Chapter 2:

I'd like to try something different

Good Luck! Students (*hiatus)

"Today, starting with all eighty of you, we will create a new environment that bolsters empowerment. I encourage you to build healthy relationships and spread positivity. Today will be known as…"The Day of Change!"Bookmark here

"WHAAAT!?"Bookmark here

"HUUH??"Bookmark here

Everyone disregarded the acoustics of the gym, not caring that their shouts would echo throughout the room. Unsurprisingly, all the students' response to Principal Kagemori's declaration was full of shock. We didn't understand what our principal was trying to do here. To me, his words sounded vague. I understood the principal's intentions as I listened to his speech, but I was unsure of how he was going to accomplish his goal. Amidst all the confusion, everyone heard a feminine voice giggling and quieted down. Someone else must have been given a microphone. But who?Bookmark here

"Principal Kagemori, I think it's time we take over from here."Bookmark here

We scanned the gym floor for the source of the unknown speaker. We quickly found the target as we watched a blonde-haired woman step forward. It was one of the visitors dressed in red.Bookmark here

"Heya!" The woman waved and greeted us with a chipper tone.Bookmark here

"You guys need to chill for a bit! Just relax and have fun. Let yourself get loose!"Bookmark here

Everyone remained seated on the bleachers, unmoving. Just like all the other kids, I didn't understand what we were supposed to be doing here. First, the principal says to make friends, and this lady is telling us to enjoy ourselves. But how are we supposed to do that? It's not like people open up their hearts to each other in a day.Bookmark here

"Hit it!"Bookmark here

The woman had shouted so loudly that she didn't need to use the microphone, but seeing how she turned away from the bleachers, it seemed to be directed toward her colleagues. Out of nowhere, the people in red began passing a giant volleyball to one another. And before we could process anything, they suddenly hurled the ball towards us in the bleachers. The volleyball was aimed in the middle between the second and third row. Reflexes kicked in as the kids who would've come into contact with the volleyball instinctively dodged instead of hitting it.Bookmark here

"Come on! Don't be afraid of the ball. Hit the ball."Bookmark here

The students who sat near the volleyball looked at each other awkwardly at first, but they complied with the woman's request. One boy tossed the ball upward with minimal effort, seeing as how the highest it rose was just above his head.Bookmark here

"What!? You can do better than that!" Hit it higher. More energy!"Bookmark here

The boy hit it again, but this time he was aided by surrounding students who kept the ball in midair as they made it bounce higher.Bookmark here

"That's more like it! Now come on down. It's time to get up out of your seats and keep the ball rolling!"Bookmark here

Everyone seemed okay with playing along with the volunteer's game. A group of kids held the volleyball over their heads as they walked down the bleachers while others followed behind them. Maybe they thought it would be distracting having to keep the ball in the air as they left their seats. Hardly anyone uses the steps to get off the bleachers despite the staff's repeated warnings, so you have to be careful climbing down or you could trip and fall. I guess this was another one of those moments where I had to follow the crowd. If I didn't want to make myself look like the odd one out, then I didn't have a choice.Bookmark here

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Now that we all stood on the gym's hardwood floor, the game could continue. The volleyball was tossed up into the air and passed along the crowd. Some kids were really getting into it. With every hit, the volleyball rose higher and higher into the air. The sounds of hearty laughter spread throughout the room like an infectious disease. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. For the very first time, I saw what appeared to be genuine smiles on my classmates' faces. They looked relaxed and laid-back like they didn't have a care in the world. It wasn't a game of who could keep the ball in the air the longest, but rather a team effort. Everyone wanted to share their joyful moment.Bookmark here

What was going on?Bookmark here

These were the students of Kentō Academy who only cared about making progress in their studies. These were the self-centered students who wouldn't speak a word to anyone. They come to school, learn something new, take notes, then go home and study. And now, those same students were all united as one big happy group. What did those people in red do to them? Could one game change them just like that?Bookmark here

Suddenly, music began blaring out of the speakers in the gymnasium. The song that played wasn't anything recognizable, even with its lack of words. It was one of those free stock songs that started with a generic baseline beat intent on getting you moving. I just couldn't get into the groove, but everyone else seemed to be captivated by it.Bookmark here

