Arcadia High School: The New Arrivals

Michael Afton

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Michael honestly felt sorry for the poor bus-ship driver that had to cart his ass around Arcadia every day, especially when it’s later in the day when a high school student like him should actually be in high school. He could sense the frustration underneath the green, apathetic carapace of his bus-ship driver as they sailed up into the air towards a gigantic floating island.


As they grew closer, the massive pristine school that served as its sole building became ever clearer to the eye. Slightly covered by clouds, it looked almost antiquated in style of architecture, with tall towers jutting out into the horizon above a stoic, stubborn castle. Yellow and blue banners showcasing the Arcadian symbol-- A badge with two griffons jutted out from the top and sides of the badge all menacing like-- draped over the walls of the castle school. The sheer height made the place sound quiet in a manner similar to that of pastoral fields, with nary another person or life in sight. It was an isolating feeling that Michael could only experience as agonizing now, for it allowed the thoughts that plagued his to resurface like bloated bodies drowning in rivers. At least the restaurant had music and laughter, but up there, only the chilling wind could break silence.


No one else was around to see him depart from the bus-ship. He gave a solemn nod to the bus-driver, whom only clicked his mandibles in irritation before shutting the curtained door behind him and flying back down to the city below. Michael sighed, adjusted his backpack and suit, and started to walk inside.
 

Paige Turner

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Whispers echoed around Michael as he moved down the middle of the crowded hallway, head buried in his books. Whispers of fear, of anger, and of distrust came from all sides. As he passed by, people took steps back to let him stroll past, silent and alone.

But then, as he raised his head to make sure he was headed the right way to class, his eyes fell upon a door. A few kids down the hall only saw him glaring at the door, unaware of the thoughts which swirled in his mind. as nothing more than a door, really; a locked door, like any other. Yet, of all the locked doors in school, this one had something special, something dreadful, something simply enigmatic about it. It was as if darkness bellowed from within. Even the other students were too afraid to talk about it, or perhaps they simply had not noticed its uniquity. What could possibly be inside?

"That's a little creepy."

Michael flinched. A short distance away from him stood a young woman. Her hair, short and brown, was concealed by an orange ball cap. Two wide orange bracelets adorned her wrists. The skirt she wore reached to her knees, quite long compared to the other girls in school. "Gonna do something with that door, or are you just gonna look at it all day?" she said through a smirk.

Michael, unsure how to respond, found himself glancing toward the door. "Erm... de-depends, I guess," he says. "Why do you... uh, ask?"

She walked over to the door and twisted the knob. She then glared at Michael, hunched over, face devoid of expression. "It's locked."

"That door is, um... it's for staff only," Michael replied, his expression almost sympathetic.

The girl crossed one arm and tipped her hat down with the other, her eyes concealed by the brim and her voice coming to an undertone.
"Perhaps you were planning on breaking in?"

The expression on the boy's face turned to stone, and his whole posture was tensing up. "Well... not really 'break in.' The door is just locked for some reason."

Michael's aquaintance lifted her head, her expression dull yet not particularly harsh. "For some reason... Yeah, that's probably why people lock doors, huh? Name's Paige. Hope I didn't actually freak you out or anything."

"Oh, no, it's just... I wasn't expecting someone to walk up and talk to me like that."

Paige rests her hand on her chin again. "Ah, I see. You're a loner."

"...Yeah." Michael glances to the side, avoiding eye contact.

"For real though, is there any reason why you're interested in this door?"

"I... take it you haven't heard any of the rumors?"

"Nope. New here. Just transferred a week ago, actually."

"Huh." He looked back toward the door, staring at it with a simmering intensity. "Well... it's the door to the Basement. People have noticed... things. They don't say it out loud, but they whisper about it. They say the door is always locked, at least during the day. However, if you stay late at night, you might hear someone banging on the door from inside. Only at night, though. Guess I just got... interested." Michael sighed intensely.
When he looked back at his aquaintance, her smug grin seemed to have become a genuine smile. "That sounds pretty interesting. If you do break in, tell me what you find."

"Wha- no!" The boy raised a hand to his lips to shush her. "I- I can't afford to."

Giving him a suspicious glare, Paige took notice of her surroundings. People down the hall were looking over, and they seemed to be muttering to each other. "I... see. What's your name, by the way?"

"Oh, uh..." He clammed up immediately, taking a step back and sneaking some peaks at the crowd in the distance.

"Others will tell me your name, whether you say it now or not," Paige said in response to his standoffishness. "Might as well put a good foot forward, eh?"
Michael muttered under his breath, "I'm surprised they haven't already... ... ..."

*snap snap*

"Yo, focus. Gonna give me your name or not?"

"Can you- can you not do that?" Michael replied as she snapped her fingers in front of his face. More eyes turned to watch the scene unfold.

Paige sighed heavily. "Whatever, you do you. I'm gonna head to class."

"Oh... okay..."

"Later, man. Keep an eye on that door." The girl gave a single hand-wave goodbye as she walked off toward the crowd. The whispers, originally turned to Michael, now found something new to spread dramatic gospel about. As Paige walked along, she could hear the anxiety and concern fill the room, even though each individual voice could be outspoken by a pin dropping.

"...did she really talk to..."

"...troublemaker, I don't trust..."

"...that girl's got guts..."

Paige simply tipped her hat to every other bystander as she walked to her first class, deep in thought. What an interesting kid. I should get his name.
 

Kurusu Akira

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The teacher's late...

The people around seemed to enjoy the extra time after lunch doing their own thing, mostly talking with each other, judging by the unusual amount of noise in the classroom. The sound of wrapping bags and the overflowing smells of synthetic additives delated that for some, lunchtime wasn't over. For Akira it didn't even start; for some reason, his stomach couldn't fathom swallowing anything, and the annoying smells of food only aggravated the situation.

How much can this people eat?

He checked his phone again: 2:13 PM. Two minutes had passed since the last time he saw it. Was it showing the real time? He did remember synchronizing it last night with the café's TV, but maybe that was a dream? He wasn't sure. Checking it with the next clock he comes across should be another point in his extensive list of "Things to do in order to fit in," alongside borrowing the books the other teachers asked him to catch up, finishing cleaning up the attic that acted as his room, getting to know his new neighborhood, among others.

2:14 PM... Time would pass much faster if the class could start...

The amorphous body of noise who made up his classmates quieted down, prompting Akira to stop ignoring it as a reflex. The door just opened.

Finally, the teacher's here!

Much to Akira's annoyance, it was another student who stepped in the classroom; his face low and darkened by the shade of his cap, his steps limp yet mechanical. He walked towards Akira's seat, and the noise started up again – this time pretending to be unheard.

The guy stopped in front of Akira. He failed to keep eye contact, his tired gaze not daring to lock itself on Akira's unmoved expression.

"This is, uh... my seat," he finally said.

"I'm sorry, but you weren't here when I came" Akira replied, almost interrupting him.

"I... know that, yeah. But, uh... can you move please?"

Akira leaned back to his chair and crossed his arms. "Why?" This guy enters five hours late and demands to have his sit? Who he think he is?

The guy sighs, bringing a hand to his face. "I... like the seat. It helps me concentrate." Faint murmurs sound out from the back of the classroom, followed by short giggles. The guy doesn't take his eyes off of Akira.

"Too bad man. I so happen to like this seat as well."

Their banter was interrupted by someone else entering the classroom – the teacher; a tall white woman, made taller by her high heeled boots. "Apologies for the late arrival," she said, "but there were some important matters I had to attend. Mr. Afton, please take a seat. We have to start class."

The guy cringed; he closed his eyes, the slightest, agonized frown forming on his face. Defeated, he walked behind Akira and sat in the empty seat behind him.

A small smirk of satisfaction appeared on Akira's face. Once the other guy, "Afton," moved away from his sight, the smirk turned into a sigh.

"Today," said the teacher, "we'll be following up on your circuits assignment. Remember that it's due next monday, so don't slack off" She took a glance to the class, and soon her eyes fell to Akira. "You, I haven't seen you here. Are you the new transfer student?"

"Yes," Akira said.

"I hope the others have already informed you of this assignment. Even if you're new here, I won't tolerate anyone falling behind. Join a group and start working, Mr... ?"

"Kurusu."

"Afton, you're working alone. Make a group with Kurusu."

"Yes, Miss..." Afton replied.

Just my luck...

"It's relatively simple. The assignment, I mean," Afton said.

It took Akira a moment, but he managed to turn his body and face his new group partner. "I hope so." He sighed again. "What do we do?"

"Just drawings of various circuits and explanations of how they work." He opened a purple folder, removed a few sheets of paper, and showed them to Akira. They contained the aforementioned drawings, not the most organized work, but it was clear he knew what he was doing. And by the amount of them, it seemed he'd already made a fair amount of progress.

"You seem to be good at this..." What should he do? Just stare at them and let this guy who he just treated like shit do all the work while he takes the credit? Was there something he could do about it?

Why it had to be a fucking group project... ?

Finally, Akira spoke. "You don't mind if I finish this on my own? I wouldn't want to take credit for your work." He could catch up with this, if he spent some time on it.

"Nah, man. It's a group project. We can just finish where I left off," Afton said, as if everything was fine.

Akira tried to avoid facing Afton, glancing at the teacher instead. She seemed to be doing her own thing, not paying attention to the class. The rest of the students were somewhat quiet, but it was clear they were working with their groups for the project. Or at least pretended to.

Accepting defeat, he returned his gaze back to Afton. "Do you have a book about this stuff? Right now, I doubt I'd be much help" Better to do something distracting than pretending to help a guy who was fine alone.

"Oh, yeah. I got the textbook..." He leaned forward to fish it out of his bookbag. He pulled it out and handed it to Akira.

"Thanks."

Finding the topic of the project wasn't hard, with school textbooks written with unoriginal teachers who didn't want to pay attention to the class in mind. Neither was following the text – while it had many terms he had never heard before, most of their definitions could be found in the previous paragraphs or in small, colored boxes at the side of the main text, including the appropriate equations. And yet, his brain refused to actually retain any of the reading he's been doing. But he didn't care. As long as he could pass this awkward class, go home, and study properly, none of what he did here would matter.

"You can keep it, if you want," said a low voice behind his back.

Akira flinched at those words. It took him a moment to respond. "Oh... Thank you." He didn't turn to face Afton.

What... was that? Keeping the book? Why? People don't hand out their textbook to a stranger just because. Let alone to one who had been a jerk to you a moment ago. Why would he do that... ?!

Focus! Where was he reading again? Right here...

...

The words disappeared from his mind the moment his eyes moved on to the next, as if he was trying to remember a foreign word. Focusing his gaze on a singular one didn't help either, as doing so would only morph it into an unrecognizable wiggle of lines and points. Closing his eyes and trying again proved pointless as well.

