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A Calculated Risk

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“Sweetheart, what about that boy you told us you were dating?” Nanami asks, leaning her head into frame. “Are you still together?”

Neptune makes a noncommittal noise and shrugs, not really listening. “I guess, I mean…”

“We’d love to meet him,” Sini adds, setting her cheek against Nanami’s head and grinning at her son. “Since we’re flying in to watch you compete and all. We could have lunch when we arrive tomorrow! Us, and you two.”

“Wait, but--” Neptune jolts, crashing suddenly back into the conversation he was supposed to have been an active part in.

“We have to go catch our flight--we’ll see you tomorrow, Neptune! Love you!” Sini chirps.

“Love you too, Mama.” Neptune sighs, defeated. The call disconnects. Neptune leans heavily against the boy next to him, head lolling onto the other’s shoulder. “Sun, what am I gonna do, man?”

“First of all--why didn’t you tell your moms you only went on one date with that dude because he was an asshole and I chased him off? Also, what do you expect me to do?” Sun replies, shoving at Neptune. “Pretend to be your boyfriend? No way that’d work, your moms already know me too well.”

Neptune stays quiet for a moment longer. Sun’s tail curls around his waist, and then twitches away when Neptune sits up suddenly. “I’ve got it! I’ll ask someone else to pretend to be my boyfriend!”

Sun groans. “That’s going to end badly, man.”

Neptune claps both hands to Sun’s shoulders. “There’s no way this will end horribly,” he says, voice bright.

==

“Oh my God, Sun, this is going to end horribly,” Neptune whines, digging his chin into Sun’s shoulder and wrapping his arms around Sun’s waist.

“Get off me, holy shit, your chin is fucking sharp,” Sun replies, trying to shake off his teammate. “Why did you change your mind so drastically from, like, two hours ago?” he asks, giving up and letting Neptune lean against him. Neptune squeezes tighter and shifts so his forehead is pressed to the back of Sun’s shoulder instead.

“I don’t know who to ask!” Neptune wails into Sun’s shirt. “Who in their right mind would pretend to be in love with me for the entire length of a lunch date?”

“I don’t fucking know, maybe the dude you have a crush on?” Sun replies, reaching back to poke Neptune’s side.

Neptune yelps. “What? Wh-why-why would I do that!?”

“Because you can go on a date with him--even if it’s fake, bro, hear me out--and have someone nice meet your moms,” Sun replies. “Listen, we’ll go to the cafeteria for dinner in a little bit and if he’s there, you ask him.”

==

“Dude, I don’t wanna do this, what if he laughs at me--what if his partner laughs at me? Nora is scary!” Neptune digs his heels in and grips his tray. “Like bite-size murder in a giggly pink wrapper!”

Sun pushes against his back. “Just go, Nep! You aren’t asking him to marry you, you’re just asking him to hang out with you for like, two hours, tops!”

Neptune lets out a noise that’s halfway between a strangled-sounding whine and a groan.

“You’re not going to die!” Sun insists.

“How do you know!?” Neptune replies.

“Why isn’t Neptune dying?” Ren asks from behind both of them. Neptune squeaks and goes stiff as a board. Ren comes around the two, steaming mug in one hand, and slides into the seat next to his team leader.

“Wh-wh-where’s Nora?” Neptune asks instead, glancing around.

“Stomach ache,” Ren replies.

“Yeah, she ate too many panda candies,” Jaune agrees. “So she’s laying down in our dorm.”

Neptune drops his tray on the table a little harder than necessary next to Ren and sits. “Oh.” Ren eyes him, one eyebrow raised. “I hope she feels better.”

Sun slides into the chair on the other side of Jaune, then leans back and clears his throat. “Nep!” he hisses.

“What?” Neptune hisses back, leaning back also.

“Ask him!” Sun gestures with his tail.

“Ask who?” Jaune interrupts, leaning into their conversation. “What are we asking?”

