It was usually harder to get going on Monday than it was any other day of the week, considering he worked the early shift and Sunday was his day off, but this Monday was even worse than usual. Yata stirred awake at the sound of his alarm, blinking blearily at the ceiling. He felt… off. Like he’d just barely gotten to sleep, and it was already time to get up.
He was a heavy sleeper, though, so what the hell? Though he did seem to remember tossing for a while, flustered and frustrated, unable to stop thinking about –
The exact reason for his unusual bout of insomnia came back to him in a rush. Yata grimaced, shutting his eyes and letting out a low groan as the reality of his situation sank in. He reached out and blindly stabbed at his phone’s snooze button, multiple times and with more force than necessary until the device went silent, feeling out of sorts and agitated already.
Looking back afterwards, it had been really goddamn obvious that he had a thing for Saruhiko. At least since they’d been stuck in that cellar. Probably before. Hell. He didn’t want to think about that too much. Plus, they were supposed to be competing. You can’t just date your rival, goddamnit!
… Wait. Could you?
Would Saruhiko even want to date him in the first place?
Hell if I know. Yata opened his eyes again, scowling up at the ceiling. He didn’t get any of this romance crap. Not that he hadn’t been attracted to anyone before – there had been a few times – but they weren’t people he could’ve talked to. They weren’t someone whose number was in his phone, who he’d just become friends with. This was totally new, and he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do about it.
Should he do something about it? That was a good question. Saruhiko was a guy, so the odds of a good response were low, right? He hadn’t thought about that stuff before either. It wasn’t like he didn’t already know about himself – there were enough embarrassing times in the past to make it clear. Just… dating anyone was such a far off concept that he’d never even thought about it being harder to date another guy. It wasn’t normal, right? Most guys dated women.
Even if Saruhiko would date another man, would he date Yata? It was kinda hard to picture. He’d never really thought of himself as someone other people could like that way. Anyway, what kind of person would someone like Saruhiko even be attracted to?
There were way too many questions, and this shit was confusing. Yata let out a loud, frustrated breath, tired of the whole thing. He didn’t want to screw things up when they’d just got on good terms. Seemed better to just leave it be.
Problem was, now that he knew about it, there was that itch to take action – to do something. It was already bugging him. Letting things sit wasn’t his style at all.
Well, whatever – just deal with it for now, and I’ll sort it out later.
Beside him, the alarm started to go off again.
All right! Determination renewed, Yata pushed himself up. He had Homra to look after, and another challenge coming up, so the rest of it could wait. For now, anyway.
‘Switch clothing with someone of the opposite gender’.
Fushimi stared balefully at the challenge board for a second or two, before clicking his tongue sharply. “Whose idea of a joke is this?”
He’d already been in a bad mood before seeing it. Yesterday’s epiphany hadn’t done him any favors; as per usual, once he’d decided to ignore something, the universe seemed to conspire to remind him of it at every turn. Whether it was a game that seemed to have elements Misaki would probably like or a forum post that sounded like Misaki’s way of speaking, it felt like he couldn’t escape being reminded of these unwelcome emotions.
It didn’t help that he wasn’t used to feeling like this. Fushimi wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do with the myriad of little details of Misaki’s appearance and habits that crept into his thoughts and made his breath shorten with inexplicable excitement. He didn’t know how to deal with the aimless anticipation lurking at the back of his mind, either.
It was stupid, really. There wasn’t anything to look forward to. The idea of approaching Misaki with this attraction in any way was so unappealing it made his stomach turn. Misaki reciprocating was unthinkable. He couldn’t fathom it.
What would be the point of saying anything, under those circumstances?
Still, despite the fact that he’d made up his mind and had no intention of rethinking anything, apparently some remote corner of his brain had decided that there was still something he needed to feel anxious about, because sleep had been fleeting. He’d been tired and surly all morning, and to top that off, he’d spotted Misaki at the counter through the window when passing Homra, and the sudden spark of nervous excitement in his stomach had disgusted him so much that he’d changed his mind about getting a coffee.
He was regretting that now. And not only because he really did want to see and talk with Misaki.
This is going to be a pain.
The only woman employed at the Scepter 4 Internet Café was Lieutenant Awashima. Fushimi wasn’t particularly interested in the dressing habits of his co-workers, but he had a good memory and a habit of picking up patterns. Awashima’s style was unapologetically feminine. Skirts, blouses, stockings and heels were the norm. If she was going to be on field duty, she’d have on her work boots and a more practical shirt, but pants were rare.
The impending humiliation wasn’t improving his mood.
There wasn’t much he could do about it if he wanted to maintain his lead. Fushimi found himself debating which was the worst prospect even as he turned away from the board and continued walking up the sidewalk towards his workplace. It wasn’t much of a struggle. Regardless of how he felt about his opponent, he didn’t like the idea of losing this competition, and losing by default gave an impression of conscious inadequacy that even the slowest of his co-workers would pick up on. More than anything else, that prospect rankled. Looking ridiculous for a few hours was more manageable.
That thought really did nothing to improve his mood – even the short walk to the café allowed it to fester in his mind, and he was more irritable than before by the time he made it there. It must have showed on his face, too, because Hidaka – who was standing at the front desk – offered him an apprehensive-looking smile. “Morning, Fushimi-san!”
The false cheer in the greeting was really obvious. Fushimi clicked his tongue. “What’s good about it?” he muttered, more to himself than in response, gaze shifting towards the back as he moved past the desk.
