Been sitting on this one way too long. Thanks again to griffon8 for his beta work.
Not So Cute
Another day, another obtuse science assignment.
The morning’s chatter is somewhat muted; short of my quick response to Misha's bright greeting when I walked in, I haven’t actually said a word to anybody since I sat down.
For my part, I’m holding it all together. I woke up just early enough to rush through my morning rituals, pop my pills, and make it to class with dignity intact, though not early enough to have any breakfast. I’ll probably regret that later, but for now I’m trying to pretend my energy drink is filling.
The teacher seemingly isn’t interested in calling me up to the front again for a public demonstration of my incompetence, so it seems I have no other choice than to get started on the schoolwork. Based on a cursory glance at it, I have about a one-in-three chance of completing it to Mutou’s satisfaction; the best odds I’ve had all week, frankly. I guess this worksheet is going to be covered in crimson the next time I see it.
Ten minutes into class, that tall girl whose name I still haven’t bothered to learn drifts into the classroom with the cadence of a frightened doe. As before, nobody acknowledges it. In all honesty, something about it really brings me down… like watching a juggler drop one of his balls mid-performance, though I can’t pin down exactly what it is.
The cynic in me notes that, if I wanted to look like an airhead, I could probably come into class an hour late, and when confronted about it, say that I thought that was acceptable at this school, but of course that notion is completely awful and I immediately scold myself for thinking it.
Suddenly, the teacher decides to announce that we’ll all be breaking up into groups again. It’s more than a little annoying—why did he wait until I was already ten minutes into the assignment to say this? Did he just forget or something?
For that matter, who am I even supposed to group with? Molly always works with her little clique in the front row—I couldn’t join her already bloated collective without the teacher intervening and splitting us off—and Shizune and I clearly aren’t getting along. The teacher obviously expects me to work with the class representative, so I can’t easily ask him to personally aid me on the assignment without putting a spotlight on the growing enmity I have with Shizune.
In search of a solution, I glance at the desk behind me, only to find a very overweight student blithely snoozing in his chair. Great… Rock and a hard place, indeed.
Looking a bit more desperately for some way out of this situation, I peer over the whole classroom, but every student seems to form their usual groups, and in all honesty there’s no reasonable way to go completely across the room and join one without making it painfully obvious I can’t work alone and don’t want to work with Shizune.
In fact, the only student who isn’t
already in a group is that tall girl who never speaks to anybody…
No, it couldn’t be that easy, could it?
The tall girl is obviously skittish and asocial; I’ve seen more than enough evidence of that in the handful of occasions I’ve paid attention to her over the last few days. She’s not forming a group, either, and none of the students in the vicinity are making any effort to include her, so at the very least
she’s got to be capable of doing the schoolwork solo, which means she’s almost certainly
knowledgeable enough to help me survive this assignment. If I walk over there and partner up with her, I’ll appear as though I was simply concerned she wasn’t a part of any group, avoiding publically snubbing the class rep and
getting my direly-needed assistance on this assignment.
Goodness… This has to be the most creative solution I’ve come up with all year.
“Molly?” I don’t need to lower my voice; at its normal level it’s already nearly drowned out by background conversations.
“That girl who just walked in… what is her name?”
She furrows her brow, no doubt wondering where I’m going with this. “Hanako Ikezawa… why do you—“
“Great. See you,” I say, briskly picking up my chair and inelegantly brushing past Misha and Shizune, who reflexively turn to monitor me the moment they realize I’m fleeing. They’re not the only ones; as people begin to notice I’m moving about the room, several sets of eyes peer at me, no doubt trying to ascertain my destination. I’m not sure what I ever did to deserve this much attention, but I guess this is what passes for interesting at Yamaku.
Absurdly, I begin to feel the pangs of stage fright as soon as I’m within half a meter of Ikezawa’s desk, and I realize I know absolutely nothing about this girl. Maybe she bites people, or something. God, I hope she doesn’t.
Come on, Daidouji, you can do this... Rouse up whatever vestiges remain of the gentle, personable class representative you used to be. You’re not sullen at all; you’re chipper, and unthreatening.
