Chapter 38:

My Skills are Being Put to the Test.

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

12 noon, and I'm 0-3.

Damn it, after everything I did...all the early mornings, all the late evenings, all the pain as I pushed myself further than ever, kicking until my feet bled, punching and sparring until I couldn't lift my arms...and nothing has changed? Am I still the same loser I was in middle school?

Across the ring from me, an average-height second-year from Shirasato with medium-length hair parted in the middle shifts nervously in his fighting stance. I can tell from how antsy he is that he's either inexperienced or has stage fright.

This match should be finished by now- I should have been able to score a point on him. He's biting on every single feint. Somehow, it's still tied, one half-point to one half-point. I faked him out by feinting a knife hand to the solar plexus and then grazed the top of his shoulder, but he managed to turn just enough out of the way that it didn't connect with full force, and then he elbowed me in the ribs as I was jumping back. Out of sheer beginner's luck, or something, he scored off me.

Both of us are circling around, trying to pry into each other's minds to figure out who will throw a strike first. Would it be better if I did? I keep fooling him with feints, but he scored his half-point off a counter-attack- should I defend, since his strikes are telegraphed?

At this point, I'm facing the part of the stands where the makeshift "Shinchoushi cheering section" is. The seats are full by this point. There's Mom and Dad in the front row. To the right of them is Ayame and Suzuran, and seated right by her sister is the student council president- when did she get here? To the left of them is Kaede, and beside her is a stern-looking middle-aged man and a wizened old man beside him, and more people who must be parents in the next row up. Mom, Ayame, and the president are screaming their lungs out, while the younger Suzuran looks like she wants to curl up in a ball and hide.

What would happen if, after all my hard work, I lost here, in front of all of them?

The image of Mom with a dejected expression telling me cheer up, honey, you did your best, fills my head, and then I see Kaede looking at me with concern and saying It’s okay, Niichan, and then I see Ayame, depressed. She'd probably get so upset for me she might even start crying. God knows I've seen enough of that lately.

I can't lose. If I did, I'd never be able to face my teammates, my family, and my friends after all they've done to support me.

He's finally moving toward me. Think, Haruto. Remember what Takeno-senpai told you.

See what your opponent's doing.

Front foot out. Shoulder back. Kick? No, his back leg's not lifting. Body punch? He's not showing anything obvious. He just keeps coming. I’ll go for the roundhouse…

The second I lift my right leg, suddenly he flashes his out, low to the ground.

He's not trying to strike at all! He's trying to bait me into kicking so he can sweep my leg!

His right foot comes flying into mine, trying to take me to the ground, but I'm one second faster, spinning out of it, lifting my knee as his foot hits nothing but air.

He dropped his guard!

A split second later, my foot slams into his chin. Got him with the hesitation move. Maegeri, straight kick- Gichin Funakoshi himself wouldn't have had time to block that.

Whoa, I hit him hard. He took like four or five steps back.

Then, suddenly, he drops to the mat.

"Ippon!" calls the referee, and his hand goes up. Out of the corner of my eye, the judge's red flag flashes upwards in response.

I just beat this guy.

I did it.

"HELL YEAH! LET'S FUCKING GO!" My jubilant reaction, and the jump and pumping my fist in the air, just comes out. I can't control it.

Wait, why is the referee staring at me? And the judges are, too…and the guy I just beat…

Shit. I forgot to bow! The match isn't over!

Quickly, I make sure to bow to the referee and to my opponent, trying to brush my embarrassing outburst off, but inside I still feel like I'm walking on clouds.


My record ends up being 2 wins, 3 losses. I didn't make the final 64, but it doesn't matter to me- I feel like I've won a gold medal.

I wasn't the best karateka out there- not even close. But for the first time, I felt like I wasn't miles behind everyone. I didn't feel like I was only competing out of obligation, or to preserve my social status.

I didn't practice, work hard, and fight just for their own sakes. I did everything because I wanted to win, and I did, and it was a better feeling than I ever could have imagined.

This must be what Takeno-senpai feels every time, and Tatsurou, and everyone else here, and it took me this long to find it, too.

What did Takeno-senpai tell me so long ago? I don't see someone who wants to win...I see someone who looks like he's doing his job.

That's not me anymore.

As the tournament has stretched into the evening, the 300 who started the day have dwindled to two, and the audience's attention is turned on one single ring where two fighters are facing each other, waiting for the match to begin.

