Ia was strange.
She had the habit of looking at people, but not really looking at them. When one talked to her, one had the distinct impression of only having part of her attention, and the bare minimum at that. She spent most of her time on long walks, alone - many of her classmates whispered about that, about catching glimpses of Ia walking around in the strangest places, and always by herself. She spoke very little, and though her grades were impeccable, she never seemed to pay attention in class, her eyes always out the window, staring at the same old view of the same old town.
She was elusive. She was untouchable. She was faint, flittering, fragile. She was so graceful in her movements and so odd in her mannerisms that no one dared to bully her. After all, no one could really fix a definite enough impression of her in their minds. It was like trying to pin down a ghost - the pin goes through and ends up pinning nothing at all.
Yukari thought that Ia was beautiful the day she transferred in. From the moment she made her introduction, Yukari was entranced. Her eyes caught themselves on Ia's hair, long and tangled and so pale it seemed almost white, then followed the grace of her hand gestures, the lightness and resoluteness of her steps as she walked down the rows of desks to seat herself at the only empty seat in the classroom.
That lunch, Ia was mobbed by students asking her questions about herself, but Ia was monosyllabic in her answers. She refused all invitations to hang out after school too - even Yukari's.
"Don't feel down," said SeeU to a very dejected Yukari afterwards. "She probably thinks she's better than us, anyways."
"It doesn't feel like that though," Yukari said. "I don't think she looks down on us...she's just not interested."
"Right, so there's nothing you can do about that." SeeU patted Yukari on the back. "I wouldn't worry about it."
Yukari sighed. "I guess. Thanks."
SeeU wrinkled her nose. "Geez, you look so down. It's not that big of a deal. You can't win over everyone. Come on," SeeU looped her arm through Yukari's, "I'll treat you to some ice cream."
As the weeks went by, the class, little by little, gave up on involving Ia in anything. There was no point if she was so uninterested. The class kept a wide berth from her, motivated more by bitterness from being rejected than anything else. Accordingly, Yukari did too. It didn't seem like Ia was interested in, well, anything, so there was no point in trying.
Still, Yukari wondered. Ia always looked out the window during class. What was there to see? There was nothing, save for the town, but the town was boring - one could only look outside so many times.
Once, after class, Yukari sat in Ia's seat and looked out the window, hoping to glean some insight, but predictably she saw nothing but a nice view of town. Yukari frowned and rested her chin on one hand as she looked. She tried to put herself in Ia's place - tried to see the world from a new transfer student's eyes - but no matter how she sliced it, the view of the town was always just that. A view of a very normal town. There were the roofs, some tiled, some not. There were the streets, and from her vantage point Yukari could see students walking in clustered groups back home. Their identical uniforms made them blur into an indistinguishable mass. People looked so similar from above, Yukari thought. It was strange, in a way. Everyone in her class had distinct personalities, everyone knew each other. But from this high up, Yukari couldn't really tell who was who.
"Excuse me," said a voice, and startled, Yukari jerked her head up to see Ia standing by her, head slightly cocked to the side, blue eyes on Yukari.
"O-oh," Yukari stammered, getting up, "I'm sorry. I was just, um," Yukari gestured out the window, "I was just...looking at the view."
Ia stared at her for a moment before her eyes slowly roved past Yukari. "Why are you looking at it from my desk?"
Ia's voice was devoid of any inflection. Yukari's cheeks heated up and she fixed her eyes on the floor. "Um...it's just that, you always look out the window during class, so I was wondering what you saw out there."
Ia blinked. "Wondering?"
"Yeah," said Yukari, not sure of what else to say. "You just...look out the window a lot. I was curious."
Ia walked past Yukari so that she was standing right by the window. Yukari followed her. Ia raised a hand and placed it against the glass. Her eyes looked as though they were looking somewhere very far away, somewhere unreachable. "You think too much of it. All it is is that class is boring and I would rather look outside than look at the board."
Yukari looked down, abashed. "I'm sorry."
