Chapter 22:

My Classmate is Sticking Up For Me, When I Need it Most.

My Dad is an Otaku, My Mom is a Fujoshi, and I Wish I Was Dead

The desk in the principal's office feels like it's ten feet tall and as far away as Mount Fuji, and the atmosphere in the dark, gloomy room is so oppressive that I feel like I'm being crushed by a thousand anvils.

"I assume you'll take responsibility for this, Takeno-kun?" The vice-principal's words cut like a knife as he says them. It's not the content of the words that hurt the most, although I know what they mean all too well. It's knowing I've failed that's the most painful.

"Yes. I excuse.” My head is held so low in a seiza bow that my forehead is starting to go numb. "I sincerely apologize for my irresponsible actions."

I thought that when I became captain of the karate team, I could use my position to turn people's lives around. I'd seen my father and grandfather do it many times at the dojo I was born and raised in. Punks come off the street and want a fight, or a troublemaking kid's parents drop him off there, and my dad humbles them. They come back and demand another fight, and he beats them again, and so on, and so on, and he's harsh, but through his strict discipline unruly boys who are causing trouble turn into principled young men. That's the same way my brother and I were raised. He didn't make exceptions for even his beloved children- no, he was so strict to us because we were his beloved children. My father never wanted us to become arrogant or cruel because of who we were- that's not what martial arts is about. It's not a way for the strong to oppress the weak- it's a way for the strong to discipline themselves, and the weak to become strong.

The senpai who entrusted the team to me thought so, too. They took responsibility for delinquents because they thought they could make them better men, and they chose me to finish what they had started, because they trusted me, and I betrayed that trust. The delinquents hadn't changed- they just pretended to when they were in front of me, and when I wasn't looking, they bullied the students who joined because they sincerely wanted to learn respect and strength, and I let it happen.

How can I face the senpai who believed in me after failing? No, how can I face my father and my grandfather when they find out what I've done? If it was them in charge of the club and not me, they could have saved the delinquents. I couldn't. I'm not worthy to even bear their name. I just turned eighteen, and my brother had already rehabilitated a problem student by that age.

I'm worthless. I thought I was doing the right thing by using my father's tough love, but it was pointless.

"Now, Takeno-kun, you are a very accomplished athlete, and I'd hate to see you fail to reach your college goals when you've gotten so far because of this incident, so if you voluntarily un-enroll from this school, we can write you a recommendation to a good school like Kawara, and say that you were injured and needed to focus on your studies," the vice-principal says, in a nasal and phlegmy voice.

"I understand. Thank you for your kindness, Vice-Principal Fukuda." It's not kindness at all, but I don't deserve kindness.

"Hold on just a second." A sharp female voice cuts through the silence that follows. "You're going to expel Takeno-san? That's going too far."

"Don't misunderstand, Suzuran-kun, it's a voluntary resignment-"

"You can call it whatever you like, we all know what you mean," the girl snaps. "It's not voluntary at all. You're trying to expel him."

"Suzuran-kun, we feel this is appropriate for the situation at hand," replies the phlegmy whine.

"Appropriate?" the girl responds. "Like turning a blind eye to bullying until it got out of hand? Was that appropriate, too? Oh, I see what you're doing. You're going to blame one student for the entire incident and kick him out, then pat yourself on the back for doing a good job instead of actually doing anything to fix the problem like you should have. Raise your head, Takeno- you don't need to grovel for this."

Was it okay for her to say that? Regardless, I look up anyways. The student council president is sitting in the chair next to the one that I was formerly in before I bowed to the ground. Normally, she's an easygoing person, but right now her eyes and expression are steely as she stares daggers in the direction of the principal's desk. She's even wearing her full blazer and tie- which is already odd, since it’s past June 13, but it’s even odder for her, since she never wears the winter uniform to begin with. Her long, dyed hair looks like it's burning in the dim light of the principal's office. To her left, sitting underneath the portrait of a tall foreigner with a full beard, Mitsuo Yura, the head of the Public Morals Committee, is nervously scratching at his lip with the arm that his yellow armband is around. He looks as enthusiastic to be here as any of us- not very. The painting of the foreigner casts a steely glare across the room, as if he is preparing to execute us mortals who dared to disturb the peace of his sanctum. It makes an already oppressive atmosphere unbearable.

The principal sits behind the grand wooden desk, his white hair framing a stern face as he stares Suzuran down. It feels like neither of them wants to break their gazes because the first one to do so would lose. Behind the desk, the vice principal, a portly, balding toad of a man, is standing, nervously sweating.

"Suzuran-kun, you may be the student council president, but that is not the tone of voice to use here," the vice president says. "You are already on a short leash."

