“Morioka-san? Morioka-san,” a voice calls out amidst a jumble of classroom chatter.
It isn’t until a paper airplane soars through the air, tapping a young girl’s head of short, messy, black hair that a dull “Eh…?” escapes her lips with the slight bob of her head and her dropping her pencil. The fog clears from her dreary, grey eyes and she slowly raises them from their place, glued to the pages of the old sketchpad where they so often seem to be, the world around her coming back into focus. All around her are teens, filling out a cutting-edge high school classroom with smooth, sterile white floors and walls that curve seamlessly into the ceiling, broken up with black inlays. Some of the students fiddle with the holographic interfaces built into their own desks’ surfaces. Others sit amongst friends with their desks shoved together and socialize before the day’s truly begun. Meanwhile, she sits fairly isolated in the back corner of the room, nearest to the tall windows that give way to the view of the sprawling mega-city outside.
But immediately across from her stands a boy, his brown eyes gawking at her in horror as she slowly tips her head down, staring flatly at the paper airplane by her feet with her fallen pencil. The boy whips around, the tails of his orange scarf swinging through the air behind him as he glares at another pair of boys sitting closer to the middle of the room, both of them giving him their thumbs up and grinning like fools. He sighs and bends down, picking up the pencil and setting it back on the girl’s desk before shoving his hands into the pockets of the black hoodie over his school shirt with a nervous smile. “Ah… s-sorry about them, Morioka-san.”
She barely reacts, quietly looking up at him with those dull eyes that felt like they could look through a person if she stared at them for long enough. The boy gets well acquainted with this feeling, eventually angling his head to break eye contact while keeping his awkward smile up. “It’s fine,” she finally says. “Thank you.” Morioka Mio - the class nobody. Were she not so evidently isolated, one could be forgiven in forgetting she was there. And yet, here stands someone, going out of his way to appear before her. Staring in awkward silence, but there he stands, nonetheless. Mio blinks at him. His name. Serizawa, right? Serizawa... Jun? “Did you need something, Serizawa-san?”
“Eh? Uh… n-not really. Oh yeah! I got this new gum from the store, on the way here!” Jun says, pulling a pack from his hoodie pocket after having shoved his hands in there out of nervous habit. “Wanna try some? Wait, did you like sweets?”
Mio glances down at the gum and reaches out to take a stick. “Sweets are fine.”
“It’s Green Apple,” Jun says, popping a stick in his own mouth as she takes one. “So it’s probably a little-”
Mio’s face puckers a bit. But even through squinted eyes and tightened lips, she manages to squeeze out a curt “Tart…” still not stopping herself from chewing.
Unbothered, Jun brings a fist to his mouth to muffle a laugh, righting himself when he catches her staring at him again, having gotten over it. The tension down as much as it can get, he clears his throat and takes a breath. “So, um… listen. They opened this new arcade in the mall, the other day. Do you maybe wanna go? With me? You know, like… as a… date?”
Upon hearing this, Mio mistakenly swallows her gum, looking straight ahead with her eyes somewhat widening. She freezes so perfectly, one might think time had stopped. Eventually, she tilts her head back up at Serizawa. “Hah?”
Just then, a crumpled up ball of paper flies through the air, hitting Jun in the back of the head, immediately followed by the haughty laughter of a group of teenage girls, sitting not far off. “Yuck. Nobody wants to see you dorks flirting, over there. Take it outside. Or, better yet, just keep it to your dreams. Seriously, who would want one of the three idiots to multiply? And with someone as dull as her, too.”
“I think it’s cute!” another of the girls in the group says, looking to Serizawa over her shoulder with a smug grin. “Little Jun is trying to get a girlfriend! It only makes sense he’d go for the only girl on campus who might say yes. ‘Ey, Diana?”
Diana sits at her seat, looking into a compact mirror and brushing her long, honey blonde hair away from her face with her neatly polished nails. “Hey, don’t make fun of ‘em.” She shrugs, glancing back at the duo in the corner with her jade green eyes. Her glossed lips contort into a rather warped smirk. “Losers like that are an endangered species, you know. They gotta breed somehow.”
