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Croatian Rhapsody

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If anyone thought that somebody stacked a dozen books on a desk in Hope’s Peak’s library and abandoned them there, they would be wrong but the mistake would be understandable. Behind the barricade of books lay Touko Fukawa, her shoulders hunched as she scribbled in a small purple notebook. Her pen nib scratched against paper, paving a story word by word. The world around her faded away within the first few sentences, and all that mattered now was the fictional girl made of thoughts, paper and ink who recently transferred to a new school.

Much like Touko, herself.

While she had her own dorm here, where she could work and exist as she pleased, for her current project, she wanted to draw from her surroundings. For example, as she left her dorm, her eyes darted about the narrow corridors, where the cream flooring was polished so much that she could see her blurred reflection in it, and she noted the slight resistance from the wooden stair rail as she descended to the ground floor. Once outside, Touko listened to the hum of school life under a sky with clouds boasting grey stomachs, and she remembered the lazy tumble of an empty packet of crisps as she crossed a courtyard.

The library emitted a rich, booky smell, a blend of glue and aged must, with old books intermingling with newer ones, an aroma that Touko’s dorm hadn’t yet acquired since she moved in two weeks prior. In her pursusal of the library, she found books long out-of-print. When taking into account that the academy had been established hundreds of years old, that was to be expected. On opening a few books, just curious about their age, she discovered yellowing checkout cards, and she suspected several stamps had been pressed into them for people no longer alive, rotting in the ground somewhere.

Yes, Touko had been called morbid. A lot. One nickname of hers was ‘zombie’, and then there were others like ‘ugly’, ‘weird girl’, ‘four eyes’ and ‘Wednesday Addams’. However, at that moment, Touko existed only as a vessel for the character in her current work in progress. The girl was drinking in the sight of the old school building, gripping the handle of a secondhand suitcase that had a wheel that kept sticking, and her mouth hung open, tinged with the bitter tang of fear.

She was about to take the plunge and go inside when she exploded in a cloud of dust, blown away by a single spoken word.

“You.”

That wasn’t said by the girl, or anyone in the book, or even Touko. She jerked her head up at the blunt voice that shoved her out of her zone and placed her back in a dim, musky library.

A male student stared down at her, his lips twisted with disgust, an emotion that Touko was well acquainted with. Narrowed blue eyes watched her from behind a pair of white framed glasses. His hand rested on top of one of the piles of books that she amassed. Even though she wrote fiction, it had to have some basis in reality. She acquired them for research purposes, though one stack consisted of paper folders with notes and plans for this particular story.

Touko tried to swallow as quietly as possible.

“Can’t you see I’m busy?” she asked tightly.

“You’re certainly doing something,” he said. He craned his neck, trying to see into her notebook, and wrinkled his nose. “Are you writing one of your romances?”

She wrenched her notebook toward herself and hugged it against her chest.

“W-What’s it to you? Why do you need to know? Do I need a permit to write here?” she snapped.

He clucked his tongue.

“That sure is a persecution complex you’ve got there. You’re giving yourself too much credit. You enrolled as a high school literary girl, and as an avid reader, and because you happen to be here, I thought I would investigate,” he said.

“Investigate?” She raised in pitch. “What are you, a detective?”

“That’s a side hobby for me. I’ve even solved a few cold cases,” he told her. Touko eyed him, trying to place where she had seen him before, because she was fairly sure she had somewhere. He turned his head to one side but kept his gaze on her.

A few seconds passed, then it clicked.

“You sit in front of me in class,” she announced. Yes. She recognised his blond hair from the one day she went to class. They weren’t compulsory, and she was a genius, so she preferred to spend that time writing instead.

If she could help it, she kept her eyes down in class, but she had to look up occasionally, and with him right there, glimpsing him was inevitable, though she usually only saw the back of his head. And, of course, she saw his face while researching her classmates prior to starting at the academy, but after reading his title, Super High School Level Heir, she hadn’t lingered on him for much longer.

“The answer to a question I didn’t ask,” he remarked coldly. Up to this point, he hadn’t taken his hand off the pile of books, but he did now, pushing up his glasses that hadn’t slipped at all far down his slender nose.

He folded his arms over his chest and regarded her again.

“As I’m sure you have as well, I researched my classmates before coming here,” said Byakuya, and she shoved her thumb against her gritted teeth.

