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Sparring Partners

Chapter Text

The sun was just barely up as Ryuji stretched his legs. The cool air felt good against his body, and he relished the thought of his upcoming run. He was here before even the most zealous of the track team, which is how he liked it. No distractions, no one telling him what a loser he was. Just pure freedom.

Well, he thought he was here before everyone else. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw someone walking up the steps to the school. He turned, squinting and trying to get a good look at the interloper. If it was a track team member, he decided, he'd leave. He liked his peace and quiet, but not enough to pick a fight with people he used to consider friends.

But it was the school council president ascending the steps, not any of his old track team buddies. What on earth...? Surely there weren't any clubs she needed to look after this early. And even the principal didn't come in this early. So how did she get in?

She appeared to pull something from her pocket, and considering that she opened the door to the school with it, Ryuji figured she must have a key. What the hell? Why would the school council president have a key? Ryuji rubbed the back of his head thoughtfully. The question nagged at him so much that he half assed his stretching. This came back to bite him after his five kilometer run, as his muscles were tight and aching so bad that he might've been strung with piano wire inside. But in spite of his aches, the question still nagged at him.

What was a student council president doing at school before anyone, even the principal had come to open it up?

---

The question eventually faded from Ryuji's mind as the school day wore on and he had to force himself to pay attention in class. It wasn't as though he wanted to fail, it was just that being cooped up behind a desk and being forced to listen made him feel...anxious. His leg bounced constantly, annoying the kid in front of him with the constant, slight jiggling of the desk. He tapped his pencil, chewed his eraser, and drummed his fingers against his desk trying to purge the nervous energy that filled him so he could listen.

Kawakami frowned at him as he left the classroom to go eat lunch. "Hey, Sakamoto. I need a word with you," she said, her voice thick with exasperation. Ryuji slumped slightly, knowing that disappointed tone of hers was only reserved for the more dire situations. "Yes...?" he asked, trying not to sound as guilty as he felt. He had actually thought he was doing okay in her class. He hadn't really been good at math, but he had thought his Japanese was doing better.

"I've heard from the other teachers that your grades are slipping," she said without preamble. "Though you're treading water in my class, you're really going to have to hit the books if you want to make it through exams this year," said Kawakami, attempting a stern look at him. Ryuji jammed his hands into his pockets.

"I...I try," he said, hating how his voice sounded. He sounded like he was making excuses. "But I just...I go two ways about it, y'know? Sometimes I'll be able to focus an' I'll get really into it and I'll spend hours studying something. I'll just get completely absorbed...and then I won't study for any of my other classes cause I got all wrapped up," he explained, trying to make his voice sound a little stronger. "Mostly though, when I try to sit down with the books...it's like it's in one ear and out the other. I can't focus long enough to learn anything, even if I sit down for hours..." he trailed off, feeling uncomfortable.

Kawakami shook her head and sighed. "Well...do you have a study partner? Someone who can help keep you focused while you read and work on homework?" she asked, sounding less irritated. Maybe it was just him, but he detected a touch of sympathy in her face.

"I don't. Not since the incident with Kamoshida an' all..." replied Ryuji, chewing his lip. That damn bastard. He'd ruined everything! Just thinking about the past had him clenching his fists. A dull ache throbbed in his leg at the memory.

A pang flashed in Kawakami's eyes, and she nodded almost imperceptibly. A thoughtful expression crossed her face and Ryuji cocked his head. "Uhh...Ms. Kawakami?" he asked, wondering what she could be up to.

Kawakami's face broke into a sly smile. "Oh don't worry Sakamoto. You might not have a partner now, but I know just the person who'd be willing to tutor you," said Kawakami, looking very pleased with herself. Where before Ryuji had been feeling a mixture of guilt, shame and anxiety, now there was just anxiety. Kawakami looking like that NEVER meant that something good was going to happen.

"Sensei, please, if this is another one of your plans, please just let me study on my own," pleaded Ryuji. "I'll stay in the library all effin' Saturday and Sunday if you want, just leave me out of whatever you're plannin'."

Kawakami didn't waver for an instant. "Sakamoto, I know this is going to be just the thing for you. And if everything goes well, your tutor is going to get something out of this as well," she said with, still grinning her sly grin. "Now go on and get to lunch, I need to speak with the principal about my plan."

Hearing he was dismissed, Ryuji sighed and headed off to the rooftop. Well whatever. Even if Kawakami's plan was bad, it was better to deal with her than have to go to the Disciplinary Committee and face Kamoshida again. As Ryuji unpacked his lunch, he figured he'd just have to trust Kawakami on this.

Chapter Text

Kawakami entered the principal's office with a gentle knock. "Principal Kobayakawa? It's Kawakami. I need to speak to you," she said, entering the office cautiously. The Principal looked up from his papers, regarding Kawakami with an inquiring look. "Ah, Kawakami. Of course, what's going on?" asked Kobayakawa, looking surprised to be interrupted.

"Some of the other teachers have talked about Sakamoto's grades slipping. They're thinking of putting him under suspension considering his failing academics and his...incident with another member of our faculty," began Kawakami carefully, weighing her next words.

Kobayakawa nodded in agreement. "Yes, I had heard that was under consideration. Were you thinking to move that along?" he asked mildly, though there was a nasty gleam in his eye that she didn't quite like.

"No, I actually had a different plan. See, our school could use a reputation boost. Some good PR would help us get some more funding and raise our prestige in the eyes of the public," replied Kawakami, a little more quickly than she would've liked.

Kobayakawa frowned. "That's true enough. But how could Sakamoto and our reputation be connected?" asked Kobayakawa, his eyes boring into Kawakami.

"We could rehabilitate him. If we could somehow turn him around and make him a straight A honor's student and get him into a good university, the press would probably not be able to help themselves. Then there would come all the articles and blog posts about the school that didn't give up on it's wayward student. So if we can take a screw up like Sakamoto and turn him around, we'll be sure to get some good PR out there to combat the weird rumors surrounding...certain faculty," blurted Kawakami, a little breathless after giving her spiel.

Kobayakawa toyed with a pen between his fingers as he considered. For a moment, the office was dead silent except for the tapping of the principal's pen. Then he spoke.

"So how are you planning on rehabilitating Sakamoto?" he asked finally. Kawakami suppressed her triumphant smile, pleased with her little success. If this worked, not only would Ryuji and the school benefit, she thought to herself, but she'd get a nice little boost as the teacher who saw the potential in him.

"Simple. We pair him up with our shining example of academic success, Nijima," she said, her eyes sparkling in spite of herself. Kobayakawa looked taken aback.

"You'd have our student council president partnered with someone like Sakamoto? That's ridiculous! There's a hundred other students she could tutor," protested the principal. But Kawakami didn't back down, knowing she had Kobayakawa hooked already. All she needed to do was reel him in.

"Yes, but consider this: no other student has had that kind of public altercation with our faculty. Nijima could tutor other students, but partnering her with Sakamoto is certain to ensure that A) Sakamoto really does study and B) That we give Ms. Nijima exactly the kind of college essay she needs to get into a top school. With that kind of essay about rehabilitating a broken student and your recommendation, she'll be able to go to any school in Japan," finished Kawakami, looking at the principal. She allowed herself the smallest of smiles.

Kobayakawa looked away, fiddling more with his pen as he obviously tried to think of a reason he shouldn't go along with the plan. But after a moment, he gave up. "Well, I can see that your plan has merit. I'll call Nijima here today and explain what her role in this is," he said with a sigh, setting his pen down in defeat.

Then Kobayakawa looked at her sharply. "But I want you to keep an eye on them. Be their faculty mentor if you will. Nijima is perfectly capable of rehabilitating someone like Sakamoto, but I don't want to take the chance that this somehow reverses on us and Sakamoto ends up becoming a bad influence on Nijima. We can't afford to lose one of our best and brightest because she got too close to a thug like Sakamoto," finished the principal with unusual vehemence. Kawakami's eyes widened slightly but she nodded. Maybe she had underestimated his distaste for Sakamoto?

"Alright Kawakami. If there's nothing else, let Sakamoto know that he's to have mandatory study hours in the library with a partner. Since we know he won't have one, the school has assigned him one," finished Kobayakawa, waving a hand to dismiss her. Kawakami inclined her head slightly and left, her breathing a little elevated. She had managed to convince the principal. Now all there was left to do was tell Ryuji about her plan and hope it worked.

Chapter Text

 Ryuji stretched his calves against the wall of the school, wincing from the intense pull he felt in his muscles. Yesterday's run had really done a number on him, and he mentally kicked himself for not stretching properly after the run. 

 

After stretching his quads, he jogged in place a little to warm himself up when he spotted another person walking up the steps of school. Again? When he turned to look, the person turned their head to meet his gaze. The student council president was there again, now turned back to the school where she was unlocking the front door and disappearing into the building.

What the hell was going on? She was the student council president, but as far as Ryuji knew, she wasn't part of any clubs. Not that any of them met this early, but it would at least make more sense than her just showing up early. He tried to think of a reason she might be here so early. He sighed heavily. Maybe she was just here to study. It was so quiet now, it must be easier to study free of distractions. Ryuji frowned, thinking of his conversation with Kawakami yesterday. He shook his head and started off on his run. He'd just have to go along with Kawakami and hope it would work out for the best.

---

After Japanese class that day, Kawakami cornered Ryuji after class. Her eyes were unusually bright with triumph and Ryuji felt his uncertainty peaking within him.

"Ryuji, I found you a study partner!" she said, grabbing him by the shoulders and grinning into his face. When Ryuji just stood there in stunned surprise, Kawakami shook him. "Hey! You could at least be a little grateful that I managed to pull this off for you!" she hissed, looking disappointed. Ryuji shook himself out of her grasp.

"No don't get me wrong Ms. Kawakami, I am grateful! I'm just uh...surprised?" said Ryuji, his tone defensive. He noticed he had his hands up, as though to protect himself from incoming blows and he dropped them immediately, looking at the floor. He felt embarrassment like a hot coal in his chest. What a stupid thing to do. It wasn't like Kawakami was going to do anything to him.

Kawakami noticed it and her face fell. "Sorry Sakamoto, I just forgot; I was so excited," she mumbled, glancing away. "Anyway, come to the library with me," she continued, trying to regain her earlier bright tone and meeting with mixed results.

Ryuji looked up at her with a doubtful frown on his face but he didn't protest as she dragged him to the library. He pretended he didn't hear the hushed chatter of the other students as he passed by. Ryuji even succeeded in ignoring the glares of his former teammates during his forced march.

But when he was pushed through the doors of the library, Ryuji's mouth dropped open in shock.

"She's my study partner?!" he yelped, pointing at the girl seated at the library table.

The student council president looked up at him from her work with an annoyed glance. Her brows furrowed but she didn't say anything.

"This is the student I'm tutoring?" said the student council president, her gaze shifting to Kawakami who pretended to be oblivious to the uncomfortable atmosphere.

"Yes Nijima, Principal Kobayakawa and I thought you two would both benefit from this partnership," said Kawakami, smiling broadly. The annoyance faded from Nijima's face as soon as she heard the Principal was involved.

"If Principal Kobayakawa thinks this is a good idea, then I will do my best to execute his idea," replied Nijima mildly. Her unusual red eyes lost their annoyed spark, and she settled back down at her table. Kawakami beamed and pushed Ryuji to his seat at the table.

"I expect great things from the two of you!" she exclaimed, her grinning face looking only slightly artificial. Satisfied that her task was complete, Kawakami wished the two students luck before leaving to attend to her actual work as a teacher of Shujin Academy. The two students appraised one another from across the table, trying to get the measure of one another.

It was Nijima who finally broke the silence, clearing her throat with a delicate cough. "So you're Sakamoto right?" she asked, closing one of the many binders spread out on the table. Ryuji swallowed.

"Yeah, that's me," he said, attempting to be jocular and failing. He felt nervous under her gaze and he found himself looking everywhere but her face. In contrast, she stared at him with unblinking focus.

"I've seen your exam results posted on the board," she said flatly and Ryuji's eyes widened. "They're..." she seemed to weigh her next words carefully, as though trying to be tactful about the catastrophe she'd seen on the boards. "They show potential for improvement," she finished and Ryuji looked at her cautiously.

"They do?" he asked, sounding suspicious.

"Anything that low shows potential for improvement. You've got nowhere to go but up!" said Nijima with a smile.

Ryuji rocked back in his chair feeling like she'd just reached across the table and slapped him in the face. Nijima, for her part, seemed not to notice. She pulled out a thick sheet of manila paper with Ryuji's name on it. "Ms. Kawakami provided me with your grades so I could see what areas you were struggling in, as well as some of your previous exams," said Niijima. "Since it looks like you're struggling in most areas about the same amount, I'll let you pick what topic you want to work on first," she finished, pushing the paper across the table to Ryuji. Ryuji carefully avoided touching the paper, his eyes scanning the words with an increasingly worried expression.

"Well, see the thing is, I didn't bring any of my study materials with me today," said Ryuji, only just managing to keep his voice from sounding like a whine. Niijima's expression turned withering.

"You're not serious are you? How did you come to school without any of your books?" she asked pointedly. Ryuji fidgeted and began picking at a loose thread on his shirt.

"I just didn't know that we were meeting uh...today is all," replied Ryuji, looking like he'd rather be anywhere but here. "How about we meet tomorrow instead? Same time and same place?" he said, getting up abruptly.

Niijima's red eyes followed him, and then she sighed. "Alright Sakamoto, we'll meet tomorrow. Bring all of your books and something to take notes, we're going to hit the ground running since we weren't able to get anything done today. Also, I want you to be ready with a class you want to study for. If you don't have one you want to start then I'm going to pick it based on the feedback portion here," said Niijima, pointing to a section on the manila paper. But by the time she finished her spiel, Ryuji was already half way out the door.

"Sounds great Niijima! I'll see you tomorrow!" he called behind him as he left Niijima sitting in the library, surrounded by her color coded binders and her heavily annotated papers. She sighed to herself again. She could only hope this would make for a good college essay if nothing else.

Chapter Text

The end of the day hadn't come fast enough for Ryuji, who felt like his head was still spinning from the shock of his new partner. What the hell had possessed Kawakami into thinking that this could possibly work out? This frigid robo-girl was way out of his league, and she probably already thought of him as a delinquent because of that shit with Kamoshida. Especially considering how she hung around the principal. Ryuji ran a hand through his hair. This was probably going to suck.

The final bell rang and Ryuji shouldered his way through the rush of students making their way home. Ryuji sucked in a deep breath and walked out of Shujin's Gate, keeping his head down to avoid being noticed by Kamoshida. He hated that bastard, but the last thing he needed right now was to get baited into another fight. His leg throbbed at the thought of Kamoshida. He kept expecting for that bastard to make some kind of jab at him, but he managed to get through unnoticed.

Once he was out into the street, Ryuji let his breath out in a noisy sigh. What a weird day he'd had. He toyed with the idea of heading over to The Pour House and seeing who was playing tonight, but the stress of the day had left him too tired. He'd just head home and try to get ready for tomorrow.

---


Ryuji's leg jiggled the desk in front of him for the fourth time today. The student in front of him had given up on glaring at him, but they did kick Ryuji's desk. This jolted him awake in the middle of class just in time for him to be aware that he was being called on by the professor. "Sakamoto!" called the professor, looking at him sharply. "What did Socrates say evil was born from?" asked the professor, eyeing him.

