When the clock struck 12:30, sending a chime throughout the school, Minato traced an imaginary finger along the spines of the other students of class 2-B. The way they slackened, and slid into the contours of their seats; the way they reached into bags for their bento
boxes, or sprawled themselves across the tops of their desks for a nap; the way they gravitated into their whispering little cliques, or stepped outside to "use the toilet" (sneak onto the roof for a smoke); the relief which lunchtime brought to the classroom was palpable. One could nearly taste it in the air. However, only to such idle people could it provide such respite. Minato did not nap very well these days, nor did he have much to gossip about. It was even rare for him to eat during the school day (a fact which Yonaka-san dwelled on far too often, like she was his mother or something).
Not when there was so much work to do.
Minato dawdled by the classroom door a time, only stepping away down the hall once he was sure Yonaka-san had not situated herself to ambush him there. Minato certainly appreciated her enthusiasm, her eagerness to help. But the way she clung to him sometimes, she must have thought he needed protecting; and true, he was rather thin, and not even a second-rate fighter. And any banchō,
naturally, was going to make for a prime target in the aspirations and ambitions of others. But did he really need people following him around like schoolteachers escorting their yellow helmet-clad toddlers on a trip to the zoo? Yonaka-san seemed to think he couldn't handle anything so much as a hallway stroll by himself. He would have scolded her if not for it being noble, in a way. What exactly would he be punishing? Loyalty to her boss, and concern for his safety? No, it wouldn't do to discourage such things. Minato chuckled to himself, enjoying the irony: he'd be the most powerful person in the school soon, and yet he had to sneak around and look over his shoulder like any other student.... Maybe I have to prove to her that she doesn't need to protect me?
But what if she enjoyed it? What if it made her feel useful, and Minato was stripping Yonaka of her purpose by breaking free of her strangely motherly instinct? Would she lose her spirit? Would she even go so far as to leave the gang if he made her feel useless?Then, maybe I can redirect this energy toward someone else. Like that new girl, Li-chan.
Maybe it didn't matter who
Yonaka was protecting, as long as she felt useful to someone
. Li-chan would fit the bill: small, cute, seemingly vulnerable ... why, Toronaga-san was already clinging to her, always nearby like a father-bear guarding over its cub. Maybe he was even falling in love. But did Li-chan want
to be protected? Would she go along with that, coming from yet another senior doting on her?
As he resolved to bear with Yonaka's wishes a little while longer, Minato lamented that that girl had to be so complicated and confusing. That he understood his enemies better than some of his allies.
Although, if any one of his allies offered him relief in that regard, it was Takanashi-san. Takanashi, especially in comparison to the others, was almost a joy to work with: simple. Predictable. Easy to read (he's been frustrated and antsy recently), and easy to use to his full potential. Minato needed progress reports from everyone today, but he might as well start at the place that he knew
one of them would be: under the mulberry tree, smoking with those other two baseball club slackers who hadn't quite made the cut back in the springtime. Mutō and ... what was the other one's name? It didn't matter. When others were waffling and stammering and shifting, Takanashi, a snorting, stamping bull, could be trusted to charge horns-first at whatever Minato aimed his finger at. And with the similarly powerful Tamura-san watching his back in a 2v2 ...Let's start with the good news, then.
Slipping into his outdoors shoes at the vestibule, Minato exited from the front of the school and immediately hung a hard left. At this time of year the air rose from the sidewalk in shimmering ribbons, but through the mirages Minato already made out two figures in a familiar squatting pose, with familiar tufts of white smoke filtering between their knuckles. Their indistinct features only sharpened as he closed the distance: one, a surly boy with a thick eyebrow ridge and long, shimmering locks of black hair; and a skinnier brunette, skinny eyes sneering through his coke-bottle glasses. They had noticed Minato already, and watched, glowering, as he approached. They didn't comment when his gaze wandered the shade of the mulberry tree; nor when it reached the top of the wall just behind them, which Yonaka, Tamura, and Umeko had scaled when they ambushed Takanashi earlier this year. They said nothing at all; they seemed to be relishing in forcing Minato to ask the self-evident question.
"I need to speak to Takanashi-san," he said as he conceded to their petty game. "Is he in the toilet?"
Their contempt for him was so apparent that Minato reckoned they must not even be trying to hide it. As if he was unworthy of human language, the bigger one, Mutō, evidently the ringleader when Takanashi wasn't around, shook his head.
"On the baseball field?"
Mutō shook his head.
"In his classroom?" Minato asked, a desperate theory indeed. Takanashi would sooner dig ditches all day than study.