“Ah – well – the Lieutenant isn’t here just yet,” Hidaka continued, with a kind of earnest awkwardness that had Fushimi freezing in his tracks. “But don’t worry, Fushimi-san! I’m sure she’ll be a good sport about it!”
He saw it already, huh? That was annoying. Fushimi clicked his tongue again, drawing in a sharp breath. “You should already know that’s not the issue.”
There was a brief, uncomfortable pause. When Hidaka spoke again, the forced cheer was back in his voice. “Well… either way, it’ll be fine, right? It – I’m sure it won’t look that bad…”
It was hard to tell what was worse – the obvious pity or the attempt to make him feel better about this embarrassment. Fushimi let out an irritated breath and continued on towards the back without bothering to reply.
Today just keeps getting worse…
It was just Kamo in the back room, busily preparing some snacks to have on hand for customers and clients. He greeted Fushimi normally, but there was an awkward tension about him that gave away his knowledge of the situation.
At least he didn’t say anything about it. Everyone was going to know before too much longer, one way or another. As long as he could keep the idiotic reactions to a minimum, the day’s suffering could be kept to a reasonable level.
Fushimi wasn’t really getting his hopes high on that score either, knowing this place.
Awashima arrived less than ten minutes after he’d sat down to get some work done, her expression unconcerned. “Fushimi,” she greeted him, and smiled faintly. “My apologies for the delay. If I’d known, I would have left early.”
“It’s fine.” He didn’t particularly want her there early in the first place. Fushimi took the opportunity to give her outfit a once-over, and the unpleasant knot of dread in his stomach seemed to congeal into a cold certainty. She had on one of her typical short skirts that clung to her hips, a delicate-looking blouse in a fetching shade of pearl-white with a very light lacy trim on the sleeves and collar, and her usual thigh-high work boots.
The combination of the fancier top and the work boots was unusual, but otherwise, it was about what he’d expected. Unfortunately.
“We might as well get started.” Awashima turned towards the kitchen, brusquely taking action as usual. “Kamo. Are you aware of the latest challenge?”
The man in question turned immediately, straightening. “Yes, Lieutenant.”
“Good. I’ll have you wait with Fushimi while he removes his current clothing.” She lifted her purse strap over her head as she outlined the course of action she’d obviously come up with on the way in, setting it at her workstation calmly. “Once you deliver those to me, I’ll change and hand you mine in return, so you can pass them on. Understood?”
It was typical of her to take command, but something about her undisturbed acceptance of the situation was irksome. Fushimi clicked his tongue, pushing his chair away from his desk. You seriously don’t have any complaints about this at all?
Awashima turned her cool-eyed gaze on him. “Was there a problem, Fushimi?”
“No.” He resisted the urge to let out a frustrated sigh, rising to his feet reluctantly. “Nothing.”
Might as well get this nightmare started.
As it turned out, ‘nightmare’ was an understatement.
Awashima’s clothing did not fit him properly. It wasn’t just in the sense of their height difference – which was probably negligible in the first place – or the fact that the design was notably feminine. The fact of the matter was that Lieutenant Awashima was generously proportioned in ways that Fushimi was generously not, and her clothing was tailored to fit her, not him. The cut of the neckline that accentuated her curves sagged nearly to the center point of Fushimi’s ribcage, loose fabric billowing in unflattering folds around his flat chest and stomach. The shoulders were visibly strained, to the point where he was unable to raise his arms for fear of ripping the delicate fabric, and the sleeves reached to about mid-forearm, leaving his wrists dangling free. Without the wristbands he normally wore to protect his skin when he drew his knives, they felt awkward and unnaturally exposed – and the contrast between the ill-fitting sleeves and the loose mess around his torso was comical.
He didn’t fare any better with the bottom half of the outfit. Awashima’s body was quite well balanced; her hips and thighs were as sturdy as her chest. Fushimi was equally well balanced in his lack of body mass, and that was painfully obvious when he attempted to don a skirt designed to be held up by hips he didn’t even come close to possessing. The waistline nearly fit him, but the skirt sagged in the sides and failed to cling to his legs, and looked – frankly – pathetic. The effect was topped off by the boots that normally sat snuggly against Awashim’s thighs, which now bunched loosely around the region of Fushimi’s knees, awkward and unsupported.
The similarity to a child trying on their mother’s clothing struck him as he regarded the effect, and he couldn’t help but click his tongue, scowling at the image in the mirror.
He’d initially attempted to tuck the mass of useless fabric hanging off of his chest into the waistband of the skirt, but the bulging effect around his waist had only managed to make things worse. Instead, he left it hanging out in the open, halfway covering the sloppy-fitting skirt in a distinctly unfinished-looking way.
This is ridiculous.
Worse than all of that was the fact that he had no place to fasten most of his knife harnesses. There was no room in the sleeves or under the skirt. Fastening them to the top of the boots would have made them top-heavy and impossible to keep upright, and securing them somewhere within would have made them too difficult to get to in the first place – not to mention adding the potential to aggravate his injury. He was a larger shoe size than Awashima in the first place, so the boots pinched, and he wasn’t anxious to add to that.
The only place left was in the space beneath the sagging folds of the blouse. Fushimi’s chest harness was not in general use these days; he’d cut back, as requested, so he only had the arm harnesses and the straps on his boots most of the time. However, the prospect of going around completely unarmed had set him on edge, and he’d ended up asking Kamo to retrieve the spare from their storage room. It was visible as a vague, dark outline under the sheer fabric of the blouse, and it would be difficult to reach the knives, but he felt better having it on him.
