Give It Two Weeks

 

Chapter Three

 

The new challenge read, “Communicate without using words today”.

That sounds like it’ll be annoying. Still, it was doable. Fushimi glanced sideways just in time to see Yata narrowing his eyes at the board, and felt a tiny surge of satisfaction.

Between the two of them, his odds were good.

Honestly, once his co-workers knew what was going on, this was probably going to be simple. Most of the time he spent his day working independently anyway, and unless he had to participate in some kind of meeting with a client (which he didn’t that he knew of, and if one came up, someone could reschedule it for him) there was no need to talk to anyone.

The only problem was how to let them know about this quickly – and without using words.

Well, it’s not really much of a problem. There was an obvious solution. Fushimi eyed Yata for a second, wondering if he’d figure out something similar.

Unsurprisingly, he didn’t seem to. That vivid gaze met his, and Yata frowned for a beat, before letting out a soft ‘ch’ and dropping his skateboard with the obvious intent heading back to his own workplace. He kicked off with the practiced flow that probably came with a mix of natural athleticism and years of effort, waving a careless hand over his shoulder in lieu of any actual parting words.

Fushimi waited until he’d gone a good ways, and then smiled faintly to himself, reaching into his pocket for his cell phone. After he’d snapped a picture of the board, he pocketed it again and turned to make his way back to Scepter 4.

So far, things were looking good, as expected.

 


 

 

Communicate without using words, huh?

Yata frowned to himself, pushing harder off of the ground as he rolled back towards Homra. Would it be that hard? Sure, he couldn’t talk, but maybe text…

No wait, it said words, not talking – text has words, so that won’t work. Which meant he couldn’t just write down when he meant to say, either… He’d have to somehow get Kusanagi to put him somewhere other than the front counter today. Sure, he’d be doing deliveries here and there, but he couldn’t serve customers if he couldn’t talk, after all…

Wonder how that jerk is gonna manage this. He wouldn’t be able to insult people without using words. Yata couldn’t help but smirk a little to himself, thinking about how annoyed Fushimi might look, unable to comment when something he didn’t like happened. Serves you right, asshole!

Fushimi was smart, though, he had to admit. Yata wouldn’t say it out loud even on pain of death, but he was grudgingly impressed by the whole traffic tickets thing. Seriously, hacking into the system just like that! It was really cool, if you stopped to think about it. The thought even sent a little shiver down his spine; he could see Fushimi’s fine-boned, grumpy-looking face clearly in his head as he dropped the papers on the counter, blue eyes veiled behind impressively long lashes.

There was an uncomfortable warmth building on Yata’s face. He scowled, trying to push that memory back. Whatever – he’s still an asshole even if he can do cool stuff!

It just meant he’d probably be able to figure out a way to do this challenge despite the difficulty, so Yata had to stay on his toes. He couldn’t afford to fall behind right at the start.

“Oh, Yata-chan – good timing!” Kusanagi called the greeting out over the din of customers when Yata pushed through the door into Homra again, holding up a full travel tray near where the counter lifted to get to the back. There was another one sitting in front of him. “We’ve got a couple of these ready to go, so can you head right back out?”

That made things easier. Yata hesitated for just a second, then grinned and shot back a thumbs up, ducking around the line-up to take the trays. “Thanks,” Kusanagi said to him as he grabbed them, shooting him a small, rueful smile before turning to begin on the next order.

Easy. He maneuvered his way back out the door, skateboard under one arm and hands full of the drink trays, feeling just a bit satisfied with how that had turned out. This is gonna be a breeze.

 


 

 

“Fushimi-san, there’s a phone call for – oh. Right.” Hidaka managed a small sheepish grin, bringing the receiver back to his face as he caught the irritated frown he got in response. “I’m sorry, he’s not available right now – is there a message I can leave for him?”

How many times is that going to happen? Fushimi clicked his tongue, attempting to return to his own work for the fourth or fifth time that afternoon. It seemed like when he didn’t have a challenge that kept him from talking, his co-workers could get along fine without his help, but today, it was as if they couldn’t go five minutes without asking some inane question.

Honestly, it’s like all of you have the memories of goldfish.

“Fushimi-san!” Doumyouji sidled over to him, a large and somehow stupidly proud grin on his face, and it took all of Fushimi’s will power not to turn and elbow him in the gut. “You wouldn’t mind if I turn in my report a bit late… or does it matter?”

This had been going on practically since he’d indicated to let the idiot out from beneath the spare desks, an action which had obviously been a miscalculation on his part. Fushimi glowered back without bothering to respond. It had apparently become some kind of moronic game to try and trick an answer from him that he hadn’t meant to give. It was already irritating after the first attempt, and at this point – on the fifth – it had become downright infuriating.

“So… yes, then?”

“Doumyouji-san!” Enomoto hissed, almost frantically. “I think you shouldn’t push your luck!”

“What? I’m not doing anything bad!” Doumyouji waved that warning aside, still looking stupidly pleased with himself. “It’s just a harmless question, right, Fushimi-san?”

This is a waste of time. Fushimi clicked his tongue again, waited until he had Doumyouji’s full attention, and then deliberately shifted his gaze in the direction of the spare desks – and what was no doubt still a hopeless mess of cables beneath.

The message seemed to get across loud and clear – Doumyouji actually blanched, swallowed hard, and blurted, “Right, never mind! I think I’m fine, after all – thanks!” before bolting back to his workstation at almost record speed.

Finally. Fushimi let out a sharp breath, turning back to his monitor. Maybe now he’d be able to work without being constantly –

At his side, his phone began to buzz. The call display read ‘Awashima Seri’.

Of course it is… He clenched his teeth, letting out a sharp, frustrated breath through his nose and glaring at the phone as it vibrated on the desk. It wasn’t like he was dumb enough to answer it, but the one-sided “conversation” he’d be subjected to afterwards was going to be a pain.

The day just kept getting worse…

 


 

 

“So… what, he lost his voice?” Bandou gave up on regarding Yata with a confused frown, turning to glance over in Dewa’s direction for clarification. “I can’t tell what he’s trying to say.”

“No idea,” Dewa responded, with a shrug and an apathetic look. “He’s been like that all morning.”

Damnit… Yata lowered his hands and let out a frustrated breath, scowling at them both. How the hell can you not get what I’m trying to say? It felt like every single one of his friends had become impossibly dense. And no one had even managed to guess that it was a challenge – shouldn’t they figure it out? Everyone had been bugging him about it just yesterday, so why was it such a mystery now? Just… go work the fucking counter already, and let me do the cleaning!

“Well, whatever.” Bandou reached up to scratch at the back of his raised hood and then turned, rolling up his sleeves, moving towards the back room. “Guess I’ll go do the cleaning!”

… You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me!

The delivery rush had been pretty simple, just like he’d thought. The guys at Scepter 4 seemed to know exactly what was going on and didn’t try to talk to him, so Yata had assumed his own co-workers would figure it out too, and everything would go smoothly.

