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Driven to Distraction

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The genesis of this fic came from two places; one, I'm clearly a sucker for pairing off the President and Vice President. Two, there's a moment in the drama CD where Alisa pulls off Emma's glasses and unbraids her hair, with Machias' reaction being translated as a sedate "O-Oh, my…" on the official site. Takuya Satou, however, reads it as a hilariously strangled "K-KORE WA…!?" and as soon as I heard the VP's brain melt I was like 'fic time'. This doesn't fit in with the rest of my M/E stories continuity-wise, which is probably for the best.

Seriously, I have no shame when it comes to this ship. Also, hormonal Machias is really, really fun to write. Smut be below!


This wasn't fair. This wasn't remotely fair.

One would have been forgiven for thinking that Machias, who was currently slumped over on one of the Phoenix Wings' many sofas with his head buried in his hands, was simply not feeling well. Or perhaps maybe someone had pushed one of the many buttons that the green haired boy possessed, such as Jusis. Or exams. The nightmare scenario of Jusis scoring higher than him on an exam, even. Not the case. This was something far more insidious, to be perfectly frank.

Machias knew by now that most of Class VII thought that he took things far too seriously, which occasionally led to situations like Fie asking him if he woke up scowling or did he have to work his way up to it by looking at his entrance exam score?

(Uncalled for, by the way, but that was neither here nor there).

Contrary to popular belief, the boy didn't fly off the handle quite often as people thought – no matter what they said – and when he did it was certainly because the topic warranted it.

Take midterms, for instance; they signaled how well you were retaining information that you were being taught in class and thus were a benchmark for quality of education. The Erebonian nobility; a class that had to be brought to task for their oppression of the common man. The Class VII concert that they had just found out about but somehow Elliot had already taken charge of; he was performing a duet with Jusis. Jusis. Who in Aidios' name came up with that insane idea?

All those, however, paled in comparison to what was plaguing him now. His equilibrium was shattered, his restraint was in tatters, and he was pretty (read: absolutely) sure that the attractive brunette currently at the center of his mental maelstrom thought that he had gone absolutely crazy.

"Thank you Alisa," he thought darkly, massaging his head for what seemed like the hundredth time that afternoon and cursing the blonde for teaching him a damnably inconvenient equation earlier that afternoon; much to his eternal chagrin and Aidios' eternal amusement, it turned out that Emma Millstein minus her glasses and braid equaled Machias Regnitz losing his damn mind.

He could certainly forgive himself for the initial slack-jawed reaction. Who knew that taking off a pair of lenses and letting some hair down made such a difference? Rean and Gaius had noticed the shift immediately as well, and besides; a bit of staring was perfectly natural when someone saw something surprising. Certainly nothing improper about it at all…

… Except that there were two problems that were looking like they weren't going away anytime soon. For one, the whole staring thing? Machias, male teenager that he was, found himself unable to stop. Which somehow might have been workable if not for problem number two, which was that apparently taking a good, hard look at Emma for the first time also meant that he was now doomed to be barraged by endless images of her more… alluring attributes.

It wasn't as if he hadn't noticed she was pretty before – he'd had plenty of opportunity to observe firsthand while working with her on the seemingly endless list of class representative duties – but that had been more of a cursory, objective analysis, free of pesky minutiae like sparkling eyes, flushing cheeks, and round, supple nonononononononoSTOPITSTOPITSTOPIT-

Machias wasn't sure if it was biologically possible for a blush to be permanent, but at the moment it sure seemed like the answer was leaning towards yes. Wonderful. At least he'd fit in with the rest of the inn's accoutrements.

"This is ridiculous," the teen seethed with frustration, glaring at the other couch like it was somehow responsible for his current predicament. "Get ahold of yourself and stop acting like a hormone addled moron!"

Make no mistake, 'moron' was the correct term. In the grand scheme of things Machias wasn't sure what was worse, his sudden and crippling inability to talk with a close friend that he genuinely liked without stuttering and having to forcibly keep his gaze from landing somewhere that it really didn't belong, or the fact that he was damn near positive that Alisa had somehow borne witness to all instances of this, knew *exactly* why it was happening and wore varying expressions of amusement/pity blatantly advertising that fact.

Traitor. He didn't care how cute she thought it was, whatever happened to homeroom solidarity?!

… Well, better her than Instructor Sara, he supposed.

"Okay," he began slowly, fully determined to use his considerable willpower and mental acumen to surpass the problem he currently faced. How hard could it be? "Start small, like a king's opening in chess. Visualize something innocuous, and focus on it."

The image of a book immediately formed in his mind's eye, much to his relieved satisfaction. A book was good! A book was safe. Books, after all, were gateways to knowledge, and that was why he spent so much time in Thors' library, where there were so, so many books to be found –

"Oh my," Emma crooned, bending more than was strictly necessary to look at the sign-out sheet and drawing far too much attention to her scandalously unbuttoned blouse in the process. "It seems that you're a few days past on the deadline for these books, Machias." Her half lidded eyes flicked back upward as she moistened her lips. "That just won't do. We have standards, you know."

She paused to let her rebuke sink in before she practically sashayed around the desk and began idly toying with his tie, delicate fingers playing with the fabric as if it were merely a substitute for something far more appealing. "Did anyone tell you what the penalty for overdue returns is?" she breathed, before shaking her hair out of her braid and moving her hands toward his shirt buttons -

A pillow soon found itself flung across the room somewhere in the general direction of the bookshelf followed by a noise that sounded suspiciously like a balloon having all the air let out of it at a painfully slow rate, before the beleaguered (and now even more hot and bothered than he was before) VP mustered up the enraged accusation of "EVEN THE WRITTEN WORD BETRAYS ME NOW!?"

"… Machias?" a new arrival asked timidly, and the green haired boy swore he felt his insides freeze.

For future reference; the only thing worse than getting almost caught in the middle of a lowbrow, inappropriate fantasy? Almost getting caught in the middle of a lowbrow, inappropriate fantasy by the subject of said fantasy who had somehow managed to sneak up on you unawares. Today might not have been in contention for the worst day of Machias' life, but it was far and away the front runner for second place and that was even taking into account the field study where he had been unceremoniously thrown in jail.

"E-Emma!" he squeaked upon seeing the bespectacled girl behind the couch and oh Goddess since when could he even hit notes that high?

"I'm sorry to bother you," she apologized a little nervously, because walking in on someone screaming at books wasn't exactly an everyday occurrence, "But we're going to be eating dinner soon. I'm assuming you'll be joining us?"

Question: simple. Answer: simple. Machias currently not trusting his voice to tell people that water was wet: complicated.

"Y-Yes," and damn it all, he still sounded like he could rival the finest dog whistle on the market simply by opening his mouth. "Er, I mean yes. Of course," Machias tried again, and wanted to curl up into a ball of abject misery when he realized that he had gone too far in the other direction and his voice had now dropped about an octave and a half. It was difficult to claim sotto voce when responding to a query about dinner, after all, unless there was something particularly sinister about that evening's main course that he wasn't aware of.

"That's good! I'm sure it will be delicious," she replied brightly, and Machias wondered if he would ever be able to say anything around her that freely and easily again.

Machias steeled himself. He could do this. He *would* do this. All he had to do was think before he spoke and keep his hormones under control by making sure that his gaze never dropped below Emma's neck at any point.

Aidios help him, he was in so much trouble.

Out loud, "Of course," he declared firmly, his eyes focused on the beautifully designed clock just above the door and not moving a rige. "I wouldn't expect anything else from an establishment such as this."

He idly wondered if the metalwork had been done by an occupant of Ymir or if it had been purchased during a trip; it didn't seem to draw from any contemporary design influences, it was clearly very intricate, and any other observations that Machias might have had about the device were blown to kingdom come when Emma demurely took a seat beside him and nearly made his heart come out of his chest.

The beats were pounding in his ears now. Could she hear that? Because *he* could definitely hear that. He was having serious trouble hearing anything else, as a matter of fact.

"Focus on the clock," Machias flailed inwardly, his strategy already getting shot to pieces not thirty seconds into the game. "Focus on the clock. Look at the numerals, admire the craftsmanship, and try not to hyperventilate and die."

Being the high strung individual that he was, the gunman was finding this task easier said than done. Maybe he shouldn't have had that coffee earlier.

"Machias," she tried to get his attention again, this time punctuating the word with a light brush and squeeze of his arm - apparently Emma thought he wasn't thrown off enough because she was touching him now and his idiot body was busy telling his idiot mind that it really felt quite nice so if the two of them could work together to get her to touch him more, that would be *fantastic* -

"Shutupshutupshutupshutupshutup-"

"Yes?" he repeated dumbly, somehow managing to avoid a stutter while hoping against hope that she would leave and let him wallow in his abject pathetic… ness.

… Was that a word? On second thought, he didn't think that was a word. Excellent, not only was this mess making him look foolish to the nth degree, it seemed to be making him stupider, too.

"Are you feeling all right? You've been acting a little… odd, today," Emma said delicately, and Machias could practically hear the frown.

"W-What do you mean?" he asked, not at all surprised that his run of steady speech lasted for all of a syllable but still feeling rather bitter about it. "I don't think my behavior's been particularly out of the ordinary."

