[ARC 19: EVERYBODY'S A CRITIC]
The four returned to Urasaria after a shopping trip for the new punk, and Marisa's head cocked as she met them at the gates.
"Did you get a new haircut?"
"I did." laughed Serena, shoulder-length black gone, replaced with short&spiked.
"Looks good on you." she chimed. "Got that full punk look going on now, like."
Serena nodded. Her cheeks were softer, and her voice came with no effort. "Th -" - she winced at another cramp - " - t-thanks."
"Yeah." winced Yuruko, patting Serena's back knowingly. "She's just, uh… y'know."
"…oh." winced Marisa. "Yeah. You had to get some like, surgery, too, right?"
"Yes." nodded Mia hastily.
"Yep." chimed Naomi. "Probably not gonna be fighting for a few days, but, you know."
Serena started wondering about a refund. "Uh. Yeah. Just want to get home and rest."
"Sure thing." chimed Marisa, and the prodigal trio left as her & Mia walked. "Is she going to be okay?"
"I'm sure she will be." said Mia, wondering if it was disrespectful she was finding it amusing.
"Cool." chimed Marisa. "'cuz like, Matoi still wanted her to, uh… That traveling thing she was talking about."
"Er, not Kate?"
Marisa grinned sheepishly. "She asked Kate about it, and Kate suggested Serena, so, like. She'll probably still say yes if Serena asks her, though."
Serena was her best friend, but she had a difficult time imagining her in something official & important. About the only person she knew who fit that was Matoi - not even herself, even if she would be president next year. Maybe knowing so much about a person did that, too, since professionalism meant shrinking three-dimensionality to one face.
"She set up something for you, too." grinned Marisa, gesturing to the Four's office on the distance. "Gooood luck."
"'Don't insult me.'" chimed Mia, already dreading it.
The next day, Naomi checked her mailbox and found a folded sheet of paper.
I'm really sorry for how I treated you. I shouldn't have ever touched you or made you feel uncomfortable like that, especially because I knew from the start you just wanted to be friends. You trusted me, and I let you down, along with embarrassing you. I'm really, really sorry.
If you still want to talk, I promise I'll act better, but I understand if you don't want to. If you don't reply, I won't ever bother you again.
She paused, but didn't want to handle it by herself this time.
"No." sighed Serena. "She's just trying to get sympathy or whatever."
Naomi sat down on the couch. She'd used Serena as a guide for long enough that she'd nearly grown a rebellious urge. Time had whittled away the brunt of Julia's offenses, but she wasn't sure if she was overthinking that too.
"…I mean." Yuruko frowned. "I definitely don't like her, but… How, uh - what was she like otherwise?"
"She actually was kinda nice." shrugged Naomi. "I mean, I guess she… if she's actually changed, then that's good, right?"
"If she's actually changed." mumbled Serena. "I don't know, um. I don't think it's a good idea."
"…maybe." sighed Naomi. "I don't know, I just…"
"I mean - let's think it through, right?" said Yuruko. "What happens if you, I dunno, accept her apology or whatever?"
"I guess we start talking again."
"Did you like talking with her?"
"Kinda, yeah. She's in to movies and stuff like that. Kinda artsy."
Yuruko nodded. "Just, uh… If you do, be careful, right? Make sure she, uh - knows."
"I will, yeah." smiled Naomi. "But I just, I feel like… I want to give her another chance, you know? Since we kinda didn't talk after… you know."
Serena had spent the year helping Naomi grow a personality, and now that it'd sprouted, she was wishing it was less naive. There was a message about parenting there, and someday she'd realize it. "I still don't think it's a good idea."
Naomi nodded. "I'm not really sure either, but I know I can stick up for myself right? And, uh - tabloids, too."
"Dickless tabloids." chimed Yuruko, and the two laughed.
"…I guess so. Um. Just be careful, right?" said Serena.
"I will." said Naomi.
"Coolio." Yuruko started towards the kitchen. "Uh, do you want any ice cream?"
"Sure." shrugged Naomi, though she'd gained some weight recently. "What do you have?"
