I’m… not good with people.
Kelly stares at the distraught girl before her, utterly at a loss. Whatever way she looks at it, this situation is…
Academics, I’ve always been good at…
Survival is where I excel…
Her mind’s eye envisions the girls. Her girls. Whether lecturing them in class or mentoring them at the dojo. It’s like an old battlefield she’s fought on a hundred times. Terrain she knows well. Her turf.
Even if not confident in her ability as a teacher, comfort exists in the familiarity of the subject matter. The ability to at least know what she’s talking about.
But when it comes to people…
Fuzzy images come to mind, at best. Each of her girls, plagued by the abstract demons that haunt them. Tormented by malignant shades she has no idea how to identify, much less do anything about.
No… there must be dozens of people around better to help this girl than me…
For some reason, her mind goes blank. A black void… save for one spec of white. A glimmer cast by a pearl-white smile. One strangely familiar to her.
Then, just like that… it’s gone.
Evaporating into a cloud of white smoke and drifting away.
When Kelly comes back to reality, here she finds a girl on the brink of tears. It isn’t merely a matter of confidence, but a question of whether she even should help. That she remembers, both Kikaijima sisters are on the Royale roster. Meaning this person might be someone her girls have to…
The reason I decided to do any of this in the first place is…
At last, Kelly sighs and stands herself up. A thousand warning bells sound off in her head. Bells she deems fit to ignore when the image of that bright smile once again passes through her mind.
Here I go again. Doing things I shouldn’t…
With the snap of her fingers, the windows into the class tint themselves and Kelly takes a seat back over at her desk. She crosses her legs and sits back, adjusting her glasses and once more assuming her ever-professional demeanor.
“I can’t promise I’ll be that much help… but I’ll listen if you want to tell me what the problem is. Then we can take things from there.”
Rinko drags herself to her feet, a faint sense of relief at least freeing her enough from this tension in her chest to let her move. In time, she sits in a chair across from Kelly’s desk, staring at the thumbs she twiddles in her lap.
“Don’t worry about it. Now, what has you so bothered?”
“It’s… one of your students… Charlotte.”
So that’s why it had to be me, then. But that makes things rather a bit more complicated…
“Really? That’s rare. I half expected this to be about Diana. I’m not unaware of Charlotte’s… reputation, but she’s never been one to be actively vicious. Even with Diana.”
At that, Rinko springs up in a panic, waving her arms out in front of her.
“H-hold on! I’m not trying to get her in trouble or anything! It’s not… it’s nothing like that. She didn’t really do anything to me. It’s just…”
Kelly blinks as the girl plops herself back down in her seat.
“It’s just that Charlotte is… incredible… I’ve gone to the same school as her since Junior High. I was never in her class, but I noticed it even back then. She’s always stayed at the top of our year. No matter how hard I worked, I could never beat her. I struggled just to stay in the top five…”
Then a recent memory. Feelings of success upon recognizing her name in the second place on the wall, right below Charlotte’s. The sweet sensation of getting closer to one’s goal, now warped by a bitter, bitter realization.
Certain names on the list simply… not there anymore.
“Until a little while ago…”
I see… So that’s how it is. I’d never really thought about that…
Kelly turns her head, gazing through the exterior window to the vast technological marvel that is the city, just outside. The City of Savants. A hopeful image, masking such a bleak reality. A promise to a great many, a lie to an unlucky few. Such a brutal dichotomy.
“I started thinking that if I worked a little harder, maybe I could get there. I could finally have a chance, and even get closer to… A-anyway, I decided to ask Charlotte for help. If I could learn her tricks, then maybe it’d be a little easier. But what she said to me…”
The echo refuses.
It absolutely will not leave.
It lingers around in the back of Rinko’s mind, reminding her of its presence loudly and firmly whenever it thinks she might be forgetting it.
“That… would be utterly pointless.”
Scathing. Even now. Rinko’s thumbs stop twiddling. In fact, her entire body seems to fall completely still. “I’m… afraid she might be right. Maybe it is pointless…”
Kelly glances across the room at Charlotte’s vacant seat.
It almost inspires a laugh from the young teacher, thinking about that kind of outlook with recent events still fresh in her memory.
“Honestly… I’d be lying if I said I really ‘get’ Charlotte. The truth is, there are times where I barely understand her at all. So I can’t really tell you what she meant by that. But if there’s one thing I do understand about the girl, it’s that she isn’t a monolith.”
That humbling loss to Ortiz.
That look of desperation when she’d asked for further training.
