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It’s against the rules of fortune telling to divine one’s own future. Everyone in the industry knows that, and most of them follow it. It’s the defining feature of a trustworthy psychic.

Even so—

“Sakasaki-kun,” his classmate says gently, hands stretched out across the desk that sits between them. His palms are up, Natsume’s fingers gently and absently gliding over the lines as he reads the story within them.

Natsume shakes his head. “Forgive me. I was envisioning your future. Tell me once more: What is your wish?”

The boy bites his lip to hold back a giggle. “Tell me when I’ll meet my soulmate!”

Of course it’s something like that. It usually is. After all, who doesn’t want to know more about their soulmate?

Natsume takes the boy’s hand more firmly and concentrates, looking into the future for his answer. Numbers emerge from the lines on his palm and the world melts into something similar yet distinctly different, a world yet unknown to them.

“Four years,” Natsume decides. “They will come to you in four years. The month is cold, and the leaves are falling, and you will meet beneath a tree said to be the source of fortune.”

The boy shivers under his touch, his smile growing the clearer the details become. “Four years! Four years…”

Natsume nods. “Are you satisfied with your answer?”

The boy agrees, fishing in his pockets for whatever loose change he has, and leaves the classroom in a daze. Natsume feels his influence grow within Yumenosaki.

He runs his fingers over his own soulmark: a thin line of golden thread wrapped around his wrist. It’s subtle, unusual, something he could never decipher without assistance.

It’s against the rules of fortune telling to divine one’s own future.

His hand falls to his side.

Natsume learns of the Five Oddballs through the grapevine—which is quite rude, he thinks, for a group which he supposedly belongs to.

He doesn’t pay it much attention, though, until it becomes unbearably clear that the name isn’t going away. When the whispers follow him down the halls and he can’t escape from the voices that lump him together with four other students—geniuses, they’re called.

He’s a genius.

When he meets with them for the first time, his stomach flutters and his palms sweat and he wonders what his future has in store for him, for them, but he keeps his thoughts on the present and doesn’t dare peek into the forbidden knowledge dangling before him.

Instead, he introduces himself. And they introduce themselves in turn, their eyes uncertain and hesitant as they dance around the small gathering.

But they feel warm, somehow, familiar and trustworthy souls in a broken school. Natsume almost feels at home among these people, these eccentric personalities and the very geniuses they’re venerated to be.

It’s by some divine coincidence that one of these people, these oddballs, is Itsuki Shu, the top idol in Yumenosaki and famed puppetmaster of his unit Valkyrie.

He can’t help but touch the thread woven around his wrist again and think maybe, maybe he can spin some kind of truth with it.

“Shu-nii-san,” Natsume calls, chasing after the boy as he walks briskly through the halls. “Are you performing in a live again today?”

“What do you care, boy?” Shu retorts, a frustrating non-answer. But Shu doesn’t give his time or his words to just anyone, and the mere acknowledgement gives Natsume confidence.

“I was hoping to come watch you,” he explains, falling in step beside Shu with great effort. “I am younger than the other Oddballs, so there is quite a lot I can learn from your performances.”

Shu scowls at the title but glances down at him, another acknowledgement that sends a shiver down Natsume’s spine and leaves him wanting more. “Do what you like. I am not your guardian.”

“I know that,” Natsume says with a grin. After a moment of quiet, he continues, curiosity getting the better of him. “Do you have a soulmate, Shu-nii-san?”

Shu raises an eyebrow dubiously but responds nonetheless. “Yes, I do. Why do you ask?”

“Mm, no reason.” Except that the mark on his wrist is tingling along with the growing excitement, the growing sureness that Natsume is right about this hunch. “Have you met them before?”

Shu nods. “I have. But I don’t see the point in pursuing something as trivial as soulmates. There is no merit in putting stock into something so mundane. I’ve no time to play house at this point in my life, or ever.”

It’s a harsh answer, but it does nothing to dampen Natsume’s excitement. They’ve met, Shu’s confirmed. They’ve met.

And that’s as much of a confirmation as he needs. The rest can fall into place as time marches on. They’re still young; the universe can wait for them.

They fall into a silence that isn’t quite easy but isn’t quite awkward, and when their hands brush together Natsume has to turn away to hide the evidence of heat creeping up his neck and to his face.

