Midori spent another weekend by herself at home. Tori still wouldn't speak to her, and Sakura only occasionally texted her with small talk. More and more, her feelings conflicted toward the gang and Pinku telling all her friends about her involvement with the gang. On the one hand, she was happy with the gang; it almost served her as a kind of therapy, and if Tori didn't like her after knowing the whole truth about her, then Midori would rather stick with people who accepted her for who she was. On the other hand, Tori was her closest friend, the only friend that stuck by her through junior high. Why wouldn't she stick by her now?
Somewhere between the pages of her math textbook on Sunday night, she came to a decision: She didn't want to lose Tori as a friend, but the gang was important to her as well. Maybe Tori could understand that if she explained to her why she joined the gang, at the same time talking about something that happened in junior high that she never told anyone before. But she couldn't say it out loud. So she took out her phone and began a text message.
Tori, please read this.
I need to tell you something, and I need you to know it.
If we were ever friends, please read it.
Pinku walked into school that Monday feeling more self-conscious than the first day she walked into school with manba. Her gang knew her secret history, they knew about how she was abused by her father and what it did to her. And they had a whole weekend to digest it. What would they think of their leader now that they knew this about her?
Nothing seemed awry as she took attendance that morning. And it was business as usual when a girl deliberately knocked into Ao, making her spill her books and papers into a nearby garbage can, and the gang punished the girl later by arranging to have her cell phone stolen and thrown into a toilet. The cherry on the top was hearing that the girl had won a contest and was expecting a call from idol Dash Takahasi at that phone number.
Then lunchtime came. Pinku got her tray and sat down at her usual seat by the window. Then someone sat across from her—Akai.
"Do you mind?" Akai asked. "My friends keep asking stupid questions."
Pinku shrugged. "It's my fault. If you actually want to sit with me…"
"The strategy is limited anyway. Keeping ourselves under wraps, people don't know who they're being ruled by. But if they do know, they're more likely to pay attention."
"I suppose." Still, Pinku was surprised anyone would want to sit with her. "But isn't it more likely for a gang to be identified when it travels together?"
"So? No one can prove what we've done. There's our calling cards, but as long as we don't in-person call our gang by its name, and as long as no one finds the calling cards on us, we'll be fine. In fact, the more well-known we are, we should just get rid of the calling cards altogether." Akai noticed Pinku was staring. "What?"
Pinku snapped to attention. "I'm just…it's surprising no one has even tried reporting the gang yet. I mean, even if they don't know who specifically it is, they don't report gang activity."
Akai bobbed her head. "That's just fear working in our favor."
Pinku couldn't help but laugh. "I'm sorry. It's just surprising hearing this kind of talk from you, Hina Satou. What you are and your image are two completely different people."
"And you'll know why someday. Before winter, you'll know." She took a sip of juice. "Maybe you'll know."
Pinku struggled a bit with her slippery ramen. "So what kind of stupid questions do your friends ask?"
Akai sighed. "Like, if my grades are so good because the gang helps me cheat."
Pinku scoffed with disgust. "God, those jerks. I barely know you, and I know you get good grades because you're a good student."
"Well, you're observant. They're lemmings."
It was difficult for Pinku to ignore how many people were staring at their table. But she worked up her courage to just glare back at them.
"I was going to the mall after school," Akai said. "You want to come with?"
Pinku hesitated, then shook her head. "No, I've…got some studying to catch up on."
Pinku decided to skip out on the final class of the day. Monday had taken more out of her than she expected, and she didn't feel like getting embarrassed in English class. Kiiro had the best penmanship, so she forged a doctor's note to get Pinku out of class early. She liked walking the quiet, empty halls to her locker alone. It felt freeing to be the only one not tied to class. Her plan was to gather her things then take a walk through the park across the street while waiting for her mother to pick her up.
She just finished getting her things out of her locker, slung on her backpack, when someone slammed her locker door shut. By that point of the day, she was too numb to care and turned nonchalantly to see who it was—Ren.
"Thanks," she said. "I was just about to do that myself." Then she turned and started walking away. Earlier, she had wondered if any of Hina's former friends would have a strong reaction to the star student sitting with the known delinquent.
"What did you guys talk about at lunch?" he demanded. He kept his voice low, but sharp.