"Uh..." stumbled Ryuji, feeling not unlike a deer in the headlights. He'd actually done the assigned reading last night, but the words were sliding through his mind like hot sand. For whatever reason, he could remember more about the rogue philosopher Diogenes. Admittedly, that philosopher was a lot more comical than Socrates. But he concentrated, trying to remember from the pages of the book last night.

"...Ignorance?" he said, his voice rising on the end to make his answer more of a question. The professor's eyes narrowed and Ryuji swallowed, his throat suddenly quite dry.

"Well, it looks like even brainless thugs can turn it around. At least for one class," said the professor grudgingly and Ryuji pumped his fist. Hell yeah! It'd been the first time he'd gotten an answer right in like, two weeks. Maybe today would be alright, in spite of the downpour that had stopped him from running that morning.

Ryuji left the class feeling a little better about the day, humming tunelessly. He was almost to the stairs leading to the roof when a hand landed on his shoulder. Ryuji jumped nearly a full foot in the air with a yelp. He spun around, looking for Kamoshida and instead saw...Niijima. She had drawn her hand back with an expression of surprise stamped across her face. The panic that had risen in his chest turned to aggravation. He bit his tongue to keep from shouting at her, glaring at her before he felt like he could talk without yelling.

"What the hell Niijima? You almost gave me a freakin' heart attack," he snarled. Niijima actually looked a little taken aback, and her eyes flicked over his features as she tried to think of what she wanted to say.

What she said surprised Ryuji a little bit. "I'm sorry Sakamoto. I wasn't trying to scare you," she replied, her voice actually sounding apologetic. "I wanted to know if you'd brought your books today and to let you know that I got us a table in the library," she continued, dropping her hand and her gaze. Ryuji let out a shaky breath.

"Uh...yeah I did," he said, feeling relieved. His tense muscles relaxed and he felt his heart rate going down. "I brought my backpack and my notebooks so uh, we could get started on the class I wanna start with," sighed Ryuji, looking more relieved.
Niijima searched his face for a moment before she asked a question that completely floored him.

"Are you okay?"

Ryuji stared at her for a beat too long, trying to get over the shock of this freezer-bot girl showing him some human empathy.

Niijima's expression turned annoyed, as if she could read his thoughts. "Hey, it's not like I asked a weird question. I'm making sure I won't be wasting my time tutoring someone who won't get anything out of it," she snapped, her eyes meeting his.

"No I just uh..." Ryuji sputtered, trying to think of what he wanted to say. "Thanks for checking in on me, I'm uh...I'm fine, and I promise I won't be wastin' your time," he said finally, after a beat of hesitation. It wasn't exactly what he wanted to say, but it was close enough.

'You're the first person to ask me how I've felt in like a month and you're maybe the last person I thought would ask' was closer to what he wanted to say, but he figured that would require a much longer conversation to explain and he didn't feel like talking about that kind of thing with her just yet.

Niijima glanced away, her features relaxing from their tight, frustrated look. "Of course," she replied, the tension draining out of her tone. "Anyway, let's get going to the library," she declared, marching off to the library with almost military formality. Ryuji watched her go for a moment, still lost in thought. When Niijima turned around to check if he was following, he snapped back to attention and hurried to catch up with her.

Chapter Text

 Ryuji looked warily at the table. It was covered in binders full of pristine colored tabs, highlighted and annotated notebooks and textbooks that had several brightly colored sticky notes protruding from the edges. Niijima noticed him staring and regarded him quizzically.

"Is there something unusual about my study materials?" she asked, her eyes slightly narrowed. Ryuji shook his head.

"No, it's kinda what I would expect from--I mean from the student council president," said Ryuji, conscious that he had just barely stopped himself from calling her a robot. From the look on Niijima's face though, it seemed like she was onto him. She frowned at him for a moment, clearly thinking about saying something to him before letting it go.

"Alright, have a seat then. Which one of your classes did you want me to help you with first?" asked Niijima, her voice cool.

"Uh...well, probably English. We've got an essay we're supposed to write an' I'm kinda stuck on it," replied Ryuji, unzipping his backpack and fishing out a few battered battered notebooks and crumpled papers along with his textbooks. Niijima regarded his study materials with a look of faint horror.

"...Are those your study materials?" she asked, looking on as Ryuji attempted to smooth out what looked like a crumpled assignment prompt on the library table. Ryuji furrowed his brows. 

"Yeah? Something wrong with 'em?" challenged Ryuji, pausing his efforts in un-rumpling the paper. Niijima nodded, taking one of the battered looking notebooks and flipping through it. 

Inside, the notebook didn't appear to be separated by topic, with each subject's notes right alongside another and often entirely unrelated subject. Nothing was dated, given a central topic or otherwise organized. Niijima frowned. "Is this how you've been taking notes?" she questioned, continuing to examine his notebook.

Ryuji rolled his eyes. "Uh, yeah? That's my notebook you're reading," he replied, poorly concealing his confusion and exasperation. Niijima ignored his rudeness and flipped through a few more pages of the notebook. 

The handwriting inside was poor, and likely would have been indecipherable if Niijima hadn't had the practice of helping teachers grade quizzes in the past. As it was, she noted, it wasn't technically the worst handwriting she'd ever seen. She closed the notebook and passed it back to him. Of course, having only the third worst handwriting she'd ever seen didn't make Ryuji's work much of a prize. 

"I think it'd be worth giving you some organization tips, in addition to our regular tutoring as well. You'll get more out of your notes if you can easily find what you're looking for," said Niijima. Ryuji scowled. Both students at the table were thinking the exact same thing. 

This is going to be a battle. 

"For now, I'll just advise you to separate your notes by subject. I'd get a few new notebooks and label them so that you know at a glance which is which. I'd also recommend going back and putting tabs or sticky notes in your old notebooks so that you can tell which pages belong to which subject and...why are you shaking the table?" asked Niijima, pulled from her advice by the rhythmic jiggling of the table. 

Ryuji's leg stopped bouncing and he actually had the grace to look a little embarrassed. "Uh, sorry," he mumbled. "I didn't get to run this morning, y'know cause of the rain. I get kinda antsy when I'm all cooped up," he explained, rubbing the back of his head. Niijima's expression shifted and became one of recognition. 

"Right, you're part of the track team," she said, looking at him with some understanding. Ryuji nodded and looked away, his brows knitting together.

"Yeah I used to be. Of course it's uh...been disbanded now," he said, discomfort coming off him in waves.

"I remember that. Kamoshida disbanded it because of--" 

"Yep. He sure did," interrupted Ryuji, his frown deepening into a glare. He crossed his arms and began bouncing his leg again. It was like watching a wild animal in a trap, thought Niijima. He looked like he wanted to be anywhere but here. 

"Well, if the track team is disbanded, why are you still running?" asked Niijima. Ryuji looked up at her in surprise. Apparently he hadn't been expecting that kind of question from her. 

"Uh...I guess cause I was good at it y'know?" he replied haltingly, unsure of how to answer her. When Niijima remained silent, watching him with interest, he continued. "It's not like school where anyone puts you on the spot or glares at you for gettin' the answer wrong. No one's lookin' down on me or tryna' put me in my place. I'm just...free. And it feels good to run, y'know, gettin' your blood pumpin and the endorphins flowin'. I uh...it feels good to do it and it feels good to be good at somethin'," he finished, realizing how much he'd been talking while Niijima looked on. Embarrassment crept into his face and he gave Niijima an apologetic look. 

"Sorry for ramblin' on like that. Can we uh...can we get back to the assignment?" he asked, his voice bordering on pleading. Niijima seemed to snap back to reality, apparently something he'd said caused her to get lost in thought. 

"Of course Sakamoto. Try to put some of those organization tips that I gave you into practice. Now, you said you wanted to work on your English assignment right?" replied Niijima quickly, taking the partially smoothed assignment sheet and scanning the instructions. According to the sheet, Ryuji's paper had been assigned a week ago the first draft was due...tomorrow. "Have you been able to get started on the assignment? Show me what you've got and I can give you some feedback before you have to submit tomorrow" she said, regaining her normally prim and composed demeanor. Ryuji shrank back in his seat. 

"See uh...I don't have anything," he said, jamming his hands into his pockets. "I couldn't think of anything I wanted to write about," he finished lamely. Niijima looked at him with wide eyes.

"You really don't have anything? Not even a topic?" she asked, her tone bordering on incredulous. Ryuji shook his head sheepishly. Niijima closed her eyes and sighed. "Well, then I'll help you pick out a topic today. After this session, I want you to go home and write as much as you can on it and we'll meet early tomorrow to discuss what you've got. Since the first draft can be rough and incomplete, it should be fine, but you should really try to be more diligent about your assignments," she instructed, looking at Ryuji meaningfully. Ryuji seemed to recover a measure of confidence. 

"Yeah of course, totally! Sounds good, and I promise I'll have something for you tomorrow," said Ryuji, and the earnest tone in his voice made Niijima believe that he actually would have something for her tomorrow. 

"Alright then, let's discuss the prompt: 'If you could do anything you wanted for a day, what would it be and why?'"

Chapter Text

 

Ryuji lay awake in his bed, re-reading the portion of the essay he'd managed to write. Niijima had been a little surprised at the topic he'd chosen, but ultimately she'd let him pursue his idea. She'd called it an interesting topic, though Ryuji had to wonder if she'd actually wanted to call it effin' weird. She'd sure given him a strange look on what he'd finally decided to write about. He closed his notebook and rolled over with a groan. Whatever, at any rate he had something to turn in tomorrow. All things considered, he was pretty proud of what he'd managed to put together and he hoped Niijima wouldn't bash on it too hard. He reached over and turned out his lamp, hoping that the rain would let up tomorrow.

--- 

The sound of thunder crashing outside woke Ryuji up more effectively than his phone's alarm ever did. It sounded like a cannon had gone off just outside his window, and he leapt out of bed. Once he realized that the noise wasn't the sound of the world ending, and was in fact just a thunderstorm, his shoulders slumped. Another day without a run huh? Well today was going to be fun, he thought to himself bitterly. He changed quickly, pulling his jacket over his shoulders before he glanced at his reflection in the mirror. His sleepy reflection stared back at him. His hair looked messier than usual this morning, but it would be fine. He stuffed his notebooks into his backpack before heading to the kitchen. 

His mom was there, already dressed in her scrubs and halfway through the pot of coffee. She looked up from her phone, pausing her morning assessment of the rooms she'd been assigned to and smiled. "Hey kid, thanks for setting the coffee pot last night," she said, her expression warm despite the rings under her eyes. Ryuji grinned at her.

"No problem Mom," he said, grabbing a mug off the tree and splashing some coffee in it. He had planned on downing it quickly and then heading out, but his mom reached out and touched his shoulder. 

"Ryuji, sit down and talk with me for a minute," she implored, gesturing to the empty chair across from her. "It's been a few days since we got to catch up, and I'd kinda like to talk to you outside of the sticky notes you put on your leftovers," she said, her voice warm but her eyes suggesting that it was a little more serious. "Besides, it's not like you can go out running in this weather," she finished and Ryuji had to concede that was so. He could spare a few minutes with his mom, Niijima probably wouldn't be that early again. At least not in this weather. So Ryuji sat across from his mother, cradling his steaming mug of coffee in his hands. 

"How's school been? You told me you had an assignment you needed to complete last week, did you manage to get any of it done?" she began, taking a sip of her coffee. Ryuji nodded, feeling a little glow of satisfaction.

"Yeah, it's just part of a rough draft, but I've got something to turn in today. I worked pretty hard on it," he replied, his mouth curving into a smile of satisfaction. Ryuji's mother grinned broadly at him. 

"Hey kid, not bad!" she crowed, reaching across the table to give her son a high five. "What's gotten into you, my little prodigy? Something good happen lately?" she asked, taking another swig of coffee. Ryuji rolled his eyes.

"I dunno about that Mom. But I did get assigned a study partner. Ms. Kawakami's scheming again, probably so she can get more funding for the Literature Club," groaned Ryuji, but the exasperation in his voice wasn't sincere. His mom smiled ruefully. Kawakami was well-known in this household for her shenanigans, but neither of the Sakamotos really thought badly of her, especially since she'd been a close friend of Ryuji's mom in the past.  

"Well, tell me about this study partner then. They've gotta be someone pretty impressive if they inspired you to study," teased his mother, and Ryuji slurped his coffee obnoxiously loudly in answer to her taunts. 

"She is kinda impressive I guess. Niijima is the student council president and she's like, freakishly organized and smart, but honestly, she not as bad as I thought she'd be considering the rumors," he said when he'd finished being obnoxious. This piqued his mother's interest. 

"What rumors could there be surrounding someone like the student council president?" she asked, her eyes round. 

"People say she's like an emotionless robo-girl, and that she's some kind of a mindless servant to the teachers at school. I kinda get what they're saying, but she didn't really seem like that when I talked to her I guess," said Ryuji, his expression turning thoughtful as he sipped at his coffee. "She's mostly just really intense about school, and I'll bet she'll get into like, the best college with her grades." finished Ryuji, and gulped down the last of his coffee. Ryuji's mother shook her head. She of all people knew how cruel people could be, even without a reason. 

"Well, play nice with her. Maybe she's a little too serious for her age, but she sounds like a good kid. Plus, she got you to apply that brain of yours, so she's okay in my book," she said, drinking the last of her coffee as well. "Put your mug in the sink before you go and don't forget to take an umbrella today, you don't want to catch a cold," she said, and Ryuji grabbed his mug and put it in the sink with a rueful look. Slinging his backpack over his shoulder, he picked up the umbrella and waved his mom goodbye before heading out in to the stormy day.

Chapter Text

When Ryuji got to school, Niijima was there at the door, apparently waiting for him before going in. Her attention seemed to be trained on her phone though, so she didn't notice Ryuji until he was right next to her. 

"Mornin' Niijima," said Ryuji, tapping his umbrella against hers to snap her back to reality. "You didn't wait too long did you?" he asked, now suddenly concerned that she'd been waiting for hours for him to get here.

Niijima startled a little when he tapped her umbrella, and stuffed her phone in her backpack quickly. "Oh! Good morning Sakamoto," she rejoined, pulling a key from her pocket. "Don't worry, I haven't been waiting all that long. The rain convinced me to spend a few extra minutes at home this morning," continued Niijima, unlocking the door to the school. The pair folded their umbrellas as they stepped inside. As Niijima shook the water from her umbrella, a thought crossed Ryuji's mind. He'd has a few questions about her ever since he'd seen her on that early morning, but he decided on the most pertinent question at the moment.

 "Hey Niijima, how come you have a key to the school?" he probed, watching her out of the corner of his eye as he grabbed an umbrella bag.

"Oh, the principal gave it to me," responded Niijima simply, which only raised more questions for Ryuji like 'So why did he give it to you?' and 'What do you do at school so early in the morning?' but since she didn't seem to want to elaborate, he let it pass for the time being. The two of them walked to the library quietly, each lost in their own thoughts. Once inside, Niijima, unzipped her back pack and began laying out her binders, while Ryuji pulled out the notebook he'd written his rough draft in.

"Did you manage to get any of your essay done last night?" she asked, taking hold of his notebook as he slid it across the table to her. 

"Yeah actually. Oh, I marked the page it's on with a sticky note. Y'know, so it's easy to find," said Ryuji, his voice rising a little with suppressed optimism. Niijima didn't exactly smile, but the way that she touched the sticky note that protruded from the pages of his battered spiral notebook might as well have been one. 

"I see, thank you Sakamoto," replied Niijima, and Ryuji thought he caught a note of satisfaction in her voice. A shy grin tugged at the corner of his lips. Niijima flipped to the page briskly, her red eyes scanning the page momentarily before she pulled out one of the pens from her pen bag shaped like a cartoon mascot. 

