would actually have to pay was directly proportional to the skill gap you needed to fill to pull off your technique.

Nanami seemed unconvinced, frown lines etching deep grooves around his mouth. Before the impasse could drag further, Haibara cut in.

“Well, why don’t I do it then?” He made a move to take the dagger from your grasp. “I’ve got plenty of blood!”

Both you and Nanami turned to stare at Haibara in equal measures of incredulity. So he really was an idiot.

You pointed out the obvious flaw in Haibara’s offer. “This is my technique. I have to be the one to make the binding vow.”

For a long, tense moment, the three of you remained locked in an unproductive staring contest. The sight was baffling – three people squatting in a tight circle, practically holding hands while staring at each other.

You sighed, deciding to put an end to this stupid deadlock. “Do you want to get out of this, or are we going to sit here holding hands forever?”

Nanami held your gaze, jaw working like he was chewing rocks before finally releasing your wrist from his white-knuckled grip.

“Fine. Do what you want.” His tone said he thought you were making a terrible decision.

Haibara backed off as well, though his expression was pinched with obvious concern. “You’re really sure this binding vow thingy isn’t dangerous?”

You nodded. “It won’t kill me, I promise.”

Before either of them could protest further or voice any more moronic suggestions, you brought the dagger down across your open palm in one fluid motion. A clean cut blossomed crimson against your skin. Haibara flinched, but Nanami didn’t so much as blink, watching the ritual with unnerving focus.

Immediately, you could feel the binding vow take effect. Cursed energy thrummed through your veins with a tangible force. Splaying your fingers wide, you activated the second form of your technique.

“Shadow Puppeteering: Wreckage”

Within seconds, inky shadows spilled forth from underneath you in every direction, rapidly blanketing every surface of the warehouse until the entire structure was sheathed in all-consuming darkness.

Once the last sliver of surface area was gone, you clenched your bleeding fist in a silent command. The shadows contracted inwards, seeping into the very foundations of the building.

While Paralysis would only freeze a target, Wreckage, as the name suggests, quite literally wrecked its sh*t. A reverberating howl tore through the air as your technique crushed through the hidden curse with overwhelming force.

Nanami reacted instantly, his arms encircling you, wrenching you against his solid chest. One hand cradled the back of your head, tucking your face against the thundering beat of his heart. You clutched at the hard planes of his back, fingers scrabbling for purchase as the world itself seemed to detonate around you. Haibara pressed in tight behind you, his larger frame enveloping you both as he leaned over your huddled forms.

The building seemed to come alive, bucking and convulsing. Cracks shattered across the supporting walls like capillaries, fracturing apart in jagged splinters. Chunks of plaster and decaying wood exploded in a shower of shrapnel. The roars escalated to a fever pitch, the air boiling with cursed energy as the enraged curse fought viciously against your technique.

In hindsight, Nanami and Haibara’s dramatic bodyguard routine was ultimately unnecessary. Even as the building collapsed in on itself like a house of cards all around you, the shadow dome you’d whipped up earlier held strong. Not a single piece of rubble could rain down on your heads.

But hey, it’s the thought that counts, right? You appreciated the gesture nonetheless. Now that you were not pinned to the ground and at immediate risk of suffocation, you realized their misguided bearhugging wasn’t entirely unpleasant. A little awkward and sweaty, sure, but not wholly terrible.

Then, as abruptly as it began, the howling cut off into silence. The tremors ceased, the last traces of the curse were gone. You gave Nanami’s back a gentle pat. “It’s okay. You can stop squishing me now.”

With some extent of reluctance, they both release their clutches, allowing you some much-needed personal space. Taking the reprieve, you deactivated your shield, letting it melt down to smoky shadows at your feet.

And just like that, the full extent of your handiwork was laid bare in all its glorious, apocalyptic splendor. What had formerly been a pretty unassuming warehouse now more resembled the bombed-out aftermath of a warzone. The entire place was little more than a smoldering pile of jagged debris, craters, and crumpled steel beams jutting up at random angles – the sort of catastrophic clusterf*ck that would have cleanup teams working around the clock for weeks trying to restore some semblance of order.

You doubted this level of total destruction aligned with whatever “entrance assessment” Yaga had envisioned for your little field exercise. You gave a careless sniff. The job got done, didn’t it?

Sure enough, as soon as the dust settled amidst the rubble graveyard, Yaga came barreling in, face beet-red and contorted into unbridled rage.

“What in the ever-loving HELL was that?! Who in their right goddamn mind—”

But you never caught the rest of his furious tirade. Without warning, your vision swam and your legs decided they were done supporting your dead weight. The hefty toll of that binding vow came due with a vengeance, absolutely zero f*cks given for dramatic timing.

The last thing your fading consciousness registered was Haibara’s arms catching you before you could faceplant gracelessly into the ground, scooping you up and cradling you against his heaving chest. “Eri! Eri, hey!” His voice pitched higher as he shook you.

You vaguely heard Nanami calling your name with equal distress. “Oi! Eri, don’t you f*cking dare!”

As darkness encroached on the edges of your dimming awareness, you idly wondered what Mother would do.

The answer, you suspected, would be an elegant swoon onto the nearest floor cushion, her embroidered fan fluttering dramatically as the household servants rushed to attend to her delicate constitution with smelling salts and soothing words.

Well… Considering there was no dignified surface to swoon onto around here, you supposed you’d managed the passing out part the best you could, if not with quite the same decorous flair. Small victories.

Notes:

I'd like to think of the curse-whacking exercise in an abandoned building that Gojo gave Nobara and Yuji at the beginning as something he picked up from Yaga. You know, like Kakashi and the bell test.

Chapter 3

Summary:

The merits of selling out your childhood best friend and other Zen'in wisdom

Chapter Text

You jolted awake, eyes snapping open as consciousness rudely rejoined you. Blinking against the harsh fluorescent lights assaulting your senses, you took grudging stock of your surroundings. A plain off-white ceiling, crisp linens, the faint smell of disinfectant – marvelous, an infirmary. What a nice place to wake up.

How the hell did you end up here?

Memories trickled back in hazy fragments. The crumbling warehouse deathtrap… That gross blob curse… A flurry of spikes… Haibara and Nanami’s panicked shouts.

Right, right. That “field exercise.” Yaga had sold it as a routine curse clearing at some abandoned warehouse. A nice little warmup to test your skills before the real fun began, or so he claimed. His pre-mission briefing had been sorely lacking in details, like the high-grade curse slumbering in the basem*nt, woven right into the foundation itself.

By charging in like the reckless idiots you were, swinging away at those lower-level curses, your merry trio had gone and awoken the big bad sleepyhead downstairs. So much for easing your way into the sorcerer life.

Desperate times called for hasty binding vows. In exchange for a temporary skill boost, you must have given away quite a hefty chunk of your strength, evident by the vicious throbbing ache pulsing in your skull. Any further use of Wreckage would be off the table for a long while.

The door creaked open with ominous noise, and a girl swaggered in like she owned the infirmary. A sharp bob-cut framed her face, one single beauty mark punctuating her cheek beneath one eye.

“Awake finally, are we?” she drawled out in a casual air, giving you an appraising once-over.

You blinked slowly at her, still groggy and confused.

“You were out cold for three days.” She sauntered over and patted your face with impudent familiarity. “You know how to make an entrance, princess.”

She didn’t look much older than you, that was for sure. Definitely not a timid, sweet-natured school nurse type.

“Ieiri Shoko’s the name. Call me whatever though, I don’t discriminate. I’m the healer around these parts.” She squinted and poked at you some more, entirely too handsy. “You made a binding vow, didn’t you? Nothing I could do to fix that stupid choice. But I healed the cut on your hand and your bruised ribs. You’re quite welcome, by the way.”

She paused, co*cking her head. “Want me to go fetch your boys? They’ve been camping here ever since you got hauled in.” A sly glint entered her eyes. “I had to kick their asses out, they were being such mother hens.”

When you said nothing in response, merely holding her gaze, Shoko chuckled – more entertained than perturbed by your silence. “Not a talkative one, eh? I thought with that level of property damage, you’d be more like Gojo.”

At the mention of that buffoon’s name, it clicked into place. This brash, irreverent girl must be the one Satoru had endlessly babbled about with misty eyes during that dreadful New Year’s gathering at the Kamos’ estate last winter.

“You’re Sho,” you stated, finally putting a face to the name.

Shoko’s grin widened with wicked delight. “Oh ho? The princess speaks! Color me surprised.”

She plopped herself down unceremoniously on the edge of your bed with casual disregard for personal space. Clearly boundaries weren’t a thing this young woman concerned herself with.

“That prick told you about me, huh? All praises, I’m sure,” she purred, leaning in close. You found you didn’t particularly mind the invasion. Such trivial social conventions never made much sense to you anyway.

“Satoru said you’re bossy, you reek of cigarette smoke, and you drink too much,” you answered her bluntly.

Shoko let out an indignant huff at having her vices so baldly listed out. “Ugh. That asshole has such a way with words.” Then, her eyes danced with mischief as she leaned in even closer. “You and Gojo are on a first-name basis? My my, you two must be close.”

You blinked at her suggestive tone. “There are a lot of Gojos and Zen’ins where we’re from. It’s easier to go by first names.”

Shoko groaned and rolled her eyes. “Right, right. Clan kids’ problems.”

Then she tapped her chin thoughtfully as she processed the information about your history with Satoru. “How long have you known Gojo then?”

“Since I was seven,” you stated evenly.

Her eyes lit up with intrigue at that revelation. Now that was prime potential for juicy insider knowledge.

“Well, in that case, you must know all kinds of dirt about him! Ooh! You know what, I’ll make you a deal.” That mischievous glint was back in full force. “Spill the tea you’ve got on Gojo, and I’ll show you around the city. You didn’t get to explore much before causing mass destruction, did you, princess?”

You considered her proposal with pragmatic detachment, dispassionately assessing the pros and cons of backstabbing your childhood best friend. On one hand, Satoru’s reputation as an unrepentant asshole preceded him. So really, was there anything left about him that wasn’t completely soiled? Nothing you could divulge would tarnish his skeezy image further. On the other hand, he was still a world-class asshole, and would definitely find some petty way to exact revenge on your traitorous ass.

But then your thoughts strayed to the more immediate concern – your dire need for a new casual wardrobe. Your entire Zen’in clan-approved closet consisted of kimonos, yukatas, and other traditional outfits ill-suited for the sorcerer life. You desperately needed a shopping therapy session to stock up on some practical garbs.

Haibara had offered to take you shopping, but one look at the graphic tee and ratty hoodie atrocities he favored told you his fashion judgment was about as trustworthy as a broke streetside fortune teller. Shoko, however, was a pretty girl who looked like she understood aesthetic appeal.

Selling out your oldest friend to the highest gossipy bidder for the greater sake of pretty new clothes? Satoru’s downfall was inevitable. A small price to pay and an acceptable trade in your eyes. Mother would approve.

So you nodded once, sealing the deal. “We’re going shopping tomorrow, Sho. Help me pick nice clothes and I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”

Shoko squeaked with delight like a toddler hopped up on pure sugar. Before your confused mind could even process what was happening, she flung her arms around you in an exuberant hug, practically squeezing the life out of you.

“We’re gonna be the bestest of besties in no time, Eri!” she crowed directly into your face.

You patted her arm with severe awkwardness, head still swimming from... whatever drugs they had pumped into your system.

The tender bonding moment – if you could even call being aggressively mauled such a thing – was interrupted by the door slamming open with a bang. Haibara burst through, dragging Nanami along in his frantic wake.

“Eri! You woke up, finally!” His voice was far too loud for your addled state.

Releasing his captive, Haibara scurried straight to your bedside. “How are you feeling? I was so scared!” he fretted, hovering anxiously.

Without missing a beat, Shoko whipped around and swatted at Haibara, her palm connecting with the back of his head in a crisp slap. “Keep your damn voice down, boy!”

“Oww!” Haibara clutched his head with a wounded look. “Totally uncalled for, senpai!”

Then, he remembered his priorities and resumed fussing over you again. “Are you okay? You’re not in pain, are you?”

You mustered up a weak smile for his benefit. “I’m okay. Told you it wouldn’t kill me.”

Perhaps the smile lacked its standard persuasive power in your wrecked state. Haibara didn’t blush or sputter like his usual besotted self. He just looked terribly concerned. “You were unconscious for days, Eri. That’s not being okay.”

At least he had the sense to keep his voice down this time. You reached out to pat his arm. “That’s how binding vows work. I’m okay now.”

While Haibara continued fluttering around you like an anxious mother hen, Nanami hung back by the door, probably still stewing over the stupid argument. Arms crossed over his chest, his gaze skittered away when you looked at him. You thought he was being utterly ridiculous about the whole thing.

Before you could wave the brooding Nanami over, the door burst open again with even more disruptive force – this time admitting the most obnoxious person imaginable.

“My sweet little Eri!” Gojo Satoru crooned in that nauseatingly saccharine tone as he barreled through, damn near bowling Nanami over in his tactless hurricane arrival. In a blink, he’d rudely elbowed Haibara out of the way and deposited himself at your bedside.

Without preamble, Satoru grabbed your face and squished your cheeks between his palms like an overeager grandma. “You slept three days straight after tangling with a pathetic curse, huh?” He clicked his tongue in disapproval, an insufferable smirk curving his lips. “Oh, I’m never gonna let you live this down!”

You tried valiantly to shake off his paws, huffing out an irritated breath that just seemed to spur on his juvenile antic. Satoru had always derived far too much entertainment from getting a rise out of you.

Another man strode in with far more decorum than Satoru’s blustering entrance. Tall and broad-shouldered, a muscular frame with a roguish smile playing at his lips as he took in the chaos – clear amusem*nt dancing in his dark eyes.

Undeterred, Satoru just grinned wider, releasing your cheeks to proudly present you like a prized show pony. “Hey Suguru, come meet Eri – my most favorite Zen’in ever!”

You blinked at the newcomer, immediately recognizing him from Satoru’s colorful ramblings. “You’re Weird Emo Bang.”

Suguru’s eye twitched as he turned to glare daggers at his so-called friend. “That’s what you call me to her?”

Shoko positively vibrated with glee from her perch, delighting in this fresh drama.

Satoru held up his hands in mock surrender, feigning innocence poorly. “Wait, wait. I told Eri nice things too!” He turned to nudge your shoulder insistently. “Right? C’mon, back me up here.”

But you opened your eyes wide, putting on your most artfully deceptive innocent expression. “What nice things?”

Satoru sputtered indignantly at your blatant betrayal, clearly gearing up to pinch your cheeks again in retaliation. Oh, he was going to be so pissed when he realized you had agreed to Shoko’s deal to air ALL of his dirty laundry far and wide.

Before he could make good on that grabby-handed threat of further cheek abuse, Shoko deftly slapped away his reaching paws, apparently considering you under her protection now. “Play nice, Gojo. She’s still recovering.”

“From what, being a brat?” he whined.

The two of them quickly devolved into childish bickering, filling the room with a barrage of creative insults and overly personal jabs.

Haibara and Nanami could only stare at the rapidly derailing situation, while Suguru stood back with an awkward, pained smile – mortified to be associated with these raucous clowns.

You watched the exhausting chaos unfold with an impassive stare, keeping your thoughts to yourself as usual. Apparently this a sneak preview of what your life would now consist of on the regular. Might as well get comfortable.

The squabbling continued unabated for several more minutes until Satoru perked up, remembering something that had piqued his interest. Swiveling toward you, he pinned you with one of those assessing looks that made you feel like a fascinating bug under a microscope.

“Hey, speaking of… How did you manage to get yourself enrolled at this dump anyway? I thought all pompous Zen’in brats were obligated to attend that hoity-toity school in Kyoto?”

You gave an easy shrug, unbothered by the slight against your entire lineage. “I convinced my elders it was in their best interests for me to come here instead.”

Satoru’s eyes narrowed shrewdly. “Oh yeah? And just how exactly did you manage to swing that one by them?”

Meeting his gaze evenly, you deadpanned, “Told them I want to marry you.”

A stunned silence fell over the room, broken only by the faint ticking of the clock on the wall. All at once, everyone in the room stared at you, expressions ranging from utter bafflement to quietly heartbroken in Haibara’s case. Even Satoru looked flabbergasted, for once in his life rendered speechless.

It was Shoko, predictably, who broke first, doubling over into rowdy laughter. Clutching at her sides, she gasped out, “Oh princess, that’s a good one!”

Satoru seemed to regain his bearings, rolling his eyes as he bopped your forehead none-too-gently with his knuckles in a patronizing gesture. “Tch, you’ve spent too much time around this twisted gargoyle,” he clucked disapprovingly, flicking a glance toward Shoko. “Her vile sense of humor is rubbing off on you.”

You shook your head, your face a mask of impassive seriousness. “No joke,” you said evenly, holding his gaze. “I told my elders I must come to this school to be with you.”

Satoru’s co*cky veneer slipped again as his jaw went momentarily slack, gaping at you like a landed fish. “What the actual hell, Eri?”

Then, seeming to remember his trademark swagger, he pasted on a salacious grin and leaned his face in far too close for propriety’s sake. “Oooh,” he purred in a low tone, “didn’t realize you’d been harboring a secret crush on me all this time!”

One hand came up to run through his silver locks with an exaggerated gesture of preening. “Is it my dashing good looks?” He questioned huskily. “Or my sparkling wit and charming personality that does it for you?”

Without hesitation, you swatted his hovering face away, hoping that your facial expression conveyed the right amount of disdain before explaining in a flat tone, “Because it was the only way my elders would ever allow me to come here. Now get away from me, you shameless lecher.”

Satoru reeled back with a look of offense, one hand clutching his chest theatrically. “You wound me, my sweet Eri!” he exclaimed with feigned hurt. “Leading me on like that for years…”

From the sidelines, Suguru seemed to find his voice despite the increasingly awkward situation, shooting a mildly pained look between you and Satoru. “Are all clan kids this… dramatic?” he ventured hesitantly. “Or is it just you two?”

Perhaps you could have phrased that better and spared everyone the confusion, but it was the truth. In the esteemed Zen’in value system, the worth of a daughter lay in what advantageous marriage alliance she could forge – which powerful ally she could entrap for the clan’s benefit.

When you came into this world, your elders were less than thrilled, to put it generously. They had expected a son to carry on the prestigious lineage as usual. But the Zen’ins were about as pragmatic as they were gigantic, raging assholes through and through. Your elders tolerated the existence of daughters who could potentially become half-useful pawns in due time. After examining you with a critical eye, they declared that you would fetch a fair groom one day. A main-line Kamo, at the very, very least.

However, your mother disagreed, scoffing at such modest ambition. “Don’t be absurd. This is my daughter,” she stated with an air of smug finality befitting a woman of her supreme ego. “She will not marry just any man. Only the strongest deserves her hand. You would all do well to remember that.”

Your mother took immense delight in retelling that particular story over and over throughout the years, the words were seared into your very being. She always made bloody well sure you understood on a fundamental level that you deserved only the very best this world could offer – the finest foods, the most lavish clothes and jewels, and ultimately, the most powerful husband. Because you were her daughter – her legacy. It was an immutable fact in her eyes.

So when your dear old father had questioned why you wanted to attend Tokyo Jujutsu High instead of the Kyoto school like the rest of your siblings and cousins, you couldn’t just tell him you wanted to get away from his clutches and learn to stand on your own feet now, could you? No, you needed a persuasive reason.

What would Mother say?

You knew the answer as clearly as you knew your own name.

With a haughty sniff and your chin jutting out in your best impression of your mother’s regal poise, you stated the words that would alter the course of your life: “I will marry Gojo Satoru, the strongest sorcerer alive. And none of you will stand in my way.”

Your elders had been rendered speechless with outrage, as to be expected. The Zen’ins and the Gojos had been gleefully dishing out feuds and throwing shade for generations upon generations in the most juvenile manner possible at every afforded opportunity. The mere notion of a marriage between them was nothing short of blasphemous.

But your father was intrigued by the possibility. If his daughter could actually snag Gojo freaking Satoru… Well, that would swiftly and definitively allow the Zen’ins to seize the upper hand in their endless power struggle. A possibility too tantalizing to dismiss out of hand. As for your mother? She was so, so proud. What man could be more powerful or worthy of her daughter?

As you finished recounting your convoluted scheme to escape your batsh*t crazy family, a heavy awkwardness crashed over the room. It was a lot to process – the warped entitlement, the casual mentions of daughters being married off like livestock, your blasé attitude about the whole f*cked up situation. Well, what the hell were these poor people even supposed to say to all… that?

At that point, you hadn’t learned the whole “not oversharing your generational trauma with total strangers” rule of social conduct yet. In your book, those were all just simple facts stated plainly without filters, nothing to tip-toe around.

After a painfully long pause where everyone seemed frozen in stunned, mildly horrified bewilderment, it was your new self-appointed “bestie” Shoko who saved the day with her refreshing lack of tact. Pointing a finger at Suguru, she quipped, “Well, if that’s the requirement, then Weird Emo Bang over there qualifies too.”

Suguru shot her an exasperated look at the insistence on that stupid nickname, but still puffed out his chest with a heaping dose of masculine pride at the backhanded acknowledgment. “That’s right, I’m the strongest around,” he confirmed with a self-satisfied nod.

Not one to be so easily upstaged, Satoru rolled his eyes at Suguru’s casual posturing. “Uh, we’re BOTH the strongest,” he countered with a dismissive wave of his hand in Suguru’s general direction. “But obviously I’m still leagues above this bargain-bin Gojo-wanna-be.”

You considered their ridiculous bravado, head tilting as you assessed the level of truth in this rather bullsh*t claim. You didn’t think that’s how “being the strongest” actually worked. There could only be one top dog at any given time, right?

But you kept such pedantic observations to yourself for the moment. After all, there was still so much about this world you didn’t understand. And they’d known each other for quite some time. Maybe there were truly some nuances they knew better than you.

So you studied Suguru critically instead, taking in his tall stature and handsome if brooding features. He certainly looked like he could back up his arrogant claim, you had to admit, even if his overall vibes leaned more toward depressed pretty-boy than hardened warrior. But after fixing your eyes on him appraisingly for an uncomfortable stretch to the point he started fidgeting self-consciously, you shook your head.

“You wouldn’t do,” you concluded bluntly, not a shred of mercy to soften the rejection. “You’re not from a prestigious family. If I said I wanted to marry you, my elders would probably just burn your house down to the ground on principle.”

Even though he had literally just met you not even half an hour ago in this very room, Suguru seemed almost… miffed that he didn’t make the cut as a viable decoy marriage prospect. Raking a hand through his weird emo bang with a moody little huff, he couldn’t resist pushing back the frank dismissal of his romantic worth.

“Why the hell not, though?” he groused, somehow taking personal offense. “Two of the strongest is better than one, right?”

Or maybe the co*cky bastard just didn’t want to be one-upped by his best frenemy. Whatever, men and their fragile masculine pride complexes. Who could keep up with all that nonsensical posturing?

Still, you supposed having a plan B to fall back on couldn’t hurt your chances. So you accepted his offer with an indifferent shrug. “Okay, sure. If Satoru dies prematurely or something, I’ll tell my elders I want to marry you next.”

Shoko, already well on her way to becoming your new favorite person based purely on entertainment value alone, cackled at your contingency plan. Satoru himself, however, squawked with overblown indignation, feathers quite ruffled at being so readily replaced. Suguru, for his part, seemed pleased with securing the position of backup hubby for now, nodding as if it were already a done deal.

Soon enough, the two self-proclaimed strongest idiots had to head out on some mission or other they were apparently late for already, because Satoru had insisted they swing by to check on his “most favorite Zen’in” first before anything else.

Shoko took her leave too, chuckling something about looking forward to taking you shopping for some “big girl clothes” as she sashayed out. That left you alone with Haibara and the still-brooding Nanami in the now quiet room. Haibara hovered attentively by your bedside as usual. But Nanami kept an oddly wide berth, lingering near the door like he was worried you might declare you wanted him as backup hubby #2 if he ventured too close.

You waved him over with an imperious flick of your wrist. “Come here, you’re too far away for us to talk like normal people.”

Not that you actually had any concrete grasp on how “normal people” conducted conversations, but Nanami didn’t need to know that tiny detail. He relented, slouching over to perch stiffly at the foot of your bed. Well, good enough for now.

Haibara shot you a concerned, almost pleading look, eyebrows furrowing. “You wouldn’t… actually go through with marrying Gojo-senpai though, right?” he asked hesitantly, as if dreading the answer he expected.

You leaned back against the stiff headrest with a tired sigh, suddenly feeling the weight of your recent ordeal catching up to you again. “Of course not. He’s insufferable. I could barely survive being around him for an hour at a time.”

Nanami let out a low snicker at that ruthless assessment. “And yet you two seem awfully… close.”

“I guess you could say he’s… a childhood friend of sorts,” you conceded with a noncommittal shrug.

It wasn’t easy making friends as a clan kid. Satoru may have been an obnoxious prick for as long as you’d known him, but he also hadn’t been lying about you being his “most favorite Zen’in” either – simply by being the only Zen’in he could halfway tolerate associating with for any extended period ever since you were kids. Just like he counted as your most favorite Gojo too, for better or exponentially worse more often than not.

Not a ringing endorsem*nt by any means, but it was technically correct in the most depressing way.

Haibara did seem somewhat comforted, at least, by your confirmation that marrying good ol’ pal Satoru was never actually on the table – the worried crease between his brows easing slightly. You could understand his concern to some extent, as irrational as it may have seemed on a surface level.

But you still found his fretting to be rather silly and premature. You’d only just met the bumbling idiot a few days ago. Normally, people didn’t start entertaining serious thoughts about marriage this early after meeting someone, did they? Then again, perhaps Haibara wasn’t operating from a “normal” societal baseline either if he had already grown so attached to you in the handful of days since your paths first crossed on those stupid stairs.

The conversation mercifully managed to shift away from that unproductive discourse about hypothetical marriage arrangements, much to everyone’s relief. Haibara took the opportunity to fill you in on what had transpired after you literally crushed that warehouse to rubble pieces.

Since none of you bright sorcerers had remembered to cast a veil first, the entire explosive showdown played out for the civilian world to witness in awestruck horror. It had even made the evening news, much to poor Yaga’s mortified chagrin. The man had nearly torn out whatever remaining wisps of hair he had left in sheer stress over the PR disaster.

Well, how were you supposed to know casting veils was standard protocol before wrecking an area? You couldn’t be blamed for that oversight. If anything, it was Yaga’s fault. You had outright told the old man you knew jacksh*t about exorcising curses, and he had brazenly waved off your concerns. You pointed out as much to Haibara with a casual shrug.

Besides, surely your elders could compensate whoever owned that crumbling warehouse in cash if it really became an issue. No need to blow such trivial details out of proportion.

With that minor matter settled in your mind, you sank back onto the infirmary bed and allowed Haibara to continue fussing over you to his heart’s content. Nanami, meanwhile, just watched the two of you silently from his self-imposed distance – some indecipherable emotion simmering behind those warm hazel eyes.

Eventually, Shoko came back to shoo the boys away and ordered you to rest up. The night passed slowly as you drifted in and out of fitful rest. As a lifelong light sleeper, the slightest sound easily roused you from whatever shallow slumber you managed to find.

So when the softest footfalls began echoing down in the hallway outside your room, your eyes snapped open instantly, all senses on high alert. You remained still, listening to the approaching steps.

“Stop hovering outside my door, Nanami,” you called out, tone even and unamused once you identified the distinct pattern.

There was a muffled start of surprise before Nanami hesitantly poked his head into view, looking almost guilty at being caught.

“How did you know it was me out here?” he asked in a hushed murmur as he let himself into your room, drifting over to take a seat beside your bed this time without prompting.

“The sound of your footsteps,” you answered around a jaw-cracking yawn.

Nanami’s brows furrowed. “You could tell it was me just from that?”

You hummed a vague, sleepy noise of affirmation. Talking felt like such an unnecessary effort.

“Why are you awake anyway?” Nanami asked after a beat, shifting in his seat like he couldn’t get comfortable.

Cracking open one eye, you shot him a mild look of pure “are you serious?” as you stated the obvious, “I wasn’t awake. I’m just a light sleeper. Your creeping around is what woke me up.”

A Zen’in who sleeps heavy is a Zen’in who dies early.

Nanami didn’t know that little fact.

He deflated a little at your accusation. “Oh...sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you. I just… I couldn’t sleep, so I went for a little walk to clear my head. I don’t even know how I ended up here.”

You nodded along, far too groggy and drained to question his midnight wandering habits at the moment. When you offered no further response, Nanami took it as an opening to keep nervously babbling on.

“I’m… sorry about how I acted earlier, by the way. I didn’t mean to raise my voice at you like that. It was wrong of me.”

You squinted at him through bleary eyes. “So… you’re not mad at me anymore?”

Nanami shook his head firmly. “No, no… I wasn’t mad at you. It’s just…” He trailed off, features twisting like he was warring with how to properly articulate his thoughts before finishing lamely, “It’s complicated, I guess.”

You propped yourself up a bit more to study Nanami’s face properly. “Do you hate me, then?” you asked him point-blank, unable to parse any other logical reason behind the way he acted around you.

He startled at the painfully straightforward inquiry, staring at you like you’d just asked the stupidest question on earth.

“What? No! Of course not!” He sounded almost affronted at the mere suggestion.

You gave a small nod, unsurprised. You didn’t think he actually hated you either. Like, seriously, what was there to hate about you in the first place? But having the confirmation felt reassuring nonetheless.

With the low lighting from the moon filtering in through the lone window, you took a moment to openly study his face from your half-reclined position. Tracing over the soft hazel hue of his eyes, the stray lock of blond hair framing his face, the sharp angle of his jaw…

Nanami’s cheeks seemed to redden faintly under your scrutiny, but the dim lighting made it difficult to say for sure.

Perhaps if you’d been more well-rested, you could have channeled your mother’s cultured way with charming words. As it was, your exhausted tongue seemed to bypass your higher reasoning entirely as you voiced the first thought passing through your mind.

“You’re weird, Nanami,” you said with zero coyness. Mother would be livid.

The observation earned you a disgruntled breath from Nanami. “You’re one to talk,” he shot back, though without any real bite.

You hummed agreeably at the assessment. A long stretch lingered between you as Nanami seemed to mull over your respective weirdness.

Finally, he let out a soft sigh, gaze skittering away from your heavy-lidded stare. “Guess I’ll get going then. You should try to get more rest,” he mumbled, moving to push himself up from the bedside chair.

Before he could fully rise, however, you reached out on impulse, hand shooting out to catch the fabric of his sleeve between your fingers. Nanami froze, looking back at you with open surprise as you tugged him back toward you.

“Can you…” You hesitated for a second, wondering at the odd impulse even as the words spilled out in your usual matter-of-fact tone. “Can you hold my hand?”

Nanami looked blindsided, mouth dropping open slightly as if your simple request had been the absolute last thing he expected to come out of your mouth.

Ever since you were a tiny kid, it had been a comfort thing. Whenever you got seriously ill, Mother would hold your hand while you slept, so you would know she was there to watch over you – that you needn’t worry about footsteps or shadows. No one would dare come near you when Mother was at your side. Mother never let you get too dependent on the coddling though, only permitting her presence when you were sick enough to “truly require it.”

You couldn’t possibly dump all those layers of nuanced bullsh*t on Nanami, not when your brain was still operating at half-capacity, coherent thoughts slipping like sand through your fingers. So instead you settled for the simplest explanation as you gazed up at him. “It’ll make me feel better.”

He blinked once, twice – then heaved out a weary sigh, shaking his head as though resigning himself to the latest in a long line of your bizarre whims. After a moment’s hesitation, he settled himself back into the chair, reaching out to take your hand in his. You felt him stiffen slightly at the contact.

“You’re ridiculous, Eri,” he muttered under his breath, more to himself than you.

You couldn’t help noticing how rough and calloused his palms felt contrasted with the surprising tenderness of his grip as your fingers intertwined. It was… nice. Comforting in a way you hadn’t expected.

“You get five minutes and then I’m leaving,” Nanami stated firmly, as if giving himself a strict time limit on this nonsense.

You managed a sleepy smile at his long-suffering tone. Not one of Mother’s patented heart-stealing smiles, specialized to ensnare even the coldest of men. But for some reason, that faint expression of contentment still brought a noticeable flush dusting across Nanami’s cheeks before he quickly looked away.

That night, you discovered Nanami was a hopeless liar. Because by the time you drifted off into a deep, dreamless sleep, he was still there holding your hand, long after the arbitrary five-minute time limit had expired.

Chapter 4

Summary:

“Friendship ended with Satoru. Now Shoko is my best friend.”
– Eri, probably

Chapter Text

Shopping for outfits suited to your new sorcerer career felt weirdly symbolic – like cracking open an important doorway after years of stifling restriction. Silly as that sounded, even in your own head. No more would you be suffocated in those oppressive traditional clothes, which your elders insisted all “proper” Zen’in women must eternally swaddle themselves in. No more teetering about on dainty sandals like some ceramic doll.

Before hitting the mall with Shoko, one quick errand first. You turned down the hallway housing faculty offices, Kusakabe’s workspace door hanging invitingly ajar. You announced your arrival with three crisp knuckle raps against the wood, then shoved it open the rest of the way because why not? The man startled up from his cluttered desk.

“I want pockets,” you demanded, not wasting time on greetings.

Kusakabe’s brows furrowed in confusion. “Come again, Zen’in-san?”

“Eri,” you corrected him. Then, reaching into the bag at your side, you whipped out one of your uniform skirts, flipping it inside out with a flourish to expose the shameful joke masquerading as pockets. Mere gaping open fabric slits stitched into the lining – utterly useless for actual storage purposes.

You fixed Kusakabe with a stern look. “You said to inform you if I needed my uniform tailored. Well, I want real, functional pockets added, with proper depth and zippers so I can actually carry my stuff. None of this decorative nonsense.”

Kusakabe’s mouth worked soundlessly, thrown by your brusque demands and refusal to adhere to politeness. Finally, he gave a hesitant nod. “Uh… right. Okay, I’ll get that taken care of. Please just… leave the skirt with me.”

“Good,” you said, dropping the skirt along with the other one still in the bag atop the nearest clear-ish surface on his disaster zone of a desk. “I expect quality workmanship, Kusakabe.”

Kusakabe looked at you blankly. You could see the confused gears grinding behind his eyes as he processed your flagrant disregard for honorific use. He was likely expecting at least some flimsy attempt at polite gratitude to butter him up for the uniform alterations. But such niceties weren’t part of your repertoire yet – in your limited experience, you were always the one to be addressed with every deferential honorific under the sun and things were always done for you as you pleased without need for gratitude.

After an uncomfortably long stretch, Kusakabe cleared his throat with an awkward “ah-hem.” His Adam’s apple bobbed as he asked, “Anything else I can do for you, Eri… -san?” He tacked on the honorific like an afterthought, unable to abandon propriety even when you had led by example.

You tilted your head slightly, giving the matter of any additional requests a momentary ponder. “Yes, actually. Will you be personally overseeing my training?”

Kusakabe ran a hand through his already tousled hair, somehow managing to look even more nervous and flustered than before – despite supposedly inhabiting the esteemed teacher role here. “Ah, yeah, I guess so…. I’ll be in charge of all the first-year students.”

Holding his gaze, you asked, “So tell me then, have you ever trained a student who had zero previous combat experience before?”

Your words came out gentle, devoid of any accusatory tone. Still, Kusakabe audibly gulped. A strained smile cracked across his face. “Um… well, no, actually. This… this is my first time formally teaching anyone. I’m still on probationary period myself…” He trailed off with an uncomfortable chuckle.

You gave a mild nod, unbothered by his lack of prior experience. “I see. That’s quite all right, I suppose. I just wanted to give you a heads-up. My combat abilities are non-existent.” You waved a flippant hand as if physically brushing away the issue. “So feel free to do whatever remedial preparation you might require to account for that blank slate reality, yes?”

By this point, Kusakabe’s brow glistened with anxious beads of sweat, the poor man was reduced to robotic nodding motions. You turned on your heel and strode off without a single thought toward a polite farewell, leaving him to quietly suffer an apparent existential crisis alone in his cluttered office.

With the uniform pocket situation handled, the next crucial step would be to acquire servants… eh, helpers to cart around your inevitable mountain of shopping spoils. You had the perfect targets already in mind.

Haibara was an easy mark – that eager guy was more than happy to tag along wherever you beckoned without a second thought. But Nanami? Now that was a stubborn mule if you’d ever seen one. This straightforward request shouldn’t even require the effort of asking. He had both the spare time and premium-grade muscle mass to serve as an ideal pack mule. Why not put those assets to good use carrying your haul for once?

But of course, Nanami balked the second you opened your mouth to make the reasonable request. “I’m not your servant, Eri,” he huffed out, nostrils flaring.

As if a Zen’in would ever take no for an answer. Especially when you could smell even the barest whiff of a chance to get your way.

You shifted tactics with an airy wave of your hand. “But you said you would help with my training, did you not?”

Nanami’s eyes narrowed to judgmental slits. “And this has nothing to do with your actual training.”

“I need to buy proper training clothes for said training,” you pointed out reasonably.

He crossed his arms, lips pressing into a flat line. “No.”

Refusing to concede, you took a calculated step closer, tilting your head back to gaze up at Nanami through your lashes with your best approximation of wide, pleading eyes. Your lips even curved in a slight pout, knowing full well the effect this particular maneuver tended to have on the opposite sex.

“Just for one brief morning?” you implored, letting your voice soften. “It’ll be really nice to have your company there…”

You had never needed to say ‘please’ before. This damsel routine alone was always enough to bend people to your whims.

Sure enough, Nanami’s cheeks flooded with color, a furious crimson wave creeping up his neck as he spluttered and floundered incoherently. After an extended moment of embarrassed flailing, he managed to force out a terse, strangled “Stop doing that! FINE, I’ll go with you, okay?!”

You quickly dropped the saccharine expression, nodding in satisfaction. A Zen’in always got their way, through any means necessary – even if said means involved a little light manipulation and toying with unfortunate weak spots.

As Nanami stomped off to grab his jacket, you glanced sidelong at Shoko waiting by the doorway. She was doubled over wheezing with laughter, tears of mirth leaking from the corners of her eyes after witnessing your shameless ploy.

“Princess, you’re just… the worst!” she gasped out between strained giggles, clutching at her sides. “That boy doesn’t stand a chance!”

You shrugged unapologetically. The ends more than justified the means. Now you had your servants helpers assembled for a productive shopping expedition. Just as any proper lady should.

With Shoko’s expert guidance, it didn’t take long to accumulate everything you would need for your new sorcerer wardrobe – from training gear and casual everyday outfits to pajamas and even undergarments. For those more personal items, Shoko ordered Haibara and Nanami to wait a respectable distance away.

You weren’t terribly particular about clothing styles in general, so you trusted Shoko’s fashionable tastes and let her pick out whatever she deemed suitable. Your only requirement was that it all must make you look pretty. A reasonable enough demand.

Shoko scoffed at that directive. “Oh please. Even a potato sack would look pretty on you, princess.”

Despite the teasing words, she took careful consideration in coordinating proper color palettes and complementary combinations to match your fair skin, dark hair, and… unique eyes.

That last feature proved a little tricky to accommodate. Most people whose irises appeared black from a distance actually had some shade of deep brown upon closer inspection. But your eyes? Just pitch black. Fathomless midnight black, so dark that not a whisper of light reflected off the inky pools. It threw Shoko for a brief loop when she leaned in to examine them.

To her credit, she didn’t voice a single prying question about what cosmic wrong must have occurred to curse you with such endlessly dark orbs. For all her brash irreverence, Shoko demonstrated a great deal of sensitivity and understanding. It spared you from having to stumble through an awkward explanation about the lingering effects of being born without a soul.

With each new garment she handed you to try on, Shoko would scrutinize how the colors and tones played off your features and soulless eyes. Despite the inherent challenge, she seemed to find an unexpected joy in the task – muttering a constant stream of commentary under her breath as she worked.

You followed Shoko’s directions without question, dutifully turning this way and that to provide an unobstructed view for her eagle-eyed analysis from every angle. Her sharp eyes missed nothing, triple-checking that seams laid flat and hems hung evenly before giving any piece her approval.

