03: The first fight is the toughest

Author’s note: I will be switching between viewpoints a little more frequently from now on. I do hope it’s demarcated clearly enough, or I will resort to colouring the so-called ‘who’s-perspective-is-this’ text if the need arises…

The Tired Boy: Kihara Gunsou

疲れ果て彼:木原群壮

I’m in deep water.

And it’s not the usual warm temperature I run for Misawa’s bath, or even the piping hot soup I cook once in awhile. This water is hot, sticky, and every drop is loaded with a great deal of anger. I’m in that kind of deep and boiling hot water.

Nobody breathes or so much as clears their throat. Everyone just glances at each other wondering who’s the first brave soul to dare answer Misawa.

And eventually, her angry gaze falls back to me. I know I’ve got to explain myself, but…well, how do I convince Misawa that Mikiseki isn’t my girlfriend, even if I have implicitly consented to her holding my hand?

This is gonna hurt.

“Misawa, I-”

“DON’T,” Misawa practically yells her head off, stabbing an accusing finger at me. “Give me excuses! I know exactly why and how she brought you here!”

“Misawa, I didn’t expect any of this to happen!”

“Which part did you not expect, huh? It’s Brain Burst, right? Was it the time-stopping bit? The usage of the Social Security Camera network? Or did you try some hanky-panky with Gekkagawa in the few seconds you two Direct Connected?!”

Oh great, now Misawa knows the things that Mikiseki knows, and I don’t know any of them. “I don’t know a millimetre about whatever you’re talking about! Mikise- Gekkagawa only just gave me Brain Burst awhile ago!”

Misawa is not deaf to my tripping over Mikiseki’s name mid-word. “Oh, look who’s all lovey-dovey now! Did you know Gekkagawa had to tiptoe while she was hugging you?!”

“You- Shut it!” Mikiseki and I went extremely red in the face at this. “It’s difficult to explain, but please, Misawa, I was-” I almost let go a swearword to her face. “-crying to pieces! I needed- I needed- er, someone!”

“So you went ahead and found Gekkagawa.” Misawa reduces her eyes to slits and crosses her arms. “You could have texted me, but you instead chose her.”

“That’s not the POINT!” I scream.

“SHUT! UP!”

It wasn’t Misawa, it wasn’t Mikiseki. Standing up from his seat, with his wooden sword in hand, Ryoutarou was quite clearly at his limits. The sound of his slow, measured breathing fills the dead silence settling in.

“We did not gather here to argue,” He says evenly at last. “We’re here to confirm that Kitamura and Kihara know the essentials of Brain Burst, as well as test the capabilities of Kitamura’s Duel Avatar.”

Taking in a breath, he glares at Mikiseki, who in turn lowers her head submissively. I’m beginning to sense that there’s much, much more than a simple program at stake here…

“Tatesuke?” Ryoutarou asked.

“She knows.” Tatesuke nods, his hands lightly interlocked on the table. “I demonstrated Acceleration to her earlier today, and she went around and…”

It takes the jerk of his head towards my general direction for all the pieces to fall into place. Or at least, some of them. I round on Misawa again:

“So you accuse me of spying, then you spy on me?!”

“C’mon, Gunsou.” Misawa huffs and looks away. “You’re lucky I was the only one who saw you two. And I had the decency to not interrupt the two of you, let me tell you that!”

“But,” I splutter. “Why the hell are you treating me like this! Let me tell you, I do everything in the house!”

“Kihara, enough.” Nozomi whispers in a dangerously soft voice. “The clubroom is not the place for you to settle your personal disputes.”

I look round at Nozomi, giving me the ‘listen-to-me-right-now’ expression, and back at Misawa. She’s still looking away, arms folded and lips sealed. As if…she’s hiding something else.

“I agree. That’s enough dawdling already, so.” Ryoutarou sits down heavily with a sigh, and operates his holographic console. “We’ll go ahead with Kitamura then. Miki, help Gunsou out; get him to follow…hmm. Who wants to try her first?” He looks at Tatesuke, Nozomi, and Mikiseki in turn.

Mikiseki shakes her head, sending ripples down the length of her hair. Tatesuke looks away and puts his palms flat on the table. Only Nozomi uncrosses her legs and sits a little straighter. “I’ll do it.”

“Splendid.” Ryoutarou remarked in an expression that said the complete opposite. “Miki?”

“Just a second.” She hastily tugs at my sleeve. “Gunsou, go to your toolbar and look for a new icon. It’s the one with the English letter ‘B’ on it.”

I don’t feel anything weird about Mikiseki touching me, but by the way Misawa’s eyebrow rises, she has issues with us. I mean, Mikiseki.

“Tap it and select the option ‘Matching List.’ Do it fast, please.” Her voice trembles slightly, as though she’s wilting under Misawa’s gaze. I tap the option and a short list appears before me with a sound effect:

“Err…what do I do next?” I look at Mikiseki in confusion, but she’s not looking my way.

“Tatesuke, is she…is Kitamura ‘Cul Artillery?’ She gets a nod in reply from Tatesuke.

“Then,” she turns back to me. “Tap on ‘Cul Artillery,’ and choose ‘Follow’ on the drop-down menu.”

I follow her instructions to my complete an utter bewilderment. Seemingly satisfied, she nods at Ryoutarou.

“Finally.” He claps his hands together. “It’s almost four, but at least we’re on track. Nozomi? Your call.”

Nozomi curls her lips into a small smirk, fixing Misawa with haughty eyes. “‘Cul Artillery,’ eh? Let’s see whatcha can do.”

Before I can utter a word in protest, Nozomi breathes in sharply and forcefully spits out her next words.

“Burst Link!”

The heck did she just-

BASHINN!

-say?

Everything has frozen in place and has been dyed the same deep shade of blue…

…And then it all fades to black.

The Girl in Red: Kitamura Misawa

赤い彼女:北村美沢

The first time Tatesuke said he would ‘Challenge’ me, I gotta admit, I was scared. He told me that it was a fighting game and the only way to finish it once you got duelled was to win. That is to say, beat-the-living-crap-out-of-the-other-guy winning.

And demonstrating that that entails exactly what it sounds like, he had proceeded to punch me. Like, he actually socked a good one into my shoulder, and that friggin’ hurt! Naturally, that pissed me off real bad. Only Gunsou could make me angrier, and he did just that, not five minutes ago!

Well, I’ll whack Gunsou later. For now, time to face the pink-haired girl, the one Tatesuke called ‘Nozomi.’ Sight, sound, and feeling return to me in my new body, but the feeling of my new avatar is still a little…weird.

The stage loads and I look up and down my Duel Avatar; I feel older in this body now, that’s nice! My arms are slender and supple and my legs are long and toned. Reaching behind, I can still feel the ponytail – or at least, the metallic mockup that’s the stand-in for my real one – and though the face mask seems solid enough, I still can feel lips and cheeks when I touch my face. Though, this avatar doesn’t seem to have much in the chest department…never mind that! I’m taller now!

Oh, but the most interesting parts that nailed it for me? First, my new avatar is red. And I mean me red, Kitamura-Misawa-red! It’s exactly the same shade of red like my hair! I was over the moon; I still am!

And I’ve got a gun. It’s just a little handgun, holstered by my hip, but it feels natural in my hands.

“Isn’t this your second time in your Duel Avatar, or are you still wondering why you got that particular type, Kitamura?”

From a distance away from me, a lithe pink avatar stands there, hands on her hips and looking down at me. Truly, Nozomi – or rather, Luka Extinguisher, looks as beautiful in this game as she does in the real world. Which unsettles me slightly…

“It’s alright,” She dismisses my concern with a lazy sweep of her hand. “I spent a good five minutes checking myself out in a mirror too. Did Tatesuke explain it to you too?”

I think back to that demonstration ‘fight’ we had after class today and shake my head. “Nuh-uh. He was too busy checking me out, so I just shot him. I mean, I tried to.”

“I see. Yeah, he kinda gets hung up over you at times.” Nozomi nods in understanding. “In that case…”

“I DID try to explain to her, Luka!” Comes the defensive yell from our right. Looking to my side, I see a couple more Duel Avatars: a huge green guy, a blue guy with a wooden bokken, a light green girlish avatar with twintails, and finally…

“Eh, Shokuhou?” I raise a virtual eyebrow. “Why doesn’t Gunsou have a Duel Avatar of his own?”

“He hasn’t had his avatar creation dream yet. Y’know, the nightmare you probably had last night? And by the way, try not to call each other by your real names here; it’s just a game, but we all have different avatar names here.” Nozomi patiently explains.

“Uh…okay, Ex…Extinguisher.” My tongue trips over the English letter ‘X’.

“Just call me Luka. It’s easier to pronounce in Japanese.” Nozomi sweeps her long, pink hair over her shoulder.

She steps up to my side to point at the spectators in turn. “Right then, about Duel Avatars. Blue Guy With A Sword is Klein Apprentice, Big Green Guy is Green Guardian, and my Little Green Darling is Spring Renascentia. They’re Ryoutarou, Tatesuke, and Miki respectively, d’you understand?”

I nod in acknowledgement. “So you’re Luka Extinguisher, and I’m-” I glance at the two gauges in the upper left corner of my vision. “I’m this…’bleh-unpronouncable-word Artillery?'”

Nozomi’s eyebrows come together while she focuses on my name in her screen. “Cull. Cuh-ell. Cah-rul.”

I give it my own shot. “Kah-roo?”

“Ooh, close enough.” Nozomi lets her voice rise in approval. “Karu it is then.”

“What’s with those English words? Are they like, last and first names?”

“Correct.” Luka nods. “The first word is always a colour word, or a reference to it at least. ‘Klein’ is a deep, almost pure blue, while ‘spring’ is a light green.”

“What does ‘Luka’ and ‘Cul’ gotta do with colours then?” I hold out my hand limply by way of emphasis. Nozomi just shrugs and gives the universal ‘I-don’t-know’ face. “I would tell you if I knew, Cul.”

“Tell me about all the colours again?” I stroll around kicking at stray stones in the neon-lit street. “Tatesuke- I mean, Guardian, did a pretty bad job explaining.”

“He’s never direct.” Luka sighs, “Duel Avatars in Brain Burst are grouped by their methods of attacking: Reds are long-ranged fighters, Blues attack at close range, and Yellows are indirect attackers, aka Range-less. They’re a little tricky to understand, but we’ll get to that…”

Luka points at Green Guardian at the side. “Guardian is a green colour, a so-called secondary colour. Put aside what you remember from class for now; because he’s a mixture of Blue and Yellow, Green is close-range & indirect, and that gives them extraordinarily high defenses as well.

She puts a hand over her considerable chest. “Purple is a mix between Red and Blue; I attack at a range shorter than Reds, but I’m certainly stronger than you when it comes to fist fights.”

I can certainly tell that from just looking. She’s taller and what looks to be stronger than me. “I see.”

“Anyway, I guess that’s all you need to know for now.” Luka stretched her hands out in front of her, cracking her knuckles. “We’ve wasted quite a few minutes on making up for Tatesuke. Shall we?”

Just as the timer at the top of my vision ticks down to 1600 (it was 1800 at the start, so a round lasts thirty minutes), Luka flourishes her hands to either side; long, slender cylinders with rounded ends slide into place from nowhere with a distinctive clang.

“Go, Luka! Show her what you’re made of!” Mikiseki cheers from the side. That irritating girl!

I glance over to Gunsou. He’s watching every single action we make with eyes wide open. I can’t tell if it’s fear or excitement he’s feeling, but I don’t wanna care about him just yet. Not till I finish.

I lock gazes with Luka. She half-crouches, ready to spring if I so much as twitch.

I oblige; sweeping my hand to my hip, I unholster my pistol and take aim!

The Tired Boy: Kihara Gunsou

疲れ果て彼:木原群壮

This is a fighting game.

I didn’t need Mikiseki whispering in my ear, or Ryoutarou patiently pointing out the different aspects. I could see it all for myself: the Duel Avatar names, Health Gauge, Special Attacks Gauge, and Battle Timer were all in plain sight. As was the gun in Misawa’s hip holster.

I don’t know just how much I can allow myself to enjoy this game, if it’s even called a game. A now-familiar feeling of butterflies creeps up into my stomach and sits there.

“So…Mikiseki…”

“‘Rena,’ if you would please.” She corrects me for the nth time.

“Rena. They…They’re going to have to beat each other up, am I correct?”

“Absolutely. C’mon, this is a freaking fighting game, not Candy Crush Saga!” Mikiseki hops up and down again in that cute yet terrifying way.

“And when they hit each other, there’s pain, isn’t there?”

This time, it’s Tatesuke who puts one massive green hand the size of a dinner plate on my shoulder. “It’s unavoidable, Kihara. This game is hyper-realistic.”

“That’s it, I’m done.” With considerable effort, I push away Tatesuke’s hand. “I’ve got no time for this at all. Link Out!”

…Nothing happens. Mikiseki just giggles and grabs my arm again.

“This isn’t a typical Virtual Network, Gunsou. You’re here to stay with me until the duel is over!”

Well, what a way to burn my time then. I sigh explosively and turn to look at Misawa and Nozomi – Cul Artillery and Luka Extinguisher respectively. They’re staring each other down…

BANG!

Misawa draws her gun- fires. But Nozomi was expecting it; diving to the side, she executes a barrel roll before dashing towards Misawa!

BANGBANGBANGBANG-

She’s firing wildly now. Misawa can track where Nozomi is, but she can’t seem to put her bullets where her eyes are-

Nozomi closes in on Misawa and punches her out with a sickening CRUNCH of metal on metal. The pistol clatters to the floor-

“Stop,” I whisper. “This isn’t funny at all!”

Ryoutarou shakes his head gently. “No one said that Brain Burst was a joke.”

Misawa, clearly in pain clutches her head and looks for her gun. Nozomi curls her left hand into a fist, and-

PFFFWOOSH! A huge cloud of smoke envelopes the two avatars!

“Using her gas at close-range…that’s a little cruel, Luka.” Tatesuke remarks with absolutely no emotion in his voice.

“‘A little?’ Only a little?!” I round on the huge green mecha. “That’s…that’s unfair!”

“No, Gunsou.” Mikiseki tugs me back to watch. “It’s fair, because Misawa couldn’t stop big sis Luka from getting too close!”

Even while she says that in a casual tone, more yells of pain and sounds of punching reach my ears. Misawa’s yells of pain. This isn’t right at all! That’s not how I want it to turn out!

…Is what I would have shouted, but I can’t. It’s a hard fact even I can’t deny.

Silence settles for a moment while the whitish smoke Luka released slowly hangs in the air. After a further two minutes, a feminine outline appears, and I suck in a breath of hope-

The tall outline of Luka extinguisher appears, dragging the body of Misawa behind her.

“She put up a good fight,” Nozomi remarks in a matter-of-factly voice. “But once she lost her gun, she was basically mine.”

And then she just dumps the red avatar onto the ground. Her head lolls lifelessly.

I don’t know what made me do it. One moment, I was standing there, the next…Tatesuke has one massive arm wrapped around my body, holding me back while I scream and fill the air with curses. Swearwords I didn’t know I knew.

Ryoutarou shakes his head and mutters something to Nozomi. She nods and aims her cylinder at the lifeless avatar, the lifeless Misawa-

PFFWOOSH!

A small window appears before my eyes. I barely notice it at all; all I can see is the calm, unperturbed face of Nozomi’s avatar.

CUL ARTILLERY LOSES TO LUKA EXTINGUISHER!

Then everything goes dark again as the game ends.

The Girl in Red: Kitamura Misawa

赤い彼女:北村美沢

It’s dim.

Some rays of sunlight peek through the curtains, but in the Full Dive Classroom, it doesn’t really light up the place. It kinda feels gloomy, but it could just be me. I mean, I just had my ass handed to me by an older girl in the most painful way possible, and it sucks like hell.

“How are you feeling, Kitamura?” Besides me, Tatesuke has already exited the game, and looks at me with a genuinely concerned face. I sit straight and stretch my arms above my head, trying to clear the wooziness from my body.

“Kinda sucky, I guess.” My voice is unusually quiet. “Shokuhou sure packs a punch…”

“I’ve never seen anything like that.” Tatesuke suddenly murmurs quietly.

“What? Run that by me again?”

“No, not you.” Tatesuke shakes his head. “Kihara.”

“Why? Something happen after I…” I’m hesistant to use the word ‘lost‘. “I got knocked out?”

“He…uh, I don’t think I should tell you…” He gives that shifty look again. I sigh loudly, and tilt my head from side to side to stretch my neck.

“If you’re always going to be like this whenever I try ‘ta pry information out of you, then I give up.” I hop off the reclined chair and grab my bag. “It’s worse than squeezing blood out of a friggin’ rock-”

“I hope you and Kihara are okay.” He blurts abruptly. “All these changes…I wonder if you two are fine.”

“And,” I pause with a hand on the door. “What do you mean by that?”

Tatesuke turns to look me in the eye for the first time I can remember. It’s mildly unsettling, but hey, at last he’s serious-

“You and Kihara don’t have a normal relationship.” He plainly puts it out. “I can tell he’s…very, very attached to you.”

Well duh. Didn’t you get that memo long ago? “So?”

He swallows some saliva and blinks a couple of times. “So…I hope he’s taking care of you. And you can take care of him. After the duel…he was pissed.”

Now that is some pretty useful blood, to use the analogy. “Alright…noted. Bye then.”

I shut the door behind me and leave him behind. Calling up my Messaging, I type a quick text to Gunsou while I walk to the shoe lockers.

[M: You okay? Where are you?]

When I don’t get a reply even after ten minutes, and he hasn’t even seen the message, I don’t wait any longer. I pack up and get the hell out of school.

Please, don’t go and do something stupid, Gunsou.

The Tired Boy: Kihara Gunsou

疲れ果て彼:木原群壮

I walk through the darkness alone, and it’s a quiet, lonely place. No other soul is here. The sound of my footsteps is muffled, and sounds like…like I’m underwater. Water is nice. It’s cooling and calming, and just soothes me.

I sometimes feel the vertigo hit, as though the ocean, or wherever I’m in has turned upside-down; then it settles, and I’m walking wherever I please again. Nobody to bother me, nobody to summon me to do this or that. Just me, myself, and I.

Then I see him.

“Dad?” I call in surprise.

He doesn’t move. He just stands there, hands in the pockets of his suit, head up and looking at something far away.

“Dad!” I cry out again, running faster. “Dad!”

He walks away. Slowly, then faster and faster. Until I can’t catch him despite running at full speed.

“Dad!”

He’s gone now. The darkness has enveloped him, and I’m all alone…until I pick up the sounds of sniffing.

Sniff…sniff…

Someone’s crying. Who?

“…Mummy…Daddy!”

Misawa.

She’s bawling her eyes out, wearing the little dress she got for her seventh birthday, walking this way and that in aimless circles.

That’s right, she cried for ages after her parents died.

“Misawa!” I run towards her again. She doesn’t start running away, at least. I reach her and hold her close-

Damn, she’s a child-sized block of ice!

That’s when I realise I’m not myself. I’m the small seven-year-old boy again, the kid who doesn’t know where his daddy’s gone to. My arms are awfully small and frail looking, my fingers are still smooth and weak.

Then they come. Silhouettes of adults, walking this way and that. Blown up to tremendous proportions until their shoes are as long as I am tall. They walk quickly, purposefully, meaningfully.

The scene blurs slightly; tears are gathering in the corner of my eyes. Don’t cry, Gunsou, don’t you dare cry now! I wipe my eyes on my sleeves

But Misawa keeps crying, the adults keep walking. Nobody paying any attention to us. It’s getting so cold-

“I’ll be strong. Endure this.” I mutter under my breath.

Turning my head, I look for my dad. Anywhere, everywhere. He’s nowhere to be seen.

“Stand up, please, Misawa,” I mutter to myself with gritted teeth. “I’ll be strong for the both of us-!”

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

-It sounds kind of stupid, but… Yes.

The Girl in Red: Kitamura Misawa

赤い彼女:北村美沢

The fried eggs sizzle in the pan, but I don’t have the hands needed to go flip it over. I’m busy adding the final touch to the spaghetti sauce, and if my luck is to hold, the spaghetti – currently being boiled in a pot next to the eggs – will be nice and firm, just the way I like it. Beads of sweat are gathering beneath my brow, but I don’t dare to use my sleeve to wipe them off – I might get it dirty, and as it is, I’m not going to have enough energy to wash my uniform tonight.

I found Gunsou at home, thankfully, sprawled all over the sofa and out like a baby. Like, his shoes were literally strewn in the entrance hall! From my WhatsUpp logs, he did receive my messages, proving that he had been making his way home alone, but wasn’t in a good enough mood to even reply. When he’s in that kind of mood, or gone to sleep like that, I think it’s best to not disturb him. I wouldn’t want to be disturbed if I was pissed too!

Then again…I have my own issues to take out on him. For one, I’d like to really know just what on earth is happening between him and that Mikiseki girl! Why did she give him Brain Burst? What else did she do when they were Direct Connected?! And most of all, would he ever have to think about choosing between me and her-

The fried eggs, swimming in oil, chooses this moment to sizzle angrily, as though protesting at its negligence. Clucking my tongue, I put down the fork I was using to stir the sauce and head over to the eggs, now well on their way to overcooked territory until I flip them over.

I know I don’t usually make dinner, and on days when Gunsou is in a good mood, I can never hope to match him when it comes to cooking with fresh food. Heck, I didn’t even know what he was planning for tonight; the refrigerator was full of vegetables and stuff he bought earlier this week and I have no clue as to which one he was going to use first. So the spaghetti was from an old (but still before its best-by date) packet in the dry food cupboard and the sauce was basically premixed sauce with a little extra ingredients and heating. Fried eggs are the only thing I know how to make decently, so I went ahead and made those too.

I grab a pair of cooking chopsticks and hold up a bunch of spaghetti for inspection. Steam billows off the strands and with a pinch of my fingers, the noodles are soft and easily deformed; I think I can carry on. In bunches, I douse the spaghetti into a pot of cold water until they’re all cool, and then I strain them and deposit equal amounts into two plates and leave aside a third portion for Mrs Kihara…

Darn! I made too much again! Shouldn’t this packet serve three, or am I mistaken?

Just when I’m left with extra spaghetti in my hands, wondering what to do next, the doorbell rings.

*DING DONG~

A small window appears in my vision, courtesy of the house’s security system. I glance at the girl at our door and a curse rolls off my tongue:

“…What the hell are you doing here?!”

The Beautiful Girl: Gekkagawa Mikiseki

美しい少女:月下川 美奇跡

A few hours ago, just after Gunsou woke up from his first experience with Brain Burst…

Oh my god.

I know I’ve always been fortunate in my life, at least until Dad died. Among one of my remaining fortunes is the fact that I’ve never seen someone angry. Irritated, yes. Stressed, yes. Tears-welling-up-in-their-eyes, fingernails-digging-into-their-skin pain, yes, that too. But today is the first time I’ve ever seen someone angry at me.

Gunsou is furious. Our gazes, having met with emotion and affection not too long ago, have now changed completely. He stares down at me, trying to stab me with his eyes; I look back at him, with ‘please, please, don’t take it out on me’ written on every inch of my face.

[This game…you called it a ‘game,’] He growls, [This game is not a game at all.]

[Um…uh…] I stutter and trip over myself, “Well, I just guess Kitamura still hasn’t learn how to fight-]

SNAP

With a sweep of a shaking hand, he literally cuts me off before I can get another word out between our minds. He used enough force to break the connector on his hand, leaving a broken tail of cable dangling from his Neuro Linker, resembling a dangling limb in likeness. “I…I never said I wanted to play such a game,” he growls, “You said that I’d understand myself better, but Tsuboi told me otherwise. ‘The main point of Brain Burst is Acceleration,’ he said, and now I see Avatars beating up one another with realistic feelings of pain?”

The look he sends me tells it all; his feelings of betrayal and utter confusion, and above all, the look of someone who just found out they were lied to.

But it’s not his fault after all, he’s too new to understand! “I’ve never lied, Gunsou,” I reach out for his hands again, to try and regain control, “The self-reflections, the Acceleration, and the duels, they’re all part and parcel of understanding yourself. It’ll come to you in the long run, okay?”

But he flicks my hands away, standing from his seat. “No…No, I’ve had enough! I am not going to waste my time on a silly game!”

And he storms off, leaving the classroom as quiet as it was before. The warmth of our hug earlier is quickly replaced with cold regret and anxiety in the pit of my stomach.

Rising from the chair, I grasp the handles of my bag and slowly leave the classroom. I’m going to run a little late, but it’s nothing compared to if I failed. His duel avatar must be confirmed by today, and the only way to do it at this rate is…

…to visit his house?

I freeze mid-step as the outrageous thought strikes me. Should I even be thinking about such an outrageous thing?!

Mom’s going to be waiting for me if I don’t come home on time. She’ll be worried. I’ll make her worried. The right thing to do is to slip my feet into my shoes and walk straight home.

“…And remember, you agreed to trust in Miki’s choice no matter how…how questionable.

From a corner of my thoughts, Ryoutarou’s voice chimes in. That’s right…Ryoutarou, or even Nozomi could have given Gunsou a copy of Brain Burst. They could have just as easily become his «Parent», but Ryoutarou trusted me do accomplish this task.

-I have to believe. I can’t let down the trust that my friends have placed in me.

That’s right. If I go home now, I’ve got nothing but schoolwork to do. If I go ‘there,’ I still have time. I can find out more about him, and see what kind of memories does he carry.

“…Alright!”

I straighten my back and turn right out of the school gate, pulling up Gunsou’s address and contact details. Sorry Mom, I’ve got things to settle with my classmate!

The Tired Boy: Kihara Gunsou

疲れ果て彼:木原群壮

A hand on my shoulder shakes me awake, out from the water-filled stupor I had sank into, out of the peace of my state of sleep. It leaves a lingering warmth on my shoulder as it leaves, and I understand that I have to get up.

I take my time to open my eyes, feeling every ounce of exhaustion weigh down heavily on me. When I become aware that I’m still in my uniform, the smell of dried sweat getting to me, I resign myself to the demands that a dirty uniform entails, and sit up from the sofa-

Woah. The room feels like it’s been spinning for hours! I must’ve been out for a long time, I guess. I blink once, twice, and finally recover enough to stand.

The kitchen light is still on, and the sound of soft murmuring reaches my ears. I glance at the clock in the corner of my vision – 9.13 PM – and frown. I’m pretty sure Mom doesn’t come back this early…

And then I round the kitchen doorway, squinting as my eyes adjust to the light, and I see them; seated on opposite sides of the table, Misawa with a cup of tea in hand and Mikiseki nibbling at a stick of ice-cream. The girls seemed to have been in a conversation until I came.

“Uh…” I trail off, not knowing who to greet first, “Hi, Misawa. Hi, Mikise- Um, Gekkagawa.”

Misawa’s eyelid twitches, but that’s her only reaction, Mikiseki, on the other hand, beams several day’s worth of sunshine back at me with her smile.

“Hi Gunsou! Glad to see you’re awake!”

Misawa chose this moment to cough very loudly, covering her mouth with her teacup. “Alright, Gekkagawa, he’s awake. Just say what you came to say, then fuc-” She catches herself mid-word, “-leave.”

Mikiseki gives that little knowing giggle of hers in acknowledgement. “But of course! Thanks for the delicious meal!”

Woah, Misawa actually cooked for Mikiseki? Weren’t they on bad terms? As though reading my thoughts, Misawa’s cheeks redden; she stands up and leaves the kitchen, muttering something about ‘privacy’ and ‘making up.’

I turn back to Mikiseki in confusion, and- oh no, she’s giving that faux happy smile again, just like in the classroom. I don’t know what she and Misawa agreed on, but she better not dare approach me again like that…

“Are you feeling better, Gunsou?” For the second time today, she asks me that question, as though expecting me to feel better in her presence. I just nod politely to not hurt her feelings. “Yeah, I’m fine,” I answer.

“That’s good, I’m really glad!”

Awkward silence descends; I don’t know how to react to that, and Mikiseki apparently has said all she has to say. From the living room, the clink of ceramic on the glass table can be heard; Misawa’s trying to listen in as well.

“That’s right…umm, Gunsou,” Mikiseki’s face suddenly lights up, “Did you have a bad dream just now? Like, just before you woke up?”

Huh? It takes me a good minute to think back; did I even dream? I remember barely making my way back home, kicking off my shoes, and crashing into the water- I mean, darkness…

“Uh…yeah. Maybe,” I hesitantly answer, “I guess I kinda had a bad dream.”

“Perfect!” Mikiseki rubs her hands together in glee, “Looks like you’re finally ready to appear! Burst Link!”

Uh oh. That’s the same thing that Nozomi said earlier, and when she said that-

BASHIINN!

-When Nozomi last said that, she had hammered Misawa to death!

The Girl in Red: Kitamura Misawa

赤い彼女:北村美沢

I was watching them all along. There’s a small mirror on the refrigerator, so even from my seat on the sofa, I could see Gunsou’s face and the impressive range of emotions he went through when Mikiseki had her ‘chat’ with him. Well, at least she didn’t go and hug him again, or I would have run in there and have a go at them! With a baseball bat!

I hadn’t even intended to serve her dinner. Or even open the door, in fact! But when she basically ‘fessed up over the intercom that Gunsou had friggin’ snapped her Cable, among other things, even I want to hear the scoop! So I let her in, drew some very clear indications that this is the only time I’m letting her in, and then it was playing Nice Host, Bad Host. She accepted the cold spaghetti with a straight face, at least, but at times the tension was so bad, I swear the air coulda’ve turned to ice between us.

Tatesuke did teach me that the Brain Burst menu could even be used without speaking the Acceleration Command ‘Burst Link,’ and in one of those moments, I use the time to check out Gunsou’s name on the matching list; I watched it as it stayed as ‘Undefined,’ and slowly, around 9-ish PM, it turned to a two-word name:

TURQUOISE DURO.

Tatesuke did a bad job explaining the significance of the colour word, so all I know at this moment is that ‘turquoise’ is some colour between blue and green. But he did say that the second word is meant to reflect the fighting styles of our Duel Avatars. I was sorely disappointed that despite being named ‘Artillery,’ all I had was a lil’ pistol. But it was satisfying to shoot his head anyway!