The thread around his wrist is hidden by his blazer, but it feels heavy and bright on his skin. He feels almost proud of himself that he didn’t have to break the rules to find his soulmate, that he was able to find him without the magic everyone else relies on him for.

Valkyrie has stopped performing, and Natsume’s most selfish desire is to see just one more time the golden strings that bind Shu’s dolls to his masterful fingers. It’s all he has to go on, after all, and when Valkyrie isn’t performing and Shu isn’t taking on the role of puppetmaster Natsume can’t help but feel their connection slipping away.

Or maybe it’s just these tense, changing times.

He finds himself outside the practice room Shu had rented, hand hovering in a loose fist just centimeters from the door. If only he were to flinch, he would alert the whole of Valkyrie to his presence.

He wants to see them perform, wants to watch Shu control his beloved dolls with his skilled, careful hands.

He knocks, and the faint, muffled track cuts off almost instantly, as if they had been expecting him.

“Enter,” comes Shu’s voice from the other side of the door.

Natsume doesn’t hesitate. “Shu-nii-san, I was hoping to ask for your time.”

“Oh, it’s you,” Shu says, waving him into the room. Natsume steps in, feeling suddenly self-conscious under three pairs of sharp gazes. He can’t say he remembers the names of Shu’s two dolls, but even so their presence in the room is powerful and commanding.

As expected of the most powerful unit in Yumenosaki.

“Why are you here?” Shu asks, sparing but one glance over his shoulder as he takes a drink from his water bottle. There’s a towel draped around his neck, and somehow he manages to make even a T-shirt and sweats look high-brow.

Natsume’s heart skips a beat. “I am still inexperienced at being an idol, so I was hoping to get some pointers from you.”

Shu pauses to stare at him for a moment, searching his face for something. When he seems satisfied, he sighs. “Very well. But do not interrupt us, boy. Our practice time is valuable.”

“Of course.”

The short blond turns back to practice without a word, already in position by the time the aggressive, demanding violins resume. The other, the taller one with mismatched eyes, lags behind, his eyes following Natsume’s every movement like he has something to say.

“Kagehira!” Shu calls, clapping once to get his attention.

He flinches and whips his head around. “Ngah, sorry, Oshi-san! I’s just…”

“You were just what?” Shu bites. “Honestly, what a defective doll.” He pays no heed to the kid as he joins the blond in their complex dance, and Natsume has half a mind to laugh at Kagehira’s expense.

When Shu lifts his hand to wipe the sweat from his brow, Natsume catches a glimpse of a small dragon outlined near his elbow.

Shu’s soulmark.

Natsume recognizes it; it’s obvious, much more so than his own. It’s as standard-fare as any other soulmark he’s seen up to now, from every customer he’s lent his power to. The realization washes over him, the waves of disappointment chilling him to his core.

The thread burns his skin; embarrassment burns his face. He stands to leave, and no one pays him any mind. Valkyrie continues dancing, Shu’s golden threads pulling at his two puppets with practiced ease. They’re completely caught up in their own perfect world, oblivious to the one crashing down around Natsume.

Shu doesn’t call after him when he leaves.

Everyone in the school keeps their distance from him. Good, he thinks. He prefers it that way. It lets him have peace and quiet when he bothers to come to class, when he sits at his desk spiraling down an abyss of unknowing.

Natsume digs his nails into the skin directly behind his ear. The thread ripping into his wrist burns white-hot, and any comfort he might have gotten from it before is nothing more than searing agony now.

He catches a glimpse of its gold filaments out of the corner of his eye. With his other hand, he tugs at his blazer sleeve and grimaces when it still sparkles from within the shadows.

It wasn’t Shu.

The thread, the golden thread so obviously tied to each of his artisan fingers, meant nothing in the end.

Natsume growls down at his desk and buries his nails deeper into his neck, as if his own blood could spill down his arm and wash away the mark for good.

It does no such thing, and Natsume tugs at his sleeve again.

A sudden cough makes him jump, hands falling with a thud to his desk, and he whips around to see someone staring at him.

He blinks once, and then his mind clears and he recognizes that doll of Shu’s staring straight at him with his mismatched and strangely alluring eyes. He doesn’t blink, doesn’t move, and Natsume feels almost intimidated by the unflinching gaze he’s met with.

Then the doll frowns and turns away, staring down at his own hands as he picks feverishly at his nails.

