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An Engagement

Chapter Text

“We should do something for New Year’s,” Junpei says on a whim, and that’s when the trouble starts.

Akane’s eyes have been reflecting the glow from her computer screen for several hours, but they grow even brighter as she turns the idea over in her head. “We could spend the weekend in Japan,” she gushes suddenly, dreaming of festivals and lanterns and the place she still calls home.

“No, I mean…”

Junpei scratches his head to give him time to think about whether or not he wants to bring up the elephant in the room. He figures Akane knows what he wants to say, anyway.

“It’ll be exactly a year,” he says. “Since… y’know.”

She glances at the ring glittering on her finger with a small, shy smile. Junpei’s heart does a strange stutter of terror, because that was not the anniversary he was thinking of, and it probably should have been.

“S-so, something special,” he fumbles. “To… celebrate. That.”

Akane touches a finger to her lips and tilts her head to one side. “Something more special than going back to Japan?” she asks. “What did you have in mind?”

“No, no, I mean,” he starts, then gives up and drops his head in his hands.

He’s had a headache for an hour and hasn’t managed to get any work done, which is why he started daydreaming about celebrations, about seeing people outside of the context of perilous recon missions, cipher-cracking sessions, and the occasional rendez-vous. He hasn’t had a drink in months, because he’s sworn off drinking alone, and he’s always alone.

“I didn’t mean more special, I guess,” he says, massaging his temples, “just, maybe we could do something with some friends? It’s… also gonna be a year since everybody saved the world, y’know? We should get together.”

“We haven’t really saved the world, not yet,” Akane sighed. In the glassy surface of her eyes, Junpei sees text scrolling upwards as she continues sifting through research. “We can celebrate saving the world once we’ve actually done it.” A smile slides back onto her lips. “At the wedding.”

Junpei feels his heart thrumming in his chest when he pictures her in a white dress, taking slow, graceful steps closer. After spending a year in her world of secrecy, danger, and deceit, he finds himself more dumbfounded every day when he sees her lying next to him. He’s caught up with the pace of Crash Keys, learned their lingo and even developed their knack for spinning a lie or a backup plan on the spot when something goes wrong, but he still feels so utterly ordinary next to all of the espers and agents in their ranks. The fact that Akane’s cheeks still flush when she glances at her engagement ring, and that her calm visage breaks into a grin when she sees him after a long day, confounds him. The most striking part of his vision of her in white is how her beautiful eyes are locked onto him. Despite everything, he is the one she chooses.

In the midst of his reverie, Akane dives back into her work, resting her cheek on a fist. Research is the least favorite part of the job for both of them, whether it’s parsing through encrypted documents copied from enemy servers or planning a perfect infiltration. It’s a lot of sitting, fidgeting, and getting stuck because they’re poking their noses into places they don’t belong. They always set a goal, either of pages read or hours worked, to meet or exceed before they will permit themselves the option of doing something else. They’ve met their agreed-upon time requirement already, and it’s getting late. Akane is still wringing out the last drops of her motivation on mind-numbing tasks. Junpei can see, from the dead look in her eyes, that she’s wearing thin.

“Can’t we just get everyone together for no reason, then?” Junpei asks. “Like, just throw a party, just because we can. That’s all.”

He can tell she’s warming up to the idea because she has a little smile when she responds, “Company funds are not for partying, Junpei.”

“I’m pretty sure your brother makes enough money to buy a few bottles of champagne in the time it takes me to finish this sentence.”

“Is this just an excuse for you to start drinking again?” But she’s still smiling.

“It’s for the guests,” he says, holding up open palms.

She folds her hands just in front of her chin, blocking her lips from view. “We can’t just have champagne,” she murmurs.

Junpei is about to suggest scheduling the party later in the evening as an after-dinner event when she solves her own dilemma in a different way than he had expected.

“Whiskey,” she decides. “Sigma likes whiskey.”

“He really is an old man,” Junpei mutters with a smirk.

Akane tilts her head to show her wry grin. “Phi likes it, too.”

The statement catches Junpei off-guard for only a moment before he shrugs. “I guess I can see it.”

“And Diana.”

That’s when Junpei chokes on air and starts coughing for a spell. “What the hell,” he exhales hoarsely.

“So should we make it a New Year’s Party?” she asks. “On New Year’s Eve? I don’t think there’s anything big scheduled that night with the company.”

Junpei winces. “Can we maybe not do it the day of?” he asks, almost pleads. “I mean, Carlos is never gonna come if we do that. It’ll be Maria’s first New Year’s out of the hospital.”

Akane narrows her eyes, and Junpei starts getting a strange sense of impending doom.

It’s like everything they’ve been talking about was leading to this point, and in a way, that was Junpei’s intention. They haven’t seen Carlos since the summer, though they’ve Skyped with him and his sister a few times since. Junpei has a lot of old friends he wants to see and hang out with, but Carlos tops that list. He’s sure Carlos is the reason Junpei put that ring on Akane’s finger in the first place. Gratitude can’t fully explain why his face lights up every time he gets a text from the contact affectionately named “if i had to pick a dude”.

“Is this all just a ploy to get Carlos to visit?” she accuses.

Junpei shoves his cheeks into his palms before they can show red. “I mean, Carlos is kind of priority, sure,” he admits, “but I want everyone to be able to come, okay? Just… especially people who live far away.”

“So you’ll be expending the same effort towards inviting Eric,” she challenges.

“That’s not fair,” Junpei whines, but then he thinks about it. “Actually, we should really get Eric to visit. It’d be good for him. I don’t think he’s got a good social network up in New York, and it’s dragging him down.”

“You’re changing the subject.”

Junpei presses his hands back to his face. Trying the same trick twice really doesn’t look smooth. “What’s the subject?” he mumbles.

“Junpei, if we’re going to be married someday, we should be honest with each other,” Akane says. The alarm bells are already ringing in his head before she even asks, “Don’t you have feelings for Carlos?”

“What?!” He tries to scoot back in his seat and nearly topples the chair instead. “No—no, no, no, no, it’s not like that at all, I—I’m in love with you, Akane!”

“Loving someone doesn’t stop you from developing feelings for someone else,” she says. “It’s how you act when you experience those feelings that makes you a responsible, trustworthy lover.” Her lips hint at a smile. The tilt of her head and her warm gaze invite him to tell the truth, promising no hard feelings. “So, can you tell me if you have feelings for Carlos?”

The short moment Junpei takes to deliberate his answer is a confession enough. He sighs out his held breath. “Okay, it’s just… He’s a really great guy, and…” He hangs his head. “Well, you’ve seen him. But—but I swear it’s not—”

“Perfect!” Akane cuts in.

Junpei looks up to catch her devilish grin. The sense of impending doom is growing.

