June 2nd, U.C. 0043
Aina Dufort was spending her recess as she always did, pretending to read a light novel while scanning the playground for a chance—any chance—to make a friend. It had been just over a year since the seven-year-old girl had transferred to Daiichi Elementary, but despite her best efforts to make friends, the other students still treated her as an outsider. Even so, she wasn’t going to give up. She was going to keep trying every day, and use every chance she got to prove herself worthy to her classmates.
That day’s chance came in the form of a soccer ball kicked a little too hard, which rolled to a stop at Aina’s feet. She picked up the ball and prepared to return it to her classmate Takeshi, who was running after it.
“Aww,” Takeshi groaned as he spotted Aina. He quickly turned around and ran back to the group of boys waiting for him. Aina slowly followed, not wanting to appear too eager. As she drew near, she could hear the boys talking.
“Just forget it,” Kenta, another classmate, said. “It’s in the bakemono’s clutches now.”
“She’ll give it back if we ask,” Takeshi countered.
“You can ask her, Takeshi,” Kenta replied. “I don’t want to talk to her. She’s creepy.”
“Hai,” Aina interjected, holding the ball out towards Takeshi. The other boys’ mouths all snapped shut and they backed away from the two of them. Takeshi reached out to take the ball, but hesitated.
“It’s a soccer ball, baka,” Takeshi’s voice shook. “You’re not supposed to touch it with your hands.” Aina quickly dropped the ball, and Takeshi, surprised that his trick worked, passed the ball to the boys behind him. They turned to run away, but Aina reached out and grabbed Takeshi’s shoulder.
“Anou, can I play soccer with you?” Aina asked.
“Ow! Let go!” Takeshi yelled. Aina released him. In her excitement, she had forgotten that she wasn’t supposed to touch the other children; their bodies were too fragile. But how else was she supposed to prevent Takeshi from running away? “Dare would want to play soccer with a freak like you?” Takeshi jeered. “You’d probably kick the ball so hard it would explode!”
“Jya, could I be referee?” Aina tried again.
“Do you even know how to play soccer?” Takeshi retorted. Aina dropped her gaze and shook her head. Of course, she knew the basics, but she had no idea what the rules were. There was no way she could be a referee. Not knowing how to play soccer was yet another thing that separated her from the other kids, but, she reassured herself, she would learn. Then, surely, she’d be one step closer to her classmates.
“Takeshi-kun, your shoulder… Gomen,” she called out as he left to rejoin the others. She knew she had bruised him. He didn’t respond.
In a different time, in a different country, Aina might have been popular. She was smart, athletic, and her looks were above average. But there was no denying that she was different from the other children and had trouble relating to them. Living in a society that highly values conformity would normally make it difficult, but not impossible, for someone like her to make friends, but the Cultural Unification Act reforms were at their peak in U.C. 0043, and although the kids didn’t understand the politics involved, they were inundated by propaganda portraying nonconformists as dangerous monsters. In that environment, Aina was completely shunned by the other students.
All of the students, that is, save one. As Aina made her way back to where she had been sitting, she found Mari, an older girl, reading the book Aina had left behind, accompanied, as always, by her friends Rin and Miya.
Mari looked up at Aina with a half smile.
“If it isn’t the little French girl. Nani brings you here?” Mari asked.
“Don’t call me ‘the little French girl,’ Mari-senpai,” Aina said. “That’s my hon. Can I have it back please?”
Aina couldn’t figure out why Mari kept singling her out. Most of the students at this school had French parents or grandparents. Wasn’t it bad enough that she had no friends? Why did she have to deal with Mari’s bullying? She had silently endured Mari’s insults every day for the last year because she knew that Mari was trying to provoke a response from her, but the stress of it was wearing on Aina, and she could feel her patience thinning every day.
“Ara, this is your hon?” Mari feigned surprise. “Don’t you think it’s a little vulgar for school? I mean, I know how vulgar you French are, but still…”
“There’s nothing wrong with being French.” Aina replied evenly. “Oscar was French.”
“Oscar was a traitor, and she died a traitor’s death,” Mari stated matter-of-factly. Aina shouldn’t have been surprised. Of course that’s how Mari would view Oscar.
“But still,” Aina argued, “the French have a romantic culture.”
“Oh ho ho ho ho!” Mari laughed, covering her mouth with one hand. “Didn’t you pay attention in history class? The French protoculture may have been romantic, but it was still just protoculture: They had no concept of moe! Even a second grader like you should have learned that by now.”
Aina had indeed learned that in class. But she had also noticed how uneasy the teacher, whose parents were French, had been while giving that lesson. It was a lie, Aina suspected, but she couldn’t figure out why the adults would lie about something like that.
“Nani is so great about moe anyway?” Aina asked rhetorically. “It’s just an excuse for old men to obsess over young girls. It’s creepy. How can it possibly separate culture from protoculture?”
She immediately regretted voicing those thoughts. All four girls began frantically looking around to see if anyone else had overheard them and spotted a teacher walking towards them.
“That’s what you think moe is?!” Mari ventured, her voice cracking. She hoped this would convince the teacher she wasn’t responsible for what Aina had just said. “You poor French girl. You really are uncultured. It’s no wonder you French were so easily conquered.”