“Hmm, we may need to go up a size in the chest area on this one,” Shoko mused at one point, eyeing your torso critically. “Just to allow some extra breathing room when you’re… well, you know.”

You glanced down at yourself. “When I’m what? There’s hardly anything there.”

“Yet!” Shoko amended with a bark of laughter, reaching out to flick teasing fingertips at the modest swell barely noticeable against the fabric. “Give it another year, princess. Then these little things will do some serious inflating, believe me.”

“I can just buy new clothes then.” You shrugged off the crass comment.

Such was Shoko’s way – unfiltered bluntness. You supposed that at the price of backstabbing your oldest friend, it was part of her role to account for all variables and other messy stuff that you didn’t understand.Like having a soul. And all the complicated feelings, nuances, and social cues that came pre-packaged with one.

While you had promised Shoko to spill all the juicy tea about Satoru as payment for her skilled shopping assistance, you thought after all the genuine care and effort she put into cultivating your new wardrobe, she deserved more than just access to Gojo’s stinky closet of skeletons.

As the final outfit was scrutinized and approved, you made her an enticing offer. “Why don’t you pick out whatever you want too, Sho? I’ll cover all the costs.”

Shoko’s perfectly arched brow inched up her forehead. “Seriously? You’ll just… buy me anything I want from here?”

You gave an airy shrug, pulling out the sleek black credit card issued to all of Zen’in Naobito’s children. “Probably not something exorbitant like a house or a yacht. I’ve never actually tested the limits, I’m sure my elders put a cap on how much I can charge though.” You waved the pristine card leisurely. “But clothes, makeup, accessories – that should all be fine.”

Shoko’s eyes lit up with intrigue at your implication of essentially unlimited funds. “Damn, so this is what they mean by clan-kid privilege, huh? Why does Gojo never treat me to anything nice like this?”

“Because he’s an ass,” you reminded Shoko.

She eyed you with impish delight. “You sure about this, princess? I don’t want your cold-hearted elders getting pissed and cutting you off if I go too hog wild with your generosity.”

You waved away her concern. “It’ll be fine. I still have my mother’s card as a backup just in case.”

Though in truth, you knew the miserly old farts who ran the Zen’in affairs would never risk the humiliation and loss of face from having Zen’in Naobito’s only legitimate daughter be unable to pay for simple purchases out in public. Your allowance was surely astronomical to avoid such indignities at all costs.

“Seriously, don’t hold back,” you told Shoko with an easy smile, gesturing around. “Get whatever catches your eye. I’ll cover the entire bill.”

With your blanket approval to indulge granted, Shoko took off in an excited frenzy – flitting around the department store like a sugared-up hummingbird. She scooped up stylish tops, trendy dresses, sleek athleisure pieces and accessories galore by the armful, seemingly unable to curb her appetite now that the spending floodgates were open. For some odd reason, she also amassed a rather hefty stack of lacy, colorful lingerie sets in various tantalizing styles.

When you shot her a quizzical look, Shoko just patted your cheek in a patronizing manner. “You’ll understand all about these later when you’re a little older and more… developed, princess.”

You stared at her flatly. “You know you’re only one year older than me, right?”

But Shoko just laughed off your attempted jab at the meager age gap, giving you a suggestive hip check. No matter, you decided. You would have plenty of time to figure out the nuances and allures of racy lingerie later. For now, with your joint massive retail acquisition complete, you and Shoko efficiently redistributed the teetering mountain of shopping plunder onto your pack mules – also known as Haibara and Nanami.

“Alright boys, you’re dismissed to head back to campus,” Shoko announced, shooing the two away with a flick of her wrist. “The ladies need some private debriefing time.”

As Nanami and Haibara turned to head out, you dug into your purse. You intended to try discreetly pressing some cash into their hands to at least cover transit fare back to the dorms and perhaps a small snack or drink for their troubles. But Nanami swatted your hand away with a huff, stalking off with his jaw clenched tight. Haibara gave you an apologetic shrug before scurrying after Nanami, struggling under the weight of all the bags he’d been saddled with.

You watched them go with a tiny frown. How needlessly difficult Nanami insisted on being over the simplest courtesies and attempts at appropriate compensation. Didn’t the idiot understand it was expected – practically mandatory – for ladies of your standing to reimburse any hired help properly? You’d have to work on pounding some basic etiquette into that guy’s thick skull.

With the baggage – both literal and figurative – ditched, it was just you and Shoko now.

You settled into a cozy little coffee shop filled with the rich aroma of freshly brewed beans and baked goods. After ordering two ridiculously oversized, gooey milkshakes topped with an outrageous array of whipped cream, syrups, and sugary garnishes, Shoko dove right into the interrogation.

"So, how close are you and Gojo exactly?" she asked bluntly, her words muffled as she noisily slurped the milkshake, making sounds unfit for polite company.

You took a moment to consider your response as you eyed the grotesque display before you. “We meet around three times a year at our clans’ official gatherings.” A truthful statement, though the emphasis on “official” carried meaningful weight.

Of course, you omitted any mention of all the countless other times Satoru had unceremoniously materialized in your private quarters, using his infuriating teleportation technique to spirit you away on impromptu misadventures without so much as a “by your leave.” But you had only agreed to air out his dirty laundry, not showcase your own walk-in closet of skeletons. So you kept those compromising details to yourself.

Shoko made a thoughtful “hmm” sound as she calculated just how intimate that level of acquaintance truly implied. For regular people, it may not amount to much more than a simple greeting between nodding acquaintances. But considering you were both elite clan kids, that scheduling alone hinted at a certain unspoken closeness.

Leaning across the table conspiratorially, she tried again with the subtlety of a rampaging buffalo. “Alright, let me put it this way – on a scale from casual hangout buddies to seeing each other buck naked, where precisely does your relationship with Gojo fall?”

You answered immediately without hesitation. Honesty was, after all, the best policy. “I’ve seen him naked. Not the other way around, though.” A loaded statement that demanded further clarification.

Shoko’s eyes widened with interest as she jerked upright in her seat with such force her milkshake sloshed precariously. “Oh reaaaaally? Do tell, how did THAT situation happen?”

Pursing your lips, you tilted your head as you considered how to properly frame that particular anecdote. If you really spilled all the steamy details, Satoru may very well make good on past threats and bite your entire head off, inadvertently kicking off the Second Jujutsu Clan War and reducing you both to untethered vengeful spirits.

With a nonchalant shrug of faux indifference, you deflected. “Just a dumb accident. Nothing special.” A blatant lie, but one you sold with the smooth conviction of a skilled grifter.

Shoko deflated like a sad balloon, disappointed and unsatisfied by your evasive non-answer. “Laaame. You’re no fun, princess.”

Despite your evasiveness, Shoko remained vicious in her quest to dig up any potential skeletons or weaknesses to use as ammunition against Satoru. After taking another obnoxiously loud slurp of her milkshake, one that would make a ravenous animal seem reserved, she leaned forward with a suggestive smirk.

“Okay, so… how is he down there?” She made an exaggerated gesture towards her lap, leaving no ambiguity as to what specific anatomy she was referring to.

You blinked at her a few times, visibly processing and parsing out her crude implication like a computer buffering. Once it clicked, you tapped a finger against your chin thoughtfully.

“I don’t really have any basis for comparison, but I guess he seemed… okay?”

Years later, once you did eventually gain more empirical data points, for judging such attributes, you would come to realize that good old Satoru was doing far better than just “okay” in that department. But that particular awakening was a story for another time, locked behind the vaults of your mind.

For now, Shoko could only groan into her palms at your painfully oblivious response. Shifting tactics again, she tried a new line of questioning, one that hopefully didn’t require dealing in nuances.

“Is he… you know… a virgin at least? Please say he’s a virgin,” she asked, desperation tinging her words.

You shrugged again, nonplussed. “That’s never come up as a topic of conversation. I could ask him for you if you want?” You offered helpfully.

“Please don’t!” Shoko sputtered, looking mildly horrified at the very idea of you so bluntly propositioning Gojo about his sexual experience. “At least tell me if he’s ever had a girlfriend before? Or a crush, something?”

You shook your head, trying your best to jog your memory. “No official girlfriend that I’m aware of. Those kinds of relationships have to be clan-approved for political reasons. But he does have a bunch of celebrity crushes, I think.”

Dragging a hand through her meticulously styled hair, Shoko let out a frustrated grunt that bordered on unhinged. “Damn it princess, you’ve got to give me SOMETHING I can use as leverage over that arrogant prick! Some piping hot gossip, an embarrassing secret, a weird fetish – anything! What makes that insufferable narcissist human??”

Seeing Shoko’s evident exasperation, you racked your brain, determined to provide Shoko with at least some semi-useful ammunition against Satoru. Finally, something surfaced from the recesses of your memory.

“Um… he likes legs?”

Shoko perked up at this scrap of a lead. “Oh? Do elaborate,” she prompted eagerly.

Gesturing toward her exposed calves peeking out from her skirt, you relayed the comment with your typical frankness. “He said you have really great legs that would feel nice wrapping around his—”

The words spilled out in such as neutral, matter-of-fact tone that it took Shoko a few beats to realize you were not, in fact, joking at all this time. Her eyes blew wide as she abruptly threw up her hands, cutting you off mid-sentence with a horrified gasp.

“Oh my god, stop stop! I can’t believe he actually told you disgusting stuff like that!” She cringed, looking scandalized. “What kind of messed up things do you two even talk about?!”

Surprisingly, you felt a small need to defend what little honor Satoru had left after that exhibition. “He doesn’t really have anyone else to talk to.”

So, in essence, the answer to Shoko’s question was everything. Satoru unloaded every unfiltered thought and crude musing that popped into his perverted one-track mind, including the disturbingly graphic stuff, because you were his only friend and confidante. Apparently, that included his grotesquely vivid fantasies as well. Wasn’t that simply what best friends were for?

Shoko took a deep, calming breath as she visibly worked to remain patient with your brutal honesty and lack of social tact.

“Okay, fine. So he’s a leg man, I got it. That’s… something I can use, I suppose.” She grimaced. “Anything else you can give me on that jackass – but try to avoid the really skeezy stuff this time, yeah?”

You worried your lower lip between your teeth as you mentally rifled through your catalog of Satoru’s many idiosyncrasies and vulnerabilities. Finally, another innocent but potentially exploitable tidbit sprung to mind.

“Oh! He’s ticklish. Does that help at all?”

Shoko gave you a deeply skeptical look at that last revelation. “Really? He’s ticklish? I’ve tried that on Gojo before and he didn’t even flinch.”

You shook your head insistently. “He is ticklish, I promise. But you have to get him in just the right spots.”

“Try digging into here…” You angled your body slightly to the side, trailing your fingers along your own flank and ribcage to demonstrate. “...and here… and right about here too.” You tapped specific points almost clinically. “And if he’s being an extra-obnoxious jackass that day, zero in on the area just above his tailbone. He’ll fold like a lawn chair.”

Satoru would absolutely come for your backstabbing, betraying ass once he found out you were dishing this kind of classified information to Shoko. But you couldn’t resist the opportunity to metaphorically stick it to him.

A sly, triumphant look stole across Shoko’s face as she committed each vulnerability to memory, nodding seriously. Only for her eyes to suddenly narrow suspiciously a moment later.

“Uh… wait. How exactly did you figure out all these extremely specific details in the first place?”

You answered with a casual shrug, “Trial and error over the years.”

“Do I even want to know what kind of f*cked up ‘trials and errors’ went into discovering Gojo’s ticklish spots?” Shoko asked with a disturbed grimace, looking mildly nauseated.

You opened your mouth, ready to explain the long history of physical roughhousing, no-holds-barred wrestling matches and one-upmanship games you and Satoru had engaged in since childhood. How such extreme reconnaissance into his bodily weaknesses had been a brutal necessity at times in order to gain whatever petty advantages you could find against your monstrously powerful friend.

But before you could launch into those convoluted tales of childhood debauchery, Shoko let out an exaggerated groan and waved you off vehemently, her face scrunched up in disgust.

“You know what? Never mind, I don’t want to know the gross things you two freaks probably got up to. Just… spare me the details, please,” she pleaded, looking pained.

You closed your mouth, vaguely tempted to argue that there was nothing inherently “gross” about it. Escalating feuds and rivalries into all-out brawls and bodily warfare was simply par for the course – all fair game in love and literal war between two sad*stic, unhinged clan kids raised on a steady diet of violence.

But before you could defend your questionable codes of conduct and childhood pastimes, Shoko squinted at you with undisguised suspicion glistening in her eyes.

“So what, he just… lets you torture him like that and take it? Doesn’t fight back or anything?”

“Of course he retaliates,” you replied easily, taking a pointed slurp of your shake. “He gives as good as he gets, I assure you.”

Shoko stared at you appraisingly, her expression flickering between morbid fascination and abject revulsion as she burned with an insatiable desire to extract more lurid details about the precise nature of these brutal reprisals. But seeming to think better of venturing down that rabbit hole, she ultimately relented with a visible shudder and shake of her head, as if to physically dislodge the mental images.

“Actually, you know what…” She announced firmly. “I only agreed to hear about HIS dirty secrets. Keep your own weird kinky sh*t to yourself, princess.”

With a fresh arsenal of Satoru’s weaknesses and exploitable quirks, Shoko seemed pleased with your debriefing for the time being. The two of you settled back, allowing the conversation to meander into more casual territory – dishing about fashion, makeup, heaping scorn on the entire dumbass male species, you know, the vital bonding rituals.

Shoko was buzzing with this giddy, infectious energy at finally having a girlfriend to indulge in all the clichéd girl talk she’d been deprived of. You were more than content to simply listen as she chattered away, studying her bright expressiveness with a studious fascination.

The way her eyes crinkled at the corners when she laughed too hard, her dimples winking. How her delicate eyebrows would do that judgy lil’ quirk at the latest gossip like a disapproving suburban mom. The slight scrunch of her freckled nose as she debated between multiple juicy toppings for her next shake order.

You cataloged each micro-expression and flutter of fleeting emotion that danced across Shoko’s open features, struck by how she never seemed to obscure or temper her feelings with pretenses or hidden agendas. Shoko was an open book, raw and real in a way no one in your twisted family ever allowed themselves to be.

What started as a clinical, impassive observation – born from your lifelong habit of scrutinizing everyone around you in a detached manner – gradually shifted into something else entirely. You found yourself fixating on the most random, pointless details about Shoko.

Like how freaking adorable the light sunburst of freckles looked dusted across her cheekbones and the bridge of her nose. Or the way her megawatt smile could practically power the entire city grid when she really let it beam, crinkling the corners of her eyes into happy little crescents. The way her glossy hair framed her face just right, like she spent hours precisely arranging each lock.

You know that disorienting feeling when something just hits you outta nowhere? Sneaks up and smacks you upside the head when you least expect it?

That was the dawning realization that slowly bloomed in your mind – Shoko was just… really freaking pretty. Like, unfairly, almost offensively gorgeous in this low-key, next-door vibe kind of way that you’d just never consciously registered before now. It was confounding, really, how you’d managed to overlook it all this time.

Suddenly, Satoru’s whole creepy obsession with her made so much more sense. Now you could understand why he had never been able to shut his stupid mouth about her any time he brought her up, accidentally or otherwise. A girl like this could absolutely short-circuit any warm-blooded teenage boy’s brain into vapid, rambling submission.

You wondered if you could maybe pick Shoko’s brain for some wisdom about this whole pretty girl game she seemed so effortlessly gifted at. Like, what was the actual deal with all that sheer, barely-there lacy lingerie and crap she hoarded? Were you eventually gonna need a whole drawer for that kind of… gear? So many questions, so few appropriate people to ask.

You decided to just file away the curiosities for now, though. In this moment, you were contented to just be here with Shoko – your newest bestie. Satoru who?

Chapter 5

Summary:

The art of being friends with barbarians

Chapter Text

Despite that rage-aholic idiot Nanami pitching an unwarranted tantrum and refusing to let you compensate him for acting as your pack mule (the term “helper” was a stretch) during the shopping trip, you’d decided that the guys were still getting fancy food on your (elders’) dime anyway.

From the moment you could comprehend language, your mother had drilled it into you – never let yourself owe anyone any favors, period. Debts got called in at the worst possible times by the worst possible people infesting this miserable planet.

While your mother may have lacked the mystical air of jujutsu, she was every bit as feared and respected in those elite circles as the most powerful sorcerers. Sure, her family’s generational wealth certainly greased plenty of greedy palms, but Mother must have been doing something outrageously diabolical behind the scenes to command such terrifying influence – none of your insufferable maternal aunts came close to wielding that level of power.

You didn’t really think Nanami or Haibara would ever lord this silly shopping duty over your head as some big favor to cash in later. But still, Mother’s lessons had been burned into your soul (metaphorically speaking, of course) – staying debt-free just seemed like the safest life policy. And you aimed to always cover your bases, no matter how trivial the situation may seem.

So heeding your mother’s wisdom, you went to the most exorbitantly overpriced, obnoxiously pretentious sushi temple in all of Tokyo and ordered the entire damn menu without so much as blinking an eye. Just imagining the aneurysm-inducing shock on the old coots’ faces when they reviewed today’s budget massacre filled you with a twisted sense of perverse glee. Good, let those misers choke on their precious family finances.

Naturally, you figured Nanami and Haibara would be overjoyed – nay, downright giddy – when presented with the veritable mountain range of exquisitely crafted sushi you so generously bestowed upon them. But when the restaurant’s wide-eyed delivery guy dutifully dumped the gargantuan order onto the common room table at your command, both of them just… stared. Dumbfounded. Mouths agape like stunned codfish.

You briefly wondered if these guys somehow disliked sushi. That seemed implausible – sushi was the quintessential pinnacle of Japanese cuisine. Anyone dimwitted enough to claim otherwise simply hadn’t experienced the real elite stuff yet.

Nanami gestured at the teetering architectural marvels of nigiri and gunkan maki towers, a perplexed frown crinkling that aforementioned judgmental brow of his. “Uh… what’s all this?”

“Our lunch,” you stated matter-of-factly. Wasn’t that obvious? It should be self-evident.

Those narrow eyes slitted further in that annoying judgy way of his. “Did you clean out an entire restaurant or something?”

“I didn’t know what you guys would like, so I made sure there were plenty of options to choose from,” you waved a dismissive hand, lightly flicking one of the smaller takeout bags. “You don’t have to eat everything.”

A perfectly logical approach, really.

Haibara tentatively started peeking into the different bags and takeout containers with furrowed brows. “Eri, this must have cost a small fortune,” he muttered, sounding almost anxious. “You really, really shouldn’t have. We could get months worth of groceries for what this costs.”

A tiny, barely perceptible crease formed between your brows as you frowned at their bizarre reactions. What dimension were these guys operating in? Why couldn’t they just accept a nice gesture without turning it into an awkward production?

“You don’t need groceries,” you pointed out with a tone of pure reason. “The school provides us meals anyway. And I wanted to compensate you properly for your troubles today.” You gave a nonchalant shrug. “It’s fine, really.”

At your poised explanation, Nanami’s expression darkened like thunderclouds rolling in over a children’s birthday party. “It’s not fine, Eri,” he hissed, raining on your well-intentioned parade as usual.

You were about to respond, but he abruptly turned and started stomping away. You called after him, genuinely confused. “So you don’t like sushi? I can order something else for you—”

Nanami cut you off without breaking his dramatic flounce. “I’m not hungry.”

Before he could take more than three steps though, you flicked one finger, paralyzing him in place with your technique. You were sick of the ill-tempered guy just storming off and ignoring you whenever he felt like it.

“What the hell, Eri?” Nanami growled as he realized what you’d done, his body rendered immobile. “Let me go right now, dammit.”

Haibara placed a hand on your forearm in a poorly executed attempt to placate the souring situation. “Eri…”

You swatted his hand away with the back of yours, keeping your focus on Nanami. “I’ll let you go when you tell me what’s wrong,” you demanded.

You could practically hear Nanami’s jaw clenching as he futilely fought against the binding shadows restraining his movements. No luck. So far the only person who could brute-force his way out of your Paralysis was Gojo Satoru. Oh, perhaps you could try it on Weird Emo Bang to verify his claim as the strongest.

Finally tired of struggling, Nanami exhaled a frustrated sigh that could have wilted flowers. “We’re not your hired help to be paid off, Eri. That’s what’s wrong. Now let me go before I really lose my sh*t.”

You blinked, still not quite understanding the heart of the issue that seemed to vex him so. But Haibara’s anxious hovering gave you pause. Glancing between his worried frown and Nanami’s tensed body betraying his simmering anger, you made the strategic decision not to antagonize him further for now. It was never a wise idea to corner men, even if you were technically stronger than them.

With a slight twitch of your finger, you released your restraining hold, causing Nanami to stumble forward a step from the sudden lack of resistance. You expected Nanami to whirl on you, screaming obscenities about the dick move you had just pulled on him. But instead, he simply shot you one last inscrutable look – disappointment? Frustration? Disgust? – before turning and stalking out without another word.

Nanami was being a complete raging asshole for no good reason. Like, seriously, who got pissed off when someone surprised them with exquisite gourmet delicacies? You crossed your arms, expecting Haibara to take your unquestionably reasonable side like the devoted puppy he usually was.

However, instead of loyally backing you up, Haibara just plopped down into a nearby chair with a heavy sigh. “Please don’t do that again, Eri.”

You blinked at him in confusion. “What?”

He motioned vaguely in your direction with one hand. “Your… technique. It’s incredibly powerful and… and terrifying if we’re being honest. To have your autonomy and control over your own body stripped away against your will like that…” Haibara shuddered. “It’s not a pleasant feeling at all. Don’t just use it on others so casually.”

A slight frown tugged at your lips as you processed his words. “I wouldn’t have hurt Nanami. I just wanted him to actually talk to me for once.”

Haibara nodded understandingly. “I know. But friends don’t restrain each other against their will, even temporarily. It’s… a violation of trust, you could say. So try to avoid doing that going forward, okay?”

You hadn’t really considered the situation from that inane perspective before. Perhaps Haibara had a point this time, loathe as you were to admit it. You moved to sit in the chair next to him, conceding the argument even as frustration toward Nanami’s unjustified behavior lingered.

“Fine, I won’t do that again,” you grumbled. “But he was still being an asshole. What’s so wrong with me trying to return a favor to you guys?”

Haibara turned to fully face you, a glimmer of realization flashing in his eyes as he seemed to connect some obvious dots.

“So… you think you owe us because we helped carry your shopping bags this morning? And now you need to repay that debt to us?” he asked carefully, as if afraid you’d snap and paralyze him too for stating such an absurd notion.

You met his inquisitive gaze squarely, not quite understanding the point he was trying to make. “Yes? I mean, it took time and effort out of your day. Hauling all those bags all the way back here couldn’t have been a mindless stroll in the park.”

Perhaps your understanding of how the world operated outside your clan’s warped traditions was still somewhat lacking. But you believed in the principle of equal exchanges. You may have been born soulless, but you weren’t unfair.

Haibara sighed deeply, sounding almost as if he was trying to maintain patience with a particularly dense preschooler. “And that’s exactly what’s wrong here, Eri. Not everything has to be a transaction.”

You opened your mouth to disagree, but Haibara pressed on before you could argue.

“We helped you out because we wanted to. As friends, not hired labor,” he stated firmly. “We don’t expect you to pay us back now or at some point later. You don’t owe us anything at all. That’s just what friends do for each other.”

Those last few words hung in the air as you processed their unthinkable meaning, rendering you momentarily speechless. Everyone in your life up to this point had always tried to curry favor, to get you indebted to them in some way from the moment you took your first breath. This was the first time someone had outright refused to hold their assistance over you as leverage to be exploited later.

You could only stare at Haibara, at a complete loss for how to even begin reacting to such an alien concept. What would Mother say to this madness?

This conversation was veering into deeply uncomfortable existential territory that threatened to undermine your entire cultivated worldview. Part of you was tempted to redirect by deploying one of Mother’s smiles again. But the painfully earnest, almost pleading expression on Haibara’s face dissuaded you. You doubted he would react positively to such an obvious deflection tactic this time.

Seeking an escape, you averted your gaze, eyes landing on the towering pile of beautifully packaged sushi still sitting untouched and inviting on the table. “So you guys… really aren’t going to eat any of that?” you asked with an exaggerated sniffle, hoping the feeble ruse might distract him.

Haibara saw right through your transparent attempt at changing the subject. Rather than call you out on it, he simply smiled that same warm, disarming smile and extended his hand toward you – not to take yours, but leaving his palm open in offering.

You blinked at his outstretched hand for a moment, your mind racing to calculate what Mother would do. But you quickly gave up. Mother would never have allowed herself to stumble into such a ridiculous scenario in the first place.

Pushing aside your habit of channeling Mother’s wisdom, you opted for the first impulsive, slightly terrifying thing that came to mind – placing your hand in Haibara’s calloused palm. He gave it a gentle squeeze as his earnest gaze met yours once more.

“So let me get this straight,” he began, his patient smile never wavering. “Did you really order this absurd amount of high-end sushi just to try repaying us? Or did you actually want to share a meal with your friends too?”

You tilted your head slightly, honestly considering his question for perhaps the first time without your defenses obstructing the view. “I… I suppose do want to eat together,” you admitted in a smaller voice than intended. “With you guys.”

A wide, boyish grin stretched across Haibara’s face as if savoring a private joke at your emotionally constipated expense. “See? That’s not so difficult, is it?” He gave your hand another squeeze, rubbing your knuckles with his thumbs. “We’re your friends, Eri, and that’s why we like doing things for you. Sometimes it really can be that simple.”

Then, he grabbed your hand and yanked you up to your feet with surprising strength. Somehow, in one smooth motion, Haibara managed to gather up the entire massive sushi order, cradling the numerous boxes and bags precariously in his arms.

“What are you doing?” you sputtered in confusion as he started heading for the door.

He shot you a mischievous smile over the teetering tower of food containers. “Let’s eat together, just us friends.”

With his arms completely full, Haibara lifted his chin toward the bag containing various sauces and condiments. “Could you grab that last one, Eri?”

You could only stare back at him, dumbfounded by the sheer audacity. One simply did not order Zen’in Eri around – especially not to perform menial tasks. That was an outrageous violation of how things were supposed to work.

But before you could inform him of the severe crime he was committing, Haibara was already hauling the improbable sushi mountain out into the hallway, leaving you little choice but to snatch up the bag of extras and hurry along after him.

It didn’t take long to realize he was leading you straight to Nanami’s room. As you approached the closed door, Haibara hollered out cheerfully with no sense of propriety, “Oi, Nanami! Let’s all eat this fancy sushi together!”

When no response came, he started singing the other guy’s name in an increasingly grating cadence, accompanying it by kicking his foot against the door like some annoying door-to-door salesman. He would probably have been terrifyingly effective at that job, you mused.

The juvenile tactic soon paid off as Nanami’s irritated bark sounded from within the room. “Go away, Haibara! I’m not in the mood.”

“This is… embarrassing,” you muttered under your breath as you glanced around the dormitory hallway with thinly veiled horror.

If any of your elders could see you right now – standing outside some random peasant boy’s room holding a bag of condiments like a kitchen maid awaiting an audience - the catastrophic mortification would ensure your immediate and permanent disownment from the clan. Mother would ascend directly to the roots of the ancestral bloodline tree.

Haibara didn’t seem to grasp the full implications of the demeaning situation he’d put you in. Without a single care in the world, he simply… squatted down and deposited the entire towering stack of sushi boxes and bags onto the hallway floor like some uncivilized savage.

Then, as if this disgraceful scenario couldn’t plumb more abysmal depths of indignity, the unrepentant savage reached out and grabbed your hand, giving it an insistent tug. “We’ll just sit here then,” he declared with an easy smile, like it was the most logical course of action.

You couldn’t quite believe the audacity of this idiot. An imperious huff of disbelieving air escaped your nostrils as you pointedly put your foot down on this lunacy. “I am not sitting on the floor with you. That’s unsanitary.”

Haibara actually had the gall to snort a small laugh at your objection, clearly amused by your righteous indignation. “You’re a sorcerer, Eri. Soon you’ll have to sit on surfaces far more gross than just a clean hallway floor. Having a casual lunch sitting on the floor isn’t that bad, trust me.”

Still, he seemed to concede your point somewhat, shrugging off his ratty old hoodie and laying it down on the floor next to where he sat. Haibara patted the bunched-up fabric invitingly. “There, is that more acceptable?”

You fixed him with a look of utter disbelief, silently asking whether his stupid face was really serious right now. When his affable expression didn’t waver in the slightest, you realized with steadily mounting horror the barbarian wasn’t just joking around.

With no other remotely palatable option presenting itself thanks to Haibara’s unshakable tenacity, you gingerly lowered yourself with great trepidation to sit upon the gross hallway floor, carefully keeping your weight centered atop Haibara’s worn hoodie in an uncomfortable perch, trying your utmost to avoid so much as brushing against the questionable floor.

And so there you were, begrudgingly taking part in this humiliating picnic lunch right outside Nanami’s door. You still couldn’t quite believe you’d allowed Haibara to cajole you into this preposterous situation in the first place. There had to be something disastrously wrong with your mental faculties beyond just the whole soulless predicament. Surely no normal, self-respecting person would ever stoop to this level of indignity.

Haibara must have some kind of broken cursed technique that allowed him to compel people into joining his foolish acts of depravity against their better judgment. A variant of Cursed Speech, perhaps. It would explain his baffling ability to drag you so thoroughly out of your natural austere element at every turn.

Ugh, no point dwelling on it now – best to just power through this embarrassing circ*mstance as quickly as possible. Determined to at least maintain what tattered shreds of dignity you had left, you tried your best to eat the fancy sushi rolls and nigiri with proper decorum and poise.

Meanwhile, Haibara was positively shoveling the food into his mouth at a blistering pace. Worse, he continued making a ruckus by shouting through mouthfuls at the still-closed door.

“Oi, ‘Nami! This premium stuff is really freakin’ good!” Haibara projected between messy bites, bits of rice spraying out to land on his threadbare t-shirt. “You gotta come try some, man! Wait, here – let me save you some rolls, yeah?”

You shot him your most judgmental stare as another scatter of rice fell from his overstuffed maw to join the growing mass accumulating on his shirt front. At this charming rate, his t-shirt was going to be more sauces and crumbs than actual fabric by the time this absurd “picnic” concluded.

Did this absolute animal of a man seriously not have any concept of basic table manners? Maybe he’d been raised by actual wolves in the wilderness.

As if sensing the scorching heat of your critical gaze, Haibara paused his furious devouring for a moment to flash you a disarmingly bright, food-smeared grin of pure innocence. “Whash wit’ dat look, Eri?” he mumbled around his full mouth.

Instinctively, you leaned away from his sauce-flecked vicinity. “If you get even one drop of that sauce on me, Yu, I swear upon the honor of my clan I will shove you headfirst down the nearest stairwell,” you stated coolly with murderous eyes.

Haibara was really pushing his luck to the absolute limits at this point. Rather than looking chastened by your very serious threat of grievous bodily retaliation, that insufferable grin of his only seemed to widen with wolfish glee. Swiping some stray teriyaki sauce onto his index finger, he started extending the offending digit right toward your face in a blatant challenge to your authority and personal space.

“It’s just food, Eri, relaaax,” he laughed carelessly with a teasing lilt. “Not gonna, y’know, kill you or anything.”

Oh, you were absolutely NOT relaxing one iota in the face of his sudden unhinged behavior. Recoiling against the wall, you tried to put as much self-preserving distance between yourself and this wild jungle creature masquerading as a friend.

“Don’t you dare bring that anywhere within breathing distance of me!” you warned in a low, dangerous hiss befitting your noble status and supreme disgust.

But Haibara remained completely unrepentant, continuing his sauce-fingered approach with that stupid, taunting smirk plastered on his stupid face. You’d thought the guy was supposed to be one of the sweet, polite ones. How naively mistaken you’d been in that grievous assessment of his character.

In a split-second, you weighed the drastic option of simply paralyzing him then and there. But then you recalled your ill-advised promise to Haibara that you wouldn’t use your technique on him or Nanami like that again. Had this scheming asshole somehow planned and baited you into this whole thing from the very start?

As his sauce-laden fingertip loomed perilously close to swiping the pristine bridge of your scrunched nose, you braced yourself for the ultimate, most undignified of resorts – drawing a deep breath before letting loose with an ear-piercing shriek of “HELP! SOMEBODY, HELP!”

The hallway’s confined dimensions amplified and concentrated the sonic intensity of your desperate cry for emergency intervention, ensuring even those rooms further away would have their occupants roused from the commotion. Hopefully that would summon someone – anyone with a modicum of sanity – to rush to your aid and rescue you from this escalating madness.

Nanami’s door flew open with a reverberating bang, the sour-faced guy himself bursting out into the hallway looking alert and primed for potential combat against unseen assailants.

“Eri?!” His wide eyes immediately found you cowering against the wall, mouth still hanging open mid-screech as a look of abject fear and disgust twisted your refined features.

It took Nanami only a second to fully take in and process the absolute chaos of the scene laid out before him. You and the feral Haibara sitting amidst a scattered explosion of upended sushi boxes, disheveled takeout bags, and various spilled sauces – the hallway floor looking like the aftermath of a small-scale war zone. Haibara himself was an utter mess, covered in food debris as he hovered over you with a teriyaki sauce-dipped finger extended menacingly toward your face like a loaded weapon.

Nanami’s eyes twitched as the sheer absurdity sank in. “What on earth are you gremlins doing out in front of my door?” he demanded, tone laden with a mix of confusion and vague accusation.

Upon seeing Nanami finally emerge, Haibara perked up, pulling his offending sauced finger away from your personal airspace slightly.

“Oh good, you finally came out! I guess I should have tried screaming bloody murder sooner if I knew that would work.”

Sensing your tormenter was briefly distracted, you seized the opportunity presented. Lashing out with one foot, you kicked Haibara squarely in the side with as much vicious force as you could muster from your compromised position on the filthy hallway floor. You’d promised not to use your technique on them, sure, but nobody said anything about regular old-fashioned violence.

The solid kick connected with a meaty thump, knocking the breath from Haibara as he was sent toppling over onto his side with a yelp of surprise. Various sauces and rice grains scattered everywhere from the impact.

If Nanami’s signature stare of judgment could get any more scathing, it most certainly did in that moment, boring holes into the both of you with silent disapproval.

Of course, one measly kick wasn’t nearly enough to put down the feral beast that was Haibara Yu. He scrambled right back up into a seated position, dusting himself off and flashing that stupid, unrepentant grin back at Nanami.

“Well, now that you’re already here, might as well sit down and grab a bite too, eh?” Haibara gestured openly at the scattered sushi feast.

Nanami stared at Haibara with that same look of profound bewilderment and disbelief you had leveled at the unhinged fool earlier – one that questioned whether the guy had all his marbles properly secured upstairs in that thick skull of his.

“You’re crazy, Haibara,” Nanami shook his head slowly.

You gave a firm nod of agreement with Nanami’s astute assessment.

But as always, Haibara was relentless in pushing his unorthodox agenda. “Aw, c’mon! It’ll be fun, I swear! Just hang out and chill with your buddies, y’know?”

Haibara turned toward you as if looking for an ally to assist in his insane campaign. But you were ready for his shenanigans this time. You deftly dodged out of range of those sauce-stained paws before he could make any undesired physical contact. No need for him to actually touch you again – you got the general idea loud and clear. A haughty huff of disdain slipped from your nostrils as you stared him down one more time for good measure.

Then, almost surprising yourself, you lifted your gaze up to meet Nanami’s skeptical eyes.

“I…” you paused, the words feeling weirdly stuck in your throat.

But you were a Zen’in. And a Zen’in always finished what they started, no matter the undignified circ*mstance.

“I’d like for us to share this meal together. As friends. If that’s okay with you.”

The words felt clumsy and foreign as you forced them out, but it was as close to an apology as you could muster. You swallowed hard, suddenly feeling an uncharacteristic bout of nervousness prickling at you. Which was weird – you never got nervous. If anything, it was usually the people around you suffering from nerves in your presence.

But you stubbornly held Nanami’s inscrutable gaze, keeping your expression unguarded and guileless for once. Mercifully, Nanami seemed to take pity on your painfully awkward attempt at making amends. With a slight shake of his head, he uncrossed his arms and lowered himself to sit on the floor across from you and Haibara.

“Okay, fine,” he sighed, sounding every bit as exasperated as the pinched look on his face implied. “But next time, we eat in the actual dining hall like civilized people, alright? No more of these ridiculous hallway picnics.”

“Absolutely,” you nodded.

Haibara just laughed loudly, tossing Nanami a fresh set of chopsticks from one of the bags. “But it would be more fun this way,” he grinned.

Which Nanami didn’t even dignify with a verbal response, simply shooting Haibara one of his signature withering looks before reluctantly digging into the cooling spread of premium sushi.

The initial awkwardness dissipated as the three of you settled into an easy rhythm of passing dishes and boxes around the circle. Haibara, as always, was an absolute mess – happily plowing through plate after plate while getting sauces and rice grains practically everywhere in the general vicinity during his feeding frenzy. But for some indiscernible reason, his feral eating habits didn’t seem quite so off-putting to your sensibilities anymore.

At one point, a stray piece of shrimp tempura went unexpectedly airborne after one of Haibara’s overenthusiastic bites, the deep-fried projectile almost beaning you square in the forehead before Nanami snatched it out of the air just inches from your face with his quick reflexes.

“I will stab you in your sleep,” you informed Haibara with a dead serious face, which only caused him to double down with laughter, sending more errant rice grains raining in your direction.

To your mild shock, Nanami let out a low rumbling chuckle from deep in his chest, nearly making you jump at the unexpected sound. You couldn’t recall the last time, if ever, you’d heard him actually laugh in good spirits.

“Here, let me get that for you,” Nanami murmured, his usual brusque monotone softening as he leaned in close.

Calloused fingertips grazed the side of your face as Nanami plucked the offending grain from where it clung to your hair. His fingers seemed to linger perhaps a beat too long, brushing along your temple in an unhurried caress. The roughened pad of his thumb whispered across your cheekbone with exquisite tenderness as he drew his hand back, seeming to move at half-speed before his hand finally fell away.

The casual intimacy of the simple gesture gave you a slight start. But not an unpleasant one, you realized with mild surprise. More just… an unfamiliar flutter of something you couldn’t quite put your finger on.

Haibara’s movements stilled as he caught the exchange out of the corner of his eye. His gaze softened wistfully. There was a glimmer in his warm eyes, some sort of emotion that you hadn’t learned to read yet. For a fleeting moment, Haibara seemed to get lost in his own thoughts. But then, he gave a barely perceptible shake of his head, snapping himself out of the brief reverie. His usual bright grin returning, he seamlessly carried on babbling about some inane topic as if nothing had happened at all.

As you and the guys continued digging into the sushi sprawl, you felt a strange warmth blooming in your chest. An odd, but not unwelcome sense of contentment. The corners of your lips curved upward in what you suspected might be the subtle beginnings of a genuine smile before you could think to school your features back to neutral.

Haibara seemed to notice your smile, his attention briefly catching on your expression before he ducked his head, the tips of his ears flushing pink. His rambling about the food or whatever died down to a more subdued murmur as he focused more intently on shoveling sushi into his mouth, as if to keep himself from looking your way again.

Perhaps, this was what normal people did with their friends? Simply enjoying sharing food and company without keeping a mental tally of debts and favors? You still didn’t quite grasp the allure of eating communal meals while sitting on dirty floors like barbarians. But you supposed this particular circ*mstance with these two particular idiots wasn’t so unbearable after all. In fact, you could even get used to this.

Chapter 6

Summary:

Zen'in Eri - crusher of teaching dreams.

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Your first training session went as well as you’d imagined: a complete sh*tshow from start to finish.

You stifled a yawn as Kusakabe herded you all onto the training grounds before the sun had even contemplated peeking over the horizon. What a sad*stic way to start the day – torturing students with sparring sessions predating sunrise. Though you supposed learning to fight while half-asleep could build valuable muscle memory for battles against curses inconsiderate enough to attack at ungodly hours. The training ground, usually a peaceful expanse of dirt and sparse grass, now felt like a stage for your collective embarrassment.