On the left side is Takeno-senpai, staring down his opponent, a stockily-built student from Buyu Academy, with steely precision.

The referee steps back, announcing the start of the match, and the two charge toward each other as a drop of sweat runs down my forehead and into my eyebrow, dripping onto my cheek.

In the split second it takes me to brush the sweat off my face into my wet, matted hair, Takeno-senpai is on the ground and the judges are raising their red flags.

Beside me, Tatsu stares blankly, his mouth open as if he can't believe what he saw. The crowd is silent, seemingly mirroring him. No one can comprehend what just happened. I didn't even see the strike that did it, it was so fast.

Takeno-senpai shakily pulls himself to his feet, they bow to each other, and the crowd finally roars.

I thought Takeno-senpai would break down into tears like so many other third-years in the locker rooms are doing, but he's keeping it together remarkably well. This makes it all the more awkward as we listen to the muffled sobs around us and catch brief glimpses of upset third-years being comforted by their teammates. None of us can hardly meet his eyes or say anything to him, we're all so shocked and ashamed.

I thought he was invincible. We all did. He knew everything and none of us could touch him.

Today, he was mortal, just like the rest of us.

After what seems like an eternity, Takeno-senpai breaks the silence. "Everyone, gather round."

We huddle into a circle, still not saying anything.

"I wanted to get all of this out before we go into the team tournament tomorrow. Mainly, it’s because tomorrow will be the last time I’ll be representing Shinchoushi in an official tournament, and I don’t want to have any regrets going into it. I think all of you feel the same way.” He looks around the huddle, focusing on each of us. “First of all, I know you're disappointed. I wish I could say something to fix it, but words won't be enough to help. Neither will what-ifs. None of you did anything less than the best you could. Be proud of that."

He turns to Nagase-senpai, who's put his glasses back on. "Nagase, if not for a tiebreaker, you would have made it into the final bracket. You improved on everything that I wanted you to. Take care of everyone next year- as their captain."

"Y-Yes!" Nagase's response is sudden and uncertain.

Next, Takeno-senpai turns toward the other second-year. "Aoki- your defense has gotten so much better since the first time I met you. I think you could be in the final bracket next year, as well."

The affirmation from Aoki-senpai follows in turn.

After speaking to the two other first-years, Takeno-senpai turns to Tatsu. "Aikawa, 2 wins at your experience level, in your first karate tournament, is incredible. In a couple years, I can see you winning the whole thing. Keep focusing on your training, and you can go anywhere you want."

There goes my ego- it just popped like a balloon. Tatsu got the same number of wins as me today, and he's not even a shodan. I was so happy about something that, in hindsight, isn't that great...but can you really blame me?

"Kouga-" Takeno-senpai's voice startles me.

"Yes!" I quickly respond.

He takes a deep breath before continuing. "I thought you didn't have the mindset to succeed when I first met you. I even thought it would be better if you quit rather than waste your days away on something you don't really love. A lesser person, someone not as strong as you, probably would have, but I was wrong about you. You have the most potential out of everyone here- today showed me that you're well on your way to reaching it. I expect big things from you next year, and the year after that."

"Yes, Captain! Thank you!" I respond to his feelings with a respectful bow. He's not a sentimental person, but I don't feel like he's being overly sappy, either. He's speaking from his heart, and saying what he really feels.

"Everyone, you are dismissed."

It takes all the energy we have to repeat the traditional Shinchoushi...FIGHT, and then, one by one, we all slowly file out- everyone but Takeno-senpai. He stands there, staring at the ground, not moving.

I've never seen him so downcast, and I want to say something to cheer him up, but there's nothing that could help. No matter what I say, it would sound arrogant. Like I could ever know what's going on inside his head.

He speaks first. "Kouga, how come you haven't left?"

"I was wondering if you needed my help with anything, Captain-"

"I'm not your captain anymore."

“Yes, you are. At least until tomorrow.”

“In name only,” Takeno-senpai sighs, throwing a towel over his head. “Nagase’s in charge now.”

"Then, is Takeno-senpai alright-"

The wry half-smile that crosses his face looks too painful for words. "I'm just Shunsuke. Your friend."

Even if I can't cheer him up, there's something that I need to get off my chest. I thought his speech would finally answer the question I've had for so long, but I still don't know for certain.