Not much better, considering everything else, but it was something, at least.
Fushimi was starting to give the idea of spending the rest of the day in the staff changing room some serious consideration when his phone, which he’d left on the bench after removing it from his pants pocket, suddenly buzzed.
Now what? He clicked his tongue, but automatically reached for it just the same, pausing to check the screen. When he saw the preview, he instinctively sucked in a breath, skin prickling as if the temperature had dropped.
‘New text message from Yata Misaki’.
Misaki… With everything else, those thoughts had been effectively pushed to the back of his mind, but all it took was this simple reminder to bring everything back. Fushimi frowned at the device, torn between irritation and that automatic tingle of excitement that rose up unbidden at the thought of Misaki contacting him.
It was useless, of course, but the reaction couldn’t be helped.
Well, it doesn’t matter. It wasn’t like he didn’t have a certain amount of experience burying unwanted emotions. Once he was used to it, covering it up would be like second nature, and eventually, he was sure that it would go away on its own. If nothing else, sooner or later there’d be proof that Misaki had no return interest, and then these bothersome feelings would fade naturally.
That was the most likely outcome, anyway.
Fushimi swiped his finger across the screen, bringing up the message window. Misaki had sent him a picture. He tapped it with his thumb to expand it – and, for the second time in under a minute, a shiver ran through his body and he forgot to breathe.
It wasn’t so much the most obvious part of the picture that caught his attention, although it was impossible not to notice the red and black Lolita-style dress that Misaki was wearing. It looked surprisingly natural on him, though the obvious tension in his posture made his discomfort clear. Anna was a small girl, but somehow the dress had been adjusted to fit. As he stared at the picture longer, Fushimi absently was able to pick out the details on how this had been accomplished. The sleeves and torso of the dress had not made it over Misaki’s chest and shoulders, but rather seemed to have been folded over neatly just above his elbows and across his ribcage. Because the back was done up with laces, this adjustment could work without too much fussing, it seemed. The fur-lined hooded shawl that completed the ensemble covered most of the evidence of the tampering, but the stark triangle of sun-touched skin that this revealed just beneath Misaki’s collarbone gave everything away.
Despite that bit of awkwardness, the outfit looked good, surprisingly so, and not because Misaki could in any way be mistaken for female. He was unquestionably male – just with a fitted corset-style top, fetchingly draped shawl, and attractively puffed skirt that brushed the top of his knees. The look wasn’t bad at all.
The part that had taken Fushimi’s attention and elicited an immediate reaction wasn’t any of that, though. His gaze was drawn to Misaki’s face, and it was the expression there that stole his breath more than anything else. Misaki’s lips jutted in an almost comical scowl, as if he were saying fight me – Fushimi could almost hear the pugnacious tone just looking at him. There was a stark, brilliant flush that spread across his cheekbones and down the fleshed part of his face to almost reach his jawline, which was visibly tense, as if he was struggling to keep his cool. Above that, his eyes were focused fiercely on the camera, a kind of stubborn intensity in the expression. It was almost possible to see the emotion flashing across them, and even though he knew it was impossible, Fushimi thought, staring at the picture with his heart firmly lodged in his throat, that he could see those emotions play and change in that single, still shot.
Furious embarrassment… determination… pride… obstinacy… indignation…
It was all so vibrant and open, he couldn’t help but just… stare. Misaki was beautiful.
Almost as soon as that thought crossed his mind, Fushimi lowered the phone, lip curling with disgust. Less than twenty-four hours and I’m already thinking like that. It was beyond ridiculous, this whole infatuation business.
His pulse was racing and there was a shivery feeling swirling in his stomach. One of Fushimi’s eyebrows twitched, and he clicked his tongue sharply, resisting the urge to steal another glance at the picture. Without properly focusing on it, he brought up his phone again, intending to close both the image and the text message – and then paused, uncertain.
It was stupid, but…
It doesn’t matter anyway. Clicking his tongue again at his own hesitation, Fushimi decisively moved to save the photo to his phone’s storage.
Since he was already aware of it, this kind of impulse was to be expected.
There was still the challenge to be taken care of, too. Might as well get this over with. He couldn’t exactly avoid it, so there was no point in wasting time here. Fushimi closed the text message screen, attempting to push both the picture and the emotions it had evoked as far from his conscious thought as he possibly could. After a brief second’s thought, he brought up the camera instead of locking the phone, and turned to head for the door before he could re-think the whole business.
If he’d bothered to put logical thought into any of this, he wouldn’t be in this ridiculous situation – there was no point in applying it now.
It was impossible not to notice the way that every pair of eyes in the room seemed to turn his way when he opened the door and stepped out. Fushimi’s frown deepened. Nobody in this place has any shame, huh? Since he’d gone in to change, Kamo had been joined by Doumyouji, Fuse, Benzai, and Akiyama, whose expressions ranged from comically goggle-eyed to just plain startled as they took in his appearance.
Nothing he hadn’t expected, but the attention was irritating. Fushimi clicked his tongue. “Don’t any of you have better things to do?”
Fuse blinked at him slowly, his face starting to curl up in a mix of horror and something like open dismay. Benzai raised both eyebrows, turning his head without expression to retrieve the paperwork on his desk. Kamo had immediately retreated to the kitchen, suspiciously stony-faced. Akiyama offered a polite, strained smile, his gaze shifting back to his computer screen with something like relief.
