"I don't have any family or relatives. To survive, I have to fight. Unless I win, I'll have nowhere to go."
"You can live anywhere you want."
Aila has never had a home or a family to call her own. The orphanage and the Flana Institute were buildings she had resided in for a while. But her residence in those places had always been contingent on things like her good behavior or her win ratio in Gunpla Battles.
The Ioris live above their modest little model shop in a quiet suburban neighborhood. There is a Family Mart two blocks over near the park, and the most excellent ramen stand Aila has ever eaten at by the train station. Their home is small like most Japanese ones, but uncluttered. Rinko keeps a strict house and doesn't allow for Gunpla parts outside of the workshop or Sei's room.
As Aila watches Sei carefully place his championship trophy next to his father's in the display case, she wonders how long she will be allowed to intrude on their world.
She moves into the spare bedroom next to Sei's— it's only temporary.
"Did Reiji stay here?" She asks and sets her small bag of souvenirs down by the side of the bed. Her hand reaches for the pendant hanging around her neck.
"No, Reiji-kun didn't sleep here all the time. He came and went as he pleased. When he was here, he preferred to stay with Sei. But you're a girl and you need your privacy, so make yourself at home." Rinko winks at her. "We'll go shopping tomorrow and pick up a few things for you."
They do more than buy a toothbrush and other toiletries though. Aila came to their home with nothing but the clothes on her back and a fistful of yen notes left over from her Flana Institute wages. By the end of the week, Rinko practically bought her an entire wardrobe— summer, spring, fall, and winter clothes. Aila tries to return everything but the bare essentials, but she soon learns that there is very little that can stop a mother on the warpath. Takeshi doubles down by enrolling Aila in Sei and China's middle school as a second year.
"I can't accept your charity, it's too much." She presses her head firmly to the wooden floor that smells like wax and lemons. "Please accept my humble thanks."
When she looks up, Rinko and Takeshi's eyes are locked with one another in a silent conversation. Rinko breaks eye contact first and looks down at Aila with worry in her furrowed brows. "But what will you do? Where will you go?"
Her only talent lies in being able to read the movement of Plavsky particles, but that is the thing of the past. In the last few weeks, she's learned that she's not very good at school either. She has nothing to offer to anyone anymore. Aila swallows the lump in her throat, furiously blinking away the tears gathering in the corner of her eyes. "Please don't worry about me. I'll figure something out."
Takeshi folds his arms over his chest and heaves a heavy sigh. "We can't keep you here against your will, Aila-san. But please think this through. Or at least stay with us until you have a solid plan of action."
In her lap, she squeezes her hands into tight fists until her blunt nails are digging into her palms. "I have thought about it. I can't take advantage of your kindness any longer."
"Aila-san, please stay," Sei suddenly says from behind her. "We want you to stay and so would Reiji. He'll be so mad if he finds you're not here when he comes back."
Come to Sei's house, Reiji's confident words echo in her ears. I'm staying there too. They won't mind an extra person.
That's right. When Reiji returns, this will be the first place he'll go— to these people who had opened their hearts and home to drifters like him and Aila.
Even without Gunpla Battle, the shop experiences a boom in business. People from all over southern Japan and even the world flock to the store to catch a glimpse of two of the fighters ranked Best Four in the last competition.
Aila does what she can to help. Unlike Sei, she doesn't know the nuance and history of every machine in inventory. She learns to operate the cash register and help cook meals to alleviate some of Rinko's housework. In between that and studying to catch up with her classmates, Aila's too busy to worry about much else.
Sei keeps busy too— with the shop, his schoolwork, his father who appears to be home for good, and the new Gunpla he's building.
"Can I see it?" Aila asks one morning after Sei has pulled an all-nighter in the workshop.
Sei is still a bit unsure around her and he keeps his eyes glued to his rice. "Not yet. It's not ready yet."
Sometimes when she goes to call Sei for a meal, she'll catch him sitting on his bed and staring at the battle-worn Star Build Strike. Sei has never repaired it— its arms are ones from Gundam Fenice Rinascita and they're still holding the beam weapons given by Mao.
Aila closes the door quietly and leans back against the wood. "Reiji, you idiot, what's taking you so long?" She mutters under her breath.
PPSE scrambles to do damage control in the hectic aftermath of the 7th Gunpla Battle World Championships. There are no more Plavsky particles— just a giant hole in the stadium roof and thousands of people who had seen the space fortress materialize from nothing. With its one source of income gone and its chairman nowhere to be found, the corporation collapses in on itself.
