Stretching her hands as if wishing to touch the ceiling, a young girl yawned without shame inside her bedroom. Slowly rubbing her eyes, the dim lights of the new day crawled upon her peachy, silky skin. A few seconds later, her alarm clock rang, silencing immediately with her left hand. Waking up ahead of time was always part of her daily routine. Two beautiful honey irises made out her blurry room, which became a mix between greens and beiges. Sliding her slender fingers across the small table beside her bed, her round glasses were now finally in her face, everything becoming clearer. Sweeping her nougat hair aside, her curly tips were clearly annoying her cheeks. Puffing, the girl decided to stand up and start her common routine. After all, she was only an elementary student. Nonetheless, even if she was the younger of four, she felt pride in her intellect and quick wits.
Proud of herself, she walked towards the ironed uniform that was hanging at the wall surrounded by potted plants of all types. Recently, she has started gardening as a hobby to release stress. What kind of stress does a girl her age have? Well, it is useless and rude to pry inside this young maiden’s inner thoughts, right?
Sprinkling a bit of water according to her notes, she proceeded to leave the uniform on top of the bed and take care of her small babies, as she called them. Every flower had a name as well, quite odd, wasn’t she?
Once that was done, she swiftly changed into her school garments—a plaited navy-blue skirt, a simple white blouse and a cream-coloured sweater, where her school insignia could be seen, as well as a cute red ribbon symbolizing, she was currently in her last year of school.
Oh, you might be wondering about that, correct? Everything will be answered in due time.
Saying farewell to each of her darling plants and flowers, she slid the curtains and let the dim sunlight bathe them in a pretty light.
Slowly opening her bedroom’s door, she quickened her pace towards the bathroom to comb her hair. As always, her bed hair was being a pain. Growing accustomed to it, she learned to tame it with two twin-tails, letting her curly hair rest free on her shoulders. Her bangs were straight, almost perfectly cut. Smiling to herself, she was ready to start another common school day morning, which began with hellish breakfasts.
“C’mon Esora! Stop stealing my sausage every morning. Mum even cooks two for you just because of this! How am I supposed to enjoy my sunny-side egg in peace!?”
“This is why a traditional Japanese breakfast is the way to go, Kaoruko.”
“Shut up, Kuniharu!”
“Why, isn’t it a lovely morning…” the sigh of an older man could be heard as he flipped the newspaper while drinking a cup of coffee on the kitchen counter. “And talking about that, good morning, Mano.”
“Morning,” the youngest muttered, making her way slowly towards the table where her three older siblings bickered about food. She sat down and saw what her mother had prepared in advance before leaving for work in a hurry. “I’m surprised my sausage is still alive!”
“That’s because I protected it from Esora!” yelled a short-haired girl. At the same time, she was with one foot on top of the chair and pulling out the hair of her elder sister. “Her stomach is an endless pit!”
Kaoruko could be perceived as tomboyish due to her looks. Auburn hair that barely reached her neck and wide caramel eyes. Her uniform was simpler than Mano’s, just the basic sailor design most of the schools used. Being in junior high, her manners could leave a lot to be desired, especially given that Esora was in high school.
Carefree laughing could be heard from the black-haired girl while she, somehow, managed to eat the entirety of the sunny-side egg with only chopsticks while she fended off Kaoruko’s rage with her other hand. Smiling after savouring it, her long hair swayed alongside her inner glee. Her amethyst eyes sparkled as always, before replying.
“Delicious! Are you gonna eat yours, Kaoru?” Completely dismissing the point of the one-sided argument, the big sister of the bunch reached, with superhuman strength, for the unattended plate that would only have leftover broccoli if things kept this way. “Don’t mind if I do!”
“You gluttonous pig!” Leaving the fair-haired girl alone, Kaoruko raised up her plate. “I can’t believe you can eat that much and be so slim, jeez!”
“Thank you for the compliment!” Esora smiled, just to notice the food was now out of her reach. Her school uniform, which was a black one-piece dress with a green tie, flew on top of the table, ready to attack. “Sunny-side egg, here I come!”
The banter continued with insults being perceived as compliments, while the only son who was actually even older than Esora—being a university student—slowly sipped some miso soup. His clothes were actually out of place even for this time period, always wearing a styled hakama, praising Japanese cuisine and culture every time he got the opportunity. Studying a history career—which was no surprise—he was even odder than his two younger sisters. Other than being the only other one besides Mano who used glasses, he had that pretty boy aura with dark chestnut hair and eyes of the same colour, alongside his relaxing atmosphere.