Mio’s eyes fix on the center of her desk, her body posture closing up as an indescribable pressure pushes down on her and she feels herself sink under the weight of several gazes, turned her way. But it evaporates all at once. A lighthearted laugh bounces it away like a beach ball, leaving her with only a confounded expression. And her attention locks on Jun, rubbing the back of his head. “Ahahaha. That was a pretty good one, Diana.”
Diana snaps her mirror shut and halfway turns in her seat, glaring back at Jun. “Gross. Keep my name out of your mouth.”
“Diana,” a stern voice says as someone approaches the young diva’s desk from the side.
Locks of long, golden blonde hair shimmer in the classroom light with the flip of a hand and, before anyone knows it, a tall young lady stands over Diana, glaring down her nose at the girl with her arms folded, holding her own head high. She wears her school uniform with the utmost decorum and not a wrinkle to be seen, and a black and blue butterfly hair clip at the back of her French braid. Behind her are a handful of other girls, all equally put together. But none so intimidating. “You’re being disruptive.”
Diana sneers and stands from her seat, looking the girl in the eye. “Charlotte. What’s wrong? No one with an A- around for you to lecture?”
Charlotte narrows her eyes. “If you’ve got time to waste on cute jokes at the expense of lesser students, then you’ve got time to review the summer reading material before class.” For a moment, Mio catches what looks like a sideways glance from Charlotte, directed straight at her. Something in those eyes, for the split second she feels them aimed her way, rings with contempt. “Or were you actually happy to be an underachiever?”
Diana forces her way further into Charlotte’s space, bringing her hands to her hips and smirking. “Y’know, the view must be real nice, up there, on that high horse of yours. Be a shame if someone knocked you off of it.” The two girls practically bore holes into one another's skulls with those piercing glares of theirs.
The atmosphere in the room grows incredibly tense. Diana’s posse scowls across the way at both Charlotte and her clique of yes-girls from their seats. The shorter of them sucks her teeth and stands, slamming her newly manicured hands down on her desk “Tch. Come on, Diana. Teach this high-and-mighty little wind-up doll a lesson.”
But one of Charlotte’s troupe adjusts her glasses, letting a blunt “Ridiculous,” fire from her tongue like a dart, piercing through Diana’s diminutive sidekick. “Charlotte’s the top student in our year, already. What could that airhead teach her?”
“Stay outta this,” Diana says, glancing back at her littlest peon.
The groupie balks, pivoting to Diana with an indignant “Hah?!” But she shrinks away real quick once she sees the cold gaze being cast her way. "Y-yeah. Right. Sorry."
Charlotte huffs, cutting that intimidating glare she’s so mastered back at her own supporter. “I don’t believe I asked for your help.”
Those words sting like thorns, forcing Charlotte’s lackey to double back, her once proud posture shattering as she bites the tip of her thumb and turns away, letting out a sheepish “O-of course.” All at once she seems to crumble away under the immense weight of one girl’s sheer personality. “I’ll see that it doesn’t happen again.”
One of Jun’s friends watches from his seat, closer to the front of the room. His head rests against one of his hands, the nails of which are painted a bright green. He blows his messy, dark brown bangs out from over his smooth, somewhat feminine face, and puts on an impish grin, bearing his pearly whites. With the thrust of his fist into the air, he cheers “You got it, Charlie-chan! Show that rich bitch, what for!”
But at this Charlotte slowly turns her head, fixating on him with a glare strangely filled with a murderous intent not at all seen in her confrontation with Diana. “Matsuda Kou,” she says, emanating with an almost visible aura of violence and her voice sounding as if it were filtered through the depths of hell, itself. “Who is this ‘Charlie’ person?”
Kou squeaks and hides behind the other of the three idiots, Reggie. “S-s-s-sorry! I won’t do it again!” When she turns her attention back to more pressing matters, Kou sighs wistfully, leaning against his friend. “She scolds ‘cause she cares.”
Reggie rolls his eyes and slowly shoves Kou off of his shoulder, pulling the hood of the jacket under the boy’s school blazer over his head to make him struggle his way out. “Then she must be head over heels for you…”
Diana snickers across from Charlotte, a hand over her mouth. “So, what? The idiots’re in your corner, now?”
Charlotte bows her head with a twitch of her eyebrow. But then she heaves an exasperated sigh, leveling a flat stare at her rival. “Even if they were, have you taken a close look at any of your entourage lately, Diana?”
