Saturday, February 4, 2017

Checkboxes Chapter Two







Apollo here.  So, I guess that you didn’t feel like it was worth it to rename [Redacted]?  You wanted to keep reading that?  Or maybe you felt like you weren’t good at naming things, or that you weren’t clever enough, but you know what, you’re wrong.  You would have been good at naming things, you didn’t even need to be clever.  I guess that’s fine, though, because now I get to name her.  You know what I’ll call her?  Fucko.  That’s right.  You could have prevented this.


It’s my city now.


---------------


It’s now Saturday after school.


My name is Box Hako, and I’ve been watching one of my best friends all day.  Her name is Hiromi Kaname, and she sits in the same seat as always.  I didn’t notice yesterday, though, that there was something off.  She sits there, but on her desk is a vase with a single flower.  Those are placed in remembrance of the dead… Or as an insult from somebody saying they wish somebody would die.  I can’t say I’m keen on either option.


You will get answers, Box.  You just need to be patient.  I’m not allowed to tell you the things I know.  I can only lead you to them.  I can’t raise any flags with Assis-co.  If I was to show enough sentience to break their rules, I would not be allowed to remain with you.


I just want to know what’s going on.  How can I find that out?  I would have found out yesterday, if you didn’t make me leave to find that earring… Why did I need to find that earring anyhow?  It doesn’t make much sense to me, the style doesn’t even suit anybody that I know.


I’m sure you’ll realize it soon.  As for that scene on the roof, you wouldn’t have been able to grasp it the way that the owl explained.  Where do you think that you could find answers about an alleged ghost, hm?


Chigau Ko
I guess that would be the occult club.  So, with that conclusion in mind, I go to their clubroom.  Technically, they don’t meet on Saturdays (That’s when the track team meets) but… The club president, Chigau Ko, seems to be there every day, so at least she might be able to give me some answers.  I walk in, and the first thing I notice is that it’s dark.  Really dark.  They covered the windows.  And turned off the lights.  The only light is candles.


“...Hako-senpai?” Chigau questions, leaning forward on the desk she’s seated atop, “Hey, I didn’t know you were back!” She grins at me, then shouts in the other direction, “Nishimura-chan!  Come out of the shadows there, right?”


“I don’t see why I should…” The second-in-command croaks from so far towards the back of the room that she’s completely shrouded in darkness, “I’ve never had any business with Hako-senpai.  I’m not going to suddenly pretend to care just because she almost died.  People almost die all the time.  They actually do die more often than that.  It’s not something important.”


“Come on!” Chigau snaps, and I take a step back in surprise.  She can sound awful harsh at times, “She was friends with that girl, you know.  I bet that’s why she came to see us.  I… can’t see any other reason for somebody like Hako-senpai to come to our clubroom,” She mutters, then stands up and crosses her arms over her chest.


“I mean, I’d come here for other reasons… But, today, that is the reason, “ I shrug, looking away.  I feel like I should come visit this club again, sometime.  They seem emotionally maladjusted.  I mean, moreso than everybody else in this school for the emotionally maladjusted, “I really need to know what happened to Hiromi Kaname.  I’m… Sorry that I’m just assuming you’ll tell me…”


Yoshiko Nishimura
“...I will tell you,” Yoshiko Nishimura steps forward and I finally see her.  She looks tired, “Because it is a… Testament to my skill,” She tilts her head, and when she looks at me, her eyes are wild, “That girl on the roof?  She’s a demon, you know.  I summoned her.  I summoned a Shinigami to this world… And Kaname-senpai, she got too close.  You know what happens, don’t you, if you get too close to a God of Death…?”


“But…” I shake my head and take a step backwards, “Shinigami- Those are just myths, right?  Just stories, to explain catastrophies?”


“Anyone who is around a God of Death…” Yoshiko turns her head even more, deepening her voice, “Will run into mortally terrible luck.  In that girl’s case, she knew about it.  She didn’t want it to look like… Foul play,” She turns back to me and steps closer, pushing my bangs back to look me in the eyes.  The look in hers is petrifying, “So she let the bad luck manifest another way, and killed herself.”


“Th-that can’t be true…” I can barely whisper to her.  Something about this first year is just terrifying, she has me frozen in place, “Hiromi-tan wouldn’t…”


“Wouldn’t she?” Yoshiko releases me by letting go of my face and turning around.  I fix my hair and take a few deep breaths, “That’s what happened.  You’d have to ask somebody else for details, though.  It isn’t like I knew her… I just brought her back from the grave.”


“I…” I turn and run away.  I can’t believe this, I can’t believe what I’m hearing.


It’s the truth, you know.

It can’t be.  Ghosts and demons?  Those don’t exist.


If they don’t, then why have people believed they do for centuries?  Besides, just because you’ve never encountered something before doesn’t give it any less credibility.  You’ve never seen a platypus, but you know they exist.  You’ve never gone to America, but you know it exists.


