03/30 06:45 – Asatoro City, Iwaraoi Prefecture, Japan
Sam hadn't gotten much sleep that night, his internal clock a staggering thirteen hours behind his current location.
"It's afternoon!" his body had told him, "You should be awake and active!"
"It's two in the morning, and we just got off a sixteen-hour flight!" he had complained back, "I'm meeting Katayanagi-san for breakfast, and then having lunch with the headmaster! I need to sleep!"
"Awake and active!" the body shot back.
"Sleeping, you insolent slab of flesh!" Sam retorted.
It goes without saying that he was not actually speaking back and forth with his own body, but in the silence and darkness of the dorm room, he imagined this argument taking place to occupy his mind while he attempted to sleep. He had been nearly falling asleep at his desk trying to read just an hour before, why now did he feel more awake than ever?
Eventually he managed to drift off somewhere around three, but it was hardly a slumber worth talking about. It was about three hours later when he was awakened by the sound of his LifeBand, which he had forgotten to take off when he settled into bed, beeping in high-pitched, rapid succession as if it were a bomb nearing the end of its countdown.
"Hale-san, time to get up!" Katayanagi practically shouted, his voice seeming to echo from nowhere.
Sam's heavy eyelids burst open and his head whipped around like a rotating fan as he tried to find the source of the voice. "Katayanagi…san?" he asked, his own voice still thick with sleep.
"Down here, American!" came Katayanagi's voice again.
Looking down, Sam's mind registered the image of the black-haired student waving at him on the small screen of his LifeBand. "How are you…?"
"I'm fine, but I'm guessing that's not what you meant," Katayanagi said. "The LifeBands have a video call function on them, it's pretty neat. Anyway, come on, it's time to get up! We've got to get there before the class rep shows up!"
Sam wasn't fully coherent yet, but in the moments that would come he figured that he must have had a rather slack-jawed, vacant expression on his face, the sort of expression one would have if they had been awake for approximately twenty-eight hours with only three hours of restless sleep to rejuvenate them.
"Breakfast, man! Remember?"
"Breakfast!" Sam repeated, suddenly remembering the made-up argument he had had with himself. "Yes. That's right. Ah… give me just a minute, sumimasen."
"Hai, hai," said Katayanagi. "Just be quick about it, the way I figure we have about forty minutes to get across campus if we actually want to eat."
Sam attempted to reply with, "Doushite?"—why?—but it came out as a garbled mess as he ran the toothbrush around in his mouth. He was still half asleep, but he was moving with a sort of urgency that he couldn't recall ever having even when awake.
The way Katayanagi had been hyping up this meal through their texts the night before, he found himself excited as well.
"I have no idea what you said," Katayanagi said flatly. "Please don't ever talk with your toothbrush in like that again, that gives me bad memories."
"Sumimasen," Sam apologized again, after finishing up brushing his teeth. "Doushite? Why such a time crunch? Isn't it a Saturday?"
"Yeah, but… I'll explain it on the way, just get dressed! Ja ne!"
And after realizing he didn't really want to watch that, Katayanagi's image winked out like an image fading from an old television screen, and the LifeBand's dark façade returned to show the blocky white numbers of the time and date.
From there, Sam set about quickly gathering up the clothing he'd be wearing for the day—socks, fresh underwear, a pair of black jeans, a solid green t-shirt and a red button-up to wear over the top of it—and putting them on. The mundanes of the daily routine came next; a short spray of deodorant from a travel-sized can, a washcloth across the face, and then a few sweeps of a comb through his ash-blond curls. When that was done, he looked into the mirror at the pale teen who stared back, green eyes meeting their twins, and he smiled shyly.
It was time for his first day in Japan to begin.
06:55, Outside the Boys' Dormitory
"Pick up the pace, Hale-san!" said Katayanagi, jogging at a steady pace over the wet pavement. "We've got to beat the class rep there!"
"You still haven't even told me where we're going, Katayanagi-san," Sam pointed out as he followed, feeling his hair suddenly becoming damp by the slow mist that was crawling its way through the chilly morning air.
"Haven't I?" Katayanagi asked, sounding certain that he had. "I'm certain that I had. Ah, never mind. We're headed to the girls' dorm!"
"Girls' dorm?" Sam repeated, skidding to a stop. "Isn't that… off-limits?"
"Yeah!" Katayanagi replied without missing a beat. "That's why we have to get there before the class rep does, or else Fujita-san will be shut down before we can eat!"
"I feel like I'm missing something here," Sam deadpanned, though returning to his previous pace before Katayanagi got too far away.
"What's to miss?" his companion asked innocently.
"Let's start with, who is Fujita-san?" suggested Sam in an attempt to wrap his head around this whole situation.
"Fujita-san! Fujita Eri, in Year 2, same as us. She's an amazing cook, I guess her dad runs a restaurant," explained Katayanagi. "She's a total cutie, too. Back in Year 1, she—"
"And… why are we going to the girls' dorm?" Sam interrupted, not particularly in the mood for talking about girls.
"Because that's where Fujita-san's breakfast is!" Katayanagi exclaimed, as if it were obvious. "So we have to get there—"
"Before the class rep shuts her down, right. But why is the class rep going to shut her down?"
