Soon she’s at the nearest station to the levitating train, swiping her Link to get in. The White Line, as usual, heading further into the city. Among those waiting are several other students with her uniform, chattering on about this-and-that. Nothing particularly important. What had Mio been expecting to hear? Furthermore, what is this sinking in her stomach? But there’s no time to dwell on that. “Excuse me?”
Mio comes out of her head as one of the girls taps her shoulder. “Eh?” Oh. The train’s here. And there Mio stands, at the front of the line to get on. “Um… Sorry…” And on she walks, taking up a seat in a corner, away from anyone else.
The line leads directly to the campus. East Lumos Academy - the premier senior high school of Beacon’s East District, complete with sleek, polished architecture and state-of-the-art amenities. Custodian drones see to it that the grounds remain spotless. That much is evident from the completely pristine halls that, just yesterday, were torn asunder by such a brutal exchange.
Mio stops by her shoe cupboard in the entryway to the school’s First Year building and all of that flies from her mind. Sitting there, atop her school shoes, is a familiar orange scarf, joined with an envelope. One addressed to Mio from… well… one guess. “Jun-kun?” the girl says, taking the envelope with a look of dull surprise across her face. All she does is stare at it. She stares at it for so long that the early morning rush begins to trickle, and eventually flood through the doors. Hurried, Mio takes the scarf and envelope, shoving them both into her bag and leaving after changing her shoes.
All the way to homeroom, Mio’s eyes bounce from one cluster of students to another. All of them talking amongst themselves, some in hushed tones. It all passes by too quickly to make out entirely. But she can make out a few words from one conversation to the next. Royale. Esper. Battle. And as she reaches her classroom’s rear door, she hits upon a discovery. This feeling’s gotten worse. Like her stomach is trying to hold up a two-ton weight. She makes it inside eventually, quietly getting to her seat in the back. Like clockwork, the sketchpad comes out.
It’s not long before class begins… and the whispers with them. The vacant seat in the room, the absent voice among the crowd, the name skipped during attendance - a name soon on the lips and under the breath of several students throughout the room. Mio keeps her head down, staring at the scarf in her bag and feeling herself shrinking under the weight of all this quiet noise. That is until things abruptly become that much louder. And somehow that much lighter.
“Seeen-sei.” A chair screeches back across the floor and up pops Kou, that boyish, flamboyant voice of his carrying over the entire class. “I have something I’d like to say.”
At the front of the room, Ms. Kelly sighs, tipping down her head. Every instinct tells her not to acknowledge him. But through a grimace and twitching eyebrow, she addresses him all the same. “What is it this time, Matsuda?”
Kou grins, bearing those pearly whites and large canines of his, holding up a paper marked up with red. Bringing a fist over his mouth, he clears his throat. Ooh. This one’s going to be important. “Dear classmates. Fellow students of this fine establishment and citizens of Beacon. I ask you this. Is our great city not one of higher learning? A place for us, as individuals, to seek further knowledge and explore our limits as individuals? I say to you, it is! But it’s also a place of brotherly love, yes?”
All around are a myriad of reactions to Kou’s… monologue. Though the majority of them seem to feature the rolling of eyes as he carries on… and on… and further on. Indeed, at the front of the room, Ms. Kelly buries her face in her hand, seeming like she very well may snap her tablet in half with the other. But then there’s Mio, who just… stares. Unsure of what to think. From the center of the room it’s not like he wouldn’t have heard those whispers, himself. Yet he’s still in his usual form? He is. And he continues. “What a tragedy it would be for us to let any of our brothers and sisters get left behind. So I submit to you, the class, a proposition! That we delay the forthcoming quiz in honor of those of us who’ve not been able to study! It is our civic responsibility, after all, to ensure that none of our neighbors are left trampled underfoot by a disparity in opportuni-TY!”
Kou nearly does a flip over the back of his seat. Instead, he lands perfectly in it and slumped back, his forehead practically letting off steam from some sort of impact. Then a stick of chalk lands on the floor in the back of the room. And there it becomes clear what’d just happened. Kelly stands at the front with an arm outstretched. That stick of chalk had flown through the air with the force of a bullet and the accuracy to match, leaving a perfect white dot dead center on Kou’s noggin. She glowers at her outspoken student, brow still twitching, a contemptuous “Sit. Down,” hissing through her teeth.
Kou pulls himself into an upright position, sitting cross-legged in his chair and rubbing the back of his head. “H-hai…” Though he then gives Reggie the side-eye. “Oi. Why didn’t you back me up?” he whispers.
