Sakazaki Yuuya has always insisted on his own appeal. I simply cannot help being beautiful, mon ami, he told Shuu once; the ladies cannot bear to look away, and yet he has never held any particular interest for Shuu. He has only ever been colourless, like all the others who pass through the infirmary, existing entirely in shades of lifeless grey -- and over a span of many years, Shuu has found, it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish one shade of grey from another.
Like this, though, open on the table, his essence on Shuu's wings and his viscera spilling forth at the scalpel-cut edges of his skin -- like this, he glitters.
He was, perhaps, a compelling adversary to a point -- competent enough to keep Shuu diverted for a time. Not competent enough, in the end, to win. It is not without some satisfaction that Shuu guts him, neatly and efficiently, his feet sawn away and his scalded body plucked clean of all its feathers. What cannot be used, he piles into a plastic liner, like the waste it is; it will burn as easily as the rest of Sakazaki will cook. There is red everywhere. All of the blood that has been drained from Sakazaki's body has washed the table and the floor; his heart and his liver, inert in their metal dishes, are still bloodstained and shining. He is infinitely more compelling now, like this, than he has ever been before. It is almost a shame that he will have to be given away.
Later, mopping up the blood from the table and the floor (it comes away grey on the wet cloth, as though all the colour is being washed away from the world), he wonders whether she will guess. He pictures her unwrapping the package he will send, lifting the raw flesh to her lips and biting; he imagines Sakazaki's blood running in rivulets down over her fingers and her chin, smearing her lips and her cheeks. He has no idea, in his imaginings, whether she knows what she is eating or whether she does not.
It is, of course, pure self-indulgence. Even if he had not already drained all of Sakazaki's blood, he would still have to cook him before sending him on; even Tousaka will not be oblivious enough to eat raw flesh, and he cannot let himself think that she would eat it knowingly. He has no evidence on which to base the hypothesis. It would be an unspeakable leap of logic to make.
He lets the ruined cloth fall into the plastic liner; it lands atop the wreckage of Sakazaki's body with a splat. For all it may be pointless conjecture, it certainly makes a pleasing thought.
It was her hair that caught his eye, before anything else. He could not have failed to miss it; in a world like a greyscale photograph it caught his eye like a red flag. Certainly there were splashes of colour around the school -- red ink on failed tests fallen from schoolbags, red ribbons in girls' hair, the occasional reddish-brown sheen on an otherwise unremarkable feather -- but nothing so startling, so striking, as Tousaka Hiyoko's hair. Shuu had not thought that nature could produce hair in such a shade -- in a shade of red bright enough that even he could perceive it.
She was not, otherwise, a particularly striking girl. Muscular, certainly, and he had heard enough of her crowing to her friends in the corridors about her hunter-gatherer heritage to recognise that she had earned them, but he had also seen more than enough of her racing that feather-brained Okosan around the track to be entirely convinced that she had nothing better to do with them now than waste them. Tall, too -- taller than even the tallest of her avian peers, so that no matter where he saw her, he could not help but see her. Unremarkable by what he knew of human standards, and certainly not beautiful by the standard that prevailed within the school, and yet Shuu could not bring himself to look away.
Not, of course, that she noticed. The question of whether they never do notice or whether he is simply plagued by the terminally oblivious is not a question he has yet been able to answer.
On the first day of the new school year, she came to the infirmary in search of her friend; he caught her by surprise as she peered into his cabinet, frowning over the bottles in their neat alphabetical rows. He was, he thinks, the very soul of inhospitable politeness. She left quickly anyway, her blush shading her cheeks a darker grey as she turned toward the door -- but she came back only a few days later, telling Sakazaki that she had signed up to the infirmary staff, asking to be trained. He still wonders what drew her back; he still wonders, when he is particularly distracted, what she might have seen in him.
She comes to see him on the last day of the semester, only a week after he has stored what remains of Sakazaki safely in the freezer below the infirmary, asking whether he will require her presence over the break. "There's nothing I could do to help?" she asks, rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet in the doorway, her hair all in tangles; she has been out running with Okosan again. He knows this because he has been watching her through the window, making his last checks over the papers Sakazaki disturbed in his desk, unable to keep his gaze from the track for too long. There is nothing to her -- nothing but the colour of her hair and a kind of persistence which must be born of stupidity. He is beginning to wish that the accident had taken his capacity to perceive colour at all, if only so that his capacity to be distracted like this could have deserted him, too.
"No," he tells her, short and sharp. "Was there anything else?"
