Chapter Eight: Ripening

Ageha’s clumsy hook landed on the boy’s jaw. It was a lucky strike resulting from just randomly flailing his fist. The boy fell to the ground on his bottom. He did not attempt to stand up and only glared at Ageha, who returned the animosity.

“What’s wrong with you!?”

“I should ask you that.” said Ageha, unrestrained anger on his youthful features. Slightly surpassing even those a year or two older than him, he was quite tall for a boy of thirteen.

The boy on the ground was about the same size, so it was what one would call a fair fight, if such a thing existed.

“Why do you care what happens to him? This doesn’t have anything to do with you!”

The boy moved his glare to another boy, who was also sitting on the ground a few feet away. A girl who looked the same age stood beside him. Both were watching the conclusion of the squabble in the deserted school courtyard.

“You hit him but complain when I do the same to you?”

“He was asking for it!”

“What exactly did he do?”

“I told him to get me cola, but he got diet cola instead!

“You really are trash.”

“You can’t blame me for that! Everyone does it!”

“Get outta here.”

“Why should I listen to you!?”

Ageha replied by kicking the boy’s gut. The blow caused the boy to roll on the ground. Eventually, he obediently got up and left the scene.

“I’m Ageha, and this is Airi. Can you get up?”

Ageha extended his right hand towards the sitting boy. The boy hesitated and then slapped it away.

“I didn’t ask for your help.”

“Hey, that isn’t what you should say to the one who saved you!” said Airi.

“Like I said, I didn’t want that! Now he’s going to go after me even more!”

“This ungrateful-”

“It’s okay, Airi,” said Ageha.

“You’re being too nice again.”

“I’m not.” Ageha fixed his gaze on the boy. “What’s your name?”

“…Jin.”

“Jin, don’t worry. I’ll help you if he comes back. I promise.” Ageha smiled confidently.

The boy looked puzzled.

“Why would you do that?”

“Because I want to. I hate people like him.”

“You can trust Ageha. He saved me when I was bullied, too,” said Airi.

“But Tooru has a lot of friends…” said Jin as he looked down.

Ageha placed a hand on Jin’s shoulder and said, “Then we can run away together.”

Jin’s head jerked up as he looked at Ageha with an incredulous expression. He then burst out laughing. Ageha joined in, but Airi looked like she was at a loss.

“Boys…”

Ageha recalled his lonesome days before he met Airi. Back then, he hardly spoke with anyone. The other children avoided him because he was odd. Kids his age belonged to either the bullies or the bullied. He paid no heed to either side and was ostracized for it. It was only after he saved Airi from being disrobed by her classmates that he obtained a companion. By saving Jin, he believed that his bonds would increase.

That was the beginning of their small and fragile group.

The three met everyday after that. They usually hung out at school before going home. Jin often brought in board games or cards for them to play with. He would teach the clumsy Ageha how to build a house of cards or confidently explain the rules to a new game while Airi watched over them happily.

Two weeks passed, and the bonds between them grew stronger. On Jin’s suggestion, they decided to go to an arcade after school. The arcade was on the way to Ageha’s home, but he had never visited it before.

“This is my first time going to an arcade.”

Both Airi and Jin looked at Ageha in shock.

“What? Is there something wrong with that?” asked Ageha, wondering at the duo’s reaction.

“What have you been doing with your life!?” shouted the boy.

“So you’ve never taken photo stickers before?” questioned the girl.

“Well, I usually spend my free time cooking and cleaning at home. My father says that it’s good training, and I guess it also helps him out since he’s usually too tired to cook anything when he gets home.”

“What about your mom?”

“Jin, that’s-”

“It’s okay, Airi. She died when I was very young so I don’t remember her at all. I have Father, so it’s not a big deal.”

“Ageha’s dad is a well-known chef!” boasted Airi with arms akimbo.

“Why are you the one bragging..?” said Jin as he sighed.

All three of them laughed. This was common when they were together. The trip to the arcade was filled with fun conversation. Ageha, who was used to being alone, felt a strange warmth spreading within him.

“Here we are! What do you think?” asked Jin expectantly.

“It’s bright and noisy.”

Jin cupped his face in his hand and shook his head. “What is wrong with you…”

“No, I’m not saying I don’t like it. I just said what immediately came to mind.”

“…Whatever. In we go!”