She made a disapproving noise that he could only presume meant that she was frowning harder. "It's just that you've – well…"

Been trying his hardest to avoid drooling over her like Rean and Alisa drooled over each other when they thought no one was looking and like Instructor Sara drooled over alcohol regardless of whoever was looking? Why yes, thank you for noticing.

"You've… I haven't done something to upset you, have I?" Emma finally got out, the brunette sounding more than a little aggrieved and confused.

He had to bite back a laugh at that. If he really wanted to be petty, he could claim she technically had but it hardly seemed fair considering her only transgression was looking sinfully good when she…

Well okay, at this point maybe it was more accurate to say she looked sinfully good period and leave it at that. Thinking harder about it was going to land him in even more trouble than he already was.

Machias shook his head in the negative. "No, not at all," he told her, the metaphorical gears rapidly turning in his head as he tried to come up with a way – any way – out of this. "Perhaps I've just been focusing far too much on the upcoming duet I need to perform for the festival. I mean, Jusis and I hardly work well together under most circumstances, so…"

He immediately regretted the awful, awful lie as soon as it left his mouth. For one thing, there was no doubt that Emma herself had drawn the short straw for that particular assignment so it wasn't terribly likely she was going to be sympathetic. And second… looking back, his excuse made absolutely no sense because –

"I see," she said neutrally, her voice now clipped and terse, and Machias knew without needing to look that he had just made things worse. "So you're telling me that you're so displeased with the arrangements for the festival you've decided to show it by avoiding any and all attempts at conversing with me, looking at me, or acknowledging that I'm alive in general?"

Because that. It was ridiculously flimsy reasoning that no sane person would employ, but then again what sane person found themselves in a position like this!?

"You're right, Machias. That makes perfect sense," the sarcasm dripping from every word making him wince; she hadn't sounded this annoyed even after their first disastrous field study, and that was saying something. "I suppose it's only fair, seeing as how this concert was my idea to start with and I'm nothing but thrilled about being the solo performer."

Wow. Considering how little Emma employed cutting snippiness and dismissive snark, she was *remarkably* adept in employing both, and it probably would have been genuinely amusing and impressive had they been directed at anyone but himself. Considering how flagrantly he had just insulted her intelligence, however, he couldn't exactly say that it was undeserved.

"Emma - "

"If I'm being given the silent treatment," the brunette cut him off without mercy, a slight waver in her voice now, "then I-I think it's only fair I know why, wouldn't you agree?"

The undercurrent of anger in her voice was still quite present, but it was the split second of hesitation that made a cold weight coil tightly in his chest, and against all good judgement he finally turned to steal a glance –

Only to wish he hadn't when he saw the mix of confusion and hurt on her normally happy face, and knowing that he had been the one to put it there elevated the weight from heavy to crushing.

That look shouldn't have been there. It didn't belong. It wasn't right.

"I assure you," Machias told her quietly, putting as much sincerity in the words as he possibly could and feeling heat rise in his cheeks with every syllable. "I'm not upset with you, nor have you done anything wrong."

An indignant sniff. "Which is why you're still not looking at me right now, of course."

"That's not…" the green haired teen began, before trailing off with no idea what to say next. What *could* he say next? It wasn't as if he didn't want to look at her or talk with her; he could happily do both all day, but therein lay the problem, because past that were some… improper thoughts. Seriously improper thoughts. Thoughts involving low cut blouses and late fees that he would have no problem paying over and over -

"Not what?" she prodded, and… was she moving closer?

Aidios above, she was moving closer.

Why.

"Nothing. That said, it's about time for dinner, isn't it? If we don't get there soon, the others might start without us," he pointed out reasonably, except not really because the scent of strawberry shampoo hitting his nose as soon as he opened his mouth made the sensible and coherent sequence of words he had formulated come out as "grk" and he found himself wanting to die a little right after.

It was just that kind of day.

"Machias? Are you sure you're all right?"

Great, she had switched from puzzled and angry to worried and concerned. As if he wasn't doing enough wrong right now…

"I'm fine," he said, and wonder of wonders his voice has once again dropped into that lower register that he was ever so fond of. Better than it cracking, he supposed, but even the sunniest optimist wouldn't hesitate to label that as anything but damning with faint praise. "I'm fine," he repeated for added emphasis, as if that would be remotely helpful.

"I don't think you are," Emma informed him, and out of the corner of his eye he could see her biting her lip adorably as she moved closer still and *damn* you, Alisa.

"I keep telling you – "

"Just stay still for a second, okay?" she requested – funny how it sounded like an order – and Machias took a sharp, ragged breath when he felt a cool palm rest against the side of his neck, her thumb coming across his jawline in a manner that was dangerously close to a caress.

He didn't even want to think about how huge his eyes probably were right now. This was not helping. Words failed to describe how little this was helping.

"You don't feel warm," Emma murmured to herself, before applying the slightest amount of pressure to turn his gaze toward her and visibly resisted a groan when he still persisted in his aversion toward eye contact. "Machias."

"What is it?"

"Why do you look like you want to run away from me right now?" she asked plaintively, and he swore his gulp was audible. Panicking, he said the first thing that came to mind, unfortunately forgetting that logic was panic's easy prey.

"Because I'm on the verge of doing something extraordinarily foolish and I'd prefer to avoid that," and whoever said the truth will set you free must have been an idiot of the highest order because all he felt was horrified, exposed, and more than a little bit shocked at his incredible lapse in judgment. This wasn't the first time his stupid, stupid mouth had gotten him into trouble and it probably wouldn't be the last time, but he had a sinking feeling that it would probably be the worst time.

"…Define foolish," Emma replied, a new note in her voice that he couldn't identify, and he was dimly aware of the cushions making rustling noises as the brunette closed what little distance there was left.

closeclosecloseclosetooclose

She sounded nervous. That almost made him want to laugh. She had no reason to be nervous, so why…?

"Emma? Please move back," he whispered, his words sounding shamefully uncertain and inadequate to his own ears so he could only imagine what they sounded like to the (very, very attractive) girl beside him.

She shook her head. "I'd rather not, if it's all the same to you."

He had no idea if that was supposed to be good or bad.

Sapphire met emerald as their gazes finally locked, and the storm that he saw swirling in her eyes sent a surge of heat running through his blood. "Emma."

"Y-Yes?" she breathed, moistening her deliciously pink lips ever so slightly –

And just like that, he came undone.

"I'm sorry for this," came his quiet murmur, and any words that she had on the tip of her tongue died when he impulsively leaned forward and captured her mouth with his own, muffling the quiet gasp.

It was a warm touch, both soft and infinitely gentle, and while the heavens didn't open up and sing like in the bodice rippers favored by many of Heimdallr's female population, it was still… well, nice.

The product of a bout of temporary insanity, perhaps, but nice.

"She's going to murder me after," Machias thought dully, half in shock at what he had just done and the other half in shock that he didn't feel her ARCUS start pulsing with the telltale shimmer of a Silver Thorn blast yet. "She's going to murder me after, and I'm going to deserve it."

That was what Machias expected, anyway. What he received instead was a palm coming up to splay against the lapels of his uniform jacket and a sigh that didn't sound – or feel, or that matter – at all displeased, and the realization that she was returning the kiss with a little more fervor than it had started with sent an unexpected thrill down his spine.

Oh.

Well, then.

When they finally separated after what felt like minutes, the pair found themselves looking at each other with their noses mere riges apart, neither quite knowing what to do next.

Emma's eyes were wide as he had ever seen them behind her lenses, and her reddened cheeks and rapid breathing were dead giveaways that she was about as frazzled as he was right then.

Of course, a wicked voice in the back of his voice taunted him, a little shock was to be expected considering she had just been mauled by her classmate…

"… I…"

"I'm sorry!" Machias exclaimed frantically, his head dropping and his face burning with humiliation and embarrassment, a litany of apologies trying to force their way out and not coming remotely close to sounding coherent.

"That wasn't – I just – it was just the glasses, the hair, and then the library thing, I… "

He was babbling. He *knew* he was babbling, and the worst part was that he could do absolutely nothing to stop it. Unbelievable.

"I'm sorry," the gunman repeated miserably, the fire of desperation having burned itself out only to be replaced with the sickening feeling that he had just irreparably damaged one of the best friendships that he had been fortunate to cultivate at Thors, and for what? All because he couldn't keep his baser impulses under wraps. "That was… that was a mistake. I shouldn't have done that."

He took a deep, shuddering breath before running his fingers through his hair. "Feel free to start yelling now," Machias muttered weakly, figuring that it was best to get it over with.

Had Machias taken the time to look at Emma instead of anywhere but, however, he would have noticed some interesting – and very rapid – changes in her facial expressions, from vaguely startled at the initial 'sorry', to confusion when he had brought up the 'library thing', to raw, genuine hurt when he had uttered the word 'mistake', and finally ending with downright peeved when he conceded the floor to what he thought was an inevitable explosion.

"Are you done?" Emma asked, a slow deliberation in her tone that was almost silky, and Machias nodded resolutely, bracing himself for what he had undoubtedly earned.