Mano couldn’t understand why their mother went out of her way to make two different sets of breakfasts. Japanese style for Kuniharu, and a simple set for the three sisters. When she was little, she thought it was a thing of preference due to him being the firstborn. However, as years went by, she noticed it was mostly to get him to stop listing endless reasons why Japanese culture is dying being replaced by American stuff, so the best way was to give in to his whims to avoid a full-blown war between Japan and Imperialism. Even so, Mano always got along with him, so she stopped minding a long time ago.
Although Haru should stop renting so many old movies about feudal Japan, it’s starting to get boring every Friday night, she innocently thought while eating her breakfast.
“Will you two stop already?” Their father finally set down the newspaper and with both of his hands raised Esora and Kaoruko by the neck of their uniforms to smack them on the head and sit them down on their chairs. “Now finish eating so I can start cleaning the house from the mess you two have done.”
Certainly, the floor was a mess of Worchester sauce and mayonnaise.
“Am I supposed to only eat broccoli?” Kaoruko sighed, clearly annoyed.
“You don’t want it?” Esora asked, clearly still hungry with an empty plate.
“This would not happen if both of you had a traditional breakfast of boiled fish and rice.” Added Kuniharu with a smile that most certainly charmed women and men alike, except his sisters. “Oh, and miso soup.”
“Silence, you old man!” the short-haired girl closed her eyes for a second in anger, just to notice after opening them that out of her three broccolis, two were missing. She turned around menacingly, seeing how Esora was clearly chewing them with utter happiness. “How fast are you!? Urgh, this is ridiculous, I’ll have the convenience store bread again on my way to school.”
“Here you go.” Their father extended her a couple of yens. “That’s coming out of your monthly allowance, Esora.”
“It’s alrighty,” the charcoal haired girl kept on smiling. “My part-time job is enough!”
“I’m amazed you can keep that modelling job given how much you eat. It’s almost infuriating. Anyway, just thinking that stupid Esora bought my breakfast is a win for me!”
Even if they fight a lot, Kaoru forgives Sora super-fast.
“Thank you for the food,” Mano stood up, picking up her plate and leaving it on the faucet. She at least liked making her father’s home duties more manageable. She reached for a bento packed in a cloth decorated with hearts and placed it carefully inside her schoolbag.
After all, even if her mother did their breakfast every morning, the one in charge of cooking everything else was her father. A big family living in a medium-sized apartment was a huge chore to clean, but he always took care of that, as well as managing the small convenience store, they owned—where Kaoruko would get her bread, obviously—located on the ground floor of the building complex.
Meanwhile, Mano’s mother worked as a businesswoman, always working late at night and leaving early in the morning. For that reason, she always woke up extra early to at least make breakfast for her four children.
“I’ll be going.” Mano raced to the entrance, trading her slippers for a pair of sneakers.
“Have a good day at school!”
Four voices became one, making her smile. After all, she was the youngest prodigy of the family. She had to make them proud.
The door closed behind her, her pace quickening to reach the lift. Living on the eight floor meant a bit of a long waiting time. However, her best friend was already waiting for her waving her hand in the air.
“Sorry!” the girl apologized, just to receive a soothing giggle in response.
“No need to worry, Mano-san. I haven’t been here for long. My grandfather’s morning training dragged on for a bit.”
“Still. I’m sorry, Kotoha. I’m your upperclassman in some way and yet I’m always late.” Mano laughed nervously.
Indeed, Mano was three years older than Kotoha. Still, both of them had been friends since Kotoha was born due to the fact they were neighbours. Even if they went to different schools, their commute was the same route.
The petite girl was wearing a faded pair of jeans, which were covered partway with a simple long-sleeve white shirt. A golden necklace in the shape of a cherry blossom that made her appearance pop hung from her neck. A pair of plastic pink, black shaded sunglasses sat atop of her blonde hair which was arranged in two symmetrical low pigtails. Her bright orange eyes met with Mano’s amber gaze and smiled.
Awaiting the lift for around two minutes of casual chit-chat about Kotoha’s morning kendo practise as well as Mano’s daily breakfast drama, the doors finally opened, both of them going inside and pressing the ground floor button. Letting herself be immersed in the mechanical sound, it suddenly came to a halt on the third floor. Both girls looked at each other curiously. The lift never stopped at this hour, since the only people who lived on this floor were an elderly couple who only went outside for evening walks.
When the door opened, they were face to face with a complete stranger.
It was a boy who looked to be around their age. His hair was a darker shade of blond compared to Kotoha’s with baby-blue eyes, and he wore a white beanie hat. He didn’t seem to have a great sense of fashion since his wardrobe was a mixture of greens and yellows. Mano found it hard to understand and digest with her eyes. However, both girls made a small space for him to go inside.
