A day after talking to Kelly, and everything just blurs together for one Kikaijima Rinko.
The shenanigans of her classmates.
The lessons of the day.
It isn’t until the end of classes - when her homeroom teacher mentions an upcoming exam - that the fog in her mind clears. Another chance at getting closer to the place she knows she has to be. To finally take that step towards her sister. Still, there’s that one hurdle in her way. The very same that’d left her in such a haze, to begin with.
It’s a concern she carries home with her.
No. She doesn’t bring it. It follows her.
Won’t leave her alone.
Her family’s manor in the city’s Inner Ring may as well be haunted. Not by any real apparition, but by a different specter that looms over the girl. Half the rooms in the place remind her of exactly the person she hopes to reach, which only then reminds her of that one insurmountable obstacle.
For a brief instant, it seems the girl’s spirit leaves her body, the way that voice comes from nowhere. She jumps up in her seat, then turns around to find herself staring at the head housekeeper, who bows to her.
This woman is a ninja.
“K-Kaede. What… what is it?”
“My apologies for intruding, but you didn’t respond to my knocking so I wished to check on you. Is something on your mind?”
“O-on my… what gave you that idea?”
Kaede straightens herself, staring at Rinko with that expressionless face of hers. “You haven’t turned to a new page in approximately one minute and twenty-eight seconds. Nor have you made any marks or written anything. Given your reading comprehension level and propensity for arithmetic, this is highly unusual.”
An android. This woman is definitely some kind of android.
H-how long were you standing there?
Regardless, she’s not wrong.
It’s this place. It has to be. This place is toxic, right now.
Rinko sighs and turns back to her desk. “I guess you saw right through me, Kaede. It’s nothing. I’m just a little worried about my future, I guess…”
“Does this have something to do with your parents, Rinko-sama? Your sister?”
Ah. I’m that easy to read, huh? Heh. I’m too honest, even when I try not to be.
“I think… I think I just need a change of scenery. Yeah. That’s it.”
Kaede cocks her head as her youngest mistress gets up from her seat. “Rinko-sama?”
Rinko closes her holo-display, grabs her bag, and makes for the door, passing by the housekeeper. “I’m going to the nearby study center. I should be able to focus more, there.”
A puzzled Kaede steps aside to let Rinko pass. “Very well. Dinner will be ready for you when you return.”
This is what I needed. A little fresh air, some time to myself, away from everything…
She says as much, but then she enters the study center. She swipes her Link across the scanner for access, makes her way up the stairs, seeks out her favorite spot… and she freezes.
The instant she rounds the bend to her typical, secluded, quiet little spot, every muscle in her body locks up. There, in the corner, is a head of golden blonde hair, adorned with a blue butterfly hairclip.
“What… is Charlotte doing here?”
When Charlotte thinks she hears something, she turns around, only for Rinko to hide around the corner, her back against the wall. Not able to catch a glimpse of the prying eyes nearby, she returns her attention to her table.
Around the illustrious ice queen is her usual clique. A legion of preppy yes-girls, all.
This is her study group, right?
It all comes back to Rinko, crashing down on her like a tidal wave. That humiliating rejection, that cold gaze. Now, though…
The youngest Kikaijima bites her lip.
It’s… a public area. They can’t stop me from just… sitting nearby. Right? I can just listen in. Then, maybe…
She nearly does it.
She nearly pushes herself away from the wall, marches out from around the corner, and places herself right into a nearby seat.
In fact, she doesn’t even remain inside of the study center. It’s difficult to pin down the cause.
Is it simply the unnerving atmosphere?
Is it a sense of unworthiness?
Is it a fear of Charlotte?
Whatever the reason, it forces Rinko from the building and all the way to a nearby little green spot. A small park, where she can take refuge for a bit. Wait it out. She can always go back later to study. After Charlotte is gone.
Ah… I ran away again, didn’t I?
