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Once upon a time, Akira had been looking forward to his third year summer vacation.

Four months stuck in his quiet hometown was torture in sheer mundanity after the physical-mental-emotional roller coaster that was his probation in Tokyo, but Haru had decided that the Phantom Thieves should reconvene and spend some quality time together again and invited them all to spend the summer in one of her father's seaside vacation homes. It was still comparatively mundane, but at least he'd have more company than Morgana's silent snoring and an empty dining table.

(He was still working on wearing his parents down and getting them to send him to Shujin again; it wasn't like they couldn't hire a housesitter to do what he did all day long, and Shujin was a 'vastly superior school in every way,' anyway.

...Rampant rumor problem and social ostracization aside, but they didn't need to know that.)

But there were three days between his re-arrival in Tokyo and the trip to the ocean, which his friends took as an opportunity to catch up (copiously, like they wouldn't have a solid 25 days living in the same house anyway), and by the end of the second day, he was ready to drop.

At some point in the past four months, Shiho and Mishima had been absorbed into the fold—Shiho by product of spending time with Ann again and Mishima by product of wiggling the details of the Phantom Thieves' escapades out of Ryuji—so the press of people was even denser than he'd been prepared for.

(Mishima he knew how to deal with, but Shiho...

There was this unnerving politeness to her everything, even when her eyes were dancing with mischief. He could sort of see how she'd become Ann's friend, because Ann liked people who were real with her while still being even-tempered and kind, but she was Ann's best friend and a little too perceptive for comfort. That gaze felt like she'd have all of his deepest secrets served up on a platter if he gave her so much as an inch.

It made for uncomfortable conversations that felt like interrogations even when they didn't sound like it. A guy could tell when he was being dissected and put back together again, okay.)

(Plus, there were a few things that he'd really prefer Ann's very devoted best friend didn't know.)

The nonstop parade of people wasn't the main issue, really, nor the promise of spending the next month with nine people instead of the seven he'd expected.

No, the main issue came up on the third evening.


Setting: Leblanc Cafe, half past ten P.M.. The party had dwindled down until only Ryuji, Yusuke, and Mishima had yet to leave, Morgana was dozing on a bar stool, and Akira had taken up crepe-making as he listened to the chatter more than participated in it.

(He still wasn't a crepe guy, but it was fun to think about what Ann's reaction might be if he made them for her—delight with the treat? Anger for ruining her latest diet? To make him eat her share again?—and it was something to do when he was bored, so they'd gotten more and more elegant and elaborate as time went on. At this point, he was trying to perfect lace-looped crepe edges because he'd already done about as much as he could with carved strawberries and silver coating.)

"Man, you know the one thing that sucks about this trip?" said Ryuji into his fourth glass of grape soda. He was drooping over one of Leblanc's empty booths across from Mishima. "There won't be any chicks at the beach."

"Indeed," said Yusuke, sitting at the bar with a cup of herbal tea. Akira suspected that he'd be lending his couch out tonight. "Private beaches have their advantages. I anticipate that the uninterrupted scenery will be truly a sight to see."

"No, it's a thing that sucks, dude. It's gonna be so boring. So empty..."

"What are the girls?" Mishima wondered. "Dead meat?"

Akira's question exactly as he stooped to finish arranging the choco-strawberry crepe into its cone.

Ryuji mulled this over, then said, "I mean, sure they're hot, but..."

Yusuke stared at the countertop with a distant look in his eyes. "Their aesthetics are a bit..."

Piping bag in hand, Akira paused. Excuse me?

"Huh... I guess I see what you mean," said Mishima, the traitor. "They're great, but not really girlfriend material."

"They're all way too scary," Ryuji muttered. "The longer I know 'em, the harder it is to think of 'em as even, like, girls."

Yusuke took a sip from his cup. "I have come to realize that true art comes from passion of the heart, and knowing them as well as I do..."

Frankly, that was an unforgivable insult against each and every one of the girls—Haru's blushing dignity and inviting softness, Makoto's passionate morality and straight-laces that were just begging to come undone, Futaba's mischievousness and infectious energy, and Ann's general... Ann-everything—

(Her bright blue eyes and bubbly laughter, her endless warmth and loyalty and trust, her teasing, her silliness, her affection, her soothing chatter and open vulnerability despite everything she'd been through, the way she seemed incapable of not existing in technicolor even when the rest of the world had drained to monochrome, her competitiveness, her unexpected humility, her happy-go-lucky outlook on life that always managed to bring him back down to earth and remind him that the world was so much more than shades of grey...

Plus, you know. Hot. Cute. Fucking gorgeous. Pick a word, any word.)

—and if his friends didn't think any of them were 'girlfriend material', then they were cowards with terrible taste. And that was that.

"What do you think, man?" Ryuji said, directing the question at Akira.

"You all have terrible taste."

No sense in sugarcoating the truth.

Ryuji spluttered. "What the eff?! There ain't nothin' wrong with my taste!"

Akira finished piping the vanilla mousse into its carefully swirled peak. "Then you're a coward."

Ryuji gaped.

"Is your head feeling quite alright?" Yusuke wondered in Akira's general direction.

Akira didn't deign to answer that.

"So... wait," said Mishima, too used to his occasional scathing comments to react. "Does that mean... you think they're girlfriend material?"

What else would it mean? Akira wondered as he put down the piping bag and started fan-cutting strawberries.

"No way..." said Ryuji, like that was an honest-to-god foreign concept. "Like, one of 'em or all of 'em?"

Across his mind floated a sweet summer smile and easy laugh, blue eyes that burned like a flame and that uncomfortably sexy mettle—rapidly followed by the times she'd blithely brushed off or just plain missed his attempts at flirting.

They hadn't been particularly subtle attempts, for the record.

"Just in general," he said aloud, a little too casually.

"Queen's got a nice ass but she's, like, made of iron, dude," Ryuji said, apparently too much of an idiot to see that that was exactly the appeal. "And you've seen the way Haru holds an axe! You just know she's a closet sadist or somethin'—" Hot, but okay. "—and Futaba's practically a kid—" Only enough of one to push that little sister act to the very edge of eroticism with a crafty grin and a breathy voice that could get a guy to agree to almost anything, but okay. "—and Ann..."

Akira looked up, paring knife poised.

Ryuji was squinting at the ceiling while Mishima was glancing between him and Akira, desperately trying to catch Ryuji's eye as he sliced a finger across his throat.

Ryuji didn't see it. "...Yep, her attitude still hasn't gotten any better." He stretched over his sigh. "If anything, it's gotten worse."

Akira put down the paring knife.

"And I wonder who's fault that is..." said Yusuke as Akira ducked under the bar to look for an extra ingredient.

Mishima exhaled slowly, then reasonbly added, "She seems the same to me."

"Wha—? You're saying it's my fault?!"

"You do seem to have a talent for upsetting her," Yusuke noted idly. He was regarding his tea when Akira reemerged with Sojiro's ancient bottle of sriracha.

"Bah." Ryuji downed the rest of his soda. "She goes after you guys too."

"Yeah, but just like the normal amount," Mishima said.

"Indeed..." Yusuke looked like he would be rubbing his nose in remembered pain if he were the type. "She is a reliable teammate and a loyal friend, but as a romantic partner..."

"She's hot, but it would be hell dating her," Ryuji summarized.

The other two nodded in sync.

Which removed any vestiges of guilt Akira might have felt as he pushed his three test crepes over the counter. "Can you taste test these?"

"Ah, certainly."

"Sure, man—woah they're fancy."

"Thanks, Kurusu!"

Call him petty, but the choking and shouts and desperate rush for water was music to his ears, quenching the urge to deck three of his dearest friends (well, two of his closest friends and one tolerated person who he'd probably still end up dying for if push came to shove, but you know).

"Dude, what the eff?!"

"Ah, sorry." Akira smiled. "I thought I might have gone overboard with the chili. Your taste is so awful I thought you wouldn't notice."

"You got a grudge or somethin'?!" Ryuji demanded, rasping and with tears in his eyes. He thumped his chest, hacking a cough. "All I said was Ann'd be a terrible girlfriend."

And that was where you went wrong. Akira turned around to start cleaning up the crepe-construction supplies. The chili-laced strawberry sauce was now useless and the whipped cream would melt before he used it again, so those went in the trash while the washed strawberries were put back in the refrigerator.

Making a variety of exaggerated grimaces as he slowly regained his equilibrium, Ryuji groaned, "What, you got a thing for her or somethin'?"

Akira froze in the middle of shaking out a rag to wipe down the bar with.

A beat of silence passed.

"...Wait. Seriously?"

His face felt traitorously hot, panic icing his veins. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"No way..." said Mishima, awed, and Akira found himself the focus of three lazer-focused stares.

He decided that the best way to escape the situation was to pretend it had never happened, and dedicated himself to removing the sparing flecks of hazelnut-chocolate spread that had made their way onto the counter, though that didn't stop his ears from burning.

"Ann?" Ryuji repeated. "The hell?"

"I suppose your aesthetics do match rather well," Yusuke rasped thoughtfully from where he'd wilted against a cabinet. His eyes were red.

Flattering, if blatantly untrue. Girl who was part-time sunshine, part-time model, part-time divinity and a guy like him? They made good (very very good) friends, but 'matching' was a bit...

Well. She'd made it perfectly clear that she didn't think about him like in that way, so it was a moot point anyway.

Surprisingly enough, Ryuji seemed to agree with Yusuke. "Well, yeah, I guess... Jus' like... what do you see in her?"

When Akira didn't immediately answer, Mishima joined in with, "I wanna know too," like that was any encouragement at all.

Ugh.

"She's..."

She's hot had already been discussed and established and felt fake and flimsy anyway. She's amazing was just begging for clarification requests that he really didn't want to answer. She makes me feel sane—just... no. True, but no. What kind of reason was that, anyway?

"...sweet."

(Affectionate, forever forgiving and forever the optimist, the first person to hear the rumors and accept him anyway. It was impossible not to feel warm around her.)

"...Sweet?" Ryuji looked like that had somehow never occurred to him before. "I-I guess so..."

Frowning, Yusuke said, "You aren't incorrect, though I don't think I ever would have said that that is one of her defining traits."

"Huh," said Mishima. "Guess that's as good a reason as any."

Akira let out a discreet sigh of relief.

Now, to change the subject before they kept going—

"Ma-an," Ryuji said as he rummaged another grape soda out of the fridge without so much as a by-your-leave. "I knew you've been crushin' on someone for a while, but I never thought it'd be Ann."

Akira did his best not to twitch. Ryuji had known?

"Can't believe I didn't see it." Mishima closed the tap on the dish sink and scrubbed his scarlet face dry with a perfectly good dish towel. "I shared a class with both of you for, like, a year!"

"Our noble leader is not known for his forthcoming nature," Yusuke said, like Akira hadn't just fed him a choco-strawberry crepe generously doused in hot sauce explicitly as revenge for insulting Ann. "It does not surprise me that he keeps matters of heart close to his chest, so to speak."

If this conversation doesn't involve me, can I leave? he didn't ask, but desperately wanted to.

"Ehh..." Ryuji sighed as he slid back into his side of the booth. "Wish you'd told me, at least."

Akira hummed noncommittally, guilt leaking in despite himself. By the time he'd known Ryuji well enough to confide this kind of thing in him, Ann had already made it pretty clear that she thought of him as a friend and nothing more, so what was the point?

...Maybe he should have told him anyway.

"So?" Ryuji leaned forward, leering. "When are you gonna tell her?"

"I'm not." Did he really have to keep talking about this?

"Wha'? Lame!" The grape soda can hit the table with a tinny clang. "Why the hell not?"

Akira didn't answer that, instead muttering, "What happened to 'terrible girlfriend'?" because he'd rather die than admit to the three or four times he'd tried and failed.

"Eh, she likes you, dude," was what Ryuji said, completely unaware that there were three words in there that had Akira's blood pressure skyrocketing for a few seconds. "If anyone can deal with her, you can. 'Sides, you're the one who's crushin'. That's gotta count for something."

Can we go back to that first part? Akira wondered pathetically, because 'eh, she likes you, dude,' was a much more pleasant thing to think about than the fact that everyone in this room now knew that Ann Takamaki had his heart in her hands and he had yet to retrieve it.

Dammit.

But whether or not she 'liked' him, he knew better. "I... don't think she's interested."

"What? Seriously?" said Ryuji, a man who had obviously never given any of this any thought in his life.

"Seriously." Akira had no desire to elaborate further, so he tried to add, "How are trip preparations goin—"

Ryuji refused to drop it. "But how can you be sure, man? It's Ann; nobody knows what's going on in her head."

She's actually completely transparent if you look away from her chest for five seconds, Akira thought but didn't get the chance to say. Ryuji was already barreling on.

Punching a fist into his palm, Ryuji declared, "If she's not interested in you, then we just need to get her interested in you."

"Please don't."

This couldn't end well.

Yusuke folded his hands in front of his mouth Gendo-style. "Interesting. How do you propose we do this?"

Et tu, Yusuke?

"Heheh," said Ryuji. Akira didn't like it. "If this guy here thinks she's girlfriend material, then obviously we just need to prove to her that he's boyfriend material!"

Hope flashed in front of Akira's eyes for the two seconds it took him to remember the countless times he'd attempted to do just that.

Keyword: attempted.

"We... really don't," he objected—tried to object. It came out much weaker than he'd intended; that unwilling hope was fighting death to the end.

"Yeah, we do!" said Mishima, and Akira wasn't sure he liked that grin on his face. It was reminding him of old times with guns and things. "And hey, you know what?"

Ryuji fired a finger gun in Mishima's direction. "Shoot."

"We have a whole month to prove it to her."

"...True," said Yusuke, a steely glint dawning in his eyes.

Akira realized something very important at that moment: not only could this not end well, but now there was no possible way for it to end well.

Ryuji, what have you done?

Ryuji grinned like he could hear Akira's silent lamentation. "So it's settled."

"Nothing is settled," Akira tried to interject, but he was ignored wholesale this time.

Grape soda raised in a toast high above the cafe table, Ryuji declared, "There won't be any chicks at the beach, but we won't let this summer go to waste!"

Empty coffee cup and half-full teacup were solemly proffered.

"I, Ryuji Sakamato—" And there he stopped, looking pointedly at the other two.

"Oh, uh, m-me too?" Mishima stammered, and Ryuji rolled his eyes. "A-and I, Yuuki Mishima—"

They both stared at Yusuke, who nodded once before saying, "And I, Yusuke Kitagawa—"

"We herby swear to work hard and make sure our bro, Akira Kurusu, gets the girl. Deadline? The end o' summer."

"Let's do this!" said Mishima while Yusuke nodded with a deep, "Mm-hm."

And it was settled.

Akira wondered if he should just stay home.

Chapter Text

Haru's beds? Were the best. Ann was in love.

So soft... so fluffy...

It was almost enough to distract her from the blatant conspiracies taking place in the room.

Celebrating their safe arrival with a few rounds of King's Game had sounded pretty innocent. She was in the company of friends, Akira was finally back (and Morgana too), everyone was a little high on life, and she hadn't thought twice about chanting, 'The king's orders are absolute!'

She still wasn't, actually, but it was impossible not to notice the game of charades the boys seemed to have going on. Akira was studiously Not Playing, but every time Ryuji, Yusuke, or Mishima was King, the other two devolved into strange gestures that seemed to follow no particular pattern at all. She would have thought they were trying to pass numbers, except Mishima's double-'yo' gesture and walrus chopsticks could have meant '2' just as easily as they could mean '6' and Ryuji aggressively scratching his head in sets of three and spacing it out with erratic (and very fake) sneezes left him looking like he had a bad case of head lice and Yusuke's circular wave motions held no discernible numeral at all.

And so it went that she was lending her lap to a sleepy Morgana (Mishima's doing), Makoto and Shiho were holding hands (Ryuji's doing), and Ryuji now had a slew of 'exciting, elaborate, bordering on erotic' photographs of Mishima (Yusuke's doing).

...Yeah, Ann was only the normal amount of worried.

(There was a second, much lower-key conspiracy happening between the girls, and it was much more effective than whatever the boys were trying to do. Through a series of peeks and covert gestures and eye contact, Akira had steadily been losing layers of clothing throughout the evening, and was now slouched on the floor in nothing but a pair of worn jeans with the waistband of his underwear peeking out, flawlessly accentuating pale, lean hipbones.

Their silent agreement to start was just to get him to shed those excessive outer layers, but then Futaba had taken it one step farther and ordered him to lose the t-shirt.

Ann certainly wasn't complaining. The lighting in the room could do his soft curls and subtle musculature no wrong, and he was barefoot to boot? Man, talk about eye candy.)

(The third conspiracy was that the teacup Haru had given her at the start of the gathering never seemed to run out of tea, and the tea it was topped off changed every so often, somehow. She still had no idea where Haru was keeping all that hot water, nor where her ninja-refill skills came from, but Ann had drunk more tea in the past few hours than she knew what to do with.)

Ryuji drew the King stick next.

Yusuke and Mishima immediately started signaling... something, Yusuke pointing straight up at the ceiling with a grave expression and Mishima waving his hands like a conductor without a beat, but Ryuji just glanced at them and looked away, dismissing them and heaving a sigh.

"Lesse..." He studied the red-tipped chopstick, gingerly rubbing his head where he'd been scratching it, and without looking up, said, "Seven—" Oh! That was Ann. "—and four..."

