02: Welcome To The Accelerated World

As promised, some illustrations are in order!

Misawa in her favourite dress & her natural hair colour.

Mikiseki, in her net avatar.

Mikiseki, in casual dress, and some flowers in her hair.

Nozomi’s Net Avatar.

Nozomi, in casual wear

–And now, let’s continue.

02 Start:

“Excuse me…what’s going on?”

To his credit, Tatesuke is calmer than he appears, and the raised eyebrow merely returns to its normal position. He glances left and right, as though assessing the situation. How arrogant of him, it appears.

Misawa’s reaction, too, calms down. It’s odd, but somehow, as her face shifts from surprise to tension…wasn’t my heart hammering at the ribs of its cage just seconds ago? What happened to those feelings inside me mere moments earlier?

“…we’re having a private chat, as you can see, Kihara.”

“…I’m…uh, yeah. The same.”

They even answered together. Something about that is off, as if they’re not quite on the same page. If it’s private enough to warrant a discussion via Thought Speech…could I still dare ask about it?

“I see. If that’s the case, then…sorry for bothering you.”

“No, it’s not! I’m okay, Gunsou-?”

Misawa hastily interjects and makes to grab for my wrist just as I withdraw my hands to my sides; I shoot Misawa a questioning look. Blinking twice, she recovers and returns me a glance.

“I’ll just…I’ll just go.”

Something shifts in Tatesuke’s eyes, and his hand twitches. I don’t stay to follow it, though, and leave the gaggle of students crowding around them.

As I leave the canteen, I think I hear my name being called. But I can’t hear it; I’m too far away to listen. Thoughts from the past return to my head…

 

I’ve always taken care of Misawa since young. Her parents died when we were young, and she came to us for help. I didn’t know she had no relatives; I didn’t know my father was never going to come back after he had left a week before. I thought that my dream of having my best friend and neighbour move into our house had come true.

I should have seen and realised what the strained look on my mother’s face had meant at that time. I should have realised that something was very wrong when I couldn’t find those highly-polished shoes my father would wear every Wednesday, nor did my parents’ room smell of his soap anymore.

I should have known. I should have known.

I should have known earlier that he was gone. Not when Misawa had once innocently asked me: “Hey Gunsou, where’s your papa?” When I couldn’t give an answer, I should have known.

Instead, I had run to his room and found the desk cleared and the wardrobe empty. Those shoes that I enjoyed messing around with and seeing my reflection in them were gone too.

That’s when I had found his letter. I don’t remember what it says any more; I must have thrown it away or something. But three phrases still stand out in my memory: take care, family, and Misawa.

That was my last moment as a child. That was when I finally accepted that I now had something more to do than clean the house.

 

–I must care for and love this household like my own, I realised.

–I can no longer laugh, play, and live like a child, but walk with purpose and meaning for the sake of others, I registered.

–And I will do as I’m told to reduce the burden on my mother and not just to simply follow instructions, I concluded.

 

And as for Misawa…did he know Misawa moved in with us? I always wonder why he wrote her name in that letter, and in hiragana that my seven-year-old self could read.

Perhaps he knew I couldn’t be happy if I stopped caring about her, after seeing us play so well together.

Maybe he knows too, that I can’t live without her. After she moved her last box of belongings from her house to ours, that’s what I vowed.

I’d set aside my childhood and endure so that she can grow up in our house, I had thought. I took it for granted that she’d always live with us.

How am I supposed to deal with a Misawa who seems to have found someone else?

 

Mikiseki finds me personally after we finish cleaning the classroom. At least it’s our own familiar classroom and everyone is still around.

“…hey, Kihara.”

I’m completely stoned and don’t respond. Three hours of lessons have passed in the blink of an eye because I didn’t pay any attention to them.

“Kihara. Hey, you okay?”

Looking up from my table, our eyes meet. She looks concerned; her fingers are tapping the broom that she’s holding in her hands.

“You’ve zoned out the entire day. Is it about lunchtime?”

Should I tell her what’s really on my mind? Should I really burden someone else with my secret, that I’ve been living without a father for years?

“N..Nothing. It’s nothing.”

“Oh, come on. Even you can tell a better lie than that.”

She’s got me. I don’t think I was ever a good liar anyway.

“Well…it’s about…”

“Gekkagawaaa!”

From across the class, one of Mikiseki’s girlfriends call to her.

“Hey, we’re gonna go! Aren’t you coming!”

“Eh..uh, give me a few seconds-”

“We’re going now! C’mon, I want to try that new store that opened!”

“But- er- wait-”

It’s almost comical. Mikiseki’s girlfriends drag her away while she alternates between that cute smile and protesting at how tightly they’re gripping.

My heart sinks even lower. As I get up to keep the cleaning stuff, no one gives me a second glance. I don’t trust anyone besides Misawa to keep my secrets, and she herself seems to be hiding something from me.

What do I do?

I open up my Messaging application and send her a quick text:

[G: I’m going to go home soon. Where are you?]

Several minutes that feel like a lifetime pass. I’m out of the classroom and am in the corridor when her reply finally comes:

[M: You go on ahead first. I’ll be home for dinner.]

My eyebrow twitches at the curtness of the message. At this point, I now feel quite sick, and type a direct question:

[G: Are you with Ichijo?]

[M: Yes. Don’t worry, he’s not bothering me.]

God, why does this have to happen?

As I start on the long ride home, I’ve never felt so lonely before.

Misawa arrived home at 7.30pm tonight, just as I finished cooking and serving dinner. Tonight, it’s an unusual amount and variety: I made three large servings of buckwheat noodle with soup, with frozen crabsticks, sliced beef, and plain rice cakes. On the side are scrambled eggs and Chinese tow miao vegetables I found in the refrigerator, and a dessert of ice cream waits in the freezer.

“Wow, that looks good!”

Her face lights up like never before for the whole day and she eagerly takes a seat. I hang up the half-apron and grab a glass of water to drink before I sit down.

“I was…bored. That’s all.” I reply tonelessly.

Perhaps I should have said something along the lines of “I was trying to take my mind off this afternoon’s events,” if I wanted to tell the truth. I didn’t try to think about what to make: I had just cooked and cooked and cooked.

“It sure looks delicious. Thanks for the meal!” Misawa clasps her hands before she tucks in.

“Thanks for the meal,” I whisper sadly.

She gives me a quizzical look before slurping her first bite of noodles. I don’t meet her eyes; I just pick up my chopsticks and eat.

Several minutes pass in near-silence. I wonder when will my mother get home; I don’t want to have to keep this amount of fresh food in the refrigerator again. The minutes pass, punctuated only by the sounds of Misawa eating.

By the speed at which she eats, she must be hungry. I’m only halfway through my bowl by the time she finishes.

“Ahh~ that was good! Thanks for the delicious meal!”

I can’t even bring it in me to respond any more. I just nod and close my eyes. I don’t want to look at her happy face knowing she has shared it with someone else.

“Hey. C’mon, what’s bothering you?”

I hear her step closer, so I open my eyes to face her. She’s got that same look in her eyes, but this time I no know what it is.

She’s looking at me with pity.

