Hiko had been surprised when he arrived at practice and saw Tationy there. He had honestly expected her not to take the position as manager even though he desperately wanted her to. The difference in the spirit of the team was noticeable. Instead of having to focus on various task such as picking up basketballs, moving carts into position, or getting water they could focus on the team and practice. He found that as they did their usual run before and after practice he was often watching her. She was diligent in her duties. She did not slack off and she appeared to be organized. When she did have the briefest of breaks her eyes would follow him around the court. That alone made him the happiest guy in the room and it did not go unnoticed by his teammates.
“Hiko, focus on your running and not your girlfriend,” Semei, the Vice Captain of the basketball team scolded.
“Pay no attention to our Vice Captain, Hiko. He looks at her just as much as you do,” Sadamitsu teased.
“I do not.”
“Yeah you do.”
Hiko tried not to pay too much attention to the teasing Semei was getting from Sadamitsu, but he had to wonder if part of it was true. His lips pursed and Kuro’s words managed to calm him, “Don’t pay any attention to Sadamitsu, Hiko. He is just trying to get under your skin.”
“You are no fun Captain.”
“Focus on what you are supposed to be doing,” Kuro responded and Hiko made note that the atmosphere seemed tense. It was not just Kuro though even Semei and some of the other seniors on the team appeared to be in foul moods. He could have asked a hundred times over what was going on, but he knew Kuro well enough to know that he would not discuss it unless he was ready which meant there was little reason to engage him on whatever was troubling him.
After twenty minutes of running, Kuro finally slowed to a halt and spoke, “That is it. Get yourselves some water, cool down, and rest. The coach will be back any minute with a few announcements.” Even as other members of the team headed to replenish themselves Hiko had looked for Tationy, but she was nowhere to be found. Resigning himself to the fact that she was busy with her own duties he took a seat next to Kuro. He was pensive, far more than he had ever seen him. He had almost broken down and asked, but the conversations being held by other students quieted as the couch entered with Tationy.
“Forgive my tardiness the past few days, I have been attending to some rather serious matters. As you know, Agito has been ditching practice. Despite many discussions with him, I have been unable to convince him to continue on with the team.” Even though it was expected it somehow seemed heavier. Hiko was certain that Agito was not what had both Semei and Kuro on edge. “As you know, we have a new manager. The Sofore basketball team has not had a manager in ten years. She is a blessing to have with us. Sadly, it may be a little too late.”
“What do you mean?” Hiko questioned.
“For those of you that have not heard, this afternoon at the Senior Assembly there was an announcement made. Every four years educational institutions in Aslann are required to have inspections. These include structural, academic, health and welfare, among various other details I will not bore you with. The previous administration of Sofore as you know was investigated and our fine institution was almost closed. Over the past eight years, Sofore Academy has not met its mandated inspections. The current administration is expecting this evaluation to go poorly. As many of you know, sophomore through senior years are not required. They are considered secondary education classes that prepare you for attending a university. On Monday, seniors will be bused to Aslann University where they will take the entrance exam.”
There was silence that followed the coaches words and only Tationy seemed brave enough to ask, “What does that mean for the rest of us?”
“Sophomores and juniors will have a joint assembly tomorrow. As of this point, the administration is leaning toward advising sophomores and juniors to take the entrance exam as well. The staff here at Sofore is uncertain how this evaluation will go. Many, myself included feel that the likelihood of Sofore remaining open is slim. Within the next couple of weeks we are going to work our hardest to make certain that sophomores, juniors, and seniors are not hindered due to these actions. If the school does in fact close, freshmen will be sent onto other schools, but as many of you are aware only three schools within Aslann do secondary education which leaves sophomores, juniors, and seniors in a rather unwelcome position.” With each word spoken by the couch the darkening atmosphere weighed them down.
Even as the basketball team filed out of the building one by one, the words of their coach was stuck in their heads. That heaviness that Hiko had felt around Semei and Kuro made sense now. What did it mean for him and Tationy? As he walked he held her hand tightly. He could tell she was looking at him. Every now and again he would hear a soft little sound as though she wanted to say something, but whatever it was she wanted to say never left her mouth.