"I am, huh?"

"We felt that this was most appropriate, because as the team captain of the involved assailants, he bears responsibility for their actions. In fact, he most likely was the instigator of this regrettable confrontation. A young girl, most likely related to the first-year that was involved, was seen attacking Takeno-kun about thirty minutes after the time when the fight was witnessed. According to multiple witnesses, she yelled at him about being involved, which only lends credence-"

"Oh, really?" Suzuran gives a half-laugh and smiles, but there's no warmth. "That's interesting, Vice Principal Fukuda. You see, we interviewed two witnesses- one was from the middle school and passing by, and one was a second-year here- and we interviewed the first-year who was on the other side of the fight. Guess what they all agreed on? There wasn't anyone matching Takeno-san's description there. When we asked the first-year who was involved about having a younger sister who went after Takeno-san, he said that he had only one younger sister, and she didn't match that description. Funnily enough, the middle schooler who witnessed the scene was that very same sister, and she said the same thing separately- that she's the youngest in their family and they don't have another sister younger than her. Do you think secondhand witness accounts of an angry little girl that no one seems to be able to find are better proof than details of the fight itself from people who were actually involved? Surely you don't, right?"

"Even if he was not directly involved in the act itself, that does not exclude his being the planner or ringleader of the bullying, Suzuran-kun-"

"Oh, yeah, about that," she replies, playing with her hair. "You see, we also interviewed the members of the karate team who were involved in the fight as well. All five of them, individually. You know what they all said? Takeno-san was not involved in any way, shape, or form. In fact, several of them insulted him as being an overbearing goody-two-shoes. You couldn't possibly be suggesting you decided to punish him without even doing your due diligence and investigating, could you, Vice Principal?"

"Intent and involvement is not the issue here!" Vice Principal Fukuda snaps, his jowls shaking with every word spat. "As their team captain, just the fact that he did not eject the offending students from the karate team for delinquency before this incident means that the blame lies with him!"

"Are we really going to go down this path, Vice Principal? If that's true, why did you not expel the previous captains of the karate team? After all, they accepted those students in the first place. Go back and strip their diplomas. You know, you and Principal Kashiwagi are the administrators of every student in this school, so by your own logic that means both of you should resign for accepting those delinquents in the first place."

"Suzuran-kun, you are being absurd!" the vice principal spits. He's starting to get red in the face, which makes his head look like an umeboshi. It shouldn't be funny, but it kind of is.

"I believe I'm quite serious, Vice Principal Fukuda," Suzuran replies coldly. "What's absurd is you assuming intent based on the flimsiest scraps of evidence. Nothing that Yura-kun or Miki or myself have gathered suggested that Takeno-san had anything to do with the fight or the ongoing problems of bullying within the team- in fact, all of the interviewed team members said explicitly that they would only act out when out of his sight because they knew that Takeno-san would punish them if he found out."

It's true, but I still feel like it's my fault for being so blind to allow the bullying to happen in the first place. I should have seen the warnings that the senpai were mistreating the first-years and I just let it fester, thinking naively that the older students were becoming better people because of my leadership. Instead, they were snickering when my back was turned about what a fool I was.

"In fact," she continues, "if we're going to assume someone's intent and character based on just looking at them, then I'll give my two cents. There is no way that Takeno-san could have been the ringleader of organized bullying for over a year. Takeno-san, you're in 3-6 right?" She turns to me.

"Yes, that is my class.”

"I'm in 3-5 and one of my friends is in 3-6. I say hello to Takeno-san almost every day when I pass by. Since it is my responsibility and duty to the student body that elected me as student council president to help each and every one of them according to their needs, one of the things that I do each day is observe. These are the things I have observed about Takeno-san: he is serious, rarely participating in morning chatter, but he will be courteous and speak when spoken to. He is not afraid to speak his mind, but refrains from arguments. He has not scored less than fiftieth in his year on any exam from the time that we both entered high school. He is diligent and a hard worker- when called on or given cleaning duty, he won't give any less than his best effort. And while he does appear stern and humorless most of the time, I have caught him hiding his copy of Janp behind a textbook, so he does have a fun-loving side." For the first time, I catch the twitch of a genuine smile at the corner of her mouth.

I appreciate your help, Suzuran, but you really didn't need to say that last one.

"My point is, after observing him for three years, I have not observed anything that indicates that he could be cruel or sadistic or enjoy bullying those weaker than him. Yura-kun, you're in Class 3-6 as well, aren't you?" Suzuran continues.

