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Croatian Rhapsody

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Hope’s Peak Academy sat right in the middle of a large city like the Sun in the solar system, and all the buildings and lots around it were planets or chunks of rock that had been pulled into orbit. However, due to the establishment’s location, light pollution was strongest here so to the naked eye, only the brightest stars could be seen at best, and so Touko wondered what Byakuya was looking at as he faced her dorm window.

Yes, that was right. Byakuya was in her dorm. He visited, voluntarily, and she let him in, voluntarily. Touko stood over by her coffee table and rubbed her wrist. If she had known, she would have tidied first. Stacks of books sat on top of her desk, around her desk, around her bed and crammed into bookcases. They occupied much of her floor, not just a handful but dozens of them, resembling a city with high-rise buildings. When Touko moved out of the house she rented while she attended her previous high school, she had brought her collection of books here with her. Every single one.

Her grip on her skirt increased as she nibbled on her lips. She should have sorted the place out. Spruced it up. Even though she hadn’t totally expected his visit, she still should have made her living arrangements presentable in case she hosted someone as esteemed as him.

Perhaps she should clean now, put on a maid outfit and spit shine his shoes too, but she didn’t know where she would get a maid outfit from. What a disaster.

In her daydreams, she imagined him here, with her, alive and well. At night, in her dreams, she imagined him here, with her, dead.

Byakuya finally turned away from the window, and she roused from her fretting. Even though she had memorised his face, could write every detail about it, to the shade of his blue eyes to the angles of his lips throughout various expressions, at this moment, she couldn’t read him. The best she could describe his countenance was with ‘thoughtful’, but she couldn’t tell what he was thinking except that it wasn’t an amusing thought.

He slowly raised a hand, which held the purple notebook that she gave him to read.

“Touko Fukawa,” he said, and she had to hold herself. Her name rolled in his mouth like a piece of hard candy. Byakuya gave the notebook a small shake.

She glanced at it but locked onto his face as her target, breathing loudly.

“I already knew that you are incredibly talented,” he said, staring back at her. “Even if I abhor romance as a concept and in real life, I would be lying if I said that your skill didn’t exist. However...”

Her panting snuffed out, held in. Suspended. She held her breath.

“... after reading your I-Novel...” Byakuya paused again, to adjust his glasses and choose his words, like taking steps through a pitch black room. “... I realise that your talent is on a whole other level to which I assumed.”

Touko widened her eyes and gasped, tucking her elbows into her sides. He lifted his chin but didn’t break eye contact.

“With your romance novels, you made fishermen more popular with women. You did the same with butlers, with teachers... using words. Reading this I-Novel, based on experiences on your life... stirred in me an emotion,” he told her, and she shivered.

“An... emotion?” she repeated, unable to process any thoughts of her own.

“Yes. It was dark.” His head shifted, and his glasses flashed as he did. “You described everything in vivid detail, and I read all of it in a single sitting. I am not a man that is easily affected by others. I have seen a lot of things that many people would have broken down at.”

He stopped talking. She couldn’t prompt him even if she tried. Her throat had closed up.

“... At the end of the competition to choose which sibling would be the sole heir of the conglomerate, there was a round where fifteen people were chosen,” he said, seeming to change the subject. “Despite my success in previous rounds, I was eliminated. During my research, I uncovered that a sibling had bribed those overseeing the competition and had been taken my spot. So, I found out where it was taking place and donned a disguise. Accompanied by a detective, we went to investigate...”

Touko nodded. She could do that. And her breathing had evened out, just about.

“The final round took place on an island. A challenge would have been set, but before one was given... one of the competitors died.”

His revelation shot a chill up her. She clasped her hands together. From how darkly he said it, the death didn’t sound natural. “Died?”

“Then another... and another,” he carried on. “It became clear that there was at least one murderer on the island. Soon, only a handful remained, and then...”

When he hesitated, his face didn’t contort, but he gritted his teeth and a spasm quivered once in his cheek that he couldn’t control.

“... two of the competitors, twins, set another competitor on fire. After that, a different competitor murdered the twins, and as the burnt competitor lay there, helpless, he attacked her.”

Touko visualised the scene, picturing twins with blue featureless skin, one with pigtails, one with a bob cut, who were cut up with an axe by a bigger blue humanoid. Once they were dead, it reared its head and set its eyes on its prey - a small, blue humanoid. At this point, everything fractured, crumbling away, and her toes curled in her shoes.

“Did... he...?” Touko mumbled.

“Yes. He wasn’t even a Togami by blood, it turned out.” Byakuya glared, not at her, but she felt its intensity, the heat of its glow, and cringed. “Instead, he was the adopted sibling of the competitor that he brutally assaulted, and he had been slotted into the last round of the competition... under my name!”

She flung a hand to her mouth and jolted.