No such luck. For the past hour, since their quiet time started, all he’d gotten were some blank looks, shrugs, and – in Kusanagi’s case – an amused grin and a bit of a chuckle. Even Anna had been no help – she’d looked at him very seriously for a second or two, and then simply said ‘good luck’ before following Kusanagi out on whatever errand he’d gone off to run. Yata was beginning to wonder what the hell kind of magic Fushimi had used to get everyone on his side to realize what was going on, because nothing he did was getting through to these guys at all!

Yeah, speaking of which… Yata made a small, irritated grunt and moved to block Bandou’s path, narrowing his eyes as he braced himself in front of the door to the back room. I’m the one who can’t talk here, so why the hell would I be manning the counter? Just get a clue already, dumbass!

 Bandou’s eyebrows furrowed over his sunglasses; he stared at Yata with obvious perplexity. “C’mon, Yata-san, gimme a break! Just tell me what’s going on already!”

“Good luck with that,” Dewa remarked drily, leaning over the counter with his face propped on one hand as he watched them. “Eric and I have been trying to get him to talk all morning – he doesn’t even respond to obvious taunts.”

“Really?” Bandou’s confused expression cleared up into something like interest. “So you’re saying even if we comment on his embarrassing habit of going red and stuttering like a virgin when there’s a girl at the counter, nothing will – ow!

“Oh yeah – he’ll still hit you, though. Watch out for that.”

Bandou rubbed at the shoulder Yata had just punched, a bit of a sheepish grin breaking through the injured look. “Thanks, I got it.”

This is so fucking dumb… Yata braced a hand on his hip and frowned in response, reaching up to point at the counter deliberately. I’m just saying to work at the front – it shouldn’t be that hard to figure out, should it?

The dubious expression on Bandou’s face said otherwise; he looked at the counter and back at Yata, and spread his hands, lifting his shoulders in a kind of helpless gesture. “I’ve got no idea what you’re getting at, man – you’re gonna have to explain or something.”

Yata clenched his teeth, frustration welling up inside him to an almost impossible degree as he glared helplessly back. Seriously, you’re kidding, right?

Why the hell was this so goddamn difficult?

“Oh, hey!” Abruptly, Bandou seemed to brighten; he brought his fist down on his open palm, clearly thinking he’d just had a stroke of genius. “If you can’t say it, how ’bout writing down what you want me to do? That’d work, right?”

Yata brought back his hand to press the heel of it against his forehead, allowing himself a low, suffering growl before sucking in a long breath and letting it out in an agitated huff. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do about this without using any words. Actually, he’d never thought before about how important words were in… well, everything. How were you supposed to communicate when you couldn’t use them and everyone else around you was relying on them so much?

Whoever came up with this goddamn challenge was a sadistic prick.

“We already tried that,” Dewa pointed out in that dry tone. “He won’t do it.”

“Huh.” Bandou scratched at his hood again, looking bewildered. “So… now what?”

The familiar jingle from the door sounded off before anyone had a chance to even try to answer that. “Hey,” Eric said quietly, as he stepped inside. He was holding his phone in his hand, and his expression was wry. “I figured out why Yata-san’s been so quiet all morning.”

Dewa blinked. “Really?”

About goddamn time, you jerks! Yata felt his shoulders sag a little with relief. Finally…

“Yeah.” Eric held up the phone, screen facing towards them. As the others moved in to take a look, Yata caught enough of a glimpse to see that he’d taken a picture of the challenge board. “Apparently he’s not allowed to use words.”

“Huh.” Bandou stroked his chin, gazing thoughtfully at the image. “I guess that explains it…”

Dewa tilted his head towards the back of the room, raising an eyebrow. “You didn’t think to just take a picture and show us?”

Yata blinked at him, those words slowly sinking it. Ah… Right, he could’ve done that. It seemed so simple now that it was right there in front of him. So easy. Just take a picture and show it, and everyone would’ve got it right away. In fact, it was probably exactly what Fushimi had done.

And the asshole waited until I left to do it, didn’t he?

That was really irritating, somehow. Yata let out another ‘ch’, crossing his arms and scowling back stubbornly. Like you guys would’ve thought of it either!

Eric met his gaze steadily, unimpressed. “It was the first thing I thought of,” he pointed out, blandly.

Sure, now they could understand what he was thinking. Yata glared at him. You’re not the one doing this stupid thing, okay? Fuck off.

“Well, glad that’s settled.” Bandou shrugged, turning back towards Yata with a grin. “Now I can get cleaning before we hit the lunchtime rush, right?”

Yata felt one of his eyebrows twitch involuntarily.

Are you fucking kidding me?

 


 

 

As it turned out, the lunchtime rush helped – a lot, in fact. Deliveries picked up again just after he’d finished wiping down all the tables, and with Bandou, Dewa, and Eric there to alternately man the counters and fill the orders from Scepter 4, things went smoothly. There were a couple of times when he’d had to do some hand-waving, but nothing too major. Yata was starting to feel pretty good about it again.

That’s right, I got this! He brought his skateboard to a stop just outside Homra’s front door, actually grinning to himself as he reached for the handle. I can handle whatever this daily challenge thing throws at me!

“Yata-chan,” Kusanagi greeted him as he came inside, glancing up from his tablet with a small smile. “We’re all done on deliveries, and it’s nearly five... Bandou’s back from break any second and he can handle any that come in from now until the café closes. You can head on home if you want.”

That actually sounded great – Yata nodded back at him, raising his hand in a thumbs-up before moving forward to lift the counter so he could get by. Normally he’d stick around and handle deliveries until well into the evening when Scepter 4 locked up, but today… Even with the recent success, he was pretty sure hanging around the coffee shop was going to end up being a pain. Better to just go home and play some video games or something to let off steam and relax.

Hopefully the rest of the challenges aren’t as crappy as this one!

“Good work today,” Kusanagi remarked as he made his way into the back room, patting him on the shoulder, and Yata blinked back for a beat before smiling sheepishly back.

At least he knew everyone here had his back, one way or another.

Anyway, he’d made it through the work day, and if everything went well, he wouldn’t have to interact with anyone else. It was about twenty minutes to get to his apartment building on his board, and unless he ran into someone, he shouldn’t have to talk. Really, once he was out of here, he was pretty much home free. Got this!

As he was hanging up his apron, he couldn’t help but wonder about how Fushimi had managed. Had he fucked up, or was he doing about the same? Yata frowned a bit, turning it over in his head. How were they going to figure out who won these kinds of things if both of them managed to do it in the end? Would it just end in a tie?

Well, whatever. He picked up his skateboard from where he’d left it leaning against the wall while he’d untied his apron, tucking it under his arm as he headed for the door. He wasn’t going to lose, and that was the important part. A tie was no big deal.

Anna was sitting at one of the stools near the counter when he came out, a teacup in her hands. “Goodbye, Misaki.”

“Good luck with the rest of the day,” Dewa put in, as he opened up the hinged counter to go through.

Eric’s quiet voice added, “See you tomorrow.”

Yata half turned to offer them all a grin and a wave as he reached the front door – and ended up colliding with someone coming in. The air was knocked out of his lungs in a rush, and he heard a grunt from the guy he’d just bumped into as they halfway fell into each other, caught on the still-open door.