Katayanagi turned a corner suddenly, forcing Sam to backpedal a bit to keep on the same path as him. "Well, technically she's not supposed to be using school property to run an underground restaurant. Especially since she's making profit off of it," he replied.
"I can't help but think we could have avoided this whole conversation if you said that when we were leaving the dorm," said Sam flatly.
Katayanagi turned his head and winked. "Maybe. But where's the fun in that, American?"
07:15, Outside the Girls' Dormitory
Even though he knew that the pictures he had seen online had only encompassed a fraction of Asatoro High's campus, Sam still found himself amazed at the rather circuitous route that Katayanagi had led him through, despite claiming to be in a hurry.
Their path took them around a good deal of the outer campus.
They sliced through green yards lined with cherry trees, their aged branches extending across the trail like stretching arms and forming a protective canopy against the soft rain with their pink blooms. They zigzagged around an enormous brick building that Katayanagi explained was the library, just as the enormous round clock set into its brown and red façade read 07:00, and passed by a smaller building that didn't look like much more than a small white cube, which Katayanagi pointed out as the headquarters for the school's Robotics Club. They crossed an immense open field filled with rows upon rows of empty bleachers grouped in rectangles around empty grass; though his companion elected not to explain, Sam nonetheless inferred this was probably where the sports were played.
It felt more like a guided tour than a quick jaunt across campus to the girls' dormitory, but all the same, Sam found himself enjoying the trip. He had seen colleges back home that were smaller than this place, and he was glad to have someone along that could prevent him from getting lost in this labyrinth of knowledge and greenery.
Katayanagi seemed much different from the day before, though Sam couldn't make any sort of guess as to why. He was a lot friendlier than last night, switching from his usual "Hale-san" to "Sam-kun" or "American-kun," and he fully introduced himself as Katayanagi Kaito. There wasn't that vague hint of amusement he had while taking Sam through the dorms. Out here, they seemed more like friends than simply neighbors.
But finally, with an estimated fifteen minutes to spare, the pair of Kaito-san and Sam-kun found themselves standing outside of the girls' dormitory.
It didn't look too dissimilar to the boys' dorm, at least at first. Upon further inspection, Sam noticed that this building was bigger, both wider and an extra floor taller, and there appeared to be a few more windows as well.
And then he spotted the plume of smoke drifting up from the ground.
"There we are! Just in time, it seems," Kataya—er, Kaito-san said, pointing. "Class rep isn't here, Fujita-san is still cooking! Ikuzo, Sam-kun!"
Let's go, Sam-kun. "Okay, how do we get in? Through the door?" Sam asked, staring up the stone staircase toward the glass double doors, and then at the twin scanners mounted on either side. "Will the scanners let us—"
"Over here!" Kaito called, causing Sam to realize he was no longer at his side. Within the five or ten seconds Sam had been looking at the doors, Kaito had crossed through a bit of shrubbery to stand directly in front of the billowing smoke. He took a long sniff and smiled. "Yessir, that's Fujita-san's cooking alright!"
Hesitantly, Sam waded through the shrubbery as well, the thin branches poking and grabbing at him as he slipped past and onto the small semicircle of greenery behind. There was a hole in the ground there, about three feet deep and in the same semicircular shape as the patch of grass, leading down to an opening in the building that appeared to lead into a room; this was, of course, where the smoke had been coming from.
Without a word, Kaito stepped down into the window well and sat down, sliding smoothly.
To his credit, Sam only hesitated for perhaps ten seconds before mimicking his new friend. His tennis shoes touched down on the muddy dirt, squishing slightly before he sat down on his butt and scooted in, his belly just managing to clear the gap.
I'll have to work on that… he thought.
"Irasshaimase!" greeted a cheerful voice from somewhere to his front.
"Welcome to Fujita-san's little café, American-kun," Kaito said from his side, nudging him with his elbow.
It was immediately clear to Sam that this was little more than a basement. The walls were made of a dark brown brick, larger and thicker than the ones that made up the above-ground portion of the building; the ceiling was a bit low, at its best probably only two and a half feet above Sam's head, at its worst he had to duck to avoid knocking his head against an out-of-place pipe.
However, a place that should seem gloomy on any given day was… surprisingly warm. Interspersed throughout the maze of pipes that ran along the ceiling were thin rectangular lights that buzzed and beamed down pale white light. The ground was clean, covered here and there with large rugs upon which several small tables rested, around which students crowded as they knelt and ate.
He couldn't say that he'd seen many basements of American schools, but he couldn't imagine any of them looking like this.
And the smell… it made Sam's mouth water just from inhaling it.
Across the room sat a long folding table, upon which multiple skillets were placed in a row, with cutting boards on one end, bowls on another, utensils tossed about and baskets full of ingredients hanging from the pipes behind it. And between the table and the pipes stood a girl.
"That's Fujita-san," explained Kaito, pointing to the girl behind the table. His voice dropped to a whisper then, and he grinned as he added, "She's crazy about me."
Somehow, as Sam saw the knife slice through the air and imbed in the very brick centimeters away from Kaito's head, he got the impression that this Fujita-san was not crazy about his friend.
