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From Zero to Hero

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“Yuuya, I’ll be off! Be safe, okay!” Kusanagi Keigo calls out to his younger brother as they part ways. Yuuya smiles and waves one last time before going up the footbridge, on his way to school.

The older Kusanagi brother makes sure that Yuuya has safely gotten out of sight before he goes his own way. He breathes in deep, holding it in for a few seconds. When he releases it, a slow and deliberate movement to focus his energy, he sends a small prayer to his mother in heaven and begins walking.

It’s a short trip to his new workplace, but Kusanagi makes an effort to come early. He’s been mapping out the area, getting himself acquainted with every road and back alley; planning paths and possible escape routes for when he might have a need for it, given the hidden nature of his job as a teacher.

It’s the path he has chosen for himself despite his initial hatred of the field of education, when his mother’s passion for it rewarded her with a bitter end, and becoming a Kamen Teacher with special permissions during his high school days allowed him to take revenge for what happened before it opened his eyes to the joys of teaching. Meeting Araki-sensei inspired change in his ways, that using violence to mete out justice helps no one; and then there’s Ichimura-sensei who showed him the compassion that his mother’s death has taken away from him, and lit it anew in his heart.

Today is special in a way, his first day as a fellow professional about to stand in the same platform as his mother and the two teachers who inspired him. The thought of it brings a smile to his lips, and at the same time, he squares his shoulders to brace himself. Kusanagi casually returns to walking along the main roads, this morning’s reconnaissance done for now. The rest of his walk takes him to the school where Iikura has assigned him, with a few minutes to spare before the teachers’ briefing in the faculty room.

Kusanagi’s about to walk past the teachers’ lounge, straight into the unused storage closet where the principal allowed him to keep his extracurricular gear, when a door opens. It’s too late for Kusanagi to try and remain unseen, so when someone steps out from the open door, he changes course, not daring to proceed as he intended. He walks straight down the corridor and turns into a corner at the end of it, hoping that by the time he turns back, the other person is gone.

“Are you lost?” A male voice asks from behind Kusanagi, the tone of it deep but gentle.

He turns toward the sound, coming face to face with a man who appears to be just as young as he is, and he fights to maintain the reserved yet friendly smile he’d pasted on his lips. The question and the tone with which it was spoken isn’t rude at all, but Kusanagi felt like it was a slap in the face because he’s confident with his sense of direction, thank you very much. ”Relax, breathe,” he tells himself. ”You’re not supposed to arouse suspicion; don’t make a scene.”

“I was just about to go to the principal’s office,” Kusanagi manages to reply in an even tone, holding onto a thin thread of professional awareness, as tempted as he was to snap at the stranger.

The other man just smiles back, pointing in the other direction, and Kusanagi feels his barely-there patience fray at the edges for some odd reason. “It’s that way,” he points behind him, informing Kusanagi.

Kusanagi bites his tongue, stops himself from dropping scathing remarks, and simply thanks the other man as he walks toward the right direction.

He’s barely gotten past the other man when he misses a step and he stumbles, falling face first on the hallway’s concrete. Or would have, if the strong arms that steady him hadn’t made it in time. Kusanagi steadies himself, recovering quickly, and the other man withdraws his hold on Kusanagi. They exchange a quick bow of apology and Kusanagi walks away, carefully this time.

 

“Everyone, listen up,” the vice principal announces to the entire room. The teachers are gathered in the faculty lounge, preparing for their respective classes. They all take a pause to pay attention, eyes drawn to the tall newcomer, and Kusanagi feels like a lab specimen about to be examined under a microscope.

The vice principal gestures to him. “This is Kusanagi-sensei. He teaches PE. From this day on, he’ll be taking over Toda-sensei’s role as homeroom teacher for class 3C, among his other duties as a Junior PE teacher.”

Kusanagi acknowledges everyone in the room with a polite bow, his eyes narrowing for the briefest of a second when it lands on the man he met earlier. “I’m Kusanagi Keigo, I’ll be in your care this year, nice to meet you.”

His greeting is returned with soft murmurs echoing his words, and they return to the tasks in their respective work stations. Kusanagi is almost relieved with their kind welcome, his nerves lessening significantly. The Vice Principal leads him to an empty desk closest to the message board, right next to— surprise, surprise —the man he met earlier in the hallway.

