When Graham Aker was in high school, no one bothered to give him a nickname.
It wasn't that he was normal enough to fly completely under the radar. It was more that his weirdness didn't follow the set patterns that teenagers were used to. It would have been easy to make up some rude name for him based on his love of mobile suits: every free assignment he got, he worked into a report on the newest models. But he wasn't just the mecha nerd. He was also that kid who the debate coach wanted very badly on the team, but could never seem to get, because whenever he lowered himself far enough out of the clouds to get into an argument, he followed it through with absolute passion, then abandoned it and his opponent as soon as he decided he'd beaten them. If he'd been bad at sports, that would have sealed the deal and earned him some geek moniker, but he was actually quite good at them, so that didn't quite fit, either.
None of the usual social mud quite stuck to him. He burned a path through school on his own terms, which rarely intersected with anyone else's. He had no friends, but he'd never wanted friends. Instead, he wrote in the margins of a math test, "There are no worthy opponents for me here." He meant the problems on the test, but the words could just as easily have applied to the entire high school.
Graham was looking forward to college. There would be worthy opponents there.
Billy Katagiri was lucky. When the girl in the cafeteria annex he'd so reasonably been trying to convince to come to his Dungeons and Dragons game pushed him hard, he didn't land in someone's tray of food. Instead, he landed on what he thought at first was a pile of textbooks. A quick glance behind him, though, put the lie to that. They were actually a series of manuals and magazines on the latest mobile suits.
He looked up. The other student reading them was young, probably a freshman like himself; very blond; and possessed of an expression with an intensity both dreamy and laser-sharp. Billy had never seen anything like it before.
The other boy kept reading. Billy wondered if he could get any sympathy from him for how unfairly the girl had treated him; all he'd done was suggest that she could have extra experience points if she gave him her number. It would have been a great deal. Somehow, though, he didn't think so. Sympathy didn't look like it was in his vocabulary.
"Hi," he said.
The other student turned a page.
"I'm Billy Katagiri," Billy said.
That got a reaction. Those sharp green eyes leveled on him. "Katagiri? Like the Japanese officer Homer Katagiri?"
"You mean my uncle?" Billy said. It was a weird thing to ask. His uncle wasn't famous outside of military circles.
"It's good to meet you, Billy," said the boy with the mobile suit manuals in the practiced tone of one who had become good at social interaction only through a great deal of trial and error. "I'm Graham Aker."
Nobody had ever told Billy it was good to meet him before—not and really meant it. He could tell Graham meant it. Someone else, he thought, might find Graham difficult to decipher, but Billy recognized another outsider when he saw one, or at least when one spoke to him.
Billy sat up, then sat down again next to Graham at the table. "Do you want to come to my Dungeons and Dragons game tonight?" He hadn't meant to say that. He'd meant to say something more profound, something that would strike Graham's interests appropriately. Maybe something about mobile suits! But he blurted this out instead.
"What's Dungeons and Dragons?" Graham asked, setting his magazine down on top of the pile.
"It's a roleplaying game," Billy said. His usual line here, to the girls he tried to get to play with him, was to explain that he was an old-fashioned, chivalrous kind of guy, so he used the 300th Anniversary Edition and not any of the fancy new ones, but that didn't seem appropriate for Graham Aker. Instead he said, "I wrote a computer program using some abandonware from outdated mobile suits that generates the best tactics to use in it." Yes! That would get his attention.
And so it did. "I'd like to see it," Graham said. "I'd like to see how the withered roots of old battles have grown new leaves of fantasy."
That was such a cool way to talk. Billy realized then that he'd already decided he wanted to impress Graham. He just had to figure out the right way to do it. With new determination, he took his computer out from his backpack and called up the 300th Anniversary Edition manual. He opened the character generation section and handed it to Graham. "You use this to make your character," he said.
Graham took a long time with the character generation program. After a while, Billy leaned around to look at the choices Graham had made. "I thought you would choose to be pilot class," he said. But the selection he'd made was samurai.
"I'll be a mobile suit pilot someday," Graham said, not taking his eyes off the screen as he wrote in his character's background. "I don't have to pretend."
"I bet you could be a samurai too," Billy said. "You could be anything." He meant it. He ran into a million obstacles every time he tried to get what he wanted, all thrown in his path as if the universe had a grudge against him, but Graham seemed like the kind of man who could walk right over those obstacles and burn them with his footprints. And he'd probably use a metaphor like that for it!
"No," Graham said. "There are no more samurai. The time of their noble fights has come and gone. I'll make my own way...with the next new model." He set down the computer, finished with character generation, and he pointed at the magazine he'd been reading. "The Flag. It won't be in mass production for years. But I recognize the future of battle."
"Really?" Billy said, blinking. The Flag wasn't very popular among the other engineering students. They said its slender, fragile design would never be fit for combat. Billy liked it, though. He thought it was the kind of mobile suit that would impress the girls. "I'm majoring in mobile suit engineering, you know. The Flag is my favorite of the new designs."
For the first time, Graham smiled at him. It made Billy catch his breath. Now this was a cool guy. A little weird, but cool. "You have excellent taste, Billy Katagiri," Graham said.
"You know..." Billy started. Then he hesitated. He'd always had bad luck introducing complex D&D concepts to new players. But Graham was different. Maybe, just maybe...
"You know," Billy said again, "you can dual-class. In Dungeons and Dragons, I mean." He picked up the computer and handed it back to Graham. "Do you want to make a samurai pilot?"
Graham stared at the screen.
"I'll do up the statistics for a Flag in the game," Billy said. "You can have it right from character generation." He wasn't supposed to play favorites like that, except when girls joined the game (everyone knew that you played favorites with girls), but Graham was special.
"You can do that?" Graham looked mesmerized.
"In the game," Billy said, "you can do anything. What are you going to call your samurai pilot?"
"He abandoned his real name," Graham said seriously. "It didn't do enough justice to his love of honorable battle. Now he calls himself Bushido."
Billy thought that was a little corny, but it wasn't entirely unexpected, either. Graham was a kind of guy who could make something like that cool, anyway. "Bushido's a good name for a samurai pilot," he said.
"Only in the game," Graham said. "In real life..."
Billy knew what he had to say here. "In real life," he said, "Graham Aker is a good name for a samurai pilot."
When Graham grinned, he didn't look quite sane, but that was all right, too.
"Worthy opponents" were difficult to find. Billy Katagiri was not one of them. But from him, Graham learned that there was another kind of human interaction, one that didn't involve fighting. It involved give and take instead. He gave Billy recognition and validation, and Billy gave him his dreams, packaged neatly in software code and engineering projects. They might have made it through college without each other, but it wouldn't have been the same. There would have been no late nights of feverish coding over an imaginary mobile suit. There would have been no one to rescue Billy's ego after countless rejections, and there would have been no one to admire Graham's controlled flights of fancy for the achievement they were.
None of those experiences were ever quite the same as that first night with him and his roleplaying game, though. Nothing could compare to being a samurai pilot, and few things could be as rewarding as earning the name Bushido.