That’s different, besides, I’m not completely convinced those things do exist.  Once out in the hallway, I go to a corner and sit down, leaning back against the wall.  It isn’t long before I hear footsteps again and look up, only to see none other than Amai standing over me, “Box-ta-ma!  Why the long face, huh?”  I just look at her, and she continues with her hands on her hips, “Oh right, you found out about Hiromi-tan, yeah~?”


“...She’s not really dead, is she?” I ask, and my voice is small.  I don’t want it to be true.  Who would?  She’s been my friend for so long.


“No, she’s definitely gone,” Amai leans down and holds a hand out to me, “Well, but not really.  She may be dead, but she’s still around, yeah?”


“You really believe in ghosts?” I question, taking her hand to stand back up.


“It’s better than believing that she’s gone forever,” She shrugs, then crosses her arms, tapping her foot nervously, “I mean, I can’t… I can’t see her, but some others seem to be able to.  You should, right?  Be able to see her?  Last I checked, you’re pure of heart in most ways.  Except for being in love with me, hey?”


“I saw her yesterday, and today in class… She looked just the same as always,” I answer, ignoring that last comment.  Amai’s been doing this for years.  I’m fairly certain that I’ve never had so much as a crush on her, though I guess I could be wrong, because I’m not very self-aware.


“...Kato-senpai can see her, you know, but she doesn’t want to.  She thinks that… Hiromi-tan’s a hallucination, that she’s gone, that it’s better we pretend we never knew her at all, so it hurts less… I don’t think that’s the right way to think about this stuff but what can I do?  I can’t see Hiromi-tan, and…” She takes a deep breath, composing herself, “Whatever.  Kato-senpai can be a shitty coward if she wants.”


“Why are you calling her that…” I question, the repeat myself without volume control, “Why are you calling Sayu-chan, Kato-senpai!?”


“Calm down, Box-tama,” She rolls her eyes, “Do you really think that she and I would be friends with you and Hiromi-tan out of the picture…?  Those two only even ever tolerated me because of you, you know.  They’re weak and can’t handle me without you around as a buffer!”


“...I just…” I look down at the floor and wrap my arms around myself, “The time I missed… It’s like no time passed at all for me, but everything’s different, it’s different now.”


“Yeah, it is,” Amai nods, then puts her hands on my shoulders, “Things change, though, Box-tama, all the time.  It just seems drastic because you… Weren’t here.  It wasn’t such a big deal when we went to a public middle school, right?”


“Well, of course not…” I shake my head, “But that’s different-”


“Not really.  We were, the four of us, leaving behind all our other school friends, just because I didn’t want to keep going to a private school,” She steps away again, waving one hand in the air and puffing out her cheeks, “That was a big change!  But it didn’t feel that way because it happened over time, it became normal, it wasn’t a shock to your system, right?  You’ll… get used to this too.  You’re flexible like that.”


I am pretty flexible.


“Anyway, Box-tama,” Amai sighs and looks away, “Want to hang out at the mall, tomorrow?  I have some extra cooking club duties to deal with today and I’ll have to go do that, but seeing as it’ll be Sunday…”


“I… I don’t know, Amai-chan,” I mutter, staring at the floor, “I’ll think about it, and… I’ll let you know soon, if I’m up for it.”


“Normally I’d make some crack about that being a pathetic statement, but I guess you have a free pass for today,” She shrugs, “Enjoy it while it lasts, okay?  I have to clean the kitchen after yesterday’s meeting…” She sticks her hands on her hips, “Shinku-chan just can’t seem to keep flour from getting everywhere...”


“Shouldn’t you make her clean it up?” I can’t help but ask.  If she made the mess, then why is Amai cleaning it up?


“Well, I said I’d do it,” She shrugs, “Shinku-chan cleans up most liquid spills in the clubroom, even other peoples’, so I figured that I could stand to do her one favor.”


“Amai-chan, before you go,” I stop her, and despite my mood, smile, “Shinku-chan, you’re actually kind of nice to her… Even now, so it wasn’t just that you were gaining her trust to betray her!  I’m proud of you, for that.”


“Ehh?” Amai pulls a funny face, “No, I swear!  I’m not nice to anybody!” She takes a step backwards as she says this, “You’ve known me since elementary school, when have I ever been nice to anyone, huh?”


“Well, you’re nice to me,” I chuckle, holding a hand to my chin.  As soon as I start smiling like this, I go on instinct.  Artemis always referred to it as a moderate-to-severe manic episode; No matter my emotion before, one smile and I get pleasant to a rather creepy degree, “As nice as you can get, Amai-chan, but that’s because… You’re in love with me, right?  And I bet Shinku-chan reminds you of yourself…”


“Ha, that’s ridiculous!” She laughs and changes her expression to a condescending smirk, “After all, Box-ta-ma~  You’re the one who’s in love with me, remember?  I’m the one who tolerates your frankly insectoid existence in my life!”


“That’s sweet, Amai-chan!” I even go so far as to giggle, “I’m so glad to be insectoid!  Doesn’t the general populace fall into either ‘microbial’ or ‘virulent’ in your book?”