In the suffocating silence that fell, the loud clatter of Doumyouji’s chair pushing back as he jerked violently to his feet was almost thunderous. As Fushimi turned a withering look his way, he slapped a hand over his mouth, a sound suspiciously akin to a snicker escaping from behind his fingers, and then, without a word, he made a break for the entrance to the stairway, slamming the door behind him. The faint but unmistakable sound of hysterical laughter emanated from behind it.
If anything, the atmosphere in the room had gone from strained to unbearably tense. Fushimi scowled at the door, aware of the fact that every one of his co-workers in the room was now deliberately trying to pretend he wasn’t there.
At least it was better than the useless gawking.
Regardless, he still had something to take care of, and it was better to get that over with quickly. Fushimi quickly surveyed his options, and then went with the least annoying of what he had to work with. “Akiyama.”
The man in question visibly jolted in his seat, tensing. When he turned around, though, his face was an overly polite mask of control. “Yes?”
That was at least tolerable. Fushimi resisted the urge to click his tongue, stepping forward and holding out his phone to his increasingly apprehensive-looking co-worker. “Take a picture of me.”
Akiyama blinked at him, looking faintly startled, but recovered quickly, offering a slightly bewildered smile as he reached out to take the device. “Of course, Fushimi-san.”
The phone had barely changed hands when the door from the front room opened and Awashima stepped through. “Akiyama, Benzai – I’m going to need one of you to do up the reports for – ”
She halted in mid-sentence, her expression reflecting a certain amount of surprise as she took in Fushimi’s appearance. He couldn’t help but notice, a bit cynically, that she’d managed a lot better with his clothing than he had with hers. She had prudently covered his shirt with the work blazer normally reserved for meetings with clients, which was something of a relief – he hadn’t wanted to think about the alternative – and she’d managed to fit into his pants despite the obvious tension around the hips. He honestly wasn’t quite sure how she’d got them on, and he didn’t particularly want to know, either. But somehow or another, she’d managed to look presentable – even classy.
Fushimi clicked his tongue, feeling his irritation rise. Figures.
After that brief moment of forming an initial impression, Awashima abruptly shut her eyes and reached up to pinch the bridge of her nose, as if with disappointment. “Oh, Fushimi,” she sighed.
Something about that tone was even more annoying. “What?”
She shook her head, opening her eyes to regard him evenly, and then strode confidently towards the door to the changing room. “Come with me.”
The imperious tone had his hackles rising even further. Fushimi frowned at her back, eyes narrowing. “Why?”
When she turned to face him again, her gaze was pointed. “I’m assuming you want to have some chance of winning this challenge?” There was a brief, almost imperceptible pause, and then she added, with a slightly raised eyebrow, “Also, if you’re going to send a picture of yourself to your opponent, it might be prudent to put some effort into your appearance first.”
A tiny, irrational prickle of alarm rose up from somewhere in the region of his gut. Fushimi stared back at her, caught without a response as he felt the sensation grow to a kind of gnawing unease. The memory of that picture stored on his phone was still vivid in his mind, and placed alongside the mirror image he’d seen after dressing himself, he couldn’t deny that the comparison was not in his favor. Now that he thought about it clearly, he really didn’t care for the idea of sending an image of himself as he was. And not just for the sake of winning the challenge.
Despite the fact that it was ridiculous… despite all the logical reasons why there was no point in even making an effort to impress… despite the fact that appearance wasn’t going to make the slightest difference in how Misaki thought of him… still…
How annoying. Fushimi clicked his tongue, turning his scowl to the side. “I didn’t ask for your help.”
“I didn’t say you had.” At that point, she didn’t even pause for a response, turning her attention from him instead. “Benzai, I’ll need you to go to the storage room and bring me two of the Velcro straps from our leg braces, as well as some large pins and – if you can find them quickly – safety clamps.”
He was out of his seat almost immediately. “Yes, Lieutenant.”
“That should cover it.” Awashima frowned thoughtfully, and then raised her gaze just as Fushimi looked at her fully, offering a small, rare smile when their eyes met. It was there and gone in an instant; within that short period of time, she was straightening again, turning briskly to open the door. “Follow me.”
There wasn’t any point in weighing his options on this one. Fushimi clicked his tongue again, turning reluctantly to do as she’d asked.
This challenge contest really was more trouble than it was worth.
Even past the embarrassment of being a grown-ass man wearing a little girl’s frilly dress, Yata was finding Anna’s clothing to be the worst thing he’d ever put on his body. And that was counting the time he’d rolled down a hill into a patch of burrs as a kid. It had taken hours for his mom to pluck all of the spines from his skin, but that pain had nothing on this.
It wasn’t that the clothing was bad. It was fine. On someone it fucking fit. So far in the two hours since he’d put this shit on, Yata had been forced to take the shoes off five times to give his feet a break, because they felt like a mass of blisters and cramps. Balancing was a struggle – not because the heels were all that high, but because he wasn’t used to the tilt and his feet fucking hurt. He couldn’t even properly catch himself if he fell, because his arms were trapped against his body at the elbow. It was like a slow, fiendish torture, whittling his endurance down one humiliating step at a time.
Gimme a break here! Yata shut his eyes just long enough to heave a sigh, ignoring the inventory clipboard and the fully stocked shelves in their storage for the moment. What the hell kind of jerk writes these stupid challenges?
This one definitely had that feeling of someone sitting back with a smirk watching him suffer.