“He’s stepping down as the homeroom teacher so he could focus on advising the Drama Club,” the vice principal tells Kusanagi, gesturing to the other man. “But Toda-sensei will stay with you as an assistant homeroom teacher until the end of this school year.”

Kusanagi just nods his understanding, bending lightly for another polite bow directed at the higher ranked teacher before taking the empty work desk next to Toda. “Thank you, Vice Principal.”

The vice principal takes off, then, leaving Kusanagi with the other man.

“So, Kusanagi-sensei?” Toda begins, holding out his hand for a handshake. The smile he’s wearing is the same gentle upturn of his lips that irrationally annoys Kusanagi. “I’m Toda Toshio. Let’s work hard together, okay?”

”So early on and already testing my patience,” Kusanagi thinks to himself. He stares at the man for a half-second, before shaking on the proffered hand. His grip is firm and, indulging in a very short moment of pettiness, he tightens his hold to an almost painful level before completely releasing Toda’s hand.

Kusanagi doesn’t get any satisfaction from that little petty indulgence, though, because there was no change whatsoever in Toda’s expression. Toda just compiles the data sheet for class 3C’s students and hands them over to him.

“He’s such a killjoy sometimes,” a man stage-whispers from across Kusanagi. There’s a sparkle of mischief in his eyes as he bore witness to the odd exchange between Kusanagi and Toda, and it also reflects the barely-controlled impulse to join in on their conversation. Now he speaks up in a playful tone, his voice rich and lilting, switching his attention between Kusanagi and Toda. “It’s hard to make him show pain, right, Toda-sensei?”

Toda says nothing to that, neither confirming nor denying the other man’s words.

The man across from Kusanagi’s new work desk offers his hand for a handshake, too. “Noguchi Satoshi, by the way. I’ll be handling your class in Home Economics.”

“Nice to meet you. I’ll be in your care, too,” Kusanagi replies, shaking on Satoshi’s hand.

Any further conversation is effectively stalled by the bell’s sound. The ringing of the bell doesn’t stop Satoshi from having one last word, though, his voice carrying through the entire faculty lounge as he walks away. “Good luck, Kusanagi-sensei~” he says in a teasing, sing-song voice.

Kusanagi hears the sound of stifled laughter from where he’s standing with Toda, but when he looks at the other man, Toda's just covering his mouth with the back of his hand – coughing ever so slightly – and he shrugs as he drops his hand.

 

“Rise,” a young female voice calls to the class as Toda walks into the classroom, Kusanagi not too far behind. ”Bow.” The students stand up and move as one, bowing on that one sharp cue.

The teachers take their place on the platform in front of the class, as the students raise their heads and wait for them to begin. Toda speaks up, his voice clear and just loud enough for the classroom, “Good morning. Take your seats, everyone.”

The class settles into their seats, and Toda continues, “Before we start with our lesson, let me introduce your new homeroom teacher.”

The whispering among the students begin, and Toda simply clears his throat to get them to stop. “As I was saying, you’ll have a new homeroom teacher. Nothing has changed with the lessons I’ll be having with you, I’m still your English teacher. And I’ll still be around to help out Kusanagi-sensei.” He gestures to Kusanagi, giving him the floor. “Kusanagi-sensei, if you’ll please.”

Kusanagi steps up to the platform, going for a simple greeting. “I’m Kusanagi Keigo. We’ll mostly meet in the field, since I teach PE, but every once in a while we’ll be here. It’s nice to meet you all,” he says plainly.

Calm and unremarkable is what he’s aiming for as he gauges the students’ levels of interest. Some of them look at him with plain indifference, while others hang on to his every word. He looks at each of them with gentle eyes, but with enough edge to it so that they’ll know he’s not to be messed with.

His gaze lands on two empty chairs in the classroom, but before he could ask, the door at the back of the room slides open to let two boys in, one after the other. The first boy enters with a flourish. His pace is carefree, walking like he owns the floor, while the other boy follows at a snail’s pace, back hunched and looking like a cornered animal.

Kusanagi keeps an eye on the two of them as he steps down from the podium, giving way so that Toda can begin with his lesson. The first boy isn’t so confident when he takes his seat, wincing and clutching at his side on his way down the chair, but Kusanagi doesn’t pry, especially not in class. He steals a glance at Toda, and when their gazes meet, Kusanagi tilts his head subtly toward the latecomers.