So this word…’duro.‘ It evaded translation for awhile until I manually searched for it; I guess Brain Burst doesn’t offer in-app translation. Apparently, it’s a Spanish word, meaning ‘callous, cruel, hard, and stale,’ which made no sense at all!

So I dug deeper, and found that there was in fact, a Latin translation, meaning ‘to harden, to last, to endure.’

Now that was interesting, and I immediately added him to my Followed list before going to shake him awake. That girl only cares about Brain Burst; she can’t be here for anything else besides his duel avatar. But I’ll still give that girl points for actually coming to our house and letting me know she’s here. Even if it’s for an excuse.

Now, Mikiseki quite plainly challenged Gunsou on the spot. Since I’m Following his Duel Avatar, whenever he gets challenged, I Accelerate as well; my mind speeds up a thousand times, making time seem to come to a stop. The teacup in my hand will stay there until Acceleration ends after thirty minutes in-game; 1.8 seconds in real life, and then I will regain consciousness soon enough to stop it from dropping.

Acceleration. It’s this part that I don’t know enough about to understand what it is, but I know what I can do: If I Accelerate myself, I assume my Net Avatar and can walk around freely in this ‘frozen’ world, and that was what allowed me to observe Gunsou getting hugged by Mikiseki. That girl sure had guts…Well, at least now I can make sure she doesn’t try anything funny in Brain Burst as well!

The sensation of my new Duel Avatar comes to me , the proud red avatar with a gun by her hip. I thrust my chest out and look around; the stage loaded is ‘Demonic City,’ so all three of us have spawned on the rooftop. Nearby is Mikiseki’s Avatar, a light-green feminine avatar with no apparent weapons nor special features. And the third Avatar is…

Blue.

No, it’s green. Nope, it’s not quite that either…I squint my eyes, but the colour is deceptive, leaning in the middle of the boundary between blue and green. It’s…it’s actually quite pretty.

I look up, and that’s when I realise how huge he is; Gunsou’s Duel Avatar, this ‘Turquoise Duro,’ is two heads taller than me! Not only that, but his arms and legs are thickly armoured, and his head, gosh, his head- it’s nothing like a human head, having the likeness and marine feeling of a…a sea creature, I think?

Stepping back, I take in the entire sight of his Duel Avatar, and only one word comes to mind: badass. There’s nothing flashy about it; no weapons, no sharp edges, nothing that even looks offensive, and yet this aura emitted from his is overpowering. Like, ‘I’m going to go get what I want and there’s nothing that will stand in my way,’ power.

And then he opens his eyes, little eye slits placed close together, and speaks. It’s a low metallic voice, sounding exactly like him and at the same time, nothing like him.

“I don’t want to play this game, Gekkagawa!”

A little shiver runs up my spine. If I ever have to go up against Gunsou like this, with just a pistol…I hate to admit it, but I am pretty much screwed!

“…Wow,” Mikiseki – Spring Renascentia – whispers in awe, “A perfect blue-green colour…just as I thought, Gunsou!”

The marine-like head tilts to the side in puzzlement. “What do you mean, ‘just as you thought?’ Did you predict that I’d turn out like…like this?” He holds up his massive hands.

“Yup!” Renascentia nods unflinchingly. “I thought your wish might turn out like that!”

Gunsou looks at me and our gazes meet, then we both turn to look at Mikiseki in complete and utter confusion. Her response is to hold up three fingers.

“Red, Yellow, and Blue,” She listed, “These are the Primary Colours in Brain Burst’s system, and a Duel Avatar for each of those colours make different wishes to get their different colours.”

“Blue is the colour of strength, the wish for power. Blue colours felt weak at some point in their lives, and when they get Brain Burst, they wish for something to overcome a problem they’re facing. They’re direct and head-on, never-say-die. They get close-range abilities.”

Mikiseki gestured with her next finger. “Yellow is the colour of denial, the attitude of ignorance. They don’t want to even acknowledge that they’ve got a problem, and when confronted with it they will distract themselves from it. They’re the opposite of Blues, indirect and always beating about the bush, in a sense. The abilities they get are a mixed bag, but they can work at any range or even on other specific avatars anywhere else.”

Finally, Mikiseki waves a hand at me – the red avatar called Cul Artillery.

“Red is the colour of defiance, or as I like to call it, an M&M! They appear strong on the outside, but they’re actually soft and weak on the inside. Because of that, they get the long-range abilities, representing their wish to reach out to someone, or something far away, but don’t believe they have the guts to go through with it. Nothing specific about you, of course,” She added hastily, “But I don’t think I can help you if you take offense at what I said…”

I really want to slap the living lights out of this girl right now! No guts? Soft and weak? I’m not any of those things at all!

“It’s nothing to do with me, but your wish!” Mikiseki quickly explains more, “It’s gotta do with your wish, which you wanted something or someone back very badly, but just don’t believe that you can have them back!”

My mouth opens and closes in silent rage. I just- I just can’t accept a word that this girl is saying!

“What if you’re wrong?” I finally put some words into my mouth. “How can I be sure you’re correct?!”

To which, Mikiseki smirks and replies, “You can’t. Not now, at least. You’ll have to trust me, really.” And then she turns her attention back to Gunsou.

“So, do you understand the reason why you got this Avatar? You’re a little mix of Yellow and Blue, so…um, I guess you really, really, really wanted to solve some problem with your father, but decided to put it aside and distract yourself? And I wonder what’s the meaning of the word ‘Duro’…”

Wait, she knows about his father leaving?! He actually told her that?!

Gunsou stays eerily quiet for a long while, absorbed in his own thoughts. While I pace the confines of the apartment roof impatiently, watching the timer tick downwards, Mikiseki just stands there patiently. Like…like some girl waiting for her lover! Oh, that soppy-eyed look, it makes me want to puke! Don’t look at Gunsou like that!

“I understand,” Gunsou finally speaks up at last, “I think I finally understand what you’re getting at here, Rena.”

Gunsou – Turquoise Duro – raises one massive hand to his face, deep in reflection. I can’t help but feel a little…cowered by that sight. Does Mikiseki really have a point here?

“But I don’t get something,” he continues, “What’s the value in playing Brain Burst then?”

“Burst Points,” Mikiseki says, “All players fight each other for Burst Points. You win at least ten points when you win a battle, and you lose at least ten points when you lose a battle too.”

“And, get to the point,” his eye slits narrow ever so slightly, “But what’s so special about Burst Points that you have to fight in this silly game that you’re trying to get Misawa and I to play so desperately?”

I like how Mikiseki seems to shrink under his gaze at that. Thumbs up for the Intimidating Giant Likeness, Turquoise Duro!

“We’ll- We’ll get to it, I promise!” she squeaks. “But in the meantime, could you…could you please check your Movelist?”

“My movelist?”

“Click on your name in the upper left corner of your vision,” Mikiseki claws back some confidence, “And read out the entry below your name. Your Duel Avatar’s name, Turquoise Duro.”

“Uh…” Gunsou’s tone clouds over in confusion. “‘Normal Moves: Reserve Armour, Power Enhancer, and Special Move: Hypothenar Smash?’ What’s all these?”

“These are all abilities that your Avatar can use by default,” Mikiseki uses the English word. “That is to say…look at that small gauge under your Health Gauge, your Special Gauge. You fill it by dealing or taking damage, and you can use it to execute some of your moves.”

“Y’know what’s a Normal Move and a Special Move, Gunsou?” I suddenly get an idea. He answers with a simple shake of his head.

I unholster my pistol with glee. “THIS,” I take aim, “Is a Normal Move.”

“-Cul!” Mikiseki squeaks in horror.

BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG-

I squeeze the trigger mercilessly, causing Mikiseki to yelp in surprise and pain as the bullets strike her anywhere I can hit; her head, her arms, and her hands while she vainly tries to protect herself! Sadly, as a spectator, I can’t actually damage her. Gunsou twitches one massive hand, but he doesn’t react any other way.

“My Special Move currently is being able to fire twenty rounds in four seconds, and it needs me to accumulate about half my Special Gauge first,” I explain with satisfaction. “Unfortunately, I can’t show you now, because I’m just spectating your fight, I’m not allowed to actually hurt either of you. Look, I can’t even get any closer than ten metres!”

Demonstrating my point, I try with all my might to walk towards Turquoise Duro. There’s nothing between us but empty air, and yet there’s an invisible barrier I soon hit that stops me from getting any closer. His eyes widen in realisation and he nods in understanding.

“…I see.”

For the next ten minutes, he experiments with his new Avatar and the workings of the game: trying his hand at destroying the Stage, attempting his Special Move on an unfortunate pillar, and feeling the resulting pain in the process. Sure, he’s far, far stronger than either of us girls and can destroy the environment faster, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel anything when he punches the walls or stomps on the ground. Tatesuke wasn’t kidding when he said that this game was hyper-realistic.

Much to my annoyance, Mikiseki goes up to him after than to lay her hands on him, literally! Her Special Move heals another Duel Avatar she’s in physical contact with; I’m told by Tatesuke that it’s a big deal in a fighting game, but I don’t give a rat’s fart. I’m very sure she didn’t need to touch his chest, nor did she have to lean that close for her Special to activate! Just as well, he seemed a little uncomfortable, but it could just be me being here that’s keeping him back. What would they do if I wasn’t here, hug the crap outta each other again? I’ll stay here to make sure it doesn’t happen again!

“I’m a very rare type of Duel Avatar, Duro,” she simpers, “If we ever fight together in a tag team battle, please take care of me.”

She backsteps a little and does this little bow and curtsy. If I could serve Mikiseki my dinner from last night, I would most certainly try again right now, but- whoa, what?

Duro turns his head away. His arms come up to grasp each other, and he leans back a little. I have no idea what to make of this!

“I…I can’t, Gekkagawa,” he softly whispers, “I just can’t take up that promise.”

“Why…Why not? Why can’t you?” Mikiseki sounds nearly as shocked as I am feeling. “It’s not like I’m asking you to save me or anything!”

“Because this is just a game,” he says in a hollow voice. “There’s nothing I can gain from playing with you.”

Uncrossing his arms, he scrolls through his player menu and sends her something; judging from the sudden lock of shock on her face, it must be a Draw Request. With the mutual consent of both fighters, the duel will finish without anybody losing nor gaining Burst Points.

“I don’t want to do anything with you about Brain Burst anymore,” he states, “I’m not going to waste my time. It’s limited and precious, because there’s other things, and other people to spend it with.”

Can you hear that? That’s the sound of my heart jumping over the moon for joy!

“So-”

“No,” Mikiseki cuts him off. “No.”

She balls her little green hands into fists; they’re shaking ever so slightly.

“That’s where you’re wrong. You’ve got all the time in the world, Gunsou.”

-Wha…?

TURQUOISE DURO AND SPRING RENASCENTIA AGREE TO A DRAW!

The Tired Boy: Kihara Gunsou

疲れ果て彼:木原群壮

That’s where you’re wrong. You’ve got all the time in the world, Gunsou.

Mikiseki’s last words echo in my head, long after she left our house in a hurry, trying hard to cover up the fact that she was crying. With a heavy heart, I ate my own dinner (Misawa warmed it up for me first in the oven, thankfully) and proceeded to attack the dishes. Misawa could survive on her own cooking, but she probably couldn’t wash the dishes to save her life. I’ve never understood the contradiction when she says she doesn’t want her hands to wrinkle, and yet takes hot, long baths at least twice weekly.

“Quite the vague statement, indeed…” I mutter to myself.

“Something botherin’ you?”

Turning around, I see Misawa leaning against the kitchen doorframe, taking a sip of juice from a tetra pack. Her eyes, heavy with fatigue, are nonetheless open and expecting an answer from me.

“I guess…I think,” I shrug, “I still have no idea what Mikiseki is talking about anyway.”

Misawa gives a non-committal roll of her eyes. “I think I know more about Brain Burst than you right now, but I’ve also got no idea how to explain it.”

The expression on her face is anything but playful, so I’ll take her word as that.

“But still…” she gestures at me with her drink packet in hand, “Your Duel Avatar, Turquoise Duro. It looks really good on you. I mean, I like the feeling it gives me!”

“Cul Artillery looks pretty good too,” I reply, “It’s very…very…”

“Very what?”

“Very…clean,” I scramble for a suitable adjective. “It’s very sleek and cool-looking too!”

Just wait until she sees herself in a mirror or something, because Cul Artillery, I think, is truly beautiful in its own way. The gentle figure of the avatar itself, flowing hair and eye lenses exactly the same shade as Misawa’s hair, and that sharp, proud thrust of her jaw, perfectly reflecting her own attitudes.

But her Duel Avatar isn’t the only one that was made with meticulous care. Sure, Misawa’s Avatar is a little girly in appearance, but if Mikiseki is anything to go by…are all the female players going to look as feminine, sweet, and charming as Spring Renascentia? It seems that whatever magic that Mikiseki’s Net Avatar works on boys is the same as her Duel Avatar. , they’d probably say ‘Dat Ass.’ I won’t deny it, the Duel Avatar is naked for whatever unknown reasons, and Renascentia’s…uh, curves are plain to see for each and every man.

…Just thinking about her Avatar is enough to make my cheeks flush in embarrassment! Fortunately, she’s been walking over to the freezer to look for a stick of ice-cream, so she didn’t see my face.

How am I supposed to rationalise this embarrassment I’m feeling? Do I really have those kinds of feelings for Mikiseki? Should I also be feeling the same for Misawa too?

Does that mean…?

“Hey, here.”

Misawa hold out a chocolate cone to me. A quick glance at the still-open freezer shows that it’s one of two remaining. I’m going to have to buy more this weekend.

“Thanks.” I reach out to accept the dessert-

I was not expecting Misawa to grasp my wrist and pull me forward! Holding both cones in one hand, she awkwardly pulls me into a one-armed hug. Her body is unexpectedly warm.

“I’m not giving you to her,” she whispers cryptically, “You’re mine, Gunsou.”

…How am I supposed to interpret this? Is it a sign from Misawa that she treasures me? Or just another sign of affection that girls show to guys they like? How far should I go along with that?

Fine, I’ll go along; I hold Misawa in a hug of my own.

“You’re my family too, Misawa. I won’t forget that.”

She stiffens, relaxes at my words and touch, and finally pulls away with a grateful smile.

We spend the rest of the night finishing our homework and the chocolate cones, but I go to bed with an even heavier burden on my mind.

How do I really feel about Misawa? Is her feelings still the same as before?

And Mikiseki. What am I supposed to do, now that I don’t want her Brain Burst?

I wish someone has all the answers, really.

…I’m still confused.

It’s not about what breakfast to make, which classes we have today, or even what to make for dinner tonight. The calendar Misawa created shows all of our day’s activities in the convenient corner of our desktop, so all of the above is really just a non-issue. What’s bothering me is Misawa and Mikiseki.

While Misawa and I ride on the bus to school, I roll my mind over last night’s events; Misawa versus Nozomi, culminating in her loss. Me, abandoning all restraint and uncharacteristically lashing out, and at Mikiseki at that. I broke her Direct Connection cable as a result. And yet…she still showed up at our house yesterday, entered me in a Duel, and let me have a taste of Brain Burst of sorts. Including her touching me uninvited… But right after that, Misawa had held on to me, declaring her intent to ‘not give me to anyone.’

