Yata made a point of going up the ladder second so that he could wait at the bottom in case Saruhiko’s injury gave him trouble, but as it turned out, the only sign he showed of having any difficulty at all was the little grimace when his feet planted on solid ground again.
“Is that wound causing you some discomfort, Fushimi-kun?” Munakata asked, as Yata began to climb up the ladder; when he looked up, Scepter 4’s leader had braced a steadying hand on Saruhiko’s shoulder.
It earned him a frown and a click of Saruhiko’s tongue, which Yata couldn’t help grinning to himself about – Seriously, that guy’s just difficult with everyone, huh? – followed by a grumble of, “It’s nothing.”
Munakata seemed undeterred by this – used to it, probably. “Nonetheless, I believe we should have it looked at as Yata-kun suggested.” Hah! See? “I will take it upon myself to accompany you as your support.”
“You don’t need to.”
“Someone needs to, or you won’t go, will you?” Yata tugged himself deftly up onto the floor again, returning the irritated look he got stubbornly. “I’ll come along, too!”
“That won’t be necessary,” Munakata responded calmly, turning to regard Yata with that cool, assessing gaze. “I would strongly recommend that you return home and get proper rest yourself, Yata-kun.”
He couldn’t help but bristle a little at that. “But – !”
“Yata-chan.” Kusanagi set a hand on his shoulder, a little hint of a reprimand in his voice. “He’s right. Don’t push yourself.”
“I’m totally fine, though, just – ”
“Misaki,” Anna’s small voice interrupted. When he looked over, she was regarding him seriously from beyond the collapsed wall, traces of worry still evident on her face. “Please.”
The remaining fight drained out of him completely at that; Yata slumped, shutting his eyes and letting out a resigned sigh. “Yeah. Got it. Sorry, Anna.”
There was a brief moment of somewhat awkward silence.
“By the way,” Saruhiko broke it. When Yata looked at him, his attention was on his superiors, expression guarded. “How exactly did you figure out where we were?”
“We had Enomoto trace the last signal sent from your cell phone,” Awashima responded, crossing her arms under her chest. “Once this location was identified, we determined that it would be a good starting point.”
Eh… okay, what? Yata glanced at Saruhiko, and found him nodding, as if this explanation made perfect sense. “Well, I figured it’d be something like that,” he commented, and frowned a bit. “Why were you looking for us in the first place?”
“Ah – that’d be my fault,” Kusanagi interjected, with a bit of a rueful grin around the cigarette in his mouth. “Anna had a bad feeling, so she asked me to call Yata.” He met Yata’s gaze with a bit of a shrug. “Normally you’re pretty good about answering, so I thought something might be up when I didn’t get a response after a few tries. That’s when I contacted Seri-chan and started all of this.”
Saruhiko clicked his tongue. “What made you think we’d be together?”
“Hm.” Munakata smiled back at him in response to that, clearly unbothered. “Call it intuition, if you will.”
The look Saruhiko shot him in return was vaguely suspicious, but he didn’t say anything in response.
I don’t really get it, but whatever. Yata scratched at the back of his head, frowning a bit as he let his attention wander.
Now that he was out and could see the mess that the collapsed wall had made, he was glad he’d left his skateboard at Homra – his bat was definitely lost somewhere in that pile. Or maybe even down in the cellar; he hadn’t actually thought to look for it before now. It wasn’t like it was important at this point. He definitely had to consider himself lucky that Saruhiko had been able to react so fast the night before, though. If he’d been trapped under that, waiting for a rescue would’ve been hell.
I really owe him one, huh? Tying a T-shirt around his leg wasn’t going to cut it as a return.
“If I may,” Munakata continued, still in that even, measured tone, “I would like to propose an amendment to today’s challenge.” His gaze slid from Saruhiko to Yata, confirming that he had their full attention before going on. “Neither contestant shall attempt to access the challenge board prior to five in the afternoon.”
“Hah?” Yata stared at him incredulously. “What the hell?”
Saruhiko clicked his tongue at almost the same moment, his expression turning sour. “Is that necessary?”
“Not a bad idea,” Kusanagi commented, as if they hadn’t spoken. He glanced between the two of them wryly. “Take a break for today, boys.”
“Awashima-kun,” Munakata went on, smoothly, “please do make a note of this.” He pushed up his glasses again, delicately. “Be sure to include the caveat that any attempt to circumvent the rules will result in disqualification from the current challenge.”
“Of course, Captain,” Awashima agreed, without hesitation.
Yata shot them both a disgruntled look, and then turned to Saruhiko again. “Hey… Can he seriously do that?”
