Haunt… A fitting word. It haunts Rinko. It absolutely eats away at her as she lies there in her bed, stewing over it. Her darkness-tuned eyes gaze upon the empty ceiling. A blank canvas for the artist of her mind to etch whatever may come to it. How unfortunate for her that it chooses what most gnaws at her.
Someone else, eyeing her own sister’s exam ranking the way only she ever had. What burns the most, however, is the jumble of incomprehensible crackling in the back of her skull. The vain efforts of her mind to rationalize such irrational feelings.
It… only makes sense. That other people want to reach the same heights as her. That’s what I’m doing, isn’t it? So then, why do I…?
Still, that image looms over her, painted onto the white ceiling by her little artist tormentor. That cold, superior glare… looking down on her.
“I really… don’t like it…”
Time passes by, yet she remains awake deep into the night. A captive of her own worries. It’s such a strange thing. Shouldn’t it be of some relief? The more she mulls it over, Charlotte’s especially frigid rejection… it hadn’t been about Rinko’s own helplessness. It was entirely about the woman’s own cold self-interest.
Being wrong doesn’t feel better here at all.
On that note, Rinko turns to her side, staring at the holo-clock that faintly illuminates her neat and organized room from her desk. Yet the time doesn’t occupy a single corner of real estate in her head.
She stays fixated on that painful rejection, caught in that confusing place between respect and contempt. Many a stray thought crosses her mind.
Maybe she’s like me.
Maybe she can’t afford to fall behind.
Then… in her place, would I have…?
BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!
An all-nighter. And here she didn’t even use it to study…
When… did it happen?
Together they talk, going on and on about the all-important nothings that children so often think the world of. Precocious little philosophers, they are.
Together they play. Silly little games that children seem so eager to outgrow, only to miss them later in life. Or games like “house” and “store,” where they practice for their inevitable induction into the world of adults. At least… inevitable for any ordinary child…
Together they walk, joining hands. The frightful younger of the two stands at the edge of the sidewalk, too afraid to cross until she sees her older sister reaches out. When the light turns, the elder takes the first step, smiling at her little sibling to tell her “Gi’me your hand. It’ll be all right.”
When did you…?
The little one takes her sister’s hand and together they trot along the crossing, the elder humming a little tune to make the whole thing less scary. The elation the girl feels at making it to the other side may as well be the most awe-inspiring thing in the world. The way she cheers and rambles to her sister. The enormous smile stretched across her face.
They continue like this. Hand-in-hand. The destination doesn’t matter in the slightest to the smallest one. Simply getting to spend time with her sister is enough.
The next thing she knows, however, the pressure and warmth wrapping around her hand are both simply… absent. The world of blissful white turns pitch black and lonely in a heartbeat. Her sister, the girl she looks to the most is not missing, but… ahead of her.
When did you let go?
The little one - little Rinko - runs after her sister, reaching for Kikyou with her tiny arms, moving as quickly as her stumpy legs can carry her. Yet… she doesn’t get any closer. Kikyou merely walks, yet with every step, she gets miles further ahead.
More and more, this type of thing happens. Kikyou and Rinko play together, only for one adult or another in their life to interrupt. Soon little Rinko finds herself sitting in on any of Kikyou’s numerous lessons. Ballet, piano, painting, it doesn’t matter what it is, Kikyou excels at it. All the while, the other one sits quietly in a corner as instructed.
Eventually, the playtime becomes less frequent.
Soon, it vanishes altogether as Kikyou’s studies grow more and more intense. The vapors of their once abundant time together slipping through Rinko’s fingers. She finds her comfort in watching her sister. Admiring from the sidelines. Praising Kikyou alongside everyone else. Relishing her opportunity to share her amazing sister with the world.
Then comes her turn. The same lessons. The same studies. Unlike when she’d been there to observe Kikyou, however, for her, there’s… nothing.
It doesn’t matter how often she glances to the side of the room. It makes no difference how intensely she works or how much she improves. Day-after-day, year-after-year, it’s only her. Her and her faceless instructors.
No hired help.
When did you start getting so far away?
