Rindo, Undeserving

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“In the final bout of the Team Shokugeki, the winners are… the rebel forces!”

Rindo could hear the crowd all around her. Everyone on the stadium floor had had their clothes blown away by Director Nakiri’s Gifting Pulse. Or, well… she and Tsukasa had lost, so he wasn’t the director anymore, was he? Azami Nakiri would be ousted from Totsuki, and Senzaemon Nakiri would return as Director. Everyone in Central would have to leave the Elite Ten as well.

She was a little disappointed that Azami’s vision wouldn’t come to pass. A place where everyone was treated equally, where students didn’t have to fight every day just to keep from getting expelled or having to drop out? That sounded nice. But to be honest, she hadn’t been super invested in it, not like Tsukasa had. If anything, she was just disappointed for his sake..

No. Right now, what concerned her was Azami. His expression was as blank as ever, but behind his eyes, she could sense him fuming. It wasn’t just because he was naked, either – he was vibrating with anger for his dream, his dream that had been so close to fruition and yet, because Tsukasa hadn’t cooked well enough, because she hadn’t cooked well enough, it was over.

This was bad. Soma and Erina were already arguing, so neither of them had noticed. Tsukasa looked utterly spent from the hours they’d all just spent cooking. Honestly, she was spent too, but she had a bigger energy reserve than someone like him – so it was her turn to help him out right now.

She ran over to him and grabbed his hand. “Hey! Let’s leave the rest to Soma and his gang and go.”

He looked up at her in his usual daze. “Huh? Where?”

“Anywhere we can find even more delicious foods,” she grinned.

She tugged, and was about to get him off his feet, when she felt a hand on her shoulder. “Kobayashi Rindo.”

Her plan had backfired. She slowly turned around to see the bare chest of Azami Nakiri.

She looked up at his face. “…Director Nakiri.” It was just as dark as it had been earlier.

She tried to duck past him, but he grabbed her wrist, and yanked her hand out of Tsukasa’s so hard it made her fingers sting. “To think you would be so flippant about this.”

She didn’t want to look him in the eyes. He hadn’t been planning on this from the beginning, had he? If he was simply punishing his subordinates for their loss, then surely Tsukasa would come first.

He started walking toward the centre of the arena, in front of the judges’ table, With his welded grip she had no choice but to stumble after him. He hadn’t been shouting, so the people in the stands mostly hadn’t noticed the initial altercation, but now she could see a boy starting to point and whisper, and the judges were starting to look as well.

Azami stopped. Rindo stumbled forward a little, but managed to avoid bumping into him. She looked up to see his broad back, his normally-neat hair that was now slightly dishevelled.

Just when she expected him to address the audience, he turned back to her. “You think,” he said, “that you can simply leave your responsibilities to the rebels and desert me when it suits you? That you can even try to convince Tsukasa to join you?” His eyes were full of contempt – but more than that, rage, and turmoil.

Rindo realised that she hadn’t caused this herself. She’d just been in the right place at the right time for Azami to let out the anger that he so rarely experienced. Lucky her. She tried to pull her wrist out of his hand– his palm struck her face hard, and he threw her to the floor outright.

“Everyone!” Rindo raised her head to see Azami with his hands outstretched, as if he were some religious leader. She tried to get up, but her ankle stabbed with pain and she fell again. He must have sprained it with the force of his throw.

“All my supporters – do not worry. The philosophy of Central is strong, and we have the world’s greatest cooks on our side. As long as we keep fighting for our goal of total equality, we will not fail.”

“This,” he said, pointing at Rindo, “is our enemy. Not just the rebels that actively fight against us, but also the talented chefs within our ranks that do as they please, and lose sight of our dream. Those who would pull more strength away from us by convincing their friends to stray as well.”

His finger rose, and slowly swivelled to… oh. Erina stared back at Rindo, tense but not quite panicking. Rindo couldn’t see Soma anywhere – surely he hadn’t left already? Maybe he was in the bathroom or something?

“Erina,” Azami said. “Come here. You won’t enjoy what happens to the girl on the ground if you disobey me.”

“Father,” Erina said, clearly agitated. “You can’t–”

“I can,” Azami said. His tone was utterly calm, but there was no light behind his eyes. “Nowhere in the terms of the Regiment de Cuisine were there stipulations for how a team leader should treat his subordinates. Although I may be ousted from the seat of Director, she is still a member of Central, and will be one until she leaves this arena. If she leaves this arena.”

Rindo could feel her blood start to freeze in her chest. That– Azami was nuts. There was no way he was allowed to bypass the Shokugeki rules and threaten people directly like that, was there? But the judges weren’t leaving their seats, and she didn’t see any security staff in the venue, either. It seemed like nobody was brave enough to get between Azami and the object of his rage.

