Chapter 3

“School, interrupted”

“Ran-chan, wake up or you’ll be late!”

Ran struggled under the pile of sheets and blankets, until she finally found an opening to get her head out and breathe.

“Uwaaa? Mom?” She asked in a sleepy voice, blinking repeatedly as she unsuccessfully tried to explore her surroundings with her eyes. The door to her room opened, and Miya poked her head in.

“School’s open again, come on!”

Ran continued blinking in the dim light, unsure whether to believe it was all real or accept it as a dream. While she was trying to make up her mind, her mother flicked the light in the room on.

“Auugh! Mooooom!” She complained, shielding her eyes.

“Deary me, you can’t be in bed all day, come on!”

“Okay, okay, I’m going! Really now…”

She was still terribly sleepy when she was pushed out of the house. Yawning, she looked at the dome and her eyes opened wide for the first time since she had been so rudely kicked out of her bed.

“Wow, they’ve covered the hole already!”

A large camouflage canvas was covering the best part of the missing portion of the dome. Seeing the opening, the memories of the night before came flooding back, with all the chasing after giant alien scout insects. According to Nereida Aegea, they were probably looking for the two missing mecha they had destroyed, together with most of the school building, and it was quite important to destroy each and every one of them until the dome was safely sealed again.

“Oi!”

Distractedly, Ran looked down towards the direction of the voice, and suddenly something hit her smack on her forehead.

“Awuuuuu!” She crouched with her hands to her face.

“Tsk, you really are hopeless.”

Opening one eye, she saw Kitteh standing in front of her and with a flat look of disappointment on his face.

“What was that? Really now…”

“What did I tell you about the branch?”

“Oh!”

She forgot completely about the pain when she saw the branch of Mistikos vine on the ground in front of her. That was what had hit her on the head, excellent aim for a cat!

“But I’m just going to school!”

“Doesn’t matter, now that you have this power, you never know when the enemy may strike!”

“Haaaaai,” she sighed, placing the branch inside her school bag; she suddenly stopped and looked at Kitteh, “wait a minute, why would enemies attack just because I have this?”

“Why do you think that giant mecha was trying to catch me the other day? The aliens have realized the power of Gaia has awakened, so they’re trying to squash it before it becomes dangerous. Probably.”

“Probably? What kind of… Uh, wait… Does that mean you attract the aliens?”

“Not really. At very close range they realize what I am I bet, or they merely notice something odd, but other than that…”

“Then why would enemies-”

“Because they’re on the prowl!”

“Eep! Okay!”

That cat can look scary when he wants to!

Ran sighed and, saying goodbye to Kitteh, resumed her march towards school. She met with Sugi shortly before arrival and they entered the school together. It was not nearly as bad as she remembered; much of the rubble had been cleared away, although it was piled up on one side of the courtyard and one wing of the building was clearly closed for traffic.

“Wow, what a mess!” Sugi said.

“Yeah, really. Still, it was much worse when-” Ran suddenly realized what she was saying, and changed track mid-sentence, “you know, when the whole battle happened.”

“I can see why you had such a hard time. Well, if you can’t remember, it can’t be helped,” Sugi suddenly grabbed Ran’s hand, “I’m just glad you’re okay.”

When they entered the lobby, they noticed a commotion around one of the noticeboards.

“Ran-chan! Sugi-chan!”

“Oh Nagataka-kun!” Sugi waved, “hi there!”

“Come, the results of the last exams have been posted!”

“Meep,” Ran said, paling slightly.

“What’s wrong Ran-chan?” Sugi asked her friend.

“Well, you know, I really flunked the Maths exam.”

“Ah don’t be like that, it can’t be that bad!”

Slowly they made their way to the board. The list was pretty lengthy, so it took a while for them to find their names.

“Yay! Thirty-three!” Sugi cheered, “not bad! And what about you, Ran-chan?”

“Ah! Erm… Well…”

“Right here,” Nagataka pointed at a spot near the centre.

“Fifty-one,” Ran sighed in relief, “whew. It could have been a lot worse.”

She kept scanning the board, until Nagataka interrupted her.

“Who’re you looking for?”

“Ah! No, erm, well, I was wondering how Nagataka-kun did, and, well,” she blushed slightly, but Nagataka simply smiled and pointed up.

“SEVENTH?!” Ran and Sugi exclaimed in perfect Stereo.

“Yeah,” he said with a smile, looking at the top of the list where his name was.

