Chapter 21:

Level Up


“You… can’t be serious!”Bookmark here

Diana gawks, jaw hung open, at the sight unfolding before her. All of that. That entire effort from herself and the others… but no dice. Leaned back as far as she can go, Ortiz had not only avoided the Queen Stinger Missile, but somehow keeps herself from ending up out of bounds with the most absurd balance ever seen.Bookmark here

The inhuman instructor exhales.Bookmark here

The next thing Diana knows, the woman rights herself and puts herself right in front of the girl with a fist drawn back and a soulless gleam in her eye. “Oi. That was really close, you know. You try’na kill me or what?”Bookmark here

“Oh god.”Bookmark here

No avoiding it now. Not this close. Diana tenses up, bracing herself for a whole new world of pain. Then…Bookmark here

Boop.Bookmark here

Wait…Bookmark here

“H-huh?”Bookmark here

When Diana opens her eyes, she finds Ortiz standing just in front of her, having flicked the young student’s nose. Her legs give out from under her, all at once, letting her plop down on the mat with wide eyes.Bookmark here

Her head is… a mess. A bizarre mix of all kinds of things. The cool sensation of relief… the suffocating heat of frustration… all compacted with this hollow feeling of disappointment.Bookmark here

“All that… Even after all that, we still couldn’t…”Bookmark here

She isn’t afforded the chance to complete that thought. Ortiz squats down, right in front of her, looking her right in the face. “Hey, don’t have yourself get caught lettin’ your mascara run just yet, Queenie. I know you’re happy it’s your win, but I’m gonna put you guys through the ringer, so save your tears for that, huh?”Bookmark here

Diana blinks. “Heh?”Bookmark here

At the center of the mat, Ragyou darts over to Mio, taking her dull little friend by the hands with an enormous smile across her face. “Micchin! We did it! We totally did it, this time!”Bookmark here

Mio returns her ally’s enthusiasm with a flummoxed stare and meek nod. “Y-yeah.”Bookmark here

Diana, though, is the truly flummoxed one, turning to the pair in total bewilderment. “Hah?!” Had these people not just shared the same experience that she had?Bookmark here

Then there’s Ms. Kelly, herself, clapping for the girls as she steps out onto the mat, herself with a rather proud look about it. “Congratulations.”Bookmark here

“Hey. You’re all messing with me, right? We totally just lost.”Bookmark here

Kelly pauses, turning her gaze to the ether to ponder for a moment… as if she doesn’t already know.Bookmark here

“Oh, that’s right. You were off playing maverick, weren’t you? Of course it was silly to expect you all to properly defeat Ms. Ortiz after only so many days of training. So we changed things. All you had to do was force her to dodge an attack.”Bookmark here

Diana’s confoundment only grows. All the while, Ortiz continues to squat in front of her with the same dull smile as ever, extending a hand to her returning student as Kelly explains. When Diana finally comes down from her indignation, she takes it and lets the teacher help her up. Of course, she has to let everyone know she’s not happy about it.Bookmark here

“For real? And none of you decided to tell me until just now?” Her eye travels to Charlotte, in particular. “You just wanted to screw with me, right?”Bookmark here

Naturally, Charlotte turns away with a shrug. “Who knows?”Bookmark here

“You little…”Bookmark here

Snap!Bookmark here

The sound of a ruler clapping against an open palm. Every girl jumps to attention. Even Ortiz seems to fall in line. Though she relaxes and joins Kelly across from the girls when she sees the flat stare of her colleague.Bookmark here

At least they’re all well-trained in one regard.Bookmark here

“Girls, listen. I don’t need to tell you the situation you’re in. I’m not telling you that you need to all be best friends. That was never what this was about. But if you’re going to approach the Royale as a team, you need to work like one. Otherwise…”Bookmark here

The silence that hangs over the lot of them is heavy, to be certain. Heavier, still, over the head of the one who first cast it.Bookmark here

“Until now, you’ve been lucky. The game hasn’t thrown anything at you that you couldn’t handle, as you were. But it only gets harder. So, from here on out, the training gets harder too.”Bookmark here

Throwing up a lazy peace sign is the lackadaisical Ortiz, already simmered down from her state, just a few moments ago. “Congrats. You girls leveled up.”Bookmark here

