Chapter 2:

The Dream of Normalcy



A baseball flew away from the bat, slamming into the green plastic net of the batting cage. The worn white ball rolled back towards the batter, tapping her brown boots with a soft 'thud.' The sound of which was drowned out by the clang of another baseball being hit, then another, and another— And finally, the whirling noise of the automatic pitching machine.

It was an old device that spat baseballs at high speeds for baseball players to hit. It was also being replaced by a newer, more modern machine. While the school staff decided what to do with the old machine, they had stored it on the school roof. The roof was a treasure trove of old things that the school might one day throw away. Not just the batting machine and cage, but broken desks, chairs, and even some other out-dated equipment.

The girl with brown boots— the one who had been hitting the baseballs,— exiled a puff of white breath. It was a normal spring morning. Frost coated the rooftop and the cold bit at the girl's ears and nose. They had gone rosy pink with irritation, but she was too stubborn to go inside just yet. The only light came from the slowly rising sun and an old lantern that was set outside of the batting cage.

She walked towards the baseball spewing machine, which was coughing empty, and pressed a switch to turn it off. The old thing ran on a rechargeable battery and she decided to plug it in before leaving the roof. Her hands were cold from holding the metal baseball bat, so she cupped them over her face and blew warm breath into them. She giggled at the sight of her white breath as it puffed out in a steam cloud. It made her want to pretend she was a fictional dragon who breathed fire.

At that moment, Samantha did not know that she would soon be facing a real life dragon. In just eight hours, her life would depend on her new bat swinging skills.

Until then, she continued on her morning routine. After her exercise, she released her long brown hair from its active ponytail and combed it out with her fingers. She then picked up every baseball that she had hit, and stored them neatly in a basket. The bat, too, she wiped down to keep it clean from sweat before she tucked it away.

Once everything looked the same way she had found it, she sneakily walked back to the staircase. Technically, students weren't allowed to play with the old equipment stored on the roof. They weren't even allowed to come to the roof at all…

But Samantha had once had detention and been given the janitor's key so that she could access the cleaning supplies. 'Accidentally,' she had taken the key to a hardware store and 'somehow' duplicated it once.

Or twice.

She might have made three copies, just to be safe.

Getting caught on the roof would mean even more detention and would soon lead to her being suspended from school. There had been a time when she purposefully got suspended so as to get her parents' attention, but things had changed. She was now focused on her perfect attendance record and equally perfect grades. So while she still broke a few rules, she now made a conscious effort not to be caught doing so.

"On the roof again, huh?"

The sound of a voice was therefore enough to give Samantha a mini heart attack. She clenched her teeth and shrieked softly in alarm, ducking under an abandoned desk in the same motion. She heard the boy's voice laugh softly and recognized its owner. Pouting now, she got out from under the desk and glared at Mikale.

"You are too. Tattle and we'll both be suspended." She grumbled sourly.

"You know I won't." Mikale said, calming his teasing laughter. He walked over to her and took her bare hands in his, his expression now one of amused concern. "You're going to get frost bite if you don't come inside."

She maintained her pout, with air puffing her cheeks like a chipmunk. But, accepting his logic, she also nodded. "Fine… But just one more minute!"

"One more?" Mikale asked doubtfully. He felt her cold hands pull away from his effortlessly, as if she didn't treasure their contact, and watched as she darted to the edge of the roof. She hopped up, her pink skirt fluttering in a morning breeze, and put her palms down on the concrete ledge that surrounded the roof.

It looked like she was about to leap frog jump off of the school. Enough so that Mikale almost called out for her to stop, but was too mortified to make a sound. He could only reach out a hand to try to stop her.

Fortunately, she didn't jump off. Instead, with her usual level of careless confidence, she had pulled herself on the ledge and was now sitting with her legs hanging off of it. That, too, filled Mikale with anxiety… A lot of things did.

"The sun is rising!" She announced, her voice filled with cheer, "Check it out! It's pink this morning!"

Mikale stood by her side and released a loud, tired sigh. This girl really knew how to toy with his feelings. One moment he was scared to death for her, then the next he was so grateful that they were friends. He leaned forward, elbows on the ledge, and smiled out towards the horizon.

"Yeah, sure is. It's pretty."

"And look!" Samantha pointed outward, "You can see the shop lights coming on!"

"Must be almost six, then." Mikale mused, "You can see cars in the parking lot too."

"Ooooh, you can! Looks like stars, doesn't it?"

It really did.

From the school roof, they could see the stretching layout of their humble hometown. There was a parking lot in front of the school building, with a sidewalk that cut it cleanly in two. Across the parking lot was an iron gate, which marched the perimeter of the campus. Beyond that was a shopping district. The shops ran parallel to the school for over a mile. Overall, the area was highly modernized and most of the wildlife had been replaced with sleek, modern buildings.

Mikale found them ugly. At least in the morning, in moments like this, he could pretend the over-development was a sky of stars.

"What is it that the sailors say?" Samantha asked, bringing Mikale back to reality, "Red in the morny, sailors get horny?"

"No!" Mikale felt his cheeks flare red and straightened up, "Warning! Sailors take warning!"