Reggie sits tall and folds his arms. “Fool! I don’t need your handicap! Passing a mere test is nothing to me! My evil eye can see all of the answers perfectly!”
A blunt “Matsuda. Reggie,” from the front of the room pulls all attention forward. Kelly flicks her wrist, revealing more sticks of chalk positioned between her fingers. The two idiots straighten up real quick and the teacher stows her projectiles of choice away. “Hmph. If you’d put as much work into your studies as you do into figuring out how to get out of studying, you’d be a top student… All right.” Then it’s back to business, Kelly snaps her fingers and every student’s desktop surface converts into a touchscreen, on which are a number of questions and a digital keyboard. “Heads forward, Links silent. This will be a review of your summer work.” Mio looks over her desktop for the quiz, but… can’t stop herself glancing up at the back of Kou’s head, then down at the scarf in her bag. But now isn’t the time for that. The Quiz. Now the quiz. Everything else could wait.
Finally. Lunch. The afternoon bell chimes throughout the campus. The day now half over, Mio stares at her sketchpad. Blank. Not so much as a single line has made its way onto the paper. Perhaps some food would get her thinking straight. But first, she’d best wash her hands. Up she gets. In the restroom, she winds up staring into the mirror. The quiz, earlier… it’d gone by almost without her noticing. What even were the questions? What answers had she marked down? Where had her mind even been?
Mio steps out, making her way back to homeroom for lunch period. She gets all of five steps away from the restroom door, throwing her bag over her shoulder when “Morioka-chan!” That voice. That upbeat, sing-song, effeminate voice halts Mio like she’d just stepped in quick cement. Kou leans against the wall, one hand up to wave with a big grin across his face. “Yo!”
Reggie stands to Kou’s left flank, his arms crossed and his school blazer hung on his shoulders. “I told you we’d find her,” he declares with a smug chuckle. “Never doubt my awesome power.”
Kou dismissively pats his buddy on the shoulder. “Sure, sure…”
Meekly, Mio raises her own hand. “Matsuda-san.”
Kou kicks himself off of the wall, strolling over to her. “Kou-chan, Kou-chan,” he says giving the girl a light high-five that she was, in no way, expecting. “I wanted to say sorry about yesterday.” That one word - yesterday - reaches out, wringing Mio’s stomach like a cloth. But… why is Kou apologizing? He scratches his cheek with one of those mint-green polished nails of his, still not putting away that wide grin. “I didn’t mean to hit’cha with that airplane, ya know? Hope I didn’t hurt’cha or anything.”
Mio stares. That had happened, hadn’t it? But she shakes her head, still looking to the floor, as is habit for the girl, by now. “It didn’t hurt. Don’t worry about it.”
But even then, Kou bends down, putting himself directly into Mio’s field of view. “Well, that’s good! Just wanted to check on ya!”
Mio turns her eyes away. “Is your forehead okay?” No answer. When she looks back, he’s still there, looking her dead in the eyes with a catlike grin. Such a persistent boy. “K-Kou-chan?” That did it. An adjustment that widens his toothy smile as he stands back upright.
“Yep! Totally fine! A little something like that isn’t gonna keep me down! Ahahaha!”
Reggie stands proud, his hands on his hips and flaring his jacket behind him like a cape with his head held high. “Right! We’re used to that kind of thing by now! Such meager attacks have no effect on us!”
“Hey, when you say it like that, it makes us sound pretty cool.”
That’s… certainly one way to put it. Regardless, not wanting this to go on any longer, Mio steps around Kou and proceeds on her way back to homeroom. “I’m glad. Excuse me. I’m pretty hungry.”
But just when she’s a few steps away, something roots her to the floor. “Did you have a fun date with Jun-kun, Morioka-chan?”
Why that question? Worse yet, why from these people, in particular? How does she answer? “We didn’t…” The words die in her lungs. And those lungs tighten, strangling any chance of her ever finishing the thought.
Reggie’s mighty stance crumbles, that statement like a jackhammer taken to his knees, and he balks. “Hah?! Impossible! I already foresaw the two of you hitting it off! My Evil Eye was… wrong?! No. No no no no no. That can’t be it. Perhaps the timing was merely off.” He rushes to Mio and takes hold of her by the shoulders. Unsurprisingly, such proximity takes the girl aback and all she can do is blink at him. “Quickly! You must tell us where he is so we can set right the course of- OUWCH!”