She just thought about that - she needed to make her face harder to read, but she couldn’t stop clenching her jaw and scowling.

“When I saw your title, I was interested to see what sort of things you wrote,” he continued. “For you to have been handpicked by Hope’s Peak, you must have talent at it. Imagine my disappointment when I saw your bibliography comprised of romance novels...”

Heat rose to her face and she balled her hands into fists.

“What, do you think an ugly fatty like me can’t write about romance?” she snarled. He didn’t even flinch.

“That’s irrelevant. Romance in real life is repulsive, and I can’t see why anyone would want to read about it,” he said.

Touko bristled. The nerve of this guy! She was ugly, smelly and a bunch of derogatory terms, but to dismiss her livelihood... she wouldn’t stand for it. For a while, she couldn’t even muster up any words, and she could only see white hot anger.

Finally, she looked up and said, “How-?”

He was gone. Touko choked on her saliva and tried to return to her writing, but her narrative came out stilted, repetitive. She gripped her pen tighter and screamed in her head, not with words but filling herself with an internal prolonged, frustrated wail. Even when she stopped attempting to think what to write next, a fizzling sound still ate away at her.

A stubbornly long time later, she slammed down her pen. The nerve! Touko left the library books where they were - she knew librarians preferred putting books away than having visitors try to. She collected her folders and stormed out of the library, her skirt swishing wildly.

Despite the fluorescent lighting in the corridors, night fell some time ago, but she didn’t have a curfew or anything to obey. If she wanted to be out past ten o’clock, then so be it. As she blitzed through various corridors, tinted various colours by the lighting depending on the area of the school, the few people straying around her had sense to avoid her.

When she entered her dorm, she let the door swing shut with a bang, and she tossed her folders onto a small round table. She stood still, gripping her hair, and her ragged breathing eventually tired her out. The room speckled in her exhaustion, and her limbs weighed down as she sauntered to her bed. Not bothering to take her uniform off, she flopped forward onto her mattress and whined into her pillow.

What a pomposh, self-important fool! He must have felt so smug, leering at her and taunting her about what she wrote. Just because he was rich and handsome, he thought that made him better than everyone else, but he couldn’t fool her. Touko had met too many handsome men and they all turned out to be vile. They pinned love confessions onto noticeboards, asked her out on dates on dares or told her that she was more mature than her classmates, after class when everyone else had gone home.

Yes, they were the same as each other, and in her experience, ended up dead.

Touko fell asleep, thinking of comebacks and retorts that she should have said at the time. In the morning, she woke up early for once. Rather than sleep in, she heaved herself out of bed, sprayed herself in cheap body spray instead of taking a shower, and she gathered her things for the day. As soon as she saw Byakuya, she would slice him to pieces with her tongue, brandishing her arguments and superior intelligence. After all, she was intelligent, and him? He was just an heir, which required no work, no extra effort. Just rich parents.

Yes, as soon as she got her notebook containing her novel, she would...

... she sorted through her folders...

... as soon...

She stopped.

Then wailed.

It wasn’t here. Her notebook wasn’t here. Touko must have left it at the library the previous night, and it was all Byakuya’s fault because he flustered her so much. She ran out of her dorm, her school bag thrashing against her as she sped over to the library, ignoring the concerned looks aimed her way.

When she arrived, she could barely breathe, not just because she was so unfit, not just because she was so out of breath, but because that notebook held her precious story. Panting loudly, she checked where she had been stationed the previous night. The books had been reshelved, but her own notebook was nowhere to be seen.

“Did you see a notebook here last night?” Touko asked the librarian, who had cautiously drawn closer upon seeing Touko burst in.

“No, sorry. Everything I put away belonged to the library,” said the woman. She tilted her head to one side, looking upward in thought. “The only person who has been here since after you left and before I tidied up was that Togami boy who comes here a lot. He left after you yesterday.”

Him! Touko growled and without bothering to say her thanks, she left the library, heading toward their homeroom. As usual, she had skipped breakfast, but her stomach had hardened rock solid so she didn’t feel hungry.

She opened the door forcefully and looked inside. No one else was here yet, not even the student attending for being an elite public morals committee member. Classes weren’t compulsory, but Touko didn’t know the location of Byakuya’s dorm, and in this sort of mood, she wouldn’t be able to concentrate on her writing anyway, so she stomped over to her desk in the back corner of the room and flumped down on her chair.