But the third-generation Meijin Kawaguchi remains steadfast in his conviction when he declares, "The Plavsky particles will return. When they do, people all over the world will know the joy of Gunpla Battle again."
A month after she settled into the Iori household, Nils Nielsen approaches her.
"I'm working on a new way to generate the Plavsky particles," he bluntly declares over the cup of matcha she has brewed for him. The Ioris are working downstairs in the shop, so there's no one left to react when her stunned hands drops the tea tray.
Her stomach flip-flops furiously. "Eh, really? That's great news."
But why come to her about it? If Sei heard, he would be through the roof with joy.
"I have secured funding, but the work is still in the early stages. It could be years before we find a way to manufacture the particles artificially." Nils drinks his tea in that perfectly practiced way that Aila has only seen on television before.
He continues, "Reiji told me about your ability to see the particles. Can you really do that?"
"I could, but I don't know how that can help you now. I've never actually studied the particles."
"Maybe not at this stage, you can consult with us during later stages of the project. But there is something you can do to help us now," his eyes travel south to her throat. "I know it must be difficult to part with, but your pendant could be the key. It is the last known piece of Plavsky crystal on earth. I wouldn't ask this of you otherwise."
Aila would be lying if she ever said she parted with Reiji's gift willingly. But this may be her only chance to repay Sei and his family for their kindness. Reiji will forgive her all the same.
The gem is still warm to the touch when she drops the necklace into Nils' palm.
Within six months, both the particles and Gunpla Battles make their triumphant return. The necklace too makes it way back to her intact, but Reiji does not.
It's okay, because Aila is no fairy tale princess waiting for her Prince Charming. (For one thing, he's gluttonous and loud and stupidly earnest…) She doesn't need someone to rescue her. She's living a life of her own making— with place to call her own and the best tasting omelet rice on earth. She's made friends with a few of her classmates— many of whom aren't even all that interested in Gunpla to begin with. They go karaoking on the weekends and eat out at China's family cafe or at the crepes place next to the train station. She studies for her high school entrance exam and joins the astronomy club after-school.
And sometimes, she dates other boys. Her first kiss is with a boy named Ren— he tastes of stale curry from the lunch bento they shared hours ago, but Aila doesn't mind. He attends another middle school across town, and he confessed to her out of the blue in front of the school gates after classes were done. They go out for two months before mutually drifting apart.
Sometimes, he still invites her on group dates.
Gundams remain a constant in her life— whether it's long hours of toiling away in the workshop room or weekend marathons of anime episodes with Sei and Takeshi.
(She won't admit to it out loud, but she feels more than a bit of affinity with Aina Sahalin from the 08th MS Team.)
Like Reiji, Sei's love of Gunpla Battle is infectious. Battling with Sei is like flying— soaring through a field of countless stars orbiting their machines. Sei smiles like he completely gets her when she tells him about it.
The mismatched Star Build Strike finds its home next to last year's trophy engraved with both Sei and Reiji's names. Instead, Sei debuts his new Build Strike Cosmos at the next qualifier tournament. He is a favored contender right from the start, but there are people out there who doubt the winning builder will do as well as his winning fighter partner. Aila has fought Sei on multiple occasions and she can say with confidence that his skills are no less than Reiji's. Anyone who doubt Sei needs only to look at the hours of training he's put in with Ral, Takeshi, and herself.
Aila has no interest in battling professionally anytime soon. Her building skills grew by leaps and bounds under Takeshi's intense tutelage, but there is always room for improvement. Instead, she turns her attention to honing her ability to read the particles.
The battle machines nowadays outputs less particles than their predecessors, so she can no longer predict the outcome with the same clarity as before. She's glad for that— Gunpla battles were less fun to watch and participate in if the outcome is already decided ahead of time. Reading the particles now gives her some measure of insight into the fighter's style and personality— their strengths and weaknesses. None of which are absolute givens.
After reaching out to Kirara, Aila lands a job as a commentator for the 8th Gunpla Battle World Championships. Aila gains a fan following and a part-time gig, while Sei brings home another trophy to put in the display case.
Summer is already on its way out when Meijin Kawaguchi barges into the store and asks her, "Will you have dinner with me?" His hair is slicked back as if he's preparing to ride into battle.
Aila's hands still in the midst of restocking the shelves with the latest shipment of Strike Gundam models— always a fan favorite at their store. "Are you talking to me?"
"Yuuki-senpai!" Sei screeches from behind the counter. His entire face turns scarlet red.
"As a date," he clarifies. As if anyone thought he meant otherwise. "Will you go on date with me?"