He’d moved so quietly. But there Kou appears at Reggie’s side, gripping and twisting the boy’s ear with a look not unlike a child experimenting with a new toy. “Hey, now I see why Jun-kun kept using this method with us! It’s fun!” Indeed, these certainly are the infamous Two Idiots… two. Kou rubs his neck, turning his head away with a faint pout. “Sorry, about all this. Ya don’t have to tell us how it went if ya don’t wanna. We really didn’t mean to stress ya out or anythin’. We were just worried about Jun-kun since he’s never even late, let alone skips a day.” Mio stands in silence. That same truth-telling quiet as before lingers around her. These people are Jun’s friends. What else could she tell them? Right then, her body loosens. She feels her lungs opening back up. Kou throws his arm over Reggie’s shoulder and waves again with his free hand. “Nevermind. We’ll let’cha get back for lunch.”
“I never got to give him my answer…”
Everything falls still. The outside world seems to fade away. Even through the large hall windows, it’s as if the only thing beyond the glass is a blinding, ethereal light, snaring the teens and leaving them alone, just the three of them, in an endless white void. Kou and Reggie both stop with their backs to the girl, their last steps echoing loud and clear in that vacant hall. Reggie fights his way out from under Kou’s arm and rushes back to Mio with an eager look about him that says it all. Kou, on the other hand, remains front-facing. “This is perfect!” The hopeless chuunibyou declares. Yeah. That eager glint in his eye makes it apparent. He doesn’t get it. Not at all. “Then there’s still a chance! We just have to find him and get you two talking!”
A sharp “Reggie,” whips through the air from, of all people, Kou. That boyish tone, that flamboyant cadence, both completely absent.
There Reggie’s entire demeanor drops. The bravado drains from his person, and it isn’t content to leave on its own, taking his strength with it. He stumbles forward, one hand weakly reaching to Mio’s shoulder. But this look on his face is entirely removed from that confidence for which he’s so infamous. It’s the same as back then, with Jun. Too many emotions to read at once. Sadness, confusion, desperation. Though only one word appropriately fits that murky haze that clouds his eyes. Lost. “Morioka. There’s… still a chance. Right?”
By now, the girl is completely numb. Her body’s all but shut down. That crushing tension that’d had such a hold on her, all this time… gone. Or perhaps she’d merely acclimated to it. Her expression remains flat and her head fills with static. As if every one of her thoughts has become smoke, intangible and impossible to get a grasp on, slipping through her fingers whenever she reaches out. But if this keeps up, how much longer before… empty. Here, with this boy in front of her, on the verge of falling to pieces, her mind goes utterly blank.
Then she notices. The rest of the world is back, the white void replaced by the bustling super city beyond the window. Reggie takes a breath and forces himself to stand upright. “We… should all get back to class! I must… consult with the great old gods. See that the power of my Evil Eye can change this grim fate.” There’s the grandeur. The theatrical, melodramatic persona. But this is all wrong. It’s manufactured, forced… fake. Even so, he’s off with that, leaving Mio and Kou there in the hall to let the silence wash over them.
Kou shoves his hands into his pockets, still not turning around. He simply tips back his head, casting his somber gaze to the ceiling with a deep breath and a sigh of just… “Damn,” on his tongue. “I figured it was him. Honestly, I just hoped you turned him down and he was too heartbroken to show his face. At least that I could do somethin’ about. Cheer him up a little. But after hearin’ people talk about what happened yesterday… I dunno. I just got a feeling. That room is gonna feel a whole lot emptier, from now on.”
Kou glances over his shoulder. Seeing her hugging her own arm and looking to the floor again, something about it all makes him laugh to himself. “So it was you.” But just when he turns around, he’s given pause. What is this girl doing? With her head bowed, her arms outstretched and, in her hands… an orange scarf he’d come to know well. “That’s…”
“Jun-kun left this for me. But I don’t really think I should have it, since it was my fault. You were closer to him than I was. You should have it.”
That’s right. This is the best thing to do. She and Jun barely knew one another. Why else would he give this to her? If he maybe couldn’t face his friends, she could at least do this much to make up for… wait. Her head still bowed, Mio realizes Kou’s squatting down in front of her to get into her field of view again. “You’re a really silly girl, aren’tcha? Morioka-chan?”
Mio blinks. “Eh?”
Kou stands himself up before Mio and takes her hands, pushing them, and the scarf held in them, back to her. When Mio looks up at him… why is he smiling at her with such kind eyes? “You’re right. I was way closer to Jun-kun. That’s why I’m sure this belongs to you.”
