14

Between Kaito’s absence that day, and the seeming familiarity he noticed between Shugo and Ayato, the homeroom teacher saw fit to let the newcomer sit in Kaito’s empty seat for the time being.

And though this seating arrangement would’ve given Shugo the convenient opportunity to press Ayato, their teachers for their morning classes devoted their respective periods with lively lectures, discussions, and other classroom activities that were admittedly fun and engaging, but nevertheless left no room for idle chit-chat between seatmates.

Luckily, the lunch hour came before either of them knew it.

Once the two had made their way to the corner table, the older youth readily explained that this latest development was part of his deal with Chief Ryoma. Both Ayato and his sister had been accepted as part of the police chief’s personal staff, with both of them being paid the same amount – and receiving the same weekly allowance – that the rest of their colleagues were getting. Most of all, the same security measures that were intended to protect them against possible reprisals from Ayato’s former associates also entailed moving them into the Hikawa residence with the rest of the chief’s in-house staff. The only catch was that a portion of both siblings’ monthly pay would be devoted to their tuition and insurance, and that any major non-essential purchases would require them to ask permission first.

“Wow,” Shugo commented, impressed. “Sounds like a pretty good deal.”

“It’s more than I bargained for, that’s for sure,” Ayato replied in agreement. “In fact, the chief was the one who insisted on having me and Ayaka go back to school. He said it’d help keep us on the straight and narrow, and give us one less reason to get involved in shady stuff.”

“‘Shady stuff’?” echoed Shugo, genuinely curious. He already knew that Ayato had been in the dark on that last gig he joined, and that he’d been led to believe that they were simply delivering a package to a client. “Other than the last job you were on?”

Ayato said nothing for several seconds, though his face took on a solemn expression at the reminder.

“…Sorry,” Shugo quickly said. “I shouldn’t have brought it up, that was wrong-”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ayato finally said as he waved off the apology. “It’s in the past now. But yeah, I’m not proud of the things I’ve had to do just so my sister and I could survive. My childhood friend used to help find odd jobs for me to do, and the clients always paid well considering how simple the work was.”

“What kind of work?”

“All kinds,” Ayato replied succinctly. “For the most part, they had me delivering messages and items here and there. No one ever told me just what I was delivering and I never asked, so it wasn’t too hard to assure clients I could be trusted. Every once in a while, they’d have me follow someone around and take photos of who they were meeting and what they were doing. No points for guessing what they used the photos for, either, but none of the jobs ever involved directly hurting or harming anyone, much less children.”

“That explains a lot,” commented Shugo. From what his spectral partner told him on that fateful night, Ayato wasn’t exactly like the company he kept. While the spirit had no qualms whatsoever inflicting physical and psychological pain and suffering on the rest of the gang, she explicitly told him that Ayato bore no malice, guilt, or evil intent that would warrant the same. Even without her input, his subsequent actions upon realizing how he’d unwittingly gotten involved in attempted kidnapping spoke for themselves.

“You chose your friends well, that’s for sure.”

“My sister always warned me he was bad news, but I didn’t listen,” Ayato explained as he looked down in shame. “He was my childhood friend, and he was always there for the two of us when we had nothing and no one else. And to be fair to the guy, he wasn’t always that way. I didn’t know he’d gotten involved with criminals somewhere down the line, but as it was…”

“You had a huge blind spot where he was concerned,” Ayato nodded as Shugo accurately summed it up for him. “Can’t say I blame you. He’d all but become a brother to you after all you’ve been through, so it wouldn’t have been easy to take your sister’s warnings at face value.”

“Exactly. Oh, speaking of which,” he then added as he caught sight of someone approaching their table. “There she is now. And she’s not alone, either.”

“Hi, Shugo!”

His stomach performed a somersault when he heard the voice.

And then it promptly took an impromptu bungee jump off the nearest cliff when he looked up and saw that bright smile.

“I tried to find you last Thursday, but your friend Kousaka said you called in sick,” said Amaki Rena with a look of concern on her face. “I hope you’re okay now, Shugo. We’ve got our outreach coming up, after all, and I’d really hate for you to miss it!”

The vehemence in the way Rena said those last words made Shugo both giddy and nervous at the same time. The former was self-explanatory; it was Rena, after all, being her usual beautiful-inside-and-out self. After what he’d been through over the weekend, just seeing her at school went a long way in reassuring him that all wasn’t wrong with the world.

And I don’t think I’ve ever seen her wear that yellow ribbon before, but it looks good on her.

His eyes briefly darted towards Ayato, whose expression of amusement told him of the ribbing he could expect once his crush took off.

Of course, Shugo’s nervousness had a lot of factors behind it. Apart from the possibility that something would come up and cause him to disappoint her, Shugo also considered how his duties could somehow get in the way. While he was sure Riku and the chief would be very understanding, the events that had transpired the other night made him less optimistic where his partner was concerned. In light of recent events, it almost seemed too much to hope that something wouldn’t go wrong on the day of the outreach.