"I see that you really did decide to write on the topic of 'being a hero of justice'," said Niijima, using her pen to circle a few grammatical errors. In the margins of the notebook, she added tiny suggestions on how to correct his sentence structure and how to choose words that more clearly expressed the points he was trying to make. 

"Yeah! When you said that I needed to write about something I actually cared about, I knew I had to pick this," replied Ryuji, watching Niijima's pen flicker across the page. How could she write so small, but so legibly? He wondered what her notebook looked like. It was probably so dense that it intimidated everyone except for maybe a masochist or a lawyer. Or a masochistic lawyer, he thought, and willed himself not to snicker at the mental image. 

Niijima didn't seem to notice Ryuji's internal struggle and continued to make tiny notes in the margins of the paper. "Word of advice Sakamoto, I wouldn't use the word 'shitty' in here to talk about the adults you'd like to bring to justice," said Niijima, making a few final notations before passing the notebook back to Ryuji. "Even though I might agree with the spirit of the word, it's not appropriate language for a school paper," she finished, raising her head and meeting Ryuji's open-mouthed stare. Niijima's grip on her pen slackened, and it nearly fell from her fingers. 

"Did I say something strange, Sakamoto?" she asked, her brows furrowed in an expression equally surprised and confused. Ryuji's mouth worked in silence for a moment before he managed to choke out what he wanted to say. 

"You think adults are shitty too?!" he exclaimed, surprise raising the volume of his voice to a shout. Niijima startled at the loudness of his voice, shushing him quickly.

"Yes! I mean...obviously! My sister is a prosecutor, so obviously I wouldn't think all adults are great," blurted Niijima. That outburst seemed to surprise her as much as it did Ryuji, and she pressed her lips together tightly as though to keep from saying anything more drastic. Ryuji nodded, but he still felt dumbstruck by such an admission from the 'authoritarian slave robot'. 

"Oh uh, of course! I mean yeah that totally makes sense," said Ryuji, leaning back in his chair and jamming his hands in his pockets. Niijima looked down at her hands, fiddling with her mascot shaped eraser. As the minutes ticked by and no one said anything, the two students began to feel increasingly uncomfortable. 

Finally, Niijima broke the stalemate. "Well, I think you've got a good start on your paper," she began, her normally precise diction halting. "You're kind of crude with your language, but you've got good ideas. I recommend typing up this paper with my corrections before you submit it, and we'll talk about it again when the teacher gives you feedback," she finished, her voice sounding more confident now that she was in her area of expertise. 

Both legs of the chair Ryuji was sitting in landed back on the ground with a thud, and Ryuji frowned as he faced Niijima. "I mean, I would but uh...I have to hand write everything. I uh, don't have access to a computer...uh right now," he replied, his frown twisting into a more bitter expression. Niijima's eyes searched his face for a moment, as though she might ask him a question about it before she changed course. 

"Well, the easy solution to that is to use the computers here at the library. If you can type it up before class, they should let you print for free here. For a more long term solution though, I'll ask one of the teachers about loaning you one of the school laptops. It'll make editing and submitting a lot easier on the both of us," said Niijima, trying to gauge if Ryuji would be amenable to that arrangement. To her surprise, Ryuji actually seemed quite excited.

"Really?! Thanks Niijima! Man, gone are the days when the professors could just ignore my essays 'cause they couldn't read 'em! Now I'm like, goin' totally high tech!" crowed Ryuji and Niijima had to shush him again when the librarian's assistant glared at them. The assistant had come in and been quite peeved to find someone there before they had gotten in, and were doubly peeved that someone was being so loud so early in the morning. Even after a scolding from both Niijima and the librarian's assistant though, Ryuji's excitement couldn't be contained. However, he somehow limited himself to silent cheering and fist pumping.

"Hey Prez, thanks for that! Man, I can't wait to write my essay now," he whisper-shouted, and then thrust his hand out. For a moment, Niijima didn't comprehend what he was signaling for her. A second later, recognition sparked in her eyes. With an inward roll of her eyes, she gently slapped his outstretched hand for the proffered high five. It seemed ridiculous to her that he was getting so excited over a loaner laptop, but she tried not to judge. 

Ryuji walked off to one of the school desktops after Niijima created a temporary login for him and started to work transcribing his essay digitally. From the way he handled the computer, he showed some familiarity with the machine, but from the way he pounded the keyboard, Niijima guessed he'd never formally learned and had just taught himself everything about it. Oh well, she'd give him a few pointers at their next session when she got the laptop to him. 

Despite the fact that tutoring Sakamoto had taken up most of the morning and classes were about to start, Niijima didn't feel nearly as dissatisfied as she thought she would. Actually, she felt a little pleased that Sakamoto had made so much progress. It felt a little strange to take pride in someone else's success, but it was pleasant nonetheless. Though she pushed her feelings to the back burner so she could focus on writing her college essay, they persisted in the background.

Maybe there was hope for this endeavor yet.

Chapter Text

The dumbfounded expression that was stamped across the teacher's face when he saw Ryuji's neatly typed draft was probably one of the most satisfying things Ryuji had seen all day. He couldn't help grinning as he packed his bag to head out, and Ryuji hummed a few bars of the song he heard at the Pour House, feeling good despite the pouring rain.

His good mood was abruptly cut short though, once he saw Nakaoka at the end of the hall. Ryuji felt Nakaoka's glare before he saw it, like a nasty jolt of electricity under his skin. Immediately he turned around to head in the opposite direction to avoid his former teammate, but it was too late. Nakaoka had spotted him and was heading right towards him.

"Hey Sakamoto!" shouted Nakaoka, his grin twisted with mockery and bitterness. "Where are you running off to? That leg still giving you trouble?" sniped the former track team captain, and Ryuji froze in place. With his hands trembling, Ryuji turned around slowly to face Nakaoka, though he didn't raise his eyes to meet Nakaoka's.

Nakaoka's twisted grin morphed into a sneer as he regarded Ryuji. "So, I hear you're back to running," said Nakaoka, feigning casualness. A few former track team members appeared to shift uncomfortably, but none made a move to interrupt Nakaoka.

"...Y-yeah, and?!" challenged Ryuji, trying to appear more threatening than he felt. His hands began to tremble more violently, and he jammed them in his pockets so that Nakaoka wouldn't see them.

"And you should know better Sakamoto. You go and get the track team disbanded and you've got the gall to keep training in our secret spot?!" snarled Nakaoka, getting closer to Ryuji with every word. Ryuji began to edge away, his eyes scanning his surroundings for some kind of exit. He grit his teeth, fighting down the anger that surged in his stomach as his mind raced looking for a way out.

"What's all this about Nakaoka?" came a voice from behind the former track members. Nakaoka whirled around to discover that Niijima was standing there with her arms crossed, regarding the group with a frosty glare. "If you have something to say to Sakamoto, you can do it at a respectful distance without the rest of your friends surrounding him," she continued, her words clipped and steely.

Nakaoka flinched at her tone, but didn't make a move to leave. "Niijima, stay out of this! This is track team business, it has nothing to do with you!" snapped Nakaoka, but uncertainty had crept into his voice. The other track team members began to subtly shift towards the exit, their gazes flickering between Nakaoka, Niijima and Sakamoto's faces.

Niijima paused, and seemed to consider the point. "Well Nakaoka, it would be just track team business," she replied, her eyes boring into Nakaoka. "But you've made it my business by trying to have it out here at school," continued Niijima, her red eyes unblinking. "So back off unless you're interested in getting your conduct reported to the Principal," she finished, her voice as hard and cold as a frozen lake. She and Nakaoka stared each other down, with him openly furious and her as impassive as a brick wall across a highway.

Finally, Nakaoka broke off staring at her and looked at the ground. "Let's head out, we've got training to do anyway," said Nakaoka, unable to meet Niijima's gaze as he stalked out of the hall. Niijima's gaze followed their retreat until the track team turned a corner and was out of eyeshot. Niijima sighed and closed her eyes for a moment.

"I wasn't sure if they'd back off, considering Nakaoka's reputation for holding a grudge," said Niijima, opening her eyes again after a moment. Her impassive expression remained largely the same, but shoulders relaxed finally, and some of the tension drained from her posture now that the former track team members had left. Ryuji let out a shaky breath and pulled his hands out of his pockets. Niijima's eyes immediately trained in on how violently they were trembling, and she pressed her lips together until her mouth was a flat white line.

"Thanks for that," murmured Ryuji, running a hand through his hair. "They're not all bastards, y'know. But Nakaoka was captain an' all'. He's been holding a grudge against me since...since the team got disbanded," he said, almost as though he was talking to himself. He looked up at her with a grateful expression. "Anyway, I appreciate it. Sometimes I don't know how to deal with him when he comes lookin' for a fight," he finished. Niijima began fiddling with her keychain, but her face remained impassive, save for the relaxing of her mouth.

"Of course Sakamoto. Students should feel safe at school," she said and then looked away for a moment. "I'll let you get back to your business now. Be sure to show up tomorrow for our tutoring session," Niijima finished, and began walking away. Ryuji also turned to leave, adjusting his backpack and heading for the exit opposite of the one the track team had used when he heard Niijima's voice again.

"Sakamoto?" she asked and Ryuji turned to look at her.

"Yeah Prez?" he responded, raising his eyebrows in curiosity.

"Tomorrow is supposed to have clear skies. Good weather for a run," she said, and though at first glance her face looked as cool and impassive as always, Ryuji thought he could detect a hint of encouragement. A corner of his mouth drew up into a crooked smile and he gave her a jaunty salute as though to say 'I read ya loud and clear!'

With that, the two parted ways and Ryuji walked to the station, perhaps not feeling as good as he had been when he'd turned his paper in, but better than he usually did when he ran into Nakaoka. He smiled his crooked smile again as he watched the downpour begin to slacken off. Tomorrow, he'd get up and run.

Chapter Text

Niijima had been right about the weather, thought Ryuji as he stretched. However, she hadn't thought about one very crucial thing. The earth hadn't had time to dry out, so the grounds of Shujin Academy were still a sea of mud. Running in these conditions was not only messy, but risky considering how slippery mud could get, and Ryuji had to content himself with doing a few pre-run exercises before shuffling back to the front of the school. Luckily, it wasn't too cold and he always brought along a few manga books in his school bag, so he'd at least be able to pass the time until the school opened. He found a seat near the vending machines and pulled out the fourth volume of the new series he was reading and began to flip through it.

He was several chapters in the story when he noticed movement in his peripheral vision. Ryuji felt a surge of anxiety rise in his chest, and he peered over the top of his manga to see who was approaching. In the event that it was Nakaoka out looking to finish what he started yesterday, Ryuji decided he'd bail. But as soon as he saw who it was, the anxiety receded. Niijima was here early again, that was all. He was about to go back to being engrossed in his comic when the curiosity nagged at him. He'd seen her arrive early a few times, but not knowing what she did...for whatever reason, he was curious about what Ms. Prez did before anyone else got to school. Rolling his eyes at his sudden curiosity, he slipped his manga back into his pack before heading over to the door Niijima was currently unlocking.

"Mornin' Prez," said Ryuji, giving her a little wave as he approached. Niijima looked up at him, the slight quirk of her brow betraying her surprise. "Oh, good morning Sakamoto," she replied, opening the door to the school. "You're here early. Weren't you able to run?" she asked, her tone casual.

Ryuji gave her an embarrassed smile. "Well see, the rain yesterday made the grounds all muddy, an' it's dangerous to run when the ground is all slippery from the mud," he explained, rubbing the back of his head. Niijima took in his appearance now more carefully, seeing that he was dressed in athletic wear.

"I see. I suppose I forgot that outdoor athletes need to be aware of more than just whether it's raining currently," she replied, her face taking on a thoughtful expression. She opened the door and gestured for him to come in, pulling her key from the lock as she did. Outdoor athletes? wondered Ryuji. It almost sounded like she was a part of some sport herself...but he'd never heard of Niijima being on any of the school teams. Strange, he thought, and wondered more about the kind of person Niijima was. "Well, you're welcome to come inside and do a little reading inside. However, we aren't scheduled to meet until this afternoon, so don't feel the need to get set up at the library yet," continued Niijima, closing the door behind the two of them.

Unfortunately for Ryuji's curiosity, Niijima looked like she was just about to leave before he could ask any of his questions that he'd had since he'd been assigned to her as a study partner. So, without thinking, Ryuji reached out to lay his hand on Niijima's shoulder. "Hey Niijima just a sec--" he said, before being cut off. Before he had laid his hand on her shoulder, Niijima had caught him in her deft, strong hands. Her grip had a surprising strength to it, and he yelped in alarm when she squeezed his hand tightly. "Whoa! Uh, sorry Niijima!" cried Ryuji, jerking his hand back in astonishment. Niijima let go of him as quickly as she'd grabbed him, bringing her hands to her mouth in a wide-eyed expression of surprise. It was the most emotion he'd seen her have...probably ever.

"I'm so sorry Sakamoto! I really didn't mean...it was purely reflex you understand!" stumbled Niijima, who looked equal parts surprised and embarrassed. Ryuji waved his hands in what he thought was a casual gesture signaling that he was fine, but in reality looked like he was trying to fan smoke away.

"Oh it's fine! I'm fine!" replied Ryuji in a voice that was very near a squeak. Adrenalin spilled into his blood, but in spite of the sudden rush, he managed to keep control of his hands and they didn't tremble. Perhaps because she looked so apologetic. "I uh, I just had a question is all," he finished, dropping his hands. Niijima looked at him, her expression softening into something more relaxed when she understood that he had been merely surprised.

"Well um...what was your question Sakamoto?" asked Niijima, tucking a few strands of hair into place in a way that suggested she was still embarrassed about grabbing him like that. Ryuji looked at her vacantly for a moment, the surprise having blasted the question out of his mind. But he snapped to attention quick enough.

"I just wanted to know uh...what you do here so early in the morning," he said, his words a little halting. "I mean, you know I come here to run an' all, but sometimes I see you here early too. I was just curious uh...what you could be doin' since no one comes here this early, not even the school clubs," explained Ryuji, and he glanced this way and that, as though he were afraid of how his question might be received. Niijima regarded him quietly for a moment, her face utterly unreadable for a moment as she considered his question. "

Well, how about I get changed and I'll show you what I do," she said, and headed towards the practice rooms at a brisk pace.

"Wait, change?!" asked Ryuji, jogging to keep up with her as they entered one of the sports practice rooms. Niijima didn't answer, and went into the girl's locker room, leaving Ryuji to wonder what it was that she might be changing into. Several possibilities floated through his head. Cheerleader? Swimmer? Maybe tennis? Any of those would sort of make sense for someone as clean cut as Niijima he thought, puzzling over what she might look like in the various sport uniforms.

He was lost in thought considering what the student council president would look like wearing the Shujin Tennis Team uniform when he was interrupted by Niijima emerging from the girl's locker room wearing a white gi belted about the middle. Ryuji's eyes opened so wide they looked like they might roll out of his sockets. "N-Niijima? Why are you wearing a gi?!" he yelped, leaning back in surprise. Niijima regarded his yelped question with a questioning expression of her own, her red eyes meeting his.

"Well, what else would I wear to practice aikido in Sakamoto?" she asked matter of factly.

