Tyhjä fidgeted. Everything here made him feel uncomfortable for some reason, maybe it was the simplicity of the unadorned, unremarkable buildings, maybe it was the feel of the ground that seemed almost too hollow, maybe it was the language that he had needed to learn…
He had spent hours rehearsing conversations in his head before the journey here, carefully practicing the pronunciation and making an effort to pack plainer, dully-colored clothes. More than anything, Tyhjä hated feeling uncomfortable in the presence of others, but nevertheless it seemed he was constantly embarrassing himself here.
Just now, he had been so relieved to see a decorative item inside the building that he had blurted with reckless abandon something inane about how nice it was even though it was just a vase of flowers, and probably imitation flowers, at that. His guide had looked at him oddly, thanked him politely, and continued on towards whatever interesting specimen Tyhjä had been assigned to take a look at.
All the while, Tyhjä wished he could just melt into the floor and disappear. It was enough that everyone looked and acted so different; still he stood out so much that sometimes the people here would turn away, would whisper to themselves about him, his companions, their tasks, their work. Antarctica. Empire. Emissaries. Secrets. Antarctica.
He could both hear and understand them, but he wasn’t sure if he should let them know.
Tyhjä squinted at the green, no, gray mass of butterflies, and attempted once more to draw a rough outline of their wings. He looked at his notebook quickly to make sure he wouldn’t run out of space, and when he looked back there was some sort of furry gray creature sitting in the midst of the fluttering insects.
He blinked, then tried sketching it as well. It was eating something vaguely oval-shaped.
The door to the aviary opened, and Tyhjä turned to see who had entered. It was a female human, holding a large container of a clear liquid. The person looked at him, raised one hand and moved it side to side in greeting, and proceeded to pour the liquid into waiting receptacles, which were soon swarmed by shimmering wings.
Looking back towards the gray creatures, Tyhjä realized that a tree had somehow sprouted in the middle of the aviary without him noticing. Confused, he instinctively began drawing the outline of the trunk as the human finished filling the feeding containers.
“Hello, erm, Tai-ja? Dr. Kiryu would like to meet you.”
Tyhjä looked up. That wasn’t how his name was pronounced, but the human was smiling, if a little nervously, and gesturing towards the door. Most of the humans he met didn’t pay him much attention, they just walked by and let him sketch, sometimes still talking as if he wasn’t there. Tyhjä looked back at the tree, which was now gone. The human laughed. “They do that. You’re new, and sometimes they like playing tricks on people.”
“…I see. Where can I find this doctor?” Tyhjä began packing up his drawing materials as the woman opened the door.
The researcher led Tyhjä through a confusing series of hallways (they all looked alike, were all lit alike, and even almost all sounded alike, it was disorienting) to a door that seemed quite like the other hundred or so he must have passed. “He’s running some experiments there, feel free to wait inside, just make sure you don’t touch anything.” She smiled, patted Tyhjä on the shoulder, and walked off.
“Don’t touch tha—oh. Hello.”
Tyhjä flinched slightly, and abandoned his drawing of a series of strange glass objects, some containing oddly-colored liquids. His eyes met those of a man wearing a long white coat and an expression that seemed to be a mix of curiosity and surprise.
“Dr. Mark Kiryu, pleased to meet you.” The man removed some sort of plastic covering from his hands, then extended one hand to Tyhjä, who for a moment stared at it and then quickly shook it. “I’m Tyhjä, from…”
“Antarctica, right? My sister mentioned you.” Kiryu busied himself carrying away the tray of glassware Tyhjä had been drawing.
“Sister?” Tyhjä wondered out loud.
“She’s seen you a few times today, yes.” Kiryu dragged a chair with wheels on its legs from somewhere and sat on it, looking speculatively at Tyhjä. The artist avoided the doctor’s gaze, staring at the too clean, too plain floor.
Kiryu cleared his throat. “Homesick?” Tyhjä looked up, shrugged, and nodded faintly. The doctor smiled. “Sometimes all we need is a quick meal to cheer us up.”
“Here we are. I hope you don’t mind eating in a testing room? I’m afraid it’s the only available place, at the moment.” Kiryu led Tyhjä to a small, bare room, furnished with only a table and chair, both made of some stark white material. The doctor was carrying a sizeable bowl, empty, and a metal utensil, a spoon, Tyhjä noted.
“I don’t mind. I prefer quiet places.” Tyhjä stated, glancing around.
Kiryu chuckled, then his eyes went wide. “Spider!” he shouted, and stomped on Tyhjä’s foot.
Tyhjä muffled a cry of pain and staggered backwards slightly. Had he said something wrong? Was that some sort of obscure human joke?
The doctor glanced wildly around the room. “Oh, I’m sorry. Um, spiders… they’re little creatures that sometimes bite people. The dangerous ones can be poisonous. I thought I saw one. Is your foot alright?”