Ignoring his looks, he is kinda handsome!
Nonetheless, the unknown pretty boy stopped the door from closing, not coming inside. Instead, he bowed, as if to introduce himself.
“Good morning, I’m Shinobu Sonozaki and I just moved in this weekend. Nice to meetcha!”
Mano was caught off guard, blushing. Her glasses slipped a little, and couldn’t find the right words. It was as if she had forgotten how to speak.
“Good tidings to you, Sonozaki-san. I’m Kotoha Kayano and live on the eighth floor. Pleased to make your acquaintance.” Bowing as the refined lady she is, the petite girl introduced herself given the situation.
“Wow, being so young and with such a flashy appearance you sure are well mannered!” the boy laughed, trying to break the tense atmosphere. “Shinobu is fine, Kotoha-chan.” Suddenly, he noticed his speech, apologetically scratching his neck as a sign of nervousness. “Ah, I’m sorry for overstepping my boundaries, I don’t even know in what grade you are and I’m here already assuming due to your height…”
“There is nothing to apologise for, I’m in third grade.”
“Then you are a fine young lady, being all proper! I’m a fifth-grader.”
Mano felt out of the loop. Both of them were already establishing a conversation, and here she was feeling flustered just because a pretty boy stopped the lift and refused to come inside until introductions were done.
C’mon, Mano! You’ve got this!
“This is my best friend and neighbour, Mano Okunoda,” Kotoha pointed at her with her hand, making the twin-tailed girl’s face become beet red from embarrassment.
“So, Mano-chan! Happy to meet you too!”
She felt her head explode, her bed hair dropping down from the hurricane of emotions she was feeling at that moment.
“Is she feeling unwell?” Shinobu asked, blinking his eyes with curiosity.
“Ah, Mano-san get a grip of yourself!” Kotoha grabbed her, trying to make her soul return to her body.
“Maybe I overstepped my boundaries again…?” Shinobu was clearly puzzled until he noticed Mano’s uniform. A sudden rush of mutual embarrassment was generated. “Oh gosh, I’m so sorry I assumed you were my age so I…”
Mano, you need to wake up now!!!
And so, Mano slapped herself in the face, just to smile as if nothing had happened.
“Not at all! I guess that using a uniform would give you that impression but I’m an elementary student as well. My name is Mano, written with the kanji of true, and the possessive particle. Weird choice, amirite?” A forced, awkward laugh escaped from her lips. “Okunoda is just as weird—heart, field and rice paddies!”
Shinobu entered the lift, the doors finally closing with Mano’s laughter becoming louder and louder.
I sure messed it up as always, didn’t I? Why do I have to explain my name whenever I’m nervous!?
Being the month with the clearest skies due to the change of seasons, Mano had to take care of her planters more than necessary. That is why right now, walking alongside Kotoha and Shinobu, after such an embarrassing moment, she tried to think about the cute little plants and flowers that awaited her at home once her day was over. She was trying to keep warm under her uniform’s sweater.
Left; right. One; two. She delicately bit her lips, thus relieving the stress of not knowing why she was so anxious. Mano narrowed her eyes, concentrating on the marks her feet left on the concrete. Apparently, she had stepped on some mud without noticing it and that annoyed her a little bit. Kotoha could see her friend was doing her best to keep her cool after probably thinking she had made a fool of herself. Kotoha actually liked that side of Mano. A bright, cheerful and silly side, that usually carried one or two short fuses.
Mano held an eternal silence in her mind, revelling in the sound of the withered tree leaves being crushed under her muddy feet; the only thing that brought colour to the monotonous atmosphere she had created as a barrier.
The group of three were already leaving behind the busy side of town and leaving the quiet residential district, but the lack of life left much to be desired. The wind caressed her cheek as it whispered softly that something was going to happen today. After all, their daily lives were suddenly introduced to this unknown variable called Shinobu Sonozaki.
“Well, this is my stop,” Kotoha suddenly said, halting at the entrance gate of Odaiba’s Elementary School.
“Actually, this is mine too!” Shinobu smiled. “Glad I made it on time. Thank you, both of you. Being a transfer student, I was sure I was going to be late!”
Children of all ages and all types of clothing were running inside, greeting friends and even playing some football before homeroom. Many were cheering on the teams currently on the field. Mano and the others took a quick glimpse, only for the girl to grimace when she saw a certain person. Kotoha knew exactly why. On the other hand, Shinobu seemed lost in thought.
“W-Well, I gotta go!” Mano literally ran off, leaving them both on their own.