"It's fine," said Ia. Her finger drew concentric circles on the glass. "What did you see when you looked out the window?"
"The town, I guess. People. From above, it's hard to tell who is who, right? I just noticed that."
There was a long silence before Ia spoke. "Have you heard of Dunbar's number?"
"It's the limit on how many people a person can care about," said Ia. "Once you go beyond it, then you stop caring."
"That's, um, sad," said Yukari.
"Not really, if you think about it this way. It's hard to tell who is who from above - that's what you just said. But each person has their own consciousness, their own world. You are most 'real' to yourself. You're the hero of your own story. Everything, from your point of view, revolves around you. But everyone else thinks the same way. Which means that for everyone, other people are less real than they are, no matter how close they are to them. And that sense of being less real becomes more and more pronounced the farther you are from them, in terms of relationships." For that entire mini-speech, Ia's gaze was fixed out the window. She spoke so flatly, Yukari got the strange sense that Ia wasn't really speaking to her at all.
"That's not true," Yukari said. "I mean...you're definitely real. And my friends are real to me."
Ia glanced at Yukari. "Of course they're real, but they aren't as real as you are. To me," Ia turned her head back to stare out the window, "you're just another classmate, someone in the background of my own life. Someone who sat on my chair to look out my window."
At Ia's cold, impartial words, Yukari felt an unpleasant thrum run down her spine. She was the kind of person who usually got along with anyone, and Ia's icy indifference was nothing Yukari was used to. This sense of detached, apathetic distance was so uncanny Yukari wanted to grab Ia by the shoulders to bring her down to earth, but she couldn't, so she settled for her default response to uncomfortable social situations – forced friendliness, following the script she set for herself.
"That's pretty cold," said Yukari, forcing a grin. "You have to admit though, not every classmate sits on your chair to look out your window, right? Let's get acquainted. I'm Yuzuki Yukari. Why are you here so late after school?"
Ia shrugged. "I always stay this late. No reason for me to go back home early."
"So you always stay in the classroom by yourself?"
"No," said Ia. "I take walks too."
Oh, right. Yukari remembered the infamous 'Ia sightings' her classmates would gossip about.
"How about I walk with you?" asked Yukari. "It's better to walk with company, right? Besides, I grew up here, so I'll show you around!"
Ia glanced at Yukari again, eyes as distant as always. Seeing without seeing, Yukari thought. It really was as though Ia was looking at her as though she was a background character. "I thought I made it clear when I turned down all the offers before that I wasn't interested."
Yukari's smile dropped. "O-oh, yeah...I'm sorry. I wanted to be friends. But if you aren't interested, then I understand." Even though she didn't, but getting angry at Ia wouldn't help anything. Yukari's cheeks were hot as she continued talking. "Um...I won't bother you again, then." Yukari took a step back. She wanted to run out of the classroom as fast as possible, but her legs felt leaden. God, what a disaster. Yukari didn't think that Ia was this against making friends-
"But," said Ia, "I suppose it won't hurt to make an exception, this time."
The two of them were silent as they left the school, Yukari trailing after Ia despite her earlier words of showing Ia around. Ia's steps were sure and measured, as though she already knew the town well and knew exactly where to go, and so Yukari decided that it'd be best for her to just tag along on this journey and see where Ia would take her.
The sun was sinking low on the horizon, shading the sky in purple, throwing orange hues on rooftops and windows, edging Ia's hair with gold. Ia walked down roads that Yukari didn't know existed, carefully making her way down the alleys between houses. The town seemed large and mazelike when wandering with Ia – all the major roads that Yukari would take on her way to school or restaurants or stores, Ia avoided. There were so many twists and turns in Ia's route taking that, had it not been for the setting sun, Yukari would have lost all sense of direction.
"Do you want to get some food?" Ia asked after they made their way through a dense thicket of leaves, though she didn't slow her pace.
"Um," said Yukari, jogging a little to keep up, "up to you."
"When do you usually eat dinner?"
"Whenever I get home. Around seven or so usually…" Yukari trailed off as she looked at Ia's indifferent back. "How about you?"
