Stop Playing The Hero

Chapter 5: Different Duo

“Hey San, wanna go grab some coffee?”

San’s tired eyes drifted up from where she was tinkering with some fragile lab instruments. Wasabi was fidgeting with his clothes, and his tone was nervous.

“There’s this really good place down the road. Organic home brew. You’ll love it. We’re going there right now.” - he added.

She also noticed the rest of the team, except for Tadashi, had their backs turned to them, trying (unsuccessfully) not to glance this way.

Piecing two and two together, she sighed, feeling sorry for both of them. “Thanks. I already had my lunch though.” She did her best to smile kindly, in order to buffer out her decline.

It was the fourth time she’d refused to go with the team in that week, San thought as she watched Wasabi’s sadly retreating back with swelling guilt. At this rate she wondered if they’d think she just wasn’t worth the time. Wasn’t worthy of being their friend.

She was approaching a dangerous brink. But San found she shouldn’t really care either way. There was a task much more important she had to do. This project she’d been given was bigger than anything she could think of. Now wasn’t the time to become distracted.

With that thought, she fixed her attention once more on writing down her progress, jotting down notes and making strings of letters flow from her fingertips as she typed. Indeed, there were so many configurations that needed to be worked out in the programming stage. Actually building the delicate machine would be the last thing on her mind. And to do that, she needed all her concentration. There was simply no time for catching up with friends yet, only to catch up on schoolwork.

In the back of her mind, San wondered if it appeared to the others that she was making up an excuse not to join them. She had got along well with them in the past few weeks. That was enough. There was nothing more to ask.

.

.

“Tadashi, can I speak to you for a moment?”

Tadashi immediately set down what he was doing, in which case was several machine parts and a rotor arm, and made a last ditch effort to look presentable before his professor.

“Of course.” - He happily replied, wondering what this was all about - “Am I in trouble?” He jokingly said.

“Course you’re not.” - Callaghan said, in mild surprise - “Come with me.”

He caught his mentor sneaking a quick glance at San’s direction. She didn’t seem to be paying them any notice, although Tadashi knew she heard their professor coming in. Once Callaghan stated that his business was with him, her attention had fallen away and she went back to her studies.

...

...

Tadashi had been to Prof. Callaghan’s office many times before. It wasn’t that he often got himself into trouble, but because it was usually where they’d hold long discussions into their latest cut-edge findings. The young man found himself inhaling the distinct smell of potpourri, a mixture of dried leaves and fragrant plants. Apparently, Abigail Callaghan loved it and insisted her father keep a small sachet in his office.

“What is it, sir?” - Tadashi finally asked, after finally settling down. The senior academic looked at his pupil contemplatively for a second before speaking.

“It’s about San.”

Although the topic itself surprised Tadashi, he was more shocked then to hear his tutor. Unlike what Tadashi expected, the professor’s tone didn’t sound happy. His voice was not at all the usual proud and calm Tadashi was used to.

“What? Did something happen to her?” - Tadashi immediately inquired, concerned for his friend. He quickly searched his memory for any sign she might be ill that morning, but thought she couldn’t be. He just saw her bend an iron rod in anger when the circuits wouldn’t connect the way she wanted them to after 2 days.

“Relax. She’s fine” - Callaghan gently assured him - “It’s...the rumors I’m worried about.”

“Rumors?” - The frown deepened on Tadashi’s face.

.

.

Last week, Lunch Break, San Fransokyo Institute of Technology.

A new wave of gossip was hitting the population at San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, and this time both staff and student body were readily involving in spreading it. In fact, speculation made its way to departments outside of that where it was first started – Ito Ishioka Robotics Lab. And it started because of Tadashi’s newest lab mate.

Three days ago the university board had been blown away from comfy their leather seats when Professor Robert Callaghan made his announcement. His newest student had managed to solve the celebrated Jacobian conjecture on polynomials. It had taken a few days to come to terms with the significance of San’s discovery, mostly because professors weren’t even aware of her interest in the equation, and a few more for the full blast of gossip to engulf the whole school. Soon, hardly a person in their scientific community was spared of the details. And San’s reputation elevated to that of a living saint!

The gang had been so happy for her. They’d all but pulled her into the nearest MacDonald’s, where her feat and fame could be easily dissected. Fred loudly advertised the fact that everyone believed San was the second one-in-a-century genius to have graced their department in the last two decades. Tadashi was the first, and when he had come over a year ago he was greeted with the same awed reception.

“Have you guys heard, they’re calling you ’The Legendary Duo.’” - Fred’s particular comment stuck out.

Tadashi and San simultaneously spluttered, the former personally thought the drink he was having would spill out of his nose.