The apology was almost out before he’d realized it, and he actually had to choke it back. Shit! Hopefully someone will explain for me… Trying for his most sheepish grin, Yata looked up –

 – and found a way too familiar pair of cool blue eyes staring back at him from behind wide-rimmed glasses, at a distance that was uncomfortably short.

For the second time in less than a minute, he had to physically restrain himself from blurting something out. What the hell is he doing here, anyway? Yata scowled up at Fushimi’s mildly startled face, watching as the threads of irritation started to spread across it. Those thin lips tipped down, eyes narrowing.

At this angle, he could clearly see just how long and dark Fushimi’s lashes were, stark against his skin tone and clearly visible even through the thick lens of his glasses. Yata sucked in a breath, still glaring warily – but a lot of his irritation seemed to have gone. He felt restless in a different way: heart still racing from the collision, skin tingling, and shoulders tense.  It was kind of fascinating seeing that beautiful but unpleasant face up close like this… They were still kind of jumbled together, almost touching, and it felt kind of – maybe – warm. Or something…

Someone coughed behind him. “Yata-san,” Dewa said in a mildly admonishing way. “Not in front of Anna, come on.”

Eric made a soft, derisive noise. “I’d rather you didn’t make lovey-dovey eyes in front of us, either.”

“Wai - What?” Yata jerked at that, spinning around before he could properly think about it and feeling his face begin to burn. “What the hell are you – ?”

Belatedly, he caught himself, slapping a hand over his mouth – but the damage was done.

Fuck…

He could see it in the face of his friends, going from surprised to sympathetic even as he stared back at them, his own horror turning rapidly into frustration. His eyebrow twitched. Goddamnit…

Behind him, Fushimi made a kind of self-satisfied-sounding hum, and that pissed him off more than anything.

“Shut up, and fuck you!” Yata whirled on him, mouth twisting into a scowl even as he glowered at his smirking opponent. That expression was so annoying… He seriously had no right to look that smug. “If you hadn’t come charging in here and bumped into me, I’d have had this!”

After all that effort and holding back, too… This seriously pisses me off!

Fushimi raised an eyebrow at him without losing the smirk, somehow managing to speak volumes with just that, and Yata clenched his teeth. “Yeah, enjoy the victory on this lousy challenge, monkey,” he ground out. “Just you wait!”

He got another of those smug-sounding hums in response, and Fushimi’s eyelids lowered, lashes coming down again lazily. Yata let out a sharp ‘ch’, fully irritated by the whole business, and moved forward to go through the door, bumping against Fushimi’s shoulder purposefully as he did.

There’d better be a good challenge tomorrow! He dropped his board once he was on the sidewalk and kicked off, ready to ride out this restless frustration and the sting of the recent loss.

The all-too-close memory of that slender-boned face was still replaying in his mind like a taunt, and even the familiar rush of the breeze in his face and the feeling of his body in motion couldn’t seem to wash it out.

 


 

 

“Make a stack of pancakes from scratch”.

Fushimi could feel his eyebrows drawing together in something like a mix of perplexity and annoyance as he stared at the board. What kind of challenge is this?

It wasn’t like he cooked, but it didn’t strike him as something that was difficult to do. Sure, just like with any skill, there were those who could do better than others, and it could probably be honed, but he’d never felt the need and didn’t usually have the patience to mess around when it came to food. Protein shakes and energy bars were sufficient when he was at home, and boxed lunches from a convenience store got him through most work days – assuming he could easily pick out the parts he didn’t like.

Well, it can’t be too difficult to follow a recipe. He pulled his phone from his pocket as he moved past the board, bringing up the browser and typing into the search bar one-handed to find a result. There were concrete steps and measurements in cooking, so he was confident he could manage.

Which was probably more than could be said for a certain idiot. Fushimi felt a faint smile building on his lips, and resisted the urge to feed into it. He couldn’t afford to get overly cocky yet – although yesterday had gone more or less as he’d expected, at least in terms of how the challenge had played out. The memory of Yata’s angry face from the moment of that win was satisfying – a sight he was feeling confident he’d get to witness again soon.

Still, his mind kept skipping over that moment to just before it, which was kind of irritating. Fushimi’s small smile shifted to a frown, his thumb pausing over his phone’s screen. It bothered him that he couldn’t seem to get that face out of his head – kept seeing on repeat the moment that some of the wariness had left those fierce eyes and he’d been able to watch at a close range as the expression that went with them shifted to something softer and less hostile. Yata’s face was fascinating – it was an open book of his emotions. In that one short instant, it had been hard to look away from him, and something in Fushimi’s chest had felt like it was constricting, shortening his breath and making him feel briefly disoriented.

There’s no point in thinking about that now. Pushing that memory deliberately out of his head, Fushimi focused on the search results instead, bringing up one of the more promising pages.

It didn’t seem like making pancakes from scratch was that complicated. He could easily make use of the small kitchen they – well, mostly Kamo, to be honest – used to make refreshments and treats that customers could order. The café wouldn’t be open for another hour or so anyway, and he doubted it would even take that long to make a reasonably sized stack.

Seems like this will be another easy win.

 


 

 

“Morni – whoa!” Hidaka’s expression went from neutral to alarmed within seconds of opening the door to the back room. He looked around sharply. “Was there a fire?”

“Eh…” From the corner of his eyes, Fushimi could see Kamo shooting him a discreet sideways glance; the older man coughed, and then continued carefully, “Not exactly…”

Fushimi clicked his tongue sharply, turning away before Hidaka’s curious gaze could turn his way and scowling at his computer screen instead. He was keenly aware of the wet patches on his work clothing and the flour marks he hadn’t been able to completely get off, but that didn’t mean he was going to answer every nosy idiot’s questions about them.

The burning scent originating in the kitchen had permeated almost the entire back area of Scepter 4, although the traces of smoke left after the fire alarm had gone off were mostly aired out. The kitchen itself was still intact, although a sink full of dishes, spilled batter on the counters, and patches of burned pancake on the stovetop were left in the wake of the failed cooking experiment.

It wouldn’t have been a failure at all if the idiot who wrote those instructions bothered to be clear about it. It hadn’t explained how to beat an egg, for example – wouldn’t anyone expect to apply force? Assuming that everyone would just know that it was done in a bowl with a whisk or fork was stupid. And there had to be some trick to getting the mixture smooth that the website hadn’t explained, because even after stirring it, pockets of flour had seemed to appear as if by magic in the depths of the bowl of batter.

It didn’t help that nothing had told him how much cooking spray to apply to the pan. He’d erred on the side of caution, which turned out to be a mistake – and to top it off, the instruction that said three minutes on one side obviously hadn’t counted on “medium” heat being a poor indicator of what temperature the stove needed to be at. The smell of charred spray and doughy batter was revolting.

It was ridiculous, in the end. Fushimi narrowed his eyes at his monitor, irritation rising. He’d followed the instructions perfectly fine. It wasn’t his fault that they were written by an incompetent and lazy idiot.

