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To a Muggle-born hailing from small, tight-knit apartments in the densely populated Tokyo, Mahoutokoro came as a huge shock to the eleven-year-old Kisuke Amano. The castle-like school easily towered over his minuscule build, intimidating him with the huge shadows cast by its oriental roofs and thick, red pillars that stood at the entrance bearing the couplet:


Here, your journey will begin through this gate,
But only you can decide your own fate.


He shuffled along with the other first-year students down a long walkway, with a row of cherry blossom trees on either side in full bloom, falling petals painted the scene in a sea of pale pink.


The same color as the robe—or haori—that Kisuke was wearing now.


As he followed the crowd towards the main hall, he noticed that many were walking in groups. He had heard that some of them were enrolled into Mahoutokoro as young as aged seven, and these were usually children who came from renowned wizarding families, highly regarded at the top of the student hierarchy.


There were a few scattered lone students, probably Muggle-borns who had somehow awakened magical abilities just like him, but the young boy was hesitant to approach them. After all, humility was a value taught and strongly enforced into every Japanese the moment they were born, even as they grew up and stepped into the society, all the way till death. Direct confrontation was generally frowned upon, and seen as disrespectful.


The main hall seemed much larger on the inside, with older students knelt down, facing the front where the staff was lined up. Here, Kisuke was curious at the variety of colors he saw among the seniors—green, red, blue—and a handful of gold haori at the front of the student population. On the back of each student bore a black emblem, and he counted only four different types of crests: a bird, a tiger, a dragon, and a tortoise. The first-years settled down along the empty space in the middle of the hall, directly in front of an old man whose snow-white hair clashed with the ink-black kimono he wore. Ah, he must be the headmaster of this school.


Kisuke wasn't paying much attention to the headmaster's opening speech; he was more interested in studying the people around the hall, trying to learn as much as he could about this queer school with the power of his observation. He always found it fascinating that the little gestures that people do, the little accessories that they wear… all these would tell a lot more about them more than what they would say from their mouth.


It's harder to lie with actions than with mere words.


The polite clapping pulled Kisuke out of his own thoughts, signaling the end of the speech, and he reluctantly turned his attention back to the front of the hall. Murmurs broke out among the first-years, and Kisuke understood why when his eyes widened at a golden stand placed next to the headmaster.


"In Mahoutokoro, you will be sorted to the different houses—or what we call 'clans'," the headmaster said. "Named after the four symbolic creatures so deeply etched into our culture, guarding the four sides of this sacred land: Suzaku the Vermilion Bird to the south, Byakko the White Tiger in the north, Seiryu the Azure Dragon of the east, and finally, Genbu the Black Tortoise to the west."


With that, the headmaster bowed out of the spotlight, and everyone's attention was fixated on the strange stand. Suddenly, it burst into flames, then a bird appeared on the stand, completely covered in some kind of magical fire. Next to him, he heard one of the first-years gasped, "It's a ho-o. I can't believe one of them is actually in this school."


The first-year noticed Kisuke's curious stare, and she explained that the Japanese phoenix didn't come as only one entity contrary to most myths and legends, but as a pair; the one at the front was probably the female. The girl was very pretty; she wore the same pale pink haori like Kisuke's, which contrasted with the long black locks falling from her head down to her back. Though, her clipped tone made her sound too businesslike for an eleven-year-old, and it was worse with the no-nonsense look on her face.


"You do know a lot of things about the magical world," Kisuke commented.


"Silly me; I should have introduced myself first," the girl scratched her cheek with a finger, a small, awkward smile on the stern face. "I am Yuko Kisaragi. I'm sure you have heard about the Kisaragi Clan." Kisuke thought that her eyes had turned glassy when she talked about her family name.


He lowered his head to give her a small bow. "Kisuke Amano." And then he shook his head. "Uh, no. I don't know much about all this. I'm a Mujin—I think that's what you guys call a Muggle-born like me."


"Oh." The weird smile disappeared, replaced by an apologetic look. Then she turned her attention back to the front as the sorting was about to begin.


What a strange person, was Kisuke's first impression of the girl who would eventually become an important part of his life.


On top of learning the various subjects that ranged from spell-work to the use of magical creatures and items, Kisuke wasn't prepared for language lessons—and two of them. English, as most of the modern wizarding books were written in this language; and Latin, as most of the spells they were using were spoken in the dead tongue (at least it was so in the Muggle world). He was already struggling to keep up with the huge cultural shock of the wizarding world compared to where he came from. While he enjoyed learning new things, the rate they were thrown at him was beyond the capability to absorb. His grades from the mid-semester tests were the final straw, and he felt helpless, almost like he was trying to win a losing battle.


Exhaling slowly, he tugged at his pale pink robe, slouching back into the couch.


"Guess you have lots of catching up to do, huh?"


Kisuke jumped at Yuko's voice next to his ear; she was peering over his shoulder to look at his test results. She chuckled at the boy's stunned look.


