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Croatian Rhapsody

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Autumn could be just as pretty as spring, with its rich blend of red, orange and yellow on the trees and that crunched underfoot. The world boasted leaves ablaze with colour, and while they weren’t gentle cherry blossoms, cute and pink and dainty, they had their charm, their own unique shapes, like those from a ginkgo tree or maple leaves, and if one stopped to admire them, even if just for a minute, they could appreciate their earthy beauty before winter came around again.

When the coach pulled up at the ski resort, snow blanketed the ground underneath a sky almost as white as it. Touko only realised they arrived when the chatter in the coach shifted from a bubbling mess to sharp, excited noise prone to squawks. For most of the journey, Touko had been reading quietly with her holdall travel bag on the seat next to her. Across the aisle to her was Byakuya, who had also spent a lot of the journey reading rather than conversing, holding a small black book that she couldn’t read the cover of because his hand hid most of it from view.

His fingernails were neatly shaped.

“Oh, wow!” Aoi gushed in front of Touko, pressing her face against the window. What she said next came out somewhat muffled. “It’s beautiful.”

It, in this case, referred to the stretch of mountains lining the horizon, looking creased with blue-hued shadows. Next to Aoi, Sakura Oogami smiled. With her large build, usually stern features and title of ‘Super High School Level Fighter’, as well as scars no doubt received from battle, Sakura’s smile as she followed Aoi’s gaze did not set Touko at any ease.

Fortunately, they wouldn’t be sharing a cabin. Touko had been assigned to one with the idol girl, Sayaka Maizono, and a set of twins with different surnames.

“Alright, guys!” said Chisa, standing at the front of the coach in a pink puffer jacket. She had her hands on her hips. “We’re going to check in and then you’ll receive the keys to your cabin. In two hours...”

Chisa threw an arm forward, holding up two fingers.

“... we’ll meet up in the square in the cabin village. We’re all going to try everything at least once. Other than skiing, there’s also an ice rink, and...”

Touko stared out of the window, only half-listening. She had never been skiing, and the one time she went ice skating with her class in her old high school, she had been awful, forced to hang onto the edge as she tottered around while almost everyone else skated around effortlessly. Those who couldn’t skate like Touko had friends to support them, to lead them around so they wouldn’t be left out, and every time they passed Touko, their laughter rang out loudly.

Though Touko couldn’t prove it, she thought their laughter was aimed at her.

Everyone trooped off the coach and followed Chisa to a cabin that housed the reception for checking in. After that, they split into two groups, the guys in their class going with their former homeroom teacher, a man with hay-coloured hair, a silver flask and a lopsided grin, while everyone else trailed after Chisa.

As the class diverged, Touko lingered back to watch the other group leave. Their class contained eight guys, but it may as well have had only one for all the attention she paid. One person, who sat in front of her in classes, who had golden hair and sapphire eyes, who grimaced as he followed after their former homeroom teacher.

“Come on, Fukawa-chan!” Aoi tugged on Touko’s hand, causing her to stumble.

“G-Get off me!” Touko hissed, snatching her hand back, but she fell in line with the others.

In the village, as this area was called, small cabins were affixed either side of a single continuous road, and crossing this road from the entrance led to a wide passageway that opened up to the slopes and buildings hosting various activities. The male students headed left, while the other students walked right.

“This is a cute layout,” remarked Junko Enoshima, whose surname did not match her twin, Mukuro Ikusaba. Touko didn’t know what Junko meant by calling it ‘cute’, but she didn’t care enough to ask. “You know, if I had students coming over to an island for a school trip, I’d totally lay it out like this.”

Mukuro nodded in agreement, which she usually did whenever Junko said something, even though Junko usually said something weird or stupid like that. An idiot fashion girl and her idiot soldier sister, who idolised her and obeyed every order... Touko couldn’t be surprised at their hopelessness.

Chisa handed out a key to everyone. Touko examined hers. Attached to the key was a leather strap with a number on it, corresponding with a number on one of the cabins. In this case, four.

“Meet in the centre in an hour!” Chisa reminded everyone, and their group fractured further as they retreated to their cabins.

Everyone else had to share one, but Chisa had her own to herself. She disappeared into a cabin marked with the number ‘one’ on its door sign plate. The door shut behind her.

“Meet in the centre in an hour,” mimicked Junko, making her hand mime a mouth and sounding remarkably like Chisa. An ugly snort popped out of her.

Sayaka, walking abreast with Junko, turned her head toward her and touched a hand to her cheek.

“Wow, you sounded just like her!” Sayaka said.

Junko grinned and bumped her hip playfully against Sayaka’s, holding up a peace sign with one hand.

“Thanks!” said Junko. “I’ve been practicing!”

Touko pulled a face as she walked behind her three cabin mates. Two nights. She had two nights of this to look forward to.

