Chapter 9:

The Deal

The Hero Who Returned Remains Traumatized in the Modern World

“I’m sorry for hurting you last week.”Bookmark here

I bowed my upper body down as low as the two supports beneath my arms would allow, but I quickly realized that it wasn’t nearly low enough. My cowardice, and my fear, which had taken me over entirely during my first week back in this world, could not possibly have deserved forgiveness with this pitiful of an angle. So I dropped my crutches to my sides and went the rest of the way, closing the gap between my head and the hardwood floor boards beneath me.Bookmark here

“Uhm… I get it, but isn’t this a little far, Jiro?”Bookmark here

“No! It’s not!”Bookmark here

I didn’t move from my prostration; not a single inch. This was how people showed their remorse properly in this world. So this was how I, too, would apologize properly.Bookmark here

“I disrespected you. I hurt you. We were-”Bookmark here

What were we?Bookmark here

“Man, it’s fine. Come on, people are staring. This is getting embarrassing for both of us.”Bookmark here

I looked up to meet the curious gazes of our classmates who had also chosen to settle in the classroom during the lunch break. I was drawing the attention of every last one, who were tuned in to the spectacle of a crippled boy kneeling before his sitting classmate like some kind of lackey.Bookmark here

After meeting more than enough glances, I understood what he meant.Bookmark here

“Oh, uh, okay. Sorry.”Bookmark here

My crutches propped me back up, as I returned to my standing position. I pushed my glasses back into place, which had come loose from my face as I kneeled.Bookmark here

“You’ve really changed. Between flipping me to the ground, and beating up some third year, something happened, didn’t it? To one of your family members, or something.”Bookmark here

As the student talked in a laid back manner, his right hand swayed about in little gestures, before finally landing into a point aimed right at me.Bookmark here

“Yeah... You could say that.”Bookmark here

“So, what is it? You can’t tell me?”Bookmark here

“I--”Bookmark here

His name. I couldn’t even call this boy, who was supposedly my friend, by his last name, last alone his first. I didn’t know either.Bookmark here

“I can’t be friends right now. With you, nor anybody, really. I have some problems I need to sort out.”Bookmark here

“Woah.”Bookmark here

I was expecting a look of offense, or anger, but all I got from him was genuine surprise.Bookmark here

“You- you really are different. Entirely.”Bookmark here

He looked me up and down, as if to confirm I wasn’t some kind of imposter. But was I really anything more? I hadn’t been Jiro Todoya for almost two decades, and yet suddenly I was thrust back into his body. The best I could even claim was that I was once like him decades ago.Bookmark here

Whatever accusations he must have been making in his mind as he surveyed me were entirely correct.Bookmark here

“Well, whatever. If that’s how it is, then that’s how it is.”Bookmark here

I looked downward. I wanted to continue to look him in the eye, but something inside told me that I wasn’t capable of doing so; I wasn’t worthy of it. To meet the gaze of somebody I had wronged would insinuate that I was still on equal standing with them. But as things stood right now, I could barely stand on my own at all.Bookmark here

Literally.Bookmark here

♙♙♙♙♙Bookmark here

A week passed.Bookmark here

I was still in a splint, but the crutches were no longer needed. By the doctor’s inference, I should have been more or less back in good shape by this point, but his prediction didn’t quite take into account that I would be running on my ankle, and putting all kinds of stress on it for the first few days after my initial injury. Furukawa Sensei was sure to remind me of that at every one of our meetings.Bookmark here

Lunch break.Bookmark here

I had plans to escape the glares and gossip of my fellow students, who were pitted against me by the ugly rumors I had accumulated over the past two weeks. I would make my way to the infirmary office and eat with the counselor. If I did so quickly, I would even have time to tell him a story from Alterra.Bookmark here

As of right now, he was the only person I could really call my companion. He was the only person on my side.Bookmark here

As I shut the door to the classroom behind me, something blocked my exit. A wall; no, a person. As stiff as he was tall, there was no mistake at who came between myself and the rest of the hallway.Bookmark here

“Hello.”Bookmark here

It was Hajime.Bookmark here

I almost tripped over myself backing up, struggling to get a safe distance away from the man.Bookmark here

What was he doing here, by the first year classrooms?Bookmark here

Had he been discharged from the hospital?Bookmark here

I asked these questions over and over in my mind, but one clear look at him answered them all for me. He was in crutches, limping slowly and frustratingly, as if held back by chains. He had the demeanor of a collared dog. His whole body was spotted with bandages; some on his leg, some on his chest, but most of them wrapped around his forehead. Underneath, he seemed a little less strong. His stance was more humbled, and he seemed just a little thinner than when I had first met him.Bookmark here

