Chapter 63

“Welcome home”

It had been… She didn’t know how long it had been since the last time she felt happy about going to school. The alert had been lifted, and so had been her grounding. She didn’t even mind the cold breakfast.

“Ran,” Miya called, taking her daughter’s attention from her finished breakfast. “When you go, can you tell Mori-san about this?”

She gestured at the kitchen counter. The stove had been taken apart, several pipes were in the sink, and Taizo had squeezed under the whole lot. He was muttering imprecations as he worked, something along the lines of shoddy design and useless builders.

It wasn’t the first time it happened. The entire building… The entire city needed constant repairs and rebuilding, and as the abandoned buildings at the periphery showed, were always just a couple of steps away from total ruin.

“Sure mom,” Ran replied.

After making a quick job of piling leftovers, dirty plates, and cutlery separately on the table, she left with an enthusiastic “bye!” and a spring in her step. Sugi was already coming down the street, And Ran waved at her vigorously before storming down the stairs. She only stopped for a quick explanation to the building manager about their kitchen woes, and went outside to wait for her best friend to catch up.

“Ran-chan! Good morning!” Sugi said. “How are you? It’s been a while!”

“Freedom!” Ran replied, shouting while raising her arms. “At last!”

“Tee-hee, you poor thing.”

“Ah, it’s great. Really now, what am I going to do? I’m going to get grounded a lot if I have to sneak out during alarms.”

“Why don’t you just tell your parents?”

“What? No way!” Ran said without even thinking. “I can’t tell them!”

“Why not?”

“It’s bad enough! Imagine how worried they’d be. Or get them in trouble if the military…”

Sugi looked at Ran, clearly unconvinced, which flustered the pink-haired girl even more.

“You did tell me…” Sugi said, and looked away. “It can’t be helped, I guess Ran-chan doesn’t mind putting me in danger.”

“What? No way! Sugi-chan! I-”

Ran’s tirade was interrupted by Sugi’s giggle. She looked at her flustered friend, and patted her head affectionately. “It can’t be helped, if you don’t want to tell them then you don’t want to tell them!”

“Sugi-chaaaan,” Ran complained.

They walked up the street as they talked, and stopped at the top of the hill overlooking the farms.

“Ah, it’s so nice,” Ran said. “The city looks so gloomy and dark.”

“Eh? It looks the same as always?” Sugi replied, somewhat surprised.

“I guess… Really now, it’s just that outside it’s so bright, and… You know,” Ran continued, pulling her magical branch out, “the Mistikos vine is really nice, it has really pretty flowers too. It’s really thick on the dome.”

“Hmmm, that sounds nice.”

Ran looked at Sugi as they walked, and noticed she was just looking down with a less than cheerful expression.

Right, that was silly of me! Really now, you idiot Ran. Outside was no fun for Sugi!

“But it’s a lot safer down here, isn’t it?” Ran said, trying to cheer Sugi up. “And I’ll keep it that way!”

“I guess…”

They made it to school with time to spare, and Ran was surprised to see Nagataka waiting by the gate. He looked like he had been through some rough times, with several visible scratches and a bandage around his left forearm.

“Nagataka-kun!” Ran called, rushing towards him. “What happened?!”

“Good morning,” Nagataka replied nonchalantly. “Not much, just a bit of a scuffle. Everything’s fine.”

“Fine? Really now, how come I didn’t hear about this?”

“You were grounded,” Nagataka said, smiling. “Good morning Sugi-chan.”

“Good morning! Are you okay?”

“I suppose it looks a bit bad. I’m fine and dandy.”

Ran made to walk in, and Sugi was about to follow, but Nagataka didn’t move from his spot, looking down the street as if he was waiting for something. He crossed his arms, and leaned back on the wall.

“Nagataka-kun?” Ran called. “Are you coming?”

“Ah, no I’m… oh there she is.”

Nagataka waved, and Ran saw Reiko walking up the street waving back at him. She didn’t recognize the blonde girl, or the younger one she was leading by the hand. Moreover, she didn’t look all that familiar at all. Ran looked at Sugi, and the latter just shrugged back.

“Kokawa-san! Good morning! It’s so nice to see you!” Reiko said as soon as she reached the gate. Akiko didn’t say anything, she waved at him but stayed hidden behind her sister.

“It’s good to see you too. My father told me you were coming in today. How is your cousin?”

Reiko’s expression darkened, but there was a sense of relief to go with it. “The doctors say he’s out of danger now, but…” She shook her head vigorously, and forced herself to smile. “He’ll be fine. Akiko and I will make sure of it.” She reached to her little sister, and mussed the girl’s head, much to her annoyance.

“He’ll be in good hands,” Nagataka said. “It’s good that you came to school.”

“Maybe…” Reiko replied in a hesitant voice. She gave a sideglance to the school building, as if she didn’t know what to make of it.

“Yeah, you’ll see. Getting into the routine will be a good thing.”

Ran and Sugi watched the exchange without saying a word. Akiko made eye contact with Sugi once, but quickly hid herself behind Reiko when Sugi waved at her.