"Sure," she shrugged and went back to the shelves. "Does tonight work for you?" From what little she knows about him, this is out of character for him. Her curiosity is piqued.
"Aila-san!" Sei exclaims even louder before Rinko presses a hand to his mouth and cuts off the rest of his words.
Meijin nods stiffly. "Now's fine. Let's go."
She hands her apron off to Rinko, who's grinning like the Cheshire cat and wishes them a fun night. A car is waiting outside and the Meijin holds the door for her as she slips into the backseat. He maintains a respectable distance after he climbs in after her.
"Where would you like to go?"
Off the top of her head, she picks the Thai restaurant that the Ioris took her to for her birthday. They spend the short ride mostly in silence. The Meijin fidgets, struggling to not check his constantly buzzing cellphone.
The Meijin is nothing but the perfect gentleman for the rest of the evening. He holds doors and pulls out the chair from the table for her. At the restaurant, he slowly warms to her over chicken satay and conversation about Gunplas. But it's obvious to Aila that he's going through the motions of polite conversation. She doesn't push the issue for now. It's just one date and no harm will come from seeing it through.
He refuses her offer to go dutch for the meal and picks up the check. When they exit the restaurant, the car is waiting by the curb again.
"I'd like to walk back, stretch my legs," she declares.
"I'll escort you then." He sends the driver ahead to meet them back at the Ioris'.
The soft breeze rustles through his hair, softening his bangs and the way they frame his face. He's handsome, but aloof and distant like the full moon shining above them. She has rarely seen his enthusiasm shine through that placidity for anything other than Gunpla building and fighting. They're nearing the park and Aila decides she's waited long enough for her answer.
"Wait here, I'll be right back." She ducks into the Family Mart. When she comes back out, she's armed with a plastic bag of ice cream cones, one for each of the Ioris, the Meijin, and herself. She thrusts the treat in his face. "Here, I hope you like vanilla. Thank you for dinner."
He takes the cone after a brief moment of hesitation. "Thank you."
She takes them through the park and to the swing set in its center. She sits on the middle swing and starts peeling the wrapper off. He hovers nearby, silently eating his cone.
"Will you tell me why you really asked me out?" She asks as she allows the swing to sway gently.
He's quiet for several moments, silently weighing his options. "Please, don't take this the wrong way, Aila-san. But you're the only girl I know who's single and not likely to get the wrong idea from this."
She raises an eyebrow. "Why ask me at all?"
He cringes gently, and she's fascinated by the unusual show of vulnerability. "Allan insisted. He said if I can't find myself on a date, he'd set me up on a blind date. I chose the lesser of two evils."
"I didn't think anyone could force Meijin Kawaguchi to do anything against his will."
"You don't say no to the likes of Allan," he say ruefully. The Meijin mask melts a bit and Aila can see a glimpse of the boy named Yuuki Tatsuya underneath.
Ah, there it is. She supposes this is where she should advise him to follow his heart. It's none of her business though. She pops the last bit of cone into her mouth and kicks her feet out, using the pendulum motion of the swing to thrust her closer to the night sky above.
For her second birthday at the Ioris, the family surprises her with her very own 200mm telescope. Telescopes are no small expense— and this one is close to top-of-the-line. She suspects they had to settle for a second-hand one. The previous owner had taken the utmost care of it because it handles like it came right out of the box. The beaten 135mm hand-me-down that they use at the astronomy club doesn't even begin to compare.
Manners, however, dictate that she set it aside as cake is served.
Her eyes can't stop wandering back to her new telescope and she swears Rinko smothers a laugh each time she does. She wolfs down the cake served to her and declines seconds.
"Thank you for the meal!" She exclaims with excess energy to spare.
"Why don't I make us some popcorn? We can watch a movie together." Rinko claps her hands together.
Aila's face falls.
Takeshi gives a hearty laugh. "Honey, you've teased her enough. Let Ai-chan go play with her new telescope."
"Okay, but put on a coat. It's cold out there!"
"Yes, ma'am!" Aila salutes them.
Winter has been unseasonably chilly this year, and the temperature is dropping past 0 Celsius. By the time she's set up on the balcony outside, she's shivering despite her coat and she's nearly lost all feeling in her hands. But there are no clouds in the sky and the moon is a waning crescent. She can't ask for a more perfect night to stargaze.
"Come on, put these on before your fingers come off." Sei's sudden arrival startles her from her contemplation on Polaris. He sets two mugs of steaming tea on the patio table and hands her a pair of gloves.
