Shouta’s classmates were all bouncing around, full of enthusiasm for their first time working with mages their own age. Kayama was counting out the beads she’d chosen for the day, chattering away at Iida, who was toying with the beads at his own hip as he listened, nodding along to whatever she was saying.
“Aren’t you excited?” Fukukado chirped, leaning into Shouta’s space. Shouta made a face but didn’t try to escape. He’d learned years ago that it was better just to put up with her.
“No,” Shouta lied. Fukukado pouted and poked the center of his forehead.
“Don’t frown so much; you’re gonna get wrinkles,” she told him. Shouta rolled his eyes and hunched his shoulders. “Come on; you’ve gotta be at least a little excited. We’re so close to getting our own mages! This is, like, one of the big tests to see what we’ll be like as real handlers!”
“That’s why I’m not excited,” Shouta replied. “I hate people watching to see what I’ll do.”
“You shouldn’t have refused the red beads, then,” Fukukado sniffed. “Everybody’s going to be watching you now.”
“Anyone who has to resort to pain spells to get a mage to cooperate is a moron,” Shouta informed her.
“Yeah, yeah, but the grown-ups expect it. We’re better off following the rules right now,” Fukukado insisted. “You don’t want to end up like Toyomitsu, do you?”
“Toyomitsu talked back to Kamihara,” Shouta snorted. “That’s why he got kicked out. Not because he didn’t want to use the pain spells.”
“You don’t know that!” Fukukado protested. “You could be next! What if-”
“Kamihara isn’t going to get rid of me,” Shouta interrupted. “Focus on your beads. What did you even bring?” Fukukado shot him a dubious look that told him she knew he was changing the subject on purpose and that she was letting him. Shouta scanned the hallway as Fukukado began explaining her bead choices to him.
Their mentor, Kamihara, arrived with his mage Ryukyu in tow after Fukukado finished her explanation of why she’d chosen magic canceling but not magic reduction beads but before she could start in on why she’d given in and brought pain spells.
“Okay, kids. Line up and show me your collections,” Kamihara ordered. Shouta trailed after Fukukado as they obeyed, wondering if there was anything to her belief that refusing to use the red beads was what had gotten Toyomitsu kicked out of handler training. That couldn’t be it, though, right? With only four or five new handlers completing their training each year, it couldn’t be worth it to get rid of him just for that. It had to be the way Toyomitsu had been incapable of talking formally to anyone, treating Kamihara like a friend rather than their mentor and guardian.
“Aizawa!” Fukukado hissed, elbowing him. Shouta jolted, glanced at her, and realized it must be his turn to present his chosen beads. He unfastened the strings from his belt and held them out for inspection.
“Daydreaming, Aizawa?” Kamihara asked, eyeing his green, yellow, orange, and gray beads.
“No, sir,” Shouta answered, keeping his eyes fixed on the ground.
“Good. Because without any pain spells, you’d better be on your toes today,” Kamihara warned. He nodded to himself, then walked to the nearest training room and opened it. “In you go, kids.”
Fukukado led the way, bounding forward with Kayama and Iida close behind. Shouta followed more slowly, half dreading what they’d find.
There were four mages against the wall, under the watchful eye of a senior handler. Shouts adjusted the scarf around his neck as he eyed the mages warily.
“Ooooh, can we pick?” Fukukado chirped, eyes sparkling as she took in the mages.
“What kind of magic do they have?” Iida asked, expression pensive.
“Unagi over there with the ears is some kind of demon spawn. Jumps around, that kind of thing,” the senior handler said, pointing to the first mage, a girl with rabbit ears. She twitched, eyes narrowing.
“Unagi?” Kayama muttered under her breath. Shouta adjusted his scarf again, pulling it up over his face. That wasn’t a proper name, and from the mage’s expression it wasn’t what she wanted to be called.
Shouta listened as the senior handler introduced the remaining mages. Second was the one he called Splinters, who apparently had some form of plant magic. Third was a woman the senior handler called Silt with earth magic.
Fourth was the one that caught Shouta’s attention. Shouta didn’t like the way the senior handler called him Screech, but the idea of magic based on music intrigued him nearly as much as the sardonic grin the mage gave at the name. Plus the mage they called Screech had a little spark left in his bright green eyes, something the other mages seemed reluctant to show with the senior handler present.
Shouta ended up paired with the earth mage that day, but he remembered the music mage. He wondered sometimes what happened to him.
Shouta found out less than a year later.
Shouta was given his first mage the morning after being confirmed as a fully trained Handler. Kamihara led him to the room where his new mage waited, checked his bead collection one last time, and gave him a warning.
