Ritsuka's only hope was for snow.
He glared outside the classroom window at a drab Tokyo afternoon, the bare trees and fruitless clouds of a miserable Friday afternoon. Snow, he knew, would only postpone the inevitable doom, but he might have one more day among the living.
"Everyone in Daddy's office was soooooooooo nice," Yuiko burbled, one desk over. "For my report I got a visitor's badge from his company, and a pen with their logo on it, and a picture of myself faxed on the company letterhead, and--"
Ritsuka tuned her out, glaring beyond her at the window and trying to will it to snow. All that happened was an oak leaf tumbling down off the elementary school's roof.
"...and I get to talk about how inter-corporate conference calls are made, and--- Ritsuka, Ritsuka are you listening to me?"
"No," Ritsuka said, crumpling his napkin and ignoring his ume onigiri. Come on. Snow. Snow already, dammit!
"Eh?" Yuiko blinked at him, and suddenly her chest was blocking Ritsuka's view of the window. Ritsuka sighed, defeated. Any other part of her, he could have looked around. "Why not?" Yuiko continued, bewildered. "It's so interesting going to grown-up jobs! I know your mom doesn't work, but I thought you were going to go to your Dad's office--"
"I haven't seen him to ask," Ritsuka said, to their lunches. The boiled eggs had been garnished to look like bunny rabbits. "He-- He's been really busy. And um, out of town. On a business trip."
Yuiko's face fell. Ritsuka couldn't see it, but he was certain her short tail was drooping too. He hated lies and lying, and hated himself all the more for resorting to them himself. But how exactly was he supposed to tell her the truth? I'm sorry, Yuiko, but my dad never seems to come home, and when I leave him notes, my mother finds them and throws them away. But that's okay, because at least then she isn't kicking the living crap out of me. Oh yeah, that would go over just fine.
"But," Yuiko whimpered, "But we were assigned this a month ago! You'll get a zero on your report tomorrow!"
"Can't be helped," Ritsuka muttered, and ate a tiny fragment of pickle off his rice in a vain show of normalcy. Since when had his life been normal?
"What's that?" Yayoi appeared out of nowhere with his lunch tray. "Ritsuka's getting a zero?"
Ritsuka's ears went flat. "No I'm not," he said, unwilling to let Yayoi even think of getting the better of him. "I'll think of something."
"Better think fast, then," Yayoi said, flouncing off with his tray. "Or were you hoping it was gonna snow?"
"Ritsukaaa," Yuiko said, her hands to her mouth in great dismay. "What are you gonna do?"
Ritsuka said nothing; he only turned his gaze back to the window and prayed harder.
By the time the final bell chimed the clouds had cleared off completely and the bare, brown grass lacked so much as one speck of frost. Ritsuka was left with no hope, only the grim prospect of being called to the front of the class the next day, and having to admit to everyone that he was empty-handed.
For a minute he wished he had never started caring about his schoolwork again.
Yuiko bounced ideas off him the entire time he went down the school steps and across the lawn, but her suggestions were hardly brilliant. The best one she had was for Ritsuka to bring in a burrito from the 7-11, and to say his dad worked at a frozen food company.
The worst part was that for all Ritsuka knew, maybe his dad did work at a burrito company. He certainly had no idea what his father's real job was, only that it gave him an excuse to never be home.
Ritsuka didn't blame him. If it wasn't for the report, he'd be glad to go to school every day, come rain, snow, fire, or Godzilla.
"Ah!" Yuiko exclaimed, clapping her furry-mittened hands, "Maybe Soubi knows something you can do!"
"No!" Ritsuka shot back, horrified. The last thing he needed was Soubi to turn up in class for career day, there to announce cheerfully that his career was to obey Ritsuka's every whim, to fight spell battles for him, and to add 'pederasty' to the sixth-grade vocab test.
Besides, Miss Shinonome would spend the entire time burbling at Soubi, something that perplexed and annoyed Ritsuka in ways he didn't understand.
"I don't want Soubi to know anything about--"
"Don't want me to know anything about what?" Soubi asked, smiling down on them from the school gate, where he stood with his long coat open to the chill. "About how much Ritsuka likes me?"
Ritsuka's face darkened in with a speed that the sky refused to echo. "No!"
"About how our career day reports are due tomorrow, and Ritsuka hasn't done his!" Yuiko said, cheerfully. "Oops," she added, as Ritsuka's storm-front expression turned on her. "Sorry."
