Path of Least Resistance
Hanako wasn’t the first one in class today.
In her first year here, she had always
been first, or else not bothered to show up at all. The prospect of walking to her seat while everyone else glared at her, their gazes burning on her skin... it had been too much even to consider. Either she would show up obscenely early - aided by her relatively sporadic sleep schedule - or she would simply stay home all day.
Lilly had changed that, once she moved in at the start of their second year. Her friendship had helped Hanako in a number of ways - one of which was their morning routine. Not much of a morning person by nature, Lilly counteracted Hanako’s early-bird tendencies somewhat. At the same time, the two of them walking to class together helped to calm Hanako’s nerves, as well as prevent her from deciding to simply stay home on a whim.
Of course, by now, she didn’t always need Lilly there. Today, for example, Lilly had left very early - apparently one of her classmates needed help, and as the class representative, she felt obligated to assist - leaving Hanako to wake up, get ready for the day, and head to class on her own. Not particularly worried about timing, Hanako had simply gone at her own pace, trying to enjoy the crisp morning air, and thus forfeiting any attempt at being the first one into the classroom.
She could still briefly feel the stares of her classmates as she walked through the door, but the feeling passed; those who arrived earlier than her usually had their heads on their desks, trying to claw back a few precious minutes of sleep. The exceptions were Misha and Shizune, who always seemed rather perky, but usually filled the time by having conversations in sign, which meant they couldn’t look at much besides each other.
The relatively quiet morning had left Hanako feeling peaceful; plus, it was Saturday, so she would only have to sit through half a day of class, then eat lunch and talk well into the afternoon with Lilly. And beyond that, tomorrow was Sunday, which meant that she could relax and read a book all day. Eager to get this morning over with, she quietly walked to her desk.
Before sitting down, however, she noticed a small piece of folded-up paper lying on the seat of her chair. Curious, she picked it up, and noticed that her name was written on it in neat print - clearly someone had left it here specifically for her to find. She felt a pang of nervousness; who would want to leave a note for her? Why? Despite her trepidation, she knew that there was only one way she’d ever find out.
The first thing she noticed upon opening it was the neatly-written text, matching the name on the back. Whoever wrote this had clearly put some effort into making it look good.
Unfortunately, my duties as class representative will require my full attention this afternoon, and thus I will be unable to meet you for lunch. I had hoped to speak with you, since I didn’t get a chance this morning, but I’m afraid it will have to wait until later.
However, in the interim, I have arranged for a friend of mine from 3-2 to meet with you instead. He’s quite an interesting fellow, who always has something to talk about; I’m certain the two of you would make quite the pair!
I know that meeting up with someone you’ve never seen might be confusing, so instead, you should wait for him by the bleachers near the track. He’ll come and talk to you. And do try to relax - he’ll probably be just as nervous as you are!
Hanako’s immediate response was terror, followed by suspicion. She was no stranger to practical jokes at her expense, including many a “secret admirer” who was a myth at best and a cadre of guffawing peers at worst. Even now, as she read the note, someone could be watching, ready to burst into laughter at whatever reaction she displayed.
After a few seconds of trying her best to remain completely expressionless, however, she began to calm down. The signature at the bottom was distinctly Lilly’s: it was a series of swirly, barely-recognizable English characters, with a distinct downwards loop and upwards swoosh at the end. Hanako had seen her write it before - it was a beautiful mark, and yet she made it look effortless.
That said, Hanako had never seen Lilly actually write a note before - she generally relied on someone else, sometimes Hanako, to write things for her. But then, maybe that was still the case - perhaps she had dictated it to one of the classmates she had gotten up early to help. Or maybe she had
written it herself; Hanako had learned not to underestimate Lilly, especially when it came to relatively ‘ladylike’ skills that normally required sight.
Now far less wary of the note, Hanako realized that she couldn’t really turn it down - if Lilly really had
gone to all the effort of finding someone to spend the afternoon with Hanako, and writing her this letter, and putting it on her seat... Besides, if Hanako didn’t show up, then whoever was supposed to meet her would be left waiting. Worse, since they were in 3-2, they probably had poor vision, so they might accidentally think that someone else was Hanako! Either way, Lilly would certainly hear about it from them, and she’d be so disappointed...
If Lilly really had gone to all this trouble, even when she was so busy, then Hanako would give it a shot. And if it did
end up being yet another joke at her expense, she’d tell Lilly, who would get the pranksters into so much trouble
for pretending to be her.
As she finally sat down, tucking the note into her bag, Hanako realized that she could no longer tell whether she wanted class to be over quickly, or drag on forever.
It had been quite some time since Shizune had spent an afternoon to herself.
Misha had, by this point, become such an integral part of Shizune’s life that it was almost strange to be spending much time without her. Sure, they weren’t together every moment of every day, but they usually at least knew where to find each other if the need arose. This was different; Misha was actually off somewhere else, leaving Shizune to fend for herself.