“I’m perfectly fine,” I snap, louder than I mean to. “Nothing’s bothering me.”

“You’re a bad liar, Gunsou. I can tell something’s been on your mind since this afternoon.”

This afternoon. Oh God, it takes all the will in me to not snap and let it go. I can hear my heartbeat in my ears.

“Is it…is it about Ichijo?” She asks in a soft voice. “Is it about why we Direct Connected?”

Very direct, aren’t you.

“…Yeah.” I finally reply.

“Well…the truth is, I asked to Connect to him first. He…he asked me a question that I couldn’t reply just like that.”

What? I can hear my heart stop.

“Wh..Why?” Is all I can get out.

“Because…because…” I see her expression change. She glances from left to right, right to left. She’s hiding something.

“What is it, Misawa,” I ask very quietly. “That you can tell Ichijo, but not me?”

My voice comes out too low, too unfriendly, and her eyes lock on mine. My knuckles whiten as I try to clamp down on the building tension, but I can see it; she’s taking it the wrong way.

“I…I..”

She’s stuttering. I’ve never heard her stutter before, never in my memory.

Should I even continue..?

It’s breaking my heart to see her like this; I turn away to hide my face.

“N…Never mind.”

She lets out a sigh from the corner of my eye. My hands are numb and I’m digging my own fingernails into my palm.

“Gunsou, I-”

“Never mind.”

It kills me to not know, but between that and a crying Misawa…I’d choose the former. I never wanted to see her cry.

I stand and nearly hit her; she’s been leaning closer and closer. As though she actually wanted to tell me something.

But what was I just about to say to her if I had continued? Do I deserve to even say that?

I clear our bowls noisily. I want to take my mind away from this, to throw myself into the work of running the house.

“Let me help, Gunsou.” She offer a hopeful hand which I wave away.

“I…I’m fine, Misawa. I’m perfectly fine.”

As she leaves the kitchen, we both know it’s the biggest lie I’ve ever told. My hands tremble continuously while I wash the dishes. My eyes burn with tears I didn’t even know I had.

Why am I so alone?

As I put away the last plate, I realise it’s because I wanted to be; it’s the wrong question to ask myself. What is wrong with me then? Shouldn’t I care for her by being with her when she needs me?

…does she need me? Does she trust me?

And to those, I have no answer.

The Girl in Red: Kitamura Misawa

赤い彼女:北村美沢

I…I’m fine, Misawa. I’m perfectly fine.

The tension between us disappears instantly, and as he turns back towards the kitchen sink, I feel the weight lift from my chest. If he wants to lie, then so be it; I’m sure he’ll tell me the truth later, won’t he? I exhale and skip off to the living room to stretch and wind down.

“Man, he sure is acting weird…”

Flopping onto the sofa, I sweep my abundance of hair – my new black hair, I mentally remind myself – and lazily open up a couple of emails on my Neuro Linker. My old classmates have exchanged some messages about their first few weeks in their middle schools, I’ve got to share my own later! My friend Akemi from 1-A has also sent me some tips on how to clear today’s homework; oh, is she ever the helpful buddy!

I let my eyes linger on one particular email: an update from an online store showing me that a pretty red dress is on sale. My lips tug themselves into a smile as I gaze longingly at the cute model donning the dress and wishing it was mine.

I saw that dress a week ago and instantly fell in love with this one-piece dress, with its short, flared skirt, long and slender sleeves, and the colour of the dress brightening from black at the chest to bright red at the sleeves and skirt. It’s so lively, it’s so me. Which is why I’ve been pestering Gunsou to let me buy it ever since.

He had denied it with a flat “No,” much to my disappointment. I mean, I get that he runs the house (most of the time, that is), but man, can’t he lighten up? Our purse strings don’t have to be that tight, and a girl’s gotta buy clothes. Can’t he understand that?

Well…at least he can take care of the house where I can’t, I have to thank him for that…

CRASH.

…It’d be best if he could do it quietly, maybe?! What’s the racket he’s making in the kitchen?

I get up from the comfy sofa and reach the kitchen just in time to see him drop a bowl in the sink; it must have slipped from his hand. Butterfingers. And he’s the one who didn’t ask for help!

That’s when I hear something over the sounds of rushing water and clinking plates…

…Is that Gunsou crying? My jaw actually drops at this; I’ve never seen him cry before in my life!

I think I should say something, anything. But what should I say?

I take a step back- and bump into the wall of the kitchen just by the doorway. The THUD echoes like a gunshot and he whirls around, eyes frantically searching for the source of the sound-

He is crying! There’s no other reason why his eyes would be red, is there? Our eyes meet for a fleeting second and he turns right back, not saying a word.

Gunsou has ‘Leave me alone,’ written all over his face, something I can see even though it’s my first time seeing him make such an expression.

Or is it..? I struggle to recall; wasn’t there a day long, long ago in our childhood that he had seemed to be steeped in the depths of pain and suffering?

“…Misawa?”

He’s calling me? I look up and realise, I’ve blanked out completely. How odd of me!

“Are you okay?” He asks in an emotionless voice. He sounds more like his usual self now, at least…

“…Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine.” I recover and reply. I blink a couple of times to clear my mind and our gazes lock in the space between us-

Boy, I sure hadn’t noticed that he’s just as tall as I am now; we’re both at eye level. Gunsou sure has grown, indeed.

Since when does Gunsou bathe before me, and so quickly after dinner?

I head to our bedroom anyway and sit at our desk. The reading light senses my presence and automatically switches on while I open up my assignments all at once, letting the holographic windows crowd my vision of the desk. I can’t push too many assignments to after my bath.

My fingers are flying over the keyboard, tapping options and writing answers when the question I should have asked him there and then suddenly resurfaces from the back of my mind.

–Is Gunsou alright?

I freeze to contemplate the question; I’ve always assumed that Gunsou was fine and healthy, but…come to think of it, I only see him during mealtimes nowadays!

Texting with each other during class only diverts our attention; I’d rather he doesn’t get any more detention than he has to, and Mikiseki bothers me. Texting doesn’t have the same feel as a chat with him in person or a Dive Call either.

And when he does talk to me…it’s always about me or us. Whether I’m hungry, what should he make for dinner, whether we’ve got sufficiently little homework to go for a shopping trip. The realisation that I rarely ask about him…guilts me.

At this very moment, Gunsou picks this moment to finish his shower. My back is to him, but the smell of his shower fills the room with a calm, refreshing scent. I turn my head back to see him; again, his back is to me, his hands clutching the towel around his waist. He rummages in his drawer for a pair of pants.

“…Crap, the laundry.”

He’s probably only muttering to himself, but I hear it anyway. My thoughts from just a second ago echo in my ears.

Is it too late to act?

He’s standing straight up, he’s going to take care of our laundry before he’s even dressed properly! What should I do?

“…Gunsou?”

He shuffles out of our room; it’s definitely not like him to forget the laundry, nor bring in fresh clothes. And did he really not hear me? I stand from our table; my homework files autosave.

“Gunsou!”

He stops just at the door. His hand twitches slightly.

“Let me help you, please. I’ll do the laundry instead.”

I really hope that didn’t come out too forceful. He’s still at the door, as though unsure of what he just heard.

