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Drawing Straight Lines

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Asymmetry is beautiful, Soubi's Structural Rendering teacher tells them that autumn, as the rains are invading and drowning them all in humidity and haze. Half the students have lost at least one piece of stock to the damp. The studios are kept cool with air conditioner units always ticking, always seeking to remove condensation from the air and collect it in trembling droplets on the grates, but none of them have the best options for storage at home. There are paper casualties.

Soubi's teacher unrolls example after example of what is, technically, beautiful. They debate Parisian architecture and Indian statuary. Kio pops gum that smells like apples.

After the presentation is done, Soubi's teacher assigns them all to fill up a sheet on the subject. Kio complains about the budget of large-scale homework assignments. Soubi doesn't protest; after class, he goes down to the supply stores, browsing through rows of brushes and canisters. He picks up three JIS B1 sheets from the 50# press drawers, expecting one to be ruined, one to be borrowed by Kio, and tapes down the edges of the last methodically on a wooden board.

In all his years as an active Fighter -- Beloved's Fighter, no less, which is a realm beyond most teams -- the strangest experiences for Soubi never involve Battles. They don't focus on the dynamics of partnership; they ignore the what-ifs of Seimei's personality, if he loves Soubi or if he misuses Soubi or if it matters at all either way. Instead, these challenges are perhaps the one ordinary feature in Soubi's life: a reminder that beneath all the games, all the spells, he's just a college boy.

Flesh and blood. Mundane, or at least expected to fulfill a mundane role in his off-hours, like a police dog asked to play fetch. Soubi holds quiet opinions of college in his own time, and when he's working with Seimei, there's no room for weakness anyway -- for weakness, or for the human Soubi's pretending to be. It's all a game of words, the same kind Soubi applies on the battlefield: smiles to deflect, teasing as camouflage.

He chooses to paint his Asymmetry assignment at his apartment, rather than use one of the school's communal workrooms. Dropcloths spread out on the floor. He usually splits one of the college's studios with Kio when he can, except that Kio insists on listening to music, and Soubi needs dead silence to work in, quieter even than a faint bass through headphones, quieter than Kio singing along unconsciously under his breath. Soubi can't rely on earplugs; he gets restless whenever he can't hear the flow of air currents around him, paranoid that there's a threat coming up from just around the corner.

So he paints at home instead, and forgets which cup to drink from when he reaches for his tea.

At the end of the week, one of the students brings in a sheet covered with stark lines and ovals, a calligraphy of binary forms. Soubi finds it unattractive and vaguely repulsive. His own piece is a series of watercolor washes, straight lines defined by light pencil sketching first, and then by thickness of paint, and then by nothing at all, edges bleeding into one another. Red roots of trees. Salmon clouds. Tributaries.

Someone calls it: suicide.

Another, wittily: Muromachi Nouveau.

Soubi laughs at both descriptions and accepts the initial criticism from his teacher about the technical craftsmanship.

He doesn't really mind what kind of grade he gets on the project. In truth, Soubi enjoyed the exercise. It felt like revisiting the hours spent under the hawk's eyes of his former tutors, forced to trace the outlines of traditional watercolor shapes before reproducing the same fluid strokes with acrylics, replacing soft bristles with hard.

In their own way, watercolors are a science. Density of ink, brush techniques. Practice a million times and you will be able to recreate the same mountain effortlessly, until it's no longer an effort, and has been dissolved into a series of known equations.

Spell Battles are the same way. Soubi has repeated verse after verse of attack and defense interlacing. He is so familiar with his work that he can weave his strategies with no thought involved in the making of them, and even less emotion. But there are occasional flaws. Bumps in people, and the ways that paint changes when it hits them.

The class wraps up. Soubi's teacher wants his students to experiment with a difference in surfaces by swapping to canvas: canvas and gesso, mirroring the work with significant enough changes to make the second piece asymmetrical to the first. Kio whines. Soubi nods. He's already envisioning what he'll do to complete the cycle, reversing the color scheme precisely by tracing the drips and repeating them in inverse.

The result is pleasing to his mind's eye. A strong imagination is vital for a Fighter unit. This is what separates him from mechanical soldiers. This is what makes Soubi better than a Zero, because he has experienced more -- and what he has lived through, he can use.

During the rest of the week, Soubi thinks about what it means to be Beloved. He thinks about what that word might translate to, spelled out in different tongues, different symbols. He thinks about its opposite; he thinks about being loveless.