"Ooooh. Hm." The brunette pressed her index finger to her lower lip, frowning thoughtfully.

"So if the sky is pink and almost red… Do the sailors need to almost take warning today?"

"Uhhh…" Still flustered by Samantha's earlier misunderstanding, Mikale had no answer.

 So, his silly friend continued on the conversation with herself. She spat out a laugh and then wiggled her legs. "What am I saying? We aren't sailors! Silly!"

[You're the silly one.] Mikale wanted to say, but he bit his tongue. Literally, because Samantha swung her legs over the edge and jumped into his arms. He was caught off guard and stumbled backwards, also biting his tongue from the surprise of it all.

At least he succeeded in controlling her landing.

"Okay! Time for school breakfast!" She declared, strolling passed him and towards the staircase, "I'm freezing!"

There was no point arguing with her. In fact, Mikale had no will to argue with her. For all of her silly antics, careless ways, and unearned confidence… As long as being with Samantha was his new 'normal,' Mikale felt like he would be okay.

In eight hours, that philosophy would be tested by a dragon.

The high school building was technically only two stories tall, unless one counted the rooftop as a third story. A spiral staircase led off of the roof and then opened at a locked door on the second floor. Mikale and Samantha snuck through that door and locked it behind them, then hurried down the wider staircase that would take them to the ground level.

Unless they had clubs, students normally did not arrive at school before six AM. The only exceptions were those whose families left for work absurdly early. For those students, the cafeteria was opened at six o'clock sharp and began serving free hot breakfast.

Samantha and Mikale joined the short cafeteria line, acquired their free meals, and then settled down at a lunch table. The cafeteria was wide and spacious, with rows of long rectangular tables lining the space. The duo claimed a space far from the cafeteria's double doors and ate quickly.

"Morning." It had only been fifteen minutes before Shugo arrived. He dropped his heavy blue backpack on an empty seat next to Samantha, while his twin sister dropped her own bag into the seat across from him. Shugo and Usagi were peculiar kids, with unnaturally blond hair and hazel eyes so bright that they looked like gold. Combined with their unusual hobbies and upbringing, the pair had few friends at school. Outside of Mikale and Samantha, that is.

Samantha smiled up at them and returned Shugo's greeting. "Goo~d morning, Shoes! Usa! You're here early."

"It's waffle day at the cafeteria." Usagi said with a soft giggle, "You know how my brother feels about waffles."

"Oh. That's too bad, Shugo." Samantha said sadly, cupping her cheek with a hand and putting on a pitiful face, "Mikky and I got the last waffles."

"You what?!" Shugo yelled. His outburst echoed through the cafeteria and earned them some odd stares.

Feeling awkward, he sat down and tried to lower his head. "You can't be serious!"

"I am."

"She isn't." Mikale sighed, "Even if she was… You know she would have saved you some."

"I-I wouldn't."

"You would." Usagi corrected Samantha gently. She had a serene sort of aura to her and a skill for ending arguments. Something she likely gained from having to calm her argumentative brother. "You three are such good friends. It's obvious to me that you guys really love each other."

"We don't!" Both boys sputtered.

Samantha, on the other hand, seemed to glow with delight at the phrasing. She nodded eagerly. "We do, don't we? We've got the power of love!"

"You have the power of stupid, more like it." Shugo groaned and stood up from his seat. "I'm grabbing waffles. Want some, Usagi?"

"Yes, please." Usagi settled down in her seat, synchronized with her brother's leaving his. Then she smiled deviously at the pair across from her. "So, are you two ready?"

"Ready for…?" Mikale started to prompt her.

"Me me! I am SO ready!" Samantha leaned across the table, raising her arm enthusiastically.People in school were used to Samantha being weird, so no one in the cafeteria batted an eye at her antics.

"Uh… Am I ready?" Mikale asked Usagi.

"I don't know. Are you?"

"I don't know. Am I?" He countered nervously, "What am I ready for…?"

"Dungeons! And DRAGONS!" Samantha cheered, both arms now thrown in the air triumphantly, "Don't you remember?! Usa said she would DM for us!"

"Direct message…? On what platform?" Mikale mumbled. His confidence to ask questions was quickly being enveloped by a feeling of stupidity. As if they sensed his discomfort, the two girls calmed down.

Well. Samantha was the one who had to calm down.

"Dungeons and Dragons is a tabletop roleplaying game." Usagi explained in a calm, level voice. Seeing the boy's vacant expression, she elaborated, "It's like playing pretend together."

"It's a game." Samantha repeated what was probably her favorite part, "We get to pretend to go on adventures together! Like playing make-believe when we were kids!"

"Oh…" He still didn't quite understand, but Mikale nodded anyway. "Sounds fun… But when did I agree to this?"

"Since when to we get to 'agree' to anything?" Sounded Shugo's voice from over his shoulder,  "When Samantha's involved, isn't the answer always 'yes?'"

"Well…" Mikale started.

"If you said 'yes' to all of her ideas, I think you would both be dead by now." Usagi finished for him. When she saw Samantha frown with insult, Usagi softened her tone. "Sorry, Sammy. But it's true."