“This mage is a challenge, Aizawa. He’s nearly enchanted handlers before, and using him fully will take some...creativity.”
Shouta just gave his mentor a flat look and opened the door. He stepped inside and gently closed the door behind him before he looked around for the mage.
The young man wasn’t curled into a corner or kneeling in the middle of the room, the two responses he’d expected. Instead, his new mage was sprawled on the cot shoved against the wall, left knee up and right ankle balanced on top of it. The mage’s arms were crossed under his head. He didn’t even glance in Shouta’s direction, just hummed to himself.
“You done staring?” the mage asked after a moment. Shouta took in the mage’s blond hair and bright green eyes, recognition showing clearly on his face if the mage had bothered to look his way.
“You’re Screech,” Shouta realized.
“Please tell me you’re going to come up with something better to call me than that,” the mage sighed, tilting his head to study Shouta. “Wait, aren’t you one of Kamihara’s kids?”
“Not anymore,” Shouta answered. “I’m your handler now.” The mage rolled onto his side and propped his head up on one hand.
“You’re weird,” he announced. “Saying you’re my handler instead of I’m your mage now.”
“You’re really interested in what people call things, aren’t you?” Shouta observed.
“My magic is all about what things are called,” the mage replied. Shouta took a step forward, questions that had been lingering in the back of his head since he’d first seen the music mage pushing to the forefront.
“Is it? They said you’re a music mage, but no one could explain exactly how that works,” Shouta admitted. “Would you tell me about it?” The mage raised one eyebrow, then pushed himself up and folded his legs under him.
“You’re asking me to tell you how my magic works?” the mage chuckled.
“Of course. Aren’t you the one who knows it best?” Shouta pointed out, brow furrowing. Surely the easiest way to find out more about a new kind of magic was just to ask the person who actually used it. Why was that amusing?
“I guess. But you’re... asking me?” the mage repeated. Shouta’s mouth pulled down at the corners. The mage eyed him for a moment, then shrugged and leaned back against the wall. “Sure, whatever. I can do a lot with my magic. Singing or even talking can carry it, and my range is as far as my voice will go. But for it to work, I have to know what I’m using my magic on. It helps if I can picture it, even more if I know it’s name. Like if you ordered me to destroy a training target, I’d scream the word ‘target’ and trigger my magic.”
“And that would work?” Shouta found himself leaning forward, intrigued.
“Well, not really,” the mage laughed. “My stuff works best on people or animals, you know? Things that can actually hear me.”
“So does knowing the name of the person help you affect them more?” Shouta pressed.
“Yeah. Does that mean you’re not going to tell me your name, Kamihara’s kid?” the mage asked.
“My name is Aizawa Shouta.” Shouta met the mage’s wide-eyed gaze with a flat one of his own. “Now tell me yours.”
“Is this some kind of power play to make me tell you to use that awful name?” the mage demanded, crossing his arms and frowning at Shouta so intently it was almost a pout.
“You’re the one who’s all about the names. I figured you’d do the work of coming up with one for yourself for me,” Shouta answered with a shrug. The mage was quiet for a moment, though whether he was debating whether or not to tell Shouta what he wanted to be called or just trying to come up with something, Shouta didn’t know.
“What if you don’t like it?” There was an edge to the mage’s voice, like he’d suddenly remembered he was talking to a handler. “You gonna make me screech?”
“I won’t use pain spells on you, if that’s what you mean,” Shouta informed him, turning so the mage could see the assortment of beads on his hip.
“Handlers that resort to pain spells have no creativity,” Shouta said grimly. Something in the mage’s expression changed, becoming more guarded, less cheerful.
“Is that so?”
“Of course. Just look at you. I haven’t hurt you at all, and you haven’t attacked me. This’ll be a lot easier for both of us if we just keep going like we have been since I walked through that door,” Shouta replied. The mage blinked, then tilted his head, peering at Shouta like he was some creature the mage had never seen before.
“I’m sure we can figure things out together,” Shouta shrugged. “Less work for both of us that way, right?”
“...Right.” The mage was still on edge, still watching him with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. “Yamada. You can call me Yamada.”
“Is that what you want me to call you?” Shouta questioned.
“Yeah, I think it is,” the mage answered.
“Yamada it is, then!” Shouta offered him a slight smile, and got a tentative one in return. “Let’s get you to our new quarters so you can have a real bed, Yamada.”
And that was that. Yamada followed him out of the room and to their new quarters, asking questions about Shouta’s classmates and experience along the way.
“You have got to do something about that hair,” Shouta announced, crossing his arms and scowling at Yamada’s head, where his mess of blond hair was tangled into a horror show. “You look like the palace messenger pigeons roosted in your hair last night.”