After the fourth attempt at reading the same sentence, he gave up. "I'm sorry for taking your seat. Tomorrow you can have it," he said to Afton instead.

"Ah... you can have it. This seat's pretty good too."

"No, It's fine. I was just being a dick for no reason. This seat is yours."

"You can keep the seat, dude."

Akira sighed. Why...
 

Michael Afton

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Michael stared at the back of Akira’s ash-haired head as it bent over to read the textbook. As the transfer student caught up on the material, he continued to analyze the rubric of the given assignment and scribble down progress. After all, it wouldn’t have been fair to let the student loose into the wild when he was still a pup, right?

His eyes glanced up to Akira every so often to observe him. He quickly dispelled the thought that this guy knew who he was, and what he had done, considering the transfer student hadn’t fled the scene as soon as he walked towards him.

If so… this might be his chance. Perhaps he might be able to leave a good, lasting impression on someone before the wolves in the woods sink their rabid teeth into him and carry him off. Maybe he could convince him to hate him a little less before he finds out. Maybe he might get a day where he could not feel guilty, ashamed, to look into someone else's eyes; to see the fear, shock, confusion within them before they looked away and back towards their own group to spread the truth of his character again.

Michael opened his mouth to speak, the silence between them gnawing at him, before the school bell interrupted his speech. The students surrounding the duo stood up and walked out the door. Michael tried not to look at the ones that moved past his desk to reach the door; how many more could he take before he lost it again? He instead turned his attention to the teacher, whom was absentmindedly stacking papers and organizing her desk when not taking questions from students. He saw her eyes glance towards him, a snake observing a mouse. That look nauseated him, rubbing at his mind in a way he couldn’t process.

It wasn’t until most of the class had already filed out did Akira Kurusu stand up. To Michael’s surprise, he turned to face the stoic Afton. "I'm sorry to bother you again, but would you mind me showing where the library is? I have plenty of classes to catch up."

“Oh, uh…” Michael replied. He stood up, his posture stiff and robotic, “sure… I’ll show ya.”

He gestured for Akira to follow him before leading him out into the hall. As they walked, they passed by a group of girls heading in the same direction as they were. Kurusu saw their expressions darken, their eyes settling on the boy beside him. He saw them turn their heads towards each other and whisper.

"This sucks! I wanted to ask him out and he had to hang out with... him"

"Really? This is the first day and..."

He couldn’t hear them anymore. They walked into a nearby bathroom. He couldn’t tell if they did so because that was their intended destination or to avoid the gaze of the knowing Kurusu.

Confused, the spectacled boy turned his head towards his purple-capped acquaintance.

"Is there something wrong? People keep staring at you."


He immediately regretted asking that question. The stoic teen hardly flinched, much less made any obvious emotional sign. Akira couldn’t even tell if he had any at this point; it looked like a black hole had sucked him dry.

"Yep. People keep staring at me." Michael replied in a tone that somehow skirted the line between sarcastic and utterly indifferent.

They reached the library. Michael pushed open the two large, wooden doors and stood to the side to let Akira past. He first saw massive windows overlooking the seemingly hundreds upon hundreds of shelves lined with books. The sunlight of Erde Nona shined through in golden rays, touching down and illuminating all the tables, computers, books and students within. Most of the students sat in silence, reading through their own pieces of written material. A few, however, glanced up to meet the new arrival and his guide. Suddenly, the quiet that had enveloped the library like a blanket morphed into a mass of whispers.

"What is he doing here?"

"Do you think he actually studies?"

"I heard he..."


He glanced at Afton, nervous. He caught a glimpse of his face underneath that cap of his; how could a man be so unresponsive?

"I know of a good, quieter place here." Afton said before instantly walking to another section of the library. He stuck to the walls, avoiding the gaze of sunlight and the gaze of students. Akira had to hurry up to him to stop him due to his quickened pace.

"I think this is more than enough. I just needed to know where the library was. Thank you.” Akira said, nodding towards him.

"Oh, uh... you didn't want to study in here?"
Afton asked before returning the nod in a stilted, awkward fashion.

"I do, but... not now. I wanted to borrow a few books and return home; it's been a long day. Again, thanks for your help."

"Ah... no problem,”
Michael says, glancing around. He wished he could conjure up his original social confidence, "I'm... probably gonna stay here and study for a bit. There's something I gotta do, anyways. It was... nice meeting you, Akira?"

"Same here, Afton. I'll see you tomorrow - we can study together then, if you'd like."

"Oh! Uh... sure."


For a moment, Akira thought he could see the guy smile a bit.

"Name's, uh... Michael. Michael Afton,"
he said, chuckling, "don't run away screaming please."

He raised his eyebrows. "Why would I do that? ... Anyways, I gotta go. See you."

Akira turned to leave the library. He didn't have the brains to think about this right now. All he wanted was his dust-filled bed and some coffee.

Michael stood still, surrounded by books, staring off at the retreating, black-haired boy. He sat down at a nearby table secure between two shelves loaded with books. Pretty much nobody came by here. Fine by him. Books didn’t laugh or whisper horrid things to you.

At least Akira seemed nice. He couldn’t help but wonder how long that would last.
 

Paige Turner

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What an appropriate title, Paige thought as she scanned the cover of ‘Navigating the Crossroads for Dummies’. Even some half-known dimension can’t escape the iconic series of simple summarization. Odd that this school has it in stock, though… speaks volumes of the student populace.


She placed it atop some books she had stacked on the shelf, including readings such as ‘A Traveller’s Guide to Govermorne’, ‘Arcadia High School: A History’, and a few regarding the history and landmarks of Erde Nona. Above her education, it was important to understand this world she had found herself in. If there was any valuable information, good and bad alike, she had to know.


Of course, there was hardly any useful literature. The reason so many of the books she had picked were about Erde Nona was due to limited representation. There were literally thousands of books provided, but most of the informative works provided by the school library were relegated to the school itself, educational aid, or Erde Nona as a whole. Very little was held in regards to other worlds beyond novella-sized travel pamphlets. This had put a damper on Paige’s burning inquisition on Govermorne. As satisfied as could be with her measly selection of literature, it had come time to check out.


On the way to the front desk, however, Paige could not help but notice a darkened corner with a table occupied by two people. One of them, a slender boy with black hair and square-ish glasses, was standing up to leave; the other was that angsty kid who never gave his name. The thin kid’s face portrayed confliction, but not disdain or anger. Either he was trying to cause trouble but failed, or he did not realize or care about the obvious stigma surrounding his peer. It’d be a good idea to befriend him later, but right now I’ve got books to borrow.
 

Touko Fukawa

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Her position as Library Assistant wasn't official, or anything. It was mostly just a convenient place for Touko to stew in her own malice, where she wouldn't be questioned for furiously scribbling on hundreds of sheets of lined paper until her hands couldn't move. A convenient place where it was only hushed words that assaulted her.

Most of all, it wasn't home.

So she tapped the end of her pen on the edge of the desk as she glanced up at the girl approaching, her expression muddied with some volatile mix of resentment and exasperation at being asked to do her job. This distaste was only cemented further as the other student did not make her checkouts with the utmost of haste, instead choosing to let her gaze linger on a table in the corner- one populated by one of her "fellow" outcasts (she had never spoken to Michael, truly just out of fear- knowing her track record with men and murders), and the new kid on the block. Touko supposed she couldn't blame the girl for scoping them out- the new guy was certainly conventionally attractive, frighteningly so- but did she have to do it on her precious time?

After what must have been fifteen seconds of awkward silence as she sat motionlessly in the spinning desk chair staring at Paige, she snapped. "...What? Are you going to check out those books or not?"

Ever the nuisance, Paige smirked in reply. "Oh, no, I just wanted to stand around and soak up some sun. But I guess I'll check out these books while I'm at it."

Ugh, what a self-important ass. Touko glowered at Paige, but took the stack of books and started checking them out by manually writing their numbers on a nearby list, sighing as she did. “Sure, just soak up some sun... while conveniently staring directly at some handsome guy, of course.” Her tone of voice was remarkably accusatory for something so trivial to both parties.

To be fair to her, Paige clearly didn't think too much about such a baseless accusation before returning the girl at the counter's accusation with a question. "Which one? There were two of them." Her smirk was unfazed by the rudeness, though her tone was that of calm questioning as opposed to a snarky retort.

This, of course, did nothing but intensify the assistant's heterosexual ire. Touko's nose crinkled up in something of a sneer, but quickly fixed itself. “...Which one do you think?” She made it obvious in her intonation that she thought the answer to this question should be obvious. Perhaps because she had been around the school longer, after all.

Paige looked back over to the table, even though the new guy was leaving. "Well, I don't know. One of them looks like a string bean with glasses, and the other's a walking rain cloud." There was a brief pause for thought. "Gotta say, though, I'm surprised that string bean's chatting with a kid who everyone seems really eager to talk about... but not to talk with."

This conversation was going nowhere, and yet societal convention locked her in place. While Touko seemed about three seconds away from going on a tangent about what qualifies a man as attractive, she bit her tongue. “Ugh, whatever... I don’t have time to deal with your lack of taste.” She paused briefly, seeming to take a moment to set her mind back on track, and avert her gaze back down to the paper. “...But it’s probably because he’s new here.”

The new tidbit of information, at least, elicited some reaction. Paige's smirk changed to a look of surprise. "Oh, he's new too? Nice, a fellow outsider." She took a moment to think, resting her clasped hands on her chin. "What do you know about the basement? Are there any rumors surrounding it?"

“The- The basement?” Touko looked startled for a moment.

The lack of memories surrounding the place struck her once again, just like her lack of memories of the train ticket in her pocket, of the sudden appearance of comics she'd never heard of under her bed, and of how all that blood had gotten on the last skirt of her school uniform. Her fingers clenched around the pen in her hand until her knuckles turned white. She fought off a shiver crawling up her spine, its icy hands reaching for the paranoia in the back of her brain in the box labelled "logic."

No! No no no! Just stop thinking about it- it only hurts more when you think about it!

She shook her head to pull herself together, and put her general nervous expression back on her face as she began to pick up the pace on writing down those book titles. “W-well, rumors are a dime a dozen...! It’s a basement at a high school, of course there are rumors... But I doubt it’s full of like, dead bodies or something...” Despite her best attempts, she seemed inexplicably even more nervous at the part about dead bodies, cutting it off prematurely before she said too much.

This, still, clearly tipped off the girl whose books were now being scrambled through. Paige's brow furrowed a bit. "What's your source of these rumors?"

“S-source...? You want me to source rumors? I don’t know, I just... heard them!” Though she realized her stutter came back as her nerves spiked, Touko could only take a deep breath. She just hoped that how she was speaking now wasn't too far past her usual prickliness. To drive that home, she came back with a sharp, frustrated retort as she stared at Paige. “They could have said there was a portal to an alternate dimension in there and they would still just be rumors.”

