4 System: Start

Hina-nee and I left the house at around the same time, even though my school was a lot further than hers. She could've stayed behind and relaxed for a little bit before leaving, but she insisted on walking together with me until we had to part ways. The weather was fine today, especially compared to yesterday's storm.

"Say, Hina-nee, do you like video games?" I asked as we walked.

"Hm? That was pretty out of the blue," she said, before adopting a thinking gesture. "Though... I guess I can't really answer that question, since I've never played any before."

"I see," I murmured. "Then... what do you think of a new reality?"

"A new reality...? As in, a new world?"

"Yeah. A place where you could start anew. A place of swords and magic, like something straight out of a fantasy novel."

"Well, I think that would be pretty cool. But... if it means having to leave behind our parents and you, then... I would never do it, no matter how tempting the offer."

"I see... I'm really selfish, huh?" I wondered aloud, the self-depreciation in my tone as clear as day.

"Hm? How so?" Hina-nee asked.

"Ah, nothing," I shook my head. I couldn't tell her what I was thinking.

I couldn't tell her I genuinely considered starting life anew in another, alternate reality, even if it meant having to leave everything in this world behind - Hina-nee included. All for my own satisfaction. My own pleasure. Without even once considering Hina-nee's feelings.

She still seemed skeptical, but she didn't pry. Instead, she just said one thing that will forever hit deep within my heart.

"Hey... Kaze-kun, you should just do whatever makes you happy. That's not called being selfish. If going to a new reality is what will bring you joy, then you should do it. I won't be mad, and neither will our parents. I'm sure of it. And... if there's anything troubling you, you can always come talk to nee-san here, okay?"

I slowly nodded. "Yeah. Thanks, Hina-nee."

We reluctantly parted ways shortly after.


As expected, school wasn't too bad today. Ichigo and Horiya didn't try anything, as they were still consolidating their friend circles. At the same time, however, I have yet to make any friends or even try to do that, for the same reason as yesterday.

Instead, I spent the majority of the school day thinking about Ascentech and Ascension: Online.

Just like yesterday, the moment the bell rang, I packed up all my things, went to the entrance near the front office, and prepared to exit the school. However, just I thought I got through the day without any trouble...

"Now hold on a minute... where do you think you're going, Igarashi?" a voice called out from behind me.

I already knew who it was. I could've just ignored it, but that would just spell trouble for me later down the line. I decided to just confront them right here and now.

"Do you need something from me?" I asked, turning around to face the two boys that had called out to me - Ichigo and Horiya. Who else could they have been?

"Yeah. You see... we're runnin' a bit low on money," Ichigo said, smirking deviously.

"Mhm. So, uh... mind lending us some? You know, since we're such good 'friends' and all..." Horiya added, and the two of them laughed.

... This again.

They've pulled this trick on me before. Basically, they just wanted me to give them money.

I was scared. Scared of what would happen if I refused them. But... if I just gave in here, it would really just become middle school all over again. They would take advantage of my weakness, and keep bullying me all they want.

So - I had to stand up for myself, even if it's just this once.

Haha, no. That's not the real reason why I'm going to fight back just this time.

The real reason was that in the corner of my eye, I spotted a certain something they didn't. That thing was what gave me this courage. The courage to stand up for myself here, even if it's just a one-time thing.

"I refuse," I said in a loud, clear tone.

"H-Huh?" Ichigo and Horiya seemed to not believe what they were hearing.

"I said... I refuse. It's not my problem you're low on money, and we aren't exactly 'friends' either," I said.

"Heh. Hahaha!" Ichigo burst out in laughter. "Oi, Horiya, you hear that?"

"You're kidding, Igarashi just said he refuses?! Our request?!" Horiya cackled. "Oh, this is too funny! C'mon now, Igarashi. Stop with the jokes. Never once in the past three years have you ever dared to refuse us. Now, hand over the money."

He made a beckoning gesture with his hand, signaling for me to give some cash to him. I didn't let any emotion show on my face, but deep down, I smirked. These two were a short-tempered bunch. All I had to do was give them one more good push, and they would start talking with their fists instead.

Normally, that would be a bad thing for me... but not this time.

"I believe I've already said this once, but...I refuse," I repeated, in the same flat tone as before.

I saw Ichigo's eyebrow twitch. That was a sign he was angry.

"Oi oi now... you're acting up, huh?!" he rolled back his sleeves and dropped his backpack on the floor.

Horiya did the same, and together, the two of them glared at me. It was intimidating, but I wasn't afraid. Because I had something else on my side - something even these two punks could not fight back against.

"Last warning. Hand over the money," Horiya said in an angry tone.

"Last time I'm saying this. I refuse," I replied in the same indifferent voice.