Ran looked at Nagataka and, for a second or two, she couldn’t see or hear anything else. She was smiling, with wide eyes and a slight blush on her cheeks.

Wow, he’s so amazing!

“That’s amazing, Nagataka-kun!” Sugi cheered him.

“I suppose it’s good. It’s not like I have anything else to do when I get home after school, so other than study…”

Oh that’s right. His dad is out a lot with the military, and his mom… It’s worse for Sugi-chan, she lost both her parents.

Ran looked around as she thought of that; a few of the kids she knew had lost family, and she suddenly felt very lucky for having such great parents. And a bit guilty too.

“Naga-” she started speaking with a very soft voice, but was interrupted by a more energetic one.

“Aaah, so you’re an egghead after all!”

They all turned around, and Ran quickly identified the feminine voice that had dared besmirch Nagataka’s results. She was a tall and slender girl, not much in the form of breasts or curves, with very short black hair and brown eyes set over high cheekbones and a pleasant oval face, and an almost boyish look. The fact that she was exceptionally fit helped with the latter, too. And next to her, a similarly fit girl, about two inches shorter and perhaps more curvaceous, but not by much; her brown hair was collected in a short ponytail and her blue eyes were slightly down turned over a pointy nose and a very pleasant heart shaped face. Ran always thought she was very cute, despite being one of the tomboys of the sports teams.

“Etsuko-san!” Sugi called, looking at the first, and then turned to the second, “Tamako-san!”

“Yo!” Etsuko answered, smirking.

“I presume you didn’t do as well then?” Nagataka asked, wearing a smirk of his own.

“Ah shut up, we’re too busy to study you know,” Etsuko replied.

Ran looked at the list trying to find their names, until Etsuko pointed them out near the bottom of it. Side by side, they had the exact same terrible score.

“Etsuko-san, you should really study harder,” Sugi said.

“Hmph! Doesn’t matter!” Etsuko replied dismissively, striking a pose and raising her hand with two fingers up in a victory sign, “4:20!” She called enthusiastically.

An awkward silence set, until Nagataka broke it.

“You’re doing drugs now?”

“What?!” Etsuko asked in a mixture of surprise and anger, and Tamako suddenly started laughing heartily at her friend’s annoyance, “Tamako!”

“But… But… Hahahaha! Four-twenty! High…” Tamako couldn’t finish the phrase or stop laughing.

“Why you little,” she threatened Tamako with a clenched fist, and then turned to Nagataka, “four twenty! Fifteen hundred meters in four minutes twenty seconds! I’ve broken the school’s record! Hah!”

You ignorant twat!

Etsuko struck the kind of pose one would expect from an over-the-top adventure film. Top of a cliff with waves crashing on the background, celestial music, the works. Tamako half-knelt next to her friend and pointed upwards towards her as if in praise and admiration, adding to the effect and giggling all the while as she usually did.

“Really now,” Ran sighed; she suddenly realized something, and looked behind Tamako and Etsuko, “ara, I didn’t see you there, hello Sumire-san!”

“H… Hi…”

The girl was hiding behind Tamako, and only moved slightly before waved timidly at Ran. She had flat black hair around a cute round face, brown eyes hidden behind thin but voluminous glasses, and a permanent downcast demeanour, as if she was trying to hide underground. She was barely five feet tall, by far the shortest of the bunch.

“We are all late bloomers in my family,” she had remarked before.

“I bet you did a lot better than these two,” Nagataka prodded, making Sugi giggle and the short haired sportsgirl give him an evil eye.

“Well… I… Well…” Sumire stammered.

“Aaah, of course she did great,” Etsuko said, and once again pointed dramatically, this time at the top of the list, “look!”

Number three.

“Wow, that’s really, really cool Sumire-chan!” Ran said in admiration, making Sumire bury her face on Tamako’s back.

“Yeah, yeah, our Sumire is really great,” Tamako said with a big, amused smile, forcing the girl to come forward and patting her head kindly, “she has to, who’d we copy our homework from otherwise?”

“Not mister Egghead here, I bet,” Etsuko said.

“Pfff, and you suppose I’d let you? Hah,” Nagataka retorted.

“Hah hah! We don’t need it!” Etsuko replied, poking her tongue out, and getting the same back from Nagataka.

“Come on now,” Sugi called, giggling, “it can’t be helped, let’s just agree Sumire-san is great.”

“That I agree with,” Nagataka said solemnly, to the enthusiastic cheers of the rest of the girls.

All except Sumire, who was turning crimson red.

“Oh yeah,” Ran interrupted, as she thought of something else, “who’s number one?”