“I like him, too!” she chirps, clasping her hands together. “Shall we invite him to stay the night after the party?”

For a long, silent moment, Junpei loses track of himself and his surroundings as they give way to daydreams he will take with him to the grave. His only connection to the physical world comes in the idle thought that his face is so hot it might set off a smoke alarm.

“Okay,” he says finally, in a very quiet voice.

They decide to call it a party to celebrate their engagement. The more Junpei thinks about the possibility of Carlos attending, the more ironic he finds it.

Chapter Text

“This guest list is a disaster,” Junpei groans, shoving the first bottle of champagne into an ice bucket.

“You said it was fine,” Akane protests. She sets out flutes on the table two at a time.

“Is there one person on this list who hasn’t been in a Nonary Game? Or some kind of game.”

“Well, technically, in this timeline, Alice hasn’t.”

“In this timeline, none of us back in Dcom were ever technically—”

The doorbell rings. There’s only one group of guests who would arrive five minutes before eight o’clock. Akane knows it, too, which is why she claps her hands together in glee at the sound of the chime and races down the half-flight of stairs to the front door. As soon as it’s open, she jumps into her brother’s open arms.

Junpei never really knows what’s going on in Aoi’s head, especially not after being duped into thinking he was making a friend in the Nonary Game, but he thinks Aoi has warmed up to him lately. Aoi even flashes Junpei a smile over Akane’s shoulder as he welcomes her embrace. Junpei doesn’t know whether he’s done something to earn Aoi’s respect, or if he’s won it through familiarity that came with the passage of time, or if it has something to do with the man who enters the house next.

“Split-level house,” Aoi says over his shoulder. “Eight stairs up on the left.”

“I’ve visited before, Aoi,” Light replies. Only one person can have tied the pristine knot in his burgundy tie.

“Yeah, okay, once. Do you still call it a photographic memory if you can’t see?” Aoi grumbles.

Clover is a bundle of energy and her breath has a fruity sting that suggests she’s been pregaming, if the eagerness with which she hugs Akane and Junpei doesn’t give it away already. Akane either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, because she offers the trio champagne before they can take their coats off. Junpei hears the clink of their glasses coming together while he starts to build the pile of winter gear hanging from the banister. He smiles when he comes upstairs to see Akane sipping from a glass, as well.

The second doorbell ring startles him. He didn’t expect anyone else to be so punctual, but then, he wasn’t sure he really expected Seven to show. All of his party-hosting jitters fly away when he finds the big man waiting nervously behind the door, stuffed into a slightly wrinkled dress shirt, dandelion yellow. The same blue beanie from two years ago has gathered snowflakes.

Before his guest can get a word out, Junpei yells, “Dude! Seven!” and throws his arms as far around Seven’s impressive girth as he can reach.

Glasses clatter against the table, followed by feet pounding down the stairs. Warmth barrels into Junpei from behind. Seven’s surprised chuckle comes from deep within his chest as he finds himself in the center of a group hug.

“Guess I got the right place,” he mumbles shyly.

Everyone starts talking to him at once about how good it is to see him again. To Junpei’s surprise, even Aoi was a part of the big hug. His eyes are glowing the same way his sister’s do when she’s enamored. Light waits at the top of the stairs as though he’s using them as an excuse not to join the throng, his smile broad and warm.

“You want a drink?” Junpei asks Seven. “Champagne? Whiskey?”

Seven raised his eyebrows with interest as soon as he heard champagne. With a knowing smile, Junpei extracts himself from Clover’s lingering hold. He stops on his way to the ice bucket to tap Light’s shoulder.

“Even Aoi gave him a hug,” he says. “C’mon.”

“I’m not the hugging kind,” Light insists.

“I know that’s not because you don’t like physical contact, because you literally touch everyone you meet,” Junpei retorts. “If Aoi can drop his cool image to give a guy a hug, so can you.”

Light lifts his glass slightly. “I’ll need at least two of these to get to that point.”

Do it,” Junpei goads, giving Light’s shoulder another pat.

Seven can barely make his way up the stairs with Clover and Akane still hanging off of him, but when he does, Junpei is waiting with a bubbling glass. Seven takes it in his big hand and raises it to him. “Cheers,” he says with a grin. “You got a drink?”

“Nah, I’m trying not to drink anymore. Last year was a mess.”

“Hey, good on you, kid.” Seven takes a sip. Once the taste has settled into his tongue, his eyebrows shoot up and he stares at the glass in awe. “Shit.”

“Aoi made sure we got the good stuff,” Junpei says with a proud grin.

Seven gets a wicked sneer on his face like this is the moment he decides he’s glad he came to the party. He raises his glass across the room to Aoi, who flashes him a thumbs-up.

“Sorry for droppin’ in so early,” Seven says to Junpei once they’re settled on a sofa and a lounge chair respectively. “Just figured I’d pop in, say hello, pop back out ’fore everybody else starts comin’ in wonderin’ who this old guy is.”

“Hey, no, man, stay as long as you want. Champagne’s free here,” Junpei jokes.

Then a thought strikes him. His face must show it, because Seven gives him a strange look.

“But, uh, we… we did invite Lotus,” Junpei mumbles. “We just thought… we wanted to invite Nona and Ennea, they're Clover's coworkers now, and we thought it’d be weird if we invited you but not Lotus, so…”

Seven gets stone-faced. “Okay,” he says, bobbing his up and down too stiffly to be called a nod. “Okay.”

“I didn’t ask last year, since you didn’t talk about it, so I thought,” Junpei stammered. He scratched his head. “What… went down between you guys? If you wanna talk about it, I mean. This is a party. We don’t have to talk about bad stuff.”

“Naw, naw, it’s nothin’ like that,” Seven says with a hollow laugh. “Nothin’ happened. Never really talked to her after everything settled down.”

Junpei doesn’t say anything for a moment. For some reason, he can feel himself getting a little riled up, like the slight ringing in his ears is from a kettle whistle blowing steam out of his head.

“You never talked to her?” he repeats. His neck clicks when he twists it.

Seven shrugs, passing his champagne from one hand to the other so he can drum his fingers on the base of the glass. “I didn’t wanna bother her or anything,” he mumbles. “Wanted to give her some space, after all that stuff went down.”

“You wanted to give her space.” Junpei holds his head in his hand. “A few weeks is space. A month or two is space. Two years is ‘I don’t care about you and forget you exist.’ Seven, you fucked up.”

Seven gets a flush in his cheeks too early to be the alcohol. He reaches under his beanie to scratch his forehead. “Yeah, yeah,” he mutters.

“You still into her?”

Seven shrugs.

