Author : Arlyn Jayde
E-mail : email@example.com
Rating : R
Pairing : Naoki Jo/Shugo Urabe
Archive : Battle School, anyone else ask first
Spoilers : Battle Royale 2
Disclaimer : Don’t know them, don’t own them, don’t sue me.
Summary : All good things must come to an end…
I’m dying, dying to wake up without you
Without you in my head again
Dying, dying to forget about you
That you ever lived
The world was cruel.
He was a fool for ever thinking that it could be anything other than that.
For Naoki Jo, the ominous signs had begun with his unsettled mood when they’d started out on the trip this morning, even among the laughter and cheer of his classmates, but he’d so easily written it off as just another part of dealing with the memories this time of the year brought him, how the strings of holly and ribbon-tied bells that decorated the interior of the bus and the ‘Merry Christmas’ sign that hung over his very head reminded him so painfully of his mother, his lost hope, his last year’s tragedy. The unease had steadily built in the pit of his gut but he’d suppressed it, thinking that it was all in his head, and seeing his friends share a similar detached gloom seemed to confirm that this was no more than their collective pain coming full circle, almost a year to the day that their lives had been crushed. He should’ve known better. This was not about last year’s tragedy.
This was a tragedy all in its own, in its own time.
How could this happen? Why did this happen? It was as if the cruelest of all fates had decided to befall them at the same time, adding a twist of irony to it that he found most unlikely to be a coincidence. Even as he saw the light of fury in Kurosawa’s eyes as Takeuchi explained the true nature of their predicament, this game that they were being thrown into, Naoki could swear that there was more to the look Kurosawa gave him than the affirmed, excited disbelief that their time had come. It wasn’t supposed to come this early. They weren’t ready for it. They were far, far from ready. The surreal journey that had begun when he woke up from a dizzying stupor with this metal collar around his neck had now been harshly put into crystal clarity, starkly lit and gun-barrelled, nameless cold faces of trained, uncompromising bodies who wrestled him to the ground with such ease, silencing his protests with the butt of a rifle to his face, the sound of chalk against board swallowed by the panicked screams of his classmates and the rattling sound of the cage that surrounded them as one or more got pushed against the barrier. A cage, that’s what this place was. A spectacle.
Even as he stood beside his leader, whose face bore a look of wide-eyed impudence, he could feel his insides wiltering into fear, descending slowly into madness. He stared down at his hands and saw how small they looked now, a child’s hands, still—never mind how he’d shunned all traces of his innocence and brought himself up to what he believed was a man, a full-grown man ready to take on the world and its challenges. Lies. All of it. He heard the faint sobs of a few of the girls but had not the heart nor the voice to hush them into silence. He’d not remembered ever feeling this knotting, debilitating fear, and he realized that the fear he felt was not only for his own life, but for that of another. And that life belonged to not one of the steely faces who now stood around him, forming a close band of willful determination, but to another face, much more grim and laden with feelings, beautiful even in despair, who sat not far from him though Naoki could not, even in this moment of utter madness, reach out and touch him.
Maybe it’s the world that’s gone crazy around us, and all we’re doing is trying to adjust.
The echo of his own words seemed to mock him in the hollow spaces in his head where his thoughts were supposed to be. How long ago had that been? Two months? Three? He should’ve known that no bliss could ever last for as long as he wanted it to. This world would not allow it. This fucked-up world and this fucked-up country with all the fucked-up people running it. No amount of ‘adjusting’ would ever bring them at peace with this world. No amount of faith and belief could forestall the cruel fate that awaited them. He’d spent these past few months being happy, being uninhibitedly, unabashedly happy, and now it was as if the very same forces that had given him his happiness were conspiring to take it away. They were trying to break him again, get past the leather and metal and into the weakened core of his soul, to bring out the child that one year ago had wept pitifully over his mother’s grave. No happiness could ever find eternal place in this unworthy excuse of a life, where life itself seemed to hold no more value than the bullet spent in wasting it away.
Aoi’s cry was hoarse and Naoki felt it in his own throat, and even Kurosawa’s mask of boldness and courage had cracked at the sight of the pool of crimson blood slowly spreading from Makimura’s body, the cries of Motomura and Aoi no more than futile calls to the soul that was already beyond their reach. Naoki’s insides twisted painfully and his knees nearly buckled as he saw the look on Shugo Urabe’s face, how the face Naoki had tried so hard to maintain in an ever-smiling beauty now scrunched up in pain, head shaking minutely in a mixture of rage and disbelief as Makimura’s face grew pale before their very eyes, limp and lifeless, the blood seeping from the wound in his head and his leg spreading into a foreboding, scarlet halo around his fallen body. There was a deathly stillness among the students, as if each contemplating how quickly their lives had suddenly crashed down upon themselves, and even Naoki, whose life by all means had already crashed down upon him one year ago, felt their paralyzing terror, no stronger was he than any of them though he so desperately needed to be.
And then, the beeping started.
He knew, instantly, that something terrible was at hand. That sound, slowly building into a crescendo, emanating from the collar around Kazumi Fukuda’s neck, its erstwhile slow intervals picking up pace as the girl became frantic after Takeuchi had so coldly informed her of her impending fate, and the students scurried away from her, screaming and falling over themselves, slipping on the blood-stained floor, and out of the corner of his eyes as he backed himself into the cage wall Naoki could see Kenji Maezono frantically pulling Eri Yoshiyama away from Fukuda’s flailing arms, the blonde girl’s body tottering and stumbling in helpless despair as the collar beeped and beeped, her own supposed friends throwing her across the room and against the board, Makimura’s blood staining her hands and face. Then Fukuda, screaming, charged forward, sending her classmates into a frenzy trying to avoid her, and with her arm outstretched she cried out for her mother, but the word was cut short when her collar detonated, sending a spray of blood in all directions, the doomed girl’s throat obliterated in a split second, caroteid artery hissing like a gas valve releasing its contents as her body thrashed against the cage before making its slow, lifeless descent onto the floor, where the pool of her own blood awaited her stiff and awkward fall, her limbs twisted in all directions.