Her mouth twists as she considers the question; that she feels the need to consider it at all only tells him that he was not dismissive enough in asking. "Well," she says at last, "I heard that sometimes students disappear after coming in here, and…"
Or perhaps she knows quite well that he wants her out of the infirmary; perhaps this is her curious, roundabout way of asking after Sakazaki. The workings of her mind remain, frustratingly enough, entirely opaque to him. "Who told you?" he asks, calm and impassive as a glacier.
She only shrugs. She is still moving, there in the doorway, still rocking back and forth; he wishes she were capable, just for a moment, of standing still. "No one in particular -- everybody's talking about it. It's kind of like a school legend or something?"
"So you believe in urban legends." Of course she does. It is, he thinks, entirely characteristic.
"What?" She giggles, shakes her head. "No, not really! It's just that it would be kind of cool, if it were true."
She is smiling, all innocence and uncontrolled energy, utterly unconcerned by the implications of what she has just told him. Perhaps she already knows about Sakazaki -- or perhaps, he tells himself, the sheer frustration of her continued presence is beginning to drive him to irrationality. "Then we shall leave it at that," he tells her, and when her brow creases in a frown, he only gives her a pointed look. "That it would be cool if you were to disappear."
This time, she takes the hint. Even hours after her departure, though, he cannot shake off the thought of her open and glassy-eyed on his table, red and glistening and his to take apart; he cannot shake off the thought of her tearing apart what remains of Sakazaki with her teeth, her face and hands awash with red, licking his blood from her lips with bright eyes and a satisfied smile.
Though he does not respond to her invitation, on the evening of the festival, he receives it; he goes to meet her at the appointed place, at the appointed time, and he cannot see her. There is red everywhere tonight, in the lanterns and in the banners suspended from the food stalls -- it seems natural that she should be less eye-catching tonight than she typically is in the school environment, but he cannot test his hypothesis because she is not here. Shuu looks down at his watch, and frowns; he is not early. He is perfectly on time. If anything, she ought to be the one waiting for him.
Not, he reflects with some irritation, that it is in any way uncharacteristic. He had only hoped for better from her -- a flicker of good sense that might somehow justify his inability to ignore her.
He has waited five minutes and resolved to go back home when she arrives, announcing herself with surprisingly little fanfare. There's only an "Oh!" from just behind him; she is laughing-surprised when he turns, utterly unperturbed by his frowning. "You're here! I hadn't thought you'd actually come."
He tilts his head. "I was beginning to wonder whether you intended to make an appearance, either."
With a brilliant grin, she ignores him. "But you see, I didn't have anything better to do, so I decided that even if it was a nought-point-nought-five per cent chance, it was still worth trying."
Illogical, he thinks, and wishes he could look away. "You invited me based on a chance like that? Fascinating. I think I want to try studying primate ethology next." This only earns him a blank, uncomprehending look; it sets his teeth on edge. "That aside," he asks, a little more coldly, "what did you want?"
"I wanted to go to the festival with you!" She has not stopped smiling. Her teeth are whiter than white, stark against the grey of her lips, and it is already beginning to aggravate him.
"Forgive me," he says -- very nearly sneers; is his self-control really so frayed already? "But I don't subscribe to idle superstition."
She looks up at him, doubtful, and wraps a lock of her hair around her finger. Her skin is already pale, based on the limited evidence he has with which to judge it, but when she winds her hair around her finger, she does it tightly. Red on white. He cannot begin to avert his gaze. "I think ninety-nine point nine-five per cent of the people there will be there just for fun," she says, "not religion."
She draws that lock of hair a little tighter around her fingertip.
"…very well," he says, at length, with what he hopes is a reluctant sigh. "I shall accompany you--" but she looks so satisfied, even before he has finished the sentence, that he cannot resist adding, "In exchange for your left arm, of course."
Her grin fades only slightly; she regards him with more curiosity than horror as she asks, "My left arm?"
"Too steep a price for you?" Her expression suggests nothing of the sort. He tried to unsettle her and he did not succeed; more to the point, her left arm would be all but useless to him without the rest of her attached. "Very well. I shall accept a lock of your hair instead."
She gives it to him, later that night; she retrieves a hunting knife from her backpack, as though it is a perfectly typical personal effect, and cuts a lock of hair away. He carries it back to the infirmary in his wing, careful not to lose even one strand on the way home; staring at it is not quite the same as staring at her hair in all its glory, but nonetheless he stores it in a test tube and stoppers it away, safe where he can keep it for his own.
