Important Note: Old readers - if you're wondering what happened to all the chapters, please take a look at the author's note at the bottom of the prologue chapter. This story is currently undergoing revisions and most definitely not abandoned. My fic journal (link on profile) has more detailed info if you're curious. I hope you will still stick around with me! Most of all, I hope you will still find my fic enjoyable to read. :)
Chapter 1: Eitoku Gakuen
In twenty minutes, the long drawl of chimes would echo through the vast campus, signaling the end of second period and bringing with it the ruckus that usually came with the short break between each class. But for now, the hallways were blissfully quiet, the only sound an occasional muffled word or two from behind closed classroom doors.
This was the way Ishida Nao liked it - students occupied in class and she elsewhere. Her favorite, though, was right here on the fourth floor in the east wing. Even better at a time like this, when no art classes were in session. She edged a little closer, one hand reaching forward to hover over the sculpture as her fingers traced an invisible line in the air around its shape.
"Wow." The word hardly even began to describe what she was looking at, but there was really no other way to put it. The corner of her lips lifted. She couldn't wait to ask Yasui-sensei about this piece.
"Don't touch that."
Nao whirled around, one hand clutched at her chest in fright as the other jerked back from the sculpture. She stared, wide-eyed, as a young man stepped into the ceramics classroom and walked towards her in what she could only describe as ominous authority. He gave no visible signs of displeasure apart from the undertone of accusation in his words, but she could sense his irritation all the same.
Dismay washed over her as she took in his appearance - definitely a staff member at the very least, if what he was wearing was any indication. His tie, however, looked markedly out of place around his pristine white button-down shirt with the way it hung crooked and loose as though he had yanked at it in frustration.
"I-" she began, cringing inwardly at the way her voice came out small and guilty when she had done nothing wrong. Forcing her hands back down to her sides, Nao lifted her chin a little and said, "I wasn't going to touch it."
And she wasn't. She had certainly reached out towards the sculpture, but it was just a reflex borne from awe than some intention to sabotage it like the man seemed to think she was about to do. The mere idea grated on her nerves - she did know better than to touch other people's unfinished artwork after all.
His expression was bland, though there was a touch of impatience in the way his eyes slid from hers to the sculpture sitting on the table behind her. He had yet to say anything else, but it was clear he was checking the sculpture for damage.
And that really pissed her off.
"There's nothing wrong with the sculpture," Nao blurted before she could stop herself. "I did not touch it."
At her insistent words, his attention honed in on her again and she had to resist the urge to fidget under his silent scrutiny. She stared back up at him - his eyes dark, slanting down at her - but Nao refused to look away less he thought it was a sign of guilt.
"What are you doing here?" he finally asked, his voice a smooth baritone that managed to sound both quiet and imposing at the same time. "No one is supposed to be here right now."
She felt herself deflate a little even as she gave an inward curse. He obviously knew there were no art classes scheduled for this period, and the last thing she needed was to get in trouble, especially with her track record already teetering on the red line.
"I'm sorry, sir, I really wasn't trying to disturb anything. I just- I forgot my book," she replied in a rush, then immediately wanted to kick herself. The excuse sounded lame even to her ears, but there was no backing out of it now. Grabbing the first book her fingers came upon from inside her bag, she raised it up like a badge of proof and declared stiffly, "And now that I have it, I shall be out of your way."
His gaze flickered to the book, one eyebrow rising slightly, and Nao felt a brief moment of panic - what book had she grabbed? A quick glance told her it was her English textbook, which was actually perfect because that was what she was having next. Her relief turned into annoyance then. This guy, teacher or not, had a serious way of getting under her skin and making her feel like she was two.
She looked down, making a show of stuffing the book back into her bag, though it was more to hide the scowl on her face than anything. Finally, confident that she could school her face into a polite smile, she gave him a tiny bow to take her leave. "Please excuse me," she murmured. "I should get going."
He nodded, almost lazily, with his head tilted towards the door as though to say 'go ahead' and Nao wasted no time in getting out of there. The back of her neck prickled the entire time, and had she looked back at him, she wouldn't have been surprised to see his eyes following her out.
Then right as she reached the door, he called out in that same calm tone of his, "It's your business if you want to cut classes, but don't let me catch you in here again."
