2 Alternate Reality

School was hell that day.

Ichigo and Horiya wasted no time spreading all the rumors they could about me. Since they were both the popular type, they quickly made plenty of friends before I could even try to talk to someone.

I figured it was a lost cause, trying to make friends in this class. Those two had already spread so many rumors that no one would want to even come near me.

Sure, they may be some who don't believe the rumors out there, but... I didn't want to risk it and reach out to them. After all, if my judgement was incorrect, that would be just akin to slapping myself in the face.

That being said, the current situation wasn't as bad as middle school. Not everyone here was from the same school I was, after all. Ichigo and Horiya needed to secure a stable position in the social ladder of the school first, and gather a bunch of people around themselves. They didn't have the luxury of dealing with me just yet, thankfully.

The school day ended without much happening apart from the occasional gossip and accompanying laughter directed my way. Immediately after the bell rang and we were dismissed from class, I rushed out the door, wanting to escape as quickly as possible. Ichigo and Horiya, seeing this display, laughed in amusement, but didn't chase after me.

Of course, I couldn't deny that I was running away from them. I also couldn't deny that I was somewhat scared of them, after the mental scars they left on me from middle school. But other than this, there was one more reason I was so eager to get off school - a certain new ARMMORPG.

That's right - Ascension Online.

After overhearing about this game by chance, I felt compelled to check it out, for some unexplained reason. I didn't quite understand why myself, but I decided to follow my instincts.


The rain had stopped when I got outside. Of course, that was only natural. It would've been pretty weird if the rain from this morning was still going after over six hours. Heading to the closest store by memory, I picked up my pace.

The store was called DigiGames, though that wasn't too important. It was a chain video games store that mainly sold VR and ARMMORPGs. I had been here many times before to take a look at video games.

Just look, though - I didn't have enough money to actually buy any.

Before I even went inside, I noticed the massive poster on the glass that showcased the new hit game - Ascension: Online.

Apparently, there was a colon between 'Ascension' and 'Online'. I didn't know that before, but it wasn't that important anyway. By the looks of it, the game seemed to be set in some sort of Chinese Xianxia cultivation world. The art on the poster was beautiful, showcasing a clear blue sky with fog-covered mountains.

Well, it looked pretty cool, at the very least.

I went inside the store and went up to the clerk.

"How may I help you? Oh, wait...I recognize ya. An old customer, is it?" he asked, noticing me.

"Yeah. I was just curious about the new game..."

"Ah, Ascension: Online, correct?"

I nodded. "Yeah, that's the one. What is it about?"

"Glad ya asked," he said with a light chuckle. "Even though the game only came out around a week ago, I've already played it quite a bit, so ya can take my word for it."

After clearing his throat, the clerk continued.

"Ascension: Online, or A:O for short, is an ARMMORPG designed to recreate reality as best as possible."

"Recreate reality...? But from that poster I saw on the windo-"

"Yep. I wasn't done talking. Ascension: Online essentially creates a whole new world of magic and cultivation for us to live in. Compared to other AR games, A:O is the largest by far in terms of world size."

"Wow..." I mused.

"In addition, it's also the first AR game to have successfully implemented the food and drinks system. It's one of the most redeeming features of AR games, but A:O is the first game to actually include it, because of just how hard it is to program."

"Hm... the food and drinks system, huh. So, that feature where if you eat or drink something in-game, it will actually satiate your hunger and thirst in real life?" I asked.

"Yeah," he replied with a grin. "Pretty cool, isn't it? I've tested it out myself - totally works. I spent my entire 48-hour weekend in-game, and when I finally logged out, I didn't feel hungry or thirsty at all, since I ate and drank in the actual game."

"But...what about using the bathroom and such? And showering?"

"Heh. Kid, you're pretty new to AR technology, aren't ya?"

I nodded hesitantly, and the clerk sighed.

"Well, okay. To explain it in simple terms, when you dive into AR, your body essentially becomes 'frozen' until you log out and come back to the real world again," he said.

"Frozen? How so?"

"Frozen, as in time stops for your body. It won't grow hungry, thirsty, and you won't need to use the bathroom or anything like that. So - what I'm saying is, you could, essentially, stay inside AR forever. Though, of course, there isn't any food or drinks in AR, so people log out eventually to enjoy being able to savor delicacies again. At least... until this game, Ascension: Online, came along."

"Right. You said there's food and drinks in this game, yeah? So now there's practically no reason for people to return to the real world, except for their jobs. Those who have enough money to spend their whole life in peace could just stay inside the game forever," I concluded.

"That's exactly what I'm saying, kiddo. Man, I wish I could do that too..." he trailed off.

I see... Ascension: Online was not just any AR game. It was one that could very well change the meaning of reality. And if it could really do that... I could finally escape from my past - for good, this time.

"By the way, you sell AR sets here, right?" I asked.

"We do," he replied. "You're in luck, kid. There's a discount going on for them right now."

"How much are they?"

"Well, the original price of one would be around 70,000 yen, but on 50% discount that would be 35,000 yen."

I gulped. Even with the discount, 35,000 yen was still quite the sum. I didn't have that much money.