Saruhiko’s expression was one of weary resignation. “You get used to it,” he muttered. “Somehow or another.”
“Man, seriously…” Yata reached up to rub at the back of his neck, heaving a frustrated sigh, and then let it go. He managed to summon up the beginning of a grin as he looked back up at Saruhiko again. “Whatever – I can still kick your ass after five.”
The corners of Saruhiko’s mouth turned up very slightly in response. “Enjoy that delusion while you can.”
The exchange was pretty typical, but somehow even when Yata was trudging after Kusanagi with Anna’s small hand clutched around his and Saruhiko heading in the opposite direction with his superiors, he found himself unable to wipe the smile from his face or clear the excitement trembling in his belly.
With the way they’d looked at each other, he got the crazy impression that it was more of a promise than anything.
As predicted, the injury to Fushimi’s leg wasn’t serious – he’d had it cleaned and bandaged properly, and then been dropped off at home to get some rest.
Awashima, who’d been doing the driving, had been adamant that he was not to show up at work that day, even for the few hours he’d been planning in order to wrap up the case he was working on. Munakata had smiled beatifically from the passenger seat, not offering any contradiction.
“It’s not like I need my leg to hack somebody’s system,” Fushimi had muttered in response. It had not earned him any sympathy or a sign of relent from either of his superiors. Awashima had actually let out what sounded like an exasperated sigh in return.
This is ridiculous, and you both know it. He’d at least been wise enough to keep that thought to himself.
“Rest well,” Munakata had told him pleasantly as he was getting out of the car in front of his apartment building, and that was that.
He’d already slept in the cellar, so he didn’t bother going to bed. It hadn’t been a good sleep, but he was used to that. Sleeping during the day left him groggy anyway, so he wasn’t interested in going down for more. Instead, after bathing away the grime from the incident, Fushimi opened his laptop, plugged his phone in to charge it, and spent a brief moment contemplating whether to open one of his side projects, check on some of the forums he lurked at, or fire up a video game.
The hesitation only lasted a second or two, and then he started up the download for Apocalypse Bunker on his phone and opened the copy of Empire of Death that he’d so far only put three or four hours into on his laptop.
Well. It was a way to pass the time, anyway.
It was nearly four when he left his apartment, and his injury was throbbing, but he could walk normally, which was good enough. Having a break had actually helped – not that he’d admit it to his superiors – and he felt refreshed enough to take the bus, firing up the newly installed Apocalypse Bunker on his phone to keep himself occupied.
The buses were on time. Fushimi found himself already walking up to the Homra Coffee House at twenty to five. After a brief moment of hesitation, he stopped and went inside.
It couldn’t hurt to have a coffee. He hadn’t gotten much sleep, after all.
There was a blond he didn’t recognize working at the counter, and no sign of any other employee. Fushimi pushed down the odd rush of disappointment, ordered and paid for his drink, and left without lingering.
It’s not like I thought he’d be there. Homra closed at five, much like every other business in this quiet sector. The streets were already starting to clear out, in fact.
Well, it wasn’t like they wouldn’t see each other soon. He frowned to himself a bit, pushing that feeling down again, and continued past the building, being careful to avoid going much further in case it would count as breaking the Captain’s whimsically instated rule. Leaning back against the wall of a clothing store that had already closed, he pulled his phone from his pocket and unlocked it to continue where he’d left off with his new game.
He’d been trying to execute some of the more daring supply runs Misaki had pulled off on their shared run, but it hadn’t worked well for him so far. That unreasonably vague ‘good feeling’ that Misaki had casually tossed off as the reasoning behind his choices apparently had something to it, after all.
He probably doesn’t even know how he’s doing it. Despite the annoyance, Fushimi couldn’t help but smile a little to himself at that. It was probably a mix of instinct and a subconscious picking up of hints that he hadn’t figured out yet.
Either way, it would be more satisfying to play the game together.
He’d just managed to finish off his drink when the telltale grind of wheels on pavement alerted him to the fact that he was about to have company. Fushimi pushed himself up from the wall, dropping the empty to-go cup in the garbage opposite him and turning to face Misaki. “Hey.”
The skateboard was kicked up and lifted from the ground in an effortlessly skilled maneuver. “Hey,” Misaki answered him, an unguarded smile on his face as he met Fushimi’s gaze. “How long’ve you been here?”
“Not that long.” There it was again – that unusual little twist in his stomach. It had gotten much worse since last night, apparently. Fushimi deliberately ignored the feeling. “I was told not to come in to work, so there wasn’t much else to do today.”
“Oh, right – ‘cause of your leg, huh?” Misaki’s gaze drifted downward. “How’s that doing?”