"He ain't here," Mutō affirmed for him, deigningly. "He skipped school today."
"Skipped? ... Thank you," Minato said as he hurried away, back into the harsh glare of a sweltering June afternoon. Their eyes drilled into his back as he left, but that was no matter; they weren't a threat anymore. Not without their leader.
So he hadn't come to school today; Minato supposed
he wasn't surprised. Takanashi was wont to skip already, made only likelier by the probability that he'd gotten injured last night, or had at least tired himself out. Because although he was strong to be sure, that strength didn't exactly compensate for a lack of tactics ... Very well. The more studious Tamura would almost certainly have shown up, and she would be more articulated in her report besides. Minato returned to the vestibule, slipped back into his uwabaki,
and sauntered up to her classroom. He hadn't paid it much mind in the halls or out in the courtyard, but two girls leapt up from the bench and made way for him when he went to sit on it. Already the rest of the school, or, at least, some of its inhabitants, feared him. Minato would have liked to think that it was well-deserved, but ... no. He hadn't even conquered the school yet. It still crawled with his enemies, and factions of all stripes. And besides, these girls only "feared" him in the way that they fear a hornet which has flown through a classroom window: he was a small, contentious creature, one which may sting them if provoked, but easily avoided or worse, shooed away. They would learn in time that he was nothing to fear at all; not if they remembered their place. The Sarayashiki gang represented orphans of all description. Some literal, others less so: rejects, outcasts, delinquents, untouchables. Only by uniting had they come to possess any of what it was that they wanted in the world (respect, safety, camaraderie), after the world had insisted, time and again, on misunderstanding and underestimating them. They weren't villains. Not unless people in this school continued to abuse Minato's people, in which case they would learn the true
meaning of fear: anticipating what he wanted, and providing it to him before he even knew to ask. Knowing they'd sooner drop out of school and become street-touts than get on the Sarayashiki gang's bad side and suffer its retributions for three years, such was their savagery. The existential terror of a manservant dishonoring her master. First to learn these feelings would be the student council, if they remained on their path of obstinance ... and if everyone did their jobs last night.
Class 2-A was abuzz with the quiet revelries of youth: trading bento
items, making plans to go shopping or bowling or karaoke
singing after school ... Tamura was there, but she wasn't participating.
Minato didn't trust the way his allies acted at meetings. Either they were puffing out their chests and acting tough, competing to be the baddest and most intimidating people there; or the inverse, loitering with their backs to the wall and their sneers cocked off to the side, nonchalant and aloof. Ironically it was away from their friends that they were most honest about their feelings. And Minato could tell: Tamura was gripped in the icy hand of dread. The way she tucked her hands between her knees; hunched forward, as if to make herself small; and stared straight into a now-lukewarm pile of rice and furikake,
afraid to chew too loudly lest she fail to hear whatever it was that she feared creeping up on her; a lump formed in Minato's gut. He was almost, almost, afraid to ask. To interfere. But if she needed her friends right now, then what kind of scum would he be to deprive her of that right now?
So he stepped forward, and gave Tamura a knowing, but patient smile. He waited for her to notice, at her own pace, that he was there.
Of all the reactions he could have expected, he did not expect a chill to run up Tamura's spine, stiffening and bracing it. Fear wrenched her eyes wide. Fear. An emotion which was meant to be reserved for their enemies, and those who wished them harm. This sight smothered Minato's smile in a blanket of empathy, sadness ... and morbid curiosity.
Just what happened to her at Keiko Middle School?
And if Takanashi was in fact recuperating at home, why was Tamura completely unscathed?
No need to embarrass her in front of her classmates, however, no matter how urgent the question. Minato nodded upward and toward the door; Tamura-san understood his meaning, and, bracing herself as if to walk barefoot over red-hot coals, stood and followed him. On the roof, they gave similarly silent, seething nods toward the other students who had gathered there, quickly scattering them down the stairs to give themselves some privacy.
"Is it really that bad?"
"Is what that bad?" Tamura replied. Just as Minato expected: she'd started putting on the aloof act. Maybe it was the setting.
"You and Takanashi-san failed last night," he said. "That much is clear. But what now? Are you ashamed? Or afraid of what happens next?"
When she scratched at her elbow and stared at the floor, Minato had the consciousness to press himself against the wall and kick up a casual pose. This positioned him further from the door, and gave her a more direct route to it; not that she would bolt for it, or that he would stop her from doing so, but the option itself would put her more at ease. It worked. Tamura mustered up just enough courage to shake her head.