“This is bullshit,” Sadamitsu finally spoke up breaking the silence. “I came to Sofore Academy because my options were three more years of school or the fucking Anami Seminary. I was trying to avoid being a priest and now my father is going to spout off about this being some sort of sign that I was always meant to walk the path of the divine as a holy man of the gods.”
“We all have things that are expected of us,” Hiko responded. His father had wanted him right out of his freshman year to take the entrance exam for Aslann University, but Hiko’s grades were not the best and he really wanted to play basketball. His father agreed to allow him to attend Sofore for another three years if he brought his grades up. Now with all of this nonsense and the chance that the school may close down Hiko was certain his father would insist he take the entrance exam and study business. His future was at the Kari Foundation whether he wanted it to be or not.
The negative energy that was surrounding all of them kept the conversation to a minimum. As they made it back to the “spirit dorms” Sadamitsu disappeared rather quickly to his room and Hiko and Tationy moved toward hers. Hiko sat upon the floor, his thoughts muddled and burdened. When she joined him he could not help wrapping his arm around her, “Why do you seem so sad?”
“Thinking about what Sadamitsu said. Is it some sort of sign? Is this how the universe tells us we are not meant to be together? I never believed in that sort of stuff, but I just got you and now….”
“We are not going to be pulled apart.”
He considered that this was what Kyo was talking about when they had spoken earlier and he had told Hiko that he had more important things to worry about than his control, “Aren’t we?”
“I had wanted to take the entrance exam after I finished my freshmen year,” She began talking and Hiko quietly listened. “My mother told me that it was more important for me to find a husband. That a Yamada woman needs to solidify her future by marrying a wealthy man and having his child. That is what my mother expects of me. She sent me here because of Abe. I was supposed to take him back, forgive him, marry him, have his child, and suffer in silence like Yamada women do. That is the future she has planned for me. Even if I take the entrance exam, she is not going to give me the money to go. So, maybe you are right, maybe we are over before we even get a chance, but don’t you think we should try to fight for us if we are truly serious about each other? Is Hiko Kari capable of fighting for something he wants?”
He wanted to be surprised by her words, but he had heard the stories about Yamada women. Even with the amount of wealth they had, it never seemed to be enough. “If I go against my father, he will cut me off. We won’t have anything. No money and no future.”
“We make our own future. We decide our own fate. I don’t believe for a moment you are the type of man to lie down and take it. You are a fighter. Someday, you are going to be the king of the Kari. The iron-fist that brings it into a new era. Isn’t it alright to be my king until you have conquered every obstacle in your path?”
“I don’t think I am strong enough.”
“Then I will be for both of us.”
When she pulled away to stand he followed suit, but refused to allow her to move away. His hands resting to her hips he asked, “How can you be so confident?”
“I know what I want.”
“That is it?”
She smiled, “Being confident means not over-complicating your life with the unnecessary. You see what you want, you go after it, and you cannot be afraid to fail. I am used to being a disappointment to my mother and to be honest I don’t care. I believe in my ability to make my own decisions, good or bad, no matter where they lead me.”
“So, what do we do?”
The words she spoke were oddly comforting, “Well for starters, we wait and see what they say at the assembly tomorrow. Things may work out and Sofore Academy will continue on, but if it doesn’t we will come up with a plan even if it means I waitress to put you through school. We will figure this out. Don’t worry so much.”
Even though Tationy had told him not to worry, after the assembly he found that was all he was doing especially when he started noticing students moving out. She seemed so relaxed as she painted. It was as though she did not have a single care in the world. Hiko could not help admiring this side of her and yet it made him worry even more. How was he going to take care of the two of them? Should they take the entrance exam? What would his father think or her mother? There were just way too many questions for his liking.
She laughed softly, “Your father again?”
He groaned as he looked at the text he received on his phone, “Yes. For a traditionalist that hates technology he sure did get the hang of texting.”
“Thankfully my mother can’t be bothered with contacting me. What did his text say?”
“He wants me to come home. Take the entrance exam and attend Aslann University in the spring.”
“So, what will you do?”
“I will text him back and tell him we are coming.”
“We are in this together right?”
