Side of a Bullet
"You're the useless one.
"I told you to gather first-rate players. But all of the players you found are second-rate... Including yourself."
"Second-rate? Me, second-rate!?"
"You're not fit for me if you can't get past your own problems." Those dismissive words were damning in their truth. "You tried to use me and only fought as a member of Shin Teikoku to defeat Raimon so that that person would acknowledge you."
Kageyama sneered. "Give me back the meteorite. You won't be needing it anymore."
Commander Kageyama gave him 5 minutes to leave the sub. Fudou was already out the door by second 10, shoulders quivering in anger and fists balled up tightly. As he fled from the helm, he dug his fingernails into his palm and made himself take deep breaths so that he wouldn't explode and punch the wall instead. After all, that crazy bastard was going to down the ship whether he threw a tantrum or not, and he would rather be alive then.
From the Commander's room, he shimmied down the escape ladder like the Devil was after him, gripping the rungs with unsteady hands. He practically jumped down the rungs, losing his grip once and tumbling a few feet downwards before finally catching himself. Fudou continued to descend almost in a panic, nearly losing grip again a couple of times in his haste. Intermittent patches of sunlight, caused by the commander opening the hatch, shifted around and chased his descending figure.
He took the last stretch in a leap, jumping down from an impossible height and landing on two feet. Though his knees bent practically to the ground to absorb the impact, Fudou couldn't avoid a sharp burst of pain blossoming in his feet, ankle and knees. But he didn't have time to feel sorry for himself. Time was ticking and he didn't know how much he had left.
As he crossed the gymnasium to get to the stairway leading to the mess hall, his teammates finally came to mind. Sakuma and Genda had been swiftly evacuated due to their injuries, but he'd seen the rest of them running into the changing rooms as he went up to talk to Kageyama. Those fools! To warn them, he would need to make a detour there. But the changing rooms were far below the football field, and he would have to double back. Fudou checked the gym clock in a frenzy – 3, maybe 3 and a half minutes left. He didn't have time.
He grit his teeth and kept running.
Only to bump into some of his teammates gathered at the door, panting hard from their escape from the authorities. The slower ones straggled up the stairway and only caught a glimpse of him as he rushed past them up the many flights of stairs.
"Oi, Fudou!" Gouin shouted, but he kept on running. Let them see him with his tail between his legs. He'd ditch them all once this was over, so what would their last impression of him matter anyway?
"Captain! Where're you going?"
A shrill voice from somewhere below him made him skid to a stop, if only for a moment.
"Get out of here!" he yelled down at them. "No time! C'mon!" He started to run again, through the doorway, heading for the door at the end of the mass of tables. "He's gonna blow it up!" he added, his voice going high. Off he went again, without waiting to see if his teammates had heard.
As he ran, Fudou thanked the gods more than once that the cleaning staff hadn't polished the floor too much. One slip would cost him precious time and even his life, but he didn't fall even once and finally cleared the first room. He didn't dare to look at the clock now – it wouldn't help him at all and would only waste time. All he could do now was hope that he still had enough time to get out of there. Finally approaching the end of the second room, he slowed, suddenly becoming aware of the rapid footsteps a ways behind him. Fudou keyed in the code and wrenched the door open. He only took the time to leave it ajar before disappearing through the corridor like a snake down a hole.
He weaved expertly through the machinery and tanks that helped the submarine run. The first right here, pass two machines, then another right turn... There was a lone guy sitting at a desk operating one of the consoles, but at the sight of Fudou in his urgency he immediately jumped up and ran with him.
Fudou elbowed him out of the way to take the lead. "Open the hatch!" he hissed to the technician before he leaped onto the escape ladder with the ferocity of a wildcat.
The final stretch was the hardest. Fudou's muscles were burning as he attempted to jump rungs, propelling his body forward to take two or even three at a time. His fingers scrabbled for the furthest rung possible to pull him up while his feet searched wildly for support. He reached the inner hatch and jumped off the ladder like it was hot coals, spinning to the left and just flat out slapping the button to open the outer hatch, the route to freedom.