Kaito's grin became strained, his eyes squeezing shut as he spoke through gritted teeth, "Her aim gets better every week…"
"This… happens often?" Sam inferred.
"More often than I care to admit," Kaito replied in a pained, slightly frightened tone. He plucked the knife from the wall, the steel blade gleaming coldly in the white artificial light. "She'll be wanting this back… it gives a bit of extra proficiency to her knife-throwing skills."
"…Somehow, I'm not surprised that there's a knife-throwing proficiency," Sam replied.
The walkway from the window well was pretty much a straight shot to Fujita-san's cooking station, a clearly defined path laid out between the edges of the many rugs. They walked past six tables, almost all of them full but for one in the left corner—Sam figured that was where they were going to sit—and came to a stop a few feet in front of Fujita's table setup.
Sam wasn't sure what he had expected this Fujita-san to look like, but despite the help of the LifeBand's proficiency system, he hadn't thought that the girl who had just thrown a knife several feet across the room and impaled it into a brick wall to be so… small, to say the least.
Height-wise, she couldn't have been much taller than five feet; she was thin and a bit flat, but thanks to the previous display, this didn't make the spatula in her small hand seem any less threatening. She wore a pristine white apron over a navy-blue blouse and skirt, the shirt a similar color to the uniforms in Sam's closet. Silver hair cascaded down her shoulders and past her chest, framing a pale, pretty face set with two sparkling sapphires for eyes and a mouth that was twisted into a scowl.
"Ohayo gozaimasu, Fujita-san," Kaito said sheepishly, handing her the knife that had come so close to causing a bit of bodily harm.
"Katayanagi. I should have known I couldn't get lucky enough to have you not show up," said Fujita as she swiped the knife out of his hands. Sam became at once aware that this annoyed young girl was the source of the cheery voice that had greeted them just a minute or two earlier. "I really should ban you from this."
"Don't be like that, Fujita-san," Kaito replied, pained smile never leaving his face. "You get my money all the same, does it matter if I make a joke here or there?"
"Oh, so it's a joke now, is it? You're not going to be sitting on the steps like a lovesick puppy waiting for me again, are you?" Fujita asked.
"That was one time, and I was trying to warn you about the class rep wanting to report you to Morita-sensei!" said Kaito defensively.
"How sweet of you. What do you want?" she said bluntly.
Kaito seemed to consider this for a moment, before beginning, "I'll have…"
"Toast." Fujita interrupted, pushing a small ceramic plate into Kaito's hands. On it were four pieces of crispy toast dangerously close to being able to be considered burnt.
"Hai, arigatou, Fujita-san," Kaito said meekly, bowing his head slowly and backing off.
It was then that she finally seemed to notice Sam had been standing there as well. The deep azure orbs of her eyes focused on him, studying him, staring through him. It was much more nerve-racking than Sam had thought it would be.
"You're new here," she said. That statement wasn't a question, though her next one was—"And you've already picked Katayanagi as your first friend? That wasn't a very smart idea."
"You're breaking my heart, Fujita-san," complained Kaito. "So cruel!"
"Good, maybe you'll stop pining for me then," she snapped, not even looking at Sam's companion, instead focusing on picking up a cluster of sizzling bacon strips and plating them. "So, what's your name, new guy?"
"S-Sam, er…" Sam paused, remembering the Japanese way of introductions—and also feeling a bit unnerved at this angry little girl with deadly knife skills. "Hale Samwise, from America. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu."
"Yoroshiku ne, Hale Samwise-kun, I'm Fujita Eri," she replied. "How do you like your eggs?"
"Ah, just Sam is fine," he said quickly, wincing as she called him by his full first name. He still hadn't forgiven his parents for naming him that seventeen years ago. "And, uh… scrambled. Scrambled is good."
"Hard boiled, got it," Fujita said, pulling out a pair of tongs and dipping them into a pot of water at the edge of the skillet, then withdrawing a pair of shiny white eggs and dropping them onto a plate before handing it to him. "Sorry, I have to be quick about it today. Sato-chan is expected to be a bit early. Here, have another egg," she added, plopping a third egg onto his plate.
"'Sato-chan?'" asked Sam, looking down at the eggs on his plate. He'd never eaten hard boiled eggs before… was this really the cuisine that Kaito had been hyping up the whole walk there?
"The class rep," explained Kaito, who was nibbling dejectedly at an unburnt corner of his toast. "Sato Mitsuki, the Tyrant of Class 2-C. Come on, Sam-kun, let's hurry and eat before she shows up."
Sam nodded, and began to turn before he felt a pair of tongs grab his sleeve. He looked back to Fujita, who was holding up two slices of toast in a second tong. They were significantly less burnt than the ones Kaito had been given.
"Here, I feel bad kind of bad I can't give you anything else. No charge today," she said, taking a nibble off of the bacon she had been cooking when they came in and throwing a different strip onto Sam's plate.
He looked down at his plate, which was much fuller than before, and then back up to Fujita and smiled slightly. "Fujita-san… arigatou gozaimasu! You're really nice."
Fujita looked away and waved it off. "Hai, hai… just eat and get out of my café already," she said, picking up the plate she had set aside for herself and sitting down behind the table, the top of her silver hair just visible over the edge.