“You stay out of this!” Sun and Neptune snap together. Jaune squeaks and leans forward into the remains of his dinner. Sun narrows his eyes at Neptune and huffs.

“Fine!” Neptune whines. He straightens up and stabs his fork into lumpy mashed potatoes. “Hey, uh, Ren?” Ren raises an eyebrow and sips his tea. “W--w-w-wh--” Neptune cuts himself off before he really starts to stumble. “Words,” he says instead, sheepish.

“Eloquent. I appreciate it,” Ren says, starting to smile. Neptune swallows hard, eyes flicking from Ren’s smile to his hands on his mug and back up to pink, lined with black-and-green-and-pink eyes that are just starting to crinkle at the corners in contrast to the raised eyebrow. The expression is almost playful and it makes Neptune want to burst into flames because it’s so cute on him. And a little bit of nerves. Mostly nerves.

“So Ren,” Sun starts instead, glaring daggers down the table at his frozen teammate. “Neptune’s moms are coming into town tomorrow.”

“Okay?” Ren says slowly, picking his mug up again. “What does that have to do with me?” he asks, looking warily between Sun and Neptune.

“Nep’s moms think he’s dating someone,” Sun explains, stealing a french fry off Jaune’s tray and waving away the indignant noise from the other blond. “And they want to meet him. So Neptune had this dumb ass idea to ask someone to pretend to date him for this one lunch with his moms.”

“That won’t end badly,” Jaune says.

“I know, right?” Sun replies, waving a second stolen french fry.

“I still fail to see what that has to do with me.” Ren drags a finger along the rim of his mug.

“Will you pretend to be my boyfriend for this one meal with my moms,” Neptune blurts out. Ren freezes. “Please, Ren!”

Jaune snickers. “Ooh, meeting the folks already!” he teases. Ren reddens and digs his elbow hard into Jaune’s side. “Okay, I'll stop,” Jaune wheezes.

“What will I get out of this?” Ren asks carefully, retracting his arm. “If I agree to it.”

“Uhh…” Neptune drags his fork through mashed potatoes, then starts mashing down the lumps. “Lunch at probably best place in Vale. Or wherever you'd want to go. Mama would probably let you pick. And Mom won't let you pay. So you wouldn't have to worry about money.”

Ren pauses. Lifts his mug. “Why not ask Sun to do this? Why me?” he asks from behind the rim.

“Sini and Nanami Vasilias already know me. It wouldn't work,” Sun interjects, waving a third french fry and shoving Jaune’s hand away from snatching it back with his tail.

Ren falls quiet again and hides his face in his mug. “Okay,” he says, muffled by ceramic. “Okay,” he says again, setting the mug down. The tips of his ears are turning red.

Neptune opens his mouth to cheer.

“But,” Ren interrupts swiftly, “We have to lay down two big ground rules.” Neptune nods. “First: Let me initiate most touching. I won't be comfortable with it otherwise. Related, but second: Don't kiss me. At all.”

Neptune nods again. “Got it,” he says. “Not that I, y’know, was gonna kiss you, man. Not without your permission anyways, that would be rude, even if we are pretend dating.” A french fry bounces off his goggles, and Neptune snaps his mouth shut.

Ren is smiling again. “When is this lunch date?” he asks.

“Tomorrow. Right after Mom and Mama get here, which is probably gonna be around eleven thirty or so.” A clump of mashed potato goes skidding off Neptune’s fork and onto the table. “So I should probably come get you before I go to the bullhead docks to meet them.”

Ren nods. “So I should plan for eleven fifteen?” he asks.

“Where do you wanna go for lunch, if you get to pick?” Neptune asks.

Ren drums his fingers against the side of the mug as he thinks. “Green Groove? I’ve never been and it looks good.”

“Okay! Cool!” Neptune digs his Scroll out of his pocket. “I'll text Mama.” He does that, and then blinks owlishly at Ren when he holds out his hand.