"I'm sorry, but that falls under client-kitchen confidentiality."
"I'm not kidding around!" He grabbed her shoulder, but she shrugged it off instantly. "What did you talk about?"
"Why do you care?"
"Because I'm her boyfriend!"
Pinku couldn't help but laugh out loud. "You're still calling yourself that? You're an even bigger creep than I thought."
"Listen to me, you bitch!" He shoved her aside, and while she didn't fall or hit the other lockers, it was enough to make her stop walking. "Hina is ten times the girl you'll ever be! She's not on her way to a trash dump like you, she's going to college, she's going to become something great. Now, you do whatever needs to be done to cut off ties between her and your stupid gang, or I'm turning you in."
Pinku crossed her arms. "You wouldn't turn me in if we left her alone?"
"No, because you'd protect her."
"That's what I'm doing now."
"No, you're not. You're dragging her down to your level."
"Let me clue you in on something, spaz boy: She didn't need to be dragged." She shoved him away. "Hina is a star student, and that's all her own effort. But there's a part of her that needs something more than good grades, and that's something not you or all your little posse could hope to understand." She started walking on her way again, but backwards, so she could still face him. "I could have the gang punish you for this stupid little stunt. But I'm going to let it slide on one condition: I want you to decide if you really like Hina. Because if you don't lay off interrogating her, and I mean soon, then I'm going to be the one slamming your locker shut, preferably with your head inside it."
She then turned completely around and continued on her way out of the building to freedom.
After school, Midori approached her locker with a stirring in the pit of her stomach. Her face felt hot, and she was eager to get her gloves on to hide her sweaty palms. She had told Tori absolutely everything. Something she hadn't told her family or even the gang yet. It was easier to just type it out and send it. With the gang, she would have to say it aloud, and the mere thought of that made her even more nervous, despite the fact that she wouldn't be telling them for awhile.
She arrived at her locker, then Sakura, then she tried to pretend she didn't notice Tori coming to her locker. As though she could feel the tension, Sakura bid a barely audible goodbye to her friends as she gathered her things quickly and left. With her nervous jitters, Midori accidentally dropped one of her gloves, so she bent down to pick it up. Someone whistled.
No sooner did Midori stand straight up again than Tori jumped at the boy standing behind Midori and kicked him in the shin. "Back off!" she shouted.
The boy muttered some curses while his friends laughed at him for getting kicked by a girl. They were soon down the hall.
Midori stared at her friend. Tori was usually a good picture of a Japanese girl, yet she actually yelled at a boy and kicked him. To defend her.
When Tori turned to face her, there were tears in her eyes. She couldn't say anything, just reached out to hug Midori as tears streamed down her face. Midori hugged her back, finally feeling relief at her best friend knowing more about her.
Midori started walking with her friend's arm hooked in hers. "Let's go to Suki's Sweet Shop."
Kiiro decided to hit Neko Burger after school. Her parents were having their favorite extra-spicy curry for supper, and since Kiiro didn't like spicy food, they gave her money to get a burger with her friends after school. However, Kiiro was going alone, with her friends having other after-school plans.
She always liked Neko Burger, with the big cute cat outside and all the cat images inside. On her way in, she spied Ao sitting at a booth with her homework. She walked over to the table, debating over if it was a good idea or not.
Ao looked up. "Oh, hey. How's it going?"
"Good…" Kiiro replied meekly. "Um…can I sit with you?"
Ao replied so easily, that it made Kiiro feel more at ease. "Oh, good! Um, I have to get my food first. Can I keep my bag here? And I'll be right back! Are you getting food? I can get you some food too!"
Kiiro's sudden enthusiasm rattled Ao. "No…that's alright. My food's coming."
Just then, Taro came by in his work uniform and set down a tray of food in front of Ao. "There you go, one Combo #2. Oh, this your friend? She in the gang too?"
Kiiro's ears burned. "What?"
"You ready to order? I'll get you whatever you want, my treat."
"Um…thanks, but…I have money. And if I don't spend it, my mom might think I'm trying to save it up for another manga. And I've been grounded from buying manga for awhile."
He laughed. "Well, follow me, and I'll take your order."
Kiiro followed him to the counter, feeling awkward with how freely this strange boy was talking to her, then sat down with her food tray across from Ao. "Who's he?"