“Take…take a break, please.”

At this, Gunsou finally turns around. For the first in a long time…a smile is tugging at the corner of his mouth. He audibly exhales a sigh of relief.

“…Thanks.”

I begin to make a move on the laundry basket inside the toilet. We don’t talk again for the rest of the night. He finds some clothes and completes his homework; I split my time working on the easy stuff and loading clothes into the washer and dryer. It’s been awhile since I did the laundry, but I don’t try to ask Gunsou for help and focus on getting it done myself.

It’s the most I could do anyway, right?

 

I finally finish and turn into bed just as Mum – Mrs Kihara, to be precise – reaches home. I bid her goodnight and close the bedroom door. Blinking to adjust to the darkness, I feel my way to my bed and climb in.

Gunsou and I have always shared a queen-sized mattress for as long as I can remember. I heard it used to be his parents’, but after Gunsou’s father left, his mother and Gunsou swapped mattresses for some reason. We got the big blanket too, and so every night that’s how we sleep. It’s warm and comfy, so I don’t see what could be wrong with it.

As I tuck in, I realise that my side has a lot of blanket. I turn to look at Gunsou, and as I thought, he has hardly any blanket.

In fact, the way he’s sleeping facedown suggests that he just crashed and slept immediately. He really must be tired, I guess.

I get out and circle the bed to his side, and push him over onto his back. It takes considerable strength to prop his head and shoulders up to get his pillow under him properly, but I manage anyway. Finally, I tug a decent amount of blanket over and tuck the sleeping Gunsou in properly, the way I would liked to be tucked in myself.

At last, I’m done and I’m feeling drowsy too. Back on my side, I slip under the covers. Have I done enough for him today?

“…Goodnight, Gunsou.”

I whisper to the ceiling, not knowing if he hears it or not. But it’s finally enough to set my heart at ease. I close my eyes.

Before I’m overcome by the darkness, I swear I could hear him whisper in return:

“Goodnight, Misawa.”

Man, it’s raining today. Like, cats-and-dogs heavy rain, and you can’t see anything further than a hundred metres.

With all the favourite outdoor spots for eating now soaking wet, the canteen is predictably crammed with students. Gunsou told me he wouldn’t be able to meet me for lunch, so I ended up eating with Tatesuke again today. I don’t mind the company anyway, and besides, he’s a nice guy, isn’t he?

Tatesuke had messaged me during class, which is pretty normal when the lessons are boring. He’d asked me out to lunch again and I accepted with glee. I mean, after word got around that Tatesuke is the Tatesuke Ichijo, Captain of Track & Field, and a man among boys, every girl in Mitsukihara seems to wet themselves with excitement whenever he passes. I guess being a head taller than most boys in school will do that. Not only is he tall, he’s also sociable and kind.

So whenever he asks me out to lunch, I’m never gonna pass up an opportunity to smirk at the other girls. Who wouldn’t want that little bit of pride from being associated with a guy with status?

And have I mentioned he’s tall? I sure like my guys tall and commanding.

Today, however, he’s a little…strange. He keeps looking this way and that, as though he’s wilting under my gaze. I mean, hey, that’s not how a guy should talk to girls! He should be confident and sit straight up, and for the Track & Field star, that goes double.

“I have…something I want to tell you, Kitamura.”

“Err…yeah? What is it?” I raise an eyebrow and give him the classic ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ face.

Tatesuke looks away. Is that…colour I’m seeing rush to his cheeks? I don’t know how, but it looks out of place on his face in a humorous way.

“I can’t say this openly, Kitamura,” He turns back and gives me that oh-so-serious face of his. “I need to say this…privately.”

That’s what he wants, huh? Well…I glance around first. Throughout the canteen, everybody is just eating as usual. Some girls queueing to buy dessert from the nearby stall are giving us glances – probably giving him glances – and that’s about all the attention we’re getting.

I feel a little uneasy to not see Gunsou’s familiar face, but that feeling has gotten a lot better in the few weeks I’ve been at Mitsukihara. And I sure hope he’s not with that Mikiseki girl…

“Ahem.”

Tatesuke clears his throat just when I turn back. “Sorry about that, I…” My gaze drops to the thing he’s holding in his hand: the connector of a Direct Connection cable.

He wants to Connect to me now? Again?

“Uh, Ichijo, maybe we can do this somewhere else…”

“…Well, about that, don’t you think you and I leaving the canteen together will cause quite the disturbance?”

So, he’s thinking it from that angle? Well fine by me then. He asked for this meeting after all.

“Okay,” I accept the cable and plug it in. “But you better make it quick, because I’m hungry.”

[Perhaps you should eat while we talk then,] Tatesuke speaks via Thought Speech while he pecks at his food. [It might take awhile.]

…Okay.

[So, Kitamura, how is your life at home?]

What? What’s he trying to aim for here?

[Eh, everything’s okay, heh. What about yours?] I smile disarmingly and try to steer it away from myself.

[I’m okay, thank you for your concern,] Tatesuke smiles lightly in return, but it seems slightly colder than before. [Though I don’t think that you’ve understood my question yet…]

Tatesuke sips some of his drink and sets down the cup- and fixes me with a resolute stare I’ve never seen before. His eyes, once warm and friendly, have grown…strange. Excuse me here while I deal with a sudden case of butterflies in my stomach, but my opinion of him is changing pretty fast!

[It’s pretty hard to miss you, I admit. Your bright red hair is something I look forward to every day.] He closes his eyes as though deep in reminisence. [That’s why I think…I need to say this before I say what I actually came here to say…]

Tatesuke takes in a deep breath. Like he’s on the edge of admitting a very private thing…Oh wow, is he about to…?!

[I’ve always liked you, Misawa,] He utters my name for the first time! [I always looked forward to seeing you and your red hair at school, and at times, I…]

Aww, he’s blushing!

[So…um, yeah.] He finally finishes, and awkwardness enters the space between us. [I…like you. I always have.]

I burst out laughing.

Loud, raucous, stomach-hurting laughter! I’m sorry, I can’t help it that another guy has confessed to me!

I suppose I should explain something because Tatesuke looks so darned confused, but the face he’s making is only make me laugh harder. Oh, to hell with it, I laugh until I can’t laugh anymore.

A bunch of people are now staring at me laughing, the cable linking us both, and from their faces they too know what’s going on. I spot a couple of my girlfriends from elementary; they give me a knowing wink. I return them a smirk. Poor Tatesuke…

[Sorry about ‘that,] I lamely reply to Tatesuke’s bombed face. [But you gotta know something first…] I pick up my fork and point it lazily at his face.

[You’re not the first guy who’s confessed to me, y’know? What do you think was my reply to the first guy?]

[You…Don’t tell me, you’re with…] The colour drains from his face. It’s so comical, I almost break into laughter again.

[‘No,’ of course! I’m not in the mood for a boyfriend! So, sorry to have wasted your time, but I guess you just got turned down!] I reach up to unplug the cable-

His hand reaches out from nowhere and grabs my wrist!

“No.”

Oh darn. What switch did I flick in him? Tatesuke’s reaction is fast, almost violent! And his expression, it clouds over for a second…

He slowly calms down. [I’m sorry,] He says, but the damage is done. Whispers quickly carry all around the canteen and they only serve to boost my confidence.

