Chapter 25:

My Friend Wants to Become Stronger.

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

3 AM. I've made it to school just in time. I had to run almost the whole way because when my phone alarm went off I snoozed it a couple times out of instinct and then when I finally woke up it was 2:30 and I had no time to do anything else but throw on my clothes and get my bag and run. Yeah, I skipped breakfast, and my stomach's already growling in protest, but I'd rather go hungry than face the wrath of Takeno-senpai.

I'm already out of breath as I reach the school. It's still dark out, and there's a light mist coming down, stinging my face with cool needles as I push forward. As the front gate comes into sight, I realize with a creeping feeling of dread that I forgot my umbrella. I was so focused on not being late that I just forgot to get it when I ran out the door. This is probably going to turn into rain later in the day, and if that happens I'll get soaked going home. I hope I didn't leave my math homework at home, too.

Oh, well. It's my fault for being lazy.

The gate is closed, the school behind it only visible as a blocky shadow in the darkness of the early morning. The leaves on the trees in the front courtyard are rustling gently in the wind- with no one else but me here, the sound is more eerie than pleasant.

I finally come to a stop at the gate, my hands on my hips, panting. I need a second to catch my breath.

"Good morning, Kouga." Still breathing heavily, I turn to my right. Takeno-senpai is nonchalantly leaning on the gate, his tall, muscular frame highlighted by the reflection of the streetlamps off the puddles that form in the crevices of this street every June.

I immediately jump to attention and attempt to get off the loudest "Good morning, Captain!" I can, but I only get halfway through before I have to take a deep breath. I wasn't fully recovered, damn it.

He takes a look down at his arm. "Right on time. I was starting to get a bit worried, but nice to see you kept your word." Then he looks at me with a piercing gaze, although not quite as stern as I'm used to. "Kouga, you need a second?"

I try to muster a nonchalant grin. "Nah, Senpai. I'm fine. Are we too early?"

Despite him giving me a specific time, and despite both of us being here at that exact time, the gate to the school is still closed and, presumably, locked- it looks like we're here before even the teachers. It doesn't matter how punctual we are if neither of us can actually get inside.

"It's fine. Mizoguchi-sensei gave me the keys," Takeno-senpai responds as he takes a dark shape out of his pocket with a jingle. After a few seconds of him messing with it, the gate creaks and lurches open when he pulls. "He said I could have them so long as I returned them to him once we're done."

Mizoguchi-sensei is allegedly our team's advisor, but I've never once seen him. I don't even know what he looks like.

"Isn't that a bit-" Before I can finish, Takeno-senpai cuts me off.

"Irresponsible? Yeah."

Exactly what I was thinking. If I was a teacher I wouldn't just trust schoolkids with my keys.

"That's just the way Mizoguchi-sensei is. I asked him to open up for us this morning and instead he flipped me the keys and said 'Just bring them back, okay?' He could at least act like an advisor sometimes," Takeno-senpai grumbles as we begin the long walk to the dojo in the gentle rain. "I'm not going to lose them, if that's what he thinks. I've got them on a strap in my bag."

For the record, Senpai, losing the keys is not the thing I'd be the most worried about if I was Mizoguchi-sensei. Who knows what high school boys will get up to with a set of faculty keys? Not like I would do anything like that, know. Just imagine.

Unlike the gate, the dojo doesn't have a lock on it because it's around forty years old and no one is going to try and steal old gi, ratty training equipment and discolored tatami mats that smell like decades worth of sweat and vomit. As the door slides open with a gentle swish, a switch clicks and a set of fluorescent lights flicker on with a hum.

I didn't even realize we had those in here. It's not like we get much time during practice to look up at the ceiling anyways. Usually after school we use natural light from the windows. I look up at them- they're an obvious later, haphazard addition- they're just dangling from the ceiling with wiring exposed. Isn't that a safety hazard? If one of those fell during practice and hit someone, the entire school staff would have to resign in disgrace.

Well, no use in worrying about them now- they've obviously held up for a while. Just please, Daikoku, if one of them's going to come falling down, have it be when no one's here. Or if it has to be when I'm here, please have it hit someone else and not me.

Just like every other practice session, I start to head toward the locker rooms to get changed, when I hear Takeno-senpai's voice behind me. "Kouga, just a second."

I stop and turn around. "What is it?"

"Kouga..." Takeno-senpai pauses for a second as he looks me over from top to bottom. "I need you to strip."

"Huh?! Hold on a second!" I really, really hope I misheard him.