"Good," she replied with a sense of finality, before her hand flashed out, grabbed his tie, and unceremoniously pulled him down so she could return the favor.

He would never, ever understand women.

Their first attempt had been… well, he couldn't speak for her, of course, but in his opinion it had been good. Very, very good. Far better than an initial foray had any right to be, from what little he managed to glean from academy gossip, and though he didn't exactly have practical experience in the field he couldn't recall anything overly bumbling from either one of them, how he started it notwithstanding. That said, that only might have been because it had been slow and steady; one might even have called it chaste.

In other words, it was the polar opposite of the kiss that Emma was currently giving him now.

It was searing, it was intense, it was passionate, and Machias finally understood why so many romance authors wrote like they were paid by the adjective. He felt delicate fingers winding and tangling themselves in his short hair, not that he particularly minded – it wasn't as if his own hands weren't taking the time to explore, his palms tracing the curve of her shoulder blades and sliding down to the small of her back, resulting in a breathy moan against his mouth and my, he enjoyed hearing that entirely too much –

Somewhere in the back of his mind, the civilized portion of his psyche was struggling mightily to regain control, pointing out that this was *tremendously* improper, that any one of the inn's employees could come in at any minute, to say nothing of their classmates, and speaking of which it was rather inconsiderate to make said classmates wait to eat dinner after a long, tiring day…

And then the brunette's tongue entered the equation and gave the gunman's more primal side enough motivation to grab its shotgun and start trying to blast the hell out of civility. There was a time and place for it certainly, but making out on a couch with arguably the most beautiful girl in Class VII (biased opinion, he was sure at the very least Rean would say different), if not Thors?

Was.

Not.

It.

In the very pleasant meantime, Emma's hands had moved on from his scalp to his arms before they slid down to a sensitive spot just above his waist and he somehow managed to bite back a startled gasp. Suddenly, he was very aware of how uncomfortably constricting his pants had gotten in the past few minutes and equally aware of the necessity to move a little so at least his – problem – wasn't quite so obvious.

Shifting his weight, however, had the side effect of bringing Emma's down on him, and he noted the soft, pillowy feeling against his chest felt quite nice before her hips (unintentionally, he could only presume at that point) twisted and wound up grinding, and this time he couldn't hold back a strangled moan from escaping his throat.

She withdrew immediately, alarmed. "I-I'm sorry!" she cried hastily, looking more than a little panicked. "Did I hurt you?"

Machias swallowed hard, trying to get his racing heartbeat under control. "N-No. You didn't," he answered, his gaze alighting on the clock from earlier. With her practically on top of him, there was no way she was going to miss his… physiological reaction to their activities. "Quite the opposite, actually."

Emma blinked, puzzled. "I… I don't…" she started uneasily, before she moved against him while adjusting herself and suddenly froze, her face turning a rather fetching shade of scarlet.

Damn it.

"Oh. Um… oh," she uttered lamely, the words coming out small and quiet.

"Yes, well…" he said weakly, wishing that a giant hole would open up and swallow him right about now. How exactly could he rephrase "sorry about that, but you're really hot and it turns out the real thing beats any fantasy hands down; by the way could you tell me what the penalty for an overdue book is?" into something halfway acceptable?

"I can't exactly control… that is to say it's… kind of out of my hands," the boy continued, and mother of the Goddess he couldn't have picked a worse turn of phrase had he tried. "Sorry," he apologized again, wishing even harder for that giant hole to show up.

She shook her head, clearly a little off balance herself. "No, that's… there's no need. Besides, according to most of the literature… I'm fairly sure that's a compliment," Emma finished, nibbling her lip nervously in an image that was going to be seared into his dreams for years to come.

Literature. Hmm. He had to admit, it was a little comforting that he hadn't been the only person to do research on the subject, even if it did leave him curious as to what exactly she had read. Come to think of it, she really never elaborated on what went on in that club of hers…

"Machias. What… what is… what are we…?"

Emma's hesitant voice snapped him back to reality, and for once Machias found himself at a total loss for words, with not even a token stammer to fill the sudden void.

What was he supposed to say to that? Hell, what was he supposed to think about that?

He didn't have the faintest idea. But then again, what else was new?

Meanwhile, the brunette's expression got tighter and tighter with every passing moment of silence, before she slowly shook her head and sighed, shifting off him and pulling herself to a sitting position. "Question answered, I suppose," she chuckled mirthlessly.

Machias shifted uncomfortably, having read the change in atmosphere immediately. "Emma – "

"No, it's… it's all right." She tried to smile then, thin and brittle, and the gunman saw through the attempt to disguise the hurt for what it was. "W-We should go eat dinner. We've kept the others long enough." She stood up, hands smoothing down her outfit as best they could.

"Emma, wait."

"I said it was fine, didn't I?" she told him, a frosty edge to her words now that made Machias wince; not that he didn't deserve it for reacting in about the worst way possible.

Initiator or not, he wasn't the only person putting themselves out there and for him to be surprised into forgetting that even for a second was nothing short of shameful.

"I'm sorry." It was a day for apologies, it looked like. "I just… I wasn't sure how to answer, that's all. I mean, I didn't exactly set out to engineer any of this."

"I didn't either, you know."

Her reply was guarded and short, but there wasn't the wounded bite that there had been a minute ago and for that he was relieved.

"I do." He paused. "I don't want to leave this unfinished, Emma."

The brunette nodded. "I'm sure we won't," and while he was pretty sure she meant to try and cut the tension that permeated the room, the undercurrent of vulnerable doubt in her tone made him flinch guiltily and he could only hope she didn't notice.

Judging from the softening of her expression and the fleeting look of apology she gave him, she had. "It would probably be best if we both took a bit of time to process… this, wouldn't it?" she admitted, running her tongue over her bottom lip thoughtfully and Machias couldn't help but stare in spite of himself. He knew she wasn't doing it on purpose, but… Goddess.

"A-Agreed."

His voice was thick and hesitant, and it was impossible for Emma to miss the clenching of his jaw as he went silent. She looked like she wanted to say something, but fortunately for both their sakes she swallowed whatever words she had and instead forced an uncertain smile onto her face.

"So. Dinner?"

"I think that's a good idea."

She nodded at him, and after taking a moment to rearrange the cushions to make it look like there hadn't been two horizontal teens on it mere minutes earlier, he stood up to join Emma, their fingers barely touching as he moved past her.

Funny how such a fleeting brush could linger even hours later, almost like they had been burned.


Sleep had not come easily that night.

To be fair, Machias hadn't genuinely been brooding about Emma the entire time; the talk at the dinner table taking a turn for the serious had everyone, even the more irreverent among their number like Angelica, thinking hard on what was to come for Erebonia. There was no denying that the conflicts in the Empire were still going strong, a truth that was only driven home by the earlier actions of the Imperial Liberation Front.

Furthermore, as a mix of Commoner and Noble, it stood to reason that Class VII was duty bound to do their best to change the perspectives of those whose perspectives needed changing, and that was something Machias was determined to support with everything he had.

Naturally, Ymir's famed hot springs were as relaxing as he thought they might be, and the after bath pillow fight – hereto forthwith known as the Great Feather War - had been a competitive affair that had left everyone exhausted.

It went without saying that he and Emma had a pact of non-aggression during the conflict, though the entire affair reeked of mutual avoidance and Machias was relatively sure that Alisa had pulled the brunette aside during a break in hostilities to figure out why. Judging from her unimpressed look, nothing had been divulged. Thank goodness for small blessings.

That, however, had brought on the night, and with the night his mind was free to replay the events of the afternoon in detail. Painstaking detail. Gloriously painstaking detail, one might say, with special given attention paid to the memory of how soft Emma was and how her lips tasted…

(Mint tea. He had an entirely new appreciation for mint tea).

And that didn't even get into how his obscenely hormonal mind played out the myriad of possibilities that might have been had they not done the sensible, proper thing and stopped. It was also interesting how 'sensible' and 'proper' sounded like vile curses all of a sudden, but that was beside the point.

While he may have admitted to being curious about the finer points of sex – because embarrassing or not, there was absolutely nothing that Machias Regnitz would permit himself to be totally ignorant about – all he had learned had come from anatomy textbooks and some other reading material that was low brow and off color but still very necessary. Foolishly, he had thought that had been more than sufficient, particularly since developing his love life was not among the laundry list of goals he set out to achieve at Thors.

No amount of reading could have possibly prepared him for that particular experience, and it had left him unnerved, frustrated, worried…

… And very much wanting to pick up their exploration where it was left off.

Needless to say, it was an exhausted Machias that stumbled into the dining room next day in search of some the strongest coffee Ymir could brew, and he wasn't at all surprised to see Emma looking about as rested as he was, nursing a cup of tea as she greeted him with a wan smile.

Maybe if the others hadn't arrived shortly after, they might have had the chance to talk. That choice, however, was taken out of their hands when everyone noticed just how much snow was coming down outside; a phenomenon that took on a sinister air when Rean received a mysterious letter from a soon to be known sender.