"Thank you," she mutters, grateful as sensation returns to her fingertips. The tea is similarly a godsend, and she gulps it down before it has the chance to go cold.
Sei pulls up a chair and asks, "What are you looking at? Can you see Sagittarius?"
"No, not at this time of the year. You can see it in August. The visible constellations right now are Orion and Taurus." Aila has spent hours studying star charts and memorizing their contents.
"Wow, Aila-san, you really know your stuff. Orion's the hunter, right? With the belt?"
"Would you like me to show you?"
Sei nods vigorously.
After she's shown him Orion, Jupiter, and the Little Dipper, Sei leans back in his seat and falls silent. She fiddles with her finderscope in search of Taurus and the sisters. In another hour or two after everyone has gone to bed, she may even be lucky enough to glimpse the phantom visages of the Crab Nebula.
"I wonder if we could find Reiji's home planet," Sei muses quietly to himself.
There are at least 70 sextillion— that's thousands of million million millions— stars in the observable universe. Even if Aila narrows the range of possibilities down to their Milky Way galaxy alone, the possibility of picking out the sun that Reiji's homeworld orbits around is one in 300 billion. Most of them can't be observed by telescopes the likes of hers.
"Yeah, he's out there," she says as she leans forward to gaze through the eyepiece. "Somewhere."
Winter slowly thaws into spring. The weather stays chilly even in March as Aila graduates from middle school. Everyone who matters is in attendance for the ceremony: Rinko and Takeshi closes the store for the afternoon, Ral shows up out of nowhere as he usually does, and Sei and China are seated in the underclassmen's section. When her name is called and she ascends to the stage to receive her diploma, a small cheer ripples through her classmates and echoes from the family seating.
She risks a small hand-wave to the audience before the principal's obvious impatience runs her off-stage.
After the ceremony, they gather to take photos. Rinko's eyes are red from crying and even Takeshi looks a bit misty in the eyes. The way Ral beams reminds Aila of a proud grandfather.
But when another graduating student, a boy from one of the other classes, approaches and asks to speak alone with her, she feels none of the glee that her girlfriends are expressing. She follows him to an area of the schoolyard surrounded by trees bursting with young green leaves and pink buds.
"Aila-san, I'm Kudou from class C. I know we've never spoken before," his hands skitter nervously down the front of his school uniform, his face becoming more and more red with each word out of his mouth. "But I've always admired you from afar. To me, you are the prettiest girl in our entire year and watching you fight with your Gunpla is like watching a master ballerina."
"No, please let me finish. I'm going to West High School so we probably won't have the chance to see each other again. But I want to tell you that I like you a lot." He tears the second button down from his uniform with a firm tug. Extending one hand forward, he offers the polished button between trembling fingers. "And I want to give this to you. For us Japanese, its…"
"You don't have to explain. I know." Her friends had been talking about the tradition for weeks, hoping to receive a button from their crushes. Aila is not a complete stranger to confessions, but graduations are more special— more earnest and serious. Her stomach roils not with anticipation, but with anxiety. "But I can't accept it. You should give it to someone who will be able to fully cherish it. I'm really sorry, Kudou-kun."
His shoulders slump, but he doesn't pull his hand away. "Don't be sorry. I knew I would most likely be rejected. I always got the feeling that you were already waiting for someone. Please take it anyway, as our token of our time here."
Aila has spent enough time in Japan now to know Kudou will not back down. Even if she does not reciprocate his feelings, she still respects them. She takes the button, warmed by his touch, and holds it to her bosom.
Kudou bows. "Thank you for hearing me out, Aila-san. I wish you the best of luck in the future."
"Same to you, Kudou-san."
Waiting, huh? In some ways, she supposes she has been awaiting Reiji's return. But she's not the only one. Sei is especially steadfast in his belief that they will meet again.
She pulls the necklace from inside her blouse, cupping the iridescent gem in her hands. It twinkles in the light.
In just a few weeks, the cherry blossom trees will bloom and Aila will start high school. She has a home and dare she say it? A family. All things she would not have never imagined to be within her reach just two years ago. None of it would have been possible before gunplas— before meeting Reiji first.
"I wish I could thank you for all you've given me."
The gem grows warm, then red hot. She drops it before it burns her.
"What did I tell you? You can go anywhere. You can do anything." A familiar voice says from behind her.
With her heart caught in her throat, she turns and squeaks, "Reiji?"
His hair is still a riotous mess of red, and he wears that cocky grin like it's nobody's business. He's older now, but so is she.
"Yo, Aila. Long time no see."