Natsume wants to say something, anything, and then he notices his sleeve loose around his wrist, the gold markings glistening in the midday light for all to see. For that doll to see.

Shame wells up inside him the way bile would and he turns back around, tugging so hard at the sleeve his blazer falls from his shoulder. And he realizes with a startling jolt that he can climb back out of this abyss. And thanks to fine, no one in this school would dare stand in his way.

It’s against the rules of fortune telling to divine one’s own future, a small voice reminds him even as he sits down in the middle of his secret room. The candles set out in a circle around him do little to pierce through the blackness of the room.

It’s against the rules, but it hasn’t stopped any of them before.

He plays with the thread on his wrist, desperate to uncover its secrets. There’s nothing wrong this, he tells himself. Everyone else has used him for this exact purpose, and the universe has never struck him down before. There’s nothing wrong with asking for something in return, for something to tether him to this uncertain and cruel world.

When he closes his eyes he sees something blue—the ocean? Kanata’s hair? A second year’s tie? The image is hazy, but Natsume pours all his concentration into the vision, forces it to become clearer.

He doesn’t sense a time, no future for him to look forward to. So then, they’ve already met. Perhaps he wasn’t as far off as he thought. And as the singular image in his mind grows clearer, he’s proven right: the picture twists and takes form, dark hair separating itself from the fabric of a vest, the Yumenosaki Academy uniform resting proudly around his shoulders. The blue is still blinding, shining out from just one eye, the other a beautiful shade of—

The image vanishes when Natsume’s eyes snap open. He brings a shaky hand to his own face, running his fingers just below his lashes. All this time, then—right in plain sight.

The gold thread carries significance again, a meaning Natsume can be sure of. He had been so close, just left of the truth since the beginning.

Natsume holds his breath, his hand never leaving his face.

“Even if you call me out here, I can’t just leave Oshi-san all alone like that, y’know?”

Mika is pacing back and forth in the secret room, biting down hard on his thumb—probably because Shu would kill him if he ruined his carefully manicured nails.

“I won’t keep you long, Mika-kun,” Natsume promises. He can’t stop watching Mika’s eyes as they dart across the room, that bright, gold eye capturing Natsume’s focus like a vise.

“Why’d ya bring me here, anyway?” Mika sounds far-off and distant. Natsume doesn’t blame him; Shu’s condition has failed to improve after Valkyrie’s live against fine. Even still—

“I wanted to confirm something. Stop pacing and stand still.”

Mika does as he’s told, a well-trained doll whose strings haven’t yet been cut. Natsume can’t say he wants them to be cut either, not yet, not when he’s this close.

He approaches Mika slowly, as if he’ll disappear if he’s too hasty. His hand wraps around his wrist almost subconsciously. “Mika-kun, have you ever considered who your soulmate might be?”

Mika’s brow furrows and he shakes his head. “Nah, I ain’t got no soulmark, if that’s what you mean. I’d feel pretty bad for someone if they were my soulmate, anyway, so I’m glad it’s this way.”

“No soulmark—?” Natsume huffs, clinging more tightly to his wrist and the thread that connects them. “That’s not right; surely you already know that.”

“Whatcha mean, Nakkun…?” Mika inadvertently takes a step back, but Natsume reaches out and grabs onto his arm, holding him still.

The world explodes in a sudden rush of heat, his arm alight in invisible flames that course through him until his entire body is on fire. Mika groans, gripping at his head, but it’s not an unpleasant sound. The fire doesn’t burn them, after all.

“Mika-kun.” Beads of sweat form across his forehead, and his fingers tighten around Mika. “Your eye.”

“Huh?” The heel of Mika’s hand is pressed into his eye socket, as if to quell the raging flames. “What’re you talkin’ about my eye for?”

“Did you really not notice?” Even through his frustration, Natsume’s voice is light and close to hysterics, the feeling of being right overriding anything else. “Your eye is the same color as mine. It’s your soulmark, isn’t it?”

Mika’s arm goes limp in Natsume’s grip, and he’s quiet for a long moment while he thinks. Natsume can’t keep the smile off his face, and his entire body feels like it’s floating.

“Ngah, then it’s your fault I’m like this?”

Natsume’s heart sinks. “Wh–what do you—?”

