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The Subtlety of Sticking Out

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She was a star: dazzling, bright, and no stranger to attention. Third-year middle schooler Kirishima Eijiro was frozen in place as he watched Ashido Mina in awe. 

Today was their middle school’s sports festival, and it would be their last, before moving on towards high school in the coming spring. Wanting to fill this festival with fond memories, his main focus was on the flagship event: the soccer game. Eijiro was prepared to give it his all as a defensive player; there was something manly about being the last line of defense before the goalkeeper. He brushed his bangs out of his face, donned his red headband, and walked proudly onto the pitch with his head held high. 

The entire atmosphere of the crowd changed when his teammate Ashido walked in behind him. There was endless drone of cheers from the bleachers. He was already aware of who she was; the whole school knew her. Ashido was popular with nearly everyone, with few having anything bad to say about her. She was incredibly athletic, excelling in any sport she tried. Ashido’s current venture? To be the lead striker on the red team’s soccer team, which would be no issue for her.

How can she manage to stick out, even when we're all wearing the same gym uniforms , he thought to himself. It was true; mirroring her personality, her appearance was flashy as well. When anyone mentioned her name, three things came to mind: her bright pink, curly hair, her golden eyes, and her signature horn headband, which helped keep her hair out of her face.

With only one minute left in the match, the red team and white team were tied at one point each. The white team had possession of the ball, and the red team’s defenders were on high-alert. But the white team’s forwards came in, in a synchronized formation. They kept their ball movement fluid, and utilized all sorts of fancy dribbling, shaking defenders easily. It was the moment Eijiro lived for: that moment where he could save the day. All he needed to do was move his feet and intercept their play. 

But the closer they got, the more he felt the weight of his legs, and more petrified. Eijiro tried to concentrate, but he couldn’t muster up the nerve to move. The forwards sped past him, but so did a pink flash. Eijiro’s gaze darted behind him, and he saw Ashido perform a perfect slide tackle to disrupt the play. She scrambled back onto her feet and took the ball toward the opposite goal. 

Swiftly, she shook every defender coming her way, and there was no one between her and the goalkeeper. Ashido feinted a kick with her left, and the goalkeeper took the bait, diving towards that direction. With her other foot, she kicked the ball in, securing a goal with ten seconds left on the clock. Everyone in the crowd cheered with excitement, and Eijiro stood in place, relieved that the other team hadn’t scored just now. 

The final ten seconds on the clock ran, but the game was already decided: the red team won, and everyone rushed towards Ashido in celebration. Eijiro jogged over to join everyone else, and he spotted another defender from his team. He apologized to her gravely, “That wasn’t manly of me. I almost cost us the game.”

She shook her head in disagreement, “don’t worry about it. They got past me too.”

Eijiro looked up at Ashido to see the elation on her face, her spirits still high from victory. Ashido caught his gaze briefly, and offered a reassuring smile back, but Eijiro looked down, putting his bangs in front of his eyes again.

“She’s just the exception to the rule, Kirishima,” his teammate said back to him, “she was made for the spotlight.” 

~

Mina was no stranger to admiration. As long as she put one hundred percent of her effort into something, she would get results. And results won her recognition. There were countless comments of “good job, Mina,” “amazing, Mina,” and “I knew you could do it, Mina!”

After the game, and the closing ceremony that marked the end of the sports festival, she walked closely to her two friends. They chatted idly, remarking on their favorite events from the day. Mina rather liked the tug-of-war, but the soccer game was the perfect way to end the festival on a good note.

But when there were winners, there were losers too, and Mina recognized that. As the white team sat in frustration, Mina congratulated everyone for their spirits and hard work. Her positive attitude was contagious, and both teams celebrated the good memories together, knowing it’d be their last festival together.

“The entire white team would’ve been down in the dumps if you didn’t cheer them up, Mina,” her friend said, “though who would’ve thought that there was someone on the red team that was sad to win?”

“What do you mean?” Mina asked curiously, wondering how winning could make anyone feel down.

“It was--what was his name again? Kirishima? I think he was in Class 3-1,” her friend recalled, “he was that last defender that stood still when the ball came right for him.”  

Her friends laughed in unison, but Mina tried to diffuse their laughter, “Maybe it’s not fair to laugh at him.”

“How do you figure?” one of the girls asked.

“He tried his best, didn’t he?” Mina said, looking off in the distance, remembering his glum look after the match finished, “wouldn’t anyone freeze up in the same situation?”

“I guess, her friend agreed, “but you didn’t freeze up.”

Mina put an arm around her friend, saying, “I couldn’t. Everyone was counting on me, right?”

~

Eijiro sat at his desk staring at the counseling handout from school. He read the top of the sheet to himself, High School Enrollment Preferences.

He had the option to choose up to three schools, but he only wanted to select one, as a testament to his resolve. Ironically, the first slot on the handout was filled with eraser marks. Eijiro initially wrote down, “UA High School,” but would cycle between erasing it, writing it again, erasing it again, and repeat. 

UA High School was a prestigious academy with an incredibly low acceptance rate. Known for its high level of academics, as well as its strong sports clubs, UA was a powerhouse in all aspects. The majority of people had to pass the scrutinous exam to get in, but a few got in based on academic or athletic recommendation.

It's not like I know anyone that could write me a letter of recommendation, he thought, ruffling his hair in frustration. After a groan, his internal monologue continued: and it's not like I'm bad at sports, but I’m no ace either. 

The thought of how cool Ashido looked after successfully saving the ball and scoring the final goal crossed his mind again. He imagined that she had all sorts of coaches willing to write letters of recommendation for her. If she wanted to get into UA, it wouldn’t be an issue; it’d just be another accomplishment to tack onto her repertoire.

He pushed the paper aside and pulled out one of his old comic books, flipping to where he left off. Eijiro had been reading through a Crimson Riot Anthology , a collection of the best stories from his favorite fictional superhero, Crimson Riot.

“I bet even if superpowers were real, mine wouldn’t even be all that remarkable,” he said, chuckling to himself. He turned page after page with a grin, knowing the climax of this issue was coming up soon. Crimson Riot stood solidly after taking a strong punch to the gut, and while he powered through the sharp pain, he countered with a strong punch of his own, socking the villain right in the face, and knocking him out. 

“Maybe if I was more like Crimson Riot, I could be awesome too,” he said to himself with a smile. Reading comics always gave him a strong motivation to do more, and to do better. He grabbed the handout from school again, along with a pen, and wrote “UA High School” one last time. Eijiro placed the paper in his bag, and continued reading.