The outer hatch slowly opened, and he started to scale the final escape ladder. The Commander's exchange with Kidou and the detective slowly became clearer and it reverberated and bounced down the chamber. Fudou grew sicker at the stomach as he heard every grotesque, amplified word. The Commander had never let go of Kidou, even after instructing Fudou to destroy him. He'd given them this mission, knowing that they would fail. The sub suddenly rocked, and Fudou heard the explosion a few moments later.
Screams and yells came from below, but this only urged Fudou on quicker until he reached open air.
Rolling to a side, he took several quick breaths, choking on the sharp smell of salt in the air mixed with the acrid smell of things burning. His coughing attack turned into hyperventilating as the magnitude of the situation finally struck him. All the sensations that his body had suppressed in the minutes prior rushed at him in an instant, and he reeled, feeling pain in his muscles and panic in his mind. Behind him, the lab tech emerged, followed by the first few remaining members of Shin Teikoku. They boarded a waiting dinghy, and it wasn't until somebody shoved him roughly that he jolted and dumbly followed them.
In the distance, he heard Kidou's wild cry of rage, and registered him being carried off by the detective in a helicopter. But Kidou was quickly growing irrelevant now. The men in suits aboard their dinghy were rowing away from the sub as quickly as they could. All their lives depended on it. On shore, ambulances were just beginning to arrive and the sound of the sirens drowned in and out of his mind.
They were at a distance, the submarine exploded, and Fudou was in shock.
They tended to him at hospital just enough to make sure that he could go through questioning. The two grim-looking detectives poked and prodded at his relationship with the Commander. They asked him how he managed to enrol at Shin Teikoku despite the steep costs. ("Sports scholarship.") They asked him if he'd known about Kageyama's prickly past with Raimon. ("Not at all.") They asked him just what the exact nature of the purple pendant was. ("Decoration?")
The detectives were understandably frustrated. They told him the implications of his actions. He was obstructing justice. He was acting as an accomplice to attempted murder and causing explosion. And that wasn't counting the things he'd done already. He was lucky to escape criminal conviction. They'd rattled off a huge list of the crimes he'd supposedly committed. Assault causing grievous bodily harm. Child abuse. Criminal damage to property. Permitting an escape of a criminal. Being an accomplice to crime. Obstruction of justice. The list went on. It was only because of his age and the fact that he'd helped innocents escape that he wasn't charged with these offences. In fact, he was lucky that it had been the school holidays and the rest of the school hadn't been there. And so the blame train started up again. It was all he could do not to laugh.
He didn't feel like laughing anymore when they left him alone to face his family's disappointment. His father picked him up from the station, grovelling for a few minutes to the officers for good measure. In the taxi, his mother was crying as she waited. Not the loud wails of the bereaved, or even dainty sobs punctuated by hiccups. Tears just rolled down her face, and she let them. She stared bleakly ahead of her, and didn't meet his gaze.
His parents sat on opposite sides of him on the journey home. He looked ahead at the rolling scenery and tried not to be suffocated by their silence. No, that wasn't right. He could sense the unspoken sentiments, both from his parents and himself, but he wasn't ready to talk about the situation yet, especially not with a stranger around. His mind was still reeling from what had happened between the Commander, Kidou, Raimon, Shin Teikoku, that damn match, and the moment when goddamn Sakuma had lost control and ruined everything. He was a mess right now, a tightly contained, volatile one, and he wasn't ready to clean himself up.
When the taxi pulled up to his apartment block, Fudou mutely followed his parents into the building and up the flights of stairs. The only thing he could really do was to ignore the stares of the other tenants of the building. Once inside the unit, he made a beeline for his own room, and stayed there for the rest of the night.