Five minutes later, Kiyotaka arrived, his shirt tucked in, tidy as an esteemed committee member should be. He took a few steps before noticing Touko and hesitated, then raised a hand.

“Good morning, Fukawa-kun!” he called out.

She glanced at him. To her dismay, he stared, expecting a greeting back. How bothersome.

“It’s nice that you’ve decided to attend today,” he added, breaking into a wide grin.

“I can’t say the same back,” she said. His face fell, and he left her alone now.

A few more students spilled into the classroom soon after, such as a girl who wore a paperclip in her hair and seemed to bounce as she walked. She approached Touko with a donut bundled in kitchen tissue, and she had the audacity to put it on Touko’s desk.

“What is this?” asked Touko, turning up her nose at it.

“I’m Aoi Asahina,” chirped the girl, and she cupped the back of her neck. “I, um, thought... you might get hungry, so...”

Touko cringed. “I don’t want... your bribery!”

“What? It’s not bribery,” said Aoi, adopting a frown. “I noticed you never come to the cafeteria in the morning, so thought I’d get you something. I was wondering if we could be friends.”

Exactly. Bribery.

“You can’t fool me. Leave me alone!” Touko sneered. “You probably hid razor blades in it.”

Like those girls in her middle school had done with a cake.

“That’s horrible!” Aoi said, widening her eyes. “I would never...”

But Touko had learned otherwise.

“You... You big-boobed piece of beef jerky!” Touko twisted her body away from Aoi. “Go away. Moo-ve away from me!”

Aoi gasped and then stalked off to her desk with a huff, as Touko intended, leaving the donut behind, not so much intended. More people arrived after. A girl with long blue hair and skin as smooth as a doll’s, walking in with a boy with brown messy hair. A girl with violet hair and a small braid on her left side, the headmaster’s daughter. Every time the door opened, Touko peeked up, and upon seeing that they weren’t Byakuya, she would lower her gaze again.

With five minutes to spare, the door opened, and this time, when Touko perked up her head, the sight of Byakuya greeted her. She tracked him as he strode over to his desk, wearing a dark brown shoulder bag that cost more than it should, and as soon as he slid onto his chair, she spoke up.

“You. Togami,” she said.

He gave a hum, and she thought for a moment that he wouldn’t even bother looking at her, but then he turned around and held out a small purple notebook.

Her notebook.

“You thief!” Touko hissed as she snatched it back.

Byakuya blinked calmly and made no attempt to stop her or steal it back.

“You left it behind in your haste last night. That’s your fault,” he said.

She glared at him. He retracted his hand and pushed up his glasses.

“I planned to return it to you after classes today, but you saved me the effort of chasing you down by coming here,” he added. “Which I thank you for, because I have better things to do. A lot of them.”

“L-Like what?” she jeered. “Smelling your own farts? Getting everything handed to you?”

For the first time, emotion flickered in his eyes. An ignition, a spark, a flame within a case of ice. His nostrils flared.

“Is that what you think of me?” he asked sharply. “That I am someone who has not had to work to get to where I am?”

Her heart beated faster, but she didn’t pay heed to its warning, to its plea that she back down against someone raising their voice, even slightly.

“An heir is born,” she said, digging her nails into her palms. She could feel herself shaking.

“Usually, but not in my case,” he said, trying to keep his tone even, but annoyance made the baseline crumble a bit. Still, he lowered his voice, so Touko could breathe easier. “I had to compete against my siblings to become the sole heir. I, the youngest child, battling against people who in cases were decades older than me, had to prove myself... to everyone. They thought I would lose, but my hard work, intelligence and cunning made me victorious.”

The way he talked about it made it sound like some kind of competition. She bit her lip, not knowing what to say. What to think.

He saved her the trouble.

“By the way, I read what you wrote in there,” he said casually, pointing at her notebook.

Touko twitched. “You what?” she squawked.

She could have bitten his head off. Reading one of her works in progress...! Without permission...! He may as well have read her thoughts, or peeped in on her while she showered or got undressed.

“I have said that I abhor romance, as a genre and I object to it in life too, but you have a reputation,” he told her. “One of your books made fishermen popular with young women, and another with butlers. Pennyworth couldn’t leave the house with me without being inundated with admirers for months.”

He inclined his head, very slightly, not breaking eye contact.

