Author's Note: Happy (very) belated birthdays Jurina and Mayuyu!
Nezumi rules Majisuka Gakuen.
From the school roof, her seat on the battlefield, she is the one in control. No matter what the Rappapa might think, she is at the top.
She knows what goes on in everyone's minds.
She knows what the right words to whisper in the right ears are.
She knows how to make people do whatever the hell she wants.
So, naturally, she has rules. It's a dangerous game she plays, and she can't afford to make mistakes.
Rule no. 1: don't smile at people unless you want them to do something for you.
Rule no. 2: don't expect any birthday presents and you don't have to give any in return.
Rule no. 3: make allies not friends.
Unfortunately, a certain someone never bothered to read her rulebook.
She first met her back when her hair was stylishly curled and her eyes darkly rimmed as she plucked a paper airplane from the floor where Nezumi had thrown it. Now, she doesn't overdo the make-up and her hair is cut in straight, choppy layers around her face. Everything from her new look to the brown cardi which hangs off her shoulders screams casual strength and sincerity. She's a strong fighter, with a strong voice and strong values.
She makes a good ally.
But she doesn't know the importance of keeping her distance.
Nezumi sits on the railing at the edge of the school roof. Her legs swing carelessly over the long drop to concrete below, whilst Beethoven's Fifth pounds in her ears and her mouth blows bubbles, hands in the pockets of her hoodie.
She senses a presence lean against the railing beside her and doesn't have to look to know who it is.
She does turn around though, to glare in annoyance as Center tugs the headphones out of her ears.
"Hey," she growls. "What're you doing?"
Instead of an answer, she's faced with half of a different set of headphones. Dubiously, she takes it.
"Listen to this for a change," Center tells her, the other half of the headphones already in her ear as she deftly flicks her thumb across her iPod screen.
Nezumi frowns, but does as she's asked, and next moment finds her brain confronted with electric guitar riffs, drum beats, and the voices of 48 idols. She lets the music wash over her for a few moments, then risks a glance sideways.
Center stands leaning with her back against the railing, elbows propped up on it, eyes closed, foot tapping the floor and her lips mouthing along to the lyrics: 'Majisuka Rock 'n' Roll'. Her forehead is smooth and free of serious lines, a small smile twitching at the corners of her mouth as she sings.
Nezumi watches her, lost in her own little world of music, forgetting all of their plans and plots for the school, and finds herself smiling too. It's only a tiny smile, that looks a little strange on a face which has hardly used it before, but it's a real smile, one which when Center cracks open an eye and catches sight of it, causes her to grin in success at gaining a positive response.
Immediately, Nezumi wipes it off her face, resetting her features into the more permanent mask devoid of emotions which earned her the nickname 'Cyborg', and turns away, cheeks tinged pink. When she plucks up the courage to cast her gaze casually back to Center, the girl is still watching her and grinning lop-sidedly.
Back in a deep and dark corner of her mind, Rule no. 1 shrivels up and dies a dramatic death involving a noose of rope and a stool. But as Nezumi swings her legs over the railing and leaps down, irritably thrusting the headphone back at Center, it leaves the stool and rope hanging in a sea of imagination, waiting patiently for Rules 2 and 3 to step up in its footprints.
"Just you keep waiting," she mutters as she stomps down the stairs away from Center and the rooftop, "I'm not going to let any other rules be broken. I'm not giving up yet."
It's not her fault that even the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry. And it's certainly not her fault that Center never learnt when to give up either.
March the eighth arrives a few days later to find Nezumi on the rooftop again, this time sat on the floor, leaning against the railing. The sound of footsteps makes her look up, and seconds later Center comes around the corner.
"Hey," the girl calls, quickening her stride until she's standing next to Nezumi, who doesn't reply but arches an eyebrow quizzically.
Center's face is lit up with her goofy grin as she takes a small package from her cardi pocket.
"Got something for you," she drops it in Nezumi's lap.
Nezumi warily picks it up and dangles the crudely-wrapped parcel between her thumb and forefinger.
"What the hell is this?" she asks.
Center runs a hand through her short hair. "It's my birthday, today," she explains.
There's a pause.
"Wouldn't you normally expect to receive presents rather than give them on your birthday?" Nezumi's eyes narrow.
Center doesn't meet her scathing gaze. "But I knew you wouldn't get me anything."
"Oh." Nezumi looks down at the birthday present in her hands.
Center slumps down next to her. "Also, you've never told me when your birthday is."
