After taking that clean slap to the face, I stayed in my seat as she stomped her feet away into the comfort of a group of friends. Part of me wanted to laugh at how quickly she gave up, but the burning pain on my cheek and the intensity of the glares hitting me sealed my mouth. It would be good if this incident ended with me getting more hateful looks, but I knew it wouldn't be so simple.
By the time homeroom started, everyone heard about what happened between me and that girl, and of course I was the one painted as the bad guy. After all, she was the fairly attractive girl while I was the ordinary guy. Even without the story, if she just gave me a wronged look I would be a criminal in their eyes. Getting slapped across the face, of course I deserved it, they said. I was the one who was completely unreasonable. I was the villain. And there was justice in punishing me.
From sneers and sharp glares, I was attacked by my paper projectiles and feet were pushed out to trip me whenever I walked. On the bullying scale it was rather low, but I feared the time when they would become bored by these attempts and choose to step up the seriousness of their pranks.
By lunch time, only I thought of myself as a victim. I had neither allies nor guilty spectators, everything happening to me was right.
With a heavy heart, I left the classroom with my lunch. On the way down the stairs, I noticed Kirisaki who also looked at me with a pained expression. I wasn't sure, but she had likely heard about what happened to me. Maybe she knew of a way to solve my problem, still, I quickly left before she could call me.
I left the building and then looked around aimlessly before deciding to head to the garden.
Compared to the eccentricity of our school policies, having a garden wasn't that surprising, especially since this was one of the lucky spots with its own tree of legend despite this school being less than ten years old.
The legend was that whenever a couple was formed under the tree, that couple would never be separated. In truth, several couples formed under it were no longer together, but the phrasing used allowed the legend to still be true. Just because a couple broke up didn't mean they were separated, they chose to be apart. Thanks to this loophole, the legend was still technically true.
Even so there weren't many who would choose this spot to confess, but I made sure to head deep into the garden just in case. As I went through the rows of colourful flowers, my heart felt cleansed by their beauty and I could walk with a little more pep in my step. The tranquillity was like a calm breeze that blew away my pain.
Eventually, I spotted a bench in the shade of a tall tree and hastened my footsteps towards it. Along the way, I glimpsed at someone in the pet zoo. Yes, in my school's garden, there was a small area where they kept small animals which fit the category of pets, but most students didn't think much of it. It wasn't as if we weren't impressed, we just grew numb to the surprises at this school.
'I wonder if the school will suggest we leave the cat here.'
There were currently no cats in the pet zoo, but it didn't seem like an bad option to have one.
I slowed down to ponder this possibility as I captured the figure of a long-haired girl who crouched down in front of the bunny cage, and then I continued my journey towards the bench, but my blazer got caught on a flower. As I tried to gently dislodge it, the rustling frightened the girl.
Like a scared critter, she glanced at me before hastily scurrying away. Her bangs hid her eyes, but imagining fear in those eyes made me feel guilty.
When I got my blazer free, I looked at the area where she had been and sighed before returning to my previous objective. I took out a spare napkin and wiped off the bench before taking a seat and opening my lunch box.
Since I was the one who made it, there was no surprise at either the appearance or the taste, so instead of relishing in the flavour, I contemplated.
'The best option would be to ask the others for help but...'
I didn't think that I had a lot of pride, but I couldn't ask them for help, especially not when my crush was among them. It would be one thing if she saved me without me asking for it, but I would never be worthy of her if I begged for help. Maybe the fact that I thought that I could ever be worthy of her was the true arrogance, but I wasn't backing down on this.
'Then what will I do? If I can't ask them for help how will I fight back?'
I accepted that this situation was partially my fault, but I had no intention of being a good victim. I was someone who knew he was average, therefore, I adhered to the universal principle of fighting back when necessary. However, this wasn't a matter of throwing a couple punches. If I was too aggressive, they could easily manipulate the story and paint me as guilty to the school as well. It would be easier if I could find a mastermind embellishing the bad rumours, but so far it didn't look like such a person existed. In other words, it was a typical case of bullying, one of the worse kinds.
