Chapter 5:

Side Quest: Memories of Junior High

Real Life Starfight

When Hinami Hanabi started junior high, she was excited to find that one thing she could excel at. It wasn’t to help decide what she wanted to do in the future or benefit it in any way, even she understands it’s too early to think of that, but she wanted something to help make her school days more fun. To find friends to share those memories with. During her first few months, Hanabi tried many activities; track, volleyball, creative writing, theater, music, photography, floral arrangements, but struggled to find enjoyment out of any of them. The happiness and excitement she felt when she started, slowly descended until she was no longer smiling as she left for school each morning. Exhausted, she decided that maybe it was best to just focus on her studies, a task she knew she could excel at already. Day after day, the same activities, the boredom started piling up. Bookmark here

Then one day she randomly decided to walk through the town area before going home. It's a common area for students as it has a few different shops and cafes. While passing an electronic store, she noticed a flyer for ‘Starfight Online’, the hit MMO that was released a few years earlier. Although she doesn’t play games, she has heard other students at school talking about it, describing it as a unique and fun gaming experience. With no other options at the time, she decided to give it a try, buying a simple headset from that same store with her allowance before going home. Later that night, after eating dinner with her parents and younger brother, she went upstairs to install the game, doing some homework in the meantime. Once complete, she opens it and in the game screen are dozens of stars that all slowly disappear until you only see the clear night sky, then appears the title ‘Starfight’. She creates an account, deciding to use a mage due to the pretty design and hardly customizes her character as a result, only changing the hair to be long and a bright red. Her username is where she struggles the most. After thinking for a bit, she goes with Flora, after the first part of her name ‘Hana’, and Mae, the name of a character in a book she read when she was little. And with that she joins the game for the first time, arriving at The Fountain of Truth.Bookmark here

As a new player, there are few fields she can travel to, in order to prevent encountering a monster far stronger than she can handle. Having no idea of what she’s doing, and starting to regret even making an account already, she simply wanders until she reaches the Voiceless Meadows. A beautiful, vast field with no monsters in sight. There are a few players scattered, but only one stands out to her. A tall man with black hair, dark armor and a large sword on his back. She clicks on it to see the username ‘Hargrave’, a player at level 72. She then notices a button beside his name to request communication. Hesitant at first, not knowing if this player is even Japanese with a username like that, she pressed it and waited for a response. Discouraged after 2 minutes of silence, she steadily shifts her mouse towards the log off button until she hears a response.Bookmark here

“Do you need something? I usually have this turned off.”Bookmark here

It's a man's voice, sounds young, possibly her age. However, speaking in a rude tone, Hanabi feels she did something wrong. Nervous, she has trouble coming up with the best thing to say and apologizes;Bookmark here

"I-I'm sorry. Your character stood out to me, I couldn't help trying."Bookmark here

Another moment of silence follows as Hargrave analyzes her character, then saying,Bookmark here

“So you’re a new player. Are you looking for some tips?”Bookmark here

“Yes please!” Hanabi says, excited that someone is willing to help. “I’ve never played a game like this before.”Bookmark here

“Wow, a completely new player. Well that’s one of the many good things about this game, they make it easy for players like you.”Bookmark here

Hargrave explains that he has been playing this game for just under a year now and knows all the best starter areas to level up quickly. He shows Hanabi, only knowing her as Flora, around those areas and also forms a party so they can battle more easily as well. After taking part in a few, he sends her a list of websites for her to read up on skills and spells, telling Flora to pick a few she likes, suggesting she focus on healing and defense as they are more desirable for parties recently. They wound up playing through the night, helping Hanabi reach level 18 already, and as it’s close to midnight, they get ready to say their goodbyes. Bookmark here

“Will I get to play with you again?” Hanabi asks, having enjoyed spending the time together.Bookmark here

“Sure, I’ll be on tomorrow. You reminded me how fun it is starting out, I’d be happy to help out some more.” Hargrave admits.Bookmark here