“You’re a damn liar. She’s got a body that would make a twenty-one-year-old woman jealous and she’s brilliant and you guys built up five tons of romantic tension between you two in the span of nine hours,” Junpei states, jabbing his finger with every point he makes. “You’re gonna stay here till she comes by, and you’re gonna talk to her, and you’re gonna be honest and just be yourself and… and something will happen, or it won’t, but at least you can say you tried.”

“She’s probably datin’ someone else by now.” Seven toys with his beanie nervously. “Someone better lookin’.”

“Well, you won’t find out unless you talk to her, will you?”

Seven sighs, then takes a huge gulp of champagne.

“That’s the spirit,” Junpei says with a grin.

“You really are back to your old self, aren’t you, kid,” Seven sighs.

Light’s voice drifts through their conversation from behind Seven, thick with complex vocabulary and abstract concepts. Junpei can see the switch flip on through Seven’s eyes when he realizes who’s speaking. Light jumps when a heavy hand slaps him on the back.

“Hey, Light, didn’t even see you!”

“Well, neither did I,” Light quips.

Seven bellows with laughter. One of his arms is more than long enough to wrap all the way around Light’s slim body and wrangle it closer. The motion is so rough that Light can’t keep his footing and ends up practically hanging over Seven’s elbow. Junpei takes a few sideways steps for a better vantage point to see one of those rare, genuine smiles creeping up on Light’s face.

Chapter Text

The party has the feel of a small gathering in the first half-hour, or maybe longer; Junpei doesn’t want to look at a clock. The six of them only fit on the couch if they squish, but when they sit in the order Clover-Light-Aoi-Akane-Junpei-Seven, no one has problems squishing. One of Akane’s legs rests over Junpei’s. He gives her thigh a gentle squeeze through a sweater dress he’s never seen before today. She has so many sweater dresses, and she collected more this autumn. The leaves had barely started to turn when she arrived home one Saturday afternoon in September with a pumpkin spice latte in one hand, a fat shopping bag in the other, a sparkle in her eyes, and no explanation other than an emphatically whispered, “It’s fall.”

God, he loves her.

They mostly talk about current events, though they wander off-topic just enough for it to feel like a chat between close friends. Light would commandeer the conversation if Aoi weren’t there to cut him off when he delves too deep into an esoteric topic. In the beginning, Seven tenses up when Aoi or Akane speaks, for the same reason that Junpei is so nervous around Aoi, and why he took so long to finally confront Akane once he finally tracked her down and joined the Dcom experiment. As soon as it becomes apparent that, while their actions in the Nonary Game were all a show, their personalities were not, Seven settles into his seat and lets out belly laughs at their banter. Maybe the champagne helps.

As close as they are, and as freely as the chatter flows between them, they all know something—someone—is missing. Everyone falls silent when, after the door opens, they hear her heels clicking up the stairs.

There’s a moment where they just let it sink in. The seven survivors of the second Nonary Game have reunited for the first time in over two years. Their eyes meet in the stillness, flickering around the room at one another, like nodes in a circuit firing electricity. When the smile curls at Lotus’s lips, she transfers the smile with her gaze to Junpei, who shares it with Seven, then Akane, and by then everyone is smiling.

Then two more sets of footsteps clatter up the stairs, their slick, dark hair pulled into high ponytails just like their mother's. The Kashiwabara twins break the silence with excited shouts once they see who has already arrived. Akane, Aoi, Light, and Clover flock to Nona and Ennea, all as giddy as the children they were when they first met. Junpei doesn’t miss how Lotus’s face twitches when Aoi and Akane draw near. Two years ago, she was the one who bore them the most hostility for their plot. She wanted to hunt them down to prosecute them, not to ask them questions. The half-smirk settling on her face to see them all together, holding champagne flutes and smiling, suggests she’s trying not to see them as criminals anymore.

When Seven finally summons the nerve to stand up and greet the arriving guests, one of the twins gasps. That’s how Junpei figures out which twin must be Nona: the one with the side-swept bangs hanging away from her high ponytail, who has pristine, angled eyebrows and sharply winged eyeliner. Her hands tremble over her open mouth as she glances to Aoi for confirmation. He grins and nods. In a blink, she barrels into his broad chest.

Lotus has a soft smile on her face. Junpei never got the chance to see her at ease before, or maybe these days she’s found a greater peace.

“Glad you could make it, Lotus,” Junpei says, waving, because he’s not sure she’s one for hugs, even if he kind of wants to give her one.

She folds her arms under her ever-impressive bust line for a resounding no to the possibility of a hug. Junpei’s eyes follow the movement and accidentally linger, so he sweeps his eyes quickly over her outfit—a navy dress with a halter-style neck that clings to her impeccable curves down to her lower thighs—before bringing them back up to her face as fluidly as he can.

“Hazuki,” she corrects sternly. “Honestly, Junpei, it’s been years since I used that name.”

“Hey, we’re still calling him Seven,” Junpei protests, gesturing back to where Nona has finally released the beast. “Let me get you guys drinks.”

He feels like the best host in the history of house parties as he turns around to flash Seven a sly grin. When Seven catches the look, he goes a little pale, but swallows and musters a shy smile for Lotus—for Hazuki.

Nona flits back over to her friends from the first Nonary Game. She has the same musical intonation in her voice as her mother, though her tone is more pressed, not quite to the point of nasal. “Haven’t seen you three in the same place since 2018,” she remarks. “Can you believe this guy? He just got even taller!”

Junpei steals a glance after pouring the second of the three glasses. Nona’s jabbing Light in the arm with a playful grin. Aoi rolls his eyes and replies, “Yeah, I know.”

“And you didn’t grow at all,” she adds.

Yeah, I know, okay,” Aoi says through gritted teeth.

With a gentle laugh, Light lays a placating hand on Aoi’s shoulder. Despite the twins’ best efforts to differentiate themselves through hair and makeup, they look strikingly identical when they both gawk at the boys.

“Are you dating?!” they screech in unison.

Aoi puts on his favorite shit-eating grin. The girls shriek with glee. Junpei decides to leave their champagne glasses on the counter while he delivers the first to Lotus—Hazuki.

“Got back into detective work, finally. Not like these kids are doin’, it’s all low-key stuff. I had enough bustin’ the big-wigs back in the day,” Seven is mumbling when Junpei arrives with a drink. He passes it to Hazuki without a word. She looks kind of startled to see the glass appear, like she was too invested in the conversation to notice Junpei approaching. Junpei flashes Seven two thumbs up behind Hazuki’s back, but it only makes Seven stammer and fumble over whatever he was trying to say.

Akane has already delivered the twins’ champagne. She refills two other glasses but evidently not her own, which sits to the side, half-full. Clover is still nursing her first beverage, while Aoi and Light are currently emptyhanded. Junpei is a little scared to find out what they’re like when they’re drunk, but he’s also dying to know.

