Satoru props up a sketchbook on his knee, using broad, rough strokes to outline the panels of his final art project. He furrows his brow, concentrating on the perspective of each scene. It’s critical that he gets this manga perfectly right before he graduates from Tohoku University, so he can prove he’s earned the scholarship granted to him.
The train jolts a little to the side, and he sighs in frustration as a pencil stroke goes awry.
“Next stop, Sakunami Station.”
Satoru looks briefly at his watch. Another thirty minutes until he reaches Yamagata then. He chews on his lower lip, feeling a bit guilty for not visiting his mother more often, but with finals coming up he’s sure that she understands.
He hopes that she’s gotten around to hiring an assistant manager. It was rocky at the beginning when she first opened up shop ten years ago; he remembers his mother constantly on the phone negotiating with various banks and debt collectors. But now, he thinks with no small pride, her shop has grown to become a successful grocery store with a steady stream of regulars. The problem is that she still stubbornly insists on doing practically everything herself.
He frowns, resolving to talk to her about that - again - once he gets home.
The deep orange of the setting sun filters low through the window, seeming to set the edge of his sketchbook on fire. Satoru takes a moment to appreciate the natural color.
“Next stop, Yamagata Station.”
The train slows to a stop and Satoru shoves everything into his bag, slinging it over his shoulder. He hops off and pulls his jacket tighter around him, shivering in the chilly fall air.
He’s ambling along towards the downtown area, absently wondering what he should make for dinner, when he’s suddenly tackled by a high school girl.
“Airi,” he says, pulling back in surprise. “Hey, what’s—?”
“Satoru, hurry!” she says, panicked and out of breath. “Your mother— her store—”
Gripped with fear, Satoru immediately runs in the direction of her grocery store, shoving pedestrians out of his way. His mind is spinning, praying to every god he knows that he finds her safe and sound.
He skids to a halt in front of the store, staring in shock. His shoes crunch on broken glass and pieces of plaster.
“Mom!” he shouts, tearing through the yellow police tape, frantically searching for her.
He finally spies her sitting on an empty fruit crate, holding a wad of gauze to her head while speaking with a police officer.
“Ah, Satoru,” she says, with a faint and tired smile. The police officer turns around to give him a quick glance-over, before telling Sachiko that he’ll be back shortly to finish getting her testimony.
“Mom,” Satoru says worriedly, trying to inspect her head wound but she waves him away.
“It’s just a scratch,” she says, sighing and looking around at the damaged state of her store. Smashed produce and spilled liquids cover nearly the entirety of the shop floor. “I suppose it’s a good thing we have insurance.”
Satoru stares at her. “Mom, what happened?”
Sachiko exhales deeply, shaking her head. “The police don’t believe me, but it’s the Nishizono clan for sure.” She frowns, clenching her fists. “They’ve been harassing me for months, but there’s no way I’m going to pay dues to scum like them.”
“Months?” Satoru nearly screams. “Why didn’t you tell me?” He glares at the policemen milling about. “Why didn’t they do anything?”
She scoffs. “Well, I shouldn’t say they don’t believe me. More like they’re too afraid to go against the Nishizonos.” She looks down critically at the aluminum baseball bat at her feet. “At least I got one good hit.”
“Oh,” Satoru replies faintly, feeling disoriented by the entire incident.
She pats his leg, expression turning serious. “You know I’m always glad to see you, Satoru. But you shouldn’t come home for a while. If the rumors on the street are right, there’s a clan war brewing. The Nishizonos are going to stop at nothing to make sure downtown stays out of the hands of the Katagiris.”
Satoru runs a hand over his face. He always manages to forget that sweet, kind-hearted Airi is actually raised by the yakuza underground, as she tries her best to distance herself from her family.
“Alright, mom,” he sighs out gently. “Let me take you home.”
The weekend passes by far too quickly, and Sachiko practically shoves Satoru onto the Senzan Line platform, insisting that he can’t miss any days of school.