Akira also sat to attention, muscles shifting under his skin and dark eyes wary.

Seeing this, Mishima started fist-pumping while Yusuke let out a disturbing chuckle.

Oooookay, maybe Ann was a little worried.

(...Was Ryuji gonna make Akira grab her butt? Was Ryuji gonna make her grab Akira's butt? What if there were mutual butt-grabs?)

Ryuji startled, then his surprise gave way to a seriously creepy leer. Ann started subtly feeling up the bed for a pillow to hit him with, just in case.

"Seven and four, in the interest of catching up—" Ann found a pillow and gripped it tight. "—I think the two of you should spend a little quality time together—" Oh he was asking for it. "—in that closet over there."

...What?

"For ten minutes," he added, somehow trying to sound even skeevier than before, despite the order being leagues better than she'd expected from that grin.

"Like... just standing around?" she clarified.

He sniggered, and she still wanted to hit him, but—"Yup!"

Huh. That wasn't too sketchy. The nude modeling thing had been way worse.

Plus, it was Akira. A little forced proximity with the guy who was easily her most attractive and gentlemanly friend didn't sound like a trial. No groping or stripping involved!

Except that he... wasn't wearing a shirt...

Yeah, okay, this could be awkward.

Almost as if reading her mind, he paused in the middle of getting up, glancing at his own bare chest (she followed his gaze and... yum), and then shot Futaba a long-suffering look. "...Can I have my shirt back?"

Futaba opened her mouth, looking almost genuinely injured. "Wha—? No way!"

Ann caught her gaze behind Akira's back and pressed her palms together in a plea with a wince, because eye candy was eye candy and she had her limits.

Futaba caved with a pout. "Fiiiiiine—but! Only if I get to keep it for the rest of the night."

He held his hand out for the garment with a sigh.

The shirt itself was stretchy and thin and pulled tight over his arms and back in the best way when he donned it, and then Ann had to let go of the pillow and slip off the bed and follow him into the closet.

It was a much smaller closet than she'd thought it would be. She had to push back until the shelves were digging into her back to keep them from touching, and that was only when Akira was doing the same.

Still. Way better than groping.

...He smelled really good.

Like something that shouldn't have smelled good but still did—like worn-in travel dust and sweat and faded cologne and just the faintest lingering hint of coffee and spices, relaxing and stimulating and ahh...

Ann decided she didn't want to be the creep in this situation, and so did not bury her face in the crook of his neck to sniff him.

Then something occurred to her.

"Hey, did anyone set a timer?"

He pulled out his phone and checked it, then shook his head. She could almost feel it, he was so close.

He set the timer himself with a few quick taps, then absently locked his phone and stuck it back in his pocket, effectively keeping her from counting down the seconds and leaving her to get lost in the small eternity that was the way she could actually feel his body heat through both of their layers and the way his chest juuust brushed against hers if they both breathed in at the same time.

"Wow, it sure is stuffy in here, huh?" she said, winded, after the second time that happened. She wondered if just relaxing and half-hugging would be better than those teasing touches. "I-I wonder why a house this big has a closet this small?"

When he didn't answer in that beat (he never did), she plunged on, "It was really nice of Haru to invite us all over, don't you think? It's been so long since we all got to spend time together. I've missed it!"

"Mm," he said, their height difference meaning that the smooth rumble of it vibrated right next to her ear. "Me too."

Ughuah, close. He was really close—and tall and this was so awkward, so so awkward—

She giggled breathlessly. "O-oh yeah? We should meet up more after the summer's over! Maybe on the weekends after school or something. It's too bad your parents still won't send you to Shujin."

"I'm working on it," he assured her, warm and soft and velvety

"Yeah?" Then, because her mouth had a grudge against her personally, she followed that up by blurting out, "That's not the only thing you've been working on though, huh. Been hitting the gym? You need to show me your workout routines sometime."

Not, you know, that she wanted to watch him pump iron or anything. Ugh, why had she even said that?

There was another beat of silence in which Ann wanted to die, but when he spoke, he just sounded amused, if a little rough.

"Like what you see?"

Who wouldn't? she wondered weakly, but caught before it spilled off her tongue. "Well, yeah!" Like that was any better— "I'm pretty jealous. I probably wouldn't need to stick to a diet if I was as fit as you are." At least that sounded passably casual. "You can probably eat as many crepes as you want, huh."

He didn't answer that.

"Man, I wonder if they have a crepe stand around here..." Trying to think about sweet treats was safer than thinking about a hot and sweaty and shirtless Akira working out at the gym, and she latched onto it with a vengeance. "I'm sure just one or two couldn't hurt..."

A soft inhale had the air stirring around her ear (closecloseclose) and she barrelled on like she was possessed by a ghost intent on escaping the awkward. "A-anyway, we should think of something to pass the time, huh? Wanna play a game of Twenty Questions?"

He acquiesced with a nod that she could feel more than she could see, and she was very grateful for the challenge—though he guessed in less than thirty seconds that she had desserts on the mind. (She was about to drop this latest diet anyway; she just loved all things sweet too much.)

Hers was Mont Blanc, then his was Joker's favorite pair of knives, then hers was the summer sun—and all she knew about his last one was that it was a phrase he had on his mind before the timer started beeping.

She put her hand over his to keep him from opening the door, her skin fizzling the way it always did at the contact. "Wait. Before we go, I gotta know."

"Hm?"

"That last game—what were you thinking of?"

He hesitated for a long moment, unmoving, then pushed the door open anyway and said, "Your hair."

...Her hair?

He cleared his throat. The light was enough to illuminate the slight heat-flush on his face and small smile and thick-'lashed grey eyes. He let go of the door and tugged one of the locks framing her face—she'd forgotten she'd let it out of its twin ponytails in preparation for bed.

"It's pretty. You should wear it like that more often."

Oh.

Ann didn't think she'd blushed so hard over a compliment to her looks in her entire life.

From him it sounded genuine, not shallow or desperate or professional or degrading or anything. He'd just noticed the change and approved of it, and thought he'd tell her.

She found herself breathing giggles again, out of flattery rather than nerves this time. "Thanks! I'll..." Her voice gutted into something shy. "I'll remember that."

Oddly, the smile dropped, something blank and dark flickering across his face, melting in and out so smoothly it left her blinking. His gaze left her face with a little jerk that almost felt like a click, and then gently pushed her out of the door.

"Huh?"

He opened his mouth, shut it, then almost seemed to flush a little darker—but maybe that was just the embarrassed expression taking over the blankness. "I... want to keep my shirt for a while longer."

"Your shirt?"

"Futaba," was all he said, but she got that. She definitely wouldn't put it past her friend to immediately reclaim both clothing and eye candy.

"But the game?"

His expression now darkened, stare directed into the abyss. "They'll make me strip again."

Ann suppressed a guilty flinch. That had been one quarter her doing.

The corners of his eyes crinkled wryly (did he know?), then he pushed her the rest of the way out of the closet and pulled back in himself, door clicking shut behind him.

...Well, okay then!

That was weird.

Puzzled but accepting, she made her way back over to the group and their questioning blanket silence.

"Done!" she assured them cheerfully, not really sure what else she was supposed to say here.

"Where's Akira?" Futaba wanted to know.

"He said he was gonna stay in the closet because he wants to keep his shirt for a little longer," Ann echoed faithfully as she got back on the bed and crawled back to her space beside Shiho. She hoped she didn't look quite as frazzled as she felt, but Shiho's dancing eyes and subtle smile told her that that was a long shot.

"Aww..." said Futaba, a stream of steamy tea refilling the cup at her elbow. Ann noticed that her cup had also been refilled while she was gone.

"So?" was what Ryuji wanted to know, grinning downright lecherously. "What'd you do?"

"Plaaaayed Twenty Questions?" she drawled back. Honestly—boys! "Dunno what you were expecting."

"Bah," he groaned, sprawling backwards out on his bed. "Boring!"

Ann felt the tickle of a flush rising in her cheeks again and tugged at the lock of hair Akira had caught, then retorted, "You just wanted us to stand in a closet!"

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Shiho's eyebrow quirk—apparently there were some people Ann just couldn't fool.

"Whatever." Ryuji stretched, yawning, then passed his stick over to Makoto—no longer the King stick; they must have played a few rounds while she and Akira were occupied. "Man, I'm gettin' tired of this game. Whaddaya you guys say we wrap this up?"

"It is getting late..." Makoto agreed reluctantly. "Let's do two more rounds and then head to bed."

"Not what I meant," Ryuji grumbled, but conceded more or less in good grace at the scatter of agreements.

In the end, of all the conspiracies that had sustained the game, the last one standing was Ann's piping hot tea.


Afghan slung over her shoulder as they made their way to their shared guest bedroom, Shiho waited until they were mostly out of earshot of the others to elbow Ann and murmur, "Lucky girl."

Ann jolted out of memory lane—body heat, scent, the purr of his voice and the way his eyes had looked when he smiled like that—and blurted, "What?"

Shiho leaned closer and shot her a lopsided grin. "He's hot, isn't he."

Ann pressed her hands over her cheeks with a little whimper. The blush was only now really dying down. "You're telling me..."

Shiho just laughed.

Chapter Text

Haru's showers were also the best, Ann discovered the next morning. She really needed to talk her parents into installing digital temperature control in their showers back home.

(After about fifteen minutes spent pointing a hairdryer at her her head as she spaced out, she eventually decided to leave her hair down. Her scalp could probably use a break anyway, right?)

It was novel to have company at the breakfast table, too—man, how long had it been since she'd had any kind of sit-down breakfast? Her parents were very 'grab and go' kinds of people even when they were home, and it always seemed a little pointless to just make breakfast for herself. She usually made do with a nutritional shake and toast before heading to school.

But today she was drinking tea and nibbling at white rice and fried fish while Shiho told Mishima about what she'd learned at the Kyoto volleyball meet and Yusuke served himself to fourths and Makoto gave up on scolding Ryuji for playing video games at the dining table and started watching him play instead. Akira had long finished his food by the time she got there and was deeply absorbed in his phone (also playing games, it looked like) while he waited for the rest of them to finish. Haru was sipping at a variety of teacups and taking notes with Morgana sitting on the arm of her chair and offering commentary.

It was... nice, almost like eating with a family again. Maybe one day—

Futaba stumbled downstairs halfway through the meal, hair a wreck and glasses askew, wearing the shirt she'd wrestled from Akira the night before and yawning cavernously.

Akira finally looked up from his phone and blinked, mild surprise flickering and leaving behind a faint smug humor that didn't quite disappear under the deadpan again.

Futaba caught the look and preened, adjusting her glasses and then interlocking her hands behind her back, pushing out her chest. "Well? What do you think?"

"It's cute," he answered without a hint of hesitance or shame, just the smirk lurking around the edges of his mouth.

She lit up. "Does that mean I can keep it?"

"No."

"Aww..."

Shiho, who was watching the interaction just as closely as she was, turned to Ann with raised eyebrows.

All Ann had to offer was a sheepish shrug. That was just who Akira was, really. You got used to it.

(Not saying she wasn't a little disappointed that her hair had passed entirely without comment or reaction, but oh well.

Guiltily, she wondered what his reaction would have been if she'd walked out wearing his shirt, but that way laid madness. She shouldn't spend too much time thinking about it.)

As Futaba dropped down into one of the chairs and started chowing down, it was decided that they'd all go down and check out the town today.

Haru's mansion was situated on a part-time peninsula, part-time island (the connecting sandbar submerged in high tide) a kilometer and a half out from a small town that was more touristy than not—and more malls than shrines, too.

Ann's credit card was prepared for the beating. Thank you, high-pay modeling.


She'd just gotten out of the last chain boutique and walked into an otaku store when Ryuji attached himself to her side. It wasn't exactly a surprise; they didn't really share the same tastes in anime, but they were close enough that sometimes their recommendations to each other were on the mark. Maybe she'd sort out all the ecchi series and find something good underneath.

Understandably, she expected this walk to involve a lot of rolling her eyes at the density of boob drawings and a lot of attempts at explaining to him why romantic comedies without breast-exposure were still a perfectly good staple of the shounen genre.

Instead, she was in the middle of putting her hair up in the shiny new butterfly clip she'd just bought (might as well try out some new styles while her hair was all down like this) when Ryuji said, "So, you know my bro Akira..."

She looked up, nonplussed. "...Yes?"

She'd been friends with him almost as long as Ryuji had, hadn't she? Had Ryuji developed selective amnesia?

"He's, like, totally jacked."

...What?

He reached out and grabbed a copy of Koko's Bizarre Adventure off the shelf. Pointing to the Koko on the cover, he added, "Like that."

"Uh," said Ann.

"Like, his clothes make him look way scrawnier than he is," Ryuji explained confidentially as he put the volume back on the shelf, like said 'bro' hadn't spent a solid two hours shirtless in front of them all last night. "But he's, like, the king of pumping iron. I'm still tryna get on his level." He nodded in pride.

"Oh," said Ann. Not that knowing Akira was 'the king of pumping iron' wasn't an appealing thought, but...?

"Like..." Ryuji trailed off, frowning in thought, then held up one finger and beamed at her. "He could totally open all your jars for you. He's a reliable guy like that."

"I'll... keep that in mind," she replied weakly. Jars?

Her eyes fell to her hands—fairly average hands for a girl, slim fingers and palms kept meticulously soft.

It was due to this that she and jars had a longstanding rivalry. Her grip strength was only really as good as it needed to be to effectively handle a whip, and that didn't translate well into fighting with sugar-sticky jars of caramel or jam. Nutetta jars weren't quite as hard and only required a little elbow grease to get open, but her hands always hurt afterwards.

...It would be nice to have someone open jars for her...

Ryuji jerked her out of her contemplation with, "Seriously, that guy can carry something like eighty kilos. I'm still stuck at fifty."

Ann, a young woman with roughly sixty kilos of body weight to her name, was plagued by phantom fantasies of being picked up like she weighed nothing.

"And, like, he wears glasses, so you know he's smart," he continued in a total swerve that he seemed to think was completely natural.

Well, he was at the top of our year in Shujin. Then she remembered, "But the glasses are fake...?"

Ryuji was undaunted. "Yeah, but he wears 'em."

Ann opened her mouth, considered the statement, and then conceded, "...Can't argue that, I guess."

"Aaaaaand he looks totally cool in black," he went on, smug. "Like, you should see him in his Joker outfit—" The smirk fell into a frown. "...Wait."

Not that she didn't agree (and wow did she agree; nobody should be able to rock the stage magician look as hard as Joker did, it was practically illegal), but, uhh... Ann kind of wondered if she should be checking Ryuji's temperature.

"Uh, forget that," he said, scratching the back of his head. "Not that he looks cool in black, you should totally remember that, just... yeah."

Ann wasn't going to let him live this down for any less than a week, maybe two.

"Look, all I'm trying to say is that it's, like, impossible to go wrong with him!" He clapped her on the shoulder, nodding to an unheard beat. "He's a real bro who will never let you down. You can count on him always."

"Oh-... -kay?"

She couldn't even really object to being touched. Ryuji was just so earnest about this.

(But honestly, she knew for a fact that she and Akira were already on mutual 'I'd die for you' terms (god knew how many times that had been put to the test), so this was a little redundant, wasn't it?)

Ryuji leaned in closer, leering, and she leaned back farther.

"And you know what's the real icin' on the cake?" That note of pride was back. "He's a great cook."

"Well, you're right about that one." She'd die for that curry of his, too.

"Right?!" He let go of her and folded his arms, then squinted, leer falling. "Except when he puts a bunch of hot sauce in your crepes for some reason." ...What? "Seriously. You can never tell what the guy is thinkin'. It's kinda creepy."

"It's not that hard to figure out if you pay attention," she informed him, bemusement fading into amusement. His expressions were subtle, but you could still get a feel for his general moods and their causes pretty quick. As much as she rebelled against the thought of hot sauce in crepes, Ryuji must have stuck his foot in his mouth and chewed on it for a bit to get that brand of petty revenge—insulting a friend or hitting on one of Akira's sore spots, most likely.

"—Wait, did you say crepes?"

"Oh, yeah, he's been making some totally fancy ones. You'd love 'em—the ones without the hot sauce, anyway."

Crepes. Akira. Akira with crepes. Crepes made by Akira.

Ann's mouth was watering just thinking about it.

She needed to ask him about those immediately.

"And not only that," Ryuji went on, swirling one finger in the air, "his dick is—..." He paused, then dropped the finger. "Wait. I can't say that to a girl."

Ann nearly tripped.

"Of course you can't!" she screeched, face and ears doused in fire as she was abruptly forced to think about the contents of her good friend's pants. "Ryuji—what the hell?!"

"Ow-ow-ow-hey—I'm sorry, okay?!" He swatted at her flailing fists. "All I'm sayin' is that he's a pretty cool dude and you can't go wrong with him."

Or his dick, Ann's brain helpfully tacked on.

She crushed it back with all her might.

Dropping her flustered attempts at bodily assault, she rubbed her burning forehead and groaned, "Why are we even talking about this, again...?"

She'd said it without any hope of the question having a real answer, but Ryuji froze.

"Oh. Uh. Y'knooow..." His alarm was almost comical. "No reason!"

There was totally a reason.

"None at all!" He started backing up, holding his hands up when Ann fixed him with a suspicious glare. "B-but hey, is that Yusuke? Hey, Yusuke!"