“Let me give you my number,” Ren explains, “So you can tell me when you're on your way in the morning.”

Neptune fumbles his Scroll into Ren’s waiting hand. “Sure, okay, that's a good idea. Better than me just showing up out of nowhere.”

“Yeah,” Ren agrees. He taps away at the screen, tongue poking out in concentration. His own Scroll chimes from its place on the table, and chimes again as Ren hands Neptune’s back. He picks up his Scroll and flicks it open. “Nora wants me to bring her a People Like Grape Soda, so I'm going to get that and head out.” He stands, picks up his mug, and tucks his Scroll into his pocket. “See you tomorrow, Neptune.”

Jaune jumps up and swipes his tray from the table with a glare at Sun, who had been reaching for another fry. “Ren, wait up!” he calls, skidding after his teammate.

“See, Nep, that wasn't too hard,” Sun says, scooting over two seats.

“Sun, I'm dying,” Neptune replies hoarsely. He looks down at his Scroll and feels his face heat all over again.

Next to his name, Ren had added the heart emoji.

Sun peers at his Scroll and chokes back a laugh. “You're doing pretty alright to me, man. You got a heart emoji by his name that you didn't put in yourself.”

“I-I should, uh, probably take it off after the lunch date tomorrow,” Neptune says quickly. “It's probably just for the act. I don’t wanna...” He trails off, shifting in his seat. “This food got cold. I’m dumping it.” He jams his fork into the mashed potatoes one last time and stands, frowning.

==

Neptune stands outside the door, staring despondently at the number plastered next to the doorframe. It’s the right room, but he doesn’t have the courage to knock.

Then suddenly he doesn’t need the courage to knock, because the door swings open and Nora stares him down, hands on her hips. Ren waves over her shoulder. “Hi, Neptune. Ready to g--”

“Shh!” Nora shoves a finger in Ren’s face without looking and nearly pokes him in the eye. “I’ve got to talk to Mister Take Ren On A Date before you go.”

“Okay,” Ren says, shrugging and stepping back.

Nora steps into the hall and pulls the door to behind her, then crowds into Neptune’s space. “Ren’s very nice and he and I are very close. Practically siblings,” she starts. Neptune opens his mouth to agree and gets aggressively shushed. “If he comes back from this lunch date… And he tells me that you said something, or did something, or made him uncomfortable...” she smiles and cracks her knuckles. Then reaches up and grabs the knot of his tie and yanks him down to eye-level.

Neptune gulps.

“I will hunt you down, Goggle Boy. They will not find your body when I’m done,” she hisses. “Just a splat and your goggles.”

“Okay!” Neptune’s voice cracks. Nora lets his tie go. “Got it. No hurty. No touchy. No Nora death.”

“Good! We’re on the same page!” Nora’s smile widens. She reaches around him and slaps his butt. “Take care of my best friend,” she says. “Or else.”

Neptune sputters.

“Nora,” Ren calls, pushing the door open. “Let him go. We’re going to be late.”

“Okie-dokie!” Nora replies, bright and cheerful and not sounding as though she’d just threatened an inescapable and messy death moments before. She skips back into the room.

Ren steps out into the hallway and shuts the door behind him. “I hope she didn’t scare you too badly,” he says, smiling apologetically. He fidgets with the sleeve cuff of his pink button down, which is rolled to his elbow. Neptune can't help but notice the shirt almost matches the streak in his hair.

“Nah,” Neptune replies, suddenly realizing he might as well be wearing his shoulders as earrings and letting them relax. “She really cares about you, y’know? She’s just lookin’ out for her friend.” They start walking, side by side.

“I know…” Ren’s entire posture softens, as does his expression, and Neptune finds he can’t look at Ren for too long without feeling like his brain is going to turn to mush.

“You look really good,” still tumbles out of his mouth before he can stop it.

Ren tenses for a split second and then relaxes again, cheekbones and ears reddening. “Thank you.” He looks at Neptune out of the corner of his eye. “So do you.” He pulls his ponytail over his shoulder and winds his fingers into it.

