For the first few years of Kou Nakano’s life, his skin is bare. Free of marks. He’s too young to really think one way or another of it, so it doesn’t trouble him too much, but he does sometimes wonder what kind of mark he’ll get when his soulmate is finally born. A name? A picture? A sentence? He knows better than to ask his parents about it, but he does look at the marks of the people around him curiously.
He’s lucky enough to see his mark set, one lonely afternoon when he’s in the bath. The water had gone cold, but some inertia had kept him lying there listlessly long after he should have gotten out. It’s with a start that he notices a warm pressure on his leg. Wide-eyed, he watches as pawprints appear one by one, like a ghostly cat walking up his leg and stopping at his chest, before the feeling suddenly vanishes. But the marks remain.
Years later he’s kicking himself for not thinking to take note of the date so he’d know his soulmate’s birthday, but he could hardly expect a four-year-old to think of something like that. All he has is a vague recollection of the season and year. And a messy smattering of pawprints on his chest.
More years pass, and Kou stops thinking of it much at all. As he goes longer and longer without developing a real, substantial crush on anyone, the whole affair starts to feel foreign and disconnected from him. He doesn’t even really like cats, what is this. He’s got enough shit to worry about without this soulmate crap.
And then he dies. He doesn’t think of his soulmate once in all the days he spends lying motionless on the floor, but not long after he reawakens it occurs to him that something might have happened to his soulmate’s mark. And then he wonders if perhaps it’s vanished completely. Is he free? The thought comforts him, though he supposes that he feels bad for his soulmate, wherever they are.
When Kei Nagai is born, at first the doctors fear that something is wrong with him; a strange pattern of lines crackles across his skin and seems to indicate an illness of some kind. But as they monitor him, they realize that the lines, despite dramatically resembling the scars seen on the victims of lightning strikes, are merely soulmate markings, and dismiss him.
Kei is raised to cover the marks diligently, and to not dwell on them. Only fanciful fools waste their lives away chasing after their soulmates, his mother reminds him. His parents’ markings, as she so often likes to tell him and Eriko, do not match. It’s probably for this reason that Eriko is born without a mark, and even years later as a teenager, well beyond the point where one might expect one to manifest, she’s still without one.
Kei still uncomfortably remembers the day that Kai had nonchalantly shown them his marking, a pair of wings over his shoulder blades, and Eriko had cried the whole way home.
But Kei doesn’t trouble himself with it. As he gets older, he feels no desire in him for the bodies of others, and even tells himself occasionally that the mark isn’t truly a soulmate mark, but something else explained away as such when the doctors couldn’t identify its true cause.
The lines spiderweb across his body all the same, and do not fade or change as he ages. Once in a while, he catches himself clutching his shoulder, where they originate, and it troubles him. It doesn’t distract him from his studies however, so he tries to just ignore it. He’s never fully able to put the mark out of his mind. Even after he dies, and he’s on the run with Kai, he finds himself thinking about it when his mind wanders.
He hopes he never meets his soulmate. He’s fairly certain that he won’t meet their expectations.
When Kou Nakano stumbles across Kei Nagai in the woods, Kei doesn’t want him to die. Not really. Yes, it would be sort of convenient if he did, but Kei’s frankly more surprised by his ghost’s violent overreaction than he is by Kou’s sudden arrival. Even after Kou’s revealed to be an ajin, Kei still at least mostly wants to let him go. He’s not totally sure if he will, but he thinks he will.
And then Kou’s eyes are wide and excited, and he fills the air with bold words about challenging Satou and saving the world and protecting everyone and his hand clamps down with searing finality right on Kei’s shoulder and Kei feels like he’s been electrocuted. The words to dismiss Kou almost leave his mouth; he’s sure he could make him go away if he was persistent enough, and from just a few minutes with him Kei can already tell that Kou’s too much of a goodhearted idiot to turn Kei in.
Instead he finds himself making riceballs with poisonous mushrooms, the thought I can’t let him leave burning through his brain like lightning bolts. And again, when he’s given away and forced to run, it’s as if his blood had been replaced with the words I can’t leave him behind and if his ghost dares to say a word about it he’ll—
“Why’d you come back for me?” Kou asks him later that day as they ready themselves by the cliff and Kei has to literally bite his tongue to keep himself from blurting out “for the same insane reason I decided to fight” and Kou looks at him with stupid stupid s t u p i d earnest eyes and Kei glares at him because this idiot is dangerousDangerousDangerous and he’s about to literally jump off a cliff with this moron what the hell is wrong with him?
Kou Nakano, for his part, doesn’t give it a moment’s thought that Kei’s ghost clawed through his chest exactly where the pawprints of his soulmate mark are.