“In that case, teach me, Mari-senpai”, Aina mock-pleaded. “You’re so cultured. You’re the perfect person to teach me about moe.” For the first time, Aina had an opening to go on the offensive against Mari, and she wasn’t going to let it go.
“Well… that is…” Mari stammered.
“Ara? Could it be that you don’t know about it either?” Aina was enjoying bullying Mari for once. “After all, we look so much alike.” Everyone present knew what Aina was implying: Just like Aina, Mari’s grandparents were French.
Aina had been overjoyed when she learned, months ago, that Mari was a fauxjou-sama. Not only was her family French, but they weren’t particularly wealthy either. Aina’s parents even made more money than Mari’s. Worse, nobody in Mari’s extended family held a title, so there was no chance of Mari inheriting one. By calling herself an ojou, Mari was breaking the law.
But when Aina had tried to tattle on Mari to her teachers, she was disappointed to learn that this was already common knowledge around school. Mari, the teachers had explained, could not be held legally responsible for misrepresenting herself until she was 16 years old, and most of the students and parents felt that attending school with an ojou-sama was an essential part of growing up.
Naze?! Aina had thought to herself. Naze would they want to be around a stuck-up jerk?! She had found the answer a few days later. When walking past some upperclassmen during recess, she overheard them complaining about Mari behind her back, and Aina realized the school put up with Mari’s behavior because they liked having someone to put down. As a frequent target of gossip herself, Aina couldn’t help but feel a little sympathy towards her tormenter.
She felt none of that sympathy at that moment, however.
“Mari-sama, let’s run for it,” Rin tugged on Mari’s arm. “Let her take the blame.” But Mari stayed rooted to the spot, mired in indecision.
“Ma—Makenai,” Mari managed after a pause. “I won’t run away from her.”
It was too late to run anyway. The teacher was upon them. They braced themselves for the worst, but the teacher, without so much as a glance in their direction, walked right past them and continued walking towards the school gate. All four girls let out a long sigh of relief.
For Aina, this relief was short-lived. Her gaze followed the teacher to the gate, where a tall, bald man was standing. Aina recognized the large scar on the man’s cheek. It was Voskoboynikov! She had never seen him in person, but his profile was unmistakable. He was wearing a large trench coat, but Aina could tell from the way that he shifted his weight that he was wearing heavy armor underneath.
He’s not supposed to be here! Aina’s mind screamed. He’s not supposed to be able to find me here! I’ll have to switch schools again. I’ll have to switch schools without having made a single tomodachi. Matte, that’s not important right now. I have to get him out of here before he takes any hostages like Kharmats did.
“Can I help you?” the teacher asked Voskoboynikov.
“I am here for Aina Dufort,” Voskoboynikov stated. “I am an assistant in her father’s laboratory. There has been an accident involving her parents, and I am here to transport her to the hospital to see them.”
Aina ran away from Mari and her friends and leapt gracefully to the top of the fence, as far away from Voskoboynikov as she could manage.
“Don’t listen to him sensei!” she shouted. “He’s a dirty Soviet!”
She dropped to the sidewalk outside the school and ran off, Voskoboynikov in close pursuit. Despite his heavy armor, he ran faster than she expected. She had no chance of outrunning him. She could only hope to lure him as far away from the school as possible before engaging him. She didn’t want the school caught in the crossfire.
“Aina!” she heard a shout from her left. “This way!”
Aina turned, with Voskoboynikov hot on her heels, to find her mother aiming a pistol directly at her pursuer. Jeanne Dufort kept her eyes on the Soviet and pulled the trigger, but the man brought his arm up to block the beam. It ripped through his sleeve and reflected off his vambrace, sending the beam sailing harmlessly into the air. It impacted with the GINZUISHOU, the crystalline structure encasing the city, causing it to fizzle harmlessly.
Aina didn’t slow as she ran past her mother, and neither did Voskoboynikov, who smashed into the woman, knocking her pistol to the ground as he grabbed her by the throat.
“Don’t hurt my mama!” Aina wheeled about and faced Voskoboynikov, who held Jeanne in front of him as a shield against any attack the girl might launch.
“Aina, be a good girl and come with me, and I will let your mother live,” Voskoboynikov offered.
“Iie, Aina, run,” Jeanne commanded.
“Let her go!” Aina shouted, running directly at Voskoboynikov. He reached for the girl, but she dodged around him and leapt at him from behind, aiming a punch at his head. He threw Jeanne to the ground and whipped around, smacking Aina away. Jeanne’s head hit the pavement, knocking her unconscious. Aina quickly rebounded and assumed a fighting stance, but Voskoboynikov had already closed the gap between them, and she barely dodged a powerful kick aimed at her torso.
This is bad, Aina thought. He’s much stronger than Kharmats and Zakharchenko, and I can’t find an opening in his defenses. I also feel… weak. Naze? She continued dodging his attacks, hoping to at least draw him away from her mother.
It only took one mistake. She leapt to avoid a sweep, and Voskoboynikov grabbed her with both hands, squeezing the air from her lungs.
“I’ve got you now, devochka,” the Soviet monstrosity gloated.