The cabin that Touko would be keeping her stuff and staying in for the duration of the trip had four beds made up of two bunk beds. They took up a big portion of the room, one bunk bed either side of the door, tucked up against the nearest corners to the entrance. Touko took off her winter boots so she wouldn’t track snow onto the olive green flooring. Underneath the bottom bunks was a large enough space to stow away any suitcases or bags.

“Dibs on bottom!” Junko crowed. She abandoned her suitcase by the door and threw herself onto one of the beds, landing on her front. Then she rolled onto her back and pointed at the bed above her. “Muku-Muku, you go over me!”

“Okay, Junko-chan,” said Mukuro, and she walked over, carrying a black rubbish bag that she had brought her clothes in. Seriously. She set it down and pushed it under the bed.

While those two settled in, Sayaka slapped on a polite smile and turned to Touko.

“What would you rather have? I don’t mind either way,” said Sayaka.

She said that, but that didn’t mean she was telling the truth. Deep down, she probably had a preference. Still, she had given Touko the choice, and no one forced her to do that.

As for Touko, she weighed her options. On one hand, being on the bottom bunk gave her easier access to her bag underneath the bed, but that applied to Sayaka too. Also, she couldn’t sit up properly on the bottom bunk due to how low down the bunk above started. For the other hand, she could sit up straight on the top bunk, but what if her hair draped over the edge by accident, and someone cut it for a prank?

Though, if the bed collapsed in a freak accident, Touko would squash Sayaka, and not the other way around.

“I’ll have top bunk,” said Touko.

The beds had already been made, so until they were due to meet up with the rest of the class, they just had to get ready for today’s outdoor activities and if they so desired, unpack. They were only staying for two nights, so Touko didn’t think she had to take everything out of her bag or use the wardrobe that came with the room. She got out a coat, gloves and waterproof trousers. To put the last item on, she simply slid them on as normal and then pulled her skirt down after, showing more modesty than the other three, who took their skirts off first.

“So, have you guys ever been skiing before?” asked Sayaka as she stuffed her legs into a pair of woolen tights that she would be wearing under trousers.

“Nope!” went Junko, sitting on her bed.

“I have,” said Mukuro, sat on the floor as she laced up her boots.

Sayaka turned to Touko.

“What about you, Fukawa-san?” asked Sayaka.

Touko twitched and spluttered, “O-Of course not!”

“What do you mean of course not?” said Junko, her face puckered in a squint, and Touko squirmed under their accusatory stares which Touko totally didn’t just interpret them as being.

“You... You just want me to admit that I didn’t have friends to take me,” grumbled Touko. “And... s-stop talking to me in your underwear.”

Junko stood up and strutted over to Touko. She bent over and wiggled her shoulders. “Why, are these two distracting you?”

Heat rose to Touko’s face and she slapped her hands over her eyes. Touko heard Junko laugh and peeked out between her fingers just in time to see Junko straighten up.

“Maybe it’s not going to be so dull sharing a cabin with you after all,” mused Junko with a smirk. Nearby, Sayaka shot Touko a sympathetic look that Touko didn’t ask for, and Touko hardened the icy barrier around herself and grabbed a notebook from her bag to write in.

Less than an hour later, everyone gathered in the centre of the village as instructed, and though Touko wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of spending much of the day outside, to the best of the knowledge, skiing was a solo activity, so she would get a break from her pesky cabin mates even if she had to risk ruining her body with exercise to achieve this. She was a writer, not a muscle maniac like Aoi and Sakura. A swimmer and a fighter... what a tiring combination. No wonder they became best friends so quickly, but friends would inevitably fall out over a guy, or something, so it probably wouldn’t last long.

Friendships always fell apart somehow, or what was thought to be a friendship turned out to be a farce.

“Alright, everyone!” Chisa called out. The class continued nattering.  She turned to Kiyotaka, who was standing next to her.

“CAN I HAVE EVERYONE’S ATTENTION?” he shouted. His voice rumbled, and everyone looked at him. He wore a scruffy waterproof jacket and well-worn jogging bottoms. Not the image one would expect from a student attending Hope’s Peak.

Mondo Oowada pushed aside his earmuffs, stuck a finger in his ear and made a screwing motion. Due to the ridiculous size of his pompadour, he couldn’t fit a hat on his head.

“Geez, are you trying to start an avalanche or something?” asked Mondo.

Kiyotaka covered his mouth, like he believed that he could do that. Junko laughed loudly.

“So what’s up, Harry Hand-me-down?” she said, eyes twinkling, smile showing teeth.

Her question made Kiyotaka’s gaze sink to his feet, and he didn’t reply. Most of the class shot dirty looks at her. Mukuro winced.

Chisa was one of those who glanced reproachfully at Junko, but presumably not wanting to draw more attention to it in front of everyone, she beamed and held her hands together. “Thank you, Ishimaru-kun. Okay, class, I want everyone to buddy up for this. Everyone into pairs, please!”