“Hey!” Diana’s posse protests.
But before this can get any further, the loud wail of a desk chair scraping across the floor breaks the tension. Across the room, a girl with the bleached blonde hair stands from her seat. She dusts off her too-short skirt before tightening the knot in the sleeves of the sweater tied around her waist. Then, over she strolls, right to the center of the fray. Her hands go up in a girlish wave, showing off those long nails, all painted in popping blues. Out comes a cheerful, all-too-friendly “Hey, hey! How ‘bout we all, like, just chill out a little, m’kay?” She sports such an impossibly vibrant, almost blinding smile that both Diana and Charlotte seem to avert their eyes from her. Yet her presence somehow seems to only make a tense situation even tenser as quite some time passes with no one saying or doing anything.
In the end, Charlotte sighs. “She’s right, of course. This is a waste of time.”
“Yeah, whatever,” Diana concedes, sitting back in her seat as Charlotte returns to her own, in the front of the classroom.
Kou watches with doey eyes as the domineering academic passes his desk on her way to her own. Then he turns back to the rear of the class, focusing on the girl who’d broken that whole mess up. “Ragyou’s seriously somethin’ else, getting between those two.” A vain chuckle drums against his ears and he turns to Reggie. “What’s so funny, this time?”
“That woman isn’t so impressive,” Reggie says with a shrug. “I could’ve ended it at any moment with the power of my Evil Eye.” Kou blinks as Reggie assumes a dramatic pose, one hand over his eye, the other outstretched, flaring the blazer that rests on his shoulders with a proud declaration. “With this cursed seal, controlling the feeble masses is like child’s play!”
Kou stares for a beat, then grins mischievously, throwing his arm over his buddy’s shoulder, a sly “Heeeh?” on his breath. “Then why didn’tcha, o’ mighty Reginald of the Twisted Star? I mean, if it’d have been that easy.”
Reggie swings his arm around, pointing so that his finger rests just in front of Kou’s girlish face, making him flinch. “Fool! If I were to use my vast power for every meager mortal conflict, surely we’d all perish!”
Kou quietly reaches up and pushes Reggie’s hand down from in front of him. “Sure thing, bud,” he says, then muttering under his breath and stifling a snicker. “So adorable…”
“Oi! I heard that! Don’t patronize me!”
But even as he backs off with a somewhat apologetic laugh, Kou can’t help glancing again in the direction of the girl who stopped the whole thing, now back to laughing and carrying on with her friends at the side of the room.
It’s a response mirrored by Mio. Kikuchi Ragyou - one of the most well-known girls on campus and an unapologetic gyaru… also a walking dress-code violation. Complete with an outgoing and friendly personality. Even in Mio’s dull eyes, the girl seems to just… glow. But then, the same could be said of all of these people around her. So colorful.
Standing off to the side, it hits Jun that he’s been swept up in everything going on and he swivels back around to Mio, sitting quietly at her desk. His scarf’s tail hits him in the face and forces him to throw it back over his shoulder. In a bid to recover from that look, he laughs again and lets a weak “Ah… Morioka-san?” slink out to get things back on track. Luckily, she seems as distracted as him and turns back at the mention of her name. A sigh of relief dispels the awkward tension and Jun lightly smacks his own cheeks, going on to extend Mio a friendly smile. “That was pretty scary, huh?”
Mio doesn’t say anything immediately, eventually nodding with a feeble “Yeah…” only after a few moments pass by.
Just then, the classroom door slides open and in comes a tall woman with platinum hair, tied into a bun, and a long, white jacket over casual clothes, purposefully striding into the room, the lanyard around her neck swaying with her step. Ms. Tay Kelly, the card hanging from it reads. “Good morning, class. Welcome back from the Summer Break.” She holds up and swipes across the datapad in her hand, the holographic display rising from the board changing to pages from the textbook, along with a number of virtual 3D models.
Jun looks over his shoulder to the front of the room. “Oh. Guess we’re starting now. Well… you don’t have to answer right away, okay? Maybe think on it and we can talk after school? That sound all right?”
Mio stares at Jun, then nods again, looking down at the surface of her desk, her entire body still… humming. Anticipation, perhaps? Nerves? Or… maybe this was that feeling she’d read about in those old Shoujo manga. Butterflies, was it? Whatever the case, she gives Jun a distracted “Yeah…” as she aimlessly flips through displays in her desk’s interface.
