Lunch commenced on its free time, and students poured out the schoolhouse's back door into a spacious courtyard that reeked of early autumn grass. Shoddy picnic tables rose out of the soil like the nearby birch that shed fickle shadows over their coarse wooden planks. The knotted tree was displaced from its deceased and processed counterparts and balanced on the peak of a soft slope that declined from the level picnic grounds onto a weedy lawn, strewn with various implements of sport and deflated rubber balls.
The benches riddling the yard were gradually crammed with an ocean of hungry kids, near sixty to count. Into the din entered a disoriented Crono, upset with the notion of retreating from one chaotic setting to another. His mother hadn't the foresight to prepare him a portable lunch, but rather abandoned him with a couple of coins, with which he was supposedly able to purchase one.
But where, and how, could he do that? And once he had a lunch, where could he sit down to eat it?
As he boggled himself with these concerns, a waving arm pierced the waterline of children's heads, accompanied by a beckoning call that struggled over the static of dozens of simultaneous conversations.
Tuning to that voice, Crono found Joey signaling him over to a long table adjacent to the border fence. Relieved that he had some sort of guide to follow, he swam through the traffic and encountered the boy calling him. Joey gestured for him to take a seat, and Crono settled at the edge of the bench, just across from his new friend.
Now that he had a suitable opening to do so, Crono inspected the helpful lad. Joseph carried an unassuming profile. His hair was murky brown, as if tailored to his dark eyes, and combed unobtrusively short. A plain, somewhat solemn effect defined his character.
Joey claimed a paper sack off the table and began to rifle through it. "So you're still alive, huh?" was his conversation-starter. Smiling as he wasn't, Joey's jocular implications were missed, and Crono stared at him blankly for a moment, his wits lost to the question.
"Hey, it's that new kid!" an oversized boy two places over from Joey broke in. His collection of freckles were nearly transparent, and his greasy, barbed hair matched the creamy hue of whichever doughnut filling topped the right shoulder of his flaring red shirt.
The shrimpy kid neighboring Crono finally took notice of someone next to him with a mild start. "Hey..." he drawled in pip-squeak while peering at the redhead past his rounded glasses.
"Aren't'cha gonna introduce us, Joey?" a third boy from the far end of the table prompted.
"Yeah sure." Joey casually took on the last's suggestion. His open hand presented the boy of everyone's current interest. "You guys, this is Crono."
Once he assumed the center of the party's attention, a diffident fit left Crono disarmed against whatever Joey was about to do. The kid's extended hand floated towards the bespectacled individual on Crono's side.
"Crono, this is Haru."
Haru offered a wayward grin that unsheathed a disjointed canine tooth. "Nice ta meetchya."
"Haru's a wise guy. We call him Brains," Joey furthered.
"Brainiac," filtered through some of the sandwich wedged in another boy's mouth.
"Anus-face," was Haru's practiced retort.
Gesturing to the instigator, Joey continued. "And this is Charlie, Haru's twin brother."
Catching the flicker of amazement that crossed Crono's face, he elaborated. "I know; they don't look a thing like each other."
How true that was. Haru's impish, nerdy motif was dwarfed by the young man of his relation. As they sat at that very table, Charlie's larger bones hoisted him almost foot over his sibling's head, and he carried this bonus height with the confidence of an athlete.
Charlie swallowed his scrap of sandwich and picked up that line of thought. "...Yeah, Haru looks more like mom."
This earned a wad of paper chucked in his direction.
Joey carried on to the guy adorned in red and doughnut. "Here's Keith. He's pretty cool."
Keith inhaled the remainder of his pasty and contributed a wave. "Hey new dude."
Next was, "And he's Liquel, school-famous for his potty-mouth."
A foreign accent spewed from the ruddy-skinned, dark-haired kid in words resembling, "You're damn right I--"
"--Shut it, Liquel," Haru snuffed him out.
The last link of the group held himself up and stole the spotlight with a pretentious outburst. "And I'm Gary--the coolest guy in school! Ask anybody!"
Haru melodramatically fell onto his elbow and rolled his eyes. "Oh brother..."
"What?" Charlie glanced up, mistakenly summoned from his distracted thoughts.
Keith was poised to shoot the cocky young character down. "Yeah, Gary's awesome. Did you see him after class Friday cleaning out the toilets?"