“Ah, Mano-san, please don’t forget what we talked about last night. I’ll be waiting!”
Mano waved her hand, rushing to get away from there as quickly as possible, fleeing underneath the sunshine.
Kotoha sighed, shaking her head. The blond-haired boy blinked, to finally open his mouth and ask a question that had been eating him the entire trip to school.
“Does Okunoda-san go to a private school?”
“Mhm,” Kotoha nodded. “Saint Gracia Academy to be precise.”
“Saint Gracia!? You mean, that Saint Gracia Academy!? The one where you are basically set for life!?”
“Pretty much,” Kotoha replied with a weak laugh. “Elementary, Junior High, High School. Three in one. A school for refined young ladies and gentlemen, at that! Mano-san will go to their Junior High section next year.”
Shinobu could clearly see Kotoha wasn’t quite content speaking about it, hence why he decided to change topics.
“Alright, shall we make our way to our respective classes?”
“Of course. I can guide you as well. Since you are in fifth grade, your class should be on the fifth floor. Self-explanatory.” Kotoha started walking along with the crowd, her orange eyes looking sideways to the field. Suddenly, her head rammed straight into Shinobu’s back, catching her off guard. “Ouch… Everything alright?”
His eyes were lost on the captain of the football team, who was happily and diligently, as well as somewhat playfully, drifting the ball between his opponents while jumping left and right to reach the goal.
Kotoha blinked, perplexed.
Suddenly, the boy shoots with all his might, and the ball misses by mere centimetres, flying straight toward Shinobu. Quickly, he catches it with both of his hands, a huge smile plastered on his face.
Flustered, the captain of the team approaches them, just to be thrown the ball towards him, receiving it the same way Shinobu caught it.
“Nice pass!” The blond said.
“Oh, thank you!” The boy approached them, smiling as if he were the sun itself and scratching that space between nose and mouth.
His tanned looks were gorgeous with the sunlight kissing his sweaty skin. His burgundy hair being kept in place by a set of old aviator goggles. His wine coloured eyes blinked three times, noticing the strange blond kid was still staring at him. He suddenly thought it was because of his outfit. Perhaps it got dirty while playing? He subtly checked and everything seemed okay. Beige shorts were clean, his blue shirt as well, alongside his dark red jumper.
“I like your goggles. They’re pretty cool!” Shinobu suddenly said.
“R-Really? Thanks!” Even more flustered, the tanned youth said his goodbye and went back to play before homeroom started.
Shinobu began walking towards the school building, Kotoha trailing behind him. Once they were inside and changed their shoes on their corresponding lockers, they decided to say their farewells once she reached the third floor, leaving Shinobu to go on his own.
Kotoha opened her classroom door, wondering what that was all about.
Inside a bustling room filled with students, a rather cute girl was patiently waiting for homeroom to start. Her short, light chestnut hair had a highlight of soft pink on the tips, making her appearance more angelic than it already was. Her looks were not only adorable, but she always knew how to combine her looks with her clothes. Yellow—and of course pink—combined perfectly well with her looks. Wearing a delicate pale rose scarf and a dress that resembled the colour of the sun in winter, she fixed a small hair clip that helped keep her fringe in place, even if some was still on her forehead.
Making his way inside the classroom, the tanned boy approached her. Placing both hands on top of the unoccupied desk, he smiled happily, which drew her attention.
“Something good happened, Masaru?” she asked.
“A cool dude complimented my goggles, Ouka-chan!” Still smiling like a kid inside a candy store, he suddenly had a realization. “But now that I think about it, I’ve never seen him before.”
“Motoori, back to your desk!”
The teacher had entered making no sound at all. The whole class went silent once he revealed his presence. With that said, he turned his back to them and started writing something on the board. When he was done, he cleared his throat.
“We’re having a transfer student today. You can come in.”
No one had time to make insane theories if it would be a girl or a boy. In fact, no one had even heard that a new student was coming today. It seemed that the professors were much tighter with that info being leaked. The bickering caused by commotion was one of the hardest things to control, so throwing the news like a bucket of iced cold water was the best approach.
A blond boy with a white beanie hat and a questionable outfit due to the bright colour combination made his way inside, all the while smiling and not showing a hint of nervousness. Seemed like he was used to these types of situations.
“Go on, you can introduce yourself.”
“Nice to meet you! I’m Shinobu Sonozaki, but please you can call me Shinobu. No need to feel reserved! I look forward to getting along with everyone.”
“Let’s see, you’ll sit…”
While the teacher was scanning the room, the football player looked pleased. He whispered towards Ouka, hoping she could hear him.
“He’s the dude I told you about!”
However, Ouka was lost in thought… until a smile he had never seen before was illustrated on her beautiful face. One of nostalgia.
“Yes, right next to Kouzaki.”
Shinobu made his way, carefree as always. He sat down and immediately started talking.
“Long time no see, Ouka!”
“Yep, Shinobu! How long has it been? Three years?”
“I think so!”
Jealousy. Envy. Those were the feelings that Masaru Motoori was feeling. To hell with Shinobu Shinozaki being a cool dude for complementing his goggles. He was freely talking to his crush! To his only love!
How dare you, Shinobu Sonozaki! Curse you!!, he yelled inside his head.
He spent the rest of the day trying to understand how they could brew up a storm as soon as they sat together. How much of a smooth talker the guy could be. In other words, Masaru would have to ask for notes at the end of the day, being unable to concentrate due to his first love making friends with the new kid.
As the eight hour school day flew by, filled with laughter and joy, the afternoon arrived; crows signalling that the school day was over even before the bell rang. Masato was certainly annoyed by everything that was happening around him, so much that he instantly stood up, went straight to who he used to think was a cool dude—who was now his self-proclaimed love rival—staring him down head to toe. Ouka blinked, unsure of what was going on, while Shinobu kept on smiling.
“Hey, you. What’s your deal with Ouka-chan?” he spat bitterly.
“He has a name, and it’s Shinobu.” The girl clarified, crossing both of her arms.
“How come you’re all friendly? It’s unfair!”
“Your name is Masaru-kun, right? Ouka-chan told me about you.” Shinobu grinned.
“See!? Using chan as if you were super duper close! And don’t use kun with me!”
The unusual youth laughed, making Masaru get even more annoyed. Noticing this, Ouka quickly stepped between them both. She has always been a girl that puts everyone else’s well being before hers. For that sole reason, she instantly proposed to leave the classroom and go home.
Masaru sighed, knowing it was useless to keep on a one-sided argument. It was obvious that Shinobu was oblivious to what was going on, so it was better to let it slide for now. For that reason, he slowly went back to his desk, organized his personal belongings and followed them towards the first floor. On their way, Ouka handed him her notes. Masaru’s eyes lit up, fantasizing that she might have been paying attention to his uneasiness. In fact, it was the other way around—she just knew.
Every student was making their way towards the school gate or their extracurricular activities. The school campus had two very large fields. Everyone called it the front and the backfield. On the front, they played sports like football because of its soft ground. However, the back is dedicated to athleticism, having an enormous track field. Moreover, it also had an inside basketball court where students practise almost every day as well as rhythmic gymnastics.
Finally arriving on the first floor, the trio were about to change their shoes, until something unusual happened to interrupt them.
“By any chance are you Kouzaki-san?”
Ouka raised her head, meeting with Mano’s beautiful honey eyes. The eleven-year-old girl felt a sudden rush of electricity run through her body just by hearing her voice and being in contact with her irises. Dismissing the fact that she was wearing a school uniform and having never seen her before in her life, Ouka nodded in response.
“Are you related to Riku Kouzaki by any chance?” Mano spoke in a hurried tone, scrolling through an electronic device. Seemed to be a terminal of some sort or even a palmtop computer.
However, she ignored the object completely. She had one too after all. In fact, every single kid in Japan almost owned one being the latest rage in electronics. That was why she was on edge.
“What happened to my brother…?” she softly asked, doing her best to hide her anxiety.
“Please come with me.” Mano turned around, running through the hallway.
Ouka followed suit, Shinobu dropping his stuff on the floor and chasing after her. Masaru stood there all alone, unable to understand what was going on and why that annoying girl was here. Shaking his thoughts away, he raced to catch up with them.
Meanwhile, Ouka had a sudden grim feeling about the situation.
If something happened to my brother, why didn’t he contact me?
You see, for all of this to make sense, we have to travel back in time to just a few minutes ago.
Mano had finally arrived at Kotoha’s school just as promised. Exhausted from running all the way from her school, she was in a foul mood as well. Even if she didn’t have the need to prepare for entrance exams, the aura of pressure that Saint Gracia held by itself in the atmosphere of the hallways was enough to stress her out. Especially given that the results of the exams were all the buzz lately. Young ladies of all ages in the Elementary section were head over heels towards a particular name that always made it first place in the fifth-grade list which she tried not to bother to look.
After all her main concern was the sixth-grade list.
The bespectacled beauty ignored it as always. However, soon a special exam would take place that joined all the top three from Elementary schools to test their knowledge and decide who was the top-performing student. And that did stress her out. She never worried over her rivals but this thought was slowly creeping towards her insecure soul.