“But...” Her head spun, and she could feel her heartbeat between her ears. “How did he bribe his way in? Surely, the conglomerate boasted such a vast amount of money that they wouldn’t be able to be swayed with money.”

“Exactly.” He folded his arms over his chest. “Apparently, he offered an incredibly rare creature, but I have never seen proof of its existence.”

Touko couldn’t bring herself to dwell or care about this supposed rare creature, at least for the moment.

“What happened next?” asked Touko, wishing this was like a book so she could skip ahead and find out.

And she hated it when people did that.

“Me, the detective and Pennyworth found the imposter as he was in the middle of... that,” said Byakuya. Her stomach knotted. He didn’t give anything away, speaking with an impartial tone, with smooth features. “There was a confrontation, and in the end, Pennyworth killed the imposter. Almost everyone was dead, but I had proven myself, so I shed off my disguise and claimed the right to be heir. Then my mother married my father - for formality’s sake, of course. Outside of public appearances together, they rarely talk unless it has to do with conglomerate business.”

She digested what he told her. The last scene he described played out in her head. Apart from Byakuya, everyone had blue skin, and she pictured him as a young teenager, surrounded by all that carnage, his features hardened as he stood, victorious. As the final image faded out, she swallowed thickly.

“What happened to the girl?” she asked, wringing her hands. “The one her brother assaulted? Or did she...?”

“Survived. The losers are usually expelled, but I decided to keep her around as my secretary. Most people who are sent into exile seem to die unusual deaths, anyway,” he said.

He drew closer to Touko, footsteps muted, movement fluid, and stopped a short distance in front of her. She peered up at him with her mouth hanging ajar.

“You might be wondering... why am I telling you all this?” he said. “It is because, Fukawa, even though I have gone through what I have, your prose still managed to fill me with an inescapable feeling of despair.”

Touko scratched at one end of her lips and wavered. “S-Sorry...?”

But he shook his head.

“I don’t care for an apology. I am praising you. Your writing ability is beyond anything that I have seen before. You could use it for incredible things, yet you waste it on your romance novels.”

At first, her chest had swelled with pride, but as he came to an end, she felt a flicker of offense. She clenched her fists.

“You’re wrong...”

His brow furrowed. “What did you say?”

“I’m not wasting my talent on it,” she said, tensing her shoulders. “My stories... provide escape. A channel. The feelings inside of me... my love... they aren’t a weakness. They are a source of my strength.”

Byakuya was quiet. She maintained her stance. After a while, he angled his body away slightly, opened the notebook, and leafed through it to a certain page.

“Toward the end, you mentioned your shadow,” he said, skimming through the notebook for a certain section. “At first, I thought you were being metaphorical. ‘Some fear what the darkness hides, but for some, that is where we hide. From my nook, I see blond cresses, slender fingers and eyes alive and blue. But where there is light, there must be shadow, so where there is me, there must be her.’ ”

She waited for him to elaborate for her.

“I’ve deduced that you’re referring to me, but who is the ‘her’ that you are referring to?” His eyes flitted from the notebook to her, flinty. “Is it you?”

“No,” Touko snapped, and Byakuya tilted his head a bit in surprise. She realised and softened her gaze, and as she stared up at him, his face hung like a full moon in a bleak sky.

His face glitched. For a moment, he had blood running down from one eye, scissors in his neck, but when she blinked, he returned to normal. Touko’s jaw shuddered, and she imagined her features glitching too. An eye narrowed, red where there should have been hazel-purple, and one end of her lips hiked up in half of a grin. In that moment, her tongue tried to seep out, thick and grotesque.

It didn’t really fill her mouth - that had been her imagination, but something made it harder for her to breathe.

“Byakuya-sama...” She couldn’t look at him anymore. “I...”

This time, he waited for her to elaborate. Touko forced the words out, scrunching up her face.

“... know who Genocider Syo is,” she said.

Silence reigned, and she looked up.

He didn’t react at first, staring, then he absorbed what she said and his eyebrows climbed.

“What?” he said softly.

She hunched her shoulders. Wrapped her arms around herself and squeezed.

“What you read... in that I-Novel... our society... smothered me, until the pressure at my core grew too hot, too dense, and all that emptiness compressed together, until I imploded and out came her.”

Her legs quaked but she didn’t let them buckle. She stayed on her feet, no matter how much the weight in her heart wanted to drag her down, how arms of ghosts extended from the blue carpet and tugged at her. In her vision, Byakuya hung like a floater in her eye, constant and out-of-focus.

“You mean...” His lips rustled, as if he was licking them because his mouth had gone dry, but she wouldn’t, couldn’t look up that high to confirm. “... you’re Genocider Syo?”

Touko winced at the swooping sensation in her gut.

“That name belongs to another personality in me,” explained Touko. Her voice was cracking. "An alter. Sadistic, murderous, assertive.”