"Uh, we bought like - seven boxes." laughed Serena. She was starting to get used to her period, but wasn't about to pass the opportunity for excused dessert, and her host pain resistance helped. "Vanilla, chocolate, strawberry… Um. Vanilla, chocolate…"
"Uh, you should just come check." laughed Yuruko. Serena had been speaking more since Kamon to test her new voice, and had cried on the flight back.
"Sure thing." laughed Naomi, going with Yuruko to the kitchen. She was still surprised at how clean the two lived, as she didn't know that they preferred disintegrating dishes to cleaning them. The two got two bowls of chocolate-chip cookie-dough, and Serena's tablet vibrated once they sat down.
Yuruko peeked over her shoulder as she checked it. "Message from Satsuki."
"Still weird." mumbled Serena, relevantly.
(Matoi) "Can you and your protégé come see me? I have an assignment for you."
"Dang." mumbled Naomi, setting her bowl down.
Matoi was at the table when they came in.
"Um, you said you had something for us?" said Serena as they sat down.
Matoi nodded, wondering if Serena had gotten a new haircut. "Correct. After last January, I've decided to establish a new group. So long as you accept, you'll be receiving a payraise. A thousand dollars extra a month."
"What's the group?" said Serena, trying not to think how much quicker Kamon would've come.
"A type of travel group. You, and whoever else you choose - I'll send you the locations of students requesting assistance across the country, and you'll help them fight scum until they no longer need it."
"…sounds good. Is there, um - how many people?"
"Four. You'll be part of it for the rest of the year - until Mia asks you to be in her squadron next year."
The three laughed knowingly.
"She hasn't won yet." chimed Serena, and Matoi laughed.
"Samuel was too behind from the start - and the only person close is Kirihara."
"Who's that?" said Naomi.
"A total bitch." said Serena.
"Precisely." laughed Matoi. "Regardless - the staff requested I have four names by the end of the month. Figure out who you fight well with."
Naomi glanced at Serena, who nodded. "Kate."
Matoi nodded, eyes traveling to Naomi. "Naomi - do you have a name?"
"…um." mumbled Naomi. She still hadn't made many friends. "…I, actually… I can just try someone out for a bit, right?"
"…okay." said Naomi. "Um - so… Since she - apologized…"
Serena winced as she said "Julia." and Matoi paused.
"I - I know how to handle it, now, if she does anything." nodded Naomi. "But, she's… kinda the first friend I really made here besides Serena and Yuruko, so…"
"…be careful." said Matoi. "Remember - you'll be fighting with her for the rest of the year."
"I know." nodded Naomi. "That's why I just wanna try it out, you know? Uh. Just, because - because we fight good together, too, and…"
"Just be sure." winced Serena, and Naomi nodded.
"I'm - I'm sure. Julia. Mint Condition."
Matoi slowly nodded. "… I'll let her and Kate know, then. Serena - I'll send you information as needed and where to travel."
"Unless you would prefer to notify Julia." Matoi glanced at Naomi.
"…U-Uh." She still felt like a kid. "I - sure. I - I can do that, yeah."
Over the next few days, Naomi had seen Julia out & smiled at her enough to let her know she'd accepted the apology, but started to wonder if Julia would be a good fit too. After all, she was in her fourth year & probably busy. Hopefully too much.
Saturday afternoon, Naomi knocked on her door. It opened, and there stood Julia a few inches back.
"U-Uh, h-hey." Julia smiled nervously.
"Hey. Um. Are you... busy?"
"E-Er, no. Was, um, just watching Manhattan."
"…um. Yeah. Um. D-Did you, did you get my note?" said Julia.
"I - I did, yeah. Uh - I - I forgive you."
"O-Okay. I'm-I'm sorry that - I know it's kinda weird that I j-just dropped it off at your mailbox but -"
" - um, it's - it's cool." nodded Naomi, knowing Julia to be jittery, possibly nebbish. "That - I was kinda - out for the week, so, you know."
"…yeah. I'm really sorry I - I really shouldn't have made you feel uncomfortable like that, and - that's, that's on me, and -"
" - it's, um, it's cool." chimed Naomi. "Let's just forget it happened, right? Um."
