Chapter 25:

Word Problem


Puffed out cheeks.

A reddening little face.

Tears building up in the eyes.

All the signs of an increasingly frustrated six-year-old girl, sitting by her lonesome at the kitchen table. No matter how the child pouts at it, the assignment on the datapad in front of her simply refuses to complete itself. At this point, it’s a wonder she can still see it through all the water building up in front of her large, green irises.

It won’t defeat her.

It won’t defeat her.


It might defeat her…

The pleasant voice of an adult woman rings from another room. “Charlie.” A beautiful woman with a familiar butterfly hairclip passes by with a laundry basket, poking her head through the doorway with her golden blonde locks nearly reaching to the floor. “Are you still doing your homework in here?”

Little Charlotte swivels around to her mother, barely able to keep the dams in her eyes and nose from bursting. “Mommy…”

Not a beat missed. The woman drops the basket with a resonant thud and glides over to her child with a warm smile. She kneels down, wiping the tears away with her sweater sleeve and giving the girl a tissue.

“Hey. What’s got my clever little catterpillar so upset?”

“I can’t do it…”

Charlotte’s mother wraps her daughter up in her arms from behind, pressing her cheek against the much smaller one of her tiny double. “Aw sweetie, I’m sorry you’re having such a rough time.”

Then she leans over the table, scanning the math problems to get an idea.

Simple enough.

“But you shouldn’t say things like that. Just because you don’t get it now, doesn’t mean you can’t get it. It just means there’s room to make yourself even smarter. Here. Let’s do this first one together.”

In seconds, the problem is finished, Charlotte holding up the datapad. Her eyes glimmer not with tears, but with the luster of self-satisfaction. “Ooooh! I got it!”

Her mother steps back and watches from that point forward, letting her kid work out the rest of the problems herself and interjecting whenever it seems the girl may get stuck again. Not five minutes later, the entire list of questions is filled out.

The proud mother gives Charlotte a round of applause. “See? Now I bet you feel a whole lot smarter. It feels really good, right?”


“Exactly!” Then the benevolent woman leans forward, resting her head atop her child’s with a carefree smile. “If you don’t get it right away, it’s no problem. Just relax and take things at your own pace. What matters is you’re learning.”

The warmth of a mother’s affection for her child fills Charlotte’s entire body as she sits there, staring at the datapad, looking rather content.


O’ how the rigors of time can turn a gaze once so innocent into one so disillusioned. Sitting in the main hall of the school’s testing facility, staring at her LINK interface, one thing is abundantly clear. The contrast between that little girl and the Charlotte of today couldn’t be more stark.

Never content.

Never satisfied.

Never showing any signs of that warmth left over from her mother’s kindness.

Yet, today something is… different. She seems… peaceful. There’s nary a trace of the crushing pressure that so often surrounds her. That frigid aura that blows through people like screen doors and chills them to their bones.

Her gaze cuts straight through the holographic screen in front of her. The projection of study material in her face may as well be a window. Time claims her attention as her mind’s eye tunes into the flow of memory.

Naturally, it doesn’t last.

The bygone world slips away from her in one abrupt swoop when a voice from today sneaks its way in. “Charlotte?”

The Ice Queen of the First Years snaps out of it and lifts her head. Paige.

“They’re opening the exam halls, now.”

So they are.

Charlotte rises from the bench, the air practically turning to ice from the moment she decides to move. Closing her interface, she makes her way for the door without a word to anyone.

Always with such purpose, this girl moves.

There is one thing, though, that gives her pause. A faint glimpse through the corner of her eye. A head of flowing, raven black hair entering a different exam hall, a few doors down from her own. The most recognizable face on campus.

That was…

Her thought goes incomplete. She’s next in line to enter, flashing her LINK to the scanner drone at the doorway to let her in. Finding her seat, Charlotte takes a deep breath. Now is the time to empty her mind of all stray thoughts.

At least, it should be…

It doesn’t exactly pan out this way.