The three of them walked inside and headed to the token machine. They each converted a few thousand yen to tokens, which would be enough to last them the entire afternoon. Jin and Airi got into an argument immediately afterwards.

“Let’s do the photo booth first,” said Airi.

“No, let’s play a fighting game! Which one do you wanna play, Ageha?”

Ageha thought for a moment and pointed at the closest fighting game unit.

“Okay, let’s go!” Jin pushed Ageha from behind.

“C’mon guys, don’t ignore me!”

An hour passed while the three busied themselves with different fighting games in the arcade. As expected, Jin almost never lost against the other two. What was unexpected was Ageha’s losing streak.

“Wow, you’re weak,” said Jin.

“Yeah, I’ve never played these games before, but I can’t seem to lose to you,” teased Airi. “This is just like your lousy attempts at making a card house. You really are clumsy at everything besides cooking.”

Ageha, robbed of any excuse, dejectedly slumped his shoulders and kept silent.

“Jin, I didn’t think you were so good at this. I have a better opinion of you now.”

Jin blushed at the rare compliment from the girl. “How low was your opinion of me before?” He looked away while frowning.

“Don’t get angry. I was just joking.”

“I knew you would never praise me seriously.”

“No, I was joking about changing my opinion. I’ve always known you’re a good guy.”

Jin went red to his ears after her correction. Ageha watched the exchange with a smile. Jin was a lot more talkative recently. He had been very quiet the first few days they were together. It was Airi who managed to pry his shell open with her straightforward personality and sincere words.

“Can we go to the photo booth now?” asked Airi. Her arms were crossed and her foot was tapping on the floor.

“Okay!” said Ageha in an uncharacteristically loud voice as he put an arm on Jin’s shoulders to urge him forward. They stuffed themselves into the rather small booth and huddled together as closely as possible to get as much of themselves as they could into the frame.

They picture they took had Ageha on the right, Airi in the middle, and Jin on the left. Ageha wore his usual smile. Airi’s cheeks were red, and her eyes were directed at the boy with the perfect losing record. Jin’s gaze avoided the girl, as if he were trying to hide the blush on his own cheeks.

“I’m the only one looking at the camera.”

““Shut up!”” said the two in unison before all three broke out in laughter.

Such happy times had become normal for Ageha. He wished it would last forever. He was confident that all three of them felt the same way.

It wasn’t long until he realized that wishes never granted anyone anything.

 

***

 

It hurts!

Jin tried to block the kicks with his arms, but there were too many of them. He had been waiting for Ageha and Airi at the usual spot when Tooru and his friends grabbed him. He was now at the same courtyard where Ageha had saved him previously, but hope for such a miracle happening again was wearing thinner by the moment.

“You think I’d let you off just like that!?” asked Tooru. He kicked Jin’s side again.

Jin turtled up and placed his hands on his nape. Ageha taught him to do that in case something like this ever happened. However, a member of the rampaging group looped his arms under Jin’s and pulled him up into a full nelson. Tooru then shot his knee into Jin’s stomach.

“That was for the kick in the gut before!”

Jin retched the contents of his spasming stomach onto the ground.

Ageha, it didn’t do any good…

Tooru grabbed Jin’s hair and pulled his head up. Vomit dribbled down his chin.

“Disgusting.”

A slap flew across his cheek. It was far less painful than the kicks, but somehow his heart ached much more. Another slap. And another. And another. It sounded like a perpetual slow clap. Tooru had never beat him this badly before. It was usually a punch or two at most.

This is all because of Ageha…

Jin’s vision started blurring after his brain was rocked repeatedly by the powerful slaps. Seeing his eyes glazed over, Tooru stopped the assault and told his minion to release the mangled boy. Jin slowly toppled to the ground like a falling tree. Dust and sand stuck to the vomit and blood on his face as he sprawled on the earth. He heard a spitting sound and felt something slimy land on his neck. A series of clicking noises from all around him followed.

“We’re going to spread these pictures all over the school and the net if you squeal on us.”

That doesn’t make sense. It’s like confessing your crime if you did that.

Jin could only laugh in his head at the stupid gag order issued to him. His jaws would not move. The footfalls bustling around him earlier faded into the distance. He lay alone in silence for a long time, at least from his perspective.

“Jin!!! What happened!?”

Jin heard Ageha’s voice and Airi’s shrill scream. He found it odd that he deemed Airi’s voice cute despite the circumstances. His consciousness faded a few seconds later.

When he woke up, he saw the infirmary ceiling and a crying Airi at his bedside. Airi explained that Ageha had carried him there and that the school nurse had treated him. Apparently, Ageha told the nurse that it was Tooru and his friends who attacked Jin, but she simply brushed it off as a quarrel between kids. Ageha then went to the faculty office to file a formal complaint against Tooru and had not yet returned.

Jin told Airi what happened, but she gave no words of comfort. Jin knew she was a victim of bullying as well. She probably understood that nothing she could say would balm the wounds he received. A few minutes of silence passed until Ageha barged into the infirmary, fury audible in his steps.

“…Jin.”

“Ageha… where were you?”

“I went to the teachers and told them about this. I told them about the last time as well, but they dismissed it. They said that people should learn to protect themselves. They even blamed you for being attacked! What’s wrong with those people!?” Ageha faced the floor. His expression was a mix of anger, shame, sadness, and confusion. His fists were red from his forceful clenching.

“I didn’t mean that. Where were you?”

Ageha looked at Jin’s battered face. A look of realization appeared on his.

“When they kicked me… punched me… slapped me… spit on me!?”

“That wasn’t Ageha’s fault! I was talking with him about something, so we were late.”

Even now she is defending him..!

“You promised! That you would help me! But you were-”

Jin’s barrage was halted when he saw Ageha drop down to his knees and slam his forehead to the floor. Ageha remained bowed wordlessly. Airi grabbed Jin’s sleeve with a pleading look.

“…I’m sorry. It’s not your fault. Please stop that,” said Jin lifelessly.

Ageha stood up and stared at Jin’s eyes with determination.

“We’ll get even. I promise.”

But Jin no longer placed any value in his promises. He had already been betrayed once. No more words were exchanged between the three that day. The boisterous laughter from before was like a dream blown away by the harsh winds of reality.

The three of them still met daily, but it was as if they were only going through the motions. Something genuine disappeared after Jin was attacked.

A few days passed.

“I did some investigating and found out Tooru’s weakness,” said Jin.

This topic has not come up recently and immediately caught the attention of the other two.

“He has a sister who also goes to our school. She is two years younger than her brother.”

Ageha looked displeased but did not voice disagreement.

“Her brother bought her a newly released mobile terminal. She was telling all her friends about it. We should steal that terminal to hit him where it hurts the most.”

Airi remained silent and looked at Ageha.

Even now she is leaving the decisions to him.

“I’m sorry, Jin, but we can’t do that.”

“Why!?” shouted Jin, surprised at the opposition. He knew that Ageha carried an extreme amount of guilt due to the incident. He believed Ageha would have no choice but to agree with his plan.

“That girl did nothing wrong. She doesn’t deserve to be hurt just because of her brother’s stupidity.”

“She’s probably just as rotten as he is! Please Ageha! You promised you would help me!”

“And I will, but not like this.”

“Then how? Beating him up is impossible! He’s always with his group!”

“I’ll think of something. Please be patient.” Ageha bowed deeply.

“I’ll ask you, too. We shouldn’t stoop to something as shameful as theft. Please trust Ageha to find another solution.” Airi bowed as well.

These two..!

How can they just ignore what that bastard did to me!?

Even going as far as calling my perfect plan shameful!

And what’s with this couple act!? Acting like you understand each other perfectly..!

Jin finally despaired.

“I understand. I’m sorry for saying something so crazy. I’ll trust you, Ageha.” He was smiling. It was a perfect, stainless smile.

“Thanks. I won’t let you down.”

You already did.

Two weeks later, about as quickly as it was cemented, their small and fragile group crumbled.

It was surprisingly easy. It only took Jin three lies.

“Ageha told me that he likes this girl. She’s from another school. I know that you like him, so I thought that you should know, Airi.”

“Airi told me that she’s going to confess to you, but you know how I feel about her, right? Please Ageha, tell her that you like someone else so she can move on. Maybe then I’ll have a chance..!”

“I can’t believe Ageha! He was laughing about rejecting you with that girl! He said that he knew about your feelings all along. I overheard them yesterday at the arcade. I wouldn’t have brought us to that place if I knew Ageha would get to know that girl there… I’m so sorry…”

The deep trust they had in each other was used to destroy their relationships. Love transfigured into hatred.