"That's just Taro," Ao said dismissively. "He's really excited about getting a job here."
For a moment, they sat in silence. Ao seemed fine without conversation, but it made Kiiro feel anxious. It made her even more anxious when she couldn't think of anything Ao might want to talk about.
"It's kinda weird," Kiiro finally said. "It's like all the…" she hushed her voice, "…the gang members…" then returned to normal, "are in the Going-Home-After-School Club."
Ao shrugged. "Who needs a club when we've got the gang anyway?"
"I kinda thought it'd be fun to be in Art Club, but none of my friends wanted to, so…"
"You always have to do what your friends want to do?"
"What?" Kiiro asked.
"You just don't like hanging out with people you don't know. Me too."
"Oh." Starting to feel more comfortable, Kiiro asked, "So you like Wax Sun, Wane Moon so far?"
"Oh yeah, it's really good." Ao looked ahead, as though concentrating. "There was that one part, when Asahi took on that whole legion of angels by herself…that was really cool."
"Yeah! And later when she solved the riddle of the secret relic?" Kiiro was smiling wide. Though Ao seemed to like what they were talking about, she didn't smile even a little. In fact, Kiiro couldn't ever remember Ao smiling. Maybe Kiiro was bothering her? She ate her food quietly for awhile, when suddenly she decided to take out her special notebook. Hesitantly opening it, she showed it to Ao. "I draw my own manga."
Ao looked up at the notebook, and her eyes seemed glued to it.
Kiiro couldn't tell what she was thinking. "See, this is PataPata. And this guy here is the evil Smudge Lord. PataPata fights him."
Ao pointed. "This thing is PataPata? How does he fight?"
Kiiro was almost too self-conscious to say. Quietly, she answered, "...with the um…power of adorability…"
Ao's eyes wrinkled, as though to say How stupid and childish! But the expression expanded as she slowly quirked a little smile and snickered.
Kiiro prepared to be teased. "I know, it…it's silly…"
Ao's shoulders started to shake as she held the notebook in her hand to get a better look. "This is…this is the most…" She seemed to be laughing so hard that the sound caught in her throat. "This is so friggin' adorable!"
It was finally getting infectious, and Kiiro started laughing too. "You like it?"
"Are you kidding? Kiiro, you are just so…" She shook her head, settling down her laughter. "This is great stuff, great stuff. I love it. So how does he use the power of adorability?"
"Well, he has his Super Special Smile attack…" She flipped ahead to show her the picture of PataPata's Super Special Smile.
Ao clamped her hand over her mouth to stifle a laugh. "Can you draw a copy of this for me? If I carry it around with me all day, I'll never be bored again."
"Sure!" Kiiro immediately turned to a clean sheet and started drawing it.
"You draw really fast. You can draw that good that fast?"
Kiiro just burst a little bashful chuckle and continued drawing.
Pinku and her mother stepped into the mall, decided on a meeting time, then went their separate ways. First, she wanted to stop at Suki's Sweet Shop to get a snack she could eat while she was wandering. As she was at the counter ordering some travel-tray mochi, she noticed Midori sitting with her friend at one of the tables—they were both smiling. Glad that finally worked out. Midori noticed Pinku and nodded her head, which she did more often than waving. Tori turned around to see who the nod's recipient was—seeing it was Pinku, she flickered an uncertain smile then turned back to her friend.
Mochi in hand, Pinku enjoyed eating each piece with the small skewer as she walked. Seeing a new window display, she halted. There was one shirt that really caught her eye, a Western fashion. It was made with black draping fabric with short sleeves that hung from the shoulders in ripples. I miss wearing black. And brown. I really miss wearing brown. She used to love natural colors the best. Those jeans are cute, too. They had silver studs all along the outer seams.
Without realizing, Pinku wound up staring at the outfit, sucking on the skewer in her mouth absent-mindedly.
She wasn't used to people calling her name who weren't relatives. So she was taken aback to see it was Akai coming up to her.
"Oh…Hina-senpai…" It felt strange using her real name. "Hi."
"I thought you weren't coming to the mall today."
Pinku remained calm. "My mom brought me. She needed to stop in for something, then we're going soon."