“Alright, let’s see what you’ve got,” Kusakabe had announced, his voice far too chipper for someone awake before the birds. “Nothing beats a good spar to get to know each other.”

You considered pointing out that most people just go for coffee, not hand-to-hand combat, but you kept your mouth in check. Best not to antagonize the one man willing to train you properly.

Haibara, ever the eager puppy, had practically bounced forward. “I’ll go first!” he’d declared, somehow not realizing he was volunteering for a beatdown.

Swaggering out, he puffed out his chest and bounced on the balls of his feet, throwing a few warm-up punches that whistled through the air. So far, just typical Haibara overconfidence.

You recalled his embarrassing fight with the blob curse, his punches as coordinated as a drunk trying to swat a fly. Maybe he’d just been off his game that day, right?

Wrong.

The second Kusakabe gave the signal to start, Haibara launched himself forward with a yell, fists flying in a wild flurry. As he charged at Kusakabe, arms swinging like a windmill caught in a tornado, you realized your initial assessment had been spot-on. This wasn’t fighting; this was flailing with extra steps. Every sloppy swing, every uncoordinated lunge, screamed one thing: Haibara’s combat training consisted of schoolyard scuffles and back-alley brawls.

Sure, his rough and tumble approach might’ve intimidated the usual crowd of high school punks or a curse with the IQ of a potato, but Kusakabe? He moved like water, fluid and purposeful. Each step, each subtle shift of his weight, spoke of years honing his craft. No wonder he’d snagged a teaching gig here barely out of his teens. Watching him flow around Haibara’s clumsy attacks with the ease of someone swatting away gnats, you felt a newfound respect mingled with a sinking realization.

If this was the caliber of a “trained” sorcerer, you were in for one hell of a climb. With your starting point as of right now, you were not just behind the curve. You were barely on the map.

After Haibara’s humiliating show of what could generously be called ‘drunken ape boxing,’ it was Nanami’s turn in the metaphorical lion’s den. Your sweaty, bruised friend plopped down on the bench beside you, chest still heaving from his exertions, as Nanami stepped up to face Kusakabe.

You watched Nanami square his shoulders and settle into a ready position. He looked calm and composed. But you weren’t fooled. You could read the trepidation in the minute furrow of his brow, the slight tension in his shoulders, the almost imperceptible tightening around his eyes. Nanami was as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Not that you could blame him. After witnessing Haibara’s performance, which was less ‘spar’ and more ‘flailing interpretive dance,’ anyone would be wary.

Kusakabe stood there, not a hair out of place, looking like he’d just stepped out of a fashion magazine rather than decimated a student. You half-expected him to whip out a mirror and check his teeth for spinach.

Once the two began to circle, it was clear Nanami had picked up a few tricks over the years. His movements had purpose, a foundation of some martial art that didn’t involve learning from drunken brawls behind a 7-Eleven. He moved with a certain economy, no wasted motion, no wild swings at the air.

But against Kusakabe, the guy didn’t stand a chance. Nanami’s skills, decent as they were, seemed almost quaint. Kusakabe read him like a children’s picture book, anticipating moves, exploiting openings Nanami didn’t even know he was leaving. It was a masterclass in ‘how to utterly dismantle someone without breaking a sweat.’

Beside you, Haibara leaned in, his breath hot and damp against your ear. You resisted the urge to kick him again. “Damn, Kusakabe-sensei is crazy strong for someone so young,” he whispered, his awe palpable. “I wonder how he trained to get this good. Nanami ain’t bad, either. Maybe he can show me some moves…”

You tuned out Haibara’s rambling, subtly inching away on the bench. It wasn’t that you minded the proximity – hell, personal space was a concept you were still grappling with. But there was closeness, and then there was being enveloped in a cloud of post-workout Haibara stink. Friendship only stretched so far, and its limits were defined by basic hygiene.

While Nanami hit the dirt for what felt like the hundredth time, you mused that maybe your first lesson shouldn’t be about combat or cursed techniques. Maybe it should be teaching Haibara about the magical invention called deodorant. What good was mastering throwing hands if your allies fled from your stench before the mission even began?

After thoroughly stomping Nanami into the dirt, Kusakabe made his way over to the bench where you were seated. His confident stride now was tinged with hesitation. You didn’t bother standing, because why would you? It’s not like being vertical would improve this situation. He’d adapted to your casual disregard for social pleasantries, probably realizing that trying to enforce them would be as effective as teaching a fish to juggle.

Kusakabe came to a halt before you, hands stuffed into his pockets. You braced yourself for the inevitable ‘your turn to get tossed around like a rag doll’ speech. Let the ass-kicking carousel keep on spinning.

“Eri-san…” he began, voice trailing off like he’d forgotten the rest of the sentence.

“If you hit me in my face, my mother will skin you alive,” you interjected, voice as casual as discussing the weather.

It wasn’t a threat; threats implied emotion, intent. This was just a statement of fact, like ‘water is wet’ or ‘Haibara needs a shower.’ Your mother was many things, mostly unpleasant, but her vindictiveness was legendary. Kusakabe’s complexion took on a sickly greenish hue, as if he’d just realized he was standing on quicksand.

He waved a hand, sniffing dismissively. “I’m not hitting you anywhere, Eri-san. And even if you did get hit, Ieiri-san can heal you.”

You tilted your head, considering. So, he believed in the ‘beat knowledge into students’ philosophy, but Shoko could erase the evidence. Convenient. While you didn’t quite grasp the educational value of getting pummeled, who were you to question his pedagogical methods? You were the one with a First Grade title and the combat experience of a decorative throw pillow.

“Okay, you can hit me then,” you conceded, expecting him to be pleased with your willingness to learn. Instead, he groaned, dragging a hand down his face and making you feel like somehow you were the trying one here.

“I’ve just told you. I will not hit you.”

Now it was your turn to feel confused. You stared at him, trying to decipher this contradiction. If he wasn’t going to hit you, and hitting was apparently his go-to teaching method, then what exactly was the plan here?

“Then what do we do?” you asked, genuinely curious. For all you knew, he could some arcane training ritual involving standing on your head while reciting enchantments backward. Given how little you knew about ‘normal’ training, you were prepared for pretty much anything.

Except, apparently, for whatever Kusakabe had in mind, judging by the way he was gawking at you like you’d grown a second head. One that also didn’t understand the concept of polite conversation.

Kusakabe sighed, the sound of a man trying to remind himself that patience was a virtue. A virtue he was rapidly running out of. He reached out, hand hovering near you like you were a skittish cat. “Give me your arm, please.”

You blinked at him, rather baffled. Was this some new cursed technique? Arm-based divination? You complied anyway, extending your right arm, half-expecting him to start drawing sigils on your skin or chanting in a dead language.

Instead, he gently grasped your wrist, his other hand moving to your sleeve. He paused, fingers already under the fabric, remembering that modesty was quite an important thing for clan women.

“May I?” he asked, a flicker of manners.

You nodded, mildly impressed by this display of basic decency. Kusakabe pushed your sleeve up to your bicep, then proceeded to poke and prod your arm like it was a disappointing piece of fruit at the market. After a thorough inspection that left you feeling like a subpar melon, he dropped your arm with a dejected expression.

“You barely have any muscle, Eri-san,” he declared, his tone suggesting you’d personally offended his ancestors.

You stared at him. “Why would I?”

Back home, you had an army of servants whose sole purpose was to ensure you never lifted a finger. Need tea? There’s a servant for that. Want to turn a page in your book? There’s probably a maid lurking in the shadows, ready to leap into action. The idea of you building muscle was as absurd as Haibara discovering personal hygiene.

Kusakabe pinched the bridge of his nose, a gesture you were starting to recognize as his ‘why me?’ signal. “You need strength to be a sorcerer,” he explained. “Even if you have a cursed technique, you still need basic combat skills.” He paused, a glimmer of hope in his eyes. “Do you at least play some sport?”

“Does shogi count?” you asked sincerely.

The look Kusakabe gave you could have curdled dairy products. “Not against curses,” he replied, his voice flat.

Right. Curses weren’t known for politely sitting down for a game of strategy. Your vision of trapping a high-level curse in an elaborate shogi gambit evaporated. Expecting curses to follow the sophisticated rules of board games was a bit much. Though the mental image of a blob curse trying to maneuver shogi pieces with its gelatinous appendages was almost worth the disappointment.

Kusakabe sighed again, a sound that was becoming the soundtrack to your training. “Looks like we’re starting from scratch,” he muttered, more to himself than to you.

You shrugged, the minimal movement constituting the peak of your physical capabilities right now. “I did warn you beforehand, did I not?”

Kusakabe began wringing his hands, struggling to pivot to a new approach. “Right, so... I guess we should start you on endurance training first. Come on, get up.”

He ushered you to the training ground like a shepherd herding a particularly uncoordinated sheep. Kusakabe demonstrated some basic stretches, which you mimicked with full-body awkwardness. Once the stretches were completed, he motioned out at the dirt path ringing the area.

“Twenty laps around to warm you up first.”

You supposed he had a point. If your combat skills were essentially non-existent, being able to haul ass away from danger was a wise foundation. So, you set off, your legs moving in what you hoped resembled a jog but felt more like an elderly tortoise’s amble.

Turns out, Kusakabe had severely overestimated your baseline stamina. Or underestimated your noodly physique. Either way, you never got to find out what torture he had planned post-warmup, because around lap 10, your body staged a coup.

Your legs, traitors that they were, decided they’d had quite enough of this nonsense. Your lungs, usually so reliable in their primary life-giving function, threw in the towel. You went down like a sack of unfit potatoes, face hurtling toward an intimate meeting with the hard-packed dirt.

Fortunately, Kusakabe's instincts were razor-sharp. Before you could sample the local soil, Kusakabe was there, catching you with a speed that would make light jealous. You wondered if his motivation stemmed from pure concern or the very real threat of your mother turning him into a cautionary tale for future jujutsu instructors.

“Eri-san? Hey, you all right?” Kusakabe asked, effortlessly scooped up your dead weight.

His words seemed to emanate from the far end of a long tunnel, warped and distorted as they reached your oxygen-starved brain.

“I’m... dying…” You wheezed pitifully against his chest, dragging in desperate gulps of air.

Kusakabe’s snort ruffled your sweat-damp bangs. “Don’t be so dramatic. You ran around for ten minutes, no one dies from that.”

Slumping against him, you insisted through labored pants, “I will.”

Your cursed energy might be boundless, but your lung capacity was very much finite. And right now, it felt like you’d been trying to breathe through a keyhole. You could’ve sworn you felt the cold grip of death’s icy fingers brushing your clammy brow.

This was it – the end. Zen’in Eri, first-grade sorcerer, strongest user of the Shadow Puppeteering technique, felled by an insurmountable foe more imposing than any curse… basic cardiovascular activity. But hey, at least you were setting records. The first sorcerer in history to die from a simple warmup.

In an instant, Haibara and Nanami were at your side, as if summoned by your near-death experience. Haibara, all nervous energy and frantic concern, hovered over you anxiously.

“Maybe you haven’t fully recovered from that binding vow yet,” he fretted, his brow furrowed so deeply you could plant seeds in the crevices. “Should I get Ieiri-senpai?”

He reached out, pushing your sweat-soaked hair off your forehead with all the tenderness of a rom-com lead. His hand, warm from his own exertions, cupped your cheek as he checked for signs of fever. The gesture was sweet, in theory. A display of affection that would have been heartwarming if you understood hearts, or appreciated being manhandled by someone who smelled like a gym bag left in the sun.

You did enjoy being fussed over. It was nice, this idea that someone other than Mother cared whether you lived or died. But Haibara’s tender ministrations lost their charm when you remembered his hands had recently been grappling with Kusakabe and the unforgiving ground. Now those same hands were on your face, transferring a co*cktail of sweat, dirt, and who-knows-what-else directly onto your skin.

“Don’t touch my face with your nasty hands,” you grumbled, trying to turn away. In your noodle-like state, all you managed was to smush your face into Kusakabe’s chest, effectively using his shirt as a sweat rag. Now you were both a mess.

Kusakabe looked like he wanted to cringe away, must be picturing the laundry bill, but his sense of duty (or fear of your mother) kept him from dumping you. He tried to set you down gently, mumbling, “She’s fine. Just extremely out of shape.”

You huffed, somehow finding the strength to cross your arms in indignation even as you flopped in his hold like overcooked spaghetti. “There’s nothing wrong with my shape.”

And there wasn’t, really. You were the perfect shape for lounging on plush cushions, arranging flowers, playing the koto, or sitting regally while others poured your tea. You were shaped for a life of luxury, not for this commoner’s torture of ‘running laps’ and ‘building endurance.’

Kusakabe looked about two seconds away from just handing in his resignation letter and walking off into the sweet embrace of unemployment. Your unblinking stare probably wasn’t helping matters. To you, it was just your resting expression, but to others, it held all the comforting warmth of a shark eyeing its next meal.

Thankfully, Nanami chose that moment to swoop in like a knight in sweat-stained armor, saving Kusakabe’s tattered sanity and your limp body from being unceremoniously dumped onto the hard ground once Kusakabe’s patience reached its limit.

Nanami slid his arm around your back, propping you up with surprising gentleness. You sagged against him, a grateful noodle finding its al dente savior. “It’s always tough at the beginning, right?” he said to Kusakabe, his voice a soothing balm of reason. “Let’s take it easy today. We’ll try to help her catch up gradually.”

Kusakabe nodded, relief washing over his features as he handed you off like a ticking time bomb. “Okay,” he agreed, trying not to sound too eager. “I’ll be away on assignment tomorrow, though. You can train together while I’m out. I’ll... think of something for Eri-san.”

And then he was gone, vanishing with a speed that suggested he might have a hidden cursed technique of his own: the ability to escape awkward teaching moments. You almost admired it. First day on the job, and he’s already contemplating a career change.

Leaning into Nanami’s solid frame, you muttered, “I hate this.” Your voice was muffled against his shoulder, which smelled marginally better than Haibara’s.

A low chuckle rumbled through Nanami’s chest, the sound almost pleasant if it weren’t for his ominous words: “Oh, it’ll get much worse.”

While you slumped bonelessly against Nanami, Haibara took a moment to rub your arm in what was probably meant as a comforting gesture. At least he had the good sense not to try pawing at your face again with those sweaty mitts.

“It’ll be fine,” he said, trademark puppy-like enthusiasm only slightly dimmed. “We’ve got you, Eri.”

Apparently encouraged by your lack of protest at the contact, Haibara then took the liberty of tugging insistently at your arm.

“C’mon, let’s get you back to your room to rest up.”

“I can’t move,” you answered flatly. Thank goodness Satoru wasn’t here to witness this pathetic spectacle. He’d laugh his ass off into next year.

Haibara, the great problem-solver, turned around and offered his back. “Get on then, I’ll give you a ride.”

You eyed the proposed mode of transportation with a healthy dose of skepticism and no small amount of disgust. His shirt was essentially translucent, the damp fabric clinging in a way that indecently outlined every muscle. You didn’t need enhanced senses to know that getting close to that would be an olfactory assault.

“No. You’re sweaty and disgusting, Yu,” you informed Haibara bluntly, wrinkling your nose for emphasis.

Haibara laughed, the nerve of him. “So are you, Eri.”

You glared at him, offended by the very comparison. Sure, you were a bit damp from your near-death experience with basic cardio, but that was different. That was the respectable perspiration of virtuous effort, not whatever unholy funk Haibara had cultivated during his flailing session with Kusakabe.

“But I don’t reek,” you insisted petulantly. This was now a matter of dignity. “Tell him, Nanami.”

Tilting your head, you exposed the pale column of your neck in a silent demand for him to pass judgment through the tried and true smell test. You expected a quick sniff, a nod of agreement, and justice to be served.

Instead, Nanami flushed a deep red and turned away so fast you thought he might have given himself whiplash. “Stop that!” he sputtered, sounding scandalized. "Damn it, Eri. I’m not going to sniff you!”

Before you could protest further, he scooped you up and dumped your indignant form onto Haibara’s waiting back.

“Keep complaining and I'll just leave you here,” Nanami threatened, his voice wavering between exasperation and... something else you couldn’t quite place. Embarrassment, maybe? Who knew the guy would get so worked up over a simple scent check.

You groaned, looping your arms around Haibara’s neck and resigning yourself to your smelly fate. His back was warm, his muscles shifting beneath you as he adjusted his grip.

As Haibara carried you with surprising ease, you noticed Nanami’s gaze flitting toward you, his eyes kept darting in your direction. His usual expression of mild annoyance at the universe was there, but it was overlaid with something else.

After a few moments passed in silence, curiosity got the better of you. “What is it?”

Nanami startled, as if caught doing something he shouldn’t. “What?”

“You want to ask me something, don’t you?” you pressed. “So ask.”

Nanami bit his lip, weighing his words like they might explode if he said them wrong. “It’s nothing... I was just wondering why you decided to come and study here at all. This is clearly… not easy for you.”

He trailed off, but his meaning was clear as day. Why trade a life of cushions and servants for this sweat-soaked hell? You sighed, your arms tightening around Haibara’s neck as you answered.

“Last year, one of my uncles had the brilliant idea to try arranging a match between me and a Kamo,” you began. “He’s a brother of the current head of the Kamo clan. At least twice my age, I think. My mother wasn’t pleased with the prospect, but my elders pushed hard for it.”

You felt Haibara stiffen beneath you, his hands going rigid where they gripped your thighs. Nanami’s eyes narrowed, a storm brewing in their depths. “What happened then? Please tell me it wasn’t successful.”

You shook your head. “I wouldn’t be here if it was. During our first formal meeting, I told the guy to back off from this arrangement. Or else.”

Nanami’s brows shot up. “Did he just, what, agree?”

You shrugged, the motion jostling you slightly against Haibara’s tense back. “Of course not. He told me to know my place.”

Haibara’s grip tightened, his fingers almost digging into your thighs. It felt... protective? Possessive, even? His words came out in a growl that rumbled through his chest and reverberated through your bones. “Asshole.”

It was the first time you’d seen Haibara’s anger stirred. Usually, he was all bright smiles and misplaced hygiene. You didn’t even know he could get angry. You patted his chest, a gesture that felt oddly natural. “Yeah, so I paralyzed him with my technique and shoved him down a flight of stairs. Broke his arm, but he’s fine otherwise.”

Nanami nearly tripped over his own feet, gaping at your casual recounting of assault. Haibara, meanwhile, gulped audibly. You could hear the gears in his head turning, revisiting that time you’d threatened to shove him down the stairs if he dared spill sauce on you. Not an empty threat at all.

“Then I told him that the next time I saw him, I’d toss him out of the window,” you continued, unfazed.

The message was clear: if he persisted with the marriage, each new encounter would be a game of ‘how high can we go before gravity wins?’ Unsurprisingly, the bastard wasn’t eager to play. You never saw him again after that day.

“My elders were outraged,” you said. “But I didn’t get punished. Not that my father cared much about my happiness either way. When the Kamos tried to make him punish me, Father just sneered: ‘A man who can’t even handle a little girl is no man at all’.”

Silence followed your words. Haibara’s back had gone ramrod straight, his breathing shallow and stunned. Nanami looked both impressed and horrified.

“You’re scary, Eri,” Haibara whispered, sounding equal parts scared and disturbingly lovestruck.

How could he not? He’d just realized he was carrying a live grenade on his back, one that might go off if he jostled it wrong. Or spilled sauce on it.

Nanami sighed, a sound that somehow conveyed both exasperation and reluctant approval. “Well, if you can bring that… intensity to training, you’ll be just fine.”

You frowned, your brow furrowing against Haibara’s damp neck. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to shove Kusakabe down any stairs though. He doesn’t seem too bad.”

Nanami threw up his arms in frustration, almost smacking Haibara in the process. “That’s not what I meant!”

You stared at Nanami, unblinking. Your gaze, which had made Kusakabe reconsider his career choices earlier, now fixed on Nanami’s increasingly flustered face.

“Stop that!” he huffed, a blush creeping up his neck.

“I’m not doing anything,” you replied, your voice as flat as your expression. But you kept staring, watching him squirm in a slowly rising tide of embarrassment. It was oddly fascinating, how easily Nanami got flustered. Was this what having a soul did to people?

But even the soulless grew weary, and right now, your eyelids felt heavier than your cursed energy reserves. You decided to grant Nanami a temporary reprieve, mostly because maintaining the stare was becoming too much effort. So, you closed your eyes and pressed your face into the back of Haibara’s neck, snuggling in with a tiny sigh.

Yes, he was still sweaty. Yes, he smelled disgusting. But it was... tolerable. Maybe even comforting, in a gross sort of way. The steady rhythm of his steps, the warmth of his back, the faint lingering hint of whatever body wash he’d slapped on this morning before it drowned in sweat – it all combined into something soothing. Like how some people found those stinky fermented foods delicious. Not that you’d ever admit it out loud.

As the edges of consciousness began to blur, you felt the gentlest of touches. Nanami’s hand reached out to sweep the loose strands of hair away from your face. His fingertips traced a delicate path along your hairline as he tucked the errant locks behind your ear. The touch was light, almost hesitant, but it sent a shiver down your spine, raising goosebumps in its wake.

The gesture was so simple, yet it felt so intimate. Not the careful reverence you were used to from your maids, but something else entirely. Something that made your breath catch slightly in your throat, that made you hyperaware of every point of contact – Haibara’s solid back against your chest, his hands secured on your thighs, and now Nanami’s fingers, lingering at the edge of your ear as if unsure whether to retreat or stay.

In that hazy liminal space between wakefulness and sleep, a stray thought drifted through your mind like a dandelion seed on the breeze. Was this what having friends was supposed to feel like? Not allies bound by duty or politics. Not the twisted codependency between two dysfunctional clan kids. Just friends. Friends who were certainly not normal people either. Not by a long shot.

Because normal people would back away in terror, not inch closer with concern.

Normal people wouldn’t pick you up without question whenever you collapsed. Wouldn’t carry you without complaint when your legs betrayed you.

Normal people would have fled screaming after hearing about your casual disregard for the laws of gravity when it came to suitors.

Normal people wouldn’t see a weird, volatile creature with a penchant for violence and a disdain for social niceties, and decided that they wanted to be around it anyway.

They certainly wouldn’t touch you with such tender care, as if you were something precious instead of something to be leveraged or feared.

It was a sensation you couldn’t quite name. Warm, like the first indulgent sip of tea on a chilly morning. Soft, like the rare moments when Mother’s hand would brush your cheek, quick and fleeting. It was the comfort of a sunbeam, the kind that lures even the most fickle cats into lazy, sprawling naps. A sensation so foreign, so nice, so... whatever this was.

You weren’t sure if you liked it yet. If it was good for you at all. It felt too vulnerable, too raw. Like exposing a nerve you didn’t even know you had. Perhaps you would think about it later. After a long, hot shower. After resting in your own bed, alone and in control once more.

For now though, you were content to let it be.

Notes:

Kusakabe needs a hug

Chapter 7

Summary:

Not all brothers are created equal.

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

You woke up to the relentless pounding on your door, groaning as you buried your face deeper into your pillow. It was still dark outside, for crying out loud.

Every. Single. Goddamn. Morning. Without fail.

At hours when even the sun knew better than to clock in for the day’s misery.

You’d barely drifted off after another night of cursing your existence when the incessant banging would start. It was as if they timed it for the precise moment your dreams verged on bearable. You tried ignoring it, obviously. But Haibara, that human bullhorn, would simply launch into his ear-splitting hollers.

“Eri! Get your lazy ass out of that bed!” Haibara’s voice, way too energetic for these ungodly hours, pierced through your door and your dreams of a world without morning people.

“She’s probably still sleeping,” you heard Nanami say. How cute. He still thought you could sleep through Hurricane Haibara.

“Not for much longer,” Haibara’s response oozed devious glee. Oh, hell no.

The pounding intensified, now accompanied by what sounded like a very off-key rendition of some pop song. You groaned again. Any second now, your new neighbor-turned-bestie Shoko would—

“HAIBARA YU, I SWEAR ON ALL THINGS SACRED, IF YOU DON’T SHUT THAT WAILING TRAP OF YOURS THIS INSTANT, I’M COMING OUT THERE AND SHOVING THAT SONG SO FAR DOWN YOUR THROAT, YOU’LL BE SINGING IT OUT YOUR—”

You tuned out the rest of Shoko’s vivid profanity-laced threats. The ensuing shouting match between her and Haibara was enough to wake the dead, or in your case, the soulless. It seemed Shoko had stormed out to deliver some long-overdue divine retribution upon Haibara’s backside – evident in the cacophony of yelps, curses, and what sounded suspiciously like a broom being employed as an instrument of justice.

Kusakabe remained MIA. A full week had crawled by since he’d uttered those fateful words, “I’ll think of something for Eri.” Perhaps he’d come to the realization that “something” translated to securing a one-way ticket out of this madhouse. The measly salary certainly wasn’t worth dealing with your charming presence and utter ineptitude. Though it’d be a shame if he actually quit. You found the man tolerable, which was high praise coming from you.

But you didn’t have the luxury of pondering poor Kusakabe’s potential career crisis amidst the raging chaos outside. In the melee, Nanami would slip through, all annoyance and strong hands, to haul you out of bed by the collar like a misbehaving kitten. Protesting was futile – if you played possum, he would just drag your dead weight the entire way down to the training grounds.

And then the real fun would begin.

What they subjected you to could only be described as a medieval torture regimen thinly disguised as “strength training.” Squats, lunges, push-ups – all manner of exercised damnation that should be outlawed by the Geneva Convention.

“Come on, Eri, put your back into it!” Haibara cheered, doing one-handed push-ups next to you just to show off. You’d admire the abs peeking out from beneath his t-shirt if you weren’t so consumed with loathing every fiber of his being at that moment.

“I’m… trying,” you grunted, arms quaking like twigs in a storm. “But I think… my back is attempting… to detach itself… and flee...”

Nanami shook his head, unsympathetic. “Five more. You can’t build muscle by complaining.”

“Just watch me,” you grumbled but continued pushing against the universe’s cruelty.

By the end of each session, you were a pitiful sight to behold: a sweat-soaked, trembling mess of overworked muscles (all ten of them) and shredded pride. Your cursed technique might control shadows, but in these moments, you felt more like a withered shadow of your former self.

The ultimate insult? Your ride home. Haibara, that insufferable brute, would squat down wearing a smile far too affectionate for someone who’d just dragged you through the ninth circle of hell. “Your carriage awaits, princess,” he’d quip, having adopted the pet name from Shoko for maximum annoyance.

You’d have no choice but to shamefully clamber onto his broad back like a distressed damsel. You’d learned to tolerate this particular mortifying mode of transportation – it beat the indignity of crawling.

Nanami would trail along, his lecture queueing up right on cue. “You know, Eri,” he’d start, and you’d brace yourself for the impact. Here it comes. “Even a fly head is faster than you. If you just put in a little more effort…”

You tuned him out, letting his droning reprimand wash over you like so much white noise. As if you weren’t trying. As if your muscles wouldn’t be screaming obscenities if they could form words. But no, according to Sir Lecturealot, you were slacking. Jerk.

The relentless suffering inflicted by Nanami and Haibara’s sad*stic training regime had revealed another obstacle beyond your complete lack of fitness: your hair.

This long, thick tangle of chaos required far too much upkeep for your currently enfeebled state. After a hot shower meant to soothe your battered muscles, you stared at your reflection in the bathroom mirror – a mop of wet, tangled locks staring back at you. With no maids to tend to its maintenance, this had become a burden, an impossible chore amidst the daily tortures. Washing it properly took forever, and drying it? You’d sooner master your cursed technique than win that battle.

During training sessions, it was an outright disaster. Half the time, you were fighting your own hair instead of improving your fitness. It constantly got in your face and stuck to your skin during drills, a frizzy liability that threatened to strangle you with every burpee.

Snatching up your trusty dagger, you decided then and there – the hair had to go. But as you held the blade to your hair, a critical flaw in this master plan became glaringly apparent. Cutting your own hair evenly required far more coordination and dexterity to pull off than you currently had.

You needed assistance. Professional help would be ideal, but you’d settle for someone with functioning arm muscles and a baseline of common sense. First stop on your quest: your bestie. Unfortunately, Shoko wasn’t in her room, probably out buying industrial-strength earplugs to endure Haibara’s morning serenade.

Next, you shuffled down to Haibara and Nanami’s rooms. Also empty. Were they out planning tomorrow’s torture session? Fantastic.

But at last, your search led you to the musty common room where you spotted your target – Nanami sprawled across the sofa, nose buried in some impressively thick book.

You approached, dagger glinting. “How good are you with a blade?” you asked.

In hindsight, creeping up on someone at night while wielding a dagger, with your hair resembling a wet mop and half your face shrouded in shadow like some B-grade horror movie villain… Well, it was perhaps not your wisest move.

Nanami damn near executed a perfect backflip right off the couch, book tumbling off his hands as his fight-or-flight response kicked in with impressive dramatics. You thought he was about to whip out his cursed technique and exorcise you on the spot. Instead, he just froze mid-motion, one hand clutching his chest. At least he didn’t attack.

Once the initial panic subsided and he realized it was just you, not some urban legend cursed spirit coming to claim his soul, he hissed out, “Damn it, Eri! What the hell are you doing?”

Ah, Nanami. Always such a theatrical drama queen. You plopped down next to him, ignoring his little overblown panic performance. “I need my hair cut,” you stated matter-of-factly, like it was the most natural thing in the world to request at – you glanced up at the clock – 11:00 PM. “You know how to handle a blade, right?”

Nanami’s eyes bulged even more, if that was anatomically possible. You worried they might pop out and roll away across the floor, forcing you to chase them down. More cardio. Great.

“I can’t just cut your hair for you!” he sputtered, aghast at the very notion. “Go to an actual hair salon like a normal person!”

You shook your head. Was he being intentionally dense? “In case you haven’t noticed, this campus is literally on the summit of a mountain. I’m not hiking all the way down those endless stairs and back up again just for a basic haircut.” The mere thought of such gratuitous exercise made your abused leg muscles twinge with the threat of mutiny after today’s brutal regimen.

“That’s precisely why you have zero muscle tone,” Nanami countered, his panic morphing into that condescending teacher tone you knew all too well.

Oh, really? Like you hadn’t figured that out during your daily sessions of “How Many Ways Can Eri Embarrass Herself.”

You turned the dagger, offering it to him handle-first. “This is for the sake of my training progress. My hair keeps getting in the way and it takes too much time to maintain.”

Nanami recoiled from the dagger, like it was a venomous serpent about to strike. Or worse, one of Haibara’s dirty socks. “Can’t you just put it up in a ponytail or something?”

You glared at him. Did he think you were an idiot? Maybe he did. You were the one demanding a haircut at midnight.

“That’s what I’ve been doing. But I have far too much hair, it’s pulling at the roots and giving me headaches every single day. Not to mention the tail itself gets tangled and caught on everything.”

Still, Nanami remained stubbornly resistant to this simple request. “Well… I’m still not doing it. What if I mess up?”

“I just need you to cut it shorter,” you assured with a casual shrug. “Try to make it even if possible. But if you butcher it, I won’t cry. It’s only hair. It’ll grow back.”

Unlike your dignity, which seemed permanently and irreparably stunted at this point. Between the daily physical humiliations and now begging for a haircut, you were starting to consider practicing Paralysis on your pride.

The thing about Nanami was that his knee-jerk response to most requests seemed preprogrammed to be an automatic, petulant “no” – like a toddler’s favorite word, right up there with “mine” and “don’t wanna.” But you’d discovered that if you persisted in pestering him, eventually he’d cave.

Sure enough, after a brief standoff where you deployed your most lethal pleading puppy dog eyes, Nanami surrendered with all the ill grace of a sulking child.

“Alright,” he muttered. The way he was glowering, one would think he had agreed to saw off his own arm. He eyed your dagger with obvious skepticism. “Don’t you have, like, a pair of scissors? Who cuts hair with a dagger?”

“I see people do it in movies all the time,” you replied, thinking of those scenes where heroines chop off their flowing locks in a burst of empowerment. Or was it more for revenge? You could never keep those plot points straight.

Nanami groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose in patent exasperation. “It’s fiction, Eri! Don’t tell me you actually believe everything you see in those ridiculous movies!”

You briefly entertained visions of stabbing him for that jab. After all, you had the perfect weapon already in hand. But you quashed the delicious impulse. For now. Getting a haircut took precedence over educating this peasant boy on respecting your scholarly expertise on the ways of film. His stabbing could wait. Perhaps you’d schedule it for after tomorrow’s training session, as a reward for surviving.

“I don’t have scissors,” you stated flatly. “Use this. It’s sharp, so it should work fine.” You waved the dagger for emphasis. It was good enough for threatening relatives; surely it could handle a bit of hair.

With a long-suffering sigh that could’ve extinguished a forest fire, Nanami took the blade. “I’m not taking any responsibility for what your hair ends up looking like,” he warned once more, as if you’d care. At this point, as long as it didn’t actively try to strangle you, you’d consider it an improvement.

“Now, turn around,” Nanami ordered.

You shifted position, presenting your back to him without hesitation. As you did so, a strange realization hit you. For a Zen’in, this simple act was tantamount to baring your throat to a wolf. You’d just willfully handed over your only weapon to a man and then turned your back on him. It was such a colossal leap of faith – one you were certain very few of your clan folks would ever take. Nanami had no idea.

His fingers gently gather your hair, his touch hesitant. “You’re really sure about this?” he asked, softer this time. One final chance to back out.

“Just do it,” you said, your voice softer than you intended. Because in that singular moment, you realized with dawning clarity that you weren’t just blindly trusting Nanami with a mere haircut. You were trusting him, period. And that kind of trust, for a Zen’in – for you – was a curse all on its own. One that could end up being your downfall. Mother’s voice whispered in your head.

The moment was tense. Behind you, Nanami audibly drew in a steeling breath. You felt the light brush of his fingers against the nape of your neck, the other hand gripping the dagger’s hilt as he psyched himself up. Just as this midnight haircut ritual was about to commence in earnest, a new variable blustered his way into the equation.

“What… what’s going on here?” Haibara stuttered as he appeared in the doorway, arms laden with an array of snacks.

You craned around to catch his wide-eyed stare. “I need a haircut.”

Simple. Straightforward. And apparently, for Haibara, equivalent to declaring you needed a limb amputated.

In a flurry of frantic motion that would’ve impressed even Kusakabe, Haibara dropped his entire sugary payload. Chips and candies clattered across the floor as he zipped over with admirable speed. He bodily inserted himself between you and Nanami like an overzealous mother hen protecting her hapless chicks, batting away Nanami’s dagger-wielding hand from your precious locks.

“But your hair is so pretty,” he protested.

You nodded, a touch exasperated. “I know. But it’s too much trouble.”

Then, patiently, you reiterated the grievances caused by your excess hair – the daily washing (a task akin to bathing a reluctant, oversized cat), the eternal drying (you swore it absorbed water like a sentient sponge), the headaches from your too-heavy ponytail (it pulled like it was trying to drag you back to the Zen’in estate), and the constant battle with nature every time you stepped outside. By the time you finished recounting your hair-based torment, even Haibara looked winded, as if he’d vicariously experienced every excruciating moment.

Haibara clicked his tongue hesitantly, a habit you’d noticed he did when conceding a point, a sort of verbal white flag. “Okay, yeah, I guess that’s… a really good point.” Then his eyes lit up with determination. “But at least, let me help you cut it properly! Now, wait here – I’ll go grab my scissors!”

For a brief moment, Haibara eyed your dagger like he wanted to confiscate it, lest you and Nanami attempt some demented hair-hacking frenzy the second his back was turned. But ultimately, he thought better of it and simply sprinted away, sneakers squeaking against the floorboards.

With evident relief at being absolved from potential hair disaster responsibilities, Nanami handed your dagger back. “Here, put this thing away, will you?” He pause, then added with the exasperation of a man who couldn’t believe this needed saying, “And please, never creep up on me or anyone else while holding a damn blade again.”

You gave a small nod of acquiescence, deeming his request reasonable enough as you accepted the returned weapon. “Okay.” Pulling up your left sleeve, you slid the dagger back into its customized forearm sheath, secured snugly against your skin – a pragmatic gift from your ever-realistic mother.

Nanami’s eyes narrowed as he watched the dagger disappear. “Do you have that thing on you at all times?”

“Of course,” you nodded.

Judging by Nanami’s conflicted expression – a mix of disbelief and concern – you realized he might need some additional context.

Reaching up, you flicked open the top button of your pajamas top and tugged down the collar, exposing the area just beneath your collarbone “Look.”

Nanami reacted like you’d just stripped naked. His hand flew up to cover his eyes, a furious blush creeping up his neck. “What the hell, Eri?! You can’t just…”

But whatever scandalized protest he’d been prepared to launch died in his throat as his gaze landed on the thin, silvery scar that ran parallel to your collarbone. He froze, hand still hovering over his eyes, all Victorian modesty forgotten in an instant.

You pointed to the scar. “When I was ten,” you said, your voice flat as the blade that made it, “my second least favorite brother tried to kill me when I was sleeping. I very nearly bled out.”

Nanami’s sharp intake of breath was almost a gasp. His hand dropped, and his eyes – usually so composed, so controlled – were a storm of emotions. Shock, as if you’d told him the sky was green. Anger, a quiet, simmering kind that promised retribution. Sorrow, deep and raw. And something softer, something that made your heart skip a beat, a sensation so alien you almost mistook it for a curse.

Slowly, hesitantly, he reached out. His eyes flicked to yours, seeking permission. When you didn’t pull away – didn’t flinch, didn’t paralyze him on the spot – his fingers found your scar. His touch was feather-light, tender in a way that made you want to close your eyes. He traced the length of it, his fingertips warm against your skin. Now he understood why you were such a light sleeper, why the smallest creak in the night had your eyes snapped wide open.

“That’s... That’s terrible,” he managed in a hoarse whisper. “I’m so sorry, Eri.”

Sorry? For what?

You blinked, surprised by the depth of emotion bleeding into his words. To the Zen’ins, near-death experiences and assassination attempts were akin to bad weather. Unpleasant, but expected, hardly anything to raise a fuss over. You’d never thought to consider them “terrible.”

“I stabbed him back three times with his own knife, so it’s okay,” you assured Nanami.

You didn’t mention the full, bloody aftermath – how Mother had unleashed a fury that made cursed spirits seem tame by comparison. Or how Satoru had taken immense delight in tormenting that particular brother so relentlessly that his mere existence became a neverending hell, a case study in creative vengeance. Their combined wrath had been so utterly potent that none of your other siblings dared to play knife games with you since that fateful incident.

But the stricken look on Nanami’s face said he had a very different definition of what constituted “okay.” Yet, miraculously, he didn’t argue.

Instead, his thumb traced over the old scar one final time, the touch so gentle it almost tickled. Then he seemed to collect himself, dropping his hand and quickly looking away, a pensive frown etched into his features.

“He tried to murder you in your sleep,” Nanami said slowly, struggling to wrap his mind around the depravity, “and yet, somehow he’s only your second least favorite brother. Do I even want to know what your absolute least favorite brother did to top that?”

You buttoned up your pajama top, your fingers brushing the spot his had just left moments before. The ghost of his touch lingered, an unfamiliar warmth.

“Oh, that would be the one who ordered the murder attempt,” you replied airily. “He also tried drowning me once and poisoning me twice. Only stopped when Satoru punched out his teeth and threatened to rip off his balls.”

Nanami’s face contorted into a scowl so fierce you thought cursed energy would start crackling around him. “For real?” he spat. “What an absolute f*cking dickhe*d!”

“Yeah,” you agreed, oddly warmed by the ferocity of his outrage on your behalf. “He attends Kyoto Jujutsu High these days. So, you may see him in the interschool events.”

Before you could cheerfully launch into the tales of your least favorite sisters (the one who tried to smother you with a cursed pillow took the cake – spoilers alert, you stabbed her, too), Haibara burst back into the room. He waved a pair of scissors like he’d just won the Jujutsu Olympics. “Found them!”

Nanami scooted over, ceding his spot to Haibara’s self-appointed role as your midnight hairstylist. Haibara didn’t just take over; he took command. Out came a brush, and he started combing through your hopelessly tangled hair with the finesse of a seasoned professional stylist.