The only detail that remained unchanged was his stiff, unsatisfied face. He was glaring holes into me.Bookmark here

He was back in school. Back and looking for me.Bookmark here

“Todoya. That’s your name, correct?”Bookmark here

“What- what do you want?”Bookmark here

A few onlookers gathered. They all knew what happened; why he was crippled. The rumors of my assault on him had long spread like wildfire. I couldn’t help but slip my right leg back and prepare a fighting stance. I didn’t want to, but if needed, I would have no choice except to take a good beating here.Bookmark here

No.Bookmark here

That was wrong.Bookmark here

I was entirely wrong.Bookmark here

As I looked into his face, that’s how I began to feel. I remembered what I really wanted to do, and it had little to do with petty scuffles or fights. It felt like a pattern of good things had been happening lately, so I almost forgot about my own reality.Bookmark here

I almost forgot that I wanted to apologize.Bookmark here

“Haji-”Bookmark here

“Back gate. After school. The same place we met last time.”Bookmark here

He turned and limped away. Just like that.Bookmark here

I waited before he was a distance away before releasing my breath into a drawn out exhale. It didn’t strike me until he began to leave, but I had been holding it the entire time. After a few large heaves of air, I was able to calm myself down. The small crowd dissolved with the tension in my chest, returning to their previous occupations. They would no doubt be back, however.Bookmark here

They would be watching the back gate of the school, waiting for some kind of drama to unfold.Bookmark here

The people here we're no different from the citizens of an old countryside village, or a wealthy city. They were bored with their own peace, so they instead sought out danger from a safe distance, purely for their own entertainment.Bookmark here

From the moment I had been approached by Hajime, the passing minutes began to slow. In class, I watched the second hand flick past each mark on the clock.Bookmark here

Tick.Bookmark here

Tick.Bookmark here

It went at its own pace, paying no mind to the meaning behind its passage; not caring that every passing minute sent my heart pumping out of my chest. I needed time to move more quickly. Or rather, I wanted it to stop altogether.Bookmark here

Mary knew how to manipulate time. She was a natural born mage, not to mention that her mana reserves had been genetically picked over generations in her household, allowing her to master the art of space and time-manipulation spells. They were rarely needed, let alone warranted, so I only ever got to see one used once. Specifically, at the demon lord’s palace. She was able to freeze time, just long enough to save Destiny from a devastating attack. It was cruel that she had practiced the spell so vehemently just to save it for her own death.Bookmark here

Maybe it was just as cruel of me to wish she were here to use such a spell right now.Bookmark here

After school, I made no hesitation in leaving my seat. The ability to hop up from a sitting position became an almost refreshing feeling to me. It was as if I gained back the right to walk on my own two feet, which had been stolen from me moments after my return to this world.Bookmark here

I quickly made my way out of the classroom, sensing the glares of other students follow my back out the door. I almost jumped, finding the same wide-figured boy from before, staring me down as I made my way between other students as they left through the classroom door.Bookmark here

“Let’s go to the roof, shall we?”Bookmark here

I did as I was told.Bookmark here

As he escorted me through the halls of the school, I couldn’t help but admire his prudence. It was obvious that a crowd would be gathering downstairs after the proclamation he made at lunch. They wanted to see a fight; they wanted drama. For the upperclassman to draw the peanut gallery elsewhere and catch me alone was a smart move.Bookmark here

It didn’t surprise me at all, however. Abusers were always calculating; conniving, rather.Bookmark here

That said, his looming figure slowly limping through the halls drew enough attention on its own, especially considering I followed close behind. Of course, nobody was foolish enough to ask questions or follow.Bookmark here

The afternoon breeze set a calm, yet tense mood between us as we stepped up into the cold outdoors.Bookmark here

He unlocked the door himself with a key, and relocked it after we both stepped foot onto the tiled concrete of the roof.Bookmark here

We were entirely alone now; just him and I.Bookmark here

He must have noticed the unusual nature of it himself, as he began to explain.Bookmark here

“This is the only place on our campus that is apt for meditation. I am somebody who meditates often, as I believe that it contributes greatly to my victories in Kendo. This is the coach’s key, but he allows me to borrow it at any time.”Bookmark here

“You? Meditate? I don’t believe it.”Bookmark here

I couldn’t believe it. Unable to stop myself, I blurted the half-question out to him. He responded in kind.Bookmark here