"Wait, you do aikido? For real?" asked Ryuji, now recovering from his initial shock. He tried squaring the fact that she did aikido with his mental picture of her as a fussy, ivory tower academic and found that he couldn't quite make it work. Niijima, it seemed, had surprised him again. He had to grin now when she nodded, and Ryuji found himself wondering just what other surprises the student council president had in store.

"Maybe you'd like to practice with me?"

It seemed at least one more for today.

Chapter Text

Ryuji blinked, his features slack with surprise. "Practice...?" he asked, not believing what his ears had heard. Niijima gave Ryuji a level look.

"Yes. I was planning on simply going through my normal breathing and warmups, but with a partner I could get substantially more practice in," she said in a matter-of-fact tone.

"B-but...I don't have a gi! And I don't know anythin' about aikido neither..." he said, holding up his hands as though that might fend her off. Niijima's gaze remained level as she considered his words.

"While that may be the case Sakamoto, having you help me with my warm ups doesn't require any prior training. I can talk you through the basics if need be," she replied. Then her gaze dropped abruptly. "And truth be told, a gi isn't exactly necessary, just thicker athletic wear like the track pants you're wearing. Although, you would need to roll them down," she said, as though embarrassed about her gi. Why's she wear it if she doesn't need it? Does she just like wearing a gi? wondered Ryuji, though more pressing thoughts began to crowd his mind.

For a long moment, Ryuji weighed his options. His thinking face was almost comical; his brows furrowed and he rubbed the back of his head. Niijima almost thought she could see the gears physically turning in his head before he met her gaze again. Eventually though, Ryuji looked up at Niijima with an optimistic smile on his face.

"Well, I dunno nothin' about aikido Prez, but I feel like I kinda owe ya one for all your tutoring. So sure, I'll help you out," he said...and Niijima actually smiled. It was a small smile, born more from satisfaction than true happiness, but for whatever reason, her smile struck Ryuji hard. He'd never seen Niijima smile before. Ryuji wasn't able to dwell too long on this revelation though, as Niijima's expression relaxed into its usual, more composed state.

"Thank you Sakamoto, it'll be very helpful to have a partner this morning," she said, her tone taking on a more formal cadence. Ryuji recognized this, it was the same way she sounded when she was tutoring. Well, it figures that she might see something like this as similar to her tutoring, though her voice didn't exactly match her more clipped tones when they had been first assigned to each other.

"One of the things I want to work on is pretty simple; in fact you might call it a game," she said, sitting down with her legs tucked under her in the seiza position. Ryuji sat down, awkwardly adjusting his legs until he approximated her sitting position. "It's a game to learn to roll with impact," explained Niijima, holding her hands out, palm facing upwards. Ryuji regarded the gesture with raised eyebrows. He placed his hands on hers, their palms touching each other, as though they were setting up to play a game of slaps. Makoto looked at him with a blank expression for a second. "

No, lay the backs of your hands in my palms," she said, twisting her wrists to indicate that she wanted him to flip over his hands. Ryuji complied, though there was a notch between his eyebrows that suggested a faint confusion with her directions. "Okay, now you're going to try to strike me, and I'm going to roll out of the way," she said, and looked at him expectantly. For a moment, Ryuji sat still in his awkward seiza position, trying to make sense of the fact that his tutor had just asked him to try to hit her.

"Are...you sure about this Prez?" asked Ryuji, his voice unsteady. Niijima looked like she was considering rolling her eyes, but thought better of it.

"Yes Sakamoto. I promise that you won't actually strike me," she replied, sounding like she was reassuring a toddler that there weren't any monsters under the bed. A little embarrassed, Ryuji met her gaze with resolve.

"Alright, let's do it then," he declared, and moved his hand to slap her, albeit at a reduced speed and power. And Makoto effortlessly rolled out of her seiza and away from Ryuji's hand. Her eyes glittered as she rolled back up into her starting position. Ryuji's own eyes had widened slightly in surprise at her deft ability to roll backward and then immediately recover.

"Now try with your other hand. Alternate between your right and left hand for strikes so I can practice rolling away on either side," instructed Niijima. Ryuji nodded, hiding his amazement as best he could while he set up his next strike at Niijima's head. And again, Niijima rolled back out of her seiza position without any difficulty, and recovered herself just as quickly. At that Ryuji couldn't contain himself.

"Prez, how long have you been doin' this? Kinda seems like you're already a master," he blurted just as he reached out to slap again. Niijima rolled back and away, before recovering more quickly this time, almost bouncing back to her sitting position.

"Not that long really. I've been at this about a year and a half," she said, her voice casual as she continued to roll and recover. That gave Ryuji pause. Somehow, she'd been doing aikido for a year and a half...and no one had known about it? He turned this piece of information over in his mind as the two practiced together. He tried to reason out why, although she wasn't exactly hiding it, she certainly wasn't advertising that she was practicing a martial art. He shrugged mentally. Maybe it was just a case of martial arts not being the right image for a prim and proper student council president. He should ask if Principal Kobayakawa had asked her to keep this quiet...it'd make sense for that bastard to tell her to keep a lid on it.

"Would you like to try dodging some?" came Niijima's voice, pulling Ryuji from his thoughts. His mouth dropped open.

"Uh, me?" he asked as Niijima reversed their hand positions.

"Yes. We can go slowly so you can get used to the timing and the feel of the roll," replied Niijima, apparently thinking he was all ready to go.

"I uh...sure," he said, and tried tucking his legs under him more to match her position. She waited patiently for him to finish fidgeting before launching into her explanation.

"When you roll back, make sure that you don't fall onto your back hard, let your body gradually and smoothly roll against the floor to distribute your weight more evenly," she explained, reading her right hand for a slap. Ryuji nodded, his eyes trained on her hand with a laser focus that Niijima had rarely seen.

"Anything else Prez?" asked Ryuji, his gaze never leaving her right hand.

"Don't feel the need to stay seiza when you roll, you can really let your legs do whatever so long as you don't kick me," she said, and her right hand came out in a slow, almost glacial approximation of a slap aimed at his head. Ryuji's head tipped back out of the projected path of the slap, but as he leaned back, he lost control of his carefully regulated fall and landed with a thump. Niijima exhaled slowly and deliberately as Ryuji struggled back up to a sitting position.

"Remember Sakamoto, try to smoothly roll against the floor. This is going to make recovery better and it's to make sure that you don't hurt your back when you try to get away from me," she said, her tone controlled. Ryuji scowled, but said nothing, his eyes flicking down to focus on the other hand that was prepared to strike him.

For what felt like hours but was surely only about twenty minutes, the two students played the game. Ryuji slowly became better, no longer thumping against the ground hard as he dodged Makoto's glacial slow slaps. Niijima for her part, asked Ryuji to change up the speed of his slaps so she could get the feel for different timings. At the end of their self imposed practice, the two Shujin students were breathing a little heavier than they had been before, and Ryuji felt the first twinges of soreness from landing hard on his back. But the practice had left both Niijima and Ryuji feeling energized.

"Nice work Sakamoto, you made marked improvement over the course of the warm up," she said, getting up from seiza. She offered her hand to Ryuji, who grabbed it after a moments pause. With a strength surprising coming from her slight hand, she hauled him up to his feet with a grunt. Ryuji wiped his damp palms on his track pants, his mouth curving into a small smile.

"Eh, I learn best by doing," he said, rubbing the back of his head and looking away. "Anyways, that was fun Prez," Ryuji said, and Niijima's eyes sparkled with satisfaction. Ryuji turned to go, picking up his back pack from the entrance to the practice room where he left it. He waved goodbye to Niijima before heading to the boy's bathroom to change. She waved back, calling after him that she'd see him at their normal tutoring session before she also departed towards the girl's locker room, likely for the same purpose.

As Ryuji changed out of his damp track clothes, he couldn't stop himself from thinking. Maybe Niijima was somebody he'd...really like to get to know.

Chapter Text

The rest of the school day passed by with not much of note occurring, and more than once, Ryuji felt himself start to nod off in class. He found himself snapping awake, only to doze off again shortly after. Luckily, it seemed that the teacher's had given him mercy because he hadn't been called on in his classes.

Ryuji found himself in his English class like this, his head drooping as he nodded off again. He might've succeeded in falling asleep had the teacher not called his name so sharply. Ryuji snapped awake so sharply that he almost gave himself whiplash.

He came back to the world, aware now that the teacher was giving him a disgruntled stare and holding out a paper to him. Ryuji stood and walked to the teacher, who pushed the paper into his hands before dismissing him and calling another student's name. For a moment, understanding failed to penetrate Ryuji's befuddled mind before he recognized the paper. He sat back down at his desk, re-reading the essay he had worked on with Niijima.

Hasty notes were scribbled every which way, making it harder to follow in comparison to Niijima's more orderly feedback, but it was still legible nonetheless. But the notes scrawled in careless handwriting between paragraphs weren't what really caught his eye.

On top of the page and circled in red was an 80. Ryuji's eyes widened. What the hell, he thought. This is one of the best papers I've ever written.

As Ryuji walked to the library, he almost felt like skipping. Or like waving his essay in everyone's face while furiously jabbing at the high score at the top of the paper. But he knew that doing either of these would make him at least strange, if not a total dipshit. So he settled for humming a few bars from this or that song as he headed toward the library.

Inside, Niijima was there waiting for him, with a large cardboard box sitting on the table along with her multi-colored binders. Ryuji approached her, approximating a swagger as best he could with his slight limp, and thrust the paper into her face.

"Hey Prez! Not bad eh?" he said, his huge grin going from ear to ear. Niijima leaned back and took the paper from him, her red eyes scanning the scribbled feedback swiftly. Ryuji could barely contain himself as she read over the feedback, bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet as she read.

Eventually though, she did look up. "Well done Sakamoto, it seems your teacher found this to be an improvement over your previous work," said Niijima. Then she stuck her hand out in the air, looking at him expectantly.

It took only the barest moment of processing before Ryuji slapped her hand hard in a congratulatory high five and pumped his fist in silent triumph. Niijima pulled her hand away, shaking it to disperse the stinging pain she received from the force of Ryuji's slap.

"Well then, I think today we might want to do something to celebrate," said Niijima, pushing over the heavy cardboard box to him. The box was plain save for a number written on it in Sharpie. "Open it up," encouraged Niijima, not unlike someone presenting a gift. Ryuji hooked his fingers in the divots of the cardboard and pulled up.

"OH HELL YEAH!"

Niijima's hands made frantic shushing motions, and the Librarian's Assistant sent a withering glare in the pair's direction. Ryuji couldn't be contained that easily though, continued whooping and carrying on for several more minutes before Niijima finally shushed him.

"Oh MAN, thanks Prez! Man, I really owe you one!" said Ryuji, his voice still louder than was acceptable in a library, but quieter than his previously celebrating. Niijima looked down at her hands, the corner of her lips pulling up into a faint smile.

"Of course Sakamoto, it's to help with your studies after all," replied Niijima, her eyes briefly catching Ryuji's. "Besides, the teachers were very amenable. Just be sure to bring it back in good condition so they won't be able to charge you for anything," she finished.

"So? What's on the menu today?" asked Ryuji, sitting down in the chair with a thump. Niijima jumped slightly at the loud noise right next to her, but she over all kept her composure.

"Well, I was thinking we could go over the feedback the professor gave you, and that e could also set up that laptop for you," responded Niijima, gesturing for Ryuji to take the laptop out of it's box. The former track athlete complied, gingerly removing the slick metal device and setting it down on the table as though he were setting down a delicate vase rather than a school loaner laptop.

Niijima pulled the paper over to herself again and re-read the comments that the English teacher had left. "So from what I can tell, you'll be able to get a higher mark if you can flesh out the methods you would use to bring 'wicked adults to justice'," she declared, and passed the paper back to Ryuji so he could read the comments himself.

"Methods huh..." mumbled Ryuji, rubbing the back of his head. "I guess I didn't think about that too much...I got so wrapped up thinking about how awesome it would be to bring those shitty adults down." Ryuji's face turned thoughtful and he began tapping his pen against the paper, as though that might job his brain into conjuring up new methods of forcing adults to become good people.

"If you can't think of anything now, that's fine. We'll work on some more basic grammar to get you going, but I want you to be revising that essay so that we can review it soon," replied Niijima, pulling out her blue binder. When she opened it, Ryuji saw that it was full of English grammar exercises. He held back his sigh and set to work on the exercises that Niijima had prepared for him. 

The afternoon progressed into evening, with Niijima's careful instruction coaching Ryuji through several problems having to do with getting the right tense and conjugation. Eventually though, the session began drawing to a close, and Niijima walked Ryuji through setting up an account on his laptop and accessing some of the more basic software before they called it a day. 

Niijima was just packing up the last of her binders when she heard Ryuji behind her again. 

"Hey...Prez," said Ryuji, looking her steadily in the eyes. 

"Yes Sakamoto?" asked Niijima, returning his stare with her own level gaze. 

"I just wanted to uh...say thanks. I know I'm kind of a dumbass sometimes, so thanks for stickin' with me," he said, before breaking eye contact. 

"Of course Sakamoto. See you tomorrow,"

 

Chapter Text

The familiar smells of lemon floor cleaner, laundry detergent, cedar scented candles and citrus hand lotion welcomed Makoto home from school. She inhaled deeply, welcoming the comforting scents of home after a long day at class. Shucking off her coat, she hung it up on the coat rack beside the door before kicking off her shoes and putting them in the shoe rack. She sighed deeply with satisfaction, putting her backpack beside the kitchen table. Unzipping it, she pulled her binders out and arranged them on the table, ordering them by color so that the binders made an orderly rainbow, just the way she preferred it. 

Satisfied that the universe was now in order, she padded over to the kitchen counter and paused at the mug tree. There were a few heavy stoneware style mugs that Sae seemed to prefer. Something about the heft of it perhaps, or perhaps the muted earth tones were what appealed to her. Makoto's mugs however, veered into a far cuter aesthetic. For her Makoto's everyday use, there were pastel blue mugs with a small white flower motif of a thick, heavy ceramic. Then, for special occasions or for when Makoto needed a pick me up, there were the larger mascot novelty mugs. The cutesy molded mascots on the mugs made her smile a little as she ran her fingers over the smoothly glazed ceramic. Reaching for one of the blue mugs, she dropped a tea bag inside and set the electric kettle to boil. After a moment's thought though, she pulled one of the heavy earthenware mugs off the tree and set it next to her own. She dropped in a strong black tea bag before heading back to the kitchen table to work on grading the quizzes she'd been asked to help with.

Makoto had only gotten a quarter of the way through the pile of quizzes when Sae opened the door, carrying a few plastic grocery sacks that emitted an enticing aroma. "I've brought home everything you asked for," said Sae without preamble, walking briskly over to the kitchen counter with the grocery bags. Makoto saw the tops of greens poking out, as well as the shapes of square packages that likely contained the beef she'd asked her sister to get. 

"Thank you, I'll go ahead and make dinner," replied Makoto, who padded over to the kitchen island and began unpacking the bags. "I made tea for you, it should still be warm if you drink it now," said Makoto over her shoulder. There was a slight edge of caution in Makoto's voice, as though she weren't quite sure how Sae would react. Sae picked up the earthenware mug that Makoto had indicated and took a sip. There was a brief pause before Sae gave her a soft, and slightly rueful smile. 

"Thank you Makoto," said Sae, and some of the tension left her face. Clearly, thought Makoto, something had gone wrong again for the case. She didn't even need to ask her sister, Sae's tense shoulders and stiff stance said everything. Makoto began separating out the ingredients, thinking of the best way to incorporate them into the recipe she had been thinking of. 