“And I’m supposed to believe you, why?” said Byakuya, calm but bordering on a sneer. “Is this a joke?”

If only it could have been a joke, a sick joke in bad taste. Touko trembled as she hitched up her skirt, revealing her leather holster and all the scissors stored within. She passed one to him. He studied it, turning it over in his hands, caressing the metal with his slender fingers, until he finally looked up.

“Anyone who I have started to have feelings for, she has chased them down and murdered,” Touko told him. His face framed her vision and she thought he was so, too beautiful, even with his brow creased like that. “All... All except you.”

“For now,” he said tersely. He glanced at the door.

She grabbed his wrist. His eyes darted back to her.

Neither moved.

“What do you expect me to do?” he said. Touko felt him shift, but he didn’t try to remove himself from her grasp. “Do you think I can give it a kiss and you’ll be all better?”

Her heart skipped at the mention of a kiss, then sank as he finished the rest of his question.

“Since I’ve attended this school, she hasn’t killed anyone. I’ve been able to suppress her,” Touko said, and she increased her grip. “I think, with your help, that I could keep her at bay. N-No one else will die.”

“And you’re sure of that? Hm?” He bared his teeth. “Tell me why I shouldn’t inform the academy? Now that I know your secret, what position does that put me in? You’ve started a timer on my head, and it’s a matter of time until Syo awakens and kills me to silence me. Don’t you see? You let your emotions overcome you and blurted this out. This love of yours blinded you foolishly.”

She twisted her hold on him.

“I... I won’t let her!” she hissed. “If I can be with you... then I won’t let her! You can help me control her.”

Touko screwed up her eyes.

“I’m sure,” she said, shoulders heaving, and she said it again. “I’m sure.”

“But what makes me different to all your other victims?” asked Byakuya, his cool tone in stark contrast to hers.

She couldn’t answer that. Years ago, Syo tried to communicate with Touko using sticky notes left in places she thought Touko would stumble upon quickly. Bedside drawers. Replacing bookmarks. When it became clear that Touko had no interest in talking to her, they petered out.

“Byakuya-sama, you think that my emotions have made me weak, but please, let me prove you wrong. I’ll show you that they are the source of my strength,” said Touko, her face burning fiercely.

He didn’t reply, staring at her. Finally, he smirked and gave a hum, returning the scissors to her.

“Very well. Fukawa... if you think your feelings of love are as strong as you claim, then I would like you to show me,” he said, and her heart gave a leap.

Touko let out a laugh.

“T-Thank you, Byakuya-sama!” Her eyes stung with the threat of tears, but her heart felt lighter than it had for a long time. She jiggled his arm. “Let me show my... my love! Do you want some coffee? A massage? To use me as a footstool?”

His face darkened. He snatched his arm away, and with nothing to hold, she squeezed her hands together.

“Shut up. I didn’t plan on being here long. I have other things to do,” he said.

“Are you going to the library?”

“No. I’m going to my room. I’m going to sleep.”

“What about tomorrow... can we meet up tomorrow?” asked Touko. “Perhaps we could read a book... or see a movie?”

“A movie?” He thrust up his nose in scorn. “Do you mean a romance adapted from some book?”

“No! I hate movie adaptations! What sort of movies do you like?”

“I have a very refined taste. Some of my favourites are what are called cult classics,” he replied. “There is Branded to Kill, Tokyo Drifter...”

She broke into a grin.

“Ah! By Seijun Suzuki?” she said excitedly.

“Yes.” He quirked his brow. “You’ve heard of them then?”

“Of course! I’ve seen both of them. They’re stylised masterpieces! I haven’t seen them,” since that failure of a date, “for a while, but I could go on at length about them.”

Byakuya studied her, considering.

“If you can discuss them as well as you do with books, then... I suppose we could watch one of them together,” he conceded, then added curtly, “Tomorrow. In the AV room. In public.”

Now, he turned to leave. She reached a hand toward him.

“Please don’t tell anyone, Byakuya-sama,” she blurted.

He stopped and looked over his shoulder.

“Who would believe me?” he asked her. “No, I don’t intend to. I don’t wish to taint this school’s image, and by extension, the conglomerate’s image. Besides...”

Byakuya smiled slightly and pushed up his glasses.

“... you’ve intrigued me. I’m not finished with you just yet.”

With that said, he walked the rest of the way over to her door and left. Touko stayed still for a couple of moments, and then shuffled over to her bed. She collapsed onto it, physically exhausted but her mind buzzed, keeping her awake for a while longer.

Could this be a date with Byakuya? Even after she told him her secret? Despite the excitement bubbling in her, she eventually fell asleep. This time, when she dreamed, he didn’t die. They smiled and held each other’s faces, and then...! Then...!

When she woke up, early daylight poured in through the window, and she was alone.

But she didn’t feel alone anymore.

That had been her only good night for a long, long time.