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Hitoka is ready. She has her water, she has a small towel in case her hands get sweaty, she has her Official Game Guidebook set neatly aside on her desk. It has about a hundred differently colored sticky note tabs poking out from its pages. Hitoka has it memorized. She adjusts her headset once, twice… a third time for good measure, so the mic sits just right in front of her mouth.

In front of her, her computer monitor is awash with light and color—the loading screen for Mayhem and Mages flashes at her, almost one hundred percent.

"I can do this," she tells herself.

A tab on her desktop blinks and she enlarges it to see a series of energetic messages.

Yacchan r u there
i can call wehn u r!!!!
We're in the server

All the messages are from Hinata, one of her university classmates. Hitoka takes a deep breath, and responds.

Hi Shouyou! I'm ready! Sorry to keep you guys waiting.

The reply comes back in an instant: :D !!!

A ringing sounds in her headset, and she quickly accepts the call.

The world seems to burst into noise—talking, shouting, laughing, arguing. Hitoka barely manages not to yelp. The cacophony is intense, and she can't make anything out at first, but then a high, cheerful voice she recognizes from one of her classes calls out, "Hi Yacchan!"

"H-hello…" she starts to say faintly. But before she can get too overwhelmed, a new voice greets her.  

"Yachi-san—nice to meet you."

Hitoka blinks. This voice is soft, and gentle, but so self-possessed. It's… beautiful, like music. It's another girl.

"Yachi-san?" the girl prompts, and Hitoka belatedly realizes she's been nodding at her computer screen like the girl on the other end can see her.

"Yes!" she squeaks.

"It's really nice of you to join our party," the girl says. "You're a healer class, right?"

"I am," Hitoka says. And then, because it's what she does, she starts to ramble. "I—I'm not very good at it, though, so if there's anything else I should play instead, just let me know—but I'd be even worse at that probably, s-so if you'd like me to go and level up some more, I can leave and come back later—"

"Actually," the girl says, "I was wondering if you'd like to join a private voice channel for tonight? It would be easier for me to explain things one on one."

"Oh!" Hitoka says. "Okay! Th-thank you so much!"

"Bye, Yacchan!" Hinata says brightly, as her call window begins flashing again. When Hitoka picks up, it's mercifully quiet.

"Hi," she says, nervous.

"Hello," the other girl says. "Sorry about the chaos, I hope it hasn't already scared you off us."

"Oh, no," Hitoka reassures her. "I'm just really happy to have people to play with at all, I've never played a game online with this many people, or this much to learn, and it's really amazing, but I guess it can be really…" She realizes she's rambling again and swallows.

"It can be intimidating," the girl says. "But it's really fun with friends. I'm Kiyoko, by the way."

"H-Hitoka!" Hitoka squeaks. Is it strange, to give her first name already?

But Kiyoko just says warmly, "It's nice to meet you, Hitoka-san. Just let me know if you have any questions."

Hitoka has all the questions. But for now, she'll just try to listen.

*

Magic is numbers, and Kiyoko teaches Hitoka how to solve the equations.

They play together all the time now, nearly every night. Hitoka doesn't need to hide in a separate voice chat anymore, she's learned to separate the information from the noise, which just seems comfortable now, instead of overwhelming. If really is more fun playing with friends.

But sometimes, she and Kiyoko will go run some dungeons on their own, just the two of them. Those are maybe Hitoka's favorite times; when she wakes up early, sits at her computer with a cup of tea warm in her hands, to see a message flashing from Kiyoko. Or when they stay up to play together a little too late after everyone else has dispersed after a quest (but never going overboard; they are both responsible students, after all).

Hitoka likes math. She likes things that make sense, that don't have hidden meanings or alternate interpretations, things she can solve with certainty that don't leave her questioning and wondering.

Kiyoko is… not very much like math.

Of course, Hitoka knows people are not equations. They can't ever really be solved. She still likes to try sometimes, with varying results. But Kiyoko seems to be many things that Hitoka can't figure out. Not that she thinks her friendship with Kiyoko has any hidden meanings—but sometimes it still surprises her.

Even through a computer headset, Kiyoko is amazing. She's smart, and kind, and funny—she's also one of the top-ranked players in the server, and Hitoka is in awe of her. Kiyoko holds their guild together, and she always makes Hitoka feel like she's found the perfect place there, too. Like Kiyoko was always saving a spot, just for her.

When Hitoka says something to make Kiyoko laugh, or when Kiyoko compliments her game knowledge and quick thinking, it feels like unlocking a wonderful secret. Hitoka is very aware that she's nowhere near as awesome as Kiyoko is at anything, but Kiyoko makes her feel like she could be, if she just keeps trying.

Hitoka has always wanted to be a part of something big and fun like this, with people she can truly call her friends—it doesn't matter to her that it's online, that she knows all their voices but couldn't tell you what most of them look like. It's the same with Kiyoko (Hitoka is definitely far too nervous to ask to see a picture; she thinks she'd die of embarrassment first).