Naoki fell to his knees for real this time, unable to keep up the façade of bravery any longer, the brutality laid bare before his eyes piercing through his hardened shell and shattering it in the same instant it took Fukuda’s life, and on his shoulder Kurosawa’s hand lay trembling, Tetsu and Maezono backing away on hands and legs in shock from the mangled body of the delinquent girl. Within the space of a few minutes two of them had met with a grisly end, two people Naoki would never consider as his friends but nonetheless had never wished their deaths upon, and none but the students themselves seemed to care. This was Battle Royale. This was what the game was all about, this utter disregard for a life, a child’s life. His prior knowledge of the Program known as Battle Royale had consisted solely of scattered reports and rumors of kids being made to kill each other, in Nanahara Shuya’s distorted broadcast speeches about how he and his band had survived the grim spectacle and vowed not to forgive the adults who had made them murder their own friends, and Naoki’d just as soon spat in the bastard’s face for using such a sorry excuse to justify his murder of thousands, one of whom had been Naoki’s mother, his life embedded in her as much as hers was in him.
And yet, this time some of what Nanahara had said begun to make an eerie, sickening sort of sense. Takeuchi’s rant had summed it all up perfectly. The government thought them worthless, expensive, and that they were a dispensable alternative to the well-trained soldiers that would cost dearly to replace should they be killed. This was Battle Royale in its newest manifestation, this sick game of death, though in its heart the purpose seem unchanged, to teach a lesson to these self-destructing youths by destroying them utterly. These stone-faced adults who stood around them, brandishing rifles against defenseless children, their linked collars just another gimmick to add to their miseries. And if the television crews and reporters who’d hounded them since they got off the bus were any sign, the rest of this nation was watching with glee to see just how this pack of losers and delinquents would die. It was a thought that made Naoki sick to his stomach. These fucking adults, who thought that the world was theirs to rule, and the children were theirs to kill.
Suddenly, for the first time in what had been a long, tumultous, painful year, Naoki Jo was forced to wonder just who his enemies really were.
There’s a shade come over this
Hear that’s coping with laying down to rest
I’m dying to live without you again
The next thing that followed was the utter chaos, at least in his mind, and only Kurosawa’s hand tugging at his arm was able to keep him on his feet as they were told to put on their gear and were marshaled into a different area, where heavy steel doors opened for them and they were rushed through, always with soldiers shouting at their backs as they ran into the pre-dawn night outside, rifles handed to them, and Naoki vaguely recognized the type they were being provided for but he didn’t have the chance to turn around to ask Tetsu, the military enthusiast, just what exactly they were. Grimly, he reflected that he might not ever have that chance. Speakers were blaring and soldiers were shouting, and Naoki thought somewhere he heard the demonic, satisfied laughter of Takeuchi, whom he so desperately wanted to kill right now more than he wanted to kill anyone else, Nanahara Shuya included. The assembly area opened out into what turned out to be a shoreline—the base was located smack near the beach. He couldn’t tell which beach this was, but the waters were choppy and the topography consisted of jutting cliffs and rocks. Six motor-powered rubber boats awaited them, and a voice spoke over the loudspeaker, a monotone recording of a female voice, repeating the message over and over.
“Students 1-3 on Boat #1…students 4-7 on Boat #2…students 8-10 on Boat#3…students 11-14 on Boat #4…students 16-18 on Boat #5…students 19-23 on Boat #6…students 1-3 on Boat #1…”
Through the drone of her flat yet menacing voice the soldiers were shouting, some threatening the students at gunpoint to herd them towards their assigned boats, some prying apart the embraces of weeping, panicked friends who didn’t want to be separated, and Naoki saw Wataru Mukai taking a punch to the face for trying to stand between a soldier and Asuka Motomura, who still seemed in shock over Makimura’s death and refused to let go of her best friend, Nao Asakura.
“Get in your boats! Get in your boats, quickly, or we will shoot you!” the soldiers shouted.
Naoki wanted to kill them all so badly but he couldn’t—they’d handed him an empty gun. One look at the magazine slot told the whole story.
“Jo...” Kurosawa held his rifle to his shoulders as he trudged across the sands towards Boat #2. “I’ll see you on the beach!”
But Kurosawa didn’t wait. He hopped on the boat almost too eagerly, Tetsu following close behind him, having to half-drag Sanae Shioda who was nearly in tears along with him. Naoki wanted to call out to him but his voice failed, a sickening feeling of helplessness building in his stomach. Did Kurosawa truly realize what this all meant, that they were being sent into battle, into war? Had his leader, reckless and high-strung for all his charisma, truly grasped the meaning of their predicament here? Floodlights bathed the beach in a harsh neon glow, and the helicopter hovering above them likewise trained their searchlights onto the turf, but ahead of them the waters were completely dark. Naoki held his empty rifle close to his chest and began walking towards his boat, when off to one side he could see Maezono, almost unrecognizable except for the number 14 stenciled on his helmet, speaking to Eri Yoshiyama. He was saying something frantically, but she repeatedly shook her head and cried. In the end, a soldier came between them and pushed Maezono away, Yoshiyama screaming after him. Naoki almost rushed in to help but then he saw that two other boys from Maezono’s boat, Hasegawa and Hosaka, were already holding him back and dragging him with much effort towards their boat. Yoshiyama had to be tearfully pulled towards her own boat by the combined efforts of Kana Yuki and Tatsuro Morishima, her voice still calling out Kenji’s name in the cacophony of noise that surrounded them.
“…students 8-10 on Boat#3…students 11-14 on Boat #4…students 16-18 on Boat #5…students 19-23 on Boat #6…”
“Get in your boats! Get in your boats, now!”
Going to war is no joke. Doesn’t matter whose side you’re on, people are gonna die.
Naoki felt his insides twisting. “Shugo…”
Then, it was as if a great weight had suddenly hit him on his back. Naoki thought it was one of the soldiers, trying to get him moving, but then he realized that this weight felt too familiar, too close, too warm. Two heavily-encased arms went around his waist and gripped him so tight he thought his bones would break, anda a helmeted head leant against his shoulder, a withering voice speaking a bare whisper against his ear.
“Shugo!” Naoki tried hard to spin around, desperate to look in the other boy’s eyes, but Shugo’s arms were surprisingly forceful in holding him in his place, not permitting him to turn his body.
“Shhh…” the soft hushing of an uncharacteristically soft voice against his neck was followed by a kiss on his cheek, which ended all too quickly, a ghost whisper, and once again that voice spoke in his ear, and he detected a soothing effort marred by barely-hidden despair. “No regrets, love…remember that.”