"Correct," Yura replies nervously, sitting up. It appears being called on was the last thing he wanted to happen to him today. "Takeno-kun is very disciplined and straightforward, which is what shocked me when I heard the news- I don't believe he could be capable of masterminding a system of bullying without anyone catching on. While I wouldn't say we're friends-" he grimaces- "I think he makes a positive contribution to this school. I agree with Suzuran- none of the evidence we've collected leads me to believe Takeno-kun had any involvement with or knowledge of his team members' actions."

For the first time, Principal Kashiwagi opens his own wizened mouth. "Suzuran-kun, Yura-kun- I understand. However, this decision is final."

"It is? Well, I guess that leaves me no choice...I really didn't want to have to do this," she sighs and pulls a phone out of her pocket, turning it on. "Principal, Vice Principal, do you recognize this footage?"

I get the briefest of glimpses of it. A figure in a dress staggers backwards and falls in the middle of five or six shadows wearing Shinchoushi’s distinctive uniform.

"This was recorded by the second-year student that passed by and observed it. It's a little shaky-" Suzuran pauses to twirl her hair a bit- "but I think it serves its purpose well enough. Imagine what kind of scandal this would cause if it got out on the net? Those are clearly Shinchoushi uniforms. Five older students beat a first-year to unconsciousness- and the first-year is a girl, at that."

"SUZURAN!" Vice Principal Fukuda roars, or he would have if his voice was not so nasal. "You know that is NOT what happened!"

"Rumors spread quickly on the internet...who's going to care about the difference?" Suzuran smirks. "And imagine if they find out that the students who committed this heinous assault were not expelled, but someone uninvolved was? In fact, if this gets out, it will probably end up being a big enough scandal that the entire administration will have to resign in disgrace..."

"Do you understand what you're saying, Suzuran?!" the vice principal screeches. "If this gets out, you'll have to resign as well!"

"Well-" Suzuran looks to the side- "I don't really care about having to drop out. I don't need a degree for my future. But you two-'' she returns to staring the principal dead in the eyes- "have banked your entire career on school administration. If you get caught up in this sort of scandal, well- you're not going to be finding a new job anytime soon."

There is silence for an uncomfortably long amount of time, and I can see the beads of sweat start to roll down the vice-principal's toad-like face.

Finally, after what seems like days, the principal speaks in his commanding baritone. "Suzuran-kun, cool your head. You're bluffing."

"You want to try me and find out?"

Why is she going so far for my sake?

"Rescind Takeno-san's expulsion and I'll delete this video right in front of you, right now."

There is another long silence. They're not backing down, but she's not, either. I have to do something.

And that something is beg.

"Principal Kashiwagi, please hear me out." I have to go back to the seiza and bow. "I have already taken action against the offending students by expelling them from the team, effective immediately. In addition, I will work directly with Yura-san and the rest of the Public Morals Committee for greater accountability and oversight within the karate team, and hopefully for the rest of the clubs on campus, eventually. I understand that I have made a serious lapse of judgment that's affected many- but if I am reinstated that will not happen again. Yura-san and Suzuran-san will make sure of that."

Once again, another long silence. The only thing I can hear is the blood pounding in my head.

Then, the principal's deep, booming voice cuts through the silence like a greatsword. "Raise your head, Takeno-kun. You are reinstated."

"What?!" the vice principal screeches. "You're going to let a student blackmail you?!"

"Silence, Fukuda!" Principal Kashiwagi roars, and the vice principal immediately obeys, looking like he's swallowed a cannonball.

"It's not the video that I'm concerned about." He clears his throat and continues. "I could care less about the video. Rather, it was Takeno-kun's reaction to the situation. He did not try to blame others- instead, he took responsibility for it himself. Instead of offering meaningless apologies, he gave a concrete plan on how he would make sure such a situation would not repeat itself. All of this has convinced me that the description of Takeno-kun's conduct and character, presented by you, Suzuran-kun, and by you, Yura-kun-" he switches his gaze to Yura- "are indeed accurate. Takeno-kun, you are reinstated both as a student and as the captain of the karate team, effective immediately." He takes out a piece of paper and stamps it. Behind him, the vice principal is turning red with rage.

"Well, I guess I'd better keep my end of the bargain," Suzuran says, and presses the delete button on the video.

"Much obliged," the principal responds, handing me the paper.

"Come on, Takeno-san, Yura-kun, let's get out of here," Suzuran smiles. Obediently, both of us get up. She didn't have to ask us- neither of us wanted to be in there for any longer than we had to be.

She gets to the door, then looks back, and says "Thank you for your help, Principal Kashiwagi, excuse us. Oh, and I almost forgot! Go to hell, Vice Principal!" She sticks out her tongue like a little kid before leaving.

We're out the front door to the school, but I swear I can hear a high-pitched scream of rage from behind us. I’m probably just imagining things. It’s been a long day.

