The noodle shop was noisy. It was evening, though. Office plankton was living their lives here, just like the two of them.
"How old are you?"
"Phew! You're such a brat. And I thought..."
Okay, maybe it wasn't the smartest idea to fight with his family and move to another city... But it was too late to think about it. What had been done could not be undone. The only thing left was to accept the fact that he screwed up all by himself, and it remained to work, work, work till the end, to achieve something. He could convince himself endlessly that he had his whole future ahead, but somewhere deep down in his heart Ichijou was a realist and knew that there was no miraculous success waiting for him out there.
At most he would live a grey mediocre life. It sounded pretty good, though.
Much better than what was now waiting for him at the Teiai. The name contained a kanji that meant "love", except that they certainly didn't know that term here. Especially the chairman... Terrible man. It was hard to think that someone like him still existed; it was as if he were a living relic of the early Showa Era, where the rich mocked the poor. What did he expect from the underworld, though?
Though clearly not to be tormented like... this.
He didn't want to remember.
Someone patted him on the back, and a loud voice said:
"Don't be a sourpuss. Things will get worse from here."
"Shitty way to motivate," Ichijou hissed.
Life had taught him two things: to play the role people wanted to see, and to smile always, even if it annoyed everyone, but now there was no strength to keep the mask. And the desire. Especially the desire... How about giving up?
Go back home, apologize, everyone would understand, they weren't strangers...
That Guy — Ichijou didn't know his name, so he only called him like that — was sitting next to him, smirking. He was one of those guys in black glasses who followed the chairman and his closest ass-kissers as shadows, and Ichijou was beginning to regret that he would never be one of them. It was as if they picked the same ones, but his hair was the wrong color, and his build was different...
So it was his fate to suffer from the crazy old man.
What a nightmare!...
"You didn't have to help me," Ichijou said suddenly as That Guy ordered a second plate of noodles. "Everyone in Teiai seems to dislike people who show pity for others."
"Actually, everyone does that, we just don't tell the chairman."
With his glasses down, That Guy winked at him, and Ichijou grimaced harder.
He could keep playing the victim and the poor lamb — somewhere deep down in his heart he wanted to — but... No. It was low. Ichijou didn't like being mocked, he'd hated that since high school. But it didn't work out. From where he'd escaped to there he returned. It was wrong to feel sorry for himself, even if he wanted to. Pride prevented it, so the help — the pity — of That Guy was just the right thing to do.
He also got a free drink.
Maybe it was worth patiently suffering a bit of mockery — not a bit — for the sake of things like that...?
"Many are leaving," That Guy said suddenly, and Ichijou glanced at him sharply.
Strange revelation for a newcomer to the company, only more reason to run away.
"No one will judge you if you leave," That Guy shrugged. "Don't get me wrong, the chairman's a little weird... Okay, not a little, but it's been that way for a long time. That's why people who quit don't usually get reprimanded for violating corporate values and all that crap they told you at your initiation. We're all pals here. We all know that Hyoudou... Well, yeah. He's Hyoudou."
"I won't forgive myself."
Ichijou said it with a chuckle as if it were just a silly joke, but, in fact, it was the absolute truth. After all that had happened in that short period of time when school was behind and adult life had not yet arrived, he had done enough foolish things that burned bridges could not be rebuilt. Without an education — which he had no money for — he couldn't find a better job. At Teiai, no one cared about having a degree, as long as you could smile and lie to people without a shadow of a doubt. Ichijou succeeded in that.
It was the only thing he did well...
... the rest of his skills were clearly of no use here.
"Wow, what a proud fella!" That Guy opened a can of beer and almost held it out to Ichijou, but then abruptly yanked his hand away. "No, wait. You're not twenty. Underage brat."
"Stop calling me a brat," He hissed.
"If you dye your hair black so you don't stand out, I'll think about it."
It was good advice, but he didn't want to do it. It was like breaking his pride and finally surrendering to a machine that killed all individuality — Teiai, that was its name. He didn't want to lose it. He didn't want to... but apparently, there was no choice.
Maybe he should really quit...
That Guy suddenly snapped his fingers.
"Okay. Do you have a dream?"
Looking up at his new acquaintance, Ichijou only narrowed his eyes a bit, but he didn't even pay attention.
"Yeah, well, you know. To dream, to... um, to strive! Without dreams, you quickly lose the will to live, and if you find a goal, you can survive even an old man's insults. Hyoudou is quickly bored by those who don't give up. You'll see."
The dream... Ichijou wondered. Had he ever had one?
He tapped his fingernail on the table.
"I want to be rich! But it's petty."
"It's okay, it's okay! Everyone starts from those small ideas!"
"I want... I want to be respected."
"And... And... Um... I can't think of anything more."
Perhaps he could have said not to have anybody whispering behind his back, but that was private. But the That Guy suddenly grinned and laughed-he was so strange, so incomprehensible, that Ichijou didn't know whether he should tell everything like that. What if he reported it to the chairman? And he'd find new reasons to bother him...
Okay, he should have thought of that in the first place.
"Oh, okay, you've got your whole life ahead of you to figure it out! Brat."
"And some brat is half a head taller than you," Ichijou scowled.
"That's because brats are like that. And you're a brat."
"I'd rather be a brat than a man with a square face!"
"What do you mean by square?!"
That Guy stopped suddenly, staring at Ichijou in shock, and then laughed harder. It was catchy, damn it. Ichijou was about to say something else, but he couldn't. He could hardly hide his smile. Then The Square Guy suddenly stopped talking and reached into his jacket pocket, pulling out a small piece of paper...
A business card. It had someone's name on it.
"I like straightforward idiots," Ichijou snorted angrily. "I think if you want something, you should try to sweet-talk with my boss. I work for him as a bodyguard, he's one of the old man's subordinates. He likes people who can think... Just so you know."
The card had the name on it. Kurosaki Yoshihiro.
As Ichijou's head rose sharply, he felt his voice disappear. Somewhere deep in his mind, he was beginning to realize that here it was, his chance to escape from the bottom of the Teiai, but somehow he couldn't believe that just like that — with some stupid joke and a little dialogue — he had earned it...
Maybe that's how normal people got it, though.
He didn't know.
"Why... " No, wrong question. "What's your name?"
It sounded rather hoarse.
The Square Guy took off his glasses and looked at Ichijou without a shadow of a smile, then spoke in a steady voice: