– I –
After I calmed down, Tabitha informed me that the ticket was only a copy, and could be reprinted at any time. What was important was the fact that my donation under the name of Isabel val Sanreal had been registered and accepted.
Apparently, it wasn’t an issue for a girl to be having dinner with Mercy Haddaway.
At the least, Mercy didn’t appear to have a problem with it.
Nonetheless, I was left somewhat disoriented and thus before I knew it I had showered and put on the Telos Academy female uniform provided by Tabitha – including the black, lacy underwear she included.
Oh and before you ask, I dressed myself in the bathroom and I kept the door locked. I had enough presence of mind to keep Tabitha from peeking.
However, it wasn’t until I regarded myself in the full-length mirror mounted on the inside of a hallway closet door that the magnitude of being dressed as a girl in uniform finally struck me.
“What the Hell…?”
Perhaps now is an appropriate time to mention the design of Telos Academy’s uniform for girls.
The summer uniform, which is what I was wearing now, comes in two flavors.
The first is a one-piece dress, dark brown, almost black, that is designed to give the appearance of a combined skirt and blouse, with the tail ends of the blouse flowing over the fake skirt’s waistline. The dress’s hemline ends at the knee, and the blouse bears a distinct ‘sailor girl’ appearance with its white trimmed collar and lapels. The sleeves come in two variants at either short or three-quarter length, and bear the Academy’s emblem printed in white either on the cuffs or the shoulders.
The second flavor of the uniform consists of a separate skirt and blouse, that combine to resemble the one-piece dress in both length and appearance. In other words, the blouse retains the sailor girl look and different sleeve lengths, but is distinct from the skirt. Because of this, it gave the more adventurous girls of the academy the opportunity to flaunt their midriffs, though girls caught wearing a blouse too small for their size faced detention.
In both versions of the uniform the skirt has two zippered pockets, and the blouse is complemented by a short necktie that comes in three colors: white for first years, yellow for second years, and red for third year seniors.
As for the shoes, rather than being dark, boring, and squarish, I found them to be rather stylish and comfortable due to their blend of a deck shoe and a sports sneaker that could be worn with and without socks.
Dressed in the two-piece, long sleeve version of the uniform, I stared at myself in the mirror with a sinking feeling in my gut as I noticed that though the blouse was a perfect fit for my shoulders and arms, Mirai’s abundant chest pushed it out, thus making it appear shorter than it really was and threatening to expose a sliver of my narrow waist.
“What the Hell…?” I repeated while tugged down on the blouse, before glaring at Tabitha. “This is too short.”
“Oh contraire, mon’amie.” Tabitha gave me a dreary thumbs up. “I approve.”
“You approve? Are you serious? I’m not an exhibitionist.”
“There’s nothing wrong with showing off a little skin. Besides, you have nothing to be ashamed off. Most girls would kill to look as good as you do.”
“Yeah. Most girls will want to kill me.”
“You’re a Gun Princess. They’re no match for you.”
“That’s not what I meant.” I glanced at my reflection. “Other than the blouse, I’ll admit everything else fits fine.”
“Including your bra?” she inquired with bored sincerity.
I flushed hotly when I remembered the racy appearance of my underwear. “Y—yeah, that too.” An unpleasant thought jumped up and caught my attention. “How did you know my size?”
“We scanned your body when you were translocated. Remember?”
“Ah…oh. That’s right. You did mention that….”
“I know all your dimensions.”
“Well isn’t that just wonderful!” I lashed out.
Tabitha folded her arms, blithely ignoring my exclamation. “Barefoot, you are one hundred and seventy-four centimeters tall. Your weight is sixty-eight kilograms.”
“Huh? Did you say sixty-eight?”
“Your three sizes are, ninety, fifty-four, eighty.”
“Wait—how can I weigh sixty-eight kilograms? There’s no way I’m that heavy. At least”—I regarded Mirai’s slender body thoughtfully—“I certainly don’t feel heavy.”
I bit a corner of my lower lip. “I feel as light as a feather….”