Touko’s insides twisted, and she felt an ache all the way up to her throat. Chisa clapped twice and might as well have sentenced her to death. Forcing them into groups of two was bad enough, but unlike when they were assigned cabins, Chisa gave them the responsibility of forming these pairings by themselves.

Everyone around Touko drifted over to someone else, while Touko picked at her fingers. At previous schools, when this happened, either her teacher noticed or she would have to tell them that she didn’t have a group, and then she would either be put into a group by the teacher or offered the chance to work by herself. When possible, Touko opted for the latter.

In any case, going up to the teacher was a humiliating experience. One time, when her class went bowling, no one wanted Touko in their group, and she had to join her teachers.

She breathed shakily, as much as she could with her cramping chest, and she tried to will herself to embarrass herself in front of everyone by showing how she was a friendless loser. Sooner or later, she would have to.

“Ah, Fukawa-san!” Chisa pointed at her. “You can go together with Togami-kun.”

The tension in Touko intensified for a moment, and she felt a swooping sensation like she had missed a step on a staircase by accident, but as Touko turned to the other person Chisa named, the tension began dissolving.

Byakuya stood away from everyone else, much like her. He had his arms folded over his chest. Initially, he didn’t react, but after several seconds crawled by, he shifted his head, just a little, in acknowledgement.

“Is everyone paired up?” Chisa left a beat, counting everyone. “Excellent. Okay, everyone. Follow me.”

She gestured for them to follow.

They walked through the cabin village to a building where they all lined up to obtain skis and poles. Touko stood by Byakuya, and as they waited to reach the front of the line, she snuck a few looks at him. Each time, he wasn’t paying attention to her, his eyes trained forward, so she allowed her glances to last progressively longer. He barely moved, as if a marble statue painstakingly carved to perfection. Even the furrow in his brow, an undesirable wrinkle on most, added to his seriousness, deliberate but not unwelcome on his features.

“Someone of your upper echelon must have been skiing before,” said Touko.

Small talk. She never did small talk.

“A few times,” he said, still not looking at her.

Touko nodded and fidgeted again.

After everyone had been given their equipment, they made their way to the ski lifts, shuffling along in their skis. Their footsteps had crunched against the snow, and the skis were no different. The skis squeezed Touko’s boots, and she hadn’t totally got used to it by the time she sat down on the lift. Each seat could accommodate two people, and as they had all paired up prior, they sat with the same person.

Her heart thumped in her chest, and she could feel it in her head too as she and Byakuya slowly ascended the mountain. She stared down at her lap, swaying her legs back and forth and twiddling her fingers. Wind whistled into her ears and shocked her face cold.

In a movie or a cliché ridden fanfiction, the ski lift might have malfunctioned, leaving them dangling in the sky for hours. Then, they would be forced into conversation, or used the opportunity as an excuse to sit closer together for warmth. Touko licked her lips slowly. They might, even, after a heartfelt conversation, take each other’s hands and lean in, and -

The ski lift shunted as they arrived at the top of the slope. Byakuya slid off like a human being. She shrieked and fell face first into the snow, and she practically heard the grinding noise that Byakuya made as he rolled his eyes.

“Are you okay, Fukawa-chan?” came a voice that had to belong to Aoi, because she was the only person who called Touko that. Hands pawed at Touko and Touko’s blood ran cold, but before she could scream, or think to scream, she was on her own two feet again.

“That was quite the tumble!” Sayaka said, taking her hands away about the same time that Aoi did. Both of them had dashed over to help Touko up.

“You’re lucky that I’m not reporting you for sexual harassment and inappropriate touching,” growled Touko as she brushed snow off her legs. She spat out some snow.

Aoi creased her brow, but Sayaka just smiled.

“You’ve got a strange sense of humour, Fukawa-san!” said Sayaka brightly, and Touko was so taken aback that she couldn’t come up with a retort before Chisa addressed everyone.

“All right, everyone.” Chisa waved her arm. “Stay with your buddy and remember, french fries and pizza!”

She adopted the first stance, keeping her skis parallel to each other.

“French fries help you go faster, and point you in the right direction,” she explained.

Next, she pointed the toes of her skis inward, forming a wedge shape.

“Pizza helps you control your speed. The bigger the pizza, the more friction and the faster you’ll stop, but pizza too much too quickly and you’ll fall down!” Chisa positioned her skis parallel again and added, “Try to angle the pizza to the side. Oh, and don’t stare too much at your feet.”

Yasuhiro held his stomach and pouted. “I could do with some pizza and french fries...”

Something so idiotic was to be expected from a guy like him. For the first time since she met him, he wore boots instead of sandals, his arms through his jacket sleeves instead of on his shoulders, and he didn’t have that crystal ball of his out that he used when he tried to coax classmates into buying fortune readings for extortionate prices.

Also, he wore a bobble hat, only possible because he tied his dreadlocks into a ponytail rather than have them stick out of his head like the rays of the Sun in a child’s drawing, and she thought he looked stupid in it.