Gary met everyone's laughter with an indignant smirk. "Yeah, well... My dad can kick your dad's butt any day, Keith!" he tactfully conjured a threat to divert the topic.
The heavy lad feigned quivering out of fright. "Ooo, scary! Your dad! Hahahaha!"
Joey commented to Crono in an aside, "Gary's dad's an 'architectural engineer'--whatever that means."
"But it must be pretty important, the way Gary goes on about it. His dad works for the castle, y'know."
Gary literally sucked in his pride, flung a swirl of maroon hair away from his hazel eyes, and sat down again. "Yeah, you just laugh. You'll take it back one day," he muttered.
Charlie reeled the conversation back on track. "So new kid, what's your story?" he wondered.
"Yeah yeah, where ya from?" Haru narrowed his sibling's enquiry.
Crono started, nearly unaware he had been prompted to speak. "Um... I'm from Marriville."
"Well numb nuts, that tells us a lot. Where the hell is that?" Liquel pressed.
After he had stared through the shock over Liquel's... colorful diction, Crono made an attempt to explain. "It's an island." The direct question received a blunt answer.
"...And?" Keith impatiently gestured for more.
"Never heard of it," Charlie spoke for the majority while reaching for a cheese cracker off Haru's napkin.
"You're one of those 'quiet kids,' aren't ya newbie?" Gary presumed with a skeptical leer at the redhead.
The reply required a second of thought. "No, not really," Crono answered softly.
"Aw, cut him a break guys. He's new," Joey reasoned. Then, in another note to the shy boy, "Don't worry, you'll fit right in. Eventually. It just takes a while for normal people to get used to this freak show." He sardonically indicated the gathered company.
Among the offended chuckles was Haru's mocking retort. "Oh ha-ha Joey, and you're a perfect peach yourself."
"Mmm... peaches." Keith drooled.
Catching the hungry glint in his new friend's eyes as he anxiously twisted around in his seat, Joey arrived at an obvious conclusion.
"You hungry? They sell stuff over there." He directed Crono's gaze across the vista of munching students to a modest picnic table manned by a large, apron-clad woman.
Coins secure in hand and destination in mind, Crono sprang from his place like a bloodhound kicking off a chase. His eager jump was thwarted by Joey snatching the rim of his shirt sleeve.
"--But don't!" he interjected. To answer Crono's baffled look, he explained, "Burritos today."
"Ikk." Liquel played as if he were going to retch. "Nasty burritos here. Definitely not for eating."
"Make good doorstops, though," Charlie pointed resourcefully.
Buying their advice instead of the lunch lady's burritos, Crono hesitantly replaced himself in front of Joey. His expression pleading, "What do I eat now?" he watched his informative friend edge forward across the countertop and drop into a confidential tone.
"Listen, I think somebody's got to tell you this, before you get hurt. There's a couple of ground rules around here."
Crono blinked, alarmed. Ground rules?
"Yeah, there's two kinda rules in this joint," Haru helpfully volunteered to explain. "The kind the teachers give ya--"
"--And the kind they don't." Charlie wrapped up.
"Those're the ones that bite you in the ass, man," Liquel offered a dread warning.
"Wha'd'you mean?" Crono was suddenly wary of the sobered conversation.
Joey juggled the appropriate words. "Well, if you wanna walk out of here in one piece, you've got to be careful. Don't... step on the wrong people's toes, know what I mean?"
Unfortunately, he hadn't a clue. "No..."
Joey hoisted himself above the populace and scanned the crowds. "I'll explain. See those girls over there? At that table?"
Pointing revealed the target: six girls stationed around their own bench, consorting with each other in the dialect of giggles, shrieks, and whispers that was trademarked by their gender.
"Yeah," Crono confirmed. "What about 'em?"
"That's Amy's table. She's in the middle, there, with the blonde hair."
Amy seemed tall and fair, with healthy skin and a long, shiny ponytail that danced in jerks behind her as she tossed her head amidst chatter.
"Amy's the most popular girl here. All the cool girls hang out with her 'cause she acts like her older sister, who's a second-schooler. She says her mom lets her wear makeup and stuff, just like older girls."
Shifting to the pair on Amy's right, Joey described some of her fellows. "That's Lizzy and Stacy beside her. They're the ones both wearin' pink bows with white polka dots. That's 'cause they're best friends and always hang out together and wear the same kinda clothes. And that's Maggie with the red curly hair. And Jessica's on the far end--she's the 'teacher's pet.'"