“You are just afraid to face your father alone.”
“We never talked about…well you know, come to think of it we progressed so fast we never really talked about much of anything. What is your father like?”
“Traditional, stern, unforgiving….”
“No, I mean…what is he like? What kinds of things move him? Wine? Women? Music? Art?”
“Well telling me what his personality is like means nothing because people can be one way with one person and another way with someone else. So with you he might be those things, but with someone else he might have a sense of humor. How he appears when he is listening to his favorite song or talking about a subject of interest is more telling.”
Hiko shrugged his shoulders, “I don’t really know him. It was not like he and I ever spoke more than a few words to each other and when we did it was always arguing.”
“What kinds of things move your mother?”
“Expensive clothing, rich men, fine dining especially dessert. She once had a man spend ten thousand dollars on a piece of cake for her. Can you imagine eating that kind of money?”
He figured Tationy and her mother were like night and day as he forced himself from laughing, “What if I bought you a ten thousand dollar piece of cake?”
“It better have a ring in it for that amount.”
Laughing Hiko responded, “I will keep that in mind.” Even though he was certain it was not her intent, she once again managed to calm him. The tension that had overtaken his body had dissipated with a single laugh. Only she was capable of having such an impact on him which was all the more reason he needed her to come with him when he visited his father. He knew what was going to happen. It would be the same conversation they have had, hundreds of times, and Hiko would be reminded of what a disappointment he was to his father. He would get angry, lash out, and the two would part company. Having Tationy there might be the only way to keep it from turning into an argument. “So, how long will it take you to be ready?”
She stopped painting suddenly as she turned to face him, “We are going today?”
“Well yeah. We got nothing else to do right? So, how long?”
For a time she stared at him silently eventually responding, “Give me a half an hour.”
With bags packed and their dorm rooms locked up, they arrived at the train station, got their tickets, and boarded. Hiko was hoping for some quiet time with her. When he opened the door to their car he groaned, which elicited a laugh from Sadamitsu.
“Cannot get away from you losers,” He said as he tucked his and Tationy’s luggage away and took a seat.
“Father laid down the law and told you to come home, huh?”
“He asked and I am obliging, for now,” Hiko responded.
“Yeah…” Sadamitsu said in a rather relaxed tone, “We are obliging ours as well.” He paused only for a moment as his eyes fixed on Tationy which forced Hiko to frown, he did not like that gaze and was not entirely certain why until Sadamitsu spoke in what could only be described as the husky voice of seduction, “Hello, mama.”
Tationy giggled which annoyed Hiko and thankfully Kuro spoke up, “This space is rather confined Sadamitsu, don’t pick a fight.”
“I was just saying hello.”
“You were flirting,” Kuro corrected.
“I was simply attempting to engage an attractive woman in greeting. If that makes me a flirt, then the entire world is filled with them.”
“Welcome to Sadamitsu logic,” Kuro responded which elicited an annoyed sound from Sadamitsu.
“Hello, Kuro and Sadamitsu,” Tationy finally greeted. Hiko did not give her a chance to say anything further as he tugged the back of her shirt in an attempt to get her to sit close to him.
When she finally took a seat his hand possessively ran along her back and even though she was being relatively quiet he felt no tension, “I am surprised to see the two of you,” Hiko began speaking and paused only a moment to consider his words, “I take it your parents are anticipating the worst.”
At first there was plenty of silence until Sadamitsu spoke up, “Not unexpected. The news traveled rather quickly.” He paused allowing his eyes to settle on Hiko’s girl, “Tationy, don’t take me too seriously. I am just playing. Unless of course you want to take me seriously and then I will kick the shit out of your boyfriend and make you all mine.”
“As if you could,” Hiko snarled.
“Anami men might not be as physically intimidating as the Kari in brute strength, but we have something most of you don’t have.”
“Yeah, what is that?”
“Fell right into that,” Kuro responded.
“Yeah, yeah. My IQ is not as high as you two.” Tationy turned to look at Hiko and he realized that there was something in his tone that she picked up on. He had always been annoyed that he was not as smart as the majority of the people around him. It was not as though he was lacking in intelligence, he simply did not have an IQ in the genius range. Which was infuriating because Kyo, Semei, Sadamitsu, and Kuro all did. She gave his hand a squeeze which calmed him, “Kuro, don’t you need to take the entrance exam on Monday?”