"Alright. That - just, yeah. Just - if I ever - if I ever make you uncomfortable again, um, just-just tell me, and I promise I'll stop."
The two paused. Julia started to feel nervous again, so she said; " - um, did you want to talk inside? It's - it's -"
" - sure thing." said Naomi, and she stepped inside. For a second she felt wary of Julia, then guilty that she was. Julia led her to the couch, laptop with Manhattan on.
"Just, u-um, one second." mumbled Julia, closing it as the two sat down.
"Is that another Woody Allen film?"
Julia nodded. "Yeah. Um. Just s-seen it a dozen times, so." She laughed nervously.
"Cool. Um…so. I wanted to talk to you about, uh, something, too."
"S-Sure." Julia shifted another inch away.
"Me and Serena got called up to, uh - the Elite Four's office a few days ago, and Matoi told us she had some new group. It's kinda like a traveling group, sort of? It's four people, and… uh. Serena chose Kate, and she asked me who I wanted, and… I said you."
"O-Oh. Um. Kate's in it?" said Julia. She was more afraid of Serena, even if she had embarrassed herself badly in front of Kate.
"Yeah. She said you get like, a payraise, and I guess we'll just… kinda be traveling around the country. Helping out people who need it, you know."
"I, I can do that, yeah." Julia nodded. "If everyone else is - yeah. I can do that."
"Cool." chimed Naomi. "I told Serena and Yuruko that you apologized, too, so. No worries there."
"I-I can do that." Julia laughed nervously. "Probably, um, probably good to get out of the house a bit. Out of the state, all that."
"Yeah." Naomi smiled. "I think it'll be pretty fun, you know?"
"Yeah. Should I be getting packed?"
"Uh - probably in a bit, yeah." laughed Naomi. "She said she'll let Serena know when, so, you know."
"Alright. Um, yeah. That, that sounds good."
The two paused. Eventually Julia said; " - uh. One thing I wanted to ask, though…"
"D-Did you show Serena and Yuruko the note, or…?"
"Um, no, I just told them that you apologized and wanted to start talking again."
"Okay. I just wasn't sure if..."
"…oh. Yeah, um…" Naomi laughed. "I'm sure it'll be fine. Don't worry about it."
Naomi didn't know if she should apologize for her yelling too, but didn't want to let the subject linger.
"Y-Yeah." laughed Julia. "I kinda - I almost, um - wanted to put a few jokes in there, but…"
"What do you mean?"
"Do you remember, u-um, that movie I was telling you about? Crimes and Misdemeanors?" (Naomi nodded.) "Yeah. Um, A-Allen plays some like, total awkward schmuck, and he gets a love letter rejected by this, um - woman he wants to have an affair with, or whatever -"
" - yeah?" laughed Naomi -
" - and she rejects his love letter, and he just says: 'It's probably just as well. I plagiarized most of it from James Joyce. You were probably wondering about all the references to Dublin.'"
The two laughed, even if Naomi didn't get the reference.
" - um, b-but it's really good too. Really, really good art. I-It's one of my f-favorite films."
"What's it about?"
"I-It's about, um, two-two stories, kinda. One of them is this eye doctor who's having an affair, a-and the other one is this artsy k-kind of film director played by W-Woody Allen. I-It's really c-compelling. I-I almost get a bit jealous w-watching his films."
"What do you mean?"
"…um. Trying to think how to explain this."
After a minute, Julia nodded.
"So. Um. This isn't - this'll kinda make more sense once, if you want to watch some, but. When I watch an old Woody Allen film, and then, I go see a Hollywood film - I can tell that he's better. Way better. H-His stories, his character development, his art, it's just way, way better. But… and I know I'm not on that level, but when I look at my poetry, and compare it to stuff that really bad poets write, it's… I know my stuff is better, but it feels… harder to tell."
"Why?" said Naomi. Julia hadn't ever shared any of her poetry, which surprised her - she figured most writers were self-indulgent.
