Throughout his life, Kazuto Sugiyama had always believed he should be prepared for anything. The constant household removals his family had undergone along with the innumerable twists and turns of his short existence had prompted him to think that way. Whenever he had the opportunity, he had looked for ways to accumulate practical knowledge in various fields and disciplines that could be useful at some point in his life. He always had an alternative plan in mind, a possible course of action that had already been considered in advance.
But nothing had prepared him for what he was now facing.
It had been over an hour since everything had started. No one inside the conference room, however, had calmed down in the slightest from that moment on. At the same time as the back of his head was tapping gently against the single smooth wall of the office, his arms embracing his flexed legs, Kazuto was analyzing the situation in which he had involuntarily gotten involved. Even if he was telling himself he was saving strength and neurons for when he required them the most, he knew deep down it was not true. And even so, everything that had cropped up had made him reflect on his own situation.
Something was wrong in his life.
Now that he was in the middle of a circumstance that would usually force him to stay on the sidelines, the young man wished more than ever to have the will to act. But for that to happen, he would have to forget what he was going through, to put it aside. He could not focus on his own internal conflicts if he wanted to do something for others. If his friends needed him more than ever, he could not waste time with his petty existential dilemmas.
What was getting on his nerves though, was the increasing growling of his stomach. Since lunch at school, Kazuto had not eaten anything. Perhaps he would die of hunger rather than exhaustion, even if he believed his captors would not allow it. His gut told him the whole thing was not going to last long. And yet, what was it that the terrorists wanted, anyway? They had made their way inside one of the most recognized buildings in the world, for what, exactly? Stealing money? Stealing information? To merely hurl defiance at Cytek? And even if that were so, how were they planning to get out of there? Were they going to sacrifice their lives just to prove a point?
Overcome by all these sudden questions, Kazuto chose to glance at his classmates for a change. Even if his attitude was different from theirs, he was capable of empathizing with their feelings. After the attack that had put an end to the existence of his parents, the young man had taken the trouble to investigate what they should have endured amid that situation. While there was a possibility that he was following his mindset when it came to being prepared, Kazuto also believed that, in that way, he would better fathom what had taken place.
As the glanced at the eyes of his peers, the young man felt he was somehow looking through a window to their minds. While most of them seemed confused by the sudden developments, some looked angry, perhaps because they felt they had allowed themselves to be placed in such a vulnerable position. Others simply conveyed the expression that they were denying the situation as if something like that would never happen to them. But in all of them, he found a shared feeling: the fear of dying. Naturally, he was not the exception. But while the reasons behind his reluctance to enjoy life had received additional fuel to keep consuming his mind, he felt that, unlike them, he could do something to change things.
While there was a chance those conclusions were all mere speculations on his part, there was one student that Kazuto knew with certainty how he was going to react.
"I wish I had that console now," Raisuke said, his priorities as scrambled as usual.
"We worry about our lives while you think in your stupid video game," Nozomi said to him, furious, maybe more with herself than with her clueless friend.
"Stupid trip. Damn, I just want to go home," he added in frustration.
"You and everyone else in this room," Kazuto interjected. "But things hardly go the way you want, you know?"
"What do you think is going on outside?" Nozomi turned to him, her eyes sad. While she was not weeping, she did look somewhat miserable.
Kazuto had no need to think much about it. The usual suspects ought to be the logical answer. "Cops and reporters everywhere, perhaps my brother making his way through them with his cast like a madman. Who knows, maybe those 'Vigilantes' will save the day."
Would he be among those who would surely be gathered down there? Of course he would. He was so stubborn that even if there was not a single thing he could do, he would still be there in any manner. But what of the Sentinels? It was more than obvious that all the fuss was for them, but Kazuto had little faith in miraculous rescues. Sure, they would have to do something about it, but if the terrorists were willing to sacrifice their lives for their cause, what could they possibly do to overcome such a degree of determination?
Who seemed to have lost that quality was Nozomi. Under normal circumstances, she was a very joyful person who brought life and the odd mishap wherever she was. Although the situation did not warrant such an attitude, a few nervous laughs echoed through the room every so often. They were bleak laughter, for sure, the sort that could turn into sobbing from one moment to another. But they were laughs nevertheless. Yet his friend had not shown as much as a smile since her incident.
"Are you okay, Nozomi? It's weird to see you so quiet," said a girl at her side. It was Mayumi Hanekawa, one of her closest friends. She had removed her glasses, showing her worried brown eyes on her rounded face veiled with dark brown mid-back length hair. Given how shy she used to be, Kazuto would not have expected her to utter a single word in the entire night. He would have expected that from Saiko Inoue, Nozomi's petite friend sitting to the right of Mayumi. Although she had a subdued manner, she often spoke with sincerity and without restraint. More than once, she had defended herself before a classmate who made fun of her short hairstyle with braids or that bothered Mayumi. Her lack of height was more than compensated by her temperance and personality.
"I just don't feel like it," replied Nozomi bluntly, avoiding her friends' gaze.
Instead, her eyes got lost around the table before her while Kazuto observed her face. Her expression wavered, her body scuffling to come up with a more adequate posture. True to his reluctance and laziness, Kazuto though either Mayumi or Saiko would spare him the need to intervene. Lately, he had tended to avoid his best friend to refrain himself from having to give her explanations for his recent mood and reluctance. Or having to talk about it at all for that matter. And still, he felt he had to do something to soothe her at the moment. She was not well. She had the exact same gloomy look on her face as when her brother had died, and that was not a good sign.
Almost without realizing it, Kazuto gave his friend's shoulder a gentle squeeze. Even if his pulse was trembling a bit, it looked like his action had achieved his desired effect. Nozomi then placed her hand over his, seemly comforted by his warmth. It was almost as if she was borrowing some of his strength, contrary to what both were used to.