That kinda pisses me off…
As his thoughts wandered, Yata absently let his right hand drift to the pocket in the skirt of Anna’s dress, where his cell phone was currently sitting. It had been silent all morning. At first, he’d checked it every few minutes just to make sure it hadn’t shut itself off or randomly had the battery drain or just failed to notify him of an incoming text message, but after the first hour, the anxious anticipation had started to fade off into something like disappointment.
He didn’t know what he’d been expecting, and that was kind of pissing him off, too.
“How’s it going in here, Yata-chan?” Kusanagi’s voice interrupted that thought. When he turned around, startled, his older friend was standing in the open doorway, a small smile on his lips. “Looked like you were lost in your own head for a while there. Something bugging you?”
“Uh… no. Not really.” Yata offered a bit of a sheepish grin in return, a little chagrined at being caught. It had been a mercy when Kusanagi offered to have him take stock of their inventory rather than working the front or making deliveries, so the least he could do in return was try to focus. “Sorry, I got kinda distracted. Won’t happen again, I swear!”
“Don’t worry about it.” Kusanagi shook his head, looking a bit amused. “Just wanted to let you know I spoke with Seri-chan earlier, and we figured we’ll give the two of you a break and settle this challenge in a vote this afternoon. That way you can change back before heading home.”
“Really?” Yata couldn’t help but feel his shoulders slump, some of the tension draining out of them at that. “Man… that’s a relief!” He wasn’t sure how he would’ve made it through the bus ride – or even crossing his apartment complex. And he didn’t just mean the discomfort and limited mobility.
Nothing against girls’ clothing, but he didn’t think his pride would survive the damage to his image.
“Well… mainly because Seri-chan wanted to take her clothing home with her, I think.” Kusanagi shrugged. “Also, I’m sure Anna would like her dress back in one piece.”
“I got it! I’m being careful.” Yata grinned back, his spirits lifted despite the pain in his feet clamoring for his attention again. “Just, y’know… wearing this in public’d be kinda… well…”
“No need to say any more.” Kusanagi chuckled. “Though I think most people would just assume you lost a bet or something along those lines.” His gaze still held that faintly amused edge. “Besides, I’ve said this before, but you don’t look half bad, Yata-chan.”
“O-oh. Yeah, sure.” If it had been two hours earlier, he would’ve been violently protesting, but he was kind of resigned to it now. Yata started to raise a hand to scratch at his head and was stopped by the dress binding his arms down. He lowered it again, awkwardly shrugging his shoulders instead and trying for casual cheer. “You don’t need to try to make me feel better or anything, Kusanagi-san! We all know it’s weird for a grown man to wear a kid’s dress, right? That’s why it’s a challenge!”
With any luck, that’d be the end of that subject. Yata wasn’t sure if the compliments were better or worse than teasing, but he’d been getting more of the first than the second from his friends for some reason, and it was weird as hell. Even Eric had given him a nod and a perfectly serious ‘looks good, actually’, and Chitose had thumped him on the shoulder and told him he could go clubbing just like that and probably get more than a few phone numbers.
He wasn’t really sure if they were messing with him or trying to make him feel better. Don’t really wanna hear that I look good in this kinda stuff…
Without thinking, he dipped his hand into the pocket holding his phone again. It was still silent.
“Fushimi hasn’t contacted you?” When he glanced up again, startled, Kusanagi was eyeing him keenly.
Shit. Yata felt an uncomfortable wave of warmth surging up to his face. “Nah.” He wasn’t even sure what kind of response he’d expected from Saruhiko in the first place, so it was stupid to be disappointed that there was nothing. But still… with the way everyone was going on about how it looked and all… He tried to shrug it off. “S’fine. Not like he has to.”
“True,” Kusanagi agreed easily, reaching into his pocket for the pack of cigarettes. “Maybe he’s embarrassed.”
“Huh?” Yata stared back, feeling his eyebrows furrow at that. “Why?” It wasn’t like Saruhiko had ever seemed shy about offering an opinion. And if it was about ponying up a picture in return, well… “We’re both gonna look like idiots, so what’s the big deal?”
“Ah.” Kusanagi tapped out one of the cigarettes lightly, setting it between his lips. “Trying to make a good impression… maybe?” he mused, almost to himself.
Yata frowned at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Kusanagi shut his eyes, letting out a soft, amused-sounding huff. “Never mind.”
There was no way he was gonna leave it at that. Yata opened his mouth to protest – and promptly lost his train of thought as his cell phone buzzed. A little spike of something like anxious excitement shot through him, and he hastily pulled it out of his pocket.
‘New text message from Fushimi Saruhiko’.
That spike abruptly seemed to ricochet out across his entire body. He responded! Yata hastily swiped his finger across the screen, bringing up the message. The reply was just a picture, no text, but it bumped up his anticipation a notch. Without looking too closely at the smaller version, he tapped it with his thumb to view it in full.
Just like he’d thought, it was a picture of Saruhiko in his female boss’s clothing, and it… it wasn’t bad. Yata stared at the image for a moment, his emotions seeming to whirl around inside him. The top was clearly tight around Saruhiko’s shoulders; despite his slender build, he was still somewhat broad in that area, and with the close fit it was possible to see that his thin arms did have some muscle to them. The neckline dipped down to a point that showed off more pale skin than Yata had seen so far, and he couldn’t help but swallow hard, a tiny knot forming in his stomach as he noticed it. For some reason, the shirt had been pulled to the side, pinned and clipped into a sort of elegant-looking twist, which left a thin line of skin bared between it and the waistband of the skirt as well.
