Dawn heralded the arrival of another day at the seaside town of Truce. Assimilated into the city's hustling morning commute was a pair of little wanderers, ambling to school in no certain rush. With a wall of wood to their left and a stream of paved road to their right, the two children were confined to what limited sidewalk pedestrians were afforded.
Joey maintained a mild, reticent demeanor as he watched a small cart awkwardly bounce over Turkey Lane's rugged cobblestones on two wide-spoked wheels. It was difficult to classify the creature hauling the rolling crate of timber as a "dragon," with its broad shoulders, arched back, four stumpy legs, blunt-toed feet, sagging neck, and dim, coal eyes sunk into the blank countenance of a camel. It was hardly at comparison with the legendary monsters of its namesake.
The youngster drew his attention away from the distancing vehicle and the noisy clatter its passing aroused, training it again on the conversation with his traveling companion, Crono.
"You should just let it go, man," he inserted his opinion of the boy's tale of defeat and theft.
"No way," Crono refuted any such notion, "That was my bandanna, and it used to be my dad's. Billy ain't gonna walk away with it. He didn't haf to take it like that."
"And you didn't have to go and pick a fight with 'im. That was stupid," Joey countered. "You're lucky you're not dead now. What were you thinkin', anyway?"
The question quashed the rest of the boy's queued arguments. Crono's gaze slid to his feet, where he counted the slight indents defining one concrete slab from the next. A slice of untamed hair dangled loosely in front of his nose, flouting the cloth restraint the boy now sorely missed.
"...I'm still gonna git it back," he pouted in a grumble. Switching topics, his focus darted to the left to catch the image of his friend. The sun at Joey's back cast him in relief against the scrolling wood planks beyond him.
"There's still some things I don't get," Crono began. "What those guys were sayin' yesterday, right before I, uh, got beat up. Darren, I think, said somethin' about, 'no wonder I wound up at Omega.' What's he talkin' about?"
"Omega?" Joey tacked a perplexed note to the word. The relevance of the name tagged his memory a second afterward. "Yeah, that's the name of our school: Truce Omega Primary."
Crono reflexively smirked in annoyance. "Yeah, I know that already. What's the 'Omega' part mean? What's that got to do with me bein'... I mean, uh, what's that got to do with anything?" he verbally evaded admitting to be what Darren labeled him earlier: a dumbass.
"Well you see, there's three different kinds of schools 'round here in Truce," the dark-haired one launched into his "explanation mode." "There's Truce Alpha, which'is a private school where all the rich kids go, then there's Truce Beta, which'is where most a'the smart kids go, and then there's where we go, Truce Omega."
"Where the dumb, poor kids go," Crono deduced, suddenly understanding the background behind Darren's obscure snub.
"Now you're getting it."
"But I ain't dumb and my ma' ain't poor!" the redhead asserted, reasonably offended.
"Hey neither am I!" Joey retaliated just as hotly. "It's not just the dumb kids and the poor kids that end up at our school, you know. There's other stuff, too."
The allusion to "other stuff" quelled Crono's rising temper, and he reflected an open curiosity. "Wha'd'ya mean? What other stuff?"
Joey flinched, stung by the insinuations he was asked to expound upon. "Listen..." His voice leveled to a confiding gravity. "The world's not fair, Crono. Lots of people are gonna try ta' put ya down, just because you're not the same as everybody else. You can just ask Liquel. He says that he can't get into the good schools wid all the smart kids because he's yellow. All his brothers say so too, and I met 'em and I know it's prolly true. It's because his skin's a funny color that they don't let his dad work for the same pay as his assistant, who gets more.
"Then there's people like me who don't got no dad to provide for my mom and me and we hafta live on pensions that we get from the kingdom. And I can't go to Alpha or Beta 'cause they say that since they're payin' just enough for us to get by they don't need to waste any more money on us so I can get good schoolin'. And that's the way my mom says it is and that's the reason a lot of us are stuck where we are."
Crono was treated with a stare to drive the point through. "Do ya get it?"
The boy bowed his head, sullen with his prospects. "...I don't have a dad neider... Is that why I go to Omega wich'you? 'cause I ain't got a dad that goes ta work?"