Perhaps, perhaps not,” whispered the spirit in his ear. “You do yourself no favours dithering as you do.”

“Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten,” Shugo reassured her. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world, I promise.”

Rena flashed what must’ve been her brightest smile yet, causing an unmistakable flush to streak up Shugo’s cheeks and his stomach to perform yet another somersault. This time, however, his euphoria was also offset by his trepidation at whether or not he’d be able to keep his word.

Wonderful.

I just made a promise I’m not even sure I can keep.

Luckily, Shugo was spared further grilling when another girl called and waved to Rena from halfway across the cafeteria.

Of course, he did find it curious when Ayato waved back.

“Oh, sorry, Shugo, I need to go,” Rena apologized after she briefly turned to see who it was. “That’s the new girl in our class over there, and I’ve been showing her around. We’ll talk again, okay?”

Ayato’s look of amusement remained even as his eyes followed the two girls making their way back to their table, before becoming an outright trollface once he turned back to face Shugo.

“From that grimace of yours, I’m guessing you’re worried I’ll sabotage your chances with her and snatch her from right underneath your nose,” the older youth commented, smirking. “Relax, I’m just messing with you. I’m not interested, and besides, I’ve already got someone in my life.”

“Oh,” Shugo shrugged, his tension evaporating instantly at that reassurance. “That’s reassuring. What’s she like?”

“Heh.”

The older youth laughed for about five seconds, as if Shugo had just cracked a particularly funny joke, before that laughter faded and was punctuated with a snort.

“Nothing like me, thankfully.”

Ayato left it at that.

Between his snarky tone of voice and his refusal to elaborate further, Shugo was left to wonder what that answer was supposed to mean.


For the remainder of their lunch break, Rena continued to show her new classmate around.

After exiting the cafeteria through the north entrance, the two girls turned right and made their way down the lengthy hallway that went from the cafeteria and the Campus Ministry at the west end of the campus, all the way down to the STEM Center located at the east end. They paused briefly right in front of their school chapel, behind which was the school covered courts. Just to the right of the covered courts was the sophomore wing, while the senior wing was located in front of both the chapel and the covered courts behind it.

“That’s where we have our Phys Ed classes and the annual sportsfests,” commented Rena as she pointed to the covered courts. “Not only that, that’s also where most of the school-wide gatherings are held. Needless to say, we’ll be spending a lot of time in there.”

They walked on past the junior wing to their left in favour of visiting the library a little further down the hall. Once there, Rena acquainted the transferee with the academic section, the ICT section, the digital media archives, and the photocopying and printing services. She demonstrated how the library terminals worked by teaching her classmate to log in by typing in her student number as the username, followed by her surname – in all caps – in the password box.

“S-37164… Akizuki…” the new girl muttered as she carefully entered her login details. “There, I’m in!”

Rena then allowed her classmate to browse for a minute or two, before pointing out that students such as themselves only got an hour’s use each day. If they needed to remain online for longer than that, they’d need to ask the librarian or the highest-ranked member of the library staff who happened to be available. And when they asked the librarian – a man in his early forties – about it, he told them that the policy was meant to discourage students from spending too much time on social media, or from otherwise misusing the terminals for non-academic purposes.

“Of course, I wouldn’t recommend checking your social media accounts on these anyway,” he added, in a tone that implied he was speaking from experience. “No one needs to get stalked or hacked or scammed because they left their social media open on a public terminal, after all.”

Finally, the pair stopped at a crossroads. To the left was the freshman wing, the second floor of which was where their classroom happened to be. To the right were the music hall and the school infirmary, and finally, the STEM Center lay straight ahead. “And that concludes our tour,” Rena said theatrically, before laughing as she bowed in joking fashion. “Any questions?”

“Just one,” said the newcomer. “That guy you were talking to…”

“Hm?”

“What’s your story with him?” asked the other girl. “I’ve heard some of your friends muttering about the two of you, so clearly I’m not the only one who noticed.”

That obvious, huh?

In all fairness, thought Rena, she hadn’t exactly been trying to hide it. While that moment of eye contact in the cafeteria had been subtle enough, even she could tell just how many people were watching when she went on over to Shugo’s table last week to give him those homemade cookies. Of course, that didn’t mean she was overly thrilled that her friends seemed to have turned it into something to gossip about.

“You mean Shugo?” Rena finally answered. “He made a promise, and I’m holding him to it.”

“I see. Hey Rena, I’m going back to the classroom now,” the other girl suddenly said as she turned to the left, though not before briefly looking back. “See you there?”

“Sure, go, Ayaka. I’ll see you there!”

Rena watched her classmate leave for a few seconds, before exhaling a sigh as she lightly touched the yellow ribbon she had tied in a bow in her hair.

Yeah, that’s about right.

You made me a promise, Shugo. Or rather, we both made a really, really important promise.

Even if you can’t seem to remember it yet.

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