“Fushimi-san made pancakes,” Goto pointed out, very carefully avoiding Fushimi’s glare, and tipping his head in the direction of the break room. “For the challenge.”

“Really?” Hidaka actually seemed to brighten a little at that. When Fushimi looked up, cautiously, his co-worker was smiling at him. “If there’s any left, do you mind if I have a taste, Fushimi-san?”

Goto’s normally placid eyes widened a little at that. “Uh… Hidaka… wait, I don’t think – ”

“It’s okay, I’m sure it’s fine!” Hidaka actually looked pretty enthusiastic about it. “This is the first time Fushimi-san’s actually baked anything, so it’s at least worth trying, right?”

There didn’t seem to be any mockery in that expression. Fushimi stared at him suspiciously for another second, and then clicked his tongue, turning away again. “If you really want to, go ahead.”

“I’ll just help myself, then!” Hidaka moved towards the break room, either oblivious to or just ignoring the dubious stares of his co-workers.

There was a moment of nervous silence in his wake.

Kamo cleared his throat, delicately. He was holding his cell phone in one hand. “Can one of you run a location check on a missing device? Benzai’s waiting.”

“I got it,” Goto responded, looking a bit relieved to have the tension broken.

“Okay! I’ll read it out to you.”

It was irritating that they even felt the need to tiptoe around this. Fushimi resisted the urge to click his tongue, still frowning at his screen as he tried to keep his attention on the code in front of him. Technically, he’d made a stack of pancakes, and so the challenge was complete. They didn’t have to be good pancakes, after all.

It doesn’t matter. He focused on typing rapidly, deliberately ignoring both the smell and the strain in the air. It’s not like that idiot is going to be able to do any better. I’d be surprised if he can even read a recipe, much less follow it.

That thought was a small comfort, anyway.

The handset sitting on one of the spare desks buzzed to life, and Doumyouji’s voice broke the silence brightly. “Hey, if anyone wants pancakes, there’s a bunch up for grabs out here!”

There was a moment of startled silence; Kamo and Goto exchanged glances.

Fushimi was already on his feet once he’d processed the word ‘pancakes’, stalking towards the door. There was a fire starting in his belly already, a kind of unpleasant flare-up of anticipation and dread. It can’t be…

As it turned out, though, it could. Yata was already looking in his direction before he’d even come out of the back room, a cocky sort of grin on his face and a covered plate in each hand. “Yo, monkey! Care for a pancake?” The grin widened into a wicked smirk as he met Fushimi’s glare directly. “Or are you going to tell me you’re already full?”

That did look like a stack of pancakes in his right hand – and one extra on the plate in his left. Actual pancakes, even – not like the charred mess Fushimi had left in the break room. He clicked his tongue, frown deepening as he approached the front. How? “Is that what those are supposed to be?”

“What, are you telling me you can’t even recognize the real thing?” Yata looked disgustingly pleased with himself, holding up the stack confidently. “What kind of pancakes did you make, then?”

Fushimi ignored the question, his eyes on the plate as he searched for some kind of flaw to exploit. In the background, he was vaguely aware of Fuse coming through the front door behind Yata, shooting them a quick, curious glance before brushing past them without bothering to ask or even comment. Doumyouji called a greeting after him, apparently oblivious to the tension.

“They’re full of dark spots,” Fushimi pointed out after a moment, feeling a tiny bit of relief as he noticed the blemish. The possibility that Yata had outdone him so thoroughly had been worrying.

“Ah, right! I added some blueberries for a little extra flavor.” Yata shifted his gaze to the pancakes himself, with obvious satisfaction. “They turned out pretty delicious! You guys can all help yourselves if you want.”

“Really? Blueberry’s my favorite kind!” Doumyouji leaned forward eagerly, eyes bright. “Is it okay if I grab a fork and dig in?”

“Of course! Tell the rest of your buddies, too!”

Fushimi scowled after Doumyouji as he scurried off towards the back room, then turned his baleful glare on Yata, who grinned back, looking unreasonably smug. “So? Gonna pony up your entry, or are we calling this a win by default?”

Frustration was already building at his core. “Where’s the proof that you even made these yourself?” Fushimi muttered in response, ignoring the request. “Anyone could have done the work.”

That, at least, would have made more sense than this idiot succeeding where he had failed.

“Hehe!” Yata didn’t seem at all bothered by that – if anything, his grin widened. “I thought you’d say that.” He set the full tray down on the greeter’s desk, reaching into the pocket of his shorts and pulling out his phone. “That’s why I had Anna take pictures of me while I was working on them. Here!” He unlocked the screen and thrust the device in Fushimi’s face. “See for yourself.”

The unpleasant reality of the loss was already leaving a sour taste in Fushimi’s mouth, but he took the phone and scrolled through the pictures anyway, feeling his mood growing blacker with each new shot of Yata efficiently preparing his batter. There was even a well-timed shot of him flipping a pancake from the pan with evident ease.

“I can cook a lot of things, actually,” Yata was boasting, as he finished with the photos. “If you’re lucky, maybe I’ll even make my famous Yata-rice some time and share it with you guys. Oh – and that reminds me.” He plucked the phone back out of Fushimi’s hands, forcing the second plate into them instead. “Here, this one’s yours.”

His fingers were curling around the sides of the plate before he’d thought about it, and that tight feeling was back – just like the other day when they’d bumped into each other. It was difficult to breathe. Fushimi looked down at the single pancake on the plate – which, on first glance, didn’t seem to have any of the dark spots that the others did – and then turned his gaze back up to Yata’s face, somehow finding that proud smile less irritating. His stomach did a little flip, and something in his chest seemed to turn.

Annoying… Fushimi pushed that unnerving feeling down, forcing himself to regard his opponent with suspicion. “Why?”

“’Why’?” Yata repeated, and then shrugged. “I figured you’re not the kind of guy who likes overly sweet stuff, so I diced up some pineapple instead of blueberries for this one. Turned out pretty good, actually. Try it!”

Fushimi clicked his tongue. Of course this moron would miss the point. It was pointless to even have this conversation. “I don’t want it.”

Yata looked mildly disgruntled, but he was still quick enough to raise his hands and push the plate back when Fushimi tried to force it on him. “Well, you got it anyway.” He raised an eyebrow. “It’s not like you have to be grateful or anything. I mean, it’s just part of the contest, right?”

Just part of the contest… That was right – this wasn’t anything special, after all. A tiny hint of something that felt suspiciously like disappointment swirled up within Fushimi, and he ruthlessly suppressed it. “I don’t need your gross pancake experiments.”

“What, like yours are so much better?” Yata challenged. He stepped back, bracing his hands on his hips and regarding Fushimi with stubborn obstinacy. “Come on, let’s see ‘em!”

There was a moment of telling silence between them. Fushimi clicked his tongue and turned his gaze to the side, thoroughly irritated.

“Heh. That’s what I thought!” Yata sounded infuriatingly triumphant. “You just avoid saying anything when you’re annoyed with your options, right? I’ve only known you for a few days, and even I picked up on that habit of yours.”