“We all know how to ski,” said Leon, unaware of Touko desperately making mental notes on what Chisa said.

Sure, Touko had done some research, but reading was one thing. Actually skiing meant something else entirely.

Leon grinned at Sayaka and cocked his thumb toward himself. “Hey, Sayaka-chan, make sure you watch me go down! I’m going to the advanced slopes.”

His shock of red hair would be hard to miss, and when he spoke, he tried to show off his tongue piercing as much as he could. He was the kind of guy who would add breasts to a snowman and with his baseball talent, fling snowballs at his classmates at an alarming rate.

“I’ll keep my eye out,” Sayaka promised him politely.

Chisa nodded at everyone.

“If you’re a beginner, you can go to the bunny slopes,” she informed them all. “Otherwise, feel free to check out the bigger slopes. Just stay with your partner at all times. Remember, you have to look after each other, or else I’ll handcuff you both together!”

She laughed heartily, but Touko couldn’t tell if she meant that last part as a joke or not. And with that, the class split up.

Without asking Touko which slope she would prefer, Byakuya headed toward a steep incline. It wasn’t the steepest one there, but it wasn’t flat, so that made it steep. Too steep.

“Don’t stray far behind,” Byakuya said, and to Touko’s horror, he bent his legs and readied his poles, like he intended them to ski down it. “I don’t care to hear Yukizome nag me about you.”

“B-But...” Touko stammered, but Byakuya took off down the slope, not looking back. He made it seem so easy. So effortless.

Touko didn’t chase after him. Endangering herself wasn’t worth staying off the bad side of a classmate. Even if said person spoke with such spine-chilling authority... and those crystal blue eyes of his... could pierce her heart and leave her weak at the knees... and -

“Fukawa-chan!”

The sound of Aoi’s voice made Touko jump, and the thought of having to socialise spurred her on. Endangering herself it was then. Touko’s skis rasped against the snow like a knife being sharpened as she pushed herself forward. She started down the slope and shrieked as she sped along, the mountain air whipping her face.

If she continued screaming, she didn’t know, because the rush of wind was louder. Her surroundings blurred past her, so even though Touko’s goggles kept her glasses in place, she could still barely see. Last time she lost her glasses, her mothers hadn’t been pleased, and Touko had to be their maid or else they would tell her father about it, they had threatened.

Touko tried to clench her jaw shut. The world jumbled together into a white mess with tree trunk brown streaks zipping through it. On the websites that she studied beforehand, some people described the sensation as flying, just without the danger of leaving the ground. However, rather than a bird, she felt like a fly trapped in a glass and that she was hitting against it over and over again.

Remembering Chisa’s advice, she tried to position her skis into a pizza shape. It was a beginner’s move, but one easier said than done. She tried, straining, focusing on her body, not her surroundings...

... which explained why she drove straight into the back of Byakuya.

In a story or a tv show, the scene might have cut there, to spare the watchers secondhand embarrassment from the spectacle. Unfortunately, this was real life, and Touko could not skip past how they both tumbled, losing various articles along the way, and finally stopped with their limbs tangled together.

For a while, neither of them moved, and Touko would have stayed down for longer had Byakuya not groaned and started wiggling.

“What the hell?” he said, slurring his words a little. His head rocked side to side as he raised it. He regained more thought capability and mustered up a sharp, “Get off me!”

Touko scrambled away from him. Her head throbbed. Her whole body throbbed.

“I’m sorry!” she squeaked, struggling to hear herself over the sound of white noise in her head. She didn’t have her poles anymore. Or her hat. Thankfully, she still had her glasses, though she could barely discern him because her head spun so much.

At least there was no blood. All she could taste was bile.

Her heart thrashed as she wrung her hands together, shaking them pleadingly at him. She couldn’t stop her teeth chattering, or the tremors in her body. “P-Please... d-don’t hit me! Or... let me get ready first... get in the right state of mind...”

Like let her imagine a dimly lit bedroom with candle, in the company of a man with a blank face.

“I’m not a barbarian,” said Byakuya as coldly as the snow around them. He clicked with his tongue and huffed. “Of all the people that I could have been paired with...”

Touko hugged her legs to her chest.

“We were the spares,” she said quietly.

Byakuya didn’t reply.

Her eyes burned more than they had when against the wind. She slumped her shoulders and choked on her words, holding herself tighter.

“I said that I couldn’t ski,” she mumbled, sniffling. “I said. T-They all probably booked this whole trip to highlight this and make a fool of me...”

And it worked. Byakuya pursed his lips.

“You’re not so important that this trip would be staged for you,” he told her, no longer struggling to speak. “Also, skiing isn’t really that important of a skill.

The rock hardness in Touko’s head cracked. Her face relaxed slightly, and she stared over at him.

Was he... trying to comfort her?

He stood up, shaking a bit, but otherwise seemed okay. Touko stayed cushioned n the snow and buried her fingers in her hair, retreating back into herself.

