The school bell chimed, alerting all to the ending of the period and the start of lunch. As the teacher dismissed his students, they collectively broke into their social cliques and headed to wherever they gathered most often.
Some headed out to the halls, while others stayed at their desks to eat their lunches.
This would include Kōsuke and Akemi who pushed their desks together to share in their meals together. Something they had done whenever they were in the same class together since they were in elementary school together. And once again, by chance and frequent prayers by Akemi, they were in the same class this year as well.
“Come on, Kōsuke. It's your favorite spiced rice. I made extra just for you. Open and say ‘Aah~!’.”
“A-Akemi, do you have to feed me like this everyday? You do know I make my own lunch each day too, right?” Kōsuke muttered quietly adjusting his glasses, thus secretly skirting further away from the bento bowl of handmade rice pressing into his face, “Plus, people are watching, and it's getting embarrassing, OK?”
“Oh, just ignore them and eat up! Now say ‘Aah~!’.”
Akemi plucked up some rice with her chopstick, offering it before the blushing boy’s lips.
Quivering with great trepidation, the boy nervously relented and opened his mouth, doing just what his friend asked of him.
But right as the rice passed the threshold of his lips-
“Man, you guys' lunchtime ritual is weird.”
Another boy’s voice spoke up, causing the two of them to recoil back, trying their best to hide their blushing faces from the world.
While her heart was still racing, Akemi clenched her teeth and glared daggers at the one who had ruined this temporary moment of bliss for her.
Sitting on the top of the desk as if it was a chair was a tall, male classmate of hers with short cropped hair. He stared at them with a brow raised in confusion, munching on a soba bun he had bought at a konbini before sneaking into class late.
“Do you two have to do this each day?”
“Shut it, Natsumi!” Akemi roared as fire burned behind her eyes, “No one asked for your opinion.”
The boy did not react to Akemi’s fiery words. Instead, he took another bite of his bun prior to speaking again, “Just saying, it's odd. Like you guys forget that I am sitting here too or something.”
“TCH. I wish you weren’t sitting with us,” Akemi scoffed, turning a cold shoulder to the boy, “I only let you because you are friends with Kōsuke. That’s all.”
“Please, Akemi,” Kōsuke pleaded with his childhood friend, “Be nicer to Taiga. He hasn’t done anything mean to you.”
Akemi cut her view between her childhood friend beside her and the fool still chewing his meal loudly as ever, hunching her shoulders in defeat.
“Alright,” she pouted, “but only because you asked and no other reason.”
With a final gulp, Taiga Natsumi swallowed his lunch and smiled wide, “Great! That works with me!”
Akemi rolled her eyes, while Kōsuke chuckled silently at the sight of them trying to get along.
“So anyway,” Taiga chimed up loudly as he jumped off his desk and landed with his arms crossed under his head resting on Kōsuke’s desk, “You figure out which club you’re going to join yet?”
“Ugh…” Akemi grumbled, as she pulled out the sign-up flier that was handed out to all incoming freshmen that morning, “They are really pushing clubs hard this early in high school, huh? I mean, classes just started last week. Can’t they give us time to get our bearings first?”
“I know, right?,” Kōsuke added, glancing over at the paper in her hands, “But I don’t think I will have time for a club.”
“Are you doing as bad with your studies as me?” Taiga asked curiously, “We can study together if you want?”
“You will both fail if you do that,” Akemi snarky said under her breath, but the two boys ignored her jab.
“Nah, it's my new part-time job that’s keeping me busy,” Kōsuke sighed as he popped a fried karaage ball in his mouth, chewing while he continued to explain, “I got hired by the bowling alley we went to the other day.”
“Huh?” Akemi and Taiga asked in unison as they looked up confused at their mutual friend as if he had admitted to some bizarre habit like it was nothing.
“You applied for a part-time job at the bowling alley?”
“Why is this the first time I am hearing about this?”
Taiga asked his question with vague interest, whilst Akemi worded hers in more of a demand than a question.
“Not exactly applied,” Kōsuke grumbled and closed his eyelids as if he was about to cry, “The staff saw me as I was trying to help out that guy on how to bowl better. The owner then offered me a position helping younger kids learn how to bowl on the weekends, and he was not taking no as an answer. So that takes all of my time to study on the weekends.”
“Sounds… rough?” Taiga did his best to console his buddy by patting his shoulder, but was still vastly confused as to why his job was causing him to squirm the way he was.
“I thought you enjoy helping others bowl better?”
“I do, but,” he tilted his head to the side while crossing his arms across his chest, trying his best to pick his words carefully, “I seem to only be able to do it when it's natural. Like talking to people on the lane next to me. Having kids look up to me from the start, I have no idea what to say and just sit there struggling to explain something I know so well. It’s so stressful.”