When she discovered Charlotte shared her goal…
When she realized how much closer Charlotte was to achieving it…
Now, for a third time.
It doesn’t really make sense, but as she walks, she finds herself opening her Link to watch a few holo-vids. All recordings of her sister. The girl whose pedestal towers over her. Whose shadow she’s lived in for all her life. The person she’s spent years trying to catch up to…
I’ve always been running. For as long as I can remember. Nee-sama… doesn’t run. She’s fast. So fast. But she never runs. I just couldn’t ever catch up.
For as much as Kikyou looms large in her mind, there is another. A shadow that reaches up from below, grabbing her by the ankles and dragging her into its depths. All so the person it belongs to - a fearsome ice queen - can stand in the place she’d worked for hard to reach.
I’ve just been running… in the wrong direction.
Despite this image in her mind, however, another grace graces her inner ear, reminding her of something said about this very person. How hard they are on themselves. How perhaps she’s thinking about this the wrong way.
“Someone to compete with, huh?”
Rinko sighs and takes a seat on a park bench, tuning into the vids of her sister’s battles. “Can I… really afford to think about it so lightly?”
She doesn’t realize, at first, but time gets away from her as she sits there, watching those holo-vids. It isn’t until her Link beeps with the indication of a message that she even realizes that the sun’s gone down.
“Ah… shoot. I’m gonna be late for curfew.”
She opens the message to find it’s from her mother, asking where she is. She doesn’t reply, swiping it away without hesitation.
“I’m surprised she cares. I’m the expendable one, right?”
She remembers. How couldn’t she. Everything about that day remains forever burned into her mind.
The room in the house.
The feeling of having a javelin plunged through her heart…
All the way back on the first day of the Royale. Coming home from school in a frenzy after finding out. She hadn’t spoken to Kikyou yet, unable to get a hold of her because of her student council responsibilities.
She’d had Benson escort her to her parents’ office to tell them the news and discuss her plan of working together with Kikyou. From then on, every word sticks in her mind like a scar.
“No. Absolutely not. Your sister won the last Royale, but if she’s distracted with having to watch over someone else, it could leave her vulnerable. I forbid it.”
The woman who gave birth to her…
For her father’s contribution…
“We already knew this was coming. The System sees to it that families of our status get a heads-up when the random selection of combatants is set. So here is what we discussed. We’ll allow it, but only on the condition that you can claim the top spot in your year.”
From her own flesh and blood.
To keep their perfect daughter safe from being dragged down by “the other one.”
It doesn’t matter. The rules are set. Working with Kikyou in the Royale is almost a guaranteed victory. In order to do that, though…
Someone to compete with…
“No. I definitely can’t afford it…”
Another beep gets Rinko’s attention, just before she leaves. This time from Kaede.
“Rinko-sama, I’ve quelled your mother’s wrath, for the time being by tracking your whereabouts. My apologies for the intrusion of privacy. However, I would strongly advise returning from the study center before her ire returns.”
Rinko smiles. “Reliable as ever, Kae- wait…”
The mini-Kikaijima checks again. Sure enough, she’s still swiped into the study center.
“Ah… whoops. I left in a hurry, huh?”
Eventually, Rinko makes it back to the study center. This late, no one’s likely to be here. So much for her study time. Yet, just before she scans out, a faint voice catches her ear from upstairs.
Curiosity takes her.
There’s no way…
She makes her way up, navigating around to her usual, quiet little spot. Sure enough, still there. The bulk of her entourage is gone, but Charlotte remains at that table with only Paige remaining by her side.
She’s… still here?!
Paige catches herself looking more at Charlotte than at the material her friend is trying to help her with. “Um… Charlotte, are you sure this is okay? You spent all your time helping me and the others. You haven’t gotten around to your own studies at all…”
Charlotte leans her head against her hand. “Irksome. Don’t be ridiculous. You asked for more help, so I’m helping you. It’s exactly that simple. When I’m sure you can catch up by yourself, you’re on your own.”
