It was typical Haru; half-apologetic, determined not to offend, and just a little self-depreciating in its mannerisms, just like the one who'd written it. The gist of the text simply said that Haru wouldn't be coming to the lounge for lunch today and that Kuroyukihimi should not wait for him. A brief tinge of worry crossed the Student Council Vice President's mind as she wondered if her beloved was once more trying to hide being bullied by someone, but she dismissed it. While Haru-kun had his small amount of pride, he also knew he had friends he could turn to if he was in trouble, and Kuroyukihimi would have heard something if anyone was attacking him again. So that left something else.
With of swipe of her hand she dismissed the e-mail, the neurolinker at her neck pulling up the logs for the Umesato Junior High's school network. It was the work of a second to find the name Haruyuki Arita on the log, indicating he was indeed logged in. Another sip of her tea and Kuroyukihimi set the cup down. That girl, Chiyuri, said Haru was in the habit of hiding when he net dove at school, protection against someone messing with his body while he was online. But finding his hiding spot would be more trouble than it was worth, especially if she already knew where his mind was.
The e-mail had mentioned nothing of Haru not wanting her to come after him, and it was only natural for a girlfriend to take an interest in her beau's activities.
"Open Direct Link," she whispered as her neurolinker kicked in. The surrounding lounge disappeared as her brain was electronically linked to the school's computer network, replaced by a rather fanciful representation of a quaint little village in the woods. So too did Kuroyukihimi's own visage change, her dark blue school uniform replaced by the elegantly flowing black dress she'd designed herself, complimented by the gigantic swallowtail wings that attached to her back. With a soft click she landed on the familiar tree stump that served as the entry point for this digital world, lightly stepping down and into the world proper.
All around her other students, each in their own self-designed avatars, mingled and played the virtual games provided by Umesato. Several looked up from their activities to wave and greet her as the VP walked by. Reflexively Kuroyukihimi returned their greetings, politely refusing any offers to join the various groups that had formed as she pressed on, moving to the outskirts of the little village. Before her stood a tall building that looked like it had seen better days. Kuroyukihimi knew the virtual plants were designed exhibit overgrowth, a way for the admins to track which parts of the program saw the heaviest use. Vines partially obscured the sign that proclaimed this building to house a virtual squash game. If the girl strained her ears, she could just make out the sound of a ball smacking hard against a wall.
Inside the building, the squash game was in full swing as a little pink pig bounced about like a ping pong ball, a racket in his right trotter as he batted the ball back to the wall. While rather slow in the real world, Haruyuki was living lightning here in the virtual one. But it wasn't enough. As the score climbed higher and higher with each successful return, Haru pushed himself harder, trying to go even faster, concentrating on being where he knew the ball would be as he swung his racket.
"Haru-kun?" At the sound of the voice, Haruyuki's head turned in mid-air to look at the game's entry door. Kuroyukihimi stood at the top of the stairway, leaning on her umbrella as she stared down at the game in progress. The moment was brief, but it was enough as Haru failed to notice it as the ball ricocheted off the far walls, sailing back to him. Distracted, the small pig was an easy mark as the ball struck his head, causing his body to spin wildly in the air before he fell back to the floor in a pink heap.
"Ouch," he whimpered instinctively as the game over graphic appeared overhead, the ball disappearing back to data. The sound of soft chuckling came to his ears and he quickly realized it was coming from Kuroyukihimi.
His stomach roiled with humiliation. She was laughing at him. Old fears bubbled to the surface of his mind, the laughter of a faceless crowd, cruel and debasing. Somewhere in the real world, he could feel his eyes begin to sting with tears. In the end, even Sempai thought he was a jo…
'Stop it!' Haru screamed internally, biting back his tears. He refused to fall into that pit again, refused to succumb to that train of thought. 'Back up from the situation, think about it.' They were in the virtual world; the school net. The fall might have looked painful, but there was no way to be physically hurt here, something they both knew. And he was presently in the form of a cartoonish pig that had just performed a wild-take Bugs Bunny would have been proud of. The laughter wasn't derisive, wasn't meant to be cruel, it was simply an expression of amusement at a harmless but funny situation.
With a wiggle Haruyuki began to get up, only to feel it as slender arms took hold of his small body, lifting him into Kuroyukihimi's arms.
"All right?" she asked as she cradled the boy, a demure smile on her face.
"Um, uh, y-yes," he stuttered out, blushing a bit as she held him, the angle giving him a fairly good view of her chest which he was determined not to take advantage of. Kuroyukihimi's head turned, her black hair whipping about. For a brief moment Haru could almost swear he smelled her shampoo.
"So, this is what you'd rather do than have lunch with me?" she asked teasingly.
"N-n-no, not at all," Haruyuki said, trotters waving in front of him. "I was just… just…"
"And here I was worried you might be sneaking off to be with another gi…" Her words were cut off as she watched Haruyuki's present score being added to the top scores, taking its place as the new number five. It was the higher scores which caught her eye, however. While her own position at number one remained uncontested, the second place score was now different, roughly four levels higher than its previous occupant.
"Ah heh heh heh," Haru nervously laughed as she noticed the scoreboard, rubbing the back of his head as Kuroyukihimi looked back him.
"You're trying to beat my high score?"
"Well, I just… you see… yes," he answered, head hanging in shame, unsure how she'd take this. "It's just, well, I held the top score here for so long, it just seems wrong not to at least try to reclaim it. And, and besides, as far as training goes, it doesn't cost burst points to use, right?" Another light laugh was followed by her putting him back on the ground and handing him his racket.
"I guess I can understand that. This game was a point of pride for you when you didn't think you had many. It's only natural for you to want to reclaim it." She walked over to the side of the court. "But you remember, don't you, that I attained that score using acceleration? Good as you are, it is unlikely you'd be able to beat it without using the same." Kuroyukihimi felt a twinge of guilt over her rather blunt statement as she saw the pig's face droop. Haruyuki's ego was not so strong that it could take so many blows…
"Well, then I guess it's still something to shoot for, right?" he said, surprising the older girl a bit. "And I have improved, you must admit that."
"True," Kuroyukihimi acknowledged, taping a foot on the ground. A panel opened up beside her, ejecting a new racket as Kuroyukihimi's name suddenly appeared in the opposing player's slot. "However, I feel that one cannot truly be trained all by oneself. Don't you?"
"Um… Wait? What?" Haru yelped back, panicked sweat coating his body as the black haired girl took position on the court. "No, no, you don't have to do this," he assured her. "I mean, I'm sure you have more important things to do with your lunch hour than waste time here." The girl simply smiled as she gave the racket a test swing.
"Don't be silly, Haruyuki-kun, I'd never consider time with you as wasted," Kuroyukihimi replied. "That being said, I believe I also have a right to defend my high score." A buzzer sounded as the game began, the two students tensing as the squash ball suddenly materialized and shot forward.
Back in the real world, in one of the stalls of the boy's room of Umesato Junior High, a smile crept across Haruyuki's face.