"I don't keep a schedule for dinner." Ia ducked under a low hanging branch, Yukari quickly doing the same, and to her surprise the two of them emerged next to one of the diners in town. It faced one of the main roads, and a part of Yukari was astounded to be back in recognizable land again.
"Would it be okay if we ate here?" said Ia casually, as though this route was completely unplanned and just happened to land them right next to the diner.
Yukari stammered out some semblance of agreement, and soon the two of them were sitting in one of the booths, examining the colorful, multi-page menus illustrated with gratuitous pictures of the meals for sale. Yukari had been here often with her friends in the past, but sitting with Ia here, Yukari felt uncomfortable, as though she was sitting in a completely foreign restaurant. All the dish names, previously so commonplace, were now unfamiliar. Indeed, it was strange to even be sitting with Ia at such a restaurant – after all, Ia seemed to be a being that existed only in the classroom, or as a ghostlike, flittering presence in town. To see her here, solid, elbows on the table, serious eyes on the menu, skin illuminated by the diner's cheap, yellow lighting…it was as though she was a fictional character placed in reality.
"What kind of food do you usually get here?" asked Ia.
All of Yukari's social graces had left her. She found herself responding to Ia's basic queries like a robot. "Um, usually I get the sizzling steak plate…"
Ia flipped through some more of the menu. "Dessert?"
"Sometimes a cake or a parfait or something…"
Ia lowered the menu a fraction and looked at Yukari, her blue eyes distantly curious, like that of an alien biologist. "You're talkative in class, but you're rather shy, aren't you?"
Shy? Yukari had never thought of herself as shy. After all, ever since she could remember, she had been extroverted and cheerful, making friends with everyone she met. "N-no, I think I'm pretty outgoing."
"Then why are you shy now?"
"Why?" The answer was obvious – simply because it's Ia who's sitting across from Yukari at the table. There's no social script Yukari could think of in such a situation; she had never met anyone like Ia before, and whenever her classmates tried to connect with Ia, no matter the approach, Ia would shoot them down like an expert anti-aircraft gunner. With such a person, even the most outgoing person would be shy. Not that Yukari wanted to be quite so honest at this point in time. "Well…I think I'm just tired."
"Was the walk tiring for you?"
"No, it was okay. I just don't think I got a lot of sleep last night, that's all." Yukari forced a laugh.
Ia stared a little longer at Yukari, so long that Yukari was forced to bring her eyes back down to her menu in an attempt to avoid that gaze. The silence built and built, unbearable; even the waiter, when he came to take their order, seemed to feel ill-at-ease in the miasma of awkwardness that surrounded them. When he left with their orders, Yukari found herself wanting to shout after him, to bring him back so that she could be saved from the prospect of having to sit at the booth with Ia with no colorful menus to use as a shield from Ia's intense gaze.
Ia toyed absently with her napkin, and chewing her lip Yukari surreptitiously took out her phone, hungry for any sort of distraction from the current awkwardness. She glanced down – SeeU had sent her a text, but just as Yukari was about to open it, Ia spoke. "It seems like people are usually on their phones in social situations these days."
Ia had said the words indifferently, clearly meant as some sort of social observation, but Yukari felt a sting of guilt and hastily shoved her phone back into her pocket. "Ahh, yeah, I guess so. The, uh, lure of the small screen is pretty strong." Yukari forced a weak chuckle. "Um…I'm sorry."
"It's fine," said Ia. "It's what you're used to doing, isn't it?"
"Used to doing?"
Ia nodded and turned her gaze towards the window, resting her chin on her hand. "When people feel uncomfortable or awkward, it's natural to want to focus attention onto something else. And when there's a lull in the conversation, it's natural for people to want to look at their phone, if only for something to distract their mind with." Ia spoke as though she was stating a simple, inarguable fact.
Yukari furrowed her eyebrows. She wasn't sure what Ia was trying to get at here, why Ia felt the need to say all of these things to her. "Ia...are you…" Yukari spoke her next words carefully, "…how are you feeling?"