“Yeah, my brother is going to drive me there.”
“How did your father react?”
“He is overjoyed.”
“What happens if the school does not shut down?” Tationy questioned.
“Don’t know. Most of the seniors have already started moving out of the dorms,” Kuro explained. “Of the few I spoke to most of their parents see this as a good thing.”
“If it closes it is going to have a rippling effect,” Sadamitsu spoke. “There are only three schools in Aslann that have secondary education programs. The government has been pressuring the schools for years to remove the option and gradually one-by-one they fell into line. It was estimated that within ten years that secondary education will be a thing of the past.”
Hiko spoke up, “What I don’t understand is how exactly do you go without having inspections done for eight years?”
“Kickbacks. That scandal which nearly got the school shut down there were a lot of rumors that were considered unfounded due to lack of evidence to support it. One of those rumors insinuated that high-ranking officials took kickbacks for services rendered, which seems to fall in line with this nonsense about them having not had an inspection in eight years.” Sadamitsu pursed his lips, “Even if they get this situation worked out, I bet half of the dorms will be boarded up. Have you seen the crack on the back of ours? That foundation is not structurally sound.”
“Sadamitsu,” Tationy said his name which drew the attention of all of the men to her. Hiko lightly gripped the back of her shirt and inadvertently pinched her skin which forced her attention on him a moment. At first she had simply stared at him, but after a time the corner of her lips curved and her head tilted which forced the ugly jealousy that overtook Hiko aside. Turning her attention toward Sadamitsu she finished speaking, “You have calmed considerably since yesterday.”
Hiko noticed how Sadamitsu watched the two of them under heavy-lidded eyes, “Not really.”
“You should read his blog,” Kuro spoke up.
Hiko laughed, “I take it someone was ranting?”
“I was not ranting, I was simply articulating my displeasure in a language that everyone can understand.”
“Expletives aside,” Tationy spoke, “It will all be alright. Just relax and don’t worry about it. Enjoy the break from classes while they do the structural inspection. Once that passes everything else should go relatively smoothly.”
Sadamitu’s stare was sad and yet scrutinizing as he fixed his attention on Tationy. Hiko knew that look, “What would you know? You probably have it so easy. No family obligations. No requirements. Each of us here has some sort of shit baggage weighing us down we don’t want to do. Tell us Tationy why the hell should we enjoy this break? What gives you the right to tell us to relax and not to worry about it?”
“That is enough Sadamitsu,” Hiko snapped.
Hiko was surprised when Tationy spoke. Her voice was soft and tentative, “You are right. I should not tell you not to worry. What is so bad about being a priest? I don’t know. What is so bad about running a big company? I don’t know. I am not lucky enough to have your baggage. My mother just requires me to spread my legs for some rich guy so he can get me pregnant. Ensuring my future is a matter of how well I take it. So, the only thing I have to look forward to is being on my back for some guy. So, I don’t know about you, but I am going to enjoy this break.”
The silence that followed her words was tangible. Sadamitsu eventually broke the tension, “I don’t know about the rest of you, but if this was a contest regarding whose life sucks more, I think Tationy just won.” He sighed, “Don’t mind me, I am just in a foul mood.”
“No, it is alright. I didn’t mean to snap.”
Hiko squinted his eyes, “That was you snapping?”
Kuro laughed, “As if Hiko did not have a hard enough time figuring you out. You snap like you are reciting softly a sad piece of poetry in a bedroom voice.” Kuro placed the small paper crane he had been making upon a nearby shelf before fixing his eyes on Tationy and Hiko, “Yesterday, I was a bit upset over the news. Semei and I had plenty of discussions about it and where it might lead. As seniors, we both understand the position we are put in.” Hiko noticed that Kuro was not talking with his hands like he normally did. It seemed he was going out of his way to force them to remain where they were. “Semei is Kari and his father the Osoma and Shield. His obligations are probably more than mine or yours. His father was understanding of his desire to remain at Sofore to continue what we started with the basketball team, but with Agito gone we are back to retraining someone and building a new team compatible with that person. I don’t think I have it in me and neither does he and there is no guarantee that the gymnasium will even pass the inspection.”