"Career day?" Soubi echoed, his eyebrows raising. "Hmm."
"I don't need you to come!" Ritsuka shouted. "I'm doing something, I just-- haven't done it yet!"
Soubi shrugged. "Fair enough. I just thought you might like to come by the studio, this afternoon. Miss Yuiko too, if she likes."
"Aww," Yuiko said, pouting. "I have cram school."
"Next time, then," Soubi said, but his eyes were on Ritsuka. "Interested? Winter break starts next week, and all the student paintings will be taken down. I thought you'd like to see mine before I take them home. Kio's too."
Ritsuka shrugged. "Sure, I guess."
"Mouu." Yuiko dragged her feet down the sidewalk, on her way to two more hours of studying. "Take a picture of them for me, Ritsuka! Bye! Bye Soubi-san!"
"Mmmbye," Ritsuka muttered, and followed Soubi down the street, his thoughts bleak. Any other time, he would be interested to see more of the normal half of Soubi's life, and he had been pestering him to take him to the university studio for weeks. Only now, all Ritsuka could think of was his looming humiliation on the next day.
Soubi's university was only a short bus ride away, but it was crowded with students of all ages. Soubi gave Ritsuka the only seat left on the crowded bus and stood over him, one hand hooked lazily in the ceiling strap for balance he didn't need. Ritsuka wished Soubi was the one sitting down. Staring at Soubi's belt buckle only made him feel that much smaller.
Three seats over a group of middle-school girls tittered and whispered. Every now and then they would glance furtively in Soubi's direction, then plunge back into a knot again, their squeaks barely muffled.
Ritsuka got up on his knees and leaned over the heads of some fourth graders. "Shut up!" he told the girls, his tail thumping on his seat with irritation. "You know he can totally hear you!"
The silenced girls stared at him, too scandalized to retort, and Ritsuka slid back into his seat. "Stupid girls," he muttered. "What makes them do stuff like that, anyway?"
Soubi shrugged, smiling fondly as though at some private joke, and the bus squealed to a halt.
"It's none of your business, you know!" One of the girls hissed at Ritsuka, as he and Soubi made to leave the bus. "It's not like you own him."
"Actually," Soubi said, still smiling, "he does." He tossed the stunned girls a wink as he descended the bus steps. "Ja, ladies."
Ritsuka paused long enough to lean back around the seats and stick his tongue out at them. Their horrified expressions were thoroughly satisfying, and Ritsuka was smiling almost a full minute before he remembered his report.
He followed Soubi up the stairs of the university art building, his ears drooping, but once they were inside the studio, Ritsuka's troubles were forgotten again.
It was unlike any other classroom he had ever been in. For one, it was much larger, being three studios in a row divided only with freestanding walls of cabinets and corkboard. It smelled of linseed oil and turpentine and plywood, and a CD player somewhere blared infectious rock music. Ritsuka had been picturing an orderly, quiet sort of place, like a museum-in-progress, with only a few hushed people inside working quietly on calligraphy. Instead there were quite a few students, most of them engaged in end-of-semester cleanup, and there was cheerful conversation over the noise of the radio, and the loud clatter of someone disassembling canvases one studio over. The whole place was a jumble of sculptures and paintings and foam board and arcane bits of artist's equipment.
"This is where you paint?" Ritsuka asked, bewildered.
Soubi shook his head. "This is where Kio paints. I do most of my work at home--"
"Because it's always late!" Kio said, appearing from behind a stack of metal paint trays, their surfaces stained with congealed splodges of color. A lollipop stick jutted out of his mouth at a rakish angle. "How are you doing, Ritsuka-kun? Still hanging out with this pervert?"
"Well, you know how it is," Ritsuka said, scuffing his foot on the paint-spattered cement floor.
"Yeah," Kio said, with a sidelong glance at Soubi, "I know how it is."
"The exhibition is up along the landing," Soubi said, as Kio's remark bounced off him without a dent. "Come on and I'll show you."
"Hey don't go wandering off!" Kio shouted after them. "You've still got to clean up your area and gather up all your work! If you want it, you'll have to take it, or I'll put it in the trash!"
"He always says that," Soubi murmured to Ritsuka, leaning down so that his hair tickled the sensitive point of Ritsuka's ear. "And then he brings everything over to my apartment later."
Ritsuka put his ears back, to stop the strange tingly feeling in the bottom of his spine. It didn't help; Soubi's whisper was really responsible. "You've really got him wrapped around your little finger, don't you?"