“I’ll cut it about here, yeah?” He poked a specific spot along your back, right between your shoulder blades. “Not too long, not too short – should make it way easier for you to wash and dry. And you can just braid it so it won’t pull at your roots or get in your face.”

“I don’t know how to braid hair,” you admitted.

Haibara laughed easily. “I’ll teach you!”

You wondered how this guy, who looked like he’d approach every obstacle with fists blazing and a battle cry that could shatter windows, had such delicate skills. But as he worked, separating your hair into sections with the precision of a surgeon, you decided not to question it.

Since none of you had the foresight to procure actual hair clips – apparently not standard issue jujutsu equipment, a glaring oversight in your opinion – Nanami was drafted into the role of human hair holder. Haibara worked through the cut in meticulous layers, his movements deft and sure with each snip of the scissors.

Nanami looked on with increasing relief, no doubt realizing his own well-intentioned but inevitably fumbled attempt would have ended in a complete and utter hairstyling catastrophe.

After what felt like no time at all, Haibara exclaimed, “All done!”

You experimentally shook your head, marveling at the weightless feeling. An entire burden, quite literally, had been lifted.

“Looks really good,” Nanami weighed in with an approving nod. “You’ve got some legit skills with this, Haibara.”

Haibara beamed, his grin blinding as he basked in the praise. “Why, thank you! I really do,” he agreed, utterly unapologetic in his overt self-satisfaction.

He ran a hand through your damp hair. “Your hair’s still pretty damp. You’ll catch a nasty cold if you try sleeping on it like this. Got a hairdryer in your room?”

You nodded, and Haibara bounced up with fresh energy. “Perfect! Let’s go, I’ll help get you all dried off proper!”

He turned to Nanami, but Nanami waved him off with a casual flick of the wrist, the same motion he used to banish weaker curses.

“You two go on ahead. I’ll clean this up.” He gestured to the truly staggering mountain of hair on the couch and floor. You stared. Had all that really been on your head? It defied all logic and reason.

Haibara punched Nanami’s shoulder, a gesture of camaraderie that, a week ago, might have sent your hand inching toward your dagger’s hilt. “Thanks, man! Seriously, you’re the best.”

Then he pulled you to your feet, hand warm around your wrist.

As you followed Haibara out into the hall, you glanced back over your shoulder. Nanami was already sweeping up your discarded locks, his movements methodical. Sensing your gaze, he looked up. For a moment, your eyes met. Only for him to avert his gaze, suddenly much more invested in sweeping away each and every last strand.

You frowned at the odd reaction. But then Haibara was already chattering about different braiding methods he intended to teach you, and the thought slipped away.

Haibara’s blow-drying skills proved every bit as impressive as his hair-cutting prowess. Standing before your bathroom mirror, he handled the blow dryer with an effortless grace that would put your personal maids to shame. His fingers glided through your hair with a gentleness at odds with the calluses you knew were there.

With little else to occupy yourself beyond waiting, you watched Haibara’s reflection. He towered over you, and he wasn’t even done growing. Give him a year or two, and he’d be able to use your head as an armrest without even trying. His eyes caught your attention next – warm brown irises, rich like sunlight filtering through autumn leaves. So brilliant, in fact, that you could almost believe they held all the light your pitch-black eyes lacked.

How was it possible for someone to seem so...bright? It felt almost surreal. In your experience, brightness was usually a prelude to burning out. A candle that flared too hot, too fast. You found yourself hoping his glow wouldn’t consume him one day. The thought of that light dimming made your chest ache in a way that had nothing to do with being stabbed in your sleep.

Thanks to your spontaneous haircut, the drying process was mercifully short. Barely fifteen minutes had passed before Haibara was grinning at you, triumph written all over his face.

“See? I told you, it’ll dry real fast,” he declared with no small amount of smugness.

“One less torture for me to endure,” you agreed flatly, and Haibara’s laughter filled the small bathroom. It was a warm sound, like the crackling of a hearth fire. You’d never had a hearth fire, of course. But you imagined this was what it would be like.

His hand came to rest at the back of your head, fingertips lightly scratching your scalp. The motion seemed unnecessary now that your hair was dry. And yet, you didn’t mind. In fact, you realized with mild surprise that you rather liked the sensation of Haibara idly playing with your hair like this.

Setting aside the blow dryer, Haibara’s enthusiasm didn’t wane in the slightest as he smoothly transitioned into the next lesson. “Here, let me show you how to braid your hair. We’ll start with a simple French braid, hm?”

And then his fingers were in your hair again, carding and separating the sections. He was talking, something about weaving and crossing over, but his motions were so rhythmic, so soothing, that you found yourself drifting.

“Easy, right?” Haibara’s voice broke through your reverie.

Blinking slowly, you glanced up at the mirror to find your hair already in a neat braid, a few strands artfully framing your face. It looked flattering.

“This suits you,” Haibara murmured, his voice closer than before. He’d leaned down, resting his chin on the top of your head. His chest pressed flush against your back, his heartbeat echoing through you like a second pulse. In the mirror, his eyes held a soft sort of wonder, as if he was seeing something miraculous. You. He was looking at you like that.

The moment felt fragile. So, naturally, you did what you did best: you blurted out the truth. “I don’t remember a thing you said.”

The wonder in Haibara’s eyes dissolved, replaced by a comical mix of exasperation and amusem*nt. He pulled back, laughing, and you hated the sudden absence of his warmth.

“Of course you don’t,” he said, ruffling your hair and undoing all his hard work. “That’s okay. We’ve got plenty of time. I’ll show you again tomorrow. And the day after. And after that, until you get it. As many times as it takes.”

You stared at Haibara, your logic impeccable as always in its simplicity. “Why do I have to learn? Can’t you just do it for me?”

It was the pragmatic solution, was it not? If someone else was capable and willing, why should you waste effort bothering to acquire a redundant skill? You already had enough on your plate.

Haibara’s response was patient, his smile indulgent. “I can braid your hair for you any time you’d like,” he allowed. “But you need to learn how to do it yourself too. What if I’m not around?”

That gave you pause, the wheels in your mind turning as you mulled over the rationale behind his argument. As first-years, you’d surely be grouped together for any missions or field training. The idea of Haibara not being around... It didn’t sit right. It was like imagining Nanami without his perpetual frown, or a cursed spirit that liked tea parties. Utterly incongruous concepts that made your world feel off-kilter.

You voiced this objection aloud, “Where else would you be, then? Not around for what?”

Haibara shrugged, his casual gesture at odds with the sudden tightness in your chest. “I don’t know. Just saying. Maybe I’ll need to go somewhere that’s not a mission.”

“I’ll go with you then,” you stated it like an inarguable fact. As far as you were concerned, it was the most obvious solution.

Haibara chuckled, charmed by the stubborn lengths you seemed willing to go to avoid putting in the bare minimum effort of learning this basic hair maintenance skill. He shook his head indulgently. “Alright, alright, you win. We’ll play it your way… for now, at least.”

But something in you wasn’t satisfied. A strange, nagging feeling that made you press on. “No, I want your promise. Swear to me that you’ll take me with you, no matter where you ever have to go.”

He looked at you, his teasing grin softening at your childish insistence. “Eri, you know I can’t take you everywhere with me. That’s not how it works. There are going to be times and places I have to go alone, whether you like it or not.”

“Then don’t go to any of those places.” The words tumbled out, sounding ridiculous even to your own ears. What was this? You had no clue. But the thought of Haibara leaving, of him not being around... it bothered you more than it should.

This was rapidly devolving into outright absurdity – a heated dispute over hypothetical future scenarios that hadn’t even occurred yet, and may never occur. Haibara seemed to realize that this could go on all night. Huffing out a sigh tinged with reluctant but genuine fondness, he relented.

“Okay… I promise.” Extending his pinky finger, he let you link yours around it – not quite a binding vow, but enough to appease you for the time being.

In the back of your mind, Mother’s voice hissed that you were making a fatal mistake. This kind of attachment was at best frivolous, and at worst, could very well get you killed one day. But you ignored her.

Glancing at your joined hands in the mirror’s reflection, your earlier curiosity resurfaced. “How did you get so good at this hair stuff anyway?”

The question seemed to catch Haibara off-guard for a moment before his expression melted into something wistful.

“I, ah… I have a little sister back home. My family doesn’t exactly have much in the way of money to spare, so we can’t really afford regular trips to hairdressers and all that,” he explained in a quieter tone, suddenly somewhat reserved. “I taught myself how to cut her hair through a whole lot of trial and error over the years. That way she could still look nice without us going broke on it.”

So that explained why Haibara had almost freaked out at your ridiculous sushi order back then. Now it made sense. To him, that money really could’ve been months of groceries, or new shoes, or whatever else his family struggled to afford.

You blinked up at him, unsure how to respond. Zen’in protocols dictated gratitude was a weakness and compassion the gravest of liabilities. Weaknesses got you killed, and liabilities got others killed. The right words for moments like this? They weren’t in your vocabulary. But as you stared into Haibara’s earnest eyes, something stirred within you. An impulse, raw and unfamiliar.

Before you could second-guess it, you dropped his pinky and stepped into his space, wrapping your arms around his waist, awkward but determined. A hug. That’s what people did, right? To show... something. Affection. An offer of comfort, perhaps. You weren’t sure, but you’d heard that was how it worked.

Most people liked hugs. They were the universal language of “thanks” or “there, there” or “don’t be mad that I didn’t listen to your hair instructions.” Well, maybe not everyone. You imagined Nanami’s reaction to an unsolicited hug would be akin to a cat dunked in water – wild yowls, flailing limbs, and promises of revenge.

But Haibara wasn’t Nanami. He was a study in casual affection, effortless as breathing. All lingering touches and hair ruffles and laughter that didn’t cut. So, a hug should be fine. Theoretically.

For a handful of agonizing seconds, he froze, and you wondered if you’d miscalculated. But then his arms enveloped you in return. His hands splayed across your back, heating your skin through the thin fabric of your pajamas. He buried his face in your hair with a soft exhale that ruffled the strands.

You stood there, rooted to the spot and profoundly uncertain of what to do next. How long were hugs supposed to last? Your bonding activities with Satoru rarely involved such gentleness. They were more about headlocks, wrestling matches, and the occasional all-out tickle war when you two weren’t busy raising hell or tormenting your less favored relatives. This… this was uncharted territory.

Lacking a frame of reference, you allowed the moment to stretch, sinking into the strange comfort of Haibara’s embrace. His broad chest rose and fell against yours, a steady cadence that seemed to quiet the constant buzz of cursed energy under your skin. This was nice, you decided, if not a bit disorienting. Akin to having your hair played with, or watching Nanami sweep your fallen locks, flushed face and eyes skittering from yours, the very portrait of a shy shrine maiden feigning indifference.

Eventually, Haibara spoke again, soft words ghosting against your hair. “It’s getting pretty late, you know? Should probably try squeezing in some actual sleep while you can.” He exhaled a wry chuckle against your crown. “We’ve still got another early training session lined up for tomorrow morning, remember?”

But he made no move to untangle himself, his chest continuing that steady up-and-down rhythm of deep, even breaths. His palms kept on their soothing motions. The calloused pads of his palms traced these lazy patterns all along the curve of your back, committing every tiny dip and plane to memory through touch alone.

Emboldened by his lingering sweet nothings, you decided to just go for it and shoot your shot.

“Can we take tomorrow off?” you suggested, your voice muffled against his chest. “We could use the time for you to actually, y’know, teach me those hair braiding stuff you were rambling about. For real this time.”

Haibara laughed, the vibrations resonating through where your bodies met. “Nice try there, princess. But no, you’re not getting out of training that easily.”

With evident reluctance, he loosened his arms and stepped back. You had to fight off the overwhelming urge to kick at his shin in retaliation for denying your completely reasonable request to skip training. So much for being friends. Haibara was actually tougher to crack than his affable demeanor suggested. All those sunshine smiles and honeyed words? Just a heinous ploy to lull you into a false sense of security before dragging you back to the torture chamber disguised as a training ground.

“Off to sleep with you now,” he urged, his tone soft despite his iron will. His hand came up, patting your cheek lightly. The touch was brief, almost teasing. “I’ll be back here again first thing in the morning, bright and early as always.”

You almost opened your mouth to inform him exactly where he could shove his “bright and early,” but the words dissolved on your tongue at the last second. Something stopped you. Maybe it was the residual warmth of his hand on your cheek, or the way his eyes crinkled when his smile reached them. Whatever the hell it was. You settled for a noncommittal grunt, a sound that could have meant anything from “fine” to “I’m plotting your demise.”

As Haibara took his leave and you climbed into your bed, you realized something was off. Your face felt different. Warm, yes, but not just from Haibara’s touch. You touched your cheek, puzzled. Something weird was going on. Unsettling, almost. A delayed reaction to all those muscle-melting exercises, perhaps? You cataloged the issue away for later examination. Maybe you could ask Shoko about it. She seemed to know all sorts of weird things.

Right now, you badly needed some damn sleep. In a few short hours, more torture training would come. And you’d need all your strength to resist the temptation to paralyze Haibara’s chipper ass the moment he showed up with that insufferable morning song-and-dance routine.

While you drifted off, a stream of half-formed questions and fragmented thoughts continued to flutter through the dimming recesses of your mind. You fell asleep before you could find the answers. Little fireflies of curiosity, flitting about in agitated loops as they sought some sort of meaning or context or answer that always seemed to wing just out of reach at the last possible second.

But that was okay, though. After all, you had tomorrow to figure it out. And the day after that. And the day after that. As long as Haibara kept his promise, you had all the tomorrows you needed.

Notes:

Guess who our "absolute least favorite brother" is?

Oh and I know how this looks. But I swear on the honor of my cats, everyone will be safe and happy. This is a safe space!

Chapter 8

Summary:

"I don't get paid enough for this."
—Kusakabe, most definitely

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

After fourteen days of sweet silence, Kusakabe finally resurfaced from whatever hellhole had swallowed him. You supposed you should be pleased he hadn’t abandoned this sinking ship. Yet. The thought of getting saddled with Yaga as a replacement made your skin crawl. At least Kusakabe hadn’t flung you into the deep end of a deathtrap. Yet.

“So where are we at now?” Kusakabe’s voice carried an uncertainty that would’ve been mildly concerning if you cared.

You straightened your posture, chin tilted up. “I don’t pass out from warmups anymore,” you declared. “And I can run thirty laps around here now.”

Your biggest torturer cheerleader, Haibara, flashed a blinding thumbs up. “Damn right, sensei! Eri’s been trying really hard!” His zealous enthusiasm was almost nauseating, but you appreciated the support.

Kusakabe nodded, stroking his stubbled chin. “Uh, good start, I guess.”

You looked up at him expectantly, waiting. Kusakabe blinked down at you, his brow furrowing. Your gazes locked as the seconds ticked by. It was like a bizarre staring contest nobody else understood the stakes of, except you weren’t trying to win. You just wanted what you rightfully deserved.

A bead of sweat trailed down Kusakabe’s reddening face as he squirmed under the intensity of your gaze. “Um… is there… anything else?” he stammered out.

“You haven’t praised me yet,” you reminded, voice flat and matter-of-fact. This should have been the most obvious thing in the world.

Kusakabe’s brow furrowed into a crease of utter confusion. “What...?”

Even Nanami and Haibara exchanged a bewildered glance at your blunt demand. But you remained unfazed, repeating yourself calmly.

“You need to praise me, Kusakabe.”

Wasn’t positive reinforcement the core principle of education? After the literal hell you’d endured these past two weeks, training until your lungs seared and your limbs felt like they’d been replaced with lead, of course, he should praise you.

You expected – no, deserved – some kind of recognition. A commendation for your sheer willpower and your perseverance against all odds. Maybe even an acknowledgment of your sparkling personality for tolerating Haibara and Nanami the entire time without stabbing either of them, not even once. A remarkable feat, considering Haibara’s incessant hollering and Nanami’s constant lectures.

What you hadn’t anticipated was Kusakabe reaching out to awkwardly pat your head like a favored house cat, his rough hand ruffling your hair as he stumbled over his words.

“Ah, okay, sure. Good girl…” he mumbled, then immediately backtracked at your murderous look. “No, wait! That’s not what I meant! I mean, you did good! Well done! Really good progress with the thirty laps!”

You pierced him with a glare as sharp as the dagger strapped to your forearm. “If you call me ‘good girl’ again, I will stab you.”

Kusakabe practically levitated away from you, hand shooting back as if your head had burned him. “R-right, of course! My apologies!” he gulped.

The botched attempt at praise seemed to deflate whatever meager enthusiasm Kusakabe had managed to muster for the day’s training session. Deciding that keeping himself free of stab wounds took priority over critiquing your hard-won progress, he redirected his focus to the less stabby members of your group.

Instead of treating Haibara and Nanami to another round of “Watch Sensei Wipe the Floor with Your Asses,” Kusakabe commanded them to spar with each other. He settled on the bench beside you to observe, though he left a generous buffer zone – enough space to comfortably park a rampaging cursed spirit between you. His wary side glances suggested he half-expected you to go for his jugular with a hidden blade at any moment. As if you’d waste good steel on him for such a minor transgression. You weren’t that petty. Usually.

On the makeshift sparring arena, Haibara and Nanami squared off. From the opening exchange, Nanami had the upper hand. His movements were crisp, each punch and kick delivered with the precision of a well-oiled machine. It was almost elegant, if you could call one man attempting to rearrange another’s facial bones “elegant.”

But Haibara was no pushover. What he lacked in finesse, he made up for in raw power. He was like a bear that had wandered into a dojo – clumsy and unrefined, but capable of catastrophic damage if one of his lumbering haymakers found its mark. And find their marks they did, his fists crashing against Nanami’s guard in meaty thuds that echoed across the training grounds.

Still, Nanami displayed a more calculating efficiency in his approach. He danced around Haibara’s bulldozer attacks with deft footwork, retaliating with precise strikes that made you wonder if he’d secretly been cross-training with your elders. They certainly shared a flair for hitting where it hurt.

As the match dragged on, the air became thick with the harsh pants of exertion, damp shirts clinging to sweat-slicked skin. You could already imagine the stench from where you sat. Your nose wrinkled instinctively, but your eyes remained glued to the spectacle. There was something oddly captivating about the sight of these two straining against each other. Taut muscles, clenched jaws, ragged grunts of pure, primal effort...

“Pay attention, Eri-san,” Kusakabe grumbled from his safe distance, breaking your trance and snapping you back to reality from… whatever plane your mind had drifted off to.

You shot him a sidelong glare, arms crossing over your chest as you let out a little indignant huff. “I am paying attention.”

The lie slipped out with ease, your cold tone biting back at the implication you’d been admiring anything other than their technical forms. Just what, exactly, did he think had your rapt attention in the first place? The audacity.

Eventually, the spar concluded with a wheezing, defeated Haibara trapped helplessly underneath a triumphant but equally exhausted Nanami. You watched, feeling a morbid sense of fascination, as Haibara thrashed and strained against the weight immobilizing him – all taut muscle and fruitless struggle.

For the briefest of moments, you couldn’t help but wonder what it might feel like to be in Haibara’s position, pinned under Nanami’s weight. Uh, not that you had any particular desire to be flattened into the ground like a pancake. Well, maybe the idea of reversing the roles and doing the pinning held some appeal. Pinning Nanami down instead… or Haibara… or why limit yourself? Both of them, once you finally got strong enough. If you ever got that strong.

The sound of Kusakabe’s clapping shattered your little fantasy. Both Nanami and Haibara collapsed where they were, chests heaving, looking like they’d just gone ten rounds with a particularly enthusiastic semi-truck.

That’s when Kusakabe turned to you with this look like he expected you to have picked up on some profound lesson from the display. “So, what are their biggest problems, Eri-san?”

You didn’t miss a beat. Gesturing to the panting heap that was Haibara, you began, “He’s obnoxiously chipper in the morning. Sings like a banshee giving birth. Lacks any semblance of manners. And he stinks.”

Then you pointed at Nanami, who was attempting to glare daggers at you while also fighting off the urge to simply pass out. “He’s perpetually ill-tempered. Constantly complaining about something inane. And he doesn’t pay me nearly enough attention.”

All very serious character flaws, in your opinion.

Haibara let out a wheezing snort that could’ve been pained laughter or just him choking on his own sweat and saliva. Nanami’s glower intensified, but given that he was still flat on his back, it lacked its usual impact. You’d seen more intimidating looks from your mother’s koi fish.

Kusakabe groaned, rubbing his temples as if he could massage away the realization that he was really, hopelessly stuck with you. “I meant problems with their actual fighting, Eri-san.”

“Oh, that?” You tilted your head, considering his revised question with more seriousness. “If we’re talking about their technical deficiencies…”

Your sharp eyes swept over Haibara first. “Yu leaves his left side open whenever he goes for a big swing. And he relies too much on his strength. When Nanami dodges, his momentum carries him off-balance.”

Your clinical scrutiny then shifted to Nanami in turn. “As for Nanami, he favors his right leg. Puts too much weight on that side when he kicks. And he telegraphs his punches. There’s a telling twitch in his shoulder before he strikes.”

As you concluded your assessment, both Nanami and Haibara gawked at you with eyes as wide as rice bowls. Some of the things you’d pointed out, they didn’t even realize they were doing. Like a pair of kittens just discovering that yes, they did in fact have tails this whole time.

Kusakabe, too, looked taken aback. His eyebrows had climbed so high they were in real danger of merging with his hairline. Considering your lack of combat experience, he hadn’t expected you to catch that many nitpicking details from a single bout. After a beat of stunned silence, he cleared his throat, features resetting to an only slightly constipated expression of composure.

“You’re… incredibly observant,” he managed, sounding genuinely impressed despite himself. Then, seeming to recall his near-stabbing incident earlier, Kusakabe tacked on a clumsy attempt at a compliment, “Good eye there, Eri-san.”

At least he remembered to praise you this time around. Without any awkward head patting. You gave a satisfied nod. Kusakabe was a quick study in your Positive Reinforcement 101 crash course.

Of course, you were observant. You had spent most of your life watching people – the way they talked, their telling gestures, the subtle shifts in their stance and body language, the flickering microexpressions they tried to conceal behind polite smiles or icy veneers. You’d studied how they showed joy, masked anger, or feigned indifference. Compared to the usual clan folks, Haibara and Nanami were open books waiting to be read.

“I like watching people,” you shrugged. Not the entire truth, but close enough.

Apparently satisfied with your callout of their technical weaknesses, Kusakabe issued some gruff orders for Haibara and Nanami to start drilling those problem areas. You hoped the two barbarians would also take the time to remedy their other glaring personal shortcomings you’d initially pointed out.

Haibara’s appalling morning songbird impersonations and lack of decorum, as well as Nanami’s eternal crankiness and unforgivable failure to shower you with adequate attention and adoration, were flaws just as egregious as any combat mistakes.

With your sweaty, tragically flawed companions dismissed to sort out their myriad issues, Kusakabe led you to the school’s armory. It was a cavernous room, overflowing with all manner of weapons and dusty cursed tools of all varieties. The air was practically sentient – a thick fog of neglect and mold. You brought your sleeve up to cover your nose, shooting Kusakabe a withering look.

“What are we doing here?” you demanded, your voice muffled by the fabric pressed against your face.

Kusakabe made a sweeping gesture at the cluttered space. “Well, while you keep building up your strength and stamina, might as well get you acquainted with some actual weapons too. From what I know, your cursed technique focuses mainly on immobilization, correct? Then you’ll need an effective finisher.”

He turned his expectant gaze back your way. “Any particular preferences?”

You perked up at the prospect of acquiring new toys. If there was one thing you excelled at, it was inserting sharp edges into soft flesh at inopportune moments. Whipping out your trusty dagger from beneath your sleeve, you brandished it before Kusakabe with a dramatic flourish. “I’m good at stabbing.”

The sudden appearance of the wicked blade in your hands seemed to catch Kusakabe off guard. He startled, like he hadn’t quite believed your earlier threat until this very moment. But then, his eyes narrowed, giving your grip on the weapon a critical once-over. “You’re holding it wrong, Eri-san.”

What fresh bullsh*t was this now? You frowned, gaze dropping to the well-worn hilt as you instinctively tightened your fingers around the familiar grooves.

“I’ve stabbed most of my brothers with this. It works just fine,” you countered, punctuating the claim by giving the dagger a testing flick through the air. Kusakabe leaned away, a nervous gulp working its way down his throat.

As his unease rose, you offered a reassuring clarification. “Only in self-defense.” Though it didn’t seem to provide him much solace.

Kusakabe’s apprehensive eyes flicked between you and the dagger before posing the obvious question. “Did… any of them… you know…” He trailed off, but you understood the implication.

You shook your head. “No…”

But sensing the judgmental weight behind his loaded silence, you felt compelled to amend, “Only because I didn’t mean to.”

An uneasy quiet stretched between the two of you, the air almost crackling with Kusakabe’s palpable discomfort. Until he took a fortifying breath, squaring his shoulders as if bracing for impact.

Tentatively, he reached out a hand toward you. “Why don’t you… let me show you the proper grip.”

You eyed his approaching fingers with the wary skepticism of a cornered animal, your grip tightening on the dagger’s handle. You were now alone with this much larger, stronger man in an enclosed space. Haibara and Nanami were far out of earshot, unable to intervene if things… escalated. Every instinct screamed at you to pull back, to put some space between you and this man who could easily overpower and kill you. Or worse. Your entire body tensed, readying itself for an incoming attack.

But then you remembered where you were and why you were here. Kusakabe wasn’t going to hurt you. This was a lesson, not an aggressive provocation. You forced your muscles to relax and gave a small nod. “Okay.”

Kusakabe closed the remaining distance between you slowly, carefully. His large hand enveloped your wrist. You stiffened at the contact. But he didn’t seem to notice your reaction – or if he did, he opted not to comment.

“When you hold a blade,” he began, voice low and even, “it’s important to have full maximal grip strength.”

You tensed further as he gently pried the dagger from your grasp. Kusakabe’s eyes flickered up to yours, but whatever he saw swimming in those midnight depths made him hold his tongue. Instead, he continued in the same measured tone.

“You want a secure grip, so that your opponent can’t knock your blade out of your hand mid-strike. And to avoid hurting yourself…”

With deft movements, he repositioned the dagger in your upturned palm. His other hand guided your fingers, curling them over the hilt until each digit found its proper placement. Despite his size, the contact was firm yet startlingly tender.

Only once satisfied did Kusakabe step back, reestablishing a respectful distance between your personal spaces. You gave the dagger an experimental swing, getting a feel for how the adjusted grip differed.

A small, encouraging smile played at the edges of his rough features. “Better?”

You considered the question for a moment before conceding with a nod. “Perhaps. I’ll need to stab someone to be certain, though.”

The tentative smile drained from Kusakabe’s features, his expression flickering somewhere between shades of exasperation and outright alarm. His gaze swept over the cluttered armory, pleading with the dusty shelves for some form of divine intervention.

“Well, since you’re not quite fit for that kind of close-quarters combat yet…” He waved a hand, successfully changing the subject before the conversation could plummet into a ravine of stabby implications. “How about we look into getting you set up with some good long-range weapons instead?”

You had to admit, he raised a fair point. As satisfying as stabbing could be, it did require getting up close and personal with your targets. If you could take them down from a safe distance, all the better. With a reluctant nod, you agreed, “Fine. As long as I get to stab something eventually.”

The poor man looked like he was desperately restraining himself from locating the nearest heavy blunt object and introducing it to his skull at velocity.

Kusakabe’s first recommendation for a long-range option was the traditional bow and arrow, a staple weapon for sorcerers over the centuries. He spent a good chunk of time guiding you through the process of selecting a suitable bow – examining different sizes, draw weights, and instructing you on testing each one’s grip and anchor point until you found an optimal fit.

Once you had your bow picked out, Kusakabe led you over to one of the outdoor shooting ranges situated behind the armory building. Here, beneath the watchful gaze of tattered archery targets, he proceeded to teach you the fundamentals of proper archery stance, positioning, and draw technique with a dedication bordering on obsessive.

“Keep your feet shoulder-width apart,” he instructed, using his own foot to nudge your stance into the correct position. “And straighten your torso, keep your back straight.”

Kusakabe’s large hand came to rest on the small of your back then, his other hand finding your shoulder, giving it a firm squeeze. The unexpected physical contact made your skin prickle with unease. You fought the urge to flinch away from his touch.

“You’re too tense, Eri-san,” he said, his deep voice a low rumble near your ear. “Try to relax your upper body.”

Easy for him to say. Being alone out here with this near-stranger, having him loom over you from behind, was setting off a million hard-wired alarms inside your head. Kusakabe was standing so close, hands touching you in ways that would have gotten any other man introduced to the business end of your dagger.

Rationally, you knew Kusakabe meant no harm. He was teaching you with the same diligent care he’d shown when adjusting your dagger grip. But your paranoia ran too deep and distrust was too instinctive to be reasoned away so easily.

You’d grown comfortable, even fond, of the rough edges and casual affections of Haibara and Nanami. Their manners and physicality were now familiar territory. But Kusakabe was too unknown, a potential threat. No amount of logic could convince your subconscious otherwise.

Still, there was little point in trying to explain the roots of your discomfort. Kusakabe wouldn’t understand. Or, he could view it as another failing in your endless list of weaknesses to overcome.

So you opted for silence, channeling your efforts inward as you methodically willed each knotted muscle to unclench, one by one. Deep, controlled breaths filled your lungs in a meditative cycle. You held the air for several beats before expelling it in a slow rush. Little by little, you managed to settle into a loose approximation of the desired stance, though your jaw remained clenched. As you concentrated on keeping your torso aligned and shoulders squared per Kusakabe’s guidance, something else registered through the panicked haze of hyper-awareness:

The man’s scent.

It was… surprisingly inoffensive. Cool and understated, with hints of aquatic notes underpinned by lighter accords of green tea and iris. An unexpected wisp of smoke curled around the edges, faint yet distinct.

“Ready?” Kusakabe’s voice dragged you back to the present, his hands hovering just shy of actually making contact again. “Any questions before we begin?”

You turned your head slightly, regarding him through the corners of your eyes. “Do you smoke?”

By now, Kusakabe should have learned the grave importance of being excruciatingly specific when posing questions to you.

“Ah, yeah,” he admitted after a momentary pause, rubbing the back of his neck. A hint of sheepish embarrassment crept into his tone. “How did you…?”

You studied him with your unnerving gaze, head tilting. “You smell,” you stated.

For a heartbeat, Kusakabe looked mortified, no doubt already imagining the inevitable dressing down from this terrifying girl about proper hygiene and the importance of regular bathing.

But then, you made a show of leaning in and taking an audible sniff in his direction before clarifying, “Of smoke.”

Kusakabe’s eyes widened a fraction before he swallowed thickly, hastily taking a step back to reestablish the safe buffer of personal space between you.

“Oh. I’m sorry about that,” he quickly backpedaled. “Please don’t worry though, I don’t smoke around students or anything like that…”

Your impassive gaze remained locked on him. You stated your next query with trademark forthrightness.

“Can I try it?”

Now it was Kusakabe’s turn to gape at you, visibly stunned, as another brief staring contest ensued. Until understanding finally dawned in his widening eyes. With a vigorous shake of his head, he shot down the notion.

“Absolutely not, Eri-san. I will not let you try smoking,” he stated, tone hardening slightly. “You’re too young for that kind of thing.”

You arched a brow, unimpressed by his feeble excuses. “Shoko smokes too. Why can’t I?”

Kusakabe pinched the bridge of his nose, struggling to ward off the crippling migraine you so expertly cultivated. “Ieiri-san is… an entirely different case,” he gritted out. His gaze snapped back to you, eyes narrowing with sudden suspicion. “Did you ask her to let you try?”

“Yes,” you nodded. “But she wouldn’t allow it either. I don’t understand why you’re all being so difficult about this.”

Relief crept across Kusakabe’s face, infinitely grateful that someone had managed to exercise basic common sense around your relentless inquisitiveness and demands. “Just forget about it, okay?” he urged in a placating tone. “Smoking isn’t good for you anyway.”

Pursing your lips, you fixed him with a pointed look. “If smoking is so bad, then why do you do it?”

Kusakabe opened and closed his mouth once, twice, floundering for a reasonable rebuttal to justify the hypocrisy of his own indulgent habit, grasping for anything beyond “do as I say, not as I do.” When none seemed forthcoming, he simply threw up his hands with an exasperated grunt.

“That’s—look, that’s not the point here,” he deflected, abandoning that conversational trail entirely. “We’re here to practice. If you don’t have any other relevant questions, then go ahead and give it a try.”

You huffed, displeased at being so rudely dismissed. But you supposed getting into a debate over smoking and health logic wasn’t going to be productive at the moment. With a roll of your eyes, you turned back toward the distant range targets. Raising the bow with textbook form, you drew the bowstring back in one smooth motion, muscles taut and posture perfectly aligned. For a fleeting moment, Kusakabe dared to look hopeful.

Then you released, and the arrow tumbled through the air in an awkward, unguided arc before clattering to the ground a pitiful two meters away.

Kusakabe’s hopeful expression crumpled like a deflating balloon. You, on the other hand, remained impassive, as if your abysmal attempt was par for the course.

“Well…” Kusakabe began, desperately grasping at straws for something positive to latch onto. “At least your form was... really good?”

The flat look you leveled at him suggested you found his half-hearted effort at praise of mere participation to be lacking.

With a sigh, Kusakabe resigned himself to the long, arduous road ahead. He had a sinking suspicion archery would not be the “long-range” solution for your cursed technique. But men never admitted their defeat so easily.

“Okay, let’s give this another try…”

Over the next agonizing thirty minutes, you cycled through firing the entire quiver’s worth of arrows, each missed shot more pathetic than the last. Textbook stance and form, perfectly replicated draw and release technique – yet despite your best efforts, not a single arrow even came close to threatening the target downrange.

Kusakabe watched on in steadily mounting bewilderment and disbelief, at a complete loss to explain the abject failure unfolding before his eyes. By all observable metrics, you were executing every facet of archery flawlessly. The stance was locked in, back straight and shoulders squared with each shot. Your draw was a study in proper alignment and anchor points. Every movement carried out with the kind of clinical, hyper-focused precision he’d so meticulously drilled into you.

And yet, arrow after arrow kept clattering to the grass just pitiful paces ahead, never even remotely achieving the trajectories and distances they should have. It made absolutely no sense whatsoever.

The only brief glimmer of success came when Kusakabe, driven to the brink of desperation, stepped up behind you for one attempt. This time, instead of just verbal guidance, he wrapped his arms around you, hands firmly over yours. Together, you drew the nock back in one smooth, aligned motion before releasing in perfect sync. The arrow lanced through the air in a straight, true arc to bury itself in the outer ring of the target with a satisfying thunk.

For a suspended heartbeat, raw hope blossomed in Kusakabe’s eyes—only to be cruelly extinguished the moment he stepped away. For the very next shot you loosed on your own went wildly astray, arcing off to the turf a scant few meters out, as if the prior success was nothing but a cruel aberration.

With mute disbelief bordering on existential crisis, Kusakabe wrestled to comprehend this defiance of physics, technique, and common bloody sense. He scrutinized you from every possible angle—your grip, your posture, the awkward trajectories of your errant shots. But no matter how he analyzed the situation, the same inescapable and frankly baffling conclusion remained: your form was perfect, yet the results were utterly, inexplicably wrong.

He raked frantic fingers through his already disheveled hair again and again, brow furrowing deeper with each unceremonious clank of another wasted arrow falling to the grass. By the time your depleted quiver hung empty at your hip, Kusakabe’s composure was in tatters. What had started as mild confusion had escalated into outright bewilderment, then vehement denial, and finally, a sort of shell-shocked acceptance that the world had simply decided not to make any sense today.

Kusakabe looked, for lack of a better descriptor, absolutely frazzled. He stared at you, eyes wild and hair mussed from running his hands through it one too many times in a futile attempt to ground himself.

“I don’t…” He swallowed hard, grasping for words that could encapsulate this fresh level of absurdity. “I have no idea what’s happening here.”

You looked down at the scattered arrows with all the detached concern of someone admiring a mildly interesting pattern in the clouds. Shrugging one shoulder, you offered your own assessment, “I think it’s just not my thing.”

Kusakabe’s responding laugh bordered on hysterical, a strangled sound caught between disbelieving amusem*nt and the ragged edge of one losing their tenuous grasp on reality. Doubling over, he braced his hands on his knees as he struggled to rein in his unraveling psyche.

“You think?” he wheezed out between gasping breaths, shaking his head. Straightening, Kusakabe fixed you with a look that could only be described as the thousand-yard stare of a man who had glimpsed the existential abyss of Eldrich insanity… and found it staring right back, cold and indifferent to his suffering.

“Right. New plan…” Kusakabe muttered, mostly to himself, in a hoarse voice. “We’re shelving archery indefinitely. Let’s try… something a little more direct.”

After the unmitigated disaster that was your introductory foray into traditional archery, Kusakabe was now hell-bent on finding an alternative long-range option that might potentially be more conducive to your skillset. Or profound lack thereof.

Something to finally unlock that spark of latent potential he so desperately sought to ignite within you. Which, in his increasingly desperate eyes, meant abandoning the quaint traditions of Shinto warfare and venturing into more modern territory.

His new idea? A gun.

You followed along dutifully, if not exactly enthusiastically, as Kusakabe led you back into the musty depths of the armory, watching him begin rummaging through dusty boxes and cluttered storage closets with increasingly dismissive grunts and grumblings escaping under his breath. The jujutsu high society clearly frowned upon such crass contemporary weaponry judging by how sparse the offerings appeared to be. Why embrace guns when outdated traditions like bows and crossbows were still around, right?

After a protracted stretch of fruitless scavenging, Kusakabe settled on a serviceable option – a simple but functional semi-automatic pistol. As he launched into a rushed crash course on the basics of proper firearm handling and safety protocols, you found yourself idly wondering if he could use all the weapons lining these dusty racks and shelves.

Your silent musings were interrupted as Kusakabe abruptly spun on his heel, already sweeping back out across the sunbaked training grounds with that same determined stride. This time, you were shepherded toward a small fenced-off corner designated for gunfire practice. A series of man-shaped targets lined the far end of the range, giving you a decent variety of shots and distances to attempt.

Once again, with a patience born of either saintly dedication or the jagged edges of his sanity fraying, Kusakabe ran you through the finer points of marksmanship. Steady hands guided yours into finding the optimal firing grip – thumbs laced, arms stacked for stability and recoil dispersion. That low, even cadence coached you through developing a steady breathing rhythm to control muscular tension. Triggering stance, sight picture acquisition, failed trigger resets – he covered each fundamental component in painstaking, meticulous detail.

You watched, listened, absorbed every word. This time, you were determined to get it right—not just for yourself, but for Kusakabe’s sake as well. In that moment, you found yourself equally, if not more, invested in his success. Somewhere along the line, you’d started silently rooting for Kusakabe and his ability to actually teach you something, anything. Even just a modicum of skill to show for his exhaustive efforts and endless reserves of dedication. To make all of this futile labor mean something.

So when you settled into that two-handed firing stance, sights aligned and grip secure, you mustered every ounce of focus, held your breath, and pulled the trigger.

The gunshot cracked like a thunderclap in the confined space. You watched with bated breath, as the target jerked from the impact… right in the foot region.

Kusakabe, bless his battered soul, looked as relieved as if you’d just landed the winning shot in the Olympic finals. A breathless laugh tumbled from his lips. He bounced to your side, patting your head with a calloused hand.

“That’s great, Eri-san!” he exclaimed, the haunting shadows of existential dread banished—for now—by your marginal marksmanship success. “Not bad at all for your first shot. You actually hit the target!”

His smile was almost affectionate, exhilaration and pride intermingling as he continued ruffling your hair with a warm chuckle, delighted by this small victory against the mounting odds.

Considering the extreme emotional rollercoaster Kusakabe had endured over these past couple of grueling hours, you allowed the head pat. Besides, you had decided that you rather liked having your hair played with. There was something nice about the warmth of a palm, the faint pressure of fingertips against your scalp.

But of course, you couldn’t let the poor man be deluded into thinking this was going to be easy. He deserved to know the truth. So you tilted your head back and admitted, “I was aiming for the head.”