Even as she turned, she was pretty sure that this was a ploy to get her to look the other way so he could escape—but nope, there was Yusuke standing in the middle of a colorful isle and frowning at a volume of 06-Ghost.

"Pardon?" Yusuke rumbled, looking up.

Ryuji gracelessly deposited Ann next to him, clapped them both on the shoulder, and said, "Hey, you know what? I think I hear Queen calling me. Sure as hell don't wanna make her wait. You take it from here, Yusuke."

And then he vanished. Like a ninja.

"...Take what from here?" Ann asked the empty space he'd left behind.

"Hmph," said Yusuke with a slight nod, then set the tankoubon back on the shelf. "Shall we walk?"

"Uhh..." she replied eloquently. "S-... sure?"

She and Yusuke didn't often spend time with just the two of them (it wasn't that she disliked his company so much as she just had no idea what to do with it; Akira and Makoto were both way better at playing minder than she was, and the others just jived better with him, somehow), and while she was pretty sure that was down to mutual semi-avoidance, today was different.

"So, what do you think of our esteemed leader?"

Today, he had a Mission.

"Uh, he's pretty— pretty cool, I guess?" she offered, thoroughly lost. 'Cool' was an understatement, really, but 'I'd break every rule in the book for him in a heartbeat if I had to' didn't fit the conversational tone.

"Indeed," Yusuke agreed solemnly, like he was a lecturing professor and she'd answered a question in class correctly. "His aesthetics are truly visionary. Were I to liken them to anything, it would be mercury. Liquid, beautiful, weighty, yet dangerous. Vital in maintaining the health of a populace, yet so mysterious... so easily misunderstood."

"Um," said Ann.

"And he does come across as rather royal at times as well, doesn't he. Careful with command, even when so much pressure rests on his broad shoulders. It... must be a strain on him."

...How did she even respond to this?

"Which is why he needs us," Yusuke went on nobly, firmly, and with conviction. "We are the knights to his table, the pillars of his strength...! It would befit us to study his bearing, to emulate and support him as members of the team once called the Phantom Thieves."

"R-right."

He kept going, but that was the point at which Ann lost him. Something about getting tokens and fighting for something bigger and Shakespeare...?

"Indeed, it is 'a love at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and disciplined, humiliating and exalting, human and transcendent,' as a wise man once said," Ann's ears caught about ten minutes in as she fixed her new clip back in her hair—she really needed to use pins and hair spray to get this thing to stick next time. "And if Juliet and Rosaline were to become one, Benvolio would have no choice but to support his cousin's love even moreso than before, especially if he were to defend her with desserts imbued with the very fires of hell itself—ah. It seems that I have lost you."

"Ahahaha... a little bit." She hitched up a smile and hoped it looked convincing. Things between her ears were spinning too hard to tell. Was... was Yusuke talking about the chili crepes too? "Think you could summarize it for me?"

Yusuke considered this. And considered it. Aaaand considered it.

In the meantime, his long strides passed by no less than three different stores Ann had wanted to go into.

She'd just spotted Mishima across from them at a walkway junction when Yusuke said, "I simply think that it would behoove you to consider Akira's many strengths, both told and untold. His character is upstanding, and his base physical attributes... ah. That would be rather inappropriate to say, wouldn't it. You are not a fan of nudeness."

He means dick, Ann's brain helpfully suggested, like autocorrect gone wrong.

"Hey, guys!" Mishima said cheerfully as he jogged up to them. "What are you up to? ...Takamaki-san, are you okay?"

"Uh, y-yeah!" she stammered, furiously trying to shove the thought down and only partially succeeding. The clip in her hair was slipping down again. "W-we were just talking about... uh..." She pressed her fingertips to her forehead, trying to dig something, anything out of the foggy whirlpool. "What were we talking about...?"

(Akira's dick, her brain suggested again, and she tossed it right back out into the ether.)

Mishima gingerly patted her shoulder and said to Yusuke, "Hey, why don't you leave Takamaki-san to me? I think I heard Niijima-senpai calling you. She, uh, wanted you to know there were food samples down that way."

That got Yusuke's attention. "Truly?"

"I know I saw sandwich and fruit samples out there, at least," Mishima offered.

"I see..." Yusuke chuckled. "I should go inspect the offerings."

And that was where they parted, leaving her and Mishima to stand at the junction in silence.

"...So," Mishima said eventually, shooting her an awkward smile. "We've been here a while. Any stores you still wanted to check out?"

"Oh!" Ann beat back the cobwebs and pointed the way she and Yusuke had come. "Uh, yeah. Back there!"

"Cool." He nodded like this was an entirely reasonable thing to say (it was, wasn't it), and turned in that direction. "Let's go."


She was three shopping bags into her spree and comparing two leather purses in the mirror of the boutique when Mishima spoke.

"So... what were you and Yusuke talking about?"

Ann frowned at the bags (she could only really justify buying one with price tags like these, but uuuugh they were both so cute) before considering the question.

"Um..." She tentatively poked at the brass clasps of the brown bag and said, "Something about getting Akira's handkerchief and taking it into 'battle' with me...? Maybe he meant modeling? And... the virtues of... 'courtly love'? Oh, and Shakespeare. I think... I think he said he ships Juliet and Rosaline... or something." She wasn't sure how else to interpret 'if Juliet and Rosaline were to become one' besides that, unless he meant that they should have a threesome with Romeo? Wasn't Romeo Benvolio's cousin? And where did Benvolio come into all this, anyway?

There was a reason why she and Yusuke didn't talk much one-on-one.

(She was still trying to suppress the dick comment to the very recesses of her mind—that she didn't actually know was a dick comment, but the thought just wouldn't go away. Why would Yusuke want her to think about Akira's dick? What was Yusuke doing, thinking about Akira's dick?

Well, sure, he'd probably seen it more than Ann had, but still.

...Was it that noteworthy?

Gah. She didn't even know if Yusuke was talking about Akira's dick in the first place. Stop!)

Desperately resisting the urge to bang (bad phrasing bad phrasing bad phrasing) her head against the wall, she added, "I never pegged him—" Shut up, brain, shut up shut up shut up. "—for a yuri fan."

"Neither did I, to be honest," said Mishima, sounding puzzled. "Well, not more of a fan of it than other forms of 'high passion.'"

"Right?" Ann decided that the white purse would go with more of her outfits than the brown one, and reluctantly placed the rejected purse back on the shelf. "If anything, yuri seems more like Akira's thing."

What she'd just said only hit her after it had left her mouth, and she froze with her hand still on the leather.

"Man, you know him pretty well, don't you, Takamaki-sa—" Mishima said, then shut his mouth so fast his teeth clicked.

Awkward silence fell so thick she could probably hit it with the bag she was about to buy.

Mishima was the first to speak. "I—... F-forget I said anything. I said nothing. Nothing at all."

"Right," she agreed fervently. She really didn't need to think about the fact that Ryuji and Mishima were probably the types to raid their guy friends' porn collections. She really didn't.

What was with them all today?

"So, uh, that aside... what do you think of Kurusu, Takamaki-san?"

"He's one of my best friends," she said, gratefully fixing her attention on the topic. Somehow, things were easier to say to someone who seemed to understand what she was saying.

"Friends, huh..."

She let go of the bag, but didn't turn around. "During that whole thing with Kamoshida... I think he was the first person to ask me what was wrong." She took a steadying breath. "I don't think I even really knew what was wrong before I had to say it. I really don't want to think about what would have happened if he wasn't there." With that said, she could face Mishima with a smile. "He's been there for me ever since, too. At this point, I don't think there's much I wouldn't do for him if he asked."

Mishima was giving her an odd look—somewhere between pleased and chagrined. "That's pretty heavy, Takamaki-san." Then, before she could apologize, he looked away and wryly added, "Well, not that I don't get it, I guess."

She was pretty sure that the only one here who wasn't in that camp was Shiho, and that that was only because Shiho barely knew him. "Right?"

"That wasn't... exactly what I meant, though." He obligingly held the bags she handed him as she made her way over to the cash register.

"Hm?"

"Like..." Mishima trailed off like he was trying to figure out how to phrase something. "If he's cool... or if he's hot..."

"Both!" she admitted. "Though I guess that's kind of embarrassing to say." The cashier smiled politely as she handed over her credit card. "Mostly I just feel like I can let my guard down around him, y'know?"

"I think I'm starting to get what he meant now," he muttered under his breath.

"What?" she asked as the cashier handed her her credit card back.

"Nothing!" He accepted the next bag she gave him with a faintly alarmed smile. "Just... wondering if that was a compliment or not."

"Why wouldn't it be?" she wondered. He was safe in ways she couldn't say for anyone else (safe like a hug after midnight, safe like an oasis in a desert, safe like an anchor in a storm), because there was something about having someone prove to you six ways to Sunday just how far they would go for you that built that kind of trust.

"Well... I-I guess." Her bags rustled as he rubbed the back of his head. "But come on, he's got the whole mysterious badass thing going on, doesn't he?"

Ann giggled. "He kinda does, huh. It's always so weird when he turns that on. It's like he's trying so hard to be cool and it works, right? How many people can do that?" She spotted the next store she wanted to hit up across the way and beckoned Mishima to follow her. "You gotta admit, that gap is pretty hot."

He was giving her another odd look. "...Gap?"

"You know, between the whole—" She mimed pushing glasses up her nose and put on that half-smirk Akira wore when he made her laugh out loud, or pulled off some cool pencil trick, or beat one of those killer retro video games. "—preening dork thing, or like when he gets offended but can't just say he's offended so he gets super petty and passive-aggressive instead? Or like how he's just so graceful until he tries to text and walk at the same time and then you have to make sure he doesn't run into anything and then he trips anyway. That's pretty cute, isn't it?"

"Uh," said Mishima.

"Or like that he hates being bad at stuff and works his butt off until it looks effortless," Ann continued as they walked through the open doors and into the clothing isles. She really wanted a new sundress, too—Harajuku hadn't had anything she liked in stock before she left. "I know that doesn't sound as cute, but he always kinda frowns like this when he's concentrating, you know? It's adorable!"

"...We are talking about Akira Kurusu, right? Just checking."

"Is there another one?" she asked, glancing over her shoulder.

Mishima's expression had evolved from 'odd' to 'downright strange.' "No, well, it just kinda... sounds like you're talking about a big cuddly housecat or something."

Ann was reminded of those times she and Akira hung out at the diner together after a long week, the way he'd eventually fold onto the table and close his eyes with that contented little half smile, his probing questions and succinct answers letting her know he was still there with her, even when for all appearances he was dozing. Imagining a pair of pointy ears nestled in his hair and a quiet purr rumbling under his words really did complete that image, didn't it?

Plus the way he expressed affection was pretty catlike too. Gifts, distant but steady companionship, occasional hugs, a listening ear and not-always-evident keen attention...

She stared sightlessly at the teal minidress she'd just pulled off the rack and laid over her arm. "...That's kinda fitting, now that you mention it."

"Fitting..." Mishima repeated slowly, then chuckled humorlessly. "Guess it kinda is."

"Huh? Something wrong?" She paused in the middle of pulling off the next one—a coral dress with a fluted skirt.

"Nothing!" Mishima wasn't too great at forcing smiles, as far as it went. "Just thinking about what the new dog in a household feels like."

...Okay then.

"Do you wanna talk about it?" she offered tentatively.

He just drooped further. "Thanks, but I'll pass."

"O-okay," she said, and scooped up her third dress—a cream lace one. "Let me know if you change your mind!"

He waved her off, and she went to try on her finds in the changing room.


She'd decided on the lace one to wear over her green chemise, a white backless halterneck one to wear over her swimsuit, and a simple white-and-red one for casual wear when Mishima, now recovered, said, "Come on, Takamaki-san. I know you're a model, but you have to have some opinion on his looks, right?"

She stowed her wallet in her bag, taking a moment to rummage around for her comb—her clip was still trying to pull free. "What, like, a professional opinion?"

"No! A personal one!" He looked a little frazzled. "I mean, most of the girls seem to agree he's pretty hot. You said it too, didn't you?"

"Huh? Well, yeah..." She'd definitely been looking forward to the beach for more than just sun and sand. None of the boys were exactly hard on the eyes, whatever their personalities were like, but, well. There was a reason that there'd been a team effort to get Akira in particular to strip. "You've seen him without a shirt too, right?"

(She wondered if Mishima had ever gotten to appreciate a sleepy Akira in house clothes trying to focus on homework, chin on palm and fingertips fiddling with the arm of his glasses. That was even better than shirtless, just much harder to catch.)

Mishima, for his part, looked doleful. "Yep. He still won't tell me what his secret is. What's a guy gotta do for abs like that?"

"He won't tell me either," she sighed, twisting her hair back up into the clip for the umpteenth time. "I could totally kill the modeling competition if I had tone like that."

"And that face, man. He looks like he was carved out of marble or something."

Can't argue that, she thought, giggling. "And his hair! I can never decide if I want to comb it or pet it."

Mishima nodded sagely, eyes distant and bright as he said, "And that cold, aloof stare... like he's just so cool. Kinda makes you feel like he knows he has you on a leash and he's trying to decide what to do with you, y'know?"

...Okay, she didn't know about that one.

"Mishima-kun." She smiled, bemused. "Do you happen to be a masochist?"

He froze, then turned red and hung his head. "...Forget I said that. Please."

"Okay," she agreed—that was much more than she'd wanted to know anyway. Still, she couldn't manage to stop herself from adding, "But, um... I'm really sorry, but I... I don't think he likes men."

(Most guys she'd seen him interact with seemed to earn casual interest or, at most, loyalty and/or mother-henning where Haru or Makoto could command his full and entire devout attention with just a smile or question—a fact that he'd never really attempted to hide.

...He was kind of a terrible flirt, wasn't he.

Well. She wasn't that kind of girl, but it was pretty fun, she had to admit.)

Mishima's mortification was taking on a brutal kind of defeat, and she regretted opening her mouth. "Well, it's not like I didn't know that already."

Ann gingerly patted his shoulder. He looked like a kicked puppy. (...Did he have a thing for feeling like a kicked puppy?)

"U-um, there are lots more fish in the sea!" she tacked on, because whether or not he liked feeling like a kicked puppy, kicking puppies made her feel like a monster. "I'm sure you'll find some great guy one day! One who... likes men. I-I'll help you look!"

Not that men who liked men were the ones who tended to talk to her, but she could try!

He waved her off. "Nah, don't worry. I'm fine."

That morbid chuckle didn't sound very 'fine'. "Um."

"It's only him," he confessed, drooping, and she patted his shoulder again. "I'm almost over it." Then, pathetically, he added, "Can we move on now?"

"O-okay."

"Look, what I was getting at is that he's a good guy—" This was 'moving on'? That was what he was getting at? "—and a hot one to boot. Just... putting that out there. Great boyfriend material."

She wasn't entirely sure how to take that from Mr. 'kinda makes you feel like he knows he's got you on a leash', so she settled for a smile and a, "I'll keep that in mind."

Unwilling to be brushed off, he insisted, "It's true! And he's a great cook, too! Even those chili crepes he made were good except for the chili—" Mishima too? What had they all said? "—and he totally works out! Those muscles aren't just for show. And he's really smart too! Did you know he was at the top of our year last year? Dude's practically has it made."

(Actually, he had it made because his parents were workaholics who came from a wealthy family that, against all reason, hadn't cut them off for his criminal record and had a place for him all lined up if he wanted to go into tech development or sales, but Ann guessed Mishima hadn't coaxed that out of him, at least not yet.)

"And you've seen him, haven't you? Of course you have." Mishima was on a roll now. "Plus, you should see his di—"

And stopped dead.

That's three for three, Ann couldn't help but think faintly as she stared at him.

Slowly, his eyes found hers.

She wasn't sure she'd ever seen anyone blanch white and flush scarlet so fast.

"D-diagrams," he croaked. "He's been making diagrams. With guts and organs and... stuff. They— they're pretty cool."

That was seriously not what he'd been about to say.

...There was no way she could ask him to finish his previous sentence. There was no way she could ask, and yet...!

Gnah, why had she told Ryuji to shut up? He would have been willing to tell her if she'd just stayed quiet!

"Oh," she managed. "Cool."

"Yeah, cool," Mishima agreed, his voice still cracking.

Silence.

He broke the stare-off first.

"You know what? I'm just. I'm just gonna... go. That way. I think I hear Niijima-senpai calling me."

Makoto sure had some funny timing, huh.

"Sure," she said, and accepted the bags he'd been carrying for her. Looked like this called an end to her spree—there was no way she could take all these into any more stores.

Watching him walk away, Ann wondered briefly if she should make sure he didn't try to drown himself in a public toilet or something on the way there, but then her stomach growled. Time for food.

Or cake! Hopefully cake.


There was no cake, because before she found a nice cake shop, there was a pensive Akira sitting outside a soba restaurant instead, and she knew what she'd choose any day.

She slipped inside to place her order first, then went in search of the man of the hour.

"Hey!" she called out, and he looked up. She set her hand on the back of the empty chair opposite him. "This seat free?"

He didn't answer immediately, just stared at her, his eyes wide behind the thick frames of his glasses, and she slid into the seat anyway with a sigh of relief.

"Ah, yeah," he murmured belatedly, his eyes falling to his food.

"Ma-a-an, I've been walking for ages," she groaned, stretching, lower back and butt thanking her almost as gratuitously for the break as her feet were. "This mall is way bigger than I thought it would be. Did you know they have a branch of that Pocket Devils store here?"