The gentle words was starkly contrasted by the actions that followed, as Shugo suddenly pushed him forward, the force nearly sending him stumbling onto the sand. When Naoki got his balance back and looked around, Shugo had already sprinted towards his own boat, leaving him behind, and Naoki could only stare after his back as he disappeared into the darkness.
“Shugo!” he called out, no longer caring who else would hear him. “Shugo, wait!”
“In your boat, number 8!” A violent shove came upon his shoulders, and he could feel the muzzle of an M16 pressed against his forehead. “In your boat, now!”
No regrets, love…remember that.
“Shugo…” he whispered faintly.
“In your boat, or I’ll shoot you!”
No regrets, love…
“Jo! Jo, what the fuck—” Nanami’s hands suddenly grabbed him by his shoulders, yanking him towards their boat. “Come on, let’s go!”
Naoki had no other options. He followed Nanami towards Boat #3, where the other four were already waiting. His partner was Girl #8 Risa Shindo, the class president. He should be grateful, really. She was level-headed and not quick to submit to fear or panic, as she was demonstrating by trying to calm down her best friend, Girl #9 Honami Totsuka, who was weeping pitifully. As soon as he got in Naoki’s eyes searched for Boat #1, where Shugo would be, but he couldn’t see it. In this darkness it was hard to make out the individuals in the boats, adding to that they were clad in identical gear, the only clear distinction being the numbers on their helmets.
“…students 8-10 on Boat#3…students 11-14 on Boat #4…students 16-18 on Boat #5…”
The motors were starting. They must have had it on auto-control somehow, and the helicopter now hovered directly above them, sending ripples of the dark ocean waters splashing against the boats. Naoki slung the strap of his rifle over his shoulder and hung on to the boat’s side as they began moving away from the shore, and he shared a look with Nanami, whose dark eyes held his gaze in what Naoki could only interpret as hard, cold determination. He could understand that. Nanami had nothing to lose. Neither did Kurosawa, or Tetsu, for that matter. If this was it, then this was it. One way or another, their chance had suddenly come, and ready or not those three would charge headfirst into it, even if it meant their deaths. And Naoki, for better or for worse, could not bring himself to share their single-minded determination. He had something to lose. He had a lot to lose. He had Shugo. And Maezono…he had Yoshiyama. And if the scene he’d just witnessed on the beach was any indication, Maezono had something to lose, too. He knew what this meant, what they were facing.
No regrets, love…remember that.
“Shugo…” Naoki could only stare after the dark shilouettes of the other boats as they went deeper and deeper into the darkness, the sense of foreboding inside his stomach growin every second, his body shivering not from the cold but from the fear that threatened to rip his heart to shreds.
I’m dying, dying to find a distraction
To keep you away from me
Dying, dying to reach a conclusion
So that the world can see
“They’re selling the house.”
Naoki looked up from the Polaroid camera he was tinkering with and into Shugo’s eyes. “Huh?”
“They’re selling the house…” Shugo repeated, pulling his knees up to his chest as he sat on Naoki’s bed. “My parents. They told me last night.”
Naoki put the camera back down on his desk and studied Shugo’s face, not sure what he could say in this situation that could make him feel any better than he looked, which was gloomy to say the very least. “I…I’m sorry.”
Shugo shook his head. “Don’t be. I could sense it coming, anyway. Months ago, even.”
“It’s not that we can’t afford the house anymore, they said. We can, and things have actually gotten a little bit better since I worked that supermarket job, but—” Shugo opened his hands in a helpless gesture. “It’s not enough to get me to high school.”
Naoki stood up from his chair and sat down on the bed in front of Shugo. “So they’re selling the house…so you can go to high school?”
“Yeah…” Shugo’s voice was withered. “Dad’s been looking around for cheap apartments around this area…said he found one the other day. It’s small, but we’ll make do.” a wistful smile broke across his lips. “We always do, don’t we?”
Naoki exhaled deeply and laid his chin on Shugo’s joint knees. “When?”
“As soon as we find a buyer for the house…” Shugo said. “And as soon as Dad can make sure that the money’s enough for my tuition fee…at least for the first year. One thing’s for sure, I’m not going into any fancy school.”
Naoki offered him a thin smile. “Neither am I.”
Shugo did not return the smile. “After we had that conversation, my mother…she pulled out an envelope and gave it to me…I opened it and there was money inside. I asked her, Mom, what’s this for?” he shook his head bitterly. “And she said—it’s for your ski trip, honey…wouldn’t want you to miss that, would we?”
At this Naoki could see the wrenching on Shugo’s face, mimicking the one he felt in his own stomach. Shugo’s lips began to quiver and he brought a hand to cover his mouth, just as his shoulders began to shake.
“What…what am I supposed to say to that? How am I supposed to feel?” Shugo’s voice racked with quiet sobs. “Like, I was sitting there feeling guilty but I know she doesn’t want me to feel that way, so I’m angry with her for making me feel that way and yet…” he threw his head back against the wall behind him, which made Naoki wince. “…I don’t have the right to feel angry, do I?”
“Like, I’m angry at myself for being angry, and I’m guilty about being guilty…” Shugo’s lips twisted in an attempt to hold back his tears. “What am I supposed to feel? What’s the right way for me to feel without being some ungrateful bastard?”
“Shugo…” Naoki drew the other boy’s hands into his, holding them tightly. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that our feelings don’t give a shit whether they’re right or wrong. They just…are.”
Shugo chewed his bottom lip. “Annoying bastards, aren’t they?”
“Sometimes, yes.” Naoki scooted over to sit beside Shugo and wrapped an arm around the other boy’s shoulder, allowing Shugo’s head to fall against his chest. Whatever would keep him from banging it against the wall again.
“There are times when I just…I get all these words inside me that are just aching to be said, but if I actually said them to my parents I’d be damned to Hell…” Shugo shook his head. “…like gosh, Mom…if you knew you weren’t gonna be able to support more children, then what the heck are those three doing here?”
Naoki squeezed his shoulder tightly. “Nobody’s going to blame you for feeling that way.”