It wasn’t like Misha was that
far away - she was only staying over at a friend’s house for the weekend, not more than a couple miles off of campus. And she had her phone with her, so they could text whenever they needed to. And Shizune had a pen and pad with her, ready to write notes back and forth with whoever wanted to talk to her, just like she had for years before meeting Misha.
Still, she couldn’t help but feel a little alone.
She tried her best to focus on her surroundings: the warm afternoon sun made the lush school grounds seem brighter. The fresh air was invigorating, but it seemed that not many students were trying to enjoy it. From here, she could only see two: Emi, running around the track, and Hanako, sitting on the bleachers.
It was unusual to see Hanako outside like this. She generally kept to herself, only ever really talking to Lilly, and spending a lot of time in the library. Sometimes, she even left class early just to go there - a habit which frustrated Shizune to no end. Not that the two were unfriendly; it was just hard to connect to a girl who kept entirely to herself, save for being friends with Lilly.
But, regardless of their relationships with Lilly, Shizune was the class representative for Hanako, which meant that she had a duty to look out for her. And it appeared that she could use some looking out for right now: she was clearly nervous, her eyes darting back and forth, as if looking for an attacker, trying to melt down into the bare metal of the bleachers.
Before Shizune could come up with a reasonable guess as to why
Hanako was so skittish, someone approached her: a boy that Shizune recognized from 3-2, with thick glasses, scruffy brown hair, and a striped scarf around his neck - entirely inappropriate for the current weather, but never mind.
He seemed nervous too, but in a completely different way. He was clearly trying to project an air of confidence, but it was broken up by twitching and worried glances to either side. It was clear that neither he nor Hanako really wanted to be there, but they managed to keep themselves in place and exchange a few words. Even from this distance, it was clear that the conversation was stilted at best.
And yet, after a few more seconds of awkward conversation, the boy began to walk away, and Hanako followed
. What in the world
had the boy done to manage that? It took a moment for Shizune to wrap her head around - by which point, it was clear that they were both heading in the direction of the dorms.
Something felt very
Almost automatically, Shizune got up off the bench she had been sitting on, and began to follow them. Hanako, possibly the shyest girl in the school, waiting around alone outside, before following some random high-strung boy into the dorms after exchanging only a few words? No, there was definitely something fishy going on.
Luckily, Hanako seemed to be focused on following the strange boy, and the boy, despite often looking over his shoulder, never seemed to notice Shizune following them. They went into the dorms, up several flights of stairs, and around a corner into one of the hallways, where the boy quickly opened one of the doors, and they went inside.
Shizune stayed standing out in the hall, staring at the now-closed door, not quite sure what to think. This seemed completely uncharacteristic of Hanako. Sure, it was a boy from 3-2, so they both probably knew Lilly, but even so...
Unfortunately, after a few more seconds of standing there dumbfounded, a blinding spike of pain shot through the back of her head. She clutched at her ears with her hands, but the throbbing echoes of pain remained, and she dropped to her knees, tears beginning to run from the corners of her eyes, and a few red droplets falling to the floor around her.
Luckily, the second wave of pain knocked her unconscious, and her body went limp, flopping gracelessly onto the floor.
A spark. A jolt.
For a moment, the fog cleared. It returned immediately, but was now thinner, and less oppressive.
The second jolt blew it away completely, and woke Shizune up properly. Her eyes opened right away, but it took her brain a bit longer to boot up. That familiar spark - she was being revived? Why? What had happened?
Without her glasses, her surroundings were only a blur, but it was a blur with a distinct warm light: the afternoon sun. She remembered that much from before, and remembering it led her down a path in her mind. She had been outside, and seen Hanako speaking to a strange boy. She had followed them into the boys’ dorms, and then... pain. Overwhelming pain. That must’ve been why she needed revival. But what could’ve caused that much pain without any warning?
Trying harder to focus on her surroundings, she noticed that something else felt familiar. Something about the colors; they felt like home. A few figures were standing around her: one on her left, and two on her right. The one closer on the right was gesticulating, his body language displaying anger at the one further on the right. None of them looked like nurses - actually, this definitely wasn’t the nurse’s office. How had she been revived here?
The one closer on the right turned around, noticing Shizune, and walked towards her, reaching out to her face with something - her glasses! She closed her eyes, felt a familiar metal frame slide over the top of her ears and onto the bridge of her nose, then opened them again, ending up face-to-face with... someone she could only just
remember, and even then, only after some thought.
He had been a third-year last year, if she remembered correctly. He should’ve graduated by now... unless he was staying on as a ronin? She didn’t interface with that program much, and those few fourth-years tended to keep to themselves, so it was definitely possible, especially since he was wearing the standard boys’ uniform.
Looking around a bit more, she recognized the strange boy with a scarf from earlier on her right, and to her left - Hanako! She didn’t look particularly happy, though; in fact, she looked more depressed and forlorn than Shizune had ever seen her. She was huddled up against one end of a bed, her hands hugged to her chest.
Having taken in the room somewhat, Shizune understood why it had felt so familiar, and yet so different: it was an unused dorm room. The bed and desk were bare, but in terms of layout and basic setup, it was identical to her own. She tried to get up, hoping to get her bearings a bit more, but found herself unable to - her hands were held in place down by the floor, preventing her from moving around.