Speaking of that skirt, too… it was fairly short, with a bit of a sweep off to the side like on the top so it fit more closely to Saruhiko’s slight hips. Still, there was only a small amount of thigh visible above the boots, which were… looking maybe a bit loose, but seemed to have been secured somehow, and did a lot to draw attention to those long, thin legs.
He pulled it off, Yata thought to himself, feeling a bit dazed. He couldn’t pull his eyes from that picture, and had to remind himself to breathe. Saruhiko looked…really good. Not just the way his body was more plainly visible. He was also staring at the camera directly, but there was a forward tilt to his face, as if he’d dipped his head, and Yata could see behind the lens of his glasses that he’d veiled his eyes a bit with his long lashes, the guarded expression somehow interlaced with wariness and even a hint of uncertainty. Hesitation, maybe. If he hadn’t been staring so closely, he might have missed it, but the discovery took what remained of Yata’s breath away.
Saruhiko was fucking beautiful. Damn.
It was honestly hard to look away from that face, but somehow, Yata’s eyes caught on a dark outline visible through the sheer fabric of the blouse. He couldn’t quite make it out, but when he zoomed in, it kind of looked like…
Hold up… is that a… knife halter?
That discovery shouldn’t have been exciting, but somehow the tension in Yata’s stomach went up by about a hundred. He swallowed again, hard. Goddamnit… What the fuck is wrong with me?
“I take it you got a response from Fushimi, then?” Kusanagi commented, from behind him.
Yata just about dropped his phone, fingers jerking reflexively and skin prickling up with surprise. He’d kind of forgotten he wasn’t alone; the reminder made his face burn. “Huh? Uh. Right! Yeah.” He lowered the phone quickly, raising his head with a forced grin. “G-got it!”
The cigarette had been lit sometime when he was focusing on that picture; Kusanagi blew out a small huff of smoke, holding it between his fingers. “Good to hear. And?”
Yata blinked at him, confused. “And what?”
“How’s it look?”
The question was innocent enough, but combined with his earlier thoughts, it threw his brain back into a kind of flustered chaos. “Eh? H-how…? I-I mean, it’s – it’s fine! Normal, right? Just – just different clothes, nothing special, y’know? Hah…”
“Ah, I see.” Kusanagi set the cigarette back between his lips, looking faintly amused.
What’s that s’posed to mean, huh? Yata was feeling on edge enough to ask it, but before he could, Anna appeared in the doorway. “Izumo.” She was wearing Yata’s shirt, which Kusanagi had tactfully pinned at the collar to keep it from sliding over one shoulder. The sleeves, elbow-length on him, hung to her wrists, and the hem of the shirt nearly reached her knees. The shorts, too, were impossibly long, like three-quarter length pants, and they swam on her. Following Kusanagi’s advice, she’d improvised a belt to keep them from sliding off.
Because of her diminutive size, the whole thing looked ridiculously cute. Yata was a little embarrassed by it; those were his clothes, after all. It wasn’t like he didn’t already think of himself as kind of a substitute big brother, but… well… it was just a little...
Whatever – no point thinking about it too much, right?
“There’s a lot of customers coming in,” Anna continued, oblivious to those thoughts.
“Oh? Lunchtime rush, huh?” Kusanagi turned to smile ruefully at her. “I guess I’ll have to go help them out, since Fujishima won’t be here for another hour or so.” He turned to head out of the room, waving a hand behind him. “Take it easy, Yata-chan.”
“Ah – wait – ” The protest rose up instinctively; somehow, now that he got a clear picture of how his friends were going out of their way for him, it just didn’t sit right. It’s too busy because I’m not helping up front, right? Just the thought of causing trouble for the people closest to him was hugely unsettling. Damnit, I’m being totally uncool! All because of this stupid challenge, and him not being able to handle it properly.
No way was he leaving it like that!
Yata squared his shoulders, trying to ignore the shawl sitting over them. “Don’t worry about it, Kusanagi-san!” He met the questioning look straight on, drawing up his determination. It kind of helped to think about that uncertainty he’d seen in Saruhiko’s picture. If he can push himself, I can too! “I’ll head up front and help ‘em right now!”
Kusanagi blinked at him for a second, clearly taken aback. “Sure about that, Yata-chan? It’ll be a lot of customers…”
Don’t remind me… “Yeah, I can handle it!” Yata grinned back with as much confidence as he could muster. “Just leave it to me!”
The startled look settled back into a smile. “Well, then, in that case, I’ll be counting on you.” Kusanagi turned again to step out of the room. “I’ll be in the break room going over the paperwork if you need anything, okay?”
Anna lingered for a bit after Kusanagi left. When Yata set the clipboard down and stepped up to the door, she smiled up at him. “Thank you, Misaki.” She hesitated for just a second, then tilted her head a bit. “I think it’s fine to go barefoot.”
“Ah…” That was a good point; in his enthusiasm, he’d forgotten how sore his feet were. Yata’s grin took on a sheepish edge as he slid the shoes off, biting back a sigh of relief. “Right. Thanks, Anna.”
Her smile warmed further. “Good luck,” she added, before turning to follow Kusanagi.
“Yeah. I got this,” Yata muttered to himself, taking in a deep breath and bracing himself. He moved to shove his phone back into the pocket, and then stopped for a second, catching sight of the image still up on his screen.
It only took a second to make up his mind. Feeling his cheeks warm again, Yata hastily saved the picture to his phone before closing everything and stuffing it away, striding purposefully towards the door leading out to the shop.