That was a frustratingly close strike. Why are you talking like you know anything about me? Fushimi turned his gaze back to Yata’s bright, stupid grin, frown deepening. What do you even care? There was a rush of something like want – or even longing – rising at the back of his throat, which was both alarming and baffling. He didn’t want anything from this obnoxious moron, other than to claim another victory, which was clearly not happening. So why…?

The receiver at Fushimi’s belt suddenly buzzed to life. “Uh, Fushimi-san?”  Fuse’s  voice came through, breaking that confusing and tenuous connection between them without ceremony. He sounded perplexed. “Hidaka’s not looking too good – I think he tried to eat whatever those burnt rubbery things are in the break room. Goto’s asking the captain if it’s okay to let him go home, and we figured someone should let you know.”

Of all the things to bring up… Fushimi clicked his tongue, clenching his teeth briefly as Yata let out a bark of a laugh. “’Burnt rubbery things’, seriously? Cooking’s not one of your strong points, huh?”

“Shut up,” Fushimi muttered back, thoroughly out of sorts now, and turned away with the intention of heading to the back room.

“So it’s definitely my win today, monkey!” Yata called after him, loud and confident. “Don’t forget!”

“Yeah, yeah.” Fushimi paused long enough to shoot a disdainful look over his shoulder. “Enjoy it now while you have the chance, since someone obviously took pity on you with that ridiculous challenge.”

“Hah! We’ll see about that.” Yata’s answering smirk was full of cocky surety; it was irritating to look at. “Just wait!”

It wasn’t even worth responding to that.

In the end, Fushimi did eat the pancake that had been forced on him – it was already there, after all, and he hadn’t had breakfast, as usual, so there was no harm in at least trying it. The pineapple flavoring was odd, but the hint of sour that came with the usual sweet flavoring wasn’t entirely bad. He couldn’t say he particularly liked or disliked it.

Still, somehow he ended up eating the whole thing, and chalked up the strange warmth building within him to indigestion. It made more sense that anything else, at that point.

 


 

 

‘Tell a scary story in an empty classroom’.

The icy shudder that run up along the line of Yata’s spine when he read the newest challenge was involuntary and immediate. He scowled at the board, trying to cover the sense of foreboding. Why does it have to be in a classroom?

Not that he was all that keen on scary stories in the first place, but… seriously, what the hell? Didn’t the person who wrote the challenge know how many creepy things happened in empty school buildings? Telling ghost stories there was asking for trouble!

The sharp, familiar click of a tongue cut into his thoughts, and Yata looked up to see Fushimi standing in front of him, staring at the board with mild irritation. “Scary stories in a classroom? Is the person who writes these a middle schooler?”

“No idea.” A lot of the frustration Yata had felt towards Fushimi seemed to have cooled after yesterday’s challenge. It was a relief to know there were things he could do that this arrogant guy sucked at, at least. Although part of him couldn’t help but wonder what the hell kind of diet Fushimi had if he couldn’t even make pancakes without screwing it up.

Well, not his problem. “Why, you scared?”

He kind of hoped Fushimi was, so he could win the challenge quickly and not have to linger. Who the hell would want to hang around a school?

“Don’t be stupid.” Fushimi shook his head, looking mildly annoyed – which, to be fair, seemed to kind of be his default. He let out a short sigh. “I’m guessing we’ll need to go with more than just the two of us, so that someone can judge who tells stories the best.” There was a scornful note in his voice, and he clicked his tongue before adding, “What a pain.”

“Yeah. Right. A pain…” Yata reached up to scratch the back of his head, a bit nervously. The thought of telling those kinds of stories in an empty place after hours was already causing his stomach to form knots of dread and anxiety. This jerk will definitely make fun of me if he finds that out, though… “We should go early and get it over with. Like – like sneak in after classes end. Or something. Right?”

Fushimi looked up and met his eyes, gaze seeming almost cuttingly sharp. “Club activities happen after classes end, remember?” He clicked his tongue. “We’re going to be breaking and entering regardless to get this stupid thing done, so we might as well do it when we’re not likely to be caught. But if you want to make even more of an idiot of yourself, feel free to do that without me. I have work to finish up tonight, anyway.”

Yata scowled back, disgruntled at the correction. “Whatever, fine – I forgot, okay?” An empty classroom at night… He tried not to think about the kinds of rumors he used to hear in middle school. “Anyway, is there even a school around here?”

“Who knows.” Fushimi raised his eyebrows condescendingly. “I’ll let you figure it out for yourself. If you manage that much, I’ll see you at the front door after nine.” He turned without waiting for a response and started back the way he’d come.

Yata sputtered briefly, then glared after him. “Like I need your help anyway!” He fixed his scowl on Fushimi’s retreating back for an extra beat or two before letting out a sharp exhale and turning abruptly in the opposite direction. “Damn monkey…”

Empty classroom or not, he was definitely not gonna lose!

 


 

 

The nearest school was elementary level, and it was actually closed, due to fully half of it being blocked off for repairs and renovations. The gate was marked with all kinds of warning signs and the front door was locked, which was only a small hindrance considering some of the specialized skills Scepter 4 employed.

It’s probably a good thing we got here first. I’ll bet that idiot would’ve smashed a window in.

It had taken five minutes to walk there from the bus station – which was actually the station directly after the one near Homra – so the trip wasn’t exactly time-consuming or bothersome. Enomoto – who had been the first volunteer when Fushimi had brought up the challenge – spent most of it talking about how to create a spooky atmosphere while telling ghost stories, with Doumyouji – the second volunteer – chiming in at key points to add useless examples and agreement. They’d almost ended up with a third person joining them, but Hidaka was still looking a little under the weather, and Akiyama had told him as kindly as possible that he’d be better off going home early again.

Well, it’s not like I’m probably going to need most of this advice. Fushimi had some suspicions regarding Yata’s slightly odd behavior at the challenge board, and if he was right, it wouldn’t take much to win this. Still, the previous day’s defeat rankled. He wasn’t about to make the mistake of underestimating the task this time, regardless of how dumb it was. During his lunch break, he’d spent some time looking up several different horror stories and committing them to memory, and he was sure he’d be able to recite any of them without any trouble.

If, by some miracle, his opponent was actually good at this, Fushimi was still confident of his chances at winning.

It’s a stupid challenge in the first place, so that’s not exactly much of an achievement, though.

“There they are,” Doumyouji piped up suddenly, cutting off Enomoto’s enthusiastic – but useless – rambling about the properties of a really good ghost story. “That didn’t take too long!”

Fushimi glanced over in the direction of the front gate. Yata was wearing a black beanie and carrying his skateboard under his arm, flanked by his (much taller) friends. He’d brought along three people, as it turned out – the big one whose name Fushimi hadn’t been given, one he was sure he’d seen working in the coffee house at some point, and a third he didn’t recognize.

Not that it mattered.