Do I really have two girls fighting over me? Am I really that special? Come on. I think it’s hard enough to have to plan meals a month ahead. At least I can negotiate with Mum over the amount of allowance she should give me to buy all the food and things. These two… I don’t see how I can control them at all, even if I wanted to!

But at the very least, I just want my friggin’ peace. I don’t need Mikiseki bothering me with Brain Burst, or Misawa giving me the evil eye everytime Mikiseki attempts to continue her touchy-feely thing. Honestly, it’s a pain.

The bus stops at a traffic light, and I huff a sigh, more out of stress than anything. Misawa, bobbing her head to the beat of music that she’s listening to, taps me on the arm; “You alright?”

“Wha? Ye-Yeah, I’m fine.”

Misawa just blinks and answers with a skeptical look, but nothing more. Turning back to the window, I lean my head against the glass, and out of boredom I check out the motorcycle next to the bus-

BASHIIN!

Oh gosh. Here we go again!

HERE COMES A NEW CHALLENGER!

The same phrase from last night appears, when Mikiseki had challenged me in the kitchen. The flaming, stylised English letters hover before me while my view of the street fades to black, and…

…is replaced with a swamp?!

It stinks to high heaven, and I’m glad that I’m not in the middle of it! Assuming my new Avatar – Turquoise Duro – I materialise on a small patch of soft earth, in the shadow of a huge, gnarling tree. The message disappears from my sight, and I look at the Health Gauges at the top of my screen- filling with gurgling sounds, my Avatar’s name appears on the left, and to the right is…

“…Apple…Panzer?”

Once again, I’m slightly unnerved by my own voice; it sounds so deep and so metallic, it just doesn’t sound like me.

“Watch out, Gunso- sorry, Duro!”

The moment I hear my name being called by Misawa, I whirl around and catch sight of her cherry-red avatar hastily withdrawing a foot from a small patch of swamp. “It stings if you touch the swampy bits!”

So…I shouldn’t step into the swamp. “Thanks.”

“Hey thar, newbie! You a new kid on ‘da block?”

A hugely exaggerated accent in a young kid’s voice. Turning around, I almost can’t make him out until he moves an arm-

Wow. He’s…huge. He’s literally as round as an apple and green-coloured to boot. And his armour seems shiny, but not in the way that you’d call a knight in shining armour. It looks less like armour and more like…skin?

With a slight thump as he steps forward, Panzer takes a step closer to me. He and I are practically the same height, which compared to Renascentia and Artillery yesterday, gives off a distinct aura that I’m facing somebody with the intent to kill.

Goosebumps work their way up my spine and I tremble a little. I hope he didn’t notice that.

“Whatcha’ standing there for? Your Parent ain’t taught you nuthin’ about fightin’?”

Parent?

“Ex…Excuse me, what do you mean, «Parent»? I’ve not been taught anything like that…”

“Hah,” Panzer wheezes, “Hah hah hah! You don’t know nuthin’! You’re a newbie Level One!” He actually doubles over and I gnash my teeth. The hell is with this game?!

“Today’s the day then,” Panzer slams his knuckles together, “Looks like I can finally score an ea~sy kill!”

A leer appears on his face like that of a starving lion, and he lunges right for me!

“Oof!”

From nowhere, a foot connects with my sides and kicks all the wind out of me, knocking me to the ground in one blow. I land in a sticky swamp-

Pshhhhhh

OW! It really stings! My Health Gauge immediately starts dropping at a slow rate, but it could have been freefalling for all it felt like!

“Whew, that actually took some strength!” Panzer exclaims, “You’re heavier than you look, do ya…”

At the couldn’t-care-less tone of that, my blood starts to heat to a boil. So this is how it feels like to be knocked down. This is how the poor guys in my class feel like to bite the dust when the bullies get them, is it-?!

CLANG.

Not satisfied with me on the ground, Panzer drives a foot into my gut with his full strength, making me curl up in pain. “Stay down there if you know what’s good for ya’self then. I don’t need no more losses today!”

Each kick from Panzer brings down my Health Gauge bit by bit. Is this how Misawa felt too, when she was being hammered by Nozomi yesterday? Did she feel such despair in her heart too, when she couldn’t save herself?

Feebly attempting to slap away Panzer’s foot, I swat at him- only for his kick to change direction and make its introduction to my chin! It snaps my head back and pushes me deeper into the swamp.

This is a fighting game, the thought echoes in my empty brain, he knows this better than I do. He knows what he wants, but I…I’m just lost.

“If you want points…just take them!” I put my hands up in surrender, “I never wanted to play this game!”

Something about what I said stops Panzer dead in his tracks. “Are you serious? You just gonna throw the match like that?”

I don’t know what he means by ‘throw the match‘, but I can make an inference. “Yes, throw the match, kick the bucket, whatever!” I let my hands drop back into the sticky, smelly swamp. “I’m so uninstalling this game later-”

And then Panzer grabs me and hauls my deadweight hulk out of the swamp, and brings his face within an millimetre of mine-

“No,” he practically spits in my face, “No, you don’t do no such thing! Brain Burst, «Acceleration», all the friends you can have in «Accelerated World», you’ll be missing out on so much!”

With all the ease of a wrestler carrying a sack of potatoes, Panzer turns; hurls me against a tree with a solid WHUMP.

“You! Stand up and fight, man! Wantin’ mah Points is one thing, but I can’t enjoy this if you just treat yourself like a human punching bag! C’mon! Bring your hands up! Defend yourself!”

The complete turnaround in his tone and attitude is…what? Wasn’t he so eager to bring me down no matter what?

And, ‘defend myself.’ Do I really feel like doing that anymore? Is it even worth the trouble? What if I just Link Out, and let Apple Panzer go find some other guy to pick on? I’ve got enough things to do already as it is…

“DURO!”

From high above, a very familiar voice screams.

“FIGHT HIM!”

Among the sickly green forest canopy, I finally spot her. Shaking her little red fist in the air, she’s hanging from a tree branch with just on hand to observe me. But it’s clearly the thing farthest from her mind now.

-You want me to fight, I think numbly. You want me to play along.

“..Fine then.” I raise my hands slowly-

Panzer’s right fist connects with my jaw!

“Damn straight you wanna! C’mon! Show me how you get some!”

Feeling like my jaw is shattered into pieces with that blow, I blink furiously and see I’m in the swamp again, not-so-imaginary stars swirling in my vision. A warning tone discharges and my Health Gauge turns yellow: it’s less than 50% now, while Panzer’s is still full. The swamp is biting me again, but now my mind is clear:

I’ve got to beat this guy. I’ve got to beat this guy.

Twisting, I see Panzer advancing, bringing his foot up, preparing to stomp. More out of instinct than anything, I throw my arm up to shield myself and call out the first thing that comes to mind-

“-‘Reserve Armour-!'”

CLANG.

Without realising it, I had closed my eyes; slowly easing them open, I soon realised I wasn’t any deeper in the swamp than I already was- and my entire arm had turned silver.

No, that’s not right. My arms are now covered in highly polished armour plates, covering the original blue-green armour with additional protection. The design of each plate, though angular and thick in places, gives off an aura of assurance. And despite the weight that this much armour should add on to my arm…it feels oddly light.

As though this is armour I’m always supposed to have.

Oohs and Ahhs echo throughout the Gallery Members high above our heads, and Panzer, though taken aback, nods. “Finally found the fighting spirit, have ya…?”

“I don’t know if this is it, really…” Flexing my wrist and fingers, I watch as the armour moves in perfect synchronisation to my movements, exposing only the tiniest of weak spots.