Neptune looks away. The walk to the bullhead bay is spent in a silence more comfortable than awkward--but still pretty awkward on Neptune’s part.

There’s a bullhead landing as they walk up, and Neptune brightens. “That’s my moms!” he says, pointing. He glances to Ren and nearly swallows his tongue at the softness in Ren’s eyes.

The boarding door opens and people start coming out, greeting family members and friends. A hand settles on the small of Neptune’s back, and he jumps. “Relax,” Ren says, “Or they’ll never believe us.” His fingers slide into Neptune’s back pocket and stay there. “Put your arm around my shoulders,” he instructs next. Neptune obeys.

Out of the crowd, two figures approach them. Neptune waves, and the shorter of the two waves back. “That’s my moms!” he whispers. “The short one is Mama and the tall one is Mom.”

Ren looks up at Neptune furrows his eyebrows. “Am I allowed to call them that?”

“You can, if you want. My whole team does.” Neptune shrugs. “They’ll probably tell you to anyways.” Ren nods and sticks his free hand in his pocket.

The other two approach them and Neptune pulls away from Ren to hug both of them as tight as he can.

“Hi, sweetie,” the taller of the two says warmly, cupping Neptune’s cheek and pulling him down to kiss his forehead. “Who is this?” she says next, looking Ren over with a raised eyebrow. Ren flushes and turns his eyes to the sidewalk.

“Hi, Mom.” Neptune smiles. “This is Ren.” He touches Ren’s shoulder. “My--my-my, uh.” Neptune bites his lip. “This is Ren,” he finishes lamely.

“This is the mystery man,” the shorter of the two observes, tapping her chin and looking Ren over. She leans in, squinting. Ren leans away.

“Um…” Ren teeters on his heels, and Neptune slides an arm around him to help keep his balance.

“Mama,” Neptune says, half a whine. “Stop inspecting my boyfriend.”

“Sini,” the taller of Neptune’s moms says, putting a hand on Sini’s shoulder. “That’s enough. Let the mystery man have his space.”

Ren leans into Neptune’s side and puts his arm back around Neptune’s waist. “I wouldn’t really call myself much of a mystery,” he says. Neptune’s moms exchange looks.

“A-are you serious,” Neptune deadpans. “You are super mysterious, dude! W--Sun barely knows anything about you!”

“Nanami, I love him.” Sini pats at her wife. “Blue, you’re keeping him,” she says, smiling widely at Neptune.

“Blue?” Ren echoes, raising an eyebrow and tipping his head up at Neptune. Neptune sighs and gestures at his hair. “Ah, right.”

“We started teasing him when he started dying it,” Nanami says, putting a hand on her hip. She raises an eyebrow, and the tips of Neptune's ears turn red.

“Mom,” he whines. “I only turned the bathtub blue once!” Ren snickers. “Shut up,” Neptune says, no heat behind the words. “You're lucky one stripe of pink doesn't destroy bathroom appliances.”

“With Nora at the dye helm? You would be surprised,” Ren says, lifting a hand to touch the dyed streak in question. “We ruined towels that weren't ours and stained a shower stall the first time Nora did the pink and had several people mad at us after.” He grins up at Neptune and nudges his side, and Neptune feels the blush spread from his ears to his cheeks. He forces himself to relax his shoulders.

He misses Sini share a look and a raised eyebrow with Nanami, who shakes her head almost sternly. “Let's get going,” Nanami says, pulling Neptune’s attention back to them. He nods.

==

“Whoa,” Neptune says, looking around the restaurant foyer. “Did you know it was going to be this green in here?” He grabs for Ren’s hand. Ren tucks his hand in his pocket.

“I didn't,” Ren says. “I did tell you yesterday I’d never been here before.” He raises an eyebrow. Neptune flushes high on his cheekbones.

“Right,” he replies, dropping his hand and looking away. “So what do you think of it so far?”

