It was one of those crisp, glorious Thursdays in early autumn, the kind of Thursday where every self-respecting high school delinquent spends the lunch period planning how to go about ditching school for the rest of the day. When the afternoon's alternatives are (a) running the risk of getting caught cutting class for the third time this month or (b) pretending to give a shit about a bunch of brain-meltingly boring poems written by some perverted old fart who'd died a zillion years ago -- yeah, it isn't exactly a hard decision to make. So, in the circumstances, Anego didn't bother to come up with even the most half-assed excuse for leaving early. Just as everyone else was sitting down and taking out their literature notes, she simply grabbed her bag and walked out the door, heading for the shoe lockers as if she'd already heard the final bell ring.
No one tried to stop her, of course. No one followed her, either -- if her girls wanted to catch up with her, they knew how to get themselves kicked out of class, usually after a productive session of flicking paper clips at the teacher or carving their names into their desks. (Whatever made them happy, as long as she had a few minutes to herself before they showed up.) But whether they joined her or not, Anego didn't plan to go far from the school. Not far outside the grounds was an old tree, with spreading branches that blocked the sun's glare and a trunk that gave plenty of cover to avoid being seen from the street or from most of the school's windows. It was as good a place as any to spend a lazy afternoon.
The school gates were shut, but Anego had plenty of practice in slipping over the wall, thanks to the convenient footholds she'd chipped out of the concrete during the summer break. The tree was within sight, and she went straight for it, tossing her school bag at the foot and dropping to the ground with a glad sigh. She pulled her hair over to one side to keep it from tangling in the rough bark, and leaned back against the trunk. Now this was the way to cut class: sitting in the shade, listening to hints of birdsong and enjoying the cool wind in the trees. If she closed her eyes, she could be a million miles away from any stuffy old classroom.
It wasn't hard to imagine what would be going on in there right now. Most of her classmates would be trying not to fall asleep, or would have stopped trying and started snoring away at their desks. The only exceptions would be Tetsuko (who'd have her face in her textbook or her hand in the air, answering questions before the teacher asked them) and a certain perky blonde transfer student (who didn't exactly have to study, being a magical princess or whatever she was). They'd both seen her leave the classroom, and would come looking for her when school let out, so anything that Anego planned for the afternoon would have to either include them or include some way to get rid of them.
The more she thought about possible plans, though, the more her initial good mood started to fade. What was there to do with a free afternoon? None of the usual options sounded like fun -- all the movies out now were dumb kiddie cartoons or sappy love stories, and anyway that slimy lech of a theatre manager had it in for her and her girls after that incident with the fire in the ladies' toilets. They'd been warned off hanging around most of the playgrounds and convenience stores in the area. It wasn't the right time of the month to shake down their classmates; none of them would have their usual allowances for another week and a half. The arcade was full of mouth-breathing creeps with greasy chins and sweaty palms, and even getting a crummy burger at some cheap family restaurant was more hassle than it was worth. No matter how she looked at it, the only thing waiting for her this afternoon would be more boredom. Just like yesterday afternoon, and the afternoon before that one, too.
'What a lame-ass town,' Anego grumbled aloud, drawing her knees up to her chest. 'Getting lamer by the minute. Gotta think of something to -- '
'Paa~ya, pa-yaa~, paya paya pa-yaa~....'
Anego's head snapped up at the sound of singing, and her gaze immediately went to the top of the school walls.
It was Paya-tan, Punie's mascot, the weird little freakshow that looked like a dog with a tiny unicorn horn growing out of its head. Anego would have sworn that he hadn't been there a second ago, but suddenly he'd appeared up on the wall, all smiles and giggles like a demented stuffed animal, doing some sort of dance that involved lots of tail-wagging and bouncing around. As he pranced along the top of the wall, he kept singing to himself in a cutesy, squeaky voice that grated on Anego's nerves.
'Paya paya paya, paa~ya paya pa-yaa~....' Paya twirled around, saw Anego watching him -- and stopped dead in his tracks, his song cut short like someone had flipped a switch to shut it off. His cheerful smile didn't go away, but Anego saw how his button-bright eyes sharpened, going from brainless to creepily watchful in a split-second.
Just like Punie, she thought, and the thought made her stomach clench. She'd been on the receiving end of Punie's brutal attentions one too many times for her to feel safe around anything or anyone associated with the crown princess of Magical Land. But she knew how to stand her ground, so she grinned up at him, showing plenty of teeth.
'Hey, don't mind me,' she said. 'You keep doing your thing -- whatever it is.' She picked up her school bag and started to dig through it, looking for her smokes and her lighter.