Three cards don’t make a house.

 

***

 

“Hey, isn’t that the kid who stole Akari’s terminal?”

“Yeah, everyone’s talking about it. Why would someone steal a terminal, though? Anybody can afford one.”

“He must’ve done it for fun. What a jerk.”

“It’s a shame. He looks pretty cool.”

“You know what they say about appearances.”

“Why isn’t he like, suspended or something?”

“I hear the teachers are still discussing his punishment. Maybe he’ll get kicked out?”

Gossip rained down on Ageha as he took his shoes out of the school shoe locker. Tacks lined his shoes, and the locker was filled to the brim with letters telling him to die. It was the start of the second week since Tooru’s sister’s mobile terminal was found in his school bag. It was Airi who told the teachers about it. It was likely Jin who stole it and planted it there.

Part of him thought that he deserved it for failing to protect Jin.

But a much larger part made his teeth grind.

It hurts, it hurts, it hurts!

Ageha knew this must be how Jin felt, but he did not care.

How could you!? I don’t deserve this!

Akari was a model student who had garnered the affection of her teachers and peers. After having supposedly wronged her, Ageha had become an object of scorn and loathing. Ageha no longer saw Airi and Jin because they were in a different class. He wanted to blame them, hit them, hurt them, and show them how much pain he was suffering, but he knew that would only make it worse. He was already the enemy.

When Ageha entered the classroom that morning, he saw animal excrement smeared all over the top of his desk. He explained to the teacher that it was like that when he arrived, but the people in class refuted his claims and accused him. Logic dictated that he would be the least likely suspect, but the majority was tyrannical. He was reprimanded by the teacher and ordered to take the table to the courtyard garden and clean it with a hose. He did as instructed and left it there to dry for the entire school day in hopes that airing it out would make the smell disappear.

It was extremely embarrassing taking classes while standing up. Everyone in class took turns looking at him and giggling. There were spare desks, but the teacher thought it was good punishment for his misbehavior. He stayed that way until classes ended.

Ageha was currently on his way to get his desk and return it to the classroom. The insults thrown at him lessened after he left the populated school building. He arrived at the courtyard only to be met by Tooru and three of his friends. He had to return the table, so he decided to ignore the group.

“Hey, did you really think I would just let you go after stealing Akari’s stuff?”

“I didn’t do it.”

Ageha moved towards the table. The other three surrounded him.

“You really think I’ll believe that?”

“No, but it’s true.”

“Stop lying! Even your friends are saying it was you.”

“I have no friends.” Ageha’s faint words were ice cold, but only he could hear them. He picked up the table and proceeded to carry it from the courtyard.

Probably ticked off from being ignored, Tooru grabbed Ageha’s shirt from behind and turned him around. Ageha was forced to drop the table. Tooru held Ageha’s collar and threw a fist towards his face.

Ageha raised his left arm to block the punch. It ached from the impact, but he was able to throw a right of his own. It hit Tooru square in the face and caused a nosebleed. Ageha closed in on Tooru, who was backpedaling from the pain, but he was grabbed from behind by one of the other boys.

He did not know how to escape a full nelson. He had never trained in any martial arts. He was weak. He was only slightly taller and larger, so he had always managed to drive off bullies if they were alone or did not want a fight. That was meaningless right now.

He received a more brutal and shameful beating than Jin ever did.

Dirtied and bruised, he went home much later than usual. His father was already home.

“What happened?” asked his father, who was cooking dinner since Ageha was late.

“Some boys beat me up at school.”

“…How pathetic. Learn to protect yourself. The world isn’t kind to weak people, so don’t be so pitiful.”

Who was the one who told me to practice cooking any time I can!? I could’ve learned to fight instead!

He did not reply. He was already too exhausted, both mentally and physically. He hid in his room and cried on the bed. Battered as he was, he could not fall asleep. The world was hideously unfair, and he was powerless to do anything about it.

His father was not wrong. It was common sense for people to be able to protect themselves and what they care about. People were free to pursue their goals because they had the means to do so. Teachers believed that, students were taught that, and parents expected that. It was his fault for being incompetent. He was abnormal for wanting fairness. He lamented this until the sun rose.

And he had to go through all of it again.