Joey considered his case. "...Maybe. Probably more 'cause you're from the East, though."
Crono wasn't sure which issue he wanted to tackle first: why his origins were relevant, or how Joey knew them, given all that Crono had (or rather, hadn't) related to him about his old home.
"Huh? Wha'ddya mean? What's that got to do wid it? And how did ya know that? You said you ain't never heard of Marriville."
Joey's response teetered on a laugh. "Your accent, dummy."
Crono was learning new words all the time. "Accent? What's that?"
"It's the way you talk. You talk real slow and keep saying 'ain't.' My mom says that's the way stupid mystic lovers from the East talk."
Incidentally, Crono was unfamiliar with the mystic breed, and if not for the word "stupid," he wouldn't have registered the insult, much less combated it with such vigor.
"I don't love mystics! I ain't even met one before."
Joey grinned satirically. "Yeah, and 'ain't' ain't a word."
Was Joey mocking him, now? Crono had the nerve to slug him, but refrained from hitting someone he'd barely met. Matt would have taken the beating with a jovial shrug and told the boy to lighten up.
Joey carried his fit of light humor back into the conversation, giving his words an uncharacteristic optimism.
"Well anyway, don't worry. Maybe if you do good enough, they'll let you move to the fancy schools and stuff. You'd hafta be really smart and good in class, though. That's what the teachers say. Every now and then they let someone 'move up.'"
Before Crono could request some encouraging testimony of this occurrence, Joey finished his thought. "...haven't seen it happen yet, though."
Burdened with the label of reject, Crono enveloped his fists in his tunic pockets and dejectedly bunted a stray pebble with the toe of his boot. "Well that's stupid," he ranted, "Dat ain't fair, to be kept outta the smart schools just 'cause yer skin's a different color, or 'cause you ain't got a dad or enuf money or came from someplace else. So what? That don't make no sense."
"Like I said, life's not fair," Joey recapitulated the discussion, finding his serious mood again. "I don't know what they've been teachin' you at wherever that place is you say you're from, but over here there's only two types of people: people like Billy, who push ev'rybody around to get what they want, and people like Booger, who can't do anything but sit around and take it. She prob'lly isn't stupid as much as people say, she just don't have any other options. And if you were her you'd figure that out too, real quick.
"But nobody can feel sorry for 'er either, 'cause that's the best way to get Billy on your butt fast. The world's a lot like that. You can't afford to feel sorry for nobody. In the end it sucks for everyone, but I didn't make the world, I'm just stuck on it. And so're you, Crono, so you'd better get used to how things run around here. It's better off for ya."
As if resigned to this philosophy, Joey let his argument rest. He stepped into a fog of silence and absently monitored the closing length between himself and the iron lamppost on the street corner, the site at which the fence would end and their trek to school would conclude.
After a pensive quiet, he heard Crono's voice, soft with an internal struggle. "But... no."
Joey quizzically regarded him. "What?"
The fire-haired youngster inclined to face him, his expression hardening with newfound resolve. "No," he elevated his tone. "I'm not gonna be like Billy, and I ain't gonna be like Booger, eider! The only reason people like Billy keep showin' their ugly faces is bu'cus there's too many people like Booger out dere, that won't stand up and do somethin' about it! But I ain't gonna be like that 'cause I don't think it's fair and it shouldn't have to go on just 'cause everyone's a'scared of 'im! I ain't scared, and that guy's gonna git what's comin' to him when I git back my bandanna!" Crono declared, flashing a set of balled fists to complement his enthusiasm.
Joey rolled up his brow, taken aback by the impetuous display of heroism. "...Man, you're dense. Were you listening to me at all yesterday, or did Billy knock some sense outta you back there?"
Crono frowned at him and dropped his hands. "Don't make fun. I wus serious."
The other shook his head, dismissing the crazy ideas. "Whatever. Just don't come running to me when you get hurt."
Crono was irked by the lack of support, not understanding Joey's acquiescence to the bully's ruthless methods.
An excess weight pricked his palm. Distracted, the boy unfurled his paw to examine it.
The stoic one peered at the upheld item, both fascinated and repelled by it. "There's somethin' growin' on that rock! It's all green," Joey reported, his face pinched with disgust.