Kiyoko makes Hitoka feel she's a part of something, but she also makes Hitoka wonder— in the truest sense of the word. Not just what she looks like, but at everything about her. How someone so poised can still be so warm; how she always knows what to say to Hitoka whether it's in-game or during a quiet moment before they both log off for the night; how they've never met, but Hitoka still thinks about her all the time, as though they saw each other every day.

Hitoka catches herself trying to work it out: what's four mugs of tea divided by the time they spent reminiscing about their favorite bands in high school one chilly autumn night? What's the thrill in her heart multiplied by the first time Kiyoko announced Hitoka would be calling the shots for a quest? What's the square root of her happiness after Kiyoko tells her that she's had the most fun playing after Hitoka joined the group?

Still, even though Hitoka has so many questions, even though she's not certain about some things (like what makes Kiyoko want to spend so much time with her, instead of with people who are undoubtedly cooler and better at rationing their magic power in fights), it doesn't make her nervous.

Hitoka likes the parts she does understand so much it makes up for the not-knowing. She finds she doesn't always need to have all the answers.

*

"I got a job." Kiyoko's voice is early morning quiet when she tells Hitoka.

The sun is just up, but it's still cool in Hitoka's apartment. She sits with her knees pulled up, the hem of her too-large sweater enveloping her legs, sleeves long enough to cover her hands while she waits for the game to load.

"I'll start right after I graduate," Kiyoko continues, and Hitoka gasps.

"That's amazing, Shimizu-senpai!" she says.

"Hitoka-chan," she says, taking a breath, "it's in Tokyo."

On-screen, Hitoka's healer gets squashed by a very large ogre. She barely notices.

"In—in Tokyo?" she repeats. "Here?"

Kiyoko is graduating from a university in Miyagi this year, but Hitoka goes to school in Tokyo. She's in her second year now.

"There," Kiyoko confirms, and Hitoka hears her smile. "Hitoka-chan… forgive me if this is overstepping, but would you like to go out sometime?"

Hitoka squeaks. "W-with you?! Together? Like, for coffee?"

"Yes, to all three," Kiyoko confirms. "Well, it doesn't have to be coffee—we could go to lunch, or dinner. Or a movie—oh, if you prefer, I'll bring my computer, so we could always just set up somewhere and play if you're most comfortable with that—"

"I'm comfortable with everything!" Hitoka says rapidly, and they both stop talking.

"Sorry, I… was rambling," Kiyoko says, with something so close to bashfulness it makes Hitoka catch some of her embarrassment secondhand.

"That's okay!" she says, and then buries her face in her hands. "I mean—no, you really weren't—"

"We're both rambling," Kiyoko says. "I was nervous—I wasn't sure what you'd say." She delicately clears her throat. "To be clear, I am asking you out on a date."

Hitoka stares at her computer screen, before she feels her entire face go up in flames. Her sweater is suddenly too stiflingly hot. She flaps her hands in front of her face, knocks over her entire mug of tea, and shrieks.

"Hitoka-chan?" Kiyoko asks in concern. "I'm so sorry—was that too forward—"

"No!" Hitoka gasps, as she desperately tries to salvage the destruction she has wrought. "To be clear—I'm definitely saying yes!"

Kiyoko's laughter rings delighted in Hitoka's headset. Hitoka isn't at all sure how Kiyoko thought she'd say anything other than yes. But she realizes now, as she solves another tiny part of the equation, that maybe Kiyoko doesn't always have the answers, either—no matter how much it seems like she does.

*

Hitoka meets Kiyoko for the first time at a small Tokyo coffee shop in the spring. I'm at the table in the back corner next to the plant, Kiyoko had texted her. Hitoka knows it's her as soon as she sees her, because it just makes sense, that Kiyoko would be the most beautiful girl Hitoka has ever seen in her life.

Her dark hair gracefully frames her face, she wears glasses, and she hasn't seen Hitoka come in, yet. If this had been a year ago, Hitoka might have panicked—turned right back around and walked out of the coffee shop at the prospect of talking to this girl, let alone going on a date with her . What if she says something stupid? How can she ever live up to expectations?

But it's not a year ago. It's right now, and Hitoka has spent a year doing the math.

Question: what's sleepy giggling at one in the morning plus childhood stories told over text while waiting for hot water to boil for instant ramen?

Answer: it works out to friendship, and maybe something more.

Kiyoko looks up as Hitoka gets near, and then she stands, and smiles.

"Hitoka-chan," she says, a little breathless. She sounds just the same as she does through a headset, and yet completely new. "Hi."

Hitoka's stomach fills with butterflies, but it feels more like an enchantment than a curse. "Hi," she says, and then, "I think this cafe has WiFi! I brought my laptop, if you want to play…"

"That's perfect," Kiyoko says, before Hitoka can start to fret about whether that seems impersonal. "So did I."

Magic is more than just numbers, Hitoka has learned. It's also: trying each others' hot tea, arms brushing on the tabletop, finally being able to put a face to a voice. It's questions, more than solutions, and understanding the answers, instead of just knowing them.

And sometimes, it's a girl with dark hair and glasses, who only laughs a little when Hitoka cheers at her computer screen in the middle of a fairly crowded coffee shop.