Okkotsu wondered if Inumaki would train with him if he asked. Maki was a practically perfect sparring partner, if you didn't mind collecting bruises, but he'd watched Inumaki train on his own sometimes with dead sprints and high jumps. Without the collar. With a light flush across his cheeks, just a bit out of breath.
Inumaki had smiled and waved earlier today when he saw Okkotsu watching. Okkotsu might have melted into a puddle of cursed goop (could he turn mortification into cursed energy, was that a thing, he wondered), but he was pretty sure he waved back like a normal person.
He wondered if Inumaki always trained without the collar--
Gojo flicked him lightly on the neck, where a punch could’ve left Okkotsu’s vertebrae scattered on the ground behind the rest of him.
"You’re distracted, Yuuta,” Gojo said. He stepped back and waited for Okkotsu to retake his stance. "I'm glad you want extra training after classes—really, as your extra hard-working teacher, I am—but it doesn't have to be every night if you’d rather be somewhere else.”
"No, sorry, I'm fine." Okkotsu readied the katana again, a little more defensively this time, in case his thoughts wandered off. It wouldn’t mean much against Gojo-sensei, but it’d afford him a little more time to snap back to reality. "I've got too much catching up to do to take any breaks."
“Okay,” Gojo said, in gratuitous English. “But remember, Yuuta, you're special grade. The world's never going to give you any breaks, so you have to take them yourself. Live a little. Hang out with the others, maybe. I bet you want to."
Okkotsu wasn’t sure that what he wanted would count as hanging out, but the sentiment was close enough. "Yeah, I will. When I'm stronger."
Gojo regarded him with equal parts pride and disapproval.
Okkotsu didn't notice when Rika's presence faded. She came and went as she pleased anyway. He wouldn’t normally track her whereabouts while on campus since she couldn’t get into all that much trouble with the teachers around, after hours or no.
So Okkotsu went back to another practice bout with Gojo, which went quite well until his thoughts drifted off towards Inumaki with bedhead in the morning, offering an achingly soft "kelp" of hello, are you feeling well—
He parried, but barely, and went flying across the room.
He got back up again.
They watched one of Gojo-sensei's English movies in the shared lounge. Panda’s choice had been a horror movie with a handsome leading man and a stunning leading lady, all legs on both of them. And shambling monsters. Legs on those too, which were necessary for shambling.
Maki had been commentating over the whole movie, coaching the protagonist as if he could hear her. "No! You're a big strong man who don’t need no random infected stranger! Just shoot him!" When the leading man ignored her advice, she took a long sigh. "Idiot."
"Is it over yet?" Panda asked, his voice muffled as he held a cross-legged Inumaki (with a popcorn bowl in his lap) up in the air, as if Inumaki were a holy talisman that could save them all from the zombie horde in the television.
"Bonito flakes," Inumaki answered over the screaming of nameless extras.
Maki shook her head in disgust. "He's going to lose the old man too, all because he just had to go back for that stupid photo.”
"Is it over yet?" Panda asked again.
“Salmon,” Inumaki answered as a chainsaw began to whirr.
Panda peeked past, a split second before Maki could tell him it wasn’t over at all, and saw a chainsaw do what chainsaws did best.
“That’s gross,” Panda said, not looking away. “It’s not very realistic, is it?”
The TV screen flickered, buzzing with static as if it had somehow lost signal to the blu-ray player. Then the screen went dark.
From the darkness, a single claw came outstretched from out of the TV, followed by a gaping maw with too many teeth.
"Hi," Rika said as she stepped into the room. The TV flickered back on after she got her foot out of it. Rika shuffled to the side to avoid blocking their view of the TV as the movie continued.
"Hey, Rika. Wanna watch?" Maki asked.
"Nope.” Rika plucked Inumaki out of Panda's hands. She wrapped her giant bony hand gently around Inumaki’s torso, and there wasn’t much he could do about it. "Next time!"
"Sure thing. Tell Okkotsu he should join too."
"Next time, can I pick the movie?" Panda asked from what was probably a panda's fetal position, an upturned bowl of popcorn scattered around him.
"But you already picked this time. We can let Okkotsu choose. Or Rika, let Rika choose."
Rika chirped a strange monstrous sound, like glee if chainsaws could sound gleeful. "Panda help Rika pick! Next time! Bye bye."
With that, Rika left the room through the front door, fumbling a bit with her foot-long claws at the doorknob, with Inumaki still held gently in her grasp.
Okkotsu, to his credit, had been putting in a damned good effort against Gojo when the door flew off its hinges as Rika shouldered her way in, like an oversized quarterback holding an Inumaki under her arm. (“Kelp.”)
Okkotsu didn’t normally know what was going on, but at this particular moment, he felt he knew less than usual.
“Gift!” Rika announced. She placed Inumaki down in front of Okkotsu, waiting until Inumaki had gotten his footing before she let go of him. “Yuuta missing him, so Rika found him.”
Oh, no. Okkotsu glanced sidelong at Gojo-sensei, who looked like many things had become clear to him all at once.