"Musta been in my pocket," Crono realized.
"What is it?"
The redhead beamed at the shard of stone. "It's lucky!"
"Uh... yeah." Joey was skeptical. "Don't you mean 'ugly'?"
Crono smirked. "No way. Matt ga'me it. It's way lucky, belie' me."
"Who?" the lad was compelled to ask, had both kids not reached their destination at last. The fibrous barrier they had been trailing finally exhausted itself, intercepted at the last driven stake by Brought Road. Rounding the wall allowed them onto Truce Omega property, and then into the clutches of the learning establishment.
Joey threw a bemused glance at the newcomer. "You're weird, you know that?"
Closing the rhetoric to response, Joey hooked the scruff of Crono's shirt and led him around the corner.
"Com'on, let's get to class."
After twenty-six minutes of life on the floor, the attribute of Miss Missy's classroom that best-defined Crono's mood was debatable, although it was assuredly something insipid.
Since the electrical fixtures declined to illuminate, he lazily watched the afternoon's warm glow permeate through the clamped window blinds and devour the room in misty light and bleary shadow. His arms shaped to be suitable pillows, suspending the boy's leonine mane off some itchy canvas tarp.
He pondered the longevity of his sleeping mat while enduring the last four minutes of "nap time." The degree of his boredom had surpassed the soporific stage, and the sliver of cushioning spacing him a hair's breadth from the hard ground didn't promote rest, either.
An astute observer could detect the vanished teacher's whereabouts with a sidelong peek out the glass screen over her desk. The battered fringes of that window's shade only weakly veiled the outdoor scenery, and while stealing glimpses of clouds it was easy to catch flashes of feminine garb, its dark rose pattern at odds with the glaring blue sky.
Reclined into a vantage point to see such, Crono spied the weedy woman's arm lifting some vaguely familiar object to her lips. It was strange, the little one mused, how Miss Missy's "coffee" looked awfully similar to one of Matt's "cigarettes."
His eyes vacantly adhered to the stick of "coffee" and the white velvet serpents that sprouted from the smoking ember at its tip, until a stirring from within the walls evoked his interest.
Two of Crono's restive classmates had devised a mischievous prank for the benefit of Miss Missy's return, and were bent on carrying it out while she was still absent. Billy and Chucky's hench-like sniggering attracted the redhead to their position. They stalked over snoozing children, venturing towards the rear of the room. The young lad looked on, intrigued by the developing plot.
Chucky parted from his accomplice's side and gracelessly scaled some desks stacked at the wall hosting the door. He achieved a rough balance on the desktop stationed beneath the air duct, unceremoniously tore the secured grate open on its hinges, and appeared to stand by while Billy fetched the bait of their practical joke.
A small body was plucked from the field of kids like a rotten carrot and locked in Billy's bear-like grip. Aside from the spooked look frozen in her saucer eyes (enlarged moreover by the aid of glasses, thereby affecting a comical appearance), Booger didn't resist as much as a squeak. She was effortlessly hoisted over the mammoth's shoulders and tossed into Chucky's greedy grasp like a bundle of cotton. Crono privately marveled at how tiny and lightweight the girl must have been, for not a hint of strain was expressed by either boy. He doubled back on this assumption by accounting for the sheer strength both bullies shared.
The childish lummox fumbled clumsily with the girl in his arms. He folded her bony frame like a package to be shipped in the mail, and then awkwardly stuffed her into the vent. Booger's squirming rattled the aluminum tunnel as she was forced inside its bowels. Chucky rashly silenced the artificial thunder with a blunt "Shut up!" and the metallic clunk of the passage's tin cover jarring shut. Grinning craftily, the hooligan sprang to the floor of padded mats and met Billy's palm with a "low-five" swipe.
The matching pair of girls crouched at the windows piped up in alarm.
"She's coming!" Lizzy squeaked, panicked.
"Quick, get down everyone!" Stacy called for evasive actions.
At this, the area exploded with movement. Kids crawled, rolled, dove, and generally scampered over their palpable surroundings as well as one another in a race back to their respective sleeping pads. Flexing his neck to investigate for himself, Crono could descry Miss Missy's ghostly silhouette gliding across the window blinds' slats.