“I think it’d be fun to take Nora here if the food is good,” Ren says, tilting his head. His bangs fall across his eyes.

“What, to watch her destroy the place?” Neptune replies, half scoffing.

“No, because she would clash with the place.” Ren pauses and looks around the restaurant again. “I think most people clash with this place, actually. Nora is fun to look at regardless.”

“Who is Nora? You talk a lot about her, honey,” Sini asks, tipping her head at Ren.

Ren blinks as if he hadn't realized how much he talked about Nora. “She's my partner,” he says as if that explained everything.

This time Neptune doesn't miss his parents’ exchanged look. He doesn't miss Nanami’s raised eyebrow and slight head shake. An icy feeling slips into his gut. He stares hard at the menu above the line of registers and ignores Ren setting a hand on his arm.

They stand in line, and Neptune barely makes it through their order, paying, and finding a table before he strides quickly--and casually, hopefully--for the restroom and locks himself in.

He yanks his Scroll out of his pocket and hits the team dial button. Scarlet’s portrait is the only one to light up. “What's goin’ on?” they ask sleepily, clearly fighting back a yawn.

“Scar, my parents know!” Neptune wants to wail, but does his best to keep his voice mild. “They know and they're gonna call me out on it any second!”

“Know what? What?” Scarlet asks again. “Neptune, love, slow down and explain to me what is happening.”

Neptune sucks in a noisy but deep breath, even as the video call blips on and Scarlet is makeup-less, barely awake, and squinting blearily at him. “Okay so my moms came into town to watch us at the Vytal Festival and also to meet the boyfriend they think I have but Sun actually chased him off after one date cuz he was a jerk but then so I had this brilliant idea that I’d ask Ren to pretend to date me for this one lunch date with my moms and he said yes so we're at this place none of us have ever eaten at and Ren keeps talking about Nora and Pyrrha and team RWBY so my moms probably think he's straight and honestly I don't know if he actually is or not either but if they think he's straight then they know we aren't actually dating and this is gonna crash and burn.”

Scarlet yawns loudly as Neptune winds himself down. “This is,” they say, “One hundred percent not my problem.”

And then the call ends, and Neptune is left staring at the headshots of his teammates.

“Crap,” he whines to himself. “Okay, Neptune. You gotta do this.” He takes a deep breath, then another. He leans on the edge of the sink and stares at himself in the mirror. His hair is sticking up the way it should; that’s good. His goggles aren’t crooked; also good. His tie is straight—well, as straight as he could get it after Nora’s pep talk.

Nora could help.

Neptune looks at his Scroll, straightens from the sink, and thumbs through his contacts. A-ha. He has her number.

He hits call.

She answers after one ring. “What did you do?” she asks, feigning cheerfulness.

“I didn’t do anything!” Neptune responds, voice breaking.

“Oh.” Nora pauses. She turns on video call too. “Wow, you look freaked out,” she says, voice softening. “What happened?”

Neptune launches into the same explanation he’d given Scarlet. Nora hums thoughtfully.

“So you mean to tell me…” Her voice goes cold again. “That this isn’t an actual date.”

“No—well—I mean—”

Nora cuts him off. “Are you using Ren?”

“What!?” Neptune yelps. “What?” he repeats, quieter. “No! I told him when I asked him it wasn’t real! Did he tell you it was real!?”

Nora purses her lips, but stays silent.

“N-Nora?” Neptune ventures. His voice cracks.

“Here’s your out, Numbskull: call Ren.” Then she, like Scarlet, hangs up on him.

Neptune lets out a long groan.

“Neptune?” Ren’s voice filters through the door. “Are you okay?” He knocks.

Neptune unlocks the door, flings it open, drags Ren in, and locks it again.

“My moms know!” he wails.

“Wait, what?” Ren replies, tilting his head.

“My moms know we’re not dating!” Neptune hisses, suddenly hyperaware that the only thing stopping his mothers from hearing that is a single, flimsy, wooden door. And a fairly busy restaurant.