Sanding down the gesso is methodical enough to distract his thoughts. Gesso is dissimilar to white paint. The polymers make for a smoother coat. The purpose of gesso is to provide a neutral background whose cracks are all filled in; the slightest imperfection in a sheet of paper can cause acrylics to clog together in unsightly strokes, so it's important to remove those flaws first. There's an element of randomness each time any wash is applied to a prepared canvas, but some chaos is wanted, and some is not.

Soubi is gesso. The imperfections of his Sacrifice pour over his soul, and any distortions are the fault of the canvas for not being flattened clean in advance.

It is hard being gesso without the paint: waiting, waiting.

"Do you like butterflies, Soubi?"

The question has five words. Soubi picks them out with practiced submission, yielding up an answer without any thought. Truth is less important than a proper response. "I like them."

"Really?" Seimei leans forward in his chair, untucking his hands from folded arms, and points at part of the canvas. His fingers hover in the direction of the painting, but refuse to come near enough to touch. "I think they're ugly. That... bent part, there. It's like an alien."

"The proboscis."


Soubi digests the response. He's working on an easel today to try and relieve a crick in his neck, which makes it impossible to look up at the canvas and towards Seimei at the same time. It's always hard to tell if Seimei really knows a fact, or if he can't be bothered to search his memory. Or -- more likely -- if Seimei is simply classifying a matter as so unimportant to his life that he feels the need to demonstrate it by having others remember the information for him.

Soubi wonders about himself and Seimei sometimes, if their inversions are so perfect as to symmetrical, rather than simply off-center. He wonders if they are beautiful together, like architecture. He cannot ask his teachers about this. At least, not his college professors, and he will not speak to Ritsu.

But Seimei took him, and that means it's Soubi's responsibility to shape himself to match.

As if sensing the dilemma that hobbles Soubi's thoughts, Seimei uncrosses his ankles. "I said," he muses, deceptively gentle, "I think they're ugly, Soubi."

"I hate them," Soubi whispers back obediently, right on cue. He can almost imagine the feeling of his Sacrifice's fingers twisting into his hair, punishing the lapse of attention. Each time that Seimei visits Soubi, he redefines the rules of what is tolerable and what is not. Soubi could drown in that control; he could throw himself bodily into that unrelenting dominance and never find his own thoughts again.

Still, the fact that he hesitated for even a second is a problem. Soubi finds that his muscles are already braced, expecting a reprimand. He erred. It must be corrected.

But Seimei doesn't touch him, doesn't hurt him. He's not even frowning. And that causes Soubi's anxiety to deepen more; whenever Seimei's behavior turns nice, it usually means trouble. The worst that can happen is never violence on Seimei's part, but a refusal to put things back in proper balance -- and not disciplining Soubi is a cruel way to leave matters undone.

"This is boring," Seimei says after a moment. "I think I'll leave for home now."

Soubi's mouth is working before he can stop it. "No."

Seimei quirks an eyebrow. "No?"

The interplay is enough; Soubi's senses crumble apart. He drops the brush. The water on its bristles is milky with pigments and Soubi follows it down, going to his knees before his Sacrifice, burying his face against the leg of Seimei's pants. He knows, he knows that Seimei loathes the possibility of stains, that Seimei would peel his own clothes off rather than let paint sink through to contact his skin, and that -- most importantly -- Seimei will not be able to resist disciplining Soubi as a reminder of this fact.

"Punish me," Soubi pleads anyway, leaning his cheek against Seimei's knee, fingers filthy with drying color. "Haven't I misbehaved?"

Seimei is still smiling, but the expression is tight. "I don't want you to touch me like this, Soubi," he answers with murderous softness. "Didn't I tell you that before? I don't want your hands on me without my permission. It's disgusting."

Seimei's rules change daily, and Soubi can't remember if the claim is true or false. It's hard to think. His brain has turned into Muromachi ink, spilling over the paper, following scientific lines of art. Seimei's lack of action is painful; Soubi doesn't know what else to do. The uncertainty leaves him sick.

At last, like an insect of tendon and bone, Seimei rests his fingers on Soubi's hair, threading them so deftly through the strands that it could be a caress. He tightens his grip; it hurts, it hurts, but the relief of being dominated is so sharp that Soubi almost gasps aloud in gratitude.

"You're mine," Seimei is purring. "You enact my will. No one else will ever own you as perfectly as I do. Or do you think someone else could possibly ever want to trouble themselves with you?"

