Mitsuru meets Shinobu at the entrance exam. Based on the theme of cold hands; cold feet.
"Dunno what you're worried about," Sho said.
Mitsuru didn't think he was imagining the pointed emphasis on 'you're'. Even if he was, it was hard to miss the scowl on his brother's face. He sighed inwardly, resisting the temptation to smack Sho over the head; the test would start soon, after all, and Sho would likely need all the healthy neurons he could muster. Still, when Mitsuru thought of the centuries' worth of study he'd slogged through, not to mention the charm he'd invested in scrounging recommendations - and who could've guessed how difficult it would be to live down that half-assed jd rep of mine? - he had trouble working up much sympathy for Sho, who had made a last minute and apparently lukewarm attempt to enter Ryokuto Academy, and who now regarded the surrounding students with resentment. Mitsuru was well aware of Sho's anger and could take a stab at the reason behind it - always the same damned thing - but he just didn't need this sort of stress right now. It would've been smarter to sleep in and catch a later train - less time for fretting that way - but their mother, usually the most laid-back of education mamas, had chased them out of bed at an ungodly hour, filled their bellies, straightened their ties and waved them off at Uguisudani station with a good-natured threat to flay them alive if they were late.
"Worried?" he said finally, coaxing his face back to its customary brilliance. "Of course, I'm worried. Didn't you notice? There are at least four guys here who are as much as 37% as gorgeous as me. It's unacceptable."
"Stupid," Sho said with a reluctant smile.
"You are," teased Mitsuru, elbowing Sho gently.
Sho sighed. "I know." He flinched as Mitsuru jabbed him with more violence, and threw his hands up in defence. "What? You know it's true. Like I've got a hope in hell of passing this test. I don't even know what I'm doing here. What a waste of time."
I thought you were here to keep an eye on me. "It's never a waste of time to try," Mitsuru said aloud, wondering if he sounded as goody-goody as he suspected. Problem was, he was just no good at pep talks; for one thing, he was inclined to start yelling, and that wasn't likely to go down too well with the exam officials, not to mention all the harried students around him who were gulping down cram notes and scrawling deep grooves into their palms. He slung an arm across Sho's shoulders and dragged him into a headlock. "And since you're here now, you'd better try or I'll kick your ass."
"Yeah, yeah, all /right/," Sho gasped, wriggling in his grasp. "I won't hand in a blank paper if that's what you're worried about, but I can't promise my scribbles'll make much sense, either. Now let me go before you mess up my tie."
"Oo, mustn't have that!" Mitsuru said, grinning as he adjusted Sho's scarf and pinched his cheek. "Mama's darling looks like such a gentleman in his grown-up clothes."
"Argh, fuck off!" Sho bit out, pulling free of Mitsuru's grip. He blushed when he saw the notice they'd drawn, and gave Mitsuru a swift kick in the shin. "Just for that, I'm telling Ma you ditched your tie."
"Hey! All the better to not hang myself with," Mitsuru said, rubbing his sore leg. "And what are you, anyway, five? Damned sissykicker."
"Don't joke about shit like that, okay?"
"What, hanging myself? Please. You give me more than enough motivation with all your bitching and moaning, but as you just pointed out, I conveniently mislaid the means somewhere between home and here." Still feel like I'm choking, though. And Sho's wounded puppy face doesn't help. Mitsuru's fingers itched for a rolled-up newspaper. He knew he'd pulled a few crazy stunts over the last year or so, but did Sho seriously think he was dumb enough to become some teenage suicide statistic? Man, this is so much more soap opera than I have energy for, today of all days.
"Whatever," Sho muttered, his shoulders hunched. "Wish they'd let us in already. I'm freezing my nuts off. Is it much longer?"
"You're the one wearing a watch."
"No tie, no watch." Sho shook his head as he pulled up a sleeve and checked his watch. "You're really lightening the load today. Not too keen on baggage, huh?"
Mitsuru lowered his head before Sho could catch him rolling his eyes. Not even eight o'clock in the morning, and he was already being buried in guilt. He knew it was Sho's insecurity talking, and the pressure of the upcoming test, but he just wished for once that Sho would let things rest. He looked at Sho's hands, rawboned and red in the chill winter air. He'd been biting his nails again, tearing into the cuticles; no way he'd pass an inspection like that, so it was just as well the school year was almost at an end. Dad had given Sho the watch at New Year's, and it hung a little loosely on his thin wrist. Sho was staring at the watchface with an owlish expression as if he'd forgotten where he was, and he jerked when Mitsuru touched his wrist lightly and said, "Your hands are freezing. Warm them on my face."
