The little girl sat in the dirt, huddled in fear. How did she get into this situation? Surrounded by a ring of jeering boys, looking just slightly older than her. Someone had kicked dust into her eyes, and now her vision was blurred, tears streaming down her face.
“Stupid girl!! You think someday, you can be like us?!” “Ha! In your dreams! You’ll never get anywhere if you try to do a man’s job!” “Know your place, loser!”
It was fine. This would pass. She’d stay strong, steel herself and move on, like Grandmother always said. But she’d be less upset if they’d directly picked on her, and not kick her school bag around. She would’ve just curled into a ball and waited for this to end, if one of the boys hadn’t picked it up, emptying the contents into the dirt. She gave a start at that, crawling towards her schoolwork.
“P-please, do not!” But they kicked more dirt in her face, and she had to stop to shield herself. All her hard work, the culmination of her efforts this school year, was about to be ruined just like that. But before the boys could do anything to the pile, something came flying. A small rock, smacking one of the boys on the side of his face.
“Ow! Wh-?!” They all turned around, and all took several steps backwards. One of them screamed. Because running toward them at terrifying speeds was a furious teenager wielding a sharp, shining katana. The boys were too shocked and scared to actually run, the once boastful group now cowering in a huddle. The teenager skid to a halt two sword’s lengths away from them, the dark bags under his eyes only adding to his dangerous glare.
“What do you think you’re doing?!” They couldn’t answer, quaking in the fear of death. The teen jabbed his weapon in the air threateningly, making all of them flinch. “I recognise your uniforms. What good is a prestigious education when your hearts and souls are muddled in trash? Picking on the meek and defenceless…utterly disgusting. If you don’t want your heads separated from your bodies with a swift carve of justice…” He took another step forward, and they all cringed back some more, yelping. “You’d better run.”
They didn’t need to be told twice. The boys all but vanished in an instant, scrambling and screaming, causing such a ruckus that they left a big cloud of dust in their wake. The teen glared after them, eyes burning with a righteous fury.
“May your brains rot out of your ears, you scum of the earth!!”
Incredibly scathing words to yell at a bunch of snooty kids. This person…was scary. The girl stared up at him wide-eyed, unable to move. Kazuma Asougi…she hadn’t yet worked up the courage to properly speak to him. He’d moved into their household just a week ago, and yet, she hadn’t seen much of him. He stayed in his room, most of the time. Even walking by his door sent a chill down her spine, as if it were cursed, so she kept her distance despite her father’s attempts to reassure her.
Now, he flicked and sheathed his katana with practised hands, then turned toward her, still with an angry look - always with an angry look - and she resisted a hiccup, wiping her face hastily. She felt ashamed, and scared, and…? Kazuma didn’t speak to her at first, wordlessly stooping down and scooping up a book from her pile of schoolwork, shaking the dust off. The girl closed her eyes, just rubbing her face, but it felt as if the dirt and grime was stuck there, her filthy sleeve only spreading it around.
“Mikotoba Susato.” The firm call of her name made her jump.
“Y-yes?!” she squeaked. Again with the angry look…she had to resist looking away from his unwavering glare.
“Never stand for such injustice ever again. You must learn to bite back. Stand your ground, and fight for your own dignity.” He set down the book he was holding and reached into his sleeve, producing a handkerchief - he adjusted his squat and reached over with it, rubbing the dirt off of her cheeks. His expression had somewhat softened, and she could only stare. “You have a burning flame of courage hidden within you, that much I can tell. You simply need to urge it out.”
When he’d wiped off a considerable amount of drying tears and caked dirt, he relented, leaving the cloth in her hands as he turned back to the books. He dusted everything off briefly before throwing them back into the school bag - they could be sorted through later. Susato rose shakily to her feet, ignoring her knees that stung underneath her school uniform, shuffling closer cautiously while clutching the handkerchief.
“K-Kazuma…-sama…?” The words were still stuck in her throat, no matter what she tried. Her chance to say something passed. Kazuma slung the small school bag onto his shoulder and stood up, gaze averted as he offered her a hand to hold.
“Your father was worried, so we were out looking for you. Let’s find him and go home.” Susato stared at his hand, hesitating for a moment, before she gingerly placed her small palm into his. His hand was rough, but warm and secure.
“O-okay,” she answered faintly.
As they walked down the road, Susato’s gaze was transfixed to the katana that hung at Kazuma’s hip. The hilt glinted golden in the sunset. She still clutched the handkerchief tightly in her other hand. This person…was scary. But he also turned out to be kind, in his own way. She walked close to his side, contemplating his words.
A burning flame of courage…
“Are you kidding me?! What is wrong with you?!”
An angry voice perked up Susato’s ears, despite her rush. Lightly out of breath, her shoes skid just a bit on the dirt path as she stopped to look. It seemed like a teenaged couple around her age was in the middle of a heated argument - it’d just begun to escalate, turning several heads. The boy was insisting, annoyedly, gesturing with animated arms.
“What do you mean?! I spent this money just for you, y’know! Let’s go out, already!”
“I told you, I had something important to do today!!”
“What’s more important than spending time with me?!”
“The world doesn’t revolve around you, believe it or not!!”
The girl was fiercely standing her ground, shouting such brave things in a fury. It was shocking, to say the least - not something you saw everyday. Susato couldn’t imagine herself ever being able to speak out quite like that. But then the boy grabbed the girl’s wrist, and her courage seemed to falter.
“I’m not letting my efforts go to waste! You’re coming with me!”
“Hey, l-let go!” While she resisted, her face still furious, Susato could see the slight tremble in her movements. The spectators also seemed against her, throwing her weird looks for making a scene, and her fight was fading. No one stepped in to intervene…Susato found herself gently setting down her furoshiki cloth bag, and the next thing she knew, she was approaching them.
“…Please excuse me.”
Susato reached out and took the boy’s wrist with an iron grip, twisting it abruptly so that he’d let go of the girl. And before he could even cry out in surprise, her other hand grabbed the back of his shirt.
Completely airborne for a brief moment, the boy crash landed, right on his neck. Just like that, he was down for the count. Susato held her pose for just a moment. Her distracted thoughts noted proudly that her form was near perfect, this time…before they snapped back to reality. There were a lot of people staring at her, including that girl. Susato got a better look at her now that she was closer - pale skin, long lashes, straight and long flawless silky hair…this girl was very pretty. But! Susato didn’t have time to think about that! The staring was getting too much for her to bear!
“Are you unharmed?! Let’s leave this place!” She blurted these words out in a panic, and before she could second guess herself, the other girl seemed to snap out of her daze. She, surprisingly, gave a firm nod.
Susato didn’t have time to hesitate - she just had to accept that this was what was happening now. Hastily, she snatched up her belongings, and the two of them dashed off in some direction together - anywhere but here. Susato’s heart fluttered in her chest as they ran. She was terrified, utterly embarrassed, but most of all, thrilled. In that moment, she truly felt alive.