"He puts himself there," Soubi said, lifting one shoulder dismissively. "I am made to obey the whim of others, not the other way around. Ah. Here's where mine begin."
Ritsuka stopped looking at the toes of his sneakers, and lifted his face to a neat row of watercolor paintings. Soubi's work was delicate and unforced, as deceptively simple as the man himself was. Putting his nose almost to the paper, Ritsuka saw that what looked like straightforward images of flowers and butterflies were really meticulous layers of color and line, folded over and over in a way that made the finished work more intense than the usual traditional painting. Every line was deliberate, there was no second-guessing. Ritsuka, however, knew nothing of art or nuance, he only knew that one butterfly looked as though it had been torn from a segment of June blue sky, and the crimson breasts on a row of swallows were like a scattering of blood drops.
"Well?" Soubi asked, his habitual smile hovering on his lips. "What do you think?"
Caught staring, Ritsuka pulled away, feigning disinterest. "I've seen your paintings before," he muttered. "Before the second zeroes came."
"Ah, but that was some time ago. An artist is always evolving."
Ritsuka glanced at a swirl of black ink that somehow, in a single gesture, was perfectly evocative of a sleeping black cat.
"You've gotten better," Ritsuka said, and jammed his fists in the pockets of his pants. "But you should branch out more. You're always painting the same things."
Soubi blinked, and then his smile was back, only more genuine. "You're quite the little art critic, you know that?"
Ritsuka didn't answer, avoiding Soubi's eyes and his paintings.
Soubi took him along the landing then, and it was easy to see that Soubi was one of the best artists in the exhibition. Kio's abstract paintings were easy to spot, as different from Soubi's as light and dark, but almost as interesting. Kio practically abused his canvasses. Paint was slathered on thick, then carved and sanded away, or peeled back and pinned like a brightly-colored dissection. The canvas was ripped and torn and then meticulously stitched back together, and rows of metal rings and staples made winding paths through the chaos of paint.
"He's had a lot of practice stitching me back up, I expect," Soubi said, as he lifted his glasses to examine a corset-like array of laced hoops in one painting. "You see why it annoys him so much that I can finish six paintings in one all-nighter. One thing can take him weeks."
"What are all these?" Ritsuka asked, having come upon a cork-board wall that was covered with layers and layers of paper.
"Our life-drawing sketches," Soubi said. "I should really collect mine."
Ritsuka was vaguely perplexed by the fact that he knew which sketches were Soubi's before his fighter unit started pulling them down. He wasn't sure he should be looking at the sketches, anyway. None of the models wore clothes, and none of them still had their cat ears. The idea of Soubi sitting in a room and dispassionately staring at a naked person made Ritsuka feel rather exposed, himself.
"Oh," Soubi said, though a mouthful of t-pins. "This one's of Kio. He models sometimes."
"Really?" Ritsuka said, his eyes darting sideways at the sketch. Thinking about Soubi sketching a disrobed Kio was worse. But the quick lines of conte crayon caught Ritsuka's eyes and held them. Other sketches on the wall had been from the same session, and Soubi's classmates had chosen angles that made Kio's pose provocative or playful. But Soubi's sketch had been done from the back, and in it Kio looked introspective and vulnerable, the line of his spine a single swift mark like the black ink in Soubi's watercolors. For some reason, it made all of Ritsuka's discomfort evaporate.
"Good, isn't he?" Kio asked, coming up to collect his own sketches. "Bastard. There's nothing he's not good at. Well except for--"
"We will not discuss the pottery class," Soubi demurred. "Are you already finished, Kio?"
"Almost," Kio said, dumping his sketches in an indifferent heap. "I've got to ditch all the colors I've made up, though, I won't be using them."
"You've got leftover paint?" Ritsuka asked, thumbing through Kio's sketches. He had drawn everyone from the front.
"Yup," Kio said. "I use a textured base in all my paint, so I'll mix it up with the colors first, and store leftovers in case I need them later. But I can't keep them over break, so--"
"Can I try them?"
Kio blinked at Ritsuka, but Soubi only smiled over the sharp tips of his t-pins.
"You want to try some painting, Kio style?" Kio grinned. "You liked my work, huh?"
"Yeah, well," Ritsuka wiped some stray sketching chalk off his fingers. "I'm terrible at stuff like art, but it looks like you just make a mess. I think I can do that."
There was a muffled crunch as Kio's jaw contracted on his chupa-chup sucker.