Her back stiffened, the only indication that she had heard him, and she picked up her pace before he decided it was his business to take her name down after all. If the foreboding feeling eating at the pit of her stomach was anything to go by, this was going to somehow come back and bite her something painful.
Shaking her head to banish the thought, Nao rounded the corner that would take her towards the high school campus, in the opposite direction from the route she had taken the previous year. The senior high division, she decided as she took in the wide hallways, was much larger than the junior high section.
She glanced up, noting the signs hanging above the classroom doors as she double-checked her schedule, and slowed her steps when she spotted the one she was looking for. The door was open - perfect. She still had some time before third period began, but an empty classroom was definitely preferable to the risk of running into another teacher in the hallway.
She heard them before she even set foot into the classroom, voice nasally cute and tones boastfully nonchalant. Really, had she used to sound this stupid?
"Wow, Mayu, that's a gorgeous necklace!"
"Isn't it? There's only fifty of these in the world, you know. I made Papa get it for my birthday when we went to Venice over the break."
Creepily imposing teachers be damned. This was enough to make her want to turn around and walk right back to the art rooms. But they had already noticed - heads with perfectly styled hair swiveling towards her, staring - and any expression Nao may have had on her face shuttered instantly.
She spared them a passing glance, eyes deliberately sweeping the otherwise empty classroom as though they were part of the furniture. The choice was obvious - there was no choice at all. Shouldering her bag, Nao stepped through the doorway and crossed the room, eyes sharp and chin defiantly straight. The voices became hushed undertones, the kind people whispered and thought they were being discreet.
"Ishida Nao- isn't she-"
"That girl from-"
"What is she doing he-"
She slapped her bag down on the desk with a definite bang and took vicious pleasure in the way they jumped, shooting her a dirty look. She ignored them. A silent moment later, one of the girls gave an offended sniff and cleared her throat to resume their conversation on pretty watches and limited edition necklaces. Satisfied that they were going to leave her alone for the most part, Nao slid into the seat at the far back corner by the window.
"You're so lucky, Mayu! I wish I had picked English earlier too. I spent the whole break studying with an American tutor just so I could test into this class. It was pure nightmare."
"Me too! Ahh, it's hard switching over from German in third year after all, but it's going to be so worth it."
"Isn't it? I can't believe I'm actually finally going to be in the same class as Kurosawa-san and Morishita-san! I wonder if Kurosawa-san would-"
Nao rolled her eyes and crammed earphones into her ears, punching play on her MP3 player to drown out the dribble. She drew in a deep, steadying breath and turned to look out the window. They told her this was a difficult class to get into, but apparently, that didn't stop idiots from slipping through anyway. The first sign of intelligence, and of course it had to be motivated by some guy or another, no doubt a ridiculously rich one.
What was she expecting? That they were older, more likely not to know or pay attention to a first year like her, more likely to be sensible? She should have known better than to expect any different.
At the suggestion of her junior high English teacher, Nao had gone ahead and taken the opportunity to test into this class - one of the few in Eitoku's senior high curriculum that allowed students to be placed according to their level of proficiency. Any class where she didn't have to deal with people from her year could only be a good thing, or so she thought. She gave a mental snort. It was obviously a brief lapse of sanity.
This was Eitoku Gakuen. What class, what year - it had never mattered to begin with.
. . . . .
The art teacher leaned back and peered around the cabinet door, looking harassed with strands of peppered hair escaping the bun she held up with a paintbrush. The vague lines of irritation smoothed, then disappeared, replaced by a surprised smile upon seeing him. "Isao, what are you doing here? I wasn't expecting you until later."
A corner of his lips lifted at the oddly comforting sight even as Yasui-sensei stepped back and patted her hands on an apron that looked like it wrestled with a bucket of paint and came out losing. He shrugged. "My meeting with the board of directors ended early. It's too late to attend second period now, but I figured there was still enough time to come by and check if you were loading the kiln." He paused, eyeing the teacher's paint-stained hands. "What happened?"
Yasui-sensei looked down at her 'Perylene Maroon' hands, made another half-hearted attempt at wiping them against the apron, and finally gave up with a sigh. "An over-zealous junior high student taking art for the first time happened."
