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Thursday, November 2, 2017

"Eiji, why are you moping around? It's your birthday, isn't it? Or are you unsatisfied with the gifts that Hayato and I so thoughtfully picked out for you?"

After school in the Durak room, and the three of us were sitting around and idly playing card games, whatever suited Kiyo's fancy. I shook my head, for once not annoyed by his question. If he wanted to fish for compliments on his gift, I was happy to dispense them. "No, that's not it at all. Honestly, they're perfect. I just can't believe you'd do something that crazy..."

My eyes drifted to the small, flat package that rested on Kiyo's desk, an unassuming plain black box that held three of the most gorgeous knives I'd ever seen. I'd recognized the maker immediately, and just thinking about the price made my head hurt. Sure, I could afford them myself, but with the goal of my savings shifted from the impossible buyout to the realistic need to save for culinary school and eventually, my own restaurant, I was content to use the knives in the school cafeteria. They were good quality and I maintained them properly, so I had no complaints about their performance. I didn't need a fancy hammered steel knife set.

"It's not crazy," Kiyo pouted. "After all, you threw away your father's chef knife, and you never replaced it with anything new. And I thought it would be a shame to have just one special knife, so I did some research and got you the ones that get used more often. How is that crazy?"

It was a very thoughtful gift, a set of the three knives used most often in the kitchen. And Hayato had given me the matching honing steel, no doubt at Kiyo's prompting. "But that line is so expensive, and you got the fancy versions of an already fancy line..."

He leaned over the table, meeting my eyes with his brilliant blue stare. "I wanted you to have something nice, Eiji," he murmured in a tone that made my hair stand on end. "Don't complain."

I felt the heat of a blush creeping up my neck, and I coughed in a vain attempt to distract him and Hayato from my reaction. "I, I'm not complaining! Anyway," I tossed a card down onto the table, "it's your turn!"

Hayato was watching us silently, as always, but it felt different from usual. Everything was different from usual now, with the three of us slowly becoming more honest with each other. Hayato would actually carry on a conversation with me now instead of immediately abandoning the club room if Kiyo wasn't around. It was still awkward, since he was laser-focused on kendo and training and I didn't know much about anything but cooking, but at least we could discuss the merits of daily practice and routines. And if we ran out of things to say on that topic, we could fall back on general subjects like upcoming events or the weather.

And then there was time alone with Kiyo, doing... whatever it was we were doing. Which was nothing at the moment while we waited for the results of the health fair testing. I wasn't sure if I was relieved or disappointed. Probably both, if I was honest with myself. Sure, I missed getting blown by Kiyo, but it was nice to take a break from his growing emotional clinginess.

Though a gift like that knife set was proof of his desire to remain close to me.

"Anyway," Kiyo rifled through his cards and made his play, nodding toward Hayato, "I expect that you'll be able to cook even better now. I expect even more delicious things from you, Eiji."

"Oh, is that what this was all about? You just want me to work harder?"

"Sonoda," Hayato looked directly at me, "you want to be the best, don't you? So work harder." He placed his card on the table with a crisp, precise movement. "Don't disappoint Joker-sama."

"What about disappointing myself, Hayato? That's way more important that what Kiyo thinks."

Hayato glared at me, but Kiyo held up one hand, signaling for him to relax. "Hmm, does that mean you're disappointed in yourself, Eiji? You've seemed awfully cranky recently. Maybe because you've forced us to be on a break?"

There was no way I could hide the blush that colored my entire face. "Shut up, Kiyo!"

"I'd rather not, thanks," he replied cheerfully. "And stop holding up the game, Eiji, it's no fun if you keep stalling."

I drew a card from the stack and frowned at it, then set my entire hand face down on the table with a sigh. "I don't feel like playing card games today, Kiyo."

"Hmm, don't tell me you're still all bent out of shape because your cousin forgot your birthday."

"I, I am not! I don't care about stuff like that, I'm not a little kid anymore!"

"Just this morning you were complaining about how he doesn't have time for anyone but Yuki-kun. You already got over it?" Kiyo peeked at the cards I'd put down. "Really, Eiji, you could have put up a good fight with this hand."

"Ugh," I sighed again, resting my elbows on the table so I could lean my forehead on the backs of my hands. "I'm just not in the mood for cards, okay?"

"Hmm," Kiyo repeated, but he didn't add anything else.

After a long pause, Hayato was the one to speak. "Sonoda. Why don't you just talk to your cousin?"

