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The Badge of Shame

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It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

The cicadas were blasting their cries while the sun’s full power cast a continuous wave of warmth. Clouds did not dare tarnish the sun’s cerulean background. Weather conditions such as this were bound to be the set up for a perfect day.

It was supposed to be perfect. It was supposed to be effortless fun.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

The fragile peace and tranquility on the playground exploded into chaos the second Fukutomi appeared without his training wheels. Suddenly, he became Hakone’s biggest badass under the age of ten… not that he wasn’t halfway there already. However, when he steadily pedaled his way down the sidewalk with his bike devoid of those miniature wheels, sparks ignited and all hell broke loose.

Training wheels became the new scarlet letter. It was a badge of shame. Every bicycle-riding kid in a fifteen mile radius chopped off their baby wheels as soon as possible.

At first, it was pandemonium. Short, wobbly legs of the youth scrambled to keep their balance like their stone-faced hero. Scraped knees, large purple bruises, and dirty jeans became the new normal.

Especially for one sour little cyclist.

“Maybe you should get some elbow pads, Yasutomo,” the redhead suggested with a smile as he handed a small handful of bunny bandages to his friend.

“Hah?!” Arakita snatched the band-aids away and glanced at his battered arms. A trickle of blood inched toward his wrist and he wiped it on his shirt. “I don’t wanna! I don’t need ‘em anyway.”

Shinkai’s grin faded slightly. “But you keep getting hurt.”

“I don’t care! Soon I’m gonna ride my bike and not fall even once! If Todou can do it so can I!” Scowling, Arakita began dressing his wounds. “Why? You think I can’t?!”

“No, but-”

“-But what?!” nearly screeching and rapidly approaching tantrum mode, Arakita stomped away and hesitantly climbed on his bike. It didn’t take very long for him to topple over.

Shaking his head, Shinkai replied, “Nothing.” From sunrise to sunset, he was subjected to watching his closest friend inflict pain on himself as he attempted to get used to his improved bike. If any progress was being made, Shinkai couldn’t see it.

Once, he tried to directly help Arakita ride, but as soon as he touched the bicycle for extra balance, the other boy lashed out, shouting, “Stop! Only I can do this! Only me!”

He almost broke his arm that day.

Arakita’s pride and the exile of training wheels were both going strong, so young Shinkai was left with very few options. It seemed like the most he could do was bring extra bandages for when Arakita was inevitably damaged.  

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. Drastic measures needed to be taken or else Arakita was probably going to die. Life without training wheels was more perilous than any of them ever imagined. The playground used to be so carefree, but now it was a bloodstained battlefield. Literally. Arakita bled out a lot trying to reach everyone else’s level. But for some reason, he always managed to pick himself up and try again. No matter how much he hurt, he didn’t complain. Shinkai was upset that Arakita was constantly injured, but couldn’t help admire his drive.

Shinkai thought he knew what to expect out of Arakita. Continual hard work, bruises, and yelling. That’s what he was used to, and that’s what Arakita consistently delivered.

He never would have thought he would see the day when his determined friend would show up to the park without his bike.

“...Yasutomo?” Shinkai asked, hesitantly sitting on the swing next to him. “Are you sick?”

“Hah?! Do I look sick? I’m fine!” The usual biting tone in his voice was nearly gone. Arakita avoided eye contact, and that’s when Shinkai knew something was seriously wrong.

“Yasutomo, where’s your bike?”

There was no reply aside from the cicadas’ roar.

“Yasutomo?”

Arakita lightly kicked at the ground but said nothing.

“Yasutomo, I can help you-”

“I can’t ever ride my bike again!” The interruption startled them both, but truly took Shinkai off guard. Arakita sighed sadly before admitting, “My mom saw all my cuts and said I can’t ride without training wheels. So I’m never gonna ride again.”

“Yasutomo.” Shinkai’s droopy eyes became sad when their gazes met. “You have to ride. It’s no fun without you.”

Arakita shook his head. “I can’t. Those wheels are for babies, moron. Sorry.”

Not only did Arakita give up his cycling, but he stopped coming to the park altogether. Shinkai was devastated. Playing with Fukutomi, Todou, and the rest of their friends was fine, but it wasn’t the same as spending time with Arakita. Nobody cared when Shinkai wanted to talk about bunnies, nobody wanted his extra snacks, and nobody could make him smile as easily as Arakita.

All of a sudden, summer became boring and too quiet and Shinkai wanted nothing more than for everything to go back to how it used to be. When it was supposed to be easy.

Sure, everybody was comfortably riding without training wheels now, but what did it matter? Shinkai would trade anything to have Arakita and his bicycle back.

So he did.

***

“Oh! Hello, Shinkai. Can I help you?” When the familiar name left his mother’s lips, Arakita perked up from his place on the couch.

“Good morning. Can Yasutomo come play?”

Sulking already, Arakita leisurely made his way to the door. He already told Shinkai that there was no way he was ever ever going to get on a bicycle that had training wheels ever again and there was nothing that could ever change his mind-

Except maybe this. Shinkai’s smile lit up when Arakita approached him. Next to Shinkai were two bikes. Arakita recognized one as his own. The one he shoved behind a bunch of bushes in the yard so he wouldn’t have to look at it anymore. His bike, complete with new training wheels because he couldn't seem to get the hang of biking without them. His bike, which he used to race his friends with all summer long. No amount of TV could measure up to the fun he had while riding his bicycle.

When he looked down, Arakita saw that Shinkai’s bike also had an extra pair of wheels on the back

Shinkai’s smile was virtually blinding. “Want to race?”