"I see." Isao tried to keep the amusement from creeping into his voice but knew he failed when she shot him an exasperated frown. Trying for placating, he offered instead, nodding at the open cabinet, "Do you need help with anything?"
"No, it's fine," the teacher replied, waving him off and eyeing the haphazard cluster of canvases on the table behind him. He dodged just in time, lips twitching into a grin, as she dove forward and descended on the pile.
After spending the entire break working at his father's company, the familiarity of the painting room's perpetual clutter and the sight of Yasui-sensei in her constant state of frenzy was ironically calming. He looked around, a little wistful. Even the nostalgia that often accompanied a first visit to the art rooms after a long break was familiar, though he hadn't quite expected to feel a mild sense of anxiety as well. This, he thought, would be the last year he'd have the luxury to use the art rooms as he pleased.
"Oh," Yasui-sensei said, voice muffled from behind a shelf so that all he saw was a hand gesturing vaguely at the wall that separated the ceramics room from this one. "Your piece is already on the table, ready to go. I'll have it loaded with the rest of the pots later today- you're done with it, right?
Isao nodded. "I covered it back up for the time being though." With a sigh, he added, "Someone was in there just now."
The teacher's head popped up. "Again? At this hour on the first day of school? They're certainly getting quite daring."
He shrugged wearily, thinking of the girl he had just run into. She was the fourth one, now, that he had caught sneaking around the art section since that one time, late last term, when a female student had walked in on him while he was working on a sculpture after school hours. As it was, Yasui-sensei had been forced to chase off a few as well.
Something about this latest one seemed a little off, he'd give her that. Isao recalled the way she brandished the textbook - Advanced English III, no less - and wondered what the girl was playing at. After all, it was no secret he took that class.
Shaking her head, Yasui-sensei commented dryly, "I should just put up a large sign by the door- 'Kurosawa Isao is not here.'" Something in his face must've revealed the horror he felt at her suggestion because she suddenly laughed, amending, "I was kidding, Isao."
"Yasui-sensei, that's not-" Isao stopped short, momentarily distracted by a splash of color on canvas. Words he had been about to say took a sudden detour, "That's- that's new."
"What?" The art teacher looked back up, following his line of sight as comprehension dawned on her face, and then surprise. "I didn't realize you know Nao."
The painting was still wet. He could tell by the lingering sheen, a little slick in the way its surface reflected off the sunlight streaming in through the window.
"I-" Isao hesitated, uncertain. "I don't."
And he didn't, but he knew the paintings. Haunting, piercing, and always familiar. Like weight, heavy in his chest.
His feet moved towards it, and up close, he saw the colors were less vibrant, the strokes mostly still a sketch. It was only the beginnings of an image just starting to take shape, sharp in some areas and vague in others, but he recognized the style all the same. "This is a private workspace, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is. Her name is Ishida Nao - that's her latest work," Yasui-sensei offered, gesturing at the painting as she came up beside him, "but I suppose you already know that. Quite a talented girl, this one."
There was fondness in her voice but also something else, something more muted that made him shift his attention to the art teacher beside him, but whatever it was, it had already gone. Isao opened his mouth, more out of a need to say something and less of actually having something to say. He ended up frowning instead.
He was curious. That much was certain. For countless times last year, he had sought out the paintings propped up in this corner of the room, each and every single one telling him stories and emotions he sometimes felt he had no business knowing. Isao had never met the artist, nor did he have the faintest idea who in Eitoku could have painted them. Yet for reasons he wouldn't be able to explain, he hadn't wanted to ask.
"Well," Yasui-sensei said, startling him out of his thoughts, "Nao just started senior high this year, so I imagine you'll run into her eventually."
"Oh." Isao nodded, a slow dip of chin. It wasn't the most creative of responses, but it was all he could come up with.
Yasui-sensei peered at him, a smile blooming on her face - the one that told him she was about to say something he wasn't going to like. "I could introduce you," she suggested, tone innocent yet managed to have insinuation draped all over it somehow.
Isao thought his jaw may have twitched. "That will not be necessary, Sensei. In fact, I would prefer it if you didn't."
The teacher only laughed. "You really need to loosen up a little, Isao. I think you'll like her."