Nonetheless, she had other priorities as of now.
Once she made it to the seventh floor, she arrived at the Computer Lab where Kotoha was eagerly awaiting sitting on a PC right next to the window of the classroom. Even if she was a member of the I.T Club, no one else was around.
Making her way inside, the empty classroom was, in itself, a mysterious place with all the students gone but their voices seemed to linger and sometimes, the looks they shot at the teachers stayed for a long time. When they are handed a paper with a less than desirable score, their countenances reveal volumes about their emotions.
Alone with empty PC desks, blank whiteboards, and quiet halls. It was eerie and unsettling. However, Kotoha’s presence made the room warm and cosy.
“Hiya!” Mano sat right next to her, basking in the silence and delicate electronic sounds the computer made.
“Good evening, I am glad you remembered.” Kotoha smiled, then drawing her attention to the afflicted PC. “Think you can help me see what is wrong with this one? Not even the club advisor was able to solve this. He said he’d bring help this week but I can’t trust him and his flimsy promises.”
“Lemme have a look,” reaching for the mouse, Mano started scrolling through the line of code she was presented with. “What is this exactly?”
“A few days ago an unusual programme appeared on this particular PC. I am pretty sure this is the computer people use to install stuff for fun. See here?” The petite girl pointed out a particular desktop icon that consisted of a weirdly designed monster and a castle. “Arcadia is installed. Even if we try to delete it, they always manage to get it up and running so we get tired of removing it. Given few people can actually sneak in during class to play an RPG, it’s just there now.”
“And the problem is?”
“It seems the files are interfering with the computer itself. Sometimes a strange window opens. I thought it had something to do with the code, which is why I asked for your help given it’s the only alien programme installed here.”
Indeed, Mano was a computer freak, so to speak. She enjoyed dismantling and assembling old computers for fun whenever she got enough money to buy second-hand electronics. Besides her recently acquired taste for potted plants, she found delight assembling code and making the PC say Do you want dinner? A bath? Or me? when prompted with a very specific question.
In any case, she was about to start to take a look when the door to the class opened up violently.
Sweating bullets, an older student had suddenly entered. Both girls were unable to recognize him, catching them off-guard. His uniform was a black blazer and pants. His ginger hair was all over the place, and he made his way towards them.
“Um…” Mano looked at him from head to toe suspiciously. “Do you need help with something?”
“Oh, excuse me. My sincerest apologies but I need to use that PC.” He blurted politely, with a hint of rushed anxiety.
“There are plenty of unoccupied PCs… and you don’t seem to belong to the I.T Club, nor this school. What is your objective?” Mano lowered her gaze, being highly suspicious.
“You aren’t one to talk though…” Kotoha murmured nervously. Clearing her throat, she turned to the boy. “Shizugawa-senpai, nice to see you. Were you called in by the club advisor?”
“Oh, Kotoha! F-Fancy seeing you here. Y-Yeah.”
Why is he so jumpy? Definitely suspicious!
“I see, glad to know the teacher did something about this!” Kotoha smiled. “I had called a friend for backup but seeing you’re here maybe we could do some teamwork.”
“I’m not letting you touch this computer!!!”
Mano went feral mode, hugging the PC as if were her own offspring or sibling. Probably the first one.
“Mano-san!?” The blonde girl gasped due to the sudden turn of events.
“Please, I need it!” He pleaded.
“Over my dead body!!!”
Without warning, Kotoha pushed Mano’s chair and she slid all the way towards the other side of the class. The wheeled chair spun round and round, making her dizzy as she screamed.
“Here you go, senpai. Please forgive my friend’s behaviour.”
“It’s alright…” Shizugawa hunched up as much as he could to examine the computer in question. Humming to himself, he wrote a specific string on the command prompt, a very peculiar window appearing on screen. “There we go.”
“That’s the strange thingy!” Kotoha looked towards her upperclassman. “Did the advisor tell you everything beforehand?”
“Kotoha, would you be so kind to let the advisor know I’m here?” Ignoring her question, the black-eyed student took out a palmtop computer from his pocket.
“Of course, Shizugawa-senpai.”
Kotoha was curious of course. The unusual behaviour of him was eating her alive. Just last year he was part of the club and after graduation, he hadn’t been back, not even for a visit. So him knowing about the programme was indeed strange, especially asking her that question just after she asked about something similar.
“Let’s go, Mano-san.” Grabbing, or rather, dragging her friend by both of her twin-tails, she made her come back to her senses.
“Huh!? Go where?”