[Just…one more thing, please.] He gives me a look not unlike those of puppies; is he trying for one more chance? Heck, I’ll give it to him, out of respect for his reputation. He wouldn’t want to be beaten by the same girl twice…or does he?

He clears his throat twice while I tap my feet in impatience. [Well, c’mon, what’cha have to say now?]

[I have to give you this. No, I must give you this game.]

One of my eyebrows rises. [The heck you talking about? Didn’t your mama teach you to not let a girl wait on a guy?] I cross a leg over the other.

He just carries on selecting something from his interface and swipes his hand towards me in some exaggerated sweep; a window appears in the centre of my vision:

 

Do you accept this unknown program: BB2039?

Caution: This program’s publisher is unverified. Unknown programs may install malicious spyware into your Neuro Linker.

 

[I just want you to better understand yourself,] He continues is a somewhat hurt voice. [Please accept this gift.]

[Uh…seriously?]

[Brain Burst is a secret program that only people who have been using Neuro Linkers since birth can use.] He continues. [Among other things, it will completely change the way you look at the world, or even destroy it. The choice is yours.]

I lazily wave my hand. [Spare me the speech, or use simpler words please. What’s gotten into you?]

[Misawa.] He looks me right in the eyes. [Please…accept my feelings.]

Well, points to him for persistence, I guess! I casually reach forward and hit ‘Accept.’

[Well there. I accepted your program and feelings. Now I guess I gotta- woah, what?!]

Fire. From our connected Neuro Linkers, the entire canteen turns into a firestorm! It seems so real…and then I realise it’s all generated images. Tatesuke and the rest of the people in the canteen are perfectly fine, so it’s all just a projection of the flames in my vision.

[So, you can see the flames, huh.] Tatesuke nods slightly. [Good, that’s good.]

[What’s with those flames? A cheap scare?]

[It’s a reaction speed checker. I’m guessing you play FullDive games often?]

[Yeah, but I’ve never heard of games that need to check my reaction speed.]

[You’ll see.] A small smile appears on his lips. [Brain Burst is…special.]

The flames gather around us and quickly condense into a progress bar before me. In stylised font resembling metal struts, the English words “BRAIN BURST” appear above the bar, half-full and slowly filling. I suppose that’s the name and installation progress for this game.

[That’s quite a big game you’re sending,] I casually remark. [Does the installation take that long?]

[Yes, it does.] Tatesuke nods and picks up his drink. [It’ll take awhile, so shall we eat in the meantime?]

Oh right. My half-eaten food is cooling. I pick up my fork and eat in silence. At least Gunsou made a pretty good lunch, so even if it’s not so warm anymore, I still eat with gusto.

[Your lunch looks pretty good, Misawa,] Tatesuke remarks. [Does your mother make it for you? I bet she’s a good cook!]

Man, he couldn’t be further from the truth. [Nah, Gunsou makes it for me. Don’t you know him? He just joined the Track & Field team recently.]

[Ahh, Kihara. He cooks for you? That’s weird, Misawa.]

At the third mention of my name, I put my foot down. [Sorry Ichijo, but can you not call me by my first name? I don’t feel that you know me well enough yet.]

Ouch, his face looks like I slapped him, but he gives in. [Uh…okay.]

I almost feel bad for him, knowing that he feels more towards me than I do to him. Just then, the progress bar finally finishes, and a new message appears:

WELCOME TO THE ACCELERATED WORLD!

[Welcome…to the…Accelerated World?]

[Kasoku Sekai e Youkoso.] Tatesuke translates for my benefit. [The installation is complete, Kitamura-]

I yank the cable. “Thanks, but I gotta go!”

“Hey- But, wait! I haven’t finished!”

Too late, Tatesuke. You’re just another guy who has a crush on me.

It’s a familiar scene.

Just like any weekday morning, my parents are dropping me and Gunsou off in front of our school. Our old elementary school, painted a proud but dulling shade of bright red and white. I hop down from the electric car like I always enjoyed doing so, no matter how many times my parents told me to not.

“C’mon Gunsou! I don’t wanna be late!” My seven-year-old self happily chortles.

He on the other hand, gives me that strained smile that looks like it’s forced. The way his eyes always cast themselves downwards…how could anyone miss those? “Mmm, yeah,” he mumbles in reply, and in slow, measured steps, comes down from the car like the good boy he always is.

“Heyy. Are you awake yet, sleepyhead?” I reach up to poke his cheeks-

He’s too slow to react to my finger, and my finger prods his soft flesh. Only then does he wake up from his stupor.

“Eh…why are you poking me, Misawa?!”

“You didn’t sleep enough last night, didja? Mummy always says children who don’t sleep enough won’t grow up!” I resolutely answered.

“Now kids, are you going to stay here and argue all day, or are you going to go to school?”

 
…Y’know, the weird part is that when my mother speaks, its in my voice. It’s been a long time…have I forgotten her voice?

No, wait. That’s not the only change.

Why is…Uh, why has the world gone dark? It seems that only thing that exists now is my parents’ car and Gunsou…
 

“Sorry mum, see you later!” I mouth the words with innocence I no longer have. Gunsou and I walk away from the car-

 
Shit. I feel really sick now.
 

“Eh, Misawa, where’s your water bottle?” From far, far away, Gunsou asks me that question. I turn to look at my bag only to realise that it was still in the car.

 
Make it stop. Stop this, stop this dream now!
 

“Daddy, Mummy-” I had turned around to look at the vanilla-coloured car in the distance. It’s a vanilla dot far, far away, waiting at the traffic junction.

My black world turned white. And black again.

There is no car. No more Daddy, no more Mummy.

“Daddy..! Mummy..!”

I still didn’t understand it fully, had I? Several other cars burn, but the only one I’m looking for is the one that looks like ice-cream, with a little star sticker at the back of the car.

Everything just…explodes in size. I feel small, so insignificant, so helpless.

My parents…Mum, Dad…I want to reach out to them!

[»IS THAT THE WISH YOU WANT TO MAKE?«]

Words. Quick, broad strokes.

They appear for an instant and vanish as quickly as they came-

Cold. Icy cold. I feel sticky.

It’s dark all around. My heart is thrumming so fast-

“Misawa? Hey, are you okay?”

I don’t register his voice until he calls me for the third time, and I turn to face his silhouette in the darkness. He’s hunched over with sleepiness, but he’s definitely looking at me-

Before I can break out into tears, I tear the sheets away from me and throw my arms around Gunsou, holding on as tight as I can. I just need his warmth, his support now.

He doesn’t move at all, thank goodness. I know he understands, and for the next few minutes we stay that way in silence. Thump, thump, thump. My heartbeat slowly comes down. I slowly stop shaking at last and pull away from him.

Now that my eyes have adjusted, I can make out our bed and the state of disorder it is in; I had kicked the sheets about in my sleep, apparently, and probably woke up Gunsou as a result. He reaches up to stroke my hair.

“It’s that dream again, isn’t it?” He says it more like a statement than a question, and I simply nod in acknowledgement.