The melee was effectively timed to die within seconds of the instructor's appearance in the doorway. The atmosphere resumed its placid countenance, and became perceivably still as breaths were collectively held.
The door easily yielded to Miss Missy entrance, as if it, too, feared impeding her in any manner. The woman keenly swept the hushed scene, probing for the residue of misbehavior. Once satisfied, she reactivated the light switch. An artificial radiance rained onto the little ones, momentarily stunning them.
"Okay children. Put the desks back, now."
The grating rustle of scuttling chair legs and a chorus of murmurs filled the following minute as furniture was shuffled around. For the length of this delay, Miss Missy retrieved a sample of text from her desk drawer and prepared for the upcoming lesson.
Her backside to the concession of pupils, she started, "We're going to continue where we left off yester--"
The elderly one's lecture was retarded by a foreign sound. She paused, baffled, then spun to meet her students, the last of whom were just planting their rumps in their seats.
"What's that noise?" she consorted with them.
An expected silence rewarded her enquiry, while incriminating snickers hugged one wall. When her gaze penetrated that region, Miss Missy discovered a vacant chair.
"Oh, for the love of..." she sighed, exasperated. Settling her wrists into the hollows above her hips, she turned a stern glare to the most likely culprit.
"Okay Mister McGraph, where is she this time?"
Billy offered upheld hands in what might have passed for a submissive display of innocence, had he not been sporting the broadest grin in the room. "I don't know what you're talking about, really!"
Chucky's face was so flushed with suppressed laughter that he buried himself in his elbows to shield it. Other witnesses were mimicking this reflex in lesser degrees.
The teacher, not overlooking this, scowled at both young men, miffed by their lack of cooperation as well as their pathetic efforts to mask the truth.
"I don't have time for games this afternoon, boys. Just tell me--"
Several heads perked up, ears open, and Miss Missy dampened her reproach with piqued listening.
Those attentive ones were instantly lured to the uppermost edge of the room, where a metal grid locked the air vent shut. The rectangular patch vibrated in squeaky pulses as a force shook it from the inside.
Drawing a conclusion, Miss Missy gasped, "Goodness gracious, how in the world...?" Abandoning the booklet she had procured from her desk, she maneuvered below the ventilation duct, cautiously unhinged her soles from her high-heeled shoes, and molded her footing to the nearest tabletop. Elevated like so, she reached for the shaft's cover and peeled it from its loosened bolts, revealing a shivering little girl.
The instructor's relief was drowned by an expressed annoyance. "...Bloody..." she cursed, "Not again..." The woman helped the whimpering lass to the floor, reclaimed her footwear, and addressed the rescued Booger. "Goodness, child, are you all right?"
She nodded hesitantly.
Miss Missy sighed, firmed the pads of her fingers against her temple, and waved dismissively with her free hand. "Sit down, then. Just... sit down," she ordered, her voice painted with checked agitation.
Booger was plainly obedient, and did just that.
Pacing to the head of the room, the teacher further decreed, "Mister McGraph, I'll see you in the office after class."
The accused coughed up a protest. "...But, hey! I didn't do--"
"--Yes, I know," his objection was sacrificed to sarcasm, "You never do anything. You should try to sell that to the principal, later. I'm sure Mister Roden will be absolutely convinced, considering he has your full conduct record."
The heavy lad wilted into his chair, outwitted. "Fine..." Billy muttered as short giggles bubbled around him.
"It's not funny, class," Miss Missy tersely muted them. Returning to the discarded readings, she resumed the lesson. "As I was saying, we're going to start reading..."
Class continued. Having evaded punishment, Chucky quietly praised his luck. Meanwhile, at the rear of the miniature assembly, Crono smirked, discontented with events, yet grateful for this turn of fate.
'Good. Billy's gonna be kept after class. Maybe then I can git him alone and git back my bandanna. He's really gonna eat it for stealin' from me and makin' me look like a fool. We'll see how tough he really is when he's all by himself with no buddies a' his to back him up.'
He shot the back of his adversary's head a brief, hard stare.
'We'll jus' see...'
