"Shh, here he comes!"
"See, there's that laptop. Like it's glued to his side."
"There was never anything wrong with Usui-kun's eyes, were there? But now he has glasses."
"I heard he wants to be called 'Switch' now. How strange."
"I liked his hair when it was longer."
"And everyone's been saying that he hasn't said a word since, well, you know..."
Do they think that because I can't speak, I can't hear either?Outside the classroom, Switch takes a quick, steadying breath before entering. Immediately the whispers fall silent, and 27 pairs of eyes are too focused at the head of the room, each one of them quivering with the urge to turn and stare. The teacher, a young substitute, is less reserved about indulging her curiosity. If Switch had been in higher spirits he might have returned her rude gawk with an ironic look of his own, but today the sky was dark and threatening with corpulent thunderheads grumbling warnings not to forget his place. He demurely takes his seat.
A history lesson starts and he pulls out his notes. The Meiji period can only hold his attention for so long, however, before he is sliding out of focus. His thoughts spin aimlessly around the classroom, touching everything as they climb and pass, which grates on his orderly nerves. But it's fine, really, as long as he can ignore the damp asphalt scent riding in on the draft from the window, and the tall grass outside whispering in the wind that the rain is coming today...
Startled, Switch turns his attention to his irate teacher. She is leaning impatiently on one hip, probably waiting for an answer that she has demanded several times. The other students are awkwardly shifting in their seats, pathetically attempting to pretend that they aren't also studying him behind raised books and binders.
He has no idea what was asked.
The boy sitting next to him sneakily points to a hastily-scribbled line in his notebook.
"Itagaki rejoined the Council of State in 1875," his computer offers flatly.
The substitute is thrown by his means of communication. She struggles for a second, then reprimands him for staring out the window. Before all of this, his easygoing class might have laughed with him for being so oblivious. He probably would have laughed himself. Now, the class comes together to examine him like a sick patient, the unwilling specimen under their microscope.
He could swear the clammy breeze outside was causing the dripping trees to make a sound like laughing too...
Someone reaches over and smartly taps him on the shoulder. It's the boy from before, warning him of a hard stare from the teacher. He realizes he was looking outside again. Once the teacher turns back to the board, the boy grins at him. He doesn't remember this guy-the class must have changed seats again without him noticing. He wonders if they just left his seat as it was for convenience, or maybe he had missed the change, just as he was missing so many things these days...he pulls out a corner of his notes and writes "thank you" on the edge. The boy's smile widens and he nods before turning back to his notes.
At the end of class, while packing up to go, he is interrupted again by his neighbor.
"I don't think I really know you. The name's Fujisaki," he says with the same grin, extending a very forward hand to be shaken. "And you are?"
Switch stares at his hand for a moment before briefly taking it. "Usui Kazuyoshi. Switch."
"Nice to meetcha!" he says, still perfectly friendly. Around them, other kids are furtively watching them, commenting on Switch's behavior. Fujisaki seems determined to ignore them, focusing only on Switch.
"Jeez, History is such a drag sometimes, ya know? I'd much rather be outside right now..." he stops and frowns, "though it does look like it's going to rain any minute."
Things happen very quickly, then. Behind him, someone watching the conversation is careless and knocks over a precariously balanced water bottle. In a clumsy effort to catch it, they manage to spray the water everywhere. Most of it ends up hitting Switch in the back. Switch flinches, suddenly gripping the edge of his desk to keep himself together.
"Hey!" Fujisaki reacts. A sheepish apology is nervously shouted across the room as the student furiously gathers napkins and tissues to mop up the water.
"Well, that was weird-" Fujisaki laughs, turning back to Switch, but stops when he sees his expression. "Hey...are you-"
"It was nice meeting you," Switch raises a shaking hand and hurriedly types. "Please excuse me." He sweeps up his books and rushes out of the room.
There is a mostly forgotten passage in the oldest building of Kaimei high school. It is usually dark, holds only the most remote lockers, and is mostly made up of janitor's closets. One of these closets is at the very end of the hall, where most students are too nervous to go. It's a small space, just a broom closet, forgotten, unlocked, and gathering dust behind a narrow, slated door. It is, however, big enough for one teenage boy to sit on his heels and hug his knees to keep himself from falling to pieces. Back in this closet, Switch sits alone in the darkness, rocking himself as much as the tiny space will allow, and tries to block out the thought of rain, thunder, the cruel soaking rain that blurred his vision when the ambulance drove away, the thunder clap that drown out his garbled scream, and the puddle the police forced him to his knees in as he sobbed and yelled for his brother.
The real Switch.
The better Switch.
Water kills electronics. It interrupts the flow of electricity, making a computer's one dependable source of life behave erratically and dangerously.
Water is the enemy.
"Bossun, if that guy sees us in this getup, I'm blaming you. Why did we need afros for this anyway?" A pretty, blonde girl wearing an afro wig swats the boy next to her, also in an afro.
"For disguise, of course!" he retorts. The two round the corner to the dark hallway, and stand at the intersection.