“It’s fine.” It was only likely to give him trouble for another day or so, assuming he didn’t push things. Fushimi turned his eyes on his phone. “More importantly, it’s nearly five.” He locked the device and tucked it into his pocket. “Let’s go get this over with.”
Misaki actually huffed out a short laugh at that. “Real into this, huh?” His eyes were bright when he met Fushimi’s gaze again. “Yeah, okay, let’s do it!”
The short walk to the challenge board was spent in comfortable silence. When Fushimi glanced in Misaki’s direction, just once, he found Misaki eyeing him in return, and the sheepish grin he got for that was infectious. He still didn’t know what to do with the feelings it invoked, but he didn’t really dislike this kind of atmosphere.
The mood lasted right up until they got to the challenge board and read the latest post: ‘Treat someone to ice-cream’.
At five on a Sunday? Any place around here would be closing – if they hadn’t already. Fushimi glanced up sharply, scanning the street. He thought he remembered … There. Just across the street from them was the place he’d seen without paying much mind to it: the oddly-named Hakumaitou Ice-Cream Parlor.
… with its dark-haired server standing beside the open door, flipping the sign from ‘Open’ to ‘Closed’.
He apparently wasn’t the only one who’d spotted that; the two of them exchanged a quick, alarmed glance, and then Misaki was charging across the street without even bothering to look for cars – not that there was much traffic at this hour – bellowing out an urgent, “WAIT!”
Seriously… Fushimi clicked his tongue and moved to follow.
The server had stiffened up at the initial outburst, and was now staring at them apprehensively as they ran up. Misaki waved frantically at him, probably looking kind of like a deranged thug – Fushimi wouldn’t be surprised if the guy assumed they were on drugs or something.
That’s almost a less embarrassing explanation than the real one…
“Don’t close yet!” Misaki called out, running past the artfully arranged outdoor tables in front of the place. He stabbed a finger into the air behind him without looking back. “I need to treat this guy to an ice-cream!” As Fushimi approached, he seemed to consider that for a brief second and narrowed his eyes. “No, wait, two ice-creams!”
How annoying. Fushimi clicked his tongue. “Then, I’ll treat him” – at that, he tipped his head in Misaki’s direction – “to three ice-creams.”
“Oh yeah?” Misaki turned to glare back at him. “Make that four!”
“Five,” Fushimi countered, scowling back.
“Look, asshole, I can do this forev – ”
“Pardon me,” the server cut that off, sharply. When they looked in his direction, he was fixing the both of them with a level stare. “I’m afraid we’re past our closing time. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
“Eh?” Misaki’s expression was a mix between outraged and dismayed. “C’mon, you gotta be kidding me! Where the hell else are we supposed to go?”
As if he cares. Fushimi clicked his tongue, reaching into his pocket with the intent of pulling out his phone to track down another place with ice-cream. Unlike this quiet area, the busier sections of the city would definitely have shops open 24/7.
It was going to be crowded and it would take a while to get there, though, which was a pain.
“It’s fine, Kuroh!” a light voice called out from inside the shop, startling Fushimi out of that thought. When he looked inside, a silver-haired man was leaning over the old-fashioned counter to offer him a pleasant, carefree smile. “I haven’t cashed out yet, so we can handle two more customers.”
The server – Kuroh, evidently – frowned back at the other man for a beat, and then heaved what sounded like a resigned sigh, turning back to face the two of them. “Fine,” he agreed, and fixed them with a severe look. “But only one order each – understood?”
Is that the best way to talk to customers? Still, this was better than taking a subway into the city and having to deal with the crowds. Fushimi bit back the comment, settling for clicking his tongue again. “Got it.”
Misaki seemed about as pleased as he was, letting out a soft ‘ch’ and scowling back. “Yeah, yeah.” He stepped forward into the shop ahead of Fushimi, his expression softening a bit when he took in the still-smiling man behind the counter. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it!” the server – or maybe he was actually a manager, since the other server seemed to have accepted his suggestion without complaint, despite obviously disapproving of it – responded cheerfully. “Now, what can I get you?”
They left the shop five minutes later, with the dark-haired server promptly shutting and locking the door behind them. In the interest of not being kicked out – and because it was pointless to argue over it – they’d called a temporary truce and gone with a single scoop each, Fushimi’s mild vanilla in a cup and Misaki’s chocolate peanut-butter swirl in a cone.
“You’re a picky guy, huh?” Misaki commented around a mouthful of ice-cream. A thin line had already smeared just under his bottom lip, but he didn’t seem to care, shooting Fushimi a flat look. “Seriously, only kids still get ice-cream in cups. And mild vanilla, for real? Regular vanilla isn’t boring enough?”