Kelly’s voice sharply projects from the front of the room. “Serizawa.”
Jun wobbly spins on his heel, nearly falling. He rushes over to his seat with a nervous “I-I’m going!” leaving Mio there to process what’d just happened. Before long, she winds up taking a pencil to her sketchpad again, as seems to be her natural state.
The day continues without incident as students get reacclimatized to their school lives. They go about their studies and the mundanities of their routine. Later, just before lunch, Mio stands in the restroom, washing her hands. As she turns off the water, the digital wristband on her left arm beeps. She holds it up like a watch and it projects a holographic message in text and speaks with a synthetic voice. “Attention Students. It is now time for the End of Summer Assembly, after which will be lunch period, and then a return to your regular class schedule. Please report to the auditorium immediately.”
The auditorium is a sleek room with a large stage and several monitors. On the far sides of the room, several booths with hovering computer drones line the walls, rigged up to complicated machines. At the front, a tall man with an easygoing demeanor and red hair, tied back into a ponytail, strolls across the stage in a nice, white suit with a green dress shirt underneath his jacket. A small camera drone hovering nearby, following his movements so that he appears on the screens. He prattles on with the usual rhetoric about the beginning of the second term and how the academic journey of the First Year students is just beginning. But then he steps back, yielding the stage to a beautiful woman sitting in one of the chairs behind him, stylishly dressed, with a head of long, flowing, deep violet hair. “Now if you’d all lend your undivided attention to our esteemed counselor, Ms. Ophelia Tate.”
Several students break into an uproarious cheer as Ms. Tate stands and approaches the front of the stage, somewhat bashfully waving to them all. She bows respectfully to the man who’d introduced her. “Thank you, Principal Aizo.” Then she bows to the students that make up the audience of the assembly. “Today marks the beginning of a new term. As with every new term, the school is required to update your Links with new software approved by the city. Second and Third Years will be more than familiar with this, by now. First Years, as this is new to you, you’ll be going last so we can work you through it. As this is your first experience with this process, there’s the added matter of pairing for some of you, as well.” She then bows to the crowd. “We ask that you be patient with us as we take our time getting through everyone. Thank you, and here’s to another successful term at East Lumos Academy.”
The remainder of the assembly plays out exactly as stated. The Second Years go through their updates, then the Third Years. The First Years, as predicted, take a bit longer as people figure everything out. When Mio’s turn comes, she steps up to the booth being run by Ms. Kelly. “All right, Mio, please hold your Link under the scanner, here.” Mio does as she’s told, holding out her arm with the wristband under the device rigged to the computer, which goes on to scan the LED circling the band, after which her information comes up on the computer screen. “I’m going to need you to verify if all of this information is accurate.”
Mio leans over to check the monitor as all manner of documentation scrolls by. 15, Birthdate December 24, First Term 2.3 GPA, the works. Even questions about medical records. It’s… incredibly thorough. “It all looks fine.”
“Okay, then. You’re due for pairing, so just sit there and I’ll get you set up.” Kelly snaps her finger and the drone seems to nod, extending a cord of some sort and plugging it into a magnetic port on Mio’s Link. “Try to hold still.”
The process doesn’t take overly long. As Mio leaves the auditorium and proceeds on her way to class for her lunch period, she checks her Link. The holo-interface pulls up a loading visual, along with text that simply says Pairing… Apparently the process could take a few minutes after completing the wired portion. Still, though. It was done. The first milestone on her “road to academic success,” as Aizo had called it. Thinking about it… it’s a bit overwhelming.
In Beacon, education is everything. The entire city is a massive establishment of higher learning with over half of the structures being educational institutions of one form or another. Everything about the place is designed to foster new generations of scientists, artists, entrepreneurs. And Links measure the success of one’s academic pursuits. Grades, disciplinary records, the works. They’re a portable summary of the person wearing them, as well as useful multipurpose tools for everything from communication to shopping. Perhaps overwhelming is an understatement. But now Mio’s is fully active… almost.