"Are you sure this is the way this Switch guy came? This hallway is creeeepy-!"
The two of them are silent, listening. After a moment, they hear a soft gasping, crying noise from the end of the hallway. The boy's face becomes abruptly serious.
"Well, now we know where he disappears to all the time," he whispers.
"Shouldn't we talk to him or something?" she says, voice rising in worry.
"No," the boy says, starting to pull her away. He glaces back briefly, but keeps walking. "Not now, Himeko. Later."
The sky has cleared somewhat from earlier, Switch notes to himself, jogging out to the soccer fields for gym class. That has to be a good sign.
A few girls are sitting lazily on a wall nearby. They giggle as he passes, and wave shyly at him, one blushing. They aren't from his class, but he recognizes them from the student directory. He waves back to be polite, and keeps moving. This turns out to be the wrong move, however, as the girls looks past him and gulp. Three tall jocks are frowning moodily at him from a patch of bushes and cigarette smoke. Switch ignores them.
Down on the field, the coach is barking at the kids to get them quiet.
"Late again, Usui!" he bawls in front of the class. "That's the second time this season! Looks like you'll be heading for a detention if you're not careful!"
Switch gets mostly stares, but a few sympathetic looks as well. Coach Mori is a nasty teacher by any standards, and seems to get a rise out of picking on Switch. A girl near him rolls her eyes and smiles.
"All right you lazy kids! Here's the plan: soccer tournament. Right here, right now. I'll divide the teams, and we'll play until we have a winner. Got it?"
"Yeah!" the students cheer.
"You've got to catch the frisbee, Bossun!" the Captain laughed at Bossun's embarrassed expression and the oversize frisbee at his feet. "Honestly, you're so funny some-"
"Hey, Bossun," Himeko jumps in. "Sorry, Captain, but, hey, isn't that the Switch guy? It looks like he's having gym now."
Bossun holds a hand up and squints across the field. "Yeah, I guess."
Captain looks at them both. "Who?"
Coach Mori pairs Switch with three familiar faces. As soon as he walks away, the leader gets in Switch's face, reeking of cherry-flavored smoke.
"Listen, weirdo. We didn't appreciate that little stunt you pulled earlier with our girls."
"Yeah," one of the others chimes in. "Our girls, get it?"
"So to make it up to us, you are going to do your best to win this tournament so we can show our girls who's really cool."
"Got it, punk?"
Switch doesn't respond, doesn't acknowledge the threat. Besides, he's left his computer back in the locker room. The leader scoffs, unsure, and shoves him away before sauntering off with his cohorts.
The games begin. As a team, they actually do pretty well, Switch being better at coordinating his feet than his hands. He doesn't allow himself to be distracted by the muddy ground or the darkening sky overhead. Gym is only a 50 minute period. Gym is only 50 minutes.
"Hey spacey, watch out," one of the jocks on his team whispers before shoving him out of the way to steal the ball. Switch's hands clench into fists but otherwise he does not react. Gym is 50 minutes.
"Sucks to be loser," another one says, nearly tripping him.
Gym. is. 50. minutes.
"It doesn't look like they're being too nice to him, does it?"
"No," Bossun agrees, frowning.
"I hate bullies!" Himeko says passionately.
Bossun watches as Switch gets to his feet. Again. "So does he."
In the middle of the next game, the sprinklers go off, and for the second time that day, Switch is blasted by water. This time, to the face. He stumbles, and knocks into a player from the opposing team. Making them both fall. Again.
"Hey, what the hell's your problem?" the guy hisses as Switch gets to his feet, breathing calmly, controlled. There won't be a repeat of this morning. He extends a hand to the other player, but the guy swats it away.
"Oh, I know," he says, a nasty smile growing on his face as he stands. "You're that weird guy that's afraid of water. The whole grade is talking about you, you know. Well, get this, freak, there's no room for your kind in soccer. So move aside." He shoves his way past Switch, crying foul to the coach that Switch tripped him. Switch's teammates give him steely glares.
At the end of class, it is his team, and the sprinkler boy's team from earlier. They face off in a good match, the jocks being more focused on winning than on Switch. With minutes left, the score is tied up. There are distant rumblings, slow warnings shaking the ground and the trees-but Switch ignores them.
He's never been very athletic, but soccer is a better sport than most. And after being pushed around, after being shoved and wet, maybe he wants to win this. Win something.
So when he sees an opening for a goal, he goes for it. Ignore the thunder getting louder, the nervous looks of the other students, and the shocked faces of the jocks. Just go.
It's not just him who wants to win, though. Out of nowhere, sprinkler boy is back and vying for the ball.
"What's gotten into you, huh?" he grunts, trying to shove Switch out of the way. Switch stands his ground. "Running from some water?"
It looks like Sprinkler boy is going to get the ball, like he's taking it away-Switch ducks to his right to go for a steal, the last that'll be available before he gets away, he almost has it, he HAS it-
The heavens open in a deluge, soaking every person outside, instantly. Switch freezes, and it is enough. Sprinkler boy has the ball.