Tabitha was quiet for a short while before venturing, “That’s to be expected. You’re a Simulacrum. Your body is extremely strong, so it’s no wonder you feel weightless. As for your skeleton, it’s strong, heavy, yet flexible. How else would you survive so many hits without breaking?”
“I thought that was because of the Angel Fibers.”
“Undoubtedly, they add to your durability.”
Tabitha’s matter-of-fact reply temporarily distracted me from the issue about my weight when I noticed she said durable rather than indestructible.
As I regarded my appearance in the mirror, I asked Tabitha, “How strong do you figure I am?”
“From our observations, you’re easily six or seven times stronger than a girl your size. As for your stamina”—Tabitha snorted softly—“it really is incomparable. You’re not a machine, but you’re no regular Simulacrum either. You’re quite clearly well above the specs of a Master Grade.”
Rather than feeling amazed at Tabitha’s description of my physical abilities, I felt a cold chill run through my body, and it left me with goosebumps all over my skin.
Restraining the urge to rub my arms, I pressed on with a statement I felt was a fact.
“You say that I’m that strong, but I couldn’t close the door on you.”
“That was because I had my foot in the doorway,” Tabitha reminded me. “This body may be mechanical, but if you’d pushed me I wouldn’t have been able to stand my ground.”
“So you believe I can stand toe-to-toe with a Gun Princess.”
“Gun Princesses are built differently to this body I’m operating. They’re a lot stronger, and heavier too. Depending on her internal design, a Gun Princess equivalent to your size can weigh between ninety and a hundred kilos.”
“That’s still light for a machine, right?”
“You consider that light?”
I shrugged a shoulder. “Considering how strong you make them out to be, I think they’re rather light.”
“Make them too heavy, and they lose their mobility.”
I wasn’t certain, but I had the suspicion someone had mentioned that to me before. However, unable to remember when and where, I once more ran my gaze over my body reflected in the mirror. While doing so, my mind belatedly remembered what Tabitha had said about my dimensions, and I regarded my chest with sudden mixed feelings.
“Bust ninety.” I breathed deeply and released it slowly, but failed to expel my troubled emotions. “One centimeter bigger than Mercy.”
“Yes, you beat her in that category,” Tabitha nodded sagely. “You’re also two centimeters taller than her.”
I realized I was starting to feel embarrassed comparing myself to my goddess, and my heart began to thump loudly in my chest. Quickly closing the closet door with the mirror fitted to it, I then leaned against the closet, and waited a short while for my heart to relax. But when it refused to comply, I chose to distract myself by focusing on the next problem.
Straightening where I stood, I faced Tabitha who had resumed wearing a droopy expression.
“Okay. I’m dressed. Now what?” I asked, grateful my voice was steady and not influenced by my pounding heart.
“Now breakfast,” she replied without hesitation.
Her reply failed to ease my heart in the least. If anything, it thump louder. That was because I knew what she meant – leaving the confines of the apartment and heading out into the world dressed as a high school girl attending Telos Academy.
Tabitha handed me the sports bag. “I put your other clothes inside.”
By other clothes, she was referring to the attire I’d pilfered from the charity donation bins.
I took the bag, slung the straps over my right shoulder, then hesitated for a handful of seconds before walking to the middle of the apartment’s living area. I gave the place I’d called home for three years a long, lasting look, while Tabitha waited silently at the entrance to the hallway.
Turning one last time in a full circle, I took a couple of deep breaths.
Was it Shakespeare that said parting is such sweet sorrow?
If so, I found myself disagreeing.
There was nothing sweet about the hollow, empty feeling in my chest that pressed upon my lungs and back, making it uncomfortable to breathe.
I understood part of the nature of my distress.
This apartment had indeed been home to me for three years, and yet there was not one memento of myself or my family in evidence. The bookshelves and walls were replete with memorabilia dedicated to Mercy Haddaway, but not a single photo of I, my sister, or my parents was anywhere to be found.
Why was that?
Because I had chosen to turn my back on them, just as they had abandoned me.
I wasn’t an orphan, yet I had preferred to think of myself as one.
The end result was a dorm apartment that held no memories or lingering attachment to my family. But it also held no attachment to Ronin Kassius either. As Tabitha had pointed out upon arrival, it was a temple dedicated to Mercy Haddaway.
When I acknowledged this, my ambivalence toward staying or leaving shifted slightly in favor of a swift exit, and so I made my way to the hallway where Tabitha waited.
As I walked past the girl on my way to the apartment’s door at the end of the hallway, Tabitha raised an eyebrow and asked, “You’re not going to take something? A keepsake?”
I stopped and shrugged my shoulders. “There’s nothing here that belongs to me.”
“True. There’s nothing here that belongs to Mirai or Isabel val Sanreal. However—”
I threw her a scowl over a shoulder. “That’s right. There’s nothing here that belongs to Mirai or Isabel, and that’s who I am now.”
The lethargy Tabitha was displaying faded away and she spoke in a firm tone. “It’s true that your body is not that of Ronin Kassius. But you are the holder, the bearer, of his memories. Don’t dismiss them so easily.”
I turned away and faced the door. “I’m not going to forget who I was. But I need to accept the way things are now.”
Tabitha sighed, a first for her, and moments later I heard her walk into the bathroom. She came out a few seconds later, and handed me something that I quickly recognized as my toothbrush. I started to laugh but caught myself when I looked at her serious, uncompromising expression as she continued to hold out the toothbrush. Unexpectedly, I had the impression she would take it for herself if I chose not to accept it, and that didn’t sit well with me.
“Fine. I’ll take…,” I grumbled softly.
Watching me intently, Tabitha’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly when I hesitated for a heartbeat just before plucking the toothbrush from her palm. Though I fumbled a little when opening the unfamiliar skirt’s left zipper, I was able to slip the toothbrush inside, and then tug the zipper back up without having to drop the sports bag to the floor.
Looking at Tabitha, I gave her a curt nod and then shrugged my shoulders, wanting to shake off the mood and the moment. “Lead the way,” I muttered.
At my invitation, Tabitha opened the door at the far end of the hallway, and exited out into the corridor.
I followed her out of the apartment, missing a step when I heard the door close and lock behind me.
A sense of finality washed through me then, squeezing my heart, and I held tightly onto the straps of the sports bag as I walked down the wide corridor. It took every ounce of willpower I possessed to restrain me from looking behind me at the closed door, and it wasn’t until I’d rounded a bend and arrived at the elevator bank at the southeast corner of the building that I finally began to breathe a little easier as my troubled feelings began to settle like sediment at the bottom of a pond.
However, I soon had something else to keep my mind occupied as a new problem reared its unpleasant head.
Originally, female students of Telos Academy had been assigned to the north side of the dormitory building. To be specific, they were allotted apartments in the northwest, north, and northeast sides of the complex. The male students were thus distributed to the southwest, south, and southeast sections of the megascraper.
However, and I don’t know why this happened, it was decided a few years ago that girls and boys would be allocated to separate floors, rather than segregating them to the north and south sides of the immense building.
Naturally, this resulted in a widespread reallocation of the dormitory apartments, and the disruptive move was conducted over the span of end-of-year summer break.
I was spared having to experience this period of upheaval because I had yet to transfer to the academy, but I’ve heard stories about how difficult the transition was with thousands of girls and guys lugging boxes and belongs up and down the building. Undoubtedly, they were all supervised by academy staff, and mover bots had been called in to assist the students, but even with six wide stairwells, twelve people elevators, and four freight elevators in service, it proved to be a monumental undertaking fraught with arguing and bickering between harried, flustered, and frustrated students.
However, as consequence of this significant change to the distribution of students within the building, girls and boys found themselves sharing both stairwells and elevators as they travelled up and down the enormous megascraper. Yet, it was uncommon for two female students to be encountered waiting for an elevator on a floor reserved for male students.
Thus, Tabitha and I attracted curious glances from the guys who arrived to wait at the elevator on the southeast side of the building. However, while they chatted softly to each other, none of them made an attempt to speak to us, though that wasn’t to say they weren’t staring at us with interest, especially since my dress skirt appeared to a little shorter than regulation.
I had no doubt that Tabitha was responsible for that.
When staring at myself in the mirror, I had noticed the skirt was tad shorter, but then tossed it into the ‘my imagination’ basket when I compared it to Tabitha’s dress.
However, now that I was standing by the elevator doors, I realized I’d been duped.
Tabitha had hitched up her skirt, and then dropped it once we left the dorm apartment.
I truly felt like punching her but that would serve no purpose since she was operating a mechanical body. To be truly effective, I would need to unleash my anger upon her real body. On the other hand, venting upon her mechanical form wasn’t such a bad thing as I could pound her to my satisfaction. But instead, I clenched my hands tightly and endured the attention I was drawing, all of which was making me as self-conscious as during my stint cosplaying – I mean cross-playing – as Princess Silver Blue over a year ago.
However, back then I could always escape the identity of Silver Blue.
That wasn’t an option for me anymore.
I was stuck as Mirai or Isabel, drawing attention like honey to a bear, and it wasn’t my imagination running rampant due to my insecurities and self-consciousness. I really was garnering interest, more so than Tabitha, and feeling the gazes from the handful of guys around us crawl over my body, I neared breaking point when the lift suddenly announced its arrival.
As the doors opened, I was presented with a new problem.
The lift had passengers, and if everyone waiting on this floor boarded it, the situation would be a crowded one. Compounded with the prospect of riding an elevator loaded with students, nearly all of whom happened to be male – with the exception of Tabitha – it was more than I could handle.
Whirling on the spot, I fled down the corridor, cutting a beeline for the wide stairwell.
There were more male students ahead, something to be expected since it was now a little before eight a.m. and the student body would be making the morning journey to Telos Academy.
Again, the presence of a girl on a male dominated floor raised a number of eyebrows – what with my flustered appearance – but I ducked my head and barreled past the guys who’d paused to stare at me. Hurrying down the steps, at times pushing my way between students, their faces an indistinct blur, I don’t remember how many floors I descended before I belatedly noticed I was surrounded by girls. I quickly realized I had arrived at the building levels allocated to female students was soon swallowed into their midst.
Girls can be quite receptive to their environment, and it wasn’t long before a number of them noticed my state of distress, and indeed I was distressed.
I couldn’t understand it.
I had disguised myself as a female student before.
I had walked the city streets during the early morning hours.
And I had endured combat as a Gun Princess clad in a black and purple bodysuit that emphasized Mirai’s curves.
Yet not once had I experienced the degree of anxiety that I felt now, and I struggled to understand it.
What was wrong with me?
Was this an early sign of agoraphobia? Was it a side effect of mapping a male mind into a female brain? Or was something else at play?
While lying in bed, I had wondered why I didn’t feel like I was wearing the wrong skin, so was this an indication that the gender dysphoria I had expected to suffer was manifesting under a different guise?
Or was it because I subconsciously feared that I would be seen right through?
Was it because I was terrified they would see me as I guy with the appearance of a girl?
Would they see me as a freak?
As my fears and insecurities tumbled through my head, I almost took a tumble myself when my right foot missed a step, causing my left foot to slip behind me. But I was saved by the girls around me, who reacted quickly and spared me a nasty fall by grabbing onto my arms.
“Hey? You okay?”
“Watch your step.”
“You go down, we all go down.”
They had a point. The stairs were wide, but they were crowded and growing more so by the minute as a few thousand students descended the building as they embarked on their journey to Telos Academy. If I fell down the steps here, I’d be certain to take a few girls with me.
Steadying myself on my two feet, I nodded once more, and quietly thanked the girls for their support. Then I noticed one of the girls, a willowy blonde with deep blue eyes, frown at me, then peer at me intently.
Abruptly, her eyes widened sharply and she exclaimed, “Hah!”
The girls around her stared at her in confusion.
“Hey, Sierra. What’s up with you—?”
“I can’t believe it!” The willowy blonde snapped her fingers and pointed at me. “I know you. You’re my brother’s favorite bikini girl!”
I gasped loudly and jerked back in shock, before hastily rejecting her declaration. “No, no, no! Definitely not!” I shook my head and waved my hands. “I’ve never worn a bikini in my life!”
That was indeed the truth.
A bra and panties, yes, but a bikini. No, sir.
However, my denial fell on deaf ears.
“Of course you have,” the girl overruled me. “You’re that chick in his posters.”
The girls around her traded looks before turning to face me.
A brunette with a short bob nodded thoughtfully as she studied my appearance. “You know, I think she’s right. It is her.”
Sierra was nodding eagerly now. “Of course I am. That jerk’s room is full of her stuff. Remember, I showed you what his room is like.”
The girls surrounding her began to nod.
I waved my hands at them. “No, no. I’m definitely not her! I just look like her—I mean, I resemble her! I just resemble her!”
Sierra ignored my attempt to repudiate her, and threw her friends a glance. “That idiot spent his summer working, then spent a chunk of that money on her holovid collection.”
The brunette with the bob asked, “Didn’t he line up for a couple of hours to meet her when she was promoting something?”
“Oh, last year’s handshake event.”
I froze for a moment thinking, Was it that handshake event?
Another girl started to giggle madly. “Sierra, your brother will wet his pants knowing she’s here.”
“Hey, let’s call him.” A fourth girl with dark blonde hair and amber eyes pulled out her slim phone from a skirt pocket.
“You have his number,” the brunette inquired with a visible scowl. “Why do you have his number?”
“Oh, ah, well,” the girl with amber eyes fumbled for a reply. “Well, he—he gave it to me.”
“He gave it to you?”
“Why would he give you his number?”
“Hey, Karen, is there something you’re not telling us?”
Under the combined pressure from her friends, the girl began to flee while making the call. “No—there’s nothing going on. Nothing to tell.”
“Why are you running away?” one of her companions asked.
Sierra clapped her hands. “Girls, focus please.” Quickly stepping closer to me on the stairs, she studied me keenly. “You’re Mercy. Mercy Haddaway.”
I raised my hands higher. “I keep telling you I’m not—”
“Mercy!” A bored voice called out loudly from above me. “There you are. Why did you run away?”
I jerked sharply and then hastily looked around.
Mercy Haddaway is here? Why is she here—?
Then the proverbial penny dropped.
Wait—that voice! Damn her!
I haltingly turned to look up the stairs behind me to see Tabitha standing on the overhead landing, wearing a languid façade. Yet behind it, I could see a faint smile curling the ends of her mouth.
“Mercy, what did I tell you about running away?” she droned. “I warned you about attracting too much attention.”
The girls on the steps weren’t the only ones that had stopped.
It was fair to say that all traffic on the stairs had come to a standstill, and dozens of faces now turned to look at me.
“Sheesh,” Tabitha sighed lethargically. “Deciding to play high school even at your age. What were you thinking?”
“What do you mean, my age?” I snapped unhappily. “And stop calling me Mercy—huh? What?”
The sounds of phone cameras shuttering away ripped my attention away from the woman pouring gasoline into the proverbial fire.
In dismay, I stared at the students – mostly guys – taking snaps of me.
“…shit. That’s Mercy, right…?”
“…never thought I’d see her in person….”
“…why’s she wearing a uniform…?”
“…she’s going to our school…?”
“…but I thought she was older than us….”
“…who cares. I got no problem with older women….”
“…damn. Check out her rack….”
“…she’s bigger in real life….”
“…what a slut. Look at her skirt….”
“…that’s way shorter than allowed….”
“…someone’s going to get in trouble today….”
“…I want her legs….”
“…shut up, Christine….”
“…I want her breasts….”
“…shut up, Megan….”
Everywhere I looked, students from Telos Academy were either taking photos or talking about me—no, about Mercy – and being the center of attention brought back traumatic memories from a year ago.
It was the Princess Silver Blue experience all over again.
Except this time I was being mistaken for Mercy Haddaway.
“I—I’m not her. I’m not, Mercy. I’m not…I’m…I’m….”
The commotion drowned out my denial. It didn’t help that my voice had failed me and fallen to a whisper.
The straps of the sports bag I’d been carrying slipped off my shoulders and the bag hit the ground as I stumbled back against the guardrail in the middle of the stairwell.
“…please…stop it…I’m not her….”
The girl, Sierra, had been staring at the students gathering on the stairs, but sensing my retreat, a look of concern crossed her face when she noticed my mounting distress.