The time ticks away in silence. Students all around the multi-level exam hall flip through digital pages, locking in their answers with a mere touch. Most students are methodical, using any number of testing strategies to help themselves. Skipping things to come back later, trying to recall mnemonic devices, whatever. Ordinarily, Charlotte is not most students.

Any other da, the top student among the First Years would race through each test module, her fingers treating the buttons of the holo-screen like the keys to a piano. One she plays with masterful precision and grace.

Today? Inert.

Ten minutes in and Charlotte only has two answers down. Even she internally laments this bizarre performance. A mere percent of how much she’d typically have by now…


There’s the reason. Throughout the entire exam, one thing - one person - throttles her concentration. The very same one she’d seen just moments ago. One Kikaijima Kikyou. A figure on a pedestal, up so high she Charlotte can hardly see her as the esteemed Student Body President looks down upon all. Then there’s that line.

0.1 Percent.





That’s where it all leads. Her blood running hot, the ice-cold academic raises her hand to her holo-screen. She’s off, flying through questions with minimal effort.

Basic Word Problem: A city has approximately 50,000,000 occupants. Of those, 0.1% are afflicted with a dangerous disease. In order to reduce risk to the rest of the city, exactly 20% of those individuals are euthanized annually. How many will be put down, in the end?

Not even a minute later, Charlotte locks in her answer to the question at the midway point of the mock exam and pauses, another line echoing in the back of her mind.

“Just relax and take things at your own pace. What matters is you’re learning.”

Answer: Negligible.

Then she scoffs.

Idiot. Even a grade schooler can solve that. The way this world is built…

From that point onward, Charlotte returns to her mental zone, flying through the exam with a focus nearly unprecedented. Something that doesn’t go unnoticed by those around her. Least of all, a tidy girl a few rows behind her, staring in awe.


The mock exam now over, Charlotte leaves the exam hall with her posse in tow.

Paige, in particular, follows close behind. “This is definitely the toughest one yet. I was honestly a little worried I didn’t study enough.”

Not so much as a glance. Charlotte simply continues forward, completely unaffected. “If you didn’t get a perfect score, then you didn’t.”

“Ah… y-yeah, that’s probably…”

“Excuse me!”

Charlotte stops and glances back to Paige, the bespectacled subordinate shaking her head and looking just as confused. None of the others in the group seem to know the source either. That is, not until it presents itself.

A short, familiar girl in a perfectly tidy uniform and lustrous black hair that reminds Charlotte of someone. She bows. “Altair-san, hello.”

Charlotte blinks.

“Right. I’m-”

“The little sister. Kikaijima Rinko, correct?”

“Oh. Y-yes! So you do remember me, then!” A bit bashful, the girl tilts her head with a nervous smile. “Yes, I’m the Representative of Class 1-A. My class is a bit of a handful, but you know how that is. I’m actually surprised, though! Your class it pretty rowdy too, but they’re outperforming all the other classes in our year. I guess having an example like that helps…”

Never one for small talk, Charlotte turns herself back around. “Thank you. Now, if you don’t need anything, I should be getting back to my class, now. Idling in the halls is against school rules.”

Rinko jolts.

No denying that.

Then, however, she lurches forward, an arm outstretched. “Ah, wait! Um, there was something, actually!”

Charlotte stops in place, her followers all yielding behind her. Unlike them, however, she never turns back around.

“Um… well… I was wondering. I saw… that you finished the exam before everyone. But I could tell that it definitely didn’t look like you were just guessing or anything. You were actually really focused, right? I’ve heard you have this big study group thing, going on. So I was wondering… if maybe… I could be a part of it? We could be study partn-”


The Ice Queen cometh, practically rooting Rinko where she stands as she looks back on the girl with that glacial gaze she’s so mastered.

“Would be utterly pointless…”

With that, Charlotte leaves the scene, her posse behind her. Only Rinko remains. Gaping. Her words frozen in her vocal cords. The only thing she’s able to utter? A meek “H-heh?”