“Mustard leaf,” Inumaki said mildly. That was a reminder, Okkotsu could tell, to—uh, to mind his manners? …What?
“Th-thanks?” he said to Rika.
Rika tilted her head at him, watched him with large eyes (all the better to see you with) as Okkotsu’s anxiety started having its own anxiety. Tremulously, she asked, “Rika in trouble?”
“Bonito flakes,” Inumaki reassured her quickly with a pat on her bony shin. “Mustard leaf,” he repeated at Okkotsu, forcefully but not unkindly.
“No trouble! Thank you so much, Rika. I really like… him.” Yeah, that was a sentence Okkotsu definitely said aloud in public. "He's great. And the nicest person I've ever met, and I really like spending time with him so, thanks, Rika. You’re the best."
Rika glowed, somewhat literally but mostly metaphorically, and Okkotsu could’ve sworn Inumaki did too.
“So, Toge,” Gojo began, using the same upbeat tone he used for 5 AM missions, “are you busy?”
“Bonito flakes.” It was post-mission movie night for the first-years, so no, no one was busy. Movie night was more an excuse to not stew in your thoughts alone than anything else. “Dried mackerel?” Inumaki asked, a bit hesitant—shy, even, making firm eye contact with the wall behind Okkotsu.
“Oh, um, n-no,” Okkotsu babbled. “You don’t have to stay, I’m sorry, I don’t want to bother you—“
“Of course you can stay, Toge. And tell you what, you two should train together,” Gojo suggested entirely too innocently. “It’s a closer match for Yuuta than against me, and I’ll watch. Movies in the next room, that is.”
Rika’s ears (horns?) perked up. With boundless hope, she asked, “Rika watch movies too?”
“You’d want to? My pleasure, Rika. We’ll watch movies while the boys get hot and sweaty together.” Gojo-sensei clapped his hands together like patting himself on the back. “Perfect! Everyone wins.”
That was how Okkotsu and Inumaki started their evening sparring sessions after their missions. The first time, they were nervous to start with, afraid of hurting each other.
It didn’t take long for Inumaki to remember that Okkotsu was stronger, faster, and more resilient than he looked. It took a bit longer for Okkotsu to realize that Inumaki wouldn’t hate him for landing a hit or two or more.
Late in the evening, practically at night, Gojo stuck his head into the dojo and told Okkotsu and Inumaki he was kicking them out since they were cutting into his beauty sleep. It was about time anyway, so Okkotsu went to pack up his things.
Okkotsu saw Inumaki and Gojo-sensei conversing by the door. He didn’t intend to eavesdrop.
“Tuna mayo?” Inumaki asked in a very soft murmur. He’d been like that all evening, a bit mumbly, much moreso than usual, but it was endearing. “Salted plums.”
Gojo, conspicuously and conspiratorially, turned to look at Okkotsu (Okkotsu immediately looked the other way), then back to Inumaki.
“Yup, Yuuta always trains shirtless,” Gojo answered extremely loudly for some reason, way too loudly, with pointed, weaponized loudness. “It’s warmer indoors, even at night. Why do you ask?”
“Bonito flakes! Cod roe!” (Something something, indoor voice. Also, accusations of terribleness. Okkotsu was getting pretty good at understanding Inumaki these days.)
“Ah? Oh, well, pardon me, must be getting a little deaf with old age.”
Inumaki grabbed his things and dashed out the door—and Okkotsu didn’t think anything of it.
A moment later, once Okkotsu had put away the practice swords and his own katana, he found Gojo still loitering at the door, waiting for Okkotsu.
“You know, you could practice in front of a mirror,” Gojo said. It was unclear if he meant Inumaki or his training. “I’ve heard that helps. Wouldn’t know.”
“…Are you giving me relationship advice?” Okkotsu asked, because he was pretty sure he was receiving relationship advice from sorcerer society’s least desirable bachelor.
“What? Noooo, of course not! That’d be overstepping, and the Great Teacher Gojo-sensei does not overstep his teacherly bounds.”
“I figured it was more like an uncle around twenty times removed? But thanks, either way. I’m working on it.”
“Just keep at it,” Gojo replied. “You’re more of a natural than you think.”
At their second training session, Gojo and Rika absconded to watch some movie about raining and singing, though not before Gojo rattled off a list of pointers for Okkotsu’s swordsmanship.
After that, it was only him and Inumaki.
“Could you,” Okkotsu gestured, “unzip your collar?”
He did, exposing his mouth and neck down to his collarbone. Inumaki only asked why afterwards. “Mackerel?”
Okkotsu shrugged and smiled, sheepish but honest. “I like the view.”
Inumaki paused like a computer stuck in processing, or a deer in headlights. A pale pink flush spread across his cheeks, touching the snake and fangs.
Inumaki broke eye contact to look a bit further down—really looked, took his time to examine the contours of Okkotsu’s bare chest at his leisure—then finally back up to Okkotsu’s face.
“Salmon,” he agreed.
The collar stayed unzipped the whole evening, and every evening after.
In hindsight, Okkotsu really should’ve thought of Operation Just Ask Him sooner.