Tousaka returns the ID card of the student most recently subjected to his experimentation, seemingly ignorant of its value to him; she was closer to the infirmary than to the staffroom, she insists in the face of his questioning, and had believed the staffroom temporarily closed to her. "It wouldn't do," he tells her with a smile, "to have someone finding it and asking questions. I am indebted to you, Miss Tousaka," he adds, when his initial statement earns him no more than some faintly bemused blinking. In the end, he only waves her off, his relief at having located the card tempered by white-hot fury. It is unspeakably stupid to place himself into her hands like this. She shows no sign of comprehending. It is pointless in every respect to create such unnecessary personal risk.
He sees her again on the first day of the school festival, wandering around the food stalls outside with a carton of udon in her hand; he is on his way to the incinerator, a plastic liner full of bloodied feathers slung over his shoulder, but he is not rushed enough that he cannot pause in her line of sight, making sure that she spots him through the gaps in the stalls. When he sets off again, heading well out of the way of the festival, he can only just hear her following behind. Hunter-gatherer instincts, he thinks, and smirks; she would do better if those instincts were not counterbalanced, at least to an extent, by her size and her weight.
She loses him, in the end; she has no cause to visit this side of the school with any regularity. It is with no small amount of satisfaction that, having thrown the feathers away to be burned, he comes up behind her and startles her almost out of her skin.
She asks questions, of course, once she has collected herself; he is not sure whether or not he imagines the spark of anger in her eyes as she asks them. "I was placed in charge of the science club's activities today," he says, perfectly measured. "I just came back here to get rid of some things that were left over."
Tousaka tilts her head. The breeze tousles her red hair, as though encouraging her, as though encouraging him.
"Unneeded things," he says, and waits to see what she will do.
What she does, in the end, is ask him to attend the festival with her. He does not recognise until he has dismissed her, until she has taken her udon and returned to the stalls, that this invitation might have been her own curious way of conveying not only understanding, but approval. If only I could tell how she plans her actions, he thinks, on the way back to the infirmary. How easy it would be to deal with her, if he could. How easy it would be to decide what dealing with her, in this particular situation, ought best to mean.
He does remark upon Sakazaki's absence, in the end, when it becomes apparent that she will not be the one to ask first; whether it's obliviousness or her own curious attempt at teasing, he cannot tell. Certainly it's only a matter of moments later that she admits I like you, twisting a lock of hair around her finger, every inch the shy, hopeful schoolgirl.
"What a coincidence," he tells her, and he smiles.
I greatly appreciate your hard work in the infirmary, he writes, as Sakazaki's flesh cooks slowly in the oven. He has already called the delivery service; everything will be ready, soon enough. I hope this suits your tastes. It is not by any means a lie; he cannot deceive himself. As an afterthought, he adds Merry Christmas.
He has just wrapped up the package containing Sakazaki -- Sakazaki and his one remaining feather, and a letter on which the ink has scarcely dried -- when he hears someone shouting from the infirmary upstairs. He turns Sakazaki over to the courier with a flicker of apprehension that strikes him as curious; he has not felt it in quite some time. He is not -- has never been -- in the habit of taking chances on others. He does not even know what he hopes to gain from this exercise. He does not know why he feels so compelled to take this particular risk with Tousaka Hiyoko, of all the creatures in the world in whose hands he could have placed himself.
He collects himself, and returns to his work. What is research, after all, if not calculated risk?
When he sees her next, the final semester of the school year is underway, and she has seen fit to disturb him mid-way through a particularly objectionable stack of paperwork. "I do not recall summoning you to duty today," he says, without looking up, at the first sound of her footsteps on the infirmary floor. "What is it?"
It strikes him as curious when she pulls the door closed behind her; she is not usually so careful. "Do you know what day it is, doctor?" she asks, and there is a note of something very like amusement in her voice.
It is, it rapidly emerges, Legumentines. "You give beans to the boy you like," she explains, and his stomach sinks as he hears something rustling. "So -- here!"
He does not need to turn around to know that she is holding out her hands, or to know what it is that she is proffering. "You're giving these to me?" he asks -- because he cannot imagine that he will like what he hears, should he ask why.
When she says "Yes!" he finally turns to look at her.
She stands beside the door, some floral ornament nondescript in her red hair; she holds a little bag, tied neatly with a ribbon in a colour he cannot identify. He does not rise from his seat to examine the beans further; he only remarks, tone as neutral as he can keep it, "These are quite elegantly packaged."
She beams at him. "Yes! I got the most expensive ones for you, sir."