His expression is dead serious. "You heard me. Strip."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! Hold on! This is way too sudden! Couldn't you have given me some time to prepare or something? I-I guess I'm kinda flattered, but I don't swing that way!"

"Kouga, what did I tell you about listening to me?!" Takeno-senpai growls and charges at me, and in a split second he's grabbing at my shirt trying to rip it loose. I try to fight back, but it's a losing battle. He's a lot bigger and stronger than me.

All I can do is cry like a little girl. "Noooooooo! Stop it!"

"Stop fighting, Kouga! I need to get your weight!"

The door to the dojo slides open as I'm still struggling to keep my clothes on and my dignity intact and I watch in horror as Tatsurou's blond head peeks through the doorway.

"Good morning, Captain! Aikawa reporting for duty-" His chipper voice stops as soon as he sees the two of us. "Oh. Sorry. Didn't mean to disturb you. I'll come back in 15 minutes."

What is he doing here? Someone tie me to a tree and shoot me already.

"Aikawa, it's not what it looks like!" Takeno-senpai's turning red.

"Tatsu, help!" It’s no use- he's already disappeared and shut the door.

As I predicted, I fought valiantly but I was no match for Takeno-senpai and now I'm standing on the club's rickety old scale in nothing but my underwear, like I'm back in elementary school during physical day.

"57 kg..." Takeno-senpai mutters. "Wow, that's low.”

I should be insulted by that but I'm too busy trying to cover my skinny frame up and regain whatever dignity I had left for it to actually register as an insult. I already know I'm a lightweight- you don't need to remind me of it. I'm as pale as a fish, too. Takeno-senpai has a decent tan going, but the tops of my arms and my legs and my chest are so white I look like a NEET who stays inside and plays video games all day even though I'm not one.

Takeno-senpai circles me, staring at me. This must be what a gazelle feels like before it gets eaten by a lion.

Finally, he stops. "Kouga," he sighs, "You're not eating enough, are you?"

"Define 'enough'."

I admit, I have gotten used to eating only two meals a day, and today I did skip breakfast, but that was because I was rushed. And if your mother's food was usually full of glitter or if it was unnatural, radioactive colors, you'd start avoiding dinner, too! Am I wrong? No? I didn't think so.

"Did you have breakfast this morning?" he asks, staring intently at me.

Crap, he just called me out.

"Uhhh...No? It's fine though..." I try to play it off as casually as possible, but a stomach growl as loud as a small jet airplane taking off instantly betrays me.

"I knew it," he sighs. "No wonder you're always lagging behind or getting exhausted quickly. This is a very demanding sport- you need to be able to recover. You're not going to be able to build any strength up if you don't have the right nutrition- especially in the tournaments, since there are no weight classes, you're going to be at a big disadvantage against guys who are my size or larger. I'm not sure how much you can put on in this short amount of time, but for now you need to focus on eating as much as you possibly can. I don't mean junk food, though. I'll draw you up a meal plan sometime."

I jump off the scale and put my clothes back on as quickly as I can. "Can we start now, Captain?" I’m trying to play it cool, but my cheeks are still red from embarrassment.

"Nope," he says quickly. "Before we do anything, we need to get something in your stomach. I don't want you passing out."

He's conveniently forgetting about the time he nearly knocked me out with a kick, but I guess that one’s in the past.

"Where? The cafeteria is closed. It's 3 in the morning."

"There's a convenience store down the street. We can jog to it- that'll help warm us up."

"Fine, but if I eat right before I start practicing I might throw up..."

"You wouldn't be the first one."

I grimace. The smell of the dojo, sour and musty at the same time, can attest to that, unfortunately.

"Anyways, come with me. Captain's orders," Takeno-senpai says, throwing open the front door. After all that effort I took to make it to school on time...we're leaving again.

As we step outside, the mist has stopped, but it's still chilly. I can make out a shadow approaching in the distance, then Tatsurou comes bouncing toward us, humming with his hands in his pockets, then stops when he sees us. "Good morning, Captain!" he calls, and bows. "And you, Haru."

"Aikawa..." Takeno-senpai mutters. "I didn't get the chance to ask you. What are you doing here? I only told Kouga about this extra training."

"Heh...I kinda overheard you..." Tatsurou grins like a cat.

"Overheard? Aikawa, you had better explain yourself."

"How do I put it? Uhh, I left practice...but from outside I heard someone yelling so I was curious and I couldn't help myself...sorry, Captain..." He looks right at me and smirks.