“Hello~! You’re Hanako Ikezawa, right?” I smile, my voice such a poised, saccharine chirp that I nearly expect sparkles to fly from my eyes in a dramatic fashion.
She sits up with a start, as though horrified somebody’s acknowledging her existence, and looks over at me in shock, and for the first time, we actually make eye contact—
Oh gosh her face—
No! Focus on the eyes, focus on the eyes, do not
look away, do not
let her notice that you’ve picked up on the reason she goes to this school, do not
scare her off, and do not
pause for too long—Move!
“H-hi!” I stammer, doggedly forcing myself to continue on with this corny façade. “I’m, ah, Iwanako, obviously. I saw that you weren’t in a group yet and was wondering if you might like to be my partner? I’m… not too great at this on my own…”
She pauses for a long moment, long enough for me to notice that the entire class has gone silent. For some perverse reason, this girl and I have captured the attention of seemingly every student in the classroom. I have no idea why. Maybe they were hoping I’d look away in disgust and lose face? Or perhaps they’re watching me warily, nervous that I’m going to do something cruel to her?
She’s noticed, too, and to my chagrin, she seems paralyzed by the attention. It makes me feel like a jerk… I never meant to freak her out like this, but I didn’t take the rest of the class into consideration and now a dozen people are staring at us bug-eyed.
Well, this is certainly another fine mess I’ve gotten myself into. She’s going to stand up and rush out of the classroom, and I’m going to have to return to my desk with my tail between my legs, maybe even get in trouble with the teacher… This was a bad idea, a really
bad idea… I should have just forced my way into Molly’s group…
Holy mother of pearl, really?
I try to wipe the bewilderment off my face and fail miserably. I can’t believe that worked… But I guess there’s something to be said for looking as unthreatening as possible. Even agitable, evasive introverts like Ikezawa won’t exceed Threat Condition Bravo if you look like they could effortlessly punt you out a window. And I’m probably the shortest girl in class.
“Great!” I attempt to shoot her an award-winning smile, with all the technique of a plumber performing a colostomy. “I appreciate this, really.”
“N-no problem… Iwanako.”
She goes back to hiding in her hair as I pull my chair up to the other side of her desk, and gradually the other students go back to their normal activities, apparently underwhelmed by Ikezawa’s reaction. Cautiously, I peer over my right shoulder to find Shizune glaring daggers at me, but she turns away just as our eyes meet.
Well, looks like she saw right through my improvised gambit, though that really comes as no surprise. It doesn’t matter, since evading her this way helps keep whatever’s going on between us from escalating, at least publicly.
Ikezawa is blinking at me when I turn back to look at her, though she quickly glances down at the assignment. Did she see that, just now? It can’t be that
obvious we dislike each other, can it?
“Ah, um,” I say, trying to change the subject, “looks like this is mostly reading, so we can afford to take this at a leisurely pace, then work on the questions at the end together, right?”
Ikezawa offers a quick nod and picks up her copy of the assignment, reading it upright with her hand as if using it to shield herself from me, terrifying harpy that I am.
I begin reading the assignment myself, with a little more dedication now that things appear less hopeless, though I’m unable to avoid occasionally stealing covert glances at Ikezawa’s burn scars. As I’ve only ever seen her from a few meters away, I’d never noticed them before, since she keeps them so well hidden in her hair, but they cover almost half her face and run down her neck. It’s, well, shocking.
They’re horrible-looking, but it seems an easy enough gesture to just dismiss them as a sad, weird-looking characteristic. I’m about to return to the classwork when a giant, terrible epiphany crashes down on me, one that makes my stomach sink.
Her scars are the only meaningful difference between us.
They’re a memento of the worst day of her life. They have
to be. And because she can’t easily conceal them, this is the consequence: somebody who melts down so often that they can’t even stay in class for the whole day. A girl so easily frightened from her injuries that even another girl, as injured as she is, can’t easily approach her without being as gentle as possible.
And yet, it all makes sense. It makes so much
sense to me that it’s horrifying
. If I had those scars instead of my own, I don’t know that I’d behave any differently. I can’t imagine
acting differently. It only seems wrong to me now because I have the cruel luxury of this unique through-the-looking-glass experience with Ikezawa.