“Anyway. Minami-san, meet Shimizu Ran and Hara Sugi.” Nagataka said, making the introductions.

“Ah! Minami Reiko, it’s a pleasure!” she said, bowing. She reached back and patted Akiko’s head. “And this is Akiko.”

“It’s a pleasure,” Ran said, mimicking her bow.

“Nice to meet you!” Sugi said, doing the same.

“They have just arrived to Dome City,” Nagataka said pointedly.

“Wha- Really?” Sugi exclaimed before Ran could even put a word in. “You did? Oh my goodness, welcome! This is so not like the wasteland, seriously! Just you two? No, your cousin too right? How did you end up here?”

“Ah… I…” Reiko hesitated, unsure where to start answering the barrage of questions.

“Right! What am I saying? This isn’t the time! Come on, I’ll show you around!”

“But- Hara-san! Wait!” Reiko complained, as Sugi grabbed her hand and dragged her along.

Akiko didn’t let go either, and soon the three of them were making a beeline towards the building. Ran and Nagataka watched them depart, and waited until they were well out of earshot before speaking.

“What happened?” Ran said, after casting a glance around to make sure they weren’t any eavesdroppers around.

“Stuff. Went out for some tests, and we found them by accident.”

“Really now, stuff?”

“Yeah, it’s a long story. I suppose we should talk about it later. Speaking of which, have you seen Fujihara-san?”

“Eh? No, I just got here…”

“I meant in general, I haven’t seen her since we got back. She’s not in class.”

“Uh… I was grounded…” Ran said, speaking in a voice barely above a murmur. “Wait, since you got back?”

“Yeah, she came with me when we rescued them,” Nagataka replied, pointing in the direction Sugi, Reiko, and Akiko had left. “I wasn’t sure if she was joking or not, you really were grounded?”

“Yes! What’s so-”

You were grounded? So if aliens attack, am I supposed to tell them to come next week or something?”

“Of course not!” Ran protested, and her annoyance only increased when she saw a small smile drawn on Nagataka’s lips. “I’d do something!”

“Right. I suppose so, but seriously. What do your parents think? I mean, they haven’t noticed yet?”

“No! Well… Really now, at least I hope not.”

“And you haven’t told them either.”

“I’m not telling them!”

Ran’s exasperated reply caught Nagataka by surprise. Whenever he had an exchange like that with Ran, it usually ended up with Ran defusing her own frustrations, but this time she was getting increasingly more agitated.

“But why?” Nagataka asked in a calm voice, trying to soothe Ran’s frustration that way.

She hesitated for a second or two. She tried to speak several times, but thought twice about it and didn’t say anything. Finally, the bell broke the stalemate, calling the students to go to their respective classes.

Ran sighed and, not saying another word, turned around and made for the building.

When they arrived in class, they saw most of the students were pressing tightly around a single desk, with Reiko sitting on the chair and Sugi protectively serving as a chaperone for the new arrival. Most of the students were asking questions about the wasteland and living outside the dome, a topic that fascinated them all. While several of them had come from outside the Dome too, not two people ever had the same life and stories to share when it came to the dangerous outside.

“So how did you find the Dome?” one of the boys, a lanky lad with eyeglasses and ear-length black hair parted in the middle, asked for the second time.

“Just that, the military found us and took us here.”

“But-”

“Ueda-kun,” Sugi interrupted. She didn’t say anything else, but it was enough to stop that line of inquiry on its tracks.

“Did you guys have school like this?” a girl asked.

“Not like this, we wandered a lot so we had to learn… You know, doing things.”

“Wow, that’s going to make things hard for you…”

“Not at all!” another girl said. “The remedial classes here are great! I got some when I arrived, it worked fine!”

Reiko looked at the students talk and smiled politely. They had all given their names, but for the life of her she couldn’t remember. The one that had asked her about school had a pretty face that looked almost like a doll, a bit round, close brown eyes, and such pretty black hair she couldn’t help but admire it. The one that had replied was a boy with messy short brown hair and a big mouth that opened wide every time he laughed. But she couldn’t remember most of the names.

Her wandering eyes caught some movement in the back of the room, and she turned to see Isamu walking in. She couldn’t stop herself gasping, and she immediately looked away in a, to her annoyance, very obvious way.

“What…” Sugi started to ask, but she didn’t bother finish the question when she saw Isamu walk in. “Oh. Fujihara-san!” she called, waving. “We’ve got a new student! Come say hi!”

Isamu looked up slowly, and made her way to the desk with a plodding step. “Fujihara Isamu. Nice to meet you,” she said with a slow voice.

“Ah! R-Reiko… Minami Reiko! It’s a pleasure to see you! I mean, for the first time, yeah! Ahd… Uh…”

Isamu merely bowed, and made her way to her desk, sitting down in a way that could only be described as dropping down.

“Is she sick?” the doll-faced girl said.

“She’s been coming like that a lot recently…”

The murmurs continued, but Sugi didn’t bother with them. “Don’t worry about her. She looks a little scary but she’s a great girl. She’s our number one student!”

“Y-Yes, I see,” Reiko replied. She couldn’t help throwing constant glances at Isamu, but didn’t say another word.

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