Julia laughed nervously. "I-I think it's that we're both working with the same words, kinda. Like, if a painting has the wrong color - you can tell immediately they did something wrong, since that's what our eyes are supposed to do. B-But that's harder in words, and m-maybe it's just our brains not being wired to read and write. And people say art is subjective, b-but it's not. There's something different in a, in a Walt Whitman poem than a Maya Angelou. Something objective. Y-You can rate the quality of art objectively, e-even if you don't like it."
"…I guess I've never thought about it that way." shrugged Naomi. "I like what I like, you know? I don't really think about this kinda stuff."
"Yeah. And, and there's stuff that I like too that I know is bad, or stuff I don't like that I know is good, but…"
"But what's the point in that? I - sorry, I just - I'm not sure I get what you mean."
"The point of what?"
"The point in - I mean, if you dislike something, what's the point in knowing that it's good?"
"I can still learn from it. I-I don't like any of Kurosawa's great films, but I can learn from them."
"But you're not talking about like, how popular something is, right? I just mean that ... let's say there is some, y'know, some sort of… way to rate art, then what difference does it make? You said that it's not something everybody agrees with, right?"
Julia frowned, then laughed. "T-That's the um, part I keep getting stuck on. But I can't live in some world where there's not a reason for things to be the way they are. T-That, y-you know, Moby Dick and Shakespeare are the things that are remembered instead of all those crappy poets that were writing back then. M-Maybe that's just so I have some g-goal to get to, and-and some path to improve on, so one day some, some alien lifeform can find my art and think that I made something good."
"I guess that makes sense." shrugged Naomi. "As an uh, poet, I mean."
"...yeah. I-I remember I used to be in a group for writers, and the way they went about, um, creating art. I think for a lot of them i-it was just an outlet for them to make friends, because they got mad at me i-if I pointed out their cliches o-or how they could improve. I-I used to get frustrated about it, b-because I couldn't understand why they weren't t-trying to improve, o-or how they could go to other strangers for ideas. How they could ask 'what should the next line in my poem be' or 'what should happen next in my novel'. I-I don't believe in that crap about the Muse or in souls or anything like that, b-but it just felt wrong to me." She laughed. "But I realized I was the one being stupid, because I don't think they were interested in art. They just wanted to be able to call themselves artists."
"I-I've always felt like that around other people, t-though. L-Like the um, rock or tree that sits outside your window when you're a kid, and when you go outside y-you can't ever find it. T-That's how I am with people. U-Um, probably because I talk too much. We should just watch something."
"Sure." Naomi smiled.
"Crimes and Misdemeanors is p-pretty straightforward, but then there's… Manhattan's main character is a creep, but that's the point, and Radio Days is really f-funny. Stardust Memories you need a mental illness to truly appreciate, s-so it's my favorite."
The two had talked for a hour after, and Naomi knocked at Serena&Yuruko's door.
"Come in!" said Yuruko's voice inside, and she came in to Serena&Yuruko watching television, bucket of popcorn between.
"Hey." laughed Naomi, eyes on the anime as she sat down.
"Hey." chimed Serena, tentacle filling another cup of sweets. "Um - are you feeling okay?"
"Yeah." nodded Naomi's smiling head. "Just, uh - was talking with Julia. Watched a movie with her."
"…oh." mumbled Serena. Yuruko had reminded her it was between them by now, but Julia reminded her of a boy she'd dated when she was fourteen. He apologized for his behavior towards her but never changed it, and Serena had sworn off of dating men after, but still felt off about calling herself a lesbian.
"Coolio." said Yuruko. "Want any popcorn?"
"Sure." laughed Naomi, and Serena's tentacle passed the bucket. "What's this?"
"(Gah… I-I'm going to have to power up for this…)" said the screen.
"Uh - Uchi no Ten Seichō." laughed Yuruko. "'My Heavenly Growth'."
"I - what?" laughed Naomi.
"What's weird is it's an all-female anime, too." muttered Serena, no longer relevantly.
"(I'm going to have to grow for this.)" winced the woman on-screen, having just been thrown through three skyscrapers.