"Well, yeah. That's kind of why I want a source." Paige's tone had a condescension about it, in much the same way Fukawa's had before with regards to the boys. "Questioning the source of a rumor is the best way to test its validity."

Ugh, just shut up already! “Hmph... Well, I don’t have one, isn’t that obvious?” She once again averted her gaze back to the list of books checked out, finishing up the list before placing the pile back on the counter for the student to take. At first this seemed to be the end of it, but she mumbled one last retort. “...The only person allowed down there is the Janitor, anyway. It’s probably just a bunch of cleaning chemicals, but these kids just get neurotic whenever they’re faced with something they can’t do.”

"The Janitor? I see." As quickly as Paige's smirk had faded, it was back in full force, much to Touko's chagrin. But, at least, she finally seemed to be ready to end the conversation. "Thank you for the help, Ms...?" She picked up her books as she asked the question.

There was a brief lag as Touko seemed to go through the five stages of grief with regards to actually sharing her name. "...Touko Fukawa." It was hardly above a mumble, and she glanced back at the list of books Paige had checked out just to avoid eye contact as she spoke.

"Right. Well, I'll see you later then, Ms. Touko Fukawa." To her credit, at least Paige didn't linger for too long after the conversation.

"...Don't let the door hit you on the ass on the way out..." grumbled Fukawa the exact moment she figured Paige was out of earshot.

She turned her eyes back to the lined paper pad she had been writing on, suddenly feeling very inspired to finish some darker chapter or another. Whatever took her mind off things.
 

Kurusu Akira

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A small bell resonated the moment Akira passed through the door of the dimly lit LeBlanc Café, followed by strong scent of coffee mixed with a hint of cigarette smoke. Behind the counter, a middle aged man stood, barely eyeing Akira's entrance.

"Ah, you're back," the man said, as if they've were adquitances, and didn't just met yesterday. As if he was his new guardian, and this café was his new home. Which they were.

The man, whose name was Sojiro Sakura, filled a cup from below the counter with coffee and handled it to Akira. "Here."

"Did you... prepare this for when I arrived?"

"Don't jump into conclusions. You had the luck to arrive a few moments after I made some for myself."

"Thanks."

Akira sat on one of the counter's chairs, right in front of his guardian. The coffee was too hot to drink right away, but he took a sip anyways. Sojiro didn't appear to notice when Akira flinched at it. Or at least didn't seem to care.

"So, how was it?" Sojiro said, breaking the short silence.

"The coffee? A little too hot for my taste."

"No, I'm talking about school. How was the first day? Did you cause any trouble?"

His debate with Afton over the damn sit came to mind. "Of course not. I'm not that dumb, you know."

"I'm not implying you are."

Instead of finding an answer he didn't have, Akira tried to drink the coffee. Its temperature made it difficult to discern its taste – just a bitter liquid burning his throat. However, he couldn't deny the exquisite aroma from it. If only coffee tasted as good as how it smells.

"Is that how you drink coffee? I didn't know you liked it that hot." Sojiro's expression didn't shift a bit with his comment. It was hard to tell if he was disappointed in him or if it was just teasing.

Akira left the cup on the counter, and took a deep breath. No answer came from him.

"Anyways, I didn't expect you to drink it here." Sojiro said. "I don't want clients to see you around here. Go to your room."

There was no one at the bar beside them, but Akira decided to not argue with Sojiro. With one hand holding his bag, and the other carrying the cup of coffee, he went upstairs to his "room," which was more of a dirty attic than a liveable bedroom.

He left the cup on a small space between the pile of old books and magazines in the shelf beside his bed, and proceeded to stretch himself over the mattress. With that out of the way, he emptied his bag, scattering the different books he got from the library, in order to catch up with the new school. All from the library, except the electronic’s one. Why would that guy hand it over like that? It only accentuated how much of a jerk Akira was to him. Some people are like that: they act extra nice after one fucking it up in order to humiliate one. But he didn't seem like the kind of person who would do that. Or at least, Akira hoped. He did notice the myriad of murmuring around the guy though.

Gotta make it up to him.

Akira grabbed the famous gifted book, and froze before opening it. What should he study, exactly? He didn't pay attention to the subject nor the assignment. How was he supposed to prepare himself for it if he didn't even know what he had to do?!

...Goddamnit.

He proceeded to read the history book, from page one.

#

Akira approached the school entrance, when the familiar noise of a new notification distracted him.

Could it be?

Until now, there hadn't been a single message from anyone from back home. Three days is not that long, but he couldn't afford to miss any.

Just in case.

In the middle of his stride, he checked out the phone, only to find a weird icon as the culprit for the notification. Unlocking it confirmed it as an unknown app; its symbol, a bright red eye gazing at him. Without thinking, he pressed the app's icon and grabbed it towards the delete folder. No point in dealing with what was probably a virus.

Such a distraction didn't come unpunished though: he almost fell by misplacing his feet on the school's entrance stairs. Quickly, he regained his composure and properly continued to walk. However, when his gaze returned to the school gate, he noticed someone there, a girl with her face almost hidden by the shade her cap casted.

"Perfect ten, man," she said, greeting him with a short hand wave.

Awesome; she saw it. "I guess so. Did you like it?" Akira said, as a reflex.

"Nah, but we all have our days. Name's Paige, by the way."

"I'm Ku– I mean, Akira Kurusu." Was that how people presented themselves? As of now: yes. Better go with the flow. "Nice to meet you, Paige."

...Wait, why would anyone present themselves like this? "Is there anything you wanted to talk about?" He added.

"What a forward question. I like your style, kid." She put one hand on her hip, the same one she raised to greet him. "I couldn't help but notice you chatting with that moody kid in the library the other day. Did you get his name?"

"You mean Afton? Are you here to warn me about him or something? I'm sorry, but I already got the memo about him."

"No, no, I just wanted the name. He didn't tell me when I asked him." She paused a little, time in which Akira didn't interrupt. "It seems like the people here really doesn't like him much," she added.

"I got the same impression. Do you know... why? He didn't seem like a bad person, and yet everyone avoids him." Some people just have a bad reputation. While normally Akira wouldn't pry his nose on other people's business, this seemed like a good opportunity to satisfy his curiosity.

Paige crossed her arms, brow furrowed in contemplation. "Not really. I just know he's intrigued by the basement door. But since that place has a mysterious air with other kids, and he doesn't know what's up with it, I doubt that's the reason why."

He raised his eyebrows. "Mysterious air?"

"Yeah, mysterious air."

"That sounds like an urban legend. Have you experienced that 'mysterious air' around the door?" He made the quotations signs with his hands.

"Not really. It's just a basement." She puts her hand on her chin. "At least... as far as I know."

He didn't add to that. Instead, Akira checked his phone, this time more as a distraction than a hopeful wish of getting a real notification instead of a virus. 8:54 AM.

"But that's enough of that." She added. "You're new here, right?"

"Yes. I'm still catching up with everything."

"Same, just moved here recently. Haven't met many people so far."

Does this count as meeting someone? Anyways... "I'm sorry, but it's getting late. I'll be in the library after school," with the aforementioned Afton, "if you want to keep chatting. See you later."

He went through the door, while feeling the girl's gaze behind him.
 

Michael Afton

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The hallways had emptied by the time the Afton boy had showed up at the Arcadia High School, a fact that was more of a hindrance to the boy than a relief. He had never particularly enjoyed the crowded corridors-- the sheer noise and claustrophobia never sat well with him-- but he had come to admire them, respect them since he had restarted schooling. A crowded corridor was too loud for the murmurings within them to be heard, but a hallway with nary anyone but himself had nothing to shield his ears.

He walked to his class, his pace slow, like he was trudging through tar. He couldn’t move faster if he tried.

As he walked, his eyes glazed over to his left, passing by that same basement door that encroached his path through school just like it encroached on his thoughts. It loomed over him, casting an eclipse over him as he walked past it. The very towering shape of the door tickled the back of his mind in a manner he couldn’t replicate, a puzzle piece missing from its board, yet like any extraordinary jigsaw, it just needed to be slotted in correctly for the picture to make sense. One corner piece for the noises at night, one middle piece for the smells, and the door is what connects it all together.

He just needed to open the door.

He stashed his hands in his pockets, one hand fiddling with the tiny bobby-pin he had borrowed from Sal, his coworker back at the pizzeria. Tonight would be a good a time as any to see if it would work on the door.

Faint whispers broke the silence that shielded him. He removed his eyes from the basement door and traced it towards an open, wooden door a few feet in front of him. The letters “A103” hung above the arched frame on a wooden sign. The sign swung back and forth, creaking with every rusted movement.

Letting out a breath, Michael walked to the door and peaked past the frame into the room, trying to avoid detection. Students sat in rows within the room. Some talked in groups, others to only one other, all at varying volumes of loudness, and others still sat in silence, studying or reading. He peered towards the other end of the room, finding a familiar face.

The transferred off-worlder sat in silence, sagged body hanging over the textbook Afton had given him the day before. He stared at it, eyes squinted, chin placed on his hand in a manner that obfuscated his feelings towards the book; Michael couldn’t tell if he was studying, trying to ignore everyone, or suffering from mental strain. Either way, he seemed to be trying very, very hard to succeed at his task. Afton hoped he could use some help-- specifically, his help.

Muscles tensed, head bowed, Michael Afton stepped into the room, and all was silent once more.

He noticed Kurusu’s eyes shift ever so slightly towards him, like a predator stalking prey. He soon paid the Afton boy his full attention, his posture unmodified.

"Good afternoon, Afton.”

Michael stopped. He looked like he needed rebooting for a few moments, no doubt uncertain as to how to respond to Akira's acknowledgement of his presence.

"Erm... good afternoon." He replied, hands still stashed in his pockets, body slouched in an aloof manner.

"I was... looking for you," he said, "do you mind if we go somewhere more... private?"

"More... private?" He repeated. He couldn't help but frown at the question. What was this guy up to?

Akira didn't have to look around the classroom to be aware of the myriad of eyes locked on him and his company. Neither did Michael, for the eyes bared him, bled him dry of wounds barely even healed with savage, wolf-like canines.

"Yeah. People here can be a little… nosy." Akira replied, leaning a bit closer to Afton.

“Ah… I know what you mean.” Michael said, leaning away a bit.

Akira returned to his previous position, his eyes still trained on Mike. "Alright then. Let's keep talking after class."

"Ah... sure."

As if on cue, the clacking of heels echoed from the open door. What little noise still emanated from within the room promptly dissipated into nothing upon the teacher's entrance. Michael swiftly sat down, trying to avoid detection from the peering eyes of their teacher.