And with that they promise to meet again and logoff. Hanabi places her headset on her desk and, feeling so much joy she can barely contain it, she giggles aloud and then lays on her back in bed with the biggest smile on her face. “Hargrave….what a cool name.” Hanabi says, thinking back on their fun gaming session tonight. Bookmark here

After that, Hargrave and Flora played together a few nights each week, always meeting in the Voiceless Meadow. Flora caught onto the game quickly, even learning some spells and skills when she played alone in order to be of better use in battle. Focusing on the one aspect of playing with Hargrave, Flora became the best support possible. After playing for 4 weeks, Flora rose to level 53, with Hargrave at 92. It was almost scary how fast she was catching up, making Hargrave feel he couldn’t slack off. Playing together so often, they became known as a powerful team. It wasn’t just ‘Hargrave the Hero’ anymore, it was ‘Hargrave and Flora the Perfect Duo’. So many players wanted to recruit them, but they mostly kept to themselves just as Hargrave normally did before meeting her, preferring to play together rather than in a big group.Bookmark here

Back in the real world, weeks after meeting in Starfight, Hanabi glances at her one classmate at school. Sitting in the middle of class is Kiyama Seiji. He has blue eyes and short black hair, with bangs covering most of his forehead and the scar above his right eye. She thought he looked familiar recently, but it took a few days until she figured it out. The eyes and hair are very similar to Hargrave, except without the scar and, after remembering that he sounded young much like herself, she couldn’t stop herself from approaching his desk during break, simply saying;Bookmark here

“Hey Kiyama.”Bookmark here

After getting his attention, he looks up and is shocked to see who is speaking to him. Besides the fact that students avoid talking to him in general, he knows this classmate is very shy and generally only speaks when spoken to.Bookmark here

“I was wondering. Do you also play Starfight Online?” Bookmark here

Hanabi then leans in closer, inches from his face, moving Seiji’s bangs on his right side to more clearly see the scar on his forehead. Still in shock, Seiji says nothing, simply blushing by the sudden close encounter. Finally realizing what she’s doing, Hanabi backs up, face bright red, and immediately apologizes before running out of the classroom in embarrassment. Despite the other classmates also feeling confused by what just happened, they push the blame onto Seiji, wondering what he did to make her react that way, and then move on, getting back to what they were doing before. Bookmark here

Ignoring his classmates, Seiji decides not to go after her to try to clarify what happened. Instead he considers that this girl, Hinami Hanabi, may be the new player Flora Mae in Starfight that he’s been playing with the past few weeks, and decides to wait for her in their usual meeting spot. However, hours pass and she never shows up. Confirming his suspicion, he gathers the courage to ask her the next day. Fidgeting as the day passes, trying to find the right moment, knowing if he didn’t do so today then it would be all the more difficult to talk to her, he is finally able to after the closing bell rings, approaching her desk immediately after.Bookmark here

“Hey, Hinami, can we talk?”Bookmark here

“If it’s about yesterday I already apologized.” Hanabi says while looking away, still feeling embarrassed.Bookmark here

Slightly flustered himself, Seiji tries to be more specific and actually answers her question from before, “Yes, but no it’s not that. Starfight! You were right, I do play it.”Bookmark here

Hanabi smiles brightly and suddenly stands up, agreeing to talk. They both gather their items and walk to a bench out by the side of the school where no one else can bother them. They discuss how they found out about the game, why they chose their class, and why they enjoy playing so much. Even though they spoke plenty of times in the game, it was always about playing itself, not anything else, almost making it feel like this was the first time they ever met.Bookmark here

“Your hair and eyes, they look almost exactly like your character Hargrave. It took me a few days to notice. The only thing missing is….your scar.” Hanabi says, unsure if she should have even mentioned that.Bookmark here