They all looked at the huge list. With almost perfect score, it was…

“Fujihara Isamu, again,” Sugi said.

Ran found her in the crowd, looking at the list with a calm expression. She was a very quiet girl, rather tall and modest demeanour, with flat black hair almost neck length and a narrow heart shaped face. Her eyes were wide and brown, very penetrating, and her slightly sharp features always gave her an air of calm and serenity.

She’s such a cold girl.

Ran remembered that almost every time she had interacted with the girl, she had always been polite, but cold and distant. She couldn’t remember her having any friends at all. Or smile. She turned around, and noticed that Nagataka’s eyes were fixed on Isamu too. She looked back, looked at Nagataka again, and felt something cold setting in her stomach. It was worse than fear, it was panic.

Nagataka-kun… Don’t tell me… The way you’re looking at her…

“Okay everyone, that’s enough, class is about to start,” a feminine voice interrupted, clapping her hands.

“Kokawa-sensei!”

Her presence, as usual, caused quite a stir. She moved in the midst of the students, who opened a circle around her until she stopped in front of the notice board.

“That wing of the building is closed, so for the time being we’re relocating some of the classes. Check on the board here,” she pointed at a large notice with a very elaborate table of names on it, “and find out where your temporary classroom will be. Everyone needs to check because some of the smaller classes have been relocated even if they were not in the damaged building. Everyone got it?”

The answer seemed positive, with the students gathering around the board and scattering towards their respective classrooms.

“Shimizu-chan.”

“Eh… Yes! Kokawa-sensei!” Ran replied, standing to attention.

She was looking at Hoshiko with a slightly confused, and obviously worried look. There were many things going through her head, about the fights, about the fact that her teacher seemed to have powers like herself, and more importantly about Nagataka looking at that other girl.

Hoshiko smiled, and then pointed at her name on the results board.

“If you want to get better grades, you’ll have to work hard here at school. Go check your classroom and don’t be late, got it?”

Her voice was strangely comforting, familiar even. Ran, for just an instant, saw her in her Nereida Aegea costume.

I guess we do share something.

Ran smiled, nodded, and left to find her classroom.

It turned out to be half a classroom, shared with a class one grade above them. There were some hastily built partitions running through the middle of the room, and they only had half a blackboard to work on. It was rather cramped too. She arrived late, and took a seat at the back of the class since most everyone else had already found a new spot.

She was shocked when she saw Nagataka sitting next to Isamu. They seemed to be talking too, and while she seemed just as unemotional as she always looked, he was…

He’s smiling. Why… No, what am I thinking. Nagataka-kun is just… But I… Am I jealous? What for?

She was so distracted by these thoughts that she was almost jolted out of the chair when someone tapped her shoulder.

“Aaah! Sorry! I’m sorry!”

After the first surprise, Ran recognized the girl who was apologizing to her.

“Ara, Ayame-chan, you startled me!”

The girl was tall and very lean, with light brown hair held in two small pigtails on the sides, held in place with several small light green beaded hair bands each, with mischievous looking almond shaped brown eyes. She had a round, almost childlike face which always seemed to be happy.

“I’m sorry, Shimizu-sama!”

“Really now, you always sound so polite, makes me feel bad every time I use your first name, maybe…”

“No no no, that’s okay,” she blushed slightly and looked down to her hands, which were fidgeting with a hair band, “I… I don’t mind… He he he. I’m younger than everyone here after all.”

Ran smiled.

“Really, the things that happen to you are quite amazing, being put one year ahead of schedule due to a mix up in the paperwork, and nobody noticing for years. So, what’s up?”

“Oh, of course! Shimizu-sama, is it okay if… um… can I sit next to you?”

“Sure. I guess we both were too late to get any good seats,” she sighed, “really now, I won’t be able to hear anything from back here.”

“Ah, hahaha, yeah.”

Ayame noticed that Ran had turned and was looking at the front of the class again, and on following her eyes she realized they were fixed on Isamu. She looked at Ran and Isamu for a few seconds with wide, attentive eyes. Her expression betrayed the fact that the gears in her head were working full time.

It was hard to concentrate on the classes. Ran was constantly distracted looking at Nagataka and Isamu, and being separated from a completely different class by what amounted to little more than a wet paper curtain didn’t help her mood. By the time lunchtime arrived she was feeling very much down.

“Shimizu-sama…”

“Whaaaaaat,” Ran answered in a dispirited voice.

“Ah! No, noth… Well, I… Did you bring lunch with you?”