"Can hit you right in the pants, can't he?" Soubi said, with something like pride.
"I don't ever want to hear you say 'Ritsuka' and 'pants' in the same breath again," Kio shot back. "But what the hell? I've got a canvas gessoed that I didn't use, and my easel's still up. Let's see what kind of a mess you can make, huh?"
The blank whiteness of the canvas was more intimidating than Ritsuka expected. Kio had set him up with a tray full of thick glossy paints in six colors, and some brushes that had been chewed on the ends.
"You've really got to do something about that oral fixation, Kio," Soubi said, eyeing the mangled tip of a sable flat.
"I keep trying," Kio said, leaning provocatively on a chair and pouting at Soubi. "But you just keep avoiding me--hey--whoa!"
Soubi had 'accidentally' nudged the chair as he walked by to get to his cabinet, leaving Kio's arms pinwheeling for balance.
Ritsuka caught himself smiling, as he had when Soubi had told off the girls on the bus. He didn't really understand why, and he didn't have time to figure it out before Soubi was standing over him, one warm hand on Ritsuki's shoulder.
"Afraid to start?" Soubi asked. "Or are you embarking on a career as a minimalist?"
"Give me a minute!" Ritsuka snapped. "I've never done this before, and I don't want to mess up Kio's canvas."
"It's not Kio's canvas, it is yours." Soubi ran his fingertips down the stapled edges of the frame, and against the white his pale skin was suddenly a startling, vivid golden-peach. "It's waiting to see what you will give it. What you will turn it into. How you will make it yours."
The clean brush wavered in Ritsuka's hand as he looked up at Soubi, realization dawning that Soubi was not talking about the canvas.
"You mean," he asked, very small, "I have to give it orders?"
Soubi's smile was nowhere but in his eyes, and it was more genuine than any of his other, more blatant ones. "Of course. How else can it become what you want it to be?"
"But what about what the canvas wants to be?" Ritsuka said, keeping his eyes on the canvas, and not on the blank page of Soubi's face. "Why should I decide? Surely it wants something for itself?"
Soubi leaned down and caught Ritsuka's shoulders, his voice an almost-kiss. "It only wants to be made into something beautiful by your hands." The almost kiss turned into a real one, chaste on Ritsuka's cheek, while Kio was occupied with a small avalanche in his cabinet. "Come. Show me your will to create."
Ritsuka looked down at the tray of Kio's leftover paints, and then cast his brush aside. His fingers went right for the vivid dollop of butterfly-wing blue, and he smeared it across the white void in one bold stroke. It made his knees weak, as they had been the first time Soubi kissed him in battle. Soubi let out a slow breath, and straightened.
"That's how to do it," he said. "Remember, it exists for your pleasure, not the other way around. Kio!"
Kio started, bashing his head on the underside of the cabinet shelf. "Ow! What?"
"I'm going for a smoke," Soubi said. "Don't wander off, in case Ritsuka needs anything."
"Don't wander off," Kio snorted, as Soubi scooped up his coat and headed for the door. "That's what he's doing! Phew, what a handful. How's it going, Ritsuka?"
Ritsuka didn't answer, too busy using his will to turn a white nothing into the blue of Soubi's soul.
"And thank you, Miss Hawatori, for that very informative report on teleconferencing." Miss Shinonome looked like she was the one hoping for a sudden snow, now. "It was very, um, thorough. Next, Mr. Aoyagi?"
As she took her seat, Yuiko looked over at Ritsuka with an expression of great concern. He hadn't said anything about the presentations that morning, and she knew there was no way he could have gone to his father's office. But instead of announcing that he had failed to do the assignment, Ritsuka picked up a square, paper-wrapped bundle from under his chair and made for the front of the class.
"Now then," Miss Shinonome said, shushing the whispers that had started in the lull between presentations. "Ritsuka's report is the last one, so please pay attention."
Ritsuka's hands tightened on the package, and for a moment his nerve almost left him. But then he remembered the fearlessness of that first blue mark, and the approval in Soubi's eyes. He unwrapped his painting and held it up in front of him, like a shield.
Like a sentoki.
"My dad wasn't able to take me to work with him," Ritsuka began, as the class studied the blue painting with black smears across it like a rising flock of butterflies. "So I went with one of my brother's friends to his painting studio..."
Outside the elementary school, Soubi smiled to himself as he lit another cigarette, and then leaned back against the brick wall and waited for Saturday class to be over.