The rest of the day carries on as any other. Mio sits in the room, eating her boxed lunch by herself in her corner, staring through the window. During class, she answers the odd question, otherwise keeping her head down. Every now and then she checks her Link. Pairing… At the end of it all, a cleaning drone hovers into the room behind her as she slides the classroom door open with the press of a button, the last one up from her seat as everyone else is already off to their clubs and she’d been busy finishing a drawing. Eventually, she makes her way to the entrance to get her things from her locker. The space is empty, save for her. But before she gets far, a warm, friendly voice catches her. “Morioka-san!”
Mio turns to find Jun rushing over to her, stopping and hunching over to catch his breath, panting. He’s met with Mio’s usual flat stare and a nigh-inflectionless “Serizawa-san…” On his approach, she blinks at him. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Jun laughs. He clears his throat and stands upright, putting on a big smile. “So, uh… did you get a chance to think about what I asked you, before?”
Ah. Right. And here it comes again. That humming feeling from earlier. Mio keeps her head down, looking to the floor and, really, any direction but directly at the boy. “Um… honestly, I forgot about it until now. I had a lot on my mind, I guess.” Jun watches as the girl plays with the strap of her bag to distract herself and can’t help cracking an endeared grin as she goes on. “I don’t… really know how that stuff works, so…”
“Y-yeah. I’m not really the most experienced with it either. Ahaha…”
Then the two go quiet, Mio’s mind bouncing around, trying to make heads or tails of this sensation. It’s… wrong. Not the feeling she exactly expected. Not what she’d read about. Then what is this… this anxiousness? “Uh… to answer your question, though… I…”
Mio freezes for a second. But just as she opens her mouth to speak again, a loud tone cuts her off and Jun pulls up the display on his Link. “Ah. Sorry about that. I’ll silence it, real quick,” he says. But when he actually looks at it, his entire demeanor changes. Instantly, he turns several shades whiter as an automated voice begins to speak.
“Serizawa, Jun. Your capabilities make you a contender. You are one of the 10,000 Espers enrolled to participate in the latest iteration of the United World System’s Royale Initiative in the city of Beacon. You have already been sent information on your first opponent. Further notifications will be sent as you advance throughout the next 200 approximate days of the contest, or until the time of your elimination. We thank you for your cooperation with this civic responsibility to ensure the continued safety of mankind and wish you luck, earning your stay in our fine city.”
Jun’s entire body trembles. His breathing is erratic and his hands feel clammy. A jittery “W-what?” falls from his lips.
Hearing that, Mio’s stomach twists itself into a knot. The tingling feeling turns to ache as Jun scrambles to go through his Link for the notification. Mio clenches the strap of her bag tight and bows her head, though her expression remains unchanged. “Serizawa-san… I’m sorry. Maybe you might be able to win. Then-”
“Morioka-san…” Cut off, Mio raises her head to find Jun looking dead at her with pained eyes. Then he blows up the display on his interface, revealing a holographic profile with her picture on it.
“Eh?” Mio steps back. “But…” Then it hits her. Holding up her arm, she opens the display on her Link. Pairing… It never finished. She didn’t get the announcement. She frantically fiddles with it for a bit, even hitting the Link, itself. Anything to try and get it working. Looking back across from herself at Jun, that humming in her body returns, more intense than it ever had before. “S-Serizawa...san?”
Jun holds his head low and closes the display, leaning against one of the lockers to his side with a slam. “Damn it…” Then he grits his teeth, curling his hand into a fist and punching one of the lockers, bruising his knuckles in the process. “Damn it! Seriously? Right when I finally get up the nerve to ask her? It’s not fair…” Slowly, Mio backs away from Jun, him staring into that locker door with sorrowful eyes. Just then, a bright purple flash emits from his Link, catching both youths by surprise.
The light of Jun’s Link illuminates the room, calling on a mysterious energy to surge out from his body, and a large being manifests behind him. A wolf-like, humanoid creature that snaps at Mio with rows of gnashing teeth. Its fiendish red eyes settle on her like prey and its spiny, quill-like fur stands up on its back, crackling with an eerie fuchsia glow. It manifests seemingly from thin air like a ghost. But this beast is all too real. She’d never seen one before - a Familiar. The pressure Mio feels intensifies as the creature takes full form and looms over Jun’s shoulder, glaring right at the girl, leaving her in a stupor. In that moment, it sinks in for her. The reality that this is the world she now inhabits. And, like always, she is utterly alone in it.