Chapter 4: Gathering Allies

Shinobu brushed a piece of lint from his light-blue polo shirt. He hadn't balanced his bank accounts for some time, and was quite pleased with the current printout. The betting rings had been very profitable lately. His small smile turned to a look of concern as he glanced at the clock. Aoki should have reported back by now.

The levelheaded boy calmly pulled a cellular phone from his desk drawer and dialed in a number.

"Hello, Aoki here."

"Why haven't you called yet?"

On the other end of the line the computer expert silently wondered how he had let Shinobu rope him into this. He belonged happily holed up in his arcade, not out on a scout mission for Shinobu. The former Student Council President didn't even have the courtesy to say 'hello' before demanding information.

"Aoki?"

Aoki started. He didn't realize he had gotten so caught up in his thoughts. "Oh, um, they haven't shown up yet."

Shinobu paused for a moment. "Are you sure? They might be somewhere else in the library."

"I've been watching the entrance. If they were here, I'd know about it. Maybe they went somewhere else to study."

"Stay there and watch for them. Call me if you see anything." There was a loud click and Aoki was again alone with his thoughts. Didn't even say goodbye. I don't know how Mitsuru puts up with him all the time.

Shinobu slapped the portable phone shut and glanced at his roommateís empty bed. He didnít like Mitsuru being alone with Hiroku. It was even worse now that he had no way to check up on the other boy. He set the phone down and began pacing the length of their small room.

I shouldnít bother doing anything. Mitsuru can take care of himself. He laughed at the thought. If Mitsuru knew he was in a fight he was perfectly capable of defending himself, but he seemed oblivious to the dangers of this situation. Is he fooling himself? He isnít normally this flippant. Doesnít he know how vindictive people are? He could get seriously hurt.

Shinobu pulled a can of soda out of his trunk and pulled off the lid. Maybe Iím being paranoid. Maybe people can change. A picture of a laughing Nagisa entered his mind. Then again, probably not. He resumed his place at the desk and sipped the soda. I guess Mitsuru just thinks that other people can change because he was able to. He doesnít realize what an achievement it was for him to leave the gang behind. He assumes that anyone can do what he did.

The silver-haired boy glanced back at his clock. 4:12. Good reason or no, Mitsuru is being pretty stupid. How could he think that heís safe when heís alone with Hiroku? He gets so macho sometimes. Like when he wanted to fight that girl-gang with just Igarashi to help. That was pretty stupid, too. He crumpled the soda can and dropped it into the garbage can. Well, heís probably all right for now. I wonít worry myself unless he doesnít make it home by dinner. Until then, I have work to do.

Hasukawa walked along cheerfully, his bad mood dispelled by a bag of pretzels Shun had bought him at a convenience store. Shun had been trying to distract him from the Hiroku situation all day, and food seemed to be working fairly well.

"Suka-chan, are you almost done eating? You need to finish those before we can go in the library."

Hasukawa responded around a half-chewed pretzel. "I can eat in the entryway, right? Iíll finish them while you get the books."

"Well, I guess so, but finish fast, okay? I donít want to study all this stuff by myself."

Hasukawa pushed through the door of the library and mumbled his assent. Shun scurried off towards the book-stacks and left him at the entrance.

"Hey! Suka!"

Hasukawa spun around and located the person speaking to him sitting next to a waterfountain on the opposite side of the room, with a pocket computer in his hand. "Hi Aoki! What are you doing in the entryway?"

Aoki stood and stalked over to the underclassman. "Favor for Shinobu. You here to study for that History test?"

The red-head nodded and swallowed the last of his pretzels, tossing the bag into a convenient trash can. "Why would Shinobu want you to sit in the entrance of the library?" His eyes widened excitedly. "Does it have to do with that Hiroku guy?"

Aoki gave a confidencial nod and lowered his voice. "He and Mitsuru were supposed to study here, but they havenít shown up yet."

Hasukawa moved in closer to the taller boy and looked up at him hopefully. "Hey Aoki, um, I was in the hospital during the elections last year, and Shun wonít tell me what happened to make Shinobu so mad. What on earth did that guy do?"

Aoki took a step back and lowered his eyes. "Look, Suka, I wish I could tell you, but I really canít. Shun must have told you that we all promised not to speak of it again. Never."

Sukaís horrified look returned. "But Aoki! If I donít find out, I... I think Iíll go crazy! Please, man, I wonít tell anyone that you told me. I promise, no one will ever know that you talked about it."

Aoki shook his head emphatically. "Sorry, Suka. It isnít going to happen." He looked like he felt guilty, but didnít seem likely to give in. Hasukawa pressed anyway.

"Please, Aoki-sempai! You donít have to tell me everything, I mean, just give me a hint or something."

Aoki sighed and scratched his head. "Well..."

"Please!"

Aoki looked around nervously and took a step forward. "All I can say is that Hiroku spread a rumor about Shinobu. A really, REALLY, bad rumor. It started out pretty small, and no one believed it at first, but it kind of snowballed. Iím not saying anything else."

"But that doesnít tell me anything! I have to know more than that!"

"Well, itís all youíre going to get from me. Go on, Shunís waiting for you."

Hasukawa mumbled his thanks and wandered despondently off to find his friend. Aoki watched him leave. Poor kid.

Hiroku stared irritably at Mitsuru. He was tired, but not nearly as out of it as he should have been. Huh. He isnít as affected by that sedative as he should be. Heís still in good enough shape to beat the tar out of me. Iíll have to find a way to sneak some more of that stuff into his ice cream.

Hiroku watched the other boy carefully, looking for an opportunity to doctor his food, but not seeing one. Damn. Heís too guarded. I need a distraction. I was hoping I wouldnít have to do this. Beneath the table he made an odd hand signal and prayed his friend was paying attention. He couldnít look over at Biizen without alerting Mitsuru, so he had to trust the other boy to follow instructions. Fortunately, Biizen had already alienated all the girls in the store and had nothing better to do than watch for the signal, and immediately responded. Hiroku could barely hear the conversation.

"Um, excuse me girls,"

"What do you want?"

"Well, I was just wondering, isnít that Mitsuru Ikeda over there? Do you girls know him?"

"Ikeda-san!"

"Heís here!"

"I canít believe it!"

Within a few moments the excited junior high girls had flocked around Mitsuru, who was managing to stay charming despite his exhaustion. Hiroku glared at him and resentfully put a dropper-full of liquid onto his ice cream. The way those girls hang all over him, he deserves this.