“So, it's something you didn’t pick for yourself, huh?” Taiga asked, looking up at the ceiling as if he was able to connect invisible dots up there, “You can’t quite get into the mindset to do good if you aren’t feeling it?”
“Uh, yeah,” Kōsuke chuckled, rubbing the back of his head, “That’s an odd way of putting it, but I guess that covers how I am feeling about it. But what about you, Taiga? You are going to join the baseball team, right?”
“I mean, I haven’t thought about it much yet…” As he answered, Taiga’s eyes began to glance to the side, while his tone got less bombastic than its normal pitch.
“Natsumi, you play baseball?”
“Oh, yeah, you should have seen him in middle school,” Kōsuke answered before his friend even got a chance to speak up, “It kinda runs in his family, his older brothers played when they were in high school too.”
“Well, I guess that’s one of us figured out.”
“You're still looking at your options too, Akemi?”
“Yeah, I-” Akemi started to answer when the sliding door at the front of the classroom popped open suddenly, causing the few remaining students inside to turn to see who had entered.
Entering the room was a boy slightly taller than most in the room with longer dyed blonde hair, but neither Kōsuke nor any of his friends recognized the stranger. He glanced around as if searching for someone, but once his vision locked on Kōsuke, he smiled wide and walked with great haste right to his side.
The new boy stood above Kōsuke with a wide grin on his lips as his eyes studied all the bespectacled boy who was nervously adjusting his glasses. His friends sat beside him, wondering what was going on. At the same time, Akemi was sizing up this strange boy just in case.
But ahead of them asking the guy what he wanted, he spoke up suddenly.
“Yup, I am sure you are him.”
“Uh, excuse me?” Kōsuke nervously wondered what that could mean.
“Oh, sorry where are my manners,” the boy shook his head in self disgust before continuing again, “I am Isao Ishinabe in class 3-2. You are Kōsuke Kiyota, right?”
“Uh, yes, I-” Kōsuke tried to answer his upperclassman, but was cut short by Isao suddenly bowing in front of him, catching everyone in the classroom off guard. Whispered words swirled around his back as they gossiped over what might be happening.
“Thank you for taking care of my little sister. She greatly appreciates all you have done for her.”
Gasps flew wildly as people tried to understand what he had said.
“What does he mean, ‘little sister’?” Akemi roared while grabbing Kōsuke by his collar and shaking him violently, demanding answers.
“Kōsuke, you got a girlfriend?” Taiga asked, stunned from the revelation that it was possible for him to have a girlfriend.
“Ishinabe?” Kōsuke questioned back as he thought deeply during the time he was being throttled by Akemi, “Oh, I know now! Kiyoko is your little sister?”
“Yes,” Isao rose back up again, irises shining with joy, “She has really enjoyed spending so much time with you.”
“Ah, yes, and she is getting better each time,” Kōsuke laughed in reply, “Once she gets some more strength in her hands she will be better able to handle any and all balls. I mean, she is already showing signs of being a great stroker.”
“Don’t just admit to it in front of me so casually,” Akemi quickened her strangulation of her childhood friend while tears began to stream down her eyes.
“Oh, so his little sister is one of the kids you have been coaching at the bowling alley?” Taiga interjected suddenly.
“Huh?” Akemi instantly halted her execution of Kōsuke, trying to understand how he had understood that from what they had said.
“Yes, what were you guys thinking we were talking about in the first place?” He asked, trying to realign his neck bones.
“Huh?” Akemi repeated while everyone was casting looks of concern on her, “Uh, nothing, never mind…” Silently, she returned to her seat and tried disappearing from the world for the time being.
“Anyway,” Isao tried to get everything back on track, “I just wanted to thank you for coaching my sister again. But there is something I would like to ask you. Do you mind doing me a favor?
“Sure, anything for Kiyoko.” Kōsuke agreed with a warm smile.
“Good,” Isao grinned wide while brushing his hair back into place with one of his hands.
Then in a flash, Kōsuke found himself being hurried down the hallway backwards. Turning around as best he could in confusion, he found his collar clenched in Isao’s fist as he dragged him behind him as if he was just a sack of potatoes.
“Uh, Ishinabe? Senpai?” Kōsuke tried to reason with his captor, “where are we going?”
“Teacher’s office.” Isao answered, nonchalantly, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“You know the school rules,” Isao’s voice ran cold to Kōsuke, “No part-time jobs. This means expulsion.”
“Huh? Seriously,” Kōsuke began to fight against Isao now vigorously, but the difference in strength between the two was far too immense for him to anything but flop around in the other’s grasp.
“You aren’t trying to get him in trouble for something as trivial as that, are you?”