“Who cares about school when you could be hurt, or even worse—” he chokes out, tears forming angrily in his eyes.
“Satoru, listen to me!” she says sharply, “I can take care of myself, always have since your father left us. I’m not going to let you throw away your future.”
“Mom…” he says desperately, fear welling in his heart at possibly losing the only family he has left. “Then at least let me come back every weekend—”
She interrupts him, pointing emphatically. “You need to focus on your studies. Do not argue with me.” Her expression softens marginally. “I’ll text you every day, okay? I’ll even send you pictures of the new security guards.”
“I don’t trust them,” Satoru mumbles, looking down at his shoes. How could he possibly focus on his studies?
“Ah, the train’s here.” Sachiko looks over his shoulder and smooths down his jacket, checking to see if he has all his belongings. “Text me when you get back to your dorm.” She presses a kiss to his cheek. “Have a safe ride.”
It takes all his willpower not to cry.
Satoru barely makes it to his classes on Monday, much less actually listen to any of his professors’ lectures.
“Hey,” Kayo says to him after their critical art theory class. She tries to look reassuring and hopeful. “Your mom texted you earlier, right? It’ll take time for the store to open again. I’m sure they won’t bother her again in the meantime…”
He emits a sound of frustration, shaking his head. “The police and security guards are useless. There’s no way they can stand up to the mafia.” Satoru looks over at Kayo, distressed. “What am I supposed to do?”
She leads him gently to a nearby bench, sitting them both down. They stay silent for a while, staring at the falling leaves around them.
“Well,” Kayo starts hesitantly, biting her lip, “you know how I’m taking that copyright law class?”
Satoru makes a vague noise of assent, gaze still lost somewhere in the distance.
“There’s a guy there that everyone says—” she says haltingly. “Well, no one’s ever asked him directly, but they’re pretty sure he’s the heir apparent.”
He looks at her in confusion. “What are you talking about?”
“I guess what I’m trying to say is that maybe you could—ask him for advice?” Kayo says, wincing. “Kenya Kobayashi, I mean.”
It takes Satoru a few minutes to connect the dots. “Wait, Kobayashi?” His eyes widen in shock. “You can’t possibly mean the Kobayashi clan.”
“That...would be the one, yeah,” Kayo mutters, looking around quickly as if there might be eavesdroppers.
“He’s a student here?” he asks loudly.
“Keep your voice down,” she hisses, barely preventing herself from hitting him. “I think he’s studying to be a lawyer.” Kayo pauses, frowning slightly. “That’s pretty smart, actually, if he’s going to be head of the clan one day.”
Kayo watches as a range of emotions quickly pass over Satoru’s features. Then she starts getting a bit worried when he turns to gaze at the law school building with fierce determination.
“Hey,” she says, “you’re not going to do anything stupid, right?”
He stands up abruptly and starts walking briskly in that direction.
“Right?” Kayo shouts after him. She grits her teeth, looking down at her watch, which tells her she’s already late for her next class.
Once he actually reaches the entrance of the law school building, Satoru stares at the imposing doors and starts second guessing his initial impulse. Pulling out his cell phone, he flips it open and scrolls down until he reaches Airi’s number. His thumb hovers over the call button.
If he’s going to ask anyone for protection, why not the Katagiris? They’re a formidable family, and protecting his mother would serve their end-goal of gaining a foothold in downtown Yamagata. It makes sense all around, and yet—
He shuts his phone with a sigh. Airi is a rare soul, the kind who still sees the good in people, even while she lives in a world fueled by blood and betrayal. Satoru is not going to let her be dragged down and torn apart by the ruthlessness of clan warfare. He will have to find another way.
The doors open suddenly, causing Satoru to take a step back, and two students exit while debating loudly about the merits of the current general election candidates.