“I’m an idiot. An ugly, worthless idiot with no redeeming qualities,” she said, scrunching her eyes shut. “I’m too stupid to ski... not even someone like Togami could teach me...”

She felt her walls close in, surrounding her in an isolating darkness where she could only hear her own ragged breathing, her own taunting thoughts.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” said Byakuya sharply, and she flinched.

Her prison shattered. In the space of a few seconds, she had forgotten that he was still here.

He quirked his brow. “Are you challenging me?”

Touko cringed.

“No, I...”

“Because I could teach you to ski,” he said, and he cupped his chin. “Yes... even someone like you... could become competent if you were under my teaching.”

She blinked.

“... Eh?” she went.

“Come with me.”

Like when he hurtled down the slopes, he took off without her, only much slower this time and in the opposite direction, waddling up the slope most likely to retrieve their discarded belongings. Touko crawled, staggering to her feet, and followed after him, bewildered. At least obeying orders didn’t involve much thinking on her part.


 

Half an hour later, they commenced Touko’s first skiing session on the bunny slopes where they didn’t see anyone they recognised, though goggles, hats and bulky coats would help disguise them. Of their whole class, the only person they would be able to spot at a distance was Celes, a gothic gambler who always wore a loita dress.

Touko slid her skis back and forth but didn’t stray from her spot, just like Byakuya told her. The bunny slopes were almost horizontal, so she didn’t have to worry about zooming down into oblivion.

Still, she wobbled, and still, she bit on her chapped lips as she tried not to fall down. Their crash earlier hadn’t done any lasting damage, so there was that, at least. Her shaking was only caused by inexperience, not nerve damage.

“Touch your toes,” said Byakuya, in front of her.

She had to bend her knees, but she managed.

“Walk sideways.”

Touko did.

“In a circle.”

That too.

“Try walking.”

And that.

“Slide more,” he told her. “Use your poles for balance.”

Touko hesitated. Byakuya jutted out his chin and folded his arms over his chest, and with a start, she did as he commanded, maneuvering around slowly. He stood still and watched as she familiarised herself with what to do. She caught a glimpse of his face. His mouth curved faintly, slanting downward at the ends, and his goggles obscured his eyes. Her heart skipped and she turned her head away.

Under his guidance, she learned to ski at a competent level, and once he was satisfied with her progress, he grabbed his poles.

“Let’s try a slope,” he said. “Walk up it sideways. Don’t rush.”

Byakuya demonstrated, and she copied him, waddling The slope wasn’t long, maybe ten metres in length, with a flat surface at the top and at the bottom. He reached the top first, but she wasn’t far behind, and he turned himself around so he faced down the slope.

“Get into position. Don’t be passive. Angle yourself slightly forward. Flex your ankles, and your knees and your pelvis. Hold your hands away from the body at about hip level with your elbows slightly bent.”

She arranged herself as such and sucked in her cheeks. From up here, the slope looked higher than the impression she got at the bottom. But it wasn’t neverending like the previous slope. This one wouldn’t kill her. It shouldn’t.

“Good,” he said with a nod. “Now, ski down. You won’t have the chance to go particularly fast, so don’t worry.”

He told her not to worry! And he said that she had been ‘good’! Touko blushed and pushed herself forward with the poles. She glided down the slope. Like he claimed, she didn’t increase her speed to the same extent as before, and at the bottom, she successfully slowed to a stop with the use of the pizza stance.

Moments later, he skidded to a standstill beside her.

“Do it again,” said Byakuya. “Do it until you’re bored. Until you don’t have to think.”

She straightened sharply.

“Y-Yes, Togami-kun!” Touko said, and she hoisted herself back up the slope.

After the first half a dozen descents, she stopped counting how many times she skied down that slope. Just as Byakuya wanted, she found that she could ski without having to think too much about it. Her body went through all the right motions. That meant her mind could drift and ponder other matters, like her current novel about a girl starting at a new high school. Recently, the protagonist noticed another student who frequented the library, a tall, lean guy who came from a wealthy family but carried a dark secret.

Touko arrived at the bottom of the slope, and she had started climbing up again when they heard someone call out to them.

“There you are!” Chisa said, running over without her skis on. She stopped nearby and waved her arm. “Everyone is having hot chocolate, and then we’ll be skating after! Come on.”

Byakuya propelled himself over, while Touko stayed where she was.

“Is it that time already?” asked Touko with a flutter in her chest. It hadn’t felt like that long.

“Yuh huh. You must have lost track of time,” said Chisa, smiling. Touko stole a glance at Byakuya and smirked.

“I must have,” Touko said.