 


 

Phi pretends to kick down the door for her entrance. What she really does is turn it to check if it’s unlocked like the mass text said, then when the door does slide open an inch, she slams her heel into it on impulse. “We’re here for the whiskey,” she shouts to announce the arrival of the Klim family.

“Ardbeg 30-year blend,” Aoi replies, hanging over the banister on the upper level after the general roar of greetings die down. “Silver label.”

Sigma and Diana head up the stairs to greet the couple of honor while Phi is still stomping snow out of her boots. Before she can join them, Aoi beckons her over with a jerk of his head. He, Clover, her brother, and two Japanese girls who must be twins and possibly models have staked a claim around the counter with a few barstools. When Phi doesn’t move immediately, Aoi gives an urgent wave, as if saying, Come on, you belong over here.

“Alright, kids, we gotta start speakin’ English again. There’s an American present,” Aoi informs the small crowd.

“Nihongo-ga wakarimasu,” Phi mumbles.

Aoi was starting to walk in the direction of the scotch still sitting in its fancy box, but he freezes when he hears foreign syllables from her lips. One of the twins, the one with the softer eyebrows and, now that Phi is close enough to notice it, the light smattering of freckles across her nose, goes wide-eyed and drops her jaw. “Oh, sugoi!” she says with drawn out syllables.

Phi shakes her head before they can say anything too complicated. “Just kidding. That’s the only phrase I know, how to tell people what languages I understand.” She glances at Clover and her brother, both of whom are definitely white. “You guys aren’t American?”

“No, we are,” Clover says, “but we lived in Japan for six years when we were kids. Our dad was transferred there for work.”

“Tokyo is a fairly accessible city if you plan on suddenly going blind in the future,” Light chimes in.

“That’s a factoid I hope I never have to remember,” Phi replies.

Aoi slides a glass of whiskey under her nose. From the aroma alone, she can tell it will be the best scotch she’ll ever have in her life. She wonders how much the bottle costs, but she knows she won’t be able to enjoy it guilt-free if she knows.

She glances over her shoulder at Sigma and Diana delving into a conversation with Akane and Junpei. For some reason that she cannot quite put her finger on, she does feel more at home here with Aoi’s group than she would with them. Then, as if to answer her question, Aoi takes a sip from his own glass of scotch before pressing it against Light’s hand. “C’mon, babe, try some,” he says.

“I’m starting to suspect you’re trying to intoxicate me,” Light says.

“Whatever the fuck gave you that idea?”

Aoi has a saucy smile and a warm glow on his face as he slides his fingers into Light’s closed hand, gently forcing it open to accept the glass. Phi has never seen them so openly affectionate, and that’s when it hits her, and she finds herself hoping to God it’s true of the cute twins leaning over the counter across from her.

“Didn’t expect to find so many queers at a party for straight people,” she says in Aoi’s direction.

“My influence,” he replies. “You’re welcome.”

The twin with the bangs and the killer eyebrows laughs once and whispers what’s probably a translation to her sister, who claps her hands over her mouth and giggles, looking directly at Phi. Her eyes glitter. Phi forces herself not to stare.

Clover picks up a new thread of conversation before Phi can figure out how to ask for their names. All she knows is that they’re probably gay. She decides to be grateful for that miracle and waits patiently for a convenient namedrop.

 


 

Although Junpei jokingly complained about having Eric over when he and Akane were coming up with a guest list, when Eric tentatively slips the door open and steps in, Junpei feels a warm smile grow on his face. Eric fidgets with coat zipper and responds with a nervous half-smile. No one else noticed him sneak in.

A boy follows Eric through the door. He’s only a child, with shaggy, tawny hair and big eyes that look oddly glassy. He’s not wearing a coat, which first strikes Junpei with concern, until he figures it out and subsequently ruins Eric’s subtle entrance.

Sean!” he cries, leaping from his seat. “Oh my God, you have a face!

As he hurtles down the stairs, he sees Sean’s smile for the first time. It’s a work of art, the way his cheeks rise smoothly but at different paces from one another, naturally spreading his lips open over teeth that are still ridged like he’s just growing them in.

“A-ah, wait, careful,” Sean warns as Junpei scoops the boy up in a bear hug. “The back’s not done, don’t…”

Junpei finds a hollow when his fingers run down Sean’s hair. The wig depresses into an open cavity in the occipital region. Junpei draws his hand back quickly.

“It’s for ventilation,” Sean explains, blinking his eyes slowly. His irises look like colored contacts, and his pupils don’t contract, but in fact move backward, as he focuses his ocular cameras on Junpei’s face. “This is just temporary, until we can run stress tests on a breathable plate for the back of the skull. The motors could overheat otherwise, and the hair is inflammable.”

His lips move in perfect sync with his words. If Junpei didn’t know better, he would think Sean was an ordinary human.

“Pretty nice, huh?” brags Sigma. He folds his arms with a confident sneer as he plods down the stairs.

A million snapbacks swirl and form in Junpei’s head, like they always do when he tries to have a casual conversation with Sigma, but he’s too elated and genuinely impressed to voice any sarcastic comments. “Sigma, this is incredible,” he says. “When did this all come together?”

“I’ve been working on it on and off since January,” Sigma replies. “About a month ago, we had enough of the functionality to permanently replace the original head. There’s still work to do, of course.”

“I can go to the library myself now,” Sean says excitedly. His eyes shouldn’t have the capacity to brighten like they do. Sigma is really something else.

Eric folds his coat over the banister with everyone else’s. He looks tired, possibly from the long series of train rides it takes to get here from New York—public airplanes are still out of the question for Sean because of the metal detectors and body scanners—but it could also be a year-long fatigue of life with and without Mira. He spends too much time in visitation hours and in courts, testifying about Mira’s emotional capacity and her desire for rehabilitation for each of her brutal murders, to even take on a part time job. He plans to ride on the funds from the Dcom experiment until the mess is over.

“Until then,” Eric says with a weak smile, “I’ll just have to visit every ice cream parlor in the city to see which one I want to work at eventually.”

“Eric, you know you don’t have to smile about this,” Junpei says. “It’s bullshit. It’s hard.”

Eric lets the smile fall with a sigh. Junpei’s handed him a glass of champagne, but he hasn’t had more than an initial sip after clinking his flute against Sigma’s lowball glass of scotch.

“What’s the point of getting angry, though?” he mumbles. “Of course I wanna get angry. But there’s nothing I can do about it, right?”

“Being angry all the time doesn’t help, sure,” Sigma agrees. “But bottling it all up doesn’t work, either. We both know what it’s like when you can’t be with the woman you love, Eric.”

“But you guys get your happy endings,” Eric mutters bitterly. He waves a listless hand around the room, at this party designed to celebrate the engagement of one once-estranged couple coming together.

