Class 1-C. 3:25 PM. Homeroom. Five minutes before the final bell. Ms. Kelly wraps the day with a final attendance check, opening a holo of the class registry that floats just in front of her. As each student responds to her call, she swipes their names on the list. It almost feels unnecessary, with how routine it’s become. She knows them all by heart. Every face, every name. Yet right in the middle of it, she stumbles. She reads the name in front of her but it doesn’t feel right. It becomes clear when she looks up. That empty desk at the center of the room. And another to the far side. Ah. Even days later, this would still take getting used to.
A shame. Such a bright boy. Polite, studious, even reasonable enough to keep those two troublesome clowns in line. And the girl. A problem child, but nothing some guidance couldn’t fix. Now though? Just… gone. How adamant had she been about not having any Esper students? But then, word is that this is a record year for them. Perhaps it was just unavoidable. Still, she focuses on those vacant seats. How many more would she have, by the end of the year? How often would this feeling drag her down like quicksand and drain away her energy without her even being able to struggle against it? Her hands clench around her datapad as if to get a grip on something. Anything.
“Ms. Kelly?” one of the students speaks up.
“Ah.” The best thing to do would be to focus on one thing at a time. Right now, that thing is attendance. Kelly adjusts her glasses and gets back to the list, swiping away the last name just in time for the final bell. Then, with a sigh like a boulder from her lungs, she wishes her class well and leaves the room. She beats several students through the door as most of them depart for their after-school activities, “away from here” being her only destination in mind.
5:00 sharp. Kelly stretches at her desk in the Teachers’ Room, her tasks for the day finally complete. Her eyelids a bit heavy, she rises from her seat, gathering her personal items and waving to the other teachers over her shoulder on her way out. “I’m taking off. Have a nice evening.” Not two steps through the door, she nearly walks right into a pair of bodies, strolling by. “Oh. Excuse- ah…”
The walking dress-code violation, herself. And flanked by… Mio, wearing that scarf Jun always showed up to class in. These are two of them from the list, right? More of her students stuck in the Royale? For her part, Mio bows. “Sensei, excuse me.”
“S’my bad too, Teach! Guess I wasn’t payin’ attention. We’ll be more careful!”
Kelly stares at the unlikely duo as they make to leave. Faced with this, her worries from before return en force. And they won’t rest until she has confirmation. Until she’s sure about these two. Her grip tightens around the strap of her bag. She needs to know for herself. “Kikuchi-san.”
Ragyou stops and looks over her shoulder. “Hm? ‘Sup?”
“Actually, you have no idea how stiff this job can leave a woman. If I could ask you a favor, would you indulge me in a little match?”
The sunny gyaru blinks. “Eh?”
Later, the lot of them stand atop the building’s roof, Ragyou stretching her legs with Mio behind her. “Kikuchi-san. Are you sure about this?”
“Hey, no worries, right? She brought us up here, so it’s fine! And it’s just a mock battle, y’know? Plus it’s a good chance for you to see what I got!” Beaming though Ragyou may be, Mio seems… less convinced.
Kelly, meanwhile, listens from across the rooftop, folding her jacket and rolling up her sweater sleeves. Odd. Had the two of them not seen one another in action? Well, it doesn’t really matter. Now they’d all get a good look. The teacher takes her position and nods to her student. “All right. I’m ready whenever you are.”
Ragyou looks back to Mio with a thumbs-up as Maron sparks into being atop her shoulder. Then, like that, she’s off, leaving a fearsome tailwind in her wake, so powerful it forces Mio to hold her sketchpad tight against her chest. “S-so fast.”
“Look out, Teach! I’m comin’ in hot! Try to block it, ‘kay?” Ragyou swings her lower body with a wide kick, aiming for her teacher’s torso.
“From all the way over there?” Kelly asks, entirely unfazed.
“Heh?” Ragyou unloads the full force of her kick… onto nothing but still air. Her face says it all. That and perhaps the flailing and frantic pointing. “Wha-wha-wha-?! How’d you get over there, all of a sudden? Hold up! No! You didn’t even move, right?! So how’d I get back here?! I was right in your face, ya know?!”
But right as the girl completes that thought, there Kelly stands, once again directly in front of her, their noses nearly touching. “Is this better?”
“Ah… no, well-” The next thing Ragyou knows, Kelly has her by in the middle of a shoulder throw. “Oh crap. Maron!” Right on cue, the little rabbit creature lands at the point of impact and taps its foot.
Kelly’s eyes narrow as a gaping, pitch-black hole opens in the floor where Maron had stepped. A direct contrast to Mio, whose eyes only widen at the seemingly bottomless pit, forming in front of her. “But… we’re on the roof.”
“You know, you sure have a sucky imagination,” the little black lizard says, appearing atop Mio’s head.
Too late to stop what she’s doing, Kelly drops her student into that abyss. The hole closes up the instant Ragyou falls through, leaving only a stunned Mio and a skeptical Kelly. Then comes a whistle. Kelly turns around to find Ragyou emerging over the far ledge. Had she jumped up here from the ground level? The second her feet touch down against the pavement of the rooftop, she kicks off, launching herself at her teacher. Yet before she connects, the floor drops out from under her. Down she falls, catching even the levelheaded Ms. Kelly off-guard. Another hole opens in the floor just behind Kelly and out from it Ragyou springs. “Betcha didn’t think I could teleport too, huh Teach?”