Kōsuke's friends came running out of the classroom shortly after they realized the two boys were gone in a blink of an eye. They hurried to the side of their friend. As Akemi tried to pull Kōsuke to freedom, she only got dragged along as well.
As they were unable to help, they found themselves helpless as Isao opened the sliding door leading to the teacher’s office and passed through unabated and shut it behind him. All they could do was stand in the doorway, looking through the glass in the door.
Kōsuke jolted to an abrupt halt and was then flung around in a circle. Expecting to be face to face with Isao, he braced for impact, whether physically or emotionally. As nothing happened to him, he slowly winced his sight forward, wondering what had happened.
As light began to fill his vision, a face slowly came into focus before him. It was of an older female teacher turned sideways in her rolling chair at her desk, with her eyes cut into an apathetic glower aimed at Kōsuke. It was not so much as if she was staring at him, but rather she was looking at some garbage dragged in front of her.
“Uh…” Kōsuke tried to speak up, to defend himself first, but was quietly silenced by the woman’s sharp scowl.
Blinking just once, she cast her gaze from Kōsuke to the Upperclassman, still clutching him by the scruff of his neck like some lost puppy.
“Can I help you, Ishinabe?” Her rough voice, aged further by years of obvious smoking, was coarse against Kōsuke’s ears. Not only from the timbre of her voice, but because she had ignored his condition, as if he was supposed to be treated in such a way justly.
Though he wanted to cry from the treatment he was receiving, he was unable to shed a single tear as he felt gravity take over when Isao let go of his uniform’s collar and the ground below approached quickly.
“This is the guy I told you about, Mrs. Yamato,” Isao announced, essentially ignoring Kōsuke’s humanity as he spoke.
“Him? Seriously?” Mrs. Yamato, the teacher, asked, narrowing her glare further and moving it between Kōsuke and Isao incredulously.
Kōsuke gathered his sad self off the ground onto his knees and began prostrating himself before the teacher. Though he didn’t remember seeing her earlier at the welcome ceremony, if she was in the teacher’s office room, she clearly had authority of some sort at the school. For all he knew, she was in charge of handing out expulsions at this school.
“Please, Ma’am, find it in your heart to forgive me,” he pleaded desperately at her feet, “I had no idea that I broke the rule. So please give me one more chance.”
Silently, Mrs. Yamato glared down at Kōsuke on the floor and crossed her arms over her chest. Her eyes focused on him, as if trying to measure the weight of his soul with just her sight. Sweat beaded up on the back of his neck as he patiently waited for her judgment.
Finally, she spoke.
“What is he talking about, Ishinabe?”
This perked up Kōsuke’s ears, as he lifted his head slightly to see what was going on above him.
“Uh, I don’t know exactly what he’s talking about,” Isao answered, rubbing the back of his head, doing his best to dodge the doubting instructor’s sight as he spoke, “But he did say he wanted to join the team.”
“Huh?” Kōsuke was bewildered by what his Upperclassman was saying. It was obviously a lie, but more importantly- “What team?”
“Kiyota, was it? Is this true?” Before him, Mrs. Yamato was leaning back in her chair with a brow cocked up, gauging his response.
“I-” Kōsuke tried to argue against what was being discussed around him without his input, but as he got that one single syllable out, a heavy hand landed on his shoulder, causing him to jump in surprise.
“Of course, it is,” Ishinabe had squatted down to be at the same height as Kōsuke with his fingers gripping tight into the junior’s shoulder, causing him to wince in pain. “Who wouldn’t want to join up with us?”
Mrs. Yamato glared down at the two boys on the floor with an unflinching stare, watching carefully for any discrepancies in the story she was being told.
“But, I-” Kōsuke tried to speak up again but wasn’t able to when Isao shook him by his shoulder, causing his whole body to sway violently.
“How about we make a deal,” Isao turned Kōsuke to face him in his squinted eyes, “We have a bowling match, three games head-to-head. The loser has to do what the winner says. Deal?”
“Uh…?” Kōsuke stuttered nervously, trying to wrap his mind around what was being offered to him, glancing up at the indifferent teacher above him for help.
“Plus, I won't squeal about your extracurricular job even if you lose, OK?” A devious smile spread over Isao’s lips as he finished the last part of the deal and offered his hand out to him.
Without thinking, Kōsuke took Isao’s hand and shook it vigorously, “Deal.”
“I don’t know what you two are talking about down there,” Mrs. Yamato’s voice broke in from above, “But whatever it is, take it out of here if it no longer involves me, alright?”
“But this does involve you, Coach.” Isao retorted with Kōsuke’s hand still gripped in his, “We need to use the school’s lanes after all.”
“Huh? Coach? School’s lanes?” Kōsuke wondered aloud.