It was Kaito who tugged at Sam's sleeve this time, and he started leading him over to the table they had seen on their way to the cooking station. "We'll have to get here earlier next time so you can get the full Fujita-san Breakfast Experience," he said, tearing a bit of crispy crust off of his toast.
For a moment, Sam wanted to point out that the detour around campus was his idea but realized that he wouldn't have the slightest idea where half the buildings were without that little tour, so he waved it off. "It's no big deal. I'm supposed to have lunch with the principal later, so maybe it's better that I eat light…"
Kaito lit up at the mention of the principal. "You get to have lunch with Iida-sensei? Nice," he said as the two knelt down at the table. "New student orientation, yeah? He always goes all-out for the exchange students."
Most of the occupants had cleared away now, so they didn't need to crowd together like they thought they would. In fact, most of the other diners had apparently disappeared during their exchange with Fujita-san.
Sam suddenly felt a bit uneasy. There were three people left aside from Kaito and Fujita, but they seemed to be powering through their meals like they hadn't eaten in days. Fujita-san's cooking must be just that good, I guess, he rationalized, trying to tell himself he was just overreacting.
Surely the threat of this tyrannical class rep wasn't anything to worry about, right?
He picked up one of the hard boiled eggs that Fujita had given him and examined it for a moment, rolling it around in his palm like a stone about to be tossed in a lake. The shell was soft and kind of rubbery to the touch, reflecting the bright white fluorescent lighting. It felt almost slimy, so he was hesitant, but finally… he bit into it.
And it was one of the most delicious things he had tasted in his entire life. A perfect balance of salt and pepper and with a slight spiciness to it. Despite the appearance, it wasn't rubbery; it was tender, and before Sam knew it he had wolfed the whole thing down. He looked up at Kaito, embarrassed.
Kaito, however, grinned at the American. "I told you it was going to be good, Sam-kun," he said, chewing discontentedly at his final slice of toast. His stomach growled, clearly not satisfied.
After watching his friend for a moment, Sam reached out and dropped the second egg on his plate. "Here. I don't want to hear your stomach whining from down the hall tonight," he said, a small smile on his face.
Kaito smiled back at him. "Arigatou, Sam-kun… I'll remember this until the day I die," he said dramatically, clutching the egg like a precious gem.
"Kaito-san, it was just an egg..." Sam said bashfully.
"One of Fujita-san's eggs!" Kaito decreed, holding it aloft like a legendary sword. "The greatest in the world!"
"Now you've got Katayanagi saying weird things. Are you proud of yourself, Sam-kun?" asked Fujita, who was now cleaning down her station and packing everything away into nondescript, unmarked cardboard boxes.
She eats fast, Sam thought. "Well... he is right. Kind of. This is probably the best egg I've ever had..."
"...Just keep the dog on a leash. We don't need him mouthing off like that." Fujita said, taping the boxes up. "Hurry up. Sato-chan will get here any minute and I don't want to be here when she does."
"You can go ahead and leave, Fujita-san, we'll clean up after ourselves," Sam offered. Why was everyone so afraid of this Sato-san?
"Fine, fine. Just... try not to get caught, I guess," Fujita replied with a wave of her hand, sliding the boxes into a corner of the room and heading for the exit door. After a moment, Sam realized that she probably lived here, so it was acceptable for her to leave that way. "Ja ne, Sam-kun, Katayanagi."
Sam watched her go. "Fujita-san... she really is a nice person, isn't she?"
"When she wants to be," confirmed Kaito. "Problem is, she doesn't want to be very often. Shame, really, she'd be a lot more popular with the guys if she wasn't so prickly."
"Maybe she doesn't want to be popular with the guys?" Sam suggested, though he couldn't deny that she was quite pretty. "Maybe she just wants to cook and be done with it?"
"Come on, American-kun! Haven't you seen half your country's teen movies? High school is all about romance!" Katayanagi replied, reaching for the strip of bacon that Fujita had given Sam only to have his hand swatted away. "So cold, Sam-kun..."
"If high school is all about romance, how's that going for you?" Sam shot back, tearing the bacon in half and handing one piece to Katayanagi.
"So cold!" said the black-haired teen, chewing on the offered bacon. He looked down at his LifeBand, and froze mid-chew, before swallowing it whole. His eyes went wide. "Sam-kun, we need to go. Just take your egg with you, we have to be out before-"
The basement door flew open, banging against the brick wall like a clap of thunder. There was a crumbling sound, as if the doorknob had become embedded into the wall.
"Kuso," Kaito swore as she stepped into the light. "The class rep is here."
"Class rep?" Sam said softly, watching the form of the girl become illuminated by the fluorescent glow. "That's... Sato-san?"
"Hai. See now why you shouldn't have taken so long?" Kaito replied.
No, not really, Sam thought.
He didn't think that she would have, but nonetheless Sato Mitsuki did not look half as intimidating as her reputation had made her out to be. In fact, she was quite beautiful.
