Saturday, July 22, 2017

Checkboxes Chapter Eight






Today is the day that everyone in Korekara Academy leaves for the trip to Kyoto.  Rather than having a school trip for one particular grade each year, Korekara brings everyone to wherever the trip happens to be, since the student body is so small.  At any other school, everyone attending Korekara would fill only two classrooms, and most schools have at least three classes for every year.  I have to wonder if the criteria for attending Korekara is really that hard to find, or if there just aren’t enough people the headmaster trusts to be ‘talent scouts’ for such an odd school as this one.  After all, they seem to know everything about everyone who attends.  That takes some devotion, and some trust that they won’t do the wrong thing with that information after being given the means to obtain it.

Last year’s school trip was a bit further away, but this year the school wasn’t able to be sure that every student had passports, so it needed to stay within Japan.  Nobody’s upset by it, though.  The second and third years got to go to Los Angeles in the United States last year, and the first years will have plenty of opportunity to go somewhere cooler before graduation.  The trip is by plane, since there would be too many train changes to keep track of everybody with the limited number of chaperones.  The airport can be fairly hectic too, but it’s better to fly from Nagasaki to Osaka and take the train from there than to go through the five or so train switches that would take seven hours and more money than it’s worth.

The lodgings at the inn we’re staying at are arranged alphabetically by last name, so it seems like I’ll be sleeping between Miki Hanamura and Haruka Fukui.  The school booked one of the big rooms and a bunch of futons, rather than splitting everyone up into separate rooms.  It’s a well-funded school, sure, but if the option’s there to make everyone have essentially one huge slumber party for a fraction of the cost, the organizers are going to seize upon that opportunity.  Nobody really minds though, since the regular housing for students is so good, and as private as wanted with rooms offered for one person or up to five.  I think the most people sharing one room right now are Honoka, Ryouma, and Akane.  Those three became really close during our first year.

I think, if not for my family moving to Korekara and therefore having an actual house to live in… Hiromi, Amai, Sayuri and I would have shared a room, before my extended absence.  I still think it’s really a shame, that it all fell apart while I wasn’t here.  Hiromi’s not interested in seeing anyone but Yamiko these days, Sayuri’s focusing on the student council… At least I still have Amai.  It was just us at the start, I guess, until I made friends with the other two.  And now it’s just us again, even though we’re both making new friends.  Even Rena and Sayaka, they’re different from what it was with Hiromi and Sayuri.  Not worse, but different.  I might even say it’s a better vibe, since they can both handle Amai, if I’m being honest.

Hiromi and Sayuri fit into our group when we were all still children, but now everyone’s finding their own place in the world, their own friends.  I’m glad Sayuri and Gin seem to be getting along again with their council duties, though I doubt Gin’s family is going to invite Sayuri back into their hearts anytime soon.  I don’t even know the details of that falling-out, but it must have been bad.  Mishio’s in the council now too, and though she’s not an excessively friendly person, I feel like her absolute lack of tact is a much-needed wrench in the art of word-mincing that Sayuri and Gin both partake in.

Despite the rooms being based on names, we’re allowed to pick our own seating on the plane, and I find myself in the window seat next to Amai, with Sayaka on the other side of her.  Despite being with friends, I end up falling asleep for a good portion of the flight until Amai taps me on the arm.  I sit up and turn to her, “What’s up...?”

“We are, idiot, literally,” She scoffs, but then holds out a paper bag, “Anyway, I thought I’d try out airplane cooking!  It’s a totally different way of preparing food, since things taste really different at high altitudes.  It takes a lot of thought and care, and research too, so you better appreciate it!”

“Oh, wow!” I grin as I take the food from her, opening up the bag, “You really do think of everything, Amai-chan!”

“It wasn’t like I was really planning ahead,” She mumbled, “I just wanted to try cooking in a different way, it’s got nothing to do with actually having lunch on the flight.  That’s just a happy side effect.”