When… she’s sure Paige can catch up by herself? That means… she thought I could… I see… so that’s how it is.
“R-right. You’ve said that before. Charlotte… I’ve been meaning to ask, but… aren’t you ever nervous at all? When you think about trying to compare to President Kikaijima?”
Charlotte scoffs. “Please. There’s nothing special about that woman.”
That remark gets the eavesdropping little sister’s attention. Not only that, it gets her blood circulating. Saying something like that so easily…
The ice queen, though, turns her head, gazing off through the window. Her eyes don’t go out into the city, though. They travels elsewhere, on some foreign mission with her mind. The farther she goes, the more familiar things come up.
The 0.1% speech, in particular.
All true enough. “Valuable,” though… Right.
“Honestly… I’m half-convinced she’s an idiot.”
That does it. Rinko moves before she has any idea what she intends to do or say. She steps out from around her corner and into full view of the studying pair. Charlotte doesn’t even notice, at first. It’s Paige who gets her attention.
“O-oh, hello! Y-you’re…”
Rinko, though, seethes in her place as Charlotte's cold eyes drift over to her. She keeps her head on, if only just. “Altair-san… you know, I think I kind of get you now. You’re surprisingly nice… but you’re also completely selfish, huh?”
Charlotte blinks. “The Little Sister…”
“Kikaijima Rinko. You have some nerve, talking about my sister like that… ‘Idiot?’ You have no idea… how hard she’s worked to get there. How hard I’ve worked to match her. All that time I’ve spent just trying to keep up with her. Being written off by absolutely everyone because the place she got was so unattainable…”
The longer this goes on, the less accommodating Charlotte’s mood becomes. Her face may not change much, but Paige recognizes it. The subtlest of differences in her eyes. Patience is very much in short supply. Until finally, she puts up her hand…
“Kikaijima Rinko… hm. Question.”
Then, with a glare that could flash freeze a waterfall, she looks right through the girl.
“How is it my problem that you hate your sister?”
Rinko recoils at that, like being shot in the stomach by an ice-cold bullet. “W-wha-?!”
Charotte sits up, folding her hands on the table.
“Little Sister, Other One, Chibijima, I’ve heard the names. Obviously this isn’t about my opinion of your ‘perfect’ sister. Aren’t you just taking out your resentment on me? I’m not the one who you’ve spent your entire life being compared to, after all. Praising her like some kind of goddess to cope must be exhausting…”
“T-that’s not…! I don’t-!”
“Regardless…” Charlotte then stands from her seat. “It’s getting late and this is a waste of time, so I’m leaving. Paige.”
On cue, Paige springs up, grabbing her things and following Charlotte to the exit. The one blocked by the short Kikaijima girl who bows her head in too much shock to budge.
“Kindly step aside.”
Kikaijima does as Charlotte asks. Before the ice queen and her lackey can get through the door, however, she finally pipes up.
Of course, Charlotte doesn’t address the girl.
“I wanted to tell you that from today on, I’m going to consider you a rival…”
“…Do whatever you want…”
With that, Charlotte departs, with Paige bowing to Kikaijima before following her.
Rinko stands there for a moment, stewing in place. She doesn’t know what to do with herself. Every time it seems like she might be getting somewhere, things just become that much more confusing. These feelings, especially…
“She’s… she’s wrong. Isn’t she? I don’t… There’s no way I could hate…”
She clenches her fists. So tight her nails threaten to dig into her palms.
Eventually, she makes her way back down to the first floor, remembering to scan out, as per the reason she even came back. The trip home is one she takes in silence.
To me, Nee-sama is…
She finally makes it home, well beyond her curfew. In her current state, she drifts past her complaining mother like some kind of revenant.
By the time she’s back in her room, she comes to a single determination.
The only way to sort these feelings out is to get closer to Nee-sama… to Kikyou. But that means…
The beast that haunts her in the here and now.
“I want to beat her… No. I need to beat her.”
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