Hesitant to talk about that topic initially, Seiji then asks himself ‘Why did she choose to talk to me in class?’. She could have just continued with how things were in the game, keeping their identities to themselves, but instead she approached him which brought them to where they are now. Considering that, he decided to trust her and tell her the whole truth. Being in the same class, she’s sure to have heard the rumors, but that’s only a fragment of his story.Bookmark here

“You’ve probably heard some of this already, but the scar was caused by my mother. Upset that she lost her job one day, she started destroying everything in our home and when I came out to see what was going on, a glass shard nicked my head. I was bleeding a lot and she took me to the doctor, but that was the end of it all.” Bookmark here

As Seiji explains, he feels the scar and looks towards the ground. “I never saw her again after that. Losing my family, bullying commenced at school, and I felt all alone until I found Starfight. Playing helps me forget all that, helps me feel free. I’ve even become so popular people call me a hero!”Bookmark here

Watching his sadness quickly turn into joy, Hanabi can’t help smiling to herself.Bookmark here

“It sounds like Hargrave helped you move on from your past.” Hanabi says after considering all he said. “From the start I could tell how much you enjoy playing.”Bookmark here

Happy that this conversation was easier than he expected, Seiji then says what he wanted to from the start, looking straight at Hanabi, “I hope...we can continue playing together.”Bookmark here

“Of course.” Hanabi says with her usual smile. “I was just too embarrassed to log in last night.”Bookmark here

“I figured that out at least.” Seiji says with a laugh, finding it silly that she even needed to say that.Bookmark here

Both finishing in a better mood after yesterday's exchange, they go their separate ways, heading home for the day. After clearing everything up, they talk regularly in school and in Starfight, meeting as often as possible, enjoying every moment. However it doesn’t last long. A few weeks later, the bullies who normally target Seiji, switch to his new friend Hanabi. They kept things simple, just stopping her in the hall and threatening her a few times. Initially she was able to escape them and hide it all from Seiji, but then he witnessed a verbal attack in the hall. Seeing Hanabi backed against the wall, clearly frightened, Seiji rushed over and forced them to leave, then turned to Hanabi, asking her how long this has been happening. She explains it’s only been a week, adding that she kept it from him to avoid taking the blame. Enraged at first, Seiji just sighs and looks away.Bookmark here

“Maybe this was a mistake. I’m sure this is why no one ever talks to me.”Bookmark here

Seiji then walks away, making sure not to look back to see how upset Hanabi was, knowing it would make this more difficult. Simply leaving the distraught Hanabi with those words, he decides to break off their friendship for her safety. Bookmark here

Returning to how it was before, Seiji keeps to himself in school, not talking to anyone, and plays Starfight as the lone hero Hargrave. He thought it would be easy, but after the weekend passed and the next school week began, Seiji realized how much he missed spending time with Hanabi. Leaving his lonely life behind was an easy thing, but to have to return to it so quickly was tougher than he imagined. Not to mention he noticed the bullying still continued. The following Tuesday morning, before the school bell rang, Seiji slams his hands on his desk, seemingly letting out all his pent up emotion from the recent events, and then shouts towards his newfound friend as loud as he could.Bookmark here

“Hanabi!! Never leave me side again! I’ll protect you for the rest of my life!!”Bookmark here

Surprised, Hanabi can’t help tearing up and smiling. Seiji then takes a look at the rest of the classroom to see most of the seats are full, meaning he made that declaration in front of almost the entire class. Frozen solid, the students start teasing him, calling them ‘love birds’ and asking if that was a marriage proposal. Hanabi is unfazed by the teasing, too focused on how happy she is after hearing that, but Seiji sits down and lays his head on his desk, covering his head with his arms, wanting to disappear in embarrassment.Bookmark here

After that incident, the teasing never stopped. Seiji and Hanabi became the big couple at school and they learned to deal with it, accepting it for what it is since they were just happy to be together. The bullying never stopped either, but as promised that one morning, Seiji was always there to protect her, never leaving her side since.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.