Sho's own face burned as he allowed Mitsuru to take his hands and cradle them against his cheeks. "Freak of nature. Would you quit it? People'll think we're boyfriends."
"You would forsake our love?" Mitsuru cooed mockingly. He held Sho's hands tighter, chafing them against his skin. "I don't exactly see you trying to escape. Just calm the fuck down, all right? I can't figure out how you plan on passing with these frozen fish fingers."
"God, you're embarrassing. I hate you." Sho sighed, looking exasperated but secretly pleased. "And I don't even know if I want to pass, anyhow. Imagine being stuck at this lame school with you for three years."
"And you're assuming I'm going to pass?"
"Oh, come off it." Sho pulled away and looked around, his face still flushed.
Checking for witnesses, Mitsuru thought. What the fuck ever. "Just remember, it's important to regurgitate as much information as possible; odds are, some of it'll be right."
"Yeah, yeah. Speaking of..." Sho nodded towards some shrubbery at the far edge of the grounds, and Mitsuru noticed a little guy hunched over between two camellias, hurling up his breakfast.
"Aw, poor kid," he said, wincing. No one else seemed to have noticed. They probably don't /want to notice. Oh well, why should this school be any different to the rest of the planet?/ "Sho, give me your hankie."
"Hey!" yelped Sho, as Mitsuru grabbed the handkerchief straight from his pocket and trotted over to help. "What's wrong with yours?"
"Didn't bring one. I'm travelling light, remember?" Mitsuru said. He threw a beatific grin back over his shoulder towards his brother, who stood with arms crossed, shaking his head. "And you can always snivel into your sleeve!" As he drew up beside the sick kid, he could hear Sho grumbling behind him, but ignored him. The kid was shaking all over, retching miserably, and Mitsuru knelt beside him and rubbed his back. "Hey, hey, you're all right. Just a bit of exam nerves, yeah? We all feel 'em, but there's no point wasting a good meal. No greater crime in my book, I have to tell you. Man, what is that, miso? Hopefully it'll make a half-decent fertiliser, 'cause otherwise these poor bushes have had it. No, don't laugh. Deep breaths, okay?"
The kid gave him a watery smile, drawing in air tentatively as Mitsuru dabbed at his chin with Sho's handkerchief. "You sound like my mother," he whispered. "Thanks, sempai."
"What's with the 'sempai'? I'm probably younger than you are. My name's Ikeda Mitsuru, and since I'm scrubbing sick off your face, you can call me Mitsuru."
The kid was too ashen to blush, but his expression was mortified as he took the handkerchief from Mitsuru and held it to his trembling lips. "Thank you, Mitsuru. I think I'm okay now." Behind them, Sho was muttering, "Gross," and the kid hung his head, eyes averted from the mess he'd made. "I'm Ochi Hideyuki. I'm very sorry for the inconvenience."
"No problem," Mitsuru said with an easy grin. "We all get cold feet sometimes."
There was movement near the main entrance where the doors had been thrown wide open. "Looks like they're calling everyone in," Sho said.
"You think you can stand up?" Mitsuru asked Ochi. He ignored Sho's impatient sigh and slung his arm about Ochi, raising him to his feet. "How's that? Feeling steady?"
"I think so." Ochi swayed a little, but remained upright.
"Then let's head over to the water fountain so you can wash your mouth out. You don't want to be stuck with that taste for the entire exam."
"You guys can waste time out here if you want, but I'm heading inside," Sho said. He sounded sulky, and Mitsuru watched with resignation as he stalked off.
"Let's do our best," he called out, and he had the satisfaction of seeing Sho pause to nod before he disappeared inside the building.
Ochi's eyes were downcast as he said softly, "You should find your seat also. I don't want to hold you up."
"Haven't you noticed I'm the one holding you up? Besides, I don't mind. You're helping take my mind off worrying."