“Still, it’s impressive that you realized you’d have the chance to test out the results,” I have to laugh a bit as I pull the food out and start eating.  Maybe I’m not the right person to ask, but I think she did a good job.  It tastes great, even at this altitude.  I’ve barely finished eating when the descent begins.  We’ll reach Kyoto before noon, which means we’ll have plenty of time.  There’s an itinerary planned for tomorrow to visit some specific shrines and historical landmarks, but otherwise it’s up to the individual students how we spend our time.

“So, Amai-chan, what are your plans?  Sayaka-chan and I were going to spend the day with the delinquents, since they invited us.  I’m sure it would be fine if you wanted to join us too,” I offer, but she shakes her head.

“No, I was thinking I’d just settle in to the lodgings and see if I can’t pester them into letting me use the kitchen.  I couldn’t pack enough food for the entire weekend, and I’m not about to take any chances with restaurants.  There’s just nothing which is a quality that I can stand!” She shakes her head with an exaggerated sigh, “I’m not being picky, you know, it’s just that I’m very sensitive when it comes to textures, and only the highest quality foods feel right in my mouth.”

“Every time you explain yourself, the excuse gets less believable,” Sayaka mumbles, rubbing the end of her pigtail between her fingers, “Not that I think you’re lying, since I know a lot more subtle cues, but it definitely sounds like a panic response if you keep repeating it that way.  You only need to explain yourself once, to people who haven’t heard it before.”

“Wow, thanks Sayaka-chan!” Amai grins at her, “You’re always teaching me about social cues that only a clueless idiot wouldn’t know!”

“A-Are you insulting yourself now?” Sayaka questions, furrowing her brow, “Amai-nee, I didn’t mean to imply that you aren’t smart or anything, it was just some advice…”

“Oh, yeah, whatever!” Amai waves Sayaka and I both off as she pushes past Sayaka to grab her bag from the overhead the minute the wheels touch the ground and the plane starts taxiing in.  That’s a bit… Unsafe.  Well, I guess that it’s fine.  Sayaka and I both wait a little while, even after deplaning starts.  The train from Osaka to Kyoto is in a little over an hour, so there’s plenty of time.  When we get out into the airport, I can’t help but notice that the delinquents are huddled around the baggage claim.  As far as I knew, nobody was checking any bags on such a short trip, so I tap Sayaka’s arm so she knows where I’m going and start off towards them, “Hey, you checked your bags?”

“Nah,” Kemuri answers without even turning around, “Kaiba-san checked one, and let us throw all our sketchy shit in.  Y’know, Rena-kun’s four by four, Umi-san’s cane, my… kendo sword, and Maka-chan’s taser.  Can’t exactly have those in carry-on,” She turns around now and throws an arm over my shoulders, “Say, Hako-chan, have you met Kaiba?”

“I can’t say I have…” I mumble, “Is she your liason?”

“You could say that, I guess, though usually the liasons just make their progeny’s case to the school.  Could call Kaiba more of uh… One of Korekara’s talent scouts,” She lets go of me, then cups her hands around her mouth and shouts towards the other baggage carousel, as it seems they haven’t yet announced which one our flight’s delivering to, “Kaiba-san!  Get over here!”

Kaiba Rokujo
A woman wearing a mask similar to the rest of No Boys’ looks up, then wanders over with her hands in her pockets.  She’s tall and kind of intimidating as she approaches me, tall enough that I need to look up to see her face once she’s right in front of me, “Hey kid.  The name’s Kaiba Rokujo, but you oughta call me Kaiba and whatever honorific you choose.  Last name basis’s for strangers and suits, and I ain’t either.”

“Nice to meet you, Kaiba-sama,” I nod.

“Ah, Kaiba-kun,” Sayaka speaks up from behind me, leaning over my shoulder (an effort requiring her to stand on her toes), “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

“Sure has,” Kaiba leans down now to be at eye level with us, “Trust you’ve been well, Yamaguchi-chama?” She says this last bit in something which almost seems like baby talk.  I’m expecting Sayaka to react violently, but instead she just pouts.

“I told you not to call me that now!  Jeeze, Kaiba-kun, this is exactly why I didn’t want to join your gang,” Sayaka drops off of my shoulder, and turns to me to explain the situation, whispering the answer so the others don’t overhear, “Kaiba-kun and I go way back, in a professional sort of way...” I nod in understanding, then turn to Kaiba.