"I don't," Soubi starts, but his Sacrifice cuts him off with a murmur.

"Behave yourself. That's an order."

Seimei leaves him on the floor, scalp aching and two fingers throbbing where they'd been stepped upon. Soubi doesn't mind. The punishment has been inflicted. Everything is back to normal once more. Nothing has changed. He is no longer afraid.

At school, as the Asymmetry lessons progress in the form of droning lectures and slides, Soubi finds his thoughts wandering to the structures of eyes and pinhole cameras. He thinks about how the iris of the eye is nothing more than a shutter around an aperture, mechanics reproducing nature. One of the students last year modded their camera shutter to be colored stippled green; when they played with the release, it would slide open and closed, wide on long durations like a child straining to see stars, wide, wide.

Kio could have been a photographer, Soubi thinks. He has the sense for it. Soubi is a studio artist, and the two are only distinguishable by those little words, because it's a serious matter of argument to call one person simply an artist, and the other not. Photographer. Painter. Art. Those words can sting as sharply as spells to the right ears.

The first time that Soubi had to unspool his camera, he flubbed it. He rewound too far -- they were trained on manuals, old familiar Nikons that had to be signed out and that half the students were penalized for forgetting to return them on time anyway. As part of the introduction class, they all had been forced to practice in the darkroom cubbies to keep accidents from exposing chunks of film to light. Each of them fit themselves into their closets nervously, balancing their trays and camera supplies.

When Soubi had popped the back of his Nikon to pluck the rewound canister out of its groove, he discovered the problem. The film leader had vanished inside the edge of the canister, and Soubi couldn't figure out how to get it back, not without admitting his mistake to the teacher. His breathing felt loud in the darkness of the cubby. They'd been given only a certain amount of supplies in their trays, and the walls were tight and confining. Whenever he tried to move, he kept hitting his elbows against the door.

Having no better ideas, unable to ask for help, Soubi fumbled around until he found the pair of scissors in his tray, and pried the canister open by force.

The skills that come from art aren't ones he thinks many Fighters would appreciate. But from them, Soubi has learned a desperate creativity. It's useful. It makes him useful. He remembers.

Global Typesetting II comes after Structural Rendering on his class schedule. Soubi decides not to skip this time; it turns out to not be an entirely bad decision, since the period was designated as a working slot instead of a lecture. The teacher left them largely to their own devices that day. Toshi is creatively editing the pregenerated lorem ipsum on the blackboard again, which might get him in trouble, except that their Typesetting professor isn't versed in Latin. Most of the students aren't either; Toshi has to translate as he goes along. The board is covered with jumbled phrases, but Soubi looks for letters that he can recognize and reassemble into a single word: beloved, beloved, beloved.

Toshi specializes in foreign obsessions. Ever since he spent a year abroad in France, he's become insufferable, swollen with pride and the merits of artistic license over artistic technicality. Soubi has watched the other student strut and crow all semester long, arguing that what a person does justifies their existence -- that by being a talented artist, a person's role is therefore to create art. It's not a bad theory. Soubi's heard better.

Toshi is dramatic and tormented just enough to be interesting, in Soubi's opinion, without being different enough to be socially awkward. With a flourish, the other student concludes his rant about imitation as technique, and decries half the higher schools as well.

Watching him, Soubi suddenly feels tired. He sets aside his brush and watches it seep colors in the water. "I think I want a day off."

"You just had one." Kio, pitiless. Kio, reaching over to steal Soubi's rubber cement.

"I had a day off. I didn't have a day to relax."

Kio smirks, two fingers fiddling with the loops in his ears. "Then relax now. We're so lazy here, I'm sure you can afford it. I'm glad I didn't get into Geidai," he claims, loudly. "I hear they allow fewer smoking breaks."

"I can't believe you smoke at all around the oils," another student gripes, half of an argument they've already had before, and Kio rolls his eyes.

For Soubi, the banter is more soothing than silence would be today. He's glad he attended class. Being able to relax into the push-and-pull of other opinions is a relief: not having to think, not having to judge what is right or wrong or good or awful today. It's so much simpler to surrender and let his surroundings dictate these things, so much easier to not have to make these kinds of decisions on his own. Even though Seimei isn't here, the mass ruckus of the students makes up for the lack.

Soubi can sit back, and soak the noise up like water into swelling newsprint.