"It's not that easy," I mumbled, mind racing back over all the scenarios I'd imagined. He could just blow me off again, or we wouldn't be able to come up with anything to talk about, or I'd get mad and blurt something out, or he'd tease me about the outcome of the Bell One, or, or--

Hayato was oblivious to my mental distress. "What's not easy? You open your mouth and you talk. You never hesitate to complain about things, so why are you hesitating now?"

Kiyo didn't bother stifling his amused snort. I just glared at them both, then pushed back my chair with a huff. "Fine, whatever. I don't need the two of you picking at me all the time. I'll just go take care of this right now!"

As I stalked from the room, I heard Hayato's voice, laced with confusion.

"Joker-sama, was it something I said?"


Until recently, my cousin had been difficult to find after school hours; since he was a loner, he didn't really like spending time in the shared staff room, so he would drift to various areas around the school where he could work uninterrupted. But since he'd somehow been reinstated as assistant director earlier in the week, I was sure that he would be in his office, not hiding out on the school roof or holed up in his on-campus apartment.

I'd been to his office plenty of times since coming to school, so the walk there was automatic. Only a couple of minutes passed before I found myself standing outside in the hallway, the back of my neck prickling with nervousness as my heart raced. Ugh. There was no need to get worked up, it wasn't like he'd magically become a different person just because we hadn't really talked much in the last few months! But the last time we'd spent more than a few minutes together had been the special "bar night" for Yuki-kun's birthday, and that was more about me observing the two of them than spending any real time with my cousin.

"Oh, Sonoda-kun?" A fast, high-pitched voice interrupted my thoughts, and I jumped.

"Agh! Oh, hello, Professor Ito..."

I didn't really know Professor Ito well; he was only teaching regular history and assisting my cousin with the general management of Yuki-kun's class. From what I'd heard, he was pretty popular with the students who took his class, mainly because he was a bit clueless and easy to tease, but also because he was a somewhat recent graduate of the school with a good understanding of how everything worked. My cheeks colored a little as I greeted him, keenly aware that my actions could have put him out of a job.

He smiled, gesturing toward the office door. "Are you looking for Professor Sakaki? You don't have to hesitate, I'm sure he's in his office, I just saw him go in there a few minutes ago. Just earlier, we were talking about teaching techniques for exceptional students... well, I'm only teaching the regular class this year, but I'm sure I'll be asked to take on more responsibilities as I gain experience. I'm glad I have someone I can rely on for advice."

I just stood there silently as he rambled on, unable to find a good place to cut in. Damn, this guy talks really fast. How does anyone in his class take notes? Despite that, his babbling had something interesting at the core: a firsthand description of how Professor Sakaki had changed since the end of the Bell One. He hadn't just softened up with his teaching and tutoring, it sounded like he'd also lightened up in his relationships with the rest of the staff. Or at least with Professor Ito, since they were kind of stuck with each other until the end of the year.

"...and that's how we ended up talking about adult learning theory!" Professor Ito paused for a millisecond to draw in another breath, but before I could get in a single word of my own, he steamrolled me with, "Oh, but I'm boring you, aren't I? And if you're here to see Professor Sakaki, I'm sure he doesn't want to be kept waiting."

As if on cue, the office door creaked open and my cousin poked his head out with an exasperated sigh. "Ito, how many times have I told you not to talk right outside my office? Your voice carries right through the door." The irritation in his tone turned to surprise as he noticed me. "Sonoda? That's odd, I didn't hear you at all."

Yeah, because I didn't have the chance to get a single word in with this guy blabbing on and on!

But of course Professor Ito replied before I could even take a breath. "Sorry, Professor Sakaki, it was my fault, I kept telling Sonoda-kun about all sorts of things and I'm sure he was getting a little bored, what with the--"

"Ito," my cousin interrupted without hesitation, "do you need something right now?"

"N, no, Professor Sakaki..." His voice grew small, making him sound like a student rather than a peer.

"Then please stop chatting in the hallway." He motioned for me to enter. "Sonoda, I assume you're here for a reason? Come in and close the door."

"Right, right," I sighed, stepping into the familiar office and pulling the door shut behind me. Lucky him, able to pull rank with Professor Ito like that and shut him down instantly. My irritation was soon forgotten as I took a moment to look around the office, finding it to be pretty much identical to the way I remembered it: clean and minimalist, with almost nothing visible on the desk, table, or the shelf at the back of the room.

"Looks cozy," I quipped, gesturing toward the phone on his desk. "You sure you need this?"

"Shut up, Sonoda," he fired back with a hint of a smile, motioning for me to take a seat in the guest area. "You know I don't like having a lot of stuff out."