He very nearly laughs at her. What did these beans cost, really? He killed and cooked Sakazaki for her, threw his feathers and wasted flesh into the incinerator, and in response -- in retaliation she went out to buy him some beans. She does not understand. Every hint he has dropped, she has missed; every hope he had of her, she has disproved. "So these were sold to you as some sort of luxury item," he says, no longer bothering to keep the chill from his voice. "I see. Such a thing would never have occurred to us if we had lived long ago -- to think that we live in a society where price is completely disconnected from amount and nutritional value." He rises to his feet, crosses to take the beans from her hands, weighs them in his palm. "The value comes from the fact that they are expensive alone… fascinating." He drops them to his desk, and resumes his seat. "I shall experiment on them later."
Tousaka offers an indulgent smile, a shake of the head. "No," she insists, "you're supposed to eat them! The nutritional value and appearance aren't important. The important part is the fact that I gave them to you, today."
"You gave me beans that anyone could get, with the money," he says, and redirects his attention to his paperwork. "Worthless."
He ceases to pay attention to her, after that -- she spouts some nonsense about growing her own beans next year, before she departs, but it is insufficient to hold his attention. Even her hair cannot catch his eye, now. He can only think of Sakazaki, wrecked and bloodless on the scarlet-washed infirmary table; he can only think that what he made of Sakazaki -- what he could make of anyone in the school, if he so chose -- remains the closest thing to an ideal he will ever have.
When Iwamine Shuu last felt anything like this for another living being, he was not Iwamine Shuu at all. He was Isa Souma, Dove Party researcher, and the one he esteemed so highly was his superior -- a brilliant bird, who seemed not to notice or care for his own brilliance. It drove Isa mad, trying to outdo that strange, smiling, extraordinary creature; he could scarcely even keep up. Not that Doctor Kawara ever seemed to care. He was never anything less than perfectly gentle, perfectly generous, as at every turn he effortlessly proved Isa wrong.
Do you know? he would think, when Doctor Kawara left a cookie on his desk or offered assistance when his injured side proved recalcitrant. Do you know what you are doing to me? It was pity, he thought at times; in his less charitable moments he thought that it must be spite, deliberate malice on Doctor Kawara's part, though by all accounts the doctor was incapable of cruelty. Isa did not understand, and his lack of understanding galled him; it galls him even now that he never will understand, that Doctor Kawara died before Isa could make any sense of him. Mere observation might have borne fruit, given time -- but he was not given time. Certainly he was not given nearly enough.
Tousaka Hiyoko is in no respect like Doctor Kawara. Tousaka Hiyoko kills most of what she eats; Tousaka Hiyoko must know how to gut and joint a carcass ready for cooking, and if the carcasses she prepares are animal, not human or bird, it does nothing to deter his imagination. Tousaka Hiyoko has heard every hint he has dropped for her, seen every little breadcrumb he left in his wake to lead her after the truth. She would not have survived life as an orphan in a cave if she were stupid -- he cannot account for her complete blithe obliviousness without declaring it an act, and without positing that she has thus far failed to report him to anyone in authority because, somehow, she understands.
At least, he could not do so until now.
Do you know what you are doing to me? he thinks again as he piles blood-soaked feathers onto a plastic sheet; he has taken no care, this time, to keep them clean. He cannot imagine that she will fail to be enlightened by this; she will see what he has made of his most recent victim and she will understand, at last, before she dies. She will understand the test she has failed -- he will explain it all to her and then he will kill her, for having failed him, for having failed to be what he mistakenly imagined she might. She will die knowing. There will be no uncertainty any longer.
The corpse he has eviscerated will start to stink soon, but for once, he is in no hurry to remove it. When Tousaka is dead -- when he needs a place to lay her out, take her apart, puzzle out what he can of how she works and what he has misunderstood -- then the rest of it can burn.
He cannot see her face as she stares at the infirmary bed, and at the bloody, feathery mess that still rests atop it; it is regrettable, he thinks, emerging from the back room and quietly locking the infirmary door, that he will never know what she looked like on making her discovery. He has so wanted to see that particular shade of horror in her eyes.
Nonetheless, he takes the opportunity to retrieve his sharpest cleaver while her back is still turned -- while she reaches to touch the bright-red bedsheets, still wet with blood. He might have thought it interest, a week ago; now, he can only think it indicative of stupidity. Anyone with any sense would have tried to run by now.
He tucks the cleaver carefully beneath his wing, out of sight, and says, "You're early today, Miss Tousaka."
She does not startle. She only turns around slowly, regarding him with an impassivity he has never seen in her before. There is blood on her fingertips, brilliant red against her skin's pale grey. "Doctor," she says. She does not sound at all surprised. "I guess you locked the door?"