“Come here,” Azami repeated with steel in his voice, and Erina obeyed with trudging steps. Rindo had propped herself up on one arm, just enough to see Erina’s pained expression, the way she put as much distance between herself and her father as possible.

Azami pointed at Urara, who had drifted to the side of the arena. “MC. Turn your microphone back on. I want people in the furthest part of the audience to hear exactly what I’m doing.”

Urara, still her usual bubbly self, nodded so hard her half-ponytail bounced. “Yes, Director Nakiri! Even though Central has lost the Shokugeki, I still want to spread your message to the world!” The screens around the stadium turned on as well, zooming in on Azami’s face. Clearly the camera team hadn’t been on the rebels’ side either.

While walking over to one of the cooking counters, Azami shouted to Erina, “Pick up some of Kobayashi’s hair. I want you to take a good look at it.”

Erina slowly walked around Rindo, out of her eye-line, and a moment later Rindo felt a lock of hair carefully separated from the rest and lifted off her back.

The cameras went to Rindo’s admittedly pathetic figure, crumpled on the ground, her ankle clearly awkwardly positioned. Then they zoomed in on her hair, and the audience started muttering, confused. Urara chirped, “Erina Nakiri is holding a lock of Kobayashi’s hair! It’s red and long and smooth and pretty – the envy of everyone in Central! With her trademark eye-covering bangs, she must take very good care of it if it looks this nice!”

Her hair? Rindo didn’t like that her physical attributes were being described, rather than her cooking skills like usual – that was a bad sign.

“Good.”

Erina turned around and froze. Rindo looked up to see Azami had returned, and followed Erina’s gaze to see… a pair of kitchen scissors lying in her hands. Those looked familiar – they were the ones she’d been using to prep food just now. Wait, what?

“When people know what their purpose is,” said Azami, “they can spend their remaining free time as they please. They can cultivate their looks, engage in hobbies – whatever they want. However,” he continued. “When people stray from their path and forget their purpose, they must be reminded of what their priorities should be.”

“Erina. Your long hair is a sign that you have fulfilled your duty, well enough that you can maintain such a time-consuming aspect of your appearance. Kobayashi Rindo has demonstrated that she is no longer worthy of such a sign.” He jutted his chin toward Erina, who had gone pale. “I want you to cut it off. All of it.”

Rindo didn’t believe what she was hearing. Cut… her hair? On one hand, it was better than him raping her or something. On the other hand, she couldn’t think of many other things that would be worse, as far as physical punishments were concerned. Maybe if he cut off her fingers or something – but even if he’d just given her a beating, she would have recovered in a week or two. Growing all her hair back would take years.

“Oh? Director Nakiri has just told his daughter Erina to cut off alllllll of Kobayashi’s beautiful hair! Serves her right for going against Central!”

But Rindo hadn’t gone against Central, had she? Not in the way Azami seemed to be assuming.

Erina stared into her father’s eyes, and said “Father– don’t do this. You’ve just lost a lot, you need to take some time to calm down–”

“You will cut her hair off,” said Azami, “or I will do it myself, and do more to her after that. You should be obeying me without question.”

Rindo could feel the fear seeping from Erina – she seemed even more scared than Rindo herself. Rindo turned around to face her and smiled, even though her face was a little drawn from the pain in her ankle. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “I won’t blame you for this.”

That seemed to give Erina the courage she needed. She put her fingers into the kitchen scissors, and brought them to the lock of Rindo’s hair she’d been holding, growing from the crown of her head.

After a moment to brace herself, Erina closed the scissors around the hair, less than an inch away from her scalp. Rindo cringed as she heard the crunch of the scissors, and momentarily wished she hadn’t given Erina permission to do this. Even if she tried to put a brave face on, Urara had been right – she took good care of her hair. She had to, if she wanted to keep it this long without it tangling like crazy. She brushed through it carefully every day, she conditioned it every time she washed it, she tied it up the same way whenever she cooked. After this, she wouldn’t need to.

The lock hadn’t been very big, so it was severed with one clean snip. Rindo could just about feel the severed ends on the back of her head as they released. She glanced up to one of the screens – Erina was just standing there, her eyes glassy, the scissors in one hand and the lock of hair gripped in the other.

“And the first bit has been cut!” Urara didn’t seem at all fazed by this, somehow, and her commentary was as chipper as ever. Maybe she’d been fanatically devoted to Azami himself, rather than to the ideals of Central, so it didn’t matter that he was going off the rails. “Just a thin lock, but there’s basically none of it left! Even if Director Nakiri changes his mind now, poor Kobayashi’s going to have to cut the rest of her hair short too if she wants it all even!” No way. Rindo could cover it… somehow. Maybe a hat.

“You heard her,” said Azami, his tone dismissive. Clearly he agreed. “There’s no going back now, Erina. The more you hesitate on this, the longer the poor thing is going to suffer. You need to learn to be more assertive. Make your decisions quickly.”

