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Karma rounded the corner to the back of the school, glancing around his hangout. No one was there. Karma frowned, sticking his hands into his pockets and leaning against the brick wall. Where was everyone? At least four or five kids always cut this class.

He heard shouts from the alleyway nearby - the one with the school dumpsters. He pulled himself away from the wall, tossing his joint onto the ground and figuring he might as well go see what the gang was up to. He'd leave if the scene was bad - he didn't want to be kicked out of another school for being around when shit happened and police were called.

Karma rounded another corner. Shouts, and a huddled crowd - the boys broke apart and slammed one into the dumpster. Bleeding.

“Hey!” Karma shouted, but no one heard. The noise was too loud. It all happened too fast -

The boys grabbed Karma’s Sonic Ninja backpack and yanked him off his feet. He stumbled, struggling, but they just laughed at him - Karma's heart started to hammer. Bitter taste, rugged breath - fear.

One of the biggest boys, Terasaka the drug dealer, grabbed the front of the kid's shirt. "We told you not to come back to school," he hissed.

"Hey, loser," said the biggest one - Karma had heard that he was in the eighth grade. "Where do you think you're going? You're not allowed on this playground."

"I have to go to school," shouted the smaller kid, in the loudest voice he could muster. "It's the law." That voice - so familiar -

"I - I - " Karma struggled. "I have to go through the playground to get home!" He should have gone with Nagisa. Should have, should have. Why hadn't he?

"Yeah?" Terasaka put his scruffy face right up into the kid's. "Well, we have a different set a laws here, don't we, boys?"

"It's our playground," said the big boy. "You'll just have to find another way home, won't you?" His friends started to laugh, as if he'd said something incredibly funny -

The other boys started calling out and moving closer, like a pack of wolves. Karma shouted "Oi! Terasaka!" but his dealer didn't turn around. "We told you that if you came back here we were going to hurt you," threatened Terasaka. "And look. who's. here."

"If you come back here - " the big boy jerked Karma around by his backpack straps - "we're gonna hit you. And you're not gonna like that."

"You better not touch me," snarled the kid, and Karma moved in closer - who was this kid putting up a fight up against Terasaka? It sounded like - but it couldn’t be -

"My friend will hit you back!" Karma squeaked, putting on his best fighting face. Nagisa could throw a mean uppercut. And Nagisa said bigger boys weren't allowed to pick on Karma - it went against 'man code.'

"Aww," mocked Terasaka. "And who's gonna stop me? Your boyfriend, Karma-kun?”

"Aww," said the boy in a baby voice, "your fag friend is gonna save you? Huh, that's funny - " he looked around with an expression of mock bewilderment. "Don't see him."

"Shut u - OW!" the kid shrieked as Terasaka thrust his knee between his legs -

"That's cute," snarled Terasaka, looking murderous from what Karma could see of his shaking hands. "We'll make a man of you, won't we, boys?"

A cold fear touched Karma's stomach -

"Hey," piped up one of the other boys - this one from Karma's own class. "Karma is friends with that girly boy. Heard he really is a fag. You believe it?"

"Girly little shit," hissed Terasaka, grabbing the collar of the kid's shirt and ripping it right down the middle. "Oooh, look! No boobs! What a surprise!" The other boys shrieked with laughter and catcalls.

"Stop - " shouted Karma -

"I wonder?" said the biggest boy in a taunting voice of curiosity. "You like boys, pussy?” And he fisted Karma's shirt - Karma screamed like a little girl, squirming - anything to keep them away -

"The little freak," sneered Terasaka. "You're a fucking disgrace to mankind, you bastard. Take off that fucking skirt and fucking man the hell up." He punched the kid in the chest and the kid wheezed, almost doubling over -

The other boy went behind Karma and grabbed his backpack, kicking at him - they clamped a sweaty hand over his mouth to keep him from screaming, keep help away - and the big boy pulled back his fist. Karma frantically - desperately, desperately - bit at the boy's palm, thrashed his arms, anything to keep them away -

But the boy punched him in the stomach -

"You're never coming back to this school, girly boy," Terasaka said, and slammed his fist into the side of the kid's face - "Fucking little bitch - "

"Stop!" Karma tried to scream, muffled against the boy's hand, and the tears were coming fast and thick now. "Lemme go!" Nagisa, Nagisa, where was Nagisa?

"He is a fag,” snarled the big boy, punching Karma again. “Listen to him squeal, the little fucking girl bitch!"

"Stop!" And he couldn't stop crying, they started laughing, he started screaming in his head and thrashing with all his might but they just held him and punched him and smacked him and giggled - oh where was Nagisa?!

"He's such a little girl," shouted one of the other boys, and raucous laughter echoed through the alleyway. "Bitch, just like his mommy - "

"Let's teach him never to come back here - "

"Wait - " Terasaka blocked the fists - "Don't forget to treat him like a lady - "

The laughter shrieked like vultures. "Stop!" screamed the kid, sounding near tears. "Let me go, fatass!"

"Let me go!" Karma spat against the kid's fat hand, but they wouldn't - was that blood in his eyes? Oh hell -

"Okay," said Terasaka, dropping his hands and pinning the kid against the wall again, "Let's teach him."

"Let's take a picture."

"Can't wait to tell everyone."

Where was Nagisa?!

The kid tried to dodge and as Karma squinted, he made out the face and shock hit him like a ton of bricks - Nagisa. Nagisa, out here all alone? Beat up? Where was Kaede, everyone?

Where was Nagisa?!

Karma sprinted.

"Oi! Terasaka!" He grabbed the boy roughly by the shoulders, dragging his back by his bag. The boys looked at him, confused.

"Whadaya want, fag?" sneered Terasaka, which meant Don't have time for you, ya little shit.

"Let him go," said Karma. "Nagisa, go. Just - go."

Nagisa looked up at him with pleading eyes and Karma’s heart thumped - but he wasn't a fag, not really, and he wasn't in love with Nagisa - he wasn't -

"Hey," said Terasaka, grabbing Nagisa and turning to glare at Karma with his mean little eyes. "We ain't done here."

Karma kicked the back of his knee and Terasaka stumbled. "Yes," said Karma. "We are."

A fist cracked into the side of his head and Karma was falling, but the smash of the brick wall righted him - "Just go, Nagisa!" he shouted, and Nagisa was running, and Terasaka was running after him, shouting curses and threats - and someone was pummeling him from one side and another boy knocked his legs out - and there was blood from his hairline, and he was punching back, yelling, "Chill out, dude!"

And some guy with big bloodshot eyes - Terasaka' partner - snapped, "You don't mess with the big boys, Karma."

And -

Crash.

Pain.

Blackness.