“Yo,” Yata greeted him, more subdued than usual and looking a bit disgruntled for some reason – as if he’d somehow hoped that Fushimi wouldn’t actually be there at all. “I brought some friends – these guys are – ”

“Not interested,” Fushimi cut him off without hesitation. The last thing he needed was to have more names in his head for people he didn’t care about. His memory wouldn’t let him forget, after all. “Let’s just get this over with.”

Yata scowled at him, eyebrows coming down. “You don’t have to be a fucking prick! Anyway, maybe the friends you brought along aren’t rude as hell and actually want an introduction, huh?”

Fushimi clicked his tongue, frowning back. Somehow, still, he wasn’t entirely comfortable referring to his fellow employees as ‘friends’. He couldn’t help the strong impulse telling him that even the ones who’d worked most closely with him would deny it. “They’re just co-workers.”

“Fine, your co-workers – whatever!” Yata was shifting on his feet, looking unusually antsy, though his glare was just as fierce as ever. “Anyway, like I was about to say, this is – ”

“I said I’m not interested.”

“Then plug your goddamn ears, you rude-ass monkey!” Yata snapped back. “Quit interrupting me!”

Fushimi gazed back at him, unimpressed. “Quit saying stupid things, and I’ll think about it.”

Yata’s hands balled into fists and he glowered back, a low growl escaping his throat.

“So! Doumyouji Andy here,” Doumyouji cut in cheerfully, taking advantage of the momentary silence. “Nice to meet you!”

“Ah… right…” Enomoto shot Fushimi a quick, hesitant glance, and then smiled sheepishly. “Enomoto Tatsuya.”

“Hey.” The big guy held up a casual hand, apparently not bothered by the earlier argument. “Kamamoto Rikio.”

The one Fushimi didn’t recognize nodded in acknowledgement. “Bandou Saburouta.”

“Akagi Shouhei here!” the guy from the coffee shop counter added, with a friendly smile. “Nice to meet you guys, too!”

“There, introductions done!” Doumyouji announced, and blinked, tilting his head a bit when Fushimi turned to shoot him a baleful look. “What? You wanted to get going, right?”

“See? Not everyone’s as rude as you, monkey!” Yata had folded his arms over his chest, offering a smirk when Fushimi looked back over at him. “Not that hard, was it?”

Not unless you count the annoyance. Fushimi clicked his tongue. “Do you have any other excuses to stall, or can we get on with this already?”

Yata jerked with clear guilt at that. “Wha – ? I’m not stalling!” He scowled back defensively. “Why the hell would I stall?”

“How would I know?” Actually, Fushimi was pretty sure he did know, but he wasn’t going to say it until he’d been proven right. He turned away, reaching for the door handle to enter the building. “Stop being an idiot, and let’s go.”

“L-look who’s talking!” Yata sputtered, the lame comeback preceding his furious footsteps by only a split second as he stormed up to the door. “I’m coming, all right? Happy?”

Fushimi rolled his eyes upward, but couldn’t help the small, satisfied smile that came with his opponent’s strangely nervous behavior. “Thrilled.”

The inside of the building was still, and a bit stifling. A plastic cover had been spread across the hallway to the immediate left of the entrance where the building was being gutted in preparation for whatever work was going to happen there. The rest of the place felt stale – it obviously hadn’t been aired out in some time, and summer weather was coming on quickly now. Today had been particularly warm, muggy because of the showers they’d had earlier in the week, and the humidity lingered in the building. It wasn’t a very pleasant feeling.

One of Yata’s friends – Bandou, Fushimi’s memory supplied – whistled. “Not too friendly in here, huh?”

“Well, it is supposed to be closed,” Enomoto pointed out. He was looking around with satisfaction. “This is the perfect place for ghost stories, actually!” He shut his eyes and breathed in deeply. “Just take in that atmosphere…”

“What? What atmosphere?” Yata glanced around in a jittery sort of way, crossing one arm over his chest and hunching forward almost defensively. “It’s just a normal school. It’s normal, right? Anyway, why would you say there’s an atmosphere? What’s that supposed to mean, anyway?”

That was a satisfying sort of reaction. Fushimi turned to the right without waiting for someone to try and answer – if there was even a good way to answer that useless mess of questions. “Let’s just find a classroom and get started.”

The first doors – on either side of the hallway – were the bathrooms, but past that, they found a classroom without any trouble. The desks and chairs had all been conveniently stacked, so the floor was clear. Rather than disturb anything, they ended up sitting in a loose circle on the floor – which felt ridiculous, and probably looked even more so, with seven full-grown men arranged like they were doing introductions in pre-school. To make matters worse, Yata was sitting to Fushimi’s immediate left, which had been agreed on as the best arrangement with the two of them being the ones telling the stories. He wasn’t clear on the logic behind it – normally, Enomoto was one of the easier members of Scepter 4 to talk to, but when you got him going on something he was enthusiastic about, he had a tendency to get very obscure. It didn’t make a difference, though. Soon enough, if Fushimi was right, he’d be done with this and up one more victory.

Yata was already fidgeting; when Fushimi glanced sideways at him, he’d hunched his shoulders inward again and he was looking around the room nervously. There was obviously no power, so the only light was from the moon shining through the open window, and in the dark, Yata almost seemed to have shrunk into himself, dimmed and muted. It could’ve been his posture, though – every time Fushimi had seen him in the past, he seemed to be trying to puff himself up and look bigger, and now it was like he was attempting to be as small and unnoticeable as he could.  

It doesn’t suit him. The thought snuck into Fushimi’s head before he could stop it, and he looked away, frowning a bit. He wasn’t sure why he’d thought it in the first place. He didn’t care what did or didn’t suit Yata, after all.

“So. Uh.” Yata cleared his throat, obviously doing his best to hide his nervousness. “How do we decide who goes first?”

“I don’t care either way.” It was unlikely that he was going to run out of stories before this ended, regardless. “Pick whichever you want.”

“Right. Yeah.” Yata made an effort to straighten up, raising his voice as if to try and cover his own anxiety. “I’ll go first, then!”

Not that it’ll do you any good. “Go ahead.”

“Yeah! I got this!” The forced enthusiasm made it obvious that Yata was psyching himself up. Even in this kind of situation, he was ridiculously easy to read, every little emotion plain on his face and in his posture.  He leaned in towards the center of the circle, eyes full of determination. “This story starts in a school just like this one – ”

“Under construction?” Doumyouji interrupted, eyes bright.

Yata shot him an irritated look. “Okay, fine, a school like this one was when it wasn’t under construction! Can you shut up and let me do this?”

“Right, sorry!”

“All right - like I was saying…” Yata squared his shoulders, jaw set and posture rigid. “In this school, there was a rumor, which nobody wanted to admit they believed in but everyone just kind of went with anyway – a rumor that the last stall in each of the washrooms was haunted.”

It felt like something cold and unpleasant ran down Fushimi’s spine at that introduction, and he scowled a little. This story, huh? It wasn’t like he was scared of it anymore, but his memories of it weren’t good ones. When he’d come across it in his search, he’d deliberately moved on, but obviously Yata hadn’t.

Well, whatever.

