Gakushuu wonders if it’s him feeling his age or simply a side effect of his intellect that makes him so depressingly indifferent to most popular fads. Take, for example, what’s happening before him right now: shy little Yoshioka-san -who Gakushuu doubts has spoken more than twenty words in her entire life- had rushed in at the top of their shift, jammed a glossy magazine spread under his nose, and proceeded to loudly and lovingly describe the idol group that was featured.
“They’re actually called E for End, but everyone calls them End Class,” explains Yoshioka. “Four boys who are friends since middle school. Their songs are so good.”
“Huh,” says Gakushuu. He doesn’t get startled into autopilot like this very often.
“And, um,” she blushes and brings the magazine to her face. “Their routines are really, er, good too.”
Gakushuu nods, smiling, and the tips of her ears go red as well.
“A- anyway,” she stumbles, clutching on to the magazine corners tightly. “They have an interview today, is the important thing!”
She mentions the name of the studio and Gakushuu raises an eyebrow in reserved disbelief- he’d have expected them to have gone out of business by now, given the series of internal conflicts and poor management in the company. They must be betting everything on this one interview, and if that’s so, the idol group must be fairly profitable.
Oblivious to his line of thought, Yoshioka exults, “That’s really close, isn’t it? I’ve seen it on my way to the station. That could mean they might even come here!”
“It’s a possibility,” says Gakushuu.
He reaches for the magazine again and runs an eye across the sales figures. As expected, they’re nothing to sneeze at- perhaps the studio might stay afloat from this after all. The economy section of the papers never gave the full picture like this.
The rest of the article is predictable and familiar- four friends picking up mic.’s and having the luck, talent and good looks to coast to the top of the charts and stay there. The members are admittedly very cute- the one in the center of all the group shots has dark hair and sparkles at the camera just right, and the cheerful-looking bleached blond is always at his side, with an arm thrown over his shoulders and a big grin on his face. The token feminine one has blue hair and blue eyes, and seems sweet in a totally natural way. Gakushuu sees how those three could be a combo that works.
As for the fourth, Gakushuu has no idea what a guy like him is doing in an idol group in the first place.
It’s not that he’s unattractive -he might actually be the most classically handsome of them all. But there’s an edge to his smirk, and those eyes- Gakushuu wasn’t aware that would laugh at others’ misfortune and probably caused it in the first place was an accepted character type in popular culture. The fourth boy -the redhead, whose name is listed as Akabane Karma- looks like he’s ready to cut the photographer and dance around in the pool of blood in all the group shots. There are no single pictures of him.
“What a good-looking sociopath,” Gakushuu mumbles.
Yoshioka-san’s eyes take on a dangerous glint. “As expected of Gakushuu-kun! Karma’s my favorite too, isn’t he the coolest?”
“Um,” says Gakushuu.
“I mean, look at the way he’s always got his hands in his pockets! He’s totally the little devil type, don’t you think? Ah, but he’s a genius as well, he’s the one who writes all their music. His songs are really in demand, other artists want them too.”
Gakushuu begins to feel a little sorry for the other members of E for End. “Really.”
“He’s the one behind that whole scandal with the Chinese lyrics.” Yoshioka-san grips the chair she’s adjusting fervently. Gakushuu reflects that one never really knows a person until they bring up the topic of their favorite idol group. “You must know about that, Gakushuu-kun. One of the songs he wrote for another group had a verse in Mandarin, and apparently no one bothered checking what it meant, so for a while there was this huge summer hit making everyone insult themselves without knowing.” She beams. “Don’t you think that’s amazing?”
He really doesn’t. What he does think is that society is doomed because one of its elite was a real-life delinquent with a ridiculous sense of humor.
Before he can voice this, however, their manager calls that they open in ten minutes and that they should get their asses in gear. They scuttle to their stations obediently, Yoshioka-san grabbing her magazine as she goes.
Behind the counter, Gakushuu runs a careful eye over the cash register before looking back up at her. “Yoshioka-san?”
She blinks at him, snapping out of her reverie. “Gakushuu-kun…” She swallows, twisting the edge of her T-shirt in her hands. “Gakushuu-kun, your Mark… it’s glowing.”
Reflexively, Gakushuu slaps his palm on the side of his neck. He’d dismissed the slight burn, but now he examines the bright, crackling not-quite-pain, he realizes that it is coming from his Soulmate Mark. “…shit.”
“Does that mean,” she says in a tiny, breathless voice. “Does that mean today’s the day for you? That it’s going to happen here?”
Gakushuu keeps staring at her blankly. His Mark’s supposed to be like any old birthmark, because people like him didn’t require soulmates. He doesn’t have the slightest clue what he’d do with one- novels and manga always described characters who felt that they were missing something crucial, like they’d found their other half in their soulmates, but Gakushuu doesn’t need another half, he’s a whole person all by himself. More than anything else, he can’t imagine the absolute harmony most people seemed to be looking for- he’d die of boredom within a week.
He doesn’t want a soulmate.
“Maybe if I left…” he wonders, making his way to the exit.
“Or not,” he amends, as he’s hauled back by the collar by an irate manager. “Fate is a formidable enemy indeed.”
“There, there,” says Yoshioka-san. “Maybe it was an accident? Look, it isn’t glowing now.”
Gakushuu simply adjusts his T-shirt and resigns himself.
All thoughts of soulmates are forgotten an hour later, when Yoshioka-san is in tears and the manager’s running around with a crazy look in his eyes.