Fushimi raised an eyebrow in return, dipping his spoon into his portion. “Says the guy who ordered one of the flavors with the cartoon bears on the label. Who’s the kid here?”
“Shut up – who cares about the label?” Misaki’s sharp retort was spoiled by his grin. His eyes were bright, and the color in the sunlight was a brilliant amber, unlike the hazel Fushimi remembered from the night before. Even then, they’d seemed to shine, but now… He couldn’t properly qualify it, other than to say that both felt very much like his impression of Misaki, in general. “Anyway, c’mon, let’s sit down while we eat.”
The tables outside of the shop were small and round with glass tops, and there were two black-framed chairs at each one. Misaki pulled one chair out and flopped onto it carelessly, leaving Fushimi to take the other. “Way better! You gotta relax when eating ice-cream, right? Oh – ” He frowned at his hand, noting the line of melted chocolate dairy product that had stealthily slid over the cone and down along the line of his thumb. “Damnit, it’s melting already…”
“That’s what happens when you use a cone instead of a cup,” Fushimi pointed out, delicately sliding his spoon along the edges of the scooped ice-cream to catch the melted parts.
“Yeah, yeah.” Misaki shook his head, shrugging that comment off. “It kinda ruins the mood, though. Wouldn’t feel like ice-cream without a cone.” He abruptly brought his hand up, lowering his face and licking up the line of melted product.
Fushimi had meant to respond to that inane observation with something about how the taste didn’t change regardless of how you ate it, but his eyes caught on the motion of Misaki’s tongue running deftly along his skin, and the distraction effectively pushed the words out of his mind. There was a pleasant, shivery appeal to the sight that curled within him, a little ache that felt like longing pulsing at the back of his throat. He wasn’t sure what to make of it.
Misaki’s bottom lip still had that small smear of ice-cream trapped in the curve beneath it, visible as he pulled back, and Fushimi’s fingers suddenly seemed to itch with the desire to reach out and wipe it off. He wanted to know how it would feel, that tiny bit of soft flesh giving under his touch. And what kind of look would Misaki give him if he did it?
The urge to find out was so strong it made him feel briefly disoriented.
“Saruhiko?” When he snapped his gaze up, startled, Misaki was giving him a puzzled look. “What’s up? You spaced out for a second there.”
An uncomfortable warmth rose on Fushimi’s face; he clicked his tongue and turned to look down at his nearly-untouched and noticeably melting ice-cream, flustered and more than a little irritated. “You have food all over your face,” he muttered.
It was hard to say what was more annoying: the weird thought or the fact that he’d been caught staring.
“Huh? So what?” There was a pugnacious note in Misaki’s voice, despite the careless tone. “It’s just ice-cream.” It was almost possible to hear the grin when he added, “That’s part of the fun, right?”
The untroubled response soothed a little of his embarrassment. Fushimi looked up to raise an eyebrow, the usual pleasant rush washing over him at the sight of that stupid smile. “What, making a mess?”
“Yeah, that! S’not the same if your fingers don’t get all sticky.” Misaki leaned in to lick another line off the back of his hand.
Fushimi turned his eyes back to his own ice-cream, pressing the spoon into it firmly and ignoring the faint tingling in his stomach. It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling, but it was awkward and part of him felt vaguely guilty for no reason at all, which made this kind of irritating to deal with. He didn’t want to have another moment like earlier, either. “I’ll pass.”
“Heh. You’re no fun.” Misaki sounded amused – kind of annoying, really, but it couldn’t be helped. “Go ahead and eat your boring cup of mild vanilla.” He snorted. “Might as well be frozen milk like that.”
“That’s definitely something a kid would say,” Fushimi drawled in response, raising his spoon to take a bite and lifting his eyes to catch the reaction to his words. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you that milk helps you grow?”
Misaki’s smile shifted to a scowl. “Shut up! That’s just something you tell kids to make ‘em drink it!” The beginning of a flush was spreading out from the bridge of his nose; he glared across the table. “Anyway, what the hell are you getting at? Got something to say about me?”
Too easy. “Nothing really.” Fushimi smiled lazily back, his good mood restored, and scooped another spoonful of ice-cream.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought!” Misaki frowned at him for another minute or so, eyes narrowed, and then slouched back in his seat, heaving a sigh. “Man, another tie today! This kinda sucks, y’know? I was all fired up and everything…”
“You’re always fired up,” Fushimi noted drily. “Why not consider this a chance to cool it for once? You can save your energy for the next one.”