“Where? To tell the advisor that—”
“To hell with that! I demand an explanation!” Mano rushed towards her upperclassman with no respect whatsoever and slammed her right hand right next to the computer in question. “Who are you? Why so jumpy? Why do you want us out of here? We need answers!”
“Mano-san…” Kotoha felt slightly embarrassed.
“Look, I’m deeply sorry about all this but time is of the essence.” He kept on going, ignoring Manos menacing gaze even if it gave him the chills. “I’ll do my best to answer anything you want if you do me a huge favour right away.”
His face was pale after closing the palmtop computer, returning to the desktop and quickly spamming code after code.
“Hey, you are in no place to demand things from us! Now you will—”
“Please, it’s a matter of life or death!”
His plea came in a desperate attempt to hide what seemed to be actual fear.
Fears can be triggered by real threats and by memories of them. Humans find it challenging to unlearn fears. Thus, when we realise that we are scared we must ask ourselves how real the threat is or if we have begun to generalise fear and seek evidence to cement it rather than challenging it. To remain well balanced and with a good perspective, we must always remain willing to ask ourselves these difficult questions, hone into our true emotions, and see people as they really are.
Mano knew that pretty well.
That said, if after analysis you find the threat to have real force and impact, you must take action to protect yourself, to protect those you love and call in allies to provide support. In summary, fears can be real, ghosts of real fears, or entirely imagined. It takes courage to figure out your own fears, to face them and question them, but it is worth it.
Which was why Mano’s response took everyone by surprise.
“How can I help?”
“Please look for Ouka Kouzaki. She needs to be here, quickly! Let me send you a message through our Terminals!”
The mysterious upperclassman took out his device again, Mano doing the same. After a beep they both knew they had added each other on their contact list, as well as the message being sent and received.
“Leave it to me!” Mano puffed her chest and took Kotoha by the hand, heading outside.
“Mano-san…” Kotoha looked at her friend, knowing her changes of heart were not often and easily persuadable.
“Now then, time to look for Kouzaki-san!”
Going down the stairs, she came to a cold stop once Kotoha asked her a very reasonable question.
“You aren’t even a student here. Where do you think you can find her?”
Ouka felt the need to move almost without end; if her limbs were moving the anxiety was gone, or at least she could ignore it a while. As the stairs passed by, she felt like she would lose herself, much like in a dream. In a situation such as this, it would be odd to not have anxiety. In a way, it is a good sign, it shows that she can grasp the situation, however, everything was screaming inside of her.
Just who was this girl that was dragging her to who knows where? Why did she mention her brother's name?
“Um, excuse me but…” Ouka’s voice came as a whisper, not knowing what to ask or where to even start.
“Here we are!” Mano opened the Computer Lab’s sliding door, exclaiming with delight. “I brought her!”
“Ah, thank you so much!”
Mano smiled happily with her job well done.
The twin-tailed girl tilted her head in confusion.
Do they know each other?
“Ouka, you’re here!”
Without replying to the greeting, the girl made her way towards the computer, clearly quite agitated.
“What happened to my brother!?”
As a computer can be overloaded, so can your brain. There is a finite processing capacity, and when your ability to process fear is exceeded, panic attacks can begin. Mano realized that that was exactly what was happening to Ouka Kouzaki.
When stressed and afraid, the human brain is only made better at learning and remembering things we fear—it locks us in with our demons and gives them longer claws. It makes us want to hide in the dark and make no sound, ready to fight if we need to. In this state we invent new monsters, we look for more, desperate to survive. We lose the ability of the higher mind to hush those fears and restore inner peace; all other types of learning need a more relaxed and calm state. Calmness is as the dawn is when the real world is seen, and the actors pulling the levers of fear are revealed.
This was why Mano approached Ouka and hugged her from behind.
I might know next to nothing about her. Heck, I’m not even a student here. I’m just an unknown girl that behaved as a messenger in exchange for answers about something stupid. Yet, when I see such a girl make a distressed face, it hurts my heart.
Mano felt Ouka’s shoulder’s relax as she took a deep breath. Breaking apart, Mano smiled apologetically while the girl with pink highlights stared at her with a mystic aura.
“It seemed like you needed a hug!”
Ouka smiled sweetly in return.
“Well, mysterious senpai. You can tell me all about this later. Gotta meet Kotoha who is waiting for me downstairs!”
However, once she had a foot outside the room, she came face to face with the person she least wished to see—Masaru Motoori.
“Ack!” The tanned boy let a grunt of disgust escape his lips.
“...Ack? Is this how you treat your upperclassmen, Masaru?” Mano pretended to smile, her eyebrows twitching.