He does not permit himself to sound uncertain. "I do hate to be interrupted at my work."
She rolls her eyes affectionately, smiling. "I'm already here! You were a little slow, you know. If you're going to do something, it's best to just do it."
It is, he thinks, practically an invitation -- he charges her with the cleaver, aiming for her throat, letting his momentum carry him forward into the blow. It never lands. Her foot connects with his gut before he can even draw blood, and his vision swims as he doubles up; there is a blur of movement somewhere above him, and a flash of white-hot, stinging pain below his eye. The cleaver slips from his wing as he reaches up to shield his face -- his feathers come away red and slick with his own blood.
He looks up at Tousaka. One of his scalpels is in her hand.
It is hardly a struggle for her to wrestle him to the ground; between his weakened right side and the sheer shock of having met any resistance at all from her, he is in no state to fight back. She kicks the cleaver well out of reach, pins his good wing down to the infirmary floor, straddles his chest with no concern at all for the way he grunts in protest, and points the scalpel straight at his neck. "Fight fair next time, OK?" she says, with the air of a teacher delivering a lesson to an incompetent student.
Next time, he thinks, I will not neglect to prepare a neurotoxin.
"For how long," he asks instead, struggling to draw breath beneath her dead weight over his torso, "did you know?"
She shrugs. "I don't know. A while. When were you going to actually say something about it?"
His right wing twitches, useless, at his side. "If I had told you, and you had -- ah -- not appreciated my actions, what do you imagine my options would have been?" Then, more sharply, "Will you get off -- you're crushing me."
She raises herself up onto her knees, but remains exactly where she is. "You mean you didn't want to have to kill me?" she asks. "Doctor! I knew you cared, deep down."
"The prospect of killing you seems more appealing by the minute," he snaps, only to have her press down a little more firmly on his functioning wing. "Since you continue to insist on manhandling me--"
"Oh, quit complaining." She grins down at him, all teeth. "So what did I do that looked unappreciative? Was it the fact that I never thanked you for Yuuya?"
He stills beneath her. He can feel his own blood trickling down over his face, turning sticky in his feathers. "You gave the impression that you weren't aware of what you had eaten."
"Well, you didn't trust me enough to tell me anything," she retorts, "so I guess that makes us even. Are you going to go for the cleaver again if I let you up?"
He looks about the room. There are any number of implements -- scalpels, scissors, even a skinning knife -- that he could easily reach within moments, if she were to release him now. He need not lie to her. He could quite easily tell her no and then have her bleeding out on the floor within moments.
"No," he says, and means it wholeheartedly. When she releases his wing and stands, he remains on the floor for a long moment before struggling -- and it is a struggle, much to his frustration -- up to his feet.
"I did say I liked you, you know," she says, and sets the scalpel back on its tray. His blood is still on the blade; he will have to clean it later. There is an awful lot, all considered, to be cleaned up later -- the infirmary has never been quite this visually arresting before. "It's not something people say lightly -- did you think I didn't mean it?"
He thinks of Doctor Kawara, offering kindness after kindness; pity, he used to think, or cruelty, but never the thing itself. "I… misunderstood," he admits, grudgingly, wishing fiercely that there were no error for him to admit.
She smiles another fond, indulgent smile, shaking her head. "If you say so. I guess you can take me out to dinner after school, if you want to make up for it -- though you'd better clean up in here first, don't you think?" She gestures towards the bed, with its sheets stained irrevocably red. He will have to burn them. There is nothing else to be done. "You're lucky I still have class today!"
He sighs. "Come back here at the end of the day, then. We… can proceed from there."
"Great!" She beams at him, adjusting the ornament in her hair before striding forward and plucking a single feather from his wing. He hisses in a breath through his teeth at the unexpected pain of it, taking a sharp step back from her and instantly regretting it; if she knows that she has him on the back foot, then he has already lost. "Sorry," she says, and shrugs her shoulders as she pockets the feather. "Yuuya's broke, you see, and I've got a test this afternoon. Mr Nanaki wouldn't be too happy if I showed up to class without a pen!"
You have to carve it, he thinks, but determines a second before he can open his mouth that it would make no sense to ruin the moment. The place where the feather was twinges with the ache of absence, and the place where she pinned his wing is still throbbing, just slightly. There is still blood on the very tips of her fingers. She has never looked so beautiful as this.
"See you after school!" she says, sing-song, and twists the door handle sharply enough to break the lock. It swings open in her wake as she disappears into the corridor, her hair and her fingertips perfect red against the grey.