Under normal circumstances, that’d sound like a compliment. For some reason, though, hearing her say that sounds more like a threat…Bookmark here

---Bookmark here

The session ends after a few more drills. One would expect Kelly to go easy on them after all of that. She didn’t. With the girls all gone and sorely on their way in their respective directions, Kelly heaves a sigh. She settles into one of the chairs in the dojo’s reception area whilst Ortiz locks up the back.Bookmark here

“Man, you really are the dragon teacher, Tay, makin’ ‘em keep workin’ after that.”Bookmark here

The jib doesn’t really find the homeroom teacher, clearly somewhere off in space with a thousand-mile stare.Bookmark here

“Tay.”Bookmark here

“I’m not… making a mistake… right?”Bookmark here

How rare.Bookmark here

Spells of doubt are nothing new. This, though… is different. How many years had they known one another? Ordinarily, with Kelly, they’re a matter of ability. Whether she’s doing something properly or as effectively as possible. For it to be about the nature of her actions, though… Even Ortiz is at a loss. How does she respond to this? Better yet, where is this even coming from?Bookmark here

“Well, it’s pretty risky, not to mention all kinds of illegal. But that didn’t seem to stop you before. Or from dragging me into the middle of it, so I guess the better question is… Do you think it’s a mistake?”Bookmark here

Kelly doesn’t say anything more. Not in response to that. Rather, she stands herself up and grabs her things. “It’s nothing. I’ll just get over it with a little sleep. See you at school.”Bookmark here

“Later…”Bookmark here

Ortiz watches Kelly through those front doors and leans against the counter once she’s gone. “Worrying like that doesn’t suit you, you know…”Bookmark here

Outside, Kelly drifts through the city streets, dragging her feet on her way home. Things look so pristine. The work of maintenance drones, of course. Still, one would hardly be able to tell that this place is the site of frequent clashes between such powerful individuals. Such lengths the city goes to in order to erase these people. To pretend that nothing’s going on. The battles are commonplace. Normal, even. Cleaned up and forgotten about as easily as throwing away a piece of litter.Bookmark here

Listless, the young teacher meanders her way to the nearest station. It’s upon ascending the platform that she catches something peculiar… and familiar. A face, half-covered by a head of honey-blonde strands.Bookmark here

“Diana?”Bookmark here

“Eh? M-Ms. Kelly?”Bookmark here

Kelly stops beside her student, facing the empty tracks. “I suppose it’d be awkward, leaving with the others. It’s fine. I wouldn’t expect you to be particularly chummy with them. Not yet, at least.”Bookmark here

Silence.Bookmark here

Well, this is plenty awkward, itself, I guess…Bookmark here

“Ah. With all the advancements we’ve made in this city, you’d think we could get the trains to run on schedule.”Bookmark here

Still nothing.Bookmark here

I probably deserve this. Thinking about it, though, what other stops does this line make? I thought it only went to the Outer Ring, but if Diana’s here…Bookmark here

“Teach.”Bookmark here

“Hm?”Bookmark here

Kelly glances down to find Diana’s head turned away from her, curling one of her honey-blonde locks around her finger. “Did I…?” The question dies, drowning itself in the stubborn girl’s lungs before she snaps around and looks her homeroom instructor in the eye. “I told you I’d prove you wrong.”Bookmark here

This girl…Bookmark here

Kelly cracks a faint grin, barely able to keep herself from laughing. Something that Diana doesn’t exactly appreciate.Bookmark here

“W-what’re you giggling about?! I did, right?!”Bookmark here

This only makes it more difficult for Kelly to keep it together, professional woman or not.Bookmark here

Laughing at a student. I’m really awful, aren’t I? Still, I feel like I got to see something rare, just now. Honestly…Bookmark here

Then she removes her glasses, wiping an amused tear from the corner of her eye before reaching out and placing a gentle hand on Diana’s shoulder. “Yeah, Diana. You proved me wrong. Thank you.”Bookmark here

The train arrives while the two ladies continue their dialogue. They don’t say much to one another on the ride. Kelly steps off first, leaving Diana to fiddle with her Link and text a few friends, or the like.Bookmark here

Upon stepping off and waving goodbye to her student, Kelly strolls off into the neighborhood, looking to the dome sky.Bookmark here

There’s still plenty I don’t know all of them… Let’s see what they can teach me, then.Bookmark here