His shoulders rise and fall and he tilts his head to the side slightly, as though contemplating what drink should he make for me. He always has. He always does. I don’t usually have relapses that often, but when I did, Gunsou would always make me a hot drink, no matter what time it was.

“Go back to sleep, Misawa.”

“Eh?”

“Umm…uh…”

C’mon, Gunsou never hesistates. If I can count on him for anything, it’s always knowing what to do. So, shouldn’t he make me a drink? I sure could use one now. I glance at the clock in the corner of my vision: 4.17 AM.

…Oh, I didn’t take out my Neuro Linker last night. Whatever. I don’t exactly take it out every night, especially if I use the alarm functions.

“…Alright, whatever. Come, I’ll get you something.” He relents anyway and climbs off the bed – rolled off is more accurate – and slowly shuffles out.

I stay frozen right where I am for a few minutes until the smell of hot chocolate wafts its way into our room and lures me over to the kitchen. My usual red cup waits at my seat, steaming slightly; Gunsou is still over at the sink making his own cup.

Mmm. Never underestimate the power of hot chocolate to wake anybody up regardless of the time!

I bring the cup to my lips and sip, letting the hot beverage slowly warm me up from the inside. Ohh, it feels so good, melting away the chills of that one childhood memory I never feel good about.

Opposite, Gunsou sits and slowly drinks from his own cup. From the amount of steam, I can tell he made his hotter than mine, which means he’s gonna be up for awhile too…

“Sorry for waking you up.” I say in apology. Well, I mean, having my nightmare is one thing, but I probably kicked him awake this time. It’d be funny in another situation, though!

“It’s okay,” he nods and takes another sip. “I didn’t sleep very well either.”

“School is tiring, huh?”

“Yeah…and, other things too.” Another sip.

Is it just me, or did that sound wrong to me? “What happened at school, then?” I ask curiously.

Gunsou doesn’t answer immediately and just continues to sip from his cup before setting it down at last. The temperature seems to drop by a degree.

“I…I saw you Direct Connecting with Ichijo again yesterday.”

Uh…what? I set my own cup down too.

“Hey, are you spying on me?” I let my voice rise and justifiably too. Well c’mon, just because we didn’t eat together doesn’t mean that he look for wherever else I’m going to!

“I’m not, Misawa, I’m not,” Gunsou raises his hands in defense. “I was passing by the canteen earlier, and well…geez. It’s not like I could ignore it, okay?”

“Well, I think you should, because Ichijo is just a friend. And we’re not anything more than that.” I briefly think back to the conversation I had with Tatesuke and my very public rejection. Wasn’t our reactions clear enough, if he had been observing the whole thing?

“Which then begs the question of why you two even Connected to begin with.” Gunsou utters in a single breath. It’s not a rhetorical question, just Gunsou’s way of expressing his annoyance. Right now, however, it’s getting on my nerves. Like seriously.

“Gunsou, come on. I’m not trying to hide anything here. Why won’t you trust me?”

“Of course I trust you-”

“But that doesn’t sound like it!” I retort. “If you really trusted me, you should trust that I can take care of my own things!”

“I- But-”

I’ve won. “I’m no pushover. If you didn’t know that, then now you do. I can handle things myself.”

I drain my cup in one gulp and slam the cup down on the wooden table. “Thanks for the hot chocolate, I’m going back to sleep.”

I have the sense of mind to not slam the door shut as well, for the well-being of Mrs Kihara. Flopping back onto the bed, I stare up at the ceiling; it’s quiet except for the sound of the heater operating, and there’s nothing else to be heard.

Nothing…else? As I realise what that means, regret settles into the pit of my stomach, a hungry, gnawing feeling that robs away the warmth of the chocolate.

Gunsou cared for me, but I just about lost my temper with him. Even after he made me a drink. And…ah, geez. I now feel worse than after my nightmare.

My eyelids feel heavy now, and he still hasn’t come back. Maybe he hasn’t even gotten up from his chair…

I’ll say sorry to him in the morning. Maybe.

Morning comes and goes, but Gunsou doesn’t even say a single word. Besides the shadows under his eyes, the only words out of his mouth was the prayer for breakfast and “See you later,” when we parted ways between our classrooms. He was just as unresponsive when I tried to talk to him on the bus.

Damn, Misawa, you just had to go yell at him and put him in a bad mood.

The feeling for me is far from warm either; I’ve got to do something about it, right?

After our first class, I open my Messaging and send him a text, knowing I can see when he views it. Thank you, WhatsUpp, for letting senders know whether their recipients have read their messages or not.

[M: D’ya wanna eat lunch together? I promised I’ll eat with you today.]

The ‘Received’ notification show up almost instantly. I count my breaths as it remains, then changes to ‘Typing…’

[G: No.]

I open the keyboard and type back my reply at the speed of light.

[M: C’mon. Don’t be such a downer.]

I swear his reply comes back slower than honey flowing through penguin intestines, even though the next teacher has yet to show up when I get his reply.

[G: I feel sick today. Sorry.]

I gnash my teeth and nearly bang the table in frustration. Come on, Gunsou, I really want to make it up to you!

[G: See you after school.]

Well, that’s an improvement. At this very moment, Mrs Shiratori walks into the class and I have to take my eyes off the text.

I still can’t take my mind off the the guilt I’m harbouring for hurting his feelings, though.

The Tired Boy: Kihara Gunsou

疲れ果て彼:木原群壮

–Meanwhile, in the adjacent classroom:

“C’mon, Kihara. You look like you could use…a friend.” Mikiseki utters softly.

Her voice is soft and gentle enough that the rest of the class doesn’t hear. I wipe a tear from my eyes and nod. I mean, it’s no surprise that I’ve been feeling like shit the entire day, but it’s something to take note that only Mikiseki has approached me.

The last bell rings and everyone heads to the cleaning cupboard to distribute among themselves brooms, mops, and pails, but Mikiseki and I instead head for the empty classroom on the third floor. I wryly note that this is the same classroom where we had our first, and awkward conversation here. It too, was when Misawa had caught Mikiseki and I together here as well.

Unable to look her directly in the eyes, I instead watch Mikiseki’s petite hands and she smooths her skirt and takes a seat on the chair. “Won’t you sit down too?” She asks courteously, but I refuse. I don’t want to be caught by Misawa again, even if she’s probably with Tatesuke at this very moment, Direct Connecting somewhere.

“I insist you sit down,” With a surprisingly strong grip, Mikiseki grabs my sleeve and hauls me into the adjacent seat. “We’ll be talking for awhile.”

Awhile, huh. Well, with no training today and Misawa being…busy, I guess I can spare her some of my time. Time that should be with another girl.

Mikiseki starts off pretty confidently. “So Kihara, I know that you clearly don’t look like your normal self, and something is bothering you. And I hope you could share with me what’s troubling you.”

I don’t need Mikiseki to tell me that.

“Out of curiosity, Gekkagawa, why do you care so much about me?”

I’ve spoken my mind before I know it, but to my surprise, Mikiseki’s face reddens slightly. She tilts her head to the side to think about her answer for the better half of a minute.

“I…observed something when I received the class nominal roll for checking at the beginning of term. Y’know, remember the one we had to fill in with all our contact details together with those of our parents’?”

Oh right. Mikiseki was the stand-in class representative for the first week. She’d know all our details.

“So,” She continues, her cheeks ever so slightly redder. “I noticed that you only indicated your mother as your Next-Of-Kin contact. You never listed your father as a contact.”

As I look at her eyes while she speaks, she seems to be unable to make eye contact with me. She keeps looking at the other table, her fingers as they twiddle and twist, my foot tapping on the floor between us. Is she trying to give a confession? I feel guilty knowing that I’ll reject it no matter how sincere she is.

“The thing is, Kihara, I…um, you know, I don’t have a father either.”

–Huh?

I sit straight up and pay her my full attention at last. This isn’t a confession? Mikiseki’s face is apple-red now, and yet she perseveres in her story.

“Kihara…ugh. Can’t I just call you Gunsou?”

“…Just carry on.”

“Right then.” She sucks in a breath. “Gunsou, have you ever wondered why I’m named Mikiseki?”

“Sorry? Could you spell that again?”

“‘Mikiseki,’ as in utsukushii kiseki.” Mikiseki draws out the characters in her left palm. “‘A Beautiful Miracle.'”

“Oh. Uh, okay.” I pause. “Right, Mikiseki.”

She giggles a little. “You finally said my name, after so long.”

My own cheeks burn a little. “Just get to the point already, please.”

“Yes, so I was named ‘Beautiful Miracle.’ Because I really am a miracle of sorts…” Mikiseki absentmindedly twirls one of her twin tails around her finger. “If my father was alive today, he’d be sixty-three years old.”

I suck in a breath sharply. The maths is easy, the understanding is not; Mikiseki’s father was fifty-one-years old when she was born? Good God, how old was her mother then?

“Artificial reproduction techniques still have a very low probability of success, even though they’re safer nowadays,” She continues to wind her hair around her finger, not looking at me. “I was told that my father had been trying for a child for seven years. They even thought of…well, never mind.” She clears her throat softly, though in the silence between us, it feels like a shout.

“Mother’s pregnancy was nine months of nerve-wracking anxiety. Day after day, doctors were telling my parents the chances of me being abnormal and all that. My father prayed at shrines every week for a healthy child.”

I’ve moved close enough to her to see the tears gathering in her eyes.

“And then…I was born.” She meets my eyes with a painful smile. “I was a healthy, happy, baby girl, and my parents were over the moon. Or, they should have been.”

I can predict exactly what she’s going to say next. With a birth of a child, comes childcare, and given her parents’ advanced ages…

“They worked hard to support me. Very, very hard. They gave me the best education, the best care, and all the love and affection that they could give me, Gunsou. But…people would always look at them, and congratulate them as my grandparents. Do you know just how embarrassing that is?”

She doesn’t even try to wipe the tears from her eyes now. I know it, I can feel it, she’s getting to something painful in her past.

“My father always had high blood pressure. I’m told that that is one of the reasons why…why…”

She sniffs and dabs at her eyes with a small handkerchief. Her crying face is all I can see and all I know.

“One day…just one morning, it should have been normal…Dad just…died! And in front of me!”

She’s weeping louder now. At a loss for words, I put a hand on her trembling shoulders.

“I really wish he’s still alive, Gunsou, I really do,” She sobs. But I had to learn how to live on my own afterwards, because Mum had to go out and work twice as hard to support us…”

“I’m sorry,” she sniffs and dabs her eyes dry. “I shouldn’t trouble you with my family history. I mean…well, um…”

“It’s okay,” I whisper. “I know exactly how that feels, Mikiseki.”

“I thought you would.” Her voice drops to the same volume. “Every day, I see you in class with that same downcast face, that lack of energy… After I saw how unwilling you were to stay on for club activities, I knew that there has to be something troubling you at home. And it has to do with your father, right?”

I close my eyes and nod. Old memories come to mind in blurry images: gleaming, polished shoes, a Rubik’s Cube, a small collection of essays, the clutter of an office desk. It reminds me – very painfully – that I’ve not given much thought to my own father in a long, long time.

“He’s not dead, Mikiseki.”

“Hmm?”

“Well, um, I mean that my father isn’t dead. I mean, he’s still alive. But…but…he left us when i was a kid.”

“Your parents divorced?” She blinks in curiosity, gently prodding more elaboration from me.

“Yeah. When I was…seven years old.”

“But you don’t hear from him?” She asks.

“Never and ever.” I shake my head in response as well.

“I see.”

We stay that way for quite awhile, letting our past sink into our minds. It’s awfully quiet, but its warm at the same time too.

…Warm?

I look down at last, and I realise that Mikiseki has wrapped my hands, clutched in a tight ball on her table, with her own slim hands. I had shifted over to her table, I recall, so I guess I really am absorbed in our chat.

“…Uh…thanks. I guess.” Is all I can manage. I look up in time to see Mikiseki smile bittersweetly.

“It’s okay, Gunsou,” She smiles through what I now recognise as a sea of pain. “I’m happy that we can understand each other much better.”

I can’t think. I can’t move. Mikiseki is so close, and her hands are so warm.

“You know…” She whispers through perfectly proportioned lips. “The more time I spent trying to figure out the thing about you, the more I realised I liked you. All that time in class…I always felt a little bit better knowing you could still feel good enough to turn up for class.”

What is this…warmth in my chest? And in my eyes? All I can see is her eyes.

Hot tears roll down my cheeks; why am I tearing up? If I stay still any longer, I might just break down.

“It’s okay to cry, Gunsou.” She murmurs. “Everyone will cry at some time in their lives.”

Is she inviting me? Or is she just helping me?

“I’m here for you, Gunsou. Let me help you let it go.”

“…Ahh…”

So that’s what she wants. It’s been a long time since anyone has given me that much thought.

Thank you, Mikiseki.

I move into her. The restraint I’ve kept on myself so long is loosened.

Tears keep flowing out. She’s smaller than I am, but her weight is reassuring. I feel arms curl around my back.

–Just cry.

–You couldn’t possibly keep going so long without a rest.

–So, just cry. It’s not wrong.

–Cry…

Do you know the feeling of being loved and comforted, to be held by someone else as though you’re the center of their world? Because I don’t. I’ve never, ever been held like this before.

By that, I mean the way Mikiseki just holds on to me in an unforgivingly tight embrace, feeling me up all over. I can’t resist it; no, I don’t want to resist anymore. I actually feel quite guilty for accepting Mikiseki’s affections so unquestionably.

But there’s some truth to her words, I admit. I’d never be able to do this with Misawa. It would be completely out of character for her to even…well, have a heart-to-heart talk with me. Probably. I can’t imagine her sitting me down and asking me to cry.

And where does that leave me? I guess…I might be spending a lot more time with Mikiseki now, if only for her warm hugs.

To be held by another person feels like the best thing in the world.

“Are you feeling better now, Gunsou?” In a soft voice, Mikiseki slowly runs her soft hands up and down, sending little shivers running through my back.

“Mhmm. Yeah, I guess so.”

“That’s how it should be,” She chuckles. “You shouldn’t be saying such sad things if you were truly at ease.”