He does however start to, just in his head, compare Kei Nagai to some kind of aloof asshole of a cat. It starts when they emerge out of the ocean and Kei looks pissed-off and drenched and Kou has to muster every bit of self-preservation he has to choke back a laugh and keep his face serious. Kei also likes to take naps, Kou observes, naps which are very precisely timed and apparently are calculated to optimize the restorative qualities of sleep while minimizing the amount of time wasted actually sleeping. As for why Kou often finds Kei napping in the sun specifically, well, he’ll just chalk that up to Kei secretly being a cat. Kei never gives him anything, but sometimes leaves him things, usually food, for him to find. He never lets Kou approach him, always finding some excuse to put space between them when Kou tries, but sometimes, when Kou is distracted with something, he’ll suddenly notice that Kei has been nearby for an indeterminate amount of time, watching him critically with catlike eyes. Okay, it was really the eyes that did it for Kou. He’s a shallow bastard, what could he say?
He idly imagines fucking Kei a few times, watching those icy eyes thaw from pleasure (but without losing any of their sharpness) and coaxing wild sounds out of him. But the fantasy, while pleasant, isn’t especially consuming, and all of his probes, ranging from asking Kei about any past lovers to obtusely crowing about Izumi’s beauty around Kei to see if he could get any reaction, any, out of him, lead him to believe that Kei isn’t to be pursued in that area. Honestly, Kou wouldn’t be surprised if Kei didn’t even have a soulmate mark at all.
Oh yeah, his soulmate mark. How’s that soulmate of his doing, anyway? Wherever and whoever they are…
Once in a while Kou finds himself thinking that it would maybe be nice if he and Kei could be a little closer, if they could curl up around each other with enough room to breathe but close enough to share warmth. Knowing they had each other’s backs, understanding each other in a way no one who hadn’t died before could understand. And then there were other times…
“Are you saying you think you’re more important than anyone else!?!” Kou snaps, feeling his hackles rise as he fights to keep himself from actually throttling Kei.
“Yes of course,” Kei says coolly, his eyes slits, “Don’t you?”
“Of fucking course not!”
Kei sneers. “Well you should.”
Those words keep Kou up all night, and in a last-ditch effort of getting some sleep, he goes to wake up Kei, who, not being a heavy sleeper, is easy to rouse. “What do you want, Nakano?” Kei asks languidly, the moonlight making him seem to glow.
“Tell me what you meant earlier.”
Kei’s eyes search his face curiously, before he closes his eyes and sighs. “Ah I see,” he says, lying back down, “You mean when I upset you.”
Kou grabs Kei’s shoulder to keep him upright, and Kei’s eyes snap open. Belatedly, Kou notices that Kei isn’t wearing a shirt, and maybe this is making him a bit uncomfortable, but he’s not going to back down unless Kei does or says something about it. “Tell me what you meant earlier,” Kou repeats, his voice a bit softer, “when you said I should think I’m more important than anyone else.”
Kei rolls his eyes. “I only meant that in the grand scheme of things your life or mine has no lesser or greater value than any other, aside from the fact that they belong to us. If you weigh the worth of your life and find it wanting, then why are you even still alive?”
“I couldn’t end my life even if I wanted to.”
Kei being Kei, rather than reacting to that with something resembling sympathy or pity, simply smirks. “Oh yeah,” he says, “dang.” Kou has never been more relieved in his entire life.
Kei still hasn’t done anything to remove Kou’s hand from his shoulder. “Do you…” Kou begins hesitantly, “…do you think we’ll live forever, Nagai?”
Kei shrugs. “It’s too soon to tell,” he says, “I’ll need at least a few years before I can determine whether or not being an ajin counteracts senescence.”
Kei glares and shoves him away. “Senescence! Aging! Did you ever pay attention at school, moron?”
Not particularly. Now Kou may not have been smart enough to be ready for medical school like the asshole sitting in front of him was, but he’s learned Kei’s mannerisms well enough to know that right now he was actually pleased. Kou chuckles despite himself. The petty asshole liked showing off how smart he was. “Why don’t you explain it to me?” he says cheekily, “so I remember for next time.”
A lot of what Kei says makes no sense (he’d be a terrible teacher), but Kou likes hearing him talk. He figures it’s the only way to understand this bizarre creature that has become his travel companion, and maybe if he hears Kei talk enough about his detached carefully calculated uncompromising view on humans that he sees as nothing more than electricity and chemicals, maybe Kou will figure out how to explain to Kei why he’s wrong.
Kei seemed to have realized that Kou wasn’t properly paying attention, because his face was screwing up like a displeased toddler and what had once been graceful gesticulations from his hands had turned more emphatic and frustrated. Kou smiles despite himself, propping his head on his hand. “What?” Kei snaps.
Kou laughs at the disgusted look on Kei’s face even as Kei’s ghost eviscerates him. When he comes to, Kei is eyeing him suspiciously, his face flushed either from anger or embarrassment, or perhaps both. “Sorry,” Kou teases.
“Why the fuck would you say that?”
Embarrassment then, at least mostly. Kou supposes he can’t blame Kei. And with Kei’s people skills being what they were, he’s going to have to spell it out for Kei, isn’t he? But then he notices something. “Dude,” he says, pointing at Kei’s shoulder, “what the fuck happened to you?”
Kei grabs his shoulder, turning his body away from Kou, but the raggedy jagged lines crossed his chest and back as well. “I got struck by lightning,” he snaps.