“So you’re one of Korekara’s talent scouts?” I ask, holding my hands behind my back, “It’s weird to meet you.  I kind of thought they were all mysterious men and women of legend.”

“Nothing mysterious about me,” Kaiba gives an exaggerated shrug, “I was a student at Korekara, I founded No Boys during my second year.  It was probably five years after that when they asked me to be a talent scout?  And everyone I’ve scouted since has ended up joining.  Well, except your friend here,” Kaiba smirks and pats Sayaka’s head, “Shorty thinks she’s too good for my little street gang.”

“No!  I’d gladly join if you stopped saying things like shorty,” Sayaka protests, crossing her arms, “I bet even if I am shorter than everyone else in the group, I can be scarier than all of you put together!  Besides, I can’t have you giving all my secrets away to anyone who happens to overhear one of your dumb pet names.”

“Well, maybe someday!” Kaiba laughs, then looks up as the luggage from our flight shows up, and even under the mask I can tell that she’s grinning, “Here we go!  No more unarmed kids on my watch,” As soon as she grabs her bag, without even pulling it all the way off the belt she unzips it and tosses all the girls their tools of brutalization.  Excluding Rena, whose weapon is legitimately just a plank of wood with nails in it, everyone immediately puts the items away discreetly.  Maka and Umi tuck theirs into the waistbands of their skirts, and Kemuri wears her Kendo sheath as usual, with her hair obscuring it if you look from the back.

I’m pretty sure it isn’t actually a wooden sword that she keeps in that sheath, but I’ve also never actually been there any of the times that the members of No Boys have needed to get violent.  I hope I never am, honestly.

Maka Nishikikouji
“So…” Maka’s suddenly right behind me.  She’s stealthy, but obviously isn’t trying to be, “Why don’t you come along with us the rest of the trip?  If we’re going to be exploring Kyoto together, may as well.”

“Yeah, that sounds like fun,” I nod, then look towards the door, “Speaking of, if we want to catch that train we’ll have to start walking.  It’s about two miles from the airport, right?”

“Walking?  Nah,” Kaiba shakes her head, pulling a set of keys from her pocket, “My girls like you, then I like you.  And Shorty-san already knows I like her.  You’re riding with the coolest chaperone around now,” She twirls the keys on her finger, “I’ve got connections.  Come on, we only gotta walk out to the parking lot.  I’ve got a van to take you the rest of the way, no need to go through all the hassle of getting on the train, and walking from the station to the inn.”

“That’s not the only one in this airport’s parking lot, right?” Sayaka questions, giving Kaiba an exasperated look.

“No, of course not!  I learned my lesson last time!  I called ahead to make sure there’d be a free one,” Kaiba winks back, then slings her re-zippered duffel bag back over her shoulder and starts leading the way out to the parking lot.  Because of what I know about Sayaka, I can gather that Kaiba’s involved in the mob as well, and that the van she’s taking belongs to them.  I don’t have any quandaries with this, so I follow.  Sayaka also seems to have been pacified by Kaiba’s explanation that she’s not depriving this airport of a vehicle that could be needed in an emergency.

It isn’t long at all till we reach the van in question and all pile in.  Seven people in a van that seems to fit fifteen, even with our luggage, there’s plenty of space.  The seats are comfy too, and the car smells like citrus.  All in all, it seems like a much more pleasant way to travel than the train.  Kaiba also puts on some music that I don’t recognize, which seems to be in another language altogether.  It doesn’t sound like English, or like anything from any country near Japan, but it has a nice sound to it and I’m still a little too intimidated by Kaiba to ask what exactly her taste in music is.

Everyone has small, scattered conversations along the drive, but mostly we just watch the scenery through the windows.  There will be plenty of time to chat once we’re actually in Kyoto, after all.  Despite trains generally being faster, there’s not much traffic this morning and Kaiba drives like what I would imagine would happen if you took two birds, stuck one on the wheel and the other on the pedal, and put the car in drive.  Despite this recklessness, I don’t feel unsafe in a car with her; and it means that we actually arrive at the inn before the rest of our classmates who still took the train in.