"Why don't you go ahead and sit down," urged Makoto, keeping one eye on Sae who had been sipping her tea and furrowing her brows. Sae blinked, a minor expression of surprise crossing her face. "I won't need any help making this, so you can just go ahead and sit down," continued Makoto, and Sae sat down.

Pulling out a cutting board and knife, Makoto opened up the package and began to dice the meat. She figured a beef curry would be just the thing tonight. Sae had become lost in thought again, and was staring intently into her tea, as though it might have answers. 

"So what happened with the case?" asked Makoto, affecting an air of casualness that she didn't quite feel. Sae didn't look up, but she did sigh deeply. 

"So you could tell huh?" asked Sae, her voice heavy. "One of our leads turned out to be a dead end. Or at least, he's stopped talking to us. We can't get anything out of him with most conventional lines of inquiry and methods. My boss is thinking about passing the case over to an undercover team for the time being. It feels like he's threatening me," Sae replied and Makoto frowned. She began spicing the meat before setting it aside to pull the vegetables over to be chopped. 

"Is there anyway to explain to the Director that you need more time with your lead? I'm sure you'd be able to convince your guy to talk if you could just get a little more time with him," declared Makoto, making quick work of the vegetables. She pulled out a heavy pot and began to brown the beef, the smell of the cooking meat rising from the pot enticingly.

"I'm working on a memo explaining that; I've been trying to figure out how to word it convincingly," replied Sae, taking a sip of her tea. "Anyway, it's nothing to worry about really. Business as usual when you're a woman," she finished, her voice taking on a bitter edge. For a moment, the Niijima sisters were quiet, each wrapped up in their own thoughts. The Sae broke the silence. "So how's your tutoring going? I know Principal Kobayakawa paired you with that delinquent," asked Sae, and Makoto paused, putting the beef stock down for a moment. 

"It's...not as bad as I initially thought it would be," replied Makoto haltingly. "Sakamoto is beginning to show improvement, although there hasn't been enough time to determine how successful Principal Kobayakawa and Ms. Kawakami's plan will be," she continued. Sae frowned and furrowed her brows. 

"Kawakami is behind this? Well, it does sound like one of her hare-brained attempts at raising her status in the eyes of the Principal. Probably to get funding for her literature club," muttered Sae with narrowed eyes. Makoto winced.

"Well, don't let that boy Sakamoto drag you down. Do what you need to do in order to earn the Principal's good opinion, but otherwise-"

"Study hard, get a good recommendation and get into a prestigious university," Makoto cut across, smiling wryly as she began stirring the ingredients together. "Don't worry sis, I know." finished Makoto, knowing her sister's advice word-for-word by now. At this response, Sae's features smoothed, and she no longer looking so suspicious. 

"Exactly. Sorry to repeat it so much," replied Sae, laughing a little. "Getting ahead is important, trying to be a woman in the workplace means you need to get used to working twice as hard for half the result," she continued, her voice taking on that familiar bitter edge that it did every time she thought about her work. 

"Don't worry sis, I'm being careful," said Makoto, walking over to sit by across from her sister. Sae gave her a tired smile. 

"I know, but I can't help but worry," replied Sae, toying with her mug handle. She covered her mouth with a hand as she yawned. The day seemed to have finally caught up with her sister, Makoto observed. 

"Dinner won't be ready for an hour, why don't you go ahead and have a bath? You've had a hard day and you need to relax. Stress negatively affects the body and can make you less effective during the day," suggested Makoto, gently touching her sister's shoulder. Usually Sae shied away from physical contact, but she tolerated Makoto's hand this time. 

"Well, when you put it that way I can't argue with you. Thanks Makoto," replied Sae, who stood up and headed to the bathroom. Makoto watched her go with a look of concern. Shaking her head, she stood up and began puttering around the kitchen again, thinking over Sae's words. 

In spite of everyone's heavy disdain for Sakamoto, what she'd seen over the few days indicated that he was anything other than the brainless thug everyone thought he was. Sakamoto was hyperactive, loud and a knuckle head, she thought, but she sensed that there was something there that she wanted to see grow and develop. Although he'd had a great deal of hardship, he didn't seem ground down or worn out the way her sister did. Makoto found herself wanting to get to know this boy who'd found a way to keep charging forward into the future.

Chapter Text

At home, Ryuji went to his room and began the work of setting up his laptop. Of course he had done some rudimentary set up at the library with Niijima, but they hadn't gotten to set up the things that really mattered. For one thing, the background of the school computer was a boring, neutral wide shot landscape photo. A few clicks around on an image hosting website had him putting up one of the album covers of a band he liked, Propaghandi.

Once the laptop no longer looked like it belonged to a middle aged accountant, Ryuji set to work connecting to several forums and message boards. He had joined these sites before using his phone, so it was a cinch to sync them up on the laptop, though the web UI occasionally baffled him, since it looked so drastically different from the version he saw on his tiny mobile screen.

In addition to connecting to his usual online hangout spots, he also joined a few new local forums, including one that said it was for Shujin Academy students to connect. His hands hesitated over the keys for a long moment before he created his account. For a moment, Ryuji felt a sense of dread, wondering if all the users would instantly recognize him and begin trying to drive him away. But of course that didn't happen. So he began to lurk on a few forum threads. A few talked about some upcoming club sponsored events that he bookmarked and a few were nasty gossip threads about this or that person that Ryuji clicked away from hastily. 

Feeling both morbid and curious, Ryuji decided to see if he was mentioned on any of the threads. When he searched his name though, he found only a few results which he found both relieving and oddly disappointing. He had been thinking that his fight with Kamoshida would surely have made him infamous on these boards. But it seemed like the track people didn't need to post about how they felt; they seemed to prefer a far more direct approach.

Browsing a few of the threads, he was about to log out of the site when a thread caught his eye. He clicked on it, reading the few posts that there were on it. 

New student w record coming tomorrow 
posted by user [perfectlyswirledicecream] @ 22:10

22:18 [perfectlyswirledicecream]: there's rumor of a new guy coming to class. heard he's got a record. maybe keep an eye out for that trouble maker.
22:22 [citrusjamskid]: what :O? i can't believe that someone like that is coming. who is it?
22:25 [seyegreat]: I don't think they release names of new students ahead of time. We'll just wait and see lol.
22:29 [bratphomet]: man i wouldnt even worry. probably just someone stirring shit for lols
22:34 [citrusjamskid]: i dunno, i'm gonna keep an eye out. be safe everyone

Ryuji read the posts several times before logging out, his mind humming with curiosity. He closed the laptop and lay back on the bed, his eyes searching the ceiling like the answer was written on one of the panels. It probably wasn't relevant and the kid probably wouldn't even come to his class.

All of these worrying thoughts were pushed aside though when he heard the front door open. "I'm home!" called Ryuji's mother, and the smell of delicious takeout tickled his nostrils. 

"I brought home Ichiban Ramen! Deluxe Beef Bowl!" she continued, and Ryuji was out of bed and in the kitchen before she had time to get plates down. 

"Aw heck yeah Mom! What're you bringin' home the good stuff for?" he asked, getting down plates with the speed of a boy possessed. Ryuji's mother watched him with an amused look on her face.

"Well, when you told me you had news for me, I bought this hoping it was good news. Now you've got me worrying since you didn't spill it already," she answered, her voice tinged with laughter. Ryuji rolled his eyes. 

"That just means we'd have the right meal to drown our sorrows. Anyway, you were right, I've got good news!" exclaimed Ryuji pouring the noodles in the heavy ceramic the Sakamoto family reserved for special occasions. 

"Alright then, so what's this good news?" she asked, taking the bowl and chopsticks offered to her by her grinning son. 

"Drumroll please!" demanded Ryuji, setting down his bowl adjacent to his mother's. Ryuji's mother obliged, drumming her fingers against the table in parody of a great announcement while Ryuji rummaged through his backpack. 

Then he emerged suddenly, bearing his essay from the day as though the slightly crumpled piece of paper were an award-winning treatise. "Ta da! An 80 on my essay!" he crowed, and his mother cheered.

"Attaboy! Good job champ, I knew you wouldn't let me down!" she cried, pulling him into a big hug. "Man, I'm so glad my hunch was right. I even got some extra beef in there for you," she said and Ryuji's eyes flashed with delight. They both sat down and began eating with gusto, their frantic gulping of the hot broth and noodles punctuated now and again with exclamations of delight.

Between gulps of her soup, Ryuji's mother nudged him conspiratorially with her elbow. "I take it that tutor is working out for you then?" she asked, slurping up the thick udon with the practiced ease of a master ramen eater. 

Ryuji nodded, swallowing noodles a little too fast. He coughed, eyes watering and his mother gave him a slap on the back. Taking a deep breath, Ryuji gasped out: "Yeah she's great...we even practiced aikido together."

"Aikido huh? That's a little unusual considering she's supposed to be a prim and proper straight A honor student isn't it?" asked Ryuji's mom, cocking one eyebrow. 

Ryuji massaged his throat and gently sipped at the broth. "I dunno, it kinda makes sense," he replied, his voice losing its strangled sound. "She kinda seems...angry? Underneath the ice I mean," he finished, thinking about how she had stared down Nakaoka and the others. 

"Well, it'd make sense for a kid like her to be angry. She sounds like she's living for everyone but herself. Maybe aikido is the one way she gets an outlet living under everyone's expectations," replied his mom, looking philosophically into her bowl. "Anything else happen?" she asked, and Ryuji remembered that he had the laptop upstairs. 

"Oh yeah, she asked the school to get me a laptop. She just got it approved today I guess, cause I was able to bring it home," he remarked, getting back to eating at a frantic pace. Ryuji's mother's eyes widened. 

"A laptop?! For real?!" she asked, dropping her spoon. Then she appeared to think things over for a moment. "Are they going to charge us?" she asked, her eyes narrowing. Ryuji nodded enthusiastically.

"Nope, it's a loan from the school. Don't have to pay unless I get it damaged. And before you say anything, I know, I'll be careful," he replied. His mother nodded to herself. 

"Well, that makes me feel a lot better then. Anyway, that was a kind thing for her to do. Maybe I ought to bake her a thank you gift," she said, almost to herself as Ryuji finished off his bowl. 

"I dunno, if you want to I guess," he said with a shrug, but his mother had that gleam in her eye that said she was already planning a big extravagant baked good that would embarrass him to take to the president. 

Ryuji had gotten up and was about to go to his room when his mother called him back with an insistent voice. 

"Hey bud, you know the rules. I went out and got the food..."

Ryuji rolled his eyes. 

"I know, I know. I'll wash the dishes Mom."

Chapter Text

Ryuji stifled a yawn as walked to Shujin Academy. His backpack with his spare set of clothes was slung over his shoulder, and he trudged towards his school like he'd rather be doing anything else. And he did feel that way, having spent far too long last night online. He knew he'd regret it, and yet he hadn't stopped himself and he'd still had to wake up at five that morning. 

Somehow, he'd managed to drag himself out of bed, stuff himself into his running gear and take the train to school without really remembering it. The taste of strong, dark coffee lingered in his mouth, so he figured he must have gotten a breakfast down, but he couldn't remember that either. 

A flicker of movement in his peripheral vision caught his attention. Ryuji turned his head to see a lean young man come walking his way with a duffel bag slung over his shoulder. A duffel bag...with a twitching tail? Ryuji squinted at the approaching figure, trying to see more of the duffel bag. It was then that the young man abruptly changed course, heading away from Ryuji. Ryuji's natural curiosity got the better of him and he found himself following after the dark haired newcomer.

The dark haired boy was wearing a Shujin Academy uniform, so Ryuji figured it was reasonable to assume that this was the kid mentioned on the forums last night. Ryuji openly checked the new student out, trying to get a feel for him. He didn't seem like someone with a record. Mostly, the kid seemed like he was trying to fade into the background. And he might have except for the twitching tail coming out of his duffel bag. Ryuji continued following the newcomer down a strange route that took detours and double backs through alleys.

After a good extra mile of detours, the impromptu trio arrived close to the gates of Shujin Academy. Then, the dark haired boy pulled out his phone and began to fiddle with it, tapping away at the most unusual app. It looked like a graphic rendering of an eye. At this point the dark haired boy turned around quite suddenly, and Ryuji crashed into him.

The two boys went sprawling, and something dark and furry spilled out of the duffel bag. There was a screeching yowl, and Ryuji scrambled to his feet.
"Hey uh, sorry man! Didn't mean to bump into you like that!" yelped Ryuji, helping the new comer to his feet. The newcomer brushed himself off, and a black and white cat leapt onto the dark haired boy's shoulders. The cat glared at Ryuji with unusually intelligent bright blue eyes before hissing directly in his face. 

Ryuji flinched away, holding his hands up as he backed away from a swipe aimed at his face. "Whoa dude! What's with your cat?!" he yelped, and the dark haired boy sighed before gathering his things up and stuffing the cat back into the duffel. 
"Morgana's just mad that he got tumbled like that. He'll be fine, you didn't do any lasting harm," said the transfer student, ignoring the indignant mewling coming from the duffel bag. Ryuji lowered his hands with a curious look on his face. 

"Morgana huh? Kind of a weird name for a cat," said Ryuji, his previous astonishment fading. "Also uh...why do you have a cat at school dude," he asked, now feeling just plain curious. The transfer student looked down, his eyes searching the ground. He seemed as though he were weighing several options in his head, and Ryuji watched the strange newcomer with interest. 

Eventually, the transfer student looked up. "He gets depressed if I leave him alone. If I leave him at home when I go to school, he gets so sad that he refuses to eat," said the transfer student mildly. Ryuji just stared at the newcomer. "It's not good for cats to starve themselves. And anyway, it's tough to keep him from following me anyway, this is just a good way to keep an eye on him," added the transfer student. Ryuji considered this before shrugging. Whatever, he thought to himself. Maybe the guy was just fond of his cat. 

"Well, sorry I ran into you like that. I didn't mean to follow you around like a creep, I just heard you had a record and I wanted to see if you were doing anything uh...criminal," said Ryuji, perhaps a shade too honestly. The transfer student didn't seem to be offended though. "You don't seem like much of a criminal though," continued Ryuji and the transfer student smiled a little. 

"Anyway, I'm Ryuji Sakamoto, good to meet you man," said Ryuji sticking his hand out a little awkwardly. The transfer student grabbed his hand firmly and shook it. 
"I'm Akira Kurisu. I'm the transfer student, though I guess you already knew that," replied the dark haired boy and Ryuji grinned sheepishly. 

"Yeah, well, I can show you around if you need. I don't think we're in the same homeroom, but I know where Kawakami's class is, so I can take you there," said Ryuji, jerking his head in the direction of the school when the sound of footsteps caught his attention. The tail poking out of the duffel bag withdrew into it quickly and the two boys turned around to see the school's volleyball coach approach them along with a blonde haired girl.

The blonde haired girl kept her head down, carefully not making eye contact with either of the boys and walked quickly into the school, while the volleyball coach approached the boys with a smirk on his face. 

"Oh Sakamoto," sneered the volleyball coach, looking him over. Ryuji felt like he had a hot coal smouldering in his chest, and he quickly averted his eyes from the face of tall former athlete. "How's your training coming along? A little harder now that you forced the track team to disband?" asked the coach, his smirk growing wider. 

"...It's going fine Kamoshida," said Ryuji through gritted teeth. His hands clenched and unclenched, and Ryuji wished that Kamoshida would either drop dead or leave. Kamoshida leered at Ryuji for a moment longer before turning his attention to the dark haired newcomer. 