Kusakabe’s hand froze atop your head, the warm laughter dying on his lips. You could almost see the light going out behind his eyes as the realization sank in, weighted and leaden and so very heavy. Sometimes, even the simplest of victories proved frustratingly elusive when you were involved.

With a sigh that spoke volumes about his rapidly eroding sanity, Kusakabe removed his hand and straightened, squaring his shoulders once more. He mustered up a strained attempt at an encouraging smile, the stretch of lips looking more pained than reassuring.

“It’s okay, Eri-san,” he said, the levity in his voice as paper-thin as the blatant lie itself. “We’ll figure it out.”

Even as the empty platitude passed his lips, you could see the toll this whole circus was exacting upon the man. The hollows beneath his eyes seemed just a touch more sunken, his complexion just a shade too ashen. It was evident that Kusakabe teetered on the ragged precipice of his wits’ end.

You supposed some small measure of positive reinforcement was warranted here. The least you could do was acknowledge the genuine effort and dogged perseverance Kusakabe demonstrated.

Reaching up on your tiptoes, you patted his head in imitation of his earlier gesture, letting what you hoped came across as a sympathetic expression flit across your features.

“I think you’re an excellent teacher,” you offered, the words feeling unnatural on your tongue yet nonetheless sincere. “You have my permission to pat my head from now on, if you wish.”

Kusakabe blinked down at you, rendered speechless by either your unexpected attempt at a compliment or the thought of receiving casual hair-ruffling privileges. You couldn’t be sure which prospect disturbed him more in that moment.

“Just none of that ‘good girl’ nonsense, okay?” you clarified, in case there was any lingering confusion. “I’ll still stab you if you try that again.”

His startled silence blossomed into a full-bellied laugh, the sound rumbling up from the very core of Kusakabe’s being. It was a harsh, percussive thing, more akin to the barks of a rabid hyena than any sane expression of mirth. But there was undeniable genuine amusem*nt buried beneath the frayed edges, a wry acknowledgment of the utter madness you’d both become tangled up in.

Wiping away the tears that had gathered in the corners of his eyes, Kusakabe nodded. “Ha… sure thing, Eri. Fair enough.” He sighed, seeming to age a decade in the span of a single breath. “Let’s just… call it here for now. Why don’t we go check in on how your friends are holding up?”

You nodded in easy agreement, allowing Kusakabe to escape this particular training nightmare, if only briefly. With a weary gesture, he began collecting the spent brass casings and scattered ammunition. No doubt Haibara and Nanami had kicked up their own unique varieties of chaos and devastation across the training grounds. At least this time, the inevitable fallout would be blessedly straightforward results of martial ineptitude rather than… whatever reality-bending bullsh*t you’d unleashed upon Kusakabe over these past couple of hours.

Sliding the Glock into its case, Kusakabe allowed himself one rueful glance in your direction. An absurd challenge he didn’t quite seem equipped to handle, yet accepted with the begrudging resignation of a man who knew there were worse lots in life.

With a shake of his head, Kusakabe turned and led the way out of the shooting range, footsteps echoing like the steady countdown to sweet, inevitable madness. As you fell into step beside him, you saw the set of his shoulders seemed just a hair lighter than before. Who knew? With enough perseverance, therapy bills, and an ironclad sense of masochism, maybe Kusakabe would eventually manage to mold you into something vaguely resembling a decent sorcerer yet.

Notes:

The poor man just wanted a safe, cushy little job. And he ended up with this.

Chapter 9

Summary:

The educational value of ugly stuffed animals

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Thankfully, being a sorcerer wasn’t just about throwing hands. No, there was another crucial aspect that couldn’t be ignored: cursed energy control. For practice on this front, Kusakabe herded your group into a cramped little classroom that smelled faintly of stale chalk and decades-old marker fumes. The place was about as inviting as a dentist’s waiting room, but at least there were no drills involved.

There, Kusakabe presented the three of you with an unholy trinity of seriously ugly stuffed animals – rejects that looked plucked straight from the plush toy factory’s dumpster after an industrial accident. The alleged “teddy bear” seemed to have been run over repeatedly by semi-trucks on the highway, its misshapen body more akin to roadkill than a cuddly plaything. The “bunny” was a grotesque Frankenstein’s monster of clashing fabric scraps, violently stitched together into an ungodly amalgamation. And the third… well, the third was some unidentifiable blob-creature that oozed an aura of pure nightmare fuel – the kind that would scar any innocent child for life.

Gesturing at these crimes against plushie-kind, Kusakabe explained in that serious tone of his, “These are called cursed corpses. Inanimate objects imbued with cursed energy to function on basic pre-programmed instructions. Your task is to channel a steady output of your own cursed energy into these buggers.”

So not only were they ugly as sin, but they were also cursed. Just what every aspiring sorcerer needed in their life.

As he started handing out the cursed plush travesties, your eyes immediately locked onto the mangy bunny monster. You pointed a decisive finger at it, firmly declaring, “I want that one.”

There was no hesitation or room for argument in your blunt tone and body language – just pure, uncompromising stubbornness laced with a delightfully irrational streak that Kusakabe had quickly learned was so quintessentially you.

Already accustomed to your charming personality, Kusakabe simply deposited the grotesque horror into your waiting hands. As you eagerly held up the hideous bunny, Kusakabe pointedly warned, “Don’t look so excited, Eri. As soon as we’re done with today’s lesson, you’ll have to give it back.”

You blinked at him, feigning an expression of innocence that didn’t fool Kusakabe for even a second. “Why? It’s disgusting. Not like anyone in their right mind would want this…” You trailed off, giving the bunny a considering once-over before finishing dryly, “...this abomination against nature and good taste.”

Honestly, you were doing the world a favor by taking this thing off the market.

Kusakabe shot you a look that seemed equal parts exasperated and amused. “First of all, never say that in front of Yaga-sama. And second, it’s a learning tool, not some toy for you to keep, Eri.”

Spoilsport.

Before you could try swaying him with some rather effective puppy dog eyes or one of Mother’s heart-stealing smiles, Kusakabe swiftly turned away to hand out the remaining stuffed… things to Haibara and Nanami.

Once Haibara got saddled with the roadkill teddy bear and Nanami ended up holding the formless blob-thing at arm’s length, Kusakabe issued his brisk order, “Get started channeling that energy. I’ll swing back to check your progress later.”

Because apparently, Kusakabe had better things to do than supervise three novice sorcerers playing around with cursed plushies. What could possibly go wrong?

He was already headed for the door before Haibara could fully raise his hand and get out a cautious “What if we don’t—”

The question died on his lips as the teddy bear sprung up with startling sentience, clocking Haibara square in the face with one stuffed paw. A muffled grunt of pain punched out of him as he recoiled.

Kusakabe didn’t even break stride or turn around, just called over his shoulder with a hint of dark amusem*nt, “That’s what happens when you lose focus. Maybe stay on your toes, yeah?” And then the door swung shut behind him, leaving you alone with the cursed plushies from hell.

You turned the patchwork bunny over in your hands, taking perverse delight in just how ugly the wretched thing was. A disorienting, clashing mess of patterns, textures, and fabric scraps made up its grotesque form. Mismatched buttons leered out as beady eyes, crooked paws hung askew, whiskers jutting out in haphazard directions. It was a true affront to nature. And yet, somehow this very ugliness made it… charming? In a deranged sort of way that appealed to your twisted sensibilities.

You poked and prodded at the misshapen bunny some more, running curious fingers over its garish details with a sense of morbid fascination. There was something weirdly endearing about its sheer ugliness that drew you in despite all reason and logic. Like a grotesque novelty you couldn’t tear your eyes away from. Maybe it was the fact that this bunny was just as much of a freak as you were. Birds of a feather and all that. You wondered if this was what love at first sight felt like. If so, you were head over heels for this abomination of a bunny.

While you were busy entertaining yourself with the ugly bunny, Haibara and Nanami weren’t faring quite so well against their own plush adversaries. Haibara kept getting solidly clocked by that demented teddy bear, pained grunts and curses punching out with each rattling blow that found its mark.

“Son of a...!” he growled, frantically trying to clamp the flailing bear down before it could land another punishing jab to his face. “Why’d it have to be the boxing bear from hell??”

It was a fair question. Kusakabe certainly knew how to pick the most sad*stic kind of teaching aids.

The stuffed terror kept slipping through Haibara’s desperate grip with unnatural agility. At this rate, he might not survive until Kusakabe’s eventual return. Surprising how such a small plushy could inflict this level of brutality.

Nanami seemed to be handling his own amorphous blob-beast slightly better, managing to avoid most of its erratic strikes so far. But his white-knuckled death grip on the writhing cursed corpse showed he was fighting just as desperately to contain the malicious thing.

Oblivious to their escalating struggles against the plushie terrors, you continued playing with the hideous bunny. Giving one ratty ear an affectionate tug, you noted with satisfaction that the threads held firm under your fingers. You decided right then and there – this monstrosity was yours now, come hell or high water.

Kusakabe could try prying it from your cold, dead hands when this lesson was over, but you’d sooner find a way to convince him to let you keep this grotesque creature. Maybe a sweet little smile and some charming words would do the trick – a cutesy little act that men tended to eat right up. If Kusakabe proved immune to your manufactured feminine wiles (unlikely, considering how easily he got flustered), then perhaps you could negotiate some sort of purchase instead. Either way, ugly bunny wasn’t going back to wherever the depraved hell it had spawned from.

You were so engrossed in your plotting that you barely noticed the commotion around you. Haibara’s cursing had reached a fevered pitch, and Nanami’s grunts of exertion were growing more and more desperate. But you paid them no mind, too focused on your newfound obsession with the bunny.

Growing up in the Zen’in estate, you’d never really had frivolous toys. Every possession had to serve a pragmatic purpose. God forbid a little child be allowed a useless stuffed animal just for the childish amusem*nt and comfort it could provide. The Zen’ins were all about practicality and power, even when it came to playtime.

Your first ever plush toy was a “gift” from Satoru – a smug-looking plush cat with fluffy white fur and tiny sunglasses, no doubt customized to look like his egomaniacal self. He’d thrown the cat plush in your face with an insufferable grin, purring, “A special something for my best girl! Hold it while you sleep so you won’t miss me too much!”

You’d have rather cuddled with a cactus than with a miniature version of Gojo Satoru, but you supposed it was the thought that counted. Or something like that.

When you made an exaggerated gagging noise of disgust, Satoru had huffed in faux offense. “Or use it to practice with your dagger. For someone who loves stabbing so much, you’re seriously sh*tty at it. No one you ever stabbed actually died.”

You’d been tempted to demonstrate just how much your stabbing skills had improved by using him as a target, but you figured that might be a bit too messy. Also, you didn’t want to get blood on your new cat plush.

You ended up using “Catoru” for an entirely different purpose. It made a decent leg rest whenever you felt like propping your feet up. There was something satisfying about using Satoru’s likeness as a footstool. A subtle way of putting him in his place – under your feet – even if it was just a stuffed version of him.

Since then, Satoru had been your exclusive source of random plush toys. But the smug cat was still your favorite, if only for the nostalgia factor. You had a distinct feeling this ugly bunny might become a close second in your wicked heart. You wondered what Satoru would think of it. He’d probably make some snide comment about how it was almost as ugly as you were, or how it looked like something that had been run over by a truck. But you knew that deep down, he’d be jealous that he hadn’t been the one to give it to you. Because if there was one thing that Satoru hated more than anything else, it was not being the center of your attention.

As you casually played with the bunny abomination, Nanami shot you an incredulous glare from where he wrestled his amorphous blob-beast. The shapeshifting horror managed to land a glancing blow, making him grit his teeth before growling out, “Why is yours not even trying to attack? Did Kusakabe-sensei forget to activate it or what?”

You couldn’t blame Nanami for being a bit salty. After all, he was getting his ass kicked by a sentient blob, while you were just chilling with your bunny.

You turned to him with a lazy shrug, the picture of regal poise even as the stuffed monstrosities wreaked havoc around you. “Because I’m doing it right.”

His eyes narrowed suspiciously, gaze flickering down to scrutinize the shadows at your feet, as if expecting you to be pulling some trick with your technique. “I’m not cheating, if that’s what you’re wondering,” you scoffed at the implication.

To prove your point, you tossed the bunny up into the air. As soon as it left your grasp – cut off from the constant stream of cursed energy you’d been feeding into it – its eyes flared a malevolent red. Its paws started swinging wildly in your direction, cleaving through the air with unnatural speed and force. But then you snatched it back down in one fluid motion, re-establishing that energy flow, and the bunny promptly settled back into a harmless flop in your hand, returned to inanimate plushie status.

Nanami’s jaw dropped, eyes wide with disbelief at your casual display of control. “How are you doing that so easily?”

Haibara leaned over, sporting a fresh crop of teddy-inflicted bruises, to gape admiringly. “That’s so cool…” He didn’t get to finish the thought before the cursed bear landed another stinging blow to his unguarded side, driving the air from his lungs with a wheeze. That had to hurt.

You waved the now-docile bunny around. “Been doing the same basic cursed energy control exercises since I was six years old. It gets easier the more you practice.”

Motioning for the guys to bring their chairs closer, you offered, “Come here, I’ll show you.”

They struggled to reposition while still wrestling against the relentless onslaught from the enraged plushie monsters. But finally, through sheer grit and determination, they managed to get situated on either side of you.

You focused on Nanami first, reaching out to lay your palm flat against the taut plane of his lower abdomen. He startled at the sudden contact, abdominal muscles going rigid under your touch. But he couldn’t shake you off – too preoccupied fending off the malicious blob-thing’s attacks. It was a bit of a power trip. Not that you were enjoying it or anything. Definitely not.

“What are you doing?” he ground out, sweat beading on his brow from the exertion of containing the shapeshifting horror. You could hear the strain in his voice, like he was one wrong move away from losing control completely.

“Checking your cursed energy flow,” you explained, your even tone a contrast to his strained desperation. “I don’t have the Six Eyes, so I need the physical contact to sense the flow properly.”

Nanami held himself ramrod straight and still as your hand slowly mapped a path up along the firm ridges of his torso to his chest before trailing down the contoured muscles of one arm. You hummed thoughtfully, taking in the feel of how his energy moved and pulsed through his body. A turbulent river, all choppy waves and unpredictable currents.

Then you turned to repeat the same examination with Haibara. He was just as tightly coiled, whether from the teddy bear’s onslaught or your appraising touch was unclear. Once finished, you leaned back, gaze flickering between the two of them with a considering look.

“You guys are approaching this all wrong,” you shook your head. “You’re too focused on the precise point of contact where you’re holding the plushies. But it’s not like that. Proper control starts from regulating the energy flow throughout your entire body.”

It was a concept that had taken you years to master, but once you got the hang of it, it became second nature.

You met their eyes levelly. “Stop clutching your plushies so tightly and direct that focus inward instead. Try it.”

You didn’t expect them to get it right away, but you figured it was worth a shot.

Nanami looked skeptical but gave a tight nod. “Okay.” The doubt was written all over his face, but at least he was willing to give it a shot.

As soon as he loosened his grip on the amorphous blob-beast, it immediately seized the opportunity to launch itself upward, bonking him on the forehead with a solid thwack.

“Dammit!” Nanami cursed, flinching back and clutching at the already reddening spot with a wince. Frustration radiated off him in waves.

Beside him, Haibara burst out laughing at Nanami’s misfortune, only for the teddy bear to take ruthless advantage of his distraction and land a stinging jab square to his nose. He recoiled with a pained grunt, hand coming away smeared with blood from his now crooked nose. That teddy bear had a mean right hook.

“This… isn’t working,” Nanami groaned, gingerly rubbing his throbbing forehead. The defeat in his eyes made something twist uncomfortably in your chest.

Haibara managed a bloodied grin, somehow still appearing unduly chipper despite his increasingly battered state. “Maybe we just need some more practice?” His optimism was admirable, though completely misplaced.

You eyed his rapidly accumulating bruises, split lip, and now crooked nose with thinly veiled skepticism. “At this rate, you won’t survive long enough for more practice to matter.”

If they kept going like this, they’d be lucky to make it out of the classroom alive. But then a realization seemed to click into place in your mind. You squinted at them, taking in their pained grimaces and clumsy attempts at plushy combat. “Wait… Do either of you understand how cursed energy circulates and flows through the body? Can you sense your own pathways?”

Nanami hesitated, lips pressed into a tight line before admitting, “...Kind of?”

Haibara looked like he wanted to run an embarrassed hand through his disheveled hair but thought better of releasing the murderous teddy bear. “It’s like...a burning feeling through our veins, right?”

You sighed, shaking your head. That certainly explained a lot about their complete lack of progress so far. You had forgotten the crucial detail that some people did have a normal childhood. Nanami and Haibara were both from civilian families. Of course, they hadn’t gotten any foundational lessons and had been relying solely on instincts this whole time.

“Give me those,” you held out both hands. It was time to take matters into your own hands before they got themselves murdered by plushies.

Haibara hesitated, “Isn’t that cheating though?” He eyed you warily, like he was afraid you were going to steal his precious teddy bear.

You firmly extracted the stuffed terror from his grasp before he could argue further. “No. I’m just holding them for you while I show you how to control your cursed energy properly.”

Which was something Kusakabe really should have walked them through before unleashing these sad*stic plush demons. You may need to reconsider his teaching abilities.

Taking Nanami’s indistinct blob-thing as well, you gathered all three cursed corpses into your lap, freeing your hands. Immediately, the plushies settled into quiescence, their previous fury and malice appeased by the steady energy you were now feeding into them.

Nanami’s brow crunched as he watched the misshapen horrors sit harmlessly, no longer trying to maul them into oblivion. “You can just… hold all three like that at once? On your lap?”

You nodded. “You’ll be able to do the same once you understand.”

Reaching out one hand toward Nanami, you opened your palm and directed a small trickle of your cursed energy to pool there. “Try to sense my cursed energy.”

Nanami stretched his own hand out tentatively, hovering just over your open palm without making direct contact, as if afraid he’d be burned on the slightest touch. He was being overdramatic again. It’s not like you hadn’t held hands before.

Letting out an exasperated sigh, you grabbed his hand and pulled it flush against your own, stating bluntly, “Stop being weird about it. You’re not Gojo Satoru. Hold my hand properly or you won’t get the sense of it right.”

Nanami’s cheeks flushed red, but he didn’t protest as you turned to offer your other palm open toward Haibara. “You too. Get a feel.”

Haibara complied without hesitation, the calloused skin of his palm pressing against yours in firm contact. You waited patiently as they concentrated, eyes closed and brows furrowed in intense focus, trying their best to sense the little pools of cursed energy collected on your palms.

After giving them a few minutes, you prompted, “Can you sense my cursed energy?”

Nanami nodded, eyes still closed as he maintained his focused state. “Yes.”

“Describe what it feels like to you then,” you instructed.

“It’s…” Nanami’s brow furrowed deeper as he struggled to find the right descriptors. “Cool and smooth? With an underlying sort of velvet-like texture to the flow. Like… water over rich fabric.”

Haibara chimed in next, “Yeah, I get that too. But there’s also, like, an almost tart sharpness to it. And something… smoky? Almost like a faint campfire smell.”

You hummed in acknowledgment, pleased they were picking up on the nuances. “Good. Everyone’s cursed energy has a distinct quality. Yours will feel different from mine.” Giving their hands a gentle squeeze, you continued, “Now contrast the feeling of my energy against your own.”

You let them continue holding your hands for a few more minutes, waiting patiently as they concentrated on separating the sensations – your cursed energy against the feel of their own thrumming through their bodies.

Eventually, Haibara’s eyes fluttered open again. “Okay, I think I’ve got a grasp on the difference now,” he said with a firm nod, looking proud of himself.

Nanami opened his eyes as well, that stupidly endearing look of intense focus melting into something more… lingering as he seemed reluctant to release your hand when you pulled back. He almost clung for an awkward beat, fingertips grazing your palm, before finally letting go. Weird, considering his initial dramatic reservations about the mere prospect of skin contact. You eyed him for a moment, then shrugged it off, letting his strange behavior slide for now. Bigger fish to fry at the moment.

Turning your focus to Haibara, you jabbed your index finger at the spot just below his navel.

“Cursed energy originates and pools here in the lower abdomen, the body’s core,” you launched into lecture mode, letting your fingertip linger against the taut plane of his stomach as you gave the area an appreciative prod that made his muscles twitch reflexively. “From this central reserve, it then branches outward along different meridian-like pathways throughout the entire body.”

To illustrate, you traced an exploratory path with a feather-light touch. Guiding your fingertip up along the defined ridges of Haibara’s torso, you could sense the faint thrumming of his energy just beneath the surface as you reached his shoulder. Trailing across it, you glided down the length of that arm in one slow, deliberate stroke. Then you reversed course, mapping back up to his chest and hovering just over the steady thump of his heart for a contemplative beat, before continuing the invisible line up the column of his throat to the side of his neck.

“The specifics of the paths vary somewhat for each individual,” you explained, channeling your inner Kusakabe. “But they all follow similar overarching routes.”

Kusakabe should be proud of you. Perhaps you would press him for some praise later.

Haibara shivered involuntarily under your touch, the fine hairs along his nape rising in prickled goosebumps as your fingertip grazed that sensitive skin. You poked him sharply in the sternum to regain his wandering focus.

“Same principle applies to the major paths through the lower body too. Got it?” You asked. “Do you need me to map it out for you?”

Haibara and Nanami had been incredibly dedicated to your hellish training regimen (much to your utter misery). You supposed you could at least give them the same patience and support. You were putting in the effort to be a good friend. But for some reason, Haibara swallowed thickly at your offer while Nanami looked scandalized by the very suggestion.

“N-no no, I’m good! I got the picture clearly,” Haibara assured quickly, rubbing at the back of his neck in a nervous gesture as a flush crept up toward his hairline.

“Okay,” you nodded before turning to Nanami. “How about you?”

Nanami looked like he was about to have an aneurysm. His face was beet red, and you could practically see the steam coming out of his ears. “I’m good. There’s no need…” He shot a pointed look to Haibara, who was suddenly shifting uncomfortably in his seat.

You stared at them, confused, but didn’t press the issue. Mother said men were irrational. So you decided to just accept these two the way they were. Like the unconditional acceptance they had offered you.

“Very well then,” you clasped your hands together, all business. “Now try directing the flow of your cursed energy down into your palms. But as you’re doing that, pay close attention to how it moves and circulates through all those pathways in your body to get there. Maintain control over the entire energy flow, don’t just focus on your hands.”

Haibara and Nanami both nodded seriously and turned their concentration inward, carefully following your instructions. You gave them some space to wrestle with their cursed energy.

Your own focus drifted back to the trio of ugly plushies settled complacently in your lap. You idly played with rearranging them, deciding that yes – the mangled bunny monster should definitely be in the prime center position, flanked by the demonic teddy bear horror on the left and the indistinct blob-thing on the right. It just felt… right and balanced that way, same as how you naturally situated yourself between Haibara and Nanami – the optimal spot for them to shower you with their undivided attention.

After a few tense moments, Haibara suddenly threw one fist up with an excited grunt. “Aha! I think I’ve got it!”

He eagerly snatched the teddy bear out of its place in your curated plush arrangement… only for the stuffed terror to immediately clock him square in the nose again with one flying paw. You deftly plucked the bear back before it could do any further damage.

Nanami muttered under his breath, “There has to be a better way to learn this that doesn’t involve getting repeatedly punched in the face.”

As you settled the teddy bear back into its proper place beside the bunny in your lap, you stated evenly, “There is another approach we can try, yes.”

Both Haibara and Nanami perked up at the prospect of an alternative training method that didn’t involve sustaining repeated impacts to their facial regions. Their eyes settled on you with renewed hope. It almost made you feel guilty for not suggesting it sooner.

You made a circular motion between the three of you. “Let’s try this as a game instead. We’ll join hands and project our cursed energy in a clockwise loop, continuously flowing it between us. The goal is to maintain that shared energy flow for as long as possible without disruptions.”

Nanami seemed put off by the idea of prolonged hand-holding, a grumpy pout settling over his features like a petulant preschooler. But he grudgingly agreed with a resigned huff. “Okay, I guess we can try it…”

Haibara, on the other hand, eagerly held out both hands toward you and Nanami, eyes bright. “Ooh, that does sound kinda fun! Let’s do it!”

You realized you liked it when Haibara got all excited like that. It was a cute look. Even if that excitement often led to him getting punched in the face by cursed plushies.

As they linked hands to form the circle, you pulled out a marker from your pocket with a flourish, holding it up while fixing them with a borderline manic expression. “You know what? I think we need to raise the stakes here a little.”

Nanami squinted at you suspiciously, his wary gaze darting from the marker to your cold smirk and back again. “Why do you just… casually have a marker on you like that?”

You shrugged, as if it should be obvious. “To draw on your face when you let your guard down.”

Haibara barked out a surprised laugh at your perfectly deadpan response while Nanami seemed torn between amusem*nt and trepidation, unable to tell whether you were joking or not. Truth be told, you weren’t entirely sure yourself at that moment.

“Here are the rules,” you declared, wiggling the marker around meaningfully. “Whoever disrupts the shared energy flow gets a mark on their face as punishment.”

With that ominous addendum, you grabbed their hands to link the circle, kicking off the flow of cursed energy. The first few rounds went by quickly, Haibara immediately racking up a messy series of crude squiggles decorating his already bruised face. But as the game progressed, he adapted, getting better and better at maintaining his regulation and focus.

Then it was Nanami’s turn to receive your creative illustrations. He scowled as you gleefully drew a misshapen rendition of the ugly patchwork bunny plush right on the center of his forehead when his concentration slipped for just a split second.

Haibara couldn’t stop snickering every time he glanced over at the crudely drawn bunny caricature now prominently adorning Nanami’s forehead. This proved to be his undoing as his uncontrolled laughter relentlessly broke his own faltering focus, disrupting the shared energy flow. You evened the juvenile playing field with an equally garish bunny scribbled across Haibara’s own forehead. Nanami, ever one for dramatic flair and petty retaliation, proceeded to snort derisively right in Haibara’s face in response.

As the three of you re-joined hands to continue the game, Haibara shot your pristine face a melodramatic pout. “This game isn’t fair. I’m at a disadvantage here,” he complained, feigning offense. “So I’m going to make things more challenging for you, Eri.”

Not waiting for your agreement, Haibara abruptly launched into a terribly off-key, grating pop song, his strained voice hitting notes like nails on a chalkboard. Haibara knew you despised his banshee-like “singing” with every fiber of your being. The scheming idiot was blatantly trying to get an angry rise out of you now to sabotage your concentration.

Too bad for Haibara that you didn’t have the same difficulties controlling your emotional responses as them normal people. It was Nanami who cracked first under the auditory torture, kicking viciously out at Haibara’s shin with a snarled “Stop that right now, you baboon!”

Of course, this only spurred Haibara to sing even louder and more obnoxiously in childish defiance, raising his voice to an ear-splitting wail.

The absurd sight of them – faces decorated with fresh bruises and your silly doodles, grudgingly holding hands in this weird circle… one scowling and grumbling curses, the other intentionally tortured you all with his grating singsong – it was such an unhinged scene that you couldn’t stifle the bright peal of laughter that bubbled up from your chest.

The unexpected sound made them both freeze, their squabbling forgotten in an instant. Their concentration on the game completely shattered as they turned to gape at you with comical expressions of surprise.

At that moment, it was as if they were truly seeing you for the very first time.

Haibara’s gaze softened as he took in the sight of your face alight with joy. “Damn, Eri…” he murmured, sounding almost reverent. “I don’t think I’ve ever actually heard you laugh before.”

You bit your lip in a futile attempt to rein in the lingering laughter that still wanted to spill forth. The genuine sound seemed to entrance Haibara, his own expression melting into one of undisguised affection.

Beside him, Nanami remained silent, but his gaze was locked on you, drinking you in like he was witnessing something truly wondrous. A small smile ghosted his lips as his indifferent mask slipped entirely, replaced by an awestruck look.

The tender spell was broken as you cleared your throat, “Maybe you’re just not funny, Yu,” you countered, even as the rare mirth lingered in the corners of your lips.

Haibara chuckled, shaking his head slowly. “Or maybe I need to keep up the singing performances more often if you clearly liked it that much.”

Without warning, he launched right back into his shrill impersonation of singing, sounding even more obnoxiously off-key and wavering – leaning into being as grating as humanly possible this time around.

Nanami groaned and tried to yank his hand away from Haibara’s in disgust. “I’ll kick your ass for real if you don’t shut up with that infernal racket right now, I swear to god…”

But Haibara was being a little sh*t. He just clung on tighter to Nanami’s hand, continuing his unrelenting sonic assault. You rolled your eyes at their escalating antics before uncapping the marker again and leaning forward to decorate both of their stupid faces with more nonsensical scribbles. If they were going to act like rowdy children, you’d treat them as such. At least, you were being fair with your artistry.

“There, much better,” you nodded in satisfaction, surveying your latest masterpiece as you added a few more wobbly strokes across their cheeks. “You two look more accurate to your maturity levels like this.”

The ridiculous doodles they were now rocking like badges of kindergarten vandalism only made Haibara’s terrible singing face even more hilarious and over-the-top. You felt another peal of laughter trying to break free, this one suffused with a peculiar warmth you couldn’t quite put a name to.

And of course, that was the exact sight Kusakabe walked back in on – the three of you sitting in a lopsided circle, hands still linked, Haibara and Nanami’s faces now thoroughly covered in your doodles like they were five-year-olds.

Haibara was midway through what must have been his 15th straight eardrum violation of a pop song by then, face all scrunched up in an abysmal attempt at matching the high notes. Nanami looked about two seconds away from completely flying off the handle into unbridled violence, and yet somehow he still gripped both your hands tightly, almost desperately, like they were the only tethers keeping him grounded to reality.

Meanwhile, you were doubled over from the force of helpless giggles consuming you, shoulders shaking with mirth that showed no signs of letting up anytime soon.

Kusakabe stopped dead in his tracks the moment he stepped through the doorway, taking in the bizarre scenario with a dumbfounded expression. “What is this? A kindergarten?” he sputtered incredulously.

You managed to gasp out a reply, voice still thick with laughter. “We’re… practicing.”

Haibara finally cut off his torturous vocals just long enough to holler over at Kusakabe enthusiastically. “You should join in too, sensei! It’s mad fun, I swear!”

Realizing he was outnumbered and outmatched by your combined nonsense, Kusakabe just dropped his head into one hand, letting out a deep, exhausted sigh of dismay. “You kids just… go ahead and keep… doing whatever this is, I guess.” He waved his free hand in a defeated gesture of surrender.

Kusakabe looked like he was seriously reconsidering every single life choice that had led him to this particular moment. He seemed in desperate need of an entire pack of cigarettes – no, make that three packs – just to begin clawing his way back toward any semblance of sanity.

With one last bone-deep sigh that seemed to emanate from the very depths of his soul, he turned and started trudging his tired self right back the way he came in, already dreading whatever fresh circle of hell would greet him whenever he dared return and face the three of you again.

But in the end, despite you providing zero logical explanation or justification, you still somehow got to keep all three of those nightmarish plushie abominations. You didn’t even have to pull any of your mind games. Kusakabe just took one look at you sitting there – face still glowing with the warmth of that laughter fit, arms wrapped protectively around those plush horrors all neatly arranged in your lap – and he caved.

“Just this one time, you hear me Eri? You’re not getting away with anything else,” he muttered in a weak attempt at laying down the law, perhaps already knowing it was an empty threat the moment the words left his lips.

You would later find out over the four years of being his most notorious nightmare student, that dismissive warning was straight-up a blatant lie on his part. Because poor Kusakabe would indeed end up letting you constantly get away with so much other ridiculous nonsense as he steadily developed a hopeless sort of Stockholm syndrome affection toward your particular brand of madness.

And those freaky plushies? Well, they ended up permanently enshrined on the bookshelf in your dorm room for the remainder of your time at Tokyo Jujutsu High, always displayed in that same peculiar order – the bunny horror holding court in the center position, flanked by the demonic teddy bear on one side and the indistinct blob-thing abomination on the other.

They would remain that way for the entirety of your studies there, proudly guarding over your space in their assigned spots. Until finally, when you would graduate and move into your new home, they would come right along too without question. Inseparable. Always together forever after, as they were meant to be.

Notes:

Why settle for a love triangle when we can have a love circle? (. ❛ ᴗ ❛.)
Seriously though, I'm still toying with this idea, so I'm not entirely sure how it'll turn out. Guess we'll see haha.

Chapter 10

Summary:

Why choose?

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Everyone knew that being a sorcerer was a tough gig. But being a sorcerer and a woman? That was like playing life on the most brutal difficulty setting imaginable, with the game developers gleefully piling on extra challenges just for the sheer sad*stic fun of it.

As another merciless wave of pain coursed through your lower abdomen, you contemplated calling Mother and demanding an explanation. Why hadn’t she included a clause in that heavenly restriction pack to ensure you were born a man? Surely, that would have made things much more bearable. But then again, heavenly restrictions probably didn’t work that way, and it wasn’t like you had any particular fondness for male species anyway. The pain just had a way of making you cranky as hell and devolving your thought process into irrational caveman logic.

Your uterus was staging a revolt against your better judgment. In your current miserable state, you were willing to go to great lengths to rid yourself of this uniquely female affliction. The idea of setting up some sketchy ancient jujutsu ritual and selling your soul to a primordial demon almost seemed like a reasonable plan of attack – desperate times and all that. But then you remembered that you didn’t have a soul to begin with. What else could an ancient evil possibly want in exchange for alleviating your suffering?

Firstborns, perhaps? That would be far too much trouble. Procuring a male assistant wouldn’t be too difficult in this testosterone-laden environment, but enduring the pain of childbirth would defeat the purpose entirely. You quickly dismissed the idea.

Maybe virgin blood sacrifice would suffice. Now that was a somewhat more plausible avenue. You wondered if Haibara or Nanami still fit the criteria. You’d have to ask them, though. If they did, all would be well. The ritual scrolls never really specified if it had to be female or male virgins, so you chose to interpret that ambiguity in your favor. Plus, you were confident that both Haibara and Nanami would be more than willing to donate several liters of blood for your noble cause.

As you lay there marinating in your suffering, your frazzled mind continued to concoct increasingly ridiculous solutions to your predicament. At least you had the foresight to ask Kusakabe to help you upgrade from the dingy, standard-issue dorm bed to a proper queen-size with a fancy mattress.

When you first approached Kusakabe with the reasonable request, he looked at you like you’d just asked him to hand over his firstborn child. Perhaps you should have – then at least you’d already have something juicy to bargain with in your quest to appease the ancient evil over this whole monthly torture.

“I’m your teacher, Eri. I’m not here to run your errands,” he had said, his tone cold and his eyes narrowed in a disapproving glare, as if he were scolding a petulant child.

But you knew just how to handle the situation and you had a few well-practiced tricks up your sleeve. Fixing him with your most endearing look, eyes wide and innocent, like you were a fluffy little lamb who’d never done anything wrong in your life. Your lips were slightly parted to maximize the plush poutiness. An expression carefully crafted to make even the most hardened warriors want to protect you and grant your every wish. A trick Mother had taught you well. And you had to admit, it came in handy way more often than you’d like to acknowledge.

In your softest, most gentle whisper, you unleashed the first strike, “But the dorm bed is so small, and the mattress is harder than a rock. My back hurts so bad, I can barely sleep at night.” You allowed your voice to crack ever so slightly on that last bit.

As predicted, Kusakabe’s tough exterior began to crumble. His stern glare melted away into something distinctly squishier, and an adorable shade of pink crept across his cheeks as he averted his eyes. Perhaps, he was embarrassed to be caught in the act of actually caring about your well-being. How tragically sweet.

“It works for everyone else,” he deflected gruffly. “It’s been like that for years, Eri. Besides, a queen-size bed would take up most of your tiny room. You wouldn’t have any space left to, you know, actually live in.”

You could smell blood in the water – victory was close. You just needed to apply a bit more pressure. Now that you were used to Kusakabe and didn’t find him quite so scary anymore, this manipulation game was a piece of cake. You stepped in nice and close, getting all up in his personal space like a salesman who wouldn’t take no for an answer. A slight bite of your lip, a subtle bat of your lashes, and you deployed your greatest weapon: the dreaded puppy-dog eyes, a move that had brought even cantankerous Nanami whimpering to his knees.

“Just because it’s always been a certain way doesn’t mean it can’t get better, right?” you cajoled softly. “And who needs all that extra floor space anyway? It’s not like I’m going to be hosting parties in there.” You leaned in fractionally closer on your tiptoes, your breath fanning across his flushed face. “Having a good bed will really help with my training. I’ll be so much more rested and focused, and I won’t have to worry about my back pain distracting me from my studies.”

The intoxicating combination of your gentle words and your face being straight-up uncomfortably close to his was simply too much for poor Kusakabe. “Fine,” he groaned in surrender, taking a hasty step backward as if he were afraid you might actually start climbing him like a tree. “I’ll see what I can do.”

You nodded, dropping the saccharine act faster than a hot potato, your expression resetting to cool and composed in the blink of an eye. “Excellent. I’ll send you the design and model I want. Give me your account number while you’re at it, I’ll wire you the money. Make sure they offer same-day delivery. I refuse to spend one more night on that medieval torture device you all consider acceptable bedding around here.”

And that, was how you managed to score your very own slice of heaven in the form of a luxurious queen-size bed, complete with a fancy-schmancy mattress and fluffy pillows that made you feel like you were floating on a cloud even in the throes of menstrual cramp-induced agony – all thanks to your persuasion and Kusakabe’s ever-growing case of Stockholm syndrome.

The sound of approaching footsteps outside your door drew your attention. Ah, there were your darling torturers, Nanami and Haibara – no doubt arriving with the sad*stic intention of dragging you to another pre-dawn training session straight out of the ninth circle of hell. Ever since Haibara got his ass thoroughly whipped by Shoko, he’d toned down his morning songbird routine a smidge. These days, he only started his ear-splitting hollering once he’d actually set foot in your room, which was a small mercy, but a mercy nonetheless.

Nanami slapped the door open with the force of a man on a mission, strolling into your room like he was the king of the castle. “Come on, Eri! Time to—” His words died a tragic death in his throat as he took in the sight of you, wide awake and glaring at him with the intensity of a thousand suns concentrated in the eyes of a royally pissed-off sunflower.

“No training today. Go away,” you said flatly, each clipped syllable dripping with volatile irritation.

Now, here’s the thing about you – you’d always had a bit of a… demanding edge to your personality. A sort of low-key brazen rudeness and lack of social filters. It was just your default setting, like a house cat that constantly looked like it was mere moments away from finally succeeding in its quest for world domination through sheer ornery disdain. But you were never outright nasty or aggressive, as those required expending actual emotional energy, which you simply didn’t have access to. At least, not the usual sorts.

So, Haibara and Nanami were taken aback by the sheer crankiness radiating from your face, which was scrunched up like you’d just caught a whiff of something particularly foul, like the unholy fusion of Haibara’s sweaty socks and Nanami’s week-old leftovers.

Haibara, bless his pure little heart, bravely navigated the obstacle course of discarded clothes and random crap littering your cramped room, dodging stray objects with all the agility of an elite ninja. He perched tentatively on the edge of your plush mattress, the memory foam dipping to accommodate his weight. “Hey, what’s up? You okay? You don’t look so—”

Nanami, master of tact and social graces that he wasn’t, decided to finish that thought for Haibara. “You look like roadkill, Eri. Like you got run over by a bus, and then the bus driver panicked and put it in reverse to make sure the job was done properly.”

You slowly turned your smoldering death glare on Nanami, your eyes narrowed to slits so thin, you could barely make out the details of his stupid, stupid face. “Wow, you sure know how to make a girl feel special, don’t you? With sweet talk like that, I can’t imagine why the ladies aren’t literally lining up around the block just to bask in your sparkling charm and elegant way with words.”

Now you were absolutely certain – Nanami most assuredly still fit the criteria for your blood sacrifice ritual. There was simply no plausible way he could have escaped Terminal Virgin status with that sparkling personality and flair for romantic eloquence. He responded to your biting sarcasm with a derisive snort, tragically unaware that you were already mentally jotting his name down on your sacrifice ritual prep list.