Then before he could even formulate a proper response, she cleared her throat, prim but firm the way teachers did when they were about to reprimand an errant student. Tilting her head to the side and looking over his shoulders, she called out, "Aren't you boys too old to be hiding behind shelves, eavesdropping on other people's conversations?"
A crash sounded behind him, shrill and wince-inducing. Isao pinched the bridge of his nose.
"I told you she saw us." The voice was dry.
"Come on, don't try to act like you didn't want to know."
Isao sighed. He muttered, not bothering to turn around, "Satoshi, when are you going to grow up?"
"Soo..." the syllable stretched, brimming of suggestive purpose and completed with a nudge to his ribs as Ryusaki Satoshi sidled up to his side, wiggling his eyebrows. "Isao. What's this about a girl you'll like?"
Isao pinned him with an irritated look, but Satoshi was already gliding over to Yasui-sensei and reaching over to take one of her hands as though it were the most natural thing in the world to do. "Sensei, don't tell me you've been holding out on us! Is she pretty? When can we-" He blinked. "Sensei, what happened to your hands? It's, uh, purple. You should really get that cleaned ASAP."
Isao squashed down the bubbling urge to choke the life out of something - preferably the boy standing in front of him. "Stop being an idiot, Satoshi," he said instead. "What are you guys doing here anyway?"
"Oh," Satoshi said, jerking a thumb at the taller boy slouching against the sink counter, "we just got here. It took us forever to wake his lazy ass."
As if proving his point, Morishita Shun yawned and scratched the back of his neck, looking for all the world like he'd rather be horizontal. He shrugged, unapologetic. "I had a late night."
Satoshi gave a dramatic roll of eyes. "In case you forgot, Kanjirou and I were with you. You don't see us snoring like logs, do you?"
"No," Shun agreed, slowly, "because logs don't snore, Satoshi."
Isao shook his head. It was much too early for this. Sometimes he forgot how he became friends with these people at all. Beside him, Yasui-sensei tittered, obviously much more amused by their antics than he was. He sighed, deciding it was best to just ignore them.
"Sorry, Yasui-sensei. We'll get out of your way now." He paused to consider his schedule for the day. "I should be able to come by around lunch to help you load the kiln - it's a pretty big piece this time."
The art teacher waved dismissively. "Don't worry about it. I know what the first day of school is like for you."
There wasn't anything to say to that, but she gave him a reassuring smile all the same and patted him lightly on the arm in understanding. She had always understood, just like how she had always been able to see him beyond the Kurosawa name. That in itself made a world of difference to him.
Isao inclined his head at the teacher to take his leave, then turned to his two still-bickering friends. "Satoshi, Shun," he nodded at the door, "we're leaving." He glanced at the counter where the last of their group, Akita Kanjirou, sat leaning back against the window, content in his silence. "Are you coming?"
For an odd moment there, it almost looked like Kanjirou hesitated, but he only eyed the unfinished painting briefly before sliding off the counter and ducking his head at the art teacher apologetically. "Please excuse us, Yasui-sensei. I hope we weren't intruding."
Isao didn't stay behind, heading instead for the hallway where the other two stood waiting. He trusted Kanjirou to follow as soon as the boy felt an acceptable amount of pleasantries had been exchanged, unfailingly polite as he tended to be.
He did, however, glance one last time at the painting as he walked out - a mere floating figure of a girl suspended mid-canvas, curling into herself - and wondered what story this one would tell when finished.
. . . . .
The first bell had probably just gone off, judging by the number of students trickling into the class at last. Nao sighed, softly, just the tiniest release of breath against her lips. Leaning forward and propping her elbows on the desk, she rested her chin against an open palm and turned her eyes back to the window.
Ten more minutes till the second bell.
And three more years till the last bell - till she could finally get out of this place for good. It seemed to stretch far into the abyss, blurred together and dark, like a deep well she couldn't see the bottom to.
Music still blaring in her ears, Nao couldn't hear the shuffling of feet nor the inane chattering but she could sense students settling into empty seats around the room. The ones immediately surrounding hers remained empty, and she smiled grimly. Pity those who would be arriving late.