In hindsight, Machias really should have felt grateful to Phantom Thief B – no, Enforcer No. X of Ouroboros – for giving their group a rallying point. Nothing brought Class VII together like a mutual goal, and when Rean made the decision to move out the gunman felt the lethargy slough off his shoulders like it had never been there to start. In its place was a familiar, burning determination to see the task that faced them through to the end, and it was a determination that he knew that all his classmates shared.

He caught his link partner's gaze as everyone prepared to set off, relieved to see no embarrassed hesitation in her sapphire eyes; just the familiar resolute steadiness that Machias had come to rely on in battle. The ranged specialist gave the arts user a firm nod, his shotgun slung over his shoulder, and smiled a little when Emma mouthed a 'business as usual, then?' when she stepped beside him to walk in sync, all tension having been pushed aside.

The hours seemed to pass by in a blur; Rean recounting his past as they marched up Ymir Valley, getting trapped in the ice by that monster, the revelation of the foppish Phantom Thief B as a member of the order responsible for those archaisms… it had been an eventful day, to say the least, and no one objected to Baron Schwarzer's recommendation that they extend their stay one more night. By the time they had gotten back to Ymir, the sun had already begun to set and there would be no point in rushing their trip home. It would be better to leave when they were rested and refreshed, wouldn't it?

And that was how Machias ended up sitting on a couch (not their couch luckily, otherwise he'd have to explain away a sudden blushing fit that he *knew* he'd be unable to stop) with Gaius, Elliot, and Rean, staring blankly at nothing in particular as the rest of Class VII wound down around him.

"… the outfits are another thing that we have to confirm with Crow. What he wore may have worked for him, but I don't think we could all pull that off. Still, the designs that everyone saw last night should be okay.

"One thing at a time. Whatever we decide on, it'll be what we all wear, right Rean?"

"Right. With so many of us on stage, it'll be best if the guys and girls all matched with each other. It'll look better for the audience. What do you think, Mr. Vice President?"

A moment of silence.

"Machias?"

The green haired boy still didn't reply, and it took Rean waving a hand in front of his face to snap him out of it, visibly startling him. "Welcome back! You feeling okay?"

"Oh! Um… yes, of course. I apologize, my attention drifted for a moment. What were we talking about again?" Machias asked, his hand coming up to adjust his glasses reflexively.

"The same topic we've been on for the last half hour," Gaius quipped, his brow creasing as he stared at Machias with a bit of concern. "Are you feeling all right? Your attention span isn't quite as sharp as it normally is."

"He was acting pretty funny yesterday, too," Fie noted, her amber eyes glinting amusedly. "Don't tell me he's still sulking about having to perform a duet with Jusis."

"As much as I enjoy witnessing a good Regnitz hissy fit, I wouldn't blame him the slightest in this case," the blonde grumbled from the window, flicking his gaze back in irritation upon hearing the bespectacled boy's reflexive scoff. "While we're willing to put aside our differences for the sake of the festival and in recognition of the hard work that's gone into the concert so far, that doesn't change the fact that's it's a questionable arrangement to start with."

"How generous of you both," Alisa deadpanned, shaking her head in exasperation.

"Suck it up, you two. It's only one night," the ex-jaeger continued. "Besides, I think Alisa was right when she said the girls at Thors will love it."

The blonde nodded vigorously. "Why wouldn't they? Two academy rivals, always at odds with each other but putting their differences aside to unite for a common cause – it's a great story!"

Fie put one finger to her mouth in a pastiche of exaggerated thought. "Hmm… if you say so. I was actually talking about the two pretty boys being stuck in frills and forced to harmonize, though."

Alisa grinned impishly as Laura broke into laughter. "There's that too, I guess."

"We're dropping this," Jusis announced imperiously, turning back to stare at the snow covered landscape with a flourish while pointedly ignoring the snickers from behind him.

"As much it would make sense," Machias sighed ruefully, trying to push all thoughts of frilled suits out of his head, "I got most of my – ruminating – "

"Sulking."

"Ruminating," he emphasized, turning to fix Fie with a dirty look and rolling his eyes when she yawned at him and tilted her head quizzically, "on the concert done yesterday." It was a shameless lie, though to be fair as of late the duet truly had been the farthest thing from his mind. "I just slept poorly last night, that's all."

"Hopefully you're not getting sick from the journey up Ymir Valley. My father always had to keep me from practicing too long outside during the winter months because I would always end up nursing a cold soon after," Laura noted.

"My parents were the same way even though Nord was fairly temperate. Snow wasn't uncommon, but it was nothing like it was here," Gaius chuckled, receiving a look of commiseration from the Arseid scion.

"Haha, you're both lucky. Master Ka-fai thought that snow practice days would 'build my constitution', if you can believe that."

"Did they?" Elliot wondered out loud, smiling apologetically when he saw Rean's pained wince.

"Well, if building my constitution meant chilling me to the bone then he was one hundred percent right," the swordsman lamented, before turning to Machias again. "That said, whenever I thought I was coming down with something I usually took a dip in the hot springs. That should cure whatever ails you."

Machias had to admit, that sounded very tempting. "I might have to take you up on that. I'm assuming we're taking turns again?"

"I actually think I'll turn in early tonight," Gaius said, reaching up and stretching to his full height. "Traversing that snow left me more tired than anything else, and I'm looking forward to the comfort of a warm bed.

"Same," the redhead agreed. "The springs were great, but sleep sounds better. We have to be up early for tomorrow, anyway."

Various calls of assent were heard from around the room, and Rean eyed the VP with some amusement. "Huh. Looks like you'll have them all to yourself tonight, Machias. Not a bad arrangement, assuming no one hits you or throws anything in your direction."

Machias blinked, baffled. That had sounded oddly specific. "I-I beg your pardon?"

He had his answer when the archer jumped to her feet in an instant. "That's – you – we said we were sorry, didn't we!?" Alisa borderline shrieked, her face the color of their uniforms. Laura, meanwhile, lowered her head in embarrassment and mumbled something that no one could quite catch, making Gaius raise an eyebrow from his vantage point on the couch.

"Hmmmm. I smell a story," Fie piped up, a thoughtful grin working its way onto the gunsword specialist's face.

"T-There's no story! I mean, there may have been a misunderstanding, and there may have been people and things in the wrong place at the wrong time – "

"Like my head and your bucket?" Rean chimed in, his voice as innocent and disarming as he could possibly make it.

"Yeah, like his head and my buc – shut up, you!"

Eying the steaming blonde with no small amount of trepidation, Machias discreetly whispered to his dark haired friend "Uh, was it a good idea to bait her like that? You know you're going to have to make it up to her later."

"So I will," Class VII's de facto leader agreed, smirking faintly as Alisa ranted furiously about better advertising for bathing schedules. "You know, I don't think I'll have a problem with that."

Machias found himself absolutely speechless for a moment as the implication fully sank in. "I… see," he finally mumbled, wondering when exactly the Eight Leaves initiate had developed such a devious side.

(Still, he highly doubted that Alisa would be complaining).

"The outdoor baths are open late tonight, correct?" Machias asked at last, deciding to switch back to the topic at hand.

"Yeah, they're actually open pretty late all year round. Guessing you want to get a soak in before bed?"

He nodded in assent. "You guess right. I'm going to miss the convenience of a hot spring mere minutes away when we all get back to Thors, that's for sure."

Rean laughed, obviously in full agreement. "No kidding. Showers are all well and good, but there's a reason that Ymir's baths are famed across the continent."

"Spoken like a proud hometown representative," the VP said amiably, closing his eyes and sighing as a still amused Rean tried to placate a still annoyed Alisa while Laura stammered out sheepish apologies in the background, with Fie explaining to a newly arrived Sara what all the hubbub was all about, much to the teacher's enjoyment and the exasperation of the nearby Jusis.

Had he been looking up, however, he might have seen the silent Emma fix him with a thoughtful, considering gaze before she turned away, her cheeks a rosy shade of pink.


"Oh yes," the still bespectacled teen thought leisurely, letting himself relax against the side wall of the hot spring. "I am going to *miss* this when we leave tomorrow."

Dinner had been a serious but abbreviated affair. It was serious because there was plenty of discussion on Ouroboros' role in what had transpired so far and how they had managed to source the archaisms that were a constant thorn in Class VII's sides, and it was abbreviated because it was crystal clear a few minutes into it that most of their number were about to collapse onto their plates.

Given the option, most of his classmates found themselves tucked in and passed out, with Machias reading until they had fallen asleep before he had grabbed a towel and tiptoed into the hallway, mindful not to wake anybody.

Surprisingly, there was no attendant like there normally was; he could only guess that at this time of night, there was no need. It didn't take him long to make his way to the very edge of the bath, farthest from the door and almost out of sight, and ease his way into the water, letting the all-encompassing heat soak into his bones and allowing him to feel the closest to relaxed he had felt in quite some time.

He was still wondering what to say to Emma, of course, but at least the prospect of talking to her didn't terrify him anymore; Phantom Thief B's little side-trip had at the very least done a good job of returning their relationship to something approaching normalcy.

Machias let his eyes flutter closed in contentment and started running through the possible scenarios. Maybe he could write a letter explaining himself once he had everything ordered and coherent?

