It was a dismal after-school afternoon.
The sun smoldered, and the air was dry.
The head of the Karate Club, Issei Tsubaki, walked energetically down a tree-lined street off campus.
Despite his fair-skinned complexion and diminutive stature, he was nevertheless a fearless warrior. His slit eyes and tightly drawn mouth were impressive. One could see the spirit of an inexhaustible, quiet fighter burning brightly in those eyes.
He was on his way to a duel.
This afternoon, in spite of his repeated failures, he had sent another letter of challenge to Sousuke Sagara. No matter what he did, he just couldn't suppress his feelings of wanting a rematch.
Ever since he was very young, he had worked to improve his skills despite his various handicaps- height, weight, vision. Conquering the deficiencies which had turned into an overflowing inferiority complex, he single-mindedly pursued power. In order for him to set his sights even higher, he had to somehow defeat Sousuke, who had beaten him.
(That's right... ever since the day I lost to him, I've become a man who can't take one step forward. But that ends today. Today for sure, I'm gonna-)
Issei's eyes grew large.
As if stirred up by the warrior's energy, a whirlwind suddenly appeared around him, kicking up dust and leaves all around him.
Before long, Issei arrived at the spot for the match. The remains of where they had demolished a judo hall a few days before. He couldn't see anyone yet. It seemed that he had arrived before the agreed time.
That's when Issei suddenly noticed.
There was something strange on the zelkova tree right next to him. On its trunk, which was about the same thickness as his chest, he found a white piece of paper attached with an army knife.
On the piece of paper, there seemed to be a long message.
Issei, who was near-sighted, couldn't really see what was written on it. He walked up to the tree, and squinting, read the message.
"To Issei Tsubaki:
I did recieve your letter of challenge.
However, as I have an important mission for the student council today, I cannot fight you. I'm sorry, but I have sent a foot soldier in my place."
About halfway through the letter, just as he shifted his weight a little bit-
From under his foot in the ground, something made a dull, metallic sound. Although he was getting a very bad feeling, he continued to read, and found the explanation as to the nature of the sound.
"-if you have already heard the metallic sound, it would be advisable not to lift your leg. There's an anti-personnel land mine underneath. If you take your foot off, it will explode."
He looked down at his foot.
Trembling with fear, he carefully leaned over. He turned up a little of the dirt from under his worn-out sneaker. A land mine about the size of a CD peeked back out at him.
Now shaking all over, he read the remainder of the report.
"-Use this army knife to try and dismantle the mine without moving your foot. If you manage to successfully disarm it and survive, you have won.
That is all.
Good luck to you.
Issei, clinging to the trunk of the tree, howled out in a bitter voice, "Sagara... y-you've done it again!!"
At around the same time, Sousuke Sagara, with a serious face and focused very intently on his work, stapled a bundle of paper together. A mountain of finished copies had formed on top of the large desk in the student council room. This was his "very important mission" right now.
That was because they were in the middle of producing this month's bulletin- the "Jindai High News".
Sousuke and several other students were silently absorbed in their work, and there was little conversation because of the gloomy atmosphere.
Just as he had finished 200 copies- there was the sound of an explosion in the distance. The echo reverberated like thunder, rattling the windows of the student council room as they shook- then the silence soon returned.
While the other students were raising their eyebrows, Sousuke alone closed his eyes.
"So he failed..."
Kaname Chidori gave him a puzzled look.
"What are you talking about? What was that sound just now?"
"Don't worry about it. Somewhere far off, a lone man has fallen in battle... that is all," he said solemnly, then punched the stapler again.
Kaname sullenly returned back to work.
After a while, one of the girl students helping on the bulletin- Mizuki Inaba, complained, "God... why do I have to work on this boring crap? I don't have anything to do with the student council."
She had a semi-long straight haircut. Although her facial features were diminutive and cherubic, she had the stubbornness of a fox. Many members of the student council were out today because of work, club activities or chores. Since they were shorthanded, Kaname had forced Mizuki to come as she was going home at the end of the day.