It didn't bother her that most people went out of their way to avoid her. She rather preferred it, encouraged it even. She knew better than anyone else, the kind of people that went to a school like this one. She remembered it all too well to ever forget. And the less she had to do with any of them, the better off her life would be.
The song playing on her MP3 player faded to an end and a roar of laughter interrupted her thoughts, slightly muffled by her earphones, before the next song drowned it out again. It was then Nao felt something bounce off her arm, landing on her desk and rolling to a stop by her left hand.
She stared down at it, lips drawn tight. It was only a crumpled piece of gum wrapper, but the laughter she had just heard rose in her head without warning. Twisting, familiar, like echoes of upturned trash and half-eaten food smearing on skin- she squeezed her eyes shut, once and hard, to ground herself to the present.
Just a crumpled piece of gum wrapper, she reminded silently. It had already been three years... why couldn't she just forget it already?
Suddenly annoyed, Nao snatched the wayward gum wrapper off her desk and turned to locate its source when, eyes widened, she went completely still. Her heart ground to a halt even as the familiar prickle at the back of her neck flared to life.
He shouldn't be here. What the hell was he doing here?
Yet, there he sat, leaning casually against one of the desks by the far wall, with eyes dark, unfathomable, and staring right back into hers. Dread crawled up her spine. Had he followed her here?
Then, slow and deliberate, an eyebrow rose in that same infuriating manner as he had done back in the ceramics room when she had shown him her textbook. The very same one, Nao realized with sudden appalling clarity, as the identical copy on his desk, resting under his arm and mocking her.
She could not believe it.
The self-righteous bastard wasn't a teacher - he wasn't even a student teacher. And he actually had the audacity to sit there, draped over his chair like it was made for him, and raise his eyebrow at her.
Her eyes narrowed. And for a moment, all he did was look right back at her - neither acting nor reacting, until, just slightly, he tilted his head and one corner of his lips quirked faintly, like he was amused.
Her fists clenched, the wad of gum wrapper crinkling under her fingers, and Nao wasn't sure what possessed her to do it, but her arm surged up with a life of its own and hurled the offending thing across the room at him before she had the chance to stop and reel in the uncharacteristic impulse.
A flicker of unchecked surprise flashed across his face, and Nao didn't know which was worse - the fact that she had actually resorted to launching crude, childish aerial attacks at strangers, or the fact that she missed her mark by so wide a margin it was painful to watch.
It shot through the air, skidded off a shoulder, and parked itself atop the head of a lanky boy that looked like he had been trying to sleep. Nao watched, half in distress and half in morbid interest, as the boy's hand snaked up to swat the gum wrapper off his brown hair before he unfolded himself with an irritated jerk. However, instead of turning towards her as she had expected him to, he simply started talking, clearly annoyed.
Vaguely aware that she still had music playing, Nao pulled at the wires and popped the earphones off in time to catch the end of his tirade-
"-mmit, I'm trying to sleep here, Satoshi! What are you doing in our class anyway- don't you have French?"
His voice was unusually loud, and it took a moment for her to realize that it was actually the noise level in the class that was oddly subdued, like the room had quieted down just to hear the boy talk.
Someone giggled. And then it was like the entire class bled into view, coming to life all at once: the irritated boy reclining back on his chair - long legs sprawled out and one hand sweeping a cluster of crumpled paper off his desk; the other boy - Satoshi - sitting one seat up (and was that actually a girl perched on his lap?) with his chair facing backwards and gum wrappers in hand; the large group loitering about - close by and yet not too close like they were awed by the mere opportunity to breathe the same air those boys were breathing; and finally, him, at the center of it all, still leaning casually against his desk, looking at her looking at him. As though she hadn't just tried but failed to murder him with gum wrapper.
None of those three were wearing school uniforms.
"Oye, Shun, that one wasn't me," Satoshi said in a tone that sounded like he couldn't quite believe it. Then he grinned and jabbed a finger at her. "She did it."
Nao froze under the force of what felt like a hundred heads spinning around to stare at her - some in shock, others in alarm, but mostly, it was just plain and simple horror, like she had committed a crime worthy of capital punishment. Her face blanked immediately even as the boy called Shun twisted his head back and gave her the barest hint of a frown, his sharp eyes sizing her up somewhat languidly.