“You look so timid at a glance. When you came at me like your life depended on it, I was surprised.”Bookmark here

“And I’d do it again, too.”Bookmark here

“But you don’t have a weapon this time.”Bookmark here

He dropped a crutch, and used his newly free hand to pull something out from behind his back. It slipped out of his uniform as he brought his hands upward, as if it was growing out from the nape of his neck. I recognized the technique of his pull immediately.Bookmark here

He pulled out a kendo sword, preparing for a fight of swords. It must have been hidden under his uniform.Bookmark here

“But I do.”Bookmark here

I took my most desperate barehanded fighting stance. I wasn’t the most apt at barehanded combat; the both of us knew that. However, I still practiced it regularly, as it was an essential last resort for a freelance adventurer. You make use of everything you have, even if that means you’ve got nothing. It was a lesson that was forcefully crammed into my head time after time.Bookmark here

“Put your fists away. I don’t mean to fight.”Bookmark here

“You… don’t?”Bookmark here

A sigh escaped me.Bookmark here

“No. grudges; revenge; those are concepts for weak minds.”Bookmark here

“So is physical abuse! Who are you to talk about weak-minded people?!”Bookmark here

He fell silent. If the star athlete of the kendo team didn’t want revenge for incapacitating him, then what were we here for, alone at the roof of the school? For what reason did he bring a sword?Bookmark here

“What’s happened has happened. I’m not here to dwell on the past, so I’d like it if you didn’t either.”Bookmark here

My disquiet slowly boiled into a concentrated enmity. Did he not understand the words coming out of his mouth? Did this crooked boy really feel no remorse? My foot took a step forward. I wanted to sock him. I suddenly felt stupid for ever wanting to apologize. Criminals like this couldn’t be saved; they deserved nothing short of a swift death. It was the same in Alterra as well.Bookmark here

“Dwell on the past? Is that how you see what happened? You’re weak; an abuser. You can’t accept yourself, so you instead take it out on others close to you. How can you call that something that I shouldn’t dwell on? Did you apologize to your brother? Do you even feel sorry for him?”Bookmark here

My fists tightened. If I could just snatch his training sword from him-Bookmark here

“I don’t. I don’t feel sorry for him one bit.”Bookmark here

I swung my arm.Bookmark here

He caught it cleanly.Bookmark here

“It’s not my right to pity him for what I did. I haven’t touched a hair on his head since then. Nor do I plan to.”Bookmark here

“LIAR!”Bookmark here

I took another swing.Bookmark here

He caught that one too.Bookmark here

“I figured you wouldn’t believe me. But like I said, I’m not here for that. I want you to hear me out.”Bookmark here

With my fist still enveloped by his paw, I ducked low and aimed my right foot towards his own, trying to sweep him off of his feet.Bookmark here

My right foot.Bookmark here

I made the same mistake as last time.Bookmark here

I braced for the pain.Bookmark here

I braced for it, but it didn’t come. Hajime had caught it, dropping his kendo sword to the side. He followed up by pushing me back in one swift motion, causing me to stumble backwards.Bookmark here

It took me a moment to reposition myself properly, but I stopped to think before reapproaching. It was odd, after all, how he wasn’t fighting back. Somebody with as much pride as the boy must have had would surely have pummeled me with his kendo sword, but instead he merely blocked my onslaught.Bookmark here

“Why did you call me up here?”Bookmark here

I was panting.Bookmark here

“You’re a stubborn idiot, and should listen to others more when they speak to you. But I also share the blame for your distrust in me, so I will give you a pass this time around.”Bookmark here

“What do you want!?”Bookmark here

I had long lost my patience. But raw attacks wouldn’t work, so I had no choice but to hear him out. Ignoring his tossed-aside crutch and practice sword, he stuffed his free hand into the pocket of his khakis.Bookmark here

“I’m not a good brother. I abused Kentaro. You’re right about that much.”Bookmark here

“Then-”Bookmark here

“But that’s the only thing you’re right about. I’ve never been good at dealing with that kid. For the most part, I minded my own business, but recently, he’s been skipping his own Kendo practice.”Bookmark here

“He’s also in Kendo?”Bookmark here

His face softened, and his tone suddenly shifted. Out of nowhere, I was facing an almost entirely different person.Bookmark here

“Our family owns a dojo. The sport is their pride, and their life. We’ve both been practicing it from a young age. They still don’t know that he actually hates it.”Bookmark here