He found the first few text messages waiting for him when he woke up the next day. Somehow, someone out there had found his mobile number and probably posted it up on the Internet or something. Raimon had been getting lots of fans since they were saving Japan from aliens or something, after all. He'd seen this kind of harassment happening in TV shows and movies, but he'd never thought that it would happen to him.
Most of the texts were the same. Some were plain abusive and others were heavily splashed with a tone of superiority. Some texts practically gave him lectures and in others he detected just the faintest hints of pity. They made him sick to his stomach, and he chucked his phone into a corner.
He stayed in his room for the next two weeks, going to the bathroom only when his parents weren't around. His meals were delivered to outside his door while he brooded inside and tried to fix the sudden lack of purpose in his life. His chest felt empty without the meteorite pendant, and he hunted around his room until he found a bad metal replacement that some girl had given him a while back. It was a cheap flat metal plate shaped like a surfboard, with an edgy design with lots of sharp edges and tendrils etched into it. It reminded her of him, apparently, though he couldn't see how, but it would have to do.
The day after that, he found his mobile phone and mass-deleted all the hate texts. He emerged from his room, and his mother showed him a letter from Shin Teikoku.
It was a generic info pack that showed clear signs of hasty assembly. Shin Teikoku was to be closed following Kageyama's disappearance. The students of Shin Teikoku would be offered places in schools elsewhere; the individual schools would contact them shortly. Kageyama was missing, presumed dead as he'd gone down with the sub (he knew better), and his assistants were currently being questioned by the police. They were to be brought to court in the following weeks. The situation was being cleaned up and all involved were valiantly trying to move on. Most would. But not him.
An extra letter had been attached to his info pack. As he had been captain of the football team, and the enforcer of Kageyama's ideals, Shin Teikoku would cut all ties with him. They regretted to inform him that they would be unable to recommend him to any partner schools, and wished him good luck in the future. The same old noncommittal dismissal that he had come to expect from anybody washing their hands of Kageyama.
If only he could do the same so easily.
He worried about his mother. Though she put on a brave face, he could see the frown lines, the tired eyes, the pale complexion. Her normally serene smile, unaffected by all the troubles his irresponsible father had caused the family over the years, turned more and more brittle as the days passed and the mound of schools rejecting him grew. Her gait become less confident. She stooped more, moved slower, and constantly stopped to hold something for support.
"What are we going to do now, Akio?" she finally asked him later that day. Her tone was wrung out of sadness and made him feel guiltier than anything else had. He didn't say anything and retreated into his room, but it was then that he clutched his shitty metal pendant and thought hard, and resolved to finally get on with his life.
He turned to see a small boy, with dark, shoulder-length hair partially covered by a hat that he could only describe as one of those ridiculous kindergarten kid ones. You know, those ugly-ass, bright yellow helmets. His crafty smile spelled trouble or at least annoyance, so he ignored him and went back to sticking more job search fliers on the walls.
"Odd jobs?" The kid leaned his head back on both palms, making himself comfortable. Clearly, he hadn't got the message. "Handyman? Babysitter? Ain't you a bit fierce for that, now?"
"And you?" Fudou finally looked at him. "Shouldn't you be in school or something? Got nothing better to do than to heckle strangers on the street?"
The boy blew out a bright blue bubble, continuing to watch him advertise his services. He popped the bubble noisily, and darted his tongue out to gather the gum back into his mouth. "Look who's talking. You don't look old enough to be out of school neither."
"No," Fudou said, and moved off to find a new spot to put his fliers up in. To his chagrin, the boy stuck to him.
"Look, can you stop following me?"
"No can do. I'm bored and you're the most interesting thing round here for miles. It's true."
He had to concede his point. The neighbourhood they were currently at looked drab and sterile and, save for a bulletin board, there was no evidence that people actually lived there. Many shops were closed, no children played in the parks and playgrounds, and few people walked the streets. It was unsettling, to say the least. He probably wouldn't have come here if he hadn't been trying to shake off the kid.
"I don't see why you can't just follow one of those people instead. What about that girl talking on the phone there?"