The class went on for a while, the regular subject as usual. Michael mulled over Akira’s words and his sudden interest in him. Barely a day had gone by and already the guy seemed to want to know things about him. Perhaps the pack had already sunk their teeth into him and dragged him off, told him things that made him doubt everything he had already known about the aloof Afton. Why else would he request privacy? To corner him, keep his back to the wall so that the jaws of the beast could truly sink in and devour him whole?

The only thing that kept his mind off of the eventual confrontation were the whispers in the back of the class. The same people as always, yet this time they seemed to have a new topic to gossip about, and a few choice words perked his head up.

“One day and he’s already talking to him…”

“I saw them talking… you think they’re..”

“He’s crazy… crazy hot if you know what I…”


He furrowed his brow and kept his head down. He hoped Akira couldn’t hear them. Perhaps he could be spared from the hounds after all.

----------------

The bell rang a few minutes later. Akira already had all his stuff stuffed inside his bag by then, of which Afton couldn’t get why. Was he that desperate to leave? The teacher eyed him, but didn't say anything.

"See you at the stairs," he whispered to Afton before promptly leaving the class, the first to escape.

Michael himself got out of there relatively quickly. Best to romp the forests of the school with many prey rather than just oneself, after all. At least you’re less likely to get bitten that way. As he packed up his materials and exited the room, he noticed the teacher peering at him. Serpent eyes pierced his form, glowing in the darkness of the teacher’s desk. He stared back, a nauseous hand clasping at his stomach-- some part of his mind saw nothing but irrational paranoia, sheer terror within her eyes, despite them being nothing different from the regular leers he got from student body. Still, he could not handle the attention. He promptly dashed out, the snake-like eyes following him, analyzing his every move, only looking away upon his disappearing out the door.

He wished he could forget about it, but it didn’t take long for Michael to remember his promise to Akira. Letting out a shaking breath, he trudged down the hallway.

The off-worlder stood near the staircase at the end of the hallway, his back leaned on the wall, one hand on his pocket, the other holding his phone. He appeared to be ignoring the multitude of students enjoying the first moments of freedom by navigating through his phone, but he quickly found the purple from Afton's cap on the corner of his eye. And when such person entered his field of vision, Akira looked up from his phone to meet his gaze.

"Glad you came"


"Yeah..." Mike replied with a tone that screamed awkward. He sorta leaned on the wall next to Akira, almost seeping into it like a ghost phasing through the physical plane, "what... was it you needed?"

"About that project for physics...."
His original stern gaze turned into a shy look, "what... is that supposed to be.... ?"

He hid his phone on his pocket, both his face and body turned away from his partner.

Michael almost didn't even bother responding, his face momentarily painted with a shocked expression.

"I.. erm..." he replied, "well... it's about conduction. Studying how electric waves flow and connect and such. We've been on it for a week or so already, so it's... kinda tough without knowing all the other stuff."

"I guessed so, but I..." he grimaced in shame, "... kind of ignored the whole class, including the assignment. So I have no idea what I'm supposed to help with, or what to even study."

"... Ah."

Mike fell silent.

After having his request met with silence, Akira said "If you're not up for this, then I'll tell the teacher to disband the group. I'd rather have a bad grade than take credit off your work."

Akira opened his bag and handed Afton his book. "You can have this too. Thank you very much for your hospitality. I really appreciate it."

"Oh, no it's just that..."

He gingerly reached forward, like he was stroking a cat, and took the book. He flipped through the pages until he stopped. He showed him a page.

"Chapter 11: Conduction. The project is at the very end; it's literally just copy-pasted from the textbook. I got about 80% of it already done. I just... need help mapping the electrical pathway."

"But, are you ok with me tagging along for a project I barely helped with?"

"Yeah."

"And... Do you want me to help you with the electrical pathway?"

"Yeah, if you want."


Akira's posture relaxed with a sigh. "That's good to hear. Ok, I'll be heading to the library. I'll study hard for this project, but I also have to study a whole bunch of other subjects too. You can join me if you want."

"Ah… that’s fine.”


Akira turned away, walking up the staircase. It wasn’t until the off-world was out of sight did Afton lean back, his own body noticeably relaxing for the first time that day. After a few moments, he followed the guy up the stairs, feeling a little bit better.
 

Paige Turner

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Once her second class had called it a day, Paige set out to prospect the local rumor mill. Testimonies aren't much on their own, Paige said in her mind, but they do give clues as to what may be worthwhile to investigate. While a few students kept their distance, most she had questioned were willing to answer, albeit begrudgingly. Over the course of her lunch period, she had harvested students for their information, one by one.


“T-the basement door? It didn't l-look any different to me…”

“There's probably a terrifying experiment going on in there. I bet you're the kind of person who's real interested in that, huh?”

“Wasn't the basement open at one point? I feel like students were allowed to go in if they had permission.”

“Seriously, it's a basement. They probably just locked it so some assholes wouldn't barge in and steal the tools.”

“Rule breakers used to have to go to the basement for supplies if they were forced to help the janitor.”

“Oh, there are three janitors: Ms. Green, Mr. Jeffers, and Mr. Clark. Mr. Jeffers in particular used to be more outgoing than the others, but I haven't seen him lately.”

“This school has a basement?”

“Mr. Jeffers used to be cool, man. Started to give paper to students after hearing teachers complain about how we never had any. Now he's just a major bummer!”

“Um… I think the basement got closed off a month ago.”

“I passed by one of the janitors- the nice one, you know- and he just freaked out! I must have caught him by surprise.”


After she had gotten a suitable amount of information, Paige ran through what she had learned. The basement wasn't always locked, and the janitor has been acting strange lately. Combine that with what Touko told me, and there may be a connection between the basement being locked and the janitor's behavior. In other words, investigating this “Mr. Jeffers” could lead to a pivotal lead to the contents of the locked room. Paige checked her phone. "Looks like I’ve still got 20 minutes left." With the clues she discovered and time to spare, she walked to the basement door.


- - -

The halls were sparsely populated. Most students were either in classrooms or the cafeteria, after all. For Paige, this was a convenience; it would do her no good for someone to find her direct investigation suspicious. It seems people were still talking about her, though, as two boys started to whisper as she saw them glance in her direction.

“Dude, look! It’s the chick who walked up and talked to Michael!”

“I don’t remember seeing her around a month ago. Is she new here?”

“That’s probably it, man.. That would explain why she talked to Mr. Sunshine so easily.”

“Damn… I’d hit her up if not for that. I mean, just talking to him like he’s any other guy is social suicide, ya know?”


Ok, this is getting old. “Hey, you know it’s rude to talk about people, right?”

One of the boys stiffened, arched over like a hooligan who had just been caught robbing a convenience store for candy. “Oh shoot, you were listening to that?!”

Paige crossed her arms, hat shielding one of her eyes from the two boys. “Look kid, the hallway is almost empty. You could hear a pin drop, let alone your big mouths.”

His friend was caught just as off guard. “U-uh, sorry about that! We’ve got somewhere we need to be! Right, Jeff?”

“Yeah, that’s right! Somewhere to be! Gotta go now, bye!” And as easily as they had gossiped about her in a silent hallway, they ran off like a pair of kittens. I can tell that having talked to Michael so soon is going to be a massive hurdle for me. Hmm, that’ll make things fun.

As Paige walked away, someone nearby had been watching from the shadows. “Looks like I got me a keeper.”


- - -

On her way to the basement door, Paige realized there was a janitor's closet not too far away from it. The closet sat at the corner of the hall, right next to the room which had Michael completely transfixed. “Interesting. Is there is a connection after all...?”

First, she took the most obvious action: turning the doorknob. It was locked. To be expected, but it was worth a try. Paige stood in front of the closet, mind deep in thought. There was the possibility of picking the lock, though she would need a bobby pin or lockpick for that, neither of which she had on her person at the moment. Of course, there is always the idea that she could follow behind the janitor himself, but there is no telling where he might be at any given time. Removing the door would also not work; it would take a while, and someone would likely notice in that time.

Then, as if lured by the soft clacking of a locked doorknob, the sound of rapid speed-walking announced someone's arrival. When Paige turned around, he saw a lanky man in a polo shirt tucked into his jeans ambling down the hall. When she glanced, he immediately and obviously changed his expression to a nervous smile, but she didn't make out what that mask tried to hide. When he caught up and stood in front of her, the words “Mr. Jeffers” became visible on his nametag.

“Y-yes, hello, m-m-may I help you?”

What a tool. “Oh, hey Mr. Jeffers. I heard you used to stock notebook paper for the students, and I needed some, so I wanted to see if you were here.”

“O-oh, of- of course! Sorry about that, y-you must be new here… I-I lock the door so that kids don't st-steal it. Let me get you some.”

The anxious man relaxed a tad as he unlocked the door, muttering about why he stocks paper as he did so. He creaked the door open slightly, so there wasn’t much light leaking in, but the contents inside were easily visible. A single light bulb hung from the ceiling, although it was kept off at the moment. Inside were supplies you would figure a janitor would have, excluding the large stack of papers atop one of the shelves on the side walls. The closet seemed wider than it was deep, perhaps to save space for the basement. Wait, but then why not have the shelves on the back walls? That would give so much more space to put stuff.

As she pondered, Paige’s thoughts were overtaken by what the janitor was saying. “Teachers don’t really like to hear students say they don’t have paper, so I decided to stock some. Oh, but not for the rotten kids who take advantage of it...”

This was completely different from the bumbling oaf she was just talking to. There was a bit of a stutter, but he seemed like he actually enjoyed talking about his job. He even seemed to be smiling. Of course, it could also be that he’s simply trying to occupy her mind with trivial banter. Some crafty people can fake a convincing stutter, after all. That said, if this is his genuine personality, then why was he being so awkward? There must be something behind it, surely.

“Here you go, miss. One crisp piece of triple-punched notebook paper.”

Paige grabbed the sheet of paper from the janitor’s hand and folded it twice before putting it in her hoodie’s pocket. “Thank you.”

“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I…” Mr. Jeffers’ smile dissipated in a heartbeat., and he turned away from the student. “I-I have imp-important business t-to attend to.”

As he went to close the door, Paige quickly pulled the folded paper out of her pocket and slid it where the door’s deadbolt was. She noticed, as she did so, that he was turning the knob so the deadbolt wouldn’t make a sound by hitting the doorframe. Hopefully he doesn’t realize what I did… After about ten seconds had passed, he still hadn’t come out to scold her. Alright, maybe he didn’t notice. If he’s doing something in there, he’s got to have turned the lights on. Whatever it is, I’ve just got to know. A light tug on the door confirmed that she did, indeed, pull the trick off properly. She pulled the door open slowly, carefully, quietly, and then just holding it ajar. However, to her surprise, light bled into the room. It was dark. And more importantly…

He’s… not here?