"I can tutor you over the summer vacation," she began, twirling a lock of her hair with a finger. Kisuke couldn't help narrowing his eyes—just a little—at her orange robe. "Only if you want my help, that is."


Kisuke perked up at the unexpected offer. "Really?"


This time it was Yuko's turn to be taken aback. "Um, yeah. Sure. Of course."


Kisuke raised an eyebrow at her reaction. "Why do you look so surprised?"


"Well… I don't know." She shrugged, glancing sideways. "I know a lot of people don't like me. I'm from a prestigious magical family, but I'm a failure to them."


Kisuke said nothing, waiting for the girl to go on.


"I am a failure as a lady I'm supposed to be, being an heiress and all." She shook her head, sighing. "I am also incompetent at socializing. I don't get why I should pretend to be nice to people who don't deserve it. It disgusts me having to conform myself to their whims."


Kisuke nodded, but something that Yuko just said didn't sit well with him. "Are you sure that you're as hopeless as you think?"


"What do you mean?"


"I don't think you're a failure, and I definitely don't think that you are bad at making friends." Kisuke gave the girl a knowing smile. "We are friends, aren't we?"


"H-Huh? What, I don't understand—"


Kisuke laughed. "There isn't a formula to make friends. It just happens when you can click well with someone." He patted the confused Yuko on the head. "And you're already being nice, by offering to help me with my studies."


"But I'm pretty strict," Yuko frowned, struggling to regain her composure. "Do you have what it takes to survive my teaching methods?"


"Is that supposed to be a threat?"


"I'm serious here."


Kisuke laughed again. "I can show you around the Mujin city during the weekends, to repay your kindness and help."


Yuko's face brightened. "Will you really?" It was one of those few rare moments the normally stern girl would act like her own age, showing the innocent, childish side of her beneath her cold maturity.


"This is what being friends means," Kisuke said, standing up. "We help each other when we're in a pinch, and we share the good things with each other and share this happiness."


What Kisuke didn't account for was how much Yuko knew nothing about the Muggle world. Still, the summer holiday ended on a joyous note, further affirming the bond of their slow-burn friendship.


"Why didn't you tell me?"


The hospital wing was empty sans two students—who was none other than Kisuke and Yuko. Yuko was crying; tears were rolling down the pair of fierce-looking eyes as she glowered at the boy on the bed, with a broken arm and leg. "Aren't we supposed to be friends?"


Kisuke turned his head away. "I… don't want you to worry about me."


"Well, in the end, you still got me worried!" Yuko's harsh tone became colder with each word. "Why would you do such a thing? I never asked you to stand up for me, only to get yourself hurt like this."




Yuko sniffed. "I can take care of those bullies better than you. You don't need to worry about me and just look after yourself first."

Kisuke rolled his eyes. "Is that just a repeat of what I did?"


"I'm better at dueling magic than you are." Kisuke winced when Yuko slapped a hand on his back. "And I'm not exactly angry about you trying to stand up to those bullies to protect me. I'm angrier at the fact that you'd be kept here for a week and we are going to miss the Quidditch final."


Kisuke turned around to face her, astonished. "That is what you're actually worried about?"


"Well, I…" Yuko crossed her arms before her, pouting. "I just want to watch a Quidditch match with a friend. I have never watched Quidditch with a friend before in my life. Also, this match will be a spectacular sight in this season, with the red maple trees around the stadium." She stole a quick glance at Kisuke. "You know, sharing the good stuff with friends and spread this happiness is what friendship is about, am I right?"


Kisuke's reply was a lopsided smile—half amused at her awkwardness trying to understand friendship and be a friend, half because he found that rather cute.


A year was almost gone in a blink of an eye, and the melted snow would occasionally fall onto students who passed under the bare cherry blossom trees as they were walking through the entrance for the new semester.


Kisuke was no longer in the pale pink robe he wore in his first year, now that he had moved up to his second year at Mahoutokoro. He looked up at the cherry blossom trees, and memories of his first time in this magic academy came back to him just like it happened only yesterday.


"Feeling sentimental?"


He stopped to turn around, facing a beaming Yuko who had caught up with the unaware boy. "A little, I guess."


"The first bud of the cherry blossom flowers will appear earliest next week, if my calculations aren't off," she said, glancing up at the dripping branches. "Cherry blossoms are amazing, aren't they? They only bloom for a short while, shortly after the freezing winter, and they are gone before we're into the middle of spring."


Kisuke nodded. "Just like time." He gestured at their robes. "We began with pink, and now we're already wearing red when it's our second year. How time flies." Short, and bittersweet.


"That is the beauty of cherry blossoms, and why many people are so fascinated by them," although she sounded no different from a lecturing teacher firing off her extensive knowledge, Kisuke could still hear a hint of affection in Yuko's dry tone. "Its symbolism of beginning."


"And encounter." Kisuke smiled at her. "Like all those meetings under the cherry blossom scenes in fictions."


With one last look at the barren cherry blossom trees, the pair continued their walk to the main hall.

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