Individually, none of the actions taken against me were bad enough to deserve more than a warning, and it would be hard to prove they happened without solid evidence. Honestly, I would have an easier time catching them if they beat me up, but it wasn't at that stage. At least not yet.
I used my brain more than I did in class but though I could see my situation more clearly, I couldn't come up with any good solutions. With slumped shoulders, I packed up my empty lunch box and reluctantly headed back to class. It would be easier on me if I skipped class, but I didn't want to give them that feeling of satisfaction.
Like I had my own personal cloud of depression, my steps were heavy. However, my worries were temporarily cleared when I saw a familiar person reading a book on a bench while being surrounded by blue flowers, like a splendid work of art.
I waited nervously as he slowly raised his head to meet my gaze. I had talked with Zakushi many times before, but that was only for club. Outside of club, I wasn't sure how to approach his aloof self.
Thankfully, with an apathetic tone he gave me a response.
"Akishiro, what is it?"
I couldn't sense any irritation from his body language, but I was worried that I upset him by interfering with his alone time. Still, I felt like taking this chance that I had wondered upon.
"Um, are you free to talk right now?" I asked hesitantly.
"No, but I can listen if you want to tell me something."
His first word nearly plunged me into despair, but fortunately my cool senior didn't let me down. With my chest bursting in joy, I hurriedly took a seat next to him and took a deep breath before facing him. This was the first time I had been this close to him, so I only now noticed the clear beauty of his eyes. Like a clean mirror I was only able to see my reflection in them, I could not gauge a hint of Zakushi's true self.
However, as I was lost in his eyes, Zakushi uncomfortably coughed and knocked me out of that strange state.
'Whew, I almost changed preferences there.'
I shook my head and I looked away from Zakushi as I began explaining my situation.
"Hmm, I see. I think I understand, but why didn't you emphasize your humility? Couldn't you have avoided her request by telling her that you were too unworthy to speak with us without permission?"
Out of context this might have come out as arrogant or egotistical, but under these circumstances I gazed at Zakushi's profile like I was watching a genius. Like a lightbulb exploded in my head, I imagined what could have happened if I acted like Zakushi suggested, and then facepalmed.
'It was that simple.'
I knew I had pride, but it wouldn't have gotten in the way of acting humble to escape trouble. In other words, I could have avoided this predicament by simply bending my knees a little more.
'I'm such an idiot!'
Deeply regretful that I couldn't come up with this suggestion myself, I cradled my head and bit my lower lip. I would have stayed there in self-ridicule for who knows how long if it wasn't Zakushi.
"Well, what's done is done. We need to figure out what to do from here."
Although I was still depressed, I raised my head and looked at my senior like I had met my saviour.
"You'll help me?" I asked with a shaky voice.
"If I wouldn't why would I listen to your story? We are in the same club after all and I am your senior. Since this isn't completely your fault, I'm fine with helping you."
He said it in a casual tone, but to me it was like listening to a prophecy of salvation. As someone who had worked with him, I was sure that my problem was as good as solved as long as he helped me.
"Thank you very much!" I said enthusiastically.
"You don't have to make a big deal out of it,"Zakushi said with a sigh, "Now let me confirm something, are you okay with me telling the others about this?"
"Uh, well, that's..."
I could understand that it would be easier if I borrowed the help of Arisugawa and the rest, and I didn't want to be picky when I was the one begging for help, but I couldn't readily give a positive response. Worried that he would be fed up by my selfishness, I couldn't look at his expression. However, he didn't let me down.
"I see, that makes it a little harder but this is fine as well."
I slowly checked his face to see if he was truly okay with it, but I had underestimated him. Without a hint of frustration, Zakushi put his finger on his chin and held a pensive expression as I watched him while in a daze.
'Would this be what it feels like to have an older brother?'
As my worries were completely replaced by admiration and respect, Zakushi continued.
"A permanent solution will require you proving your worth. Hmm, can you wait a day or so for me to come up with something?"
"O-of course. I can't say that I'm not in a hurry, but I won't rush you."
"Good. I'll try to get back to you before Saturday."
And like this, I gained the most reliable helper, but solving issue wouldn't be easy as I imagined.