I sighed. "I see. Thanks for the info."

"No problem, kiddo."

"You...aren't mad I'm not buying anything?"

"Nah. I already knew, don't worry. There's no way a high school kid like ya can afford any of this stuff on your own."

I bowed my head politely. "Thank you."

Normally, store clerks would be annoyed if you just came inside, asked for information, then left without spending a single cent. This one seemed to be nice enough not to mind, though. I turned around, and prepared to leave, but then-

"Ah, here you are, Kaze-kun!"

A beautiful girl with black hair and black eyes ran over to me happily.

"E-Eh? Hina-nee-?"

But before I could say anything, she pulled me into a tight embrace, my voice muffled by her body.

"Mou~you little rascal. I was planning on picking you up at the school so we could walk home together, but you ended up coming here right after classes ended, huh?"

I tried to push away from her hug, but she wouldn't let me and instead tightened her grip.

"C'mon, tell nee-san. What were you looking at in here?" she asked curiously, finally loosening me a bit.

"Uh..." unable to bring myself to speak the words, I opened my mouth but then closed it again. I knew that if I told her I had been looking at AR sets, she would buy me one right then and there.

She had more than enough money, after all, from the scholarship she received. I did say she was a prestigious student, didn't I?

"That kid there was trying to get an AR set," the clerk chuckled, seeing our display of familial love. "How about it? Want to buy him a set? He looked like he really wanted one."

"N-No I didn't!" I exclaimed in frustration. "Ugh... don't listen to him, Hina-nee. I was just... browsing because I have nothing better to do, that's all."

Hina-nee looked me in the eyes with a serious look on her face, and then smiled. "You can't lie to me, Kaze-kun. I've known you for fourteen years. You may be able to trick other people, but I'm the one person you can't."

Then, turning to the clerk without letting me go, she continued. "How much is the AR set?"

"35,000 yen. It's on discount right now," the clerk replied with the same price he had told me.

"Perfect! I just happen to have that much on hand..." she said as she pulled out her wallet, still holding onto me with one arm.

Somehow managing to take out her debit card with one hand, she closed up her wallet and stuck it back in her coat pocket. Even though it was only early fall, she already wore a coat. The reason for this was that Hina-nee was sensitive to the cold, ever since she was young. That's why winter was always the hardest time of the year for her.

In any case, she scanned the shelves, pulling me along, and quickly settled on an AR set that looked to be the highest-priced one.

"We'll take that one," she said, pointing.

"Huh? Hina-nee...that's the most expens-"

"But it's also the best one there is, no?" she winked at me. "Hehe, relax, Kaze-kun. Just let nee-san here handle this, mkay?"

"Good eye," the clerk laughed. "That one comes with batteries built inside, meaning even if power cut on the outside, you would still be able to continue playing. Though, they aren't charged just yet - you'll have to charge it by leaving it plugged in while not actually playing."

I wanted to argue, but I knew that would be futile. I have never won a single argument against Hina-nee, not even once. I wasn't so foolish as to think I would win one now.

The clerk helped us get the AR set Hina-nee picked out, which was placed on the topmost shelf where neither of us could reach. Hina-nee was only a bit taller than me, after all, and I was only 5'9".

She quickly checked out, and the clerk placed the box containing the AR set into a plastic bag, which I then took. It was the least I could do after Hina-nee paid for it. We said thank you and left the store.

"Hina-nee...you didn't have to do that," I said as we walked. For the record, she still had her arm around me. It wasn't exactly uncomfortable, though. I could smell the sweet scent of her shampoo since I was so close to her.

"Kaze-kun... an AR set is all you've ever wanted. I know that."

"H-Huh? I never said tha-"

"No, you didn't. But... I can feel it, y'know? You've always been a quiet boy. Even if you saw something you liked when we went out shopping with mom and dad, you never said anything. At most, you would spare it an extra glance or two, then just give up on it."


"I haven't done much as your nee-san. This is the least I can do to repay you," she said, but I quickly shook my head.

"No, you've done far more than I could ever ask for, Hina-nee. And besides..." I averted my gaze. "... You're the one who said we're family, right? There's no such thing as repayment or debt in a family."

Hina-nee seemed to be surprised at my words, but she quickly recomposed herself and laughed it off. "Ahh... you've really grown up, haven't you?"

"Of course. I'm not a little kid anymore, so... your arm...?"

Realizing what I was talking about, Hina-nee giggled. "Heehee, I'll admit you're not a little kid anymore, but that won't stop me from hugging you! Hya~!"

She hugged me even tighter, this time with both arms. She was practically leaning her whole weight on me, which I struggled to balance with my backpack and the AR set we just bought. To strangers, we must've seemed like a young couple.

"... Really? Sometimes, it's hard to tell who's the older sibling between us," I muttered, sighing. "Well, whatever. As long as you're happy, Hina-nee."

With that, we headed home, now with a new AR set in hand. As for the game itself, Ascension: Online... I would come back tomorrow to buy it myself, since I could afford that with my allowance, at least. If I tried buying it now, Hina-nee would've just bought it for me as well. I would like to avoid that.

After all, she has already done far too much for me.

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