She looked like an athlete; tall, long-legged and a bit curvy (much to Sam's delight), she stood straight as an arrow as she strode through the basement purposefully. A short tangle of golden waves dove down just past her neck, and were tossed about as she moved her head around, sharp gray eyes stabbing into each and every shadow like a pair of knives. She wore a uniform similar to what Fujita-san had worn, a freshly-pressed navy blue blouse and a skirt, with knee-high white socks and shiny black shoes.
Every step was planned, elegant, but her eyes made Sam recall a tiger he had once seen at a zoo.
She's looking for her prey, he realized.
And a moment later, he realized that that was them.
Her eyes found them and focused in, narrowing like a targeting system locking on to its quarry. "Katayanagi-kun. I should have known you would be here." Her voice was smooth, but cold.
"C-Class rep!" Kaito said, snapping to attention and squeezing his eyes shut. "Ohayo gozaimasu! What can we do for you?"
She bridged the gap between them in a span of about three seconds. Sam barely had time to exhale the breath he hadn't realized he was holding before she was standing right in front of him, practically nose to nose with one another. He felt her eyes piercing him, tearing away layer from layer as she tried to expose his secrets.
She must have maxed out her intimidation proficiency, Sam found himself thinking. "O-ohayo gozaimasu..."
"And you are?" she asked, her tone bearing a tense politeness to it.
His mouth was dry. He tried to speak, but something about this girl made him lose all vocal functions. He closed his mouth, opened, then closed again, trying to make some sort of sound, until, "H-Hale Samwise," he croaked, "er, Sam. Call me Sam."
"The new student, yes? The American?"
"Then perhaps you may not know, Hale Sam-kun, that this is the girls' dormitory and it is forbidden for male students to be here?" she said dangerously.
He noticed her eyes dart to Katayanagi, who was standing still as a statue, eyes shut as if he were awaiting death. This question seemed like a trap; no matter how it was answered, he couldn't see a good way out...
"W-well, that's... correct," he admitted.
Katayanagi's arm tensed.
"I see. Did Katayanagi-kun bring you here?" she asked. "Despite me telling him that if I caught him here again, I would be forced to bring him before our homeroom teacher?"
Katayanagi's other arm tensed.
"No! That's not how it was," Sam replied, the pit of his stomach filling with dread. Kaito was the only friend he had here, he couldn't let him get in trouble for this. "I, uh... smelled the cooking. Er, the smoke. I ran ahead to investigate before Kaito-san could stop me."
She turned a skeptical eye back to him. He wasn't sure if she believed him, but damn if he wasn't trying his hardest to make it seem believable. "Really? You're simply here, because you were trying to be a good Samaritan?"
"Yes!" Sam said quickly, feeling hope well up and begin to fight back against the growing dread.
"And you did not think to get in contact with the fire department the moment you smelled smoke?"
In his mind, he saw the little yellow creature that represented his hopes get struck by a piledriver courtesy of the black dread.
"And then, when all was discovered to be well, you decided to sit down and have a meal?" she pressed.
"S-Sato-san, I-" Kaito began, but she raised a hand sharply to silence him. He gave Sam an apologetic look and turned away.
"We will have our words later, Katayanagi-kun, at this time I am speaking with Sam-kun," she said. "Now, Sam-kun, am I correctly understanding the situation now?"
He hadn't expected his lies to work particularly well, he knew he wasn't much of an actor, but he hadn't thought she'd pick them apart so easily.
"W-well, I, uh..." he stuttered, trying to find some sort of excuse, anything that could save their skins in that moment. But nothing came, and he knew that they'd soon be getting dragged before a teacher that Sam had never even met, or worse, the principal. Was he about to be sent back home just because he wanted a bit of breakfast?
Sam's eyes fell upon the plate in his hands again, on the single remaining egg that rolled around on the ceramic circle. A spark ignited in his mind.
He picked it up, and held it out to her slowly. "Can I offer you a nice egg in these trying times?"
Katayanagi's blue eyes popped open wide, a jolt running through his body as if he'd just been pumped full of electricity. "Sam-kun, ch-chotto matte-"
In a single graceful movement, Sato reached out and took the egg from his grasp. "An egg?" she wondered aloud, staring at the oblong morsel quizzically. "Are you... expecting me to eat a raw egg, Sam-kun?"
He shook his head. "No, no, it's not raw. It's hard-boiled. Perfectly safe to eat," he said. It seemed to him, at least in that moment, that his bluff had worked.
At the very least, it had gotten her eyes off the two of them. He quickly reached his hand over and tugged on the sleeve of Kaito's shirt to get his attention, and then pointed toward the exit.
Kaito didn't seem to have any problem getting the message, inching his way out of her field of vision and toward the basement door. Sato didn't seem to notice.
Sam began to inch away too, but as he did, Sato bit into the egg.
Her stern expression melted away into one of curiosity, and then pure delight as she let out a little squeal. "S-Sam-kun, this is... this is incredible! And you say this is a hard-boiled egg? Not raw?"
"Y-yes!" Sam replied, feeling a bead of sweat run down the back of his neck. For a moment, he feared he had been caught in his escape attempt. He looked up and saw that Katayanagi had already made it halfway, and gave him a little wave as a go-ahead. "Have you never had hard-boiled eggs before, Sato-san?"