"Why do they draw them with such big eyes?" said Naomi.
"Uh, so otakus will buy merchandise." grinned Yuruko.
"What's an otaku?"
"I - hey!" panted Serena, seeing Yuruko's eyes point towards her -
" - just like last time." laughed Yuruko, and Naomi with her.
"Just like last time." she said, utterly clueless. Serena nodded as fog filled their bucket with Blackburn-brand popcorn.
"Hell yeah." laughed Yuruko, skyscraper falling on-screen.
"Just like Meteorology." chimed Serena.
"(Ghh…)" winced the anime woman, standing in an avenue filled with smoke, bloodied & flamboyant foe ahead with fifty feet separating them. "(U-Utena… I won't allow your sacrifice to be in vain!)"
"Who's that?" said Naomi, pointing to the two-dimensional woman's foe, red spikes out of her back & two blue monocles.
"Some minor villain." shrugged Yuruko, and in the next instant -
- a set of eye-lasers shot out of the monocles and towards the woman -
"( - reduce!)" shouted the heroine, shrinking down to dodge them, lasers catching only air as she shrunk to a microscopic size; ahead, her foe started rushing towards her, more lasers blasting through the road -
"( - you can't run from me forever, Hanako! By my calculations, you only have a dozen seconds left of Growth Energy - all I need to do is blast the rest of this avenue away!)"
Eyes rumbling, she turned her vision down, and as another set of lasers blasted the road to concrete chunks -
- the keen end of one grown projectile smashed her skull in from the front, Serena & Yuruko & Naomi wincing at the burst of blood; the woman staggered back -
- direct in to a grown wall of asphalt, and as she turned her eyes to the sidewalk right -
- she saw Hanako at the entrance of the skyscraper there, grown to her normal height, decided at 5'0 specifically to appeal to male otakus & sell merchandise.
"(I'm not out of Growth Energy yet!)" shouted Hanako, foe staying completely still ahead for the monologue. "(You forgot one very important thing! Utena sacrificed the rest of her Growth Energy to me, before you mercilessly killed her! It's my duty to ensure that her spirit lives on through me! By my calculations, I have just enough to vanquish you.)"
"(As if!)" laughed her foe, still completely still. "(You and all the rest of the Heavenly Growth Squadron will die by my Artificial Spinning Eye Lasers, and usher in a new era of darkness!)"
Her eyes started to rumble, and in the next instant -
- she didn't see with aghast eyes any lasers form, only a miniscule puff of red -
" - n-nani?!"
"( - remember this - this is why you lost!)" shouted Hanako - "- because we fight with our friends! Not tools!)"
"This is so - I'm sorry -" laughed Naomi -
" - it's so fucking stupid -" laughed Yuruko -
" - uh, yeah -" chimed Serena - " - but -"
- and three sets of eyes went wide as Hanako grew to a giant's size, grunting and tearing ferociously at a nearby skyscraper, red&black claws growing as she dug in to the foundation -
"( - THIS IS FOR -)"
" - the good of all humanity!" shouted Yuruko -
- and the skyscraper-turned-hammer turned her foe in to pink&red mist, three laughing as the woman shrunk down again -
" - wait -" laughed Naomi - " - that's it? -"
" - uh, that was a filler episode -" laughed Serena - " - they do that when they run out of animation budget -"
" - yeah." laughed Yuruko. "There's usually an actual fight, but -"
" - uh, looked like a fight to me -" chimed Naomi -
- and the three friends laughed as the next episode started. They watched another six before they went to bed, and though Naomi fell asleep thinking about Julia's film, she dreamt of the skyscraper woman.
Yes, Julia's a self-insert, and yes, I do see people like the rock outside of your window that you can never find when you search for it, and y-yes, I-I do talk l-like her. (I really over-use socially awkward characters, because "her confidence grows" is the easiest arc ever.)
She's great. The story she gives is my experience with the Webnovel writer Discord, where someone asked if "a story about a shy skeleton necromancer" could work and someone replied "what I would do is give him a harem".
Which doesn't even make sense! Skeletons don't have genitalia!
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