It's a humid Friday and the cicadas are droning outside the window, and the sunlight's so strong that Takuto feels like he's going to melt. The teacher's going on about their weekend homework, but everyone is tapping their fingers on the table or shoving their pens back into their pencilcase and dreaming about the moment that school's dismissed.
Takuto, on the other hand, is thinking about the ton of overdue math assignments that he has to do. They are currently crammed in his schoolbag in a file that he's nicknamed "The File of Guilt". He tries not to look at that file too often, as it reminds him of the pinch that his math grades are currently in. The bell rings, and he gets ready to trudge back to the dorm and sit in one of the air-conditioned study rooms in self-flagellation. Hopefully Benio won't start complaining about how he's hogging the sofa.
Just as Takuto picks up his schoolbag, Wako runs across the room. She looks like she's going to explode from excitement. She stumbles over a chairleg, puts her arms out to regain her balance, and slams a piece of paper down on Takuto's table.
"Takuto! I have a surprise for you! Ah, Sugata too!" She motions to Sugata to join them, and he walks over with his hands in his pockets. He walks like a man who has completed all his homework before it was actually due and thus has the whole weekend to relax. Sugata probably doesn't have anything like the File of Guilt. Not that Takuto is jealous of Sugata's work ethic or anything.
He glances at the sheaf of papers, and notices a very familiar logo - the logo of Nirvana Curry, accompanied by a yellow star that proudly proclaims a fifty-percent discount on the lunch buffet.
"Wako, you're the best! When is it..." Takuto's voice trails off as he reads the fine print. "Uh, Wako, why do these expire today? And doesn't this buffet start now?"
"It does?" Wako looks confused, then moves the paper closer to her face to check. She squints at the tiny white words, and gasps. "It does! Ruri didn't tell me that! I thought we could use them any time this month!"
Sugata glances at the clock in the classroom. "The next bus leaves in seven minutes, we should get going." He strides to the door with his bag in his hand. However, no one actually follows him, as Wako and Takuto are both at their seats trying to cram all their textbooks into their schoolbags.
Sugata sighs, and turns back to help them. The seams of Takuto's bag are practically creaking with the stress of trying to accommodate his textbooks before Takuto gives up and decides to leave his science textbook at school. Wako finishes packing a moment later, and they all dash through the school, skidding on the polished tile floor and dodging the students unfortunate enough to have club meetings on a Friday afternoon. Sugata clears a path on the outer edge of the corridor, while Takuto weaves through the middle of the crowd gracefully. Wako brings up the rear, but she's no slouch, wielding her bag as a weapon against those who dare to block her path. They make short work of the stairs, and their feet pound on the pavement as they try to outrun the bus, flailing their arms ineffectually at the road to alert the driver to their presence. It slows down to acknowledge them just as they reach the bus stop.
They make it onto the bus. Wako and Takuto are dripping with sweat, and even Sugata looks slightly ruffled from the exertion. They pay the fare and sit down on the long seat at the back, taking off their blazers and loosening their ties. Their tops are plastered to their backs. Takuto and Sugata both unbutton another button on their shirts. Wako fishes in her schoolbag and fans herself with a loose sheaf of foolscap.
It'll take a while to get to the mall, but none of them are in the mood to fall asleep because of the adrenalin rush. Takuto mentally evaluates how hungry he is, and tries to think of what he should do at the buffet. Maybe he shouldn't load up on rice so he gets maximum value for money...but then what will he eat the curry with? Decisions, decisions. He draws the back of his hand across his sweaty forehead, sweeping his bangs to one side. Sugata reaches up and redirects the air-conditioning vent, and there's a welcome blast of cool air. He nods in thanks, and Sugata gives him the don't-mention-it look.
Wako reaches into her bag, and takes out the vouchers. They look slightly abused and dog-eared from their sojourn in her bag, but they're still usable. Takuto leans over to look at the pictures, and thinks of the delicious spicy smell that wafts out from the place every time he passes by. His stomach gurgles with hunger, but thankfully no one notices.
"Hey, Wako, turn that one over, I think there's something on the back."
Wako flips the brochure over to reveal a list of the dishes at the buffet. There are several columns worth of dishes, and Wako practically goes starry-eyed when she sees the list of curries.
Takuto's eyes light up, and Sugata leans closer. They start formulating a plan of attack, since they'll only be able to spend two hours at the buffet before lunch is over.