"I saw it," he said, amused, as he picked up his chopsticks. "So did Futaba."

Ann imagined what Futaba must have looked like at that discovery and snickered. "We're never getting her back now, huh."

The lines of his face went soft, an almost-smile tugging at the corner of his mouth as he studied the bowl.

He was a little quieter than normal as she launched off into telling him all about the cool things and cute shoes she'd seen—which then spun off into a tale about the time she'd gone to Ottawa for one of her parents' fashion shows and met a real live moose, which trailed off into reminiscing about a cartoon that she'd loved as a kid—but she didn't think too much of it. He was usually pretty quiet when they hung out in new spaces, especially when they were hectic.

The conversation (near monologue) came to a halt when the waitress arrived with her food, because then both her mouth and vocal chords were fully occupied in enjoying the meal, Akira gazing at his half-eaten meal and twirling both his chopsticks between the fingers of his right hand with master skill.

Once she'd eaten her full, she pushed her chair back from the table and stretched luxuriously.

Swish-swish-tap-tap went the chopsticks, and she watched them, hypnotized, for a few seconds before it occurred to her that he'd only really looked at her once today.

...Huh.

"Hey, is everything okay?"

"Hm?" he said, still staring blankly at his soba bowl.

Tap-tap-tap-swish-tap.

"I mean, you haven't looked this way, like, at all today." She pensively tugged at a lock of hair that had slipped free of the clip again. "Does my hair look weird like this or something?"

That... would totally suck.

He was startled into glancing up, but his eyes only flicked to her face for a brief second before they fixed on something behind her, his face unreadable. "No! It... it looks good."

"That would be more convincing if you were actually looking at me while you said it," she informed him, and his shoulders shifted in a silent snort.

Taptapswish-t-t-tap-swishswish-tappity-taptap.

She dropped the subject with a sigh and dropped her own chopsticks into her bowl while she was at it. In the privacy of her own mind, she had to give the point to Ryuji: Akira really could be opaque when he wanted to be.

Speaking of perplexing people, "By the way, do you know what's up with the guys? They were acting super weird today." And yesterday, come to think of it. "They couldn't stop talking about you—" or your dick "—for some reason."

The chopsticks stopped spinning.

"...Not a clue," he said mildly. His pleasant tone made it very clear that he did know what was up with them, and also that he was pretty pissed about it.

"Oh, okay," said Ann.

He wasn't in the mood to be questioned and it wasn't her business anyway.

There fell a lull in their conversation, which gave Ann's brain hamsters far too much room to whiz around in.

And whiz they did, because now she was back on the topic of why had they all been singing his praises and why those praises?

...What was in his pants wasn't her business either, but she found she was suddenly having trouble coming up with other topics of conversation now that she was here and she was realizing that... it... was less than a meter away, belonging to a beautiful boy who, despite his current caginess, was still one of her dearest and most trusted friends.

(All three of them! And, sure, she could probably brush Ryuji off as him just being Ryuji, and she wasn't even fully sure that that's what Yusuke had even meant in the first place, and maybe Mishima had an excuse for thinking about certain part of Akira's anatomy, but what were the chances that all three of them would mention the same thing? And that thing, no less?)

Gnyah...

Couldn't just one of them finished the sentence?

She wasn't a creep and she wasn't a shameless teenage boy (unlike recent company), so she did her royal best not to stare a hole in the patch of table that was guarding his lap from her sight.

And she succeeded! Mostly.

God, something else to think about, anything else to think about, something that had nothing to do with the size of maybe-possibly-who-knew-really impressive packages attached to certain attractive friends of hers—

"Do you like yuri?" she blurted.

He looked up and stared at her (finally), lips parting in silent question.

...Well.

It was a topic that had nothing to do with dicks.

"Sorry, what?" he rasped.

"Just asking! Yusuke said something to make me wonder, so..."

Was the question awkward? Yes. Was it less awkward than straight-up asking him to strip for her so she could get a look at his privates? Also yes.

"I... yes?" he said—flustered enough that he didn't say anything like, 'Yuri is my life,' or, 'No, I feel left out,' instead, which meant that he was pretty flustered.

"Oh! Good to know." She couldn't think of a single instance in which it would be useful to know that Akira liked yuri. "I think Yusuke ships Rosaline and Juliet from Romeo and Juliet, and I didn't really think he was the type! But Mishima said you were and I was curious, y'know?"

Akira looked borderline bewildered, his chopsticks now held midair, mouth slightly open like he didn't know what to do with it.

Speaking of, "And have you really been drawing diagrams?"

(She knew that wasn't what Mishima had been talking about, knew knew knew, but she had to make sure.)

He looked at her like she was growing a second head. "...No, no diagrams."

She knew it.

Which meant that Mishma had been, without a doubt, talking about Akira's manhood.

Ann had never considered herself to be an especially curious person, but now... now...

She didn't thump her head on the table, but that was a struggle.

Instead, she said, "Oh, that's too bad," because it was conversational filler and it wasn't his diagrams Mishima thought she should see, and what was she supposed to do with that information, anyway!?

She was still firmly not staring a hole in the table.

He ducked down to take a bite of his now-soggy noodles, securing a few with a deft twist of his fingers while the lights of the food court played across his features, all long eyelashes and dark curls and pale skin.

She could definitely see where Mishima was coming from in this respect.

Speaking of... "Also, are you interested in men? You know, like... romantically?"

(She really hoped she hadn't crushed Mishima's spirits for nothing.)

He choked on the bite.

He hack-coughed for a couple of seconds, thumping his chest and swallowing with difficulty before he looked at her again, tears in the corners of his eyes and what the hell? written across every line of his face.

"...No?"

"I thought so," she said with a little sigh. There was a weird blend of relief and apology and guilt clouding her chest, but she pushed it away. Mishima would find someone great. He would! "Just making sure."

"Right," he acknowledged on a croak. The degree of his bafflement was almost comical and prooooobably deserved, all things considered. "Anything else?

Have you ever measured your— "Did you really put chili in a batch of crepes?"

There wasn't a tick forming under his eye, but it looked like there would be if he were anyone else. "...No comment."

"Well, okay," she said, tilting her head and feeling her clip start to slip loose again. Dang it. "I wanna try 'em sometime!" She patted down the back of her head. Yep, it was barely hanging on. "But... hold the chili on mine, okay?"

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see his expression go warm and resigned, fingers flicking as he started spinning the chopsticks again. "Mm-hm."

Desserts—her saving grace. She wondered what he put in his; strawberries and chocolate? Bananas and chocolate? Chocolate and cream? Chocolate and caramel? There were so many options! Maybe there'd even be chocolate chips... She definitely had to ask.

She also had to concede that this clip just wasn't going to work until she had a mirror and a bunch of hairpins, so she pulled it out with a sigh.

Crack!

She stopped in the middle of shaking her hair out.

That wasn't her and wasn't anything around their table, and Akira had zoned out, unfocused gaze aimed at her hair.

...That was an odd expression.

"Everything okay?"

He blinked slowly, then looked away—down at his chopsticks. They'd both snapped clean in half. "Ah, yeah," he said roughly. "My hand slipped."

Impressive grip strength in some very nice hands, she couldn't help but think, but aloud all she said was, "Oh, that's too bad. Here, you wanna use mine? I'm done."

He accepted the chopsticks and went back to staring at his bowl while she fluffed her hair. Maybe a braid this time?

She was halfway down the braid when she realized she didn't have any holders to secure it with, and decided to twist the whole thing into a bun instead. Hopefully that would keep it secure enough to hold for a while.

(Secure like elegant fingers set around a lid, tendons popping and biceps flexing as they gave it a twist...)

"That's some impressive grip strength though," slipped out while she worked. "Ryuji said you're pretty good with jars—could I ask you to help me out with mine sometimes?" And can I watch?

"...Sure," he said, then cleared his throat and said, stronger, "Any... time?"

She finished off her braid and pulled out her compact so she could fix her bangs into something just a little more aesthetically pleasing than the state they were in now. "You're a lifesaver. I haven't been able to get my caramel jar open for like two weeks—though I guess I didn't bring it, huh." Bangs wrangled, she put her compact away with a thoughtful moue. "I wonder if I could mail it to you when we get home... wait. That wouldn't work, huh. You can't mail back an open jar, after all!"

"That would be pretty messy," he agreed, sounding mystified. He was looking at her almost normally now, though.

"Yeah..." she sighed, dropping forward to rest her arms on the table. "Man, now I'm craving caramel. It's been so long..."

Not since before the flight here, when she'd had it drizzled over the top of her favorite banana split. Her mouth watered harder the more she thought about it.

"They had a Tsarbucks down that way," he offered, tilting his head down the one path she hadn't taken yet. "There are always mochas."

Mochas. Sweet-bitter-chocolatey-frothy-creamy goodness...!

In that second, Ann's mind, body, and soul were in absolute agreement.

"I'm gonna go get one," she decided immediately, shoving her char back and standing up in one swift, efficient movement. "With all the caramel shots they'll give me. You wanna come with?"

He blinked, glanced up at her and said, "...You go on ahead."

"Then watch my bags for me," she said as she stretched out her spine and legs, bouncing from foot to foot to get the blood flowing again. "I'll be right back."

"Take your time," he said in an undertone, gaze falling back to his broken chopsticks as he adjusted his glasses. "I think I'm... gonna be here a while."

(Distraction and all, her eyes still darted to his lap as she passed.

It was protected by his thigh now—his foot braced on the rung of his chair and effectively disguising anything and everything to do with... it.

And maybe that was for the best.)


The mocha, however, was amazing.


At the end of the day, Futaba was successfully extracted from the Pocket Devils shop, Akira helped Ann carry the few extra purchases she couldn't resist making back to the limo, Mishima had not drowned himself in a toilet, Makoto (now accompanied by the boys) had the expression of a frazzled mother of three, Morgana had been rescued from the pet store (and so had Haru, though not without several tears and a gaggle of puppies that would be passed off to the staff's families at the next opportunity), and Shiho had a nice new knee brace and a good quality volleyball.

Dinner was a quiet but satisfied affair, and no one suggested more socializing before they all trooped off to their beds.

Which now found Ann lying facedown on hers, once again with far too much time to think about everything she'd been told today—especially not certain things that she'd been told three times in a row about—while Shiho practiced her knitting.

Clickity-click-click-click—her poor half-eaten caramel jar. (How hard Akira would have to work to open it...? Mmm...)

Clickity-clackity-clackclick—did those glasses really make him smarter? Was it just, like, a smart kid thing to have glasses?

Clack-click-clack-click—what kinds of guys did Mishma like, anyway? He'd said it was 'only Akira', but was it really that simple? She didn't want him to be alone forever! No one deserved that!

Clickclick-clackity-click—she should have gotten that teal one-piece. She'd forgotten that she'd brought the perfect shoes to go with it.

Clack-clack-click-clack—learning that Akira was maybe capable of fulfilling her lifelong dream of being carried like a princess sure was something, huh.

And... you know. The 'main event', so to speak.

"Hey, Shiho?" she mumbled into her pillow, heating the fabric against her nose-lips-chin. Her cheeks and ears were already burning hot enough without.  "Do you ever wonder about how big Akira's, you know... thing... is...?"

The click-clacking stopped.

"Ann, I love you very much, and there are many extra miles I am willing to go for you, but this... is not one of them."

That wasn't the response she'd expected. "Huh?"

"You talking about things usually ends with me asking about things," Shiho explained, somewhere between patient and long-suffering as she started click-clicking again, "and I refuse to ask a boy I barely know about his inseam. I'm not a pervert and I don't intend to become one."

Okay, so Shiho's lack of filter tended to take over where Ann's courage failed, but that totally wasn't why she'd said it! She just really needed to say it and hadn't been able to say it to anyone else! Although, when Shiho put it that way... "Does that mean you'd ask if it was Ryuji or Mishima-kun?"

The clack-clicking stopped again.

"I'm going to sleep," Shiho announced after a long pause, which said it all, really. She didn't even finish her row before stabbing both pointy ends of her knitting needles into her yarn ball and dropping it on top of her open duffel bag. That done, she flopped over sideways and wriggled a nest out of the blankets, firmly keeping her back to Ann's side of the room.

Ann slithered off her own bed and walked on her knees over to Shiho's side, resting her arms on the edge of the bed and sitting on her heels. Shiho's silent treatment could get brutal if allowed to go unchecked. "Aw c'mon, Shiho. Don't be mad... I didn't mean it like that, promise!"

Shiho didn't roll over, not even to show Ann that she was judging her hardcore. "Go away, Ann."

Ann reached out and prodded the lowest dip of Shiho's stocky torso, whispering, "Poke poke," as she did so.

Shiho twitched, but otherwise didn't respond.

Ann pouted, then sighed. "I'm sorry I indirectly asked you to ask my friend about his..." She scrambled for a word that wouldn't actively kill her dead to utter aloud. "...package. I didn't mean to do that. You're not a pervert and I don't want you to become one either."

Shiho considered this for a moment. "...I have nothing to say to a girl who can't even say the word."

Urk.

Ann chewed through her vocabulary for another word that wouldn't kill her dead. And chewed. And chewed.

Finally, she ended up with, "...D-ding-dong...?"

"Bzzt."

Nngh...

"...Hot dog."

"Try again."

"Banana."

"You're getting colder, you know."

Ann narrowed her eyes at Shiho's unforgiving back, face burning. "You're a total sadist, you know that?"

"Hmm..." Shiho hummed, a smile in her voice.

Not about to take this lying down, Ann got up on the bed and poked Shiho's side again.

Shiho rolled onto her stomach—an amateur move that left both of her sides undefended, silly girl.

Ann seized the opportunity with glee.

The ticklefight was gloriously onesided until Shiho, wheezing laughter so hard she'd started to tear up, grabbed up her pillow and started swatting Ann back with it, effectively turning the tide.

It was fun until Ann realized she'd gotten too close to the edge of the queen-sized bed by falling over the edge.

She caught a glimpse of Shiho's eyes going wide, felt her body getting jerked back by her shirt, heard a squeak that could have come from either one of them, and then they both went down in a tangle of limbs.

"Oww..."

One elbow, both knees, her forehead, and her nose were all smarting in pain, though Shiho (who was now making faces at the ceiling) had cushioned most of the fall, her hand still gripping Ann's pajama shirt and twisting it at an odd angle.

The door to their room shoved open.

Ann looked up to find a worried Akira, who'd removed his glasses and now held a glass of water in one hand.

"Is anybody hu-..."

He trailed off and stopped there as he took in the scene, then said, "Sorry," and shut the door again.

Silence.

In this silence, it occurred to Ann that Shiho's iron grip on the back of her shirt might be interpreted as her trying to remove it, if one didn't have any context, and that the mixture of preceding factors had left them both flushed and out of breath.

(If anything, yuri seems more like Akira's thing.

Man, you know him pretty well, don't you, Takamaki-sa—)

Ann maybe-kinda-sorta wanted to die.

"Well," said Shiho. "That was weird."

Ignorance truly was bliss.

Ann levered herself off her best friend and rolled over, making her way over to her own bed while her head was still spinning from the fall.

"...I'm just... gonna go to sleep."

"Ohhh-kay? Sleep well, I guess."


Ann, in fact, did not sleep well, haunted by the knowledge that there were certain circumstances under which certain parts of certain people's anatomies tended to, er... grow.

Chapter Text

The plan for the next day was to spend it playing on the beach and then building a bonfire, but the strike of a summer storm put an end to that thought by 8 A.M..

Ann listened to the rain as she got ready; sleeping in was even nicer than the cute heeled sandals she'd uncovered yesterday.

It was too cold to wear any of her new dresses alone, but a pair of bike shorts could keep her thighs warm under the white-and-red sundress, and her letterman jacket wouldn't clash with it much. She also now had her hairpins and hairspray on hand—not to mention her combs, gel, and curling iron—so she tried out her new clip again, and got much better results. Flower stud earrings and a maraschino cherry-red lipstick layered with a softer coral shade and coated with a light gloss almost completed the look, and then she decided that her eyelashes could really use touching up, you know?

"Okay," Shiho said when she came back from her shower to find Ann still getting ready, "now you're just stalling."

It was true. Ann put down the brand new case of Sephiro eyeshadow, shamefaced. She didn't even wear eyeshadow.

"What are you worried about?" Shiho wondered as she cleared a space on the double vanity and reached for the hairdryer. "The worst you could do is get him to drop his pants and then tell him it's small."

Ann choked. "Shiho!"

"Compared to that, there's really not much that could go wrong," she insisted, heedless of her fire engine red companion. "Just don't do that. Act normal and everything will be fine."

Ann dropped to a crouch behind the vanity so she wouldn't have to look at either of their faces. "Shiho... you're the worst."

"Too far, huh." Shiho sounded vaguely apologetic. "I'm just trying to say that you're worrying for nothing. If your friendship is as strong as it looks, this won't even be a blip."

It won't be just 'a blip' if I die from humiliation! But instead of saying that, what came out of Ann's mouth was a shy echo of, "'Strong as it looks'?" as she peeked over the vanity.

Shiho flicked on the hairdryer and said over the loud whine, "I don't know. You always look really happy when you talk about him. He's really hard to read, but I think the feeling's mutual."

...Oh.

Well.

Maybe she could get up the courage to face him after all.


She didn't completely want to turn tail and flee when she met him in the dining room, so maybe Shiho was onto something—which was good, because Akira didn't give her the chance. He claimed the seat next to hers as soon as she sat down.