“…the things he orders aren’t even on the menu,” sobs Yoshioka-san, and blows her nose into the tissue Gakushuu distractedly offers her. “He’s-”
They both tense as what feels like the thousandth voice of the day calls, “Excuse me?” in slightly impatient tones.
Gakushuu ponders that this job is demonically difficult compared to his other, ludicrously better-paid one (where he gets to sit on a series of cushy executive chairs burning business plans to the ground) He sighs, gives Yoshioka-san a bracing pat on the back, and steps up to the counter. “How may I be of service?”
The annoyed scowl on the not-customer’s face gives way to a more dazed expression, eyes widening as she takes in the sight of Gakushuu. Judging by the faces on her T-shirt, it’s another groupie. They seem a fickle lot.
As she blushes and fails to say anything useful, Gakushuu casts a contemplative glance towards the flooded corner tables. It’s a publicity stunt of course- E for End dropping into a random café and sharing crêpes and banter like the old friends they supposedly are, all the while pretending there wasn’t a plague of reporters and fans clustered around them, squeezing for space.
At first, the manager had been -naively- delighted at the sudden influx of customers. Now he’s muttering to himself about teenage girls and goddamn bratty ikemen and Gakushuu can’t find the energy to pretend to sympathize.
“Your order,” he prompts.
“Ah, I was just-” she shakes her head. “Um, do you have a ladies’ room? Uh, please?”
Gakushuu smiles his nicest smile. “No we don’t.”
Her eyes widen. “Huh? But-”
“-your friend went there a little while ago,” Gakushuu completes pleasantly. “And unfortunately, your friends caused damage to the dryers from overuse, as well as a committing a handful more harm to café property. While it would be negligible if you were customers here, seeing how none of you have ordered anything we are free to legally view it as vandalism and collectively sue you for all that you’re worth and more.”
The girl deflates in shock. “…you can’t do that.”
Gakushuu doesn’t bat an eye. “Yes I can.”
She keeps blinking at him, so Gakushuu switches his pleasant smile off and begins making his way towards the eye of the storm.
“I would advise you to order something while you’re here,” he tells a clump of reporters at a desk, stepping purposefully in front of their cameras to block a clean shot. “The rates for these seats are otherwise exorbitant.”
Gakushuu points at the professionally printed sign he’d had delivered, predicting this would happen as soon as he heard the news. A series of disbelieving swears ripple through the crowd.
“Have a nice day,” he says agreeably, even as some of them grudgingly break away from their groups and shuffle towards the counter. He’s glad he had new menus printed, too.
He sidesteps the gathered fans towards the table that’s drawing all the attention. “I think my colleague mentioned an incomplete order?”
The dark-haired, refreshing member of E for End smiles apologetically up at him. “I’m so sorry for all the trouble we’re causing,” he says in a smooth, lovely voice.
Gakushuu makes a face that conveys that he hasn’t just threatened this boy’s entourage with bankruptcy and lawsuits. Twice. “It’s no trouble. We’re here to serve, after all.”
The smile turns rueful. “All the same, we’re very sorry. I’ll get Karma to stop bullying your staff, I swear, but if you would like us to-”
The dark-haired one’s head immediately snaps towards the other side of the table, expression disapproving. “Karma, language. We have to act as proper role models, and that means-”
Gakushuu doesn’t hear the rest of the lecture. Heat blooms from the side of his neck, spreading like wildfire to the rest of his nerve endings. He grimaces and covers his Mark, trying not to yelp when the contact burns.
He slowly turns around towards the spot in the corner of his vision that glows bright, demanding attention. His stomach churns. Not all of it is dread.
He makes out a pair of wide golden eyes before the feeling turns into an electric shock that rings through every cell in his body. He keeps his eyes open somehow, staring, a little overwhelmed despite himself. The boy -who’s covering his neck in a way that’s the mirror-image of Gakushuu- stares back.
The intensity doesn’t die down, but Gakushuu orients himself on it, like a sailor struggling to his feet in the middle of a storm. He stays frozen on the spot, and Akabane Karma half-stands, wonder written on every beautiful line of his face.
Then he says, “You’re Asano Gakushuu.”
Gakushuu -there’s no other word for it- gapes at him.
Akabane Karma then feels the need to add, “You built that shitty robot.”
Gakushuu processes this. Then he says -calm, despite the ringing in his ears, the irritation and the feeling in his bones that this was the start of something tremendous and thrillingly unknowable, endless- “And you’re Akabane Karma, fan of ungrammatical insults and subpar writing.”
Karma’s mouth hikes up in a grin like he can’t help it, even as he tilts his head challengingly. His whole face lights up when he smiles- there’s mischief and a dash of wickedness and so much bright, sharp intelligence it’s breathtaking. Gakushuu feels like he’s walked into a wall. Maybe multiple walls.
“Yeah, you’re my soulmate alright,” Akabane Karma grins. “Please take care of me, Unoriginal Inventor-san. Why are you here, anyway? Don’t tell me-- you’re here for an autograph. You’re actually my biggest fan, aren’t you?”
“I work here,” Gakushuu says, annoyed. “And call me Gakushuu."
Akabane Karma looks both delighted and pissed off by Gakushuu's mere existence, and Gakushuu's glad the feeling's mutual. "Then, I look forward to being soulmates with you, Gakushuu-kun."
The cutesy way he sings Gakushuu's name is really infuriating.
Gakushuu grins, razor-sharp and challenging, in a way he hasn't for a long time. "Try to keep up."