Erina’s hands shook, but after a moment, she dropped the lock of hair. It fell to Rindo’s left side, disintegrating slightly along the way. I didn’t know my hair was quite that long, thought Rindo. It looked longer when it was on the ground than it did on her head. How many years would it take her to grow back? The thought made her nauseous.

She heard a crunch, and realised that Erina had cut another lock of hair off the crown of her head. Another crunch – a slight lightening of her head. A third crunch, and her red hair brushed her shoulder, then fell onto the backs of her calves in a thick ribbon. Rindo could see a screen out of the corner of her eye, zoomed right in on the back of her head, showing the growing shorn patch. There was barely any hair left on her head there, and the remainder was so short that it stuck straight up rather than lying down.

She felt Erina pick up another lock from the back, but Azami called out “Enough. I can see through you.” He slammed her palm down on the counter, and both she and Erina jumped, as did a few members of the audience. “Cutting only from the back as you have been– clearly, you are hoping I will change my mind, that she will be left with a salvageable style if you stop halfway. No. When I say something, I mean it. My daughter should know that.”

Erina’s face went from numb to pained on the screen. Azami walked up to Rindo, grabbed her bangs, yanked them up hard enough to make her yelp. “Cut from the front,” he said. “There will be no revisions to what I command.” All of Rindo’s weight rested on her hair, and she scrambled to support herself on her good leg. Wordless, Azami stared at Erina and she rushed forward.

Erina’s legs shook as her hand shot out, frantically snapping at Rindo’s bangs with as much of the scissor’s blades as she could manage, hard enough that she could hear a clack every time they closed. With every snip, Rindo felt herself fall a little lower, felt the weight on the remaining strands increase exponentially, felt a few hairs landing on her nose.

It was long, and it was excruciating – but even as the pain in her scalp got worse and worse, it was nothing compared to the ripping sensation.

The last lock tore off. Rindo’s tailbone slammed onto the ground and she sucked in a breath through her teeth, her lower back instantly starting to throb. Her scalp hurt worse than her tailbone did, though. It burned, some parts more than others. Some parts felt colder than others. Rindo reached a shaky hand up, and touched her scalp. It was wet, and a little warm. She looked at her fingers – they were red.

…There was no way. “Wh…?” Rindo brought her hand down into her lap, stared at it emptily. Had her hair just been ripped out at the roots? Not just any hair, the hair in the front of her head. That didn’t mean it was gone forever, surely. Maybe there was a spare follicle down on a deeper layer of her skin, and it’d grow back after a while. Maybe just the hair had been ripped off and the root was still there. But then why would there be blood? She wanted to throw up.

The screen showed Erina trembling from her shoulders to her feet. Azami sniffed in disgust and tossed Rindo’s bangs onto her face, let them slide down her cheeks and nose onto her chest and skirt. She swore some of it had felt wet going down her face. Like torn skin. She couldn’t see any remnants right now, but maybe that was because she didn’t want to look close enough.

Oh, right. Her bangs were gone, all of them. Rindo wasn’t used to being able to see this well out of that eye… and she wasn’t used to the lack of reassuring softness on her skin, either. Having to wash them every day was a pain, but it was worth it for the way they looked, and the way they felt. Those didn’t take too long to grow back usually, did they? Only… a year. Fuck. Maybe nine months if she was lucky. If they could even grow back.

“That face! Looks like it’s really starting to sink in for Kobayashi now, everyone! It’s not surprising – this is the first part of the haircut that she’s actually been able to see for herself, without the help of the screens! Or maybe we just aren’t used to seeing both of her eyes at once!” Urara was still supposed to be under the effects of the damask rose, but Rindo could swear her tone had gotten a little sadistic. “Maybe now that she can actually see properly, she’ll see the error of her ways! Ha!”

Rindo had been shocked into silence up until now, but the goading roused her from her dissociation a little.

“The error of– what error?” Rather than criticise Azami directly for humiliating her, she yelled her question at Urara, at the whole silent audience. There hadn’t been any cheering or baying for her blood, but nobody had spoken up to defend her, either. All of these people, that she’d cooked with, that she’d grown up with – none of them were stepping up to defend her. Yukihira was nowhere to be found, Tsukasa looked haunted but was too exhausted to move, and Erina’s every move was being scrutinised by her father. They could all see what she saw. If they wanted to defend her, they had to step up of their own accord.

She continued, “I was making the best of a bad situation!” There was fear in her voice, but she kept speaking anyway, felt as though she had to or she’d die. “The rebels won, fair and square – how is it flippant to look to the future instead of regretting the past?”