"Come on, everyone! Show us your moves!"Bookmark here

An upbeat tune began as the song's main melody kicked in. Soon, the volleyball was tossed aside, and the students moved in different directions. Just like when the volleyball was tossed into the bleachers, this new dance session began just as awkwardly. Clearly, half of the students here weren’t experienced dancers. They tried to mimic the motions of a dancer by performing elaborate jumps and twists that didn’t quite match up with the moves they were trying to copy. Others were a bit more honest with their moves as they shuffled from side to side and tapped their feet. Then, there were the ones who were more enthusiastic than the rest by busting out fully choreographed routines that were probably borrowed from music videos or popular anime shows. Once again, I was stunned and at a loss for words. The students pulling off these stunts looked like the quiet kids, the ones who didn't dare speak at all even if they wanted to. This included some of my classmates as well. It was their energy that spread among the other students, which loosened up and challenged them to perform more daring movements. After seeing how they moved, I had almost forgotten about the teachers. The embarrassing sight of them trying to look "hip" and "cool" with their moves as they joined their students to dance was absolutely cringeworthy, so much so that I blocked it out of my mind.Bookmark here

The crowd was elated. Everyone was practically glowing with happiness. Somehow the first-years were united as a team yet again. They weren't in a bitter classroom studying their hats off and nor was their blood rising. There were no worries to be had, not a care in the world. Everyone was just having fun. I had blended in with the group of shufflers, but the vibe was growing too strong for me to handle. I shuffled my way out unnoticed and slowly crept to the back wall. As fate would have it, I wasn't alone. Another student had already separated themself from everyone else. We were all first-years, but he didn't look familiar. Bookmark here

Obviously, he wasn't one of my classmates. He had spiky, messy hair and wore round glasses. I didn't want to stereotype, but he looked like a nerd, to be honest. He also seemed approachable, but I wasn't one to start a conversation. Since I said nothing, he took it upon himself to take the lead. Just as I suspected, he was the friendly type who didn't mind engaging in idle chatter.Bookmark here

"You're skipping out too, huh?"Bookmark here

I looked at him but remained silent.Bookmark here

"It's not every day we get to have an assembly quite like this one. What do you think their aim is, anyway?"Bookmark here

"Huh? What do you mean?" I blinked. What was he getting at?Bookmark here

"Do you actually believe we're supposed to make friends and have a good time? Is the goal of this assembly really that simple? I thought this assembly was going to be more of a challenge, you know? Not…this. Maybe I'm looking at this from the wrong angle."Bookmark here

"So, it's not your thing, then." I stated flatly. Otherwise, he wouldn't have gone through the trouble to distance himself.Bookmark here

"No, no, it's not like that. It just feels weird. I thought we were called here because something serious was about to happen, but this isn't what I was expecting at all. How come you're not out there with them?"Bookmark here

"Same as you, I guess. We both came in with different expectations, but this is what we ended up walking into. They want us to connect with each other…but what happens once we do that? Is that all it takes to improve our lives here at the academy?"Bookmark here

"Hmm… You must be one of the students who aren't interested in friendship, but you seem different from the others. The boundaries that we've set aren't what's keeping you from reaching out. Even if Kentō Academy was a normal school, you'd probably just keep to yourself and ignore everyone around you."Bookmark here

I folded my arms and turned away from him. What he said just now didn't sit well with me. Now that I think about it, his impression of me wasn't too far off the mark. He made me sound so…closed off from the rest. It was the truth laid bare. But after hearing it spoken aloud by another person, a pit formed in my stomach. Am I a terrible person?Bookmark here

"....I'm not that cruel."Bookmark here

I tried to reassure myself with that lie just to feel better about myself. To be honest, I didn't want to isolate myself from anyone. But at this school, I can't trust anybody, not when we're all fighting for the same thing. I say that, but at the same time, I have to agree with the guy. Even I don't believe I would go out of my way to befriend other people. To make friends, you need sympathy, understanding, kindness, and heart. When it comes down to it, I'm just the worst. I don't have what it takes to possess those qualities.Bookmark here

"Hey, it's okay. Not everybody can be outgoing. I'm sure you just like having peace and quiet whenever you can. Just like me! Don't beat yourself up over it."Bookmark here

I didn't know what else to say to him. I simply replied with a spaced-out "...I see" and left it at that.Bookmark here

As we talked, we looked at the rest of our peers while they danced. They began forming a conga line. It was like a growing hype train and in time, more and more kids got on board. The boy hanging out beside me let out a lighthearted chuckle at the sight.Bookmark here

"You won't catch me out there making a fool of myself like that. Although, they look like they're having a good time. I wasn't sure I wanted to take part in this, but I guess I could give this bonding activity a shot. My name's Gurio Uminaka. What's yours?"Bookmark here

I guess there was no harm in introducing myself. I still had my reservations about getting cozy with the other students, but that was the whole point of…whatever this was, wasn't it? To get to know each other and whatnot? If everyone else was doing it and Uminaka, despite his thoughts about the assembly, was willing to chat with me, then I didn't have a reason to not participate… Or rather, I didn't want to feel like an outlier.Bookmark here