“I didn’t think I would,” Junpei sighs. “I know we aren’t exactly the people you want to get sympathy from, but as far as how to cope with it… I’ve been there. Trust me, man, I’ve been as low as you can get. And I don’t want you to hit that point, alright? And the way I hit it was just pushing through, just forcing myself through every day trying not to think about her.”

“You’re going to think about her,” Sigma added. “No matter what you do, every moment you live without her, you’re going to wish she were here by your side. Those thoughts don’t go away. You just learn to live with them. You come to terms with the fact that you’re not going to be happy like you used to be.”

His hand comes down on Junpei’s shoulder for a reason Junpei doesn’t remember, not in this timeline.

“And when you’re least expecting it, you find new ways to be happy,” says Sigma. “It’s not the same happiness, but it’s another way to make your life feel like home.”

Sigma glances away. Eric’s eyes follow. Junpei cranes his neck to see where they’re looking. With a bright look in his eyes, Sean is chatting away with Akane and Diana, who listen with rapt attention and wide smiles.

“He’s really started opening up these days,” Eric says, beaming. “I don’t know if it’s because we’ve been living together for so long, or if that new head made him more confident, or what, but he’s really coming into his own. It’s…” He holds his glass in both hands and stares down into it as bubbles rise to the surface. “It’s nice having him around. I hope he’s happy.”

“He looks pretty happy to me,” Junpei replies.

Chapter Text

Carlos arrives around half-past nine. He makes the mistake of calling out, “Hey, guys,” and is consequently met with a resounding shout of, “Carlos!” from every guest who knows him.

One of the guests who doesn’t, Nona, winces and holds her hands over her ears. “What is this, a Magic School Bus episode?” she grumbles.

Carlos grins sheepishly at all the attention he clearly did not anticipate. He lifts one hand, holding onto a strap, and says, “I brought a special guest, too.”

Soft clicks tap against the hardwood floor. A small, furry face peeks out over the top stair, tongue hanging happily from his open mouth.

GAAAB!

People leap out of their seats. Even Nona jumps to her feet, shrieking, “Oh my God, is that a dog?!

The old mutt has always loved attention, even when it comes from Junpei, Akane, Phi, Sean, Aoi, Nona, and Ennea at the same time. His tiny body barely has enough surface area for their seven hands to pet him. He stretches out over the floor to make room, grinning.

Junpei looks up at Carlos with an enamored smile not entirely from playing with Gab. “Thanks so much for coming, man,” he says. “I know it’s a long way out from—”

He can’t get out any more words after Carlos grabs his chin and turns his face towards the light. “Junpei, you look great!” Carlos says, beaming. “You’ve got some color!”

Junpei gets more color of a different hue. After a roll of his eyes, he grabs Carlos’s chin right back and manages, by some miracle, to say without stuttering, “And you’re still a Greek god from the west coast, looks like.”

He sees the hand reaching up behind Carlos’s an instant before he feels a push on the back of his own head. He blinks and misses it, just feels skin against his face and lips with the sandpapery texture of a five o’clock shadow. He doesn’t even know if Carlos’s lips are close to his before Carlos staggers back, his face turning a rich, dark red.

“Aoi!” Akane hollers over the sound of her brother snickering. “It’s literally my engagement party!”

Aoi raises a suspicious eyebrow at her. Junpei can almost see something passing unspoken between them. With the feel of a hand pushing through the still surface of a large body of water, Akane enters Junpei’s mind to transmit the echo of Aoi’s telepathic message: You wanted to see that as much as I did and you know it.

Is he drunk? Junpei asks.

On the contrary, I think he’s too sober, responds Akane.

In the apparent silence—from Junpei, that is; everyone else in the room has burst into laughter—Carlos looks like he’s trying to decide if he’s supposed to apologize for what just transpired. Junpei spares him the trouble by saying, “Uh, well, let me get you some champagne to wash that taste out. Aoi, let me get you some champagne to pour over your goddamn head.”

Aoi goes bottoms-up on his remaining whiskey and affectionately flips Junpei off with his free hand as he backs towards his spot on the barstool. In his reluctance to follow Aoi to the bar to retrieve a glass of champagne, Junpei gives Carlos the chance to grab him by the shoulder with a chilly hand and say, “Hey, man, I can’t drink tonight. I just wanted to stop in and say hi, drop off Gab for the next rotation, then drive back.”

“Drive back?” Akane repeats, pouting. “But it’s so late!”

“Yeah, sorry, ran into more traffic than I thought,” Carlos says, scratching the back of his neck. “I’m just worried about leaving Maria alone for so long. She’s had a few bad episodes, y’know, when I’m out.”

Carlos once woke Junpei up around 2:30 A.M. with a frantic series of texts about finding Maria in reverie after returning from a long shift at the fire station. He was able to rouse her somehow, and he’s managed it the other four or five times since that she’s had a relapse, but those texts had typos from his shaking fingers. After Junpei woke Akane with the glow of his phone’s screen, they called him, talking him down from a climbing anxiety attack. They know he gets the same way after every incident, and they’ve told him again and again that he can call them at any hour if he needs help, but he hasn’t taken them up on it.

Junpei angles his hips in front of his torso so he can slide his phone out of the front pocket of his slim jeans. When he unlocks it, it’s still on the last message he received, a grainy photo from Maria’s phone taken in darkness. He shows the image to Carlos without a word, letting him take in the image of two smiling girls in pajamas, the darker-haired one with popcorn gingerly balanced between her lips, lit by the glow of a TV screen.

“Is that Isabel?” Carlos asks, bewildered.

Junpei takes the image out of focus so that he can read Maria’s accompanying text message. “‘Carlos is still driving and I know he’ll check his phone if he gets a text from me,’” he recites, his voice high and tight like a teenage girl’s. “‘When he gets there, tell him my friend Isabel is coming to sleep over, so he can stop worrying and have a good time tonight. He won’t believe me unless I send a picture, so I’ll send one as soon as she’s here. Thanks! Congrats on your engagement. Hope you have a great night.’”

A smile worms its way onto Carlos’s face.

“So,” Junpei says, stuffing his phone back into his pocket, “how about that champagne?”

“Wait, you literally have his sister’s phone number?” Phi interrupts, finally rising from the floor after a very devoted petting session with Gab. “I’m with Aoi. This is looking bad, Akane.”

Junpei wraps one arm around Carlos’s waist and presses his other hand to the firefighter’s broad chest. “Akane just has to accept our special relationship,” he says with flair.

This is normal. He’s totally done this kind of thing with Carlos before. Nothing’s changed, except that now he’s come to terms with the true nature of his feelings and also he may have just kissed this guy almost on the lips, he’s still not sure. This is fine.

When he feels Carlos’s muscles tighten up under his hands, he slaps them back to his sides. This is a disaster.