"Are you kidding?" the kid screeched. "She'd kill me! She's talking to her boyfriend right now. They're having a fight." He lowered his voice as if he were revealing the largest secret in the world. "It's true. Even if she isn't talking very loudly. She tried to kick me when I got too close just now."
Ah. So he'd already tried to hang around her. Fudou was trying, and rapidly failing, to stifle his urge to hurt the kid. Still, he figured that maybe he would go away if he ignored him enough. He moved on.
"So, why're you looking for a job anyway?" The kid started to blow another bubble and looked at him expectantly, before letting out a quick breath and popping it. Out came the tongue again to collect the residue. "You look tough, but you don't look stupid. You look like my big brother and he's in middle school right now studying for his entrance exam thingies." He took a deep breath, and started to blow another bubble.
Fudou gathered his things and moved on to the street after the next, still ignoring the kid. Again, the balloon popped, and in between gathering up the gum and giving it a few good chews, it was a while before the kid could speak again.
"Don't ignore me! The way I see it, I'm just giving you entertainment. In fact, you should thank me. Wait a minute, are you sure you wanna go into this neighbourhood...?"
A withering glare was all Fudou gave him as he continued to head deeper into the suburbs.
"Well, don't say I didn't warn you, pal. Some of the people here are pretty rough. You're making this hard for me, man!" The kid babbled on in between chews. "Just because you've never been here before doesn't mean that you should just ignore danger. But maybe that's what you're looking for, huh? Trying to look all respectable by looking for a job, but in reality you're just a guy with a mohawk looking for a fight? I've seen you types before. I've seen you types before. It's true. My brother has a friend who-"
"THERE YOU ARE!" The ground rumbled, and Fudou looked up to see a large boy barreling towards them. He deftly sidestepped the new arrival, but Bubblegum Boy wasn't so lucky and was swept away screaming. For a moment, he watched the spectacle, amused.
Then the big guy turned to give him a steely glare.
"YOU!" he declared, marching over to him (Bubblegum Boy trailed behind). "It's all your fault that my boy Shogo here's been missing for so long and shirkin' his duties! What did you offer him, huh? Food? Money? Gum!? You can't just be picking up kids off the street, you know! He's not even out of elementary school! Have some decency, man! I mean, you don't look like too bad of a guy yourself. Do you got brothers? Surely you must know how he feels. I mean..."
"Look," Fudou tried to say.
"...it's tough out here in the streets nowadays, you know? Don't go stealing our turf and taking our jobs! We help society too, you know! We ain't just trash! Shogo here was supposed to go mow somebody's lawn! Imagine the trouble I had to go through when they called me to say that he hadn't turned up!"
What the hell does that have to do with me? Fudou wanted to say.
"Look, I told you that I couldn't make it because my mum-" Bubblegum Boy drowned him out, his voice going painfully high.
"Shut up, Shogo! Anyway, what's with the stuff you're putting up now!" The Big Lump was practically hopping now, probably powered by the kinetic energy generated by the words running from his mouth. "A babysitter? You? Really? With that tatt? I tried that and my mohawk is way smaller than yours. But no! They turned me away after seeing it! 'Oh, your hair is blonde too, and we can't have that sort of influence on our child.' Give me a break! It's not like I have a head tatt like yours either! You have no chance! So let me take that down for ya! You won't be getting any calls anyway! And the handyman jobs are reserved for Shogo and me here!" Big Lump reached for his fliers, and he tried once more to say something. It didn't work, and the Big Lump tore one flier down in a smooth movement, letting the wind blow it away. He didn't seem to be listening to anything he was saying. So he punched him.
Ooof. Right in the jaw, that was his style. It had been ages since he'd been in a fight and he was relishing the adrenaline rush. Flinging his bag against the wall, he braced himself for the return blow, and when that didn't come, started to back up. Big Lump was still reeling (wimp) and Fudou thought about where he would attack next. Or maybe they'd run away and leave him alone to his job-searching.