Hiko questioned, “So, you are considering leaving even if things work out with the school.”
“Yes. I am not going to tell you which way to go, but regardless of whether or not you are a senior, junior, or sophomore you should be considering which path is best for you. Even if the school somehow manages to pass inspection, we can all be fairly certain that there will be buildings boarded up. The gymnasium is old, falling apart, and needs more than a coat of paint. If it does not survive inspection that leaves the basketball team without a place to practice.”
“Which means they will probably disband it?” Hiko was frustrated even as he asked the question.
Kuro gave only a brief nod of his head, “I know my father is pretty annoyed hearing about some of the structural damage. Even if they pass the inspections, they might not survive the audit because the families are going to want to know what their money was used on. This is a clear-cut case of fraud and mismanagement if there ever was one.”
As Hiko listened to Kuro speak Tationy snuggled into him. It was moments like these it was much too easy to forget the world around him. He reached over to the lamp and adjusted the light so it was dimmed a bit and less offensive on his face and more importantly she would be able to rest comfortably against him without having a light shine in her eyes. “So, that is it then. Will you head off to Aslann University?”
Kuro shrugged his shoulders, “I don’t know. What about the two of you, have you discussed this situation?”
“Only a little, not nearly as much as we should. After practice, I was too frustrated and exhausted so we went to bed and did not really discuss it until after the assembly. By that point, my father was sending me text practically non-stop.”
“Kuro?” Tationy spoke.
“Have you met Hiko’s father?”
“What is he like?”
“Stern…” Sadamitsu piped in.
Kuro laughed, “I think she is actually asking more about what he respects or disrespects. Mr. Kari likes directness, but in a respectful manner. He is more likely to engage in conversations about tradition and history. Don’t spend your time on the cellphone, he hates it. Sadamitsu learned the hard way when Mr. Kari threw his away. He and Hiko are always arguing over everything. Never saw two people turn a simple hello into an argument before. He appreciates hard-work and hates complaining, especially when people say they can’t do something. He is pretty traditional and formal. Overall, I have had plenty of decent conversations with him, but I admit I am more likely to engage him in conversations about tradition than Hiko is.”
Definition: Bagola – Game similar in nature to Chess and Shogi. Its pieces include the Emperor that you are to protect. The Prince is the most powerful piece. There are guardians that protect the Emperor which are made up of many different kinds of warriors including soldiers, assassins, and generals. There are two pieces on the board which are the advisers to the Emperor. It is a game meant to take hours with two brilliant minds battling each other. Silver pieces go on attack first while Onyx pieces go on defense at the start of the game.
“He is pretty smart,” Sadamitsu added. “I played Bagola against him once. Beat me in three moves. Never had anyone beat me before.” Hiko’s fingers trailed along Tationy’s shoulder as he listened to Sadamitsu and Kuro discuss his father. He wanted to distract himself from the conversation, “I was thinking about what you said earlier Tationy.”
“You know, about your mother and what she expects of you. I am sure Hiko would be glad to get you pregnant. I mean, you are his girlfriend and if you have not done so already I am sure he is anxiously awaiting being between your….”
“Sadamitsu,” Hiko snapped.
Even though Sadamitsu had stopped talking suddenly, he was not looking at Hiko, but instead his eyes were on Tationy. Hiko knew he was not talking to him when Sadamitsu asked, “What is that look for?”
He wished he could see her expression. Did the thought of having a child with him disgust her? “It is too soon for that sort of talk,” Tationy finally responded. “I do not even know what Hiko’s favorite color is.”
“Still, that makes your mother happy. He is rich and having children is something like a requirement with the Kari.”
Tationy turned her attention on Hiko, ignoring Sadamitsu. It was obvious she was searching for whether or not that was a true statement. Hiko quickly looked away and watched the world pass by as the train moved toward their destination. He decided that it was not in their best interest to have that conversation at this point because they did not know enough about each other.
To Be Continued