“Well, c’mon! Show me what’cha got!” Panzer steps back and gestures in a come-hither motion. I heave myself out of the swamp and my Health Gauge ceases its slow descent. The two of us lock eyes for a moment, waiting for the other to blink-

Panzer charges, and just as before, he feints with a punch and instead brings up his leg to kick! This time, I block his kick with my armoured right hand- and the satisfying CRUNCH the results soon after tells me that he’s injured his foot!

“What the hell is with that armour!” Panzer angrily hops on one foot, “It’s like kicking a brick wall!”

While he rants angrily in a more natural voice, it’s the fact that he’s hopping around on one foot that’s got my full attention. I charge forward, thrusting my fist forwards-

“ARGH!”

It’s very satisfying to knock him back like that! Adrenaline enters my veins and urges me to keep going on; Panzer’s Health Gauge still shines three-quarters full, beckoning me to empty it.

Rising from the swamp, Panzer spits out something that probably used to be a plant. “Son of a…”

WHAM.

The armour on my hand deals massive damage with every hit, so I keep on using my fists to attack. Knocking him back into the swamp, Panzer blindly counters; I effortlessly dodge the hit and hit him – WHAM – and again – WHAM – and again!

“NO!”

With sudden force, Panzer drives sharply up and buries his fist into my gut, knocking the breath out of my lungs itself and pushing me back. With his Health deep in the red zone, his eyes blaze with pure fury as he clambers his way out of the swamp.

“I’ll kill you,” he seethes, “I’ll rip the living daylights from you, I swear-”

I bury my left fist in his neck, cutting off the rest of his tirade with a gurgle and his choking reflex.

“Finish him!” “Do it, newbie!”

Catcalls and jeers rain from the watching Spectators. Should I heed them? Panzer, a pitiful heap on the ground, clutches at his throat, trying to speak what he can’t voice. I think I must’ve hit his throat too hard or something, so I just seize him by his chest armour and haul him into a sitting position – and decapitate him with a single kick. Caught up in the heat of the moment, I don’t even stop to think about it.

YOU WIN!

No, I didn’t win. I just did what Misawa told me to do.

The Girl in Red: Kitamura Misawa

赤い彼女:北村美沢

The match finishes at this point. Gunsou’s Points rise from 99 to 119; Panzer’s Burst Points drops to a dangerously low 20.

The entire Spectator Gallery had watched the rest of the fight in an excited buzz. All around were busy players checking out Gunsou’s Avatar, some huddling in furtive discussion, or simply leaving the duel early.

“God…” A pink female avatar covers her mouth with her hands, “That’s terrible! That’s Panzer’s seventh straight loss!”

“Not just that,” A purple player growls. “This new guy, Turquoise Duro…he’s taking this way too hard on himself. That bit at the end, that was just Duro straight out venting his anger, he was bullying Panzer right there!”

“Didn’t that red avatar egg him on?”

And now someone just has to mention me. Great.

“Wel-Well, that wasn’t fair, I mean! Panzer just wanted Burst Points from Duro, right? Look at how he was being beaten up earlier! What’s the difference?”

“C’mon. It’s just a game, girl,” the purple Avatar spits on the tree. “You win some, you lose some. You’d go crazy trying to win every fight.”

“Hey, Red Girl. Are you his Parent or something? You seemed real concerned about him…” the yellow Avatar frowns for a moment, “…Cul Artillery.”

I can feel every eye upon me, waiting for my answer. “N-No. But I’m close to Duro. Very close.”

“Must be childhood friends then,” Yellow Guy nods. “Talk some sense into him, will ‘ya? He’ll spoil all the fun if he fights like that, right?”

As every Spectator nods in agreement, all I can do is smile nervously. “Uh…okay! Yeah, sure!”

Acceleration cancels out just after I close the Results screen, returning me to the real world.

The Tired Boy: Kihara Gunsou

疲れ果て彼:木原群壮

I feel really bad now. After that sudden burst of…whatever, I now feel completely drained, and it has nothing to do with getting up in the early morning.

“Cheer up, man. You did good, hehe!” Misawa chuckles nervously.

Look at her. She’s scared of me now. Is this what I really want to achieve in the end?

“I’m sorry,” I mumble, more to myself than to her, “I shouldn’t have scared you like that.”

“No, no, it’s okay!” Misawa frantically tries to defuse the tension. “You fought really well, and in fact, much better than I did for my first fight!”

“…Fine then.”

I know Misawa feels kind of bad, but I don’t blame her, I blame myself. For venting my anger so unreservedly, not encouraging her like she just did to me, I blame nobody but myself. A dead silence settles comfortably between us…

…and I sit bolt upright. Something’s not right here!

“Misawa,” trying to keep my voice even, I ask her softly, “How long did my Duel with Apple Panzer last?”

“Eh? Um…let’s see,” Misawa says. “1800, minus 1082, 718, divided by sixty…”

She looks up at me with a concerned expression. “About twelve minutes. Why do you ask?”

I work the time backwards; it doesn’t add up at all! “We should be reaching our last stop soon, but,” I gesture at the shopping mall that we’ve just passed, “This stop is just five stops from where we got on! We shouldn’t be only halfway through our bus journey!”

“Relax,” Misawa urges, “Everything’s fine!”

“What? How?”

“Because whenever you Duel, you have to «Accelerate»,” Misawa explains, “Your mind speeds up by a thousand times, so in your perception, everything else slows down to a thousandth of its normal speed.”

There’s no other explanation that can explain it. I don’t quite believe it, but…

“Are you…serious?” I whisper, “Is this…what Brain Burst is really about?”

Misawa looks me dead in the eyes. “Yes.”

Mikiseki’s words come back to haunt me: You’ve got all the time in the world, Gunsou.

Holy mother of…gosh. So that’s what she means!

 

Notes:

For the curious, here’s how Apple Panzer looks like.

I really wanted to find an illustration for Cul Artillery / Misawa’s duel avatar before I uploaded this, but sadly was unable to find any suitable picture.

If anyone out there knows, I’m looking for a slim red female mecha DA, with no visible weapons (save for a holstered pistol). Preferably bright red, (#ff0033) and a simple design.

I’d even ask some talented fella on DT to do it if I’m desperate enough.

Til the next chapter!

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6 thoughts on “03: The first fight is the toughest

  1. Thanks again for writing this. It’s a great book so far.

    Is Tatesuke Ichijo Green-Grande’s real name in the original novels or did you just guess? (If it is don’t tell me where it says it. I haven’t got there in the novels yet cause I can’t read Jappenese)

    • Nope, it’s a name I created myself. All the characters in Mirishira Accel World are original characters and don’t appear in the original story; the story itself is in the same setting without Kawahara’s characters.

  2. Hi, Tusjecht, really enjoying your fanfic! I know this a while after you’ve posted this, but if you’re still looking for someone, I’d be happy to do illustration for you. Consider it my way of expressing my appreciation for all your hard work translating.

      • I don’t have much of a portfolio at the moment. I’ve only very recently gotten set up to post work online. However, I did do a quick sketch in between my classes this morning to give you a rough idea of my skills. It’s just a quick rendering of Cul Artillery and her AP gun put together from all your descriptions of her. Normally I would import this into an art program and digitally ink it and color it, but this is only meant to be a quick demonstrator of quality. Here’s a link to it: http://www.deviantart.com/art/Character-Test-526723064 and if you’re at all interested you can check out my one other post to DA (massive collection, I know) for another example of what I do.

      • Hey Tusjecht,

        It’s been a while so I figured I should check in. I sent you an email address via Deviantart that you can contact me directly with (easier than working with comments, I wager). I’ve got some other rough character sketches I’ve worked up in the meantime, too.

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