No such luck. Out of nowhere, a small sticky mess of yelling child landed on his back, knocking him clear to the ground. A bubble popped and little feet started to kick Fudou. Fortunately for him, the kicks were relatively painless. Thank God for puberty, eh?
"You don't just punch Wada-san when he's trying to help you!" Bubblegum Boy heaped it on thick, adding a few feeble pummels for good measure. Fudou was still reeling from his ambush and was completely unprepared for the Big Lump's bull rush. Just as he was trying to get up, still with this parasite stuck to him, a sliding tackle caught him in the legs and he lost balance again.
He snarled. So this was how it was going to go.
"Look here, what's your problem?" Big Lump was saying. "Just trying to give you some friendly neighbourhood advice, and you punch the guy? Did you have abandonment issues as a child or what? Where's your sense of trust? Where's your sense of cooperation, brother? I'm gonna treat that as a fluke, as an accident, and trust that you didn't really mean it-"
Fudou, newly back on his feet, punched him again, this time in the left jaw for matching bruises. Taking advantage of the shock period, he mustered up all his strength to throw Bubblegum Boy off him before backing up against the wall. He wasn't going to run away, no, he was having way too much fun. But there was no point exposing parts of him that he couldn't defend.
The Big Lump sputtered and backed up again. Fudou realised that he was getting ready for another charge and looked around for Bubblegum Boy to use as a human shield. The kid was lurking in a corner, probably waiting for Big Lump to make his move, and he pounced.
"You don't hit people without knowing the consequences," he hissed before driving a right hook up into his chin. (Not at full power, though. He wasn't a complete asshole.) He didn't give Bubblegum Boy any time to escape as he held on to him, spinning him around... right into the path of the Big Lump. The kid realised what was happening and raised his voice to impossible levels, trying to warn his friend, but it was too late.
Big Lump had gathered a enormous amount of momentum and couldn't stop that easily. He tried to slow his run when it became clear that he was just going to ram, full-speed, into Bubblegum Boy and the wall. Unexpectedly, he managed to turn his course, resulting in a large four-way collision between all three boys and the very hard wall.
Fudou's smirk rapidly turned into a grimace as he felt blood spurt into his mouth. He spat it out, not caring where it went, and went for Big Lump. "You fucker!"
Big Lump got up in turn, and pushed Fudou away from the scene. "Move your butthole!"
Fudou almost lost his balance and skidded back at least two metres, or more, he wasn't really sure. Big Lump was following up, looking to get a punch in, and he only had enough time to react with a block. Big Lump didn't relent, though. With a growl of frustration, he brought his other arm out, swinging it like a police baton in an attempt to cuff him. Fudou blocked it, poorly, with his arm, and screamed in pain when it buckled. Cradling it, he made a desperate kick at Big Lump, meeting his sizable stomach.
His foot bounced off. Big Lump seemed completely unaffected, and even amused, as Fudou lost his balance and landed on the ground. Thankfully not on his sore arm. He quickly sat up and watched Big Lump warily, poking and prodding his arm and wrist to make sure there were no severe injuries.
Thankfully, there weren't. Big Lump was already tending to Bubblegum Boy with a small smile on his face. Fudou could make out snippets of what he was saying, "You deserved it" being among them (which was true). With a small groan, he got to his feet and pressed his lip gingerly. His family was going to have a field day when he got back. Well, he could just say that he tripped over a stone and fell onto the kerb or something. He picked up his sling bag, and was just about to leave when the Big Lump called out to him.
"That was fun." Big Lump gave him a brief, contemplative look that quickly relaxed into a lip-splitting grin. This was quickly followed by a wince and he sucked his cheeks in gingerly. "Hah. That wasn't smart."
He held out his hand, and was considerate enough to make sure Fudou wouldn't have to use his injured arm. "I'm called Wada."
Fudou appraised him for a split second, and grasped his hand firmly.