He goes home afterwards and paints butterflies all over his next assignment, the one that's supposed to be about architectural perspective rendering. He outlines one for each of his classmates. Toshi's butterfly rises high above the rest, buoyed on red and orange frills. Soubi debates a black outline for contrast, but eventually goes with a warm grey, just faint enough that it sharpens the underside of the body without weighing down the top.

Seimei calls him up while he's halfway through one wingtip. "Are you still doing schoolwork?"

Soubi parts his lips to deny it, and then caves. "Yes."

"You should be practicing your spells instead. I won't tolerate a weak Fighter."

Part of Soubi's brain perks up, the part that's not wondering how much trouble he'll be in if he completes the homework assignment on time. There's a message encoded in Seimei's words. Soubi guesses at it without having to really try very hard. "There's a challenge."

Seimei makes a pleased noise in his throat. "I'll expect you ready in five."

Outside, the air is cooling with the onset of evening. Seimei has a scarf. Soubi has a smear of ink on the side of his thumb that he's trying to surreptitiously rub off on his pocket lining. Seimei won't like it if he's dirty, but -- unlike other times -- it wouldn't be a good displeasure. Soubi knows the way of things: he knows that Seimei relishes opportunities to demonstrate his authority, but dislikes being troubled unnecessarily. Casual filth counts among the latter.

They turn down the road away from the apartment, wandering past the densely-packed apartments and underneath neon convenience store lights. Soubi runs down the list of the most recent teams they've faced; it passes the time to guess who their opponents will be. But, just as Soubi has finished the obvious suspects and is debating secondary threats, Seimei speaks up.

"Tell me more about butterflies."

Soubi's taken aback. The possibility that Seimei would show an interest in his art is unthinkable. "Are you serious?"

"What?" Seimei says, and he can't keep a hint of smugness from leaking into his voice. "You think I'm not allowed to pretend to be normal for a little while too?"

Even knowledge of Seimei's ability to manipulate does not protect Soubi from becoming a willing victim. Seimei's smile does not seem deceptive; it is still cruel, still patronizing, but indulgent as well. The sight of it breaks something inside Soubi. He brushes aside all the denials that this can't be happening, because his instincts are already leaping to obey. If there's something he enjoys that Seimei wants to know about -- to know about him, to know about what Soubi knows, to find value in both -- then it means that Seimei still wants him. Still wants to own him. It's the same thing.

Shaken, Soubi rattles off the most basic of facts, going over life cycles first. Words pour automatically from his mouth. He finds himself talking about the wing structure most, describing the delicacy of scales overlapping, about how shimmering iridescence is created by the scales themselves and not by the pigments.

He winds down at a branch in the biology, sliding across the role of eyespots for mimicry, and then finds himself abruptly short of direction for what to talk about next. Regardless of the request, Seimei's interest can only be passing -- another form of dominance manifesting itself through temptation.

Dangle as it may, Soubi feels no shame for leaping at the bait.

"Come on," Seimei commands, and there's a flicker of something in his eyes that might be pride. Soubi watches it hungrily. "We have work to do."

It's a popular question in Soubi's age group, and one he inevitably hears whenever someone discovers his course studies: "Draw me a straight line."

Soubi obliges. It's in his nature to oblige. He always accepts the trivial demand with a mindless tranquility, pulling out a fresh sheet of paper and laying it over his homework. Then he picks up his pen.

The trick, he knows, to drawing straight lines involves a few rules. Never couch the motion off your knuckles, because that follows the natural curve of your hand. Instead, brace it off the hard ball of your palm near the wrist. When drawing longer lines, hold the pen perfectly immobile and again move from the wrist. The movement must be natural, performed without thought. Effortless.

Novices try to apply force in the tip of the pen, which always causes the line to waver, hiccupping over the tooth of the paper's surface. Human weakness also flubs the line; human trembling makes the pen waver. Soubi's refined his technique through crosshatching practice: rows of short lines drawn in parallel to each other with even spacing, and then lines again across. The method came from the previous year, when he took a course involving history and the development of woodcuts. Soubi's teacher for that class had been big on imitation. They'd copied works out of books. Kio had built mountains out of eraser shavings and wood glue.

"You're wasting paper like that," Kio whines when he wanders in late to the studio, but Soubi remains staring at the page, letting his gaze slide in and out of focus as he marks off row upon row of neat lines. They're parallels, never intersecting. When he reaches the margin of the paper, he turns it clockwise and repeats, building perfect squares.