"And who's this Sakamoto? Have you gone making friends with the transfer student?" asked Kamoshida, some of the nastiness leaving his voice. 

"Well transfer student, I know you're new here and all, but I would think twice about befriending scum like this," said the volleyball coach. Akira pretended to look thoughtful for a moment before he spoke. 

"I appreciate the advice, but I think I can work out who's scum on my own, thanks," said Akira in a quiet but defiant voice. Kamoshida looked just as stunned as if the transfer student had reached out and slapped him, while Ryuji felt his mouth drop open.

"You're going to want to rethink that, transfer student. Or else your stay at this academy won't be for very long," snarled Kamoshida, stalking off towards the school with a thunderous expression. Ryuji continued staring at Akira in shock for a few moment longer before stuttering out a halting thanks. 

"Don't worry about it," said Akira, returning to his former laid back demeanor. "You seem like a decent guy and that guy seems like an ass. It was a pretty easy thing," said the dark haired boy and Ryuji just shook his head in disbelief. 

"Still, you stood up to him for someone you don't even know! Man, you're really something else," said Ryuji, his voice a mixture of disbelief and admiration. "Anyways, I'll show you around like I said I would," finished Ryuji, and Akira smiled at him. 

Chapter Text

The end of the day came quickly for Ryuji. He'd been able to show the dark haired transfer student around on campus, getting to know the guy a little better as they walked from classroom to classroom. Ryuji had slowly stopped thinking of him as the transfer student and had started thinking of him as Akira the more they talked. The blonde punk rock boy now knew that Akira had transferred from the country and was now staying at a formerly famous coffee shop and had adopted Morgana shortly before he'd had to move. Strange then, that Akira had decided to bring his new cat with him, thought Ryuji. Why hadn't he left it with his parents? When Ryuji had asked though, Akira had just chuckled and changed the subject so deftly that Ryuji only noticed that Akira had avoided answering until several hours later.

Once the final bell rang, Ryuji packed up his notes and thought over his encounter with the transfer student that morning. Akira was something of an enigma, Ryuji thought, but deep down he didn't seem like a bad guy. Maybe I oughta invite him to the arcade or batting cages later, he mused, heading towards the library.

Ryuji entered the library to see Makoto sitting at her usual spot in the library, her colored binders arranged in a neat rainbow. She was reading over papers, with her pen poised in the air above them as her red eyes scanned their contents. She touched the end of the pen to her lips in thought, and for a moment, Ryuji just watched her. She seemed utterly at ease among the papers. But he dared not stare at Niijima for too long, and pulled up a chair across from her by way of announcing his presence. Niijima's eyes lost their glazed over look, her unusual red eyes met his more typical brown ones.

"Hello Sakamoto," said Makoto, setting her pen down as Ryuji got his notes out of his book bag, along with his new laptop.

"Hey Prez, how's it hangin'?" asked Ryuji, slapping his notes down on the table. He brought his hand up to his mouth, stifling a yawn.

"As well as can be expected I suppose. Did you not sleep well last night?" asked Niijima and Ryuji froze in surprise.

"Aw it's nothin'. I stayed up a little later than usual but I'm fine," said Ryuji, feeling a little surprised that Niijima had been watching that closely, or that she had cared enough to make a comment.

"...Well, I would recommend getting to bed earlier tonight to make up for your lost sleep," she replied, picking up her pen again. She began twirling it between her fingers, her eyes glancing here and there, but she remained quiet for a moment longer. Ryuji watched her with one eyebrow slightly raised.

"Is there something up, Prez?" asked Ryuji, placing his elbows on the table and cradling his chin in his hands.

"I also heard that you met the transfer student today," said Niijima, her voice cautious. Ryuji scanned her face for a moment before answering.

"I did yeah. He seems like a pretty decent guy," he replied, his eyes narrowing. Niijima stopped toying with her pen and tapped it against her lip again, not meeting his gaze.

"I've heard from the faculty that the transfer student has a criminal record, which was why he was asked to transfer here," continued Niijima, her voice softer than usual. Ryuji's leg began to bounce, and his brows furrowed.

"Well Prez, the transfer student doesn't really seem like the type of guy I need to be worried about. Really just seems like a regular guy," he asserted. Niijima finally met his eyes, and Ryuji's leg stopped bouncing. Niijima's lips were pulled down into a slight frown, and there was a crinkle of worry between her eyebrows. She looked...concerned. Ryuji stared in naked fascination.

Niijima dropped her gaze abruptly and pulled Ryuji's notes towards herself. "Of course, Sakamoto. I'm glad to hear that. I just wanted to ask you to be careful," she said, her voice still soft and Ryuji sat up straight, surprised. She didn't seem to think badly of Akira necessarily but...she seemed concerned about him getting in trouble? Now that was...unexpected.

"Of course Prez. Hey uh, sorry about gettin' snarly with you there. I thought you were uh...y'know, gonna lecture me or something," sputtered Ryuji, feeling compelled to put her at ease in response to her concern. Niijima let out a long breath, and set her pen down.

"No, I'm not going to lecture you Sakamoto. And to be honest, you were right to challenge me. I haven't taken the time to actually speak to Kurisu and I've already judged him," she said and looked a little disappointed. Ryuji felt his own brows crinkle in concern. Niijima looked like she knew something about being judged. He smiled ruefully. Maybe that was something all three of them had in common.

"Aw don't sweat it too much. Everyone slips up now an' again. But hey, you caught yourself and you're making an effort to change your way of thinking. So I'd say that makes you better than most, Prez," said Ryuji, leaning forward to look intently into the student council president's eyes. Niijima looked at Ryuji from under long lashes, considering him for a moment. Then she smiled her small smile.

"Thank you Sakamoto. It's good to hear that," she said, and Ryuji grinned back at her broadly. For a moment, the two students looked at each other as though under a strange spell. Ryuji felt a strangely warm, fluttering feeling behind his breastbone, a feeling that surprised him and he looked away. Why did his chest feel light like that? Niijima also seemed to be lost in a private reverie, but she snapped out of her trance much quicker. She picked up the notes she pulled to herself, and Ryuji snapped back to attention just as she started to speak.

"Anyway, did you want to start with your Algebra homework?"

Chapter Text

Ryuji rolled his shoulders, attempting to ease the stiffness that had settled into his body as he and Makoto had studied that afternoon. She had complimented him on turning in his assignments on time, but had been fairly critical of the sloppy way he'd showed his work on his algebra assignments. She had asked him to re-do his proofs so that even if his answer was incorrect, he could still secure partial credit if showed that he was using the formulas correctly. Of course, then she had to remind him of the correct formulas. It had taken a great deal of repetition, but he was pretty sure he knew at least a few now. His brain felt absolutely fried, and he relished his walk home.

The blonde left the school feeling tired but buoyant as he headed towards the station. He slipped in his earbuds and pulled up 'Paralyzed' by Black Flag, an American punk band he liked. Ryuji largely attributed his not failing English outright because of his desire to understand the lyrics of American punk music.

He was about mid-way through the song when Ryuji noticed the transfer student still hanging around the school. The dark haired boy appeared to be tapping away at his phone...and his lips were moving. Ryuji removed one earbud, trying to hear what the transfer student was saying.

"Kingdom...country...palace..." came the sound of the transfer student's voice. Ryuji felt a host of questions bubbling up in him. What the hell was the transfer student doing here? And so late? As Ryuji started to approach though, Akira put his phone away with a sigh.

"No dice, Morgana. Let's head home for the day," said the dark haired boy to the cat lurking in his duffel bag. The transfer student then turned and began walking in the direction of the station. Ryuji stared after Akira for a long moment before slipping his earbud back in with a shake of his head. Man, Akira might be a nice guy, but he was sure strange alright.

Ryuji headed to the station as well, but figured he would stop in Shinjuku. He had been out of the scene for a while and people might start to miss him. He shot a quick text to his mom, who promptly responded with a several cartoon tiger stickers and told him he needed to get back before eleven so they could eat together. He, in return, sent several cartoon dragon stickers and reassured her he'd keep an eye on the time. And besides, Ohya would be there to keep him out of trouble. Tapping away on his phone, Ryuji pulled up a favorite playlist as he stepped onto the train.

As the train rattled towards Shinjuku, Ryuji couldn't help but think over the mysterious transfer student. That cat with the unusually aware blue eyes had been a shock that morning, and had kept surfacing in Ryuji's mind. Now Akira talked to it? Either the guy had a screw loose or...or...the possibilities made Ryuji's head spin. He sighed and put those thought aside for now. Whatever, he'd just have to ask Akira about it later.

The train came to a stop, with a cheery automated voice telling the passengers that they'd arrived in Shinjuku. Ryuji slung his bag over his shoulder and headed out, cutting his music but keeping his earbuds in. While he was usually pretty safe, it never hurt to be a little extra alert. Especially when students weren't precisely supposed to be here.

The blonde punk kept his head down and walked quickly towards the sound of pounding percussion and wailing guitar which streamed out into the evening air. As he got closer to the source of the sounds, his grin grew wider. Looks like he'd made it to a live playing night, those were always his favorite. 

A scruffy looking man at the door gave Ryuji a once over before offering the blonde a tired smile. "Hey Ryuji. Long time no see, eh?" he asked, looking up at Ryuji with gray eyes. Ryuji grinned back at him.

"Yeah. Been a minute, Kousuke," replied Ryuji, fist bumping the man and handing him a few hundred yen. The gray eyed man pocketed the money and waved Ryuji through.

The sound of the club gushed out to meet him, and Ryuji felt the throbbing bass reverberate in his bones. He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the atmosphere of the place. The scent of leather, sweat and liquor hit his nose and comforted him with the familiar smells.

Ryuji pulled up at the counter, sitting himself down at the bar next to a woman who appeared to be in her late twenties. The woman sipped at her drink, and Ryuji caught her eye with an impish grin.

"Not at Crossroads tonight Ohya?" he asked, looking mischevious. The woman looked at him with glittering eyes.

"Ryuji! You've been away a while. What's been happening that's kept you from hearing some of the newbies here at the Black Cat?" asked Ohya, tilting her head with an impertinent air. Ryuji sighed dramatically.

"Man, like...everything," he replied, rubbing the back of his head. "I've been assigned a tutor and there's been a transfer student who brings his freakin' cat to school," continued Ryuji as the woman behind the bar poured him a spicy gingerbeer. "And get this, my tutor is the student council president. I don't know how Kawakami cooked this up..." said Ryuji, taking a sip. Ohya regarded him with glittering eyes.

"Well then, tell me more. Both of these seem like fascinating developments," said Ohya, grinning broadly now. The bass swelled and Ryuji and Ohya both paused for a moment, savoring the strength of the chords reverberating through the air.

"Well, the transfer student is the one I haven't spent much time with," admitted Ryuji, sipping his gingerbeer. The spiciness of the drink tickled his nose, and he sneezed into a handy napkin before continuing. "He's supposed to have like...a criminal record or something? I don't know too much about it and I haven't asked him yet. He also brought his mean as hell cat to school with him and just...carries him around all day. I think I saw him talking to his cat also. Whatever that's about," said Ryuji, sipping again.

Ohya considered for a moment. "I wonder what sort of criminal offense it was. Did he seem like the violent type? With regards to the cat thing though, you know it's not unusual for people to talk to their pets right? It's a little weird that he brought it to school, but you'd be hard pressed to say talking to pets is weird," mused Ohya, swirling her liquor with a contemplative look.

Ryuji rolled his eyes. "Well, I've never had a pet so I guess you're the expert on this Ohya. But like I said, no idea what his past is like," he replied and Ohya gave a mock scowl before moving on.

"Make sure you bring me some more details next time about that transfer student. Sounds interesting if you ask me," said Ohya and Ryuji waved his hand in a 'yeah, yeah sure I will' gesture. "So tell me about Miss Student Council President then hmmm? What's she like? Is she your type?" asked Ohya, a sly grin spreading over her face. Ryuji startled as he sipped at his drink and began to cough loudly. Ohya slapped him on the back as Ryuji glowered at her.

"What the hell Ohya? Why ya always gotta make everything out like that?!" carped Ryuji, massaging his throat. Ohya snickered.

"Oh, I mostly do it because your reactions are so over the top," replied Ohya, looking smug. "But also, you actually blushed this time. She really must be your type~" purred the journalist, looking like a cat with a canary. Ryuji clenched his jaw and exhaled sharply through his teeth.

"She's not as frigid as I thought she was, I'll say that much," he said, his brows furrowed. Ryuji's face and ears burned, and he scowled at Ohya, who eventually stopped teasing him with her Cheshire Cat grin.

"Well don't be such a clam now! Spill! What's she like?" asked Ohya, leaning forward. Ryuji rolled his eyes and drummed his fingers, trying to figure out how he was going to say what he wanted to say. The band playing announced that they were taking an intermission, and the sounds of crashing percussion and wailing electric guitar faded as the performers got down from the stage.

"She's really intense," he said finally, looking down at his hands. "She's got this way of like...cutting through all the bullshit y'know? It feels like she's got some kind of burning core that drives her forward. But...she also seems pissed in a way. Like she's trapped. Maybe by expectations, maybe by who her sister is but...I dunno, she just doesn't seem like she's...happy I guess," continued the blonde, his voice softening and trailing off. Ohya watched him, not saying a word.

"The one time she seemed happy was when she was practicing aikido. Yeah, I couldn't believe it either until she asked me to practice with her," confessed Ryuji, smiling a little now as he remembered the slap game the two had played. "She's definitely surprised me. I think I wanna get to know her a little better." he finished, bowing his head. For a few long moments, neither said anything.

Then Ohya broke out into a loud cheer. "Hey bartender! Get my boy here a drink! We're celebrating this punk's crush on the student council president!" yelled the journalist, and the bartender burst out laughing. Ryuji turned as red as a boiled lobster, flapping his hands at her and trying to shush her.

When Ohya finally settled down, she regarded Ryuji with a beaming smile. "In all seriousness though Ryuji," said the journalist, thrusting her glass at him. "I'm real happy for you. Looks like things are picking up for the Star Sprinter of Shujin at last!" exclaimed Ohya, and she clinked her glass against Ryuji's in celebration. Ryuji shoved her, but there was no real force behind it. There was a lot going on that was weird, thought Ryuji as Ohya chattered away, but maybe things were turning around like she said.

Chapter Text

Makoto glanced up at the clock. It's closing in on midnight, she thought, frowning. Makoto sighed and closed her book, no longer bothering to tell her herself that she would just study until her sister got home. She'd made dinner in the hopes that she and her sister might have dinner and talk again, but it looked like Sae simply wouldn't be getting home at a reasonable time that night.

Sae wasn't late coming home most of the time, reflected Makoto as she carefully saran-wrapped the meal she had made for her sister. But these late nights were becoming more and more frequent, and it was starting to make Makoto uneasy. She placed her sisters would-be meal in the fridge, feeling a curious sense of emptiness in her chest.

Having put the dinners back in the fridge, Makoto found herself at a loss for what to do now. For a long moment, she stood in the quiet apartment, with a dual sense of paralysis and nervous energy that rooted her to the spot. Tonight, the immaculately organized home Makoto had always known felt stifling. Breaking the spell, Makoto found herself pacing the length of the apartment in an effort to vent her nervous energy. Pacing proving inadequate, she tried to go back to focusing on her book, but found that the words slipped from her memory like sand. She had to read a page several times before she could retain the meaning of it. Frustrated, she slipped in her laminated bookmark and stood up again, a crease beginning to form between her brows.