Toda tells the students to turn to a certain page and read the text in silence, giving them five minutes to read and reflect on it. When they’re all hunched over their textbooks, Toda mouths the word, “Later.”

 

Later meant talking about it over the lunch break. Or at least attempting to. Kusanagi’s been waiting for the right timing to bring it up, at a cross between annoyed and amused as he ends up watching Toda eat. The other man eats heartily and without shame, and the borderline erotic sounds he’s making to show his appreciation for the food is getting to Kusanagi.

“Is he always like this?” Kusanagi asks the man sitting across from him. He keeps the irritation from seeping into his voice, because he knows that it’s not Satoshi’s fault.

Satoshi nods, half-resigned and most definitely amused. “Yup. This surprisingly cute part of him reminds me a of one of my best friends, who look quite a lot like him, too,” the last part came out nostalgic, Satoshi’s musings bringing him back to his own high school days. “Actually, you look like one of my high school buds, too.” Satoshi grins, his eyes twinkling in a mischievous way when he says, half to himself, “I think Makoto would freak out when I tell him I work with someone who looks like Yuuki.”

Toda is finishing up putting away his food boxes when the school bell rings again, signalling the start of the second half of classes. Satoshi doesn’t get to elaborate on the descriptions of his friends from high school, and it never comes up in conversation again.

Kusanagi’s just about to ask Toda regarding their students, stealing a minute before the bell rings again and they have to be in their next class, but the other man’s already out the door, his steps as fast and as quiet as lighting.

He simply shakes his head for the missed chance, and then proceeds to head to his own class.

 

The next moment he catches Toda is at the end of the school hours, and completely by chance. He’d almost given up trying to find him that day, but on his way to the genkan, Kusanagi hears the haunting blare of an orchestral music coming from some distance away. The first notes of a powerful ballad reaches his ears as he comes to investigate, bringing him to a plain door marked as the third music room.

The door is left ajar, and when he takes a peek, Kusanagi sees Toda in the middle of the room, singing the lower harmonies for a small crowd of students. It’s a song Kusanagi knows well even though he hasn’t acted in a stage play of any kind, because there was a time when he’d come visit his friend’s rehearsals for this same musical. He remembers spending a good minute laughing at Bon’s blond hair, but later, when the other man started singing, Kusanagi ate his words. The song stayed with him for a long while; and now that Toda’s singing a part of it, Kusanagi’s overcome with the desire to sing it with him. With Bon’s voice guiding him in his mind, Kusanagi sings the next verse, blending with Toda’s voice until the other man takes notice and turns toward the source.

He stops completely, surprise playing on his face, but then Kusanagi keeps singing and Toda recovers from the shock quickly enough to be able to continue.

They share a significant look as the song reaches its climax, the same way the characters would, and they stay that way long after the song ends. It takes a collective effort from the students to bring them both back to reality, but when they do, Toda simply goes on to explain how showing them the characters’ actions is quicker than just explaining it with his words. That, since their presentation for the school festival draws ever closer, they need all the time they can spare and learn as fast as they can.

 

“Didn’t know you could sing,” Toda begins, when the club activities are done for the day and they’re putting on their shoes at the genkan. “You’re quite good, surprisingly.”

“I just happened to know the song,” Kusanagi answers, but he doesn’t explain any further. “Anyway,” he shifts the topic. “About the boys from this morning.”

“About them, yes?” Toda acquiesces. “Azuma Reo and Kitagawa Asahi. They don’t usually cause problems. Asahi-kun is just painfully shy, and Azuma-kun is strangely (blessedly) close friends with him.”

“I’m worried about them,” Kusanagi says. “Azuma-kun is injured but he’s trying to hide it.”

“I know,” Toda affirms, “but he’ll know when to ask for help. I taught them how to be responsible for their actions before I stepped down from my post, because we can’t step in all the time. That’s not what happens in the real world, when they graduate and they leave the four walls of our classroom.”

Kusanagi takes all it in, for now, swallowing down his protest because he knows Toda is right.

“For now you can keep watch over them, but let them fight their own battles,” Toda continues. “Let them become stronger with every hurdle they face, but I trust that you’ll do what is right, when it’s right.”

The strange atmosphere is only broken when they finish changing into their outdoor shoes, and they part ways at the gate.

“Oh, by the way,” Toda calls out to Kusanagi when their backs are turned from each other. “How about we collaborate for the festival? The drama club and our class 3C?”