“Excuse me,” Satoru says, waving at them. They turn to look at him with mild curiosity. “Um, I’m not sure if you know him, but I’m looking for Kenya Kobayashi. Do you know where I can find him?”
Their eyes widen comically, as if he’s grown a second head. “You’re looking for Kobayashi?” one of them says, incredulous.
Satoru thinks perhaps he should’ve listened more carefully to Kayo. “Er, yes. I’m his—friend.”
They start inching away from him, suspicious. “If you say so…” the other one says, then points at the building. “We just finished civil law class. He’s probably still inside.”
They speed walk away from him before he has the chance to say thank you. Satoru wonders if this maybe isn’t such a good idea after all. But he recalls the scene of his mother bleeding in the middle of her ruined store, and he clenches his jaw in determination. There’s no way he’s going to let that happen again.
He goes inside, tilting his head up to look at the high vaulted ceilings. Somehow, he’s gone nearly four years without ever stepping foot inside the law school. It’s beautiful...and intimidating.
A stream of students start heading his way, and Satoru balks a bit at the idea of just shouting out Kenya’s name and seeing who responds. He absently wonders if he should have brought a sign, like the valets who wait at the airport arrival gates.
As it turns out, he doesn’t need a sign at all.
A male student walks casually through the hallway, intently reading a novel, seemingly unaware of the wide berth all the other students give him. He’s tall, with styled blonde hair, and dressed immaculately in a black turtleneck and tailored slacks. There’s also an embossed leather katana case slung over his shoulder.
Satoru blinks dumbly, sure he hasn’t ever seen anyone who so obviously exuded class and wealth.
As he approaches, Satoru nervously clears his throat. “Kenya Kobayashi?”
The student barely looks up from his novel to give him a cursory glance, before ignoring him entirely and leaving the building.
What? How rude.
Irritated, Satoru follows him out. “Hey, I was talking to you,” he says sharply.
Kenya snaps his novel shut and looks over his shoulder, eyes narrowed dangerously. “I don’t like it when people waste my time.”
“I haven’t even said anything.” Satoru scowls as he’s beginning to see that there might be more than one reason people avoid Kenya.
“Let’s keep it that way,” Kenya says with authority, and stalks off.
Satoru makes several unintelligible noises.
I can’t believe I’m seeking help from this asshole.
Satoru ends up following Kenya all the way to the campus dojo. (Which, incidentally, is also a place he’s managed to avoid entirely up until today.) He kicks off his shoes and dips his head in a quick bow before stepping onto the polished wooden floor. His shoulders slump, as he is suddenly aware of how woefully out of shape he is.
He turns to go sit on one of the side benches, but is blocked by an angry Kenya.
“I thought I made myself very clear,” he says softly to Satoru, his tone laced with warning.
If Satoru was any less desperate, he’d be tempted to back off. But he straightens his shoulders, pulling himself up to his full height, nearly eye to eye with Kenya. “I really do need to talk to you.” He looks over at the small group of students who have already changed into their uniforms. “But I can wait until your practice is over.”
Kenya levels a sharp glare at him, but says nothing as he strides quickly to the changing room to avoid being late.
When Kenya reappears in a deep blue gi and hakama, Satoru notices that his attitude is entirely different, anger nowhere to be seen. Instead, Kenya seems to possess an unnatural calm and unerring focus. In his left hand, he holds a sword sheathed in a simple but exquisitely lacquered saya.
Satoru stares unabashedly, feeling the urge to bring out his sketchbook. Kenya really does look like some kind of aristocratic warrior from the shogunate period.
As the instructor walks out onto the floor, the students bow and perform the standard rituals of respecting him and gratefully accepting his guidance. He proceeds to lead them into a practice kata session, which Satoru realizes must be reserved only for high-level iaidoka, as each one of them unsheathes a metal sword instead of a wooden bokken.