“And now they’re selling the house, and we’re moving to a place that might be only as big as our living room now, so I can go to high school and maybe have the tiniest chance to become something other than a kid who doesn’t know much beyond his rugby rulebook—” Shugo’s voice was filled with self-loathing, which Naoki hated to no end. “—they sure are banking a lot on me, aren’t they?”
“Shugo, stop it…”
“Why couldn’t it be enough? Did I not try hard enough? Did I not work enough hours, or help around the house enough?”
“Shugo, stop it!” Naoki grabbed the other boy’s chin and forced him to look in his eyes. “That’s enough.”
“Which fucking part of it is your fault, huh? Which part?” Naoki said sternly. “None of it, do you understand me? None of it!”
Naoki held his face firmly. “Listen to me…the economy went bust, was that your fault?”
Shugo shook his head. “No…”
“Your father, like so many other people, lost his job. Was that your fault?”
“We had a major recession, and some people suffered more than others, including your family. That your fault, huh?”
Shugo shook his head again. “Naoki…”
“And up to now, he’s having difficulty finding another job, so you break your back every week trying to fend for yourself while your mother works part-time, and you help her as much as you can with the little ones, and somehow that’s still not enough…so whose fault is it?”
Shugo’s eyes fluttered shut, his cheek brushing against Naoki’s palm.
“Not yours, Shugo…” Naoki held him tightly. “And they know that. Your parents know that. They want you to know that, too.”
“They love you. That’s why they’re doing this…because they have hope in you.” Naoki lifted his right wrist and showed Shugo the wooden bracelet that was still faithfully worn there. “Like I do.”
Shugo stared at him, wide watery eyes beneath a fringe of tussled brown hair.
“Don’t you dare ask me if I really meant what I just said…” Naoki told him sternly. “I never, ever bullshit you.”
His reply came in the form of two arms that slowly went around his neck, and a head of brown head that burrowed even deeper into his chest, as if wanting to disappear into it altogether. Just a little over two months ago Naoki might not have known what to do in this situation, but now Shugo was too familiar a presence for him to feel just a sliver of doubt over his actions. The brown-haired boy could be an epitome of stoic beauty on most days, bravely weathering each difficulty that came his way, throwing a joke or two which made fun of his own situation in a way he wanted his friends to know that he was okay, that it didn’t bother him, that everything was business as usual. But Naoki didn’t want any of that. He didn’t mind having to tend to Shugo at his most vulnerable state, as long as it was Shugo, and not a façade he’d erected around himself in the name of being strong. He didn’t need Shugo to be strong. Naoki would do that for him, and in return, Shugo would tend to him at his vulnerable moments, which were becoming alarmingly frequent.
The impending Christmas brought a considerable darkness to Naoki’s general mood, everywhere he looked there were painful reminders of his mother’s death, things that symbolized joy to other people but only brought him sorrow. Shugo was there with him the day he nearly broke, in public, when they were out walking and he saw a boy, ten or eleven perhaps, walking with his mother, who held her son’s hand and said to him, let’s go to the park and see the Christmas lights there. Why things were such that he actually heard what the mother told her son Naoki didn’t know, what he did know was that he would’ve fallen to his knees and broke right then and there, if Shugo hadn’t held him up. What he’d heard was almost exactly the same as one of the last sentences Naoki’s own mother had spoken to him, one year ago, in Tokyo, one of the last things she’d said to him before she died.
Naoki, darling, let’s go to the central square and see the Christmas lights there, shall we? But you just wait here, Mama needs to go to the office in Shinjuku to pick something up, okay? I’ll be right back.
Then she had disappeared into the crowd, waving at her son as she crossed the street, the smile on her face that was one of the things he loved so much about her…
…less than an hour later, the ground shook and the world as he knew it came to an end.
As the days passed one by one and the air grew colder and colder still, Naoki had increasingly grown quiet and gloomy. Logic told him that this was just his memories coming back to haunt him, last year’s pain resurrected in his surroundings as the year drew to a close, and his mind told him that it would pass. The New Year would bring him new hope, and Shugo would be there with him. Shugo would always be with him.
It’s the same old story of love and glory
That broke before it bent
I’m dying to live without you again
“Here! Get in here! Quickly!” Hasegawa waved frantically with his arm. “This should provide us with some cover.”
The tall boy had pointed them towards what seemed to be a rock quarry of some sort, its steep walls giving them ample cover from the bullet and mortar fire coming in from the Wild Seven stronghold on the hill above. Naoki slung his rifle around and covered the back as Group Two trudged across the treacherous rocks and into the quarry, some of them nearly tripping over themselves, weighed down by the gear and the ammo tins they were carrying. Naoki had his FAMAS rifle—he knew this now after reading the serial numbers—slung over his shoulder while his black-gloved hands were carrying as many ammo tins as he could, some still tangled in the parachutes they’d been dropped in. Nanami was among the last to enter the quarry, a mortar exploding just behind him as he supported Maezono, who’d gotten shot in his leg, and the two hobbled into the quarry where Nanami deposited their wounded friend against the solid rock wall.
“Is everybody in?” Naoki called out. “All pairs accounted for?”
“I’m here, Jo-kun…” Risa Shindo replied, her voice surprisingly calm despite the utter chaos and grim prospect of their situation.
“I’m here…” Boy #9 Masakatsu Taguchi said. “Totsuka’s here, too.”
Totsuka was too busy weeping in Shindo’s arms to reply for herself.
“I’m here, Jo…” Nanami’s voice had lost some of the battle-ready edge, sounding very much worn and fearful.
“Here…” Nanami’s partner, Girl #10 Yuko Natsukawa replied weakly.
Hasegawa was standing lookout near the edge of the quarry and gave Naoki a nod of affirmation. His partner, Rena Niimi, had been so horrified by the thought of her collar epxloding that she refused to be more than an arm’s length away from Hasegawa.
“Pair 12 is still here.” Maho Nosaka said, her voice strained. Shota Hikasa kept silent.
“Lucky thirteen, still here…” Yasuake Hosaka said, sounding just a little bit bitter, his weak attempt at humor not masking his shell-shocked state. Mayu Hasuda, his partner, only gave Naoki a small nod of her head.
“Maezono, you okay?” Naoki asked to the number 14 boy, who leant his head against the rock wall and breathed uneasily.
“I got shot, you fucker…do I look okay?” he hissed.
“At least you’re alive.” Nanami said. “Your partner’s alive, too.”