", Shunsuke-san...did I do a good job? Are you proud of me?"

His answer is swift. "Yes. Without a doubt."

Warmth starts to radiate over my body, pulsing in waves from my core all the way out to my hands and feet. That's all I wanted to hear. I wanted to earn his respect, and I did.

It means even more to me than winning.

Suddenly, an intense feeling of guilt sweeps me. How can I be happy when he's so obviously not? Isn't that selfish?

"Captain...I know words don't mean anything, but I wanted to tell you that 2nd place is fantastic…and we still have tomorrow to do even better. Please don't give up."

There's a second of silence, then two, then three, and finally, he replies in a low, pained voice, "Katsumi had already won twice by this point."


"My older brother."


"Thanks for trying to cheer me up, Kouga. I really appreciate it." He pauses for a second. "See you around."

"You too."

He sends me off with a calm expression, but as I leave, the screeching slam of metal and the anguished cry of that follows it is so loud that I can hear it all the way at the other end of the hallway.

Outside, the stars have come out, and in the dim light of the gym's floodlights I can see two shadows standing at the feet of the long flight of stairs that lead down to the street, one big and wide, one small. It's so late that most of the athletes have gone home, but my family's still waiting for me.

"Good job, Haru-kun."

Instead of being full of her boundless energy like normal, Ayame's voice is soft.

The nail prodding my cheek on the other side of me is not.

"Yeah, great effort, Kouhai~"

When I turn, I see Reika Suzuran, smiling like a cat.

"Oh, hi, President..." I would get mad, but I don't have much energy left.

"Hey, quit touching him, he's tired!" Ayame yelps.

"Somebody's jealous~" The president throws up her arms in an exaggerated shrug. "Wonder why~"


I really don't want to have to deal with another stupid conflict. Not now.

"Thanks for coming to support us, President...I had no idea you were gonna be here," I say with all the energy I can muster up, which isn't a lot.

"Aw, it's no big deal," she replies casually. "I came to pick Fuu-chan up and you were doing so well I stayed to watch the whole thing."

"Wait, where is Suzucchi?" Ayame looks around, flustered.

"H-here." A voice barely above a whisper comes from behind us. Sure enough, when we turn around, there's Suzuran. She's so quiet, it's like she disappeared. She'd make a really good ninja.

"Isn't my little sister just so adorable?" the president asks, beaming like a proud parent. Suzuran shrinks back.

"Yup! Suzucchi's a cutie!" Ayame says with a massive grin and Suzuran shrinks back even further.

I just sigh and continue walking.

A ways behind us, the front door to the gym opens, and a shadowy figure, tall and strong, with its head ducked, limply carrying a gym bag, slowly exits.

It's obvious to me who it is, and it must be obvious to Reika, too, because she stares straight at him for a second and then says, "Gotta go! See ya later, Haruto-kun. You too, Ayame-chan-"

"Bye-bye!" Ayame waves as the president takes off, bounding up the steps until she's nothing more than a shadow herself, coming to a stop when she reaches the other figure.

Are she and item or something?

I mean, it makes sense. They're both incredible people.

"Suzucchi? You okay?" I hear Ayame say, followed by a squeak of surprise from the mousy girl next to her. I turn around, and Suzuran is staring toward the two silhouettes at the top of the stairs. She isn't moving.

I get the feeling I should stay out of this.

When I reach the bottom of the stairs and the street, my parents and Kaede aren’t there. I look around to see my family’s car slowly making its way through the now nearly-empty parking lot. Looks like I won’t have to ride the train home. Way to be thoughtful, Mom and Dad.

Turning the other way, I catch sight of a skinny figure silhouetted by the dim light of the bus stop on the corner. As I approach, the shadows retreat to reveal Ayame's little brother, standing with a large black bag thrown over his back.

"Hey, Kouga," he says as I reach him.


"I'm here for my sister...where is she?"

"She's coming, give her a sec."

"You know..." He pauses for a second, as if he can't figure out what he wants to say, then continues. "I was thinking about what you told me. About joining my friends' band and how I should only do it if it's really what I want to do."

"What about it?"

"I...think I'm gonna do it." He smiles, not aggressively or mockingly, but genuinely. "Thanks...Kouga."

"You're welcome." If he's sincere, I have to match it with all I've got.

He's found his answer. Now it's time for me to find mine.

Pope Evaristus
Steward McOy