“I don’t think they do,” Ren replies, touching Neptune’s arm. “Are you panicking?” he asks, infinitely gentler. Neptune slumps.

“I… might be a little…” he admits. “I called Nora.”

Ren’s Scroll buzzes in his pocket. He pulls it out and checks the text message, then turns pink. “I can tell.”

Though upside down, Neptune can read that the message says Not a real date, huh? Someone lied to his bestest best friend in the whole wide world! and is punctuated by no less than three smiley faces.

“Did I get you in trouble?” Neptune whimpers.

“No,” Ren lies, putting his scroll back in his pocket. “What has you panicking?”

“My moms can tell, Ren, they know and I’m gonna be in so much trouble!” Neptune clutches at Ren’s shoulders. “They’re gonna yell at me and I’m gonna have to lie more and—”

Ren reaches up and cups Neptune’s face. “They don’t know,” he says simply. Neptune’s panic stops in its tracks. “But they will if you keep panicking like this. It’s suspicious. Take a breath.”

Neptune breathes.

“Okay?” Ren keeps gentle eye contact with him. He nods. “Do you usually get panicked over things? Like tests or fights or classes?” Neptune nods again. “We’ll get you calmed down and tell them that’s what happened, especially because the doubles rounds are coming up.”

“Sounds good.” Neptune smiles shakily. “You’re a life saver.”

“I know,” Ren says, returning Neptune’s smile with a soft one. Neptune tries not to think about how the right side of his mouth is the only side to tip upwards and how he wants to kiss it. “Ready to go back out?” Ren asks, pulling Neptune back to the present.

“I guess so,” Neptune sighs. Ren steps across the tiny room and unlocks the door. “What are you gonna do about Nora?” he asks.

Ren pauses, grip on the door handle going slack. “I’ll talk to her later. Oh, and when we go out, act like you have been. Don’t over act.” Ren looks at him over his shoulder. “That will be suspicious too.”

Neptune nods. “No ham, got it.” He takes another deep breath. “Let’s rock, Ren.”

Ren shakes his head, expression going fond, and pulls the door open.

-

Their meals are waiting for them at the table. Neptune can barely keep the relief off of his face that he’d ordered something edible when he sits down in front of it.

“Are you okay, pumpkin?” Nanami asks, tilting her head at him. Her earrings jangle together. “What happened?”

“Panic attack,” Ren speaks up before Neptune can. “He and Sun made it to the doubles.” He picks up his fork and pokes at the salad he’d ordered.

“We saw!” Sini says, smiling proudly. She reaches across the table to pat Neptune’s elbow.

“I just. Remembered that they’re, like, tomorrow,” Neptune says, staring into the bowl of soup in front of him like it would tell him what to say. “Or, I mean, they start tomorrow. They’re probably randomized again.”

Nanami nods. Neptune picks up his spoon.

The soup is the best he’s ever had.

He falls into his routine with Sun—offering new food. “You gotta try this!” he says, offering Ren a spoonful.

Ren blinks at him, raises an eyebrow, and then before Neptune can start backpedaling, takes the spoonful. “It’s good,” he says, once his mouth is clear. “Thank you.”

Sini snickers behind her hand. “You look like you weren’t expecting that,” she teases.

“I wasn’t!” Neptune blurts. “I was on autopilot for Sun!” He puts his face in his hands when Sini laughs harder.

“Thanks,” Ren says, voice flat, “Good to know.” Neptune groans, and Ren rubs at his back.

“At least he tried it,” Nanami offers, laughter in her own voice.

“That’s… true.” Neptune straightens. His face burns.

Ren’s eyes are crinkling in the corners when Neptune looks at him again. “That was sweet of you,” he says, “Even if you were thinking of Sun instead.”

Neptune frowns, but the frown fades when Ren rubs his back a moment longer before returning to his own food.