Gnarly as fuck. Except… “But you last reset this morning…” Kou says curiously, “Remember?”
“Oh now you’re smart, of course. It’s a metaphor you dipshit, of course I don’t have any scars anymore. I was born with this.”
Kou sits back on his knees and thinks about that for a moment, before blinking in surprise and crawling over to where Kei is curling in on himself. “Kei?” he asks, poking Kei’s cheek, “you have a soulmate?”
“So I’m told,” Kei says loftily, failing to disguise his discomfort.
This wasn’t adding up. “But I thought you…I mean, I guess I could be wrong, but you don’t—”
“Have a sex drive?” Kei interrupts coolly, and Kou shudders. Shit, now he was pissed. “No, I don’t particularly. What’s it to you? Do you think there’s something wrong with me?”
Kou probably should have paused, and taken a moment to think about how to salvage this conversation. But instead he just blurts out, “I’ve always thought there was something wrong with you.” He pauses to ruffle Kei’s hair fondly, “but not that.”
Kei swats his hand away, and Kou smiles. “What about you?” Kei asks savagely, “Don’t you have a soulmate you should be trying to find? It seems like it’s right up your alley.”
For the first time in weeks, Kou thinks of pawprints, pressed delicately over his heart. “Nah, not really, I don’t think,” Kou says nonchalantly, “Aren’t you supposed to put all your love or whatever into that person? I’ve never really been able to do that…”
“Do you have a mark?”
Why do you care? “Yeah, sure, I guess,” Kou says, hesitating for a moment before pulling off his shirt to reveal the pawprints on his chest.
Kei looks at him thoughtfully, and Kou averts his eyes. “I’m surprised,” Kei admits, “I would have thought that destiny ordaining someone out there to be more important to you than anyone else would be something you’d jump at.”
“Heh, maybe you’re rubbing off on me then,” Kou says, only half-sarcastically. “What even is a soulmate, anyway?” he asks, lying on his back and staring at the ceiling.
“What do you mean I’m “rubbing off” on you?”
“I think more now, I guess,” Kou says, “I never would have tried to have a conversation about the worth of different people, before. Just cuz we don’t always agree doesn’t mean you aren’t rubbing off on me, just that I’m applying your philosophy differently.”
There’s suddenly a weight being pressed into Kou’s chest, and he wheezes, looking up to see Kei staring down at him, his foot pressed right over Kou’s heart. “It should come as no surprise to you,” Kei says, “that I’ve given the nature of soulmates a great deal of thought, and what that might mean to someone like me. I’ve concluded,” he adds, sliding his foot up to Kou’s throat and pressing just hard enough that Kou has to fight to breathe, “That a soulmate is someone who barges into your life and asks questions you thought you’d already answered, until doubt burns through your body like a fever and you sweat out old ideas and wake up as someone else. Someone that brings out the most in you.” He cocks his head and lifts his foot away, allowing air to flow freely into Kou’s lungs again. “I’m surprised you don’t look more afraid.”
“I trust you,” Kou says simply.
Kei crouches down and rolls his eyes, flicking Kou in the forehead before gently placing his hand on Kou’s chest, just for a second. “So I’m a cat, am I?” he says softly, before standing up and walking back over to his futon.
Kou processes that admirably fast, in that after only a few moments he was shakily pushing himself up and stuttering, “wh-what?”
Kei sits elegantly on his futon, his limbs arranged gracefully and his long eyelashes fluttering demurely. “Tell me,” he purrs, “Is it sad to live in such a fog of stupidity? Or is it relaxing? Perhaps I should try it.”
“You couldn’t turn your brain off if you wanted to.”
“Perhaps, but maybe you’re rubbing off on me too,” Kei says, lying down and covering himself again with his blankets.
Kou blinks, certain he must be missing something. Kei sighs. “I wasn’t joking,” he declares, “when I said I’d been struck by lightning.”
Kou rolls his eyes at that, not having the patience to deal with some other dumb thing Kei is saying, but then…when he thinks about it a moment more. Oh.
“Good job,” Kei says, “perhaps I’ll reward you with a scratch behind your ears later.”
Kou sits quietly for a moment, before asking “Does this mean I should call you Kei now?”
Kei groans. “Don’t overthink this, it doesn’t suit you. Why does anything have to change? Just do what you want, like you’ve always done. I trust you,” he adds quickly, as though that’s unimportant.
“Do…what I want?” Kou couldn’t remember ever having permission to do that.
“Sure, whatever. But if you fucking touch me I’ll kill you.”
Kou’s shoulders sag in relief. Good, they weren’t going to play some weird uncomfortable scripted game of pretend. Grinning devilishly, he crawls across the room over to Kei’s futon, lying on the floor right next to him. Kei glares. “What are you doing?” he demands.
“I’m not touching you,” Kou says, stealing some blankets off of Kei and curling his body until their noses are juuuuuuuuuuust shy of touching.
Kei wrinkles his nose distastefully. “Whatever,” he says, closing his eyes, “do what you want.” He doesn’t move.
Kou’s grin softens into something fonder, and he closes his eyes, falling asleep.