In The Fox-Witch's Wake, Part 1

Chapter 1: A Simple Checkup

Spring! The end of holidays, and the start of a new school year! Uniforms that sat in the closet for months are finally worn. Herds of students walk in disorganized gaggles. All around can so much be heard: Laughter, cheer and expressed hopes for what the next year will bring. Romance, friendships, studies and exams, the possibilities go on…

A girl in particular skips her way towards school, alone but no less enthusiastic. She finally finds herself at the gates of Takachiho Juniour High, and grins wide. She spins around to see the other students making their way past her, resisting the urge to make a V-sign to a non-existent photographer.

My name is Sarada Honoka! Today, a new and exciting chapter of my life begins!

Honoka bows before the sliding door she slightly parted. "Shitsurei shimasu."1

A man's voice is heard coming out of the gap. "Miss Sarada? Come in."

She bows once more and enters the room. It was a staff room much like any other; desks lined up together with their own different 'cultures' of orderliness or clutter, their own assignments of grading, assessing, planning… Not that different from a classroom, really.

She approaches the man who called out to her; a middle-aged stereotype of a physical education teacher, in a stretched-out t-shirt and track pants, a whistle dangling from his neck. He was in the middle of fishing contents from moving boxes onto his new desk, seated right before a shelf-bearing wall.

"Just in time, Miss Sarada. I could use a quick break. Let's talk." P.E. Teacher Oguchi Konda locks and stretches his arms against an elbow bend as if he were preparing for class, then flops onto his chair. Honoka stands before him, maintaining a distance of two meters. He frowns.

"Please come a little closer, Miss Sarada. I can't talk quietly at that distance." Honoka presses down on her lips, and steps a meter closer.

"Much better. Now…" Mr. Oguchi's features darken with concern, leaning forwards to press his clasped thumbs into his brow. "…how are you faring as of late?"

"I'm fine."

Mr. Oguchi couldn't help but look to the side with worry at Honoka's blunt response. "I certainly hope so. Miss Yamada and the worst of her punks aren't around to bother you anymore and, I understand that…" Mr. Oguchi tries to dart around the topic of Honoka's newly-accursed 'fox-touched' reputation, "…that the rest of them are choosing to leave you alone now. I hope that truly is the case?"

Honoka nodded. Mr. Oguchi attempts a relieved smile.

"I'm relieved to hear. But you should not rest on your laurels, Miss Sarada." Honoka gives him a questioning look. "What I mean is, you should do your best to get back into the flow of a normal school life."

"Oguchi-sensei, I attend my classes and do all my homework as is required of me."

"Oh, I don't doubt that, your grades appear to be all right. But what I'm saying is in terms of activities! I suggest you take up a sport. It'll help get your mind off of things, barring seeing a counsellor which I could help arrange-"

"Oguchi-sensei. Are you telling me to take that up again?" Mr. Oguchi startles at the drop-dead tone that suddenly came up in Honoka's voice, from remembering the past club activity she was once part of.

"No, no! Not necessarily! It could be anything else, it doesn't have to be… that." Mr. Oguchi twiddles his thumbs and looks out to the windows in the distance. He sighs.

"If only there were more great teachers out there… You didn't deserve what happened to you. All of it."

Honoka lowered her eyes in guilt, feeling she had spoken a bit too harshly towards the only teacher that tried to look out for her.

"I apologize for my tone, Oguchi-sensei. That said…" She shows her own concerns for him, "…Are you okay in this new office?"

Mr. Oguchi laughs it off. "I'll be fine! Don't worry. Suddenly being told to move to the junior teacher's room, what of it? An office is still an office, wherever it is!"

"But don't you think this is punishment from, from-"

"Oh, I don't doubt it. After all I did especially involving the police, I wouldn't be surprised if Miss Yamada's parents pulled strings to do this to me. Still, I'm just glad I've kept my job!" Mr. Oguchi shoots a thumbs-up.

"It's not fair."

"Life is never fair, Miss Sarada. We all have to live with what we're dealt with, and how we move on from it defines who we can be for the rest of our lives." Honoka nods at Mr. Oguchi's dispensed wisdom.

"Now then!" He gets back off his seat and goes back to digging through his boxes, digging out mementos of athletic achievements. "I should not keep you any longer. Back to your break! Have a good day."

"Thank you, Oguchi-Sensei." Honoka bows and turns to leave the staff room. As she does, she hears a female teacher berate Mr. Oguchi.

"Oguchi-Sensei! You shouldn't be placing such a heavy trophy up there, what if it falls on someone?"