Ia glanced over at Yukari. "How am I feeling? Why?"
"W-well, it's hard to tell what you're thinking."
"Really? I try to be as frank as possible about my thoughts."
"I guess, but where do these thoughts come from, you know? I don't think people usually think about these things."
"I doubt it," said Ia. "These are the years when most people really start thinking about these sorts of topics. What motivates people, how you relate to other people, how other people relate to you, cliques and in-groups and social castes..."
"Maybe, but it seems like you think about it more than other people. So I'm curious about how you are feeling right now."
"Bored," said Ia, chin still resting on her hand as she looked out the window. She had spoken so quickly, it was as though she had barely given the question any thought.
Yukari winced, but she supposed that it couldn't be helped; after all, it wasn't as though she was doing much to aid Ia's boredom herself. Yukari chewed her lip a little and looked at Ia for a few moments, studied the indifferent cast of her expression. "Are you…usually bored?"
"Always," Ia corrected.
"R-really?" Yukari stared at Ia. "You've never been not bored?"
"Sometimes I feel less bored than other times, but I've never not been bored, yes."
"It's fine," said Ia. "It's just the way I am."
"Well, are there things you like?" asked Yukari.
"I like taking walks. I like reading, and music."
"Do you feel happy when you do these things?"
"Happy…" Ia looked pensive. "It makes me feel less bored. And I feel more peaceful."
"Well…that sounds like happiness, doesn't it?"
Ia laughed then, a short, dry chuckle that dripped through Yukari's ears like a trickle of water in a desert. "Is that what happiness feels like? How depressing."
"It's so little," said Ia. "It's like it's nothing at all. The change in state is…" Ia's eyebrows furrowed for a brief moment, "the change is state is nearly nonexistent. But happiness is supposed to be so much more than that. At least, that's what I read, that's what it seems like it's supposed to be like, right? When you're happy, don't you feel more than a cessation of boredom?"
"Ahh…" Yukari began, but trailed off. Ia was looking at her now, and for once, her eyes seemed to be alert. It no longer had that background character gaze, no – Ia was looking at Yukari as though Yukari was actually there now, and under the full clarity of her eyes Yukari felt a blush spring to her cheeks. She had to give Ia an actual answer, she felt. Now that Ia's full attention was on her, Yukari had the strong desire to keep it. Funny, she thought. That elusive emotion Ia spoke of, 'happiness'…Yukari was feeling it right now. "Yeah. It's definitely more than a cessation of boredom. Like, um…I feel pretty happy right now."
Under the intensity of Ia's gaze, Yukari found that she couldn't bring herself to lie. Before she knew it, she was talking, words slipping from her mouth before she could think about them. "Because you're really looking at me. Usually, when you look at people, it feels like you're looking without really looking, you know? But the way you're looking at me now is like…we're forging a real human connection."
"And you're happy," interrupted Ia, "because of this?"
"Well, of course! I've wanted to get to know you for a while. You seem really interesting."
Ia sighed, sinking her face deeper into her hand. "So you're saying that happiness comes from human connections with people you're interested in?"
"Yeah! You read a lot, don't you?" asked Yukari. "Aren't most books about human relationships?"
"True," said Ia, "but I don't know…" She turned her eyes away again, back towards the window, and the breaking of her gaze with Yukari felt almost physical; Yukari had to bite back the sigh that nearly escaped her lips. "I'm not interested in many people. Everyone and everything seems predictable."
"Maybe it's because you're not giving them any chances to be interesting."
Ia's lips curled in a slight, sardonic smile, her cool blue eyes glancing back over at Yukari. "Hmm. You think?"
"Yeah," Yukari said, thinking back to her previous experiences with Ia. "I mean, you just turn down people when they ask you to do things, and you don't really talk to anyone…of course they'd seem boring from that perspective, right? I think you should give them a chance, at least. Maybe you can spend some lunches with people, or ask them to take walks with you."