“This eye is ‘cause of you?” Mika’s frown is damning, and though he doesn’t raise his voice, the lack of emotion in it is far scarier than even the worst of Shu’s temper.

He tries again. “Not me, but the… the universe. You felt it too, right?”

Mika presses his hand against his face, covering up his right eye. “Can you let go of me, Nakkun? I… I gotta get back to Oshi-san. He’s probably worryin’ about me right about now.”

Natsume releases him, uncertain hands hovering in the air just above the sleeve of Mika’s blazer.

“Umm…” Mika hurries away, refusing to make eye contact with him. “I’ll—I’ll see y’around.”

Natsume’s legs give out, and he sinks to the floor in the middle of his secret room, surrounded by used candles and the crushing weight of regret.

This is his punishment—The realization sinks deeper into Natsume’s bones. Mika begins to avoid him, and when Mika stands awkwardly in the doorway of their classroom,

or when Mika finds the underground archive one day by chance,

or when Natsume catches Mika staring at him from across the garden terrace,

or when Mika bumps into him and spills sheet music all across the floor,

Mika always turns tail and runs the other way, to wherever Natsume isn’t. And by the time they’re both second years and Shu is finally walking around campus again, they’re practically strangers. And still the thread on his wrist sets ablaze whenever they happen to make eye contact. And still sometimes Natsume catches Mika rubbing at his eye, as if the universe is reminding them that the connection is there, unbroken.

A constant, painful reminder of his hubris.

The door to the handicrafts club room is already cracked, so it pushes open with ease when Natsume knocks on it. No sound comes from inside, and when Natsume looks around he can see why. Neither Tsumugi nor Shu are there, leaving just Mika by himself, hunched over a table with a needle in one hand and a wad of blue fabric in the other.

“Mika-kun,” Natsume says, his voice coming out far more strained than intended.

“Nakkun,” Mika responds quietly. He keeps his face buried in his work, hiding his eyes.

Natsume looks away too, not sure how to even speak to Mika after so long. “Have you seen Shu-niisan? I wanted to ask him about the costumes that he agreed to make for Switch.”

Mika shakes his head and sets down the needle and fabric, instead choosing to occupy his hands by playing with his fingers. “Nah, he ain’t been here all day. I think Shinkai-senpai called him out after class or something.”

“Oh.” Natsume picks at the hem of his blazer.

Mika nods, still refusing to look up at him. “Yeah, so, if you got something to say to him, it’ll have to wait… probably.”

“Mika-kun,” Natsume says, a note of incredulity in his voice because even he can’t believe what’s coming out of his mouth, “do you hate me?”

Mika jerks, knocking the fabric off the table. And this time, he lifts his head up and meets Natsume’s eyes, hands fumbling around as if searching for purchase. He stumbles over his words, stammering nonsense, and the pitiful display causes Natsume’s chest to clench, painful and not all at once. “N–no, why would I hate you? You’re Oshi-san’s friend so—so I couldn’t hate you even if I wanted to—which, which I don’t! I don’t hate you or anything!”

Natsume speaks over the frantic beating of his heart. “You’ve been avoiding me.”

“Nuh-uh!” Mika shoots out of his chair, shaking his head so frantically Natsume is sure it’s going to fall off.

Natsume quirks an eyebrow up. “You certainly have been.”

“I’m not avoiding you! I’m just, I’m really busy right now, since I gotta do part-time work for Valkyrie, and Oshi-san is all, yanno…” It’s a good excuse, and Natsume is almost inclined to believe it, except that Mika’s back to avoiding eye contact, and he keeps brushing his bangs to cover his face, and there’s absolutely something else there that Mika doesn’t want to say.

“I never took you much for a liar, Mika-kun.”

Mika’s face flushes a deep red. “Sorry, Nakkun, it’s just, my whole life I was here thinkin’ I didn’t have a soulmark or nothing, and then you come in and tell me it’s my eye… I mean, it’s not like it’s impossible, and when you think about it, it really does look just like yours.”

Natsume scratches at the gold thread on his wrist before pushing up his sleeve to show it off. “The universe is nearly impossible to understand, but we both know by now that this is you.”

Mika nods miserably, sinking back into his seat. “I get it. I’m not tryna deny it anymore, but… Well, I never liked my eyes, you know. They’re super scary and weird, and when I think about how much I hate ‘em I start feelin’ a little guilty, right? Because it’s something you gave me, and so that’s basically the same thing as hating you.”