“Yeah, that goes without saying…”
Naoki leapt down into the quarry and knelt beside Maezono, checking the wound on his leg. The bullet had only grazed him and didn’t seem to have lodged itself in there, but the wound itself was pretty deep and he was losing blood. Trying hard not to cringe, Naoki stood up and looked around the students gathered in the quarry.
“Anybody here know first aid?”
“I do…” Hosaka held up a hand. “We don’t have any first aid kit, though.”
“Just see what you can do for him, okay?” Naoki said. The bespectacled boy took off his helmet and walked over to Maezono, kneeling down beside him and inspecting the wound. After assessing it for a few seconds, he exhaled deeply.
“It’s not bad…” he said. “The bullet grazed him pretty deep, but the artery isn’t cut.”
Nanami blew a sigh of relief.
“We need to stop the bleeding. Tear off a shirt, anything, that we can use for a bandage.” Hosaka said, looking more in his element. This was his area, Naoki remembered, the wannabe doctor. “Take off his helmet, and give him some water to drink.”
Naoki did as the group ‘medic’ dictated, giving Maezono a drink of water from the bottles they’d been provided with inside their vest pouches. Maezono only took a sip before leaning back against the rock wall again, seemingly oblivious to his pain.
“She’s dead, isn’t she?” Maezono’s voice was low and resigned. “Eri’s dead.”
Naoki shook his head. “We don’t know that yet—”
“Goddamnit, Jo! I saw her boat explode! She’s gone!” Maezono said angrily.
“Hold still, will you?” Hosaka said irritably.
“Shut up, Four Eyes!” Maezono retorted sharply.
“Hey, hey!” Naoki raised his voice. “That’s enough, Kenji. You’ve been shot, and we’re trying to patch you up so you can at least walk the rest of the way, okay? Save your anger for our enemies, for fuck’s sake!”
“And who the fuck is that, really?” Maezono muttered under his breath.
Naoki couldn’t answer him. He’d been asking himself that same question over and over, since the dreaded boat ride here, during the chaos on the beach that separated them from Group One, during the frantic ammunition grab whilst avoiding mortar shells and a hail of bullet-fire being fired at them. Who were their enemies? The people shooting at them, or the people who put them here?
“There…that should do it for now.” Hosaka tied a bandage made out of a strip of Nanami’s shirt around Maezono’s leg, who winced just the slightest bit as the knot was tightened around his wound, but he complained no further.
“Arigato…Hosaka.” he managed to mutter.
The bespectacled boy walked back towards the others, leaving the three Shubultz Cuts members in their own space.
“Can you move it?” Nanami asked.
Maezono wiggled his leg a bit. “Yeah…I’ll be fine.”
Naoki stood up and swung his rifle back and dropped the ammo tins onto their feet. “Here…load up.”
The rest of the group began loading their rifles also, the diagram provided inside giving them a little bit of help. The firing had ceased, and the only noise they could hear were the waves crashing against the shore. Hasegawa fired a few test shots in the ocean’s direction, but Naoki warned him sternly against trying the grenade launchers fitted under the rifle’s barrel.
“Don’t waste our ammo…”
The tall soccer player didn’t look like he liked being bossed around by a member of the Shubultz Cuts one bit, but luckily logic won over pride and he nodded tersely. It was almost noon, and some of the students began rifling through their vest packs for the food they’d been provided. Bread and water, some rations those were, but they hadn’t eaten anything since the bus ride and were hungry. While the others ate, Naoki guarded one end of the quarry with his loaded rifle in hand, while Taguchi guarded the other end.
“Can’t reach Group One…” Nanami said as he held the communicator in his hand. “They’re out of range.”
“We’re too far apart.” Naoki said. “Let’s wait here and rest for a couple of hours, and then let’s move and try to get in touch with them.”
And then, a voice crackled into the comm sets they were wearing on their heads.
“It’s noon!” Takeuchi’s voice said, and a bile of hatred rose up in Naoki’s throat. He could just picture that man, smiling that smug smile of his, standing over Makimura and Fukuda’s body, smiling with all the satisfaction in the world that he’d just sent two of his students to their deaths, and would soon send forty others to a similar fate.
“Bastard…” Nanami hissed.
“Now for the student casualty update! I’ll list the names in order of death!”
Suddenly, Naoki felt something cold and icy landing in his gut. Around him, the other students also looked around nervously among themselves. He knew that the question in their faces was the same one he was asking himself. How many of them were still left? Who had died? Who were still alive?
“Boy #15 Makimura Shintaro, Girl # 15 Fukuda Kazumi, Boy #17 Miyadai Yosuke, Boy #19 Morishima Tatsuro…”
“No! Tatsuro…” Taguchi’s face was pale with disbelief. Hasegawa, too. Morishima had been close to them.
“…Girl #19 Yagi Ayane, Girl #20 Yazawa Ai, Girl #21 Yano Hibiki, Girl #22 Yuki Kana, Girl #23 Yoshiyama Eri!”
Nanami and Naoki both looked at Maezono, whose face was as still as stone, but a single tear had escaped his left eye and began its long descent down his cheek. Naoki felt something inside him lurch at the sight. He’d never seen Maezono cry before. He’d been distraught, yes…angry, sometimes…but he’d never cried. Yoshiyama had clearly had much impact on him for the short time that they’d been together…just like…
“Girl #17 Mifune Yuka.”
Naoki drew in a sharp breath. Mifune was dead. As much as he hated the bitch, he hadn’t wanted her to die. This was crazy. This was beyond al reasoning. But the death toll did not end there. Takeuchi’s voice continued, sounding every bit as cheerful as if he’d been reading off a list of award recipients, and Naoki felt a bitterness at the back of his tongue as he pictured his teacher’s satisfied voice reciting the names of his now-dead students.
“Boy #16 Minamoto Kiyoshi, Girl # 16 Matsuki Shiho, Boy #18 Mukai Wataru, Girl #18 Motomura Asuka…”
Motomura, too? Naoki almost felt glad for her. He almost felt glad for all of them. Out of this sick game, out of this insanity, and at least Motomura would be reunited with Makimura, if that was how things worked up there. Good for her. He had never liked the sickly, spindly girl much but seeing her weep over Makimura’s body had stirred his sympathy, and he couldn’t picture her lasting a long time even if she had made it onto the beach. This was better for her, at least. End her misery before she goes insane, or revert back into the autism that had afflicted her previously at the worst possible time.