No, that wouldn't work. While it'd be a lot easier for him to express himself via paper and pen, by the time he'd figured out what to write she'd have probably written him off as a lost cause, and besides… she deserved better than that.

The sound of a door sliding open.

Should he start it? That was certainly a possibility but odds were that he'd make a giant mess out of the whole affair, assuming that he could even make it out of the starting gate without stumbling, stuttering and falling on his face.

Water parting and sloshing. The spring's natural currents, perhaps, or possibly a little sulfur bubbling to the surface.

Maybe wait for her to start it? No, he didn't think that was really a good option, as tempting as it was. For one thing, it shouldn't have had to fall on her, and second… that still left him with the ever problematic issue of what to say.

"Machias?"

Exactly like that. If she walked up to him one day and… said…

Wait a second.

"Machias?"

… There was no way. Surely this was some fevered half-dream brought upon by the temperature.

Slowly opening his eyes and panning upwards, he was greeted by the sight of long, toned legs leading upwards to curvy hips, a slim torso that flared out rather magnificently and finally, a beautiful face framed with chestnut hair staring down at him with an uncertain expression.

In other words, he was staring at Emma Millstein wearing nothing but a towel and he was positive that this was proof that Aidios truly loved him. Or hated him.

It was definitely one of the two, anyway.

"Hello," he greeted dumbly, trying to remember how his brain worked with his mouth to make words happen and kind of, sort of failing.

"Hi."

He took a deep breath, his eyes trying in vain to search out anything to focus on besides the scantily clad brunette. "Um…"

"I… I couldn't help but overhear your conversation with Rean earlier, and I thought that with everyone asleep, it might be a good time to… well…" she hesitated, her face flooding with warmth that probably had nothing to do with the heat.

"Would it be all right if I joined you?" Emma asked at last, somehow managing to keep from squeaking at the end, and Machias swore he actually stopped breathing for a second or two.

Raise head. Lower head. Raise head. Lower head. Also, praise be to the Goddess.

Upon seeing his stiff, mechanical nod, Emma smiled faintly and immersed herself in the pool, wading over and settling next to Machias with a content sigh, clearly enjoying the water.

Neither one spoke for a few moments, with only the distant but fading sounds of Ymir's denizens to fill the silence.

"… Feel free to ask. I know you want to," Machias finally acquiesced, all too aware of the brunette's questioning gaze being leveled at his face.

"Why in the world are you still wearing your glasses?" the Class VII President inquired, looking faintly amused.

He shrugged diffidently, because at this point feeling self-conscious would have just been redundant. "No special reason other than that I see far better when I wear them. My vision is poor."

"… You know you're relaxing in a hot spring right now, right?"

"Let me reiterate; my vision is very poor," Machias said ruefully. "I'll gladly take a little bit of fog with my glasses on instead of not being able to see a rige in front of my face with my glasses off. Knowing my luck, when I got up to leave I'd be liable to trip, fall and suffer a well-earned concussion."

Miracle of miracles, she actually giggled at that, the notes doing a wondrous job of slowly unwinding the knot in his stomach. "Hehe. When you put it that way, I suppose that makes sense."

A pause, the gunman taking a deep breath and steeling his nerves for what was to come.

"So."

"So."

"I kissed you last night," Machias started, understanding that there was no way to make this anything but incredibly awkward but charging forward anyway.

"You did." The brunette absentmindedly flicked her fingers along the surface of the water and watched as the moonlight shone off the spreading ripples. "I'd… I'd like to know why."

Leading with the million mira question, it seemed. She really wasn't taking it easy on him. Not that he expected her to.

There were so many things Machias could say right now, so many explanations he could give. It would have been easy to go with the flattering and trite excuse, that Alisa's small changes had allowed him to truly see her for the first time… but that would have been a lie.

The blonde hadn't pulled back a metaphorical curtain and revealed that she was beautiful, because Machias had already known that from the beginning. If anything, she had done him a favor by allowing his head to catch up to his heart, the physical attraction finally going hand in hand with everything that he had grown to admire over the course of their friendship.

He could have done a better job of reigning in his baser instincts, true. But that did nothing to diminish the fact that his affection for her had started overrunning the bounds of platonic long ago… something that maybe he was finally, finally, willing to admit instead of keeping locked down, where it couldn't distract him from the goals he had set out to achieve when he had left Heimdallr with tunnel vision so pronounced it had taken all of Class VII to put him onto the right path, the path he should have been on to start with but was too angry to ever consider walking.

"Because I wanted to," he found himself saying, and he could feel his lips twitch upwards involuntarily at the admission. "Because you're the best possible academic rival I could have asked for, because you have the patience of a saint, because you have the kindest heart of anyone I know, because I can't seem to stop my damn head from turning whenever you walk into a room," and before Machias could embarrass himself any further her arm slid around his neck and pulled him down so she could kiss him again, smiling against his lips all the while.

Perfection.

"Just so we're clear," Emma breathed, slipping back just enough to look him in the eyes and the look on her face was so brilliant, so heart-breakingly beautiful that Machias knew that nothing he would ever see in his life could hope to eclipse it, "I like you, too."

He swallowed hard, thinking that he should say something clever, something witty, something that would bring some levity and light to the proceedings.

He kissed her again instead, harder but no less sweet, and he couldn't find it in himself to protest when she moaned into his mouth and pressed herself closer, her lithe curves molding against his broad frame perfectly.

Machias had thought their last embrace had been sensual to the point of being overwhelming, but this was far beyond anything his dreams could have ever conjured up, short skirt or no. Emma was soft where she needed to be and toned where she needed to be, with her towel doing nothing to hide that and those little breathless noises starting to come with more frequency now and heavens above he was harder than he had ever been in his life –

And when she gasped in surprise but didn't pull away, Machias knew exactly why.

"T-That's my fault, isn't it?" she asked quietly, the evidence of his arousal resting against her thigh and her voice having the ring of inquisitiveness as opposed to embarrassment or disgust.

"I don't think 'fault' is quite the right word, but – "

"So yes, then," Emma murmured flatly, her cheeks pinking. "Don't look like that," she chastised, frowning at the apologetic expression on his features. "It's perfectly natural, and besides… you're not…"

Her words trailed off into nothing, before she looked away and bit her lip (he would never, ever get tired of that) and it was only then that he registered the hardened points pressed against his chest and a warmth down near her thighs that his baser instincts knew had nothing to do with the water.

"You're not the only one that's curious about all this, Machias," she whispered, the honesty painfully raw and her blush growing darker with every word. "Do you know how hard – "

"Pick another word, please," he managed to get out without his eyes crossing, every little movement she made against him feeling like heaven and hell all at once.

"Difficult," she acquiesced, smiling slightly, "it was to get to sleep last night?"

He snorted in spite of himself. "Hmph. Is that a rhetorical question?"

"Not in the slightest. More importantly… if we're both seeking answers about this, then we would be derelict as the top two academic performers in Thors if we didn't do our due diligence in terms of research, wouldn't we?"

There was no way. She wasn't asking what he thought she was asking, was she?

Judging by the look on her face, she was.

If he was dreaming, he never, ever wanted to wake up.

"I suppose we would be," he heard a voice remarkably like his own pipe up, and it was a miracle that the words didn't somehow crumble to pieces given who the speaker was.

That drew from her a pleased smile - nervous, but pleased.

"Do… do you trust me?" Machias broached carefully, wanting to give her an out if she had any inkling of second thoughts.

"If I didn't, I wouldn't be here." Emma's reproach was soft as she reached up to tap him on the nose. "Don't be silly. If I can trust you with my life, then I can trust you with my body."

Machias exhaled roughly, apprehension and concern warring with desire and need. "Okay." He finally flashed a shaky grin at her, and there was something reassuring in seeing the same nerves in her smile back. "Okay. For research."

"For research," she couldn't help but giggle, and she didn't resist when he drew her close.

This time the kiss was slower, almost languid, but Machias had to fight shivers from running down his spine when he felt her hands begin to experimentally trace their way from his biceps to his torso, like she was mapping out territory (and who knows, maybe she was).

He didn't bother to hide the shaky breath when delicate fingertips brushed feather soft touches across lightly defined chest and abdomen muscles, and he practically hissed when she started drawing concentric circles while making pleased humming noises. Not a second later, Emma drew back quickly, startled, when he almost leapt up from the rock. "A-Are you all right!?"

"Fine," he said quickly – far too quickly, all things considered, and he hoped against hope that she wouldn't put the pieces together…

When he saw the shock die down, only to be replaced with the blossoming of a mischievous grin, he understood just how futile that pipe dream was. "You're ticklish."

He pressed his mouth into a firm, resolute line. "I am not," Machias asserted firmly, looking every inch the dignified Vice President despite the situation, only for the veneer to be shattered when he jumped again after she mercilessly poked him a little harder.

"Are too. You're ticklish," she repeated happily, eagerly running her hands along his sides.

"H-Hey! Stop that!" he squirmed, trying in vain to evade her questing fingers.