With immense reluctance (on what seems to be Mikiseki’s part as well) we finally break apart. Heavy silence descends upon us, neither knowing what to do next.

At last, Mikiseki digs into her pocket. Withdrawing a familiar roll of cable, she holds out one end expectantly.

“Will you finally listen to what I have to say?” She gives that irresistible smile of hers.

After all that she has done for me, who am I to deny her? I slowly reach up and take the connector in my hands.

click.

[That’s better.] Mikiseki nonchalantly remarks.

[Uh…okay.]

[Anyway, this shouldn’t take too long,] She continues, manipulating some windows at the same time. [I guess, you’re curious as to why I’m so interested in you?]

[What, you like me that much?] I blurt without thinking. It earns a blush and flustered reply from Mikiseki:

[Well- what, do you need me to spell it out for you?!]

[Uh, no. Sorry…]

The cute girl huffs a sigh. [It’s okay. Here, look at this.]

With a swipe of her fingers, Mikiseki sends me a file transfer request for…what’s this program? BB2039?

[Do you want to understand yourself a lot more, Gunsou? This program, Brain Burst, is what helped me in understanding myself so much more…and for you, it’ll be the same.]

She swallows visibly. [The things you’ll find out…once you become aware of them, you can never become unaware ever again. But you’ll gain a great power anyway.]

[What ‘great power?’ Isn’t it just a program?]

[That power it gives…is «Acceleration». The power to think and react a thousand times faster.]

I kinda lost her already. [I don’t understand…]

[Just install it first,] She urges. [Trust me, you’ll get better.]

Implying that I’m not well to begin with, I see. My finger hovers over the ‘Accept’ button, unable to decide.

Mikiseki reaches out- and gently takes hold of my free hand with both her hands.

[Believe me, Gunsou,] She implores. [I only want the best for you.]

Uh…okay.

I touch the ‘Accept’ button…

The room bursts into flames.

It sets everything alight: our Neuro Linkers, the cable connecting us, and the neatly-arranged tables and chairs. I nearly cry out in shock, but Mikiseki’s calm composure tells me otherwise…

[What’s with this…fire?!] I exclaim.

[It’s a reaction speed checker.] Mikiseki calmly explains. [There’s a minimum reaction speed that Brain Burst requires before it will install. Otherwise…]

[Otherwise?]

[Otherwise, I will have wasted my one chance.] She seems almost sad. [Brain Burst is such a precious program, it seems.]

The flames vanish and condense into a thin progress bar at the bottom of my vision. Above them, in an extremely fancy font made of metallic letters with rivets, are the English words ‘Brain Burst.’

[Brain…Burst, I see.] I raise an eyebrow. [The heck is it named like that?]

[As if I knew,] Mikiseki merely shrugs and sweeps her hair over her shoulder. [It’s not important anyway.]

While the bar slowly fills, Mikiseki just keeps on staring at me, in a very I-think-I-know-whatcha-thinking-about way. I can avoid her gaze, but I can’t stop the colour from rising to my cheeks.

[Aww. Miss me already?]

[You think too much.] I reply.

I can’t see Mikiseki replacing Misawa as the most important girl in my life anyway. I mean…I’ve taken care of Misawa for years. How is a hug supposed to make up for all that time we spent together? It’s not that Mikiseki has to know that, I suppose, but if I already have to keep things from her, that doesn’t sound like how a couple works…

The progress bar fills and vanishes, and a similar flashy message takes its place: WELCOME TO THE ACCELERATED WORLD!

[Oh, the installation is done? Welcome to Accel World, Kihara Gunsou. I’ll take care of you!]

She finishes that statement off with a wink and smile that I find less cute than normal. Almost as if she really means what she just said.

[Err…okay, how do I use this program?]

[You’re gonna have to wait until tonight, I’m afraid.] She absentmindedly drums her fingers on the table. [The full thing won’t be ready until a custom avatar is prepared for you.]

[What kind of custom avatar needs a full night to edit? Can’t I just use some other avatar I have?]

Mikiseki resolutely shakes her head. [Trust me, no editor on earth can create a better avatar than the one you’ll get tonight.]

[Anyway, Dive with me for a little bit more, please? We’ll tell you as much about Brain Burst as we possibly can.]

[Who’s ‘we?’ Where are we Diving?] All these terms are really coming out of the blue now!

[‘We,’ as in us Burst Linkers.] She adds on mysteriously. [We’re just Diving into the school Local Net, really. On three.]

Man…I’m being left out of the loop with Mikiseki as well.

[One…Two…Three.]

On ‘three,’ Mikiseki places her hand right over mine; I only have enough time to widen my eyes in surprise before we echo the Dive Command together:

[Direct Link.]

The real world fades to black as my senses leave my flesh-and-blood body, but the warmth from Mikiseki’s hand lingers on.

Who’s the dependent one here, if she’s all clingy and huggy?

In each of the many private study rooms is a single large tabletop and several chairs, ranging from two to eight in number. Depending on the user’s liking, they could be customised to a wide range of appearances. The Forest Theme turned the table into a huge stump of an old tree. Selecting ‘Modern City’ changes the table into a single sheet of translucent glass unsupported by any visible legs, or if one had stronger artistic tendencies, the table would literally become his canvas and playground. Everything is possible here, because it isn’t the real world.

Mitsukihara’s teachers had spared no effort in ensuring that their students had the best online resources that money could buy. With the blessing of the local authorities and charities, the school’s online resources had been given a boost three years ago to allow students to have their own online space to study and hold group discussions. This, already complementing the healthy offline resources (including and not limited to student welfare, counselling services, and generous alumni groups), helped to propel Mitsukihara Middle School’s ranking to among the top schools in Tokyo.

It is among one of these spaces that a group of four students had decided to make their clubroom. Their official name for the club was the Journalism Club, and its mission, the club members had declared, was to write and publish student commentaries on issues all about students.

Unofficially, the four members all carry their own copy of a program few children their age would ever know about. The program, to which they owe their maturity of thought to. A program that they only spread to others by Direct Connection:

BB_2039.exe – «Brain Burst».

And the four of these members, together with around a thousand other students in Tokyo who also have a copy of the program, call themselves «Burst Linkers».

 

A student seated at the head of the table types away at a rapid pace. Clad in a kendo practitioner’s attire, he looks almost completely out of place in the clean, sleek lines of the study room, set to ‘School Days,’ except that the girl seated adjacent to him looks even more out of place than he does; her hair is dyed shocking pink, and it goes all the way down to her waist. She, unlike the boy, is reading a manga comic book rather than writing essays as per the namesake of their club. The dress she wears evokes images of a Greek Goddess, which oddly enough, fits her unusual choice of hair colour.

These are Net Avatars: bodies that you use to interact with others in the virtual world. Their appearances can differ enormously in size and style, only limited by the editor of your choice and the boundaries of your imagination. It just so happens that most people opt for an avatar that preserves most of their human aspects.

The door opens and two more students walk in; a girl sporting cyan hair, tied into twin tails that reach the floor, and a boy who unsurprisingly (or surprisingly, depending on whose perspective you take) resembles his real-life self. The boy’s eyes shift this way and that, clearly making a great effort to not let them linger too long on the hem of the girl’s short skirt.

