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Forever Salty

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All, in Byakuya’s ever-important opinion, would be perfectly well had he not made the mistake that currently lay on his lap. It was always difficult to admit when one had made an error, especially when they weren’t simply logical fallacies. This mistake, he found, lay in something far more treacherous—his inexplicable curiosity. When questions arose, he simply had to answer them. By any means. No method was too unorthodox. His curiosity reigned supreme.

Which was why, incidentally, he had opened the doors to the chain of events that had rather dramatically changed his outlook on things. Now, a change in perspective was always welcome when it was to Byakuya’s benefit. But this new outlook seemed to serve no purpose besides hindering him. Just like, it seemed, the very person who had spurred it.

Toko Fukawa.

What a despicable creature. She seemed to be the living embodiment of ineffectuality. She was unable to make decisions for herself, consistently blaming others for her own shortcomings. She hated herself with a passion that one wouldn’t imagine from someone so frail and weak. She had nothing. She was nothing. How could a mousy girl like her make her way to an academy that was worthy of someone like Byakuya Togami?

She was an Ultimate, this was for certain. A writing prodigy. And this was where the root of the problem lay. For any other student at this academy, that would have been enough. To say, “Yes, Sakura Ogami is the Ultimate Martial Artist,” or, “Junko Enoshima is undoubtedly the Ultimate Fashionista,” should have been enough for him. Yet to say, “Toko Fukawa was accepted into this academy on the grounds of being the Ultimate Writing Prodigy,” was simply not enough. Such an admission was not acceptable for her. Nothing about her was Ultimate, he was sure of that.

This was the thinking that had brought him to his current situation, sitting atop his bed with a copy of So Lingers the Ocean, allegedly the prodigy’s greatest work, lying coyly in his lap. Against common sense, he firmly told himself that this novel would be a travesty to all forms of literature. A love story about a fisherman. Really. Fukawa wouldn’t know love if it hit her in her little nose. All she knew was obsession, possession, destruction. She experienced initial attraction and latched herself onto the object of her affections like a leech, draining their energy and life and feeding off their despair. Perhaps, Byakuya grudgingly thought, she could have a way with words, though he doubted it, but he was certain that the narrative would be just as disgusting and off-putting as the author.

And yet…

Rather predictably, he could not put the novel down. He found himself turning each page with bated breath. He became engrossed in the narrative, in the resolute aura of the love interest, in the bashfulness of the main character. The plot twisted and turned and yet so did the characters. They grew and developed, they experienced realistic dilemma. This was no one-note teenage romance. This was a passionate story of two people discovering themselves and thus discovering each other. A friendship that blossomed into a romance. The heir had to admit that the scene in which the fisherman professed his love to the sea and not to the heroine made his heart sink. The emotion, the energy, the flow—it was all poignant and masterful. Truly indicative of the Ultimate Writing Prodigy.

When the back cover made contact with the finished book, it sounded like a muffled gunshot. His heart was beating fast; he exhaled slowly as a contrast. The room felt ethereal, his mind floating along with his body. Something about his existence seemed mediocre. It was shameful to confess, but he envied the protagonist for being able to sail off with the fisherman—he certainly wished for a companion like that.

He pictured the fisherman’s stormy eyes, raindrops clinging to his tousled hair. He thought of his chapped, salt-stung lips and how they were a metaphor for his own self-destruction. He thought of the sigh expelled from his lungs when the heroine asked for him to stay with her. He thought about rough hands, how they would feel against his own skin.

Byakuya sat up—when had he lain down? This was impossible. A novel written by someone so unimpressive as Fukawa could not have had such a profound effect on him. He checked the cover once more, just to be sure. Clear as day, her name was emblazoned there. He actually felt a little sick. Seasick, one could say. But not him. He was not one for such common humour, and this was no laughing matter. In fact, this was a matter that had changed his perspective entirely.

He stared at the novel as if he and it shared a deep and unspeakable kinship. The novel stared back at him, triumphant and boastful. It spoke for Fukawa, for the strength of her wit and the song in her words. It was clear that he had been sorely mistaken when he’d assumed she could not understand love. The artful descriptions within the tome on his lap had proven that much. But the truly hope-shattering part of his mistake was not learning of Fukawa’s talent. It was not being swayed by descriptions of a common fisherman, of all things. No, it was something much more deceptive and terrifying than that.

His single curiosity, born of disdain for a certain young woman, had blossomed into many curiosities, each just as burning as the first. He had to know if she poured the same amount of feelings into her works of other genres. He had to know if she had felt love such as this before. He had to know if she was feeling it currently. He had to know if she identified with the protagonist of the novel. He had to know everything about her, every little synapse of her brain that had fired to lead to the work before him. More than anything, he wanted to know how it felt to be a puppet of her will, the emotions she could inspire him to feel, emotions that he had never known before. It was terrifying and yet it was all-consuming in a way that he could not refuse.