“I didn’t get a hotel or anything,” Carlos mumbles.

“You can stay here!” Akane insists. Junpei knows her well enough to know that the sparkle in her eyes comes more from mischief than joy. “We even have a guest bedroom now, since my brother is living with the Fields.”

“I—I don’t wanna impose or anything,” he stammers.

Akane wraps her arms around one of his massive biceps. “You’re not imposing,” she says. “We’d love for you to stay. Please?”

This trick has worked on Junpei more times than he can count. She flutters her long, dark eyelashes—her eyeshadow looks stunning, but her pretty purple eyes easily bewitch Junpei au naturel—and smiles up at Carlos, hugging his arm close to her soft chest.

It’s difficult to tell in the low lighting, but Carlos looks a little flushed again. “If you’re really sure it’s okay,” he says. He’s glancing at Junpei the same way he was glancing at Akane earlier, as if silently asking, Is it okay that your fiancée is flirting with me right in front of you?

“Awesome,” Junpei says, clapping Carlos on the back. “Then let’s get you some champagne.”

 


 

Ennea is the last person to stop petting Gab. Her sister waited for her to finish for about twenty seconds before deciding she didn’t have the patience and returned to the counter, where Light was inciting riotous laughter in Clover and Aoi. Phi would have lingered in petting the fuzzy old fellow, but she was starting to get nervous about how close her hand came to brushing against Ennea’s when they both swept broad strokes across Gab’s belly, and was it awkward that they weren’t saying anything to each other, should they be making small talk? Phi did compliment Ennea’s metallic nail polish but that conversation went no further than, “Oh, um, thanks,” so she fled to the counter to take a much-needed sip of whiskey.

Carlos absolutely commanded Akane’s and Junpei’s attention as soon as he entered the door, as expected. This strands Eric with Sigma and Diana, who appear to be patronizing him with small talk, and he appears to notice its patronizing nature. He scratches nervously at the inside of his elbow, glancing around the room.

The conversation around the bar hits a partial lull when Nona and Clover wander off onto a topic of their own. “Aoi,” Phi says, cocking her head over her shoulder. “Any chance we can pull Eric into this group? So he doesn’t just spend tonight only talking to people he knows.”

Aoi twisted around in his barstool and surveyed the room. “He the guy with the serial killer girlfriend?” he asked.

“Serial killer wife, yeah,” Phi says. “He’s painfully straight, I know, doesn’t fit the crowd, but he’s having a rough year. It’d be nice if he could actually have a good time tonight.”

Aoi raises a hand with a smile. “Say no more. I got this.”

He hops off of the barstool and walks with even more swagger than usual to the conversation. Phi follows cautiously. She was hoping for something a little more subtle, but Aoi turns out to have a plan.

“Hey, Sigma, Diana,” Aoi calls.

He slaps his hand into Sigma’s open palm for a familiar handshake. They knew each other briefly in the Radical-6 timeline, Phi understands, and Aoi has retained enough memories of that universe to be as comfortable with Sigma as Sigma is with him.

“So when’s the next engagement party, huh?” Aoi teases.

Sigma rolls his eyes. “Not likely,” he scoffs.

Diana has a bitter smile on her face as she cups her empty lowball glass. “I know from experience there’s no reason to rush into marriage.” Then, as if she suddenly realizes where she is, she turns bright red and holds her hands over her mouth. “Oh my gosh, don’t tell Junpei and Akane I said that, it’s not… They’re a special case. Oh gosh.”

“Ain’t you a special case, too?” Aoi asks, folding his arms. “You guys are as much weird morphogenetic soulmates as them.”

“Yeah, we know,” Sigma says solemnly. “We don’t need something like marriage to prove that to each other or to anybody else.” He stares deep into Diana’s eyes. “We just need to be together.”

“Oh, God. Barf. Puke,” Aoi declares with dramatic disgust. He seizes Eric under the armpits to hoist him off of the couch. “C’mon, man, we’re getting you the fuck outta here.”

Then Aoi winks. Phi doesn’t know who he’s winking at, whether it’s at Eric, at Sigma and Diana, or at Phi, but the wink works for all three. They each interpret it as varying flavors of, You’re welcome.

It doesn’t strike Phi as odd enough to consciously notice when Aoi moves Eric’s arm towards the cushion of the barstool and says, “Have a seat.” It seems like an extra gesture of hospitality, a warm welcome to the circle of friends, when Aoi tops off Eric’s champagne along with his own, but only passes the bottle to Nona and Ennea for them to help themselves.

Clover notices she’s been purposefully passed over and gets a fight in her eyes that doesn’t simmer until she gets her hands on the bottle and splashes herself half a glass. She laughs a little louder than everyone else now, but she’s not that drunk. Aoi is babying her too much, like usual.

They have to guide Eric into giving introductions. Nona asks his name. Clover asks where he’s living even though she’s probably heard about his situation through the grapevine. The twins get starry-eyed about life in the city. He mostly stares into his glass as he shrugs it all off, but they open him up so that he starts talking about some of the things he’s seen.

“Sometimes I feel like I accidentally walked onto the runway of some fashion show,” he says, with a little smile. “It’s usually just suits, suits, tourist T-shirts, more suits, but then someone will walk through wearing all these bright colors and makeup like they own the whole sidewalk. Women and men. I’m from Nebraska—middle of nowhere, basically—I’ve never seen people like that.”

“You’ve seen Aoi,” Phi points out.

Aoi rolls his eyes, but over his white buttoned shirt—the sleeves are loose and rolled up to his elbows, so perhaps it’s actually Light’s—he’s wearing a vest with asymmetrical sections of scarlet and black, and his hair is spiked up to high heaven. Phi is never sure whether he’s on the cutting edge of fashion or just being ridiculous.

“Aoi doesn’t wear makeup,” Nona says.

“Then why can’t I ever find my contour palette?” Clover demands, slamming a fist on the counter that makes her champagne flute rattle against the granite. A smirk flickers onto Aoi’s face before he feigns ignorance.

The blur of her peripherals prevent Phi from noticing when Light wanders off, but eventually she realizes he’s left. Phi has learned to stop worrying about Light wandering off. A glance around the room places him next to Sean, who was previously content to pet Gab and people-watch. Light rolls up his left sleeve. No doubt they’re talking about ABT. Sigma will be joining them soon enough, if he can ever stop staring at Diana. They went to a party just to talk to each other. But with good whiskey. It’s probably worth it.

It’s when Eric, after looking around shiftily, asks for the restroom that Aoi acts the most strangely. He starts to slide himself off of the barstool, saying, “Yeah, sure, I can,” before he catches himself against the counter and puts himself back on his seat. “It’s, uh, right down that hall. Last door on the, the left.”