Craning her neck to get a look behind her, she saw that a pair of handcuffs were clamped around her wrists, and the chain between them was linked to some strange contraption on the floor. Confused, she turned to look at the others in the room again-
And found the fourth-year looking down at her, a knowing smile on his face.
Something was terrifyingly
He turned around and picked up something from the bed: a small whiteboard, and an accompanying marker. It looked like he knew that Shizune was deaf, and had planned for it. After writing for a bit, he turned the board around to show Shizune, who read the neat writing as her heart fell into her stomach.
[Hello, Shizune. Let’s have a talk about XERU.]
Carefully controlling her expression, Shizune raised one eyebrow, signalling that she didn’t know what he was talking about. He wiped off the whiteboard and wrote another message.
[Do you know anything about XERU?]
They were on to the ‘yes or no question’ phase, apparently, since Shizune couldn’t exactly write anything with her hands bound like this. She shook her head side to side. The fourth-year sighed, and wrote another message.
[This is what happens when you lie.]
With that, he turned around, walked over to Hanako, and promptly slapped her on the face - not hard enough to injure her, but hard enough that she recoiled away, one arm reflexively covering her face, the other - Shizune only now noticed - handcuffed to the head of the bed.
Things were quickly going from bad to worse. Shizune began to seriously consider her options.
[I healed you with electricity, straight out of the plug. You must
be an operator in the Tohoku region.]
The fact that he knew that much actually made Shizune’s decision easier. Maintaining eye contact, she worked up some energy, then released it into her hands - where it fizzled.
The fourth-year laughed. [Trust me, those handcuffs are properly grounded.]
Great. This guy knew his stuff. But his design wasn’t foolproof. They were on an upper floor, so any grounding connection would have to be artificial, likely using the mains. That meant that, somewhere between Shizune and the foundation of the building, a weak point had
to exist. She took a deep breath, then strained against her cuffs, and began putting as much electricity through them as she could manage.
As sparks began to fly, and the metal around Shizune’s wrists started glowing a dull red, the fourth-year’s face grew panicked. Perfect - he was on the back foot now. Maybe he’d give up, and this could all be over.
Instead, he ran over to the desk, grabbed something, then leaped back over towards Hanako.
He held her in one arm, and stretched the other out towards Shizune, displaying a small knife, which glinted in the now-orange sunlight coming through the window.
The message was clear. Shizune stopped, and her bindings cooled down, a small wisp of smoke rising from where they met the wall. The boy lowered his knife, and released his grip on Hanako, who was by now rather shaken.
After handing the knife over to the third-year with thick glasses, and giving him some instructions, the fourth-year began writing another message. [I don’t want to hurt you or Hanako, but I will if you force me to.]
Shizune stared back at him defiantly.
[If you want to say something, Shizune, why not speak using your barriers?]
How the hell did this guy know so much? It was as if Shizune was playing with her hand face-up on the table. Begrudgingly, she thought of a response, then thought about how to mirror it, and finally focused intently on the air in front of her. Slowly, a series of solid blue shapes, glowing and flickering like little arc lamps, began to spell out her reply.
The fourth-year burst into laughter. For a moment, Shizune worried that he’d hurt Hanako in response, but he simply returned to his whiteboard. [I take it you’re eager to leave?]
Warily, Shizune nodded.
[Easy enough. I can let both of you go right now, on one condition.]
Something told Shizune it wouldn’t be that simple.
[Just transfer your operator powers to me.]
Shizune sighed, and focused on the air again. [Operator powers can only be passed down a bloodline.]
The fourth-year’s face contorted into an angry glare, and he immediately spun around to hit Hanako again before returning to his whiteboard, writing with angry slashes of his marker. [Powers have traditionally
been passed along family lines due to nepotism and greed! It’s now known that they can be passed to anyone
Shizune was once again surprised at the extent of this boy’s knowledge. She herself had only heard about trials with operator transfers in other regions a few years ago. It had tempted her back then, but her father would’ve killed her if she did it. By now, she was used to the position - and even if she wanted to give it up to someone, the boy who had just kidnapped her, along with an innocent classmate, wasn’t her first choice. [I refuse.]
[Then I’ll just have to wait until you accept.] He went over and opened up a laptop on his desk, and began to type, shifting his focus away. He was clearly in for the long haul - luckily, it didn’t seem like he was going to hurt them in the meantime.
That said, Shizune still wanted to get out of here as quickly as possible, and she had one more trick up her sleeve, which would hopefully prey on that panic she had seen earlier. She spelled out more words in the air, which caught the ronin’s attention once more: [You must know that there’s another operator in this region, who won’t just let you do this.]
[Indeed I am aware, and prepared.]
Hoping against hope that this final bluff would work, she closed her eyes and concentrated. After opening them again, she smiled at her captor. [She’s on her way.]
To her dismay, he smirked calmly in return, then got up, sauntered over to Hanako, and hit her once more.