“I haven’t thought about it, really,” Kusanagi admits. “Between settling in for work and being homeroom teacher, I almost forgot about that.” The smile on his face is a little apologetic.

“If you don’t mind?” Toda says, encouragingly. “This way the class will have something to do and we’ll be able to keep watch on them.”

“It’s a good one, I gotta admit,” Kusanagi concedes. “Well, let’s work hard, then.”

They bow a little at each other before they go their separate ways.

...

After a simple meal in a nearby family restaurant, the drama club and class 3C celebrate the success of their school festival presentation at a karaoke bar. They invite Satoshi along as an honorary guest, to thank him for all the moral support, the occasional comic relief, and – best of all – the simple yet super tasty cookies he provided for everyone, during the seemingly endless days of preparation.

The students take turns singing and playing around, the drinks that they share among themselves keep flowing despite being limited to only juice and soda. It’s the most fun Kusanagi has allowed himself to have, watching their students and keeping half an eye on both his co-workers.

Eventually the party breaks into smaller groups, while a few individuals here and there walk to the train stations before their last train departs. It leaves behind the adults to celebrate among themselves, this time with the booze they’ve been holding back on, in the presence of their students.

“Be safe on your way, okay?” Satoshi calls to the last of couple students as they leave.

“That’s the last of them,” Satoshi announces to his co-teachers. “And thus concludes my, say,” he searches for another word, but coming up with none, he finishes it with, “mother duties?”

“We didn’t invite you for just that and you know it, Satoshi,” Toda says in earnest. “We can’t thank you enough.” He seems to catch himself, correcting his earlier words. “I can’t thank you enough.”

Satoshi waves it off humbly, without any trace of ill-will. His smile takes on a slightly more wicked upward curve, though. Mischievous. He puts on a show of looking at his watch, his feet already taking him far away from his co-workers. “Oh, would you look at the time? Gotta get going, or else the idiots I left at home will miss me too much.”

There’s no room for argument with Satoshi’s (rather poorly executed) excuse, though, and soon enough Kusanagi finds himself drinking alone with Toda. They drink until the kind old lady in the izakaya gently taps their shoulders, softly saying, “It’s closing time.” They stand up to leave.

“Dunno about you, but I don’t feel like going home yet,” Toda admits, as they both collect their belongings and settle their bill.

Kusanagi nods. “Then I’ll stay with you,” he says simply. “I’ve already told Yuuya not to stay up and wait for me anyway; if I go home now, I’ll just be in the way.”

And so they find themselves walking around, aimlessly at first, until they decide to sit somewhere with a nice view of the city lights and head to the park. When they round a corner that leads to that secluded spot in the park, Kusanagi misses a step that would’ve caused him an injury. Toda catches him before he falls on his face, and their eyes meet for a brief moment.

Kusanagi is the first to turn his gaze away, though he doesn’t get too far. Toda’s grip on him is strong, and the alcohol in his system has dulled his inhibitions enough that the contact isn’t unwelcome.

“You don’t have to put on an act around me,” Toda says as he helps Kusanagi up, leading them both on an empty bench, “You’re not that weak.”

“How’d you know?” Kusanagi asks, not bothering to cover up anymore. They’re shoulder to shoulder, but the distance (or lack thereof) isn’t the least bit stifling. “I was being so careful; had nearly everyone buying the act, too.”

That earns him a genuinely hearty laugh, a rare but precious sight coming from Toda, and even at his expense Kusanagi stores it in his mind for later.

“You seriously believe that, Kusanagi-sensei?” Toda says, the laughter still evident in his voice. The tone softens and the levity in his voice disappears altogether when he speaks again. “Maybe you had the others fooled, but not me. I was trained in the performing arts, but I also trained myself to read into every person’s expression and their actions.”

It’s Kusanagi’s turn to laugh this time, flicking a gentle finger on Toda’s forehead. “Over-analytic fluffball.”

“Or maybe it was the first time we met,” Toda continues, letting Kusanagi’s comment slide. “Do you remember? You almost fell on your face back then, and when I caught you, I felt it—you were stronger than you let on.”

“I’m bound by contract and moral obligation against telling you the whole truth, but it’s as you’ve described it,” Kusanagi concedes. “You’ll have to figure out the rest of it for yourself.” he says with a wry smile. He looks up at the starless night sky and he breathes in, the air thick with a heaviness that could mean rain, but he doesn’t want to move —this closeness with Toda is comfortable. He’s not sure he could still blame the alcohol for these actions, but he relishes them all the same.

Fine drops of rain fall in random intervals, spraying onto Kusanagi’s upturned face. He feels movement on his side; he opens his eyes to turn toward it and he finds Toda tilting his face up, too.

“I like the rain,” Toda says out of the blue. The rain begins to pour in earnest but still gentle drops, and Kusanagi has enough awareness by now that they’re getting soaked, but the words to express it die down in his throat. He ends up rooted to his spot, staring at Toda’s upturned face, and the deep sadness that Kusanagi sees in them bleeds into Toda’s voice when he continues, “Because the water washes away pain.”

The words tug at his heartstrings, and although he doesn’t know the other man’s exact circumstances, he sees the same kind of pain that reflected his own not so long ago. So he wraps an arm around Toda in a half-embrace instead, letting the drops of rain blanket them and fill the silence. He doesn’t speak, opting to offer his presence, because he knows what to say but they’re jumbled in his mind, and sorting through them isn’t something Kusanagi thinks he could do right now.

Toda leans into the embrace, and the sadness in his face eventually eases into a serene, contented expression. Kusanagi witnesses the gradual and subtle change in them, and he feels a small smile start tugging at his own lips.

“I think I like the rain, too,” Kusanagi says eventually, unable to hold back anymore. He tilts Toda’s face toward him with his free hand. “When it washes away the pain.”

“It makes you all the more beautiful,” Kusanagi confesses.

Toda levels him with a steady gaze, his eyes hard on the edges but with a mix of tenderness in them. A faint blush warms his cheeks, and it would’ve been a cute sight for Kusanagi to enjoy (or tease him with afterwards) if they were in the warmth and light of a private space, but all he cares about at this moment is to close the final distance between them. He reaches up so their lips touch, soft and a bit chilled from staying under the rain for so long.

A beat, then two. Then the kiss breaks.

A giggle bubbles from Kusanagi’s throat, giving way to a full-bodied laughter. Kusanagi pauses long enough to be able to speak. “This isn’t how I planned to confess, that’s all,” he says when he sees the look on Toda’s face.

“Doesn’t feel like you’d planned to confess at all,” Toda snaps back, but the mischief playing in his eyes give him away, and then he’s laughing too.

“I take it you feel the same?” Kusanagi prods, once the laughter dies down.

“You’ll have to figure out the rest of it for yourself,” Toda tells him, repeating Kusanagi’s words from earlier. But the look in his eyes is answer enough, emotions that run deep and go beyond words plainly written in them.

“Well,” Kusanagi says, “We’ll have lots of time for that, but first—”

“Let’s get out of this rain,” Toda finishes for him. “My place is closer,” he continues. “I know you’ve missed your train, and walking home in your state is not an option.”

“You’re one to talk!” Kusanagi huffs, feigning indignance.

“You’re an idiot sometimes, you know that?” Toda laughs. “I’m not inviting you over so I could murder you. Though it might be a great idea, hmmmm…”

Kusanagi’s eyes widen comically. “You wouldn’t!” He clutches at his heart, playing the scared mouse to the hilt. “My little brother is waiting for me!”

The sound of someone being beaten up reaches their ears, and the train of their conversation is interrupted. They share a wordless glance, the sense of impending danger sobering them up completely, and they move silently to investigate the source.

“Do I need to call for help?” Kusanagi whispers. He recognizes their school’s colors on the boy curled up on the floor, and he’s just about itching to change into his mask so he could join the fray.

Toda just gives him a look, reading Kusanagi easily, but quite unimpressed with the other man’s train of thought. “Who needs help if we’re right here? I told you, Keigo, you don’t have to put on an act around me.”

It’s not the time to be awestruck, but Kusanagi feels Toda’s warmth fill him, loving the sound of his given name. Kusanagi stops at that, zeroing in on one word. Keigo. But then the warmth he feels pours out in the smile he gives the other man.

“I like how it sounds, coming from you,” Kusanagi says. “My name,” he explains.

Toda smiles at that, too. “You can do it, too, you know. So, what do you say, Keigo?”

They share another significant look. Kusanagi nods, shaking a few drops of rain off from his hair. “Let’s give those scum an extracurricular lesson they won’t forget,”

“Toshio.”