“Okay everyone, hand your bags over to me.  I’ll get you checked in and put the bags with your beds in the room, so you can just go ahead and start exploring the city, right?” Kaiba offers, and all the members of No Boys nod, so I go along with it too.  Sayaka doesn’t respond, but does hand her bag over when Kaiba holds a hand out for it.  

“So, where does everyone wanna go?” Rena asks, holding her plank of wood across her shoulders with both hands, “I vote we should all say what we wanna see, then figure out the best order to hit the spots in so we aren’t backtracking all the time.  Last year in LA, we didn’t do well with that at all and we ended up missing dinner because we couldn’t get to the place in time for the reservation we had.”

“We didn’t want to cause trouble,” Maka agrees, fixing her hair as it had come out of its bun on the trip, “We could have gotten a table, of course, but it’s best to lie low when you’re away from your home turf.   Especially abroad.  If we’d been delayed getting detained or some shit, we could’ve missed our flight back, and you know, that just wouldn’t have been good for anybody.”

“That’s smart,” I nod in agreement, “Sometimes, it just isn’t worth it.”

“Good to see Kaiba-kun’s teaching you well,” Sayaka speaks up, rolling one of her shoulders with a soft smirk on her face, “There’s a natural order to dealing with conflicts.  There’s disinterest, diplomacy, dismemberment, and death.  See, that’s two steps without violence.  If disinterest works, walk away.  If diplomacy works, all the better.  If you have to beat them up, maim them a little to get the idea across, sure.  Murder’s only for people who are consistent problems who you stand nothing to gain from keeping around, or people who mean nothing and would make an example.”

“Huh…” Kemuri mumbled, turning to Sayaka with a slow blink, “Yeah, that’s exactly what Kaiba-san said to us, word for word.  You really do have a history.  Yo, if you ever get over whatever your qualms are against joining up with No Boys, we’d be glad to have someone like you who already gets it.”

“That would indeed be quite nice,” Umi agrees with a humble dip of her head, “Violence is nothing without a philosophy behind it.  That’s what Kaiba-san has taught us.  With her guidance, we’re becoming better people without needing to change who we are…”

“Yeah, most adults would want us to totally clean up,” Rena groaned, rolling her eyes, “But that’s not reasonable!  Kaiba-san understands that, she doesn’t try to get us to become model citizens or anything dumb like that.  She just points our shitty personalities in the right direction.”

“I’m glad you have somebody like that in your lives,” I nod, clasping my hands in front of me, “Sometimes it’s easy to forget how many adults there are that really just want to help us, with how hands-off most of the faculty is here.  It’s nice that they trust us to think for ourselves, but sometimes it’s important to get advice from somebody with experience.”

“Anyway,” Sayaka starts, “I want to go to a sweets shop.  Any one that sells green tea mochi.  Not a souveneir store that does, but an actual candy store.  I want to try this city’s staple snack.”

“Oh, I wanted to do that too!” Maka claps her hands together, then leans forward, “I also wanted to try and do some of the assassination tour.  You know, that’s where you go to all the places in the city that historical figures got killed.  We can fit those stops in between whatever else we end up doing, right?”

“That’s not morbid at all,” Rena mutters, swinging her plank around a bit then resting her weight on it, propped against the ground as she thinks, “I want to see a reenactment.  I heard performers put them on sometimes, at city squares.  I think it’s buskers though, so I guess there’s no way to know if we’ll actually run into some.  In that case, uh, I guess there’s nothing in particular I want to do.  I want to stop at a gift shop, but I’m sure that’d end up happening anyway.”

“Gift shop, huh?” Kemuri leans forward with her hands on her hips, “Interesting.  Who have you got to be buying for, Rena-kun?”