Urara just looked angry, but there was an uncertain muttering in the audience, and Rindo knew she’d succeeded at least a little. “I’m not a traitor,” she continued. “I value cooking over a competition, especially when that competition’s already been los–”

A hand clamped over her mouth, and her eyes widened. It was a large, male hand. “You have said enough,” she heard him say, even angrier than he had been before. “Erina. Go sit in the front row, there.” He pointed to an empty row of seats. “Clearly this is someone I have to deal with myself.”

So Erina had lost the opportunity to ‘be merciful’ by administering the haircut herself. Rindo could feel her chest tightening with humiliation, but somehow she wasn’t afraid of facing a worse fate than she’d already experienced. She’d already lost some hair forever in the front of her head – she might have to cut her bangs on the other side of her face from now on, if she was lucky and the bald spots hadn’t crossed the centre point. If not, then she’d just have to make her bangs from higher up on her head. Forever.

Erina shuffled away. RIndo could see her on camera – she looked barely able to walk, and her head hung low, her hands squeezed into fists. She looked just as broken as Rindo was, if not more so.

And her hands were empty. Rindo looked back just in time to see Azami approaching her again, fingers through the holes of the kitchen scissors. He stepped behind her – the tip of his polished shoe nudged at her tailbone as he settled. Her face twisted slightly at the poke to her fresh bruise, and she opened her mouth in a gasp of pain.

Immediately, Azami shoved her hair into her mouth so hard that she choked. “If you want to leave this arena missing only your hair, I advise you to keep that in your mouth,” he said quietly. “There are more permanent ways to silence you.” His eyes flicked up to the screens every so often. No doubt he was worried about what the audience would think.

He grabbed hair from behind her bangs, yanked it forward and started hacking at it as close to the scalp as he could manage. The thickness of the scissor handles meant he was leaving about a half-inch of hair on Rindo’s head with each snip, especially because he was trying for huge chunks each time. Whenever the scissors closed, only about half of the hair between them was severed, so Rindo’s hair was becoming more and more uneven.

“And he’s going for it! Director Nakiri is really going for it! What a man of action! Erina could only get a small lock at a time, but Director Nakiri knows what he’s doing! All of that pretty hair isn’t going to be Rindo’s for much longer, and on top of that, she’ll be reminded of her disloyalty every time she looks in the mirror! How long will it be until she sees the error of her ways, and will her hair have grown back before that? Only time will tell!”

Rindo could only be grateful that he hadn’t brought any actual salon equipment to the arena, like a real pair of haircutting shears or even clippers, because she’d definitely have been bald at this point. The top of her head was starting to get noticeably lighter – the weight was moving to her mouth instead. How morbid. She could see the screen out of the corner of her eye, showing a close-up of her long red hair draped over her shoulder, or dangling from her mouth, or pooling on the floor. She managed to avoid looking at her head.

It wasn’t as though she was averse to the idea of a new hairstyle, she reasoned to herself. She wasn’t the kind of person that shied away from new experiences – definitely not when it came to food, but not in general either. Maybe she would’ve cut her hair short of her own volition in a few years. So why did she feel like she was being stabbed with each crunch of the scissors? Why were her eyes going blurry at the thought of seeing herself in the mirror?

She felt a lock of hair sliding out of her mouth, as smooth and well-conditioned as ever. Azami was tugging at it from its root on the nape of her neck. He held it taut for a moment, sheared it off almost gently – then tossed it forward to land in Rindo’s lap. It was wet, as though she’d just come out of the shower. She couldn’t believe it wasn’t attached to her head. She wanted to scream.

Actually, most of it wasn’t attached to her head anymore. It felt lighter – she could feel stubble moving when the hair around it was tugged, all over her head. There was more hair strewn around her than she’d ever known she’d had on her head. She jumped as Azami ran a hand over her scalp, collecting loose strands that hadn’t yet been cut, gathering them into a thin tail – then severing them at the root, one by one. That– her hair felt fuzzy now. She’d never experienced that before. It might have felt good, honestly, if it had happened under better circumstances. With a better person.

“Would you look at that! Kobayashi’s hair is shorter than Saito’s – even the sides of his mohawk! She probably has the least hair out of anyone in this academy by now! Definitely any of the girls! Just a few more stray strands to go, and it’ll all be gone!”

And indeed, Rindo could feel Azami tugging at the last strand. He pressed the scissors to her head, closed them, and she felt the tug release from her scalp. She reached a shaking hand up to her head… it was gone. All of it was gone. Just some assorted fuzz left . Completely even – none longer than half an inch.

Azami tossed the scissors to the ground. “You may spit your hair out.” He looked around disdainfully, then turned to leave without another word.

Rindo’s ears rang. She didn’t react, even as she heard Urara shouting something triumphant, even as the audience’s hum became quieter and quieter.

The next thing she noticed was two arms wrapping around her from behind. “I’m sorry,” choked Tsukasa. “I didn’t know how to stop him.”

“…It’s okay,” said Rindo, her voice hoarse. “We can still travel the world, can’t we?”

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