Probably a good thing he wouldn’t have too much time to think closely about that.
If he’d been hoping it would get easier to handle the stares and the questions – and to be honest, he kinda had been – Yata was sadly mistaken. Most people did a double take when they saw him, a few giggled or snickered, and some just outright stared. Every so often he got asked if he’d lost a bet, as Kusanagi had predicted, or he’d get someone trying to be nice complimenting him on his ‘unusual’ outfit. It was annoying as hell, and he had to mentally hold himself back by repeating the mantra of ‘customer, customer, customer’ in his head in order to avoid saying something rude or just punching some of the more obnoxious ones in the face.
Not that he could’ve done that even if he wasn’t holding himself back, considering his arms were only mobile from the elbow done, but yeah. Frustrating as hell.
He’d mostly stopped blushing, at least...
Anyway, it was a relief when Fujishima made it in, and even more of a relief when the rush finally started to die down, the mostly-deserted shop feeling like some kind of nirvana after all of that suffering. Yata actually let out an audible, half-groaning breath when the last person in the line-up pushed through the door with his coffee in hand.
Chitose gave him a commiserating pat on the shoulder. “I’ll do the cleanup,” he offered, heading for the back room.
“Eric and I can handle the front,” Fujishima added, directing a small smile in Yata’s direction, “at least until we get more delivery requests. Want to restock us?”
That was tempting as hell. Still… Yata shook his head. “I can’t carry much with these sleeves, remember? One of you guys should do it.” He straightened again, offering back a grin and a shrug. “Thanks anyway. I got this, though – don’t sweat it!”
The door to the back opened again before he could get an answer. “Looks like things are quiet again,” Kusanagi remarked, stepping in ahead of Chitose, who’d brought out the cleaning supplies. “If you want to start taking breaks, now might be a good time.”
“Oh, right.” Now that he thought about it, Eric had opened today, and he’d only had one break so far. “Then – ”
The sound of the front door’s distinctive jingle interrupted that thought. “Welcome to Homra!” Fujishima announced promptly, before Yata could recover himself. When he turned, his co-worker was stepping up in time to greet the customer…
… who happened to be the blonde boss from Scepter 4.
Yata’s skin prickled up when her eyes met his; he fought the urge to look away, feeling like he was being cross-examined already. What’s she doing here? He couldn’t help but notice that she was wearing a pair of familiar boots with some men’s dress pants and felt a weird little churn of something like irritation in his stomach.
Right – she switched with Saruhiko, didn’t she?
“Yata-kun,” she greeted him, inclining her head slightly as she stepped up to the counter. “I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting to see you out front.” That came with a slightly raised eyebrow as she gave him a quick once-over. “Though, to be honest, it seems you’ve done well with this challenge.”
Traitorous heat rose up fast on his face again; he instinctively frowned back, feeling kind of defensive about it. “N-not that big a deal! Anyway, it’d be lame to hide in the back like a coward!”
“I see.” Awashima’s response was cool and unconcerned; her expression didn’t change. “In any case, I’ve come to discuss how we’re going to determine the winner for this particular challenge.” Her gaze slid to Kusanagi. “Or, rather, when and where we’re going to conduct the vote we discussed earlier.”
“Uh, excuse me?” Chitose’s voice cut in unexpectedly; when they all turned to look at him, he offered a bit of a grin. “I hate to contradict a pretty lady, but don’t you think our guy’s got the edge on this one?”
Yata stared at him. The hell?
Awashima raised both eyebrows at that. “’Our’ guy?” she repeated, and her frown deepened. “How, exactly, did you reach that conclusion?”
“You’re the one who said you weren’t expecting him to be out here.” Chitose shrugged, the confident smirk not leaving his face. “He’s been pushing himself right through the noon rush, embarrassment and all. Don’t you think that counts for a little extra?”
“I agree,” Fujishima added, quiet and confident. He returned Yata’s startled look with a small smile.
“He looked about ready to combust with every customer,” Eric commented blandly, and offered a smile of his own, rare and sincere. “Shows you how difficult it was, and he did it anyway.”
Yata couldn’t help but glance around at all of them, the sudden show of solidarity catching him completely off-guard. He wasn’t sure how to react. “You guys…”
Kusanagi let out an amused huff. “Sorry, Seri-chan – I’m going to go ahead and add my voice on that one.” He smiled at her from across the room, gaze even and relaxed. “He had chances to take the easy way out, and no one here would’ve blamed him.” His gaze shifted to meet Yata’s and the smile widened. “Our Yata-chan’s got a stubborn streak a mile wide – particularly when it comes to helping others out.” That came with a shrug. “It’s his biggest charm point, after all.”
There was a lump rising at the back of Yata’s throat; he had to swallow hard around it, and that didn’t do anything to reduce the size or the ache. “K-Kusanagi-san…?” Everyone… Somehow, he found he couldn’t speak properly with emotion welling up so strongly within him; he wasn’t sure he’d find the words.
They’ve all got my back. It wasn’t like he didn’t know it, but still… even something small like this…
Awashima sighed, shutting her eyes briefly. “You all seem quite insistent about something that isn’t particularly relevant.” When she opened them again, her gaze was direct. “I’m not certain it’s fair to make a judgment call based on something that wasn’t inferred by the rules or the challenge itself. Both participants should be aware beforehand of anything that might give them an advantage – wouldn’t you say?”