"Yeah, but if you're not careful, the janitor's gonna think this office is still empty and lock you out." I plopped down in one of the hideous green armchairs. "At least put a magazine or two on the table for the poor suckers who have to visit you."

"Why? Anyone who gets called to my office is either in some sort of trouble or trying to sell me something. I want them to feel uncomfortable and get out quickly."

"Oh, so am I in trouble? Or do I fall under the salesman category?" The tension in my shoulders was fading quickly, driven away by our normal banter. Maybe this wasn't going to be as difficult as I expected. If the only difference in my cousin was an improved mood, it might even be easy.

"A little of both, I think." The professor sat down on the couch on the opposite side of the empty guest table, crossing his legs. "So what brings you here? I haven't seen you in a while."

Ugh, how did he manage to stab at the heart of the problem every single time without even knowing it? My words overflowed without any thought. "Whose fault is that? You've been busy every weekend since the stupid Bell One! You probably don't even know what day it is, do you?"

He blinked, a vague look of worry darkening his features. Definitely an oh shit, what have I forgotten? sort of face. "It's November... second, isn't it?" He glanced at the wall, but there was nothing there; probably a habit from his time in the staff room, where people actually dared to do crazy things like put a calendar up on the wall.

"Yeah, it is," I confirmed flatly.

"What about... wait." His eyes flicked to my face, a bit wider than usual. "It's your birthday."

"Great, so you really did forget it," I sighed.

He echoed my sigh, not to mock me, but in annoyance with himself. "I'm sorry, Sonoda, I was so preoccupied with settling back into my role and trying to push through some of the work the director desperately needed... I completely forgot."

My cheeks prickled. "Well, whatever, I'm not some sort of little kid who needs to be acknowledged just because it's my birthday or something."

"What, are you going to pretend you had another reason for coming here?"

I hated when he pushed my buttons, smirking like that the entire time. I fought back the urge to fire back an equally caustic answer, taking a deep breath before calmly replying, "What, I'm not allowed to come talk to you?" Though it kind of seems that way, with how you've been avoiding me. Is Yuki-kun really that compelling?

"I thought you were still angry with me about the Bell One. After all, I let Asahina and Kasahara win. I could have cheated."

I made a face; why was he attempting to bait me? "I don't know why you didn't. I completely fulfilled my end of the bargain, you know. I did every little thing you asked of me, so why didn't you do something to ensure that things went the way they were supposed to?"

My face was getting hot, remembering the frustration and humiliation of it. Thank god no one aside from Kiyo and the professor knew of my role in the events surrounding the Bell One, or I'd never be able to show my face in the school again! But it wasn't fair, for all of our plans to be destroyed - mainly because he'd let them be destroyed - without any sort of explanation!

I felt the anger rising within me, the cold rage that I hadn't felt in months. On some level, I was glad that the school had remained open and off my conscience, and meeting my dad again had helped soothe the anger I felt both toward him and on his behalf, but:

"Explain it! You owe me at least that much!" I snapped, unable to hold back.

The professor looked directly at me, his expression closed and unreadable. "I know," he sighed. "I know that things have been left for too long." He lifted one hand, making some sort of gesture, like he hoped to explain it all with a simple wave of his hand. "I... you know I'm not good with words."

"You seemed plenty good with words when you fed me all those lies! You promised to pay me for my work, I haven't seen a single yen from you! You can't just declare all my past effort void because you failed to hold up your end of the bargain!"

He looked tired, or worn out, barely smiling as he made another feeble attempt at distracting me with a snappy comment. "I think the cost of a very short notice, round-trip ticket from France was appropriate compensation."

I felt the blood rush to my face without permission, staining my cheeks red. "S, shut up! You think that makes up for it?"

"Doesn't it?" His eyes locked with mine. "I think you've calmed down quite a bit since that conversation. Whatever he told you must have been helpful. You wanted to see him, didn't you?"

I lowered my eyes, the memory of that brief encounter so strong that it short-circuited my anger. "I'm... not sure he really wanted to see me, though. Like, he said some important things, but..." I reached up to pick at my braids, sighing. "Listen, I'm grateful that you went through all that trouble and expense, okay? But I got to talk to my dad for all of ten minutes before he skipped out again. That doesn't make up for years of being missing, or..."


"Or the way you've been avoiding me!"

There, I said it. Now do something about it.

The professor sighed. "Sonoda..."

"Don't Sonoda me! I'm telling you what the problem is, okay? I don't have anyone to talk to anymore, not for real - and don't tell me to talk to a psychopath like Kiyo or an idiot like Hayato! You're the one who said you'd help me, but all you did was use me and throw me away! I did everything you wanted, I got Kiyo to mess with the student council, I stole the stupid armband when we realized that he wouldn't do it, I played my part perfectly! But you didn't give me a single thing for my work, not the money and now you won't even talk to me! What the hell!"