"Stop complaining. You owe me for lots of things, anyway. You had free time today, didn't you?"
"Hmph, well excuse me if I spend my empty youth with nothing to do but watch reruns of 'Shadow Army- The Bakumatsu Chapter', since all I do is go home and I don't have a boyfriend."
"I can't stand it. Maname and Madoka and Shouko, they all got boyfriends recently and that's all they talk about."
"Your friends from middle school?"
"Yeah. Those three idiots. We hadn’t seen each other in such a long time, and that's all they talked about for three hours when we met up at Mos Burger. Even though they knew my circumstances. It really ticked me off. I wonder if I should tell their boyfriends their embarrassing little secrets."
"You're the same, nice person as ever, aren't you..." Kaname had said in a shocked voice, when the door of the student council room burst open violently.
"Sagaraaa!!" screamed someone leaning against the doorframe- one ragged, dusty, Issei Tsubaki.
He looked terrible. He was completely covered in soot and scratches, his uniform was singed all over, and smoke was rising from his head.
"Ah, Tsubaki. What's up?" greeted Kaname, but Issei didn't seem to notice. He adjusted his cracked glasses to confirm Sousuke's figure, and just as he said, "I'll kill you!", he rushed headlong at Sousuke. At the same time, Sousuke stood up from his seat just in time to miss the outstretched fist that came at him as fast as an arrow. The mountain of booklets collapsed with a thud, and the air was full of flying papers.
"I see you're alive. You have respectable stamina."
"Shut up! I definitely will never forgive you for today!"
"You lost when it blew up."
"That's not your decision!"
"I understand, so let's do this tomorrow. I am working on the news bulletins-"
"I don't give a damn!!"
Sousuke ran lightly around the room as Issei mercilessly took blows at him. Since it was an unarmed fight, Sousuke and Issei were about even, but it didn't seem too difficult for Sousuke to avoid Issei's angry and uncontrolled attacks.
"Ah, they're at it again..."
Kaname scratched the back of her head. She didn't know what to do about the animosity between the two of them.
"What's going on? Who's the mad guy with glasses...? This is rather annoying," Mizuki said with an annoyed look on her face.
"Yeah. He's a guy we've known for a while now. He's been involved with Sousuke about something..."
"Hmm. So, they always joke around like this?"
"Yeah. Well, it's a bit extreme on the aggressive side to be called 'joking around' ...but this isn't the time to talk about it... hey you two, cut it out."
"Take that! And that!"
"Hello... hey. Tsubaki!!" she scolded him, and Issei noticed Kaname's presence for the first time.
He stopped his fist in mid-flight, and his facial expression was suddenly agreeable. He seemed extremely embarrassed to have been distracted in the presence of Kaname.
Sousuke didn't miss his opportunity. A moment had scarcely passed when he drove a sharp kick into his opponent's stomach.
Issei, who narrowly managed to put his arms up in time to guard against the blow, went flying in the direction of Kaname and the others who had taken shelter next to the window. Kaname barely avoided being hit by his back, but Mizuki, who was standing up behind her, was hit dead on by the blow.
That's when the accident happened.
Mizuki was knocked backwards, and after staggering for a moment, she fell across the window frame.
They were on the fourth floor.
She flipped over and fell out of the window. Her small body was headed headfirst into the asphalt ten meters below when-
Just as Mizuki had started to fall, Issei grabbed her ankles at the last moment with a "gsh!" His upper body was hanging out of the window and both of his feet were braced as he held onto Mizuki like an upside-down fish.
"Aa... YAAAAAAAA~~!!" she screamed after a second. She flapped her hands around for a few moments, then checking her improperly inverted skirt, started wriggling and twisting around.
"Haah!? Aah!? Noooo~!!"
"D... don't move around!"
"Let me go, let me go! ...no no no, don't let go don't let go don't let go!!"
"I'm not! I'm not letting go! So calm down! Be still!"
Issei looked desperate, holding onto Mizuki's ankles with both hands. He somehow managed to turn around to try and ask someone for help.