"I'm…Shuusuke. Shuusuke Nagato."Bookmark here

"Shuusuke Nagato… I'll have to remember that. We'll meet again somewhere, but I get the feeling we may not see each other as much after this assembly is over. You know, different classes and all."Bookmark here

"Why does it matter?" I asked quizzically.Bookmark here

"You seem like you would make a good friend. It would be a shame if we couldn't hang out again sometime."Bookmark here

"But you hardly even know me. We just met today."Bookmark here

"Hey, maybe it's working!" Uminaka teased.Bookmark here

"Pretty soon we'll all be making besties before you know it! Pretty cool, huh?"Bookmark here

"Whatever."Bookmark here

Uminaka walked away. It looked like he was going back to join the crowd and the students he was walking toward were presumably his classmates. He didn't get very far before being yelled at by one of the organizers of the assembly.Bookmark here

"Hey, you two! What are you doing over there? We're having so much fun over here! We can't have you skipping out on the next game. Come on, join us!"Bookmark here

They beckoned to us repeatedly so we would come back and participate.Bookmark here

"Looks like they caught us." Uminaka turned back to me and laughed.Bookmark here

Well, no use hiding now. I followed behind Uminaka and noticed that the conga line had disbanded. Now the students were forming a big circle. It's just as they said: another game was about to begin. Somewhere along the way, Gurio and I split off as we slipped into the circle. But if we ever wanted to find each other again, all we had to do was look across the room and lock eyes. Gurio did just that. He smiled at me from the opposite side of the circle and waved. I had only blinked at first. I didn't want to be rude, so I raised my hand to make it appear as if I was waving back. Although, I could've at least put more effort into it.Bookmark here

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"Let's play one more game together, everyone. For our last game, we're going to play…Shiritori! Yay! Who's ready?"Bookmark here

The students weren't as confused as they were when the assembly started, but some couldn't help but shrug their shoulders or snicker once they heard they wanted us to play something as childish as Shiritori.Bookmark here

"Aw come on, guys! Where's your enthusiasm? Shiritori is an easy game. You all know the rules, right? We take turns saying a word and then someone else says another that starts with the final kana of the previous word. If I say "sakura," then you say a word that starts with "ra" like…ra...ra…rakugo! Hahaha! I almost said ramen."Bookmark here

"That would've been funny ‘cause you're not supposed to say a word that ends with an "n."Bookmark here

"Exactly! Now, everyone, I'll start us off. I'll say a word and then we'll go around in a circle counterclockwise. Whoever says a word that ends with an "n" will be eliminated and the last one standing wins! So, with that being said, I'll start with…sakura!"Bookmark here

"Oh, come on!" Bookmark here

"Seriously?!"Bookmark here

It was a predictable answer coming from a mile away, but somehow everyone was still shocked by how the organizer quickly leaned into it.Bookmark here

"What? I couldn't help myself! You, standing next to me, it's your turn. And you can't say rakugo."Bookmark here

A boy standing on the woman in red’s left fumbled for an answer.Bookmark here

"Uhh…ranpo?"Bookmark here

"Osake!"Bookmark here

And with that, the game was now underway. I paid little attention as we went around the circle clockwise. I pretended to play along for at least two rounds, but when my turn came for the third time, I purposely removed myself from the game by saying the word "eien." It ended with an n, so naturally, it was a surefire way of getting eliminated. As time passed, I looked at Uminaka, who seemed to follow along with the others, but I wasn't sure if he was just putting on an act, or if he was warming up to the game. The remaining players stammered with their words as they tried to stay in the game. The more confident players blurted out a word, seemingly without a second thought. Fortunately for them, it worked. Whenever someone messed up with a wrong word, they cried out either in defeat or embarrassment while everyone laughed at their reactions.

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The circling back and forth continued for approximately ten minutes before a winner was declared. A girl I didn't know won this match of Shiritori. The first thing that stood out to me was her straight magenta hair. She posed with a hand on her hip while she rubbed her index finger underneath her nose. The girl chuckled as if she had taken pride in her victory. She even went so far as to call herself the "Shiritori Champion." I guess I thought she looked pretty cute, if not childish. But that thought alone was strange to me. I already don't pay attention to the other students in my grade, so why would I even entertain the idea of showing affection towards one of them? I don't understand myself sometimes. Since the game ended, I had free time to reflect on my thoughts and while I did that, the assembly was preparing to enter the next phase…Bookmark here

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