That was the time as Crono would have read it, had the wall clock he was intently fixed on been labeled in anything besides "tab numerals," an outdated counting system instituted prior to the rise of the Guardian regime. Use of the tediously inscribed crossbars to represent quantities had been reserved, in modern times, strictly for ornamental purposes.
Already lacking a mastery of even rudimentary time scales, Crono found the fancy clock to be more irritating than informative.
"Stupid tab numbers," the lad grumbled as he studied the ticking appliance, lofty on its nail spiking the opposite wall. With his forearms propped on his knees and his cheeks bunched into his hands, he anxiously teetered on the rim of the bench outside the school's back office.
Crono navigated to the principal's room without complication once he recalled that it was adjoined to Miss Debbins's workspace, where at this moment the day before he was doing very much what he was doing now: sitting around, killing time.
A dose of patience was the only ingredient the edgy young boy was pressed for as he fidgeted with a threadbare strategy over how to confront the suspected bandanna thief. His tactical daydreaming was foiled, however, by tell-tale sounds of voices, largely smothered by the nearby door. Their ripening coherency was enough to warrant eavesdropping.
"...I don't know what I'm going to do with you, William," spoke a voice saturated with masculine authority. The principal, Crono assumed.
"You can't keep yourself out of trouble for one single day! You're disruptive, no matter what we do, or where we put you. You disrupt classes, you harass the other students--"
"--And the teachers," chimed an unmistakably perturbed Miss Missy.
"...And even the teachers!" the first echoed, reinforcing his co-worker's point. "I... I honestly can't think of any word besides 'disruptive' to describe you, William! What do you have to say for yourself?"
The invitation to reply was bitterly indulged upon. "I didn't hurt anything... It was just a joke! Don't you 'teacher' types have a sense of humor?"
"I'm sure that little girl didn't find it very funny," the female smartly retorted. "You have no tact at all, do you, young man? It's not very gentlemen-like to pick on girls. Your mother should have at least taught you that by now, if anything. We wouldn't even be here discussing this if you had so much as the slightest shred of..."
A wavering quiet accompanied Miss Missy's hunt for fitting words. "...decency... to pick on a girl capable of... defending herself! You know very well that poor child has problems, and needs special attention. Instead, you ruthlessly torture her for your own amusement, with no thought what-so-ever to how she might feel!"
"Retards don't have feelings!" Billy spat defensively.
"We can see about that!" the headmaster roared at such impudence, "When we ship you off to the remedial school on the west side, where they'll make you re-learn your character charts and treat you 'extra special,' just like all the other 'retards' there. Then you can see for yourself if they have feelings or not. Or you can just take my advice and keep this in mind the next time you want to start one of your 'jokes' in the middle of class."
"I thought this was the retard school!" Billy fired back.
Funny, Crono thought. So did he.
The drywall was no shield against the boom of the principal's voice, and even Crono shrank into his shirt with a guilty cringe. To follow-up his outburst, Mister Roden soaked his threat in a period of silence and allowed a sensible tone to return to him.
"...Am I understood, William?"
The following grunt must have resembled "yessir," because the reprover sanctioned Billy's exit with a disgusted, "Get out of my face, then. I don't want to see you here again."
Crono flinched as the nearest panel with hinges shuttled open and a disgruntled youth stormed into the cavernous hallway. Impervious to the red-haired one gawking at his tantrum, Billy flung his stampeding gait towards the nearest escape, as well as a selected finger towards the ceiling. A snarled, "My mother's dead, bitch," escorted him outside, where the afternoon's ferocious blaze was the hefty bully's sole concern.
Crono's hesitation in pursuing Billy was catalyzed by such cold vulgarity, and his composure dissolved into an unblinking stupor. The brazen, callous attitude his rival brandished was as disturbing as his flashing temper and monstrous girth. To label adults with profane words, even while excluded from their hearing, was unfathomable in the boy's eyes. Having experimented with that variant in language once before, Crono's only retainable memory of the event coincided with his first tasting of bathroom soap.
The lad's faltering courage deliberated revoking his quarrel with Billy before incurring another regrettable incident.
'No way.' He shook his head, as if to dislodge his irresolution from atop it. 'I want that bandanna back. I've waited too long to run away now.'
Clinging to that thought to fortify his decision, Crono finally moved to chase, and sped through the building's rear gate.