“I…I’m not her…stop it….”
From within me, the urge to flee welled up.
But just before it reached critical mass, Sierra lunged toward me without warning, grabbed my right hand, and pulled me along as she descended the steps at a near run, her school carry-bag bouncing at her hip.
“Hurry!” she yelled.
Overwhelmed by the situation, I presented no resistance as I hurried down the steps with her.
After descending a few floors, Sierra exited the stairwell with me in tow, and turned sharply down a wide corridor.
“This way,” she insisted, her grip firm on my hand.
Addled, it took me a while to realize this was a first for me – being pulled along by a girl by the hand.
If this had happened to me while I was Ronin Kassius, I might have died happily.
It didn’t hurt that Sierra was actually quite pretty.
At the least, my male mind thought of her in such a way.
Half walking, half running, Sierra led me to a T-intersection. Turning into the branching corridor, I saw a set of wide translucent doors at the far end, and recognized what lay beyond them as a bridgeway connecting this apartment complex to its southern neighbor. This I knew because of Mirai’s bird-like ability to sense magnetic north, thus I was able to tell our direction of travel as though I had a compass in my head.
Her hand is soft.
I glanced down at it as we passed through the entrance into the bridgeway, its perma-glass doors silently parting aside.
It feels warm.
Because I was looking at Sierra’s hand, I only glimpsed the view outside of the bridgeway, and again that was only because of Mirai’s abnormally wide field-of-vision. Yet, the scenery of towering buildings failed to draw away my attention, distracted as I was by Sierra and her hand wrapped around mine.
It wasn’t until we’d traversed the bridgeway and entered the adjoining building that my composure began to recover.
Hesitantly, but then forcefully, I rapidly slowed to a halt.
“Please—please, stop,” I called out to Sierra.
Unprepared for the strength I demonstrated, the girl’s feet slipped on the smooth floor. However, she caught her balance quickly, supported by the hold she had on my hand.
“Woh—that was fast,” she muttered then regarded me curiously. “You’re pretty strong.”
“Sorry.” I apologized for almost causing her to fall, yet felt uncomfortable when she called me ‘strong’.
You have no idea what I can do, I mused with troubled feelings.
Sierra released my hand, and dropped her weight onto a hip. Folding her arms, she regarded me studiously, and I grew quickly uncomfortable under her intense gaze.
“What…?” I asked her.
“You can tell me the truth. You are Mercy Haddaway, aren’t you?”
I exhaled loudly and my body wilted. “Look. I’m not Mercy.”
“Why would Mercy be dressed in a school uniform? Why would she even be in this building? And she’s too old to be attending high school.”
True. Despite her teenage looks, Mercy was twenty-three years old.
I attributed her youthful appearance as the product of exceptional genes.
Sierra nodded subtly. “Okay. I get that. But you look like her.”
“I am well aware of that,” I grumbled.
“So if you’re not Mercy, who are you?”
I blinked sharply for a second then felt my composure – what little of it there was – washed away by a wave of misery frothed by disquiet.
“That’s…a really good question…,” I whispered.
“Huh?” Sierra cocked her head at me. “Do you have a name?”
I blinked sharply again. “A name?”
“Yes, a name.” Sierra frowned at me. “What is wrong with you?” she muttered, half to herself and half to me.
I snorted softly, and glanced away. Where do I even begin?
But as I averted my attention, my gaze glimpsed my reflection in the polished façade of a nearby wall. Giving myself another long look, I noticed the harried state of my appearance, and the distressed aura I was radiating.
I shook my head slowly.
This isn’t good. I can’t keep doing this. I can’t fall into a funk like this.
I turned away from my reflection, closed my eyes, and took a couple of deep breaths.
Keep it together. And stop being so afraid. I don’t have to be so afraid. After what I’ve gone through already, this should be a piece of cake.
Opening my eyes, I met Sierra’s gaze. “I’m not Mercy Haddaway.”
Sierra’s frown grew crooked. “Okay…so who are you?”
Who am I?
I held back a sigh, or rather, dispelled it under my breath.
I offered Sierra my right hand in greeting.
“Isabel val Sanreal.”
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