The class spent twenty more minutes relaxing after Touko and Byakuya arrived, sitting at tables in a cabin with horizontal panelling on the walls and polished wooden furnishing beneath their feet. A fire blazed, and some of them had dragged furniture over so they could sit near it, others reposing on rugs. Voices filled the cabin with noise, chatter and laughter, which Touko didn’t share in. Byakuya was the only one sat away from everyone else, reading the same book that he had on the drive over. This time, though, she could see the title - ‘Out’. As for her, she stood up with a mug of hot chocolate, positioned near his table. He didn’t tell her to go away, so she didn’t, and he didn’t tell her to stop looking at him, so she didn’t.

After everyone finished their beverages, they all headed over to an outdoor ice rink. As Touko put on her skates, she found herself missing the skis. Skates felt a lot more precarious.

Laced up, she hobbled after the others onto the ice. They spread out. Sayaka skated effortlessly, holding Makoto’s hand while he grinned, but his twitches betrayed his nerves. Mukuro skated laps, and every time she charged past Touko, even with the space between them, Touko cowered against the rail surrounding the rink.

When skiing, everyone had been separated, so no one but Byakuya had been witness to her inexperience. Here, in this confined space, outdoor though it was, she couldn’t hide from their beady eyes, but then she also discovered she wasn’t the only person who lacked confidence on the ice. Hifumi, Yasuhiro and Celes remained close to the rail, and Kiyotaka did too until Mondo grabbed his arm and pulled him away.

“W-What are you doing?” squawked Kiyotaka.

“Loosen up, you dork,” said Mondo with a smirk. “I’m gonna teach you to have fun.”

Nearby, Chihiro stayed in Sakura and Aoi’s care. Chihiro’s movements started stiff as they let the other two do most of the work, but as they got more used to the ice, Chihiro smiled more with that face that got them so much attention from admirers online. Even if they couldn’t programme computers as expertly as they did, their meek personality and resemblance to a bunny rabbit would still obtain them a following.

They weren’t Touko’s type at all, however, so she turned her attention elsewhere quite soon. To Touko’s surprise, Byakuya didn’t skate. He leaned against the rail with his back to it, watching the others. Touko skated around a few times at a snail’s pace, never letting go of the rail except to tread around him, and Byakuya barely moved in that whole time, his arms folded over his chest. Occasionally, he budged along, but he never went far from the rail.

In fact, he never lost contact with it. She had thought that after their collision,they had both just about recovered, but on the ice, he barely stirred, just watch.

By the end of the hour, everyone had grown tired and got off the ice. Byakuya would have been the penultimate one to do so, and she the last. Touko was on the other side of the rink to him when she noticed him march slowly toward the gate, and she reached out a hand.

“T-Togami-kun!” she called out.

He hesitated, standing in the exit, and turned. She tried to stride over to him, but halfway there, felt herself losing her balance. Try as she did, she was suspended between two possibilities, either teetering indefinitely and falling, and the inevitable could only be put off for so long.

And so she braced herself, and let herself fall.

Only, she didn’t hit the ice like she expected.

Touko slumped into something hard, but padded. Opening her eyes, she realised she landed in Byakuya’s arms, her face squashed against his chest.

Her mouth opened, but she could only vocalise what was best described as a mix between static and gargling.

“Do you not know how to walk?” he snapped. He grabbed her arms and set herself upright.

She peered up at him, bottom lip quivering.

“You saved me,” she said breathlessly, her cheeks tingling, and she wrapped her arms around herself. Byakuya adjusted his glasses with his eyes averted away from her.

“I ought to have let you fall. It might have taught you a lesson,” Byakuya said. He dusted off his coat and looked at her again. “However... I was assigned to be your partner and I won’t have my reputation tarnished because of your incompetence. Don’t read too into it. I would rather throw myself off a cliff than be handcuffed to the likes of you.”

Too late. Touko already had read into it. They were partners, yes, but that had been for skiing. She didn’t know if that partnership applied here too. Maybe he was mistaken. Maybe he was using it as an excuse.

“Why did you call my name?” he asked, tilting his head to one side. “What do you need me for? It better be important.”

She jerked her head back.

“Oh, I um...” Touko released herself from her hug and kneaded her fingers. Her shoulders hunched up. “I just... I noticed you weren’t skating, and I was worried that it was because I injured you.”

Byakuya raised his eyebrows but swiftly lowered them. He narrowed his eyes.

“You barely weigh anything,” he said in a dull tone. Touko blinked and placed a fist near her mouth.

“Then why weren’t you skating?” she asked him. “Were you too tired?”

He didn’t reply, not looking at her. She continued frowning at him, then realised.

“Can you not skate, Togami-kun?” she said, widening her eyes.

For a second time, he didn’t answer, but the way his eyes flickered and a muscle jumped in his cheek gave him away.

“It’s okay. I can’t either,” she admitted.

Byakuya squared his shoulders and glowered.

“Why should I be able to? It’s a worthless skill,” he said. He nudged up his glasses and turned up his nose, his other hand on his hip. “I have far more important things to do.”

Touko laced her fingers together, peering at him curiously. “Didn’t you ever go with your class?”

