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The Mecha Monogatari, Book Two, Chapter IV

Posted by Doug on January 9, 2009

There was a vending machine that sold Ramune in the basement of the northwestern stairwell of the dormitories. The day I had arrived here, I had gotten lost, and found it by accident. Nobody ever used that particular stairwell, it seemed; there were two doorways there, but both were chained shut and looked as if they hadn’t been used in decades. It was the perfect little hideaway: it was unlikely anyone would find me, and there was a vending machine that sold eight different flavors of Ramune.

I just couldn’t stand being around my team any longer. Especially Ōhashi-san. I wish we could change teams, but I already knew that wasn’t going to happen. Yesterday, Benkei-sensei had said that we could switch teams…if we could beat him in an arm-wrestling match. Right. Benkei-sensei was solid muscle, and I was…not.

It would be nice if I could have been teamed with Nakamura Ryōko. I met her Saturday, three days ago, when I first arrived at the Academy. She was very friendly and approachable and cute and had a nice figure. Well, as far as I could tell she had a nice figure: the frumpy Rikujō Jieitai uniforms kind of made it hard to tell. Maybe she’ll start wearing a shorter skirt, like Hijū-sensei. That would be cool.

In any case, Nakamura-san had been helping the instructors welcome new students, and while giving me a tour, struck up a conversation, pretty much out of the blue, asking about my hometown and my family and my instructors at basic, and more than anything, was actually interested in what I had to say. Compare that to my teammates: Tsuchiya-san treated me like I was beneath her notice, Ōhashi-san just harassed and insulted me, and Seki didn’t even seem like he noticed I existed most of the time.

Back when I was a civilian, being found to be synchronous made me special, and the attention that brought felt really good. I guess it was finally sinking in that now, everyone around me was synchronous, too. I was, once again, ordinary. Once again, I was just one more guy in class-

Footsteps.

Oh, no, someone was coming down the stairs. Startled, I looked up, but I could not see anything. An irrational fear of being found overwhelmed me, and I looked around for some place to hide. The vending machine was against the side wall, with a gap of maybe thirty centimeters on the side. Quickly I squeezed into the gap. Even if the person came up to the vending machine to buy something, they were unlikely to find me. All I had to do was keep quiet.

I followed the sound of the footsteps as the person descended the stairwell, and walked up to the vending machine. I was pretty sure it was a girl-the footsteps did not sound like a guy. I listened to the sound of coins being inserted, buttons being pressed for a selection, the clinking of the bottle as it was delivered, the fizz of the soft drink as it was opened-

Then Hijū-sensei poked her head around the side of the vending machine and asked me, “What are you doing?”

With a yelp of surprise, I jumped, or would have if I wasn’t wedged in between the vending machine and the wall, almost dropping my Ramune in the process. As Hijū-sensei glared at me, I tried to explain, but unfortunately, I couldn’t seem to make out any coherent sentences.

“Hatsutori-kun,” Hijū-sensei said, holding up her hand to silence me. She was trying very hard not to laugh. “Just…get out of there.”

I extracted myself. I was covered in dust and cobwebs, but I decided I better not draw attention to that by trying to dust it off. I snapped to attention.

Hijū-sensei was biting her lip to keep from smiling. “Okay, why were you hiding back there?”

I swallowed nervously. “B-because I-I-I…”

“Relax, you’re not in trouble,” she said. She held up her bottle of Ramune. “If these things were off-limits, we wouldn’t have put them where anybody could find them.”

That was a relief. Still, being the focus of Hijū-sensei’s attention for any reason was unnerving. I wished she would stop smiling: it was really starting to scare me.

“Where’s the rest of your team?” Hijū-sensei asked, and then, before I could answer, she peeked back behind the vending machine once more, as if she expected them to be back there, too.

I averted my eyes downwards before answering. Don’t look at her legs, Masao! “Back in the room, I guess.” Hijū-sensei wasn’t wearing regulation-issue black leather shoes with her uniform; she was wearing sneakers, white sneakers, with blue and silver stripes on them.  It seemed weird that an officer would not be-oh, wait, she’s an officer. “I mean, I believe they’re back in the room, ma’am.”

“Something wrong with my shoes?” she asked.

I changed my point of focus to my own shoes. “N-no, ma’am!”

She sighed. “Come on, Hatsutori-kun, just talk to me normally.”

I nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

For the second time today, Hijū-sensei smacked me up the side of my head. “Come on, you’re not a grade-schooler, you’re a titan pilot! Look me in the eye when you’re talking to me.”

I looked up. Hijū-sensei was just regarding me coolly. Her voice calm again, she asked, “So, why don’t you tell me why you’re hiding down here and not back with your team?”

“Well…” I started to look away, but I noticed the annoyance return to Hijū-sensei’s face. I couldn’t quite bear to look her in the eye-that was just too uncomfortable-but I could keep my line-of-sight locked straight forward. That is to say, I was staring at her forehead. “We’re j-just…I d-don’t know how to s-say this…”

Hijū-sensei crossed her arms. “Not getting along, huh?”

I nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

“They picking on you?” she asked.

I nodded. “Well, not all of them…”

“Ōhashi-san,” Hijū-sensei said. Leaning back against the vending machine, she took a drink from her Ramune, which was cut short as the glass ball in the neck got stuck. “You have any siblings?”

“One sister, two years older than me,” I said. My sister’s name was Ayame, or Aya-nee, as I called her. When I went back to visit my family after basic, Aya-nee had given me the warmest hug ever and told me that she was proud of me…and then called me monkey boy. So I called her horse-faced and started making neighing sounds. She threatened to pop my head like a pimple. I reminded her that she had lots of practice with the pimples on her own face. We ended up wrestling. Mom and Dad didn’t bother intervening; they thought it was funny. That’s just the way my family was, I guess.

“Focus, focus,” Hijū-sensei said, bopping me on the forehead.

“Sorry, ma’am,” I said.

“Well, Ōhashi-san has two brothers, one older than her, one younger,” Hijū-sensei said. “For various reasons, her father raised her and her brothers as a single parent, so maybe it isn’t that strange that she’s such a tomboy. And Tsuchiya-san-“

I finished the sentence for her. “Has a brother. I know, ma’am, she’s mentioned him…a lot.”

“Yeah, that girl is really proud of her oniichan,” Hijū-sensei said. “You know, I used to serve with him, back before I got this job.”

According to Tsuchiya-san, her brother was a god among titan pilots, but… “What was he like, ma’am?”

“Oh, he’s a total cutie,” Hijū-sensei said, sounding more like a boy-crazy schoolgirl than a veteran warrior and military officer. “He made me want to just run up and tackle-hug him, especially when he blushed, so I did. I used to have so much fun embarrassing him…”

That was not what I meant.

Hijū-sensei, seeing my expression, grinned sheepishly. “You probably didn’t want to hear that, huh?”

No. Must change subject. “What about Seki? What’s his family like?”

Hijū-sensei’s smile disappeared. “He doesn’t have any. He grew up in an orphanage.”

“What?” I asked. True, Seki had never mentioned parents or brothers or sisters or anything like that, but then again, he had never mentioned much of anything. “He’s an orphan?”

Hijū-sensei nodded. “He’s never known what having a family is like, and he’s painfully aware of it. Now, Hatsutori-kun, listen to me. I’m not telling you all this just to gossip. These people are your teammates. You have got to build some kind of rapport with them. Getting to know them is half the battle.”

“Yes, ma’am, we figured that out,” I said, and then I related to her an account of our failed attempt at getting to know each other. I must have spent five minutes talking. I didn’t mean to tell her everything, but it all just sort of came out on its own.

“Masaka,” Hijū-sensei said. “Okay, you know how I said getting to know them is half the battle?”

I nodded.

“The other half of the battle is not letting them walk all over you,” Hijū-sensei said. Her bottle of Ramune empty, she tossed it into the recycling bin. “Stand up for yourself. Sure, you don’t know them, but the only reason they are treating you the way they are is because they don’t know you, either. Let them know what they can and can’t get away with.”

This sounded like good advice, but… “So, how could I have handled that better?”

“Just say whatever, but say it with confidence. She asks a rude question like that-throw it back in her face,” Hijū-sensei said. “Say you like anime girls because you can hit the mute button. Say you like real girls, and it’s a pity she ain’t one. Say you like guys.”

I can’t believe she just suggested that. “Uh, no.”

Hijū-sensei laughed. “You get what I’m saying. Just think to yourself: what would Kishin do?”

That was an interesting suggestion, but… “I really don’t think punching her in the face would help.”