Eric doesn’t look directly at him, so he doesn’t notice Aoi sinking his forehead into his hand and rubbing it, looking puzzled. He hops down from the barstool with a quick, quiet, “Thanks,” oblivious to the eyes on his back waiting for him to get out of earshot.

“What’s… up?” Phi asks hesitantly when no one else will.

Aoi snaps his head up. “Huh?”

“You’re acting kinda weird around Eric,” she says. “Everything okay?”

“Nah, I just—” He groans and takes a swig of champagne. “For some reason it got in my head I gotta guide him around like he’s blind. I don’t fuckin’ know.”

“It’s ’cuz he doesn’t make eye contact,” Clover pipes up.

She’s sipping her champagne when the eyes turn silently to her. The glass is almost empty again. Aoi did more harm than good with his earlier slight.

“Happens to me sometimes, too,” Clover explains. “I figured out it’s usually when people don’t make eye contact, like that’s a cue somebody’s blind for me.”

“I dunno, I think it just gets in my fuckin’ head ’cuz I spend so much time around that one blind guy,” Aoi mutters. “Sometimes it just blows my mind that the other guy I’m havin’ a conversation with can also fuckin’ see. Like, both of us just got these fully functional eyes, just sittin’ around lookin’ at shit the whole time, and you don’t hafta narrate everything to each other. That’s some weird shit right there.”

“Are you complaining, or…?” Nona begins to ask.

“Or,” Ennea continues, cocking her head, “is that actually a really charming declaration that you’re comfortable with the way your life is now and you can’t imagine it being any different?”

Phi likes the twin with the freckles.

Aoi folds his arms over the counter and buries his face in his sleeves. His ears still show, and they are as scarlet as his vest.

Chapter Text

“Is this some kinda android meeting?” Aoi asks as he brings Light’s champagne glass to where he and Sean are engrossed in conversation.

The first two glassfuls, plus the bit of whiskey, had some effect on Light. His disappointed pout is overly pronounced when he turns to face Aoi. “We’ve been over this so many times,” he sighs. “I’m not an android, I’m a cyborg.” He starts to sweep a hand towards Sean in gesture, but pulls back at the elbow when he remembers how blind he is and how likely it is he might hit a child in the face if he isn’t careful. “Sean is a perfect example of an android. A robot designed to resemble a human. The prefix andro, meaning man, combined into a portmanteau with droid, another word for a robot. A man-like robot.”

Despite how freely Light runs his lips, Aoi takes his hand and slides the champagne glass back into it. He’s almost drunk enough. He could stand to be looser.

“So what’s a robot?” Aoi asks, stifling a snicker when Light almost immediately sips at his refilled glass. “Like, just a robot. Because I thought a robot’s always s’posed to be a human-lookin’ thing.”

He looks at Sean when he asks it, mostly because Sean’s face is stunningly realistic as he blinks in awe up at Light and Aoi, but also because Sean probably has the answer. Aoi didn’t come here to steal Sean’s conversation partner away. Unfortunately, Light is too blind to see the social cues, and he has trouble resisting the urge to be a know-it-all even when he’s not buzzed.

“Androids are robots, as squares are rectangles,” he explains. The smile on his lips, though sloppy, is as smug as ever. “The majority of robots in reality are far less interesting than those of science fiction, which are more often introduced to pose moral questions than to accomplish tasks.”

“So what’s technically the difference between a robot and, like, a regular old machine?” Aoi asks. He gives Sean his eye contact again, encouraging him to speak up before Light can interrupt. “Like, is anything that moves with electricity a robot? Is a car a robot?”

“Machinery is not enough to constitute a robot. If robots are rectangles, machines are quadrangles,” Light says as Sean about to open his mouth. “It’s the ability to execute rewritable programs that differentiates robots from other machines. There is some level of intelligence in a robot.”

“The ability to execute rewritable programs,” Sean repeats with a crooked little frown and a furrow in his lifelike brow. “By that definition, wouldn’t any computer be considered a robot?”

Another facial expression crosses Light’s face that he usually does not let slip while sober. It’s like his whole face opens up in a moment of dumbfoundedness, just before it creases into deep puzzlement. He does not have an answer.

Aoi can see it in Sean’s eyes that they have the same idea. “Sigma,” they say in unison.

The Ardbeg bottle sits on the coffee table between Sigma and Diana’s glasses, more than half-empty by their efforts. Diana has a constant smile, but that’s the only hint of intoxication between the two of them.

“A robot carries out complex tasks autonomously,” Sigma begins, his eyes narrow in concentration. “It’s different from a computer because it usually performs physical tasks, and it’s different from a machine because of the task complexity, the autonomy, and the capacity to be reprogrammed to perform new tasks. The first use of the word robot did mean something more like an android, but the definition expanded when robots came out of fiction and into the real world because, trust me, making robots figure out how to balance on two feet is the biggest pain in the ass. You never realize how impractically humans are designed until you have to build one yourself.”

Sean nods in earnest with each piece of information. Light’s eyes flutter open the way they do when he's committing something new to memory.

Then Sigma almost smiles. “What kind of party is this?” he mutters. “Making small talk about robotics.”

“It’s your kind of party,” Diana giggles. He rolls his eyes.

 


 

Nona is next to leave the cool kids’ counter, after Aoi and Light. Her beautiful eyebrows are in a knot as she gazes around the room, then leans over the stairwell to look at the lower landing.

Clover bounces over. She doesn’t get many chances to socialize with Nona, since they’re usually placed on opposite teams at SOIS—Clover is a natural transmitter, while Nona is a receiver—but they’ve made good conversation all night and laugh at each other’s silly jokes. “What’s up?” Clover asks, peering over the railing into the relative darkness below.

“Have you seen my mom?’ Nona wonders aloud.

Clover frowns and glances around the room. Seven is gone, too. She doesn’t remember seeing either of them since the Kashiwabaras first arrived.

“I think I see her coat down there,” Nona says. “So she’s still here, but…”

“They probably just went in another room ’cuz we’re being too loud,” Clover said.

“They?”

“Um, you know the detective guy? There’s, um, something else you should know about him.”

 


 

Akane started it when she first got up to “be sociable” with the other guests. She made brief, polite rounds for a minute or two before she came back and, rather than taking her seat on the couch beside Junpei, elected to sit directly on top of him instead, where she could swing up her legs to rest on Carlos’s lap. Her tights shone pale and sheer under the skirt of the sweater dress riding up her supple thighs. Junpei smelled the champagne on her breath. Alcohol made Akane unbearably cute, then sleepy (and therefore still very cute).

As soon as Carlos figured out how to subtly extract himself from the enticing warmth of Akane’s legs, she told Junpei to pull out the last bottle of champagne. That’s how Junpei found himself now sitting in Akane’s lap—almost; he slides most of his weight to the couch itself after a second—with his legs stretching over Carlos.