She smirked. "Make me," Emma challenged boldly, and when Machias growled and crushed his lips to hers again she didn't bother to hide her content purr nor her sharp gasp when she felt his own hands start to trace their way up and down her body, skimming over her curves of her hips before they rose to cup the underside of her ample breasts. "Mnn…!"

Machias stopped immediately, tense. "D-Did I – "

"I-I'm fine. It just took me by surprise, that's all. You can… you can keep going." Her expression was resolute and firm, even if the furious blush did lessen the effect somewhat.

"Please," she added cutely, and who was he to refuse a request like that?

His eyes fluttered shut when he kissed her again, with his hands resuming their exploration of her wondrous upper torso, much to her clear approval. From her bare shoulders to her arms, no exposed skin was left unsojourned and when he returned to where he had started he was pleasantly surprised to discover that the towel had somehow dropped a few riges, and Machias took a deep breath and pulled away to hungrily drink in the sight of a flushed, panting Emma, one arm draped protectively over her exposed chest.

"Embarrassed?" Machias inquired quietly.

"A-A little," she admitted, and while Machias supposed he could understand it from a purely intellectual point of view he was fully determined to take the insecurity he saw and crush it under his heel, where it belonged.

"You shouldn't be. You're beautiful," he breathed reverently, brushing her lips briefly before moving down to nip the pulse points on her jaw and neck, with Emma's gasps and sighs more than enough encouragement to keep going –

And when his thumbs found her breasts and began teasing the pink nipples, the glorious noise he coaxed out of her was the most amazing sound he had ever heard.

"Okay?"

"Mm-hmm," she moaned, letting Machias know that she was enjoying this, enjoying *him*, and he was determined to do whatever it took to keep those moans coming. "Just… just like that."

Moments later Emma found herself whining in protest when his mouth left her neck and his hands left her breasts, only to let a high pitched yelp when his lips replaced his fingers around her nipples, his tongue gladly delivering the worship they deserved as she threw her head back and let him know that if he could keep doing what he was doing then that would be absolutely fantastic, please and thank you.

Make no mistake, Machias could have kept going forever, and she probably would have let him.

He had not forgotten, however, that there was still uncharted territory to map out.

The 'eep' she let out when his palms alighted on the soft skin of her upper thighs was unmistakable, and he stopped everything without hesitation to look at her head on, his emerald eyes asking permission.

He got his answer when she nodded and whispered "Slowly, please," before guiding his right hand under her towel to the source of the alluring heat he had felt earlier, looking for all the world like she wanted to cover her eyes.

"Don't," he said hoarsely, frowning at Emma when she turned away, unable to meet the weight of his gaze. "Please, don't look away from me."

"But…" she protested helplessly, her eyes wide and her lips parted in a shy pout, and how was it fair for one person to be so irresistible and adorable all at once?

"But nothing." Lowering his head to press a tender kiss to her forehead, he let his left hand settle on her breast again, the soft ministrations making her squirm against the wall of the hot spring. "Beautiful, Emma."

"… I…"

"Can you sit up on the rocks?" he suddenly asked, looking thoughtful. "That might make it more comfortable for both of us," he hastened to explain upon seeing her questioning look.

She nodded wordlessly and stood on shaky legs, reclining on the warm stone a moment or two later. "Like this?"

"Perfect."

He kissed her again, hot and slow, and this time when his hand moved under the rough fabric to experimentally brush against soft, damp curls, Emma had to quickly place her hand over her mouth to stifle what would have been her loudest moan of the evening.

She was hot. She was hot, she was wet, she was writhing against his hand, and Machias realized that he was going to have to swallow his pride if this was to be good for her as he wanted it to be.

Books and instincts only went so far, after all, and quick study or not he wasn't going to push his luck.

"Tell me…" he started, his face burning at his audacity and he wondered how any couple made it through this without spontaneously combusting, "Tell me what you like, okay?"

She began to answer him as his fingers stroked above her entrance, and Machias was fairly sure that the sounds she made were supposed to be words; they just never quite made it.

"… wer…"

"Hmm?"

He looked at her questioningly, a little confused, and was gratified when she returned the gaze hungrily, a sense of anticipation about her now. "Lower, please…"

Machias did as he was told, because he was loath to disappoint. "Here?" he ventured, slowly sliding a finger in and he was stunned when he felt her curl welcomingly around him, warm and tight, and the buck of her hips into his hand told him all needed to know.

"Yeeeees," she hissed, her eyes smoky with need, any hesitation she had previously held having been obliterated in the face of the pleasure that he was delivering her, and she clenched harder when he began increasing the tempo gradually, varying his angle and speed with her cries starting to rise in pitch and volume in spite of her best efforts.

"T-There, keep going, just like that, oh Goddess please, please don't stop – "

He bit down a number of amused comments about blasphemy because he noticed her words were starting to slur together into borderline incoherence and for the first time Machias realized how badly he wanted for her to come apart, how he wanted to be the one to make her come apart, and when his thumb ran across a hardened nub for the first time he wondered what would happen if he applied pressure –

And got an unpleasant shock when Emma bit down a pained shriek and grabbed his hand with all the strength she could muster, stopping him in his tracks.

"E-Emma!? Are you all right!?" Machias demanded, his eyes wide with fear and worry, the sudden outburst having cut him to the bone.

"T-Too much!" she gasped breathlessly, panting furiously as she tried to regain her bearings. "Too much… that's… that's a very sensitive…"

The realization that he had still managed to screw up in spite of everything hit him like a punch to the gut, and he shut his eyes in recrimination and shame.

Damn it. Damn it all. She had trusted him, and he had gone and –

"It's okay," Emma breathed, and he felt her cup both cheeks with her hands, forcing him to look her in the eyes. "You didn't hurt me. It was very surprising," she told him warmly, her voice low and comforting, "but you didn't hurt me."

Like hell he hadn't. He was accustomed enough with battle to know what pain sounded like.

"You didn't," Emma repeated, a stubborn pout working its way onto her face before she kissed him firmly, intent on not letting him self-flagellate more than he already had. "Do you want to know what you did to me, Machias?"

Without waiting for an answer, the brunette took the hand she had grabbed and brought it back down to the soaked junction between her thighs, settling it there with a quiet moan. "That's what you did to me. You were driving me insane, and I-I didn't want you to ever stop, and I'm still…"

Her plea was unspoken but still plain to hear, and Machias swallowed the 'are you sure', because he now had more important things to do then to dwell on past mistakes.

After all, he had to make it up to her, and thanks to some of the books he had read he had a very good idea of how to do just that.

"I'll take your word for it." He kissed her at the same time he eased his fingers back inside her slick heat, and Machias took her heavier breathing and little gasps as the signs of approval that they were.

So lost was Emma in the haze of pleasure that she didn't notice the towel's knot being undone until the fabric had dropped to the rocks, leaving her completely bare to his hungry eyes.

"Machias? Why did you…?"

He answered her with another sensuous kiss before he started descending slowly, lavishing attention on her neck, her breasts, her stomach, before finally –

She understood a split second before his mouth made the final approach. "W-Wait!" she stammered frantically, her eyes wide and her head shaking. "Y-You don't have to – "

Only for her protest to segue into the longest moan of the evening when his lips and tongue took over for his hands, Machias intending to apologize for his earlier misstep in the best way he could think of.

It was overwhelming. She was overwhelming. Her pants and cries were echoing in his ears, her fingers were tangling themselves into his short hair, he could see the rise and fall of her hips trying to push upwards to meet him, and all that paled in comparison to his nose and mouth being consumed with her scent and taste.

"Good?" he paused to ask, and the broken sob of pleasure he received sent a thrill down his spine.

"Gooooooooood," she whimpered, trying her best to keep her voice low and actually managing to succeed to a certain extent. Emma was wet and getting wetter with every pass he made, and the thrashing was starting to grow more and more violent as her control slipped with every second under his tongue. "That's amazing, you're amazing, please keep going, pleasepleasepleaseplease Machias please – "

She was close, he understood with a rush – or he thought she was close, anyway. He knew it was possible for a woman to fake it for the sake of the male's ego, but the tremors that were shaking her slim frame were too erratic and powerful to be anything but the work of the parasympathetic nervous system going into overdrive (because of course he knew that), and he was well and truly determined to push her over the precipice that she was rapidly approaching.

"Are you – "

"Y-Yes!" she cried, and he was surprised at how vocal she could be in spite of not being at all loud. Not that he was complaining, it was certainly making his job easier. "I'm almost there, just a little bit more," and the next round of words dissolved into a mix of mewling noises that got across everything that she wanted to say despite meaning absolutely nothing on their own.

Almost checkmate. Just one last decisive move…

He pulled himself up and let his hand take over the bulk of her work, his mouth moving over to the shell of her ear and whispering "You are. You're so close, Emma. Let go, okay? Let go," and when he punctuated the final syllable with a gentle brush of the spot that had caused so much trouble earlier and an upwards curl of his index and middle fingers she absolutely lost it -

Machias sat entranced as Emma came apart with a silent scream, turning into him and burying her face into his neck as her body quaked and writhed its way through an intense climax, and he wasn't even sure what he was whispering into her hair any more, the words 'amazing' and 'gorgeous' and 'breathtaking' rolling together into one worshipful chord that proudly sung her glory.

