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Mia wasn’t allowed fried food. She’d had the odd fish and chips at friends’ houses but being allowed to go to friends’ houses was rare, too. She bit into the crunchy yet juicy, sweet yet salty morsel of ebi-katsu. It tasted like freedom.
“Good?” Tak asked from the stool beside her.
“Mmm,” she moaned, nodding as she swallowed. “So deliciously wrong.”
Tak grinned, the grease making his smile shine and put another forkful into his mouth.
They were perched at the island bench that separated the kitchen from the living room in, it seemed, each of the flats in the block. Tak’s flat couldn’t have been more different from Mia’s, though. Not just because Mia and her mother hadn’t yet unpacked – there was a lived-in, loved feeling here. The fridge was covered with photos of Hiroko and Tak or Tak with his friends, going back years. Instead of the standard metal venetian blinds and white net curtains that gave no privacy at night, there were wooden slatted blinds in the kitchen and red drapes with a tiny floral print in the living room. Mia and her mother never stayed anywhere so long that changing the curtains was worthwhile. They didn’t bother with house plants, either – too difficult to transport – but Tak’s place was filled with them. And they weren’t just pot plants – they were immaculately manicured bonsais in colourful ceramic pots. There seemed to be one on every surface, including the windowsills.
“Who does the bonsais?” Mia asked.
“Mum,” Tak said. “Obsessively. She keeps trying to drag me in but I refuse to do anything but water them and only if she can’t.”
“Why? Is it that hard to do?”
“Not really. Just boring. There’s this whole ritual about it. You have focus and say certain phrases – like meditation.” He laughed. “Mindfulness is not my thing.”
Mia nodded and took another bite.
“What about your mum?” Tak asked. “Does she try to force you to do stuff, too?”
Mia choked. She put her hand over her mouth as a coughing fit set in.
“Are you okay?” Tak asked, patting her firmly on the back, right where the bruises were worst. She choked again. “I’ll get you some water,” he said.
As Tak went to the fridge, she managed to swallow and clear her throat but she still couldn’t speak. When he turned back she tried to smile and waved a hand to indicate she was okay but she must have been beet red from choking and embarrassment. She took the glass of water and sipped. “Thanks,” she managed, but even that set her coughing again.
Tak laughed gently and said, “Don’t talk.”
But coughing into the silence was mortifying. She cleared her throat as best she could and rasped, “Tell me about Julian.”
“Julian? That filthy look he gave you in Japanese.”
“Oh that? Well done for picking that up, by the way. Sorry I marked you as someone I know.”
She shook her head to fob off his apology. “What’s the story?”
“The whole story’s a long one.”
Mia raised her eyebrows and pointed to her throat as, again, she tried to cleared it.
“Good point,” Tak said. “Medium version, then. Believe it or not, we were actually friends in primary school-” He paused and Mia gave him the wide-eyed surprise he wanted. “When we got to high school, he was teased pretty mercilessly from day one for being the principal’s son so he started hitting people. Me and Connor were his favourite…”
For the second time that day, Tak took Mia’s breath away. His words became white-noise to Mia’s own thoughts. Principal Clarke knew everything. If Julian had access to his father’s office – if Principal Clarke took a computer home… If Julian decided to go look for something to use against her, he’d probably find it.
Mia found her voice, interrupting Tak mid-sentence. “How angry is he?”
“What do you mean?”
“This thing with me – how deeply will he be taking that? I mean – is there a chance he’ll just let it go if I avoid him?”
Tak winced. “I doubt it. Especially not while everyone’s talking about it.”
“But he just hits people?” she said, almost hopefully. “He doesn’t go in for humiliation? Character assassination?”
Tak hesitated, his expression darkened and his brow furrowed in thought. But he said nothing.
“What?” Mia prompted.
“He didn’t used to. He’d just thump people – or, frankly threaten to – that seemed to be enough.”
“Not any more?”
“No.” Tak was looking at her but he was seeing something else in his mind’s eye. Something specific. Something awful.
“What did he do, Tak?”
Still Tak hesitated but now, instead of his own thoughts, it was Mia he was considering.
“Come on,” she said. “You have to tell me now. I need to know who I’ve made an enemy of.”
At last Tak nodded. “There’s been other incidents with other kids since but the first time I noticed it was when everyone did, at a party last year. Julian used to have a girlfriend – Madison. They’d been together since year 8, she liked being with a bad boy and…” He paused, preoccupied again.