She looked up at his face just like she should, and not down at his junk. "Hm? What's up?"

"Summer homework," he said, only just passably casual. "Have you started on yours yet?"

"Um, no," she answered slowly. That was definitely not what she'd expected him to open with. "It hasn't even been a week yet."

"Neither have I," he said, like that was something to be worried about. His eyes flicked to where Ryuji, Yusuke, and Mishima were huddled together, expressions of fierce concentration on all their faces. "We should work on that this afternoon."

"We... should?"

At the edge of her vision, she saw the three boys nodded to each other in sync.

"We should," Akira said firmly. "Let's get started after breakfast."

The fact that summer homework could be worked on before the last three days of summer was a brand new concept to Ann, but Akira looked unnaturally tense and eight months of hardwired fight-or-flight on this man's judgement had her saying, "Sure," without further thought.

He released an uncharacteristically deep sigh of relief and started serving himself, and after a moment or two of fruitless study, Ann followed suit.


"So... what are we really doing?" she asked as they walked through the halls of the mansion. Man this place was huge.

"Homework," he replied, still pseudo-casual.

It so wasn't homework.

"I could help if you let me in on it," she pointed out. It was just the two of them because he'd immediately shot down the idea of working with anyone else, which only cemented the fact that this had nothing to do with homework. Not even Morgana had tagged along.

He shot her a faintly startled glance, then conceded, "...We will just be doing homework."

And that was as much as she was getting out of him. "Well, okay, I guess."

Granted, after they picked up their study materials (man, she hadn't thought she'd see these again for another few weeks), Akira chose one of the most out of the way parlors to set up shop in, and they, well, studied.

She had to admit, this was way easier to do when she still kinda remembered what they'd done in class. Lost as she was on everything else, math equations didn't completely stump her and she could still remember how to write most of this year's kanji without looking them up—and even when she got completely stumped, Akira was there to help her figure it out. She felt kinda bad for how little she could help him in return, but English was his worst subject so at least she could help some, even if it was like a fifth as much as he helped her.

It wasn't a perfect distraction from what was in Akira's pants, but it was a pretty good one nonetheless.

Then Ryuji came looking for them.

"Ann...? Ann—! Oi! The hell'd you go, man?"

Akira looked up, expression sharpening like it did when he sensed a Shadow, and Ann's pen stopped moving, automatically shifting in her grip until it would be much easier to stab with.

(Not that she wanted to stab Ryuji, but Ryuji being loud and Akira being tense meant that there were things to whip when you had a whip and stab when you had a pencil.)

Akira didn't give her the chance to stab. When it became obvious that Ryuji wasn't going to pass their hallway up, he lurched around the coffee table, grabbed her by the wrist, and bodily hauled her off the couch she'd been sitting on like she was a ragdoll.

The world went sideways, and Ann found herself behind the arm of the couch, one of Akira's arms wrapped tight around her torso and the other hand clamped over her mouth, the heat of his chest searing into her upper back and his long legs slightly bent on either side of hers.

"Ann? Hey, Aaaaann—tch. She's not here either!"

"Seriously?" Mishima shouted back, a hallway or two away. "Come on, let's keep looking."

Which was all well and good, but Ann's head had stopped spinning just enough for her to realize that Akira's junk was mere centimeters from her butt and she had no way of knowing exactly how many centimeters and augh!

Distraction: failed.

...Even if this position was reminding her how much she loved his hugs, rare as they were. They were a little too much when she was overwrought (that moment on the school roof after Shiho left came to mind), but when she was emotionally stable, they cured her lonely despondency and insecurity like nothing else—and just felt good even when she was perfectly happy. No one in Ann's life had ever been particularly touchy, especially not in a casual affection kind of way, so Ann treasured everything she got, burning back and tingling belly and all.

He let out a silent sigh when Ryuji walked away, hot breath over her ear and neck sending jolts through her abdomen, and let his arms go slack. They ended up loosely circling her waist, his heart pounding adrenaline-quick against her shoulder blades.

It took Ann several long seconds to gather her wits up again, but eventually, she managed, "I'm p-pretty surprised he didn't notice the study materials."

"Hm..." said Akira, low and close and close and close and she felt it zap through her whole body—this was way different when neither of them were in their Metaverse outfits and there was only soft, thin cotton acting as barriers between them.

Well, soft, thin cotton and a layer or two of denim.

Gnah!

Heedless of her distress, he leaned forward and pulled her close (hahaha... ha...) in a much more deliberate way this time, enveloping her from behind in a gentle hug.

...This was much less comforting when all she could think about was the only section of his body that wasn't in contact with hers.

Thankfully it didn't last long, just an eternity a couple of seconds, and then he pushed her up and away, gesturing her towards the table as he rose. "We should change locations. He might remember and come back."

"O-okay...?" She complied, sliding back into her seat and gathering her papers. She had to ask: "Is there any particular reason you're keeping me away from Ryuji?"

His face darkened. "I wonder..."

Ohhh-kay then.

"But hey, thanks for helping me out with all this," she said as she shuffled her math homework into a neat stack. "I'd be so lost on all this if not for you. Guess there are a few advantages to getting an early start, huh."

He hummed again, shooting her a subtle, honest smile. "My pleasure."

"Your pleasure to... help me with math?" she checked dryly. There were butterflies in her stomach stemming from that smile, but she didn't really know what to do with that, so she ignored it.

"You're still trying your best, even when someone is making you study a month in advance. Your dedication is... inspiring."

There was a warmth and wealth of other meanings under that last word that turned it into something else entirely, and she ducked into settling her textbooks in her bag with a faint, "Oh." Her heart was now pounding even faster than his had been.

(Here he was calling her 'dedicated' while she'd just been trying not to think about his crotch. She was the worst.)

Then, in a much more familiar tone, he added, "Well, and I'd never pass up the chance to listen to you speak English, either."

The undertone of a purr was much more evident than it had been when he'd told Futaba she looked cute wearing his shirt, but the same purr nonetheless, because that was just who Akira was.

Why had she been worried he'd find out she was thinking about his dick, again? He'd probably just smirk and call her kinky or something.

She sighed out approximately twenty four hours' worth of sleepless anxiety and tension and said, "I'll... keep that in mind."

They finished up gathering up their things and then started searching through the mansion for a new study spot, eventually winding up outside her and Shiho's room by the logic that the other boys had probably triple-checked it and moved on already.

However, settling in brought back memories of the other big elephant in the room—namely, what he'd seen the last time he'd been in here.

"Um... about last night..."

Akira looked up from where he was taking out his history textbook again.

"I never did get the chance to say it wasn't what it looked like." She could feel her face and ears heating—again. "We were having a pillowfight and she was trying to keep me from falling off the bed. Obviously, it didn't work."

"I figured it was something like that," he said, like he hadn't even thought twice about it.

Ann had no idea how to feel about that. Being the only one feeling the tension was—

"Right," she muttered on a sigh, and took out her own history textbook.

She felt his eyes on her for a second or two, and then he looked down and said, "Well, not that it's not a relief."

"Huh?"

So deadpan he actually sounded serious, he said, "Shiho would be tough competition."

A giggle startled out of Ann; why hadn't she expected that response? "She is pretty one-of-a-kind, huh."

He opened his mouth, paused, considered, then said, "That too."

"Hm?"

"Nothing."

"Well... even if I did swing that way, I'm not sure I'd wanna date Shiho," she mused, staring up at the ceiling in thought instead of down at her worksheets in study. "Like, I really appreciate that she doesn't hold back, but she can get pretty brutal, you know? I can take a lot, but I'm not sure I'm that much of a masochist."

"...Right."

"I mean, if I was dating a girl... maybe Makoto? She kinda reminds me of you, actually, just, like, you know. Sterner. And more studious. And she only owns two pairs of shoes." Ann looked down at her page, perturbed. "I don't know if anyone with only two pairs of shoes would want to date me. I have so many clothes—if we lived together, I'd totally dominate the closet! What if she couldn't find hers? We couldn't even share because we're totally different sizes!"

Akira blinked at his worksheet, then cleared his throat. "That would be bad."

"Right? And Futaba..." Ann frowned. "I mean, Futaba's pretty great, but..."

"Too much of a kid?" Akira guessed dryly.

"What?" Had he just completely forgotten that Futaba had tried to pull the boyfriend shirt trope in front of them all yesterday morning? "No, she's just..." Ann rubbed the back of her head in thought, pencil caught between her fingers. "We're just... too alike? I mean, we're not alike at all, but it's like we're on the same side of a magnet, you know? We'd make a great team, but like... a Liz and Patti from Spirit Eater team, not a Bonnie and Clyde team. It's Death the Kid that makes it really work."

He paused, then tilted his head in concession, eyes slightly glazed over.

"Haru..." She trailed off. "I dunno. I just don't think I could drink that much tea, y'know?"

He rasped a laugh that tripped into a minor coughing fit, and gratefully accepted the water bottle she fetched for him.

"Ah," he said once he'd started to catch his breath, staring at the pink-tinted stainless steel. "This is yours."

(His voice was absolutely delish when it was roughed up like that, a corner of Ann's brain pointed out needlessly.)

"Uh-huh! Cute, isn't it?"

He admired it, just as blank-faced as ever—not that there was much to admire. The only decorations it might have had were a few smudges of the lip gloss she'd made the mistake of wearing to the gym the last time she went.

"...Very—" He coughed again, but didn't drink, instead taking a glance at the sky outside, his cheeks also tinted pink (probably from the coughing fit). "—Very cute." Then, before she could reply, he tapped his worksheet with his pencil and asked, "Who negotiated the Satchou Alliance?"

"Oh! Uh... um..." It was such a drastic topic change that she floundered for a second before remembering, "Oh! That was Ryouma Sakamoto, right?"

"Correct," he said, pencil scratching the answer on his paper. "And the leaders of the Satchou Alliance were...?"

"Umm..." She had to think about that one too. "Takamori Saigou, Toshimichi Oukubo, and Kogorou Katsura."

"Very good."

And so their study session went on.


The hours passed unremarked, and by the time Ann pulled herself out of the stupor and looked around, the rain had cleared and the sun was halfway set. Their homework was mostly done, spare a couple of sheets they needed to do research for and an essay each, and Akira had just finished packing up his things when Shiho walked in.

Shiho smiled politely and Akira looked even blanker than normal, and they nodded to each other as they passed, Shiho holding the door open for him and then closing it behind him after he left.

Man, it was weird to see the two of them circling each other like cats.

Shiho waited a few moments after he left, listening at the door for his footsteps to fade, then released a sigh.

"I still can't read that guy at all," she murmured—and no wonder, seeing how completely they shut down around each other—then smiled at Ann. "But it looks like it went well?"

Ann stretched, her back cracking like five or six times in the process. "Uh-huh! You were right; I was all worried for nothing. And almost all of my homework's done now!"

"All's well that ends well, I guess," said Shiho, walking over to her back to pull out her knitting. "You really just did homework?"

She didn't have to sound that dubious. "Yep. Why? What were you expecting?"

"For you to stick your foot in your mouth a few times, at least." She shot Ann a wry look.

"I mean, even if I told him I was thinking about his... you know," Ann said, getting up and attempting to collapse back on her bed only for the clip she'd put in her hair to attack her with extreme prejudice. "Ow! —ow ow ow ow owww..." She tussled with it for a few seconds, then finally removed the offending accessory, ignoring hairpins and hairspray as she settled again. "Even if I told him what I was, you know, thinking about, he'd probably just laugh it off, you know? That's the kind of guy he is."

Shiho looked like she wanted to argue, then decided not to. "Well... you know him better than I do."

Ann hummed a sigh and studied the light fixture. Now that she was really taking stock of herself, there was an itch under her skin that wasn't leaving with the anxiety, a spring-coil in her gut that had loosened but refused to completely unwind. "That's settled, so why do I still feel so... tense?"

Shiho stopped counting her stitches to consider this. "I mean... I could give you some alone time if you need it."

Ann lifted her head off the bed to shoot Shiho a confused glance. Alone-what? Why would space help with this?

Shiho raised her eyebrows meaningfully.

It took Ann a few seconds to catch what that meaningfulness meant.

"Shiho!"

Chapter Text

The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and Ann was incredibly pleased with her new bikini top.

Her butt could fit into any old decently-sized bottom, but her chest... not so much. She couldn't get away with string-secured bikinis anymore unless she wanted to flop all over the place and inevitably lose something in the tide, but this one had a band that fit snug against her ribcage and thick straps to keep uncomfortable jiggling to a minimum, compressing her breasts nice and firm without asphyxiating her. It cradled and emphasized her curves like a really good bra—which was a minor (major) miracle, given that all it had was polyester swim knit and two thin foam cups to its name.

And it was in Panther's red, if not Panther's style. It was surprising just how much more at home she felt in her own skin when that skin was accented by vibrant scarlet, light peach made lighter by the contrast as the swells windowed through the criss-crossing decorative straps. No zippers or vinyl here, but that was fine. She didn't want to think about what saltwater would do to those—plus, those things were way less comfortable outside the Metaverse. There was a magic about being in a mindscape that made all their clothing fit as well as a second skin.

Even though its existence was limited to reality, this bikini top did too—and then some. The only place her boobs looked nicer was completely in the nude.

She was definitely commissioning this tailor again. Finding someone who knew how to treat a UK 28G was a treat.

She tried not to wonder too much about what everyone else would think about it, partially because they were going to the public stretch of beach (at Ryuji's insistence) and she wasn't looking forward to dodging the guys hitting on her, and partially because if she thought about 'everyone', then she'd think about Akira, and what his reaction to it would be.

And that way laid madness.

She'd mostly succeeded in kicking those thoughts to the curb by the time she finished changing and went to join the others by the entrance to the beach, and lo, Akira was too absorbed in figuring out the layout of the place with Haru to immediately notice her presence.

She really should have expected that.

"Nice top," Shiho greeted her dryly. In direct contrast to Ann's new look, she was dressed in a baby blue t-shirt that was dominated by a faded decal for a band Ann wasn't familiar with and a pair of swim trunks—an outfit that was about as boxy and unrevealing as she could make it. "Vague didn't give you any spaghetti strap ones?"

"No," Ann sheepishly admitted, then stretched, enjoying the press and squeeze of the fabric. "But those are only good for sunbathing at this point anyway."

Shiho flicked the side of her boob, ignoring her token protest, and Futaba inspected the assets in question, innocently wide eyes only adding to the 'middle school standard issue' vibe her navy speedo gave off.

"Daaaang, I bet! What cup size is this?"

Vibe = ruined.

You don't want to know, Ann thought on an internal groan, but the presence of the boys kept it from being aired to the world. "That's... not something you should ask a lady."

Futaba pouted, but Haru just giggled.

"I don't suppose it would truly matter outside of shopping for clothes, would it," she said, letting Akira take full control of the map.

She was abruptly the focus of four laser-focused stares—of the five guys present, only Yusuke had been paying the normal amount of attention to the conversation all along—but she didn't seem to notice.

"You look just gorgeous, Ann," she added with a winning smile. "It suits you very well."

"Thanks!"

(Now if only Akira would think the same. At least enough to look at her!)

Makoto redirected the conversation before it could get awkward. "Hey, we should probably get going, shouldn't we? The beach will get crowded before we know it."

Akira pivoted on his heel, clearing his throat and saying, in that permanently purring baritone, "Race you to the ocean."

"Wh— That's not what I meant!" Makoto squeaked, but she was ignored. "We need to find a spot on the—"

Ryuji shook himself out, then rolled his shoulder with a sharky grin. "You're on!"

Which was enough for the two of them to set off at top speed, Mishima half a beat behind and Futaba whining about the lack of a count.

Ann dropped her bags where she stood and sprinted after them.


She didn't manage to win the race, but she was close enough to tag Akira on the shoulder before the water was knee-high and close enough that he tried to catch her wrist when she tripped over a wave.

And that was an opportunity she shamelessly took advantage of.

He took her sucker-splashing with a choked laugh that she could barely hear over the surf and a real crooked grin that lit up his whole face—a grin that had her heart flip-flopping and her belly flooding with tingles, gah, why was he so hot—which had her distracted enough that his revenge was swift and easy.

They were in waist-high water together by the time Ryuji and Mishima caught up, and all bets were off for a four-way splash war.

She conceded defeat first (apparently what Ryuji and Mishima lacked in speed they made up for in stamina, and Akira wasn't known for accepting his losses) and forded her way out of the ocean and up to the spot where Makoto and Shiho had set up their stuff.

"Where's everyone else?" Ann asked as she approached—the only other person there was Futaba, who had abandoned any pretense of aesthetic in favor of whimpering as Shiho helped her get a cramp out of her leg. Haru, Yusuke, and Morgana were nowhere to be found.

"Haru went to see about renting motorboats and water skis, and Morgana went with her," said Makoto. Ann saw that she'd ended up going with that cute black babydoll-styled two-piece instead of the white bikini she'd been eyeing as they shopped. Ann approved. She looked both much more comfortable and much cuter than she would have otherwise. "I'm... not actually sure where Yusuke is."

Finding the lobsters, probably.

"Water skiing sounds like fun!" Ann said, plopping her butt down on one of the umbrella-shaded towels to the soundtrack of Futaba whining at Shiho's brutally efficient help. The break from the sun was much needed.

"We have a volleyball net, too." Makoto peeked at the bigger bag she'd been carrying. "I thought it would be too crowded, but maybe we could set it up after all. Though I suppose Shiho-chan and Yuuki-kun will wipe the floor with the rest of us."

Not that she was wrong, but Shiho followed that up with a thoughtless, "Well, it is a team sport. You all probably suck at volleyball, so if he and I are on different teams, it shouldn't be a problem."

As always, her utterly matter-of-fact tone somehow made the judgement all the worse.

"Tss, buuuurn," Futaba muttered as Shiho let her go, while Makoto fell silent, perplexed and somewhat offended.

It was a pretty common look on the people who Shiho talked to.

(There was a reason Ann and Shiho had been each other's only friends for the longest time. Very few people stuck around for long enough to find out that Shiho was actually a pretty awesome person once you looked past the brutal remarks.)

Ann considered the statement, then coming to the conclusion of, "Well, we'll never know until we try!" Actually, with her new top... She plucked experimentally at one of the straps. "Maybe I can participate this time without bouncing around so much! It'll be a stress test."

"I want you on my team," Shiho said immediately, shamelessly, with her gaze trained on Ann's chest and a scheming glint in her eye, and Makoto just sighed.


It was only right before the boys got back that Ann remembered that she'd completely forgotten her sunscreen, and she was still rubbing it on her legs when they walked up, all wired and dripping wet, shirts soaked translucent and plastered to the skin underneath.

...Yum.

"Do you think you could you get my back?" she asked Akira once she'd managed to drag her eyes away from his chest, because he was close and Shiho was busy and Futaba was half asleep on the towel next to her.

He blinked at her, and she offered him the bottle, frowning at her thighs.

"I completely forgot to lather up earlier, ugh. I really hope I haven't gotten sunburned yet..."

He took the bottle, which she took for assent.

"Where'd everyone go?" Ryuji wondered. Apparently, that was the hundred million yen question of the day.

"Uh..." she said as Akira squirted the cream onto his fingers. "Makoto and Shiho went to set up the volleyball net and Haru and Morgana—cold!"

Akira huffed a silent laugh, deep and rich and closecloseclose, breath disturbing the hairs on the back of her neck and aaaahhh... "Sorry."

He wasn't, but the cool, firm pressure of his fingertips as they skated through the mess was doing things in the pit of her belly, so she just sighed and continued, "I-I think they went to see something to do with water skis...? I don't know what hap-pened to Yusuke."

She should have thought this through more—much more—because his skin was on her skin and the tip of his index finger had just slipped under the band of her bikini top and it would really just be way too easy for him to hook that finger in the fabric to slide it up and off and now she was guiltily wishing that she hadn't almost finished up with the rest of her body because then maybe she could have asked him to do her legs too—

He flattened his palm against the skin below the band and Ann had to fight not to squeak.

"Eh, I wouldn't worry about him," Ryuji snorted, shading his eyes as he started at something in the distance.

Ann didn't have it in her to see what he was talking about, because Akira's hands had switched to getting the skin above the band, only hesitating slightly before delving under the straps entirely. The indirect jostling of her breasts as he rubbed the oddly sensitive skin of her shoulder blades felt like it was something that should have happened behind closed bedroom doors, not in the middle of a public beach.

"Did someone say volleyball?" said Mishima hopefully.

Ann pointed to the net, not trusting her voice and praying they wouldn't see the blush.

"Aw, sweet!" Ryuji cheered as Akira pulled his hands away.

A sigh that was half relief, half loss followed in the wake of the touch, and Ann only caught the lower end of Ryuji's fistpump because her eyelids had half-lidded somehow.

She blinked rapidly to clear her vision, Mishima's, "This is totally my time to shine," echoing between her ears, and then—

Akira touched her back again, this time just below her neck, spreading cold sunscreen around in little soothing circles before stroking up the line of her nape, cupping the back of her neck with melting gentleness and mindlessly making sure that it didn't get burned—and incidentally sending a wave of pure, electric heat rolling through her from throat to knees.

The summer sun had nothing on this.

He didn't give her the chance to turn into an actual puddle, instead removing his hand and clicking the bottle shut. "Done."

Absolute frustration knotted up that heat, but she accepted the bottle with static-sensitive fingers anyway and an almost normal-sounding, "Oh, th-thanks."

"You okay, Ann?" Ryuji said, bending over at a right angle to frown at her face. "Ya look kinda red."

"I-i-it's the lighting," she stammered, drawing her knees up to her chest and crossing her ankles. The umbrella really was a bright scarlet, at least. Maybe not enough to excuse the blush she could feel spreading down her shoulders, but at least she wasn't a total liar.

"Huh. 'Kay."

Thankfully, he dropped it there, distracted by Makoto waving and shouting, "Hey, bring the ball!" in the distance.

Futaba grumbled when he tried to search the bag she was using as a pillow, pointing aimlessly over her head with a half-awake, "Nn... 'S in that one," then curling around the bag again, tighter than before.

Ann could feel Akira studying her closely throughout the interaction, but only found the wherewithal to glance back once the others were sufficiently distracted.

There was an impassive question in his eyes, mild interest and equally mild concern, and she answered it with a sheepish, "Th-that was more embarrassing than I thought it would be," and a winded giggle.

('Embarrassing' wasn't even close to what it was, but what it actually was didn't bear even thinking about, much less airing for the whole world to hear.)

He accepted it with a languid blink and looked away—she couldn't tell if he'd bought it, but he didn't press, and that was all she asked.

"You go on ahead; I'll-I'll just finish up here," she added, refusing to pull her knees away from her chest just yet as she started to apply more sunscreen to her throat and collarbones and the space below her jaw. All places that were already well-protected, but he didn't need to know that.

He tracked her hands for a second, then nodded and rose, leaving Ann to breathe a shaky sigh of relief in his wake.

Aaaaagh...

Now it was embarrassing! He'd— She'd asked him to— He'd touched her like that in public—!

"Mngh..." said Futaba, blinking rapidly and adjusting her glasses with a sleep-clumsy knuckle, then squinting up at Ann's very lowkey meltdown. "Ann? What'd I miss?"

Ann buried her face in her hands, grateful she didn't have anything more than lip gloss to smudge. "Nothing."

The feeling in her abdomen and between her legs was very much not nothing.

"Huh. 'Kay." She dropped her head back down on the bag. "Gonna sleep more. Night."

"Hey, Ann! We're starting the game! Get over here!"

"Coming!" Ann shouted back, and tried very hard to bury the innuendo in the back of her mind.


Haru and Morgana had rejoined the group slightly before Ann got there, bearing sad news.

"I'm sorry," Haru was saying, genuinely put out, "but it would seem that all the motorboats have been claimed for the day... and for the next week. I put in a reservation, just in case, but..."

"No wet-skiing or motorboating for you guys today," Morgana said sympathetically.

They all slumped a little at that. It had sounded like fun, for all that Ann had only known about the plan for twenty minutes, tops.

"That's too bad," Akira said. It was kind of hard to tell if he was disappointed on his own behalf or not.

Then Ryuji shot him a leer and prodded him with an elbow. "No worries, man. I'm sure Ann wouldn't mind, if you asked."

"Huh?" said Morgana, which was what Ann wanted to know—especially after Akira fixed Ryuji with a downright angelic smile.

"Would you like to practice with me before we get started, Sakamato-san?" he asked. The unspoken, Would you like to die? was still pretty audible.

...Ann suspected she should be offended, but she wasn't sure what she was supposed to be offended by, so she couldn't really say anything. What wouldn't she mind if Akira asked?

(Not that she wasn't, you know, kind of happy he was defending her honor. Especially since she didn't know how she could defend her honor herself.)

Looking around, the other girls (and Morgana) looked about as lost as she did while Mishima looked like he was choking on his spit in a 'oh he did not just go there' kinda way, so that was... no help at all.

"Eh?" said Ryuji, the absolute idiot. "Sure... I guess?"

Ann would have facepalmed if she wasn't pretty sure he deserved whatever was coming to him.


After Akira had nailed Ryuji in the face with a few power-spikes under Shiho's puzzled guidance, they split into two teams and each took a side of the net.

Haru had delicately declined to join in, opting to help Morgana with the scoreboard instead. With Futaba asleep and Yusuke MIA, that left Ann and Makoto on Shiho's team and Akira and Ryuji on Mishima's.

"Okay!" Haru chirped as she passed the ball to Shiho. "Ladies serve first! First team to 20 points wins—good luck!"

Ann's bikini top performed admirably in the stress test. No seam crackling, no painful bouncing, no pinching! There was a certain level of jiggling that was inescapable no matter how much support her ladies had, but this top was comfortable and cute and wasn't in danger of snapping or falling off, and that was all she asked.

She really expected there to be more talking between the teams, actually, but the boys were oddly disorganized and Shiho was grinning like a shark, and Ann had to keep her eyes on the ball because Shiho kept passing it to her and not Makoto, and Ann while was loving the discovery of her new serve-and-kill prowess, Shiho was working her to the bone!

"Okay, I give," Mishima wheezed after the fifth point Ann nabbed, hands braced on his knees and dripping sweat in the summer sun. "I'm gonna... go over there. Take five... or twenty..."

Ryuji clapped him on the shoulder. "Ya fought the good fight."

Akira nodded sympathetically.

Before Ann could ask if that meant an end to the game, Makoto raised her hand.

"You two seem fine without me, so I think I'll go too," she said, strained, arms folded to obscure her chest. Her expression was doing its best to be a smile and... not entirely succeeding, ending up somewhere between irritated and humiliated instead.

Shiho shot her a confused glance, but nodded acknowledgement.

Makoto left the arena with reddened ears and a hunched back.

Oh-kay then...?

With Mishima heading for the public showers and Makoto being comforted by Haru and Morgana and Futaba (who seemed to have woken up and wandered over at some point), the teams were and even two-and-two again.

Being down a member and having Metaverse-honed teamwork seemed to kick the boys into gear, and they managed to even out the score a bit, now that she and Shiho were missing Makoto's coverage. Ann got in a couple more serve-and-kill shots, but Joker and Skull were a formidable team and being able to intuit how they were going to move did not necessarily translate to effectively countering it.

Not that it wasn't crazy fun to be able to 'battle' together again, even if it was just with a ball and a net. Tagging the ball up away from the sand with a tongue poke and a wink and earning a Joker-smirk in return? That little place in the back of Ann's brain that felt like Hecate let out a sigh of relief.

(The rest of her was all happy chills, but that was neither here nor there.)

Ryuji was the next to cry uncle; the fourth time faceplanted on the sand, he just stayed there.

"Ya know what," he groaned as Akira tossed the ball over to Shiho. "My knee can't take any more of this."

"Your knee, huh," said Akira, sticking his hands in his pockets.

Apparently, Ann's mind wasn't totally over the awkwardness of the past couple of days, because she swore she heard Ryuji mutter, "My knee, my dick, whatever," as he got up.

Shiho grinned like the cat who got the canary, the cream, and the sunniest napping spot in one fell swoop.

Ann stretched, testing the pleasant ache in her body, then announced, "I think I'm gonna drop out too, or I'll be super sore tomorrow. It's been a while since I've had to work this hard."

Shiho's grin melted away, but she accepted Ann's resignation with a nod.

With Ryuji loping after Mishima to the showers and Ann planting her butt on the hot sand next to the girls (and Morgana), it was only Akira and Shiho left on the field.

If there was ever a time for that lonely whistle tune they played in every western movie showdown, now would be it.

Akira took his hands out of his pockets and spread his stance, ready to push off and lunge in any direction. Shiho spun the ball on her fingertips, perfectly poised. Their eyes met through the net and instantly narrowed. Ann could feel the sparks flying in the air, the wills of two predators clashing in the fight for dominance or territory or something.

The score was 12:10 in favor of the girls' team, and they were both in it to win it.

"Ooh, this is getting intense!" Haru observed, blithe, then called out, "On your marks... get set... go!"


The battle was long and brutal. Shiho had a combination of skill and practice and sheer inborn talent that had kept her as the star player of the Shujin women's volleyball team until her injury, and had earned her a spot on the team at her new school as soon as her physical therapy had ended.

Akira, on the other hand, was a quick study who had about as much flexible dexterity as could reasonably be expected from a human being, reflexes honed through active combat with only a knife and a shotgun as weapons, and no history of hospitalizing injuries.

Ann was pretty sure there were some impressive plays going down, and that she'd be pretty impressed if only she knew the first thing about volleyball. Shiho talked about it sometimes but she never really explained what all those complicated terms she used meant, so Ann was left to admire the sweat dripping down Akira's back (the flush on his face, the steel in his eyes, the way his already-messy hair had turned into an absolute finger-combable disaster) in... relative peace.

Shiho still cheerfully shouted traitor! at her when she cheered for him, and he still shot her a put-out look when she cheered for Shiho, but Ann had loyalties here! To both of them! Besides, it wasn't like she was the only one cheering for both of them. Everyone was. Yusuke came by, then left again, then Makoto went to retrieve water bottles, then Mishima made it back, shortly followed by Ryuji, then Haru decided to record the battle on her phone—

In the end, Shiho won, 20:19. Her slight lead and superior experience proved insurmountable.

They both straightened, sizing each other up, then traded nods across the field.

Ann was left with the profound feeling that they had come to an understanding somehow.

Weird.

"So close, man," Ryuji sighed as the two joined their cheering audience, "so close."

"That was spectacular, Shiho-chan!" said Haru with a little fistpump, and Makoto joined in with a diplomatic, "Quite an impressive showing from the both of you. I feel like I've learned something."

"You got dunked on," Futaba observed, looking up at Akira with mild surprise. "It was pretty close, though."

"Looks like we've got stuff to work on," Morgana said wisely. Then, a bit more pointedly, "Nice to know that you still need my help after all this time."

And Akira... relaxed? His eyes softened, one of those almost-smiles on his face as he tilted his head in a nod.

(...Come to think of it, had they been on the outs? For as inseparable as they usually were, she hadn't seen them together at all these past few days.

Huh.)

"You're as terrifying as always, Shiho-chan," said Mishima, rueful. "I always forget how good you are when you stop playing dirty."

"I'm not sure what you mean," she replied mildly, then giggled at the droll look he shot her. "Hey, who wants to get snow cones?"

"Snow cones sound good!" Ann put in, perking up at the thought of sugar and cold.

"I'm down," Ryuji said, slouching and stuffing his hands in his pockets. "Hey, you think they'll have cola flavor?"

Ann took a draft from her water bottle, fully intending to follow the crowd as soon as she was done, but then she fumbled the bottle cap and narrowly avoided letting it fall in the sand.

Another three attempts and the bottle cap still wasn't keeping her water in place, but neither was it in the sand, so.

The others had mostly moved on while she was struggling—all except Akira, who sat down to her left with a tired, near-silent sigh. He'd left the glasses behind today, so there was nothing hiding the way he watched her hands; a little blank, a little intent, a little distant, half-lidded and glazed.

Her fourth attempt ended with the cap falling into the front of her top, at which point she was forced to concede defeat.

"Hey, do you think you could help me with this?" she asked, distracted, as she fished it out.

He blinked, then took both bottle and cap from her and put them together with one deft twist.

(Jar-opening, Ryuji whispered in the back of her mind.)

She let out a sigh of relief at a job well done. "Thanks!" she said, then accepted the bottle again and frowned at the top. "These caps can get surprisingly fiddly."

He inclined his head.

She was going to add something to that—maybe tell a story about the time one of her coworkers had filed a complaint with a water bottle company because people kept using their faulty lids to spill their drinks on her, or maybe tell him about the new soda flavors that had come out at the start of the summer—but then she got distracted by his eyelashes, startlingly long and framing cat-shaped eyes.

From there, her eyes were drawn to the way the hair along his hairline was sweat-plastered to his skin, and from there to his nape, oddly vulnerable and intimate, bare of his long parade of popped collars. The ridge of his spine formed a question mark curve in her peripheral vision, the planes of muscle on either side of it only just toned enough to be visible when he moved or flexed.

Ann knew a lot of gorgeous people thanks to her line of work, and Akira was definitely one of them. She'd say he'd missed his calling as a pop idol or something if he didn't start getting uncomfortable as soon as more than a couple people were looking his way. His limit seemed to be at about three people, and that was only if one of the three was Morgana.

Getting to see him as often as she did made her one of the lucky ones, huh?

He crooked an eyebrow at her sideways and she jumped.

Scrambling to get the weird smile off her face—or at least make it a little less weird, oh gosh—she blurted, "So... did you and Morgana have a fight? I didn't notice it until just now, but it feels like I haven't seen you two together in a while."

Akira frowned at the horizon, puzzled and concerned. "I was wondering that too..."

"Huh. That's strange." Ann leaned back, eyes drifting towards the sky as she mused, "For all his... Morgana-isms, he's a pretty even-tempered kind of guy. For him to start avoiding you without any explanation..."

Akira stilled, a faintly rueful expression in the middle of flickering across his face when she looked. "...Mm."

"Did you think of something?"

"Maybe."

"...And?" she pressed.

He hesitated, then shook his head.

Ann sighed and stowed away her curiosity. "Well, okay, I guess." Back to the other topic at hand: "Hey, that game you and Shiho played was pretty impressive. You almost won!"

"'Almost,'" he countered—though he still looked kinda proud. "Shiho is tough competition."

"She's one of a kind," Ann agreed on a giggle. "But seriously, have you even played volleyball before?"