*BRI-I-I-I-I-ING*

Damn it, lunch is over already? I’m so close- augh, whatever. Disappointed despite her intrigue, Paige slowly shut the door and ambled toward her third period class. “Ah well, at least I got some interesting things out of it. I’ll need to do one more raid before I continue, though… "

"And I know just who to ask.”
 

Touko Fukawa

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Her shoulders tucked in tight, Touko stared down at her desk. Or, more specifically, the great beast of a packet labelled "AP ARCADIAN LIT" on her desk, bound together by a single flimsy staple and comprised of paper in her favorite shade, "whatever colors were left in the printer." To an extent she hated the busywork of it all, but at the same time knew it was a necessary evil to keep the unworthy out. Still, she would rather not have to answer thirty more inane questions on the moral ambiguity of the protagonist in "To Kill a Chocobo." So, needless to say, she was procrastinating- under the guise of work, at least.

Eyes drifting between rereading each title of the shelf nearest to her desk and sneaking tantalizing glances at the new kid- one Akira Kurusu- she assured not to stay staring at one or the other for too long. Vaguely in the distance she heard a clowder of idiots snickering about something or another, and she peeked at the perpetrators out of the corner of her eye. Indeed, seated around the table furthest from her desk and closest to a door was a trio of boys, ones the whole school knew to be far more trouble than they were worth. They were giggling as they scrawled something on a sheet of lined notebook paper in the middle of the table with their chewed mechanical pencils.

Touko scrunched her nose in disgust. Probably just drawing all over their sex ed homework or something, she told herself.

Akira aproached the librarian's desk. "Excuse me, but I can't seem to find the Arcadian History II book on the shelves. Is it available?" Every now and then, he peeked to watch his stuff at the table.

Touko jolted awake, like she had just been electrocuted. Electrocuted with pure nervousness, as she was wont to be. “A-Arcadian History II... It... It should be on shelf 22B over there.” She briefly pointed a finger to one of the massive shelves to her left, a bit closer to the group of troublemakers. However, noting that it was closer to them, she then proceeded to get to her feet and scurry over there, looking down at her feet. “It might just... Be too high up to reach... I’ll get a ladder,” she mumbled under her breath.

The young man glanced back at the shelf, though he was pretty sure he had already scoured it from top to bottom. "...Alright." He watched her endeavor to reach the higher tiers of the shelf.

The troublemakers, upon seeing the librarian stand up, sneaked away from that shelf, giggling like hyenas.

Touko returned a few moments later, carrying a rather dusty volume of the textbook in a slightly different size than the standard one. Unfortunately it seemed all of the regular editions had either been checked out or gone mysteriously missing, as textbooks are wont to do. “Here, this is... The only one left. It might be last year’s or something, but it’s not like it really changes.” She handed the book to Akira, before peeking around the corner of the shelf to assure the trio of trouble was not messing with stuff at her desk, or whatever Akira had left on his table.

Sure e-fucking-nough, stooge number one was slinking towards the front door with a huge pile of unchecked returns. Snarl instantly painted on her face, Touko shoved through Akira, scurrying towards the student in a storm of unbridled rage. "H-hey, dipshit! I'm not done with those!" It hardly even crossed her mind that she was doing so in front of Akira at this point, considering how difficult it was to switch her rude mode off once it had been activated.

"Aw, c'mon! They looked interesting!" The young man's words were dripping with sarcasm, and spoken with a snort. Shifting the pile into one arm, several of the books within scattering to the ground below, he took one in his now-free hand and hurled it halfway across the library. "Lyon, catch!"

The one that was clearly Lyon, befitting his wild mane of bright red hair, dove across a (thankfully unoccupied) table for the book, knocking the acrylic sign-holder at the center of it straight to the ground. He thankfully caught it, but upon dismounting the table, was met with a great plasticky cracking sound as he slammed his foot right down on the former centerpiece. This was met with naught but a hearty chuckle, as he and his partner in crime played literary monkey-in-the-middle with the tiny assistant in a starring role as the monkey.

All the while, the third stooge was chuckling as his plan of distraction worked- and snatched a few random notebooks and sheets from the counter, turning tail and making his own escape in the ensuing havoc.

"Hey man, cut it out." Akira's deadpan voice cut through the chaos like a razor, causing the two remaining punks to stop in their tracks. (Touko took this time to grab several of the books that had hit the floor and scurry back to her desk, dialing something on the rotary phone on it.)

Lyon clicked his tongue. "We're just having some fun, is that so wrong?" It was so wrong. But he didn't seem to care about that, so the point was moot.

"Hello, is this the resource office?" With her voice intentionally projected and performative to assure the two remaining idiots could hear her, Touko picked up the phone near the door. "W-well, we're having a bit of an, um, an issue in the library-"

This was sign enough for the duo to drop their books and high tail it out of there.

No one made an effort to chase them. Instead, the painful moments in the interim were filled with several other students taking flight of the library as well, not wanting to waste their time as official witnesses, and a majority simply chattering in disbelief that such a thing had just happened.

"Ugh, typical Lyon and crew."

"Seriously! And did you see the number Brad did on the front desk?"

"I'm surprised our three stooges haven't gotten expelled yet, personally."

Yes, upon hearing this, Touko did see the number Brad did to her desk. About half of her 'Chocobo' homework had been torn off, the entire front of the packet just gone. So was one of her nice writing notebooks- one of the ones with a proper binding, none of that spiral shit. Not to mention two or three of her pens, with another one thrown to the ground and busted right in half, jet black ink leaking into the carpet below.

Akira, wits about him well enough to notice her seething, took a step forward. "Are you okay?" The sentiment was well and fine, but it was far from enough to put Touko in a better mood.

Instead, she grabbed a cushion from one of the chairs and just spent a solid fifteen seconds or so screaming into that bad boy while Akira and several other students looked on in horrified concern.

That was, until the school resource officer finally showed up. A burly man with a metal breastplate, he took one look around the library and scrunched his nose. "Alright, so who wants to tell me what happened here?" he commanded, staring down at the groaning students who remained at their tables.

Touko gently hurled the pillow back into its intended chair.

Akira picked up his text book, still not having even gotten a chance to open it, and put it under one arm.

Needless to say, everyone in the room wouldn't be getting any more done here.
 

Kurusu Akira

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The officer, after scanning the stormed library, glanced at Akira; his face locked in a stern face. "So?" he said.

"Three students decided to use the library to play and bully the people here. Unfortunately, I do not know their names." Akira uncomfortably re-accommodated the book under his arm, though his face mimicked the officer's.

"L-Lyon Hamilton, Brad Gibson, a-and... Matthias Chavez," said the librarian girl, glancing away from them. She was playing with her hands, her fingers dancing like the legs of an upside down bug. "Th-they did... this..."

Soon after hearing those names, the officer's stern face relaxed, though worry took its place. He glanced back at the mess.

"They played with the books," Akira continued, "and messed around with the librarian's things."

"I see..." said the officer. "I'll speak with administration about this incident and the culprits. Have a... nice day."

And just like that, the officer left. By giving the place another glance, Akira realized that not many other students were left.

No one seemed to want to deal with the mess.

He bent down to retrieve some of the torn out paper on the floor, but just as he started, the librarian's voice cutted through him.

"H-hey! What do you think you're doing?!" Her hands were tied into fists.

Akira didn't answer, a little perplexed at her reaction. He straightened himself back to look at her.

"D-don't you think you can g-get away with it just because they did!"

He gave to her the few pieces of paper he managed to grab, and she pulled them out of his hands so hard she almost torn them up even more.

"Alright..." he said.

They both stood there in silence. The librarian covered her now red face with the paper, not worrying how the strength in her hands was ruining the pages even more. Every now and then, she glanced at Akira, then away from him, and then back again. After a while, she shrugged.

"What do you want?!" she snapped.

Akira cleared his throat. "I'm sorry."

He went back to his stuff (that thankfully was all where he left it), and packed it all back on his bag, except for a black pen, which he saved on his pocket. He then proceeded to pick up the remaining scattered books on the floor, and came back to the main desk to leave them. The librarian was now picking up her stuff by herself, her face still red and with teary eyes; she didn’t seem to notice Akira.

“Excuse me,” he said.

She flinched in surprise, with a high pitched noise escaping her mouth.

"Here." He handled her his pen. "You can keep it. And I'm sorry for what happened."

Once she calmed down, she snatched the pen from his hand. “Whatever,” she grumbled under her teeth.

And with that, Akira left the library.
 

Paige Turner

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“Did you hear? Sounds like the Three Stooges messed up the library real bad.”

A loud whisper diverts Paige’s attention from her boredom, if only for a second. A few students had spreading rumors about an incident in the library all throughout fourth period. She dismissed them; perhaps she would have been more interested if their banter were less contradictory. But then, petty bullies aren’t really worth looking into from the outset.

“I heard they tore out all the pages in one of the textbooks.”

“Nah, man, they knocked one of the bookcases over.”

“Of course not, they would have been expelled. We would surely know about that.”



BRIIIIING

3:30. As the bell brings forth a fond farewell, so too does it bring anarchy; everyone got up and left for home, creating a wave amongst an ocean of students as they booked it out of the room. Along with them was Paige, eager to investigate the closet. Time to start the preparations.

Students left in the wake of the front kept falling behind, unable to keep up with the tide. As such, Paige made certain to keep up the pace. She followed the crowd down the hall, down the stairs, and to the first floor before wearing out of the current, taking a turn in the basement’s direction. Few students followed her, presumably to talk to teachers, but she was focused on finding a specific person to recruit for her cause.

“It’s showtime!”

Final turn to the door in sight, Paige is stopped by a punk sliding into view. He was wearing a black leather jacket with a ridiculous collar and too many zippers on it to be practical, as well as a beanie that didn’t fit his head quite right.

“Man, Matthias. Even when we’re at school, you can’t help flappin’ your yap.”

Another kid, red hair dressed like a flame and a black bomber jacket, white shirt and black jeans, walked out from behind Paige. He was one of the ones following her down the hall earlier, though he had seemed inconspicuous enough at the time.

“What can I say, dude? I just see a scene in the making, and I gotta play my role.”

“You got that right! If third period was anything to go by, I’m getting better at readin’ the scene you’re layin’ down!” Both of the nuisances burst into laughter, exchanging low-quality puns with little thought behind them.

Feeling a migraine coming on, Paige cut through their words and the going mood. “If you’re through, I’ve got better things to do.”

Matthias gave her an irritating sneer. “No way, broad, we gotta let you meet Brad first.”

Paige was perplexed by these exceedingly lame names for bullies. She couldn’t even bring herself to smirk, it was just… pathetic. All she gave was a dumbfounded “...Brad?”

“Good job, boys.” Another one came from behind red-hair. Open uniform jacket, plain white tank top beneath, sunglasses atop short brown hair; truly, this kid was the exceptional definition of ‘criminal fashion’. He walked toward Paige with a ‘menacing’ strut. “You two kick back, I’ve got it from here.”