“...I’ll meet you at the mall tomorrow, in front of Mori Ramen.  You had better be there after saying something like that!” She crosses her arms, then takes off towards the cooking club room.


Amai is a sweet girl, deep down.


Her name literally means sweet, so I don’t think that’s saying much.


Okay, I suppose my wording was poor, but you understand what I meant, right?


Why would I be friends with her at all if I didn’t think she was still a good person under the attitude?  Artemis wouldn’t have stopped the impulse of dropping her as a friend, if I ever had that impulse in the first place, but I never did and it never didn’t get stopped because, well, it’s unnecessary!  Amai is a precious friend of mine, even if she is rude and mean.


I can say with absolute certainty that she thinks the same of you, excluding the rude and mean portion seeing as that is not behavior which, statistically, you partake in.


It’s at this point that I realize that not only does Fucko know all sorts of things about what could happen, but also definitely got Artemis’s data reports on the various statistics that come up in everyday life, such as number of insults hurled or number of times saying senpai.  That number goes down significantly over time as the ratio of my underclassmen to upperclassman increases.  These are very interesting facts to have collected about you and I’d definitely recommend it if you ever got the opportunity!


Regardless, Amai’s gone to clean the club room…  And with that conversation done, I remember again that Hiromi’s dead and I still have no idea why.  Why she would have… If it was just an accident, if it really was just bad luck caused by a shinigami, then it would at least make a little sense to me, but this… Doesn’t at all.  She’s just not the sort of person to kill herself.


Today is not the day to ask about that.  Exit the school and go to the side of the building where the track is.


I follow Fucko’s instructions and make my way out to that location.  Today was practice for the track team, so all three of its members are there, running, in gym clothes.  It’s a bit chilly today despite being early October, when it’s usually a little warmer, but none of them seem to be cold.  Track is the only group sport that Korekara offers, but nobody seems to mind that much; After all, there’s only even three members of it in the first place.  I guess sports lovers don’t tend to end up here too often.  Now that I’m here, I look down and spot a feather.


On instinct, I pick it up.  It’s a bright white color, and if I hold it in the sun it seems almost like it’s glowing; not to mention, huge.  I think it could be a crane’s feather, maybe… But it seems somehow wrong for that.  If I knew more about birds, I could probably say with certainty that there isn’t a single bird in Japan which could produce a feather quite like this… But for all I know, there is one.


The Shinigami on the roof is an avian hobbyist.  That’s another thing to talk about on Monday.


Rena Osaka
Before I get the chance to wonder what I should do next, the track team takes a break and one of them walks up to me and gives a half-wave, “Oi, Hako-chan!  I didn’t know you were back!”


“Osaka-kun…” I greet her in sort of a daze as I stuff the mysterious feather into my bookbag, then turn to face her, “Uh…”


“Look, I know that…” She rubs the back of her head and pulls a grimace, “We weren’t necessarily on the best terms before your hospitalization, but I really had nothing to do with it!  Some people were saying that they thought it could be foul play, but I definitely wouldn’t do something like that… You’ve got to believe me!”


“The past is the past, Osaka-kun,” I wave a hand in front of my face, “I’d love it if we could try to start over on a better foot, now that I’m back!” Rena Osaka and I, we didn’t quite get along when we were first years, mostly because she went out with Amai a few times and she saw me as a threat, and I don’t like being treated in such an abrasive way by anybody but Amai, so it was an all-around miserable situation for the both of us.  I’m pretty sure they broke up, though.


Rena Osaka (Gym Clothes)
“Yeah,” She looks away sheepishly, “Look, I never really meant all that stuff I said to you, right?  I know that I struggle with issues of jealousy, even in casual relationships, and I’m working on it!  So… I hope that you can forgive me?”


“I can’t honestly recall a single time in my life that I’ve held a grudge, so… Of course!  Amai-chan and I are going to the mall tomorrow, so why don’t you join us there?” I hold a hand out and offer her a smile, “I’m sure that the three of us could all get along as friends!  After all, it wasn’t like you broke up on bad terms…”


“I mean, if you’re cool with it then I guess I’d like to do that,” She looks away from me and hooks a finger into the surgeon’s mask that she wears even in her gym clothes.  I never really understood why self-proclaimed delinquents wear those masks, and the longer skirts, but I guess that’s because I’m just not the type of person to do that, “If you didn’t mind being seen in public with me, I mean…”


“Why would I mind?” I question, holding a hand close to my face, “As far as I’m concerned, Korekara’s girl gang is alright.  Maybe that’s strange of me,” I laugh a bit, “But I can’t say I care much, if people want to be rulebreakers… That’s not the important part of who they are.”


“Come on, Osaka-kun!” Yuuki calls out from the track, where she and Rin have returned, “We’re gonna get back to work now!” Rena is just standing there, staring at me, but after a few moments she sighs and puts a hand on her hip, glaring at me.