He got a flat scowl for that. “Yeah, says the guy winning right now.” Misaki let out a soft, irritated ‘ch’, bringing up his considerably softened ice-cream to work at with furious enthusiasm. “Don’t think you can relax just because you’re ahead by one!”
That brought another smile around his next mouthful. “If you say so.”
When their eyes met, Misaki paused long enough to grin back fiercely, and it felt like there was an electric current passing between them. For once, the pleasant little shivering sensation didn’t feel out of place or strange; it was both expected and welcome, as if it was something they shared.
There was a surprising amount of appeal to that idea. Mutual good feelings.
Despite the tiny thread of doubt that still lingered – as always – at the back of his mind, Fushimi had to admit that he liked the thought of it.
Something about the way Saruhiko smiled was kinda fascinating, Yata thought. It was cautious but also a little bit of a helpless gesture, like he just couldn’t keep it in. He was such an aloof, secretive person that the tiny signs of happiness were like rare and precious gems. The sight of them made Yata feel as if his whole body would tremble; the thrill sank all the way down to his bones, filling him completely.
He couldn’t help but grin back. Some of that feeling had to come out, after all.
The moment lasted maybe just a second or two longer than it needed to; feeling inexplicably nervous, Yata cleared his throat. “So, uh…” For a moment, he fumbled for something to say – Why the hell is this getting weird all of a sudden? – and then something from the previous night back to him and he let out a relived breath, reaching into his pocket. “Right. I kept our game. Y’know, from last night? Apocalypse – ”
“ – Bunker. I know.” Saruhiko was still gazing at him steady as he stirred at his ice-cream in a lazy, almost idle motion. It was melting just like Yata’s, but instead of getting all over his hand, it was turning into a kind of soupy paste in its cup. “I downloaded it.”
“Oh.” Yata hesitated, frowning a bit with his hand hovering just out of his pocket, phone clenched in his fingers. He wasn’t sure whether he was more gratified – after all, Saruhiko had liked the game enough to download it – or disappointed – this meant they probably wouldn’t need to play together, after all. “Yeah, okay.”
Saruhiko’s gaze flickered down to his cup; he scooped up a spoonful of ice-cream soup deftly and then paused before bringing it to his lips. “It’s a pain to deal with the supply missions,” he commented flatly. “You can keep handling that part.” The spoon made it to his mouth at that point.
For a moment, Yata just blinked at him, trying to piece together the strangeness, and then it clicked. He wants to play together, right? The realization sparked a little flare in the pit of his stomach, a smile spreading wide and uncontrolled on his face as he brought up his cell phone. “Yeah! Leave it to me! But first…” With his confidence renewed, he felt bold enough to go a little further, unlocking the device and bringing up his contacts before holding it out. “Here. Put your number in.”
That earned him a startled look, much like he remembered from a few points during their conversation in the school cellar. Yata kind of liked seeing that look. It lifted the guarded wariness that Saruhiko seemed to carry with him unconsciously. Still, it only lasted a second, and then the little frown was back. “What for?”
“What d’you mean ‘what for?’” Yata frowned back. Uphill struggles all the time with this guy, huh? “We’re friends, right? Why shouldn’t we have each other’s contact info?” He waved the phone a bit, stubbornly. “Anyway, for stuff like this, challenges and all, we could help each other out. Y’know?”
For a second, it seemed like Saruhiko was going to turn him down – Yata couldn’t help but start to feel a little bit self-conscious about it, sitting there holding his hand out like that – but then, after that brief bit of hesitation, he reached out and took the device. “I guess.”
The breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding emptied out of Yata in a rush. He felt the smile building on his face even as he watched those deft fingers tap at his phone, and the mingled relief and happiness just made it spread wider. “Right?”
“Here.” Saruhiko turned the phone around, holding it between his thumb and index finger so the newly entered information was visible. “This is good enough, right?”
“Yeah!” Yata reached out and took his phone back, feeling that little rush of excitement as he stared at the line of numbers. It probably wasn’t that big a deal, but whatever. He was happy about it. “Here, I’ll send you a text so you’ll have mine too.”
Saruhiko shrugged. The motion caught Yata’s eye and he glanced up, their gazes locking and another little jolt seeming to pass between them. “Sure.”
It was kinda hard to focus after that, but he eventually managed.
Once the text was sent and contacts were sorted, Yata pulled up Apocalypse Bunker on his phone, setting it down on the table between them. He was just getting the game to load, in between bites of the dwindled ice cream in his cone, when an unwelcome voice interrupted. “My, my. This is an unexpected sight.”
Yata’s head shot up, even as Saruhiko clicked his tongue. “What are you doing here, Captain?”