“And just what am I supposed to do about it?” Yamada fired back. Shouta winced at the volume; in the weeks since he’d gotten Yamada, the mage had gotten more comfortable around him, which apparently translated to louder. “It’s not like anyone ever taught me how to keep it nice. Why don’t you just have it cut like the others did?” Shouta stared at him for a moment. Had Yamada really never been taught how to deal with his hair?
“Come with me,” Shouta ordered. Yamada shrugged and obeyed, trotting after him with a bemused expression on his face. Shouta led him to Kayama’s quarters and knocked on her door.
“Aizawa!” Kayama threw the door open and lunged toward him. Shouta ducked under her arms and past her, into her quarters.
“I need your weird oil stuff,” Shouta announced, heading for her room.
“Okay, I’m gonna need more clarification than that, because I have a lot of weird oil stuff,” Kayama objected. “And I’m not sure you should be using some of it if Yamada’s with you.”
“I just need your hair stuff,” Shouta replied, mostly ignoring what she said.
“Are you finally going to take proper care of your hair?” Kayama screeched, clapping her hands together.
“Of course not. That’s too much work,” Shouta replied. He could feel Kayama’s disappointment as he disappeared into her room, returning a moment later with the bottle of coconut oil he needed. “I’m taking this.”
“If you’re not doing your own hair, who’s that for?” Kayama demanded, blocking his escape with her hands on her hips. Shouta pointed wordlessly to Yamada’s hair. “Wait, you won’t even brush your own hair but you came all the way over here to get fancy imported oil for his?”
“I don’t have to look at my hair,” Shouta replied.
“Yeah, but the rest of us do, and it’s slowly killing us,” Kayama informed him. Shouta gave her his best do I look like I care expression and then headed for the door. Yamada followed, lips twitching in amusement the whole way back to their quarters.
“She has a point, you know,” Yamada mused. Shouta sat on the couch and pointed to the floor in front of him. Yamada shook his head as he sat where Shouta pointed, his back to the handler. “You really could just cut my hair.”
“It’s your hair,” Shouta replied, getting some of the oil on his fingers and reaching for Yamada’s hair. “You want it cut, fine. But I decide enough for you; I’m not choosing this, too.”
Yamada was quiet as Shouta worked the oil into his hair, and Shouta found himself appreciating the task as well as the silence. Taking care of his own hair was annoying, but the concentration required to make sure he didn’t accidentally pull Yamada’s hair was soothing somehow. When he accidentally got a knot caught on his fingers, Yamada hissed but didn’t yell the way Shouta had been afraid he would.
Once Shouta was sure he’d gotten enough of the oil in Yamada’s hair, he got up to retrieve a towel and the comb Kayama and Fukukado had insisted he keep in his room. He used it just enough to avoid having a snarled mess like Yamada’s had become, and this would definitely be a better use of it.
Yamada was watching him when Shouta approached the couch again, eyes narrowed slightly and lips pressed together as he mulled something over. Shouta ignored the strange expression and settled on the couch behind Yamada again.
Shouta began teasing the comb through the ends of Yamada’s hair, once more focusing intently on not pulling it. He slowly worked his way up, doing his best to carefully untangle the knots as he went, until he could comb from Yamada’s scalp to the tips of his hair in one slow, smooth stroke, pausing from time to time to wipe away the excess oil that built up between the comb’s teeth.
Once the oil was soaked in and all the tangles were gone, Shouta sat back to examine the results. Yamada’s hair was definitely a lot better, although Shouta knew Kayama would probably recommend that he keep using the oil to keep Yamada’s neglected hair soft and strong.
Shouta reached forward, ran his fingers through Yamada’s hair once, just to test the feel of it. To his surprise, Yamada didn’t flinch away. Instead, he let out a soft breath and leaned back. Shouta hesitated, then did it again. Yamada hummed softly and shifted, turning to rest his cheek on Shouta’s knee so he could peer up at him with half-lidded eyes as Shouta kept stroking his hair.
“You’re going to spoil me,” Yamada told him, voice low and rough like he’d nearly fallen asleep under Shouta’s care. Shouta’s hand paused for a second, resting on the back of Yamada’s head as he considered the mage’s words.
Was he spoiling his mage? He knew a lot of the other handlers thought he was. In the time since Yamada had been given to him, Shouta had never used or even carried a pain spell. He did sometimes use the silencing spells, but that was to preserve his own sanity, because Yamada could get loud when he was excited, especially about training.