It ended as abruptly as it started. One day, he unintentionally walked by the arcade on his way home from school. He usually avoided this route since it reminded him of those blissful memories that now only served to claw at his heart. However, drained by the incessant attacks from all fronts, he forgot this consideration. His legs naturally guided him down that familiar path, where he was confronted with Airi and Jin cheerfully flirting near the roadside.

“Ageha…” said Jin, alarm showing on his face.

His face as blank as a white sheet, Ageha rapidly walked towards Jin. He could no longer understand the myriad of emotions assailing him, so he could not express them. He grabbed Jin’s collar and screamed in tears.

“Why!? Why!!? Why!!??”

Jin looked terrified. He tried to remove Ageha’s grip on his shirt, but it was too strong.

“Stop it, you’re hurting Jin! Let him go, you monster!” Airi desperately tried to pry Ageha’s talons off her partner.

The numerous holes being drilled into Ageha’s heart bored through to the core at last.

Monster?

You’re calling me a monster?

After what you’ve done?

After betraying me?

After I helped you?

After I loved you?

Ageha finally despaired.

His fingers lost all strength and released Jin’s shirt. The sudden loss of resistance caused the pair to push Ageha backward and out into the street. The driver of an oncoming truck could not react in time. The truck swerved away from the falling boy but did not avoid him completely.

Ageha’s right arm was crushed along with his hope in humanity.

 

***

 

I didn’t want this to happen!

Airi cried in Jin’s arms. When Jin told her that they would get back at Ageha for betraying them, she did not think it would come to this.

Her heart ached every time she saw Ageha beaten up and sullied. He was spat on, cursed, and made a laughingstock. However, it did not take long for her guilt to turn into fear.

How can he endure all that?, she thought back then.

Ageha’s treatment was far worse than Jin’s or anyone else’s. He was mauled by Tooru every day, but he never gave in. She knew that if it were her, she would have already surrendered to her enemies or killed herself. Probably both.

This fear prevented her from following the clues that would have led her to the truth behind Jin’s deception. In Jin, she found an ally in the same predicament. She could not bear to be alone. She even accepted his confession despite not having romantic feelings for him. She took the devil’s hand instead of reaching out for the monster’s.

Several months had passed since Ageha was run over. He returned to school two weeks earlier. He was not angry and even sought reconciliation with the two of them. They happily accepted.

They had finally returned to those days when they could laugh wholeheartedly.

That was what had she thought.

Before her tear-soiled eyes, Ageha and his new right arm crushed Tooru’s fist. Tooru wailed in pain and then fainted.

“That much should be enough. You were only used,” said Ageha to the unconscious boy.

Three other boys were scattered on the ground. Each one had a limb pointing in the wrong direction.

“You two arrived too early. You weren’t supposed to see this.” His voice was gentle.

Airi and Jin were hugging each other in terror. Their legs refused to move, forcing them to remain quivering in the same courtyard where fate had played with them constantly.

Ageha leisurely walked towards them. Jin regained his senses faster than Airi. He tried to free himself from Airi’s embrace.

Don’t leave me here!!! Airi tried to hold him back.

“Let go, you bitch!” Jin frantically tried to hit her so she would let go.

Ageha ran forward and used his right hand to grab Jin’s left forearm. He then applied strength to his grip and crumpled it like a soda can. Jin screamed. He tried to break free, but Ageha held him in place with ease.

“I want to feel this properly,” said Ageha.

He used his human left hand to pummel Jin’s face and torso. Once Jin’s legs gave out, he started kicking the boy who lay defenselessly on the ground. He did not attack with his right arm so the attacks were weak, but it also meant that Jin did not faint and could feel each of them. Ageha continued ravaging his best friend without any emotion on his face. Airi watched on in shock, forgetting to breathe. It was as if Ageha had counted the number of hits he took and cashed them all in at Jin’s expense.

Once Jin was reduced to a bloody mess, Ageha turned his attention to Airi. This prodded her into lucidity.

“Ageha, please listen! He tricked me! He told me that you liked this girl and that you toyed with me! You have to believe me!” Rivers gushed down her face as she aimed her index finger at Jin’s twitching body.

“I know.”

The short response birthed a sliver of hope inside her.

He knows I was tricked by Jin!

Ageha protected me earlier!

I’m saved!

“You were right,” said the boy as he reached out to her.

“Eh?”

“I am a monster.”

Airi finally despaired.

 

 

Next Chapter

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