When the bus stops, they charge into the restaurant, vouchers in hand, and scramble for the seats nearest to the buffet table so they don't have to waste time walking back and forth. Wako's been to the place for dinner before, and she piles her plate full of her favourite dishes, and the things that cost the most on the normal menu. Her mountain of rice and saag paneer is topped with a pyramid of prawns in chilli sauce. She motions to Takuto and Sugata with a gigantic serving spoon, enthusiastically recommending dishes to them. Sugata uses his first plate as the test plate, taking equal portions and trying everything methodically.
Takuto doesn't have a preference, so he just takes whatever sounds the most interesting. Anything is better than dorm food – after the fantastic welcome dinner, it’s been an endless parade of tough meat swimming in oil and wilted vegetables accompanied by hard rice. He’s determined to make the most of this opportunity, and tries to push himself to eat more than he normally does. It’s a test of his endurance, and if he memorises the taste, maybe it can sustain him through the lean times of dorm dinners.
After five heaping plates, their table is full of discarded prawn shells. The tablecloth is stained with spilt curry, a souvenir from Wako's valiant attempts to fit mountains of food onto a single plate. Sugata wipes his lips with his napkin and leans back in his chair. Takuto outlasts him, even managing to choke down some dessert. He eats a bit of kulfi before putting his head down on the table in surrender. He groans in pain. His stomach feels like it’s stretched to twice its normal size. Wako, on the other hand, bounces off to the buffet table to massacre the desserts. The restaurant’s lunch hours are ending, and they all stagger to the cashier after Wako finishes demolishing her final plate. They present their crumpled vouchers, split the bill, and then head to a nearby bench to recuperate. Sugata is looking a bit paler than usual. Wako has a slight case of hiccups from inhaling her last few plates of food, and Takuto hopes he can feel less queasy sometime in the near future. The sun beats down on them.
"You know," Takuto muses, "we probably shouldn’t have eaten so much. Although it was totally worth it."
Sugata groans in agreement, fanning himself with his hand. It doesn't help. Takuto helpfully hauls out one of his slimmer textbooks and waves it in Sugata's direction, but the air's too humid for the flapping textbook to make a difference.
Wako nods knowledgeably. "That reminds me, what do you all want to eat for dinner?"
Takuto and Sugata stare at Wako in mute amazement.
"Pizza? Ice-cream? Sushi? Come on, everyone! Dinner's in four hours! Look a little livelier!"
They end up adjourning to Sugata's house, because the bus stop is nearby and none of them are in any mood to walk around the mall. Tiger's made those fancy juice drinks with aloe vera pulp, and Jaguar's putting the finishing touches on some cupcakes. They order Hawaiian pizza for dinner, just to give Sugata's maids a break, and they sit around the dining table eating it together and munching on potato wedges.
After dinner, Sugata and Wako discuss the possibility of a movie marathon, and Takuto tries his very best not to take part. Their enthusiasm is contagious, but he really needs to get his homework done, and with the new rehearsal schedule and Crux machinations it's going to be impossible to catch up on the backlog on weekdays.
Takuto sighs, and hauls out the File of Guilt. "Wish I could join you guys, but I promised myself I'd get this done before tomorrow afternoon. I think the math department might kill me if I don't hand it up by Monday." He returns the file to its original spot and zips his bag up, then gets ready to leave Sugata's place and trudge back to the school dorm and try not to think about the fun he's missing out on.
Wako blocks his way. "I can help you with it, it's okay!"
Takuto sidles to one side, getting ready to dodge and make a run for it. "Wako, you'll die of boredom just looking at my homework! I don't want to kill anyone!" He estimates the distance to the gate, and he'll probably be able to make it if he dashes in a zig-zag fashion and if Sugata doesn't ask his scary assassin maids to hunt Takuto down.
Sugata clears his throat. Takuto pauses.
"Wako meant that I could help you with it."
"That's right, Sugata!" Wako chirps. "Then Takuto won't have to die of math-boredom because we'll keep him entertained!"
"Plus," Sugata says slyly, "My place actually has a working bath. With hot water."
Takuto is sorely tempted. Dorm life has been terrible ever since the school decided to renovate the open-air bath and upgrade the water mains. There hasn't been hot water for a fortnight, and he woke up at 5 am just to have a cold shower, only to encounter Benio in a facial mask. He suspects that his horrified reaction didn't exactly endear himself to her.
He sets his bag down. Wako cheers, and Sugata grins. Wako slides Takuto's bag over to Sugata in a smooth motion, and Sugata eases the File of Guilt out of its position in Takuto's extremely full bag. He flips it open.
"Takuto, how did you avoid doing something that was assigned on the first day of school? And...wasn't this one due a month ago?" Sugata leafs through the file and stops asking questions after the first few assignments, and his eyebrows go up as he gets past the halfway mark. The horrified expression on his face would be priceless if it wasn't directed at Takuto.