Shugo set a tray full of waffles on the table, where Usagi and him both had access to it. While his sister began dividing the meal between them, Shugo leaned over his school bag and dragged some thick books out of the front pocket. They slammed against the table with a loud THUD.

Even at a distance, Samantha and Mikale could smell age reeking from the well-loved books."These!" Shugo heaved, "Are the manuals! You can read the basics and make characters using these."

Mikale flipped the top cover on the stack of three books, then gave Shugo a concerned look. "These are thicker than my history book."

"That's because we'll use them to MAKE history!" Samantha spurted out some useless nonsense, "We need to learn about everything! Like elves, and goblins, troll, wizards, dragons… And lotsa weapons!"

Though still clouded by his doubts, Mikale removed the top book from the stack. He cautiously flipped back the hardcover and skimmed over the first few pages. It really was like a tome full of foreign history. He was completely unfamiliar with fantasy tropes, which made the contents feel overwhelming.

"We'll walk you through it." Usagi assured him, "We can meet after school at our house. Since there aren't any club rooms available."

"We could always use the roof?" Samantha offered with a mischievous grin.

An expression that was promptly wiped off of her face when Shugo pinched her cheek. "And howww would we get to the LOCKED and FORBIDDEN roof, Sam?"

"Uhhhghhh!" Samantha whined, "I-I 'unno, I 'unno. Magic? I'll use my DnD magiiic?"

"Don't lie." Shugo hissed now, keeping his voice hushed for privacy. He released his grip on her cheek and glared at her. "I thought I told you to return the janitor's key."

"I did!" She pouted, cupping her cheek where he had pinched her. Samantha was usually quite good at telling lies and half-truths. It was a skill that kept her afloat. But even she caved under Shugo's earnest concern. Though he showed his concern by glaring at her. "I mean… Technically. But it had three babies."

"Keys don't have babies, Sam." Shugo hissed. He held out his hand, palm stretched upward, and darkened his glare. "Give them here."

"Um." She swallowed nervously, "Why? Y-You're… not gonna turn them in, are you?"

"Better me than you." He said firmly. "I can just say I found them on the ground."

"But…" Samantha tried to protest, even looking to Usagi and Mikale for assistance. Neither came to her aid. They simply nodded, apparently agreeing with Shugo's plan.

Usagi even decided to drive the point home with a threat. "I won't be dungeon master if you have stolen keys."

"I didn't steal them, though. I made them." Samantha continued a soft, pouting protest. Then, broken by the threat, she removed the ring of keys from her skirt's pocket and placed them in Shugo's outstretched hand.

Complaining the whole time. "I was like a key mama. Good bye, my children."

"Good bye, key mama." Shugo replied in a mock high-pitched voice, pretending to the key children.

Then he stuffed the key ring into the pocket of his jeans, turned back to the table, and continued eating his breakfast.

Thusly, in eight hours, Shugo Yumeno was able to save the day by having not one— not even two,— but THREE keys to the school.

He clumsily slammed the first of the keys into the front door. Eight hours after eating his waffles, after laughing about fantasy games with his friends, after thinking his only danger would come from Samantha's silly antics— After all of that, he was being chased by a real life dragon!

"Hurry! Hurry!!!" Samantha pleaded from where she stood next to him, "Mikale can't distract it forever!"

With shaking hands, Shugo twisted the key and shoved the school door open. It was thick, made of heavy metal and intended to withstand all sort of punishment. The school building had been designed with being an evacuation shelter in mind, so it was exceptionally sturdy.[Hopefully sturdy enough to withstand a dragon!] Shugo thought.

He dragged Samantha into the building and shoved her into the main entrance area. Leaning outside the door, he waved his arms to get Mikale's attention.

"Hurry up! It's open!"

His friend had been darting around the schoolyard with the dragon in close pursuit. When he heard the yell, Mikale twisted his body and launched himself towards the building. Shugo stretched out his own hand, grabbed his friend's arm, and then pulled the boy into the school. Together, both boys pushed their weight against the door and slammed it shut.

There was a loud THUD and a roaring wail… Then the sound of claws scratching the door and deep, throaty growls…

But miraculously, the door somehow held firm. The vibrations of the scratching eventually faded to nothing.

What was left was something resembling calm. Mikale pressed his back against the door, panting from exhaustion, while Shugo leaned against the door with his arms outstretched. With no fire, no roaring, and no dragonic pursuit, the boys had a chance to catch their breath. There was no other sound in the empty main entrance. The white interior brick was thick enough to dampen the chaos outside. Finally, the teens were free from the horrific death screams of those less lucky than themselves.

"Who's speaking?" Behind them, Samantha's voice sounded softly. Shugo glanced over his shoulder in concern and saw her standing on shaking legs. One hand was held to her face, her palm covering her right eye. She looked to be in pain, but he saw no blood or sign of injury on her petite body.

She whimpered, and repeated the words that echoed in her mind. "Systems merge, 25%…? Who's saying that? Who's there?"

The boys shared a concerned look.

"Sam... What are you talking about?" Shugo finally asked, "There's no one else here."