They snapped.

Ichigo was the first to move. He quickly threw a right hook aimed straight for my face, which I, having no combat experience whatsoever, was unable to dodge. His fists connected with my cheek, and the sheer impact made me stagger backward a few steps.

Discretely, I snuck a glance at that 'thing' hanging from the corner of the hallway, and quickly averted my gaze after confirming it had recorded that punch.

The 'thing' I was talking about was, naturally, a security camera. Middle schools in Japan didn't have them, but high schools did. Ichigo and Horiya clearly didn't seem to notice that, however, as they turned violent easily with a little provocation on my end.

Ichigo stepped closer to me, clearly not finished yet. He unleashed a front kick aimed for my stomach that I barely managed to block with my arms. Still, the impact of the force sent me flying backward, crashing into the door.

But despite the pain I was feeling, I wasn't feeling bad at all. Instead, I was still smirking, deep down.

"That'll teach you!" Ichigo sneered as he crackled his knuckles.

Heh. They're not showing any mercy, huh? Works fine for me.

Horiya hauled me up from the floor, easily lifting my light body. Ichigo then unleashed a furry of fast blows on my stomach, which I tried my best to protect using my hands. It hurt a lot.

Still - when this is all over, the last laugh will be mine.

The beating continued for quite a bit. I almost couldn't take it anymore, until at last, the event I had been waiting for occurred.

"What is going on in here?!" a booming male voice yelled. I recognized it.

Ichigo and Horiya did too, naturally.

It was our principal - Fujimura-sensei himself. The school had been named after the founding father of it, namely Fujimura-sensei's ancestors. Since then, the position of the principal had been passed down from generation to generation.

"Uh..." Ichigo and Horiya hurriedly stopped attacking me, and turned to face the principal. "Er. You see, this kid was trying to pick a fig-"

"Do you think I'm stupid?" Fujimura-sensei cut him off, anger burning within his eyes. "Do you think I would believe that this frail-looking child would pick a fight with you? The TWO of you, no less?"

"F-Fujimura-sensei, I know it's hard to believe, but-"

"Shut it," he said, not even giving them a chance to lie. Then, walking closer to me while sending the two of them glares, he bent down and helped me get up.

"Are you okay? Your name was... Igarashi-kun, if I recall?"

I nodded. "Igarashi Kaze. And I'm fine, Fujimura-sensei. There's no need to go to the infirmary or anything. Just some light bruises. They'll heal on their own."

"I see... I understand. You may go," he said, dismissing me, then turned to the two other boys on scene, a dangerous gleam in his eyes. "As for you two... you're coming with me."

I thanked him and left. Sure, I was a bit hurt, but... Ichigo and Horiya would be getting something far worse.

All in all? My plan had been a complete success.


After that, I decided to go do what I was planning on doing anyway - buy Ascension: Online. On the way to the DigiGames store, I received a text on my phone. It was from Hina-nee.

[Heya Kaze-kun! I'm joining a club after school today, so I won't be able to pick you up at your school! Sorry... I'll definitely be there tomorrow though!]

I smiled, then texted back a quick message to prevent her from worrying.

[Alright. You worry too much, Hina-nee.]

With that, I put away my phone and headed for DigiGames. The walk there didn't take long. The clerk there was the same guy as yesterday, and he recognized me immediately. I bought a copy of Ascension: Online, and returned home.

Instead of a disc or anything of the sort, what I bought was a redemption code for the game. According to the clerk, after booting up the AR set, I could redeem games through these codes.

I gave my thanks and left the store.


When I returned home, no one else was there yet. Auntie and uncle usually worked late, so most of the time, it was just Hina-nee and I in the house.

Since I was home alone right now though, I decided to take advantage of this time to try out the AR set. After going up to my room. I opened up the box and pulled out everything. There was an instructions manual and what looked to be a helmet with a wire attached to it.

I flipped through the instructions first. My guess had been on the mark - the helmet-looking object was indeed a helmet, because I was smart like that.

Apparently, I was supposed to plug the wire into a socket and place the helmet over my head, secure its position with a velcro belt, then lie down comfortably. I did as instructed, and pressed the power button on the side of the helmet.

Immediately, everything went black. My vision, my touch, my very consciousness - everything went to black.

And then, a white light surrounded me. Gradually, my senses came back, and I found that I wasn't lying down anymore. There also was no helmet over my head, and no velcro belt beneath my neck.

I tried making movements of all sorts, and felt no restriction whatsoever. It was just like I was in real life. As for the setting, I was inside some kind of white room, it seemed like.

Then, suddenly, a gentle AI-like voice began talking, seemingly from all around me.

[Welcome to Alternate Reality, player.]

I smirked.

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