"Never! But... this is the most delicious thing I have ever tasted, Sam-kun!" she said. When he looked back up, those cold gray eyes were sparkling and bright like a pale star. "Arigatou gozaimasu Sam-kun!"
This sudden 180 had Sam feeling a bit nervous. Kaito was gone now though, which was good enough for him. "Hai, hai, Sato-san. There's no need to thank me, really..."
Her stomach rumbled cutely. Was she just... hungry? Is that why she had been so harsh at first?
She reached out and grabbed his shirt, and he felt his stomach do a loop-de-loop. "Sam-kun, I need more. Please, Sam-kun!" she said, her voice suddenly desperate, her grip like iron.
Sam wondered if this was why everyone was so afraid of her. "T-there's no more, Sato-san... that was my last egg," he replied slowly.
"Y-you gave me your last egg?" she asked, her hands opening and releasing his shirt. She seemed suddenly struck by this revelation, as if he'd given her his last bit of oxygen when they were in danger of drowning. "Sam-kun's last egg..."
It was at this moment that Sam decided to make his escape, inching away like Katayanagi had while she was mumbling to herself about the egg. It wasn't that big of a deal, right...?
Kaito was waiting for him at the top of the staircase. The climb had been a bit harrowing, the hall dark and with a slightly musty smell, and somehow despite her being out of range for him to hear, Sam knew that the whole way, Sato had been murmuring about him and the egg.
He wasn't sure why, but that last part scared him most of all.
"That was... brilliant, I think," Kaito told him as he stepped out onto the landing. They were in a stairwell much like the one back in their own dorm, with another staircase climbing further up the building, and a door leading out into the first floor hallway. "How did you know to distract her like that?"
"I didn't," Sam replied. "Just... took a chance. To be honest, I wasn't sure if it would even work. I doubted it would, considering how well she saw through my other lie."
"Yeah, she's like, maxed out her perception proficiencies, I think," Kaito said. His head turned a little to glance down the staircase. "...And intimidation, too. It's not uncommon for someone to piss themselves when she stares them down, but you took her on like a champ! Sugoi, Sam-kun!"
"A-arigatou..." Sam replied rather awkwardly.
His LifeBand started pinging at that moment. He extended his wrist and looked down at the device, the normally blank screen shining bright white with a green arrow pointing upwards, moving slowly beyond the edge and reappearing at the bottom.
"Congratulations, Samwise-san," the watch intoned. "You have gained another level."
"Withstanding the class rep's interrogation like that must have given you some nice EXP," said Kaito in surprise. He raised his own wrist to look at his Band and asked, "How come you never do that for me?"
Sam had expected Kaito's watch to remain silent, but instead it replied in a significantly less robotic voice than Sam's, "Because you never manage to hold out against her, Kai-kun."
"'Kai-kun?'" Sam asked, raising an eyebrow at his friend.
"Never mind that!" snapped Kaito. "We need to hurry and get out of here... even if the class rep is distracted, this is still enemy territory."
"You say that like we're at war," Sam said flatly.
"There's more than a few girls in here who would love for me to pay a visit to the disciplinary council," Kaito told him.
"I'm starting to wonder if you're a repeat visitor to this place for more than just Fujita-san's cooking."
"That isn't important right now. Escape!"
Though Kaito was playing like he were in a prison escape movie, peeking around corners and scooting along the side of the hall, occasionally stopping to listen, Sam did not feel inclined to join him in his little game. Instead, he simply walked past Kaito, down the hall and out the door without issue. When Kaito came out after him, he seemed rather disappointed, but didn't say anything for a bit.
They started to walk back in the direction of the dorm.
Sam's stomach rumbled a bit. He had given away over half his breakfast, and he was starting to feel it. The price of being a friend, I suppose… I never even got to eat the toast.
Kaito perked up as he heard it grumbling. "Ne, Sam-kun, you didn't get enough to eat, did you?"
"One egg and half a strip of bacon," Sam replied, a bit more pointedly than he intended. "Then I gave you an egg and the other half of the bacon strip, and then I gave the last egg to Sato-san."
"Right... sorry about that," Kaito said sheepishly. "But, I can fix that! Come on, there's a convenience store down the street, we can get food there!"
"Convenience store food?" asked Sam as Kaito turned and began heading in the direction of the school gates. He tried to recall what sort of food was at American convenience stores, and none of them sounded particularly good first thing in the morning.
"Yeah, it's great! Have you had onigiri before?" Kaito inquired.
Sam jogged to catch up with him. "Onigiri... that's rice balls, right?" He'd never had them himself, but he vaguely recalled an episode of an anime he used to watch as a kid where a character referred to them as jelly donuts, despite looking nothing like jelly donuts.
"Correct! They're delicious! Come on, it'll at least tide you over until your lunch with Iida-sensei."
11:30, Outside the Office of Iida Takeo
Kaito had been wrong about the onigiri. Though tasty, they hadn't managed to hold out for near as long as Sam had hoped, and now he was paying the price of his earlier kindness as he sat in the waiting room of Iida-sensei's office.