He picked up a water bottle and drained it—Adam's apple bobbing and a single droplet of sweat rolling down his neck and mm...—before saying, "Only in P.E.."

It took Ann a second or two to catch up with the words, her thought process oddly sluggish, and then that weird breath stuck in her chest escaped on another giggle. "See? You're the tough competition around here."

The corner of his mouth crooked up even as he glanced away, preening subtly. "Well, I will be soon."

Cute.

(And hot, but, y'know.)

Ann resisted the urge to offer to practice with him—she was already feeling a little parched just thinking about it—and reached for her water bottle.

Only to meet with thin air.

Apparently, the water bottle Akira had picked up was hers.

Looking around, there weren't any extras lying around either, and Akira seemed to realize those two facts at the same time she did; he looked both incredibly guilty and borderline alarmed.

It was a much stronger reaction than Ann's, which boiled down to: ...Worth it. So worth it.

She was a simple girl, and Akira was eye candy even when he wasn't shirtless.

(Plus... he was one of the few people who she didn't feel weird about checking out. She never had to worry about giving him the wrong idea because she knew that his 'bad intentions' were about as impersonal and universal as they could get (that primal drive to flirt was just in his lifeblood or something, she swore), and despite all that innuendo and smirking and mostly-appropriate compliments, he'd proven in just about every way possible that she could trust him with anything and everything.

She was safe to stare at his abs all she wanted, and as someone who just wanted to stare at abs sometimes, Ann appreciated that greatly.)

"...Sorry."

"D-don't worry about it," she said with a half-laugh. "You needed it more than I did."

"I'll get you something else," he said as he got to his feet. It was more of a statement than an offer.

Ann watched him get up, then blinked and shook the cobwebs out of her head and got to her feet herself. "Hey, let me come with you. I so don't want to be out here alone—... oh. Um."

The slyness that had flitted over his face at 'come with you' died away as he looked to her for the problem.

"Where did my shoes go?"

He was equally confused. "You gave them to Yusuke."

"I... what?"

Now that she was thinking about it, Yusuke had asked her something when he'd come by, and she'd brushed it off with a, yeah, sure, and hadn't thought any more of it.

...Oops.

"Will I be getting those back?" she wondered weakly.

"Eventually," Akira said, staring past her further into the beach.

Ann followed his gaze and found a large sculpture of sand and assorted additions, standing about half again as tall as the pale, lanky figure attending to it.

"I... really should have expected that," she sighed, snapping the bottom of her suit to shake the sand free. "Guess I'm stuck barefoot for now."

Out of the corner of her eye, Akira inclined his head.


The sand was burning hot.

She made it about six steps before she had to bury her feet under the blistering surface with a yelp and a whine. Walking was like dancing on razor lava legos.

Akira stopped, concerned.

"There's no way I can keep going like this," she said, shoving her bangs out of her face with a wince. "Ow, ow, oww..."

He scrutinized the situation with an inscrutable look for a long moment, then quietly offered, "I can carry you."

Ack.

"U-um! You sure can!" she squawked, abruptly feeling flames on either side of her face. How much had Ryuji said he could lift again? "B-but is that really the best i-idea?"

(If they were both fully clothed, she would have guiltily-slash-cheerfully submitted to the suggestion, but they weren't fully clothed in the least and she could still almost feel his hands rubbing sunscreen into her back and auhgh—)

He shot her a dry glance. "Got any others?"

"Well... not really," she admitted in a croak. The only thing between her ears right now was the unavoidable fact that no matter how this happened, it was going to involve a lot of skin-to-skin contact.

He nodded peaceably and took a single step forward, bent down, and scooped her up into a bridal carry.

"Hmneep!" said Ann on the outside. The noise she made on the inside was much closer to a deafening screech.

Akira huffed, amused, which served to draw her attention to many things, but mainly how tight he was holding his core muscles.

"Uh-um, eh-ack!" That shouldn't be hot that shouldn't be hot that shouldn't be hot—oh fuck her, that was hot. "Are-aren't I h-heavy?"

The look he shot her then was even drier. "Yep. You weigh almost as much as a whole person."

She hit his shoulder with an embarrassingly weak fist and buried her face in the crook of his neck. She didn't want to have to think about any of this anymore.

(He still smelled really, really good.)


She couldn't say exactly how long it took him to carry her to the patio of the nearest outdoor cafe because by the time they got there, her knees were mush and her brain was worse (too much skin too much skin too much skin), but he set her down with a deep sigh of relief and she was too scrambled to take offense.

For Akira's part, he made sure that she was upright and going to stay that way, then tilted his head towards the tables and turned to drop into one of the chairs nearby.

Ann took a moment to remember how her knees worked, then to remember how her lungs worked, then to remember how her brain worked, and finally to pick up what remained of her poor, gently seared wits.

With Akira gently rubbing his forearms, it was up to Ann to make sure they didn't offend the establishment.

The eating area was almost empty except for a gaggle of tourist girls that had started giggling when she and Akira had walked in, so Ann had no trouble walking up to the countering and ordering two passion fruit juice mixes.

The tourist girls giggled as she passed with the two glasses, the sound of mocking voices familiar enough that Ann just held her chin high, determined to ignore them—and then one spoke up in heavily accented and slightly broken Japanese.

"That guy is cute. Are you, uh, romantically involved?"

Ann looked over, surprised to find that the grin was more friendly and mischevious than mean.

"Huh?" she replied intelligently.

The girl frowned, then tried, "Er, is he... popular? Two-is-one? Are you and him... doing?"

Ann laughed off the strange feeling of having missed a step on a staircase. "Oh, no, I got what you meant! You just surprised me for a second there."

She glanced over to find Akira watching the conversation, curious—and just as gorgeous and uninterested-in-anything-like-commitment as ever.

"Me and him?" She tried to imagine it and... yep, nope, no way. She was so not his type. "Maaaybe in an alternate universe. A very alternate universe."

"Awh!" The girl pouted. "But you look so good together!"

Huh. Come to think of it, she and Akira probably did look pretty good together if you didn't know a thing about them and their personalities.

"You'd... be surprised."

"Oh well." The girl took that in stride, then lit up after the requisite period of mourning. She leaned forward with a conspiratorial leer and said, "Does that mean he's available?"

(And there was that feeling of having missed a step again, a little worm of senseless jealousy latched into the back of her throat. Just because she wouldn't (couldn't?) have him didn't mean nobody should, and yet...

Well. Never mind.)

Aloud, she snorted. "A little too available, really."

Instead of being put off, the girl laughed again. "Perfect! I'm only here for two weeks."

(Better own up to those green eyes now, my girl, said the-Hecate-who-no-longer-was.)

"Not that available," Akira joined in, sardonic. Ann now noticed that the girl's companions were looking at him with this weirdly profound pity.

Weeeeeird.

The girl popped maraschino-cherry red lips, then cocked her head. "Awh. Well!" And she grabbed her table's receipt, then started digging through her purse. "I'll give you my number. Tell me if you change your mind, if you please."

Akira accepted the number she handed him, looking bemused, and then a boy (one with a similar features and an almost identical copper-shaded complexion as the girl) poked his head in and told her to 'stop flirting and help him figure out what this damn sign said' in very American English.

"Ugh, typical," the girl groaned in equally American English, then flashed Akira a winning smile and got up.

Ann drifted into the space the girl had left behind, feeling oddly unmoored as she set down their drinks and took a seat. At the other table, the tourist girls started packing up to go.

She wanted to say that there was no way he would take the girl up on it, but she knew that wasn't quite right. She'd been cute and female and definitely interested, if a little... freer and easier than he usually went for—so why did she want to say it so bad?

"She was cute, huh?" she said after a few beats of silence, once she was sure her voice would come out right. "Lucky you!"

A strange expression crossed his face. "...Lucky me."

He didn't look like he felt very lucky.

"Well, you're usually pretty lucky, huh," Ann said absently, focused on trying to parse the expression. "Do you, like, put on pheromones in the morning or something?"

(She knew it wasn't that. It was that he was the kind of person who paid attention when people talked, even if he never seemed to look them in the eye, and the open interest and casual flirting made him very, very popular. Helped that he was that specific brand of messy gorgeous, too.)

"Heh."

Again, the response was far less happy than she's expected. It wasn't even smug or anything!

Seriously. Weird.

"...You okay?"

"Just peachy," he said in a tone that brooked no arguments.

She studied his face for a moment, then decided, "Okay, just... don't put any chili in my crepes, okay?"

That startled him. He looked up at her, surprised, and then the bitterness slowly faded away, replaced with a kind of chagrined amusement. "I promise."

Ann let out a sigh of relief. "Good." Then, on a sigh of delight, "Man, this juice is so good."

He belatedly looked back at his drink, blinked, and said, "Mm-hm."

She giggled. "You gotta taste it before you can say that, you know."

An arch glance, then he leaned forward to catch the straw in his mouth, pointedly ignoring her.

That unconscious little smile on his face kinda ruined the aloofness, but she didn't tell him that, Instead, just she devoted her attention to enjoying this cocktail while she had it.


They tracked down the others (and a new pair of cheap flipflops for Ann) after they were done, and the rest of the day just about flew by—hilarious attempts at surfing followed by a staunch effort at adding onto Yusuke's growing sand-city, topped off with a dinner of Hawaiian barbecue—and Ann found herself back in her and Shiho's room thoroughly sore and satisfied.

This was exactly what summer was for.

Shiho, on the other hand, looked distinctly less satisfied. She was scowling at her knitting needles as she worked them at an astonishingly fast rate. In the space of time it had taken Ann to shower and dry her hair, she'd added a solid twenty centimeters to the scarf she was knitting.

"Uh... are... are you okay?" Ann ventured cautiously when Shiho seemed like she wasn't going to acknowledge her presence.

"Knitting is relaxing," said Shiho tightly. "So I'm relaxing."

"You don't look too relaxed."

Shiho didn't answer immediately, and when she spoke, it was in a mutter Ann wasn't sure she was supposed to have heard. "Just because he's never jumped off a roof, he thinks he can get on my level just like that? Who does he think he is? That little—"

"Oh, sour grapes," said Ann, feeling pretty wise.

Shiho stopped knitting and, sounding very put-upon, added, "Only played volleyball before in P.E., he said. Who does that! Who can play like that with only that!"

Ann giggled. "I dunno, I could swear he's like a video game character or something sometimes. He's way too good at things way too fast."

"Well... I guess you'd know better than I would," said Shiho, who wasn't really much one for games that didn't require bodily movement. She liked Vii Sports, and that was about it for anything that took place on a screen. Then she exhaled and started knitting again, still irritated, but less now. "Speaking of... you two disappeared for a while there. What was up with that?"

And so Ann sprawled out on her bed and regaled Shiho with the tale of missing shoes and princess carries and bold tourists making really silly assumptions about her and her other best friend.

"Can you believe it?" she said, feeling all giggly and bubbly as she rolled onto her stomach and hugged her pillow. "Me and Akira? Together? Man, that was so weird."

Shiho had stopped knitting again, aiming a puzzled frown in Ann's direction. "Why... would it be weird? You think he's attractive and the two of you get along pretty well, don't you?"

"Uh..." Ann was kind of wrong-footed here. It was just a fundamental aspect of their relationship that she'd never thought she'd have to articulate it to anyone.

Shiho waited.

"I-I mean, I'm like... really not his type, y'know?" Ann looked down at the pink bedsheet, frowning herself now. "Like, I'm know I'm pretty cute, but he doesn't really go for cute. He likes brainy, serious brunettes. Ones that are like... driven and super competent and stuff. Like Makoto! Or Haru. Or even Futaba—she dyes her hair, you know." Actually, come to think about it... "Plus, there was that doctor lady he got our Metaverse supplies from, and I think there was this reporter he liked too. Even our homeroom teacher... was pretty brunette..."

"Oh," said Shiho, looking terribly bland, "so he's a philanderer."

"Ahaha... that's a little harsh," said Ann, wondering why that thought made her heart sink quite this much. "More of a flirt than anything else."

Shiho tilted her head in allowance, now squinting back down at her work and picking it up again.

"But, well... he is a flirt. A big flirt." Ann blew a puffing breath into her pillow. "And knowing he totally has a type... If he wanted an actual relationship with anyone, it sure wouldn't be me, y'know?"

"Oh," said Shiho, now teasing, "so he's an idiot."

Ann picked one of the decorative pillows off her bed and tossed it halfheartedly in Shiho's direction. "Having a type isn't dumb, you know."

Shiho dodged the pillow with ease and and smiled wryly at her. "Well, you have me convinced."

"I do?"

"Yup." Shiho turned the scarf around so she could purl in the other direction. "It would be totally weird for you and him to get together—he doesn't deserve you at all."

Ann spluttered. "That's not what I meant!"

"But it's the truth," Shiho countered peaceably.

It wasn't often that Ann took offense to things, but implying that Akira 'didn't deserve' her pushed a button she hadn't known she had.

"Anyone would be lucky to have him," she almost snapped, "especially me. He's loyal, a-and gentle, and he... listens. And he doesn't judge me, even when everyone else is calling me an idiot and writing me out of the book. And he's so cool, even when he's being a dork, and he's smart and kind and so brave it just feels like you could follow him anywhere, you know?" She breathed in, her chest oddly painful. "It's just... not gonna happen, so it doesn't matter... right?"

Shiho regarded her silently, then said, "But he's a flirt and an idiot."

Ann slumped. Shiho wasn't about to surrender that point anytime soon, and the taste that left in Ann's mouth was bitter.

Bitter and ashamed.

Accidentally slandering a friend behind his back was no fun at all.

"I'm going to sleep," she announced at length, rolling onto her side so she wouldn't have to see Shiho's side of the room.

"Goodnight," said Shiho, bemused.

Ann didn't dignify that with an answer.

Chapter Text

It was pouring.

Which was kind of an issue for Ann, who'd taken a walk to clear her head first thing in the morning and had completely forgotten to check the weather before she left.

Going to bed angry had been a mistake. She woke up feeling all queasy and wrong in her skin, and it only took hearing Shiho hum as she stretched to bring last night's conversation rushing back. Ann had told her she was going out for a bit, then hastily donned the garment at the top of her clothes' pile (the open-backed white halterneck dress) and one of her cuter lingerie sets (a teal push-up with white lace edging that clasped in the front and a low-riding bottom in the same style that wouldn't risk flashing from under the dress) and bolted.

She'd given up on shoes early on, content to feel the sand between her toes and soak up the sound of the waves and the early-morning sunshine, and wandered down the stretch of mini-beach that formed a horseshoe around the island, trying to decide if she was thinking about the issue or firmly not thinking about the issue.

The issue being: Shiho had said that Akira 'didn't deserve' Ann.

And she couldn't pinpoint exactly why that was such an upsetting thought, only that it was and Akira...

Akira was the one who deserved better.

Someone like Makoto, who was strong and smart and cool and had it all together and knew how to look good with just two pairs of shoes where Ann needed, like, twenty to choose from in the morning and had never gotten higher than a 70 on a test in anything except English.

Or someone like Futaba, who was bold and clever and brutally honest, who could keep up with Akira's brain no problem and play off all his lines instead of squawking and flailing like Ann did.

Or someone like Haru, who was even richer than she was sweet, nurturing, patient, kind, humble... the perfect future wife, really.

And Ann was pretty, sure—that was her entire career—and she tried to stay positive and stuff, but mostly guys just liked her chest. Sometimes her face, but mostly her chest. Occasionally her butt.

Akira seemed to care about personality a little more than that.

(Either that, or he just liked a bunch of body types and faces equally, and after that, there was only personality left to push that attraction one way or the other.

...Probably the latter.)

She wasn't too sure if she wanted to gain an edge with the size of her chest anyway, but without that...

'Cute blonde ditz' just wasn't his type. All she had to do was look around him to confirm that.

She'd probably never become a doctor or a teacher, and she couldn't take on the world like that reporter lady he liked did, and she'd never even hold a candle to Yusuke's classmate, who was pretty enough to be an idol and a famous chess player besides, so she'd really only just end up dragging him down, right?

He needed someone serious, someone studious, someone who could always match him toe-to-toe, and that someone so wasn't her. The amount of time she spent feeling just blown away by him and everything he was was almost funny.

Almost.

So...

Why did that thought make her so sad?

If anything, that just meant that their friendship was safe, right? The lines were clear. She was never going to be his and he definitely wasn't ever going to be hers, not with the choices he had, which meant...

She scrubbed away the tears that had formed in the corners of her eyes.

This was so dumb.

And right on cue, thunder rumbled.

She'd dropped to a crouch at some point in her reverie, staring sightlessly out over the ocean—an ocean that was still startlingly clear in the far-off distance, but distinctly less so right overhead.

She was caught in the downpour.

She reeled back out of her crouch and scampered for the tree line, managing to get there before she was soaked by some miracle. Wet, wet, wet, wet...

Head shaken clear by the system shock, she followed the trees back to where she knew she'd seen a gazebo. The trees didn't do a perfect job of blocking the rain, so she was distinctly wetter than she wanted to be when she arrived, her sandals chafing with the wet sand and her dress trying to cling just a little bit too much.

Rain by the ocean smelled absolutely amazing, though.

There was a stretch of open space between her shelter she had and the entrance to the shelter she wanted, so she was forced to brave the sheeting rain for the ten seconds it took to cross, and apparently, ten seconds was enough. What the dash for the drees hadn't done was done now; she was soaked.

Maybe she should just brave it and run back to the mansion. It wasn't like she could get much wetter.