“N-Nobody,” Rena’s cheeks turn red as she adjusts her mask, looking away, “I just want to… C-Collect some…” Her next words are almost a whisper as she says them, awkward and embarrassed by the admittance, “Hina Dolls.  I heard gift shops in Kyoto sell cute ones even when it’s nowhere near March…”

“So that is why you don’t let any of us into your room,” Umi chuckles a bit, holding her hands to her face, “I do, however, want to buy some gifts as well.  I’m quite sure that my younger brother would appreciate a nice fan.  He is still very much a child, but he understands and cherishes the value of fragile items, and it makes him happy when people know that much about him and buy gifts accordingly.  And some nice parchment to write the letter I send along with it, and maybe a cute ornament for my mother if I find one which is shaped like a fish.”

“That’s nice,” Maka chuckles with a slight shake of her head, “You darn sweetheart.  Still wish I understood why Kaiba thought you were bad enough to end up with people like us.  So, does your family live far away?”

“Not really…” Umi looks up towards the sky, “In fact, the bus route which stops in Korekara and Nagasaki also stops in my hometown.  My parents own an inn there.  I could visit any time, but… Just because we’re on good terms on paper, doesn’t mean they actually want me coming home.  It isn’t that there’s any ill will between us, it’s just that… My younger brother is a much better person than me, and should I spend too much time at home, I’m sure they’ll realize.  I’d rather keep things between us as they have been.”

“Well, I think you’re a good person,” I offer, leaning towards her, “At least from what I’ve seen.”

“That’s very kind of you, Hako-san,” Umi chuckles a bit, shaking her head, “But I’m afraid that as long as you think that, you’ll be unpleasantly surprised if the truth comes out.  I’d rather you assume the worst, so you won’t be shocked.”

“Well,” I shrug, “I assume the best of everybody I meet, and I don’t tend to be shocked when I find out weird or bad things about them.  Usually, I don’t think it’s as bad as a normal person would.  Even if somebody’s done a bad thing, they’re still my friend.  As long as it isn’t making somebody else’s life seriously worse, I can’t really hold it against them.  I’m in no position to judge, since everyone’s situations and thoughts are different.”

“Told you she’s a good egg,” Rena chuckles, then checks her phone, “So I guess there’s not actually that much that any of us want to do in particular?  So we can just do Maka-san’s assassination tour and try to hit a sweets store and a gift shop along the way… I’ll look up a map for that tour, then.”

“None of the guides online are any good,” Sayaka mumbles, tossing her hair back over her shoulder before she steps up next to Rena and swipes her phone, messing around on it, “At least, nothing you’d find using a search engine,” She explains, then hands the phone back to Rena with a triumphant smile, “There we go.  Deep web’s got four more spots and more information than anything touristy.  I can vouch for this, too.  The extra four aren’t just conspiracy theories… They were covered up by the government, but believe me, they happened.”

“If it were anyone else, I’d say you were crazy,” Kemuri puts her hands on her hips after sneaking a peek at Rena’s phone and starts leading everyone in the direction of the closest item on the list, “But somethin’ about you… Yamaguchi-chan, makes me want to believe you.”

“Y-You did overhear what Kaiba-kun called me!?” Sayaka questions, going red in the face.  I put a hand on her shoulder, unsure if she’s angry or flustered, but wanting to help either way.

“Sure did,” Kemuri just shrugs in response, then pulls her mask away from her face to show Sayaka a toothy smirk, “Yamaguchi… Yamaguchi, hm, I’ve definitely heard that name before.  But where…? Could it have anything to do with how you and Kaiba-kun have the same philosophy on violence, or the fact that you know so much about intimidation and… now, assassination?”

“Shut up,” Sayaka glares at her, “I’m just trying to live a normal student life.”

“Ohh, I see.  That’s why they’re having you cover it up, huh?” Kemuri snaps her mask back onto her face, but I can see in her eyes that the smirk has turned to a genuine smile, “And that’s what’s got you so annoyed, right?  You’re proud of who you are, but at a high school so far away from home they’re telling you to cover it up!”

“Yes, if the wrong people found out, it could be bad.  There’s not a big enough presence at Korekara to keep my enemies from endangering the other students.  Luckily, without my surname to go by, most people aren’t expecting a twintail-wearing schoolgirl to be involved in that sort of thing…” She sighs and looks away, “I’m very proud of it, and if only I could be upfront, I wouldn’t feel like I’m tricking people into being friends with a false version of me… But I understand the necessity of keeping a low profile.  If I were to join No Boys, that could draw too much attention to my capabilities.”