“Boy #7 Shimura Tetsuya…”
“WHAT?!” Nanami nearly leapt to his feet. “No, not Tetsu!”
“Tetsu…” Maezono’s voice barely left his lips. “No…that’s not possible!”
“Girl #7 Shioda Sanae…”
Naoki’s knees grew weak. Tetsu…Tetsu was dead. Shioda Sanae’s name was just the grim confirmation. Those who died would inevitably die in pairs. One goes, the other goes, too.
“Boy # 2…”
Naoki shook his head vehemently, feeling as if his very life was being sucked away. “No…”
The clatter of his rifle falling to the ground seemed only a distant echo in his head, and the shocked faces turning around to find out the source of the noise seemed only a background image as the world seemed to spin around him, blackness clawing at his eyesight, and faintly he heard a voice—Nanami’s?—calling out his name, but it seemed so far away, so far…
No regrets, love…remember that.
Mama needs to go to the office in Shinjuku to pick something up, okay? I’ll be right back.
I’ll be right back.
The first time you left, I said goodbye
Now there’s not a breath that can survive
“I look like a crazy fucker in this picture, don’t I?”
“You look fine, Shugo.”
“My hair’s a mess.”
“Your hair’s always a mess.”
“Look, we’ll take another one, okay?”
“Are you sure it’s okay for you to mess around with your aunt’s Polaroid?”
“Of course it’s not. But she doesn’t have to know, you see?”
“Ahh…I remember now. You’re a delinquent, you break rules.”
“So…we take two pictures, and I get to keep one?”
“Sounds fine by me.”
“I…uh, there’s something I’ve wanted to say to you…and I figure this is as good a time as any.”
“What is it, Shugo?”
“I…I don’t know what it is, you know, this ‘thing’ between us…I don’t know if it’s love or not, and frankly I don’t much care.”
“Neither do I.”
“But I do know this…whatever it is that you’re doing to me, I know nobody else will ever do it like you do.”
“There’s only one Naoki Jo in this world, and I’m glad I found him.”
“And there’s only one Shugo Urabe in this world…and I’m glad he’s mine.”
“Mine. My Shugo…”
Dying, dying to die just to come back
So we can meet again
Dying, dying to say what I always
Always should’ve said
I’m glad I found him.
“Jo…damnit, can you hear me? Jo!”
No regrets, love…remember that.
“Jo! For God’s sake, wake up! JO!”
Nobody else will ever do it like you do.
“Jo…please don’t do this to us. Come on, wake up! Damnit!”
Shugo. My Shugo
There was a violent shaking of his body, and a harsh light penetrated the darkness around him, followed by the formation of numerous shapes in his vision, blurry as it were, which slowly materialized into faces he didn’t recognize at first, alien figures in black helmets and goggles, until he finally came upon one face that he knew and knew well.
“Oh, thank God…”
He realized that most of Group Two had converged around him, their faces aghast with worry.
“Are you okay?”
“Jo, what’s wrong?”
Shugo is dead.
“I…I…” he shook his head. “I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?”
Fuck off, Hosaka.
“Guys…I’m fine. Look, you…” he waved his hand. “You guys get some rest, okay? We’ll move out in an hour or two.”
“Yeah, just give us some space here…” Nanami said.
Reluctantly, everyone else walked back to their previous positions, leaving the three Shubultz Cuts members sitting together—sitting. They were on the ground. Last he remembered, Naoki hadn’t been on the ground. Which meant that he either fell, or…
“You blacked out.” Maezono said.
Naoki looked back and forth between Nanami and Maezono, both of their faces strained with concern. Did they know? Had they come to their own conclusion?
“Jo…” Nanami said. “Tetsu’s dead.”
Nanami shook his head. “How…how could this be?”
Maezono scooted over to Naoki’s side, forming a tight huddle between the three distraught boys. His face was as grim as ever, and Naoki saw the trail of his tears down his face. Looking down, he saw that the front of his own vest had damp patches on it. He’d been crying, too.
“We couldn’t do anything for him…” Maezono’s voice said. “Like I…like I couldn’t do anything for Eri.”
“Kenji, there was nothing you could’ve possibly done for her.” Nanami said. “Nothing.”
“Yes, there was!” Maezono retorted. “I could’ve…I could’ve convinced her not to go, not to go on this trip…”
“Kenji…” Naoki shook his head.
“And I could’ve convinced her to say no—when Takeuchi called her name…”
“Are you out of your mind? She would’ve died right then and there, if she’d refused to play!” Nanami said. “You saw what happened to Makimura, didn’t you?”
“No, no…you don’t understand.” Maezono shook his head. “This is different!”
“What? What don’t we understand?” Nanami sounded confused, while Naoki couldn’t find the strength to speak.
Maezono hung his head slightly, as if contemplating whether or not he should continue speaking, but then he raised his face again and Naoki could see new tears forming at the corners of his friend’s small eyes. “Guys…Eri was pregnant.”
Nanami’s eyes widened under his splay of dark curls, and Naoki could only guess what sort of expression he had on his own face.
“No.” Maezono shook his head. “We found out just three days ago. Her period was several weeks late, so I went with her to…to this clinic downtown, and we had her examined…the results came in three days ago. She was pregnant.”
There was uneasy silence between them, a dust of cloud being blown into the quarry by the strong ocean winds.
“Kenji…I hate to sound like a jerk, so if this offends you feel free to punch me or something…” Nanami said, exercising a degree of tact Naoki found surprising for his personality. “But…are you sure it’s yours?”
“It’s mine.” Maezono showed no visible signs of taking offense. “It was six weeks old, which was just about right.”
“Your…uh…from your first time with her? That day at school?”
Maezono sniffed. “Yeah…in case you haven’t noticed, condoms aren’t exactly readily available at school.”
Nanami directed his gaze towards Naoki, who could only give him a minute shake of his head. Yoshiyama had been pregnant. That meant that her death was also the death of her child, however small at six weeks, Kenji’s child.
“The people at the clinic…they were telling her, it’s not too late to have an abortion, you know—it’s still very small, if you want to do it, do it now.” Maezono shook his head and a wistful, saddened smile broke across his lips. “She was so angry at this…so angry that they’d even suggested it to her. She just yanked my hand and got us the hell out of that place, she was absolutely furious.”