“But… I don’t…”
“I bet he asked you to win, right?” Mio’s heart stops in her chest. How could he possibly know that? Then, as if able to read her mind, the boy pokes out his tongue. “Right again. See?” A wistful luster sweeps over his eyes. The look of someone whose vision has become unfixed from time, tuned to the channels of nostalgia. “That’s just the kind of guy he was. Always thinking of other people first. Even if they were against him. I’ve known him since we were little. And I bullied him ‘til right before the end of Junior High. But he never once wished anything bad would happen to me. And when it did, there he was… with a hand reached out.”
Mio clutches the scarf tighter, her mind replaying the whole ordeal. The way Jun begged her to win, even though he knew what it’d mean for himself. That wasn’t just because it was her. He’d have done that for anyone. And just a bit earlier, all Mio could bring herself to think about was… what? What people might say or do if they found out? “Still… I don’t get it. How you can say something like that.”
One look at this girl’s pouty little face, matched with those cool, distant eyes of hers and Kou can’t resist. His arm reaches out and, to Mio’s surprise, he rests a hand atop her head. Gently. A quietly ecstatic “Kawaii na” under his breath. What… is this for? Mio can’t think of a single thing. Yet, as much as she goes over it in her mind, not once does it occur to her to move. “Sorry, Morioka-chan. I really don’t mean to keep making you uncomfortable. For a second you made a really adorable face and I can’t help myself with cute stuff.” Something about his voice. Both light and heavy, all at once, joined by such a warm, almost motherly smile. “But I see why Jun-kun started liking you.”
Right. That was the start of all this, wasn’t it? Jun was interested in her. Liked her. Yet her head won’t clear up. The static persists. And it gets louder with every passing moment. Why? She’d barely spoken to him at all, before that day. She’s not especially pretty or smart or funny. She’s hardly what you’d call personable. And she’s certainly not as selfless and as he was. So then, what was it? A little snicker above her halts that train of thought, then and there. “I guess he never told you? In that case, I’ll let you figure it out on your own.”
Her pout returning, Mio lightly shoves Kou back. “Bully…”
“Ahaha! Gomen, gomen!” But when that jovial laugh of his stops, Mio tilts her head up to find him staring down at her. “You know, you’re… actually a lot like him, Morioka-chan. Thinking about others, when it matters most.”
Mio shrinks away from Kou, turning her back to him. “That’s not really…”
“You told me and Reggie the truth. Because you were worried how we’d feel if we had to find out some other way, right?” Mio sits and ponders. Is that why she’d told them? And even then, how would he know that? She doesn’t hear it from her perch, up in her own head, but Kou approaches her from behind, his footsteps echoing in the still-empty hall. “That’s why it belongs to you.” Then…
It happens so fast. A quick flutter of orange fabric as it unfurls and, before Mio has a chance to process what’s going on, it’s around her own neck, Kou having wrapped it himself. Jun’s scarf. “Eh?”
“Voila.” Kou holds up his Link and the wrist-mounted multi-tool projects a holographic image of Mio in the garment. “It looks good on you, Morioka-chan!”
Mio stands and stares at this perfect mirror image of her, her hand reaching up to touch the wrap around her neck. It’s… large. But she doesn’t hate it, or even dislike it. That’s when she notices. Beneath her foot. The envelope. Still unopened. She picks it up, Kou nodding for her to open it when she glances over to him. One broken seal later, out slides a holo-chip. Plugged into the port on Mio’s Link, a projection of Jun pops up between her and Kou. “Jun-kun?”
The hologram waves with Jun’s bighearted smile. “Ah… yo! Ahaha… ah… that was pretty lame, wasn’t it?” Kou can’t keep himself from smiling as Jun’s recording rubs the back of his head, fumbling over his words. Yup. A dork to the end, that boy. “I… don’t really have a lot of time, so I’ll make this quick, okay? Oh! Sorry about the holo-chip. I… realized I never got your Link Contact. But I’m really glad Kou convinced me to grow a spine and actually talk to you. It’s too bad how things turned out, though. So… listen. I don’t want you to feel bad about what happened. Got it? You absolutely shouldn’t blame yourself. There wasn’t anything we could do about it, right? Right. And I made my own choice, so there. I really want you to survive. That’s why I asked you to win. And you did, so now… I’m counting on you to win the whole thing!” ...What? Win the whole thing? Outlast 10,000 other Espers? Had this boy gone insane?