“The rumor said that whenever someone sat in the stall, a voice would speak up out of thin air, and ask you if you want red or blue paper. Answering the wrong way meant certain death, but none of the students could agree on the right way to answer.”

It was weird the way Yata told it. Fushimi watched him sharply. He seemed to have forgotten his earlier anxiety and was speaking earnestly, as if he was actually one of the participants and truly believed in the so-called rumor. In a way, that was kind of reassuring.

Probably not the expected reaction to a scary story, but that worked to Fushimi’s advantage, anyway.

“Most of the students would just kinda avoid that last stall in case the rumor ended up being true, so nobody really used them. But there was a new kid in the school who didn’t believe it. The guy decided he was going to prove the rumor false, and went ahead into the last stall.”

The casual speech was a little distracting, to be honest. Still, he at least seemed to have everyone’s attention – Fushimi glanced around the circle, gauging reactions. No one looked scared, but they were listening intently.

“Sure enough, when he sat down, the voice spoke up out of nowhere. ‘Do you want the red paper? Or the blue paper?’ it said.”

The pitch and timbre of Yata’s voice was unnecessarily overblown; Fushimi let out an amused huff, ignoring the glare he got in response. Yata cleared his throat, and continued.

“The guy was kinda freaked out by this point, but he figured – okay – red paper is like blood, so blue is better, right? So he said ‘the blue paper’. Then, outside the room, all the other kids heard a scream, which cut off in a hurry. When they ran into the washroom, they found his body, s-strangled and blue in the face.”

The brief stutter spoke volumes; Fushimi watched out of the corner of his eyes as Yata swallowed hard, making a noticeable effort to compose himself. “Anyway!” he went on, a bit too loudly, “The school was closed for a while, and when it re-opened, all the kids were even more set on not using that last stall. But there was another new guy, and he figured there had to be something else going on. So he went ahead and did it, and sure enough, the same voice spoke up: ‘Do you want the red paper? Or the blue paper?’

Fushimi hummed low at the repeat of the ridiculous voice. Yata scowled at him, letting out a soft ‘ch’ before going on.

“The new guy obviously panicked, but he kinda remembered about what kids said about the first time, and he figured since the other guy’s face was blue, that meant blue was the wrong answer. So he said ‘the red paper’. Still, outside the room, they heard a scream and then this awful g-gurgling noise.” Once again, Yata had to gather himself, hands balling up into fists in front of him. “This time no one wanted to run in, but a teacher eventually had to, and they found the guy all s-sliced up, the bathroom floor coated with” – he noticeably swallowed again, and when he finished, his voice had weakened – “b-blood.”

It’s your story, so why are you getting affected? Fushimi shut his eyes and smiled a bit, keeping the comment in reserve for later. A glance around the circle didn’t show any additional nervous faces.

“A-anyway!” Once again, Yata’s voice was loud – just on the edge of being shrill. “Two deaths were enough for the admins and stuff, so they closed the school down, and all the students went off to other schools. The place was closed up, but one day a homeless guy was hanging around, and he really needed a place to piss.”

What, seriously? Why would a homeless guy care where he pisses? Fushimi was starting to wonder if Yata had come up with this version of the story on his own. It wouldn’t be surprising, honestly…

“So the guy broke into the school, and he went in to use the washroom. He went into the last stall just randomly, and that’s when he heard the voice asking, ‘Do you want the red paper? Or the blue paper?’

This time, Yata shot a dirty look in Fushimi’s direction, obviously expecting an interruption. Fushimi raised an eyebrow at him in return.

“Right, so anyway, the guy doesn’t know what to do, and he’s never heard the rumor before, so he just kinda wings it and yells back, ‘No paper!’ This time, there’s no one around to hear any screams, and no one comes in.” Yata shifted, took in another long breath, and lifted his chin again, stubbornly. “Two days later, the demolition guys come in to tear the place down, and they find the homeless guy, wide-eyed and frozen with a look of horror on his face… dead from f-fear.” His hands clenched harder in their fists, and then, all at once, he seemed to relax, shutting his eyes and letting all the air out of his lungs. “Whew! Okay!”

Kamamoto let out a whistle, raising his hand in an enthusiastic thumbs-up. “That was great, Yata-san!”

“Not bad!” Bandou agreed.

“The mood was good,” Enomoto pitched in, smiling kindly. “It wasn’t bad at all.”

Doumyouji sighed. “Now I’ve gotta go to the washroom!” He pushed himself up to his feet, almost reluctantly. “Be right back.”

“Huh? Seriously?” Yata stared at him, eyes going almost comically round. “You’d really go to the bathroom after a story like that?”

“Why not? I really have to go, you know…”

“Not everyone’s affected by your lame ghost stories like you are, Misaki,” Fushimi drawled out, letting his gaze rest lazily on his opponent. “Especially not a story you tell to scare kids in elementary school.”

Yata glowered back at him, lips twisting down into a scowl. “What the hell are you talking about? That story is creepy as hell! What kind of asshole would tell it to a kid?”

The echo of a mocking snicker rose up with disturbing clarity from Fushimi’s memory, along with the words that had accompanied it at that particular time. “Oh? My little monkey’s starting school today, huh? Want me to tell you something good?”

Pointless. Fushimi clicked his tongue, the remnants of his satisfaction dropping off. It wasn’t like he was in grade school any more, and he’d gone past the time when that man’s lies seemed like any kind of truth. It wasn’t worth it to linger.

He couldn’t always tell what would trigger something like that, though, unfortunately.

“Well, either way, I’m off!” Doumyouji’s untroubled voice cut into the silence. He stepped out of the circle, heading for the door. “Go on ahead without me, Fushimi-san – I’ll be right back, okay?”

“Yeah.” What’s the point of you even coming if you’re not going to listen and judge this? Still, it didn’t really matter. Based on Yata’s reactions to his own story, this was probably not going to take much longer. Fushimi pushed up his glasses, leaning forward and deliberately slowing his voice. “Actually, this story is about the dangers of storytelling.”

“H-huh?” Yata jerked beside him, and Fushimi could see the whites of his eyes lit up by the moonlight in the dark room. “Wh-what kind of lame story is that? Storytelling isn’t dangerous, right?”

The note of uncertainty in his voice was amplified by the way he glanced around the circle, seeking reassurance. Fushimi raised an eyebrow. “Why not wait until I’ve told the story before deciding? You had your turn already, so shut up.”

Yata crossed his arms over his chest and frowned back, but went silent.

“After a full-day field trip outside the city, a group of students along with a teacher were coming back to the school by bus,” Fushimi began, once again deliberately slowing and lowering his voice. It seemed like some of Enomoto’s tips were coming in handy, after all. “It was past sunset, so the road was dark and empty. It seemed like not a soul was alive outside of their bus.”

They were all staring at him now, with varying expressions of interest. Yata looked vaguely nervous. Good. “Because of the atmosphere, the teacher thought it was a good idea to tell the students a ghost story. When he tried to think of one, an old story that he couldn’t remember the origin of came into his head right away. The name of the story was Cow Head.”