Feeling that it would somehow be an intrusion of privacy if he took out his pencil and paper, Satoru instead tries to mentally snapshot the graceful and fluid movements of each kata. They actually remind him of the development and maturation of illustration techniques that have been taught to him over the years. Spare and efficient strokes that look beautifully effortless, but are nonetheless deliberate, belying the many years of training that make such a thing possible.
Every art form is a constant battle with oneself, Satoru thinks, exhaling deeply. He wonders what demons lie beneath Kenya’s hardened exterior.
The practice session ends as quietly as it began, and as the students begin coming out of the changing room in their normal clothes, Satoru roots around in his messenger bag for a bottle of water. Luckily it hasn’t been opened, and he thinks that maybe it would serve as a small peace offering to Kenya.
“Here.” Satoru holds out the bottle awkwardly. Kenya stares at him placidly, making no move to take it.
“You wanted to talk. So talk.” He crosses his arms, looking as if he’d rather be anywhere else.
Satoru takes a deep breath. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. “I need your help.” His grip on the water bottle tightens. “More specifically, I need your family’s help.”
Kenya immediately becomes incensed. “How dare you—”
“It’s my mother,” Satoru says, voice shaking with emotion. “She was attacked by the Nishizonos, and there’s going to be a war between them and the Katagiris over who controls downtown Yamagata. But she hasn’t done anything wrong! She just owns a grocery store there. She doesn’t deserve any of this!”
Kenya remains silent for a while, appearing to have cooled down somewhat. When he speaks, though, his voice is hard. “We have nothing to do with either clan.”
“I know,” Satoru replies, desperate. “I know it’s unfair of me to ask—”
“More like you have no right.”
“You’re right. I have no right to ask. But here I am.” Satoru clenches his fists. “If I had any other option, I wouldn’t be asking you. Begging you.” He wars internally with his pride before swallowing it, and begins to kneel.
“Tch,” Kenya says in annoyance. “Don’t do that. Get up.”
Satoru doesn’t quite obey. “Will you help me?”
Kenya gives him a long look. “And what would I get in return?”
Honestly, Satoru hadn’t thought that far. “Whatever you want,” he says, voice low.
He doesn’t expect Kenya to burst into laughter. “Whatever I want?” Kenya repeats. “What could you possibly give me that I don’t already have?”
“A chance to do the right thing,” Satoru retorts without thinking.
Kenya’s laughter abruptly dies down, his expression turning frosty. He gives Satoru an arrogant look. “I don’t really think you’re in any position to lecture me on morality.”
“You’re studying to be a lawyer, aren’t you?”
“The purpose of which is entirely my own, and nothing to do with you.”
“But you’re here, at school, going through the actual process of earning a degree,” Satoru says, gesturing emphatically around him. “You could’ve gotten a—a private tutor, or maybe even just donate enough money so they give you a degree.” He lowers his hand. “So you must care about doing some things right.”
Kenya doesn’t quite manage to hide a flash of surprise, before closing off his expression again. “You make a lot of assumptions.”
“Well, we’re still talking, aren’t we?”
“Regrettably.” Kenya raises an eyebrow. “Who are you, anyway?”
“Satoru Fujinuma,” he states, then adds lamely, “Fourth year art student.”
“Of course you’re an artist,” Kenya mutters. “You talk like some kind of manga protagonist.”
Satoru looks down at his messenger bag. “Well, that might be because I’m drawing one.”
Kenya pinches the bridge of his nose. “Where do they even find people like you?” He holds up a hand. “You know what? Never mind.” He looks off to the side in resignation. “Fine, what the hell. Maybe I’ll find a use for you.”
Satoru widens his eyes hopefully. “So...you’ll help me?”
“If I have to keep repeating myself, then I won’t.”
“No, I heard you the first time,” Satoru says hastily. “Sorry.”
“You’d better prepare yourself.” Kenya grips the strap of his katana case, and slants a hard look at Satoru. “You have no idea what you’re really asking for.”