They reached the fountain, where Ochi sipped at the ice-cold water and splashed some on his face. Mitsuru took a drink too, trying not to think about Sho's bitterness. "You don't seem like the sort of person to worry much," Ochi said finally.
"You'd be surprised," Mitsuru said with a short laugh.
Ochi rinsed out the handkerchief and regarded it doubtfully. "This needs to be laundered."
"Don't sweat it. It's my brother's, and I figure he won't be wanting it back."
Ochi looked at Mitsuru, then glanced towards the hall. "That's your brother? You don't seem anything alike."
"I'm a changeling," Mitsuru said, laughing again, but the kid just stared at him as if he was giving the notion some serious consideration. Finally Mitsuru gave him an encouraging pat on the shoulder, and Ochi blinked back at him, waking up. "C'mon, let's go inside. Time to face our doom."
It was warmer inside the school building, but not by much; Ryokuto evidently didn't see much point in squandering electricity on its exam candidates. Probably not on its students either, Mitsuru figured; it was a Monday after all, so there would be plenty of actual Ryokuto pupils around along with all the younger wannabes. Or maybe most of the Ryokuto guys escaped on some field trip while the examinees were underfoot; there certainly hadn't been as many Ryokuto uniforms on the grounds as he'd expected. Too bad; he could've cadged some last minute exam advice from the guys who'd passed it already if he'd thought of it earlier. Whatever the case, Mitsuru didn't really mind the temperature; he usually felt like he was running too hot anyhow, and he shucked off his coat and scarf now with relief. So long as they weren't stuck in some drafty gymnasium, he'd probably manage to survive the next few hours.
"Looks like I'm in 2-D," Ochi said softly beside him. "Which classroom are you in?"
'Classroom' sounded promising. Mitsuru peered up at the sign; there were a lot of heads to look over, but he seemed to be one of the taller guys present. "I'm number 164, so I guess I'm in, um...2-B."
"Oh." The kid actually looked crestfallen, and Mitsuru had to hide a grin. It was so weird the way he was always picking up strays. He didn't even have to try; he would just turn around and find himself tripping over another one.
"Yeah, I guess you'll have to copy off someone else." Ochi reared up in indignation, and Mitsuru waved his hands. "Just kidding, I swear!"
"Oh," said the kid again, looking thoughtful. Maybe no one ever kidded around with him much. He'd have to get over that quickly if he planned on attending Ryokuto, and even quicker if he wanted to stay in the dorm. "Then I hope you find yourself sitting behind someone very smart. So that you can, uh, copy off him. Um."
Belaboured, but cute. Mitsuru liked to think he was spreading disorder throughout the galaxy, one nervous kid at a time. "Thank you for your kind thoughts," he said solemnly. "Let's do our best, all right?"
"Yes," Ochi said with an emphatic nod, before turning right to march off towards room 2-D. Mitsuru smiled after him, feeling strangely warmed by the encounter. It was funny how much a little vomit could brighten his day. He started weaving his way down the corridor in the opposite direction, passing some last-minute cram sessions and panic attacks, before arriving at the door of 2-B, which he pushed open quietly. Looking around, he found that most students had taken their seats already, although there were a few vacant desks. He found his own and sat down, wriggling experimentally until he was satisfied his chair was wobble-free. His desk seemed equally sound, and he gave a soft, pleased grunt; score one for quality Ryokuto furniture. Not like the shit we have to use back in junior high, that's for sure.
There was no one in the seat in front of him. He spied Sho in the back corner of the classroom and ventured a thumbs-up in his direction, but Sho's head was lowered, his lips moving silently in prayer. Mitsuru couldn't help but feel relieved; the exam would be tough enough without having a pissed off brother breathing straight down his neck. Sho might as well be a girl for all his crazy mood swings, except he didn't have the perky tits and bubblegum breath of Mitsuru's usual brigade of female admirers, and wasn't that the mental image he needed right now. Mitsuru shuddered all over, scrubbing the thought of a big-breasted she-Sho firmly from his traumatised mind. That's what comes of studying too hard.