Ran had put her head face down on the desk, so she rolled her head to the side and looked at Ayame. She was holding a lunch box wrapped in an old white furoshiki with a red flowery design.

“Eh, hehe, yes,” she replied, and suddenly felt a lot more cheerful; she lifted the desk’s top and got a box wrapped in a plain white furoshiki, “here it is! Want to eat together, Ayame-chan?”

If moods could be made reality, Ayame would have been sparkling under a beam of light from the heavens after the question. She blushed slightly with a wide smile in her face before nodding vigorously.

“Ran-chan!” Someone else called.

“Ah, Sugi-chan?”

“Want to come outside for lunch?”

“Really… Don’t tell me you want to look at the disaster area outside?”

“Eh-hehehe,” Sugi giggled, “it can’t be helped, I’m a curious person!”

Ran sighed, but kept her smile on her face.

“Sure, sure. So, let’s go Ayame-chan.”

“Of course!” ^_^

It was a beautiful day under the dome, even though the sky just above the school was covered in the huge camouflage canvas, and due to that a good half of the school was in a deeper shadow than usual. The girls found a suitable spot on the brighter parts of the deeply green grass and sat down for lunch.

“You know, I find it amazing that we actually have grass down here!” Sugi commented as she unwrapped her lunch box.

“Really… I guess you’re right, I never stopped to think about it. There isn’t much light here so…”

“I know it, I know it!” Ayame called enthusiastically, “it’s genetically modified grass!”

“Really?”

“Uh-huh! When they designed the domes they created several plants for different conditions, the Mistikos vine is actually a variant of Vanilla planifolia, the vanilla plant! It actually grows all over the dome thanks to several pockets of soil, or it couldn’t cover the huge dome ever! And the grass is called Festuca, and it was originally a very rough grass that grew in cold countries, and…”

Ayame suddenly realized Ran and Sugi were looking at her with big eyes and obvious surprise.

“And… and… eh-hehehe, I guess I got carried away a bit,” she blushed slightly while she fidgeted with one of her pigtails.

“That’s amazing, Ayame-chan!” Ran said, “you really know a lot, don’t you?”

Ayame could only laugh and scratch the back of her head, obviously embarrassed about the praise but enjoying it nevertheless.

“So this is vanilla then?” Ran asked as she sniffed her piece of vine.

“Aaaaah! Amazing, Shimizu-sama! You have a piece of Mistikos vine!”

“Oh? Eh-hehehe!”

What the hell was I thinking? Really now, why do I keep forgetting!

“Can I see it? Oooh it’s pretty. And it’s still green, do you keep it in water? Did you get it during the fight? Can I? Can I?”

Before Ran could react, Ayame grabbed the branch and started looking at it like a dog who suddenly found a squirrel.

Eeep! I hope nothing weird happens!

Ran started to breathe more easily when she realized her fears were unfounded. Luckily, she didn’t have to spend any time trying to answer Ayame’s questions, she fired them at full speed and seemingly didn’t expect an answer as long as she had something new to talk about afterwards.

With half the courtyard closed off for repairs, or being occupied by rubble, the recess was a lot busier than usual. Ayame noticed Isamu wandering around carrying her lunch box and, after looking at Ran for a few seconds, nodded to herself and called her.

“Fujihara-sama!”

Ran suddenly looked up at Ayame with a petrified look. Ayame interpreted that as a good sign, and waved at the girl.

“Come sit with us!”

If Isamu had reservations, she didn’t quite showed it. She did stop to look for the person calling her and, upon seeing Ayame waving, took a couple of seconds before walking towards them, without changing her expression one bit.

“Ayame-chan! Why did you tell her to sit with us?”

“Of course I did!”

That’s not what I asked!

Isamu arrived and, with a polite but non-committal “thanks” put the lunch box down and sat down with the rest. Ran was looking at Isamu with wide open eyes, and Ayane turned to her, smiled, and unwrapped her lunchbox.

What’s the girl thinking? Really now…

Ran sighed and resumed her meal.

“Say, Fujihara-sama, have you seen all that?” Ayane asked, pointing at the rubble with her chopsticks.

“Obviously, I’m not blind.”

“Amazing isn’t it?” She continued undeterred, “and scary too of course! They didn’t show much on the news, but they said some terrible alien monsters were attacking! Isn’t that right, Shimizu-sama?”

Ran suddenly tried to gulp in surprise, and the food almost went down the wrong way.

“Y-” She stopped to cough again, and then continued, “yes, very scary.”