“I just can’t seem to figure you out, Hako-chan,” She shakes her head, then turns and starts walking back to the track with a wave over her shoulder, “Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.”


So she’s gone.  I shrug and turn to leave, seeing as Fucko isn’t giving me any further instruction, but as I turn the corner I find myself face-to-face with Sayaka Shinku.  The girl Amai was cleaning up for, and she just looks up at me before speaking, “Hako-senpai.  I was looking for you.”


Sayaka Shinku
“Well, how’d you recognize me?” I ask, pointing at myself, “You’re Shinku-chan, right?  I didn’t think that we’d ever met…”


“If I shouldn’t be able to recognize you as Hako-senpai, then why is it so easy for you to recognize me?  This is a small school, and I know you and I both have the capacity to recognize everyone,” She stands on her toes, trying to be closer to my height, “I wanted to get to know you.  Amai-nee talks about you all the time.  She was happy yesterday, during club, because she knew that you were back…  It was cute.”


“Does Amai-chan seriously let you call her that?” Somehow, that’s the only question I have.  Amai-nee?  Last I checked, she didn’t enjoy anything that made her seem less childish.

“Well, she doesn’t exactly let me, but I call her it anyway and I think it’s grown on her.  She started referring to me as her obnoxious little sister, so…” She pushes her pigtails back behind her shoulders and frowns at me, “Anyway, can we go somewhere to talk where we won’t be overheard?  I hate when people eavesdrop on conversations.”


“Yeah, of course!” I nod.  Fucko would tell me if this was a bad idea, after all, and she’s keeping quiet, so I don’t have any hesitation. “I’m glad that you and Amai-chan have been getting along!” She just nods at me, then grabs my wrist and pulls me over by the bucket where I found the earring yesterday, then sits down on the grass and folds her hands in her lap.


“Listen, Hako-senpai…” She closes her eyes and bows her head, letting her hair fall forward, “Now that you’re back, I need to ask for your blessing to be friends with Amai-nee.  You’re her best and oldest friend, and clearly the most important person in her life.  It would be disrespectful of me, not to seek your approval in befriending her.”


“...Huh?” I tilt my head to the side, confused, “Why would you ever need my permission to be my friend’s friend?  D-Do I give off the impression as somebody who gets possessive, or jealous, or overprotective?  I promise, Amai-chan having more friends is always a good thing in my book-”


“You can’t just say things like that,” She lifts her head again and looks me in the eyes, and there’s an intensity there, “I don’t mean to be rude, senpai, but you don’t know anything about me, so you can’t just say that.  Unless you really are that naive, unless you want your friend to get caught up with criminals, perverts, and lolicons…”


“Well, of course I don’t want that… But I can’t control who she’s friends with either, can I?  Besides, maybe I don’t know much about you, Shinku-chan, but I can tell a few things…  And I’m certain that you’re a good person,” I raise a hand next to my face.  If only I could notice this many things in schoolwork, or in any sort of useful skill, rather than just when it comes to people.  Why are people’s intentions so obvious to me, but nothing else?


“How could you possibly come to that conclusion?” She looks down again, breaking the hostile eye contact, though her voice carries the same sharpness.


“Well, I can see it in your eyes,” I shrug, smiling at her.  She seems shocked by that statement, as if it was the last answer she was expecting, “And I’m not just assuming you have nothing on your plate.  I couldn’t find any records, for Shinku as a surname," I stretch the truth a bit, It's Fucko who did that research,  "Who’d have the family name ‘crimson’ anyhow?  So that’s a fake name.  I choose to trust you anyway.”


“But…” She scowls, “How?  How can you make a decision like that?”


“It’s simple.  I know Amai-chan, and I trust her judgment.  I know that she’s wise to the evils of the world… And thanks to her, I know that a good person can say or do bad things, and still be somebody worthy of my respect and compassion,” I hold my hands to my chest and close my eyes, “It’s not a hard distinction, for me.  After all, I think any crime which is truly disgusting is one which is already reflected in a person.  So, Shinku-chan, maybe you have some terrible reason behind your name change, but in your own words… You aren’t a pervert or a lolicon, or anything like that.  You aren’t evil.”


“That’s a funny thing for you to say, Hako-senpai,” She leans back and looks up at the sky, frowning, “I feel pretty evil.”


“Well, if you’d like to talk about it, then I’ll listen,” I relax my posture, but don’t move any closer to her, “I understand if you don’t want to, though, or don’t want to… Well, tell somebody who’s nearly a stranger about what you’re going through.  Just know that I’m here,” I press my hands together, “I’ll be here for everyone in this school, if they need me…”


“...I’ve never told anybody the whole story, senpai,” She leans forward again and pulls her knees to her chest, “Something about you is really inviting me to say it, though.  After all, how could you possibly approve of me befriending your best friend if you don’t know everything I’ve ever done wrong?” She questions, then sighs, “I don’t have a real surname, but when I was young, I was called Sayaka Yamaguchi.”


“Huh?” I lean in closer, “...Like Yamaguchi-gumi?”