He never wanted it to end, if he was being perfectly honest.

When the quivering and shaking finally stopped and Emma's breathing had returned to normal, Machias tentatively slid a hand across her cheek, more than a little concerned that he had taken it too far at the end. "Emma?"

The brunette turned to meet him with glassy eyes, flushed complexion, and the chestnut hair framing her face in absolute disarray.

Beautiful. So, so beautiful.

He was going to say something – he wasn't sure what – but the decision was taken out of his hands when Emma launched herself forward and kissed Machias hard before he could stop and remind her where his mouth had just been, and the brunette either didn't remember or didn't care as her tongue attacked his own furiously.

Depraved as it may have been, he didn't know which possibility turned him on more.

"That was amazing," she breathed quietly, her fingers paving burning trails across his abdomen before they delved under his towel to grasp him without warning, and the moan he let out was equal parts pleasure and shock. "That was amazing."

Machias tried to find something better to say than 'thanks', or 'it was nothing' – and he had every intention of trying hard, because both options were objectively terrible – but his efforts were thwarted by the sensation of her hand slowly pumping its way up and down his length, short-circuiting his brain and robbing him of anything remotely resembling higher level thought.

Oh. She was saying something, wasn't she?

"… hurt, does it?"

"N-No," he groaned, the single syllable stretching longer than it really should have, and he knew without looking that she was smiling right now. "That… that doesn't hurt."

"Good. I thought for a moment or two I might have grabbed too hard," and when he felt her thumb run across the head he knew that this was going to be over painfully soon.

The little minx.

"You'd be surprised at what we can tolerate," Machias informed her through gritted teeth, his breaths coming deeper and slower with every passing second and the pleasure building with each pass, her cool hand a contrast to the heated air that still surrounded them.

"I'm sure I would be," Emma told him, her tone still as mild as it was when they were in class, her rhythm starting to vary now. "But I felt like I should ask, especially when you were so considerate earlier."

In spite of everything, he scoffed. "You do recall me causing you some undue stress, don't you?"

"I do. I also remember how you chose to apologize, and how you started slow but didn't treat me like I was going to break – or worse, the other way around. There are girls that aren't quite so lucky."

Color him intrigued. "O-Oh? How so?"

"Second years talk, you know. For instance, I heard one unflattering story where the boy in question was going about his business like he was trying to tune radio dials," Emma shared, flicking a glance downward at her chest to underscore the lack of consideration.

That caused a sympathetic cringe. "My condolences to your mysterious informant."

"I had the same reaction. That said, you're missing my point."

Of course he was. He was missing so much right now. With the state he was in the ILF could have been tap dancing on the roof of the Phoenix Wings to a Vita Clotilde score and he probably would have missed that, too.

"Which is?"

She leaned in close, kissing his cheek before she whispered in his ear "You made me feel safe and you made me feel good. Let me return the favor."

Before he could tell her that she was doing a spectacular job of that already, she tightened her grip and started moving more quickly, and Machias felt a bolt of electricity run from his groin and pool deep in his gut as his words from earlier came back to haunt him in the best way possible, a squeak coming from somewhere near the back of his throat.

"Tell me what you like," the gunman heard faintly, and he moaned a ragged 'faster' into her neck before he lost the ability to put voice to thought for a few seconds, the bursts of heat being too much to overcome.

"Word of warning," Machias finally managed to say, dimly aware of her tracing random patterns on his chest. "This is going to be over in an embarrassingly short amount of time," and when Emma took one particularly long stroke from base to tip he found himself thrusting into her hand without a trace of shame. "F-Fuck –"

"Language, Mr. Vice President," his President teased, her breath hot in his ear, and any attempt he might have made to try and regain his bearings was doomed when she kissed him deeply, her sweet torture never once ceasing.

Machias was groaning into her mouth with every stroke, the fiery pleasure pooling in his groin and rising rapidly, and he heard her whisper something under her breath when she pulled away briefly and suddenly his glasses went flying off (and he had no idea how, because he damn well knew where both of her hands were) but the net effect was that now he couldn't see but he didn't care because Goddess above it just felt so, so *good* -

"E-Emma," he choked out, knowing the point of no return was fast approaching and he wouldn't have stopped it even if he could have. "I – "

"It's okay, Machias. It's okay."

That did it.

With one last strangled cry he exploded into her hand, all the pent up tension leaving his body as he shuddered his way through the most intense orgasm of his life before he slumped bonelessly against the brunette, barely cognizant of the gentle strokes along his back and shoulders.

(As it turned out, he didn't need his glasses to see stars).

He wasn't sure how much – or how little – time had passed, but when he became aware of the world again Machias found himself using the crook of her neck as a pillow, the sweet sound of her humming a relaxing coda to what had just transpired.

"Hello," he mumbled, knowing that he still looked more than a little dazed but unable to care all that much.

"Hi," Emma giggled fondly, brushing the bangs out of his eyes with a gentle touch. "I seem to remember having this exchange before."

"Imagine that," Machias murmured.

A moment of silence. If nothing else, it was a fitting acknowledgement of what they had just shared.

"Dare I ask what conclusions you ended up drawing from our… study session?" the gunman finally queried, anxiousness and anticipation coating every word.

"Well, I think I finally understand why so many people write about… studying," she answered mischievously, amused by the euphemism but deciding to play along nonetheless. "I also understand why they don't go into detail about how exhausting or messy it is afterwards."

"Hmm. There's less romance in realism," Machias agreed, suddenly very thankful the wet towels within arm's reach was going to make addressing her second concern trivially easy. Small blessings.

"That aside, how do you feel?" he continued carefully, concern starting to rear its head now.

"Good," she answered, unable to keep from smiling. "Tired and a little sore, but good."

Something must have shown in his face because Emma didn't hesitate in giving his arm a reassuring squeeze. "What did I say earlier?" she asked in a faux rebuke, her eyes sparkling. "There was really no way to avoid it, you know. It's only natural with muscles contracting and stretching with that kind of intensity. And the trade-off was… well, the trade-off was worth it, let me say that," she finished, her grin growing even wider.

Oh, come on. How was he not supposed to turn into a blushing wreck now? Hardly fair, in his opinion.

"I-I'm glad to hear that," Machias said haltingly, the familiar stutter having made its unwelcome return, and he couldn't help the indignant expression when she giggled again. 'What is it?"

"Hehe. Nothing at all. But now it's your turn; how do *you* feel?"

When in doubt, stall for time. "… May I steal your answer?"

An elaborate eye-roll. "I'd prefer if you didn't."

"I expected as much." He shrugged his shoulders in exaggerated resignation, much to the girl's amusement. "It was… a lot to take in. I don't think I've felt that aware of anything before, if that's makes any sense."

"It does," Emma concurred, her cheeks beginning to burn again.

"Everything about it was just so different," he continued slowly, struggling to articulate exactly just what he had felt. It wouldn't have mattered how well spoken he was; for the first time in his life, words seemed doom to fail him one way or another. "Different than what I had read about, different than what I had envisioned, different from… different from when I have to…"

"I know," she soothed, sensing his discomfort and seemingly flashing back to her own nights of relief, knowing exactly what he was trying to say and agreeing with the sentiment with every fiber of her being. "Me too."

He chuckled a little at that as her fingers idly swam through his emerald hair, and he couldn't help but be content with the idea that everything that had tormented him – the embarrassment, the stress, the fear – had absolutely worth it if they had led to this in the end.

This time, it was Emma broke the silence. "Do you think we could stay here a bit longer?"

Machias, ever the pragmatist, had a number of reasons why they shouldn't in spite of the hope in her voice. They had an early day tomorrow, they were *more* tired than they were earlier, technically someone could still walk into the spring, they were exceptionally hot and sticky...

"I-I suppose five more minutes wouldn't hurt."

(He was so weak).

"That's fine," she laughed, a touch of joy in every note, before she turned to press a kiss against his crown and lazily settle against him again, more than happy to remain right where she was. "That's perfectly fine."

"Mmm."

A second or two later, he jumped again.

"Ticklish."

"Quiet, you."


"… so are you going to ask, or…?"

"Me? Why should I have to ask anything?"

"Why should – because it's weird, Rean! The two of them have been acting strange ever since two nights ago, and you don't think it's odd they're sitting there now like everything's hunky-dory even though they both look like they didn't get a wink of sleep?"

"Well, we probably shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. If they did have something to work out and it's been resolved, that's best for everyone. Also; hunky-dory? Really?"

The blonde's eyes narrowed. "Hey. Do you want to start another fight? Because that's how you start fights, y'know."

Rean's calm expression didn't shift a rige. "That really depends. Can this one end the same way our last one did?"

"They're not nearly as quiet as they think they are," Machias noted drolly, leisurely drinking his coffee while Emma sat across from him nursing a cup of tea, both teens greatly amused by Alisa's face turning tomato red.

"No, but I wouldn't have them any other way," the brunette commented, a gentle smile gracing her features. "They really are cute, don't you think?"

He shrugged. "… I suppose?"

"Hehe. I probably should have expected that. Good morning, everyone," she called out, the other members of Class VII filing into the dining room.