In fact, even now, I don’t know if I could say I’m any better off. Her self-imposed solitude is carefully maintained, something necessary for her survival, and I exploited it in order to get away from somebody I can’t stand. I look as bad as Ikezawa does… It’s just that most of my scars are on the inside.
Though... Hanako Ikezawa is
beautiful, even with
the scars, though she’s probably unaware of this—I certainly can’t blame her. Her long, straight hair is nearly flawless, and her large, dark eyes are almost amethyst in color, if one is ever lucky enough to catch a glimpse of them. She isn’t ugly or frightening in the least; she’s just… wounded. Like me.
But the scary thing is… those scars are old, very old… She’s had a while to live with them. If, even now, Ikezawa only hides within herself, then what hope is there for me? Is there more to it than this? Does she know something I don’t?
Suddenly she looks up, finally noticing my gormless stare. She faces me with a startled expression that is a perfect mirror of my own, an endless feedback loop of self-conscious horror.
Finally, she breaks us free. “Are… y-you ready for the questions?”
“Oh, uh, yes,” I reply softly, shaking myself out of yet another contemplative fugue. “How about I give my best shot to the first one, and you tell me as soon as I muck it up?”
She nods, silently and a bit hesitantly—it probably is
a bit too much to ask her to call me out on being wrong, but I think that I’ve actually managed to puzzle this one out okay, thanks to some of the corrective guidance Mutou gave me yesterday. I jot down my best-sounding answer to the problem, making ad hoc corrections to my own logic as soon as my mistakes become apparent, and when I’m finally satisfied, I spin the paper around and show it to her.
“Is this okay?”
She takes the paper and reads it over carefully, nodding a couple times in succession, and I almost get my hopes up that I’ve finally succeeded at this subject when she takes out her pencil and makes several corrective scribbles over my elegantly-penned, completely unserviceable answer.
“…Close,” she murmurs apologetically.
I exhale resignedly, though I shouldn’t have had high expectations to begin with. If nothing else, I had the right answer, somehow, even if my way of getting there was obviously incorrect.
“H-here… Watch me.”
Writing with the paper sideways so I can see what she’s doing from the other side of the desk, she succinctly answers the second question, working slowly enough for me to follow her logic in real-time as she writes it. Finally, she finishes the question and spins the paper completely around so that I can review her technique. She’s done a really good job of showing her work; I can actually completely understand how she came to this solution, though I’d never have reached it myself. It’s obvious that she’s really bright, probably smarter than me, though that’s not really a high benchmark.
“I would have been hopeless, doing this by myself,” I say appreciatively. “Thank you for your help, Ikezawa.”
She gives only a gentle nod in response, but then adds, “…You can call me Hanako…”
“Very well, Hanako,” I answer, a little surprised. The corners of my mouth begin to crease toward a smile, and I realize she’s starting to grow on me.
Hmm… Do I push my luck? For all I know, she never wants this to happen again… On the other hand, I’ve already been pleasantly surprised… Whatever. Nothing ventured. And I want to get to know her better… Maybe I have
to get to know her better.
“Hanako… Do you think you’d be willing to pair up like this again if there’s another group assignment?”
Another long Ikezawa pause, but I’m used to them by now, and as I watch her hopefully, she slowly nods again. It takes all my composure not to triumphantly pump my fist like Aoi, but I can’t help but grin at this turn of events.
Though the conversation peters out after that, I spend the next few minutes silently basking in my success as Hanako quietly goes over her notes from the previous class. Eventually the teacher collects the completed assignments, and students begin to file out of the classroom for the lunch break.
Hanako doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I turn to her as I stand up from my seat. “Are you eating lunch in here?”
“N, no. I’m… waiting for somebody.”
Huh, so she does
have friends. That’s a relief to hear. I want to know more, but I think I’ve probably bugged her enough for today.
“Oh, well, see you in a bit, then.”
Molly is still making her way to the doorway when I pick up my belongings, so I move to catch up with her as she exits the classroom. Turning my head, I wave to Hanako, and she gingerly waves a hand back.
Maybe she’ll be more at ease with me from now on? Wishful thinking…
“Look at you, making friends left and right,” Molly says, grinning. “Can’t say I expected you to do that
. Shizune’s eyes were the size of dinner plates.”