Later on, when he and Seimei have to fight another team, Soubi remembers the principles of crosshatching and draws razors of confinement around the Sacrifice, separating her from her Fighter Unit. Seimei frowns disapprovingly, but makes no other protest; he comments afterwards that Soubi should have reversed the order. "It might have been more distressing for the Fighter to feel powerless," he comments, looking down on both prone bodies. "But a Fighter is always used to watching things suffer on their behalf anyway."

Soubi doesn't say anything at first. Head lowered, he inhales and exhales steadily. The fallen team is a clump of white straps in his peripheral vision. Seimei hadn't wanted him to stop at just constricting the Sacrifice.

"I try," he says, throat closing around the rest of the sentence. Seimei interprets it correctly anyway.

"You are good about making certain I don't get hurt," he smiles. "You're a good dog, Soubi."

The approval is enough to ease away the truth -- that wounds still occur, but Seimei rarely bleeds the most despite being the Sacrifice -- and Soubi swallows.

As they're walking away from the battleground, Soubi's attention is caught by a flutter of motion. A pair of moths hover around the nearest streetlight, attracted to the fluorescent stage to play out their antics together. Soubi stops dead, watching them dance. Their wings are exactly the same color, he notes, and wonders why he would have expected anything different.

Seimei notices quickly that his Fighter has lagged behind, marching only a few steps down the sidewalk before pausing to glance over his shoulder. "Are you fascinated with insects still?" The question floats back like a snake, brilliantly poisonous. "Why?"

In art school, Soubi's professors teach students a million different ways to say how red isn't red: it's a dull rust, it's a desaturated cadmium red medium, alizarin crimson, 201R 67G 57B, Pantone 186C, #D95349. Science in art; science pinning down the spectrum and making it easily reproducible. In the Academy, Soubi was taught to dissect the technique of spells in a similar fashion, from sentence structure to word to intent.

Life outside classes is no different.

Soubi straightens his hands in his pockets, tugging the waistband of his jeans down hard onto his hips. "Because people seem to like them."

"Not everyone." Seimei's lips curve. It is a humoring, belittling smile. "Why do you even try to be good at it, Soubi? It's not your intended purpose."

This line of questioning is not a trap; Soubi can sense it in the tone of Seimei's voice. It is not an indication that he has misbehaved so grievously that Seimei is rescinding his dominance. Having no guidelines to work with is crippling, but this is not the nature of Seimei's questioning today.

"What else should I do?" he asks, half hoping for an answer.

But Seimei leaves without giving him a reply, passing by Soubi's apartment without slowing down. Soubi lingers at the curb, wondering if he should follow; when Seimei reaches the next intersection and does not look back, that's a clear enough message that Soubi finds himself plodding up the stairwell home without having to think about it.

Exhaustion has caught up with him by the time he reaches the top. He pushes open the door to his apartment with a sensation like that of stepping into a bathroom when a tub has been left steaming -- the air feels that much different away from Seimei -- and wanders inside.

Everything is exactly where he left it; or, in some cases, where he dropped it. He'd knocked over a project outline on the floor while grabbing for his keys, and the papers are sprawled out of order. Half the lights are still on, illuminating the rooms like a neglected crime scene. When the call from Seimei came, Soubi barely had enough time to cap the paint bottles. He'd gone out in such a hurry that he'd forgotten to soak one of the brushes, and its bristles are stiff, clumped together in ebony spikes.

He kneels, picking at the bristles, and considers how much room there can be for a single person to exist between the definitions of an artist and a Fighter. During classes, Toshi once got so mixed up in his own declarations that claimed that the act of painting made a person into an artist, rather than the other way around. If that is true -- if the act defines the person performing the action -- then Soubi really is a college student. A painter. An artist. He's a normal adult.

But there is Seimei, and there is the name inscribed on Soubi's flesh. There is the Academy and there are spells that congeal in Soubi's mind as he sleeps, configuring themselves like cooling jelly to be unleashed the next time he needs them at hand. He can pretend all he wants that he walks in both worlds, but when it comes down to it, Soubi knows which line is the one that will bend first, yielding to the other.

With a sigh, he sets the ruined brush aside. Maybe he'll try to soak it. Maybe it can be salvaged. The inking for the rendering assignment is only halfway done. If he hurries, there's a chance he can complete it before dawn.

His left wrist hurts when he picks up an inknib. He wraps the bones with two strips of masking tape, and then wipes away red blood into the water jar.