“Shuddup, stupid Mano.” He crossed his arms, making his way inside.
“Wait for me!”
Mano came face to face with Shinobu again, both taken aback by how in a single day they had crossed paths more than once.
“Huh? Okunoda-san? What are you doing here?” The blond asked curiously.
“You know each other?” Masaru fixed his goggles. “Whatever… wait, that actually makes no sense. Why are you here?”
“Is there a rule that doesn’t let me be here?” The girl seemed right about to punch the living lights out of him.
While their banter became background noise, Shinobu made his way towards Ouka, just to see another familiar, nostalgic face to him.
“Shinobu? Well, this is indeed an unusual occurence…”
“What happened to my brother?” Ouka asked again, more calm this time around.
“I’m trying to open the gate but…” Pressing Enter after typing the last string of code, the mysterious window that had a red button still did not change. “I can’t.”
“What do you mean that you can’t?” The girl’s calm demeanour decreased.
“Easy, Ouka-chan… Izumi, do you have any idea why?” Shinobu pondered.
While their conversation drifted, Mano had finally defeated Masaru with a punch towards his stomach. Chanting a small victory song to herself, she left the classroom, ready to go find Kotoha. After all, when they went to look for Ouka Kouzaki, Kotoha excused herself to make a phone call home telling she would be late due to club activities.
“Dammit, that gorilla woman!” Masaru rubbed his weak spot, approaching the trio in front of the PC. “Oh hey, is that a game?”
Three heads turned towards him.
“Isn’t that an old RPG? I remember my sister playing it back in ‘99 since it was super popular. Does it still work in 2002?” Masaru pointed towards Arcadia’s desktop icon.
Igniting the world anew with such brilliance, a bright light rose with elegance, blinding the four children. Three differently coloured rays were shot outside from the PC, a turquoise one making his way towards Masaru’s hand making the other three gasp in astonishment.
The red and yellow light flew right through the door, making their way downstairs where Mano and Kotoha were located, ready to leave. Both of them were caught off guard, both lights stopping right on their tracks once they reached the girls’ palms. Confused, both looked at each other with a single thought in mind.
Meanwhile, Izumi, Shinobu and Ouka stared intently at the small machine Masaru had in his hand. It seemed to be like a circular toy with several buttons, as well as having some sort of contraption for a keychain. The three children searched their pockets, taking out a grey, almost white small device which was identical for them.
“What does this mean?” Izumi suddenly asked.
“Why is Masaru's different? In fact, why does he have one?” Shinobu blurted.
Suddenly, a beep could be heard from the screen—the red button was now green.
“I don’t care, I’m going for my brother!” Ouka screamed, declaring her strong will.
Stretching out her own little device, she was sucked into the PC.
Masaru was left speechless.
“Ouka-chan, wait!” Shinobu panicked, following her.
“H-Huh? Hold on a minute, I won’t let you two be alone together!!”
And the goggle boy left as well without asking questions about what abnormal event had just transpired in front of his eyes, just worrying about his crush and rival.
“I guess I’ll go too. Let’s do this!” Izumi raised his, just to be interrupted midway by a yell.
Jumping like a scaredy-cat, his device slipped from his hand several times just to catch it right in time and hide it.
“Shizugawa-senpai, where are Kouzaki-san, Shinobu and the stupid of Masaru?”
Mano made her way inside with millions of questions inside her mind.
“T-They went home already!”
He’s lying, I’m sure of it! We just came from the first floor and never saw them!
“Lies!” Mano said, stretching her hand that held a machine identical to Masaru’s, except hers had a crimson colour design. “While coming here, we saw a bright light coming from the room after these strange things appeared out of the blue! Show it to him, Kotoha!”
She did as prompted, showing one yellow machine.
Izumi was speechless.
Seeing that no answer would come her way, Mano rushed towards him. Briefly looking towards the screen, the ginger-haired boy was able to see that the gate had been closed, a small sigh of relief escaping his lips. The bespectacled beauty saw that, making her want to choke him for answers again.
“It’s that strange window,” Kotoha murmured, watching the screen. “Arcadia Gate: Inactive?”
“Arcadia?” Mano stopped her aggressiveness, Izumi thanking all of Japan’s deities for his life. “What is that? An amusement park?”
“Shizugawa-senpai… What is going on?”
Kotoha pleaded with her bright orange eyes.
Izumi knew he was doomed. He was never good at making up excuses and something told him that this child he met today was going to be hard to please.
The fleeing sunlight had returned in the shape of a girl called Mano Okunoda, expecting answers. And she wanted them immediately.