She returned his gaze evenly, ignoring everything and everyone else. Something niggled at the back of her mind, like a crucial detail she needed to remember but wasn't sure what. She only knew with certainty that she wouldn't - couldn't show any weaknesses here.
"Sorry," Nao finally said, shrugging carelessly, "it was an accident."
"Whoa," Satoshi mused, blue eyes dancing, "if that was an accident, I'd like to see the one where-"
"Satoshi-" Nao stiffened just as a gasp sounded from somewhere to her left. "-go to your class."
She sat completely still, not turning even as every head pivoted away from her, towards the voice - towards him. She didn't have to. She'd be able to recognize that voice anywhere.
The tone was quietly commanding, cold even - the kind that brooked no argument, but Satoshi only shrugged good-naturedly. He stood, depositing the girl that had been on his lap over to the seat he had just occupied, and grinned. "Bye bye, Kaneko-chan," he sing-songed, his voice an unexpected deep bass that was at odds with both the playful way he used it and his overall devils-may-care demeanor. And then he walked off, stretching, as the door swung shut behind him with an echoing click.
There was a beat of silence, and then there was a squeak - male, high-pitched - its owner's presence so unexpected that Nao did a double-take.
"Ah, ex- excuse me," stuttered the middle-aged man that stood hovering at the front of the class, half-gripping and half-hugging a leather briefcase to his chest in a way that reminded Nao of a drowning man clutching a sinking plank of wood.
It was the voice again, and Nao was beginning to think he spoke just to haunt her with it.
"Please allow me to apologize," he continued in a tone that sounded surprisingly polite. It was all Nao could do to stare stupidly at him as he stood with his back straightened, all traces of arrogant amusement gone as his head dipped towards the teacher in a manner that fell somewhere between courtesy and distant respect. "We didn't realize you had arrived."
The teacher's mouth dropped open, moving soundlessly, once, twice, and a brief image of the man choking to his death flitted through Nao's head. It was so quiet she could hear herself breathe. And then it was as if the teacher sputtered to life, words tumbling over each other, nervous and loud, "Ah, no! Ku- I mean- it's not a problem, Kurosawa-san!"
Nao grimaced. What was wrong with him? She glanced back at the boy - at Kurosawa - but if he had any thoughts about the teacher's reaction, it wasn't apparent on his face. Instead, his eyes flickered towards her, briefly and so quickly she wondered if she had imagined it.
"There should be no more interruptions," Kurosawa said, pausing slightly as a small smile grew on his lips. What the hell? Had he just implied what she thought he implied? "Please do begin as I'm sure the class is eager to get started."
"Ye- yes, of course!" The teacher babbled, jumping a little and trying simultaneously to fumble with the clasp on his suitcase and bow deeply - the kind that teachers weren't supposed to ever give students. "Thank you, Kurosawa-san! It is such an honor to have you in my class!"
Nao closed her eyes and drew in a sharp breath. She just couldn't bear to watch any longer. It was like one obnoxiously surreal horror after another. She reached down and began shoving her things back into her bag in a steady, mechanical motion. And then she stood, aware that every single pair of eyes were on her once more. She bowed swiftly at the teacher with just the proper amount of apology.
"Please excuse me," she said, "I think I'm in the wrong class."
Then without looking at anyone else, she left the room.
She'd go by the Counseling and Placement Office later and tell them the class was more difficult than she had expected. She wouldn't even really be lying - this, him - it wasn't what she signed up for.
It took the absurdity of the teacher's actions to grind home what she had already known but forgotten. After all, it was a commonly known fact.
The only students at Eitoku who didn't wear uniforms were the F4
- to be continued -
Word Count: 5,262
Comments are very much appreciated, especially since I realize these are all original characters I'm working with. I would really love to hear your opinion, if you're willing to share them.
Also, I'm now trying to keep story notes, geekery, and my babbling to a minimum over here so as to reduce clutter (and boring people who aren't interested). Instead, I post them over at my DW writing journal. The link is in my profile page. For this chapter, I talked a bit about Eitoku's campus and classes, as well as my revision notes. As a side note, both the fanart and the character guide page, for old readers who remember them, are also moved to the journal.
Thank you for reading! :)