He barely registered Munakata’s amused answering smile from where he was standing on the other side of the fence that separated their table from the rest of the sidewalk, because half a second later he caught sight of the man beside him, and jolted halfway out of his seat in shock. “M-Mikoto-san!”
That slow, hauntingly familiar smirk spread on the face from his past, broken by the lit cigarette jutting out from the lips that formed it. “Yo, Yata.” Same voice, too – it had a lump lodging itself right in Yata’s throat, making it difficult to breathe. “Doing well?”
“I – ” It was hard to talk, too. He swallowed hard, shaking his head to clear it, and tried to get himself under control. When he looked up again, he thought… Mikoto’s face looked different, somehow. Not just because of the shadows from the hat he was wearing to cover his distinctly-colored hair, but a deeper change. Less tired, maybe. Less worried? It was hard to say, but something tight in Yata’s chest eased a little, and he managed a small smile. “I’m… good.” Even as he said it, he felt the truth of his own words. It was a little surprising, somehow. I really am. Everyone is. Homra is. A split second later, he added, earnestly, “But – Mikoto-san – are you doing okay?”
“Yeah.” Something in Mikoto’s smile softened out a bit. He turned his gaze on the man beside him, slow and lazy. “Somehow.”
“I see.” It was like that honest response took the rest of his anxious tension with it. Yata realized he was still kind of hovering over his seat and let himself sink back down, feeling suddenly relieved and a bit drained by the spike of adrenaline the encounter had brought on. “That’s good, then – I mean, great! Right?”
A soft ‘tsk’ from across the table was his immediate answer. “I think we get it,” Saruhiko mumbled. When Yata glanced over at him, startled, he’d fixed his attention on his ice-cream again, scraping around the side of his cup with the edge of his spoon.
Yata blinked, not sure what to make of that reaction. His head felt like it was pulling him in all kinds of different directions. “Uh – yeah.” It hit him that maybe this was a nudge that he wasn’t exactly talking to Mikoto like a normal person, the way he’d said he wanted to, and grinned sheepishly. Guess I’ll have to try harder. “My bad.”
Saruhiko’s gaze lifted to meet his sharply, and a little shiver of… something… ran through Yata’s body. It wasn’t bad. Kind of exciting, actually.
He thought maybe he could get used to a feeling like that.
Munakata made a small sound, like something between a hum and a ‘hmph’, sounding amused. “It occurs to me that we’ve not all been properly introduced.” Once he had everyone’s attention, he smiled. “Suoh, this is my subordinate, Fushimi Saruhiko. Fushimi-kun, this is my live-in partner, Suoh Mikoto.”
Mikoto raised an eyebrow at him. “What’s with that weird way of putting things? ‘Live-in partner’?”
The responding smile was almost overly pleasant. “It suffices to cover the awkwardness of our particular situation.”
“That’s what you’re calling it, huh?” Mikoto reached up to lift the cigarette from his mouth, heaved a sigh, and glanced over at Saruhiko. “Fushimi, was it? Good to meet you.”
Saruhiko’s answering gaze was narrow – Yata thought maybe he looked a bit wary, but he wasn’t sure where that impression came from. “Yeah.”
Yata paused in the middle of biting off edges of the cone around his diminished ice-cream, piecing together the conversation. “Wait a sec…” He glanced between his former leader and Saruhiko’s boss, dubiously. “Mikoto-san, you’re living with this guy now?”
Mikoto took a drag from his cigarette and blew out a huff of smoke, shutting his eyes with a rueful smile. “Wasn’t my idea, but yeah.”
Munakata pushed his glasses up on his face, expression unchanged. “I can’t say I was pleased with the arrangement myself. However, it does seem to be the ideal solution, given the circumstances.” He glanced at the table, where Saruhiko was still idly stirring the sloppy remains of his ice-cream while watching them banter. “I see the two of you have taken on the latest challenge.”
Saruhiko clicked his tongue, frowning back at his boss. “It wasn’t much of a challenge.”
“Nonetheless, you appear to have completed it successfully.”
Yata let out a dismissive sound, swallowing a bit of ice-cream and cone. “Tied it, too. Again.” Something occurred to him then, and he blinked. “Oh yeah – Mikoto-san, d’you know about the challenge thing?”
“Yeah.” Mikoto breathed out another puff of smoke. “Heard something about it.”
Beside him, Munakata made a small, amused-sounding ‘hmph’. “In any case, we are nearly at the halfway mark in this competition.” There was a gleam in his eye that Yata couldn’t read. “I’d be curious to hear the thoughts of the contestants now that we’ve reached this point.”