Kusanagi raised both hands, as if in mock surrender. “Unforgiving as ever, Seri-chan! Can’t say I’m surprised.” His smile was rueful. “Well, it’s a fair point. Maybe I’m letting my bias speak for me.”
“Understandable.” Her face softened in a smile. It was almost startling what a difference that change in expression made. The severity seemed to melt away. “I’ll admit to carrying my own bias, of course. In the interest of fairness, I’ll convey your suggestion to our team – though I can’t promise impartiality on the matter.” There was a brief pause. “The Captain will, of course, have an opinion of his own.”
Kusanagi sighed. “No doubt he will.”
Yata glanced between them, puzzling together the conversation in his head. “Hang on – you’re saying it’s not fair to Saruhiko, right?” Despite his gratitude to his friends for sticking up for him, that had him frowning back seriously, eyebrows coming down. “Forget it, then! I don’t need any advantage!” He made an attempt to fold his arms over his chest and had to settle for awkwardly straightening up instead when the sleeves prevented it. “Let’s go right ahead with this vote thing – I’ll win it fair and square!”
“Yata-chan.” Kusanagi set a hand on his shoulder; when he turned, his older friend offered him a smile. “Don’t worry about it. Let Seri-chan discuss it with her team first, and we’ll see what’s what.”
Just the idea that he couldn’t win cleanly was twisting in his stomach like a knife. Yata drew himself up to protest again. “But – !”
“This is not a matter for the contestants to determine,” Awashima cut in, crisply. “I’ll have to ask you to leave it in the hands of the judges now, Yata-kun.” Her gaze was cool and even when he turned to face her again. “You can be sure that I won’t tolerate any unfairness – particularly against our Fushimi.”
There wasn’t much he could say to that – and the brisk, unforgiving manner was a little on the unsettling side. Yata frowned at her for a second, and then turned his gaze, letting out a soft, half-hearted ‘ch’. “Fine.”
Awashima didn’t so much as bat an eye at the grudging response. “I’ll be in touch later, then,” she said instead, and turned abruptly from the counter, striding back towards the door. The familiar jingle heralded her exit.
Kusanagi gave Yata’s shoulder another reassuring pat, and then pulled his hand back. “Well, that’s that,” he commented, and directed a wry smile at all of them. “Excitement’s over – let’s get back to business, boys.”
It wasn’t until Yata had just stepped through the door to the back – taking the second break, after Eric had returned – that his phone buzzed at him again. He pulled it out automatically as he was heading towards the break area and checked the display.
‘New text message from Fushimi Saruhiko’.
That little spark of excitement stirred up automatically in his stomach; Yata swiped his thumb across the screen to open the message, anticipation already growing within him.
He wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but the simple ‘Go ahead and take the win’ wasn’t it.
For a moment, he just froze up, halting in mid-stride and staring down at the message. What does he… ? Irritation hit shortly after, and he frowned down at the screen, eyes narrowing, before moving to furiously type back.
‘don’t fuck with me!!! I don’t need any favors’
It was hard to curb his impatience, sitting there staring at the screen waiting for a response, but Yata managed it. Luckily, Saruhiko didn’t keep him waiting long.
‘I’m not being generous here. You wouldn’t catch me parading around in front of customers like this.’
He hadn’t quite processed that much before more joined it: ‘Technically, you just won the idiot prize, so help yourself.’
Somehow, that eased off the tension. He wasn’t sure why since he’d just been called an idiot, but Yata found himself letting out an amused huff of breath, shoulders slumping and a rueful smile tilting up the corners of his mouth as his irritation seemed to melt away. He started to move towards the couch again, typing up a response as he did and then dropping onto the seat when he finished. Anna’s dress flopped messily around him; he ignored it in favor of the exchange on his phone.
‘hah, you always say that when you lose.’
‘I can’t help it if you only win the dumbest ones.’
‘yeah says you. whatever I’ll take it, it was rough working up front like this.’
‘I’ll take your word for it.’
There was a response hanging around at the front of Yata’s mind, but he hesitated to type it out, thumbs hovering and a scowl forming on his face as he glared at the screen to cover the embarrassment forming behind his thoughts. It wasn’t like him to hold back, but this…
Impulsively, he scrolled up until the picture of Saruhiko was visible, and felt his cheeks grow hot as that pleasant shiver ran through his body again at the sight.
Fuck it. ‘you do look good tho’, he typed, and sent it before he could rethink the idea.
The response took longer than usual. Yata stared at the screen impatiently, one foot tapping on the ground, anxiety and embarrassment flooding through his system in waves. That wasn’t too weird, right? He wasn’t good at this, but hell, his friends had been telling him the same thing all day and he was pretty sure none of them wanted to bang him, so this shouldn’t be obvious or anything. Hopefully. Shit.
Every second that ticked by made him less and less sure of that.
Then, finally, the response came. ‘That’s not any kind of advantage, since you do, too.’
All at once, the warmth still lingering on Yata’s face flared up to a kind of inferno. He stared down at the words for a long moment, processing the shock and the surprised pleasure that came with them. He complimented me, right? Said I looked good.
Well, sorta… but considering this was Saruhiko, he’d take what he could get.
There was a grin on his face before he’d registered the change, a response to the burst of happiness at the back of his chest that was now spreading rapidly all the way through him. He thought he could even feel the tingling echo of it in his fingertips. It was weird but great, a feeling he hadn’t really experienced with his (very few) previous crushes.
Being noticed. Liked, even. Probably. As friends. But still.
‘got it, thanks!’