My last shred of confidence has just left my body. He was listening to Takeno-senpai yell at me, and he obviously heard my cringeworthy little "speech" too, if that expression's any indication.

Takeno-senpai lets out a long sigh. "I'd prefer that the conversation had stayed between Kouga and myself, but if it was loud enough you could hear it outside, that was on me."

Loud enough, my ass! He was obviously eavesdropping!

Or wait, maybe he wasn't. Maybe we really were screaming at each other so loud that the entire school could hear. Man, I'm an idiot. We're both idiots.

"Anyways, I want to fight in the prefectural, too, so I thought I would show up," Tatsurou says with a grin.

The captain gives him a concerned look. "Aikawa, I appreciate your enthusiasm, and you're certainly welcome to join us for extra training, but I'm not going to let you compete, and I wasn't even if we had the full amount of time to prepare. You're very talented for someone who recently picked karate up, but you're still ikkyuu."

"How come?" Tatsu asks, a hint of frustration in his voice. "Haru's a shodan and I've sparred with him before! Nagase, too!"

I'm a shodan, the first rank of black belt. It basically means that you're competent enough at whatever martial art you're in to be able to spar and fight in competitions on your own without embarrassing yourself or hurting someone. In our case, you have to be doing karate for a year before the Association will even consider you eligible to take the exam to become one. It took me four because back in middle school my sensei wouldn't even consider recommending me for the exam my first and second years, and his word was law so I had to just bear it, and the third year they didn't pass me. It still bothers me a bit because some kids I trained with managed to get shodan after just a year and a half, so there are (or were) a few first-years my age in the club who are nidan, but most of us on the team (not like there are that many anymore, though) are shodan like me.

Takeno-senpai is a sandan, the third rank, which is pretty impressive considering that you have to be 18 before you can take the exam to get it. He must have gotten it on the first try- I'm not sure how recently he turned 18. Might have been pretty recently- I don't keep track of birthdays. Tatsurou is the opposite- because he's only been doing it for about eight months, give or take, he's an ikkyuu, or brown belt. That basically means he's almost ready for the exam, but needs a few more months to fully prepare and master the basics. Local dojos themselves can hand out the color belts to karateka whenever they feel they're ready, but I didn't know a school club could do it in their place- until Tatsu and I joined the team in April and they gave him his brown belt a couple days later.

"I know how you feel," Takeno-senpai sighs, "but I just can't let you do it. I can't justify putting you in there against guys with years of experience and getting you hurt when you still have two more chances to fight in the tournament in the future."

"Senpai," Tatsu replies, "Don't you need all the help in the tournament you can get, know...Isn't it a team competition too?"

Don't remind Takeno-senpai of that. The last thing I'd want to do is provoke him by mentioning almost the entire team walked out on him, especially since I think he seems a bit on edge. He's gonna go harder on us. I would if I was him and some annoying freshman said that.

"You're right, but that still doesn't justify the risk of entering you," Takeno-senpai says.

"You're letting Haru fight and I've scored points off him before!" Tatsurou cries. "I can't enter the prefectural tournament because I'm an ikkyuu, but you're entering someone who lost points to one?" He smirks a bit.

"Tatsu, shut up!" I can feel my cheeks start to redden. "It was just practice, and it was two half points one time, not a full point!"

"Both of you, calm down," Takeno-senpai says with a stern, authoritative voice. "Aikawa, apologize."

"Haha, sorry, Haru, I was only joking." Tatsu waves his hand. I just look away for a second. I shouldn't have gotten mad at him- I've known him long enough to know he was just playing, but he has a thing for pushing my buttons in just the right way.

Besides, it was just sparring in practice! We've both been here about three months and we don't spar every day and he got the better of me only once. And like I said, it was two half points- I wasn't knocked down. Obviously, in training, there's gonna be better days than others- just because I lost to a newbie once in practice doesn't mean I suck!

Then again, with my win-loss record in tournaments, maybe I do...Ugh.

"Aikawa, be honest with me," the captain says as he turns to Tatsu, "You've got two more chances to enter the tournament, so why are you so dead-set on right now?"

In the dim light of the early morning, I can see the contours of Tatsurou's face as he turns to look off in the distance. A gust of wind comes by and ruffles his long, bleached hair.

"Because karate's super fun," he says as he stares off into the black sky wistfully.