“Heh! I’m just getting warmed up!” Yata turned his gaze on Saruhiko, allowing himself a smirk. “Just wait until tomorrow’s challenge – I’ll be kicking ass in no time!”
Saruhiko raised an eyebrow at him in return. “I’ve heard that before. Anyway, I’m not sure how you can be so confident, considering how random these things are.” He frowned slightly, his eyes shifting to Munakata again. “We went from ‘dangerous places’ to ‘ice-cream’ overnight. Can’t the person writing these make up their mind?”
“Indeed.” Munakata smiled back with unaltered calm. “I personally found yesterday’s challenge to be – shall we say – inadvisable. Wouldn’t you agree, Suoh?”
Mikoto tucked the cigarette between his lips, unconcerned. “You and I almost never agree.”
Munakata glanced at him, something in his expression seeming to shift slightly in a way that was hard to place. “On that point, I believe we do see eye to eye.” He turned to face the table again, looking from Yata to Fushimi with a kind of mild speculation. “Regardless, we’ve taken far too much of your time already. Please do enjoy the rest of your date.”
Yata had just tucked the rest of his cone into his mouth; at that, he jerked in surprise, swallowing unexpectedly and driving himself into a coughing fit. He eyes watered and the world around him blurred out as he struggled to clear his windpipe enough to croak out some kind of demand for an explanation. “Ha… wha…”
Outside of everything, he heard Saruhiko click his tongue sharply. “Can you please not make weird assumptions like that?” he muttered.
“Oh? Am I mistaken? My apologies.” By the time Yata had recovered enough to glare up at him, Munakata was offering a pleasant, untroubled smile. His eyes were keen. “I’m afraid I must have misread the atmosphere. Please excuse my impudence.”
Yata’s face was burning; he wasn’t sure if it was from the exertion or if he was just flustered, but he couldn’t think of a thing to say in response. Date, his brain echoed at him, with an almost gleeful force. He thought it was a date. You’re on a date. Date, date, date…
Mikoto sighed, pulling the remains of the cigarette from his lips and tossing a wry stare at Munakata. “Your personality really is rotten,” he commented, shifting to step forward again. He glanced sideways once, without pausing. “See you, Yata.”
“R-right!” It came out too sharp; Yata could feel the hot flush spreading all the way to the tips of his ears, and clenched his hands into fists without thinking. A date… “S-see you!”
Munakata shut his eyes, letting out another small, amused huff. “Take care, Fushimi-kun,” he addressed them, still in that calculated, measuring tone, “Yata-kun.”
Yata scowled at him without responding as he strode past them. “The rest of your date,” that voice echoed in his head again, mockingly. He couldn’t seem to get it to shut up now. Damnit…
There was the sound of a sharp exhaled breath from across the table; when Yata jerked his gaze in that direction, Saruhiko was deliberately not looking at him. “I’m going too,” he mumbled, turning sideways and rising from his seat in a single motion, the half-empty cup still in his hand.
“O-oi…” Yata fumbled up out of his seat, startled and more than a little confused by the abrupt dismissal. His head was still kind of reeling from the rest of it, and he didn’t quite know how to react now. “Wait – hold on – why – ?”
Saruhiko paused and turned to look back at him. His eyes were halfway veiled by his lashes, and his expression was as unreadable as always. He was half in the shade cast by the building’s awning, and the contrast of light and shadow complimented his hair and skin. Pale and dark. Really striking, in the way that sent a shiver through a person’s body.
Or maybe that was just him. Yata’s heart gave a confused little double beat, his slow-moving thoughts nearly catching up to some kind of revelation but still not quite grasping it yet.
“No reason,” Saruhiko mumbled, after what felt like forever. He pushed his glasses up on his nose and looked away, turning again to leave. “I’m tired, I guess.” Before he started to move again, he hesitated briefly, and added, without looking back, “See you tomorrow.”
“O-oh. Yeah. Tomorrow.” It registered through the confusion that he was being kinda lame. Yata hastily added an overly cheerful-sounding, “See ya!”
He felt that little squeeze in his chest again as Saruhiko raised a hand over his shoulder in response, and had to tear his eyes away to avoid watching him walk away. The fluttery feeling in his stomach was worse than ever, a mix of nerves and anxious pleasure.
The hell’s wrong with me?
“Please do enjoy the rest of your date,” Munakata’s voice echoed in his head, as if in response. He looked down at the table, caught sight of his phone with the Apocalypse Bunker home page still open on the screen, and couldn’t help but think of Saruhiko’s cautious expression as he said Yata could handle the supply missions.