"My grandfather once said that you should never dwell on past mistakes! Let's focus on how amazing my homework will be when it's done!"
"If I recall correctly, your grandfather also told you that eating brussels sprouts would turn you into a Galactic Pretty Boy."
Wako snorts with laughter, and Takuto flushes.
"Oi, Sugata! I was young and impressionable!"
"And now you're older and irresponsible." Sugata gets up, putting the paper back into the file. "I'm going to get some coffee and snacks. Do you want anything special?"
"Ah, do you have mango pudding?" Wako asks. "Or ham and cheese sandwiches? Or potato salad?"
Takuto chimes in, "What about onigiri? Or those really good potatoes that we had once, with the soya sauce and butter?"
Sugata pinches the bridge of his nose. "Why don't you both follow me to the kitchen. Takuto, bring your file and some rough paper." He says the word "file" like it's a disease he's afraid he'll catch.
Sugata's kitchen, like the rest of his house, is enormous. His refrigerator is stainless-steel and massive, and its contents are a gourmand's dream. There are shelves and shelves of neatly-labelled condiments and ingredients. Wako has forsaken the fridge so she can rummage in the pantry.
"I found chips!" Wako tosses Takuto a can of chips, and Takuto snatches it out of midair. It's prawn-flavoured. He cracks the can open and crunches on one, nearly spits it out, and forces himself to swallow. He tries a few more, and once he gets past his initial reaction, they're actually pretty decent. He passes the chips over to Wako, who stacks five of them up and crams the stack into her mouth.
Sugata, having obtained a can of coffee, is rifling through the File of Guilt and making notes on a sheet of paper. He takes a slow sip of coffee, and Takuto snatches the sheet of paper up. It's a detailed schedule for tackling the assignments. Takuto had been under the impression that he'd just pick up the file and work at it, take very long breaks, and finish in about fourteen hours, but Sugata seems to have condensed everything into four hours.
"Uh, Sugata, are you sure this is physically possible? Four hours?"
"If you finish it in four hours I'll ask Tiger and Jaguar to make a splendid breakfast. If you don't, you'll dine on miso soup and two pickles."
"Oh, it is on! Math powers, engage!"
Wako peeks at the schedule, crunching on a prawn chip. "Takuto, seriously, have you done anything in math class since term started?"
"...does sleeping count?"
"You too? His class is so great for sleeping! Especially when the weather's so hot and the air is really still!"
"Oh man, when he talks about coordinate geometry, those are the times I have the best naps! You know, once - " Takuto gets ready to rhapsodise about the fantastic dream he once had, when he realises that Sugata is glaring at both of them. "But...we probably shouldn't be sleeping in class."
"I...suppose not," Wako mumbles. She too has noticed Sugata's conscientious-student death glare. "We should probably work hard for the mid-terms. Right now."
Takuto perches on a kitchen stool with his calculator at hand, and gets ready to tackle linear graphs. He knows how to do them, it's just that he never actually got around to doing the homework. Whenever his pen slows down, Sugata clears his throat, making a noise that sounds suspiciously like "breakfast". Wako is busy reading her science textbook and doing practice questions, although her drawings of covalent bonds occasionally turn into doodles of very fat animals with large eyes. Sugata is editing the script for Night Flight's latest production, but stops occasionally to enlighten Takuto on integration or to help Wako with chemical equations.
"How does this look to you? It's the part I've underlined."
"I'm not looking at that, Sugata! You'll have to pause the timer first! My fabulous breakfast must not be put at risk!"
"Done. Here, the underlined part, and this part is the edit."
"The original one sounds more natural, but your edit makes the meaning clearer. You should work on the second part though."
"Thanks. By the way, you need to account for negative numbers when solving that, if not they'll deduct marks - and Wako, that's supposed to be ionic, not covalent."
"I thought it was covalent - oh, I see it now. Wait, how did you read that upside down?"
"I was going to ask that too! High-five, Wako!"
"It's the King's Pillar," Sugata says with a deadpan expression. "After apprivoising, I can read anything upside down."
"What, really?" Wako and Takuto chorus in unison.
Sugata tilts his head, chuckles softly, and starts the timer again.
The timer slowly ticks down, but the contents of the file are dwindling, and it comes down to a race against time. Takuto's pen flies across the page during the last minute, covering the foolscap with his chickenscratch handwriting, as he frantically expands the equation so he can solve for x.
The timer sounds its deafening alarm, and Takuto puts his pen down so he can slam the timer button with both of his hands. It promptly stops ringing.