"So what happened?" Minato said; softly, as softly as he could manage without pleading. He set down his backpack, filled with personal essentials like extra socks, and extra batteries for his Walkman, and school supplies; but also a tidily stacked array of canned coffees, sodas, and juices. Minato flipped the cover and offered her first pick, his skinny arms already trembling from the weight. She tried to refuse; he insisted. Reluctantly she plucked out a coffee and cracked it with a hiss.
Minato was opening his own orange juice when Tamura-san murmured: "I don't know."
"You don't know?"
He thought she was struggling to find the words, to translate a jumble of thoughts like deknotting a ball of fishing line, until she gave about the simplest answer feasible, one he never expected to hear. Not from her.
"I didn't go."
Minato stared down into the mouth of his can, and gave the juice inside a swirl. She knew his next question. Thankfully, she didn't make him ask.
"You know how I feel about him," she said, "and having only Takanashi for backup on enemy soil ... I'm sorry, Ishida-sama. It seemed like a bad idea. I talked myself out of going."
"It's alright. There's nothing to apologize for."
She was still doubting, and hesitating. This time she hesitated to believe him. "Really?"
"Of course. Plans go awry all the time!" He chuckled and gave her a friendly clap on the back. "A shame—I was proud of this one—but we'll come up with a new one. That's all."
The relief washed over her in a palpable torrent. Gone were the shifty-eyed huddles she had been twisting herself into back in the classroom. Even the playful violence he'd wreaked upon her back seemed to have its intended effect. She breathed freely of the humid air, and squinted at him through the sunlight. "Th—Thank you, Ishida-sama," she said to the floor between them as she bowed.
" Minato grinned. "You don't have to do something like that. You haven't even made it up to me yet!"
"Come on. The bell's about to ring. I'll have your next assignment for you once I know how to proceed."
Ishida stayed behind long enough to pick up the crinkled aluminum cans they'd tossed to the floor of the roof; so when they started back toward the access door, he was slightly behind Tamura. As expected, she didn't notice when he set down his pack, and, reaching down among empty cans and full ones, he picked a handful of batteries from their pack, and stuffed them into a sock. This he stowed away in his fist as he hurried to scoop up his pack and catch up to her.
"When you put it together," Tamura said, "you won't put me with Takanashi again, right?"
"Of course. We don't want a repeat of last night, do we?" he replied, smiling.
She chuckled, too. "No ... You know how I feel about him," she repeated. "You really shouldn't have—ughck!"
The batteries made perfect contact with the side of her head as Ishida aimed a perfect swing of his makeshift club. She sprawled off to the left, writhing and reeling on the floor.
"I shouldn't have what, Tamura-san?" he said as he stepped near, and knelt over her. "You little stray. Do not presume to tell me
what I shouldn't do."
She was swimming through the daze of her injury, desperate to stand up and face him.
"I—sai—I sai—I'm s—"
"Shut up," Ishida snarled with another clunk
of the club to her head. "It's your turn to listen
for once, little stray. I guess mommy and daddy never had the time to teach you manners before they did the world a favor and croaked, did they?"
Finally she was putting her arms over her face, curling up in the closest she could approximate to a ball. Finally,
she was where she needed to be: at his feet, whimpering for his
mercy. Ishida could almost commend her for remembering her place at such a crucial time. But was she listening? That
was the question. Climbing off of her, he aimed a few kicks at her midsection. Already it tightened with pain and heaved with sobs, and there were tears pooling at the floor cradling her face. He squatted by her pretty, broken little face, and grabbed her by the cheeks, and wrested her gaze up toward him so he knew
she would hear him.
"If I order you to jump down a hole," he warned her, "you will respond, 'Sir, a swan-dive or a cannonball, sir?' If I send you down to hell to fight legions of the damned, you'll say, 'Yes, sir,' even if I give you Takanashi-san, Li-chan, or a damn lapdog for reinforcements. You'll do what I say ... or you'll find some other doorstep to curl up on."
Ishida pushed her head back down, where it bounced slightly, her face a shambles of pain, swelling, and disbelief, her hair a birdsnest crusting over with blood. Shouldering his pack once more, Ishida threw her a pitying can of apple juice; and, splaying the mouth of his wallet, showered her in a pitying handful of cash, too. When he concealed his weapon, he stowed the batteries and the sock into separate pockets.
He left her there; stepping through the access door and locking it, only his foot, wedged against the doorway, stopped it from closing on her. Because Ishida had one thing left to say to her before he locked her up there, with nothing for company but her own regrets and the summer breeze:
"Remember that you made me do this."