Do you… feel the same towards me?

He had to stop thinking about this.

Do you describe me the way that the protagonist described the fisherman?

This was going to lead him to ruin.

If you ever wrote anything about me, I’d like to read it sometime.

This had nothing to do with Fukawa. It was simply his own curiosity. She was not interesting. She was not interesting. He was merely curious. His curiosity didn’t make her interesting. Yet as much as he denied it, he knew what this was. He knew that he wanted to devour her like he had devoured the book. The richness of her mental landscape was too much for him to pass up. To know that she had a love burning inside her chest, a flame that had ignited because he had lit it within her—it was intoxicating to think that she could describe that feeling with such beautiful poetry.

And in that moment, in that one dreadful moment, he pictured her in his mind’s eye. Her creative energy enveloped her. Antisocial behaviour became a retreat into a better world. Overeager tendencies became a burning love that she could not control. She’d once called herself ugly and he’d believed her to be just so. Yet in that strange, life-altering moment, she was nothing if not beautiful. She was an artist, painting a canvas of bright colours, of both hope and despair, laying down a richness to the mundane that Togami had never experienced before.

When he returned the book to her later, she’d paused before taking it, frail hands just barely shaking but resoluteness in her light eyes. “W-What did you think?” She was trying, it seemed, to contain herself.

Of course, the heir couldn’t tell the truth. He could not reveal his intentions nor his revelations. Everything had to proceed just as it had before. So he let out a disapproving noise, eyes trained on Fukawa to convey his dominance. “It was well-written.”

Though a compliment like that was a sunflower seed to a five-course dinner, Fukawa lit up from the inside-out, her eyes shining and her breath catching in her throat. He could sense her heartbeat fluttering, stuttering.

“Really?”

Her tone was so enamoured, so rich and full. It reminded him of her novel and he thought that truly, he could never see her the same way again. She was no longer a useless mousy commoner. She was a commoner whose words were tattooed into every move she made. Her very being was the feeling that Byakuya had felt in his room that day, the feeling of heavy weightlessness, of dizzying emotion, of the portal between fiction and reality.

Her smile is so beautiful.

Byakuya cleared his throat before the telling heat could spread itself across his cheeks. “I’m sure you don’t need confirmation. Goodbye.” He turned to leave, but her slim fingers touched his hand. They were cold; they turned his blood to ice. He felt cold. She had made him cold. She had written him into her novel and coded him with intense emotions, such as the frigidity in his heart. “What are you doing?”

Words seemed to fail her for a moment, her big eyes full of an indecipherable emotion. It was passion, he thought. Passion for life. Passion for love. Passion for him. His heart seemed to thaw a bit. “Do you want it?” Fukawa’s voice was shaky, but she did not stammer. Her boldness was truly unnerving. “The book, I mean. I-I’ve got a lot of copies.”

“What do you mean?”

“What I’m saying is—” and her cheeks were aflame now, sending his heart into a telltale frenzy— “I want you to have it. J-Just take it, okay?”

Under any normal circumstance, Byakuya would have rejected the gift. It was near appalling to see how the author stumbled over her words as she spoke yet how her written works were masterfully crafted. It was to be expected, yet… now, there was something he could appreciate. It was the struggle of her language. Her intonation, the rising and falling of her pitch. All of it conveyed the emotion that had gripped the heir’s heart so forcefully as he read.

So he took it, making sure not to touch her skin. “I’ll take it, if only to stop you from pestering me.”

“O-One more thing.” She seemed notably more distressed now, eyes darting to the floor in a desperate attempt to avoid eye contact. “If you want it… I wrote something new. Y-You’d be the first one to see it.”

Blue eyes narrowed. What was the significance of this? Had he somehow, by asking her to borrow a copy of her book, opened the door to friendship? Friendship was out of the question, he told himself, yet it was becoming increasingly more difficult to believe that now.

She seemed to pick up on his confusion, for she clarified almost immediately. “I w-wrote it for you, s-so… that’s why it’s i-important that you read it.”

His heartbeat stammered. His words failed him. And then… a swallow. “Alright.”

He tried not to march back to his room and fall back into the position that would soon become his default. He knew it was weak to be so controlled by these curiosities. Yet there was something about the written word, no, Toko’s written word, that had him captivated. It seemed that he would never truly be free from nights of sitting on his bed and watching Toko Fukawa’s written words work their magic on his ever-frigid heart. Yet this form of bondage was bittersweet, yet—pleasant, even. He could happily be tied to the curiosities surrounding Fukawa’s mindscape. It was varied and deep, filled with complexities and challenges.

If there was anything about her that would never let him down, he thought, that would be it.