Kelly glances over her shoulder, as calm as can be. “Is that what you think I’ve been doing, Kikuchi-san?”
Again Ragyou swings her kick. And again she misses. But not for being repositioned. Rather, because she connects with a completely unintended target. Some sort of measuring stick materialized behind Kelly, as if protruding from the ground like a pillar. “Uh…” While Ragyou’s too busy trying to figure out what’s happening, a spot of light appears along the first ruler, suddenly spawning another that violently extends outward, striking Ragyou in the stomach like a fist and pushing her all the way across the rooftop to Mio.
Ragyou sits up, holding her stomach. “Itaiiii!”
The measuring sticks vanish from behind Kelly. With that level of ability… no, it’s still not enough to go on. “That’s fine for now, don’t you think? Thank you for the match, Kikuchi-san. I needed that?”
“Huh? Wait, we’re done? But I barely got you to move at all. I thought you wanted to exercise, didn’tcha?”
“Hm. About that. There’s something else I’d like you to do for me?”
Ragyou blinks. “Something else?”
A few calls later, the rooftop doors slide open and Diana strides through them. “All right, Ragyou, what’s so important you had to bug me on my way- hm?” Ragyou, Charlotte, Mio… and Ms. Kelly? Why? They can’t be in trouble over dropping the match, right? Of course not. That was two days ago. And the Links seemed to accept it. So what’s going on here, then? What kind of response does this call for? Best to err on the side of caution. Diana puts on the friendly face of a popular socialite, complete with a glass smile. “Ms. Kelly! You must be totally dedicated to your students to be here so late, huh? Kidding. As to why we’re on the roof…”
Kelly holds up a hand. “Oh, that was me. No need to explain.”
“I called you all here. I just used Ragyou to get you and Charlotte. You’re fine.”
Well, that’s… unexpected, to say the least. “Really? Then… what did you want us for?”
The teacher steps away from the girls, taking her place on the far end of the roof with her arms crossed. “I have the same request for you and Charlotte that I made of her,” she says, nodding towards Ragyou. “A mock battle.”
Charlotte arches an eyebrow. “A what?”
Painful though it may be, Diana can’t help agreeing with the sentiment in the tone of Charlotte’s question. She folds her arms. “Hmm. Well… I guess my question is ‘Why?’ System Teachers’re exempt from the Royale, right? What good is the practice?”
Kelly leans against the building’s ledge, opposite her skeptical students, turning her gaze to the dimming, artificial sunlight behind her. “It’s been nagging at me for a while, now. There’s just… something I have to know. Call it the interest of a teacher. Nevermind that. I don’t really expect you to understand on your own. Maybe I’ll explain it to you. Depending on how this goes. For now, though…” Then she pushes herself away from the ceramic barrier and steps forward. A meter-stick takes shape in her outstretched hand and she points it at her students. “I’d appreciate it if you’d just oblige me, for now.”
Diana shrugs, dropping her bag at her feet. “Well, if that’s all, then I guess I can help. Go easy on me, all right? Ah. But I bet you won’t have to hold back on Ms. Honor-Student, since she’s so perfect.”
Charlotte adjusts her neck ribbon and flips her hair. “Hmph. That’s fine, isn’t it? I wouldn’t expect her to, anyway. I won’t be holding back either. People don’t get to the top by limiting themselves.” Something in the way Charlotte looks back on her - down through the corner of her eye - it makes Diana’s blood boil. That superior attitude.
“Then I guess you’ll be going first, Charlotte?”
Diana brushes her hair back from her eye, looking across the roof to their mutual teacher. “Whoops. Ms. Kelly, I just remembered something. I kinda suck at holding back. So, when it’s my turn, well… sorry if you get hurt.”
Kelly takes up a stance as if the measuring stick in her hand is a fencing sword, placing her off-hand behind her back. “Your concern is noted.”
The whole affair ends a few minutes later, both Diana and Charlotte both scuffed up and looking incredibly winded. Meanwhile, Kelly adjusts her glasses, not looking the slightest bit ruffled. Mio gapes at the scene. But while she processes it all, Ragyou crashes through that awestruck gaze of hers, rushing to the others. She takes Charlotte’s hand in both of hers with a blinding smile. “Hey, you did awesome, Charlie-chan! Way better’n I did!”
Whether or not she even notices the twitch of the eyebrow or the subarctic glare being leveled at her is anyone’s guess. She certainly seemed oblivious to them as she immediately moves to Diana, who’s just as taken aback. “You did awesome too, Di! Even if it was over real quick, I think you totally had Teach on her toes, y’know?”
Mio reaches out from afar. “Uh… Kikuchi-san?”
Across the rooftop, Ms. Kelly stares down the last of her students. “I’ll be testing you last, then. Do try your best.”
Everyone takes notice to that declaration. The shenanigans come to a dead stop and Mio backs away. “E-eh?”