---Bookmark here

Mio makes her way up to her room after returning home from a long day and fighting her way out of her mother’s cheerfully smothering clutches. It only makes sense that the first thing she does is collapse into bed, one arm hung over the side.Bookmark here

It still hasn’t settled in. No matter how heavy her eyelids feel, her body won’t allows her to fall asleep. It’s buzzing too much for that.Bookmark here

No. Buzzing is too uncomfortable. Fluttering, more like.Bookmark here

They’d won. They’d really won. This excited feeling won’t go away.Bookmark here

“We actually...”Bookmark here

“Well, don’t you look happy? For you, anyway…”Bookmark here

Mio sits herself upright, folding her legs so that the little reptile creature climbs up onto her knee. Smiles don’t often grace this girl’s lips. True to everything else about her, the one she sports now is rather dim. But it’s there. Bookmark here

“Ah. Kuro, I forgot to say, earlier. Thank you.”Bookmark here

“Hmm?”Bookmark here

Mio takes her little finger and scratches under her little partner’s chin. “I… was able to help, right? I didn’t hold them back. And it was because of you, so…”Bookmark here

Kuro’s beak cracks his now-trademark spiny little grin and he adopts that playful, snarky tone that so defines him. “Boke. O’course it was. I’m the best partner you could ask for.”Bookmark here

---Bookmark here

School the next day is thankfully… suspiciously uneventful. No battles on campus at all, in fact. During the lunch period, Kelly sits in the Teachers’ Room, staring at the display on her Link. It’s the Royale Tracker, again, with the files of the girls pulled upon. Whichever students put this together certainly have a flair for commentary…Bookmark here

“Your students are doing quite well in the Royale so far.”Bookmark here

Kelly looks over her shoulder to find the school’s principal standing there with his hands on the back of her chair and beaming down on her with that friendly face of his.Bookmark here

“You must be proud of them. If nothing else, I’m sure it feels like a tremendous burden lifted from your shoulders.”Bookmark here

Kelly closes their files, going back to the page of the larger list, comparing so many other participating combatants, not only in this school, but across several others. “Principal Aizo. I suppose you could say that. They’re doing well for themselves.”Bookmark here

“After losing two students to this already, I can’t imagine the stress it must cause. I hope it doesn’t drum up too many harsh memories.”Bookmark here

Aizo stares through the window into the halls, watching as students pass by, so many of them with those technological wristbands on. How many of them wear those because they choose to? How many because the city tells them they have to? How many would be left by the end of the year?Bookmark here

It draws a sigh out of the otherwise sunny educator. “The Royale is honestly a brutal, uncompromising thing…”Bookmark here

“I know that better than most.” Kelly joins her superior in watching students pass by, peeking out just in time to spot Ragyou dragging Mio off somewhere. It summons a halfhearted smile to her face. It doesn’t stick. “Peace like this is the really cruel part. When they mess with the algorithms so certain groups don’t get picked for a while. Like students. All it does is remind them of what life could be like without that fear hanging over them.”Bookmark here

“Even when it seems like it’s being merciful, it’s only to torment even further, hm? That unfortunately reminds me. The System’s already sent me advanced notice. I expect they’ll be letting you know shortly. The Class Rumble event is starting within the next three days.”Bookmark here

Kelly’s grip on the arm of her chair tightens, the metal straining and warping in her quiet clutch. “Is that so?”Bookmark here

“I would say I’m rooting for your students, but…”Bookmark here

“No, that’d be improper. I understand. I suppose even I shouldn’t be doing that…” Kelly trails off towards the end of that, her mind drifting elsewhere, if only for a moment.Bookmark here

Aizo bows his head. “Well, I only wanted to tell you. I’ve been making the rounds to inform all the instructors who have participants in their classes.”Bookmark here

“I appreciate it.”Bookmark here

“Of course. I should be going, now. Many more to visit.”Bookmark here

Before Aizo can get far, however, Kelly swivels around in her seat. “Oh, Principal Aizo. I almost forgot. There was something I’ve been studying, lately, regarding one of my students. I could use a second opinion.”Bookmark here

“Oh?”Bookmark here

Kelly stands from her seat and reopens her Link display, swiping through screens until she comes to a psiometric file. The file of one Morioka Mio.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.