The professor was silent for a long time after I finished my tirade, and I felt my face coloring again. Damn, why couldn't I stay in control of my own emotions for more than thirty seconds?! Just when I thought the professor wasn't going to answer me at all, he got up and came around the table, settling into the chair beside me, then laid his hand on top of mine. It was warm.


That made my face redden even more; Professor Sakaki almost never used my given name.

"I know it looks like betrayal, but I was protecting you." His face was close, expression intense as he stared directly into my eyes. "I did it for your own good."

I was trapped for a few seconds, chest tightening in response to the gravity of his gaze and words. It took a real physical effort to shake my head and break eye contact. "You keep saying that, but it doesn't make any sense. You still haven't explained anything!"

He leaned back, freeing me from his spell, folding his arms over his chest with a sigh. "You're right," he muttered, eyes looking off to one side at nothing in particular, simply avoiding my face. "You weren't ready to listen, but I wasn't ready to explain, either..."

"I'm really not in the mood to sit here and pretend to be patient while you say cryptic stuff," I grumbled. "If you have something to say, just spit it out."

He was quiet for another minute, sorting out his thoughts, probably editing them. I banged my fist on the cushioned arm of the oversized chair. "Stop that! Don't mentally decide what's okay or not for me to hear, just tell me what the hell is going on!"

"It's not that," he protested, a hint of irritation in his tone. "I didn't want Yuichiro contacting you directly, that's all. Do you understand why?"

I made a face; I'd only met the professor's brother a few times, and hadn't been particularly impressed with the man. He seemed like the type who relied on threats and pressure to get things done instead of actual skill or competence. A bit like Kiyo, in a way, only Kiyo was able to back up all his ridiculous posturing with charisma and a sharp wit. "Because he's a jerk?"

The professor actually snickered at that, and any hint of ill mood was gone when he spoke. "Well, yes, actually. He was using me to manipulate you, I'm sure you've realized that by now."

"Well, yeah," I huffed, "once it all fell apart, it was obvious that he was the mastermind."

"I wouldn't go so far as to call him a master of anything, especially not mind."

I couldn't stifle my snort. "That's harsh."

"Despite that," he was serious again, "he is rather good at getting what he wants by using hollow promises or pressuring the people who get in his way. I chose to stand between the two of you, taking on the role of his messenger. I'm sure he knew that I wasn't going to be particularly effective, but I have a history of doing what my family wants, even if I don't agree, so..." He shrugged, looking vaguely guilty. "This time, it worked to my advantage. If I gave you instructions and cooperated enough that Yuichiro was convinced that I intended to follow through to the very end, then he wouldn't attempt to contact you directly."

"What, you thought he would threaten me or something?" I wouldn't put it past the man at all.

Professor Sakaki shook his head. "Worse. He would have cut me out of the picture and given you everything you wanted in exchange for your cooperation. He would have followed through on his promises, making you completely loyal to him. I couldn't let that happen."

My heart sank a little. "You really never had any intention of helping me, did you? From the very beginning, you intended..."

"That's not true at all. If I could do nothing else at this school, I would at least protect you." His hand was on mine again, skin uncomfortably warm against mine, and it was all I could do to keep from pulling away. "Don't you understand? When we first met, you were hurt and looking for a way to get back at an unfair system and an unfair world. I didn't want you to waste your youth clinging to bitterness, obsessed with a failure that wasn't your fault, consumed by anger."

I pulled my hand away, folding my arms over my chest, and made a face. "Wasting my youth? You sound like an old man. Get over yourself."

The professor's tone was soft as he replied, "I did get over myself, finally. But it took far longer than it should have, and I regret wasting all that time and energy on a problem that wasn't even mine in the first place."

I didn't really know the whole story of my cousin's past; it's not like he ever sat me down and told me the whole thing from start to finish. I'd picked up bits and pieces along the way, mostly from offhand comments muttered under his breath, with a few directly dispensed pieces of information in response to my questions about the plan to shut down the school. The professor hated the school for passing over a good friend who had tons of ability, but couldn't express it well because of a learning disability. He'd felt that injustice so sharply that he'd decided to become a teacher, though I didn't really get why he was a horrible hardass instead of trying to help the students who were struggling. When I'd asked him about it, he'd just gotten pissed off and said:

The students here have plenty of advantage. They need to learn that life isn't a dreamy fantasy.