'School doesn't let out for another hour paya.' For all that he sounded like he'd inhaled a crap-ton of helium, Paya didn't miss a trick. He spun around one last time and plopped down on the edge of the wall, peering at her from his perch. 'Shouldn't you be in class paya?'
'What's it to you?' Anego tapped a cigarette out of the packet -- only four left, she'd have to stock up soon -- and flicked the lighter. It sparked, but didn't ignite. She flicked it a few more times, but the lighter refused to work. 'Goddamn cheap shitty....' she muttered, shaking it more out of annoyance than out of any hope that she could fix it.
'Something wrong paya?'
Anego bit back a snarl and glared up at him. Even with the innocent, squeaky-cute voice, it was obvious that the little bastard was laughing at her. 'Yeah, something's wrong,' she snapped. 'This piece of crap won't work.' Without a smoke, she'd lost half the point of cutting class.
Paya said nothing. His silence seemed even more mocking than his question had been.
Anego gave the lighter one last violent flick, and only succeeded in cracking the plastic case, sending the few remaining drops of lighter fluid inside it dribbling down her wrist. Cursing under her breath, she flung the broken lighter over her shoulder, and rubbed her hands on her skirt to clean them off. As she looked back up at Paya, she wasn't entirely sure whether it was frustrated craving or a desperate attempt at face-saving sarcasm that made her say:
'Hey, you got a light?'
To her surprise, Paya leaned to one side and reached into his pocket -- or whatever it was, since he wasn't exactly wearing any clothes -- and took out a book of matches. Without a word, he tossed it to her.
Startled, Anego just barely managed to catch it. For a second, she hesitated; he was Punie's henchman, after all, and she didn't have any more reason to trust him than she did Punie. But the outside of the matchbook looked normal enough, if a little battered around the edges, and when she opened it there were more than enough matches inside. Good news, in case the first one didn't take.
'Thanks,' she murmured as she ripped a match out of the pack and struck a light. She cupped her hand around the flame, lighting the tip, and waved out the match before it could burn her fingers. That first sweet, greedy draw with its accompanying rush of nicotine seemed to burn away the nervousness in her mind.
'Finally,' she exhaled, through a haze of calming smoke.
'Bad habit you got there.' All of a sudden, Paya had dropped the cute-and-cuddly act. Instead of sounding like a magical girl's adorable little mascot, his voice had slipped into the deep rasp of a much older man, and his narrowed eyes had developed a cold, cynical edge. 'Those things'll rot your guts.'
Anego's lips twitched in amusement around her cigarette. 'Then maybe I'd better quit smoking them,' she said coolly, and took another long drag as she tossed the matches back up to him.
Paya had to lean forward to catch them, snagging them out of the air with one hand (paw? whatever). 'Hm,' he said, with an answering smirk. Before Anego's eyes, he produced a pack of his own -- something foreign and unfiltered, by the look of them -- and a moment later he had lit one up as well.
They sat like that for a few long minutes, smoking in silence, as the ash crept down their cigarettes and a leaf or two fluttered past on the early autumn breeze. After her first couple of puffs, Anego's immediate need for a smoke had been satisfied, and with so few cigarettes left in her pack she decided to make this one last. (A small piece of her wounded pride briefly tempted her to chain-smoke her way through all of them, if only so she wouldn't have to ask Paya for another light, but it would be dumb to waste the rest of the pack just to prove a point.) More than anything else, she found herself wanting to know more about this strange mascot of Punie's, who apparently could put on and shed his cheerful, baby-talking persona as if he kept it stuffed in his back pocket with his matches until he needed it.
Maybe it was what he had to do to survive with Punie around. Or maybe it wasn't.
Anego took a slow, thoughtful drag on her cigarette before she opened her mouth. 'Why the hell do you stick with her?' she said, with a meaningful nod in the direction of the school. 'I don't get it.'
Everything she knew about magical princesses and their mascots -- which wasn't much -- told her that the mascot was supposed to help and support the princess, maybe even protect her if necessary. But Punie wasn't exactly the kind of princess who needed anyone's help and support, and her idea of protection usually involved breaking ankles or snapping necks. There had to be a reason for Punie to want Paya around, but Anego couldn't figure out what it was.
Paya gave her a searching look, as if weighing whether she was serious about wanting an answer. Seeing that Anego wasn't backing down, he tapped his ashes onto the ground.
'I swore a blood oath,' he said gruffly. 'Only her death or mine will break our contract.'
'Yeah, sure,' Anego said. She'd heard enough bits and pieces from Punie and Tetsuko to know that much, though neither of them had put it quite so bluntly. 'I don't know jack about what goes on in that Magical Land of yours, but you can't tell me that if you'd really wanted to leave, you couldn't have found a way out. A loophole. An escape clause.' She paused. 'Something.'