Hijū-sensei laughed. “Okay, true. She’s big-time into jūdō-you might not survive the encounter,” Hijū-sensei said. “But really, what Kishin would do is the unexpected, and he would do it with such utter and complete self-confidence that nobody would dare challenge him, even if he didn’t have the slightest idea what he was doing. Now, you still have that money you won?”

That was an abrupt change of topic. “What?”

“The money you won in the bet,” she said. “You have it on you?”

“Yes, ma’am…” I wasn’t following her at all.

“Wallet,” Hijū-sensei said, holding out her hand.

“Wh-why?” I asked.

Hijū-sensei smiled her scary smile. “Now.”

I was reminded of how, long ago, I had been forced, on occasion, to hand over my lunch money to the schoolyard bullies. Hijū-sensei took my wallet, stepped over to the vending machine, and bought a bottle of Ramune, lemon-lime flavor. And a second bottle. And a third. And a fourth. She handed my wallet and the four bottles of Ramune to me; I had to throw away the bottle I had bought before she had shown up to hold them all. Oh, well, it was almost empty anyways. “W-what’s this for, ma’am?”

Hijū-sensei explained: “You got mad and ran off. They’re expecting you to come back still all upset. Nope. Not this time. You’re not a little kid. You’re a pilot. Go back to your team, and act like nothing happened before. Just say you found a vending machine that sold Ramune, and you thought they’d like some. Then apologize for not knowing what flavor they like best. Don’t apologize for anything else, but absolutely do not forget to apologize for not knowing what flavor they like. You got that?”

I understood what she was telling me to do, but I really didn’t get why. “Not really, sensei.”

Hijū-sensei patted me on the shoulder. “Just trust me on this one, Hatsutori-kun. Now go.”

I bowed. “Thank you, sensei,” I said, and then headed back upstairs.

I hesitated at the door to the quarters that Tsuchiya-san and Ōhashi-san shared, partially because I was trying to rearrange the bottles of Ramune so I could knock without dropping them, but mainly due to a moment of doubt. No. There was no room for doubt. Utter self-confidence, even if it kills me. I knocked.

The door opened. Tsuchiya-san stood there, started to say something, and then looked down at what I carried. “What’s that?”

I can do this. I walked into the room. “Hey, I, uh, found a vending machine that sells Ramune, so I…I, uh, thought I’d buy everyone some.” I offered Tsuchiya-san one of the bottles, and she took it, a puzzled look on her face. Seki and Ōhashi-san were sitting at the table; I set a bottle down in front of each of them. “Um, I, uh, I’m sorry I don’t know what flavors you like. I hope lemon-lime is okay.”

Silence reigned. They just stared at the bottles. This was bad, this was so bad…no, confidence. I had to believe this would work. Kishin was the greatest titan pilot ever. What would he do? Punch them in the face. Heh heh. Heh heh heh. This is crazy, this is crazy… I opened my bottle, took a quick swig, and then looked around at my teammates. “Ah! What’s wrong? Don’t tell me you’ve never had Ramune before!”

Ōhashi-san looked up at me, and I could tell by the look on her face she was remembering earlier and felt terrible. “No, Hatsutori-kun, this is great. Really. Thanks.”

Wow. It worked.

“Yeah, thanks,” Seki said, opening his. “But to be honest, I prefer the strawberry.”

“I like the melon flavor best,” Tsuchiya-san said, sitting down.

Just go with the flow… “I’ll remember that next time.”

“You ought to at least thank him,” Ōhashi-san said.

“Oh,” Tsuchiya-san said, and then turned to face me and bowed. “Thank you, Hatsutori-kun.”

I just waved dismissively. “Don’t worry about it.” Inwardly, though, I could not believe what I was seeing. The whole mood in the room seemed totally different. By spending a few hundred of my yen, Hijū-sensei had conjured up some kind of magic: I mean, Ōhashi-san actually stood up for me! This was amazing. My respect for Hijū-sensei increased tenfold. All I had to do was do the unexpected, and do it with self-confidence, even though I didn’t know what I was doing…

Wait a second. Was Hijū-sensei’s advice born of her training and experience, or did she just make up the whole thing on the spot, glossing over a foolhardy scheme with a façade of confidence, all the while having no idea whether it would work or not?

You know what? I really don’t think it matters. As we sat and drank our Ramune, I could tell that the ice that was holding Team Three back was breaking.

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