...Buuut if she went back, she'd have to face Shiho and Akira and all of her other friends, and she didn't want to. Not when her chest felt all raw like this. Either they'd ask her what happened when nothing had, or she'd have to pretend to be okay when she couldn't even figure out what was wrong.

The gazebo it was, she decided, and took up a place next to the entrance where she could stand comfortably and watch the rain.

She couldn't tell how long she stood there because there were no clocks in the gazebo and she'd thankfully forgotten her phone (it would have been ruined if she'd had it on her), but after some time, she spotted someone running up to her hideout.

Akira?

Auuugh...

Out of all the people she didn't want to see right now, he probably even topped Shiho.

She found herself blushing and avoiding his eye when he staggered into the shelter, also soaked to the bone, curls weighted and dripping but not flattened, shoes squelching and beads of liquid glittering on his exposed exertion-flushed skin.

He nodded to her, and she nodded back.

Awkward.

She had no idea what to say to him. What she even could say when every one of the thoughts swirling around in her head was about how untouchable he was, how wonderful, how much he deserved the world, and how much that just... ached.

With neither of them to carry the conversation, Ann was left alone with her racing heart and prickling nerves and the weight of his presence against her side like a physical thing.

"Okay, what happened."

She nearly jumped out of her skin.

Akira had removed his glasses, idly shaking the water off of them with a flick of his wrist as he fixed her with an unshielded piercing stare.

Mneep.

"Wh-wh-what do you mean, 'what happened'?" she laughed nervously. "Who says anything's wrong?"

"I do," he said simply, dryly, not unkindly. The piercing stare didn't let up.

It figured he wouldn't let her get away with the lie.

"...Me and Shiho had an argument."

The piercing stare softened. "That's rare."

"Uh-huh." She shifted her weight and pulled her sopping minidress away from her stomach, studying the translucent material before letting it go. It hit her skin with a wet slap.

Even with the little zap, she still couldn't figure out what to say.

She glanced over at Akira and he jolted. Humming a strangled acknowledgement, he jerked to look at something in the opposite direction.

Huh? She leaned around him to try to follow his gaze for a second, but he interrupted her by peeling off his black overshirt and holding it out to her.

"Um," she said, lifting her hands to catch the sopping wet garment. It dripped big fat splatters onto the ground around her feet.

"You should put it on," said Akira, devoid of any tone at all.

Ann looked from the shirt back to him—he'd been wearing a thin white undershirt underneath, and it was clinging, deliciously translucent, to every contour of his torso—and gave him the most dubious frown she could.

He cleared his throat and pointed at his chest.

Ann lost a couple of second staring at it, trying to figure out what he wanted her to see, then realized he meant that she should look at her own chest, and...

"It's showing," he said, wry.

'It' was indeed, teal and white against peach under only the sparsest protection of her dress, which was just as clingy and translucent as his was. How hadn't she noticed that?

Short of actually taking the whole dress off and wringing it out, the black button-down was indeed her best option for covering up.

She hastily squeezed as much of the water out of the shirt as she could and pulled it over her shoulders, muttering a quick, "Oh, thanks," while her cheeks burned like fire through the chill.

Wet cloth against wet skin was never any fun and it was cold on her bare back, but it mostly covered her boobs without needing to do up any of the buttons, so it was bearable.

He nodded in reply to her thanks, then cleared his throat slightly and glanced away again, stuffing his hands into his jean pockets.

"Comfortable?"

"Ahaha... haha... Something like that."

The corner of his mouth twitched.

Silence, with nothing to fill it except that fond sideways look and the way it made her spine tingle.

"Shiho's wrong," she decided aloud, looking back out into the sheeting rain. The almost-breeze felt good against her warming face. "You're a flirt, but you're a gentleman about it."

His confusion was palpably suspended in the mist, and Ann tried to explain, but she was already off-kilter and distracted, so the results were, well...

"You're thoughtful and kind and you've never made me uncomfortable—" The way that came out felt like she was almost accusing him. "—and maybe Shiho thinks you're an idiot, but you're not—you're like... the opposite of an idiot. A-and I think you know that. And still you never shut me out when I don't get things."

Things that any of the other girls would pick up on no problem, she knew, because that was his type: smart.

Not... not like her.

But Akira just looked thoroughly nonplussed, like he wasn't even sure why she thought he would care. "Of course not."

"See?!" Now she was definitely accusing him. "You say that like it's nothing and... it's not. It's not nothing." Her voice felt way too small now, the cracks in it losing out to the pounding of raindrops on the roof. "You never brush me off or say I can't take care of myself—and even... even Shiho does that sometimes. You don't." She giggled in a rasp, half at herself, half at the circumstances. "You have... no idea... how much that means to me."

His hand half-lifted, a scrape of cloth and skin as it left his pocket, then it paused and dropped back again.

He doesn't deserve you, Shiho had said, because Ann had told her all the wrong things about him. and it stung because she'd betrayed them both.

She scrubbed away the tears at the corners of her eyes and swallowed against the lump in her throat. "You're amazing, you know? Like, I've never known anyone like you. You're cool even when you're a dork and nice even when you're pretending not to be and... I'm kinda jealous, I guess. Or maybe envious?"

"...Envious?" he echoed.

She giggled again, but it hurt this time. "I-I mean, I'm kind of a ditz, you know? Even if it never seems like you care, I kinda feel like I'm holding you back. I wish..."

Abruptly, she found herself in a very tight, very cold, very wet embrace.

"You aren't. You aren't holding me back at all."

"Huh?" said Ann intelligently—he sounded so raw.

Body heat was already warming up the layers between them as he squeezed her a little tighter, then let go enough to pull back and look her in the face.

"You're—" he started, then stopped.

...Their faces really were... kind of close, weren't they.

She expected him to jerk back and finish his sentence, but he didn't. He stayed there, holding her, his heart thumping in his chest hard enough for her to just barely feel it, intent stare fixed to her face.

It was awkward and tingly and not nearly as uncomfortable as it should have been, her toes curling on the smooth cement floor, her breath caught and her whole body throbbing and frozen

His eyes flicked lower, just slightly, and Ann was suddenly very aware of her entire mouth, lips-teeth-tongue and all.

She opened it, half intending to ask him what was wrong, then lost track of what she was going to say because something in his eyes flickered, all heated and dark and... something, and she could swear he was leaning in when—

"Heeeeey! Ann-san? Kurusu! You forgot something! Where'd you go?"

"Oi! Umbrella delivery!"

Their clandestine bubble shattered like glass.

Ann stared at Akira in the mortified realization that there more than just two people in the world, and he stared back at her with blank eyes and a clenched jaw.

It took her three pounding heartbeats to realize that their position was super embarrassing by normal person standards. And inappropriate! And— and just way too close!

She untangled their limbs and stumbled back in a hurry, the air icy-cold against her thoroughly warmed-up front and burning face.

"So! Um!" she squeaked, desperately flailing to continue the conversation—and finding that she didn't have the first clue what it had been about. It was like being hugged by Akira had hit a hard reset switch in her brain or something. "Wh-what were we talking about again?"

He didn't answer verbally, and she was too scrambled to even think about looking at him.

(Had he been about to—?)

She had seven seconds to want to die right here, right now, and then the arrival of Ryuji and Mishima provided a welcome distraction.

"Oh hey, you guys found each other already," said Mishima, standing at the base of the steps. Both he and Ryuji were under the shelter of rain ponchos and umbrellas both.

"Looks like you two are getting cozy," was Ryuji's entirely unnecessary addition to the conversation, then: "Huh? Ann? You doin' okay? You look kinda..."

"It's the lighting!" Ann squeaked, gripping Akira's overshirt around her while every inch of skin on her face was about to fry right off. Getting cozy.

(Had Akira just—?)

'The lighting' was grey and blue and green from their surroundings and not red in the least, but apparently Ryuji didn't care that much, because all he said was, "Uh... okay."

"Did you need something?" said Akira icily. Ann still couldn't bring herself to look at him, but she could feel the killing intent oozing off of him from here.

"Nah," said Ryuji, breezy, then waggled a closed umbrella with his off hand. "Makoto heard you guys ran off and sent us out to give you these."

Mishima made a show of patting himself down, then said, in possibly the most scripted way possible, "Oh no! I lost the other one!"

Akira's KI spiked like nothing else.

"Welp!" Ryuji said brightly. "Looks like you two'll just have to sha— ah-hey!"

"Yow! What—?"

Akira was far enough away that she felt safe glancing at him sideways, which let her see that he'd walked directly out into the rain and appropriated Ryuji and Mishima's umbrellas.

"Looks like you two'll have to share," he echoed, murderously cheerful. "Thanks for the assist."

"That's not—" Mishima protested, but Akira was already walking back to Ann, umbrellas in hand.

She had a split second of panic at his impending presence, all her nerves roughed up by... that thing from before, but he stopped before he was in her space, holding out one of the umbrellas with that angelic smile and manic glint in his eye, and kept holding it out until she took it.

"We should get going," he said, "or we'll get sick."

"Right," she agreed weakly, her eyes unconsciously following his subtly broad back as he left.

She debated returning the umbrella to Mishima, but then decided that she was the one in the translucent white dress that would have her flashing everyone who cared to look if she got it wet again and really, it wouldn't hurt either him or Ryuji to share, and they had rain ponchos already.

She gathered up her shoes and waved at Makoto's gofers without guilt as she passed, following in Akira's wake.


Shiho was in their room when Ann got back, surrounded by a small collection of hats and balls and her knitting needles clicking away at a table-runner, but Ann barely saw her. Her entire thought process had been whited out by sheer discombobulated panic.

Had he really—?

He hadn't, had he?

Why on earth—why the hell would he try to ki—

She wasn't his type, she knew she wasn't his type, he really had no reason to get that close and look at her mouth and—

There was a perfectly platonic explanation for all of this. There had to be.

She carelessly shucked her clothes in a wet pile next to her clean ones and fished out her leggings and jacket, donning her second outfit in jerky movements.

"Um, Ann?" Shiho broke in tentatively. "I'm... I'm sorry."

Ann blinked, momentarily distracted by the rare event of Shiho realizing that she'd done something worth apologizing for.

She'd stopped knitting, unusually somber as she said, "I'm sorry if I hurt you by calling Kurusu-san an idiot."

Ann blinked again. They had kinda argued about that last night, hadn't they.

(Which had led to her hopelessly refuting all her arguments to the guy himself, which had led to—)

"I was mad about yesterday, and said some bad things," Shiho said, words that Ann only half heard through the reminder. "I should have just trusted your judgement. Sorry."

"Mm," Ann croaked, one hundred percent sucked into the memory of racing hearts and dark eyes and warm arms and—she numbly zipped up the hoodie like that would protect her from the memory at all... "'S okay. No worries."

Silence, not so much as the click of a knitting needle to break it. Ann used it to sit on her bed and tip over sideways.

Her heart was still refusing to slow down.

He'd been so close.

"...Is... is everything okay?"

No.

She wasn't his type and nothing was ever going to happen, and something might have almost happened and she didn't have any better explanations for it, but there had to be a better explanation for it because... because...

Ann buried her fry-an-egg hot face into her pillow. "...Yeah."

That was a lie.

Absolutely nothing was 'okay,' and she had no idea what to do about it.

Chapter Text

Ann was avoiding him.

Ann had been avoiding him for the past three days.

Akira buried his face in his pillow and muffled a groan.

(He'd been so close—she'd been so close; the way her eyes had widened and darkened, the way her lips had parted, her chin tilted had up the barest centimeter—how good she smelled, all plush curves and fluttering pulse, the intimate curtain of rain not disguising her slight gasp—

He could have kissed her.)

Her words—her praise—were still dancing around in his head, and he could still feel himself flush when he thought about them too much.

You're amazing, you know? Like, I've never known anyone like you.

Because somehow, some way, Ann Takamaki thought he was amazing.

Him.

Granted, of course, that he hadn't just hallucinated that entire conversation—that dreamlike unreality, the silvery ambience highlighting that heartbroken twist of her mouth, the melancholy on her gorgeous face; her voice almost-laughing, mostly-longing as she described him as— she described him like—

There was no way she thought he hung the moon and stars, but damn if she hadn't given off that impression for those precious few minutes, and the way she'd looked at him...

He could almost, almost imagine...

But, no, if she really did think of him like... that, she wouldn't be avoiding him now, right?

(You're a flirt, but you're a gentleman about it.)

(You're cool even when you're a dork and nice even when you're pretending not to be and...)

(You never brush me off or say I can't take care of myself. You have... no idea... how much that means to me.)

Because she was definitely avoiding him. That was inescapable. Whatever she'd thought of that moment, whatever had actually been said, he'd come that close to kissing her and now she wanted nothing to do with him.

Uuuuuugh.

You've never made me uncomfortable—well, now he had.

He really needed to find her. He needed to set things straight, or at least see if he could get her to talk to him again.

Dammit.

Dammit.

And especially damn the guys for getting them into this position in the first place. He'd been keeping his emotional distance just fine thanks, and then they'd started with these plans and suddenly he'd spent five days alone or almost alone with her in a row, and...

Five days of spending time with her almost nonstop meant five days of feeling melty-hot under his skin whenever they locked eyes and five days of her easy laugh making his heart trip and five days of telling himself not to get too close and just failing and god how was she so soft—and maybe it was time to face the fact that he had an addiction.

Dammit.


She wasn't in any of the girls' rooms when he checked, and none of the girls present knew where she'd gone. She wasn't in the kitchens, nobody had taken her out for a solo shopping trip, she wasn't in any of the common areas...

He was just doing a pass by the guys' rooms when he ran into someone in the hall.

"Ah, Kurusu-san," said Shiho, coming down from the opposite end, "do you have a moment?"

He paused and nodded, shoving his hands in his pockets as he turned to face her.

Zero preamble, yet voiced like she was asking him how he was today: "What happened between you and Ann?"

His blood chilled and heated in minor panic. "What makes you think something happened?"

Had Ann said something? If she had, what had she said? What would she have let on to her best friend?

Shiho looked like she'd be rolling her eyes if they were on more casual terms. "She has your shirt and she's been pacing around it for three days."

So she hadn't said anything.

(—thin white cloth plastered so close to her skin that it left almost nothing to the imagination, the dip of her cleavage and the inviting curve of her waist, the equally tempting curve of her backside clad in what amounted to practically—)

"...Ah."

"Well?" Shiho pressed, too gently to be called interrogative, but something close.

He shrugged. Like hell was he going to admit he'd almost kissed her best friend, but he wasn't feeling quite self-destructive enough to bait her right now.

"...Alright," she allowed, eyeing him down. "It was something though, wasn't it."

He tilted his head in wary acknowledgement.

Her lips pressed together for a second, then relaxed. "What do you think of her, by the way? I know you're interested in her, but why?"

It was a test—but somehow, admitting to Ann's best friend that Ann was vastly more than just a friend to him was an even worse thought than the guys knowing.

"She's hot," was what he ended up saying, because anything else would leave him feeling horribly exposed.

Shiho blinked, a flicker of surprise cutting through her pleasant expression. "Just hot?"

"Were you expecting anything else?"

He was an idiot and a flirt, after all.

She opened her mouth, shut it, and frowned. "...Well, no."

Somehow, it hurt more to hear that confirmed than he'd thought it would.

"If that's all..." His need to escape this conversation was just climbing and climbing.

"Yeah, that's all," said Shiho distantly, brow faintly knit. Raising a hand, she added, "Later."

Akira nodded, then turned on his heel and kept walking.


A soft thud of paws alerted him to a furry presence not even two halls down.

"You were lying back there, weren't you."

Guilt surged. Out of all the conversations Morgana could have overheard...

(Belatedly, much too belatedly, it occurred to him that Shiho would likely mention something to Ann about that conversation.

God, he hoped Shiho didn't say anything to Ann about that conversation.)

"I know you," Morgana went on, taking a seat by Akira's ankles. Oddly wise luminous blue eyes started up at him from a black-and-white void. "You wouldn't trust her like you do if she was just hot... right? A-and you said she was sweet before, too! I heard you!"

The only time Akira had ever called Ann 'sweet' out loud was that night the guys had declared themselves wingmen—looked like Morgana hadn't been quite so asleep after all.

(Not that Akira hadn't guessed that; the timeline for his constant companion abruptly deciding that Haru was his new bestie and going completely radio silent on Akira was a little too convenient, but confirmation didn't feel too great here, either.)

"What about it?" he eventually said.

Morgana hesitated for an equally long moment, then he said, "Look, I'm not going to hand Lady Ann over to just anyone, you hear? Especially not someone who doesn't really love her. I-if you hurt her, you're going to have to deal with me!"

The waver in Morgana's voice only confirmed Akira's vague urge to murder the perpetrators of this whole mess, but for the moment, all he could do was nod.

"Well! Good." Morgana let his hackles fall and licked the back of his paw, gathering his composure again.

Akira let the silence linger, considering.

That vague urge to murder hadn't gone away just yet, he still needed to find Ann, and Morgana's fur was still ruffled.

Hm.

He could work with this.

"I need your help," Akira decided at length, because Morgana sometimes needed that reassurance, and now felt like one of those times.

True to his instinct, Morgana relaxed. He stopped licking and perked his ears. "Do tell."

"I need..." Akira cast around for the right word. "...revenge."

And just like that, the rest of Morgana's trepidation melted away.

"Heh-heh-heh—now we're talkin'."