(“Well,” said the boy — Mikage, was it? — with a wide-eyed smile, at the start of all things. “Everyone says such terrible things about you, but you’re actually pretty cute, huh.”)
Very few girls made it into the Academy, both by design and circumstance. Even ten years after the war with Raggs, parts of the empire were still reeling from the loss of husbands, sons, and brothers — so it became the patriotic duty of the wives, daughters, and sisters to be closeted, cosseted, and bear healthy strong children for the empire. The families who could afford to pay the entrance fees were more likely to keep their girls close, and the poor usually couldn’t afford to spare the labor. Still, every year, a few made it in to register, and afterwards were treated like any other soldier-in-training of the Basburg Empire.
… theoretically, at any rate.
“–I heard she was a slave that was trained for battle–”
“–she’s the chairman’s pet, right? Hah, I bet I know what for–”
“–scrawny, isn’t she? Who’d want a girl like that–”
Mikage heard those rumors and a dozen more before his first day is out. His new roommate was a mousy quiet boy who flinched when any of the sons of noblemen come strolling past, but collected more gossip than an old man at the market, and he told Mikage all about Chairman Miroku’s favored pet student: the only girl in their year, excused from all basic classes, cold as ice and impossible to approach. She sent one student to the infirmary just for touching her arm! That sort of violence, the boy said, adjusting his glasses, surely shouldn’t be condoned here at a military academy!
She didn’t like people, his roommate told him, echoing the rumors. She was cold and unkind and arrogant to professors as well as other students.
And, Mikage thought, lonely as well.
In the middle of his roommate’s long spiel about how Duke so-and-so’s nephew and insulted Lord such-and-such’s cousin’s son which in turn would cause tension with Master thus-and-what’s entire family, Mikage picked up his lunch tray and walked over. The girl didn’t look up when he settled himself across from her, but her shoulders went tense, like she was just waiting for him to say something.
So he did: “My name’s Mikage. Are you going to eat that?”
Her head snapped up; the dinner-roll she’d been methodically picking apart drooped in her hands. She had very pretty green eyes. “–What?!”
“I like the rolls here,” Mikage said, serene. “If you’re not going to eat it, can I have it?”
“You–” The girl looked around. The students at the other tables were staring, and their whispers were beginning to rise to a dull roar. His own abandoned roommate was staring at them with his jaw hanging open, like he’d been kicked in passing. Mikage ignored it all, beaming hopefully at the girl — who eventually leaned forward and hissed, “What are you doing, you idiot? If you hang around me, they’re going to start harassing you, and I don’t have the time to take care of you–”
It was impulse that guided him, really. Before he really stopped to think about it — and sometimes, really, he thought that overthinking was the problem more than not — he reached out and ruffled her hair. The shock from their audience was palpable, but nothing compared to the stunned amazement in the girl’s eyes. Mikage thought he liked that better than her scowl.
“Well,” he said. “Everyone says such terrible things about you, but you’re actually pretty cute, huh.”
Her jaw worked several times. Interested, he watched as a slow blush rolled across her face, starting from her ears and spreading outwards.
And then, before he could properly block, her fist lashed out, clocking him in the jaw with a solid right hook.
“DON’T TOUCH PEOPLE WITHOUT THEIR PERMISSION,” she told him, and stepped on his stomach once as she stomped off. Mikage didn’t move even as people began to cluster around him, their expressions ranging from smug amusement to worried concern. Among them was his roommate, and so Mikage turned to him and smiled, holding up a finger.
“She’s cute,” he said. “I think I like her.”
After that, it was easy. Maybe he was just paying more attention, or maybe she was actually being more obvious, but Mikage started seeing the girl (Teitra Klein, his roommate said nervously; her name was Teitra Klein) around everywhere after that. And just like anyone would do, if they saw something cute that made them happy, if he saw her, he’d make his way over to her. His first few attempts to strike up a conversation ended much like the very first, but he was nothing but persistent: and the kid really did look like she could use a friend.
“You’re a good boy,” his mother had told him before he’d left for the Academy, patting his face with her warm hand. “You make friends with people who need it, and you make them happy, you understand?”
And he’d laughingly saluted before running to catch his shuttle, but now sometimes he considered what she’d told him, and started actively trying to find Teitra himself when he had free time. It was a little bit like a game, only one that he was quite serious about. No kid their age should have eyes like she did, always a little sad and a little cold, even when — especially when — she wasn’t thinking about it.
“You really should stop that,” she grumbled, her shoulders bent under the weight of his arm — but not actively trying to shove him off, which he counted as a major plus. “They’re already starting to dislike you more because of me. You were doing well before, weren’t you?”
He’d shrugged, leaning his head against hers. She was just short enough to make a convenient chin-rest if he draped from behind, though he’d only managed to pull that one off once.
“I know my friends,” he said. “The real ones aren’t those who’d dislike me just for who I choose to be with.”
Then he wiped cake crumbs from the corner of her mouth with his thumb and licked it clean, and laughed when she sputtered and elbowed him in the gut for his daring.
Even if he did think that Shuuri had it coming, and even if he did know that Teitra probably wouldn’t get into trouble for the punch — being the Chairman’s favorite had other perks, after all — he took shameless advantage to drape over her from behind, pulling her gently back from the potential fight. She shook almost violently in his arms for a moment, then calmed; for just a split second she leaned against him, and the warmth that unfurled in his chest from that gesture stayed with him for weeks after.
In the end, it was … kind of anticlimactic. The sun slanted warmly into his eyes from through tree branches and dead pine needles were prickly against his legs. The air smelled like warmed greenery, and Teitra’s shoulder was propped against his own. In his palm was a tiny round bird chick peeping for food, and Teitra was giggling still, dabbing at her eyes with the corner of one sleeve. He turned to look at her, and the genuine unconscious smile on her face. She turned to him as well, her eyes bright, and Mikage thought — ah, well — and leaned forward.
Her lips were faintly chapped and warm. He saw her eyes go saucer-wide as she froze against him. For a moment he worried; in his palm, the little bird went silent.
But for just a moment —
— just a brief moment —
— her mouth went soft against his, her fingertips brushing briefly against his sleeve —
before they closed into a fist and she jerked back, roaring “AND WHAT WAS THAT FOR?!” before punching him in the mouth and storming off. Mikage remained where he’d fallen, staring woozily up at the sky. The baby bird made a disgruntled chirping noise and began pecking the top of his head. He touched his mouth and his fingers came away clean — she hadn’t hit him even a fraction as hard as she normally would.
“Hey,” he said to the bird, tilting his head so he could see it properly, “do you think this means she likes me?”
And then, as the bird chirped and flapped its tiny stubby wings, he dropped his hand over his eyes and began to laugh.