There’s a surge of something in Natsume’s chest, an unfamiliar wave of feeling that threatens to knock him off his feet. It’s the kind of affection he feels when he’s with Sora, but somehow it’s amplified and directed all toward the boy in front of him.

“I don’t think they’re scary,” he finds himself saying, and this sudden honesty that spills out is such uncharted territory that he can’t help but feel infinitesimally small and far too vulnerable. He grips at his pant leg and prays to all the gods that don’t exist.

“Huh?” Mika says, and it seems to have some effect on him because he’s no longer hiding his face, letting himself look at Natsume with the full force of his gaze. “Why not?”

Natsume blinks once, twice, and tries to come up with an answer for that impossible question. “They’re not scary at all. I quite like them, actually. One of them is mine, after all.”

Mika thinks for a moment. “Yeah, but you gotta like them, don’t you? Since you’re my s—” He cuts himself off, face flushing again. He buries his head in his hands and whines a little. “Ngah, it’s embarrassin’ to say out loud!”

“Your soulmate?” Natsume finishes for him, lifting an eyebrow. He understands what Mika means, though: It is embarrassing to say out loud.

Mika just nods miserably, sinking down in his chair until his torso is slumped over the table and his head is buried in his arms. “And… I feel bad, yanno?”

“About your eyes?”

Mika shakes his head, but given his position he looks more like a worm wiggling around than anything. “No, I mean… that you’d be stuck with me. Instead of someone better. I’m just a useless bonehead, after all.”

It’s nearly impossible to make out what Mika’s speaking straight into the table, but as Natsume parses the words and pieces meaning together, a knot forms in his stomach and twists tighter until he’s having to physically hold himself still, carefully neutral, carefully emotionless. “Don’t you think I should have a say in that?”

Mika lifts his head, a little frown on his face and a little question in his whine.

“I don’t much like being told what I can and can’t do—” Natsume says, a cough breaking his sentence and giving him enough time to resolve himself, “—or who I can and can’t like.”

Mika tilts his head, his bangs falling into his eyes and obscuring the pleasant gold Natsume is so undeniably fond of.

“You don’t get it at all, do you?” Natsume huffs and pinches the bridge of his nose as he shuffles through thoughts, discarding the more embarrassing ones and pooling the two or three that have managed to pass the test. “I mean: Don’t decide on your own that I should have a better soulmate. You don’t get a say in that.”

“Ngah?” Mika says, and Natsume can’t possibly understand what that nonsensical noise is supposed to mean. “Yeah, but…”

Natsume frowns. “But what? I don’t understand what’s so difficult about this concept.”

“Well, I am a little stupid,” Mike supplies, and Natsume sucks in a breath. “But I think I get it…”

There’s another unspoken “but” there, but unspoken is the key word Natsume clings to. He’ll take it. “Then, Mika-kun, don’t you think we ought to move past this?”

Mika’s eyes widen and he looks down, fidgeting with whatever he can get his hands on—the fabric from before, it turns out. He twists it and rolls it into a ball, smashes it flat then drops it back onto the table in a crumpled heap. And then he stares at it, and Natsume stares at it too, wondering just what kind of ritual this is supposed to be.

“I guess.”

Natsume pauses. “You guess?”

“I guess,” Mika repeats. He spares a glance upward through his bangs at him, and there’s a small, nearly imperceptible dusting of pink along his nose. “But—”

“But what?”

Mika flinches. “But I don’t wanna go too fast or nothing. I–I still don’t know how I feel none too well, since I’m just a doll an’ all.”

Right. A puppet strung up on golden strings. Natsume’s wrist burns bright, and the knot in his stomach eases. “That’s fine. You’ll find I’m quite patient, actually. That’s how you get what you want.”

Mika blinks slowly, as if he’s struggling to process Natsume’s words. “Well, that’s a relief. Then maybe we can start as, yanno, friends?”

Natsume hums. Less than ideal, but he wasn’t lying: He is patient. So he nods and flashes Mika a sly smile, one that speaks volumes of a future only he knows. “Fine. Friends.”

And “friends” aren’t so bad, Natsume thinks to himself. Not when he’s been isolated in this rotting and corrupt Yumenosaki Academy, a slain villain left in the ruins of war.

So yes, it’s fine. For now, at least.