The world of the past cracks and shatters, leaving a present-day Rinko sitting in her classroom, looking completely lost. Her homeroom teacher stands over her, giving her a light but firm tap on the head with his datapad. Faint snickers of classmates all around her flutter through her ears.
“I don’t know where you’re head’s at today, Kikaijima-san, but I’d appreciate it if you didn’t daydream while I’m giving a lecture.”
The remainder of the day goes no better. In fact, it’s worse. Halfway through the school day, one begins to feel the effects a full night of fretting can have. With the specter of exhaustion now sitting on her back, Rinko’s entire body feels heavy. Sluggish. She only manages to hold her head up by bracing it against her hand.
Come lunch period, the poor thing picks up and steps outside.
“Fresh air. That’s what I need.”
Or so she thinks. Quiet moments to oneself can be dangerous things. Nothing to drown out the persistent uproar of unwanted thoughts. Especially not when such thoughts are so easily fueled. She doesn’t even make it halfway to the courtyard before the kindling of her worrisome flame presents itself.
Once again a handful of students seem about ready to come to blows.
On any ordinary day, Rinko would be the first person to step forward. To try and break it up before anyone gets seriously injured. Today isn’t an ordinary day. Today, her body stalls out. She takes one step forward and just… stops.
Rather, her body comes to a halt, almost entirely on its own.
Last time I…
It still stings. Thinking about how little effect she’d had before. How different could this time possibly be? Something in the back of her mind expects, maybe even hopes for another miraculous intervention. For Kikyou to appear and resolve the situation herself, saving the girl from the same humiliation. Then…
There it is. The voice of another party.
Also… not Kikyou.
When Rinko turns her head, her eyes widen at what she sees. Golden blonde hair. Cold, green eyes. That unmistakable blue butterfly. “C-Charlotte?”
The Ice Queen of the First-Years arrives with her hand at her hip and her entourage in tow. She flips her hair with her opposite hand and steps forward, ahead of the gathering crowd. The frigid glare she casts would paralyze Medusa, herself. Case-in-point, the bickering boys at the heart of the matter don’t move a muscle from the second she appears. They become a pair of statues, sculpted into a combative arm lock.
“Just what do the two of you think you’re doing in the middle of the hall?”
The entire scene dissolves in a heartbeat. The boys break it up and the onlookers disperse like mice, leaving only the fearsome girl in the middle of the hall. Rinko observes in astonishment, her jaw hung open. It’s a different sensation, what Charlotte inspires. A sort of enforced version of the same automatic reaction that Kikyou creates. Still, it’s similar. Too similar.
Seeing that, seeing the way Charlotte’s clique flocks around her when it’s over, the respect the girl commands, simply by being there…
Rinko finds herself falling short of breath, an indescribable tightness clenching the organs in her chest. She takes off, Charlotte barely acknowledging her presence… barely, but acknowledging it.
The little Kikaijima runs into the nearest empty classroom, sinking to the floor, her back to the door behind her.
Indeed. It haunts her. All this time, aiming to be like her sister. Working feverishly to get up to her sister’s level on that damnable moving pedestal. Now here someone else stands, even closer to her sister than she is.
Even though she’d been so close.
Even though she’d watched every success.
Even though she absolutely needs to get to reach that height, or…
“No. It’s not… fair…”
Rinko’s eyes spring open and she lifts her head. Oh. In her hurry to get somewhere, she hadn’t noticed, evidently. Another person is in here. A… teacher. Her pained grimace relaxes only slightly, at least allowing her to make out exactly who sits at the desk across the room.
That’s when it occurs to her. “Y-you’re…”
This woman… is Charlotte’s homeroom teacher. The poised and professional Ms. Kelly, adjusting her glasses and getting up from her chair. She makes her way over to the troubled young student without a word. Kneeling down, she reaches out to the girl’s face to check her.
“Hmm… Your eyes… I don’t know what’s been worrying you, but you haven’t been getting enough sleep. Kikaijima Rinko, right? If you want to go to the infirmary, I can tell your-”
“May I… ask for some advice?”
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