Naoki laid a hand on Maezono’s shoulders, not sure if it would help.
“She said I didn’t have to stick by her, if I didn’t want to. I didn’t even have to admit that it was mine, she said. Go on, Kenji…I won’t hold you back. I know you have other purposes in this life…other goals.” Maezono closed his eyes as another tear fell free of them. “But I wasn’t going to leave her. I told her, we’ll find a way, Eri…I promise.”
We’ll find a way, Shugo…we always do, don’t we?
Naoki fought hard not to lose his consciousness again, Shugo’s image branded into his eyelids whenever he closed them.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” Nanami asked
“I didn’t know…what you’d say.” Maezono choked out. “I was going to tell you either while we were on this trip, or after we got back. I…I never thought this would happen to us.”
“While we were being put on those fucking boats I kept telling her—please, Eri…go and tell them you’re pregnant, they might let you off. I mean, they’re not going to send a pregnant girl to war, are they?”
“I’m not sure…” Naoki said. “They’re fucking bastards, all of them. God knows what they would’ve done. It could’ve been worse for her, Kenji.”
“For what it’s worth…” Nanami spoke again. “…she died quickly. I don’t think she suffered much.”
Maezono nodded his head, as if trying to convince himself more than anyone. “I hope so…but I still think I didn’t do enough for her, to protect her, to protect her baby—I mean, I know it’s probably so small you can barely see it, six weeks—but fuck it, it’s still a life, it’s still a baby!” he shook his head and pounded his fists against the rocky ground. “My baby…”
“Jo…” Maezono turned to him slowly. “It wasn’t Tetsu, was it?”
“It wasn’t Tetsu’s death that broke you like that…you were still okay when his name got called. It wasn’t him, was it?”
Naoki stared at his normally quiet yet intuitive friend, not knowing what to say.
“Jo, damnit…if you’re ever gonna come clean to us now’s the time!” Maezono demanded. “We’re friends, right?”
“Jo…” Nanami began. “What’s he talking about?”
“When you blacked out just now…it wasn’t because of Tetsu. It was somebody else.” Maezono held Naoki’s gaze firmly. “Somebody…who was announced after he was.”
Naoki felt his lips quivering, and all he could do was produce a slow, painful nod, his neck aching every minute move of the way.
Nanami joined in the hopelessly out-of-place staring contest, his mouth hanging slightly open. “Jo? Is…is that true?”
“It’s not that Tetsu’s death didn’t upset me…believe me, it did.” Naoki said, not exactly knowing how on earth he was still able to speak. “But no…it wasn’t hearing his name that…that broke me down.”
“Jo…” Nanami’s face looked as if he was trying to fend off the inevitable, denial apparent in the shaking of his head, which Naoki was sure signaled that he was beginning to grasp the truth of it all.
“There were only three other names announced after Tetsu, Jo…” Maezono said.
“You already know which one, don’t you, Kenji?” Naoki said bitterly.
“Don’t make me guess. Please don’t…” Maezono pleaded with him.
Naoki lifted one trembling, gloved hand and reached deep inside his jacket, past the vest and the camouflage, past the shirt he wore and into the sweat-stained undershirt, hoping against all hope that the object he was searching for was still there. It was. He pulled out the picture he’d taken with his aunt’s Polaroid camera, not five days ago, one of the two they’d taken on that day and with the other perhaps tucked inside Shugo’s own shirt, wherever his body lay now, in whatever state. Naoki didn’t want to know. The picture was the first one they’d taken, with Shugo’s hair definitely looking slightly ruffled but it didn’t take anything away from his beauty, and Naoki was the one holding up the camera an arm’s length away, and Shugo was leaning against him, Naoki’s other arm wrapped tightly around his chest, his lips brushing against Shugo’s cheek in a not-quite-kiss which nonetheless communicated their intimacy without a shred of a doubt. Shugo’s smile was open and genuine, the way it always was, and Naoki also smiled, albeit a little more faintly, his lips sealed but it didn’t detract from the obvious, in-the-moment joy they were feeling at that time.
There’s only one Naoki Jo, and I’m glad I found him.
And there’s only one Shugo Urabe, and I’m glad that he’s mine.
He handed the picture over to Maezono, feeling no fear nor worry of how his friends would react. He didn’t care. It didn’t matter. Shugo was dead. He was gone, and with him had gone everything Naoki had ever come to believe in again, all the good things in life he was beginning to experience again for the first time since his mother’s passing.
No regrets, love…remember that.
Shugo had loved him. That last sentence had confirmed the answer to the question they’d endlessly circled around for the past few months, a presence that hung over their togetherness like a persistent shadow, though they had not let it overcome them nor did they push either one to a premature answer. But Shugo had answered his own question. Shugo did love him, and now, in the cruel irony that seemed hopelessly cliché and unbearably painful, Naoki knew that he loved Shugo, too.
“Jo…” Nanami stared at the picture. “This…this is…”
“That is Shugo Urabe.” Naoki provided the name. “ And I’ve been with him for the last two months.”
I could’ve been with him forever.
Maezono and Nanami stared at the picture and at each other, seemingly unable to come up with words befitting their surprise. Or at least it was surprise in Nanami’s part. Maezono looked far less so, and why should he be? Surely that intuition of his had long given him hints of the true nature of Naoki’s constant fending off of any question regarding his personal life these past two months.
“You want to laugh? Go ahead, laugh!” Naoki said. “I won’t cheat you of what might be your last chance for one good laugh before we all die.”
Maezono’s trembling handed him back the picture. “I have nothing to laugh about, Jo…”
“Neither do I…” Nanami added.
Naoki took back the picture and stared after it for a long, long time, his dirty fingers brushing across Shugo’s face, his smile now a ghostly memory like that of his mother, but the pain was so raw it felt like his chest was about to tear itself open.
“I don’t want to know…I don’t want to know how he died…” Naoki said. “I only want to remember how he lived.”
Maezono inhaled sharply, biting down on his lower lip. “You know what? I feel that way about Eri, too.”
“Jo…” Nanami’s voice was almost unrecognizable to the cynical, mocking one he had on most days. “Did you…love him?”