Haibara frowned with concern at your uncharacteristic level of acidic hostility. He reached out to touch your forehead, probably trying to check if you were running a fever or some other ailment behind this mercurial shift in temperament. “You’re not feeling well?”

You recoiled from his outstretched hand. Normally, you didn’t mind Haibara’s gentle touches – in fact, you kind of enjoyed it, not that you’d ever tell him. But right now, you were in too much suffering to tolerate any physical contact, even from your favorite person. Besides, your body temperature was naturally a lot cooler than the average person, so he couldn’t check for a fever that way anyway. It was like trying to measure the temperature of a popsicle – utterly pointless.

“Go away,” you repeated.

Nanami scowled, crossing his arms over his chest. “What’s wrong with you now? You’re acting even weirder than usual.”

Oh, if only he knew. There were so many things fundamentally wrong with you, it would take a lifetime to list them all. You’d probably need to write a multi-volume series just to scratch the surface, and even then, you’d barely be scratching the tip of the dysfunctional iceberg that was your existence. You shrunk back into the mattress, turning your back on them as you wrapped your blanket tighter around yourself, creating a cocoon of misery and self-pity that would put even the most emo of caterpillars to shame.

“I’m actively bleeding and in debilitating pain right now,” you said, your voice muffled by the blanket that you’d pulled up to your nose. “If you don’t want to end up the same way, stay away from me for the next three days.”

Haibara and Nanami stood there, twin expressions of stunned incomprehension, their mouths hanging open like a pair of stranded fish. They had no idea how to handle your sudden bout of world-class bitchiness. Which was understandable, considering they’d never seen you in such a state before.

Haibara tried again. “Eri…” His voice sounded much closer now, and you could feel the mattress dip even further as he leaned in over you.

Sweet merciful gods above. If the poor fool actually dared to flip you over, you would stab him. For real this time, no more hollow threats. You would sacrifice his ass right here, right now, regardless of whether he met the virgin blood criteria or not. You were pretty sure the ancient evils would make an exception for you, given your extenuating circ*mstances.

Luckily for Haibara’s continued well-being – not to mention what remained of your rapidly deteriorating sanity – the door creaked open again, and Shoko swanned gracefully into your chaotic den after your SOS text. She held a tray in her hands, balancing it with the skill of a seasoned waitress.

“Out of my way, you idiots,” she complained, elbowing Haibara and Nanami aside like they were little more than a pair of pesky flies buzzing around her face. “Good gods, Eri. What’s with the ginormous bed? There’s barely any room to walk in here.”

She deftly maneuvered across the maze and placed the tray on your desk, the contents rattling slightly as she set it down. Then, she turned her attention to the guys, hands on hips as she shooed them away.

“Back off, simpletons. Training can wait. Stop bothering my girl, or I’ll make you bleed too. In ways you never thought possible.”

Haibara gulped nervously at the threat. Nanami, on the other hand, stuttered out, “Oh... so it’s that time of the month, huh…” He sounded like he’d rather face a horde of cursed spirits than deal with the mysteries of the female body.

Shoko clapped her hands impatiently, the sound echoing in the small room. “She’s on her period, yes. If you can’t even say that word out loud without blushing like a schoolgirl, you have no business being here. Now leave, before I physically remove you myself.”

Nanami, always so argumentative, puffed out his chest in a sad attempt to look bigger than he was as he tried to reason with her. “But can’t you just heal it? You’re a healer, aren’t you? Wave your magic hands and make it better or something.”

Shoko huffed, her patience wearing thinner than a piece of single-ply toilet paper. “There’s no wound or injury to heal, you absolute walnut. Did you even pay attention in Biology class, or were you too busy staring at the pictures of naked bodies?”

Haibara finally seemed to find his voice, mouth opening, either to defend Nanami’s honor or argue that, unlike his intellectually challenged friend, he had paid attention during those formative lessons. But Shoko was having none of it. She booted their asses out of the door with the efficiency of a bouncer at an exclusive nightclub, slamming the door behind them with a satisfying thud.

You let out a sigh of relief, silently thanking any benevolent forces in the universe that saw fit to put Shoko in your life. She was like the older sister you never had (you did have many blood sisters, but they were rather murderous and generally unpleasant), always ready to kick ass on your behalf whenever the situation called for it.

With a feather-light touch, Shoko rested her hand on your shoulder. “Up and at ‘em, princess. Time to get some food in you,” she said, her voice soft but firm.

You grumbled but complied, stiffly pushing yourself to a sitting position, your back pressed against the headboard. The movement caused a fresh wave of pain to ripple through your abdomen, and you had to bite back a groan.

Shoko deposited a bowl of porridge into your hands, the temperature just right. As you started slurping away, unconcerned with the bits of porridge that dribbled down your chin, Shoko asked, “So have you, like… actually seen a doctor about all this? Do you clan folks even visit doctors, or do you just rely on ancient jujutsu and sacrificial rituals?”

You almost snorted porridge out of your nose at her little jab – a tragedy, as it would’ve been a criminal waste of perfectly good food. “Of course,” you said, wiping your mouth with the back of your hand. “My mother took me to a few hospitals and clinics. Got all checked up. No medical issues or physical abnormalities flagged. Doctors said it’d get better once I’m all grown up. And give birth or something like that.” You rolled your eyes at the memory, because clearly, the solution to all women’s problems was to push a watermelon-sized object out of your body.

Shoko nodded, her expression sympathetic. “Yeah, tough luck, I guess. Some of us just have it bad when it comes to these things.”

You spoke through a mouthful of porridge, not bothering with good manners now that it was just you and Shoko. “I wish I was a man.” Your words were slightly garbled by the food in your mouth, but still comprehensible enough.

Shoko chuckled, the sound warm and comforting. “Men have their own troubles, princess. Believe me, I’ve seen enough of them to know.”

You sniffed, unconvinced. “Men play this whole life thing on easy mode. If I had been born a boy, I’d have been named heir to my clan already, and I wouldn’t have to deal with this monthly torture.”

Shoko raised a perfectly shaped brow, her expression skeptical. “Do you even want to become your clan’s leader?”

You pushed the porridge around in your bowl, watching as it formed little swirls and patterns like some sort of abstract art piece. “No,” you admitted, your voice small and defeated. “That’d be terrible. I’d have been stuck with my elders all the time, listening to their ramblings and attending stuffy meetings.”

Shoko bopped your nose playfully, a mischievous grin spreading across her face. “See? And if you were a dude, you couldn’t be my best girlfriend anymore. We wouldn’t be able to have sleepovers and talk about boys and paint each other’s nails.”

“But then I could be your boyfriend instead,” you countered. “I’d make a better boyfriend than Satoru.”

Shoko made a choked sound, her eyes going wide with surprise. “What… Why would you bring up that prick?” she spluttered, taken aback.

You continued eating your porridge, unfazed by her reaction. “He likes you, and you like him,” you stated matter-of-factly, your logic impeccable as always. “People who like each other become boyfriend and girlfriend, don’t they?”

But Shoko wrinkled her nose, her expression one of disgust. “Who the hell told you I like him?” she demanded, her voice rising in pitch.

You tilted your head, “Well, when we first met, the first thing you asked me was to tell you things about him,” you reminded her. “You were grilling me for information like a detective interrogating a suspect. I thought you were going to shine a lamp in my face and play good cop/bad cop.”

Shoko threw up her hands, exasperated – as if having a conversation with you was more exhausting than running back-to-back marathons. “To use it against him!” she exclaimed. “Know your enemy! That kind of stuff! Not because I like him! Geez, Eri, get your mind out of the gutter!”

You watched in mild amusem*nt as Shoko’s face reddened slightly, though you decided to drop the matter. Shoko was far too good for an arrogant jackass like Satoru anyway. He probably spent more time admiring his own reflection than actually paying attention to her.

“Okay then. Forget I said that,” you conceded.

But the seed had been planted, and Shoko seemed unwilling to let it go. “Hold up a minute though…” She leaned forward, pinning you with an intense look. “You sure he actually likes me? How do you know for certain? Did he say those exact words, or are you just inferring based on context clues?”

You shrugged, “I mean, I told you—”

“No, no, princess,” Shoko cut you off with a grimace, her hand held up in a “stop right there” gesture. “Just because that creep told you he wanted my legs wrapped around… certain parts of him doesn’t mean he likes me,” she said, her face turning an even deeper shade of mortified crimson. “Guys will say stupid perverted stuff like that without meaning anything by it. They think with their dicks, not their damn hearts.”

“No, it’s not just about the legs,” you shook your head. “You know he tells me pretty much everything that goes through his empty skull, right? He rambles about you constantly – every little detail and thing about you in that dreamy way only a totally smitten fool can manage. And you should see the way his whole face lights up like a Christmas tree on crack. Nobody talks about someone they don’t like that way.”

Shoko fell silent, her expression thoughtful as she absorbed this rather weighty revelation. For a moment, she almost seemed to be trying to solve some complex mathematical equation in her head.

Of course, you had no idea that this innocuous little tidbit that you had so blithely divulged was far more combustible than any of the gross gossip itself. That loose-lipped betrayal would incur Satoru’s ultimate wrath – and you’d be lucky if his petty vengeance merely involved endless years of merciless ribbing rather than outright attempts on your life. You might as well have signed your own death warrant.

After a momentary pensive silence, Shoko seemed to shake off her contemplation of your revelation. The thoughtful look vanished from her delicate features, replaced by that signature troublemaking grin that always spelled delicious danger.

“Alright, enough about that total asshat already,” she purred with a saucy wink. “What about you instead, huh?”

You answered with your usual candor, completely missing her point. “I like you too, Sho. You know that.”

Shoko gaped at you for a beat before letting out an aggravated noise, recovering enough to smack her own forehead in frustration. You suspected she would have whacked you as well if you weren’t already suffering enough as is.

“Good grief, that’s not what I meant at all, princess!” She exhaled a loud, long-suffering sigh. “I’m asking if you have a boy you like. You know, like a crush? A guy you think is cute and want to date? Or at least make out with in a broom closet or whatever?”

Ah, so she wanted to delve into that tantalizing variety of girl-talk. When you failed to respond immediately, Shoko began waggling her brows salaciously.

“What about those two doofuses always trailing after you? I’ve seen the heart-eyes both Haibara and Nanami make whenever you’re around. They’re clearly carrying a big ol’ throbbing torch for you.”

You nodded, indifferent to her teasing and oblivious to the undercurrents of her words. “Well, of course, they like me. What’s not to like?”

It was an objective statement of fact, said without arrogance or ego, like someone stating that the sky was blue or the grass was green. And yet, it still prompted Shoko to emit an inelegant snorting noise as if you had just told the funniest joke in the history of comedy.

“I absolutely cannot believe you just said that with a completely straight face, princess. Most people would at least have the decency to blush a little.”

“It’s the truth.”

Shoko made an exaggerated face of disgust, but wisely decided to pick her battles this time. Rather than fruitlessly arguing about your objective likeability as a person, she leaned in with a sly smirk.

“Okay, so they both like you a whole lot… but do you maybe like either of those dweebs back?”

You gave a simple, matter-of-fact nod. “They’re not entirely unpleasant.”

Which was about as glowingly positive an endorsem*nt as anyone could hope for from you. You tended to find most people somewhat off-putting by default – an inevitable side effect of growing up around 30 other Zen’ins. Not the most pleasant or personable bunch, that lot.

But Shoko was not satisfied with such a lukewarm non-answer. She made an impatient tsk sound, smacking her lips pointedly. “Oh come on now, you can be honest with your bestie! Do. You. Like them?” She stretched out the words slowly.

You nodded again, not comprehending her insistence. “Yes, I do like them.”

Yet again, your frank admission was met with an expectant stare from Shoko. She was waiting for… more. A deeper explanation, a hint of embarrassment, a breathless confession of burning desire – anything to indicate that you understood the full implications of her question.

Your expression remained blank and impassive, not even a hint of color staining your cheeks to breathe deeper meaning into your loaded statement. To you, liking someone was also a simple fact, no different from liking a particular food or enjoying a sunny day.

Then realization dawned on Shoko’s face as she processed just who she was dealing with here. If she wanted any real juicy gossip out of you, she would need to be extremely specific with her phrasing. Shoko took an audible breath before trying again, always persistent when it came to extracting salacious boy details.

“But do you like them like that? ” She inflected that final word with particular emphasis, bestowing upon it some significant meaning beyond your comprehension.

You stared at her, perplexed. “Like what?”

Shoko’s nostrils flared in escalating frustration. She threw up her hands dramatically. “I mean romantically! Or heck, even purely in a sexual way if that’s more to your speed! You know – do you want to actually be around them beyond just tolerating their existence? Do you get excited or look forward to seeing them? I don’t know, get all tingly or aroused or any of those other weird emotional things when they’re around? That kind of like!

Ahhh, so that’s what Shoko had been so doggedly trying to suss out of you this whole time. You took a moment to consider her far more specific question before answering.

“Well… I suppose so, in a sense.”

Shoko’s eyes lit up with the ravenous gleam of a predator zeroing in on its helpless prey. Leaning in even closer, she pounced with intrigue. “Oh? Do tell. How exactly do you like them, hmm? Spare no details, princess.”

You made a vague, circling motion with one hand as you clinically dissected and tackled each part of her inquiry.

“I do like being around them, for the most part. Though I can’t say I’m always excited to see them, you know – since their primary life purpose seems to be dragging me out of my nice warm bed for hellish training at some ungodly hour.” You allowed a slight grimace. “I might like them quite a bit more if they postponed practice to a more civilized noon hour or so.”

Shoko watched you intently, searching your blank expression for any telltale hints of flushed cheeks or starry-eyed swooning over the boys in question. Of course, there were none to be found. You simply weren’t wired for such overt displays of sappy infatuation – You just operated on an entirely different frequency from the rest of the world.

Moving on to the next part of her query, your brow furrowed slightly as you formulated an honest answer for the sake of Shoko’s nosiness. “As for feeling anything… strange around them? I’m not entirely certain. Sometimes, they amuse me. Other times, they can be quite vexing to the point where I want to stab them both and be done with the whole charade.”

Then, remembering Shoko had tacked on an extra “sexual” condition to her original inquiry, you added as a blunt afterthought: “And as far as finding physical attraction goes toward the male form, I don’t find them necessarily objectionable. They’re both tall and fit. Nice abs and all that.”

Clearly Shoko had been expecting a very different sort of enthusiastic, blushing, giggling response from her presumed “best girlfriend” when it came to boy talk and crushes. Too bad for her misguided assumptions – this was the brutally honest, emotionally removed Eri she was stuck with as a bestie.

Even though you had done your sincere level best to thoroughly answer each part of her question with as much eloquent detail as you could muster, Shoko’s expression was one of stunned bewilderment. Not the impressed, satisfied kind. More akin to someone wondering just what on earth they were supposed to do with the weird-ass creature that was you.

In a valiant attempt to feed her craving for at least some semblance of deliciously salacious gossip, you offered up what you hoped might better tantalize her prurient interests. “Oh, I will say that I do quite enjoy watching them spar together. The way their bodies strain and flex against each other is… intriguing to observe, for some reason I can’t pinpoint. It makes me want to step on them.”

Shoko squinted at you for a long moment before giving an exasperated sigh, likely resigning herself to the fact that this was simply the most tantalizing “girl talk” she was liable to get out of you. “Okay, okay, I get the general picture here…”

Absorbing all your candid insights, the relentless woman once again changed tack with a sly grin. “So which one do you actually like more, between the two of them?”

You shrugged. “I like them both just fine.”

Shoko shot you an incredulous look. “You can’t possibly like them both the exact same amount! There has to be one you have even the tiniest preference or inclination over the other, even if it’s subconscious.”

You tilted your head, utterly failing to grasp the nuances behind Shoko’s line of questioning. “But… Why does it matter?”

Shoko groaned loudly, slapping a palm over her face. “Because that’s just how these things work! You can’t split your feelings equally between multiple people!”

By now you had mostly finished slurping down the porridge, finally returning the empty bowl to Shoko with a contented sigh. “I seriously don’t get why you’re so fixated on making this into some bigger thing,” you stated, your tone calm and rational. “Nanami and Yu don’t seem to have any problem with the situation as it currently stands.”

Shoko accepted the dirty bowl, sliding over a bottle of water and a pack of Tylenol in exchange. “Oh, believe me when I tell you this princess, that carefree attitude is only because it’s still early days yet,” she insisted, tone taking on an uncharacteristic gentleness.

“But guys are allergic to sharing a girl’s affection long-term, you know? Sooner or later, probably way sooner than you think, they’re both gonna want you to lock it down and make a definitive choice between them.” She held up a hand as you opened your mouth to argue. “Trust me on this one, Eri. It’s gonna get real freakin’ ugly real quick once that jealousy starts hitting critical mass. I’m just trying to make sure you know what to expect here, ‘kay?”

You popped a couple of the offered pills, chasing them down with a swig of cool water and praying they would provide some relief from your brutal monthly curse. Though in your heart, you knew the medication was about as likely to alleviate this torment as that ancient blood ritual crap you’d contemplated earlier.

Truthfully, you couldn’t quite understand the core point Shoko seemed to be getting at here. Sure, you got that she was trying to look out for you with this whole “men are possessive creatures” spiel. But the very notion of having to “choose” between the things you liked – it made no sense in your perspective.

Your entire existence had been one of abundance and never wanting for anything. Mother had made absolutely certain of that. If you so much as looked twice at a pretty hairpin, you didn’t get just one – you got like five versions, minimum, all the designs and colors. Any new whim or idle fancy? Didn’t matter how frivolous or extravagant, it was granted without a second thought from the clan servants. So, by the same extension of logic, if you liked both Haibara’s sunshine idiocy and Nanami’s grumpy awkwardness, then why shouldn’t you have both?

You figured Mother wouldn’t have even blinked twice if you called her right now and declared you wanted two boyfriends. As long as you assured her you would still lock down Gojo Satoru as your main house-husband, she wouldn’t care one single whit about whatever dalliances you engaged with behind the scenes. After all, Mother never gave a damn about your father’s endless parade of mistresses and side-flings over the years – so long as Mother remained his legitimate wife. That’s how you got so many half sisters and half brothers you often lost track of their exact birth order or relation.

In your twisted little world, Shoko’s concerns seemed profoundly irrational and ultimately irrelevant. She wouldn’t understand things the way you saw them. Still, you appreciated that she cared enough about you to fret over these matters, misguided as they were. So you offered a placating nod, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. “Alright, I’ll… keep that in mind.”

It was the closest you could come to acknowledging her well-intentioned advice without actually committing to something you had no real concept of or inclination toward. Shoko would have to be satisfied with that half-hearted concession, for you had already moved on in your mind.

Shoko’s expression made it abundantly clear she wasn’t fooled for a second by your dismissive platitude. But taking pity on your current suffering, she seemed to decide to let you weird-ass entitled creature be for now.

Reaching out, she gave your cheek a sisterly pat. “Well then, you just rest up, princess. Got a heating pad or something for the cramps?”

You lifted up the edge of your blanket cocoon to reveal the hot water compress draped over your lower abdomen. “Got it covered, yeah.”

“Need me to swap out the water before I go?” Shoko asked.

You shook your head, already burrowing back into your cozy nest. “Nah, it’s still plenty hot for now.”

Shoko gathered up the empty tray and dirty bowl. “Holler if you need anything else, got it?”

With that, she turned and slipped quietly out of your room, gently closing the door behind her and finally leaving you in blessed peace and quiet. You pulled the plush blanket up over your chin with a contented sigh, savoring the blissful solitude as you settled in to ride out the next brutal phase of your biological torment.

Notes:

Mother Dearest: Of course, my precious daughter can have all the boyfriends she wants! You ask why? Because she's Miniature Me™️ and I'm stuck in a loveless marriage inside a batsh*t crazy family where I had to fight with everything I had to survive so now I'm living vicariously through her so she'll have the strongest man and all the tall men with nice abs—

Cashier: Ma'am, this is a Wendy's...

Chapter 11

Summary:

🚩The Zen'in Ultimate Guide to Dick Moves & Other Underhanded Tricks to Make People's Lives Miserable🚩

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Your hard-won peace was frustratingly short-lived. Not long after Shoko’s departure, you heard the sound of soft, measured footsteps padding down the hall – practically silent, but you recognized that gait. Kusakabe.

A moment later, a polite knock sounded at your door. “Eri? Can I come in?” his gruff voice called out.

You let out an inarticulate grunt, hoping he’d take the hint and leave you alone to suffer in blessed isolation. Nope, not a chance. The stubborn man invited himself in anyway. Kusakabe entered cautiously, holding his hands up in an appeasing gesture as if afraid you might lash out and attack him at any moment. “I know you’re… not feeling well right now,” he began carefully.

“Not feeling well” was the understatement of the century. You cracked open an eye just to laser-beam your most withering glare in his direction – one that would’ve incinerated lesser men into smoldering ash piles right where they stood. But Kusakabe just swallowed and barreled on like usual, undeterred by your murderous gaze.

“You can skip strength training. But at least come down for target practice?” A placating tone, like he was negotiating with a hostage-taker. “You don’t have to move around much, just some simple shooting drills.”

With a monumental effort, you unstuck your face from the blanket just long enough to say, “Bring the gun and targets up here then. I’ll do the shooting practice from my bed.”

Kusakabe’s brow furrowed as he processed your bizarre demand. “You can’t be serious.”

You responded, as serious as a heart attack. “Surely there will be tactical situations when I’ll need to shoot something while lying down. This practice will be beneficial. Call it… specialized training.”

“You miss nine outta ten damn shots even when standing up with a perfect stance!” Kusakabe squawked.

But one look into your unblinking gaze told him the only way to get you to the shooting range involved physically hauling your ass there against your will. And then, chances were extremely high that he’d leave the premises with way fewer fingers than he came with, if he was lucky.

A gusty sigh whooshed out of him. With a pained grimace, Kusakabe grumbled, “So you’re just gonna lay there all day? Like a lump?”

You gave a minute nod, the barest dip of your chin. “Three days. Minimum.”

“...Wonderful,” he threw his head back, already dreading the next 72 hours looming before him.

However, Kusakabe seemed to have anticipated your stubbornness well in advance, already gearing up for this exact battle of wills. With a hefty thump, he dropped a heavy bag on your desk, the impact rattling the surface. A small mountain of thick tomes cascaded out from the opened top.

“If you’re not going to train at all,” he said in that no-nonsense teacher tone he thought made him sound authoritative. “You can work on getting through some of your required reading in the meantime.”

You eyed the pile with deep skepticism. “What are those?”

“Your textbooks.” His tone made it clear he thought the answer should be obvious to even the most dense of students.

“So dusty,” you turned up your face, feigning a dainty sneeze. “Put them away.”

Kusakabe fixed you with one of his fed-up looks, the one that said “Why must you make my life so difficult?” in blinding neon flashing lights.

“I got you the newest editions, Eri. Brand new copies. Now stop fussing over nothing and get to work.”

“I’m in excruciating pain. No way I’m reading any of those brick-like monstrosities.” You paused, brightening slightly as a thought occurred to you. “Do they at least have audiobook versions?”

Kusakabe pinched the bridge of his nose, squeezing his eyes shut, as if warding off the mounting beginnings of a splitting headache. When he spoke again, his tone was tightly controlled. “No, Eri. These aren’t exactly the latest mainstream bestsellers. Foundational jujutsu encyclopedias dating back centuries don’t tend to have trendy audiobook adaptations made.”

Humphing petulantly, you burrowed deeper under your covers, cocooning yourself in the safety of the blankets until only your face peeked out. “Well then, if you insist on cramming them into my brain right now, you’ll just have to read them all to me.”

That did it. Kusakabe’s eyes damn near bugged out of his skull, his jaw going slack with disbelief at your audacity. Reading dense textbooks aloud to one particularly entitled student was most definitely not in his job description. His voice came out strained, choked by the effort of maintaining his composure. “I’m not reading your books for you.”

Peering up at him through your lashes, you carefully arranged your features into your most pathetic, heart-breaking expression. Trembling bottom lip, glistening unshed tears, the works – you pulled out all the stops in your manipulation playbook.

“O-Okay,” you stammered, letting your voice waver in very convincing vulnerability. “You d-didn’t have to get so angry at me… I was j-just asking...”

For one fleeting, wonderful second, you watched panic and guilt flash across Kusakabe’s face in equal measure as he fell for your little ploy hook, line and sinker all over again. Then, the realization – he’d been played by your theatrics more than once before. With a loud huff, he looked away stiffly, unable to quite meet your hurt doe eyes.

“I know what you’re doing, Eri,” he muttered, but it lacked true rebuke or conviction.

And damn, if you’d had even an iota of spare energy, you might have managed a snicker. He could see your tricks coming from a mile away at this point, but that didn’t make him any less susceptible to them – just more chagrined when they inevitably worked.

You gave a soft sniffle as a fresh cramp seized your core, no acting needed whatsoever to convey your authentic misery this time around. “I don’t know what you mean,” you breathed meekly, the very portrait of wrongly accused innocent suffering.

Kusakabe turned back toward you, brow furrowing with sudden concern at your pathetic state. Before you could so much as voice a protest, his rough hand came to rest against your forehead, the calloused pad of his thumb grazing your skin lightly as he muttered in a low rumble under his breath, “You don’t seem to have a fever at least.”

Rather than launch into a lengthy explanation about your base body temperature, you decided to seize the opportunity presented by his momentary lapse in defenses.

“I’m just… really tired,” you rasped, putting on your most wilting damsel impression.

You’d only meant to deploy the pitiful look as a surefire tactic for chasing him off. Kusakabe always seemed to levitate away from you at lightspeed whenever you brought out those particular big doe eyes. You assumed it would be an instant, foolproof way to get rid of him.

But instead of turning tail like he so often did, this time, Kusakabe merely sighed – a weighty, resigned exhalation. Then, he reached down to gently ruffle the tousled mess of your hair. And to your abject disbelief, he grabbed the chair from your desk and plopped himself down, snagging one of the largest tome and creaking it open with a waft of stale air.

“Well, I guess we’ll start with some jujutsu clan history then,” he stated matter-of-factly, as if this was all just part of the scheduled lesson plan he’d had outlined for the day regardless of your stated preferences.

You gaped at Kusakabe as he calmly readjusted the thick book in his lap and cleared his throat, already launching into reading aloud the first dry, dense paragraph of the opening chapter. Your eye twitched.

Wait, he couldn’t be serious. This had to be some kind of joke or test, right?

Gritting your teeth in rising frustration, you mentally rallied yourself. You were Zen’in Eri, dammit. You would not be bested by this freshly graduated, wet-behind-the-ears teacher. New tactics and angles of attack began to formulate in your crafty mind. You had this in the bag. You’d simply have to fluster Kusakabe another way.

As he flipped to the next page, you spoke up in a deliberately soft murmur. “Come closer, Kusakabe.” You allowed the syllables of his name to roll off your tongue just the right way.

Kusakabe froze instantly, hand stilling on the book. A slight crease appeared between his brows he processed your blatant attempt at… well, not like you were really trying to seduce the man or anything quite that salacious. You only pulled this particular trick because you knew Kusakabe would never take advantage of you. So, like a true Zen’in, you took advantage of his decency.

“...Excuse me?” he asked slowly, thrown for a loop by your shameless flirting.

Pasting on what you hoped was a small, endearing smile – though it likely came across more pained than heart-stealing given your current condition – you patted the empty space beside you invitingly. “Sit closer to me. You smell nice… I like it.”

For one delicious moment, Kusakabe looked like he was about to suffer a total system malfunction, his brain scrambling to reboot as your blatant come-on finally computed. Clearly, he wasn’t expecting that particular tactic. You felt a swell of satisfaction, sure you’d found the magic words to make him hightail it out of there. Mission accomplished.

But instead of scrambling away from you in a flustered retreat as you had anticipated, Kusakabe just coughed again, clearing his throat with an awkward rasp as the tips of his ears flushed red. Then, to your dismay, he dragged his chair a few inches closer to your bedside, putting himself well within your airspace as requested.

“Why are you always so damn demanding about every little thing?” he grumbled, more exasperated than anything else. The rhetorical question just hung there.

Then, maddeningly, incredibly, he dove back into the book, picking up right where he left off as if nothing had happened. You stared at him, dumbfounded and incapable of processing how you’d managed to back yourself into this fresh hell.

The more bewildering question was why the everloving f*ck did this man always give into your most outrageous demands, no matter how inane or unreasonable, instead of cutting his losses and removing himself from the entire exasperating situation like any sane person would?

Frustration thrummed through you, your gut churning with both menstrual cramping and simmering aggravation at Kusakabe’s impressive resistance to your impropriety. Clenching your blankets in both fists, you glared at the side of Kusakabe’s head as he soldiered on, the low rumble of his reading voice filling the small confines of your bedroom. Now what?

Well, it seemed your attempt at flustering Kusakabe through shameless flirtation had fallen utterly, embarrassingly flat. Either the dense man was oblivious to even the most blatant come-ons, or he simply had no interest in the fairer sex whatsoever. Nothing you could do about that. Resigning yourself to more direct measures, you supposed only one tried-and-true strategy remained – annoy him through sheer, unrepentant petulance until he cracked under the strain.

Cutting Kusakabe off mid-droning, you proclaimed imperiously, “Change the topic. I already know all those musty historical facts.”

Kusakabe paused, raising a skeptical brow at you over the top of the book. “You’re sure about that?”

Lifting your chin a fraction, you fixed him with your most haughty stare. “Quiz me then if you’re so disbelieving.”

With a slight shake of his head, Kusakabe flipped through the pages until landing on a section. “Alright. Name the three great vengeful spirits.”

You rattled off the answers with practiced ease. “Sugawara no Michizane, Taira no Masakado, and Emperor Sutoku.” Waving a hand dismissively, you added, “That’s basically Jujutsu 101. Give me something harder.”

A snort fled Kusakabe’s nose, but he obliged, eyes scanning the cramped text briefly. “Well then, how did the Sugawara clan come to be?”

“The Sugawara clan emerged when the Haji clan divided into three houses,” you recited, keeping your tone bored. “And before you feel the need to ask, during the Heian era, the Sugawara clan then further fractured into six branches, one of which eventually became those obnoxious Gojos these days.”

Kusakabe’s brows hiked higher on his forehead, looking somewhat impressed against his will. Wordlessly accepting the challenge, he flipped through the pages again, brows furrowing as he searched for a new query to stump you with. “Okay, um… What was the story with Sugawara no Michizane then? Why did he become a vengeful spirit?”

“Obviously he got royally screwed over when Emperor Uda abdicated ahead of schedule,” you gestured around airily. “Fujiwara no Tokihira, the son of Michizane’s frenemy, then told the new Emperor Daigo a bunch of nasty rumors. Got Michizane exiled all the way to Dazaifu in Chikuzen Province as a disgraced nobody. Which understandably pissed him off so much he came back to haunt the imperial family’s asses after he died.”

Now Kusakabe was thoroughly impressed. “You really know all the historical stuff in here, huh?” he asked, his glance flickering to the huge-ass chronicle laid open before him.

You nodded. “Not everything word-for-word. But all the important things, yes.”

“How?” he looked almost dumbfounded, which in turn made you stare back at him.

“I’m a Zen’in, Kusakabe. We’re direct descendants of the Fujiwara clan. This is basic bedtime story material.”

The underlying implications were clear. The Zen’ins prided themselves on their prestigious lineage. And your fam’s profoundly petty ability to sabotage and backstab had deep, ancient roots.

Kusakabe muttered a noncommittal “Okay, I guess,” then he reached into the towering stack and fished out another frighteningly thick tome, cracking it open and starting fresh from the beginning.

This one appeared to be some sort of encyclopedic guide on common curses throughout history. For whatever inscrutable reason – perhaps he was just that committed to his role as your educator – Kusakabe didn’t just read this latest literary behemoth to you this time around.

No, he leaned in closer, angling the book toward you and using his finger to track along the passages, making sure the elaborate inked illustrations were clearly visible to you as he talked you through each entry in painstaking detail.

It was… attentive, even tender in a way. Kusakabe reminded you disturbingly of your old nanny, reading aloud breathless tales of frog princes and wicked witches to you at bedtime from those worn storybooks with the same sort of quiet patience. If he shifted out of the chair to sit at the head of the bed and draped one arm around you, maybe even dropped a gentle kiss to your forehead like Nanny used to do, he’d essentially be her reincarnate.

A small sniffle caught in your throat at the memory of the sweet old woman, right before your mind’s eye flashed with the stomach-turning recollection of her tragic end, slumped over her soup bowl, face frozen in pain after your dearest brother Naoya slipped her a generous helping of rat poison.

Shaking off the morose reverie, you decided the only recourse now was to promptly re-immerse yourself in needling Kusakabe with vapid inanities and bad-faith questions, making inane comments at each ghastly illustration. If he wanted to insist on this bizarre tutoring session, fine – you’d make him regret it every step of the way.

The one-sided banter dragged on interminably as he trudged through page after page, either blessed with infinite reserves of patience or too clueless to recognize the point at which you were only running your mouth to be a royal pain in his ass.

Until, at long last, you landed upon one particularly grotesque visual depiction of a curse – a snarling, mottled monstrosity of potbelly, twisted limbs and exposed viscera. Wrinkling your nose, you pointed an accusatory finger at the offending image. “Why is it so ugly?”

Kusakabe mumbled around the edges of the book without looking up, clearly operating on autopilot at this point, “Well, why are you like this?”

You blinked, briefly thrown by the snippy comeback automatically fired at you with no conscious thought. Kusakabe seemed to realize his slip of the tongue a beat later, eyes going wide as the unintentional insult registered for both of you simultaneously. An awkward silence crashed down.

Almost like he was moving in slow motion, Kusakabe turned to face you, vague horror plastered across his features. “I didn’t mean that, Eri…”

But it was too late. You’d finally gotten the accidental opening you’d been angling for this entire time to really lay into him.

Pitching your gaze up at Kusakabe through your lashes, you allowed fat, glistening tears to well up and perch precariously on your lower lids in an expert display of emotional fragility.

“You didn’t mean to say it out loud,” you quavered, letting your words wobble ever-so-slightly for effect, “but… but you were secretly thinking it, weren’t you?”

That one landed like a sucker punch to Kusakabe’s gut. Panic ricocheted across his dumb, earnest face as he dropped the colossal book into his lap with a heavy thunk. His hands flew up instantly, palms splayed in a gesture trying to defuse the situation.

“No, no… That’s not it at all! I swear on my life I wasn’t thinking anything even close to that!” The words tumbled out in a rush, only for him to slam the brakes as your perfectly-tuned waterworks breached their banks.

A huge, hiccupping sob punched free of your chest, instantly followed by crocodile tears spilling over your flushed cheeks. Kusakabe looked like he’d just taken a direct hit to the solar plexus, wrong-footed and flailing for the proper counter-move.

“You’re lying! Th-That’s what you really think about me deep down!” You gave your chin the smallest, barely perceptible quiver to maximize the heartbreak as more salt water streamed freely. “So why’re you even wasting your time with someone ‘like this’ if you hate my guts so much?”

Kusakabe was well and truly rattled now, leaning forward with almost frantic urgency. His hands fluttered at his sides like he couldn’t quite decide whether to attempt physical contact to comfort you or keep them to himself.

“Christ, Eri, I don’t hate you at all! f*ck, I’m so incredibly sorry,” he babbled, the words lining with naked desperation. “I have no f*cking clue why I said some dumb sh*t like that. You gotta know I didn’t mean any of it!”

But when he tentatively extended a hand to offer an awkward, conciliatory pat on the arm, you recoiled from his touch like a skittish animal, unleashing your hysterics in full force.

“Why wouldn’t you hate me?” The words were almost indecipherable around your theatrical sobs. “I’ve been nothing but a whiny pain in your ass this whole time! Maybe you… you secretly want me to just d-drop out of school and disappear from your life entirely, don’t you?”

Hot tears of exquisite anguish – well, exquisite performance of anguish, at least – poured shamelessly, your shoulders quaking with each ragged intake of breath to fuel your Oscar-worthy display.

By all reasonable accounts, this should’ve been the tipping point where Kusakabe cut his losses and made a hasty retreat from the escalating hell you were dragging him into. Chalk it up to either boundless reserves of patience, a stunning lack of self-preservation instincts, or just sheer bullheaded stubbornness. But against all odds, the man remained rooted to the spot, showing no signs of fleeing. If anything, your relentless performance seemed to be prompting increasing levels of panic in him as he floundered for the right tactic to console you.

Well, if clinging to some faint sense of duty kept him anchored there against his own self-interest, you supposed you would just redouble your efforts and wail with enough soul-rending gusto to finally exorcize him from your room once and for all.

Maybe the heavens took pity on poor Kusakabe in that moment, because just as he looked about two seconds from simply dropping dead to escape this fresh circle of misery, the door to your quarters banged open with forceful urgency.

Haibara burst in like a knight in shining armor responding to a distress call, features pinched with concern as he registered the volatile scene unfolding before him: you, flushed and gasping for air, tears sheening your cheeks; Kusakabe positioned awkwardly at your bedside, hands frozen in a futile gesture as if he’d been physically struck.

“Eri?” The single word carried a world of concern as Haibara rapidly closed the distance. Without hesitation, he inserted himself squarely between you and Kusakabe, his broad back acting as a buffer. Strong, calloused fingers cradled your jaw as he ducked his head and searched your face. “You okay? C’mon, talk to me. What’s wrong here?”

But of course, you were far too committed to your performance at this point to be dissuaded by Haibara’s arrival. If anything, his proximity and obvious distress on your behalf fueled you to new heights of hysterics. You only sobbed harder, chest heaving with each ragged inhalation.

Haibara shot Kusakabe a look of pure venom over his shoulder, jaw clenched and the taut muscles along his back and shoulders coiling subtly, as if bracing for a potential fight right then and there. “What happened?” he bit out, voice tight and brimming with menace.

To his credit, Kusakabe looked just as lost and pained as you were so convincingly feigning to be – until some long-buried sense of self-preservation seemed to kick back in with a jolt. He raised his hands in supplication as he took a wary step back, putting distance between himself and the bristling Haibara.

“We were just going through some lessons and...and I misspoke… said something stupid I didn’t mean.” Kusakabe swallowed hard. “Look, I’ve gotta… I should go.”

And just like that, as abruptly as he’d arrived, Kusakabe fled from the powder keg scene with what tattered composure he had remaining, shoulders slumped in defeat.

The second Kusakabe’s retreating footsteps faded from earshot, you dropped the charade entirely – the torrent of tears drying up as quickly as they’d erupted, reduced to a few perfunctory sniffles to dispel the lingering snotty evidence.

Haibara remained oblivious, too focused on gently cradling your face as he used his thumbs to dab away the damp trails your masterful display had painted on your flushed cheeks.

“What did he do?” His voice had softened to a hushed rasp, pitched low and soothing despite the lingering edge of protective ferocity.

You twitched to shake off his hands but didn’t fully pull away. “Nothing,” you stated simply.

More like, what had YOU done to poor, hapless Kusakabe in your relentless quest to torment him?

But Haibara was too riled up and primed for retribution over the possibility of a legitimate transgression to let it go at that. He released your face, only to capture your hands, holding them firmly.

“Bullsh*t, Eri. Don’t protect him. Tell me the truth. Did he hurt you? f*ckin’ lay a hand on you at all?”

Blinking slowly, you met and held his gaze for a moment, surprised by the sheer intensity blazing in those warm depths.

“No, he didn’t do anything wrong, really. Just… read me some stupid books. And he got fed up when I kept mouthing off and giving him crap, so he accidentally snapped back at me. That’s all.”

You shrugged one shoulder as if to say, “You know how I am.”

Taking in your composed demeanor, only slightly undone by your puffy eyes and blotchy cheeks in the aftermath, some of the rigid tension bled out of Haibara’s shoulders as he exhaled an audible sigh of relief.

“Okay, good. That’s… I was worried for a minute he’d gone and—” He broke off, pursing his lips as he squinted at you. “Wait, why the f*ck were you crying like like the world was ending then?”

You managed another barely perceptible shrug, this one far more nonchalant and unbothered than the last. “He just… wouldn’t leave me alone when I asked him to. So I made him leave.”