When he noticed, Sousuke made his way over to Issei.
"Your hands are tied up with this, Tsubaki."
"If you let go, Mizuki will die. In other words, you can no longer avoid my attacks... checkmate."
"Admit your defeat like a man. Otherwise-"
Kaname punched him vehemently from the side, knocking Sousuke down. She was ghastly pale, and sternly pointing at Issei over at the window, said "Help him! Save them!"
Quickly getting up, Sousuke willingly lent a hand. Kaname joined in as they carefully lifted Mizuki up. Somehow, everything turned out okay.
"Hmm... that was almost a close call."
Kaname came back to her senses and knocked Sousuke down.
"Shut up! You nearly sent Mizuki to the next life, you know that!? Taking advantage of an opportunity to attack Tsubaki- are you for real!? Why do you always think of such cowardly methods of fighting!? All the basic connections in your brain are shorted out!"
"You think so?"
"Yes! Go and see the electronics guy at the stores in front of the station on your way home! ...really, when it comes to you, you're the most hopeless, absurd, stupid, dumba** idiotic-"
Kaname scolded Sousuke, who could only defend himself. Mizuki, who had flopped down on the floor, was sitting absentmindedly beside this all too familiar scene. She was dazed and confused, taking in the shock of how she almost died-
"Hey... are you okay?" asked Issei, who had regained his composure, as he waved his right hand around. Half asleep, she looked up at his face.
When she did, Mizuki's eyes widened.
Issei had lost his glasses sometime during the commotion. When she looked at his real face, with its light complexion and noble features, Mizuki's attitude suddenly changed. Normally obstinate, Mizuki's eyes instantly and feverishly teared up, and a sigh escaped from her small lips.
"I'm sorry. Are you hurt?"
"U... uh. ...I'm ...fine," Mizuki barely managed to answer. Again, this came out in a thin voice unimaginable from Mizuki.
"I see. Then it's alright."
Issei stood up and turned toward Sousuke, who was still being admonished.
"Hey... Sagara. I'm tired today. I'll overlook this. But... next time, I won't show any mercy."
"Prepare yourself," he said over his shoulder, and with a drawn-up face, he started to leave the student council room. Then Kaname said after him, "Wait, Tsubaki!"
"Wh... what is it, Chidori?"
"Please stop doing such dangerous things. Even at the best of times, we have a walking-time bomb in here."
"I... I'm sorry. See ya later..."
Issei nodded a little, then, looking embarrassed, left the room. For some reason, he only acted strange around Kaname.
"Good grief... hey, Mizuki, you alright?"
"Yeah... I'm fine," she said, nodding half-absentmindedly.
"Really? You're acting strange."
"Yeah. I guess I seem strange..."
"That guy, his name is Tsubaki, huh... What a wonderful name. Very cool. What else... yeah, groovy, soulful, even cute catch to it. Very strong. But tender. So cool..."
As if she were praying to the heavens in the night sky, Mizuki absorbedly stood with both hands clasped together.
Kaname unconsciously took a step back.
"Th, this is..."
Mizuki had completely moved into "love at first sight" mode.
The next morning, Issei, wearing a long face, was walking by himself to school.
He met up with other students in his class, but they only greeted him lightly. Although he was always furious in front of Sousuke, he was normally a rather quiet person who exuded a chilly ambiance.
His classmates perceived him as a cool, handsome man with an air of isolated aloofness... (actually, that evaluation was changing due to the recent fights with Sousuke).
Right now, that same guy was lost in his thoughts of "what should I do in an honest fight with Sagara..." and so on, when he reached the street corner-
Just then a girl appeared from the corner and barreled into Issei with a shoulder tackle.
The attack took him completely by surprise, and he fell down into the road. He quickly raised himself up and scowled at the culprit.
"!! W-what the hell were you doing all the sud... den?"
The girl was the second year student that had almost fallen to her death just the day before. He didn't really know her name, but- she was certainly called Mizuki or something like that.