Takuto gets up to do a happy shuffle on the kitchen floor, pirouetting into his pose of absolute victory. He has conquered the File of Guilt. Nothing can stand in his way! He puts the completed stack of papers into the Former File of Guilt (now the File of Victory), and pumps his fist twice.
Wako and Sugata both clap. Takuto takes a sweeping bow.
"Thank you, thank you, you're too kind - now, what shall we do for the rest of the night?"
After a brief discussion, they end up taking cups of ice-cream from the freezer and sprawling on Sugata's balcony. The prospect of a movie marathon is long forgotten. The sky is heavy with stars, and the air is still. They've changed out of their sticky uniforms - Wako keeps some clothes at Sugata's house, and Takuto's borrowed one of Sugata's T-shirts that have no visible brand but probably cost more than Takuto's monthly allowance. It's so hot that Sugata's actually wearing shorts, and they try not to gape at the rare sight. Wako waves her spoon around, ineffectually threatening to steal Sugata's rum-and-raisin, and Takuto holds his cinnamon ice-cream away from her, sticking the spoon into his mouth. Wako's incessant cajoling leads to everyone passing their cups of ice-cream around to try the different flavours.
"When my grandfather said I should enjoy my sparkling youth, I never imagined ice-cream flavoured indirect kisses! Grandpa, you're the best!"
"Takuto, if you mention your grandfather one more time, I'm going to throw you off the balcony."
"I'll help you, Sugata - I keep imagining this ugly old man leering at us. Talk about creepy!" Wako gestures with her ice-cream spoon to emphasize her point, and shudders in revulsion. Although that might be an ice-cream headache.
"My grandfather was the Galactic Pretty Boy! And an extremely pretty one, too!"
"I wonder how good Jaguar and Tiger are at digging graves -" Sugata's threat is interrupted by a crack of thunder, and they scramble inside Sugata's room and close the sliding door to the balcony before the heavy rain starts. Wako gasps in horror, because she's left her cup of ice-cream on the balcony and it's filling up with rainwater, but Sugata assures her that there will be better flavours once the groceries get delivered next week. The raindrops rattle against the sliding door, and the wind makes howling noises against the glass. They sit on the bed and talk about the group project for science and the impending sports meet and rehearsal schedules for Night Flight.
The ceiling fan whirs, and the trio's conversation trails off as Wako drifts off to sleep. She breathes softly, curling into a ball. Sugata lies down on the other side of the bed, taking the spot nearest to the nightstand. Takuto stares at the ceiling, listening to both his friends breathe, and traces the cross-shaped scar on his chest. Wako shifts closer to Takuto in her sleep, drooling on his arm, and he can't bring himself to push her away. Despite Sugata's best efforts to face the door while sleeping, he ends up turning around in his sleep to face Takuto and Wako. The usual tension in his face isn't present, and it's the most relaxed that Takuto's ever seen Sugata. It's great that Sugata trusts them enough to let go, but he also really wishes Sugata would stop snoring in his ear.
That night, Takuto dreams that they're all on a boat in the deep blue sea, headed to a place where they can all be happy. A place where Wako can sing to her heart's content, where Sugata won't need to carry his knife around, where Cybodies and apprivoising and zero-time don't exist and they can just be free from all the roles they're forced to play.
When he wakes up, he stares at the white ceiling, tempted to close his eyes and pretend the dream is real for a little while longer. The scent of omelettes drifts into the room, causing Wako to immediately jolt upright. Takuto is so amazed by Wako's incredible ability to detect food that he snaps out of his wistful reverie.
It takes both Takuto and Wako to wake Sugata up from his slumber. They combine their efforts to shake Sugata awake, and he bats at their hands before rolling over again. Takuto isn't sure if the King's Pillar does this to people who survive the apprivoising, or if Sugata has just been excellent at concealing his lethargy all this while.
Sugata sits up, then changes his mind and snuggles back into the sheets. Wako looks like she's about to scream in frustration, since Tiger and Jaguar won't serve them unless Sugata is there. Sugata yawns, slowly sitting up, and Wako hurriedly yanks him out of the bed before he lies down again. They take turns guiding a sleepy Sugata down the stairs, following the scent of bacon to the kitchen.
It's a bright Saturday, the birds are chirping incessantly, and Takuto still needs to figure out how he's going to juggle the sports meet, Night Flight rehearsal, weapons training with Sugata, and manage to find time to revise for midterms. At least he's done with the File of Guilt.
He supposes that everything will fall into place, and if it doesn't, he can count on Wako and Sugata to help out.
In the meantime, they'll enjoy breakfast.