The conversation turns to classes and teachers at Haven versus Beacon and gossip.

“Port doesn’t give any homework, but Oobleck gives a ton, so it balances out,” Neptune says.

Ren chews thoughtfully at his salad. “Did you know they’re married?” he states, pushing a strawberry across his plate.

“No way,” Neptune says. “For real? To each other and everything?”

“Yes, for real, to each other and everything,” Ren replies, spearing the strawberry and nibbling at it.

“How did you find out?” Neptune asks, pulling a chunk from the piece of bread on his plate and dunking it in the last of his soup.

“They wear rings,” Ren says. “Nora asked them about them last week.”

“Huh.” Neptune inspects the soup soaked bread before eating it. “Like, seriously?” he says, mouth full. “You’re not pulling my leg? Beacon. Seriously openly gay teachers.”

“Just like Haven.” Sini beams. “Speaking of seriously for real,” She continues, propping her chin in her hand.

Oh no, god no. Neptune fights to keep his expression neutral. “Y-yeah?” Dammit. Voice crack.

“You’ve barely talked about each other,” Nanami points out, setting her spoon down. “How long have you been dating? Are you from Beacon, dear?” She directs at Ren. “How did you meet?”

“Uh,” Neptune starts. Ren touches his arm, and he busies himself mopping up dregs of soup with the bread.

“I am from Beacon,” Ren answers. “We met through Sun, and we’ve only been dating a month or two.”

God, Ren could lie. Maybe it was in the name. Neptune has to bite back a giggle at his own mental joke.

Ren kept talking. “Sun’s friends with friends of mine and introduced us. Neptune and I talked on and off most of the semester and then decided to give dating a try. So far it hasn’t turned out too bad.”

Neptune thanks every higher power he can think of for Ren’s quick thinking. He almost misses what Ren says next as he lifts his drink and pulls his straw between his teeth.

“I like him a lot.” It’s said with a bashful duck of a head, a glance to the teen in question, a sudden reddening of his ears and cheeks.

Neptune inhales his Mad King Cola. God damn, Ren’s a good actor. Had Neptune not known this date was a sham, he’d think Ren actually meant it.

Sini coos at the two of them and flaps a hand at her smiling wife as if to get her to look. Neptune puts his drink down and groans, long and low. “Mama,” he whines. Sini turns her gaze on him, hands clasped under her chin.

“Sini, darling,” Nanami agrees, rubbing a hand over Sini’s shoulders. “Lay off your son,” she says fondly. “Are you ready to go? We’ve been sitting around empty plates and chatting for quite a while.”

“Yeah, I am,” Neptune interjects; the question was meant for all of them, not just Sini. His voice feels rough and his throat scratched to hell from his attempt at breathing soda.

They stand and head for the door of the restaurant. Ren and Sini head the group, chatting about classes. Ren Scrollsnaps pictures of the place as they leave—most likely to the rest of his team—and when he takes selfies demanded in blurry pictures of Nora, Neptune tries his hardest to sneak into the background of the pictures, making ridiculous faces.

In the lobby, Nanami rests a hand on Neptune’s shoulder and gently holds him in place. Neptune tenses, trying to keep the icy feeling of panic at bay.

“Before I say anything, Neptune,” she starts, voice gentle and very much at odds with her intimidating figure. Neptune swallows hard. “You are not in trouble.”

“Wh-what?” Neptune squeaks. “What would I be in trouble for, Mom?” He twists his fingers together and looks anywhere but at his mother. “I don’t think I’ve done anything I should be in trouble for!”

“Sweetheart.” Nanami puts her other hand on his other shoulder. “Deep breath in.” He obeys her. “I know there is something going on. I will play along as long as you need, but when you are ready to talk, I will be here,” she says. “If that’s not while we are still here, that is okay. I am a call away.”