“I admit I have read some of your works prior to enrolling, and this story here... You have not just talent, but an almost magical way with words. A gift. You could accomplish great things if you didn’t waste your time on a subject like romance. I don’t know why you’re throwing away your talent on something like that.”

Touko processed what he said and jolted with a spike of anger. She opened her mouth to retort but at this point, an older adult came in who Touko didn’t recognise as their homeroom teacher. For starters, she remembered their homeroom teacher to be a man.

This woman carried a comically large net over her shoulder that seemed to be holding an actual human being, and she straightened as she spotted Touko.

“Ah, you must be Fukawa-kun!” the teacher said with a smile, like she hadn’t just been caught kidnapping someone. “You saved me the effort of having to go find you.”

Touko ignored her. The teacher didn’t pursue the conversation further and walked over to a desk. She emptied her net there. Indeed, a human being had been in it, a tubby boy clutching a manga with a chibi girl on it that Touko suspected had been used as bait.

After he sat down, the teacher left the room, and conversations popped up again. No one paid attention to the two in the corner. Byakuya stared at her. Touko breathed in, aware that her heart was racing, that her face had grown hot.

He complimented her writing. Yes, he was unkind and a massive jerk, but she knew that he didn’t say that to try to win her over. His only intention was to say the truth. She trusted him... at least for this.

It had been ages since she received a compliment she felt was genuine.

“I’m... I’m not wasting my time,” she said. Her tongue struggled to cooperate, and she didn’t know what had come over her. Words turned into a mass of feathers in her mouth, clumped together by saliva. “Happy people write shallow novels, but the downtrodden, like me, see the world in its full spectrum and can vividly imagine an ideal world, envisioned in true beauty. Romance... is pure. It’s a source of hope and power.”

He grimaced.

“It’s a weakness,” he said. “A weakness to be exploited by others. People betray. Other people can’t be trusted. It infects you, taints your judgment. It’s idiocy.”

Her skin tingled, like grazed by fire. His honesty... burned hot.

“Love... gives you hope,” she said, tensing her shoulders. “It gives you purpose. In a book, even people who are ugly, smelly and stupid can experience it.”

But what he said about it... wasn’t wrong.

“That sounds delusional.” His expression didn’t change, and her heart sank.

They both continued to face each other. Byakuya’s gaze made her skin itch. She fidgeted, and noticing the donut that Aoi left behind, she picked it up and held it out.

“Here. Take this,” she said, not meeting his eyes. “You returned my book... and now we’re even.”

He scoffed.

“I don’t want that thing,” he said. “You could have poisoned it.”

She nearly dropped the donut and ogled him. “I...”

“I’ve survived assassination attempts from people more dangerous than you. I’m not an idiot,” he said. “Don’t think I trust you. I’m constantly on guard, analysing others’ tones of voice, lines of sight, minute changes in expression, posture... No one can be trusted. Not my former siblings, not my father and mother, and certainly not any of you.”

Touko couldn’t take her eyes off him. Earlier, she had seen him as a guy born into this position, with a silver spoon in his mouth and everything and anything given to him. Now, however, she didn’t see a spoiled brat who knew nothing of hardships, but someone who could see the world as she did, who must have seen things, been through things that people their age shouldn’t, that no one should. A coldness existed in his eyes, as cold as the surface of a mirror, as the shiver down her spine when she heard her door back at home creak open in the middle of the night.

But she wasn’t scared, no matter how much she trembled. He didn’t hide behind darkness, not like him. He didn’t hide behind lies, not like them.

Too soon, he faced forward, and something in her chest shifted. She put the donut down. At the front of the class, the teacher from before clapped her hands, having returned without Touko realising.

“We’re all here! Awesome. Right, I’ll be replacing your old homeroom teacher,” she said warmly. “Kizakura-san sends his warmest regards.”

She was replacing a teacher who they could only have had for a few weeks. This teacher wore a white apron over her blue dress. Her orange hair was styled in a ponytail with white ribbon, and her green eyes shone with determination, bright and young - she couldn’t have been that much older than them.

“Alright, so my name is Chisa Yukizome, and I hope to get close to all of you. Now, let’s do roll call,” said their new homeroom teacher, Chisa Yukizome, clasping her hands together.

As she called out names, Touko studied the back of Byakuya’s head. With a small smile and a wringing knot in her chest, she decided she might start attending classes more regularly.