"Oh." Akai looked at the outfit Pinku had so obviously been ogling. "Why don't you try it on?"
Pinku smirked and shook her head. "Nah, not my style."
Akai moved around to stand face-to-face with her. "You have until winter, just like the rest of us."
"I told you my secrets already."
"But there's still things you don't talk about with anyone else. Things that bother you. Things that maybe you should talk about."
Pinku stiffened her posture and looked her straight in the eye. "Don't think you can assume my position, Hina Satou. I am the sukeban, not you."
Akai smiled gently, a perfect smile of concern. "I don't want to be sukeban. But you're the only friend I have now. I was hoping that would be okay."
"No!" Pinku snapped. Then she composed herself again. "Feel free to sit with me at lunch, but that's all. Maybe…someday…I'll tell you about 'friends' and why I'm sick to death of them."
"I thought you wanted us to know more about each other."
"I want us to help each other out. Getting friends isn't going to help me out, it's just going to…It's just going to annoy me, okay?"
"But can you…?" Akai was just as good with keeping her composure, though her voice became quiet. "It would help me to have a friend."
Pinku stared blankly at the store window. "I'll think about it."
Tuesday was nothing unusual. Midori, Tori, and Sakura were back to their normal interactions. And though Akai sat with Pinku at lunch again, Ren didn't do or say anything about it all day. Wednesday was a little more unusual. Just a little.
At lunchtime, Akai just finished helping Pinku with English articles when Pinku took a folded paper from her backpack.
She chose her words carefully. "I don't want…anyone else in the gang to know about this. I don't want to raise an alarm. But it might be…helpful to have someone else on the lookout to see who's doing this." She unfolded the paper. In barely legible scrawl, it read, Stop what you're doing with "stop" underlined three times. "This was in my locker, and it's the second in a series." She took out the first one, Stop now.
Akai looked over them both. "No clue who sent them?"
"None so far. I made a shortlist of people who it might be, but…" She shook her head. "Watching them, I don't get any kind of response from anyone."
Akai looked up at her. "Worried?"
"Not worried, but we'd be idiots to just let it slide."
"True. I'll do what I can."
"Anyway, you seem to know the comings and goings of the school better than anyone."
"It's easier now that I'm not…swarmed by…"
Pinku glanced over to the table of her former friends. "Yeah."
Akai prodded at her sushi a moment. "Could I suggest where to go for our next gang meeting?"
Pinku warily replied, "You could suggest it, sure."
When Taro finally came off his shift, he walked with Ao to the internet café, the street lights just coming on. Taro talked excitedly about how he planned to spend his first paycheck, with Ao walking with her eyes down at the ground as always. So she was surprised when Taro suddenly grew quiet and said, "What the hell?"
Looking up, Ao saw that hers and Taro's things were sitting on the sidewalk outside the internet café. They ran to the pile, checking to see if everything was there. Her pillow, clothes, and spare school supplies were there. But one thing was missing.
"I got everything," Taro said. "You got everything?"
Ao quietly checked the pile again.
"I'm going to see what's going on here."
Ao didn't follow him inside, but she could hear him talking:
"Where's Kokoro-sama?" he asked.
An older male voice replied: "Her husband's in the hospital. She's staying with him, and said she'll be retiring soon. I'm in charge now."
"Did she tell you about me and Jiyuu?"
"She told me about squatters, and since I'm in charge from now on, I know squatters are bad for business. So you will leave and stay away!"
When Taro came back out, Ao sat against the wall, hugging her pillow. Taro offered a hand to help her get up, but she jerked away and stood up on her own, collecting everything into her arms.
"Come on," Taro said as he started walking with his own small armful. "The mall still hasn't leased that one store, and they keep the back door unlocked. We can stay there until my paycheck comes in, then I might be able to afford something better." He waited for her to catch up, noticing that she was walking slower than usual. "Wherever I go, you'll come too. I'm not leaving you in the street, don't worry."
He noticed her head was buried in her pillow, and he could hear her irregular breathing as she quietly cried. He put his arm around her and stroked her shoulder to comfort her as they walked on.
That night, as Taro and she made themselves comfortable in a corner of the empty store, Ao laid back on her pillow and held up the picture of PataPata that was drawn for her. She stared at it all night, knowing she wouldn't be able to sleep.