"Coward," the boy whispers, and makes his move.
He's lost. Lost it all, lost the game, lost his dignity, lost his dry clothes, lost his voice, and lost his mind.
He takes off for the gym.
"Oh, my gosh, where did this come from?" the Captain says, raising her voice to be heard over the rain.
"Yuck," Himeko says, slipping in a mud puddle.
Bossun watches as a lone figure tares towards the gym. Behind him, three larger figures follow. One bends down suddenly, and comes back up with a large bat over his shoulder.
"Himeko," Bossun says, deadly serious. "Grab Cyclone. Someone needs help, now."
Switch barely makes it back to the gym before the jocks are on him. The leader grabs his shirt and slams him into the concrete wall, making his head hit with an alarming crack.
"What was that, huh? What the hell was that? What were you thinking? You lost us the freaking game!"
Dizzy from the slam, Switch only glares at his attacker. The other two loom behind, but he can't see them clearly.
"Huh?" The guy in his face repeats, punching him in the gut. "Well?" Another hit, upside the head. "Say something, you freak!" He shoves him. Switch gasps, but he doesn't say a word. Instead, he tries to shift. These boys are much bigger than him, but if he can get in the right position...
They come at him again, but he surprises them, rolling out of the way and getting to his feet on the other side. As the leader turns around, he gets ready...and then lets fly a satisfying knock of his own. He timed it just right: the leader is forced back a few steps, nose spurting blood.
("Now, Himeko!" someone yells)
"YOU, YOU...YOU'LL PAY FOR THAT!" the leader screams at him. In response, breaking his careful control for the first time since he silenced his voice, he allows a small smirk to creep onto his features. Before they can react, he rushes them, and lands another blow to the leader's face. This one actually sends him sprawling. The two followers are paralyzed with shock.
As the leader falls, he catches sight of Switch's computer lying on a table nearby. "This'll teach you to be silent!" he screams. "Get that!"
The follower jocks snap out of their surprise. One raises a bat to knock Switch over the head, but before he can, something else wallops him on the head and he is out. There is a flash of blonde hair, and the other jock is down as well.
Then there is a crash. A sound of tiny mechanical parts breaking and the nasty smell of burnt plastic.
The leader jock got his computer.
Someone rushed him, to try to stop him, but they were either too slow or not strong enough.
So much of Switch's (Masafumi's) work destroyed, so quickly. They'd built that laptop together, only a few months ago.
And he's so angry that he could...
His head would suddenly kicks in, and he nearly vomits right there in the hall. Instead, he makes his way, fumblingly, unsteadily, towards the closet.
Bossun asks Himeko to take care of the jocks, which she agrees to do.
"What are you going to do?" she asks.
Bossun is resolute. "Help him."
Bossun slowly approaches the closet where he knows Switch is hiding, making sure his footsteps are loud and clear. When he kneels in front of the closet, he receives no acknowledgement.
Bossun pulls out a small pad of paper, and a pen. He scribbles a short message on it, and shoves it under the door. A minute later, a response is written and shoved back at him.
Bossun: How's your head?
Switch: Hurts. Thank you for your help back there.
The pattern continues.
Bossun: Why were they beating you up?
Switch: I lost the game. They think I'm a freak.
Bossun: They're wrong.
The message pad does not come back for a long pause.
Bossun: What do you think?
Switch: I wanted to hurt him. That lead jock. When he destroyed my computer. It had many memories on it.
But that would have made me like my brother's killer-to hurt someone for spite.
That's a freak.
Bossun: But you didn't. You put up with everything they threw at you.
Bossun sits back for a moment and considers.
Bossun:Would you like to join a club?
Bossun: Himeko and I-she's the one who took down the other two jocks, by the way-are starting a club. The main purpose is to help those in need, and we would never turn down a request.
Bossun: I need you.
I know how smart you are-top marks, always doing stuff with your computer. And I guess you can fight a litte too. But I need someone who's a problem solver to complete the team. Himeko is the brawn-she fights when it's necessary. She's energetic-motivational, you might say. She is also sometimes very kind. I'm the leader. I can talk to people and find out what they need, and then try to make it happen. But when we run into problems, we're in trouble. Himeko freaks out, and I way, way over think it. We need someone who can think on his feet and come up with solutions.
Behind the door, Switch stares at the first line of the message for a long time.
Switch: Why don't you mind that I'm different?
Bossun: We're all different. You're doing things your way, and that's fine with me. Fine with Himeko too.
Bossun doesn't give Switch time to reply to the last message. He stands, opens the closet door, and extends a hand to him.
"So, whaddya say?" he says with a grin.
Switch stares up at him for a long moment, the slowly takes his hand and gets to his feet. Bossun pulls him out of the closet and closes the door behind him. He smiles, a small smile.
"Welcome to the Sket Dan," Bossun says with an even larger grin, handing the still-dripping Switch a warm towel.
Switch hesitates, then for the first time in over a month, and the last time in many months, he locks eyes with Bossun and allows himself to speak. His voice is shaky and rough, but it's there.