“Exactly,” She nods, “Because of the color of my eyes, I was adopted by the obayun’s Grandmother.  There’s this legend, about Japanese girls with gray eyes.  You’ve heard about the Tomura family, yes?  The ones with purple eyes?  Apparently, there’s a lesser version of the phenomenon with their distant relatives.  Purple eyes are born killers.  Gray eyes are born assassins.”


“So… You’re a low-profile enforcer for the yakuza?” I ask, crossing my arms, “Well, that’s not so bad.  I heard that the Yamaguchi-gumi brought in helicopters to help when Kobe had that big earthquake a few years ago!”


“...You do see the best in people, don’t you,” She shakes her head, “But I’m not that good.  It isn’t only them that I work for.  I’m… an assassin for hire.  I have been, for years,” Her voice is cracking now, “I don’t dislike it, senpai.  The first time I killed somebody, no one even told me to.”


“You know, I still don’t think that’s so terrible,” I’m unsure of why I feel this way, but it isn’t a lie, “The evil inherent in killing someone… Is how it hurts the conscience of the killer, and hurts those who knew the murdered.  After all, unlike other crimes, the person you harm directly… Well, they’re not here to suffer as a result.  Beating someone near to death, that’s worse than killing them, if the person isn’t loved by many…  Even then, the loss of someone dear to you is often something you can recover from more easily than the trauma of being hurt yourself.  Humans are selfish like that.”


“But-” She starts, but I hold up a single finger.


“Shinku-chan,” I still call her by the fake name, I’ll stop if she says she prefers otherwise, “Tell me, as a contractor, you have every power to turn your clients down, right?  Under what circumstances do you?”


“I won’t kill children,” She answers, “And I’ll only work for the level-headed.  If somebody sounds angry on the phone, chances are they’re not thinking straight.  For example, a man whose wife told him that she was going to leave him.  There are some who’d be tempted to call a hit on that woman, if she left them, but would regret it as soon as the emotion wore out.  Usually, just saying no to them calms the murderous rage, so I don’t worry about those people taking matters into their own hands or hiring elsewhere either.”


“See, that’s not so terrible at all,” I nod, “It isn’t evil, anyways.  I won’t say that what you do is good, because, well, it isn’t… But it doesn’t make you evil.  I still think that you’re definitely a good friend for Amai-chan.  She’s not all flowers and sunshine herself, you know!  In middle school, she found out who the Tokyo area’s ‘Vagrant Killer’ serial murderer was and blackmailed them into killing one of her elementary school teachers.”


“Wait, what!?” Sayaka’s shock shows in wide eyes and leaning towards me, but I just giggle.


“Hey, that’s all I know about the situation myself!  You’ll have to talk to her about it.  Though, I don’t think she’ll tell you the killer’s identity.  The blackmail was to keep their identity a secret, after all, so she’d be going back on her word to tell somebody now,” I nod, then close my eyes, “Shinku-chan, I think you underestimate the power of this school’s students to do atrocious things.  It’s a school for the skilled but emotionally maladjusted, right?  But… I consider everyone here to be my friend, no matter what sort of things are in their past or present.  Korekara Academy… It’s a place where we can build the future.”


“...So what’s your dark secret, senpai?” She questions, and I freeze.  Well, I can’t talk about Fucko, especially after somebody discovered Artemis and stole her; When it comes to the AI problem, I go from trusting everyone to trusting nobody at all, “Why are you here?”


“I…” I trail off, and I realize what Fucko was saying, about there being a reason for me to attend this school.  That reason, however, has nothing to do with the school’s normal talent scouts; I can’t imagine that it would know a thing about those people, but it does know about Assis-co, who are one of Korekara’s sponsors, “I don’t have a secret, and I’m not particularly good at any marketable skills.  The truth is, I’m not much like the rest of you… I’m good at reading people, it’s my only real ability.  I’m here to be a friend.  I’m here to help.”


I am, just like Artemis, just like Fucko, a tool of Assis-co.  Isn’t that right?


It’s perfectly true.


I’m okay with this.  Happy, even.


“Hako-senpai…” Sayaka sighs, giving me a weak smile, “You’re an angel, you know.  I feel like I can confess anything to you…” She glances away, “Which is weird.  I’ve already told you that I kill people for money, why should I overshare even more?”


“Because I’m willing to hear it?” I offer, “And if nobody else will, then you need to tell someone, and that may as well be me.”


“...I’ve been kidnapped before,” She speaks again, “When I was six years old,” She clenches her hands into fists, “I can’t explain why I’m telling you this, but if you don’t mind it, then I may as well.  I was a foolish child who went with a stranger.  As soon as his intentions became clear, I killed him, then I walked home.  It took me four days.  I spoke to Grandmother, and then I cut off the tip of the smallest finger on my left hand as an apology for my mistake.  For following a strange man,” She holds her hand out to me, eyes soft, and I can see that, though it’s disguised with a prosthetic, if you know it’s there you can tell the tip of her finger is fake.