Neptune feels like the ground could swallow him whole. He is shriveling up and sinking away into the roar that has surfaced in his head. “Let’s catch up with Mama and your boy,” Nanami insists, dropping one hand away and instead wrapping her arm around both of his shoulders. She guides him out of the lobby and does not say anything else. They stay a good distance behind the other two, enough to have a conversation of their own without Ren or Sini overhearing.

“I don’t,” Neptune starts haltingly, quietly. Nanami tilts her head to show she’s listening. “I didn’t...” His voice breaks. “Sun scared off the other guy you were probably talking about yesterday a long time ago,” he says, staring at his feet. Nanami rubs his arm. “I, we, we—me and Sun—asked Ren to... to pretend, so I wouldn’t look dumb for just...”

“Mindlessly agreeing to things when we were asking about your life at Beacon?” Nanami offers, smiling down at her son.

“Yeah,” Neptune replies, stung. “How could you tell?” he asks, morbidly curious.

“Mother’s intuition,” Nanami says. “You were not as natural with Ren as you are with Sun or Scarlet. Ren does not let you be affectionate with him. A real boyfriend would.” The explanation is helpful, in a weird way.

“So get better at acting?” Neptune jokes.

Nanami laughs, loud, throwing her head back. “Yes,” she says. “Get better at acting. Or,” she continues thoughtfully, “Get better at communication.”

“Well...” Neptune says. “He said to let him initiate most touching, so I, y’know, was doing that.”

“I did say that, and I appreciate you sticking to it,” Ren says, next to him. Neptune very nearly jumps out of his skin.

“Fuck, geez, god!” Neptune squawks. “I almost peed!” Ren purses his lips, very clearly holding in a laugh. Sini, who has trailed back to Nanami’s other side, does not hold her laugh in.

“So we all know now?” Ren asks. Neptune nods sheepishly. Nanami lets go of Neptune and smiles knowingly when the two slow down even more to let Neptune’s mothers walk ahead of them. “Do you want to try again?” he asks, sliding an arm to loop around one of Neptune’s. “A date, I mean.” His face pinks.

“Wh—I, uh, a fake one?” Neptune replies. It hits him a moment later what Ren means and he feels like Remnant’s biggest idiot. He stops walking.

“No,” Ren indulges him anyways. “A real one.”

It’s a leap, a stretch; Neptune is climbing out onto a thin branch of hope. “Will I get to kiss you?” he asks demurely. “Or is that still a don’t do that Neptune kind of thing?”

Ren looks thoughtful. “Well...” he trails, then arches an eyebrow. “You want to?” he ventures shyly. Neptune nods. His face heats, and Ren’s reddens further in mirror. Ren still looks thoughtful. “Even after a lunch date that definitely wasn’t a real date?”

“Yes, I, of course, I mean, yeah,” Neptune stammers, reaching up to play with his goggles.

Ren stretches up onto his toes, letting go of Neptune’s arm in favor of sliding it around Neptune’s shoulders. Neptune leans in, body moving on autopilot.

They kiss—once, and briefly. Ren’s lips are soft and gentle against his own, and when they break apart and Ren lowers himself from his toes, Neptune can’t help but touch his lips like a cliché romance novel stereotype. “I,” he starts, then cuts himself off. “Can I do that again?” he asks, dazed.

He feels like he could vibrate into space—just wait until he told Scarlet and Sun, especially Sun. This is the best possible outcome he could have predicted for pretending to date Ren, and it’s just happened.

“Maybe later,” Ren says, bringing Neptune back in from the outer layers of the atmosphere. Neptune nods fervently. “But… about that real date,” he says next. “Should I text you?”

“Yeah, that’d be great,” Neptune replies. “You’re great,” he says.

“Th… thank you?” Ren sounds confused. They start walking again—to catch up with Neptune’s mothers, who have stopped and are looking back at them. Not quite impatiently, but getting there, Neptune thinks—and Ren’s hand brushes his.

He takes it. Ren laces their fingers together.

Their current date—albeit fake—hasn’t even ended yet and Neptune is already looking forward to the next one.