"Spend some lunches with 'people'?" Ia said. "Why not yourself? Do you think you're not interesting?"
Yukari felt her blush deepen on her face (and shit, Yukari thought to herself, had she been blushing this entire time?), and quickly shook her head. "N-no! It's just, uh, I don't want to force you into hanging out with me. You can choose to hang out with whoever you think is the most interesting. I just want you to have a fun high school life."
"Are your motives really that altruistic?" asked Ia, and though Yukari flinched from those words inwardly, Ia herself seemed rather absentminded as she asked that, her eyes drawn back to the napkin that she had been toying with.
"I think so…"
"I don't think you'd be here if you didn't want something from me," said Ia, her eyes flicking up towards Yukari's. "Say I do what you say, and say I become good friends with some other classmates. I have a fun high school life with them, and I never talk to you again after we leave this restaurant. You say that you just want me to have a fun high school life, but something tells me that you wouldn't be happy with the outcome I just outlined. You'd want more, wouldn't you?"
"U-uh," said Yukari, regretting everything she had said in the past few minutes, mind flailing in this weird social situation. Seriously, Yukari thought, people don't just say these things to people. Still, Ia was right. Yukari's motives definitely were not as altruistic as she had made them sound, and with a sigh Yukari bowed her head down to stare at her fingers. "Geez…you really don't let up, huh? I mean, of course I'd be happier if we became friends…" Yukari trailed off as the waiter arrived, placing their food before them.
"Thank you," said Ia to the waiter before turning her attention towards her food. "Are you hungry, Yukari?"
"Ahh, yeah, let's eat," said Yukari, eager to get away from the topic of her motives, before it hit her that this was the first time Ia had used her name. The realization was a pleasant jolt to her senses. She glanced up at Ia, but the girl seemed to be absorbed in her hamburger steak. Although, thought Yukari, why wouldn't she be? After all, to Ia, calling Yukari by her name was probably no big deal.
Still, Yukari couldn't help but to smile to herself as she started eating her food, the memory of Ia saying her name warm in her chest.
Yukari didn't tell anyone about her walk and dinner with Ia, even though usually, she would be eager to tell her friends about new, exciting events in her life. However, Yukari's interaction with Ia felt private in a way that other events in her life weren't. The memory of walking through the town's side streets and alleyways, the setting sun highlighting leaves and trees and Ia, the way the familiar was cast unfamiliar just by Ia's presence…it felt as though that walk was something that occurred in another universe, and when Yukari got back home afterwards she was surprised by the normalcy of everything – the casual texts and snaps on her phone, the everyday homework assignments she had to do.
The next day, Yukari took her seat and watched as Ia entered the classroom, tracked the girl's graceful gait as she took her seat by the window, but no matter how hard Yukari looked, Ia didn't bother returning her gaze.
That's fine, Yukari tried rationalizing to herself. Ia might just want to focus on her studies in school. Still, when lunchtime rolled around, Ia sat alone as always. Her lonely silhouette made Yukari's heart ache, and she spent the entire lunch period watching Ia, hoping for a sign – a glance, a sigh, a note, a nod – anything to indicate that Ia wanted someone else to eat with her too. However, Ia seemed perfectly content to eat alone as always, her eyes focused on her book.
"Geez, Yukari," said SeeU, "why are you staring at Ia so much? It's kinda creepy, you know."
"Huh? What?" asked Yukari, brought out of her haze.
SeeU heaved a sigh and shook her head, chopsticks picking at her food. "Seriously, it's been weeks. It's obvious that she's not interested in hanging out with anyone."
Yukari frowned, slouching down in her chair. "You really think so?"
"Umm, yeah, I know so," SeeU rolled her eyes. "Remember how she turned down everyone for everything?"
"I guess," said Yukari sullenly. "But it doesn't seem right, you know?"
"She had her chances and she rejected all of them. Besides, it's not like anyone's bullying her. If she wants to eat with people, I'm sure there'll be people falling all over themselves to make her comfortable…like you, for instance. Seriously," SeeU pointed her chopsticks at Yukari, "you have absolutely no reason to worry about that kid."