“I don’t… I don’t see why it’s such a big deal,” I mumble, reddening at Molly’s reaction despite myself. “Hanako seems pretty nice…”
“You can’t just talk
to that girl,” she sighs. “She usually runs off when group work is assigned. If I’d had any idea you were going to do that, I would have tried to stop you, but then you got ahead of me so I had no choice but to sit and watch the train wreck unfold.”
“I just can’t believe she went for it. She must be in a good mood today, or something.”
Before I can protest her not affording me any credit in the matter, we turn a corner and—
collides with my sternum, knocking me to the ground with the force of a pneumatic drill. It overruns me completely, and everything goes black as the back of my head collides with the linoleum, and my ears begin to ring like cathedral bells. My entire body sings with pain—
"Aw man, I— Oh, oh crap
. Are you all right? Oh my god…"
There's a gentle sensation of someone else's hair tickling my cheeks… strawberries? I open my eyes to an unfamiliar face leaning over me. Urgh… Where am I, again? My head…
"Shit! I'm so, so sorry…"
"Ibarazaki, what the hell?!
The stranger turns away from me. "She just came out of nowhere—I didn't—" She turns back to me. "You're okay, right? I… do you need me to get the nurse?"
I try to answer her, but as I shift to speak I feel a heaviness in my chest… It's a sharp, sucking pain… I feel as if there's something I'm forgetting, but I just can't… I just can't get it back…
There's a pounding under my sternum, almost like getting hit from the opposite side, but I'm on the floor, now. My jaw hurts, my neck hurts… I can't seem to breathe right… It reminds me of…
…No. No please no. Please stop… Please… Just calm down… Calm down calm down calm down, please…
"Oh my god. I'll get him, Emi…"
Huge, glistening green eyes hover above me, seemingly sparkling more and more as the seconds go by. "I…" she begins, "everything's going to be okay, I—Do you need water? Can you talk?"
I manage to shake my head, though I stop almost immediately when I realize how much the movement hurts…
I… there's something I'm supposed to do here. There is. There is!
Somebody said something, there's some kind of… exercise I can do to stop this, I don't think I'm making this all up—
If I believe it strongly enough, it has to go away. It has to. It has
to. I… I did my best. I had faith
in this. I got a makeover. I made friends. I applied myself. I swam in the pool. I was going to go to the Festival… This was supposed to be my second chance. I'm supposed to get my second chance… This wouldn't happen to me now. It wouldn't.
It doesn't make any sense.
So just focus… Just…
Why is this happening?!
God, it really is.
It's really happening…
…This is it, isn't it? This is all I get… Four months in the hospital, three days in school… and my life is over because this idiot can't watch where she's going. I never should have thought I was safe… It really is
that quick, that effortless. You get one
shoddy, factory reject of a heart, and as soon as it's gone… that's it, game over. You don't even get to make your own terms.
I can't believe this…
The knot in my chest is tightening… I can still feel sensation in my fingertips, but it's just a matter of time. I remember how this goes.
"No no no… Stay with me, okay? The Nurse is coming, you're gonna be fine…"
You'd like that, wouldn't you? Face it, we're both screwed. Who are
you, even? I guess I'll never even know. I'll never know anything.
I can feel the vibrations in the floor as various pairs of feet stomp their way around me. Worried conversations erupt along all sides of me, filling the world with noise. I try to pick out individual voices, but it's impossible. What does it matter anymore, anyway? There's nothing I can do. I'm only here for a little while longer. And then… then what? Then nothing. Then whatever.
…Hands. Hands behind my head, hands under my back, hands under my feet… I'm being lifted onto something… A board of some kind? A stretcher. I guess the cavalry rode in…
The throbbing in my chest intensifies. It's getting harder and harder to stay aware of my surroundings… But I don't even need to be aware; I'm just going to be dragged to a hospital, so I can die without even a single iota of dignity.
Mother, I'm sorry. I never wanted it to be this way. I tried to make this work, I really, really did. I never wanted to make you sad, not like this. I would never have left you without saying goodbye.
In the end, there was never anything I could have done.
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