Trips to ski resorts seemed like the sort of thing a rich person would do.

“It was only an option on some school trips, one that I didn’t feel like choosing,” he explained. He looked away and surveyed their surroundings.

The afternoon sky had begun ebbing away but to combat the encroaching darkness, lamps around the rink had switched on, beaming brightly all around them, and the lights they emitted glowed on the ice in fuzzy reflections. They were the only two people in the vicinity. Byakuya curled his hands into fists.

“But... it can’t be hard, can it?” he said, more to himself than to her. “If the others can do it, then...”

He took a bold step forward and right away almost overbalanced. Touko yelped, springing into action, and tried to catch him. If he had been going to fall, he probably wouldn’t have had the strength to stop him, but as it was, he managed to stabilise himself. She kept her hands near him, so close to touching him. His face soured.

“The others who couldn’t skate held onto someone,” she pointed out.

Byakuya pinched his lips together in thought. His brows knitted, and she waited with bated breath. Finally, he turned his head toward her and simultaneously grabbed her hand. It sent a shock up her arm, that made her hairs stand on end.

“Let’s go,” he said. She gave a noise that sounded like she had gravel in her mouth. Even so, he kept hold of her hand and set off with her in tow.

They skated around together slowly, first staying near the edge but gradually spiraling toward the centre as they completed more laps, and the whole time, she could barely breathe. Barely believe it. The two of them were actually holding hands. Her, and him, who might shake hands with someone formally, but not hold hands with a classmate. With a girl.

Their skates stroked against the ice with a grinding sound, interspersed with hisses that grew less frequent as more time passed. His grip on her hand was firm, and she clung to him back. The more they skated, the quieter the grinding became, even if only by a little. Slowly but surely, they improved, and though Touko didn’t let go of him, she didn’t hold onto him because she feared toppling over.

By this time in the evening, temperatures dropped compared to the afternoon, but she couldn’t feel that.

“It’s not so difficult this way,” he remarked as they skated around a corner.

“Y-Yes, you’re right,” she said, cheeks flushed with warmth. She couldn’t stop smiling. “I support you... and you support me... we’re a team.”

It didn’t sound right, but it felt right.

After a few more laps, Byakuya led them to the edge and leaned his back against the rail. They let go of each other’s hands. She sidled up to him and clasped her hands together. Hope’s Peak sat in the middle of a city, so one would be lucky to see a handful of stars in the sky, but out in the mountains, they littered the sky. Staring upward, she picked out various constellations, imagining lines between them that when connected, conjured an image of what the constellation was meant to represent.

Byakuya lifted his hand and adjusted his scarf. Touko shivered and hugged herself.

“It’ll be spring soon,” she piped up. “And warmer. Cherry blossoms will decorate all the trees. It’s hard to believe that everything will become colourful again after a period of cold.”

She was babbling. Why was she babbling?

He shifted slightly.

“Yet it does come back,” he said. “The world carries on even after that period of idleness and decay, and it returns just as strong as last time.”

Byakuya’s lips drew into a smirk. That was as close to a smile as he seemed to ever get.

“It’s appropriate that I was born in spring,” he said.

Touko looked to him curiously. “So was I. When is your birthday, Togami-kun?”

“May fifth.”

Children’s Day, formerly known as Boys’ Day. She grinned widely.

“Mine is March third!” she said excitedly. “My birthday is on Girls’ Day, and yours used to be called Boys’ Day.”

“You’re right,” he said, like it was anything but fate. Destiny. “That’s most certainly a coincidence.”

Touko nodded. Byakuya didn’t reply, so they fell silent. He stared into space, and she soon did the same. Beyond the rink were cabins and coned trees scattered about on a blanket of snow that covered the ground as far as they could see. Further away, the number of cabins decreased, but the amount of trees grew larger, though from where she stood, they seemed tiny, even where there were a lot of them in one place.

She rubbed her hands together. The cold air stung her cheeks, but she didn’t feel any rush to go inside any time soon, and apparently neither did Byakuya. Despite how dark it had become, it couldn’t have been very late. Regardless, the night sky unnerved her, even with its pinpricks of stars.

“After spring, it’ll be summer,” she said.

“Indeed.”

“It gets dark later.”

“I’m not scared of the dark.”

“I am.”

Her breathing hitched at what she blurted out on impulse. Byakuya didn’t say anything, and she chanced a look at him. He seemed to be studying the mountains peaking in the far distance. She gazed at him, Byakuya, white night, and her, herself, named winter child.

One thing could be coincidence. But their birthdays, and their names...? This wasn’t a story. This was real life.

“Soon after we became acquainted with each other, you revealed that you assumed that I got my title as heir from merely being born,” said Byakuya all of a sudden.

She stiffened. Yes, she recalled him mentioning having to compete against his siblings to be chosen to be an heir.

“I remember,” she told him, in case he could be prompted to elaborate.

Byakuya stared up at the sky.