That's such a Tatsu answer. Here I was expecting he'd say something deep and meaningful like how much he respects his senpai and wants to see their high school careers off with a victory, but he gave an answer like a little kid would.

But as simplistic and idiotic as that statement is- it nips at me a little bit. Karate is fun to him, but it's work to me. Takeno-senpai said the same thing. If I treat it like I'm just doing my job, I won't get any better. Despite the fact that I've been doing it way longer than Tatsu has, even with his childish mindset he's improving quickly and I've been stuck in a rut forever. Whenever I see Ayame, too, no matter what she's doing she always looks like she's enjoying it. Same thing with my parents.

Is that the secret to getting better at something? Enjoy it? It's such stupid, simplistic self-help advice, I can't believe it's the whole truth, but if I really want to improve, I should at least give it a shot. It's not like anything else has worked so far.

Is karate fun for Takeno-senpai? He's so stern all the time, but he wouldn't work this hard and he wouldn't have chewed me out so much yesterday if he didn't really love the sport and wanted to be the best and he wanted all of us to be the best too. He wouldn't have apologized to all of us and promised to be better if he didn't want us to keep going and love it as much as him.

...Is there really that much difference between Takeno-senpai's love of karate and Ayame's love of otaku stuff?

Yes, there is. There absolutely is a difference. I'm ashamed of even comparing those. You can make a living off being good at karate. You can't make a living posting on Tw*tter about the characters in one of those light novels. Forget I said that. Moving on.

"Captain," I say hesitantly, "I think you should let Tatsurou compete. He really wants to."

Takeno-senpai looks at me for a second with a quizzical expression and then he finally relaxes. "I'll think about it and let you know at the end of the training sessions," he says, turning to Tatsu. "No promises, though."

Tatsurou grins. "All right!" he says, pumping his fist. "I won't let you down!"

You're kinda jumping the gun there...all Takeno-senpai said was that he'd think about it. You're acting like you already made it to the tournament.

"Anyways," Takeno-senpai says abruptly, "Let's go. We've wasted enough time already."

"Ooh, where are you going?" Tatsu says.

"Getting Kouga breakfast at Lowson."

"Can I come?"

"I don't see why not."

The early morning air is still crisp and chilly as we start on the short walk to the convenience store- it's the complete opposite way from my home, so I didn't know it was so close. Since I never have much of a reason to head this way in the first place, I never realized.

As Takeno-senpai leads, Tatsu, walking beside me, gently elbows me in the ribs. "Sorry I walked in on you lovebirds earlier," he says with a grin. "I didn't realize Takeno-senpai was your type."

"Why don't you shut up and die?"

"You're the worst,'s why no one likes you. Except for Takeno-senpai. Love knows no bounds and all that." He giggles. "Sorry, I was joking," he says quickly as I shoot him a death glare.

The guy behind the counter of the convenience store doesn't even bother to look up as we enter- apparently high schoolers in a konbini at 3:30 AM isn't an interesting enough sight to be worth caring about. The only other person in there is some middle-aged man in a rumpled suit- poor guy must be buying a few energy drinks to help him through his all-nighter. I browse over the shelves as we go past. I need something filling, but not something so heavy it's gonna come right back up. The bento boxes are out of the question, so are the pork buns and chicken, I don't have time for a fish filet or instant noodles- oh, onigiri shelf, there we go. Salmon ones…those are good. They go down easily and they're bland enough that it won't upset my stomach (I hope), but two of them will fill you up.

Takeno-senpai's gone for the same thing as me, but I think his are umeboshi. Tatsurou has not. He's got a Western-style breakfast sandwich that's as big as his arm. Doesn't seem like a smart decision to me. He's going to be puking like Angel Falls once we get going.

As we get into the line, Takeno-senpai gestures. "Give them to me, I'll pay for them."

"Wait a minute! You shouldn't-" Before I can say anything else, he stops me with a glance, and just like that, I've just gotten my breakfast on my captain's dime.

As we get outside, I reach out my hand to get my breakfast, but Takeno-senpai doesn't give it to me. I give him a bit of a curious stare. He didn't just pay for my food and then forget he did, right? Surely not.

"Captain, can I get my onigiri?"

He picks it out of the bag, but instead of giving it to me he grabs it in his hand and starts walking. "Nope. You gotta take it from me."

Sigh. In the back of my mind, I knew he wasn't just paying for my breakfast out of the goodness of his heart, but I still let him do it.

I let out a long breath. "Fine. If you want to be stubborn like that..."