Standing up from his seat at the table, the kendoka holds back a giggle and instead opts for a disarmingly friendly smile. “Yo, Miki! Glad to see you made it on time!”

Mikiseki smiles and shrugs. “I was…busy.” For a fraction of a second, her eyes flick back to where Gunsou stands. The gesture is subtle, but not unnoticed.

The other boy nods in understanding and picks up his wooden practice sword. Engraved on it are five kanji characters bearing his name–

He walks up to Gunsou and bows slightly. “I’m Ryoutarou Tsuboi1. Nice to meet you, Gunsou Kihara.”

“How did you know…never mind.” Gunsou furrows his brow slightly. “Uh, nice to meet you too.”

“Hey Miki! You’re finally here- oh.”

From the back, the pink-haired girl glances up happily from her comic book, only to have her face fall upon laying eyes on Gunsou. “I see you’ve acquired another suitor, Miki. Five bucks, that he’ll give up after-” She pauses mid-scowl to glance up and down Gunsou. “After a month, I say?”

“Nuh-uh.”Mikiseki shakes her head. “He’s…different. No, really!”

To this, the pink-haired girl puts down her comic and narrows her eyes at Gunsou. He stares back with an even expression, unsure whether to give in or assert himself.

“Hmmph.” The girl sighs at last. “You seem pretty confident, but that’s how they all start out. Name’s Nozomi Shokuhou2, and I’m not pleased to meet you.”

At this less-than-welcome attitude in contrast to her warm reception to Mikiseki, Gunsou wonders if the two girls have known each other for a long time. “You’re not particularly impressive either. Please take care of me.”

“Come on, Nozomi, you’re gonna scare the new guy. Please,” Trying to repair the damage, Ryoutarou gestures hospitably to Gunsou. “Have a seat. I don’t see Tatesuke online at the moment, so looks like I’ll have to fill you in for the time being.”

Tapping the table, Ryoutarou adjusts its size settings, making the table slide unto itself until it was a perfect circle, with six round seats positioned around it. Ryoutarou sat next to Nozomi, and Mikiseki took the spot next to Nozomi such that Gunsou was left with the last two empty seats by his left.

Ryoutarou claps his hands as though to start this little meeting. “So, Kihara, what burning questions has Mikiseki left you? I take it that she’s already told you what Brain Burst can do?”

“Uh-” Gunsou glances at Mikiseki for a moment. “-Not really. All I know is that it’s supposed to help me understand myself.”

“That is correct, but not all of it.” Ryoutarou said, surveying Gunsou with a critical eye. “That’s actually the part that comes later…”

Mikiseki suddenly starts to blush very hard.

“Anyway, the main perk of Brain Burst is Acceleration,” Ryoutarou continued. “I can’t exactly demonstrate it here in the Local Net convincingly enough, so I’ll just…um, describe it, I guess.”

Picking up a stylus from the table, Ryoutarou aims the tip at Gunsou.

“In normal time, if I threw this stylus at you, you probably wouldn’t have much time to react because it’s moving so fast, correct?”

“Uh…yeah, I guess.” Gunsou answers cautiously. “So?”

“What would you observe instead if you were…thinking faster?”

“I’m sorry? What do you mean, thinking faster?”

“That was the wrong choice of words,” Ryoutarou mutters to himself. “Um, alright, put it this way. Y’know those times when you’re caught up in the heat of action and all, right? Doesn’t time seem to move slower?”

“Time…moving slower…” The realisation begins to dawn upon Gunsou. “Oh…you mean, like when you’re like, in a sport or something?”

“Um…kinda, I guess.” Ryoutarou nods. “That effect of time feeling slower isn’t time actually moving slower, of course, but rather, because your reaction speed is faster.”

“Or that special feeling when you’re together with your crush,” Mikiseki chimes in. “Your heart beats faster, you get all excited thinking about him and time seems to slow down…”

Nozomi shoots Mikiseki with a horrified glare at the use of the word ‘him’ just as Gunsou nudges her in the side to shut her up.

“Just…er, just carry on.” He implores Ryoutarou, who obliges.

“So if you took your reaction speed, and multiplied it by a thousand…what do you think you’d get, Kihara?”

“Uh…y’know what, just tell me straight out, so that if you ever get a chance to demonstrate it live, I’ll be prepared for any surprises you have.” Gunsou puts up his palms in protest.

“That’s quite…alright, fine.” Ryoutarou sighs a little. “You’re already getting a good deal with this free lesson.”

“He’s a mook, Ryou. I can see it from his eyes already.” Crossing one long leg over the other, Nozomi fixes Gunsou with a stare that almost looks accusing. “Just save your effort and duel him tomorrow.”

“That’s not how it needs to be…we can teach him, I’m sure. And remember, you agreed to trust in Miki’s choice no matter how…how questionable.”

Shrinking in his chair, Gunsou glances from person to person while he grasps his own wrists lightly.

“Oh, come on,” Mikiseki whines and grabs Gunsou’s right hand. “You two are making him nervous, I swear. I know he’ll turn out to be a Green, or at least a Blue-Green!”

“What makes you so sure?” Nozomi thrusts her chin in challenge. “You wanna bet tomorrow’s lunch on his colour will turn out?”

Mikiseki pulls Gunsou’s hand closer to her chest. “I raise you ten bucks!”

“Ladies…” Ryoutarou drops his head in his hands. “For the last time, if we get kicked from the room for making too much noise again, I will kick your asses personally.”

The bickering girls finally stop. Silence falls, only to be interrupted by the chime of a tone.

“Oh good, Tatesuke’s here,” Ryoutarou mutters. “There’s the backup when I need it-”

Gunsou’s face darkens considerably. Then, two familiar voices float in from the outside of the room:

“…cut me some slack, please. I’ve already tried my best to explain to you-”

“The hell was that?! That mumbling, hand-twisting, stuttering speech was an explanation? I knew you were many things, Ichijo, but the way you’re going, I bet I can dig up a lot from you and sell it to the Newspaper Club for some easy money-”

In walks in two more students in their Net Avatars: a tall, toned boy wearing a Tin Man costume, and a girl with scarlet, shoulder-length hair-

In that instant, Misawa’s gaze falls upon the gathering. And then she catches sight of Mikiseki’s dreamy eyes and Gunsou’s flushing face; he swears and pulls his hand away from Mikiseki. Too late, too slow.

Grinding her teeth, Misawa straightens her back even more and rewards Gunsou with a murderous stare, her hands curling into fists.

“Anybody care to tell me,” She growls. “What in the world is going on here?!”

 

Notes:
1. ^ Tsuboi Ryoutarou – 壷井 遼太郎

2. ^ Shokuhou Nozomi – 食蜂 望

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5 thoughts on “02: Welcome To The Accelerated World

  1. This is awesome. I’m looking forward to the next entry. Just curious, there were about 2-3 months between the first and second entries, should I expect chapter 3 in the next 2 months?

    • Eh, nope. The delay was because I was busy with parades, gun salutes, exercises and a friggin’ half-marathon… :/ I should complete editing soon enough, I think, if I can do more translation first…

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