Makoto needed to do something, and reading or grading papers wouldn't work tonight. Not with this strange, electric energy that made it seem like the walls were closing in around her. No, she needed to do something more...drastic. Well, as drastic as her straight-laced nature would allow for. She considered several possibilities in her mind before coming to a decision.

The young student council president decided that she was going to go out tonight.

Well, she decided that she'd at least have a walk down to the station and back. It might not be terribly adventurous by the standards of others, but for someone as devoted to routine as Makoto, it was downright rebellious. The idea of rebelling brought a tinge of satisfaction, and she thought that maybe she'd even watch a movie when she got home. It'd been quite sometime since she'd indulged in a yakuza film, and with the small spark of rebellion urging her on Makoto's decision was cemented. She pulled on a pair of soft boots, as well as her coat that held her wallet, and took a set of keys out of the ceramic holder. Then, after locking the door behind her, she began her walk towards the station.

As she walked, she found herself reflecting over the events of the past few days. She'd been reporting back to Kawakami and Principal Kobayakawa about Ryuji's progress to admittedly mixed reactions. Kawakami had been barely restraining herself from cheering and pumping her fist, while Kobayakawa remained carefully composed. Though upon further reflection, she thought, he seemed to be ever so slightly disappointed.

Thoughts of her meetings about Ryuji naturally turned to thoughts regarding Ryuji himself. She had to admit that her first impression of him had been sorely mistaken. She wasn't tasked with trying to teach someone hopelessly unacademic, but rather, someone with a different learning style that had never learned how to study. In addition to his surprising intelligence, he was dedicated to his pursuits, still running in spite of the fact that he had been cast out of the track team. Really, Ryuji had some very admirable qualities when you looked past his rough exterior.

Makoto's mind continued to go over the past few weeks, and she found herself going over a number of things she needed to do. Her essay was still only in its first draft and would need heavy editing before she dared to allow her sister to look it over. Makoto had always thought of herself as a fairly tough editor, but the way Sae methodically tore apart Makoto's early efforts made it so that the young student council president only ever let Sae see an essay that had already undergone at least three rounds of revisions. Makoto told herself that Sae was only trying to make sure that she submitted quality work, but the unusual satisfaction that Sae took in marking up Makoto's carefully constructed essays seemed...Makoto broke off that thought. She didn't dare follow that consideration; Sae did everything she could to support her after all. It'd be disrespectful to think that Sae might take some delight in making Makoto feel small.

The walk to the station seemed to take no time at all, given that the student council president was almost entirely absorbed by her own thoughts. The world had blurred as she walked, and Makoto felt as though she had just woken up from dreaming when she saw the entrance looming up before her. She stood for a moment in front of the station, contemplating whether or not she actually ought to go through with her earlier plan, wondering if it would be better to just turn around and head home.

'Well, I've already walked all the way here. It'd be a little bit of a waste to turn around already' thought Makoto. So, her mind made up, the dark haired girl headed down into the underground mall.

As the student council president walked down to the shopping area, she found it a little surprising that there were so many people out this late. Not nearly as many as there would be during the morning rush hour, but more than she expected. Most looked like tired blue collar workers who were either coming in from an evening shift or getting ready to go cover the nightshift. A few were suited business-type individuals, perhaps ones who had stayed late to catch up on work. Makoto wondered if Sae would look as tired as any of the people she saw waiting on the platforms.

Then, as she was about to cross into the mall, a flash of bleach blonde hair caught her eye. Among the passengers disembarking from the train, Makoto could clearly see Ryuji stepping off of the train with a pair of styrofoam boxes tucked under his arm. She stared as the punk plopped himself down on one of the benches and began checking his phone, apparently waiting for a connecting train to arrive. Makoto found herself quickly being overwhelmed by questions such as What is Ryuji doing here so late? What's he carrying under his arm? Where is he going?

These questions compelled Makoto to seek answers, and she found herself walking over to Ryuji in the hopes of finding them.

Chapter Text

Stepping off the train, Ryuji felt as though his body was lighter than it usually was. Ohya had treated him earlier, and the aroma of the takeout wafting from the styrofoam boxes under his arm was deliciously inviting. He'd had a good time down at the Black Cat. A new, local band with an interesting sound had debuted there, and when they had finished with their set, had stuck around to chat with the bar goers. Ryuji had chatted animately with the bassist while Ohya looked on, sipping her drink with her usual feline grin. Once the band had cleared out, he'd spent a little longer with Ohya listening to her tales of office drama. He had suspected that the she had exaggerated things a touch, but her office rivalries were always interesting to listen to. In thanks, Ohya had treated him to more monja than even an athlete like himself could eat, so she'd let him take home the leftovers. His conversation with Ohya about Makoto swam in his brain and he felt himself grow a little warm when Ohya had called him out on having feelings for her. She hadn't been wrong of course, but it was...well he thought his feelings were a little more complicated than that. And he had no idea what she thought either. 

Now, he sat down on the bench, waiting for his connecting train to roll in. He sent a quick text to his mom:

[23:47] Ryuji Sakaomoto: sorry for being late, O is sending me home with takeout tho

[23:47] Izumi Sakamoto: What's your ETA for home? You really oughta get home earlier so you can sleep

[23:48] Izumi Sakamoto: What's O-chan sending home with you?

[23:48] Ryuji Sakamoto: lookin like 12:15 when I'll be home. O gave me monja AND curry. we eatin good.

[23:49] Izumi Sakamoto: She knows me too well.

With a smile, Ryuji slipped his phone back into his pocket and regarded the train station. Overall, things were going well. As soon as his train rolled in, he'd cap off a good day with a little takeout and head to bed.

A hand landed on his shoulder then, ripping him from his reverie. Ryuji whipped his head around, his shoulders tensing as his heart thundered in his ears.

"Sakamoto? What are you doing out this late?"

Ryuji's brown eyes settled at last on the girl speaking to him. For a moment, his brain didn't make sense of what his eyes were seeing and he simply stared at her. Then, as though his eyes had suddenly clicked into focus, he saw Niijima looking at him with a guarded expression.

"Prez! Jeez, you scared me!" said Ryuji, feeling the tension drain out of his shoulders. The punkish boy turned to face her, setting down the styrofoam takeout containers gently. The student council president was still, her expression unchanged.

"What are you doing out so late, Sakamoto?" repeated Niijima, her red eyes catching his. Ryuji blinked.

"Uhhh...I went out to get drinks and see a band?" he replied slowly, not sure what he had done that warranted this kind of questioning. "What are you doing here Prez?" asked Ryuji, looking at her with curious eyes. Niijima startled but didn't break eye contact.

"That's not what's important right now," she said, and her voice seemed a trifle uncertain. "And what do you mean when you say drinks? Have you been engaging in underage drinking Sakamoto?" continued Niijima, her voice taking on that steely tone he'd heard previously when she had stared down the former track team members. A cold thrill went down his back at the memory, and Ryuji scrambled to put words together.

"No no nothin' like that! I mean, there was alcohol but like, Ohya is an adult and she can drink that stuff! I just had a soda!" blurted Ryuji as all the pieces fell into place. His voice had risen in volume, which drew the eyes of some of the other commuters. Realizing that they'd created a scene, he and Niijima turned and apologized quickly to a few of the disgruntled onlookers. After a moment, they turned back regarding each other.

Then, Niijima sat down on the bench with a sigh. She cupped her chin in her hands, frowning still, but looking more embarrassed than suspicious. Adjusting the takeout, Ryuji sat down as well, continuing to look over the student council president.

"I'm sorry Sakamoto. It was...it was very narrow minded of me to walk up to you and start interrogating you for being out late. Especially considering that I'm also out late. Please forgive my rudeness," said Niijima, not looking at Ryuji. Her voice was somewhat muffled by her hands.

Ryuji remained quiet for a long moment, considering her apology, and then nodded.

"Aw it's alright. I could get mad at ya, but who would that help?" replied Ryuji, tilting his face to look up at the ceiling of the train station. "But Niijima...I want you to think better of me than just some delinquent that you got stuck with," said Ryuji, still looking up at the ceiling. The dark haired girl lifted her head from her hands to look at Ryuji. Perhaps it was the strange situation they were in, or maybe because it was so late, Niijima found herself tracing the lines and contours of the blonde boy's face. She found herself becoming aware of him in a way she hadn't felt before. She felt as though she was experiencing a revelation that came after the dawning of several smaller epiphanies.

"I want you to know that I'm not..." the boy paused, searching for words. "I want you to know that I'm more than labels everyone's been stickin' to me," he said finally, and his face turned to meet her gaze. "And...another thing," continued Ryuji, his brown eyes holding her gaze with a strange softness that set Niijima's heart into a strange flutter.

"I wanna know you too,"

Chapter Text

 As soon as Ryuji had said those words, Makoto reeled backward. She looked as though the world had fallen off it's axis and started barreling wildly out of it's orbit. Ryuji seemed to realize what he had said and jerked his head back.

"Look I didn't mean it like...like..." said Ryuji, fumbling for the words. He began tugging on one of the strings of his hoodie as his gaze flickered around the train station, now looking anywhere but Makoto's unusually flushed face. Ryuji might have been interested in seeing the student council president blush for the first time he'd known her, but he didn't want to embarrass her further. He sighed heavily and dropped his hands. 

"I meant I think it'd be cool if we y'know...hung out or something," finished Ryuji lamely. Embarrassment flooded Ryuji's brain, but he also felt something more perplexing. A sense of giddiness that he, at least in some way, had confessed feelings to the girl sitting in front of him. Of course, the giddiness was mixed with anxiety, as Makoto still hadn't responded. A few more tense moments passed before Ryuji heard an audible gulp, and then the voice of the student council president. 

"You...you want to hang out with me?" asked the president in a halting voice. It was the first time Ryuji had seen her taken so off guard. Makoto's usually distant demeanor had crumbled. She wasn't speaking to him as a student council president, his tutor, or even as a fellow classmate. She was speaking to him as one lonely person to another.  The realization sent a pain through him. And bolstered his resolve. 

"Yeah. I mean, who knows, maybe it'll help you tutor me or somethin'. Maybe just hangin' out with you will raise my grades," said Ryuji, recovering his usual easy-going nature. 

Makoto, to his surprise, gave him a shy smile. "It just might, Sakamoto. And maybe I'll learn something from hanging out with you as well," she replied, and her eyes glowed. Ryuji felt himself grinning in response. Those red eyes, which had always intimidated him, were now mesmerizing. Had he ever seen Makoto smile like this?

"If you want, we can exchange numbers. If nothing else, I can text you if I'm gonna be late to the library," he continued, pulling out his phone. He tapped his contacts app and hit 'new contact' before handing it to Makoto. 

"Oh! Of course Sakamoto. That's an excellent idea," agreed Makoto, recovering some of her composure. When she reached out to take the phone from his hand, her fingers brushed against his for the briefest moment. That small touch, so different from the grips they'd used in the aikido slap game, was instantly burned into his memory. He blinked hard, bringing his focus back to reality as he watched her tap her name, number and email into his phone before handing it back to him. He took it, looking at the characters that formed her name. 

Somehow, he hadn't needed any of the gimmicks that he had read about in his dating guides to get this girl's number. He would've laughed except for Makoto was taking out her phone now. Ryuji noticed for the first time that she'd accessorized her phone with two things. One was a functional, and practical cell phone strap that could be used to clip her phone to something like a belt or it could prop her phone up so that the device could stand on a flat surface. The other? A cellphone charm featuring cutesy looking mascots, with one panda standing out noticeably. 

"You like mascots, Prez?" chuckled Ryuji, taking the phone from Makoto. Her red eyes widened. 

"I...Yes! Yes I do! You recognize Buchimaru?" said Makoto, her voice becoming somewhat excited. 

"Yeah, I used to watch that show when I went to my friend's house. We would sit in front of the TV together and sing the opening theme," replied Ryuji, and he began humming the opening bars of the song. Smiling, Makoto joined in, doing her best to harmonize with Ryuji, who wandered through the keys. 

The two Shujin students hummed the song together, and Ryuji posed in Buchimaru's finale pose when they hit the final part of the song, laughing along with Makoto at the ridiculousness of it all. Two wildly different people, both outcasts, getting stuck together? And singing the theme song of an old cartoon in a train station?

It was astronomically low odds right? And yet it had happened.

Makoto caught her breath. "Thanks for that Sakamoto. You're the first other Buchimaru fan I've met," she said, tucking a few loose strands of hair behind one ear. Ryuji puffed his chest out and grinned. 

"No prob Prez. Now, let me actually write this down for you," replied the blonde boy, who began tapping his information into her contacts app. 

He was just about to finish when, on impulse, he pulled open her camera app. Makoto regarded him with a confused look but made no move to stop him as he switched the camera over to the front facing view. Grinning, he angled the camera the same way he had when he took selfies for the unofficial Shujin track team Instagram and snapped the picture. That is to say, he made sure the photo was at his best angle. Once the selfie had a snazzy filter on it, he re-opened her contact information and put it as the photo. As soon as that had been taken care of, he handed back the phone to Makoto, who was regarding him with a bemused look.

"What? Gotta make sure you know it's me," joked Ryuji. Makoto shook her head and slipped her phone back into her jacket while Ryuji laughed to himself.

Just then, Ryuji's connecting train rolled in. The blonde boy turned his head, his mouth dropping open in surprise. 

"Damn! Looks like my train finally got here," said Ryuji who began quickly gathering up the styrofoam boxes of takeout in his arms. "Sorry Prez, looks like I gotta go. I'll see you at tutoring tomorrow!" he said over his shoulder, heading towards the doors. 

"Yes, of course!" replied Makoto hurriedly, waving to Ryuji as he boarded his train. "I'll see you tomorrow at the same time. Be sure to bring your books!" she called as more people filtered into the train.

"I will! Stay safe Prez!" said Ryuji, doing his best to wave with his arms full of boxes. He watched as Makoto waved back while the automated voice of the subway line warned that the doors were closing. As the train doors closed, Ryuji shouldered his way to a seat beside the window, setting down his boxes and waving until the train started to roll away. When Makoto was no longer in sight, Ryuji found himself taking his phone out of his pocket to stare at the number she had put into his phone. He had really done it. He could only hope Makoto felt that same sense of connection that he was feeling.

Chapter Text

Makoto watched as Ryuji's train rolled away, her face a combination of excitement and apprehension. As intelligent and well mannered as she was, she'd never been asked to hang out, aside from the of planning school events. The young woman felt a pang of delight as she considered it. 

The sound of her cellphone ringing jerked Makoto back to the present. Fumbling with her jacket pockets, she pulled out her phone to look at the caller ID. "Niijima Sae," announced her phone, cutting against Makoto's ringtone. A picture of Sae in her uniform had popped up on her phone's display. For a few seconds, she simply looked at the phone, feeling her stomach drop. 

Unlocking her phone, she held it to her ear. "Hi Sis," said Makoto, her voice almost a whisper.  

"Makoto! Where are you?!" came Sae's voice. Yanking the phone away from her face, Makoto lowered the volume. Once it was low enough she brought the phone back to reply. 

"Sorry Sis, I took a walk to the train station. I'd waited up and made dinner for you, but you hadn't come home yet, so I wanted to pass the time," said Makoto quietly, kicking herself mentally for not having headed back sooner. 

"You should've gone to bed! Not waited up for me and certainly not gone around the city at night! You know how dangerous it is out there," Sae replied, and though her voice had lowered in volume, it remained just as angry. 