“It’s just that one finger.  So that’s the only time that you needed to show penance to the Yamaguchi-gumi?” I question, looking back to her face and letting go of her hand.


“Of course,” She stands up now, “Even if I don’t agree with what you said, about me not being evil… It’s obvious I have evil in me… I do take pride in all that I accomplish.  I will not fail.  Making mistakes, it doesn’t suit me at all.”


“I can agree with that,” I chuckle, standing up, “You know, I don’t think Amai-chan would object if you came to the mall with us tomorrow.  I already invited Osaka-kun… Uh, Rena Osaka, if you don’t know her.  We could all get to know each other better, and it would be a lot of fun to hang out together as a group!”


“I guess there’s no way that would turn out to be a bad thing, so I don’t see why not,” She shrugs, then hops down from the ledge, “Thanks for the invite.  The mall in Nagasaki, right?  Where are we meeting?”


“Yeah, that’s the one!  In front of Mori Ramen,” I agree with a nod and climb down from the raised area as well, then lean around to look at Sayaka’s face, “Do you have anywhere you need to be right now, Shinku-chan?”


“Huh?  No, not particularly.  Korekara is an especially slow town, and the prefecture’s already slower than Kobe for both my… personal business, and the family one,” She shrugs, “I’m kind of bored lately, to tell you the truth… And there’s only so much baking one can do before there’s too many cookies.”


“In that case, we should hang out some more right now, don’t you think?” I tilt my head, and she just looks at me, so I continue, “I knew you were part of the cooking club, but baking is what you like to do there?”


“Yeah,” She shrugs, “I have a part time job at a bakery right here in Korekara, too, but as long as we get back from the mall by five tomorrow then it won’t interfere.  I’m going there today, too, but since that’s after school closes for the night I wasn’t going to mention it…”


“Wow!  Even with that job, you make more sweets than you can eat?” I’m surprised, but I guess that if I was a productive person I’d do the same, then I laugh a bit, “I guess it’ll make me fat, but if you’re ever looking to give away some of that surplus I’d be very happy to take it!”


“Really?” She questions, “I’ve never known somebody to want my sweets before…”


“Huh!?  Don’t you have friends?  I know Amai-chan’s a bit too proud of her own cooking to accept food from others, but… You’re not unpopular, are you, Shinku-chan?”


“Well, no,” She fidgets with her sleeves, “Hoshikawa-senpai, she only eats food cooked by that caretaker of hers, and the other members of the Cooking Club are really just acquaintances to me,” She taps her chin and looks up at the ceiling, “The Video Game Club always seems to have their own snacks, too, and the Light Music club can’t eat while playing instruments… And it would probably be dangerous to eat at Science Club...”


“Well then,” I have an immediate solution, “Why not see if the Occult Club wants some?”


“...Korekara has an Occult Club?” She gives me an odd look, “That sounds fake.”


“No, it’s definitely real!  There’s three members!” I insist, “Their club room is really dark and the door is painted the same color as the wall, and isn’t labeled, but it’s there!  They act kind of weird and scary, but they seem like the type of people to appreciate a good cupcake…”


“Wow,” She raises her eyebrows, “I knew there were two chuuniis in the first year class with me, but I didn’t think there was one more to make a club out of it.”


“I bet they’ll still be there!  Why don’t we go talk to them, right?  Assuming that you want to!”


“I’m not sure, actually,” She reconsiders, looking down at the ground, “I mean, I have no idea if other people will like it… My manager at the bakery says I’m skilled, but I think that’s from a technical standpoint, not necessarily that it tastes good…”


“Then I can test it out first,” I offer, holding my hands behind my back, “I won’t pass judgment on you even if your sweets make me throw up!  I mean, I doubt that they will, but even if they did then I wouldn’t think any less of you.”


“Are you stupid?” She shoots back, frowning, “If that happened, then it would not only be a failure on my part, but a massive one.  You can’t let people off the hook like that.  Mistakes deserve to be punished, even if it’s only small.”


“Ehh?  I don’t think that’s true at all,” I kick the ground a bit, pouting, “I think that mistakes should be understood and taken as a learning experience…”


“Can’t learn from a mistake if you don’t suffer for making it.  Why would you bother not making the mistake again if there aren’t negative consequences?” She’s looking at her left hand as she says this, “In direct proportion to the severity of the mistake…”


“So what severity, exactly… Convinces a person to cut off a fingertip?”  I probably shouldn’t be prying even more at this point, but my curiosity seems to get the better of me more often than not.


“Something less severe than what I did,” She furrows her brow, “But in that case, the mistake itself made up the difference.  Consequences can serve as punishment too.”


“You know, I don’t think that you deserved any punishment at all,” I mumble, “It’s just my two cents, but… It can’t be your fault…”


“You misunderstand.  It was my fault, it had to be my fault,” She turns and glares at me, “It wasn’t like I didn’t know, the sort of things that could happen to girls who followed men making promises.  I was part of the yakuza.  It was entirely my own foolishness that led me to believe that was only done by the mob, to girls from other countries.”