As we're outside, the sun is low in the sky, and the campus is deserted. It must be nearly seven. They really did keep us that long to read me the riot act. Yura quickly says his goodbyes and hops on his bicycle to pedal home. It's just me and Suzuran-san now.

The setting sun is catching her hair, turning it the color of brilliant, smelted copper. She really is beautiful in profile. She's not only good-looking, but she's friendly and will go out of her way to help anyone- even someone like me, who doesn't deserve it. No wonder she won the elections last year with 98% of the vote.

Compared to her, I'm a nobody. I can't help anyone, no matter how hard I try. She can do it as easily as she breathes.

"Whew!" she exclaims, stretching her hands over her head. "I'm so glad we're outside! I felt like I was gonna puke from all that stuffiness!” Then she sighs. “It’s not fair we had to wear winter uniforms. It’s already June.” She immediately rips her blazer and tie off, returning to the Suzuran outfit we all know and love.

"Suzuran-san-" I begin.

"No more of that formal stuff." She cuts me off. "I'm Reika, you're Shunsuke. Do people ever call you Shun at all or some other kind of nickname?"

"I can't say they ever have."

“I hate that painting of Tsar Nicky in the office! That’s why I never try to go in there except if I have to.”

“Tsar Nicky? Who?”

“Nicholas II, the last Tsar of all the Russias. That came over from when the middle school was the Russian Imperial School Abroad and it merged with Shinchoushi. That’s also why the middle schoolers have such different uniforms. At least that’s what they tell freshmen on orientation day. That also has something to do with why we change uniforms on June 13, but I don’t exactly know why.”

“I don’t believe you. I don’t think there’s anything you don’t know, Suzuran-” Realizing that I had misstepped in my way of addressing her, I quickly cut myself off, but it’s too late and she frowns.

“I said call me Reika. Meanie.”

Desperate to turn the conversation to something different, I hastily ask "Did you really delete that video?"

"What?" She tilts her head. "Of course not! I'm not stupid. I have a backup on my laptop at home in case the Human Frog tries anything."

So I’m not the only one that thinks the vice principal looks amphibian.

"Suzur- I mean, Reika-san..." I choke out. "Why did you defend me?"

"Why...I guess it's my charm point?" She puts a finger on her chin and giggles.

"No...I mean, seriously..." My heart is starting to thump a rhythm in my chest- I don't know what to do when girls start acting cute like this. I've never had much experience with it. I barely interact with Suzuran- I mean, Reika-san in the first place and she's acting like we're friends.

"I was being serious, you know." Did I make her mad? She's kinda pouting. "I don't like it when people get blamed for something they didn't do."

" was my fault, really. If I had realized..."

"Stop that. I hate it when guys do that stupid thing where they blame themselves for not preventing something they couldn't possibly have changed. Or even known about or seen in the first place. There were five of the bullies and one Shun-"

She's giving me a nickname now?!

"-and you can't be in five places at once, can you? They were smart, too! They knew to do it when you weren't looking."

"Isn't that a little too familiar, Suzura- I mean, Reika-san?"

"What are you talking about- Oops!" She puts a hand over her mouth. "I'll stick to Shunsuke-kun from now on. That okay?"

"Fine with me," I sigh. "It's still my fault that none of the first-years ever came to me and told me what was going on..."

"No it isn't. I said the bullies were smart. They knew you couldn't do anything unless you caught them in the act, and I'm sure they convinced some of the first-years that you were on their side."

She's doing everything to absolve me of guilt, but that's not possible. It is my problem. From the beginning to the end. Men of the Takeno family take responsibility for their actions.

"I...can't accept that. I can't forgive myself."

"If you can't, instead of dwelling on your mistakes, do something to change yourself so it won’t happen again. I think you're already halfway there." Suddenly, something in her bag buzzes. She takes her phone out of it. "Aw, crap! It's already 7:30! Fuu-chan is wondering where I'm at!" She suddenly makes a dash for the gate. "See you tomorrow, Shunsuke-kun!" she says, waving with a smile. Then she disappears past the gates, dashing off to the right.

I slowly make my way out of school grounds. It's silent at the moment- it's not yet time for the cicadas to fill the air with their cries of kana, kana, kana. The dull yellow street lights cast their reflection on the puddles that are still left on the street. The train station is two blocks to the left, but before I start that way, I take another look back at the school, a small handful of its windows still burning with light, the rest dark and lifeless.

Is she right? Do I deserve another chance?

If you can't forgive yourself, then change yourself.

That's exactly what I'll do. She defended me. It's the least I could do for her.

Pope Evaristus
Steward McOy