"She's annoying as heck," Gary inserted.
"Heck," Keith snorted, finding that word amusing.
Joey proceeded despite the interruption, "...Nobody really likes her, but Amy does 'cause she brings oatmeal cookies to lunch and those're her favorite."
Crono was impressed by how attuned Joey was to his class's sociometry. "What about her? On the other end?" He was curious to whether Joey had reserved any words for the meek-looking creature on the opposite side of the girls' table, a child whose long ebony mane was smoothed back by a plain hair band.
"Oh, that's Rachel," he recalled, as if she were a mere skipped side note. "She's really shy. She only hangs around those other girls 'cause she wants to be popular like them."
"Anyway don't be fooled by how they look--they're all real mean. Well, except maybe Rachel. But especially Amy. She'd play a mean prank on you just as soon as ta look at you, just 'cause you're a boy. That's how nasty she is. She just looks real sweet and innocent in front of the grown-ups."
Crono was duly impressed by that ruse. "They don't look so mean at all," he murmured disbelief.
"Yeah, well, 'never judge a book by its cover,' is what my mom says."
"And never judge a slut by her outfit," Liquel paraphrased, drawing a blank gawk from Crono. The others, acclimated to this sort of talk, were unfazed by his untoward remark. The redhead then decided to abandon his question about what a "slut" was, conscious that he might sound silly and naive.
Instead, the boy sat and quietly studied what Joey had recently implied about "toe-stepping" and "ground rules," trying to build relationships with examples. Those girls were false to their appearances, according to Joey. This was a rather new concept to the seven-year-old. People looking one way and acting another? Nonsense. Why would anyone want to do that? Lying is wrong, as his mother tried to teach him. Of course, Crono would be a hypocrite to stand and say he'd never lied before, especially when trying to save face in front of adults and stay from trouble. Would this situation be similar?
Crono was surprised he had never made the connection before. Just as he was sometimes dishonest, for whatever reason, so were other people.
Now on the path to disillusionment regarding society's innocence, he adopted the phrase "never judge a book..." into his vocabulary and re-analyzed what he'd learned thus far today. Most of those mentioned girls Crono recognized from his own classroom, the members of which he considered helpful to know about first and foremost. A missing piece teased him, however. There was a girl Joey had neglected in his rather thorough lecture...
...That's right! The quiet one with the glasses.
The boy snapped back to Joey with a query.
The table fell dead quiet.
Crono was unnerved by the way the atmosphere instantly chilled around him. He couldn't have elicited a more stunned response if he had just announced he was really a fire-breathing heckran in human disguise.
Uneasy eyes darted across the crusty planks, meeting each other over the spill of food in an empathetic silence. Joey cleared his throat and extended himself towards Crono's ear. "Over there," he whispered.
Joey's directed glance snaked through the lunch aisles and bounced over benches, and Crono lost himself in the search. "...I don't see it," he admitted.
"No, way over there. By the tree."
Crono looked such a way, and located the gentle birch on the far side of the grounds. The leafy thing's companion, ostracized from other children and all things edible, was a little girl. It was just the same kid he had taken notice of earlier--goofy glasses, big shirt, and all. She nursed a book in her lap and was oblivious to all else besides it.
"Yeah, that's her," Crono identified the lass. "Who is she? Why's she off by herself?"
"Shh!" Joey checked his volume. "Not so loud!"
"Wha?" Crono was stumped by the order. "Why not? What's wrong? What'd I say?"
"Booger's what's wrong," Gary shot with a rasp. "You can't talk about her--not around here."
That's crazy, Crono thought.
"She's a witch," Liquel asserted, albeit quietly.
"No she's not," Keith countered disdainfully.
"The hell she ain't! My brother says so!"
"Guys, shut up!" Charlie chided them both. "You want him to hear us?!"
"Who?" Crono was utterly lost.
Keith wasn't hampered by a scolding. "Your brother's a dope!"
Neither were Liquel's petulant rebuttals. "Oh, you talk about my brother?! Bring it on, man!"
"Guys!" Joey projected over everyone, "He's coming!"
"Shit!" Liquel ducked under the table, and Haru followed his example.
Crono rattled the boards in front of him with a pair of fists. "Who's coming?!" he demanded, impatient with the frenzy. The clamor halted and tense looks flew towards the redhead.
Why was everyone looking at him?