Haibara’s jaw dropped as the truth of your confession sank in. “I can’t f*ckin’ believe you, Eri…”

Yeah, neither could poor Kusakabe, clearly.

“I asked him nicely. He should have just listened and done that,” you insisted.

“That’s not nice, Eri,” Haibara countered dryly. “Kusakabe-sensei meant well. He was worried when we told him you weren’t feeling your best today. He came to check on you.”

You waved a hand dismissively. “I know.”

“Well, in that case, you should apologize to him,” Haibara prompted softly.

You sniffed again, turning your head away from Haibara and crossing your arms. “I don’t apologize. That’s not a thing I do, if you hadn’t noticed.”

Haibara opened his mouth to protest further, trying once more. “Eri, c’mon now, just listen—”

But you swiftly cut him off, your own voice hardening with finality. “You’re not my mother, so don’t start lecturing me. If you won’t just take my side, then you can go away too. I don’t have the energy to argue with you.”

Indeed, if Mother could have witnessed your perfectly executed performance, surely she would have beamed with approval.

Haibara seemed to recognize that you were effectively shutting down any potential discussion on the matter. With a sigh, he ran a hand through his hair. “Okay, look… this isn’t about me taking ‘sides’ against you here, Eri. That’s not what I’m trying to do at all.” He paused, considering his next words carefully. “Just… give it some real thought tonight at least, yeah? Owing up and making amends when we mess up – that’s just the right thing to do.”

You muttered a noncommittal “Maybe I will think about it,” refusing to make any definitive promises one way or another.

Seeming to accept that was likely the best he would ever get from you, Haibara gave a slight nod before letting the matter drop entirely.

After the emotional theatrics and fallout from your feigned meltdown, you decided a recharge was in order. Reaching for your water bottle, you took several deep pulls to replenish the fluids you'd expended through your vigorous performance.

Once your throat felt sufficiently unstuck, you levered yourself gingerly out of bed, swatting away Haibara’s instinctive move to help with a dismissive flick of your wrist. Yes, you were miserable and cranky as all hell, beset by searing internal aches with a puffy, tear-stained face to match. But you weren’t quite immobilized enough to require aid with basic functions. Not yet, at least.

By the time you re-emerged from the bathroom feeling marginally more human, Haibara had already made himself at home – boots kicked off haphazardly, those long legs stretched out as he reclined on his side at the foot of your mattress. Thankfully, he’d at least had the good sense and basic courtesies to ditch his sweaty training gear and shower off the grime first before inviting himself into your room.

You briefly considered chasing Haibara off but decided against it for the time being – if only to ensure he’d be around as a canine-like deterrent should Kusakabe unwisely decide to subject himself to your hellish presence again anytime soon.

As you settled back into your cocoon, Haibara dipped one hand into his jacket pocket to retrieve something – a slightly melted dark chocolate bar, which he tossed your way.

“Got you this earlier, by the way. Heard it’s supposed to help.”

Despite the sub-optimal, less-than-appetizing condition of the treat, courtesy of his body heat, you snagged the offering anyway. You’d already reached your whining and bitching quota for the day after that draining performance with Kusakabe earlier.

Once you’d neatly demolished the treat, using a handful of fresh wet wipes to clean the stickiness from your fingers before chasing it all down with more cool water, you felt… reasonably fortified. Or as much as could be expected under the current circ*mstances.

Your hazy gaze landed on Haibara again. He was totally engrossed with his battered old flip phone. His brows were slightly furrowed in concentration, lips pressed into a faint line though the corners twitched now and then with what appeared to be subdued amusem*nt at whatever was unfolding on that cracked screen.

An errant spark of curiosity nibbled at you as you studied him. Was he texting someone? Some girl from back home, maybe… a girlfriend, even?

Oh, for all of Shoko’s fretting, you and her had failed to account for one crucial possibility: what if Haibara already had a girlfriend?

If that were the case, it wouldn’t matter who you preferred or if you liked them both in the end, would it? You refused to entertain the notion of attempting to play tug-of-war over a taken guy. That just went against your code, murky and situational as it admittedly was.

But then… Why did Haibara seem so persistently, disproportionately attentive and affectionate toward you? Perhaps that was just in his nature? He did have a habit of cozying up to you, sure, but also with Nanami in a way that actively grated the other guy’s nerves more often than not. So he could just be a touchy-feely sort of dude in general, period.

Your frown deepened slightly as you realized this was a painfully unproductive line of thought to chase down in your current addled condition. Screw it. You’d just have to rip that particular band-aid off.

“Hey,” you called out, catching Haibara’s attention with that one syllable. He glanced up, brows raised expectantly over the screen of his phone. “What’re you doing over there?”

“Just playing a game, that’s all,” he replied easily with a lopsided grin, angling the phone toward you so you could see for yourself.

Squinting, you could just make out nothing more than that infuriatingly repetitive snake-gobbling-itself time-waster that seemed to be coded to induce maximum frustration. Right on cue, as if to mock his supposed skill, the scaly line collided with its own endless looping tail in a flashing “GAME OVER” message.

“You lost,” you pointed out, more than a little unimpressed.

Haibara huffed out a disgruntled groan, rotating his phone back toward himself as he mashed insistently at the buttons. “Ugh, damn it, I was just about to beat my high score too! Gimme a sec to restart and redeem myself here.”

Well, it seemed Haibara had his priorities pretty firmly in order. But you supposed you’d already set down this path, so you might as well charge ahead.

“Do you have a girlfriend back home?”

Haibara startled at the point-blank inquiry, shoulders twitching as his gaze snapped back toward you. A faint but distinct flush crept over his cheeks and the bridge of his nose. It was a good look on him.

“Uh… n-no, I don’t,” he stammered, sounding oddly self-conscious – a rare quality for him. Shooting you a sidelong look, he added in an almost sheepish mumble, “Why d’you ask all of a sudden, anyway?”

You shrugged, “I wanted to know.”

A stray thought flickered through your mind, dragging your meandering curiosity in an entirely different direction.

In your trademark brutal tactlessness, you posed the next question, “Have you ever had sex before?”

Haibara, that sweet summer soul, reacted like you’d just propositioned him for a furious bout of passionate tumbling right then and there. An intense crimson flush exploded across his cheeks all the way up to the tips of his ears in a full-body blush.

Which, now that you thought about it, maybe the fact that the two of you were currently alone in your bedroom – you nestled in your bed, him lounging close enough to share body heat – perhaps didn’t help matters from a certain perspective. But such social cues and implications so often went right over your oblivious head.

Finally, after a prolonged, stunned pause, Haibara found his voice again, though it came out strangled and distinctly higher in pitch than usual. “Wh-what the hell are you up to this time, Eri?”

You blinked back at him, unwavering as ever. “It’s a simple question. Yes or no?”

If anything, Haibara visibly squirmed under your intent stare, his flush darkening even further as he muttered a reply so hushed you almost missed it entirely. “No… I haven’t, uh, done that yet.”

His entire face was practically searing enough to cook an egg at this point. You, meanwhile, simply gave a nod of acknowledgment, mentally filing his name alongside Nanami’s under the heading of “Potential Ritual Sacrifices” for future reference.

Haibara must have feared more of your unhinged personal questions would plunge him into a full-blown aneurysm event, for he promptly refocused on his sad little phone with intense determination, clearly intent on barricading himself behind that screen for the remainder of your private audience.

Despite Haibara’s obvious attempt to flee into the sanctum of his handheld distraction, you weren’t about to let him off the hook so easily. Zen’ins weren’t exactly renowned for backing down from anything. And you were a true Zen’in to your core.

“Pay attention to me,” you commanded.

Just to ensure he got the point, you extended one foot to deliver an insistent nudge against his belly from across the negligible distance separating you on the mattress. Your logic was refreshingly simple. If Haibara wanted to disengage and escape your company so badly, he was more than welcome to just… leave, right? He was the one who’d made himself at home sprawled across your bed in the first place. So he’d better be prepared to fully commit to entertaining you.

Why should he get to just lay there, taking up space like a useless lump while devoting his entire focus to that stupid phone game instead of you?

With a long-suffering sigh, Haibara caught your prodding foot and cradled it in one hand – likely intending to open his mouth and deliver some form of token snarky protest. But the words seemed to die on his tongue. He startled slightly, brow furrowing as his fingers brushed over your icy skin.

“You are freezing, Eri,” he murmured, sounding genuinely worried now. His other hand came up to gently cup and try to warm your sole from both sides. “Feeling okay over there?”

“My feet are always cold,” you said, proving it by extending your other foot to poke at him again.

Haibara automatically captured it as if operating on muscle memory – gently kneading at both of your feet in an attempt to coax some warmth back into them. That furrow was still etched between his brows as he focused on the task with surprising diligence.

“Yeah, but I’ve noticed your overall body temperature seems to run cooler than average too,” he mused aloud. His warm brown eyes flickered up to meet yours. “Everything’s… all good on that front, though? You know you can tell me if something’s up.”

For a fleeting moment, some deeply buried impulse tempted you to tell Haibara all about the things that were not “all good” when it came to your cursed existence. But the way his rough thumbs were diligently working over the arches of your feet, the gentle heat radiating from his palms as they massaged the icy tension from the muscles… it felt too blissful to sully with such a fraught conversational shift.

Maybe some other time, you reasoned as you assured him. “I was just born like that. My normal, as far as I know.”

Not a lie, not even by omission or obscuration. Just a simple, uncomplicated truth, for once.

You hadn’t expected Haibara’s solution to your perpetually frigid extremities, but you supposed you shouldn’t have been surprised given his… unorthodox approach to most everything in life. You watched with faintly arched brows as he unceremoniously bunched up the hem of his shirt without warning. A tanned sliver of taut abdomen was exposed, ridges of defined muscle peeking out from beneath the rucked fabric.

Then, quick as a blink, Haibara reached for your feet and tucked them underneath his bunched-up shirt, guiding your icy toes to make direct contact with the radiating furnace of his body heat. The shock of searing warmth engulfing your perma-icicle extremities punched a tiny gasp from your lips before you could stifle it.

Haibara’s lips split into a smug grin at your involuntary reaction, taking impish delight in having flustered you for once. “There, how’s that?” he prodded teasingly, already knowing the answer.

Instinctively, you wriggled your toes with a full-body shiver of relief, drinking in the luxurious heat radiating from his very core. “So warm,” you whispered the admission softly.

One of Haibara’s eyes crinkled in a conspiratorial wink. “Well then, consider me your own personal heater from now on, princess.” His hand drifted down to splay over the arch of your foot, thumb digging in to knead deliciously at the pressure point there. “You just gotta ask nicely and I’m all yours whenever you need me.”

As if that would change anything.

You knew with bone-deep certainty that his furnace-like body heat would only be a temporary reprieve. The second he got up and left, that terrible frigid chill would come seeping back into the tips of your extremities within minutes at most, leeching the precious borrowed warmth away. It was just the way you were, innate, inescapable, and unending until the day you met your end.

But right now, Haibara’s hands felt heavenly as they continued kneading the tension from your soles with soothing passes of his thumbs. And you elected to simply nod and sink back into your plush bedding with a quiet assent, “...okay.”

As your eyes drifted shut in an attempt to chase some much-needed sleep, Haibara seemed to take it as an invitation to shift closer – one large palm sliding beneath the covers to knead gently along your ankles and calves.

An indistinct murmur, little more than soothing white noise, rumbled from his chest as he appeared to launch into one of his trademark rambling monologues about irrelevant nonsense… some inane video game lore or another that happened to be rattling around in his brain at the moment. The actual specifics blurred around the edges until only the rich timbre of his voice remained.

You’d nearly drifted off entirely when that first telltale footfall reached your ears: Nanami’s purposeful stride. You thought he would barge in like he often did, maybe you’d get a snide jab about you being a lazy, whiny lump.

But then, the footsteps hesitated just shy of your threshold for one long, suspended breath – before turning and retreating, eventually fading back into the muffled ambiance of the hallway beyond until only silence remained. Nanami’s strange detour, unvoiced and all too conspicuous by its absence, gave you the slightest pause of… something, some pang you couldn’t quite put a finger on.

You were too far gone to devote any significant brainpower into pondering that particular anomaly, however. With a sigh, you surrendered the scant dregs of your consciousness fully to Haibara’s gentle ministrations and soothing cadence enveloping you like a cottony shroud.

Notes:

“Why is it so ugly?”

“Well, why are you like this?”

( ノ ゚ー゚)ノ \(゚ー゚\)

Chapter 12

Summary:

Stockholm Syndrome and Other Occupational Hazards

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

You’d been locked in a silent standoff with Kusakabe for days, ever since your Oscar-worthy meltdown. Honestly, the man deserved an award for his commitment to avoiding you. His tactics had reached near-mythical levels of ridiculousness – a masterclass in guilt and awkward silences. He’d pawned off your strength training to Haibara and Nanami entirely, perfectly content to lurk at the very edge of your peripheral vision.

And the pretending. Oh, the pretending. Half the time you’d catch him attempting to look busy, which was pretty damn impressive considering he was doing jack sh*t. The lengths he would go to in order to avoid a real conversation.

Shooting practice, if you could even call it that, had become an elaborate joke – one where you were the punchline. Sure, your form was textbook perfect, a thing of beauty and precision, but fat lot of good that did when you couldn’t hit water if you fell out of a boat. Kusakabe’s idea of “guidance” had dwindled to a series of strained platitudes about you “just needing more practice,” sputtered out just before he’d dash off, suddenly remembering some super important thing he definitely, absolutely, 100% didn’t make up on the spot. You weren’t born yesterday. His footsteps always echoed back after a while, keeping a watchful eye from a distance like a guardian angel with commitment issues.

This whole cat-and-mouse routine was getting old fast. You weren’t about to grovel or, heaven forbid, apologize like some common peasant, but even you had to admit that something needed to change.

This morning, fresh from another sad*stic pre-dawn training session that left you questioning your life choices, you made a decision. To hell with subtlety. To hell with textbooks and practice and pretending you didn’t notice the way Kusakabe flinched every time you entered a room. Instead of burying your nose in the textbooks Kusakabe had assigned, you would hunt the man down and sort this whole mess out.

His office was empty. Of course, it was. The cafeteria? At this ungodly hour, the only thing haunting those halls would be the ghosts of yesterday’s mystery meat they’d tried to pass off as food. Then it hit you – the roof of the admin building. You’d caught a glimpse of his silhouette up there once, a lone figure against the twilight sky. And when he came down, he’d reeked of smoke. The man probably scaled those stairs daily, seeking refuge from his responsibilities to indulge his nicotine habit without you badgering him for a puff.

With grim determination – the kind that came from subsisting on six hours of sleep and a lifetime supply of spite – you changed course. Each step sent shockwaves through your overworked muscles, a not-so-gentle reminder that your body was about as fit as a sloth on vacation. By the time you reached the roof access door, you were doing a stellar impression of a wheezing vacuum cleaner with a clogged filter. “Pathetic” was several zip codes away from adequately describing your current state.

You slumped against the cool metal, trying to catch your breath. The sun was now fully above the horizon, painting the sky in hues of pink and gold. It would’ve been beautiful if you weren’t too busy contemplating the logistics of melting into a puddle right there on the landing.

Sucking in a breath that did jack squat to calm your racing heart, you shouldered open the door and stumbled onto the roof. The crisp morning air hit you like a slap to the face, carrying with it the faint scent of tobacco.

And there he was, leaning against the railing like a brooding main character with a nicotine addiction. A wispy tendril of smoke rose from the cigarette dangling between his fingers. Kusakabe’s shoulders went rigid at your approach, like a cat preparing to bolt from an overeager toddler.

“Shouldn’t you be studying?” he asked, his voice so carefully neutral it vibrated with unspoken tension.

You sidled up next to him, mirroring his posture against the railing and trying your damnedest not to look like you were one strong breeze away from a very undignified tumble over the edge.

“Probably,” you replied, aiming for “casual” and instead nailing the sweet spot between “mildly constipated” and “vaguely homicidal.”

The silence stretched between you, filled only by the ambient soundtrack of trees and birds and nature doing its thing on this mountain your campus perched on. You snuck a glance at his profile, noting the stubborn set of his jaw, the way his gaze remained fixed on some invisible thing in the landscape. This wasn’t going to be easy, but then again, when had anything in your life ever been simple?

Kusakabe crushed out his cigarette with all the enthusiasm of a man facing his own execution, subtly inching away from you like you were radioactive. His body language screamed “Flight!” louder than a startled flock of pigeons. You could hear the gears turning in his head, desperately calculating the odds of surviving a swan dive off the building versus enduring whatever torture you were about to inflict upon him.

Not a chance you were letting your prey escape now. This called for drastic measures. Brandishing the large cup of coffee you’d been clutching like a lifeline, you practically shoved it into his face. Kusakabe fumbled to catch the cup before it could meet an untimely end on the floor.

“Uh, what…” he eloquently stammered, unprepared for your caffeinated ambush tactic.

“I bought you coffee,” you announced, in case he’d somehow mistaken the steaming cup for a rare tropical bird.

He looked down at the cup, then back at your face, searching your eyes as though he expected to find the meaning of life hidden in your pitch-black irises. Or, at the very least, the explanation for your sudden, inexplicable act of caffeinated kindness.

Your expression remained impassive, save for the slight flush on your cheeks – a charming blend of “recent physical torture” and “stairs are the devil’s invention.”

Impatient with his hesitation you shoved the cup forward until it bumped against his lips. “Drink it,” you commanded, half-expecting him to whip out a miniature poison-testing kit and a magnifying glass before even considering a sip.

Kusakabe chuckled at your blunt words. His gaze lingered on your face for a moment, no doubt reminiscing about all the other times you’d bossed him around, ordered him about, treated him like a dim-witted servant instead of your teacher. It seemed even he had missed your particular brand of abrasive charm – so demanding even when you were trying to do something nice. He complied without further protest.

You watched, half-impressed and half-horrified, as Kusakabe proceeded to chug the coffee. No hesitation, no grimace, not even a cursory sniff to test for lingering traces of cyanide. Talk about trusting. This man wouldn’t last five minutes at a Zen’in family dinner, let alone survive a full day at the estate. He’d probably try to pet the venomous snakes some of your sisters kept as “companions,” cooing about how they were just “misunderstood danger noodles.” His trusting nature was both endearing and deeply concerning.

The moment that unholy brew hit his taste buds, Kusakabe froze. He paused mid-sip to gape at you.

“How did you…”

He trailed off, flabbergasted that you’d nailed his daily dose of liquid insanity. This wasn’t just coffee – it was some Frankenstein’s monster of a drink with black coffee, peppermint, and god-knows-what-else thrown in. The kind of concoction that made other coffees cower in fear, the vending machine pariah that never ran out because, well, Kusakabe was likely its sole consumer in the entire campus, if not the whole of Japan.

“I paid attention,” you waved your hand.

For all his nagging about your apparent inability to focus, you really did pay attention when it mattered. Like say, when you were committing someone’s ridiculously specific coffee order to memory.

Kusakabe blinked at you. Then, his face softened into a smile – not the strained, polite grimace he’d been sporting for days, but a genuine smile that reached his eyes.

“Thank you, Eri,” he said, his voice warm.

Then, he went back to sipping his coffee, content to savor his liquid crime against nature in silence. Good. Now he was no longer trying to launch himself off the building. Score one for the peace offering strategy. You mentally patted yourself on the back for your cunning diplomacy. A truly masterful grasp of the ancient art of sucking up. Take that, Uncle #3 who thought you’d never amount to anything in politics.

The coffee gambit had worked better than expected. You’d successfully lured the man back from the precipice of utter avoidance with the promise of questionable caffeine and sugar. But you were now in uncharted territory. You chewed your lips, trying to calculate your next moves. Apologizing was still off the table – you had a reputation to maintain. You’d sooner eat your own shoe than utter those words. And Mother would disown you faster than you could say “I apologize” to a man – any man, really, but especially not this one.

While you were busy waging an internal war against the very concept of remorse, Kusakabe beat you to the punch.

“I’m... sorry,” he said, his voice barely audible over the morning breeze.

Well, that’s a plot twist you hadn’t seen coming. You turned to face him, confused. “For what?”

According to Haibara’s crash course in “How to Be A Decent Human 101” – a class you’d mostly slept through – you were supposed to be the one groveling here. Not that you were planning to grovel, of course. You still didn’t think what you did was thaaat bad. It’s not like you’d committed a war crime or set his office on fire or anything. Just a little light emotional terrorism.

Kusakabe took a deep breath, his entire demeanor radiating the tortured angst of a man about to confess to a string of unsolved murders. “For... making you cry,” he said, the words coming out in a rush. “I really didn’t mean to upset you.”

Oh. Right. Those crocodile tears. The ones you’d summoned with all the sincerity of a politician’s campaign promises. You felt a twinge of something that might have been guilt if you were wired for that sort of thing.

“It's not your fault,” you started, ready to brush off his guilt before he could launch into a full-blown apology tour. “Don’t apologize. I was being a pain in your ass—”

Before you could finish your half-assed attempt at taking responsibility (your elders would be rolling in their graves if they weren’t still alive and actively plotting your downfall), Kusakabe cut you off.

He turned to face you fully, his gaze locking onto yours.

“That’s not true, Eri,” he said, firm and unwavering. “I’ve never thought you were a pain. Not even for a second. I slipped up, that’s all. I really don’t hate you.”

You stared at Kusakabe, waiting him to sprout a pair of feathery white wings and a halo for good measure. His Stockholm syndrome must have progressed to terminal stages if he genuinely didn’t hate your guts after all the crap you’d put him through. A kicked puppy coming back for more belly rubs. You'd seen less devotion in religious cults and boy band fandoms combined.

Part of you wanted to shake him by the shoulders and demand he start acting rationally, maybe check him for signs of a concussion while you were at it. Another part, much smaller and buried deeper, felt… warm. You promptly tried to squash it, but it stubbornly refused to die.

You had been staring at Kusakabe for so long it probably qualified as a new Olympic sport – staring contests for the emotionally challenged. Unable to decipher his angle (was this some advanced form of psychological warfare?), you bit the bullet and asked, “Well then, why have you been avoiding me?”

Kusakabe swallowed hard, his gaze darting away. “I... I didn’t want to upset you more,” he stammered, his cheeks flushing a faint pink. “You made it clear you didn’t want me around…”

You blinked, stunned by the sheer ridiculousness of his logic.

“And you took that literally? For days?”

“I thought... maybe you needed space.”

“We’re not in couple’s therapy, Kusakabe.”

He winced at your bluntness, his shoulders hunching slightly. But you were on a roll now, fueled by a potent mixture of frustration and that unnerving flicker of something in your chest.

“So you’re planning on avoiding me for the next four years?” you asked, incredulity seeping into your voice. “I wanted you to leave me alone in that exact moment, Kusakabe, not vanish into the ether. You still need to train me, unless you’ve suddenly developed a cursed technique to teach via telepathy.”

Kusakabe looked miserable. “I was trying to think of something… a way to make it work,” he mumbled, each word sounding like it was being pried from his lips with tiny, guilt-ridden tweezers. “It’s my first time being a teacher, alright? I told you that. I’m just... I don’t always know what to do. Okay, fine, most of the time I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. And I... I just thought…” he clenched his jaw then. “I thought maybe you deserved better. A more experienced mentor. Someone like Yaga-sama…”

“That’s ridiculous,” you huffed, stopping him before he could spiral any further down the rabbit hole of self-doubt. “I think you’re doing just fine.”

Kusakabe’s head snapped up at that. He looked like he wanted to convince you of the merits of his Imposter’s syndrome. But you already pressed on, feeling uncomfortably like you were giving a pep talk.

“I already told you, did I not?” you said, your voice softening despite your best efforts to maintain your usual threatening air. “I think you are a good teacher. A great one, even. Stop making me repeat myself. I hate reruns.”

And truly, if it had been Yaga, he would have drop-kicked your difficult ass out of the school weeks ago. Consequences be damned. Kusakabe’s patience was superhuman in comparison.

You watched as Kusakabe’s expression cycled through confusion, disbelief, and finally settled on a mix of relief and cautious hope that made you want to look away. You realized you’d inadvertently stumbled into something dangerously close to a minefield of emotional vulnerability. You’d have to tread carefully here, lest you trigger an explosion of sentimental nonsense.

In times like this, you almost missed the simplicity of your clan’s backstabbing and political maneuvering. At least there, a kind word was usually just a prelude to a well-placed knife in the back. You understood that language. This… this was baffling.

You stood your ground, forcing yourself to meet Kusakabe’s gaze. You wondered idly what Kusakabe saw when he peered into the soulless depths of your midnight eyes. A void where a soul should be? A swirling vortex of entitlement and bad decisions? The last vestiges of his sanity doing the cha-cha slide into oblivion?

Whatever he found there seemed to do the trick. The tension drained from Kusakabe’s body. He took another sip of his bizarre coffee concoction – either for courage, or to scour away the last of his common sense – before saying, “Thank you, Eri.”

You’d come here to make amends, or something vaguely resembling that concept if you squinted really hard and tilted your head just so. But somehow Kusakabe had managed to both apologize and thank you in the span of a few minutes. Clearly, something was fundamentally wrong with this man. Perhaps all that black peppermint coffee had pickled his brain.

Feeling distinctly out of your depth, you discreetly touched your left forearm, fingers tracing the familiar outline of the dagger strapped beneath your sleeve. Not that you wanted to stab him – not now, at least. It was more of a reflexive habit you’d developed to ground yourself whenever you felt out of your element. The solid presence of the blade, the knowledge of its potential, was soothing. It made you feel like you were more than just a small girl. Like you were born a proper predator with deadly claws that could tear open throats and nail through hearts, even if they were currently sheathed.

The morning air was crisp, carrying the scent of dew-kissed grass and the faint aroma of Kusakabe’s bizarre coffee. A gentle breeze ruffled your hair, sending a few strands dancing across your face. You brushed them away impatiently, dropping your hand and taking a small step closer to Kusakabe. Not too close, not to invade his personal space like all those times you’d manipulated him to your whims. Just close enough that you wouldn’t have to raise your voice for what came next.

Because the words perched on the tip of your tongue were hard enough to say at all, let alone loudly. They felt foreign and uncomfortable, like trying to speak around a mouthful of marbles. But something in Kusakabe’s kind eyes, warm and brown like aged whiskey, in the way he’d weathered your storms without breaking, made you want to try. You wouldn’t apologize, not exactly, but there was something else you could do.

“I... I’m always demanding. You were right about that,” you began speaking, your words soft yet felt like they were stuck in your throat. The sound of your own voice seemed strange in your ears, lacking its usual sharp edges. “It’s just how I am, and I will not change. I will always ask for what I want.” A pause, you wet your lips. “But... from now on, if it’s something that makes you uncomfortable, or if you truly think it’s not in my best interests... Then tell me so. And I’ll drop it. I trust you, Kusakabe. To look out for me. So I won’t push you or mess with you again. No more games.”

There. What was the point of saying sorry? Why fixate on the past when you could offer him the future?

And just in case that wasn’t enough, you added, “If I run my mouth, you can sass me back. I won’t cry again.”

You braced yourself, expecting Kusakabe to breathe a sigh of relief, maybe even break into a spontaneous victory dance at the prospect of no longer being your personal chew toy. You’d imagined him agreeing enthusiastically, perhaps suggesting you both pretend this whole awkward heart-to-heart never happened and go back to the comfortable pattern of you being a demanding, unfit potato and him suffering nobly in the name of education.

But Kusakabe’s expression was a masterpiece of shock, as if you’d dropped a bomb instead of a promise to acknowledge his existence as a sentient being with feelings and respect his boundaries. You wondered if he thought you were confessing some sort of undying love and was now frantically trying to calculate how to let you down gently without getting stabbed or triggering another meltdown.

You fought the urge to squirm under his gaze, to look away, to maybe leap off the roof and end this mortifying moment. But your iron will (and let’s be honest, your overwhelming pride) kept your chin up and your gaze steady. Your dignity was now balanced on a knife’s edge, and you’d be damned if you’d be the first to blink.

What you’d just done – acknowledging trust, promising to back down – was about as un-Zen’in as eating with your elbows on the table while discussing your deepest fears and insecurities. If Mother hadn’t birthed you at the family estate (probably while plotting three assassinations, a hostile takeover, and selecting curtains for the new east wing), you’d have seriously questioned whether she’d picked up the wrong baby at the hospital.

The silence stretched between you, thick and heavy. In the distance, a bird chirped, the sound unnaturally loud in the quiet. You could hear your own heartbeat. Kusakabe’s coffee cup creaked softly as he tightened his grip.

You found yourself fighting the urge to snatch back your words, to stuff them back down your throat and pretend they’d never escaped. To laugh it off as a joke, maybe? Or better yet, to push Kusakabe off the roof and claim temporary insanity caused by an overdose of early morning training and stairs. Anything, anything to escape… this – whatever it was that’s going on right now. The taste of panic, bitter and metallic, rose in your throat.

But you held on with apprehension, waiting for Kusakabe’s response, praying to whatever deity might be listening that he wouldn’t burst into laughter or, worse, look at you with pity in his eyes. Your fingers twitched, once again seeking the reassuring presence of your hidden blade.

Kusakabe finally exhaled, a shuddering breath that seemed to carry the weight of the world with it. The smell of his coffee, mingled with his cologne and lingering cigarette smoke, wafted toward you. You hadn’t even noticed him moving, but he was closer now. Standing directly in front of you. And he’d gotten there voluntarily. Without you having to manipulate, threaten, or otherwise coerce him into proximity. It was like he’d forgotten every single self-preservation instinct he’d ever learned.

His hand came up, patting the side of your head. His fingers ruffled your hair as he smiled, a warm, genuine expression that lit up his entire face, crinkling the corners of his eyes.

“Okay,” he said, just that simple word.

No disbelief. No interrogation about your sudden change of heart. No suspicion that this was all some elaborate, twisted joke at his expense. He simply… accepted it.

The knot in your gut, one you hadn’t even realized was there, suddenly unraveled, leaving a strange emptiness in its wake. A wave of relief washed over you, so intense it was almost dizzying. You absently leaned into his hand, your mind whirling like a hamster on a caffeinated sprint as you tried to figure out what the hell came next.

After a beat of hesitation, you opened your arms. Awkwardly. Gracelessly. All while maintaining unblinking eye contact, staring at Kusakabe with the intensity of a deranged owl. You probably looked less like someone offering a hug and more like a serial killer luring their next victim into a fatal embrace.

But Kusakabe, clearly a glutton for suffering with a side order of potential bodily harm, only stilled for a second before accepting your offer. He set his coffee cup down on the nearby railing and wrapped his arms around you, pulling you into a hug so gentle and tentative. He held you like you were a fragile, potentially explosive thing. Like he expected you to suddenly snap out of your temporary insanity and stab him for daring to touch you. A reasonable anticipation when hugging a porcupine made of concealed blades and deeply ingrained trust issues.

“Thank you, Eri,” he murmured into your hair, his breath warm against your scalp, thanking you yet again for the bare minimum of human decency. Kusakabe was not operating with a full deck of cards. Perhaps he’d been dropped on his head as a baby. Repeatedly. From a great height. That would explain a lot.

Then, just when you were starting to think maybe, just maybe, this whole hug thing hadn’t been a complete disaster, he spoke.

“For what it’s worth,” his voice muffled against your hair. “I really didn’t mean what I said back then, Eri.”

“You should have,” you snickered. “That was the mildest jab in history. Do better next time.” The words came out lighter than you intended, almost playful.

He chuckled, the sound a low rumble in his chest, and you found yourself leaning into it, just a little. “I hope there won’t be a next time.”

You poked at his side pointedly, “You’re too soft. Grow a spine, or you won’t make it out there.”

You knew Kusakabe was a first-grade sorcerer. A real one, unlike you. He could kick ass just fine. But there was more to surviving the world of jujutsu than raw strength. There were politics, hidden agendas, and enough backstabbing to make a scorpion blush. If he insisted on being the way he was right now, he’d get stepped on, be used, get assigned all the sh*tty missions, and possibly never get a pay raise. The horror.

Kusakabe seemed to understand what you meant. He sighed, and you could feel his heavy exhalation on your hair. “That’s why I became a teacher,” he said, a hint of wry humor in his voice. “Less complicated than the world out there. Safer. Less time at Headquarters, dealing with all the… personalities. Fewer audiences with the High Council. And you know, the pay’s good, too.”

“Good enough to tolerate me?”

“Not even close.”

“You’re improving.”

His arms tightened around you for a moment. You said nothing more, just awkwardly patting his back in return.

Being a jujutsu instructor was a thankless job. And being your jujutsu instructor? Well, Kusakabe had clearly angered some powerful deity in a past life to draw this particular short straw. The man deserved a hug. Probably intense therapy and a vacation to a remote island where your family name had never been heard, but a hug was a start.

As the hug continued on – longer than you had expected, longer than you had imagined enduring without resorting to at least mild violence – you mentally drafted a strongly worded letter to whatever cosmic force was responsible for this baffling turn of events. You were fairly certain it involved a filing error, a misplaced decimal point, or possibly a drunken bet between bored deities.

But for now, you’d endure. It was for the greater good, you reasoned. For the sake of getting your training back on its normal track, of course. For the sake of not having to face another one of Haibara’s motherly lectures on doing the right thing. Nothing more. And definitely not because you were starting to find Kusakabe’s embrace pleasant. Or because the steady beat of his heart against your ear was oddly soothing. That would be ridiculous. Almost as ridiculous as the warm, fuzzy sensation spreading through your chest that couldn’t be attributed to indigestion or the early stages of a heart attack.

Oh Mother, send help.

Notes:

"Just say you're sorry."

"Absolutely not. I will instead take responsibility, communicate expectations, and affirm boundaries."

Chapter 13

Summary:

The Logistics of Doing Good Deeds

Chapter Text

After more weeks of Kusakabe’s relentless training regimen—a brutal affair you had not-so-affectionately dubbed his “Boot Camp for the Hopelessly Unfit,” you’d achieved a new milestone: barely passable field readiness.

In other words, you were now just fit enough to haul your pampered ass away from immediate danger and make a mad sprint to Kusakabe so he could swoop in and rescue you from whatever curse you managed to piss off with your charm and grace. Progress, you supposed, in the loosest sense of the word.

Not that you saw the point. Your technique was capable of freezing anything that was not a special-grade curse in its tracks. And if things got really dire? You could always just whip up a shadow shield, sit down, and wait it out. No cardio required. But you had promised to play nice with Kusakabe, so play nice you did.

Nanami and Haibara had also been steadily improving through the daily gauntlet, their daily sparring sessions morphing into a spectator sport that you observed with great interest. Kusakabe, in his infinite wisdom, insisted you watch these testosterone-fueled displays, claiming you had a “keen eye for flaws.” You wondered if that was his polite way of calling you a judgmental asshole with a pedagogical flourish. Or just a misguided attempt to make you feel special. Either way, you weren’t complaining about the view when things got heated and sweat-soaked shirts started coming off. It was all just diligent analysis, of course. Very important, very shirtless analysis. For science. And jujutsu. Definitely not for any other reason.

Kusakabe often grumbled that you weren’t paying attention during these bouts. But he was wrong – you were, in fact, paying close attention, just not always to the aspects he wanted you focused on. Yet you consistently aced his pop quizzes on fight analysis, so clearly, your talent for multitasking was not to be underestimated.

Haibara had made impressive leaps with his cursed energy control. A good thing, considering the universe had blessed him with no cursed technique and all the cursed energy of a potato battery. Nanami, on the other hand, still grappled with regulating his cursed energy. You had a sneaking suspicion his perpetual crabbiness might have something to do with it. Resting grump face: not just a fashion statement, but an actual jujutsu handicap. Perhaps if he smiled at you a couple times a day, his cursed energy might cooperate. But then again, a smiling Nanami might just break the laws of nature and cause the apocalypse. Best not to risk it.

And then, field practice – the glamorous life of a baby sorcerer, where your daily grind consisted of curse pest control in the most charming locales this side of a horror movie set. Abandoned buildings, hospitals, cemeteries, and sketchy neighborhoods where even the co*ckroaches carried switchblades and demanded protection money. These hotspots of negative energy were like all-you-can-eat buffets for low-grade curses, which made them perfect punching bags for novice curse-wranglers like yourself to cut their teeth on. Metaphorically, of course.

Despite Kusakabe’s efforts to sculpt you into a sharpshooter – a relentless campaign that had probably aged him a decade and made him look miserable enough to pass as a real teacher now – your aim remained stubbornly loyal to the “spray and pray” school of marksmanship. But the eternally delusional optimistic man clung to the belief that maybe, just maybe, real-life situations might awaken your inner sniper. Some people, he claimed, were just built for high-pressure situations.

So, for your first field training exercise, Kusakabe gleefully led your group to a cemetery, his eyes sparkling like a kid set loose in a candy store. Or in his case, a sorcerer in a curse-infested graveyard. Surely, he thought, you’d be able to hit something here. Anything. The laws of probability alone suggested that even if you simply tripped and fell face-first, you’d accidentally nail a curse with one of your wayward bullets.

Oh, you most certainly nailed something alright. Just not what anyone had intended or hoped for in their wildest dreams.

Even after paralyzing your target, rendering it about as immobile as Kusakabe’s unwavering faith in you, and standing close enough to assess its dental hygiene, you still missed. Spectacularly so. The bullet ricocheted wildly off a nearby gravestone, apparently deciding that your target was too easy and Nanami’s unsuspecting rear end made for a far more tantalizing bullseye to acquire.

Thank the jujutsu gods for Nanami’s lightning-quick reflexes, which saved his ass quite literally.

“Damn it, Eri,” Nanami hissed, his voice hitting a register usually reserved for panicked woodland creatures. “Who in their right mind thought it was a good idea to hand you a gun?!”

Your gaze, dripping with innocence that fooled absolutely no one in your present company, swiveled toward Kusakabe. The poor man looked like he was seriously, fervently contemplating joining the cemetery’s permanent residents, dragging his hand down his face in the universal gesture of “I’ve made a terrible mistake.”

Your latest field trip saw your group venturing into a neighborhood that made the cemetery look like a five-star resort. The streets were a patchwork of cracked asphalt and forgotten dreams, lined with buildings that seemed to sag under the weight of their own misery. The entire area had collectively decided to give up and let gravity have its wicked way. Graffiti screamed from every available surface, all territorial markings and crude artwork.

The air hung heavy with a co*cktail of despair and cheap booze, seasoned with a hint of questionable substances that you were pretty sure weren’t just dried oregano. Shadows lurked in every alleyway, and not the kind you could control – these were the human variety, eyes glinting with a mixture of suspicion and poorly concealed desperation.

The locals prowled the streets with a jittery, frenetic energy that made the curses floating around look positively zen. Their own turbulent wellsprings of negative emotions were breeding the very “paranormal activities” they complained about. A vicious cycle.

In a rare bout of foresight (or perhaps just healthy paranoia), Kusakabe had issued Haibara and Nanami strict orders to keep you on an extremely short leash during this particular excursion. Your tendency to wander off was cause for concern in his eyes. The palpable anxiety etched onto Kusakabe’s features in that moment finally convinced you that the man must genuinely value your continued existence against all logic.

It was all well and good to let you roam free in the controlled environments of cemeteries. Given the fact that the residents there were conveniently six feet under, they had the decency to stay put and not cause trouble. This neighborhood, on the other hand, was teeming with a different kind of unpredictable entity—the living, breathing kind prone to irrational behavior and spontaneous acts of violence. Any curse you encountered could be easily handled with your Paralysis, but the locals here? That was a whole other level of trouble that Kusakabe wanted to avoid at all costs.

Kusakabe didn’t need to spell it out. One look at you – with your wide eyes and general air aristocratic cluelessness practically screamed “easy target” to anyone looking for one – and his anxiety reached new heights. So, much to your chagrin, Haibara and Nanami stuck to you with the laser focus of helicopter parents at a playground full of rusty nails and suspicious candy.

Despite your companions’ best efforts to keep you corralled, they had severely underestimated your talent for strategic social evasion. Years spent dodging tedious clan gatherings and suffocating etiquette lessons had turned you into a veritable Houdini of high-society escapes—skills easily transferable to, say, ditching two well-meaning but somewhat overbearing classmates.