Just the memory of his harsh response made me mentally cringe, those words at odds with the kindness he had extended to me, a stranger who was suddenly part of his extended family. Maybe it was because he was no less of an outsider; I still distinctly remembered the brief non-introduction his father had offered at the table, passing over the professor as if speaking of him would summon some sort of ancient curse. At first I'd thought it was because working as a teacher was beneath a direct descendant of the Sakaki family, but as the evening wore on, it became clear that his parents and brother held him in contempt for some other, hidden reason. I hadn't been included in the conversation either, since I was nothing more than the sullen preteen son of a new trophy wife - and honestly, I had nothing to say to a bunch of stuffy old people. But when I wasn't being outright ignored by the group that had gathered for dinner, I'd at least been complimented on my cooking. In contrast, the professor had been treated with barely-veiled hostility, with sharp comments and disapproving looks tossed his way every now and then.

The silence was growing oppressive; I had to say something. "So you finally got over it, then? What changed?" It was a stupid question. I knew what had changed, but there was no way I could ask something as obvious as did Yuki-kun help you get over it?

The professor rubbed at his arm with one hand as if cold, silent for a few moments before responding quietly, "Watching Asahina stand up for what was right, even though the odds were against him. I realized that I couldn't keep bowing to my family's wishes, especially in things that are morally questionable. My personal feelings of anger toward this school and its policies shouldn't be interfering with the students who attend it." He paused for a moment, looking like he was going to say more, then added, "Something like that."

Bitter jealousy stung my heart. Of course Yuki-kun was the reason, and I had no doubt that the professor had told him the entire story, even though he was still holding part of it back from me. Maybe I just hadn't been persistent enough, but I'd gotten tired of poking and getting back nothing but a stern look or a warning. I was sure that Yuki-kun had somehow managed to dig into that hotbed of misery, mining it for all it was worth, his insatiable curiosity and need to help others pushing him to dig into the wound until all the infection was gone.

Now that the professor was cured, we had even less in common than before. We were drifting apart. I wasn't all fixed up neatly like he'd been; I didn't have someone like Yuki-kun to patch up my broken heart. And now I didn't even have the professor's shoulder to cry on.

This is really stupid, Eiji, why are you jealous over something like this? You should be happy for him, not whining about how you're all alone now. You have Kiyo.

Ugh, like Kiyo was any comparison to Yuki-kun or the professor. I sighed. "Well, I'm glad you're feeling better about things, but it's still really crappy for me, okay? You betrayed me without any explanation, then ignored me. How the hell was I supposed to know why you did it? And," I picked nervously at my braids, "I don't really have a lot of friends... Kiyo's not the kind of person who cares a lot about how other people feel or whatever..."

My face colored a little, remembering how Kiyo seemed to care a little too much recently.

Professor Sakaki nodded, his tone apologetic as he spoke. "Sonoda, you're right. I've been so caught up in my own recovery, so to speak, that I haven't paid proper attention to you."

Recovery, huh? Banging Yuki-kun is just what the doctor ordered?

My cousin continued, oblivious to my thoughts, "I've noticed you opening up more to Jokawa and Chiba, but that doesn't excuse my lack of attention. A lot has happened in the past few months, but I should have made time for you too." He peeked at his watch. "It's not too late for a trip off the island. It is your birthday, after all... why don't we go eat somewhere?"

"You still owe me a hotel dinner," I reminded him.

"I don't think that's possible on short notice, but you could pick an evening next week and make reservations. Don't worry about my schedule, I'll clear it if necessary."

"Hmm, then how about next Saturday evening?"

I swear his eyebrow twitched. "Weekends are no good for me."

Yeah, I bet. "But you just said you'd clear your schedule if necessary."

"I meant during the week." He eyed me suspiciously. "Anyway, I thought you were always busy on the weekends? I can't count the number of times you've told me that it's the best time for hosting multiple cooking lessons. Are you really going to give up an opportunity to earn some extra cash?"

"Hmph, I'm not trying to save up a bajillion yen anymore, so I can afford to relax once in a while. I already have enough saved for my first year of culinary school, you know."

"How much is that, anyway?"

I snorted. "Why, you want to borrow some so you can get yourself a decent car? I'm not telling you."

The professor laughed. "You're such a brat, Sonoda. One day you'll grow up and realize that no one cares what car you drive, what you wear, or where you work."

"This from the man who imports fancy dress shirts from Europe." The memory of Yuki-kun about to dump the professor's favorite green shirt into the washer with his own clothes popped into my mind, making me shiver. "A, anyway, fine, how about next Tuesday then?"

He nodded, smiling a little. "I look forward to it."

~ end ~