“I’ll even give you my favorite scarf! Then you can carry it all the way to the end and it’s like we both got to be there! I know it sounds like I’m asking a lot. Maybe even the impossible. But the way I see it is… Just as much as anyone else, you matter too, Morioka-san.” Those words strike straight through Mio like a spear. Dull though her reaction is, Jun’s assertion leaves her stunned. Matter? Her?
“Ah. My family wants to spend some more time with me before I leave, so I better go. Oh! Tell Kou and Reggie not to cause trouble, now that I’m gone! Okay. Well… this is it. Thanks for listening. Sayonara… Mio.”
When the projection cuts, Mio gets a straight look at Kou’s face, across from her, puffy red eyes and all. “Kou-chan…”
“Heh. See? It was meant for you,” Kou says, wiping his cheeks with the sleeve of his jacket, still wearing that sweet mask on his face to hide all the bitter underneath, slipping though it may be. “I know the Royale’s gonna be pretty tough. But ya gotta do me and Jun-kun a favor, ‘kay? Don’t ever forget about the people on the other side. Got it?”
Mio’s face remains perfectly straight. But that sight… She doesn’t know where it comes from or what does it but, at that sight, something compels her to step forward, stunning the clown completely with a gentle hug and leaving a crack in that mask he wears so well. She nods and, in her quiet little voice, assures Kou. “I promise.”
Such simple little words. But then, oftentimes it’s such simple little words that carry the endless weight of a crashing waterfall. A weight that Kou hasn’t the strength left in him to hold himself together beneath. His head dips and he rests it atop Mio’s. “Morioka-chan…”
She doesn’t understand it. Why she says it. But she decides that, for once, maybe she’d be fine with that, and allows herself to open her mouth on pure instinct with a soft “Mio.”
Even as he stands over her, letting his emotions flow out of him, that response gets a chuckle and Kou nods. “Ah. Arigatou ne, Mio,” he says, his voice cracking.
The humming is back. The tightness in her stomach, joints, and chest? Those are gone. But now, as she stands in front of the door to her classroom, that buzzing feeling from just the other day strikes again, laying claim to every bone, every cell in Mio’s body. Maybe letting Kou tell her to go ahead was a mistake. But, then, would entering with him have been that much better? Given her circumstances… Mio reaches up, touching the tips of her fingers to this big, orange thing around her neck. Several moments pass by. Finally, just as the class bell tolls, she takes a breath, a hand reaching out. The door slides open and in she walks.
Oh, the humming doesn’t stop. Quite the contrary. For the remainder of the day, alarm bells of all volumes sound off in the back of her mind. But she keeps her head down, focusing in on her sketchpad. The next time she looks up, the room is empty. Really? Where had the day gone? No one’s around, at least. She’d felt them the instant she walked through that door after lunch. The eyes. So many eyes, all aimed straight at her. Joined by a chorus of whispers. But she’d made it. And here she now sits, with a completed illustration in her sketchpad. Three distinct characters in a style reminescent of her favorite Shounen manga. One boisterous and loud character, a cheerful and mischievious one… and a timid, sweet one at the center. Before she gets up, she takes her pencil to the top of the page to inscribe a title to this masterpiece. And what else would she call it? “The Three Idiots.”
But something doesn’t feel… right. As Mio sits there, a tickling sensation flutters in the back of her neck. As if someone’s… “Oooh! That’s pretty good!”
“Guh!” Mio springs up from her seat and swings herself around. What on Earth? Bleached blonde hair, a too-short skirt, colorful nails and a jacket tied around her waist… no mistaking it. “K-Kikuchi-san?” How long had she been standing there, hovering over Mio’s shoulder? She was watching Mio draw?
Ragyou laughs the whole thing off and waves her hands in front of her. “Hey, that’s the most lively I ever saw you, Micchin!”
Mio blinks, still waiting for her heart to un-flip itself. Mic...chin? Moreover, why is this girl, who exists in an entirely different universe from Mio, talking to her? “W-was there something I could help you with?”
Then, in a move Mio would never have foreseen in any reality, the Number One Gyaru thrusts forwards, clasping her hands around Mio’s and looking her dead on with big, beady eyes that’d make any self-respecting puppy writhe with envy. “I had this totally awesome idea for the Royale! D’you wanna form an alliance with me?!”
What follows is the sound of confusion. An excruciatingly long pause. The kind that should come with a 404 Error warning. When, at last… “Eh?”
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