Lifting the foot in question gingerly, Tyhjä nodded. “It stings a little, but I think I’ll be fine.”
The doctor had placed the bowl and spoon on the table. “Good, good… well, there you go! Just leave these in the room when you’re finished. Oh, and if you don’t mind, I’d appreciate knowing what sort of meal it prepared for you… I’ll be waiting outside.” Kiryu smiled, then closed the door.
Tyhjä was perplexed. How could he eat from an empty bowl? He walked towards the table, then took a few steps back.
The bowl wasn’t empty. It was filled with a clear, golden broth that smelled of sea salt and starchy roots, of Antarctic fish and Antarctic spices. Tyhjä sat down, picked up the spoon, prodded the soup with it. Real. Definitely real. Even though the only one who could have possibly made this soup was far, far away, was the one who sent Tyhjä and his sister off alone to train their skills when they were barely grown.
How did it…? Wary though he was of such an odd miracle occurring, Tyhjä couldn’t help but feel calmed by the nostalgic scent he remembered from his early childhood. It brought back countless memories. He hesitated, took out his notebook, and drew a quick outline of the bowl and the soup, then finished the entire bowl in a few gulps, spoon completely forgotten.
Tyhjä finally found a quiet place to sit by himself, a little courtyard in the center of a building used for animal research, so he was told. There were benches and a few trees there, and moreover, several birds that came and went.
With a sigh of relief, Tyhjä withdrew his notebook and a writing stylus from the satchel he carried with him. Opening to a new page, he followed the path of a bird in flight, beginning to draw as he watched. To be truthful, the creatures were almost too small to be called birds by Imperial standards.
It was pleasant, though. Such a tiny little being was a welcome change of subject from the fierce, winged predators with cruelly hooked talons Tyhjä was accustomed to seeing. It was fascinating to watch these different birds fly, as well as comforting to know that the little chirping things would not attempt to attack him and rip out his innards should he get too close.
Tyhjä suddenly felt a slight weight pressing on his head, and he realized that one of the little dark brown birds had landed on him. Tyhjä resumed sketching, and the bird resumed sitting on his shaggy hair, occasionally chirping out a query to its friends sitting on the trees. Tyhjä allowed himself a small smile. The birds at home never sang.
Suddenly the bird flew off. Tyhjä frowned, watching it arc through the air and into the sky. He wondered if something had startled it.
At the sound of footsteps, Tyhjä looked over his shoulder and nearly fell off his bench.
Someone standing right next to him was looking intently at him, no, his notebook, and that someone was dressed in such bright colors that Tyhjä could’ve sworn his eyes started burning. He had seen her before, he thought dazedly. The one who liked asking questions. He blinked a few times, attempting to edge away slightly without seeming rude, and he noticed his sister sheepishly leaning against a nearby wall.
“…Sister. Who is this?” Tyhjä managed, slightly shaken.
“Apologies if we bothered you, Tyhjä. I met Alai in the library, and it was such a lovely day outside that I thought that it would be a shame if we didn’t take the opportunity to read out in the sunlight…”
Tyhjä wasn’t particularly reassured by the explanation, seeing as Alai was still standing too close and he had been rather engrossed in his observation of the bird and why wasn’t she just saying something so he could ask her to maybe give him some space—
“What’s that?” Alai pointed to the sketch he had been working on.
“…a bird…” Tyhjä mumbled.
Alai cocked her head slightly, scrutinizing the simple sketch. “It doesn’t even have teeth!”
Tyhjä pointed at a tree close by, where one of the little feathery brown creatures appeared to be regarding Alai with some interest. She looked suspiciously at it. “Do you know anything about these birds? Do they like bright colors? If you get too close, do they bite?”
“They seem rather harmless, so I don’t believe they bite.” Tyhjä cast a quick panicked glance towards his sister, but Clear Evening only smiled, apparently happy Tyhjä had found a friend to talk to. Sister why are you doing this to me Sister help me—
“What do you think of this place so far?” Alai smiled, setting down the armful of books she was carrying.
“I like it well enough, thank you.” Tyhjä stood up, intending to find another (quieter) place to stay. “Alai, Sister, if you’ll pardon my leaving, I’d like to find some different birds to observe.” He inclined his head slightly to the two of them, and then padded away towards the door leading back into the facility.
“Tyhjä, you’ll tell me more about these birds later, won’t you?” Alai’s cheerful voice followed Tyhjä as he made his escape.
Though he didn’t like to admit it, he did feel slightly guilty for just running off like that; he would’ve liked to talk more about birds with Alai, perhaps, and maybe he’d mention the other things he’d seen and heard about from the scientists, but then his sister hadn’t helped him out much, usually it was she who was there in case he slipped up during conversation, and he wished he could be as excited as Alai was about everything, but—
Empress help him, he needed to lie down.
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