“I was pitted against my siblings,” he said. “Biologically, we are only half-siblings. My father supplied sperm, and the most high quality women were elected to be impregnated with it. So, I competed against more than one hundred people in a series of challenges.”

That couldn’t be right.

“O-One hundred?” she repeated.

“Indeed. After every challenge, the losers were killed.”

She gasped.

“Killed?” she choked out. He glanced at her.

“Well, expelled. Cast away. Stripped of their identities.” Byakuya said it like they meant the same thing. Now, as he spoke, he spoke with his gaze on her. “By the end, there were fifteen of us, and I came out top. In order to do that, I had to be intelligent. I had to be strong. I had to be perfect. I could not depend on anyone. I could not allow myself to feel fear. I would become prey if I showed any weakness. I was, and am, in absolute control of my emotions.”

Byakuya revealed this so casually to her. She blinked, at a loss for words for a moment. For as long as she could remember, she had been an only child. At the time of her birth, she had a half-sister, and even though she never got to meet her, she sometimes wondered what it would have been like if her sister survived. Meanwhile, Byakuya had living half-siblings. Many of them, in fact, that he had to purposely eliminate from a competition and send into exile so he wouldn’t share their fate. So he could continue to exist as himself.

“W-What sort of challenges were these?” she asked him, on the verge of biting on her thumb. “What did you have to do?”

He gave her a look that sent a chill down her on this already cold, cold night. She recognised it, especially in the eyes, when she had stared at her reflection after waking up with a new scar on her leg and another murder headlining the local newspapers.

“Whatever it took,” he simply said.

Touko swallowed. “H-How old were you?”

“Fourteen. I trained my whole life for this. It’s what I was created to do... to head the Togami Conglomerate.”

She stared at him, her fingers itching, and before she could lose her confidence, she grabbed his hand in hers and squeezed.

“You... You are more than that, Tog... Byakuya-sama,” she said.

Byakuya tensed, like he wasn’t used to being called that, and wrenched his hand from her and glared. He wiped his hand on his trouser leg and turned away.

“We should go back to the others now,” he said. “I don’t want to be bothered with their questions about where we were, and I have far better things to do than be with you, like anything else.”

Touko identified his hostility. Had felt it herself toward others trying to get close to her. She wanted to tell him about what she had gone through, but the words died in her throat, melted like snow on a hot day. Before she could speak, he had walked off and left the rink, and in time, she left the rink too.

The feel of his gloved hand during their fleeting touch lingered for a while. Even after it faded, Touko could still picture the scene, and she could clearly visualise his eyes that had her spellbound while he spoke to her. Recalling the sight of his eyes made her shudder, like she was outside in the cold with him again. Their image sat with her at her table at dinner, more worthy of her attention than the classmates that gathered around her with their meals, who all looked at each other mystified.

Aoi waved her hand in front of Touko’s vacant gaze.

“Do you think she got a concussion earlier?” asked Aoi.

Celes steepled her hands and smiled. “It would seem that way, hm?”

“You’re all wrong,” said Junko. She shooed Aoi’s hand away and leaned over the table, positioning her face in front of Touko’s.

The eyes that Touko were fixated on lasted a little longer before they mutated, changing shape and colour, as the upper lashes got longer and the irises became less saturated, greyer, but still tinted blue. They gleamed with mirth, like the fire burning in the fireplace.

Eventually, Junko’s eyes hung where Byakuya’s had been.

Touko came back to reality and jolted, nearly falling back off her chair.

“You have feelings for Togami-kun, don’t you?” asked Junko with a grin that Touko couldn’t quite read, different depending on the angle, how the light hit it.

With a jolt, Touko threw her head forward, nearly slamming it into her dinner that she had forgotten what it was until she saw it now and remembered it to be some kind of beef stew, then she sat up, flailed her arms and hissed, “S-Shut up!”

“Aw, that’s cute,” said Sayaka, holding her hands flat against each other and resting her cheek on them, like they were a pillow.

Aoi inclined her head to one side.

“He’s kind of a lemon, though, isn’t he?” said Aoi, and Touko turned her head sharply toward her.

“No, he’s not!” said Touko shrilly.

Celes’s shoulders shook as she laughed delicately behind one hand.

“He is, but then, doesn’t that make them an appropriate match?” asked Celes. “He’s rich too.”

Touko’s eyes darted over to Byakuya.

He didn’t seem to have heard them from across the room, sat by himself, and continued eating without breaking his pace.

“I’m not a gold digger!” Touko pulled on her braids. “U...wu...”

“There’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Sakura chimed in. She rested a hand on Touko’s shoulder and in a kind tone, added, “With work, I think you could be a good coupling.”

“I’m not ashamed!” Touko snapped but she soon broke into a smile, and she didn’t try to shake Sakura’s hand off her. Instead, she placed her palms against her cheeks. Hot. Her face was hot. “Byakuya-sama... and me... huh?”

Touko Togami had a nice ring to it.