Paya shrugged, letting another shower of ash fall. 'Probably.'
'So? Why d'you put up with her?'
'I've "put up with" a lot in my time.' Paya eyed the end of his cigarette, and took another one out of his pack. 'At least with her, I know where I stand.'
'That's it?' Anego exclaimed, anger creeping in underneath her surprise. Once again, she had a feeling that he was making fun of her. Treating her like a moron, as if she didn't know what he and Punie were really like. 'Look, Tetsuko told me how you pulled a knife on Her Royal Highness when you first showed up here. You didn't follow her to this shitty school just to be her mascot -- you're trying to get the drop on her, right? Everyone who's seen you two together is probably wondering why you haven't just shivved her already. So what the hell are you waiting for?'
Throughout Anego's outburst, Paya's expression hadn't changed. He took his time lighting his new cigarette from the end of the old one. But once he'd started the new one and ground out the stub on the edge of the wall, he fixed Anego with a flat stare that made the hair on the back of her neck stand straight up. It reminded her of the look she'd seen in Punie's eyes, right before she smashed someone else's face into the ground -- but it had a older, harder chill beneath it, as if Paya had seen far worse things in his life than the wrong end of Punie's submission holds.
'You're a kid,' he said, shaking his head. 'You talk big and walk big, you and your girls, but you're all still just kids. You don't really get what you're dealing with here. Until you met the Princess, you'd never really looked Death in the face...and even then, she holds back on you.' He held up his free hand, and sliced it across his throat in an unmistakable gesture. 'Lemme tell you, you spend enough time with Death, you want that bastard on your side by any means necessary.'
'You think she's on your side?' Anego sneered. It was easy to ignore how fast her heart was beating, but her mouth had gone dry, and it wasn't all from the smoke.
Paya gazed down at her, and let the ash hang on the tip of his cigarette before he tapped it out with two slow, deliberate taps.
Anego snorted. 'Yeah, I get it, don't ask dumb-ass questions,' she said, almost laughing at her own stupidity. She resettled herself against the tree, trying to find a more comfortable position for her shoulders. 'Must be one hell of a life.'
'Life's cheap,' Paya said. Coming from him, the phrase didn't sound like a cliché; it was a statement of fact. 'Even the Princess knows that. She won't get the throne just by batting her eyelashes and waving that wand of hers around. You don't get to inherit the crown, where we come from -- you have to take it. And she'll take it, or die trying.'
He inhaled, then tilted his head back, blowing the smoke up into the sky. 'So think about that, next time you see her in action. That's the kind of life we lead.'
Anego stared at him, then let her eyes drop to study the glowing tip of her cigarette stub. Take it, or die trying. It wasn't too much of a stretch to imagine Punie with a crown in her hands, her fingers sticky with drying blood and god knows what else, smiling that insane smile of hers. But it was a lot harder to picture exactly what she'd have to go through before that crown ended up in her possession. If her mother was the Queen of Magical Land, that meant only one thing -- and even though Anego would've bet real money on Punie's success, it still wouldn't be a pretty sight.
'So what's your excuse, then?'
Anego blinked, shaken out of her thoughts. 'Huh?'
'For hanging around her.' Paya propped his elbows on his knees as he looked down at her, suddenly and openly curious. 'The Barbaroque brat's been out for her blood ever since the coup, and that train-nut girl's got it in her head that you're all best friends or some shit. You've got your own gang, and if you wanted to you could steer clear of her. I know she's kicked all your asses before, but if you're sticking around for revenge you're not exactly at the front of the line. So what are you getting out of it?'
Anego opened her mouth, then shut it again. She looked down at the flickering end of her cigarette, but the answer wasn't there, either. Her mind raced through any number of possible flippant remarks, but none of them felt right. It was just her and Paya; there was no one else around for her to shock or impress. And much as she hated to say it, the honest answer was the only real one that she could give.
'She's the most interesting thing going on around here,' she admitted. She tapped off the last of her ashes and crushed the butt in the dirt, then folded her arms across her chest. 'I think...I guess I just want to see what'll happen next.'
Once again, Paya smirked at her reply, but this time there was something understanding in the twist of his mouth. 'Same here,' he said.
The bark of the tree was rough against Anego's back, and the smell of tobacco smoke and spilled lighter fluid clung to her clothes and hands. From the other side of the school wall, she could hear the shouts and laughter of a gym class heading outside into the sunshine, disturbing the peace of the autumn afternoon. She still had no idea what she and her girls would do once school let out, or whether she'd have to dodge some sort of crazy death trap set by (or intended for) Punie. But all the same, things didn't seem quite so boring anymore.
It was nice to know that someone else was interested in whatever the rest of the day might bring.