“Tcheh, I don’t think so,” Maka joins the conversation now, “If the mob was gonna come to Korekara, they’d have done it already.  I hear anyone who’s anyone in that world knows who Kaiba Rokujo is.  You two are on the same side, right?”

“Yes,” Sayaka nods, keeping her voice down in case a stranger was to overhear, “There aren’t a lot of women who are actually involved in street work.  Mostly laundering and other non-dangerous activities, they’re called Okaasans or Obaasans.  Growing up, Kaiba-kun was my only Oneesan.  Everyone who’s in on the dangerous environment who’s not in a specific position of power are considered brothers, traditionally, so of course Kaiba-kun was Oneesan and I was Imouto.  She has prosthetic fingertips on her entire left hand, though!  She’s not a very good Oneesan at all.”

“So that quip about the van…?” Rena questions.

“Mm, she swiped the only getaway vehicle parked in an airport at the time.  Lost an entire shipment of AKs because of her stunt,” She rolls her eyes, stuffing her hands into her pockets, “At least she’s gotten more responsible, ever since she started your gang… She’s about twelve years older than me, and it’s been an even five since she became a talent scout then, by my count… Of course she’d invite me to this school.  She knows what I can do and what I’ve had to deal with… It’s not nepotism or anything.”

“Nobody was saying that it was, Yamaguchi-san,” Umi noted, her voice still soft and pleasant, “Even if it was, you do belong here.  You belong at this school, and honestly, you belong in No Boys.  I do hope that you’ll consider joining at some point in your high school career.”

“Who knows, maybe I will,” Sayaka shrugs in response, then stops and looks up as we reach the first spot on our assassination tour.  She’s standing very still, and looking straight at the top of the building.  It isn’t a historical landmark, isn’t even a very old building.  It’s tall, and though it’s been styled to fit in to Kyoto’s architecture, the doors are automatic and the sign outside it reads that it’s an office complex.

Rena reads aloud the description from the website, but I don’t hear, not really.  I hear her voice but not her words, because I’m too busy staring at Sayaka and wondering if she’s okay.

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

Eventually, we’ve finished the assassination tour, though it took us down some weird roads.  Sayaka’s got a heaping bag of sweets from the store which she swears she’s going to share with her ‘bunkmates’ back at the inn, but I seriously doubt that.  Maybe she’ll give up a few pieces to Yuuki Satonaka, but as far as I can tell from the brief time I spent meeting her, Kyoko Shirato won’t be looking to steal sweets, and Sayaka won’t be looking to offer.  It will only be by Yuuki’s asking that she’ll surrender any of them.

Rena got her Hina dolls, which at request, the cashier double-bagged for her so even the shilouhette of what she bought wouldn’t be visible to any strangers.  Umi also got ahold of that list of gift items she wanted to send to her family, but somehow coerced Maka into carrying it all for her.  We’re starting to make our way back towards the inn, and I’m walking a bit slower than the rest of them, when I see something out of the corner of my eye.  I turn, and see Takeda walking with a group of guys who look like they’re at least five years older than us.  It doesn’t look like she’s going with them against her will, but given that it’s Takeda, who can’t remember what she did five seconds ago, I at least have to go ahead and check.

“Hey, what’s going on, Takeda-chan?” I call out as they turn down a side street, but I’m still out on the main street, though it seems fairly empty right now.  Takeda turns to see me, then stops where she is and turns around completely, waving.

“Ah, these kind gentlemen are helping me get back to the inn!  I was separated from Haruka-chan and the rest of my group, so I asked them for directions!” She explains, then looks down at her hands before looking to me again with a smile, “I’ll see you there, Hako-chan!”

“Okay, but that’s… not the way to get to the inn,” I cross my arms and glare at the group of men, “So where exactly are you lot taking my friend?”

“Ey, thissid’s betta,” One of them speaks, and I furrow my brow.  I really can’t understand the dialect he’s speaking in, and I assume that they’re also on a trip from somewhere.  I can’t remember where it is that the dialect of Japanese sounds more like an entirely different language, but I think it might Okinawa.

I don’t have a lot of time to contemplate the dialect, however, because while I’m trying to place where they’re from another one of them nods then walks toward me and reaches out.  Rather than just let him grab me, I step backwards, but his hand doesn’t close around thin air; instead, he’s crushing a juicebox.  A strawberry juicebox.  I look to my left, and see Umi’s standing there, “My, my.  Misbehaving, are we?”

“Hey, who do you think you are!?” The guy who crushed the juicebox makes a lot more sense than the first one who spoke, and I sidestep a bit to get out of the way, but stay close enough to see what’s happening.

“I don’t think I’m anybody.  I know full well that I am Umi Uchiha, a student of Korekara Academy in the Nagasaki Prefecture,” She answers simply, her position quite proper as she speaks.  Her shoulders are square and she has her hands clasped in front of herself, “I also know that I quite dislike people like you.  You think that you’re punks, but you don’t stand for anything?  How dare you wear a pompadour like that and go kidnapping hapless young schoolgirls?  That isn’t my definition of fighting the power.”

“Damn, girl,” The guy leans closer to her, squeezing the juicebox harder until it’s thoroughly emptied before dropping it at her feet, “Talking like you grew up in a shrine, but you think a mask and a pair of red contacts make you look tough?  What’s that mask say… ‘No Boys’?  I see what’s going on here.  Nagasaki, that language, I bet you went to a catholic school down there.  A girls’ one, right?  Well, I guess in a place like that you’d be top lesbo, but you’re in the city now.”

“You’re quite sorely mistaken,” Umi moves her hands to her sides, “In fact, the name on my mask is the shorthand for my own gang of delinquents.  We stand for something, unlike you, and bear the label with pride.  As for my upbringing, I was homeschooled in an inn practicing the shinto religion until I was invited to Korekara, as I stated earlier, which I’m sure with some prodding you’ll recognize as being considered the top school in Japan.  I find it funny that you think I could have been a catholic.  I’m among the furthest things from God that walk this Earth.”

“What the-” He starts, but before he can continue Umi’s pulled her cane out, extended it in one graceful movement, and hit him across the hip bones, which both shuts him up and freezes him in place.

“Ah, a strange place of me to attack, yes?  Well, the force of my strike reached the base of your spine.  It’s similar to when you injure your “funny bone”, but for your entire body.  That’s why you’re immobilized with the pain, hm?” She tilts her head to the side, then takes a few deliberate steps forward, “Allow me to educate you on the proper way to be punks.  Listen up, for Kaiba-san’s four-step plan for conflict management.”

“Step one,” She hits another one of them, “Disinterest, if possible.  In this case, it was not possible, as you were doing something which is against my moral principles, and I needed to step in before you caused harm to my friend or my other classmate,” One more, “Step two is diplomacy.  I did try, you see, but you were having none of it,” And the last one’s down, “Three is dismemberment.  I’ve been kind enough only to immobilize you temporarily instead.  No lasting injuries, scars, or disabilities.  However, that’s the warning,” She giggles a bit as she collapses her cane again and puts it away, putting one hand on Takeda’s waist and touching her own cheek with the other, “Step four is death, after all.”

“Holy shit, Umi-chan,” Kemuri speaks for everyone as she looks around, then back up to Umi, “Did you do this?  All of this?”

“Hm?” She lets go of Takeda and walks back towards Kemuri, wide-eyed and innocent, “Yes, of course.  Did you really think that Kaiba-san would have recruited me if I wasn’t able to do something like this?  My speech patterns and stance aren’t intimidating on their own, but I don’t need them to be.  When push comes to shove, politeness can become a terrifying trait in the hands of somebody competent with a weapon.”

“What just happened?” Takeda asks, tilting her head to the side with a worried frown, “Uhh… Really, what’s going on?”

“Some bad guys offered to bring you back to the inn, but took you the wrong direction,” I explain, holding out a hand to her, “So come on, Take-chan.  Let’s go back, and you can see Fukui-chan and have some takeout.  The school’s paying.”