Naoki closed his eyes and drew the picture tightly against his chest. “You have no idea…how much I wish I could’ve told him that.”
“You…uh, you weren’t exactly planning on telling us, were you?” Nanami asked again.
“Not really.” Naoki said truthfully. “I’d considered it, but I knew I wasn’t ready. Or rather, I knew you weren’t ready, and I didn’t know if you ever would be.”
“It wouldn’t have changed anything though, would it?” Maezono asked. “It wouldn’t have mattered if we’d found out before, wouldn’t have mattered what we said, how we reacted. You wouldn’t have cared, would you?”
Naoki pushed the picture back inside his undershirt and patted it gently. “I wasn’t about to abandon you guys…if that’s what you’re implying. I would’ve stayed true to our pact, our cause…but at the same time I wasn’t going to let him go.”
Naoki picked up his rifle, loaded and locked and stared at his two friends. “Let’s go. Time to move out.”
“No, Kenji. No more waiting.” Naoki said as he pushed himself off the ground, finding balance with one hand on the surface of the rock wall. “It is time.”
Nanami stood up, and soon Maezono was up too, hobbling slightly on his wounded leg.
“We will have our revenge. We will have it now.” Naoki spoke, his mind already hard at work pushing the pain aside and letting the anger, the determination come forth. “For my mother…for your brother, Jun…for your father, Kenji…”
The two other Shubultz Cuts members nodded their agreement.
“For Tetsu…” Naoki slung the strap of his FAMAS over his shoulder and looked at Maezono. “For your girl, and your baby…”
Maezono nodded slowly.
Naoki placed a finger on his rifle’s safey and switched it loose. “…and for my Shugo.”
It’s a strange emotion this but there’s still hope in this
As long as there’s a breath…
I’m dying and I can’t live without you again
“Group Two! On your feet, we’re moving out!”
The group assembled at the center of the quarry, most of their faces looking doubtful, but Naoki was beyond discouraging now. If he was going to do this, he was going to do this right.
“Okay, listen up…we’re going to try to make contact with Group One, and make our assault on the compound. I know most of us don’t want to be here but we have no choice, so let’s just keep our focus and try to stay alive, okay?”
A murmur of assent spread through the group—even Niimi was able to nod her head a bit, bless her.
“Now this weapon is a FAMAS Type 03 assault rifle. It’s got some serious firepower in it, so you need to be careful. What’s more is that it has a pretty mean recoil factor.” Naoki held his gun in firing position. “What that means is that with every round you fire, the gun’s going to jerk back at you, so keep one hand on the underside at all times, keep it pointed low, and keep it close to your body because if you lose control of it, it’s going to fly in all directions and we might kill each other. Understood?”
He was speaking from memory, from a time when Tetsu had enthusiastically shown him the diagrams of the FAMAS he now held in his hand, back in Kurosawa’s den an eternity ago, two boys perusing the specs of a weapon they never thought they’d actually get to hold in their own hands. They had those weapons now, but Naoki was sure Tetsu never even had the chance to fire his.
“Jo-kun…what about these?” Shindo pointed to the larger muzzle underneath the rifle.
“Those are M203 grenade lauchers. Single load, single shot. When you do fire one, make sure you have a firm foothold or it’ll knock you off your feet. Aim high, because it’s got quite a punch and quite a range.” Naoki said. “Is that clear?”
Another collective nod.
“Okay, we’re moving out. Taguchi, take point. You’re our lead scout.”
Taguchi flicked the safety off his rifle. “Okay.”
“Hasegawa, you round up the rear. I’ll take the middle.”
Hasegawa seemed to have forgotten his dislike of being bossed around by a Shubultz Cuts member, of all people, and he nodded. “Got it.”
The group formed a line of sorts, but before they started out Naoki reached for Risa Shindo’s arm and tugged her gently. “Shindo…”
Naoki studied the girl carefully. He respected her a lot—she was the class president, a smart and cool-headed girl, and the way she’d conducted herself since they were thrown into this mess spoke volumes of her maturity and poise.
“I can’t…I won’t play safe to keep you alive. I can’t do it. I’m sorry.”
She shook her head. “Don’t be…this is what you’ve always wanted, isn’t it? You and your friends? Your chance for revenge?”
“It is…but I wish it didn’t have to be this way.” Naoki said. “These collars…”
“I know, Jo-kun.” Shindo said. “I understand. I won’t hold it against you.”
Naoki bowed to her, a gesture he hoped would communicate his admiration for this girl. “Thank you.”
“Do what you must.”
Taguchi stood ready on the path leading out of the quarry. “All set to go?”
Naoki gave him the affirmative nod.
“Okay, here we go! Group Two, moving out!”
They took off at a brisk walk, the pairs staying close to each other, and Naoki laid his hand on the trigger, itching to open fire at the first sight of the enemy.
Are you afraid, Shugo? Are you afraid of the darkness, of being alone?
Nanami and Maezono walked beside him, Maezono limping slightly but determinedly, his face steely and grim despite the faint marks of his tears. Naoki glanced down on his right wrist and saw the wooden bracelet that Shugo had given him, the bead of “Hope” as always placed above his vein. As long as there’s hope, all is not lost. That’s what Shugo told him. But Shugo was his hope. With him gone, Naoki had nothing.
Don’t be afraid. You won’t be alone for long.
“Maezono…Nanami…” he said as they walked.
“We might very well die, you know?”
Maezono swallowed into his throat. “I know.”
“Me, too.” Nanami said.
We were right, Shugo…the world has gone crazy. But I no longer want to adjust. I want out.
“If we’re gonna die, let’s die fighting, shall we?” he said. “We’ll take some of them with us.”
“I’m with you, Jo.” Nanami said.
“All the way.” Maezono added.
They hiked out of the quarry and into an area laden with thick bushes, where Naoki looked up into the skies, the sun having left its apex and beginning its slow descent into the west, a cluster of rainclouds beginning to form above their heads.
No regrets, love…remember that.
Naoki smiled—perhaps the last smile he would ever have on his face, but the thought didn’t bother him as much as he thought it would.
“Look after him, Mama…” he whispered faintly. “Look after him until I get there.”
I’m dying and I can’t live without you again.
Song: “Dying” by Five for Fighting.
*If you do not have this song, find it. Please. I implore you.*