She was also sitting on the ground, tightly clutching her ankle and saying in a somewhat monotone voice, "Ouch ouch ouch. Ouuuuch. I sprained my ankle... or perhaps it's a comminuted fracture?"
She turned to look at him as she was talking. "Ah. You're that guy from yesterday..."
"What a coincidence that we meet at a time like this."
Issei, who didn't understand her intentions, was at a complete loss for a reply. In spite of the awkward silence, Mizuki shamelessly held out both hands.
"Carry me. I can't walk."
For exactly three seconds, Issei's mouth hung half-open as if he were senile, then-
"Do-don't be stupid. Why do I have to... with a girl like you, who I don't even know that well-"
"Ah! It hurts, it hurts, it hurts!!" she yelled out brazenly, suddenly remembering to clutch her ankle. She carried on without any regard for the commuters who were staring at them.
"My leg huuurts! I was pushed by Issei Tsubaki, a second year student in group 8 at Jindai High School! I can't walk! My ability to move is zero! And I have Mr. Fujisaki for Classical Literature in an hour! I'll be late! And he'll count me absent! I'll fail! Then I'll have to take it over! It's all over for me-!"
"Cu... cut it out! I got it!" Issei replied after wondering whether he should run for it. When he said this, she suddenly stopped crying and glanced up at him.
"What? Uh... well."
"Then carry me."
Her face changed into a grin, and she stretched out her arms.
"That Issei Tsubaki came to school today with a girl from second year. And he was carrying her piggy-back."
Kaname heard this rumor from Kyouko Tokiwa at lunch break that day.
"It's true! They seem really friendly," said her classmate, Kyouko Tokiwa, going into gossipy-wife mode. "Since Mizuki was huffing and puffing after Tsubaki, Tsubaki wasn't very happy, and then right there they broke out into a passionate flamenco dance... or something. No, well, it's just a rumor."
"Th-that was fast... extremely fast," Kaname said, more or less surprised at the speed of Mizuki's actions. The way she could get things done, as well as her fierce beliefs- those were her real abilities. Kaname admired those aspects of that girl with which she couldn't physically compete.
Sousuke, who was beside them listening to their conversation, made a difficult face and put his hand up to his chin.
"So, Tsubaki and Inaba touched...? That's a strange relationship. Is there some sort of conspiracy..."
"...it's not like that, is it? Besides, that hard-line Tsubaki, he's never been as fast as this... it's unusual."
Kyouko looked at Kaname with deep emotion.
"Yeah, I reckoned that he liked you."
"Ha ha ha, no way... but, it's okay, isn't it? I think that kind of relationship is interesting. As for me, I'm like, 'I hope you two are happy'."
"Ahh. That's pretty frank of you."
"Really? Why's that?"
Just then, the subject of their conversation, Issei Tsubaki, noisily clamored into their classroom. His exhausted face looked as far away from "happy" as it could be.
Without even looking around the room at all, he quickly hid behind the door. It wasn't long before Mizuki came running down the corridor outside.
(Isseiiiii? Where did you gooo?)
When her footsteps had passed, Issei hung his head and took a deep breath.
"Tsubaki, what are you doing?" Kyouko asked, and he was startled to notice Kaname and Kyouko there for the first time.
"No... nothing. It's nothing."
"We heard that you were going out with Mizuki? That's great," Kaname said, and Issei shook his head violently.
"No... no we're not. That's not true!"
"Huh? But that's what everyone's saying."
"It's a misunderstanding! That girl's the one tagging along after me... Chidori... if even you’re saying something like that, I... I..." he said, being frank beyond what was necessary.
"Ha ha ha, you don't have to be so shy about it."
His face started to drain to a dreadful color, when-
"Ah, there you are!" Mizuki, who had seen him from the doorway when she was coming back, yelled brightly.
"Mmm, really, Issei! Why are you hanging out here!? Didn't you promise that you'd eat lunch with me?!"
"When did I promise that!?" said Issei, raising his voice, but Mizuki paid no attention to it. He blushed and fidgeted around.