It was a nice enough space on its own, fairly small, but cozy, like a more hospitable version of a doctor's office waiting room. One half, beginning only one or two feet to the left of the entry door, was sectioned off by a counter that hid a desk that was probably manned by a secretary on any given day, but since it was a Saturday, the desk was unoccupied. Four black leather armchairs sat on the opposite side of the wall, separated from one another by small square tables with curved edges, and in front of the two chairs in the middle ran a long coffee table upon which squatted a ceramic bust of some creature that Sam vaguely recognized from his reading the night before as a kappa. The walls were made of a light brown sort of wood and hung with small frames in which sat artwork that appeared to be sketches from video games.
His stomach rumbled, crying out for something, anything that would provide sustenance again.
"Quiet, you," he told himself softly, grabbing the hem of his t-shirt and pulling it taut over his stomach, as if that would help stifle the groaning. "It's almost time."
It didn't help that the smell of food wafted through the air. Once again, he was trying to fight himself over bodily functions that he didn't have much control over, and once again, he knew he was probably going to lose.
The closer the minute hand on the analog clock above the secretary's desk drew to 6, the better a nice taco sounded-chicken, with lots of hot sauce and black beans. There was a place back home with tacos that could make a man go weak in the knees from one taste...
"No!" Sam told himself again, shaking his head. "It's going to be a long time before you get to go back to that... just deal with it for now, we're going to have lunch soon."
"Out here talking to yourself, Hale-kun?" asked a kindly voice as a tall door toward the back of the room opened. "I'm afraid I'm not much company myself, but surely better than speaking to your own stomach."
Even though he wasn't in chibi form, Sam was clearly able to recognize Dr. Takeo Iida, the man with the wide grin and the flashing white glasses who had appeared on his LifeBand the night before after scanning the QR code. He was short, probably only an inch or two taller than Fujita if Sam had to guess, with a short mop of dark brown hair that was thinning at the top. His eyes, visible through his thick black glasses this time, were a friendly brown, not unlike a dog's eyes.
He didn't look very much like any principal that Sam had ever seen, but he decided that was a good thing. Elementary school and much of high school had been plagued by principals that were either too strict or invasive, even for educational standards, but Dr. Iida seemed much more friendly.
Of course, it didn't hurt that he was wearing khakis and a red floral-print Hawaiian shirt like some kind of fun uncle, and his face was chubby-cheeked and cheery.
Sam stared at him for a moment before he remembered the courtesies that Kaito had walked him through before dropping him off at the office door.
Stand up, bow, and say, 'Konnichiwa, Iida-sensei! Thank you very much for having me!' Just like that! instructed a chibified mental image of Katayanagi Kaito.
So, Sam did. He stood up, and started to speak, "Konnichiwa, Iida-sensei! Thank you very much for ha-ow!" he exclaimed as his nose knocked straight into the head of the kappa statue that sat on the coffee table in front of him. "P-pardon me..."
But before he could start speaking again, Dr. Iida began to laugh. It was a friendly laugh, low but amused like the chuckle of a grandfather. "Please, my boy, don't hurt yourself today, the nurses aren't in on Saturdays," said Dr. Iida, passing through the door and coming over to put a surprisingly large hand on Sam's shoulder, having to reach up a fair bit to do so. "Come, come. You must be hungry, I could hear you from in my office!"
Sam's pale cheeks went red in embarrassment. "G-gomenasai," he apologized, looking away sheepishly. He wanted to look down, but due to Dr. Iida's height it would be much harder to avoid his gaze. "I, uh, didn't get very much for breakfast."
Dr. Iida's eyes twinkled mirthfully. "You should arrive at Fujita-chan's little cafe much earlier next time. Not to worry, however, there's more than enough food in here for both of us. Have you had much to eat since your flight left?"
Sam shook his head as the older man guided him into his office, and then found himself asking, "How do you know about Fujita-san's...?"
The principal smiled again. "Though it is technically forbidden by both school rules and local building ordinances... I must admit I'm rather fond of her tamagoyaki. Did you get any?"
"No, all that was left was hard-boiled eggs and a half strip of bacon. Oh, and Katayanagi-san got toast," Sam explained. "But how did you know we..."
"A shame, well perhaps next week," Dr. Iida said. "Ah, that. Yes. Well, I happen to know Katayanagi-kun is a regular customer, despite her only ever giving him burnt toast. I feel for the boy, but we are here to talk about you today, Hale-kun!"
He swung the door open to reveal an office that was perhaps three times the size of the waiting room. A long wall of square glass panes made up the side of the room opposite the doorway, meeting walls on either end that were made of the same kind of wood as the panelling in the waiting room. More of the black leather chairs sat down in a large circular indent in the floor not unlike a pit, clustered around a large circle table with a glass top. Plantlife sat in urns at random intervals, and to Sam's left was a large television screen with two black leather couches positioned around it, and beneath it was a long, low wooden cabinet with glass doors that gave him a view of several game systems and video games.
"Are you fond of video games, Hale-kun?" asked Dr. Iida, following Sam's gaze.
"Well... a bit, yes," Sam replied sheepishly.
While not false, this was certainly an understatement; Joseph Hale, Sam's English professor father, had been an avid collector of products created by a certain Japanese video company famous for their plumber mascot since his own childhood many years ago. Naturally, Sam had been playing video games almost his entire life, often whether he wanted to or not.