Easy enough to say, thought Yukari, but with a sigh she tried to put Ia out of her mind. As the days passed, things steadily returned to status quo, and soon, Yukari found herself half-believing that that strange walk she had with Ia had all been a dream, some delusion she cooked up for herself after too many nights spent cramming for tests. After all, Ia never gave any indication that she even knew Yukari. Maybe that walk with Ia had all been some strange test, and Yukari failed. Just the thought was enough to make Yukari's heart hurt. It was one thing to just know that Ia was reclusive and uninterested in people, but it was quite another to know that Ia had decided to, out of everyone in class, spend some time with Yukari…only to never pay any attention to her again. It was a complete and total rejection, and knowing that it came after spending so much time together…
It was as though Yukari wasn't good enough. But then again, why would she be? She wasn't particularly deep, or particularly bookish, or particularly artistic, or, well, particularly anything. She was just an ordinary high school student like any other. It could have been anyone Ia decided to take a walk with, and they would have probably acted exactly the same as Yukari, or, hell, probably even better.
Right, Yukari thought with a sigh as she lethargically packed her things, glancing back at Ia's desk. It was a few weeks after her dreamlike walk with Ia, and after stewing in her thoughts, Yukari decided that the best course of action would be to try to stop mooning after Ia, who obviously didn't care about her as an actual person. Just another background character, Yukari thought, looking back out the window. It was a late fall sunset, and she could see her classmates milling about outdoors, their uniforms once again blurring into an indistinguishable mass.
"Do you see anything interesting?" asked a cool, musical voice, and Yukari stiffened for a bit before slowly turning her head to face the source of it. Sure enough, there was Ia, her blue eyes placid, her head cocked slightly to the side.
At the sight of her, Yukari's mouth went dry, and she found that she could think of absolutely nothing to say. Still, her heart was hammering hard in her chest; the fact that Ia was here again, talking with her, was enough to make disbelieving happiness bloom in Yukari's chest. Still, this was only happiness in advance – the threat of Ia leaving, of Ia losing interest in her, of Yukari messing up her words again, was all too present. Yukari had to say something interesting, had to seem clever and deep, and oh she wished that she was half as smart as SeeU was; if it was SeeU in this situation, she'd probably have thought of a thousand witty observations on the spot.
But it was only Yukari, and Yukari had nothing. But she couldn't let Ia know that, she thought desperately. "Oh, um…just the town. The sunset is really pretty in the fall…" Ugh. How trite. How boring. Yukari wanted to hit herself.
"Hmm," said Ia, glancing out the window. "I suppose so."
"Are you free?" asked Ia, still looking out the window.
For a moment, Yukari thought she misheard. "Free? Me?"
"Yes, you," said Ia, turning her eyes towards Yukari, eyebrows slightly furrowed. "There's no one else here."
Yukari could hardly believe her luck. "O-oh! Yeah, I'm free! Did you want to do something?"
"I was thinking of taking a walk, if you'd like to join."
At once, Yukari's heart leapt in her mouth. There was no question of her refusing.
"Of course!" she stammered, almost knocking over her school bag in her haste to pick it up.
If Ia had any reaction to Yukari's clumsiness, however, she didn't show it, only inclining her head slightly in the direction of the door and shouldering her bag. "Let's go, then."
Hey everyone! This will be a two-shot, so the next chapter will be the last. I want to do a quick advance warning that this story will probably end up being a little on the dark side. Not too much, but I think it'll probably be darker than Degrees at least lol.
Anyways, this story is pretty related to Degrees Below Zero. Fun fact, when I first wrote Degrees, I wrote two openings for it - one is the actual opening, and the other is, well, this opening. At the time, I thought that the opening for Degrees had more story potential, so I went with the other opening, and left this one completely by the wayside until I was looking through my old stuff and saw this. I thought that it would be a fun story to finish up, so I started writing more for it. Anyways, see you next chapter!