It wasn’t that you were actively seeking trouble. You were just... easily distracted. Think of it as having the attention span of a hyperactive hummingbird hopped up on sugar and caffeine. So, while Kusakabe and your babysitters were busy whacking curses in the depths of a particularly sinister-looking alleyway, your wandering gaze (and equally wandering feet) were snagged by the distant melody of children’s laughter. Nothing screamed “safe and wholesome” quite like the sound of youthful glee echoing through a neighborhood where even the pigeons looked vaguely criminal.

As you rounded the corner, drawn by the irresistible allure of chaos and questionable life choices, you stumbled upon a scene that could’ve been ripped straight from the pages of a “How to Be a Tiny Sociopath” handbook. A gaggle of snotty-nosed brats were crowded around a massive tree, their grubby faces twisted with a sick kind of glee. Their victim? A scrawny black cat, dangling from one of the higher branches like the world’s most miserable Christmas ornament, its claws stuck in the unforgiving bark.

The poor thing was putting on a valiant show, hissing and yowling in a way that said, “I’m tough, I swear!” but really screamed, “Someone get me the hell out of here! I have nine lives but I’d rather not test that theory today!” Not that anyone cared. You watched as a man strolled by without so much as a blink at the unfolding cruelty, probably operating under the philosophy of “Not my circus, not my monkeys... or cats. Must be almost time for dinner...”

Now, you were many disquieting things – cold, indifferent, ruthless when needed, and stabby when provoked. But you were not cruel for cruelty’s sake. What was the point in tormenting something so small and ultimately harmless? This wasn’t like swatting a mosquito that was out for your blood, or “accidentally” introducing an unwanted suitor to the unforgiving laws of gravity. No, this was different.

These pint-sized assholes, deriving such sick pleasure from the cat’s distress, reminded you all too much of your own delightful siblings back home. The casual cruelty, the unearned sense of superiority, the disturbing enjoyment of another’s suffering – such a mirror reflection of your family gatherings. Only with less silk and significantly more dirt.

Without a second thought, you raised your hand. In an instant, the little monsters froze in place. Their laughter died in their throats, replaced by startled squawks and the distinct sound of youthful bravado evaporating into thin air. The sweet, sweet symphony of consequences catching up to actions. Oh, you had dealt with far worse brats than this pack. Most of them were even blood relations, after all.

You approached them, your voice frosty.

“Care to explain yourselves?” your tone making it abundantly clear that “explanations” were merely a formality on the road to swift and merciless retribution. “Why were you throwing bricks at that cat? You could kill it, you know.”

Somewhere in the vast, echoing emptiness where your soul should have resided, you knew this exercise in diplomacy was utterly pointless. But Haibara would disagree. He would give it a try, with his endless well of patience and his annoying habit of seeing good where there clearly was none. So here you were, channeling your inner Haibara and trying on empathy like an ill-fitting, itchy sweater. Mother would not approve.

Predictably, your attempt at reason only cranked up the waterworks. The brats stared at you like you were the boogeyman’s edgier sister. Fair enough, you supposed. With the setting sun at your back and shadows dancing around your feet, you did paint quite the ominous picture. Such a shame these little monsters couldn’t appreciate the aesthetics.

The oldest of the bunch—a grimy, gap-toothed kid—blubbered a response, his voice thick with manufactured remorse. “Please, miss! We’re sorry! We didn’t mean nothin’ by it! Just let us go, and we’ll never do it again!” When that failed to elicit the desired effect, his eyes welled up with crocodile tears, and he resorted to desperate pleas. “It’s a black cat! My mama says they’re bad luck! Everything’s been messed up around here ever since that mangy thing showed up!”

Another delinquent, his nose perpetually leaking like a faulty faucet, chimed in with a sob story of his own. “Yeah! Right after that cat showed up, my dad went and crashed his bike! Busted his arm real bad! It’s gotta be cursed or somethin’!”

Of course. Because a scrawny black cat was the source of all evil in this charming paradise. Not the rampant poverty, systemic neglect, or the fact that these punks were out here honing their bullying skills instead of doing homework or developing a healthy fear of authority figures. Nope. It was definitely the cat’s fault.

Your eyes, dark as a moonless night and about as warm, swept over the frozen troublemakers.

“Pick someone your size if you want to be a dickhe*d so bad. Preferably someone who doesn’t lick their own backside,” you sneered, your voice dripping with icy disdain worthy of a true villain. “The next time you decide to hurt an animal again, I will come for you. I will break both your dad’s bike and your arms. That applies to the rest of you, too. And then, just for fun, we’ll see how you all like dangling from that tree. Are we clear?”

A chorus of whimpers answered you. Satisfied with your foray into traumatizing small children (a time-honored family tradition), you flicked a finger, releasing your technique. The kids scattered like roaches, no doubt off to cry to their equally delightful parents about the crazy bitch who ruined their fun.

Haibara, you decided, would be thrilled with your tale. His good influence was clearly rubbing off on you. After all, you had given these sh*tstains such a valuable life lesson. Or at the very least, provided them with enough nightmare fuel to last through puberty.

With the pint-sized tormentors scattered to the wind, you turned your attention to the real star of this impromptu urban drama. The black cat was still doing its best impersonation of a very angry, very vocal Christmas ornament, showing zero signs of pulling off a miraculous escape.

After all the trouble you’d gone through – playing the villain, traumatizing some snotty punks, potentially violating all sorts of jujutsu regulations – it seemed a bit anticlimactic to just leave it hanging there. You briefly considered calling in the cavalry, aka Haibara, the resident bleeding heart and potential Disney prince.

But then again, waiting around might invite some irate parents looking for payback. Not that you were afraid of a few angry civilians with delusions of adequacy, but jujutsu regulations frowned upon using cursed techniques on non-curse entities. It was one thing to mess with kids who you could claim were just imagining things. But a bunch of adults could be troublesome. If you landed in hot water, Kusakabe’s head would be on the chopping block. The man was practically a newborn in the eyes of the higher-ups, still clinging precariously to his teaching position. You’d hate to see him sacked because of your antics. Who else would indulge your every whim and questionable demand with such unwavering (if slightly exasperated) patience? Certainly not that old grump Yaga.

So, against every fiber of your being that screamed “bad idea” and “you’re going to regret this,” you began scaling the tree. Your graceful ascent resembled a drunken sloth, but eventually, you managed to haul yourself up to the thin branch where the enraged furball anxiously clung.

Extending one hand toward the cat, you fully expected a touching moment of interspecies connection—the kind of touching scene that went viral on those sentimental animal rescue channels. Instead, your selfless act was met with a display of tiny, needle-sharp teeth. Apparently, gratitude wasn’t this cat’s strong suit.

Clicking your tongue in annoyed disapproval – because cats were fluent in passive-aggressive disapproval – you switched to Plan B. Off came your uniform jacket, and once again, you approached the hissing, spitting ball of claws with the determination of someone who’d already invested too much in this ridiculous situation to back out now.

Round two of Operation: Save the Ungrateful Demon Cat commenced. This time, you managed to grab the cat by the scruff and quickly burrito-wrap it in your jacket. The cat, however, was a firm believer in going down swinging. It managed to get in one last vicious swipe, leaving a lovely souvenir of a gash across your chin.

“My mother would skin you alive for that little stunt,” you dryly informed the demon cat.

The cat, unimpressed by your threats, responded with another hiss—this one edged with a distinct note of defiance.

Annoyed and now bleeding, you returned the favor with a guttural hiss of your own. Two could play this game.

And just like that, the standoff ended. The cat deflated into a sullen silence. It had seemingly come to the conclusion that you were the bigger, meaner cat in this scenario and decided being a jacket burrito wasn’t so bad. At least it was warm. And dry. And smelled vaguely of roses and impending doom.

Victorious (sort of), you shifted your grip on the cat burrito and prepared to make your triumphant descent. And that, as they say, was when reality decided to throw a wrench in your carefully improvised plan.

What goes up must indeed come down. And coming down from a tree, you quickly discovered, was infinitely more challenging than going up. Especially with a furry package of attitude tucked under one arm, occasionally emitting muffled sounds of displeasure that sounded alarmingly like ancient curses.

Heights had never bothered you before. Satoru had whisked you off to plenty of lofty perches during your escapades. But he and his convenient teleportation technique had spoiled you rotten. Never once had you been forced to contemplate the logistics of gravity or the unfortunate consequences of misjudging a leap. Now, perched on this branch, you faced a dilemma worthy of a bad sitcom.

Option A: Swallow your pride and call for backup – potentially facing the judgmental music from Kusakabe and enduring one of Nanami’s what-the-hell-Eri lectures.

Option B: Play squirrel and attempt a solo descent – risking life, limb, and what little remained of your dignity.

Because you had not yet exhausted your daily quota of questionable decisions, you opted for the DIY approach. The tree wasn’t that high, you reasoned, conveniently ignoring the voice in your head that sounded suspiciously like Kusakabe listing all the ways you could seriously injure yourself. A fall from this height might result in a sprained ankle, a few broken bones, maybe a bruised ego. Nothing Shoko couldn’t fix with a wave of her hand and an exasperated sigh, surely.

With that reassuring thought in mind and all logic firmly suppressed, you began your descent. “Slow and steady,” you muttered to yourself as you inched down the trunk. For a moment, it seemed like your harebrained plan might actually work.

Spoiler alert: It didn’t. Because of course, it didn’t.

Your foot, deciding it had better places to be, lost its tenuous grip on the tree trunk. Time seemed to slow as the ground rushed up to greet you, eager for a close encounter of the painful kind. You squeezed your eyes shut, bracing for an impact that… never came.

Instead of hard ground and crunching bones and shattered pride, you found yourself caught in a pair of strong arms. Arms that belonged to a very, very irritated Nanami. His expression was a perfect blend of relief that you hadn’t fractured your skull, exasperation so profound it could curdle milk, and just the faintest hint of “I am so done with your bullsh*t.”

“What in the ever-loving hell were you thinking, Eri?” Nanami gritted out in barely contained incredulity, sounding like he was trying very hard not to shake you. Which, given his current level of irritation, was a glowing endorsem*nt of his self-restraint. “I took my eyes off you for one bloody second, and you decided to just… fall off a f*cking tree?!”

His impending tirade screeched to an abrupt halt as his eyes zeroed in on your chin. The thin line of crimson rapidly making its presence known on your jawline had a remarkable effect on his composure. Nanami set you down with surprising gentleness for someone who looked ready to breathe fire.

“You’re bleeding,” he stated, just in case you might have missed the steady trickle of blood now staining your collar.

And then you went from dangling damsel to reluctant patient. Nanami, always so prepared for the unexpected (and your uncanny ability to attract trouble), produced a pristine handkerchief from seemingly thin air and tilted your chin upward with a gentle hand. His touch was tender as he dabbed at the gash, his frown deepening with each swipe of the fabric. You winced involuntarily at the sting, and he paused, murmuring an apology before leaning in to blow lightly on the cut.

“How in the world did you manage this?” he muttered, his voice a low rumble as his breath warmed the skin of your jaw. “What were you doing up that damn tree in the first place?”

You allowed Nanami to fuss over you, relishing the undivided attention. It was a rare treat. Sure, he cared. You knew that. But in your esteemed and slightly biased opinion, there was always room for improvement in that department. Perhaps a strategic fall from a tree every now and then wasn’t such a bad idea. It was certainly effective.

Deciding to enlighten him on your heroic exploits, you proudly lifted your cat burrito like a trophy. “This,” you said, as if that single word was more than enough context to clarify the entire situation.

Nanami’s eyebrows all but disappeared into his hairline. He stared at you, then at the cat, then back at you, his expression somewhere between disbelief and dawning horror.

“You… climbed up a tree,” he began slowly, “...to get a stray cat? And it scratched you?”

The unspoken “Are you out of your mind?” hung heavy in the air.

You responded with an unapologetic nod, feeling rather pleased with your accomplishment.

Nanami exhaled loudly. You imagined him mentally running through breathing exercises, possibly chanting Buddhist mantras to ward off the urge to throttle you. “Seriously, Eri?” he finally managed, dragging a weary hand down his face. “You’ll need a bunch of shots for that. Who knows what kind of nasty sh*t that stray’s been rolling around in?”

With the unbothered air of someone who hadn’t just tempted fate and gravity in a rather spectacular fashion, you patted his chest reassuringly. And if your hand lingered just a fraction of a second longer than strictly necessary, well, that was completely coincidental.

“It’s just a scratch. I’m sure Sho can heal it up.”

Nanami caught your hand in his, his grip firm but not uncomfortable as he pulled you closer. “What if it’s infected, Eri?” he asked, his voice tight with worry. “What if that cat has rabies?” Your usual flippant response died on your tongue. The genuine concern in his voice—so unlike his usual indifference—gave you pause. “Don’t joke about this,” he continued, his tone softening slightly. “You’re going to be the death of me, you know that, right?”

Needless to say, Kusakabe was less than thrilled when Nanami delivered you back to him – disheveled, bleeding, and clutching a disgruntled cat. You could see the years being shaved off his lifespan and his sanity snapping like a dry twig as he surveyed the scene, his gaze flickering between your scratched-up face, the suspicious bulge in your jacket, and Nanami’s weary expression.

This time, Kusakabe bypassed the lecture entirely. He’d reached the acceptance stage of grief when it came to your antics. Not even bothering with you, he turned his exasperated attention straight to Nanami who was now the unofficial spokesperson for your questionable life choices. “Clinic. Now. Shots,” he commanded, his voice tight with suppressed panic. “And then, for the love of all that is holy, ensure that cat ends up in a shelter. And double-check that she hasn’t somehow stuffed it into her bag. I swear, if that creature sets foot on school grounds…”

Oh, sweet, naive Kusakabe. As if Nanami could stop you. For all his tough-guy exterior and impressive vocabulary, Nanami had yet to successfully refuse you anything since the day you’d met. He was putty in your hands, though he’d sooner die than admit it. You were the embodiment of chaos. And Nanami, for all his rules and routines, was powerless to resist your gravitational pull.

Haibara had tried to weasel his way into the impromptu cat-relocation duties. But Kusakabe made a spectacular misjudgment. Clearly, two slackers in one outing was his limit. Little did he know, he was removing the only person who might have had a shot at keeping you somewhat tethered to the realm of common sense.

So off you trotted with Nanami, leaving behind a crestfallen Haibara who looked like someone had canceled Christmas right in front of his eyes. With Haibara out of the picture and your yes-man Nanami as your only supervision, the possibilities were endless.

The clinic visit was a breeze. You graciously got jabbed a few times, all while Nanami played babysitter to your feline partner in crime outside. Apparently, the clinic had a strict no-furry-assailants-allowed policy. Go figure.

With your scratch cleaned and your bloodstream now enriched with a delightful co*cktail of modern medicine, it was time to address the elephant—or rather, the feline—in the room.

“Eri,” Nanami began, his voice taking on the patient, strained tone of someone explaining astrophysics to a particularly dimwitted goldfish. “We’ve been over this. You can’t keep the cat.”

He said it with such conviction, such an air of finality, that for a fleeting moment, you almost believed him. Almost.

“But I suffered for this cat, Nanami,” you countered, your tone wounded, as though you were the true victim in all of this. “I terrorized a bunch of children and fell off a tree for him. Finders-keepers. He’s mine, legally speaking.”

Nanami’s jaw, seemingly with a mind of its own, went for a walk south. “You… you did what now?”

Oh. Right. It seemed you had conveniently neglected to mention that rather crucial “scarring children for life” part of your heroic tale. You waved your cat burrito around as you laid out the full story for Nanami’s benefit. With each progressively more absurd (and highly incriminating) detail you recounted, his expression visibly cycled through the traditional five stages of grief with the speed and agility of an Olympic sprinter.

“Eri,” he choked out, his composure cracking at the seams. “That’s… that’s a blatant violation of about a dozen different jujutsu regulations! Do you have any idea what kind of trouble—”

You blinked up at him with wide, innocent, pitch-black eyes. “Are you gonna report me then?”

Nanami deflated like a punctured balloon. “No,” he sighed, the weight of the world settling onto his shoulders. “No, I’m not gonna report you.” A beat of silence, then, “But please, do not breathe a word of this to anyone else. Okay?”

“Can I at least tell Yu?” you asked, because Haibara, in your mind, existed on a higher plane where confidentiality agreements and common sense dared not tread.

Nanami considered this for a moment, his expression pained. “...Fine, Haibara is...acceptable,” he conceded with a groan. “But that’s it. No one else. Especially not Gojo. Not even Kusakabe-sensei or Ieiri.”

You nodded in compliance, mostly to alleviate Nanami’s suffering, and maybe, keep Kusakabe employed for a while longer.

Sensing that his crusade against your bullsh*t was rapidly losing traction, Nanami switched tactics. He opted for a more practical, if slightly underhanded, approach.

“And where, pray tell, do you intend to keep him?” he asked skeptically. “Locked in your shoebox of a dorm room all day every day?”

“He goes where I go,” you assured him with all the brimming confidence of someone who hadn’t put anywhere near that amount of thought into the logistics.

“You can’t bring a cat along with you to training and missions!” Nanami spluttered, his common sense making a valiant last stand against the overwhelming tide of your determined insanity.

“Why not?” you asked, genuinely puzzled by his distress.

“Because…” He paused, searching for a logical explanation that wouldn’t make him sound like he was losing his mind. “Because it’s dangerous! And impractical! And… not allowed, Eri,” Nanami pleaded, grasping at straws at this point. “Let’s take him to a shelter. They’ll find him a safe home.”

You weren’t having any of Nanami’s sensible arguments. Your stubbornness, much like your impressive cursed energy reserves, was boundless.

“No way, Nanami,” you stated, holding the demon cat aloft for emphasis. “He’s a black cat. He’s ungrateful. And he has the worst personality. No one in their right mind would want him.”

And as if to punctuate your point, the little demon chose that precise moment to hiss like a tea kettle with anger management issues. It was a truly impressive display of hostility—a perfect blend of anger, indignation, and the sheer, unbridled joy of making everyone around him miserable. You were oddly proud. You hoped this was what Mother felt every time she looked at you.

Nanami’s gaze ping-ponged between you and the demon cat, no doubt noted the eerie similarities in your charming personalities and disdain for societal norms. Finally, confronted with such flawless logic, his tenuous resolve crumbled.

He sighed, “Kusakabe-sensei won’t be happy about this.”

“But I’ll be happy,” you pointed out, because really, wasn’t that what truly mattered in the grand scheme of things? And to further solidify your victory, you looped your arm around his, squeezing his bicep. “You’re the absolute best, Nanami!”

As close to a thank you as you could manage without breaking out in hives. And Nanami decided to take it without further protest, a small smile tugging at the corner of his lips as you clung to his arm. Your mind was already jumping ahead to other cat-related things. The possibilities were, indeed, endless.

Chapter 14

Summary:

Completely platonic interactions

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

After your decisive victory over Nanami’s better judgment, it was time to give your demon cat the royal treatment. First on the agenda: premium tuna, fresh from a can, because even demon cats appreciated the finer things in life.

Next up, the vet visit. Demon cat got his own co*cktail of shots, proving that misery does indeed love company. The flea bath that followed was less grooming and more full-blown exorcism, judging by the unholy yowls emanating from the treatment room. The staff there ended up more traumatized than the fleas. They timidly suggested declawing, which you responded with your most haughty Zen’in glare.

Declaw a cat? Unthinkable. What kind of self-respecting cat went around unarmed? What if he needed to fight off assassins? Or overthrow world governments? Taking away his claws would be like someone trying to snatch your dagger – utterly blasphemous and likely to end in bloodshed.

With the basics sorted, Nanami – always so practical – raised a rather pertinent issue. Demon cat was so uniformly black that should he ever choose to close his eyes in the dark, you would never find him again.

So, you and Nanami went on a mission to make your cat at least somewhat visible to the naked eye through strategic accessories. Colorful collars with bells, silly sweaters, a fancy cage for those time-out moments, and a comfy cat bed which he’d later ignore in favor of the plain cardboard box it came in. Oh, also cat litter and a nice litter box for obvious reasons. And Nanami, naturally, got stuck playing pack mule again.

Finally, thoroughly worn out from your marathon shopping trip, the two of you took a well-deserved break at a small park on your way back. Mostly because Nanami’s arms were threatening to separate from his body and file for independence. As Nanami massaged his biceps, you sat there, demon cat now purring contentedly in your lap, appeased by premium tuna and designer sweaters.

Ten minutes into your park break, Nanami decided to engage in conversation. “What are you going to call him?” he asked, eyeing the cat warily.

“Cat,” you replied – all the creativity and thoughtfulness of a rock.

“Seriously?” Nanami snorted, his eyebrows doing a little dance of disbelief. “What kind of lazy name is that?”

“It’s an abbreviation,” you explained.

The dubious look on Nanami’s face only intensified further. “An abbreviation for… what, exactly?”

“Eri’s Cat,” you stated matter-of-factly.

Nanami stared at you. You stared back. There was a lengthy pause as Nanami debated whether or not to even justify that with a legitimate response. The only sound was the gentle rustling of leaves overhead and the distant chirping of birds blissfully ignorant of the existential crisis unfolding beneath the canopy.

“...That’s absolutely ridiculous, Eri. Even by your standards.”

Never one to back down from the slightest provocation, you immediately shifted gears. “Stop nagging me, or I’ll just call him Nami.”

The involuntary twitch in Nanami’s left eye was all the encouragement you needed. A wicked smirk spread across your face as you hoisted the demon cat up to eye level with Nanami.

“You know what? ‘Nami’ it is, then,” you announced triumphantly. “Isn’t he just the cutest little thing?”

As if he could read your mind, Nami the demon cat hissed at Nanami the human guy, his paw darting out to swat at Nanami’s nose with impressive accuracy. By some small stroke of cosmic luck, the claws remained sheathed, sparing Nanami from a face full of fury – and sparing you both another trip to the clinic.

Nanami’s attempt at a strategic retreat was so swift and ungraceful, he nearly sent himself tumbling off the bench in his haste to escape. “Get him away from me!” he yelped, scrambling to put distance between himself and your demon cat.

But you were Zen’in Eri, the bane of Nanami’s existence. Fixing him with a predatory grin, you scooted along the bench to close the gap Nanami had desperately tried to create. “What’s with that look?” you purred, enjoying his uncharacteristic display of panic a little too much. “He’s your son, you know. Give him some love.”

Nanami’s face contorted into pure bewilderment. “What?” he squawked. “He’s a cat, Eri. And why would he be my son?”

“Well, you did catch us when we fell out of that tree,” you began, ticking off points on your fingers as if presenting irrefutable evidence in a court of law. “Then you agreed to keep him and helped me get him all sorted out. He’s even named after you. It’s practically a legal adoption at this point.” You lifted the demon cat again to make sure Nanami understood your impeccable logic. “Here, look, he’s scowling in the exact same way you always do.”

“I most certainly did not agree to any of that! It’s all your doing,” Nanami huffed in protest, though the distinct lack of resolve behind his words severely undercut any legitimate argument.

Sensing that telltale sign of weakness, you pressed your advantage, leaning your body against his side as you gave him an insistent nudge with your shoulder. You probably looked like a demanding house cat seeking attention, but you couldn’t bring yourself to care. “Is that a bad thing?” you asked, your voice softer now as you gazed up at Nanami through your lashes.

A flush crept up Nanami’s neck, painting his cheeks a delightfully rosy shade of pink. He squirmed, but the mountain of purchases on his other side left him with nowhere to retreat. Trapped between you and a hard place (or rather, a soft place full of cat bed and sweaters), Nanami let out a defeated sigh. “I… guess not,” he mumbled.

Then, just as you were mentally congratulating yourself on your unparalleled powers of persuasion, Nanami moved. His arm, as if possessed by a will of its own, snaked around your back, pulling you into his side with a swift, decisive motion. For a heartbeat, you froze, your body tensing at the unexpected contact.

But then... warmth. A radiant, gentle warmth spread from the point where his body pressed against yours, seeping through your clothes, seeping into your very bones, unfurling in your chest like a tiny flower blooming against all odds, soft and glowing in the vast emptiness where your soul should have been.

Deciding that this sensation was something you wanted more of, you allowed yourself to relax, melting into Nanami’s side like you’d always belonged there. Like you were two puzzle pieces slotted together, fitting perfectly despite the jagged edges. His arm tightened in response, a gentle pressure that felt more like a promise than a restraint. Then, almost hesitantly, his palm began to move, gliding along your arm in gentle, rhythmic motions.

It was nice. Nicer than nice. Addictive, even. The drag of his callouses against your skin through the thin fabric of your shirt sent little shivers down your spine, raising goosebumps in their wake. You found yourself wondering if Nanami was aware of the effect he was having on you. Had he done this sort of thing before? Did he even know what he was doing?

You tilted your head up to study Nanami’s face, your gaze traveling the sharp line of his jaw, the way his eyelashes seemed darker against the warm flush creeping up his neck, the nervous way his Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. His eyes, you noticed, were carefully averted, fixed on some distant point beyond the trees. Like he was afraid to break whatever strange spell that had settled over the two of you.

An impulse seized you then. You reached out, capturing Nanami’s free hand in yours. His breath hitched, barely audible, but you felt it in the way his body tensed against yours. Slowly, giving him plenty of time to pull away if he wanted, you guided his hand to your lap. There, curled up like a contented ink blot, lay your demon cat.

Nanami hesitated for a moment, his fingers hovering just above the cat’s fur. Gathering his courage, he allowed his hand to slowly lower the rest of the way until the pads of his fingers made the lightest of contact with the soft fur. Nami, in a surprising show of benevolence, didn’t lash out. Instead, a deep, rumbling purr filled the air between you.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the tension drained from Nanami’s body. His fingers grew bolder, scritching behind Nami’s ears. And then, like the sun breaking through clouds, a smile spread across Nanami’s features. Soft and genuine and utterly breathtaking. One that made your heart do a funny little flip in your chest.

The park hummed with life around you but to your senses, your world had narrowed to just this: the warmth of Nanami’s body against yours, the weight of your demon cat in your lap, and the indulgent smile that illuminated Nanami’s face.

With a gentle tilt of your head, you rested it on his shoulder. He turned a little, angling his body to accommodate you. The position couldn’t have been comfortable for him, but he didn’t seem to mind one bit. His arm, still wrapped around you, tightened further, afraid you might slip away if he didn’t hold on.

You pressed your face into his neck, inhaling deeply. His scent enveloped you – a mix of faint sweat and his lavender soap and freshly laundered shirt, all blending into something that was just Nanami. It was comforting, grounding. Like coming home and crawling into your bed after a long day.

As if mirroring your actions, Nanami bowed his head until the tip of his nose was nestled in your hair. You could feel his chest expand as he took a deep breath, savoring your scent just as you had his. A shiver traced a delicious line down the length of your spine, sparking a pleasant tingle that settled somewhere in your chest.

Your eyes drifted shut, contentment washing over you like a warm wave. Not unlike a house cat basking in affection, all but purring with satisfaction. Nami, still curled in your lap, actually was purring in a soothing vibration.

Then, you felt Nanami lean down further. His breath ghosted across your forehead, slightly uneven. Time seemed to stretch as his lips brushed against the spot just between your brows. It wasn’t a quick peck, but a lingering press of warmth and tenderness. A gesture so simple yet so intimate, one that spoke of affection and something akin to reverence. As if he was pouring unspoken words into that single point of contact, trying to imprint a piece of himself onto you.

You felt the warmth of his breath, and a wave of something hot and sweet and unfamiliar surged through you. Something that left you wanting more.

A soft sigh escaped you. It was a sound of pure contentment, a sound you didn’t know you were capable of making. And then, emboldened by your involuntary surrender, Nanami did something incredibly reckless.

He shifted, just slightly, and the pressure of his lips against your forehead changed, becoming something more insistent, more deliberate. His lips moved against your skin, a slow, featherlight caress. You felt the heat of his blush against your cheek, the subtle rise of his chest as he held his breath. His free hand came up to cup your cheek, his thumb gently brushing against your jawline, carefully avoiding the scratch on your chin.

Slowly and deliberately as he’d done everything else that afternoon, his lips dipped down and you tilted your head up to meet him. As his lips brushed against yours, you tasted the faint sweetness of the mint tea he’d ordered earlier, felt his breath hot against your skin. And then, he kissed you. Really, truly kiss you.

His lips were warm, firm, surprisingly pleasant against yours. Not that you’d spent much time contemplating the intricacies of kissing before. The entire act had always struck you as rather unhygienic. Two mouths, swapping saliva and God knows what else – hardly the most appealing way to spend an afternoon.

But this… this was different. This didn’t feel gross as you had assumed. This was Nanami.

The kiss deepened, his lips moving against yours with a hesitant tenderness. Some sort of silent question. A conversation spoken in the spaces between breaths, a language you hadn’t realized you understood until this very moment.

His hand moved from your face to your waist, his fingers tightening on the fabric of your shirt as if he couldn’t bear to be any further away. His touch was electric, sending a jolt of awareness through you that had nothing to do with cursed energy and everything to do with the way your body seemed to hum in response to his. It was unnerving. Intoxicating. Utterly inexplicable.

When breathing became a necessity rather than a luxury, Nanami finally broke the kiss. But he didn’t pull away entirely. His face hovered mere inches from yours, his breath still hot on your skin. His cheeks were flushed, his sharp features softened. His hand lingered on your jaw, like he couldn’t quite bring himself to break the contact. He looked more handsome now, you decided. His carefully crafted mask had slipped, revealing the real Nanami beneath prickly layers of scowling and annoyance.

And because you possessed the social grace of a particularly blunt instrument, you blurted out the first thought that popped into your head.

“What was that?”

Nanami stiffened, his eyes widening as if you’d just spoken in a language he didn’t understand. Then, with a jolt, he pulled away, his hand dropping from your face, the arm around your back vanishing as if it had never been there at all. He looked… panicked. Flustered. Like a startled deer caught in the headlights of your bluntness.

“I... I’m sorry, Eri,” he stammered. “I didn’t mean to…”

You tilted your head, studying him with a detached sort of curiosity. “You didn’t mean it?”

He winced, like your words were physical blows. “No! I mean, yes, I meant it! I just…” He trailed off, his gaze darting around the park as if searching for an escape route. “It’s just… Just forget it, okay?”

You waited, but no further explanation came. Nanami simply sat there, shoulders slumped, his usual composure shattered.

“Is that what you tell all the girls you kiss?” you asked in your neutral tone. “Forget it ever happened?”

Because even you knew that was a dick move.

His head snapped up, his eyes wide with alarm. One would think you’d just accused him of treason. “Of course not!” he sputtered, aghast. “I’ve never… That is… I’ve never kissed any girl before. Not that it matters…” He ran a hand through his hair, his expression pained. “I just… I’m sorry, Eri. I shouldn’t have…”

“It’s fine, Nanami,” you waved your hand casually, cutting him off mid-apology. “It was nice. Really. Don’t get so worked up about it. You’ll give yourself wrinkles.”

He blinked at you, somehow managing to seem both relieved and bewildered. Perhaps, he’d been prepared for tears, for accusations, for the full spectrum of dramatic reactions that just… didn’t come. Your nonchalance, it seemed, was more unsettling than any outburst.

And you, having never found yourself in this particular predicament, had no earthly idea how to proceed. This whole kissing business was uncharted territory. There was no chapter on “post-kiss protocol” in any of your etiquette books. So, you did what a proper Zen’in would do when faced with a conundrum: you improvised.

“So,” you asked bluntly, “what happens now?”

Nanami looked like the simple act of breathing caused him physical pain. Perhaps all that heavy sighing had caught up with him. He took a deep breath, steeling himself for whatever emotional landmine you were about to detonate – really, with your track record, could you blame him for bracing for impact?

“This… doesn’t change anything,” he declared, his voice admirably firm despite the slight tremor that betrayed his cultivated calm. His gaze darted around your face, searching for any flicker of… something. Hurt? Anger? Disappointment? A sudden urge to whip out your dagger and go for his throat? But he couldn’t find anything, for your expression remained unreadable.

Encouraged by the fact that he hadn’t been stabbed yet, Nanami pressed on, his words tumbling over each other in his haste to reassure…someone. Possibly himself. “We’re still friends, Eri. That’s all.”

“Do you kiss all your friends, Nanami?” you asked, genuinely curious. Because, honestly, the lines were getting rather blurry here. “What about Yu? Do you kiss him too?”

Now, you weren’t entirely clueless about human interactions. You’d mastered the art of observing and imitating people. You knew enough to fit in, to move along, or manipulate when necessary. But this particular social nuance seemed to have slipped through your radar.

Surely, friends didn’t make a habit of exchanging saliva, did they? Then again, maybe exceptionally close friends engaged in that sort of thing. Friends who shared a special bond, who looked at each other with smoldering gazes and occasionally paused mid-conversation to fan themselves dramatically. The world was a strange place. And sorcerers as a whole were an eccentric breed. Anything was possible, you supposed. Even spontaneous outbreaks of platonic lip-locking.

Nanami, however, did not share your perspective.

“No, Eri,” he hissed, every muscle in his body radiating a silent plea for you to drop this line of questioning before he combusted from sheer mortification. “I do not kiss all of my friends. And I have most definitely not kissed Haibara.”

That, you decided, was good news. Excellent news, even. When you’d posed the question, a tiny, irrational part of you had half-expected Nanami to confess to a secret make-out pact with Haibara. The two of them had been spending an inordinate amount of time together lately participating in some rather sweaty and shirtless training while you were stuck with Kusakabe, enduring his futile lectures on shooting and the finer points of not tripping over your own feet.

If Nanami and Haibara had kissed, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. You weren’t jealous. Just mildly irritated that they’d gone and swapped spit without consulting you first. It simply wouldn’t do to be left out of the loop. A matter of principle, really. You were Zen’in Eri and being the last to get kissed was unacceptable. That’s not how the universe worked.

Thankfully, Nanami seemed adamant that no such inter-friend smooching had occurred. “Okay, then,” you said with a decisive nod, effectively closing the case on the Great Nanami-Haibara Kissing Conspiracy of 2006.

Nanami visibly sagged with relief, as though you’d just informed him he’d won the lottery and successfully avoided a tax audit.

But then, you added, “It’s fine, you know. I wouldn’t mind if you and him kissed.” They were both your friends. The lines were blurry, sure, but what was a little lip-locking between close friends, eh?

Any lingering relief on Nanami’s face vanished, replaced by an expression of horrified indignation. “I did not kiss Haibara, and I have absolutely no intention of ever kissing him, Eri,” he insisted, his voice bordering on a squeak. “How did you even—? Just… stop talking. Please.”

Your demon cat, sensing Nanami’s distress (or just reacting to the sudden increase in volume), stirred in your lap. You stroked his fur soothingly.

“Fine, fine,” you conceded with a shrug. “I’m just saying, it’s good to have a clear understanding of where we stand. For future reference, of course.”

You settled back, content to bask in the silence and the fading warmth of the setting sun. The park was pleasant, the sun warm on your skin, and Nami had stopped plotting your demise long enough to nap. All in all, a successful outing.

Nanami, on the other hand, seemed to be grappling with some internal crisis of epic proportions. His brow was furrowed, his gaze darting around the park, and he kept clenching and unclenching his jaw to the point you thought he was trying to chew through a particularly stubborn curse, or working up the courage to ask that random pigeon over there for relationship advice.

After several minutes of this riveting display, you decided there were better things he could occupy himself with.

“Hey, Nanami,” you turned to him and asked, “Can I kiss you again? As friends?”

Nanami nearly launched himself off the bench. “What?”

You touched your lips lightly with the tip of your index finger, a contemplative frown on your face. “I told you, it was nice,” you reminded him, unaware he had spent the last ten minutes replaying the kiss in his mind with excruciating detail. “I liked it. And I want more.”

It was a spectacularly Eri thing to say – blunt, demanding, and devoid of any semblance of subtlety. Nanami was unprepared for your straightforward request. He swallowed audibly, trying to avert his gaze, to focus on literally anything else – a knobby tree, a pair of squirrels engaged in a heated debate over an acorn – but his eyes kept darting back to your lips as if drawn by an invisible force.

“It’s okay if you don’t want to,” you assured him, patting his arm with the casual affection one might bestow upon a nervous houseplant. “I suppose I’ll just ask Yu later—”

You didn’t even get to finish your sentence. Whatever internal debate had been raging within Nanami’s soul reached a fever pitch. He grabbed your face – not roughly, not painfully, but with a certainty that stole the breath from your lungs – and kissed you.

Again.

And again.

And again.

Your head spun. You lost count of the kisses, the way his lips moved against yours was both exhilarating and a little bit terrifying. But you didn’t hesitate. Didn’t question the strange warmth that bloomed in your chest or the way your body seemed to hum with a life of its own. You met his kisses with an eagerness that surprised even you, your fingers tangling in the collar of his shirt as you pulled him closer.

He tasted faintly of mint and something else… you couldn’t place through the haze of sensation. His lips were firm yet yielding against yours, his every touch sending shivers down your spine. His hand moved from your face to your hair, his fingers threading through the strands as he deepened the kiss.

The world around you faded to a blur of muted colors and distant sounds. There was only Nanami: the feel of his body pressed against yours, the intoxicating scent of him filling your senses, the taste of him on your lips.

You lost all track of time, lost in the warmth of his embrace and the electrifying rhythm of his kisses. It was as though some invisible barrier had shattered between you, and you were falling, tumbling, into the unknown.

And then, just as abruptly as it had begun, it ended. This time though, when he broke the kiss, it wasn’t out of awkwardness or a desperate need for oxygen. It was a slow, reluctant parting, his lips lingering against yours. He looked dazed, like he’d just stumbled out of a dream and wasn’t quite sure he’d woken up yet.

His breathing was ragged, his gaze open and unguarded, filled with a warmth that made your chest ache, a vulnerability that tugged at something deep within you.

“That was…” he began, his voice rough. Surely to inform you again that it was 100% platonic.

So you shook your head, cutting him off. You understood it by now. Probably. No need for him to keep repeating that particular line like a broken record.

Instead, you reached out, your fingers tracing the line of his jaw. His skin felt pleasant beneath your fingertips, the sharp angle of his jaw softened by the faintest hint of stubble. You’d always found his features aesthetically pleasing, but now, they were even more captivating.

Nanami leaned into your touch, his eyes fluttering closed. You let your fingers drift from his jaw to his cheekbone, marveling at the way his features seemed to mellow out at the contact. Wordlessly, he tilted his head, pressing a kiss into your palm as a tremor ran through his body. Completely platonic behavior.

You considered him for a moment, your head tilted in thought. But before you could decide whether to escalate things from “platonically reckless” to “potentially catastrophic,” your phone blazed out a cheesy pop song that you’d specifically chosen for one individual – Kusakabe.

You picked the call to greet a very flustered, very anxious Kusakabe, demanding to know your current location, whether Nanami was still in one piece, and why you hadn’t returned hours ago.

“Yes, Kusakabe,” you chirped in your sweetest tone. “We’re just finishing up our trip. Oh, I’ll fill you in later. Everything’s fine. No, I haven’t stabbed Nanami. Yet. And yes, we’ll be back soon. Love you. No, I lied, of course. Bye.”

You hung up, ignoring Nanami’s bewildered expression, and smoothed down your hair. Nanami was also making a valiant attempt to fix his rumpled shirt collar and regain some semblance of composure. “Kusakabe-sensei is going to kill me,” he muttered.

You laughed, a light, carefree sound that surprised him. “If he did, then 50% of his students would be me. He wouldn’t risk it.”

Nanami shook his head, “Yeah, you’ll drive him crazy one way or another, you know.”

And with that, you were back in familiar territory. You scooped up your demon cat while Nanami dutifully gathered your shopping bag. The two of you continued on your way.

You still weren’t entirely sure what had just transpired between you and your frustratingly serious, undeniably kissable classmate. But then, you’d never been one for labels or overthinking. If Nanami insisted on categorizing these interactions as purely platonic exchanges between friends, then friends it was. As long as he continued to provide a steady stream of “platonic” smooches, all was right in your world.

Notes:

What kind of slow burn is this? Only what, 70k words in and they're already smooching? Unacceptable.

The Zen’in Curse - sincerelyamee - 呪術廻戦 (2024)
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