"Perhaps you'd like to peruse my collection after lunch, then? I'm sure there's a good many Japanese-exclusive games you've likely never heard of in there," Dr. Iida said, waving a hand to beckon Sam toward the pit. He stepped down and took a seat at the table, and gestured for Sam to sit across from him.
Sam did so. The terraced walls of the pit rose up around him, stopping roughly at his midsection. The table was empty, a sight which caused Sam's stomach to groan in disappointment.
"So, Hale-kun, how have you enjoyed Japan so far? I realize you've hardly had time to see much outside of the campus, but I'd love to hear your impressions so far," Dr. Iida prompted.
He raised his wrist to his mouth and spoke something into his LifeBand, and the glass top of the table parted at the midpoint and slid outward. There was the sound of machinery working smoothly as a metal pedestal half the size of the tabletop emerged from the depths of the table, bearing a plate full of a surprising mix of both Japanese and western fare. Hamburgers sat nestled with tonkatsu, hot dogs lay alongside curry, sashimi and sushi and rice and ramen and... were those tacos? Sam's stomach rumbled even more loudly at the sight of those.
"It's, um, been very nice," Sam said simply, unsure how else to really explain it. "Kaito-er, Katayanagi-san has been very kind, and even though I didn't get very much, Fujita-san is an amazing cook."
He elected to leave out his encounter with Sato-san.
"And your LifeBand, how have you been acclimating to that?" asked Dr. Iida as he picked up a hot dog and took a bite. His kind face briefly flashed with a frown as he muttered in a disappointed tone, "Hmm. I must say that I definitely prefer these with chili on them..."
"Well..." Sam glanced down to the device on his arm. The screen was, as usual, black with blocky white letters, but in the corner there was a blinking red exclamation point next to a green arrow. He still hadn't decided on what he was going to use the level up on.
"It's different, yes? I'm sure there's nothing quite like it in America," Dr. Iida plowed on, setting aside his disappointing hot dog and diving for a bit of sushi with a pair of chopsticks. "I see you have a level-up waiting. Have you picked anything yet?"
Sam gave him a guilty look. "No, not really," he admitted. "It's just..."
"A lot to choose from?" offered Dr. Iida in an understanding tone. At Sam's slow nod, he smiled again. "Believe me, my boy, I know all too well what you mean. The students here, they've grown up with the LifeBand, they know what they want-but you and I, we're the old dogs, trying to learn a new trick. I'm too old, and you're too new to the technology."
It was an odd idiom in Sam's mind, but it worked. "Fujita-san has her knife skills, Sato-san has her intimidation, Katayanagi-san has... er... I'm not sure what he has," said Sam sheepishly.
"Many of them choose skills for a career they are interested in. For instance, Fujita-san has aspirations of becoming a chef, so she has focused on maxing out her knifework," explained Dr. Iida.
Sam nodded; that made sense. "What about Sato-san? What would intimidation work for?"
"That makes sense."
"If I may make a suggestion, Hale-kun, for now focus on your academic proficiencies. You might not find yourself racing trains or leaping tall buildings in a single bound, but for now, your primary duties are your education. Improving your retention and comprehension will do you wonders here." Dr. Iida poured them both a cup of tea from a kettle. "Now, eat. I've seen you eyeballing those tacos, don't let me stop you from enjoying them."
He tossed another piece of sushi into his mouth, and washed it down with a long gulp of his tea. Sam picked up his own cup and sniffed at it; he wasn't much of a tea drinker, let alone warm tea, but as he sipped it down, he found that he rather liked it.
Sam gave the principal a small smile. "Thank you sir. And, um, please, call me Sam."
Dr. Iida nodded. "Very well, Sam-kun. Then I must insist upon you calling me Takeo; it's only fair, after all."
"Hai, Takeo-sensei," Sam nodded back.
13:30, Office of Iida Takeo
"Arigatou gozaimasu, Takeo-sensei," Sam said as he stood in the doorway of the principal's office. He gave a slow bow, feeling a bit self-conscious about somehow hitting his head again, despite there being nothing for him to knock it on.
Dr. Iida stood as well and bowed to the student. "No, thank you, Sam-kun. I look forward to following your progress," the older man said.
Sam turned to leave, before the principal's voice stopped him again. "Sam-kun, one more thing?"
"I do not know if your home principal had told you this when you agreed to the transfer, but... you are also a bit of a test subject."
Sam turned back to look at him. "Sir...?"
"You are here for your education, that much is a fact, but the company behind the LifeBand is keeping an eye on you as well. They've been expressing a growing interest in expanding outside the Japanese market, and as the first foreigner to obtain a fully functioning LifeBand, they want to see how you adjust to the use of it, and if you can excel using it."
Sam felt a pressure in his stomach. "I... guess that makes me kind of a big deal to them," he said dryly.
"A bit. But, it's more important for them to keep up the good image of the LifeBand. For your own sake, whatever it is you decide to do with your proficiencies..." Dr. Iida looked Sam in the eyes then, his friendly brown eyes bearing a sense of hardness to them now like chips of granite. "Be careful, Sam-kun."