The endearing, startled look when Yata asked for his number…
The surge of excitement when he’d agreed to give it…
The charged feeling when their eyes met…
Wait – could it – was it actually – maybe – kinda – like a date?
The world around him seemed to fade off, drowned out by the rushing in his head. Yata stared at the table without actually seeing it, feeling the weight of something that probably should’ve been obvious start to coming crashing down around him. He… liked the idea. A lot, if the pleasant tingle that shot through him in response was any indicator. And if he liked the idea, that meant he wanted it to be a date, and if he wanted it to be a date, then…
Fuck. Yata’s hands were trembling; he squeezed them into fists, leaning forward to brace them on the table as he felt the edge of that painful truth. No way… There’s no way…
Even as he denied it, all the pieces were falling into place in his head. All those feelings he’d shrugged off. The way he wanted to see Saruhiko all the time and the disappointment that struck when he left. That fluttering feeling in his stomach, the way his chest squeezed in… It had been a while, but he knew what this was.
Shit. Yata shut his eyes and grimaced, wishing he could block out that awkward realization along with the rest of the world. I fucking like him.
The shock was starting to wear off, embarrassment settling in its place. Yata felt his face growing uncomfortably hot, and his knees started to shake. He dropped into a crouch, leaning forward to let his forehead hit the edge of the table with a light thud as the realization and the feelings that came with it overwhelmed him.
It was a struggle to resist the urge to turn back, but the unsettled feeling within Fushimi went a long way towards balancing that. He clicked his tongue harshly, quickening his pace just a little to push him past the point where Misaki might still be visible behind him.
The bus stop was in the opposite direction, but that was also the direction that Munakata and Suoh Mikoto had gone, and he didn’t particularly want to see them either, so he’d chosen to walk all the way around the block and back again to avoid everyone.
The memory of his boss’s amused smile was stark in his mind. He knew perfectly well, huh? There was no way that comment had been an accident. Fushimi was used to Munakata’s personality by now; they’d worked closely together for long enough. One of his particular quirks was that he didn’t outright tell you things when he made an observation. If he felt it was interesting or worthwhile to let the person in question know, he’d nudge them into realizing it themselves.
Fushimi clicked his tongue again, aggravated by the clear manipulation. He could’ve kept this one to himself.
It was ridiculous that he’d even be interested in something like a date. He’d never given more than a passing thought to the idea that he’d meet someone, and then it had only been to scoff at the idea. Considering everything else, he didn’t need the added hassle in his life.
Even if he had bothered to think about it seriously, that nebulous ‘someone’ wouldn’t have been an obnoxious idiot who couldn’t keep his feelings in check.
As if on cue, that called up an image of Misaki in his head – that bright smile and those vibrant sparkling eyes, face lit up with emotion he didn’t even bother to hold back. Fushimi thought of the wistful, sad smiles in the darkness of the cellar, and the open surprise at being asked about his personal life. The smug smirks, the irritated frowns, the angry scowls… The transformation of his entire face when he grinned freely. The intense concentration in his eyes as he listened closely to everything Fushimi had to say.
It was like a fire lit in the core of his body. Warmth flooded all the way through him, to the tips of his fingers and toes, and he closed his eyes briefly, torn between the desire to revel in the feeling and the instinctive urge to cringe back from it. The intensity was terrifying.
But… it also felt good. Wholly, helplessly good.
That’s it, huh? Fushimi opened his eyes, still moving forward despite the mingled resignation and anxiety making his limbs feel shaky and weak. His skin had prickled up, and his body felt oddly light. That was the feeling of wanting to date someone. The feeling of liking someone. It wasn’t something he would’ve recognized on his own.
Then again… As he turned to cross the street, the vivid mental image of Misaki’s soft tongue gliding over the contours of his hand rose up unbidden, and Fushimi felt an awkward warmth rising on his face as a sly tendril of something shivery and pleasant stirred in his body.
At some point, he would have at least recognized that reaction. You could only deny physical attraction for so long before it got too obvious to overlook.
It didn’t mean he had to like it.
Or do anything about it, for that matter. Fushimi pushed back the images in his head, deliberately making an effort to shut out the responses in his body that he now understood. This wasn’t something that had any kind of future, so there was no point in dwelling on it. The only thing he had to focus on was interacting with Misaki normally, and he was confident he could do that. Nothing had to change.
When he pulled out his phone and unlocked the screen to find something to occupy himself, the first thing that came up was the text message he’d left open – the simple, unanswered ‘gotcha!’ with the name ‘Yata Misaki’ at the top. His chest seemed to constrict briefly.
It felt like something had changed, regardless.