“Eeeek, I wish I had been here to see it! But you’re amazing Shimizu-sama! I bet you went out there and kicked their butts too, pam! Wham!”

Once again, Ran almost chocked on her food, this time requiring Sugi to help her with a well placed hit on the back.

“Say, say, what were the monsters like anyway? Ah… Fujihara-sama? Aren’t you curious?”

“Not really,” Isamu talked calmly, then munched another piece of food and wiped her mouth, “I’d rather think of never seeing one of those again,” she looked up at Ran, “you’re lucky to have escaped unharmed.”

Foolish girl.

She didn’t actually say it, and Ran couldn’t quite be certain whether she had thought it, but her tone of voice almost made her hear it. However, she managed to control herself without snapping back.

“Yes, yes, I was. I wouldn’t want to repeat it! Really!”

“But, but, but… Buuuut!” Ayame put down her lunch and started flailing her arms around as she spoke, “but we still haven’t heard what you saw or how the battle went or anything at all Shimizu-sama! And… Watch out!”

From her kneeling position, Ayame quickly stood and jumped in front of Ran, stretching her arms protectively as she did. A football hit her on the shoulder and bounced away, and she fell face down on the grass.

“Ayame-chan!”

She rolled on the grass and looked at Ran, grinning. She had dirt and little bits of grass all over her face, but seemed unreasonably happy.

“Oooooi!” A familiar voice called, “are you okay?”

“Nagataka-kun! Really now!” Ran responded, as Nagataka ran towards them, “you should be more careful, you know!”

“I suppose so…”

He scratched his head uncomfortably as he talked and looked at the girls. His eyes lingered for an instant too long on Isamu, for Ran’s tastes anyway.

“I’m sorry, but there isn’t much room for us to play far enough.”

“Eh, hehehe.” Ayame giggled, “it’s okay, thank you Kokawa-sama.”

“Ah, not you too, just call me Nagataka, I’m sick of people making fun of me and Kokawa-sensei. And why are you so happy anyway?” Nagataka asked, but as he was obviously not going to get a response, he decided to shuffle along, “well, if you’re okay I better go then, see you after lunch!”

He grabbed the ball and ran back towards the rest of the boys.

“Really now, boys can be so inconsiderate,” Ran said, “hold on a second Ayame-chan, I’ll…”

Ran was searching her pockets for something, but immediately stopped when she noticed Isamu offering her a handkerchief.

“Oh… Thank you, Fujihara-san.”

She merely nodded in response. Ran took the handkerchief, and with a bit of water from her flask, proceeded to clean up Ayame’s face. She made a few noises of complaint, but in a small and playful voice, not meant to be taken seriously.

“Right, there you are. Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Of course! Thank you, Shimizu-sama,” she turned to Isamu, “Fujihara-sama.”

This is going quite well! Ayame thought. Shimizu-sama, kyaaaaa!

“What’s wrong?” Ran asked.

Without realizing it, Ayame had suddenly started flapping her arms around while blushing.

“Eh-hehe, nothing, nothing.”

Ran thought the rest of the day would be a return to her normal school life, but that only lasted until the last period, when she had a sense of deja-vu.

“Shimizu-chan, please stay after class.”

“Eh? Kokawa-sensei…”

Not again….

She resigned herself to her fate, and let the Maths lesson pass without raising a ruckus about it. When the classes ended, Hoshiko motioned for Ran to follow, and led her into the teachers’ office.

“Ran-chan, have a seat.”

“Y… yes.”

She looked at the girl for a few seconds, and then sighed.

“You know what this is about, right?”

“Well, em… We haven’t really talked after yesterday but… I suppose…”

Suddenly, Hoshiko took a paper from the table and showed it to Ran. She looked at it and her expression quickly changed to one of shock.

“Twenty-five out of a hundred! This is pathetic, Ran-chan! How could you possibly flunk such an easy exam so badly?!”

“Aaaaah! I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”

“Really now…” Hoshiko sighed.

“Well, I-” Ran stopped talking and opened her eyes with sudden realization, “what do you mean easy?”

“Exactly that. I don’t know what your previous teacher was thinking, but don’t think I’ll go easy on you kids.”

Ran looked at Hoshiko, and for a moment she thought sensei was enjoying that a little bit too much.

“Okay, let’s go over the questions and see why you did so badly.”

“Aaaah. Really now, all of it?”

“Young lady, you better make an effort and be grateful I’m helping you.”

“Yeeees,” Ran replied, and sighed.

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