It all stays with Kelly as she thinks about her most ambitious student.
“No. She’s actually… far harder on herself than you probably think…”
A cold silence hangs over the room for a time before…
“Ah. Sorry. That probably isn’t what you wanted to hear.”
“Heh? N-no, it was perfectly fine. It does make it feel a little better. Knowing she isn’t some kind of monster and she actually works really hard too… I don’t like to think the worst of people, but… I was so confused. It was driving me crazy. ‘Does she think I’m useless? Is she just being selfish?’ I kept thinking like that. Now, though… I wonder if I’m the selfish one…”
That hardly adds up.
A truly selfish person scarcely spends their time worrying about whether or not they’ve been selfish.
“Why would you think that?”
“I recently realized that Charlotte and I… both want the same thing.”
“The top spot in the year rankings?”
Rinko stares into the ether for a moment, then shakes her head. “Not in our year, no…”
Not in your year? Then what…? Ah…
“So then, this is about your sister.”
She perhaps doesn’t realize she’s doing it, but at that assertion, Rinko’s hands come unclasped and she clutches her skirt tight. Like some kind of stress ball.
“I’ve been trying to catch up to Onee… to Kikyou forever. I worked so hard. But it never seemed like I was getting anywhere. It never really occurred to me that Charlotte - that anyone - was working as hard as I was. So when I learned that she wanted the same thing, and she was so far ahead of me with seemingly no effort…”
Now it makes sense, the state the girl had been in, just moments ago. Such a confusing and convoluted tangle of emotions and thoughts. Worries and doubts. This earnestness, though… Something about it resonates with Kelly. It puts an uncharacteristically warm smile on her face as, for a time, Rinko’s voice seems replaced with that of another.
Such an honest girl…
“I see. So you got a bit possessive.”
“It’s only natural, isn’t it? That someone amazing like Kikyou makes others want to reach the same heights as her? So why did it hurt like that when I learned about Charlotte? I can’t stand it… Feeling like this…”
Tighter and tighter the troubled girl grasps her skirt, wrinkling the innocent fabric like she’s trying with all her might to wring it dry. That is until something cool touches against her forehead. When she looks up, she finds Kelly leaning forward, holding a soda can to her skull. A service drone hovers nearby.
The world had gone black for a moment. Long enough that Rinko hadn’t heard or seen this service drone enter the room with drinks.
“You’ll overheat if you keep it up.”
A dazed Rinko holds out her hands, letting Kelly drop the soda into them. “A-arigatou…”
Kelly sits back in her seat and opens her own can, turning her gaze up to the ceiling. “The demands of this city really are unfair, aren’t they? The academic pressure… The Royale… It’s enough to drive a person mad. At the same time, though… I wonder. Is it really such a bad thing? Having others with the same goal as you?”
“A little competition can be quite the blessing, you know. Have you maybe considered that instead of seeing Charlotte as some sort of insurmountable obstacle, you consider her someone to compete with?”
On that note, Rinko, now calmer and more composed, tilts her head down and opens up the soda can resting in her hands. A refreshing lemon-lime flavor graces her tastebuds, though her mind still appears rather… busy, as she stares into the bubbles through the hole.
“Someone to compete with…”
A bit later, Rinko departs from the Class 1-C room. From the doorway, she bows to Kelly with a gracious “Hontou ni arigatou gozaimasu.”
Kelly gives the girl a wave as the door closes, eventually resting her head against the back of her seat when she’s finally gone. An ordeal, to be certain. One of the more harrowing, in recent times. Not even a full decade out of teenagerdom, herself, and already the exasperation sets in. “Ah… I’m really no good with people…”
All of that… and here she hardly has any deeper an understanding of Charlotte at all.
Not as she’d hoped.
I might have gone and made things more difficult for you, huh? Still…
That image appears in her head again.
I just can’t ignore these things, can I?
Rinko keeps to herself on the trip from the classroom. Now back on her way home, she stops when she passes by the board where the scores stand displayed for all to see. This late in the day, she’s the only one around. The others are all home or in their clubs.
Her and her thoughts.
She stares at that board. At her name in second place, right below Charlotte. The thought passes through her mind again and again. Someone to compete with.
I wonder… if I can afford to think of it like that. It isn’t like I just want to beat her, is it? No. I also…
Then she checks her Link for the time, pivots, and strolls away. Left fluttering in her place is a glowing little creature that soon follows after her. A Familiar. One that rather resembles a little green hummingbird.
I need to beat her. I need to be #1.
“Ah… I’m all confused again…”
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