Shouta didn’t take his mage to the training rooms unless they had a sparring match set up, though. Instead, he often took Yamada on walks around the palace to train. After all, Yamada’s power did work better on animals and people. It just made sense to take him out to exercise his magic on the animals in the stables or the livestock pens near the kitchens.
Now he’d spent a lot of time carefully tending to his mage’s hair.
He supposed, compared to the way the handlers who’d trained him treated their mages, Yamada was spoiled.
“Is that such a bad thing?” Shouta asked, stroking Yamada’s hair once more. “Everyone deserves to be a little spoiled, I think. Why should you have fewer nice things in your life just because you’re a mage?” Yamada laughed, but it was a soft, bitter laugh, a sharp contrast to his usual boisterous, too-loud one.
“You’re the strangest handler I’ve ever met,” Yamada sighed, lifting his head to rest his chin on Shouta’s knee. “It’s almost like you think I’m an actual person.” Shouta couldn’t stop the frown that pulled at his lips.
“You are, though,” Shouta protested. Yamada raised one eyebrow almost lazily.
“Oh, really? Pretty sure that’s not what the king and your fellow handlers think.” There it was again, that grim chuckle. Shouta hated that sound. He gently slid his fingers under Yamada’s jaw, lifting his head so Shouta could slide out from under him and onto the floor beside him. Yamada watched him, surprise flickering across his expression. “What are you-”
“You listen to me right now, because I don’t like repeating myself,” Shouta interrupted.
Yamada’s body went stiff, uncertainty making his eyes flick from Shouta’s face to his beads at his hip and back, even though he was fully aware that Shouta didn’t carry any spells that could hurt him. Shouta reached out and framed Yamada’s face with his hands, keeping the mage from looking at the beads and reassuring him that Shouta wasn’t reaching for them at the same time.
“You’re a person, Yamada. You are just as important and deserve just as much respect as anyone else, probably more actually, considering what terrible people most of the handlers are,” Shouta insisted. Yamada’s eyes closed as his hand came up, fingers curling around Shouta’s wrist.
“If you really believe that, why don’t you do something about it?” Yamada asked, keeping his eyes closed to avoid looking at Shouta. “Seems more likely you just want me to be all grateful to you so I’ll go along with whatever you’re really after.”
“What exactly do you think I’m after?” Shouta’s brow furrowed in confusion. Yamada finally opened his eyes to give a pointed glance toward Shouta’s bedroom. Shouta gaped at him, then yanked his hands away from Yamada’s face and stood. “Whatever I did to make you think that, tell me now so I can make sure to never do it again.” For a second, Yamada looked stunned and a little confused, but then his normal grin slid into place, albeit with a hint of bitterness.
“What else am I supposed to think when you suddenly decide my hair needs to be done up all pretty with fancy oil and give me a whole speech about pretty ideals that no one is ever going to act on?”
“So you just assume I’m trying to sleep with you because I’m nice to you?” Shouta shook his head. “You’ve been my mage for how long now? When have I ever tried anything like that?”
“You just don’t really touch a lot of people. And you never cared what I looked like before, so…” Yamada shrugged. Shouta stared at his palms for a moment, turning Yamada’s words over in his head.
“I get it,” Shouta murmured, crouching in front of Yamada and meeting his gaze steadily. “You’re right, I don’t really let a lot of people touch me. I’m sorry, and I won’t do anything that makes you uncomfortable or worried about what I might do. Just tell me and I’ll stop. Okay?” Shouta held his breath, waiting for Yamada’s response.
“It didn’t. You didn’t,” Yamada said finally. Shouta could feel his forehead wrinkling, but Yamada continued before he could ask what he meant. “You didn’t make me uncomfortable. It was...nice. You taking care of my hair, taking care of me, felt...good. That’s what scared me.” Shouta started to reach for him, then paused with his fingertips hovering above Yamada’s cheek.
There was a heartbeat of stillness, a moment of silent contemplation between them. Then Yamada tilted his head forward, his cheek brushing Shouta’s palm. Shouta jolted, surprised, but Yamada laid his hand over Shouta’s, pressing his palm against the mage’s cheek.
“Yamada…” Shouta wasn’t sure what to say, didn’t know if he should pull away or move closer. He didn’t know what exactly he was thinking or feeling, let alone what he was supposed to do. All he knew was that the look Yamada was giving him was making his stomach flutter, and Shouta didn’t really want that feeling to go away.
“Hizashi,” Yamada corrected. “Yamada was my family’s name. Before...you know. Anyway. You can call me Hizashi.”
Shouta nodded, trying and failing to swallow the lump in his throat.
“So you trust me after all?” he asked.
“Unless you give me a reason not to,” Yamada agreed.
“I won’t,” Shouta promised.