The two loons stepped back, giving way some space. Paige felt particularly tired. “Are you brad?”

“Yeah. You must be one of the new kids.”

“You guys must be the Three Stooges I’ve heard about.”

Brad clasped his hand to his chest, as Matthias and red-mane did the same. “Why, that is simply untrue! We don’t got a name, we’re ourselves. That’s just what the world labels us.”

“Yeah, labels us!” Matthias shouted out of turn. Brad continued.

“‘Sides, we noticed you’ve been causin’ a stir yourself. Hangin’ with Afton, talkin’ down other students, and you even entered the locked janitor’s closet.”

Heat flared within Paige’s chest, but she pushed it aside. “Oh, I see. You’re stalking me- ah, how professional!”

“Details, details. I just got an offer for ya. We respect troublemakers, and you fit the bill-”

“Why would I ever join a bunch of try-hard failures like you?”

Brad was taken aback, and his casual demeanor turned more serious. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me. Can’t even ruin a library without getting spotted. Even an amateur can think of a better plan.”

Matthias spoke out once again. “Hey hey, don’t talk to our bro like that!” He and red-hair came closer, but Brad faced the two of them and gave them the hand.

“Now now, it’s fine.” He turned to Paige again. “You may think we’re bad, but you’re sadly mistaken if you think we’re worse than that loser Michael.”

Oh boy, here we go.
She rolled her eyes, sighing. “What could you possibly say that would make me think a kid treated like a criminal is worse than some wannabe rebels?”

As if he were the most confident man alive, Brad gave a cheeky grin and knocked on his noggin with his index finger a couple times. “Heh heh… Well, why don’t we tell you?”
 

Michael Afton

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The library was awfully quiet once most of the student population within the high school had left the building. With the mid-afternoon sun already starting to settle down past the edge of the floating island the school sat upon, the library had turned into a light shade of blue lit only by the faint sunlight that streamed through the massive windows looming over the library room. Few students remained in the library, as few tended to study within. One individual, however, had other plans.

Michael sat in his quiet spot, waiting. His quiet spot was a small crevice in between shelves containing music books and academic theory books and other books that tended to be massive yet you could never get anyone under the age of 30 to sit down and actually read them. The size of the books-- they tended to be as big as the average student’s head-- provided enough concealment from whomever still remained within the library. He sat on the floor, keeping his stature low, as he watched the time fly by on the retro phone screen.

As the timer struck 4:00, he stood up to sneak to the basement door. After traversing the labyrinthine bookshelves, he snuck through what few feet of open terrain he had left to the library exit with his cap lowered to shield his face. He heard a single surprised grunt sound off from behind him; he ignored it, because it was the only way to avoid the stinging pain that followed any attention given to him.

He pushed through the doors, walked down the staircase to the first floor, and started making his way to the basement door. He felt glad that he chose 4:00 PM to begin his ‘break-in,’ as the girl from before had called it. It meant that few others would be in the building, even Mister Jeffers, who he overhead others saying grew fidgety around the door.

“When that one girl stood near it for a while, I heard he started stammering and sweating…”

“He goes all pale and starts looking like he’s getting a heart attack…”


Michael knew he couldn’t handle such an event. Thus, 4:00 PM.

He passed through empty hallways filled with dented, small lockers with faded paint, closed classroom doors with a wide variety of pictures and iconography on them, and the occasional bathroom that he swore giggled at him when he walked past. The light blue shade from the library followed him throughout the corridors and only grew grayer and more washed out from there. It seemed like the school had been dipped into the paint color of a dark rain cloud. How one could tolerate such an environment was anyone’s guess, and it only spurred Michael to move faster in order to escape it.

He rounded a corner and halted. Between the hallway containing the basement door stood the Common Room, where all students passed through during school hours to reach their respective classes.

Leaning against the doors of the school, chatting away and laughing, stood the Three Stooges.

Their presence filled Michael with a sense of dread, even if all they did was stand there, filling the quiet school with noise without a care in the world. He almost didn’t even want to walk to the basement door, not with the Stooges standing there.

It’s going to be fine, he thought to himself, they haven’t done anything in a while now. They wouldn’t dare try again.

Shifting his backpack and trying to blend into the brick walls around him, he walked into the Common Room. As he passed by them, the Stooges all stopped talking. Michael could only imagine their eyes widening at the sight of their fondest prey romping through their forest all by himself.

He tried his best to ignore them and focus on the door as he exited the Common Room. New footsteps, trying their damndest to be silent, echoed around him, causing him to walk faster. He knew they were following him.

He rounded the next corner and saw it: the basement door, bathed in its own shadow. Michael didn’t even look behind him, for it would make the wolves attack all the quicker. He at least wanted to get there before being chewed up.

Right as he reached it, Brad spoke up.

“Yo, Mikey.”


Michael stopped. He didn’t move, nor did he dare to try, not with these three.

“Turn around,”
Brad commanded.

Closing his eyes, biting his lip to quell the growing pain inside him, he did as he was told.

“RAAH!”
Matthias Chavez screamed within inches of his face. The Afton boy didn’t even flinch; how could he with a cheap trick like that? Nevertheless, the other two started laughing. Chavez walked back and bowed, as if he totally didn’t risk his life trying to pull a stunt.

He wanted to quip, but his lips sealed up as Brad stopped laughing and advanced towards him. The sunglasses hid what Michael could only assume to be an intense glare, contrasted only by his obnoxiously friendly smile.

“You’re not even laughing? You have to admit, that’s a little funny.”

He didn’t reply. He lowered his head so his cap could hide his face, only for Brad to swipe it from off of his head. He cringed, exposed.

“You gonna talk or what? Even your quiet ass speaks when spoken to.”

“I need to do something…”
Mike replied.

“What ya doing? Scoping out for a new victim?”

The brown-haired, sunglass-wearing bully circled him, interrogating him. “You coming around late every day to make a layout of the place? I’d buy that. Maybe you got a list of people you wanna take with you?”

“Oh my god, Brad!”
The red-haired Lyon said, covering his mouth with his hand in what Mike first thought was surprise before his laughter killed the thought, “that’s fucking- you can’t just say that shit!”

“He’s too much of a pussy to shoot up the friggin school!”
Matthias replied.

“Alright, alright, yeah…”
Brad said, stopping to stare at Michael. He adjusted his sunglasses, leaning forward to get up into Mike’s face. “You’re right, and that’s what confuses me.”

His voice turned harsher. “What’s the point of all this, huh? You can’t tell me you don’t have a plan of some sort. Not after all of what you did, right?”

Silence.

“This has to be a joke, right? You hide away from everyone and act all nice and polite, only speaking when spoken to. Hell, you even let us beat on you for a time.”

Brad promptly took hold of Mike’s shoulder and pushed him towards the door. He settled on it, grunting in pain only due to the brass knob on the door poking him in the back. After realizing this, he slid his hand into his back pocket discreetly to remove the bobby pin.

“Yet… I know that it’s a lie. You’re not as weak as you want to let on, are you?”

“Yeah…”
Matthias said, inching forward to block Mike’s left with a fist against the wall.

“I think Brad’s onto something.”
Lyon replied, moving his arm to block Mike’s right.

“Exactly,”
Brad said, trapping Michael by leaning ever closer.

“How could a child murderer be such a weakling?”


Michael looked down towards the floor. He breathed in and out, in and out, barely suppressing the emotion fighting to ooze out of him. He didn’t even know what it was he was trying to stop anymore. It could have been tears, the urge to fight, the memories only suppressed through sheer will.

“Just leave me alone…” The Afton boy said, voice soft and unassuming. He moved his hand to the door and slid the bobby-pin into the lock. He jiggled it, trying to unlock it without drawing attention.

“Punch me, then.”

Mike’s eyes widened in shock, which drew a snicker from the other two. “What?”

“Go on. Haymaker me. Flatten me against the floor, if you can do it. No one’s around but us stooges!”


Mike furiously worked at the lock.

“Do it! Do it, Mike!”


Their voices rose in volume, echoing inside Michael’s skull. He shut his eyes and grit his teeth in pain. He felt the knob wriggle, and he heard a clicking noise. The door gave way a bit.

“Do it, fucker! DO IT!”


Suddenly, the janitor closet door flew open, silencing all. Like a gopher, Mister Jeffers the janitor popped out of the door. The three stooges stared at the man, whom glared back.

“What are you four doing out here?” He replied.

The stooges didn’t reply. Instead, Brad promptly punched Michael in the stomach as the others scampered off. As the Janitor advanced towards him to get him away from the door, The Afton boy bent over, reeling in pain from the punch. The bobby pin slipped from his grasp and landed on the floor, clanging.

Mister Jeffers’ head snapped to the floor. His brows raised in fear at the bobby pin beneath him.

“S-Sir, I can explain-”

“Breaking into the basement door after school, Michael?”

“Sir, it’s not what it looks like!”
Michael said, reaching for the pin. The Janitor held him back and snapped it up in between his crusty fingers.

“I gotta let someone know about this…” Mister Jeffers murmured, taking a moment to lock the basement door before he walked back into his closet.

“Wha-?”
Mike said before rushing to the door to try to keep it open.

“Sir, please! I can’t drop out, please don’t-”

The Janitor slammed the door shut. The sound bathed Michael in echoes. He stood there, terrified, no longer certain as to what to do.
 

Touko Fukawa

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"W-wait- Sir! Hold on-"

The desperate struggle of a young man just about her age, pleading for his life- or, at the very least, his livelihood. It was like music to her ears.

Of course, she had heard her true targets fleeing. Of course she should have followed them. But they'd only be crying to their mommies that they'd been chewed out by those nasty, reprehensible authority figures. No questions asked, she would be seeing them again.

After all, she was well acquainted with where they lived.

She was a professional, after all!

Her knees sunk to the floor, crimson eyes leering around the corner. No, she had bigger fish to fry. Though not superhuman, her hearing was well and powerful enough to hear what they had said. Child murderer. Shooting up the school - how banal. No showmanship, bringing a gun to a nothing fight! Perhaps she was just destined to be a woman of superior tastes. Her ambitions too lofty for this sad sack of a school to handle.

Still, she couldn't deny it had momentarily intrigued her- intrigued her enough for her to be sitting here at this very moment. She had heard some tell of a murderer at this school, even not being in the popular crowd where she should have heard that gossip. It was like any other amateur horror story copied and pasted from the dregs of the internet. Barely worth paying attention to. (Truly, she was the only urban legend she cared about.) It was only just now, for a fleeting moment, being given a face and a name, did she feel even a pinprick of competition.

But, looking at him, standing there like yesterday's milk set on the doorstep of an abandoned home, its elderly owner's corpse slowly decaying inside, she had a few of her conclusions.