Not at him, he realized as a shadow landed over his clenched hands. Behind him.
"Hey, is this the new kid?" a booming, gruff voice questioned. If Crono hadn't any sense, he would have automatically determined that his hair had started talking, the sound was so close. The boy became a frozen dinner.
The next voice was distinct, yet familiar. "Yeah, you can't miss that haircut from anywhere."
Crono finally rallied the nerve to peer over his shoulder. Three dark obelisks loomed over him. Once his eyes regained their composure from turning to face the midday sun, he drew in their features. The owner of the last remark was the guy Crono had confronted en route to his desk before, Darren. Already that was a sign he wasn't within good company.
The other two, whereas Darren was a tall youth, were giants in every other physical aspect. One was horribly obese, and his grungy white shirt failed to bridge the protruding expanse of skin between his navel and his shorts. He stood back and grinned moronically while swiping an arm under his dripping, pudgy nose.
The last kid brought the word "titan" to mind immediately. While Haru was a toothpick in contrast to Charlie, Charlie was an eyelash compared to this newcomer. Big bones encased in hefty flesh collaborated to tower over the sitting boy. Lowering brows shadowed sharp, silver eyes. A rug of shredded carrot was sprawled over his head with uncombed abandon, and freckles had their way with his complexion.
He crossed his arms and grinned menacingly--a presage to the forthcoming interrogation. "Well hi, new kid! How ya doin'?" His exaggerated enthusiasm trifled with Crono's already piqued suspicion.
The boy wasn't aware of the knot in his throat until he had to choke it down in order to answer. "...Okay."
"Really? Nothin' bad happen to ya yet?"
Crono simply shook his head. He didn't dare prolong this conversation.
"Hmm..." the large character rubbed his chin contemplatively. "You like it here, then?"
Crono had to swallow again. Did someone feed him cotton? Oh yeah--he didn't eat yet.
"Really? Ya mean it?" The kid's belaboring of the question was nerve-racking; after drawing such nerves into fine strands, he plucked them by roughly patting Crono on the back, sparking a yelp from the boy.
"Good!" In a more sadistic humor, he added, "...It's not as much fun for me if you already don't."
Everyone cringed as the loud young man's boot crashed onto the countertop. "See here," he proclaimed to all ears present, "My name's Billy, and, uh, irregardless of what Gary over there says..."
Gary gulped audibly.
"...I'M the coolest man 'round here. And as 'the man,' everyone listens to my rules!"
Joey boldly repudiated Billy's decree. "You can't make people listen to you--"
"--Rule number one!!" the behemoth roared, trampling the tail of Joey's objection. "Ya don't talk to me..." He leaned towards Joey. "...unless I talk to you!"
"Yeah Joey, where're your manners?" Darren sneered.
"Rule number two!" He brandished two fingers to illustrate. "When I do talk to you, what I say, goes!" Billy stepped down from his makeshift soapbox and rounded the corner of the table, approaching the two bench spaces from which Haru and Liquel vanished.
"Rule number three: you can run..."
With a probing kick Billy bunted the two forms cowering beneath the table-boards. Both kids squirmed and squealed pathetically, while their agitator found such reactions greatly amusing. Laughing, he concluded, "...But you can't hide!! Hahahaha!"
Billy began to plod off with his two sidekicks and a, "Farewell, chumps!" but paused as he neared Crono once more. The mammoth's tough hands settled on the redhead's shoulders, and Billy's voice slipped into a smooth, villainous hiss as he crept near the small boy's ear. "By the way..."
The sure proximity of the bully's threatening snarl and piercing glare stabbed Crono's heart with ice. He wanted to just melt into the dirt and join Liquel and Haru down there.
"...I, eh, saw you were looking at Booger over there. That's not smart, you know. 'Cause don't forget... she's mine. It'd be a real shame if you were suddenly the first blind kid here at Truce Omega."
With a final pat on the back and a rumbling laugh, Billy stomped off, leaving his threat to sit on the table.
None of the witnesses budged an inch, until a timid duo complained in a muffle, "...Can we come out, now?"
Gary seemed to faint into his own arms, Keith gulped down a doughnut chunk that had been trapped in his throat since Billy arrived, and Charlie gave a weighty sigh. "Yeah, bro. Come on out."
Haru and Liquel crawled back into view. Joey finally turned to Crono, who was beyond noticing his shaking hands.
"That's why nobody talks about Booger."