“The what?” - San gawked demandingly at Fred, who seemed extremely pleased with himself.

“Legendary Duo. Some call you the Golden Two, but Duo sounds much better.” - Fred nodded, as if he’d just become an expert on embarrassing nicknames. He looked around expectantly - “So, how cool is that?”

“Not!” - San exclaimed, horrified.

After Go Go assured her that it wasn’t a big deal, and it could probably have been much worse, San was convinced that everyone had overreacted. After all, they were attending an eminent school in the fields of Maths and Science, she argued. Many famous people have preceded them in making great discoveries. Surely olds news was no news at all.

“Yes, but you’ve only been here for two months.” - Someone reminded her - “The others have spent a lifetime in these labs.”

For his part, Tadashi thought anyone who could solve such a famous conjecture would have earned their respect.

If nothing else, it had certainly made their department proud; Professor Callaghan was in an especially good mood. They’d all returned to their work in high spirits, basking in the shared glory their ‘nerd’ department scarcely ever enjoyed.

...

...

Back in Callaghan’s office, Tadashi couldn’t imagine how the apprehensive look on his teacher could be caused by some harmless tittle-tattle. He was about to ask his sensei again what he meant when the man came up with a bizarre request.

“Tell me what you think about her.”

Tadashi began to feel a little uneasy himself now. Was what he say going to affect San somehow? If he did said something that might be taken wrongly, San wasn’t even here to defend herself. He had to be careful of what he said to the professor.

What did he think about her? A lot, actually... No. That sounded wrong, did it? He didn’t think about San a lot! He just thought a lot of her, that’s all. What’s more, they were now sharing the same lab. So that gave them plenty observation time.

“I think she’s great person.” - He answered - “She’s smart, and has a strong work ethic.”

“She’s proven to be a rival even to you, right?” Callghan laughed. So he knew of the ‘Legendary Two/ Golden Duo’ gossip after all!

Callaghan seemed pleased with Tadashi’s answer though. His grey-haired mentor casually leaned back in his chair; his eyes were fixed on Tadashi - “Indeed. My colleagues have done nothing but praise her academic trophies. She’s even challenged some of the professors to some very interesting debates. For being so new here, she’s a model student.”

“But,” - He added, with a tone that startled him - “I was hoping you’d notice some other things.”

This perhaps relieved Tadashi somewhat. So Professor Callaghan wasn’t calling him out to discuss that silly pep-talk about the whole ‘Legendary Duo’ thing. Apparently this was a whole other rumour entirely. That got him curious - “Such as?”

“Such as her refusing to cooperate with her peers.” - Professor Callaghan finished the sentence - “From what I see, she’s turned down every offer at partner. Though she seems to be on excellent terms with her friends, she doesn’t seem to work well with them.” He sighed.

This new topic was something Tadashi had not prepared for. Now that he mentioned it, he did recall a last-minute group assignment they had to do a while back. It was a deeply complicated topic that frankly had no answers, and no one really wanted to do it.

In the end, it was San who took up most of the task herself. She made sure it was delivered beautifully. Later on, he heard Honey mention that San had a written test on that same day, so the project definitely gobbled up much of her revision time. But in the end she didn’t receive much credit for what she did at all, since it was considered a group thing. He recalled seeing her looking exhausted when she thought he wasn’t looking.

He also saw her alone during their hours of research, so absorbed in her own work that she didn’t pay much attention to anything else. He was amazed at how much time she dedicated to research; but when he asked what she was working on, her answer was a vague pattern. Even though they shared the same lab, he never really knew what was it really she worked on.

“Isn’t that okay? I mean, even if what you say is true, professor, her achievements are still better than most.”

His mentor sighed. “No, I doubt anyone can deny it. But you well know, Tadashi that there is more to life than hitting the books” - His mentor eyed him carefully - “I’ve heard a lot of rumours since our latest student arrived here. I dismiss most of them. But a week ago, I overheard something that worries me.”

This piece of news garnered Tadashi’s attention. He shifted in his chair and leaned forward. Professor Callaghan continued in a steady voice.

“There were a few students who wanted to invite her to a party. Everyone seemed to agree at first, but one of them said: ’Don’t. Didn’t you know Takagi dislike human society? She’ll be a party-pooper, trust me. She doesn’t know how to do anything besides excelling at her studies.’

I’m not saying-” Callaghan interrupted when he saw Tadashi rising to protest. “-that San isn’t well liked in her own circle. What I am saying, though, those words had some truth to it. Her under-involvement with peers will some day doom her bright reputation. People who have too much of a virtue are often regarded tentatively. The smallest actions may tilt the popular opinion against their favour. Then, the blessing becomes the curse.”