“Go on,” Mia said.
“At one point, Julian saw her talking to this other guy – he’s not at the school anymore – and he got jealous. Like, volcanic reaction. He started shouting at Madi, ranting at her. He accused her of having sex with this guy and started asking him in detail – in front of all of us – if she’d done all these specific things with him that she’d done with Julian.” Tak stopped, shaking his head at the memory. Fear gripped Mia’s stomach.
Tak continued. “He utterly humiliated Madi and the thing was he kept going. We kept thinking it would stop but even when she was running from the house he chased after her, still shouting ‘whore’ and ‘slut’ and…” Tak stopped to take a calming breath. “He only stopped when a few of us dragged him to the floor and sat on him – which we took way too long to do. And the thing is, while I was holding him down he smiled at me, like he was proud of himself. Like he enjoyed it.”
Mia shivered and felt guilty for it. She should have been feeling for Madison but all she could do was picture Julian sitting at his father’s desk, reading Mia’s file from her last school and smiling in the same way.
“What happened to Madison?” she asked.
“Her parents moved her to a private school. They were always threatening to do it but she wanted to stay with Julian.”
“Not after that,” Mia said. Tak raised his dark brows and nodded. “And Julian? Any consequences?”
“How? No adults saw it and it was just words so there was no physical damage. What evidence did we have?”
“No-one recorded it on their phones?”
Tak shook his head. “That’s how awful it was. There were about forty kids there and not one of us pulled out our phone. I mean, we were used to Julian being a thug but we were all just stood there, gobsmacked by this. We just watched.”
Mia pulled herself out of her own fear enough to see how bad Tak was feeling. “I’m sure you did everything you could.”
He shook his head. “I could have moved faster.”
Mia didn’t know what to say – she hadn’t been there so she couldn’t tell him he was wrong and, frankly, it sounded like they had let it go longer than they should have. And that was for a girl they’d all known for years.
Mia tried to lighten the mood. “Oh well. I was planning to spend the next four months in the library at lunch anyway.”
“You could sit with us,” Tak said. “Julian won’t like you any better for it but I think he is actually a bit scared of me.”
Mia flushed with embarrassment again. “I wasn’t fishing for an offer of protection. I do need to study. And I can take care of myself.”
“I’m not doubting you can but you also need to take a break and eat – you can’t do that in the library.” His expression was so stern that Mia was touched. She looked at the remains of the dinner he’d provided her and smiled.
“Why do you care so much about whether a girl you’ve known for a day eats?”
Tak shrugged. “Why don’t you care?”
He had a point. And she had to admit, at least to herself, that she would feel safer sitting with Tak, especially if being seen as part of Tak’s group might make Julian think twice about targeting her.
“Okay,” she said. “I shall accept your kind offer of protection, thank you, but if things go bad, I don’t want you getting hurt or into trouble on my account. Agreed?”
Tak met her eye with a half-smirk and threw up his hands. “Why would I put myself out for a girl I’ve known for a day?”
“I’m serious, Tak. I won’t sit with you if it’s going to cause you problems. I can look after myself.”
He chuckled. “You say that a lot, you know.”
“I have to do it a lot,” she snapped back.
Tak dropped the stupid smirk and nodded. “Okay. If you come and sit with us, I won’t get myself hurt or into trouble because of you.”
“Thank you. Now speaking of not getting into trouble. I should get home.”
“Yeah. The washing’ll be done and I need to-” She stopped, he didn’t need the boring details. “Thank you for dinner, though. It was really yummy – I’d ask you to thank your mum but I’d rather you didn’t tell her I was here. Just in case she talks to my mum. Is that okay?”
He laughed at her again but he crossed his heart, then offered her his pinkie finger. Mia rolled her eyes but she hooked her finger in his and they shook on it.
Outside Tak’s flat, Mia’s Gossip was hungry and enraged. Forced to watch Mia and Tak through the kitchen window, it had read her expressions and known it was missing out on a feast of emotion. When at last Mia emerged, the Gossip latched onto her again and let out a silent wail of frustration. Gone. Wasted. It glared at the tiny, manicured pine tree on the kitchen windowsill and the other it could see on top of the fridge and cursed the concentrated, purified energy they emitted. Someone in that flat knew how to keep Gossips at bay.
Author’s Note: Thank you for reading The War of Wind and Moon, I hope you’re enjoying it. If you have questions of comments, please don’t hesitate to leave them or email me with them, I do my best to answer them all at least by the next week!
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