This is a particular policy of Nezumi's to try and preserve Rule no. 2; if no one knows her birthday, then the chance of getting presents is reduced. It was just a shame that even this hadn't seemed to work.
Frowning, she teases apart the wrapping.
"Why," she asks, "did you decide that, out of all things, I need a pair of glasses?"
In the palm of her hand is a pair of slim, thick-rimmed, dark blue spectacles.
Center smiles. "I thought they'd look good on you."
Embarrassed, but not willing to admit it, Nezumi stands abruptly. She mumbles a small thanks, and flees the uncomfortable situation. All the while, she can feel Center's disappointed gaze on her back.
She decides to shrug off the slightly guilty feeling and forget about the glasses shoved hastily into her backpack, but a few weeks later, the problem starts to haunt her. On the morning of the twenty-sixth, Nezumi walks to school with her thoughts running wild.
Her feet stomp along someone's garden wall in their Doc Martens, her face creased into a frown, whilst Rule no. 2 takes up its place under the noose. The source of her troubles is that today is her birthday, and the only thing she seems to be able to think about is how she really should have got a present for Center.
Unconsciously, her fingers delve into her backpack and she takes out the wretched glasses which are the reason she is in this mess. She pauses as her feet reach the end of the wall, cleans the lenses on the hem of her hoodie, then slowly puts on the glasses. Her sight doesn't improve at all, but instead the guilty feeling grows stronger. She huffs out a sigh and jumps down onto the pavement.
"I guess I don't have a choice," she says to herself reluctantly. Rule no. 2 gives out a last dying wail in her imagination, but she ignores it, crouching down to pick up a piece of scrap paper from the floor.
When Nezumi arrives at the school roof, she finds Center in her usual place at the railing. The younger girl looks around as she joins her, nods a greeting, then turns back to surveying the school grounds. Nezumi takes a deep breath, steeling herself, then holds out a paper airplane in front of Center's face.
"Here," she mutters uncomfortably.
Center jumps back in surprise and raises an eyebrow. "What's this?"
Nezumi pushes it closer towards the other girl.
Center's face lights up in disbelief, then amazement, then happiness, as a wide grin spreads across it. "Does that mean – it's your birthday today?"
"Just take it," Nezumi's cheeks are burning with embarrassment.
"Thank you," Center says, seriously, and takes the 'present'.
Nezumi tries to shake away her gratitude. "It's only a paper airplane."
"But you took the time to make it," Center replies, looking down at the folded creation, happily.
"Yeah – about ten seconds."
"You can't fold a paper airplane in ten seconds."
"Try me," Nezumi snaps, sulkily.
To her surprise, Center laughs at this, a happy, carefree laugh like a child's, and next minute throws her arms around Nezumi, hugging her tightly.
"Thank you," she says again. "I feel like we're properly friends now."
Rule no. 3 sounds alarm bells in Nezumi's head, and she hastily shoves Center away.
The younger girl looks offended. "What's wrong?"
Nezumi sinks to her knees and wraps her arms around them. "You're breaking all the rules," she hisses.
"Rules," smiles Center, "are there to be broken." She crouches down next to Nezumi. "But which rules are you talking about?"
"My rules," Nezumi doesn't look at her. "The ones that say I shouldn't make friends with people."
There's silence, as Center digests this, and then she tentatively puts an arm around her.
"You don't have to push people away, you know," she says softly. "It's true there's lots who talk behind your back and don't like your sneaky ways, but I'm not like that. I'll be your friend. I want to be your friend."
Slowly, Nezumi raises her head to look at her.
"You don't have to carry everything alone," Center's eyes are deadly serious as she meets her gaze. "I'll be right here beside you, all the way."
She holds out a hand for Nezumi to take.
The older girl stares at her hand, trying to process everything she's said. In her mind, she battles silently with Rule no. 3, and slowly, stretches out a hand to meet Center's.
"Okay," she whispers.
Center grins, and pulls her to her feet, whereupon she hugs her again. Rule no. 3 accepts defeat and goes to join its brothers, whilst Nezumi cautiously hugs Center back.
Her new 'friend' draws back long enough to smile excitedly and say "Happy Birthday" before hugging her again.
Nezumi rests her chin on Center's shoulder and contemplates how she has never appreciated how wonderful those two words sound before.
And at the same time, mentally curses Center for breaking all of her rules.
"What am I going to do with you?" she sighs, but can't help smiling.