He examined the room around him curiously. It was neat and plain and unremarkable in every way, which surprised him; he'd thought that the school's bland (albeit dignified) exterior must hide some inner eccentricity. His favourite teacher, a Ryokuto alum named Sakaguchi-sensei who had thrilled the entire junior high with his cool car and haphazard yet strangely persuasive teaching style, had been firm in his conviction that Mitsuru ought to try for Ryokuto. Mitsuru, who was all too aware of his scholarly deficiencies, thought applying to a school with such a respected reputation was futile, but Sakaguchi-sensei had been so adamant that Mitsuru had started feeling enthusiastic in spite of himself. Looking around now, his excitement waned; the school's dullness was a disappointment, and he couldn't help but question Sakaguchi-sensei's judgement; how could Mitsuru possibly fit in here, in such ordinary surrounds? Already he felt doomed to conspicuousness, or failure. Probably both.
There was nothing he could do now except let it all go. He closed his eyes and pressed his fingertips together, feeling heat gather and coil between his palms as ritual words of prayer fell quietly from his lips, the same soothing words he'd been hearing from Jiichan since he was just a baby. A mantle of calm descended with welcome swiftness, and Mitsuru had almost forgotten the muted tension that surrounded him when a ruddy haze gathered behind his eyelids. He opened his eyes to discover that the morning sun had broken through the cloud cover at last; the classroom's eastern windows were shot through with a low, harsh light that made him squint. Looking ahead, he realised that the seat in front of him was now taken; its occupant had swivelled about to stare at him. His hands still raised in prayer, Mitsuru said, "I'm sorry. Was I too loud?"
"Not at all," said the other boy. Mitsuru couldn't see his face clearly - his hair fell smooth and straight across his brow, and the sunlight lent it a bright, steely sheen that made Mitsuru blink - but his quiet voice carried a clipped politeness that spoke of old money and even older tradition. "I figured you were working on a grammar problem, or..."
"Yeah?" Mitsuru said with a grin. Or what? He clasped his hands on the desk, guessing the boy had never said a prayer in his life if he could mistake one for a foreign language.
"Interesting way to calm yourself." As Mitsuru's eyes accustomed themselves to the sunlight, he could see that the boy's still face was slowly breaking into a smile. His left arm was curled across the back of his chair, his elbow almost brushing Mitsuru's desk; if Mitsuru reached out, he could touch him.
Mitsuru sat up straight, surprised by the thought. "I suppose. I kind of live at a temple." But not for much longer. "When I'm nervous, I start chanting prayers."
There was something strange about the way the boy spoke, as if he was taking notes. Mitsuru had a sudden vision of the boy's brain as a shiny metal filing cabinet; he could see a drawer open and a manila folder laid aside, as yet unlabeled, to be filled with Mitsuru's data. It unnerved him for a moment, and he pulled a goofy face, saying, "You look pretty confident."
"Not really," said the boy, and Mitsuru could tell by his smile that he was lying. There was no way this guy would've even bothered to turn up if failure was a possibility; Mitsuru was probably staring at the eventual top-scorer. Still, at least the boy knew enough not to say so. "Staying calm is important, though."
"Sure is," Mitsuru agreed. He tried to imagine this guy flailing about in a fit of hysterics - or puking in the bushes - but the thought was so ludicrous that he found himself grinning again. "At this point, it's out of our hands."
The boy continued to watch him, smiling, until the exam proctor stood up at the front of room and ordered them to pass the test papers down the rows. Mitsuru took the bundle from the boy with a mock-daunted expression, and said, in English, "Have your best."
"You too," replied the boy, also in English, after a long pause, and Mitsuru figured by his low chuckle that he'd messed up the saying. Shit. The boy's smile was not kind, but for the first time, it seemed real. Mitsuru turned to pass the papers behind him, and when he faced forward once more, he was staring at the back of the boy's head. Encased in an unnatural stillness, the boy had an upright, almost militaristic bearing, accentuated by the old-style school uniform that he wore; their conversation might never had happened.
Mitsuru leaned forward, craning his neck until he spied the boy's feet, and his scrutiny was soon rewarded with a small wriggle of the heels.
Cold feet, he thought with a smile of satisfaction as he sat back in his chair. The school clock chimed the eight o'clock hour, the proctor gave them all an emphatic nod, and Mitsuru turned his paper over.