Hell if the kid was a murderer. A manslaughterer, at best! God, that term was a hundred times sexier than it had any right to be- momentarily she made a note to reclaim the word for herself at some point down the line. Accidental murderers didn't deserve such a fun moniker.

Amid pitch black spatters of ink and some other "page decorations", she scribbled a handful of barely-legible words into the notebook in her hands with her pen. Key among them, "basement door," "stooges," "Mikey-boy," "murder," "janitor," and "no fun!" If even she knew what it truly said was a mystery. Perhaps she was just scrawling from the heart. Unlike her shitty, depressed self, she had outlets for her feelings that weren't entirely based around the written word, so she hadn't bothered paying attention to being any good at writing it.

It stood out like a sore thumb in her journals, but who was bothering to look at those?

She had been waiting in silence for one of two things to happen- Michael's footsteps to draw closer to her, or potentially that janitor to come back and give him a thorough ass whooping. (Now that, she would have liked to see. Even if she wasn't causing the pain, sometimes she just needed some stress relief, you know?) Unfortunately for her, none of those things seemed to be happening any time soon. After all, with her targets gone, she had far better things to be killing than sitting here killing time. Not to mention, it would be inconvenient to get in trouble for this incident herself. Gloomy sure loved staying under the radar, and she wasn't about to give up killing over a little administrative trouble herself.

So, she snapped the notebook closed, pocketed it, and rose to her feet. Contorted her face to something equal parts stupid and malicious. And, in a falsetto approximation of Brad's voice, lashed out with a "What's wrong, murderboy? You know how these things work! Fight, or flee! Fight! Flee! Choose wisely if you want to live!"

Oh, she had fun, didn't she?

Her piercing laugh echoed through the halls as she tore her way towards an exit, always keeping herself one step ahead of any eyes prying into the source of her little bit of "advice."

Sure, that fallout might have been fun to watch, but not worth her hide nor hair.
 

Kurusu Akira

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After the whole fiasco at the library, Akira had headed home, not wanting to bother the librarian. Leaving her alone to deal with the mess had not left a good taste in his mouth, but what else should he do? Help her? She didn't want his help, and on the promise of not upsetting her even more, he left without a word.

And that was something he had to make up for it now.

It was the next day. Classes went smoothly – his off-hours of study had been paying off, he being able now to keep up with the weird curricula this magic school had.

Once classes were over, Akira headed for the library, when a familiar voice caught his attention.

"Mr. Afton," it said. It was Ms. Waltzer, their physics teacher.

She was further ahead on the hallway, also walking alongside the students leaving their classrooms. Not far from her, Afton stood, who flinched at her call.

"I heard those bullies bothered you too. Are you ok?"

Afton mumbled something too low for Akira to hear.

"Come with me – I have a few things to discuss with you in private before I properly deal with them."

Did something happen to Afton? He could look into it before dealing with the librarian.

They walked towards the teacher's office, both of them silent, with Akira tailgating them. Luckly, none of them seemed to notice him. When they entered the office, Akira casually rested himself on the wall near the door, one hand on his pocket, the other on his phone, pretending to not write gibberish.

From inside the room, Afton said something. Again, too low to be heard.

"As I said earlier," said Ms. Waltzer, her voice much clearer than Afton's, "we're here to discuss solutions to your problem. While we both know the real culprits are Hamilton and Co, there are some things you can do yourself. Have I told you before how the basement door is off-limits?"

That asshole is behind Afton too?

Afton hummed in agreement.

"Well, there are some people who think rules are there to be broken. It would be wise for you to not hang out in places that may attract dangerous people. In particular, that basement door."

"Yes, ma'am." This time, his answer was loud and clear.

"Good," said the teacher. "What exactly happened there yesterday?"

No answer from Afton. At least, not that Akira could hear.

"I see. Well, take this as a warning: there is nothing for you in the school's basement but danger. You do not want to go there."

"Alright."

"Good! You are dismissed, Mr. Afton. Have a good day."

Upon hearing steps approaching the door, Akira resumed his walk to the library – the last thing he wanted was for them to know he eavesdropped a personal (if odd) conversation. He made a mental note of checking up with Afton after checking up with the librarian.

Those assholes sure like attacking the people Akira hangs out with.
 

Touko Fukawa

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She felt as dead as usual. Maybe a bit moreso.

Needless to say, the stooges hadn't bothered to show their faces around the library after yesterday's incident. Regardless of her personal physical prowess, they were aware Touko had her hand on the dial to phone security if they showed up again. Unfortunately, they were more intelligent than they seemed. So instead she had been languishing in boredom again, turning up her nose at pages of homework that had been mauled, either by said incident, or by her own reaction to it.

Not a proud moment, that.

But who was she kidding? None of her moments were really proud moments.

Hence why she barely looked up as Akira entered the library, more assuring he was not one of the idiots returning- and her shoulders relaxed as she realized he was, in fact, not one of them. She was almost back to staring at papers by the time he slid up to the desk, making sure he inspected each of the other handful of library guests to make sure they weren't listening in. Not that it was dreadfully important- his hands leaned on the desk, he merely asked, "hey. How have things been since yesterday? Any more trouble?"

To which she flipped her papers closed with a sigh, not quite glaring at Akira- she was above that, but only barely. "N-nothing... Concrete. It's been quiet, but..." She averted her gaze from his, staring directly at the floor. "...peaceful."

He nodded, sitting down in a chair near the desk himself. Though as prickly as ever, she certainly didn’t seem that much worse for wear considering the situation. “Glad to hear it." Casually, he pulled a book from his bag, making himself look busy. "It seems like there's been a lot of chaos related to them around the school recently. Hopefully someone will turn them in for it some time soon.”

Though never a fiend for gossip, as she was not exactly privy to the inner circle of popular kids at Arcadia High, Touko still listened in, nose wrinkling. “Ugh, yeah, as if. No one ever bothers with them.” There was a resentful resignation in her voice, glancing up at him while keeping her head turned down towards her papers. "...What did they do this time?" Despite herself, she couldn't help but be curious.

"Heard something about them hassling a guy in my class named Afton."

"...Michael...? I... I guess that makes sense." She gaze flicked to the side again, focusing on nothing in particular, just anything but the conversation.

"You know him?"

"Know is... A-a bit strong." She had strived not to know any boys like her life depended on it. But she wasn't about to tell Akira that- there was too much baggage there. "I am acquainted with him." This bit was forceful, possibly a bit too much so, as her tone slipped from shyness into venomous malice. "But... They give him shit all the time. Leave it to jackasses like that to pick on the ones who already hate themselves."

This was perhaps a bit too much information for Akira, as now instead of looking curious, he just looked concerned. "...I might go talk to him about that." He closed his book as he spoke, standing up from his chair. "I'll see you later."

Reflexively her eyes moved to the clock. 3:56. The library should be closing at 4.

She took a shaky breath, and swallowed.

"I'll... I'll go with you, I guess." She was just going to ask him about what had happened between him and the bullies, she told herself. She wasn't going to get sucked up into another world of danger. She just didn't have anything better to do, that was all. She-

She told herself she needed a better type, anyway- there was so much better in the world than another tragic backstory she was "destined" to fix. Especially if fixing him, to her, just meant putting him six feet under.

In a rush, she gathered all of her things as well, yanking the keyring for the library from a cabinet's lock and pocketing it.
 

Paige Turner

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Erde Nona weather was quite nice, all things considered. At the moment, it felt neither too hot nor too cold, and a light breeze felt nice as it blew against Paige’s back. The sky was blue, but the world was cast in a slight amber hue, lending itself to a sunset aesthetic. She looked at the school itself. It exuded a sense of fantastic wonder, that whatever lay inside was beyond your wildest dreams. Its many towers poked into the sky like spikes, and the use of golden brass, marble, and stained glass decor gave it an otherworldly appearance. How majestic. How wondrous.

How ostentatious…

It was an ordinary Thursday afternoon, and she found herself waiting at the school gate. It was the most obvious exit from the school, one which most, if not all, students took out of the building. Considering how her last attempt to talk to Michael got sorely interrupted, it seemed more fitting for her to wait outside for his eventual return home. It looked to be a better strategy. After all, she wanted to investigate the closet as soon as possible; it would be best to do it on a weekend, but if she could not garner any assistance before Friday afternoon, she would have to wait another week.



As she lay there in waiting, she caught the glimpse of a ball cap, white and red, with purple letters on the front. The man who donned it exuded a depressingly meek aura as he walked past with his head hunched over. Despite the rigid shoulders on his blue and yellow suit, his posture lacked any level of aggression or assertion. Wow, he does a damn nice job making a masculine suit look anything but. Paige got up from the stone bench she sat upon. “Hey.”

Michael’s shoulders shot up for a second. Turning his head around, he looked like he had been scared half to death. He loosened up a bit, though not by much, and replied. “Erm… hi again.”

“You mind staying for a bit? I’d like to talk to you.”

“I… suppose. What do you want to tell me?” He turned to face Paige, his ball cap hanging low. It was hard to look him in the eyes as a result.

“I asked you for your name Monday, but you never told me what it was. Would you mind telling me now?” A redundant question, but it wouldn’t help if he knew that his name was stored in her memory. His type is frustrating to convince to a cause once one loses their trust.

“Well, if I do that, you’ll run away screaming, probably, right?”

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose.”

“Did you, like… prep that reference?”

“Nah, I just like reading.” She looked at the school again. This building made me think of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I guess. “But really, though, I’m not going to hate you for your name or what others think of you, so you don’t need to worry about that.”

His eyes narrowed, clearly not fully convinced that her words were honest. In the end, though, he conceded with a deep breath. “... I’m Michael. Michael Afton.”

“Paige Turner. A pleasure to meet you, Michael.”

“First time anyone’s said that nowadays… er, second time.”

Paige put hand on chin for a second. That isn’t too unbelievable, considering his reputation. “Sorry about pressuring you the other day, by the way.”

“Don’t worry. That wasn’t pressure-”



As he was talking, his gaze shifted over to the school entrance. The string bean physique that walked through the door could only be one person: that kid she had met Tuesday morning. Beside him was Touko, her hunched stature not doing much to settle the height discrepancy between the two. Well this is an interesting duo. Wait, what was his name again?

Bean pole stepped forward first, twirling a bit of hair which fell between his eyes. His demeanor was calm, reserved, yet assertive enough to hold water in a discussion. “Are you two talking?”

Was it Akins? No, that’s a last name.

Touko gives a confused gaze to her companion. “...Why is she just staring at the ground?”

It was… uh… Akida? Akida Kurumatsu, right? Right? Right.

He tried asking again. “Excuse me-”

“Yes. Sorry, I was thinking. We are in the middle of a conversation right now.”

“Is it fine if we talk to Afton? It’s important.”

“What I’m talking to him about is important as well, and it isn’t polite to butt in on a chat you’re not involved with.”