He looked back at the sword that he had tossed aside.Bookmark here

“But I found out.”Bookmark here

The wind stopped, and a passing silence took us both in. A silence that took me back to the demon lord’s throne room; a silence that took me back to Kentaro’s gloomy, bruised expression in the hospital.Bookmark here

“So? So you found out, and you couldn’t stand it? Or did you think of yourself as some kind of hero, trying to put him back on the right path before your parents disowned him? All I’m hearing is your worthless justifications! Using those excuses to hurt other people, and assert dominance. I don’t want to hear it! I don’t care! Nothing you did was okay!”Bookmark here

“Don’t project onto me.”Bookmark here

His tone became firm again.Bookmark here

“Your swordsmanship is sloppy, but it isn’t unpracticed. You know how to use one, and it’s at more than just an amateur level. I don’t know what you’ve been through in the past, but unlike you, I’m not one to assume.”Bookmark here

He picked the bamboo stick back up, and held it out in front of him in a downward position.Bookmark here

“Join the kendo club. Win this year’s championship in my place.”Bookmark here

“What!?”Bookmark here

“Once your leg is fully healed, you’re going to join, and you’re going to win all of the matches that I am now unable to. I will coach you if you need.”Bookmark here

Kendo? Me, join kendo?Bookmark here

As I looked at him entirely confused, I realized that he wasn’t just holding the kendo sword outward. He was trying to hand it to me.Bookmark here

Silence.Bookmark here

A throne room.Bookmark here

A demon king.Bookmark here

A crew of dead companions.Bookmark here

...Bookmark here

A bloody crutch.Bookmark here

I couldn’t.Bookmark here

I would not fight with a sword again.Bookmark here

“I won’t.”Bookmark here

My mother and father, my baby sister, and even my brother; Furukawa Sensei, too; I had people that I couldn’t afford to let down.Bookmark here

“There’s too much I have to lose to pick up a sword again. I won’t do it.”Bookmark here

“No, you will.”Bookmark here

“I said I won’t!”Bookmark here

“After you sent me to the hospital, Kentaro quit his club. Our parents haven’t found out yet, but it won’t be long until they do.”Bookmark here

He quit? Was it because of me?Bookmark here

“It was because of you. And when they find out, the physical pain I caused him will become trivial; they'll do far worse.”Bookmark here

“What’s your point in telling me this?”Bookmark here

“If you agree to join, I’ll protect him from my parents. They respect me. I’m sure you already saw a glimpse of that. And maybe Kentaro seeing you do Kendo will motivate him as well. But I will do nothing when they find out, should you choose not to join the club.”Bookmark here

“That’s blackmail! How can you-”Bookmark here

“It’s not blackmail. It’s the result of your actions for getting involved in something that does not concern you. And now I’m asking you to take responsibility for those actions. Or will you run away?”Bookmark here

Run away. Will I run away? Am I capable of running away? But if I don’t join the club, Kentaro will be punished for it. The Hajime brother was right after all; this was the result of my rash actions, which I didn’t think through before taking. It was the same as in Alterra.Bookmark here

His face was still badly bruised from where I had bashed it in, and his nose was a little crooked now. As he talked, I could catch glimpses of a missing tooth. I had done all of that. It was my fault.Bookmark here

All I’ve done since I came back to Japan is make mistakes.Bookmark here

“I can’t.”Bookmark here

“Even if Kentaro will suffer for it?”Bookmark here

“Even so.”Bookmark here

“Then I won’t press you further. I just hope you don’t come to regret that decision later on.”Bookmark here

He paused for a moment, then spoke again with a different inflection.Bookmark here

“My little brother has taken a liking to you. He wanted me to pass on his contact information, if you want to take it.”Bookmark here

Out of his pocket came a small, folded note. It was of lined paper.Bookmark here

I took it.Bookmark here

But did I have the right to contact him?Bookmark here

“I have a word of advice for you, Jiro Todoya.”Bookmark here

“I didn’t say you could use my name.”Bookmark here

“Be a little more selfish. It would serve you well.”Bookmark here

He tossed me the tagged key after unlocking the door leading back down to the classrooms, which I fumbled in my hands before dropping on the floor.Bookmark here

“I’m leaving. Lock up when you plan to do the same, and leave the key with somebody from the kendo club.”Bookmark here

“I- I will.”Bookmark here

After Hajime left, I was alone with a soft gust of wind, and the fall leaves that had ridden the updraft to join me.Bookmark here

Maybe I could try meditating.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.