Yata huffed a bit of a derisive snort. “Cow Head, really?” he muttered.

Fushimi deliberately ignored him, continuing with the story as if he hadn’t interrupted. “The main problem with the story was that when he thought about it, he couldn’t quite remember the details or how he came to know it. But he really strongly felt that this was the perfect mood for the story, and he could remember exactly how it began, so he started there. The entire bus went quiet as the teacher stood and called for attention, and then the story began.”

He paused there a moment for effect, noting that he once again had everyone’s attention. There was a rhythm and cadence to storytelling, apparently, and once you figured out the pattern, it wasn’t hard to replicate. At least this challenge is less illogical than cooking.

“In the beginning, everything was fine. All of the students, and even the bus driver, were listening to the story and enjoying the mood. However, as the story went on, one by one, the students began to notice that their teacher was becoming more involved in it. His eyes seemed to gleam, and his voice deepened, growing in volume and intensity. It was like he was possessed.”

Fushimi paused again, making note of the intent expressions around him and the way Yata was fidgeting, his shoulders hunched over again and his hands fisted in his lap, so tightly that they were trembling a little with the effort. His eyes seemed impossibly huge.

Probably not much longer, huh?

“The students began to scream for the teacher to stop, and the bus driver tried to slam on the breaks, but the bus no longer stopped and the teacher couldn’t stop speaking. His voice grew louder and more frenzied as he desperately recited the story that he couldn’t even remember. Even the screaming of the people on the bus couldn’t overpower his voice.”

Yata sucked in an audible, shaky gulp of air beside him.

“The bus never made it back to the city,” Fushimi continued, reaching up to push his glasses on his nose again and shutting his eyes briefly. “When people went out to look for it, they found it in a ditch, overturned. All of the passengers were foaming at the mouth, seemingly in a trance, and they had to be shaken awake. None of them could remember what had happened, or even that a story had been told. And their teacher was nowhere to be found. He’d vanished.”

The gazes of the four audience members were rapt, but not overly scared. Which… wasn’t important really. Beside him, Yata was noticeably shaking, his jaw quivering as if his teeth wanted to chatter but he was doing his best not to allow it. His expression was full of almost comical dread.

This was a good position to deliver the final blow. “After that, at the school that the students were from, there were claims that the teacher was seen in the hallways, his eyes wild and his expression intent. If any group of students were ever telling stories in a classroom, the door would swing open, and the form of the teacher would join the circle, speaking into any silence with, ‘Should I tell the story, Cow’s Head?’

There was a moment of silence as the end of the story sunk in.

Before anyone could react beyond that, the door to the classroom suddenly swung open.

The scream from beside him nearly ruptured Fushimi’s eardrums; he would’ve been reeling just from that, but at the same time, Yata flung himself sideways, grabbing at Fushimi’s shirt in an effort to… well, it wasn’t totally clear. He may have been trying to get a meat shield between himself and whatever had just entered the room, or it was possible he just needed to cling to something in terror, and Fushimi was most convenient. Either way, he hadn’t been prepared for it, so with a startled grunt, he overbalanced and fell back into a heap on the floor, Yata’s body landing on top of him.

He was heavier than he looked. Most of the breath left Fushimi’s lungs when they hit the ground, and he entertained himself for a good few seconds afterward with wheezing gasps for air. Yata was a trembling mass of wiry muscle on top of his chest, tensed up and still clinging to Fushimi’s shirt as they both processed the shock.

“I’m back!” Doumyouji’s voice announced, into the chaos. There was a beat, and then, “Huh? What happened?”

You tell me. Fushimi had recovered most of his breath, and raised his head slightly to frown at Yata with annoyance. He reached up to straighten his glasses as best he could and prodded at Yata’s shoulder with his other hand. “Hey. Get off of me, you idiot.”

Yata’s fingers twisted in his shirt; he slowly raised his head, some of the terror clearing from his expression as he met Fushimi’s gaze. His eyes were startlingly bright at that close distance, and he blinked slowly, startled and a little dazed as he stared back. The beanie had been knocked askew and it gave him a disheveled look, hair sticking out at all angles and mouth open in a kind of dumbfounded way.

That same tight, clenching feeling from the past few days started up again in Fushimi’s chest. He was uncomfortably aware of Yata’s torso pressed up against his, warmth building fast at the points where their bodies connected. Something like a shudder of electricity seemed to run up through his entire body, and he stared back dumbly for a moment, reason abandoning him.

Close…

“Uh…” Kamamoto coughed, sounding awkward about it. “Yata-san…?”

“Eh?” Yata blinked again, seeming to snap out of a trance, and then his eyes widened and his expression shifted to alarm. “AH!” He scrambled up off of Fushimi, releasing his hold and pulling back his hands as if they’d been burned, muttering a few curse words under his breath and refusing to make eye-contact.

Somehow, that flustered reaction set off another of those little shivers, and Fushimi scowled, annoyed with the entire business. He lifted a hand to shove Yata further from his personal space, pushing himself back to a sitting position as he did and then reaching up to adjust his glasses again. “Are you just not capable of reacting to anything like a normal person?” he grumbled, out of sorts.

“Sh-shut up!” Yata still wasn’t looking at him, rubbing the back of his neck and scowling irritably off to the side. “Anyone would’ve been freaked out by – ”

“No one else in this room screamed like a five-year-old,” Fushimi interrupted him, blandly.

“I didn’t scream like a five year old, goddamnit!”

“In any case,” Fushimi went on, as if that protest hadn’t been made, “I think we’re done here. It should be obvious who the winner of this challenge is, right?”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Yata demanded crossly. “My story was way better than your stupid Cow Head one!”

“My story caused a certain someone to scream and jump at me,” Fushimi reminded him, raising a condescending eyebrow. “Your story reminded someone that he needed to use the bathroom.”

Yata glared back at him, nonplussed, and then abruptly turned his furious gaze on the rest of the circle. “You guys are supposed to be judging this, right? Who was better, him or me?”

Enomoto straightened in his seat, looking quite serious about it. “Both of the stories had good scare value,” he noted. “Fushimi-san definitely created a better atmosphere, though.”

“Plus, there was the jumping and screaming after,” Doumyouji chimed in, helpfully.

“You weren’t even here!” Yata shot back at him, scowling, and turned his attention to his own friends. “You guys have my back here, right?”

“Eh?” Kamamoto’s eyebrows went up; his mouth twitched a little with obvious discomfort. “Uh… the truth is, Yata-san…”

“Both stories were pretty intense,” Akagi said earnestly. “It’s just… you know…” He scratched awkwardly at his cheek with one finger, letting that trail off.

Bandou offered a sheepish grin. “Actually, Fushimi told his a little creepier in the end.”

Fushimi allowed himself a slow smirk, eyeing his opponent with a certain amount of triumph as Yata gaped at his friends in shocked disbelief. “It’s probably not the best idea to compete in a scary story competition when you’re afraid of ghosts,” he drawled, and deliberately drew the rest out, “Mi. Sa. Ki.”

The helpless glower he got in response pretty much completed the victory right there.

That makes two.

 

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