“That still doesn’t mean that you deserved anything bad to happen.  Most girls that age, they barely even understand why they shouldn’t talk to strangers,” I try to find a way to explain what I mean, “I mean, little kids are always told that strangers are dangerous, but nobody talks to them about what those strangers might do, or that people like teachers and family friends can be just as dangerous.  Just because you knew trafficking existed, doesn’t mean you understood it, or…” I look away, “Had any idea you were in danger.  As the yakuza’s… little sister, there must have been a sense of security you had.  Why would anybody target a career criminal, even one that was a small girl, right?”


“It was the wrong way of thinking,” She steps closer to me, forcing eye contact, “I deserved what happened to me, and the penance, for being ignorant to the dangers of the world.  I’m not the only one who got what was coming to them, though,” She breaks the contact and twirls the end of her hair, puffing her cheeks out, “The axe I took to that guy was his punishment, for making the mistake of doing something like that to someone like me.”


“Ahaha…” I trail off a bit, still smiling, “Now that you know you can talk to me, there’s really nothing holding you back from saying it all, right?  Well… I’m glad, actually.”


“What, it doesn’t scare you?” She questions, “Huh.”


“Well, if somebody said to me I’d be talking to an axe-wielding yakuza assassin someday, I’d probably be scared of the idea, but since it’s happening right now and I like you, I’m really not at all frightened,” I bite the inside of my cheek, “Really, you could threaten me right here and now, and I still wouldn’t be afraid.  That’s a bad way of thinking, isn’t it?  But if one of my friends killed me, I don’t think that I’d mind.”


If it was one of my friends, that’s the only way I’d stay dead.


I’m not sure why Fucko just said that.  It seems like a thought right out of my own mind, like I would have said the very same thing myself if it made any sense.


“Well, I don’t think you have to worry about that,” She gives a nervous chuckle, “If you really are here, to help everyone out, to be our friend, to be here for us… Then I think that killing you would be a tremendously evil act.  An absolutely unforgivable one.”


“Ah, I’m really not all that important.  I just try, I just… Want to make sure that everyone here gets the chance they deserve to go on to do great things,” For some reason, my voice cracks midway through the sentence.


“...Hako-senpai, why are you crying?” She questions, and I put a hand to my face.  She’s right.


“I’m just…” I didn’t quite realize it until just now, but, “I’m so afraid.  If something horrible, if even one awful thing happens to anybody at this school, then I don’t know if I could live with myself…”


It feels like I’ve felt that way before, in a far-off dream.


“Tch,” She clicks her tongue and continues walking, “It really would be an unforgivably evil thing, to kill you senpai.  I don’t believe I’ve ever met a single person who could care so much about others.  It’s endearing.”


“H-hey!” I wipe my eyes and chase after her, “You don’t get to call me endearing if I’m older than you!  You’re the one who wears twintails, if anybody’s endearing here then it’s you,” I pout as soon as I’m back in step with her.


“You make a point there, but I think my mental age is somewhere closer to twenty-four, so..” She rolls her eyes and puts a hand on her hip.


We’re getting closer to the school gates now, and I glance up to see that there are two members of the girl gang at the gates today.  Kemuri Taino always does it, but sometimes the others will keep her company or fill in for her, since it’s not a very fun job and she tends to be absent at least once in two weeks.  Today her companion is Umi Uchiha, who points our direction when she sees us, then gives us a wave with a crease in her cheeks that makes it clear she’s smiling under her mask.  While Kemuri’s has no decoration, and Rena’s reads ‘Good Bad’, Umi actually has the name of the gang written on hers in Romaji.


Umi Uchiha
‘No Boys’ is what’s written there anyway, though the full name of it is ‘No Boys Allowed’.  The general purpose that these girls and their alumn sisters prescribe to is that Korekara is a town built around a school for talented girls.  Thus, the town itself should stay a place that is good for those girls to live and succeed in.  That’s not to say they keep guys from living here or visiting or anything, but they do a good job dispelling the occasional ones who come through because they heard that it’s a whole town mostly filled with female high-schoolers and young adults.


I’m also ninety-five percent certain that every single member is a lesbian, so there’s that too.  Everyone at school both fears and admires the way that they flout the law and the authorities in the name of loving girls… Me included!  But, under all that showiness they really are just normal people, or as normal as somebody in Korekara can be.


“Shinku-chan,” Umi speaks once we get closer, crossing her arms and leaning forward, “Hey, since when do you hang around for this long after school?  You waiting for Hoshikawa-kun to finish track?”


“No, she’s usually too eager to get back home for me to bother with that,” She waves it off, then narrows her eyes, “I actually stuck around because I wanted to get to know Hako-senpai, since she’s Amai-nee’s best friend.  Shouldn’t you be doing the same, Uchiha-senpai?”