“Ah… Okay,” Takeda nods, following me back to the inn.

-------

Later that night, everyone’s settled in, and though nobody’s quite keen on going to sleep yet, the lights are out and everybody’s gotten comfortable on their respective mattresses in the one big room.  I’ve got nothing to do, since Fucko urged me not to bring a book along with me, but I barely have any downtime anyway because as soon as she gets back from changing into her pajamas, Haruka strikes up a conversation with me.  Right, she is my neighbor to the left.

Haruka Fukui
“So, uhm, Hako-senpai…” She starts, fidgeting with her fingers, “I heard about what happened earlier today, and I wanted to thank you… For standing up for Fujimoto-senpai,” She seems really flustered, and I can see small beads of sweat on the side of her forehead, “A-Ah, it was really… Really terrible of me to lose track of her like that.  She relies on me, you know, and I let her down and she almost got into some pretty big trouble, and it was my fault, and I just… I wish that I could make it up to you, for helping her when I couldn’t, and-”

“Hey,” I start, keeping my voice quiet and trying to be soothing, “Don’t worry about it, okay?  It’s not your responsibility to make sure that everyone stays with your group.  You should have had a chaperone with you, right?” I’ll neglect to mention that my group’s chaperone abandoned us to our own independence, but given the company I was with, that was really no big deal.

“Yes…” She mumbles, nervously buttoning and unbuttoning the last button on her pajama top, “We did, but she said it was my fault that Fujimoto-senpai got lost because I’m her best friend and I should have been staying closer to her, but I was really close and it’s hard to keep track of people in crowds, and Satonaka-senpai got separated from us too at the same time the only difference is that she made her own way back to us so Katsuri-sensei didn’t get mad at Mori-senpai, her best friend for losing her…!”

“Katsuri-sensei doesn’t like children,” I explain, reaching out to rub her back, “And you are childish, Fukui-chan.  That’s not a bad thing.  You’re still very responsible and reliable, even if you do act like a kid sometimes.  And Takeda-chan’s not very much like a child, but she’s not reliable at all because of her memory problems, and wanders off like a kid would.  I know you’re usually on top of things, helping Takeda-chan out.  She told me that she can always count on you!”

“Ah… She said that?” Haruka questions, rubbing her eyes, “I’m surprised… I never thought anyone would say that they can count on me… I really am just a kid, after all,” She gives me a timid smile, though.

“You’re fifteen, Fukui-chan,” I shrug, “And maybe, being reliable is just a talent that you’re growing into, right?”

“...Right!” She nods, then leans back till she’s lying down, looking straight up at the ceiling, “I’m not a baby anymore… I’m not, I’m super not, even if someone tells me that I am.  I came all the way here to attend this high school by myself, after all!”

“If you don’t mind me asking, Fukui-chan,” I start, leaning forward and hugging my knees, “Why did you get invited here?”

“I don’t mind, I’ll tell you,” She answers, pulling her blanket up around herself, “My talent is swimming.  I’m really good, I won a lot of prizes.  And my emotional baggage is… Aside from practices and meets, my grandma never let me leave the house.  I never knew either of my parents, she raised me.  She always said that if you ever start treating kids like they’re grown up, everything’s gonna go wrong, that was what happened with my mom.  So she treated me like I was a toddler.  All of my classwork till I’m a second year is just playing catch-up for all the years of school I missed… I’m working really hard though, to be as smart as everyone else by my second year here!  I’m already at the eighth grade.  Just two more to go.”

“Oh, wow!  That’s a lot of school to cover in one year,” I’m honestly shocked, “You must be a really hard worker, and intuitive too.  No wonder Takeda-chan says you’re reliable, you’d have to be to catch up that much in such little time.  You seem like a pretty amazing person, Fukui-chan.  You just needed the space to grow into her.”

“Th-thank you, Hako-senpai,” She nods, then flashes me a grin, “You know, I can see why people have been calling you an angel!”

“Well, I’m nothing like that,” I chuckle, waving a hand in front of myself, “I’m just trying my best!”


“Still,” Haruka shrugs, “I think that your best… Is really awesome.”

Next Chapter ->

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