“That’s when I noticed that an any active research on San’s part has always been kept secret, sometimes even from myself. If I, her mentor, doesn’t know, then I can only imagine how lost the others would be. Soon, I’m afraid some of them would start resenting her talent. When that happens, they’ll accuse her of looking out only for personal gain.”

“That’s not what she means, Professor.” - Tadashi flew to her defence, feeling the need to defend her honor - “It isn’t her intention to put people off.”

His mentor quickly assured him - “I’m not doubting her, Tadashi. But that’s the kind of image she’s giving off right now. That’s how she might appear in the future. In the worst case, she’ll be completely alienated from everyone.”

“That would never happen.” - Tadashi firmly declared - “We’ll never let them treat her that way.”

For the first time since they talked, Professor Callaghan smiled.

“Yes, you and your little gang certainly wouldn’t just abandon her in favour of the crowd.” - His mentor nodded. Tadashi saw he was truly glad. - “Nonetheless, I’d rather like to see her working more closely with others from now on. I’ve tried talking to her a few weeks back. She seemed to listen well enough, but apparently didn’t take up on my advice. That’s where you come in.” - Callaghan said, his tone was so serious, it made Tadashi gulp. What possible request could he have?

“Sir?”

“You two are one of the most gifted, hard-working students this school has ever seen. I need you two to work together.” - Prof. Callaghan explained, reclining in his chair, alerting Tadashi that whatever decision to come was unavoidable - “I’m giving you two a joint assignment.”

...

...

“Huuh?”

It took a few seconds for Tadashi’s brain to register this appallingly simple fact. Did-did Professor Callaghan say what he thought he said?

Tadashi laughed hoarsely. It couldn’t be true, right?

“That’s a good one, Professor. Yeah, good one...”

“Tadashi, I wasn’t joking.” - His professor replied. His eyes were full of anticipation, but his mouth twitched in amusement.

Tadashi returned the professor’s stern gaze with a bewildered one. Hearing this declaration was like swallowing a big clump of clay. Oh Gosh, this is it! His reputation as being ‘the one guy no one could ever hate’ had finally caught up with him. Granted, this wasn’t a first. His professors would often request Tadashi to act a mediator in the past to help new students adjust to their surroundings. His success rate: 101%

But not this time. This time, Tadashi wasn’t sure he could do what his professor wanted. He knew no one could live out their entire lives without going over some social speed bumps. He never had to, but the heavens must have decided enough was enough. Now, he was getting his due punishment.

When he recovered, Tadashi tried to protest against this decision. He wanted to convince Callaghan that it wasn’t a good idea to choose him, but Callaghan didn’t seem to believe him. Callaghan had sought out Tadashi exactly because he so strongly believed him to be the best man for the job. He wouldn’t change his mind just because Tadashi had a few objections. To him, they probably sounded like natural modesty.

In the end, Callaghan gave his young student a sympathetic look.

“I understand how you feel, Tadashi. I know you’re not used to failure, with how bright you are. But that’s exactly why you should try. Aren’t you always saying that it’s good to challenge yourself?” He laid a trusting hand on Tadashi’s shoulder and gave him a warm, encouraging smile. “I won’t say it’d be easy. But after some time, maybe you’ll find it in you to like each other” - He winked - “A bit.”

Tadashi, suddenly tired, thought then of what an optimist his teacher was. If Tadashi could manage to have a decent conversation with San, he would’ve been grateful enough. Any prospect beyond that seemed as unimaginable as Fred suddenly declaring he got rid of his precious comic collection.

Under his guidance, Tadashi had discovered that Robert I. Callaghan was a deeply caring man. Unlike some, he truly, really cared for his students and their well-being. His request was well-intended, but Tadashi couldn’t help but detect a personal side to it as well. The man had great trust in Tadashi. The question was, perhaps, was Tadashi prepared? Was he afraid of letting his mentor down? Or was he simply afraid that he would let himself down?

“Alright.” He said, giving in though not feeling entirely confident. “I’ll do it.”

Callaghan beamed and patted his student’s back proudly. “That’s the spirit! Go back to your studies now. Thank you for your time.”

Tadashi only smiled nervously at his professor, appreciative of his concern. What a day indeed to have this suddenly shoved on him. “One more thing, Professor.” -He said - “Does San know?”

“No. But she will. Soon enough.” - Callaghan replied.

Tadashi innerly winced. He had this odd foreboding feeling that this piece of news, at least, was not going to be well-received by the other party, if Tadashi’s own misgivings were any indication. San may be reserved around him, but if she was displeased, there was only two things Tadashi could conclude from this whole affair. First, no reputation is ever good reputation. Second. He. Was. Doomed!

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