"What, this? Oh, don't worry, don't worry! Look at how it has such a stable base, it'll never roll out! Trust me!"

"Who the hell are you, punk?!" A senior student lowers his arm and inspects it, a sooty outline of a shoe running across its length.

The friend by his side thrusts his own arm out aggressively. "Yeah! All they're doing is getting us our snacks, and you're not one of the prefects! Get lost!"

Honoka crosses her arms and stands strong behind two cowering classmates. "I am Sarada Honoka, first year of juniour high! You're not going to push anyone around, evildoers!"

"…The hell does she think she is, some sort of hero?" The two students look to each other, bewildered.

The blonde-haired girl behind the punks hisses and clenches her own fist.

"Little brat! Who do you think you are, spoiling our good time? Do you know who I am-" She is seized from the shoulders by the other senior girls behind her.

"Now now, Saeko-chan, it won't look good for you to lose your temper in a manner so unbecoming of a fine woman." They gingerly guide her to drop the confrontation and walk away.

"You want to be truly seen as the boss, you just sit back and watch our lead…" They gesture to the boys who then harrumph and clomp along, hands in pockets. The blonde girl, Saeko, shoots Honoka a few more venemous glances before turning the corner.

"Thank you…" Honoka turns to face the two girls she rescued, their similar-yet-different curly hair swaying from their clutched shivering.

Honoka stares intensely towards them both, slightly unnerving the duo. "They were making us do chores for them, that was all, we weren't doing anything sketchy, I swear-"

Honoka shoots a finger towards the startled duo. "I know you both!" She narrows her eyes. "You are… Yukimori Misuki and Matsuoka Misaki!"

The calmer girl gave a deadpan glare towards Honoka. "Actually, I'm Matsuoka Mizuka, and she's Yukimori Misaki. And you, you're Sarada-san from our class, aren't you?"

"No! That's not it!" The two girls looked to each other in confusion.

"I am…" Honoka bends a knee and stretches her other leg out, stretching her hands apart, "…Sarada Honoka! Justice's ally and hero-in-training!"

It was the bubbly and girlier girl's turn to give Honoka a deadpan stare. "…Oi. You're a Chūnibyō2. Aren't you?"

"Am not!" Honoka seizes up and shakes her fists wildly.

"Am too!"

"Am not!"

"Chūnibyō! Chūnibyō!" Mizuka and Misaki chant along and laugh as Honoka flusters and continues denying, eventually breaking down and laughing along.

My name… is Sarada Honoka! And life, life is good!

Honoka groans and rubs her head. She stretches an arm across a blurred world, grasping the fuzzy outline of a pair of glasses. She puts them back on, and assesses herself sprawled across the floor.

"That was close…" Spoke the boy whose arms were wrapped about her waist. Her pupils shrink as instinctive panic washes over her.

"G-get off of me! Let go!" She nearly whimpers in her shouting, forcefully shoving the apologetic student off of her. He bows repeatedly.

"Sarada-san, I apologize for seizing you so forcefully. But, as you can see…" He gestures towards the shattered pot before the foot of the stairs, right where Honoka was before he tackled her to safety. She gasps, reaching to her chest.

"Oh… Oh, all right. Thank you so much…" She turns to face her saviour, giving him a few bows in return. She looks back up to take a better look at him…

Miyata Togai.

"I'm completely fine, from the feelings of it. But what about you, Sarada-san? Are you okay?" Honoka's eyes tremble wildly before the sight of this calm, gentlemanly display.

Honoka starkly remembered that afternoon, that one day she and her friends confronted Mishio over the car collision that made the headlines all over town. In particular, Mizuka's confrontation of Mishio monkey-pawing her wish to be back with Togai:

"No! He's just… He just went back to me smiling and joking as if it was another normal day, as if Saeko-san didn't exist… He didn't care about what happened to her! I-I don't like that, it scares me."

"Well then. You've learned that the boy you were attracted to is a cold-blooded psychopath. Time to move on and find someone nicer."

Mishio's warning rang loud and clear across Honoka's mind as she comes back to the real world, finally realizing that Togai was right up in her face, his own tilted in equal parts curiosity and concern.

"Ho~? It looks as if Sarada-san really needs to go to the infirmary… I can help escort, should you-"

"No, no!" Honoka jumps back from a perplexed Togai. "I'm fine, really, I am! Thank you for your concern!" She breaks off into a sprint past the approaching janitor, straight back to class and not stopping till the door slams shut behind her.

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