"I know Sis. I'm sorry," said Makoto, trying to disguise how her voice was cracking. "I just thought...it would be fun. I brought my phone and everything to stay safe," she continued and she could feel her hands begin to shake. Makoto had always hated it when Sae yelled. Sae had promised to stop yelling a few years ago, but lately Sae had been getting so stressed that she yelled anyway. Of course, once Sae saw Makoto's hands begin to shake, Sae backed off. Or, at least she usually did. 

"Fun? You decide to scare me to death and risk your own safety for such a frivolous reason?! You're still such an irresponsible child Makoto. I can't keep looking after you like this. Come home right now before I decide to come collect you," said Sae, her voice thick with exasperation even over the phone. Makoto eyes began to fill with tears, and she covered her mouth. In spite of the overwhelming feeling of shame, she managed to keep silent. A single hot tear rolled down her cheek, and Makoto wiped it away irritably. 

"I'm sorry Sis, I'm coming home. I'll see you soon," whispered Makoto.

"Straight home. And turn on your location," said Sae coldly before hanging up. After Sae had hung up, Makoto started to shake. Hugging herself tightly to avoid falling, Makoto stood in the train station, shaking like a leaf in the grips of a storm. A few more tears rolled down her cheeks, but she let them flow. Ten seconds, she thought. I'll give myself ten seconds. Then I will go home and be a good sister. So for those ten seconds, she stayed like this, trembling and holding herself in spite of the curious on lookers. Then, as though a switch had flipped, Makoto released herself and stood up straight. The young woman woman squared her shoulders, wiped her tears away and straightened out her rumpled appearance. She would not let Sae see that she had been crying.

Having put herself together as much as she could, Makoto walked out of the train station. She walked quickly, not letting herself think too much about any one thing. Not about the potential friend she had just made, nor about what Sae was likely to say or do when she finally arrived home.

The walk passed in a gray blur, and before Makoto was truly aware of it, she was opening the door to the apartment. Sae had taken up residence sitting at the kitchen table, looking up to see her sister entering the apartment. For a few moments, Sae said nothing. The elder Niijima merely watched her sister with narrowed eyes as the younger Niijima began her routine of putting things away. For her part, Makoto first emptied her pockets onto the kitchen table, took off her shoes and placed them by the door, and then hung up her jacket.

Then, Makoto bowed at the waist and began to speak: "I'm so sorry Sae. I was wrong to leave the house so late at night. Please forgive me, I will not make such an error again." Makoto faced the floor, not daring to look up into her sister's face. Sae regarded her sister with a frown and narrowed eyes, and seemed to consider raising her voice again. But as Makoto continued to face the floor, Sae relented and her expression softened.

The elder Niijima sighed. "Pick your head up Makoto," she said, and Makoto slowly rose. Sae watched her with an air of patience. "I can see that you regret your error deeply," continued Sae, running a hand through her unusual silver hair. "As you understand your mistake, I see it will unnecessary to discipline you further. I just want you to understand that what you did was needlessly risky," she finished, and Makoto straightened, daring to look her sister in the eye at last. 

"I'm sorry Sae. I won't take such a needless risk again," said Makoto, feeling some of the tension finally drain from her shoulders and back. Sae scrutinized her sister for a long moment, concern creeping over the elder sister's features. Sae frowned, and the muscles in her jaw flexed briefly, as though she were trying to bite through something unpleasant.

"I'm glad you understand Makoto. But...I also ask your forgiveness. I lost my temper at you and raised my voice. I...had forgotten how much you disliked it. It must have been very distressing on the phone," said Sae once she had opened her eyes again. Makoto stood there for a moment, absorbing the apology before bowing low once again. 
"It's alright. I understand that you were just worried," mumbled Makoto. Sae stared at her sister before, to Makoto's surprise, chuckling softly.

"Oh pick your head up. You've already apologized. There's no need for that anymore. I'm glad you came home safely," said Sae, and her mouth curved ever so slightly into a smile. Makoto felt as though a weight were being lifted off her chest. At least for now, her sister had returned to her usual self. Makoto went to the sink and began filling a kettle to make tea now that the house had returned to some state of peace. 

As she set the kettle on the stove though, Makoto found herself thinking about how her sister had reprimanded her so sternly just last week with her essay. These flare ups...were they becoming more common? Makoto pushed the thought away, setting herself to the task and trying to hold on to the peace the two sister's had managed.

Chapter Text

Ryuji stared at his alarm clock, surprisingly wide awake in spite of the late hour. The face of the clock read '03:19' in softly glowing red numbers. He stared at the numbers, his eyes unfocused and his whirling with the events from the day. Once he had gotten home, Ryuji had told his mom about the chance encounter with the student council president on the train platform, but surprisingly, she hadn't seemed as frustrated as he thought she would be. In fact, had given him a look that was comprised of exasperation, happiness and motherly concern. She'd also asked if he had serious intentions towards her and Ryuji found himself spluttering into his late night coffee. At that point, she'd rolled her eyes and sent him to bed.

Now Ryuji couldn't stop thinking about what she had said. Serious intentions? Well...he hadn't thought that far ahead. When he'd talked to her at the train station and asked for her number, he hadn't... he hadn't actually expected to succeed. He'd sort of assumed that she would shoot him down, not that he'd actually seen her do that before. No one had publicly admitted to having a crush on her, though once in a while he did hear side long comments about how good looking the student council president was. Ryuji blushed as he remembered a few of the crasser comments. He had to admit, while the comments the other students had made were somewhat accurate, the manner they expressed it was just gross. He'd pull the next crass dude aside he resolved.

Ryuji sighed and hugged his pillow to his body, trying to get his mind off the student council president...and the way she had smiled about him. Just the memory of that smile sent an electric tingle down his back. He grinned, squeezing his pillow harder.

'She smiled at me,' he thought, flopping backwards down onto his bed. 'I've never seen anything like that.' He tried to remember a time when someone had smiled at him like that. It must have been before the track team incident, because he struggled to remember that far back. As Ryuji filed through his past memories, he found himself unable to avoid thinking about the day that had truly ended his high school running career. He frowned, as painful memories swam before his eyes. Ryuji felt his leg begin to ache in response, an echo of the pain he felt that day. Trying to ignore the pain and memories, Ryuji impulsively grabbed his phone from the bedside table. Opening up his message app, he tapped in Makoto's name. A new, empty thread opened up, ready for his first message.

For a long moment, he merely stared at the screen and tried to think of what he could possibly say to Makoto so late at night. Distracted now, his brain stopped replaying the memories of the day Kamoshida had branded him an exile. At last, Ryuji finally hit upon a simple but still appropriate message he could send to Makoto.

[Ryuji Sakamoto] 03:23 : You make it home safe, prez?

Ryuji felt his heart quickening a little as he hit the send icon. He stared at the phone, heart in his mouth as he waited for a response. It was just when he was thinking that he had made a stupid mistake sending her a message this late that he saw the 'typing' icon pop up on his phone.

[Makoto Niijima] 03:27 : Sakamoto? I made it home fine. It's really late, is there something wrong?

The young punk exhaled shakily. She didn't seem very upset, just confused. Well, that was good. He began tapping out a response immediately.

[Ryuji Sakamoto] 03:28 : Nah, nothins wrong. Just wanted to make sure you got home safe.

This time, hitting the send icon was less nerve wracking, and Makoto responded much quicker.

[Makoto Niijima] 03:29 : I appreciate the concern. But you really need to sleep. We've got a lot to do tomorrow.

Ryuji rolled his eyes, but he smiled at that. Yes, of course she would say something like that to him. He could already imagine her exasperated expression.

[Ryuji Sakamoto] 03:30 : I could say the same to you prez!! Not like you're asleep either.

[Makoto Niijima] 03:30 : Well that's

[Makoto Niijima] 03:30 : Don't try to change the subject! Go to bed Sakamoto.

Ryuji's smile grew into a huge goofy grin. He had gotten her, but he wouldn't press his luck. He began typing out his response once he'd savored his small victory.

[Ryuji Sakamoto] 03:32 : Ok ok, you're right. Goodnight Prez.

For a second, he hesitated, his fingers at the keys as he debated sending his next message. A few agonizing seconds ticked by before he finally sent:

[Ryuji Sakamoto] 03:33: See you tomorrow. Had a fun time at the train station singing Buchimaru's theme.

A few moments later, the reply came.

[Makoto Niijima] 03:35 : I had fun too. See you tomorrow.

How incredible that such a simple message affected him so greatly. Flopping backward down onto his bed, Ryuji twisted and wriggled, feeling positively giddy about going to school tomorrow. This was so weird and new, to think of school as anything other than a drag where he had to deal with Kamoshida and the former track team members. His raw, hurt feelings were slowly changing into something new; like a fresh wound beginning to scab over. Ryuji tossed and turned on his bed, eager now for sleep to find him. Once he settled into the dip in his mattress, all his exhaustion hit him at once, and he yawned a jaw cracking yawn. The blonde boy's eyelids began to droop as drowsiness washed over him in a comforting wave.

Now, sleep began to close in around him, he found his mind beginning to wander. So much had been going on lately, with making two new friends. Although, one was considerably weirder than the other, what with carrying that cat around all the time. He'd need to talk with Akira more, he hadn't gotten too much out of him. And besides, everyone else avoided him like he had some kind of disease. The guy could probably use a friend. And maybe a few social pointers, like not mumbling to your phone in public. That probably didn't help the poor guy's image.

At this point, Ryuji's thoughts slipped out of coherency. He was almost asleep now. Flashes of thoughts, dreams, and memories played before his eyes like unspooling camera film. He watched himself in third person chase a black and white cat down an alley while dressed in a bizarre, radical outfit. He watched his mother making katsudon for dinner, constantly checking the clock as she waited for Ryuji to come home. And finally, he saw nothing coherent at all. He watched himself descend into a dark labyrinth filled with maze like tunnels. He ran through the winding passages, only able to see just ahead of himself, and to see that he was following what looked like train tracks. Train tracks...red and black train tracks...thought Ryuji before he slipped quietly into a deep sleep.

Chapter Text

Ryuji scrubbed at his face, running the pads of his fingers under his eyes as a few tears of exhaustion leaked out of the corners of his eyes. He ran a hand through his still wet hair, fighting through the fog of his late night as he walked to school. Exhaustion made all of his limbs feel leaden, though he trudged on doggedly through the streets of Aoyama-Itachi. His late night conversation and the excitement he had felt then drove him forward like an engine, or a fire under his ass. But the few scant hours of sleep that he had managed dulled his senses. So then, Ryuji was completely unaware of Akira, who was standing still while mumbling to his phone. 

The two boys collided, their heads caroming off each other and Akira's phone went spinning across the pavement, surprisingly unharmed despite it falling onto the road. Ryuji and the transfer student landed on their rears with a hard thud, each groaning from the impact. Ryuji rubbed at his forehead, which was sporting a bright red mark where it had collided with Akira's face. Akira adjusted his glasses and sighed, one hand groping for his phone. His long fingers scrabbled across the slick surface of the smartphone for a moment before finally getting some purchase and Akira brought the phone to his face. His gray eyes checked over the gleaming surface, examining it for even minute cracks. When it seemed as though everything was fine, he reopened it to reveal an unusual looking app, which Ryuji noticed. The blonde boy said nothing though, as he was more concerned with apologizing to his potential friend than interrogating him about an obscure smartphone app. 

"Hey sorry to crash into you like that...again..." said Ryuji, getting to his feet with a soft groan. Fireflies glowed in front of his eyes and the blonde boy shook his head. Ryuji offered his hand to Akira, who hesitated for only a moment before taking it. The former track star hauled the dark haired boy to his feet with a strength surprising considering his lanky frame. 

"We've got to stop meeting like this," said Akira, the faintest of smiles on his face as he regarded Ryuji, who's brows had knit together in an expression of guilt and embarrassment. 

"Yeah, I'll try to be more careful," replied the punk boy, his face twisting into a wry grin. "Anyway, wanna walk together? I mean, we will be going the same way after all," said Ryuji, who hoped that a gesture like this might make up for the fact that he'd crashed into Akira again. The transfer student paused, and seemed to consider this proposition very seriously. He brought his hand to his chin and scanned the ground intently, as though he had been offered a hard choice indeed, and Ryuji felt himself wonder if he'd done the right thing after all by offering this guy company. Akira raised his gaze then, and his glasses flashed blindingly before he spoke.

"Sure, that sounds good," said Akira, his voice mild. Ryuji felt like all the air had been taken out of him. All that seriousness for such a moderate answer? 

"Man you had me worried there for a second! You looked really serious, like you were at a crucial point in a video game or something," replied Ryuji, equal parts annoyed and relieved as the two of them started towards Shujin again. At this remark, Akira honestly seemed a little surprise. 

"I was serious," said the dark haired boy, but Ryuji seemed to ignore that. The two walked quietly for a moment, the sounds of their shoes against the pavement and the sounds of the other commuters on their route filling the air. 

After a long moment, Ryuji broke the silence, apparently uncomfortable with the quiet settling over them.

"So uh...what do you think of Shujin so far?" asked Ryuji, feeling a little awkward in the face of his extremely cool tempered companion. Akira's eyes searched the surrounding for a moment before he spoke.

"It seems like it could be a great place. But it feels like there's a dark cloud over everyone right now. Some kind of thing that people aren't talking about. Or at least not talking about openly," said Akira, his voice quiet but oddly intense. His gray eyes seemed sharp, filled with some kind of inner light that Ryuji hadn't seen before. It was a little unnerving.

"Well...I think I kinda know what you're talking about," replied Ryuji, his words halting. It would be impossible to miss of course, since some of the students were going home with bruises after all. No matter how hard Ryuji tried to put his past behind him, something was always ready to spring up and remind him.

Akira said nothing, and the silence dragged on again before Ryuji continued. 

"It's Kamoshida," blurted Ryuji, feeling all his resentment bubble to the surface. "That bastard thinks he's the effin' king of the castle at Shujin Academy. He...he's a..." the punk boy trailed off, his fists clenched. He stopped walking and squeezed his eyes shut. For a moment, the world was completely dark.

Then, a curious feeling washed over him. It was as though the world was warping around him, melting like an icecream on a hot day. He heard an automated voice say something, but couldn't make out the words, his attention devoted entirely to keeping himself upright in a warping world.

When Ryuji finally opened his eyes, he found himself in a very strange place indeed. He had left the familiar streets leading to the school and instead found himself standing at the gate of a large, imposing castle. The sky was a poisonous shade of magenta, and the windows of the palace gleamed dimly in the light of the lanterns that hung from the mouths of strange and terrible gargoyles. The punk boy's mouth dropped open, gaping in surprise as he turned his head this way and that trying to get a grasp on where he was. Was he hallucinating? Still dreaming? Maybe he'd wake up in his bed in just a moment.

A sigh came from beside Ryuji, who saw that Akira had come with him into this strange land. But Akira had changed, he was wearing some kind of strange black outfit with a white mask obscuring his face. But it wasn't Akira who had sighed, as Akira was staring intently at his smart phone. No, when Ryuji turned his gaze downward, he saw where the sigh had come from. 

A black and white creature stood on two legs, with fuzzy cat ears twitching on the top of it's head, which it was shaking in disgust.

"Great!" whined the creature, putting a paw to it's face. "Just perfect! You brought that oaf along with you! You need to be more careful Joker," said the cat-like creature. Ryuji felt the world tip under him, and he fell on his butt, hard from the shock. Not only was he transported into a strange, dangerous world with his friend who had suddenly changed into some kind of...strange magician outfit. But there was a talking cat-monster too.

Ryuji asked the question that was burning in his mind.

"What the hell is going on?!"