"Good morning," Laura greeted amiably, nodding at everyone present. "I take it with everyone here we're going to depart soon?"

"That was the plan, yeah," the swordsman agreed. "Feel free to grab some coffee or tea before we head back. I'm pretty sure Sharon's going to have lunch ready by the time we arrive, so we should save our appetites for then."

Gaius nodded in approval. "Well, that sounds like something to look forward to."

"Yeah, no kidding," Elliot agreed readily, the redhead spying his fellow citizen at the table a moment after. "Hey, Machias! You feeling any better?"

"I'd say so. Those springs of yours do have quite the rejuvenating effect, Rean; if I was coming down with a bug, I'm sure it's gone now."

The Eight Leaves initiate grinned. "Didn't I tell you? At any rate, it's good to see you're back to normal. You were a little quiet for a while, there."

"All credit to the baths; you're actually coming across as a semi-functional human being today. Shame, I much prefer it when you're seen and not heard."

Hmph. Of course Albarea would want to get his licks in. "What a coincidence; I could say the same about you."

"Huh, Jusis and Machias are arguing again. Must be a day that ends in 'y'," Fie chimed in.

"Haha. You must have really enjoyed it though, considering how late you wound up turning in."

Fie blinked twice then, the ex-jaeger looking curiously at the arts specialist. "Interesting."

"As I recall Emma, you slept quite late yourself as well," Laura added. "Did you end up taking the time to enjoy the baths too? I seem to recall mixed bathing hours running when you left…"

"See," Alisa muttered to Rean with a sullen pout. "We can learn."

"I can see that. How does that help me two nights ago, exactly?"

"Oh yes," Emma said brightly, rather enjoying the byplay. "I decided it would be a waste not to take one last chance to enjoy the hot springs, so I went in after Machias finished up; I think it was just what I needed to wind down."

"Uh huh. That took you both a few hours?" the archer interrupted, trying to fight down a grin.

"Oh no, of course not. As he was coming out of the baths, Machias informed me that he was going to be doing some light review before he went to bed. I haven't had the chance to look over my notes in a while, so he asked if I wanted to join him. It ended up being quite productive, if I do say so myself."

Machias held his breath, his gaze discreetly sweeping over his classmates with wary apprehension, wondering they would buy it -

"… You didn't," Alisa said to Machias, looking like a Crossbellian child who had just been told that the larger than life Mishy walking around was actually a man in a suit.

"He did," Fie snickered. "He totally did."

"I'm not all that surprised," Elliot added with an agreeable shrug.

"Your dedication runs deep, you two," Gaius praised. "I would have expected nothing less from Thors' top students."

"Indeed!" Laura proclaimed, nodding approvingly at the seated pair. "Drive like that is truly commendable."

Jusis raised an eyebrow. "I'm frankly amazed you were magnanimous enough to call a détente and let your rival study with you. I do look forward to her beating you during finals because of this. Your bellyaching will be loud enough for all of Bareahard to hear, I'm sure."

"A-As if I'd allow that to happen!" Machias snapped back, much to the amused exasperation of the girl across from him. "Why do you think that one moment of collaboration means that I would allow myself to fall behind in the grand scheme of things?"

"Here's a better question; it was our last night at a resort town! Tired or not, why were you studying at all!?" Alisa demanded, unable to believe her ears.

Fie snorted at that. "C'mon, Alisa. Asking Machias to stop studying is like asking Sara to stop drinking, or Rean to stop patting girls on the head. It's not gonna happen."

"A-And on that note," Rean coughed, turning away as the blonde turned to focus a glare on him, "We should get ready to go. Elise is probably waiting to say goodbye already."

As if on cue, the door swung open to reveal an amused Sara Valestein, arms crossed and one foot playfully tapping. "Morning, kiddies! Sorry to break this up, but we really do have to get a move on."

"Right!" Rean replied, effortlessly falling back into his role as their field leader. "You heard her, everyone. Let's move out!"

As Class VII filed out amongst the grabbing of bags and idle chatter ("… she looks well rested and not remotely hungover. How is that possible?" "I… may have given Werner instructions to claim that the last shipment of liquor was delayed.") the President and Vice President found themselves hanging back for a few moments, the latter looking stunned and former looking satisfied.

"I can't believe that worked."

"I can. Your study habits are borderline legendary at this point, after all."

He sniffed indignantly at that. "I'll have you know that I meant what I said about not slacking off."

"I would be disappointed if you did," Emma replied primly. "That said, I don't think joint study sessions would be a bad idea. I can only see them helping us both, and considering you're right across the hall from the Literature Club room it would hardly be out of your way."

The boy did a brief double take at that last bit. "Wait, you study in the Literature Club room?" Machias asked, visibly surprised.

"Quite a bit, actually. I usually start late though, so Dorothee and I can work on club business first."

"Interesting," he mused, looking thoughtful. "Truth be told, our club rooms didn't even occur to me as study spaces; I think I'm just too used to our dorm or the library."

"Oh, I'd say they're even better," Emma informed him, a tiny smile on her face now. "The Student Union closes quite late because of the necessary clean-up downstairs at the cafeteria, and most of the time all of the clubs have long dispersed since then."

She paused to send him a sideways glance, her eyes half lidded behind her lenses. "As a result, it's not at all uncommon for me to have the room all to myself with the upper floor absolutely deserted."

And with that, Machias suddenly felt his mouth go dry.

"It makes it much easier to concentrate, particularly when I know that I'm guaranteed at least an hour or two of study time that will *never* be interrupted," she continued, looking so innocent one might have thought butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, and he needed to get away from that metaphor as fast as humanly possible because her mouth was the last thing he needed to think about.

"… Never, you say."

"Never," she confirmed, her voice dangerously close to a purr. "I'm sure that will change once the festival gets closer and closer, but until then… well."

The green haired boy nodded mutely in acknowledgement.

After all, they had so much more to cover, didn't they? It wouldn't do to stop halfway through a chapter, not at all.

"Anyway, I thought it would only be fair to let you know. Certainly something to think about, wouldn't you say?" Emma finished, reaching up to adjust her braid as if she hadn't tried to fry his brain not three seconds ago. "Now, let's go join the others."

This wasn't fair. This wasn't remotely fair, he decided as they walked, ignoring the sense of déjà vu rearing its annoying head.

A tickling sensation made him look down then, the sight of her fingertips dancing over his palm making any doubts he had fade away like smoke, and when he instinctively laced their fingers together the brilliant blush he received was enough to let him know that yes, he was kind of screwed and odds were that he wasn't going to be able to concentrate in class ever again.

A quiet sigh.

"Small price to pay,"  he decided, unable to avert his warm gaze from the random patterns her thumb was tracing on his wrist.


AN: This… this ship made me write smut. I am not a smut writer, and I'm sure it shows.

Originally this was supposed to be a crackfic the whole way through, but as it turned out it only really had that at the start and the end, and that was only because I enjoyed writing 'super repressed horny Machias' far more than I should have. I wished I could have done more with Towa, Angelica, Crow, and Millium, but I couldn't find a way to work them in organically (the big Class VII scene is post Ymir Valley, which I had always pictured as being just them) and for whatever reason Crow and Millium flat out have no lines in the drama including the fights despite being there in the narrative; I can only assume that Takahiro Sakurai and Kotori Koiwai had prior commitments. Thus, they only appear in the section below.

And now, because I haven't done one in a while:

OMAKE

"Hey, come to think of it; where are Towa and the others, Rean?"

"They should be at the station already, along with Millium. She felt kinda restless, so she left early. I'm actually surprised the other three are so punctual; they got in fairly late, too."

"Oh?" Alisa asked. "I didn't see them at the Phoenix Wings; what were they doing?"

"Nothing special, if you can believe that," Rean laughed, wondering how much work Towa had to put in to make Crow and Angelica behave. "I think they actually just took an extended stroll around the village, enjoying the late night air; the foot baths, the snowboard trail, the clearing just outside the springs..."

"That actually does sound like fun," Alisa laughed, completely missing the two bespectacled occupants of their party suddenly go deathly pale. "I wonder if they wound up getting bored, though."

"You can ask them yourself," Rean told the archer, pointing out the three second years (and the diminutive first year) standing by the awaiting cable car. "Morning, you four. How's it – "

And Rean immediately stopped and stared as Towa turned bright red and looked at her feet sheepishly, Angelica began clapping loudly in the most solemn and over-dramatic fashion that he had ever seen, and Crow –

"You are my god, man!"

Well, it would have been really hard to miss Crow kneeling in adoration in front of Machias, who looked like he was going to pass out at any moment.

Come to think of it, Emma wasn't much better.

"Wooooooow, Emma! You don't look so good," Millium exclaimed sympathetically, with Lammy warping into existence behind her and…

Okay, he didn't speak fluent Airgetlam, but Rean felt comfortable assuming that Lammy agreed with Millium.

"Does anyone want to tell us what's going on?" Elliot asked, looking completely baffled. Beside him, Fie tilted her head curiously.

"No," Machias choked.

"No," Emma squeaked.

"So," Alisa joined in, an evil smirk on her face. "Studying, huh?"