Much later - feels like six freakin' lifetimes - he lounged with Sho in a nearby McDonald's, scarfing a truckload of grease and salt. The girl behind the counter had sneaked him extra fries (much to Sho's disgust), and when he picked up his Coke to wash down the food, he found her name and number scrawled on the tray menu. He put his drink down in a hurry, but not soon enough to prevent a small splutter of Coke from spraying painfully from his nostrils. "Can't take you anywhere," said Sho, offering him a napkin with a mournful shake of his head.
When the hell did she get a chance to do that? Mitsuru kept his eyes averted from the counter, but couldn't help but hear the high-pitched giggling that erupted behind him. He wiped his nose with a sigh, wondering if girls would ever cease to surprise him; not that he minded the attention, of course, but sometimes it seemed like he'd been fending them off since birth. Or almost, anyhow. There was no denying that the very first female in his life had wasted no time dumping him, but his prospects since then had been more than promising.
Still, he found himself at the venerable age of fourteen (/almost/ fifteen) single, virginal, sharing a meal with his brother of all people and looking forward to attending an all-boy high school, none of which added up to a whole bunch of sense, which was pretty much in keeping with the nightmarish academic spectacle he'd already endured that day. For all that, he felt confident; he had a good feeling about the exam and even higher hopes for the school itself. It wasn't a building that made a school, after all, but the people who filled it. Maybe that wouldn't be Sho...and maybe that was a good thing.
"So what was with that guy?" Sho asked suddenly.
"Who, Ochi?" He'd met up with the kid briefly after the exam - Ochi had been jittery and pale, but quietly hopeful - and had invited him to join them for food, but Ochi had declined. "You heard him. He had to grab the next train if he was gonna have any hope of making it home tonight. Man, I'm glad we live so close. I bet some of those guys there today were from all over the country."
"Not him," Sho said impatiently, as if he'd already forgotten his earlier bout of jealousy. "The guy you were sitting behind. You know the one I mean."
"Oh. Him." Him. Yeah, Mitsuru knew who Sho was talking about; Sho had always had an unerring ability to sense competition for his brother's attention, and had plainly dismissed the innocuous Ochi in favour (or rather disfavour) of /him/. Strange, stuck-up, nameless, robot boy. Each time Mitsuru had found himself staring at a problem in his exam paper, feeling stumped beyond recall, he'd only had to lean forward and peer at the boy's fidgety feet and it was like a brain injection, filling his head with answers. By rights he should've felt intimidated by the guy's formidable aura; instead, he'd somehow found inspiration in that sole sign of vulnerability. He was lucky he hadn't been pegged for cheating, what with all the surveillance he'd been up to, but the proctor had seemed satisfied to take his sunny expression at face value. Looking cute had its advantages, and Mitsuru was always happy to exploit them.
"Like you've forgotten," Sho said, and Mitsuru was struck by the undeniable truth of the matter; the boy really had made a bright and indelible impression on him. He'd be hard-pressed to describe him, but he'd know him anywhere; he'd sure be able to spot him in an instant once school started, and felt startled by how much the prospect excited him. He puzzled over it now, trying to remember just what the guy had looked like, and almost missed Sho's next words: "What a weirdo. I know some guys go grey prematurely, but he's taken it to freakish extremes."
Mitsuru frowned, partly in admonishment - he was all in favour of good-natured mockery, but sometimes Sho took things too far - and partly in puzzlement; he hadn't actually registered the grey hair but had retained only an image of gleaming sleekness. Like a seal, ark ark/, he thought. /But I know what it's like to be different. "Careful what you say, Sho. That'll be you before long. Just look at Dad."
Sho scowled, chewing ferociously on his fries; Mitsuru knew he'd made a point, and wished he'd kept his big trap shut. Sometimes he wondered if that was one of the reasons he liked eating so much; it kept his mouth out of trouble, if only momentarily. They ate in silence, until Sho, still brooding, said, "He didn't look as if he'd deign to notice us lesser mortals, but he seemed to like you well enough. You two were on your way to being best friends for life from what I could see. Didn't you notice the way the whole classroom was staring at you two?"
And when Mitsuru thought about it now, he couldn't really recall anyone else in the room; there has been a sort of bubble around the guy into which he'd been drawn. He could feel its absence now, as if it had been a tangible thing, and he wished that he had reached out after all and touched him. Bet his hands were cold. "He seemed like an arrogant son of a bitch to me," he said finally with a shrug, but his nonchalance was studied and the shrug turned into a shiver.