And it was then that he became present.
Everyone's nerves raised when one of the terrorists patrolled around the room, his blurred shadow all over the place as if the Grim Reaper himself were about to collect their souls. The bare sight of him had made some of the students shiver in response, some girls covering their mouths with their hands to avoid screaming. Raisuke's frightened eyes followed every single move from the shadowy figure until he was no longer in sight. "I wish he'd stop doing that," he said, anxious.
The bastards. Could not those guys just give them a break? The atmosphere was too tense for Kazuto's taste, and the prospect of what was sure to be a hellishly uncomfortable night was far from inspiring. He had to do something about it, but what? An idea crossed his mind in less than a heartbeat, one that seemed to come from his older brother's way of thinking instead of his. Was it so far-fetched? No, it came from a natural need of every human being, one that those bastards would come to understand. They had to; they were humans after all, were they not?
For the sake of Kazuto and the rest of his peers, they had to be. He tapped the back of his head against the wall once again, both reassuring himself while coupling with his sudden impulse. Soon afterward, he clambered awkwardly to his feet, his legs heavy and cramped given the constant posture to which he had subjected them.
Everyone's eyes turned to him as he rose to his feet. Nozomi frowned at his side, dazed. "What are you doing, Kazuto?"
He paid no attention to her and headed for the side entrance door. The female guide left her seat and even tried to grab him by the shoulder—but Kazuto dodged her arm. "Kazuto-kun, wait—"
It was already too late. The young man had made up his mind as he knocked on the door with his fist, the terrorist prowling the floor once again and walking near the students. The man ignored him and kept striding, so Kazuto tried one more time. On this occasion, the thug came to a halt and retraced his steps until he stood in front of the door.
"What do you think you're doing, brat?" he said, his voice soaked by his mask and the locked room in between.
"I need to go to the bathroom."
Kazuto was sure that at that moment the man's eyes stared at him in disbelief. "You gotta be kidding me."
"We've been here for over an hour and it's clear this will take a while. Besides, I doubt I'm the only one with an emergency. There must be more than one here who has already peed on himself."
He chuckled. "You bet."
Once again, there was a brief moment of silence. Kazuto swallowed, starting to believe that his plan might have not been such a clever one after all. Maybe he had not thought it through. Maybe he had not conceived the possible negative repercussions it would have on everyone else, or maybe that man had taken his suggestion as an amusing joke. And then, there was a glimmer of hope. The terrorist backed away a few steps and seemed to grab hold of something from one of his pockets, a radio perhaps? Kazuto hoped so.
"Ienobu-three to Leader," he spoke to the dark shape in his hand. "I have some students here who ask to go to the bathroom. I need instructions."
"Say what?" a crunchy and barely distinguishable voice replied, yet Kazuto was sure it was Takeshi Uchida.
"Affirmative, leader. We don't want to keep the hostages nervous. I checked the toilets earlier. No windows or other escape routes."
"Understood. Proceed to escort the students to the toilets on the fifth floor. Groups of one by sex. We don't want any more missing students, so if anyone does something stupid, take care of them.."
Kazuto's eyes widened when the man said: "take care of them". He turned to the group, but it seemed that no one had heard him, or else they would be rattled. What did he mean by that? Then, the young man summoned into mind his missing classmates. Since they had split from the group before the assault of the terrorists, no one had never been heard anything of the Yoshimura twins. Worse yet, the terrorists were aware of it as Kazuto had heard twice. What if they had "taken care of them"? Could they be dead? With each new question that came to his mind, Kazuto began to think his chances of getting out of that mess in one piece were growing thin.
"Copy that, leader," said the shadow before him. "I'll proceed right away." The door went open and Kazuto met the grim shape, or at least the fierce eyes his mask forgot to conceal. Maybe he was the Grim Reaper himself, after all. "Okay, weak bladder, you go first," he said to Kazuto, annoyed, then turned to everyone else. "Anyone else who has bath needs will go two at a time, one of each sex."
He grabbed his arm tightly and shut the door closed. As he dragged him down the corridors by the arm, Kazuto felt more than ever that he was, in fact, his prisoner. It took all of his strength to avoid the urge to try to break free from his clutches, to then run away as fast and as far as he could. But it was just a silly idea, and Kazuto knew it. How far he could go? And where?
Pointless notions aside, Kazuto was led by the terrorist to the bathroom downstairs, and he practically pushed him there by force. As the man left the door ajar to allow some light in, the young student wondered if he had to treat him like that. At any rate, he had to wait for his eyes to get accustomed to the prevailing darkness inside. For some reason, the emergency lights there were not working as they should. It was unfortunate that no one had taken the trouble to replace them, although Kazuto doubted that the terrorists would allow a technician to go inside and work on it.
He took a breath, and then moved to one of the sinks, his hands resting on the sides of the wading pool. He glanced at his reflection the mirror, his face dejected; even in the midst of the gloom, he looked as if he had aged ten years. He could not stare the sight of his own reflection, so he averted his eyes to a side, bumping into something he could never have foreseen. The door of one of the sanitary cubicles was barely open, breaking the harmony of the whole row. He had a dreadful feeling about it, but his feet were moving on his own, and before he realized, he was facing the door. He pushed it open with the palm of his hand, his eyes terrified at what was now in front of him.
A male body.
It was something bizarre; he was there sitting motionless on the toiled half-naked, with nothing more than his underwear. Was he… dead? He would certainly not take the trouble to check his pulse or even see if he was breathing. Yet Kazuto swallowed hard at the mere thought, feeling it might as well be his last one.