I lunge off my back foot toward his side in the exact same motion as the lunge punch. I actually got a really good jump. I'm impressed. If I was going for a throw, he'd have no chance to move. The rice ball is right there, in his hand. It's so close I can taste it. I reach out to pull it away...and grab nothing but air.

I'm so stunned I missed that I just stand there for a second until I see my breakfast in his other hand and he's gotten a few more steps down the street.

Tatsurou, in front of me, looks just as confused as I am.

"Tatsu, I'll hit him from this side!" I bark, shouting orders like a platoon commander. "Go knock it out of his hand if he shifts it!"

"Roger!" We both take off toward the captain.

I'm smoldering with frustration. I genuinely thought Takeno-senpai was doing something nice, but he was just testing us, apparently. Both of us go for the onigiri and the sandwich in his hands, and we miss, and we miss, and we keep missing until we're back on the school grounds. We're both panting and Takeno-senpai is walking toward the dojo, unfazed. We couldn't even touch him.

He's almost to the front door. One last chance before he presumably eats our breakfast.

I look at Tatsu. He looks back at me. There's nothing that needs to be said- we both know we have to go all-out. I tense and get ready for one last jump-

"Good morning, Captain!" A sharp voice comes from my right. I stop and turn to see four students, led by a boy with glasses and a bowl cut, bowing.

Takeno-senpai stops as well. "Everyone..." he mutters with a surprised expression.

It's at that second that Tatsurou darts out, grabs my rice ball from Takeno-senpai's hand...and opens it up with a pleased look.

"Tatsu, you asshole, that's MINE!"

All he gives me back in response is a smug grin. My breakfast is heading toward his mouth...

As soon as Takeno-senpai hears that, he realizes that what he's holding in his hand is missing, sees that I don't have my breakfast and Tatsurou is about to eat it, and he shoots my friend a glare that can melt steel.

Tatsurou sheepishly hands me my onigiri, so it's my turn to smirk. "I was messing with you," he says with a sheepish look under Takeno-senpai's stern gaze.

"Did you realize how long it took us to get back?" Takeno-senpai asks, and Tatsurou opens his mouth to say something, but the captain cuts him off with his hand. "I mean this for Kouga, not you, Aikawa."

Tatsu looks off indignantly.

I wish I could just immediately say the answer, but I was so caught up trying to get my food away from Takeno-senpai that I wasn't keeping count. "No, why?"

"It was two minutes exactly."

That's a one-point competition round. I feel really stupid for not keeping track...but I was focusing on my stomach, and can you really blame me for that?

Takeno-senpai pauses to let that digest, then continues. "If you can stay on your feet for that long...that's the first step to winning. That was an agility drill. Kouga, you're really good at doing your forms and kata by the book- but in an actual match you have to throw all that out the window. Especially when it comes to someone at a size disadvantage, you need to be light on your feet and always keep your opponent guessing- that's why I was moving, so you would come at me from different angles. As for you, Aikawa, you're really good at reacting, but sometimes you're uncoordinated. I wanted to keep you moving and upright to work on your balance, cause if you get off-balance and your opponent notices, that's going to be the first thing he'll try and take advantage of. You also tend to wait and let your opponent come to you, so I wanted to force you to be the aggressor."

I'm honestly shocked. He realized all this about us with only a few months of practice and sparring to go off of? I thought that whenever he paced around the dojo he was looking down on us for not being as perfect as him...but maybe he was watching us the whole time.

"Captain, why didn't you wait until we actually started practice to do this?" Tatsu pipes up.

"Because I wanted to try a new drill out and it works better when you're motivated. The kids in the 10-and-under class at my family's dojo really like it when I do it with candy," the captain replies.

"So we were your guinea pigs all along?"

"Yeah. In a good way, I mean," Takeno-senpai says quickly as he notices both of our blank stares.

I give him a side-eye as I take a bite out of the onigiri. After having nothing to eat for's delicious. It's the best-tasting thing I've ever had.

He turns to the four that just arrived. "Nagase...what are you doing here?"

The boy with the glasses and bowl cut- Takashi Nagase, who's in 1-6, I now remember- responds, "We heard you were holding early morning training- we're going to do it too! We want to make the prefectural also!" The rest of the boys behind him give grunts of approval.


"YES!" all of them shout in unison.

A slight smile crosses Takeno-senpai's lips. "I guess I have no choice, then, but I'll warn you- I'm not going easy on you. Prepare yourselves."

Pope Evaristus
Steward McOy