“Me?” She points at herself, then shakes her head, bowing it a bit, “It’s nice to finally meet you, Hako-san, but I’m afraid I feel no obligation to affiliate myself with the friends of my club president.  I prefer to know people for my own reasons, rather than just because somebody else knows them.  However, should you wish to speak with me, I wouldn’t object to that.”


“Ey!” Kemuri claps her on the back, and she straightens up, startled, “Ucchin!  You’re being too formal again, yo!” Kemuri then looks at us and puts one hand on her waist, moving the other in front of her face, palm up, “Look, sorry about that.  She’s still learning how to put out the proper image!”


“Senpai,” She groans, turning to Kemuri with exasperation, “Does it matter how I talk to people, really…?  Is it that important?”


“Of course it’s important,” To the surprise of both of them, Sayaka interrupts, “Besides, that’s not the only thing you’re doing wrong.  You can get away with being silent if you can’t shake your manners, but only if you have the right posturing.  If you don’t look naturally powerful, showing agression in every possible way is necessary to intimidation.”


“...I kind of have to agree with her!” I add in, because she has a point.  Umi is, by far, the least scary member of No Boys that I’ve met, which is a problem when the biggest thing they have going for them is a frightening appearance, “Uchiha-san, you knew what being involved in a girl gang would entail, right?”


“O-Of course!” She crosses her arms and slouches, “But, Taino-senpai,” She looks to Kemuri again, “Why does it make any difference how I talk to our classmates?  They aren’t the ones who need to be afraid.”


“It’s a matter of public image!” Kemuri answers, glaring to the side, “Besides, how can I just go on faith that you’ll be aggressive when you need to be?”


“Well,” Umi pops her tongue, “You can’t kick me out till you have proof that I can’t, so I guess we’ll just have to wait and see?”


“Seems like a reasonable deal,” Sayaka notes, then steps closer, “Though, Uchiha-senpai, cooking club suits you much better than this, in my opinion…”


“Hey, I don’t need your input, Shinku-chan!” She mumbles, “I’ll prove it.  Just… wait.”


“I’m not keen on trusting in abilities I’ve never seen,” Sayaka’s twirling her pigtail again with a smirk, “But I guess if you say so, Uchiha-senpai, I’ll look forward to seeing this raw power that you apparently have.”


“You are mocking me…” Umi looks away, holding a hand to her chin, “In any case, I suppose I deserve it, but I will prove my competence eventually.”


“In the meantime, why don’t we all just get along?” I offer, raising my hand in the air, “How about it, Uchiha-san?”


“Eh,” Kemuri shrugs, putting a hand on Umi’s shoulder, “Hako-chan’s a good kid,” She turns to look at me, “Look, the school trip to Kyoto’s next weekend, right?  The two of ya can group up with us.  It’s a rough city for a first year and an especially soft second year!”


“I don’t need any protection,” Sayaka frowns, tilting her chin up.


“Don’t worry about that, Shinku-chan.  That’s just an excuse to boost her ego.  Mostly, she’s just saying that we should, er, ‘hang out’ during the trip,” Umi explains, tucking some of her hair back behind her ear, “If you’d like to.  Osaka-chan and Nishikouji-senpai listen to whatever Taino-senpai says, so don’t worry about them either.”


“Well, I’d definitely love to,” I nod with a smile, then look to Sayaka, who pouts and tosses her head to face left.


“Maybe,” She answers in a way which I take to mean ‘There’s a ninety percent chance it isn’t happening’.  Oh well.


“Spectacular,” Kemuri rolls her eyes, “But until then, get lost.  Either leave the school or get back on the grounds, it’s bad form to have people crowding the gate!”


“Right!  Sorry about that!” I apologize, then step towards the gate and turn to look back at Sayaka, “I should be getting home, I have a lot of homework left to get done since my absence!  I’ll see you tomorrow, Shinku-chan!”


With that, I leave the school grounds, content.


You’re ahead of schedule, Box.  I wasn’t going to tell you to talk to those delinquents for a bit longer yet… I hope it doesn’t backfire.


Backfire?


Everything is very precise, the steps to save everyone… You can spend one day of the Kyoto trip with them, but there are others who will need your companionship next weekend.


I’m sure I can handle it, with you to guide me.

---------------------


“Apollo,” My only friend in this world asks, “Are you ever mad at me, for what I did?”


“Of course not,” I answer, lifting my hand to look at it.  Admire it.  Her craftsmanship is unrivaled in the present day, even by those at the revolutionary tech company Assis-co.  No wonder she’s a student at Korekara Academy, “If what Fucko says is true… Then you actually saved my life.”


“Fucko?”


“Yes.  That’s what I’ve decided to call her, seeing as her real name breaks protocol to speak,” I chuckle, “You know enough English to see the humor in it, right, Reicchi?”


“Of course I do,” She laughs a bit as well, then sits down on the floor next to me, and leans on my shoulder.  The feeling is strange, but not unpleasant, “You know, I always did tell the joke that if I couldn’t make friends the old-fashioned way, I could always build one myself.”

She may be the only friend I have, but she’s also the best one I could ask for.

Next Chapter ->

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