Touko, as predicted, replied in a rude retort. “First you make us wait for you to think, then you tell us to just… buzz off? How arrogant do you have to be?”

Come on, I couldn’t have been thinking for that long. “Say whatever you want, but I’m still going to talk with him. You guys can come back at a later time.”

Akida looked as if he was about to reply, but one glance at the rain cloud sinking into the bench and he had changed his mind. “Come on, let’s go.”

Surprised, Touko responded in disbelief. “Wait, we’re just going to leave?”

“We’ll come back later. We’ve got time.”

She thought for a moment, then grumbled a bit. “Whatever… she’s too stubborn to listen to us anyway…”



It wasn’t much longer before they left, to Paige’s relief. If they had continued to bother her after her chance yesterday haf ripped away from her, sparks would have started flying. Thankfully that outcome was avoided. She turned again to her acquaintance with a sigh. “Well that was irritating. Do you know them too?”

Michael sat back up, still a bit thrown off by the sudden argument. “Er, yeah, actually. I know Akira. Well, sorta. We’ve talked a bit. We’re in the same class and, uh… partners of the same project.”

“I met him once myself, but haven’t spoken to him again until now. Anyway, we’re getting sidetracked. I wanted to talk to you about the basement.”

“What about it?”

“So I did some investigating, and I think I’ve got a lead about what may be behind it. I was wondering if you would like to help with it.”

“No.” Mike shot up off the bench and walked at a brisk pace toward the street, shaking his head like a soda can ready to blow. Paige was liable to jump out of her seat as well.

“No? What do you mean no?!”

“There is nothing for me but danger. I don’t want to go down there… especially since I’ll probably get expelled if I do.”

That sounded unnatural. It made sense, though; his reputation is atrocious. Most kids seem to hate him, except the bullies, and even they aren’t treating him well. It made sense that he would be a prime suspect for teachers and the like. However, his lack of enthusiasm caught her off guard. “What? But you were the one who was interested in it to start with.”

Michael returned her question with a furrowed brow, as if she said something completely inane. “No I wasn’t?”

“You weren’t? But you were looking at the door when I first talked to you, without my prompting or anything.”

“Must have been talking about something else.”

Jeez, I’m losing him… Got to change my tactics. Paige clenched the bridge of her nose between her fingers. “Well, there’s something sketchy going on, and I want to get to the bottom of it. Will you at least hear me out before you turn me down?”


“I dunno what you’d want a person like me to do. Especially me.” Despite his words, he turned back and sat down on the bench once more.

He seems to be willing to listen, at the very least. “Just hear me out. So I talked with someone the other day- I thought it was you, but I guess not- and heard that there was something weird about the door. During lunch on Wednesday, I decided to ask around for clues, and I found out some interesting details.”

“What… details?” he replied, lifting his head a tad. His blue eyes became visible, though shadowed by the brim of his cap. They were wide, brightening his face with the look of intrigue, a look not to dissimilar to the feeling of figuring out the last piece in a complex puzzle.

“So to start, the basement was open at one point, from what I hear. If you got in trouble, you would have to help the janitors, and that’s where they stored their tools and materials. However, apparently it closed about a month ago or so, for some reason.”

“Something was leaking out from underneath the door.” His voice was surprisingly forward. At least, forward for him.

“Oh, what was it? Do you know?”

“I…” He rested his fingers on his temples, his jaw clenched in pain. “I don’t know. I just… what the…”

“You… alright, man?”

“I’m fine, I just… got a headache for a second there.” Michael looked back toward the school, probably not thinking about Shakespearean plays. “Could be just… faulty piping or something. You know how it is.” Despite his words, he did not seem satisfied with that answer.

“Maybe, but I feel like there’s something more. When I heard kids used to help the janitor, I decided to ask around about them in case it led anywhere. It turns out one of the custodians- Mr. Jeffers- has been acting strange lately. The way it’s phrased, it seems like this is a recent development.”

“Probably not getting paid enough money. Money’s a stressor like that.”

It killed Paige to hear him push this off so nonchalantly. Mostly because it implied that she was wasting her time. It was unreal how much he was pushing her away right now; yes, she had been rude to him when they first talked, but to outright lie about his interest in the basement? Nothing to do about it, though, except to keep up the pressure. I’ll be screwed if I don’t get this guy to help, considering he’s the reason I’m doing any of this.

“Well, no, because he used to be a social guy, giving paper out to students and stuff. And of all three of the custodians, he is the only one whose change was noticeable enough to be pointed out.”

“And this was around the same time that the basement closed?”

“I’m not completely sure. However, it is suspicious given that it did hold janitorial supplies in the past.”

“Okay, well… something must have taken their place, then…. Is what you think is going on, right?”

“No, I find it weird because it means there is a direct link to the janitors and the basement, since that is where they put their stuff. And if Mr. Jeffers started acting weird around the same time the door closed up, then that means there is a connection that could be drawn.”

Michael propped his head with his right palm. “I… maybe, but if that’s true, why don’t the other janitors feel more nervous? It’s not like he’s the only one with access to the place.”

“Of course, that’s a fair point, but that’s not all I have.” Why are you so unconcerned about this? You’re the one who was interested in the first place, it’s ridiculous how you can play this dumb.

“I found out there was a janitor’s closet beside the basement, and as soon as I jostled the doorknob a bit, Jeffers found me. He was acting really nervous, like he had something to hide. Had a stutter and everything, real bad too. But when I asked him for paper, he spoke like an excited child, and his stutter straight up didn’t exist.”

His face became stern, in an intrigued way. “... Okay, yeah, that’s kinda weird.”

“But wait, I’m not finished. After he was done with me, he walked inside the closet. But that closet looked really shallow- like, hardly enough space for a single person. What’s more, I used the paper he gave me to keep the door from properly closing. When I opened the door, he wasn’t inside.” Michael sat up as soon as she said that, right hand resting on his head.

“Wha- that doesn’t even sound physically possible! You’re saying he just disappeared, vanished like a ghost?”

“Definitely. Definitely ghost. 100 percent, definitely ghost sweeper.” Paige was shaking her head like a cartoon character trying to emphasize how much they mean what they say.

“Okay, okay, I get it, not a ghost.”

Paige put her thinking pose back on. “But still, I wonder why he wasn't there. He couldn’t have just disappeared, after all. He had to go somewhere. I have an idea, but I want to test it in person.” Her signature smirk drew upon her face. “So. I have a proposal for you.”

“I am not going to be tossed into the closet grinder for your experiment.”

“Nonono, you’re not going in the closet. I want to know if you’ll help me get into the closet by keeping watch for the janitor and keeping him distracted.”

“Seriously? If they see me even just a hundred feet away from it, I…” His shoulders slumped, vision pointed to the ground. “Who knows what’ll happen. It won’t be good, that’s for certain.”

“But you’ve been interested in the basement since I first met you. Don’t you want to know more about it?” Wait, I forgot, that trail led nowhere-

“I’ve been interested in this basement like people are interested in math. It’s there, we sometimes talk about it, but I’m not really all that into it. Except for programming, anyways. That’s different.” He sighed with the weight of twelve pounds of air. “I’ve never been interested in it, is what I’m trying to say.”

Bullshit. “The first thing I ever said to you was something along the lines of ‘You gonna do something with that door, or just look at it all day,’ because you were just looking at it with a gaze that could melt the moon. What are you even talking about, not being interested in it?”

“What are you talking about? That never even happened!”

“Okay then, do you remember how our first conversation went?”

“I remember you snapping your fingers in front of my eyes, like you were testing my reflexes or something. And you were trying to get my name… sorry for not giving it to you earlier, by the way. I should have just told you.”

“Okay, and what else?”

“You transferred here a week ago.”

“And? How did the conversation start?”

Silence. He glances about, squinting, mind straining to recall something, but clearly not succeeding in its efforts.

“If the start is out of reach, can you think about how it ended instead?”

“You… walked away. People were whispering about you. Got a taste of things.”

“Do you remember what I said when I walked away?”

“You said something when you walked away?”

Suddenly, an absurd yet conclusive idea formed within Paige’s mind. It seemed impossible, but if it truly is the case…

“...Wait… did you… somehow forget everything that had to do with the basement in our conversation that morning?”

“It’s a little hard to forget something that never happened, right?”

“No, man… I’m thinking about the conversation, and I remember walking up to you because you were looking at the door. I was talking about you looking at the door, trying to freak you out by making you look like you were going to break in- though at that point, I didn’t see anybody around, so it was basically a prank- and you said it was for staff only. Then I gave you my name around that point. How can I remember all of that, but you can’t?”

“I… I don’t know?” He said, staring at her like she was the one that the students should be talking about behind her back, not him.

“What are you looking at me like that for? If anything, I should be giving you that glance, because I feel like I’m being rolled right now.” She turned away from Michael, clasping her forehead as she pondered about this. There’s no way he got amnesia… right? But then, how else could he have possibly lost interest so quickly?

“I’m not rolling you right now. I’m not in the mood to get punched.”

It’s not even that, really, it’s as if he never had interest in it to begin with. No matter how you spin it, that’s just not normal.

“Paige?”

What the hell kind of batshit crazy shenanigans could be going on in this school that a kid suddenly loses all memory and enthusiasm from something they were excited about? God- that pisses me off!

Mike just stared at her, opening and closing his mouth, constantly on the verge on trying to get her attention but always hanging back to avoid pressuring her over himself.

How the hell am I supposed to get anywhere if I- oh, damn, I’m monologuing in front of someone. Paige shook her head, as if knocking off her will to isolate from socialization, and turned to her partner in banter. “My bad, did you say something?”

“I mean, I did, but to be honest… I’m more concerned about you right now. You looked like you were panicking for a second there.”

Paige considered confiding in him, but decided against it. I don’t trust him enough, and it would likely cause more of a hassle than it’s worth. It seemed like a better time to just cut the conversation short anyway. Some time to think would be nice, after all. “Look, I’m not going to force you to do anything. But the offer is still on the table. I’ll be out here after school tomorrow. If you’re interested, hit me up. If not, just give me the word. I’m going on my own anyway this Sunday, so it’s your choice whether you want to help me succeed.”

He stared at her, eyes widened. He doesn’t say anything.

Hands on knees, Paige lifted herself up from the bench. “And hey- even if you say no, feel free to come chat with me if you want. I won’t tell you to shove off or anything. Hell, I’m basically in a similar boat from just talking to you, so might as well go all in, right?”

“I… yeah. That can… that’s fine. That can work.”

Before she went to leave, however, Michael got up from the bench. “Erm… do you have a number? You know, just in case, right?”

She gave a shocked expression. The last thing she expected was him asking her for a phone number; she expected to have to go the other way around. Her face faded into a gentle grin, and she pulled her phone out from her backpack. “Yeah, man. Here, let me give you my digits.”
 
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