“What are you doing?” Akane giggles, as if she doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing. He smirks and kisses her rosy cheek because she doesn’t deserve a real answer.

He ends up mashing his nose into her cheekbone when a touch makes his foot arch and sends a chill all the way up to his shoulders. Carlos has a grip on one of his toes, the one sticking out of a hole in his sock.

“You can’t even find a pair of decent socks for your own engagement party?” Carlos jokes.

He says the word engagement kind of funny, almost too loudly, as if trying to get one of them to confirm that they are indeed getting married, despite the unstoppable onslaught of flirting that has been flying among the three of them for the past hour. Carlos took a while to warm up to it, but here he is, wiggling Junpei’s toe like it’s a little piggy gone to the market and wearing one of those easy smiles that makes Junpei’s insides go molten.

“He’s a mess, Akane,” Carlos says, reaching his arm across the back of the couch. He’s not touching Akane’s shoulder, not yet. Every love triangle Junpei’s ever seen in movies and comics tells him he should be jealous. Instead, he feels elated. He and Akane have become a unit. When Carlos shows affection towards one, the other feels it, too.

“What are we going to do with him?” Akane replies, leaning her head just a bit closer. Carlos mirrors the motion instinctively.

With a giddy smile on his lips, Junpei checks their surroundings. The closest witnesses, Diana and Sigma, have entered into what looks like a heated debate with Light, Sean, and technically Aoi, though his eyes are glazed like he’s lost the thread of conversation. Nona and Clover are nearby, but they have their backs turned. The three remaining back at the bar counter are laughing together and paying no mind to the fiancée on the verge of kissing someone new.

Then Carlos’s eyes go wide. He’s not looking at Akane anymore. Now he’s sliding Junpei’s legs off of his lap as he stands.

“Sorry, I—I’ll be right back,” he says. “I gotta—I swear, I’ll be right back, I just gotta take care of something real quick.”

He decides the couch is too long to walk around and climbs over it instead on his way to the bar. Junpei hears him give greetings to Eric. He throws an arm around Eric’s shoulders and coaxes him back towards the couch.

“Can’t believe I didn’t even say hi to you, man,” Carlos is saying. “How’ve you been?”

“Uh, good, pretty good,” Eric says. He’s got a broad, if a bit nervous, smile. The bar counter crew has done a miracle for his mood. Junpei doesn’t understand why Carlos pulled him away until they’re far enough from the counter.

“Hey, listen, can you keep away from those two for a little bit?” Carlos asks quietly. “I think you’re, uh, clam-jamming.”

“I’m what?”

“Cock-blocking, but without the dicks,” Carlos says. “Look at them.”

Phi and Ennea barely meet each other’s eyes. Junpei knows Phi pretty well by now, but he doesn’t recognize the vulnerable flavor of smile twitching nervously on her face. Ennea has a very similar expression.

“Oh my God, was I bothering them? Oh my God, I’m so bad at this,” Eric frets, twisting and turning on his heels. “I’m—I’m not good with people, I can never tell with these kinds of—”

“No, no, they looked like they were having a good time, honestly,” Carlos says. “Just—be a hero, Eric. Be my man on the inside. Help set them up. Keep your whole group away from them if you can.”

Eric clenches his fists and gets the brightest smile Junpei’s seen on him all year. “I have a mission,” he declares. His socks slip a little across the floor when he scrambles towards Clover and Nona.

Carlos watches him go, a little bemused. “Is he drunk?”

“Whoops,” Akane says with a smile.

Carlos climbs back over the couch. The weight of a tall, healthy, well-built young man crushes Junpei’s femur with a very cozy ass. His legs settle over Akane’s lap, and his arm comes behind Junpei’s head for balance.

“Okay, I’m back,” he says, grinning. “What were we talking about?”

 


 

It’s like a job interview. Phi has been holding onto a question for the past hour in case the moment arose that she needed to ask it. Now that Carlos has dragged the only consistent conversation-creator away from her and Ennea, the moment has come.

“Okay, this is kind of out of nowhere, but I’ve been wondering this since Carlos got here,” Phi says. “Your sister made a Magic School Bus reference. A solid one. That’s a way-old American cartoon, how do you guys know about it?”

Ennea giggles, probably because she’s trying to kill Phi or something. “We watched it to learn English in Japan,” she explains.

“What, and outdated science, too?” Phi retorts. “They still call Pluto a planet in the one where they explore the solar system.”

“I remember the teacher talking over the whole end of the episode and saying that,” Ennea says. “Oh, and nobody in my class liked Carlos. We didn’t know English well enough to understand all the, the puns. We all thought every time he spoke, his whole class just got super angry at him because they didn’t like him or something.”

Phi has her father’s tendency towards stoicism. Maybe it’s the whiskey, or maybe it’s the irresistible twinkle in Ennea’s eyes, but tonight she’s letting herself laugh at little things.

 


 

Clover’s excited scream bleeds through the walls.

“D’you ever feel… really old?” Seven mumbles.

“Tonight? Constantly,” replies Hazuki.

Shortly after Hazuki’s arrival, they retreated to the relative quiet of the engaged couple’s study. Two backless desks face one another by the window, each littered with sparsely highlighted and well-scribbled papers around the closed laptops. Seven and Hazuki pulled the desk chairs away to face one another.

“It’s good to see them acting like normal kids for a change,” Hazuki murmurs.

“What’re they like usually?” Seven asks, frowning.

“Oh, no, they’re…” She reaches across her body to squeeze her upper arm, kneading her thumb along her skin. “They’re usually just so obsessed with work. They’ll give any waking second to their jobs if SOIS asks them to. They’re all in their twenties, for God’s sake. They should be having fun all the time, barely making ends meet… just living.”

“They’re tough kids,” Seven says. “You’d think, after all the stuff they’ve been through… I mean, like I said, I quit the agency after 2018. Too shook up by the whole thing. Still can’t get myself to take on the big cases anymore. I figured they’d be worse off, ’specially the ones who went through it when they were kids, havin’ something that bad in your formative years. But they’re out kickin’ ass.”

“They’re coping,” Hazuki sighs. “Engaging in risk-taking behavior after trauma. It’s a classic response. Eleven years later and they’re still coping.”

“They’re just doin’ the twenty-somethin’ life different than we had it,” Seven says. “They’re findin’ their place in the world. Their world is just a lot bigger and darker than ours was when we were their age. Ain’t nothin’ can change that. They’re doin’ alright.”

Lotus lifts her eyes to his face and smiles. He manages to smile back.

There’s no clock in the room to tell them how long they’ve been talking. At the current lull in conversation, the first that he can remember since they entered the study, Seven pulls out his phone to check.

“Damn, almost eleven,” he mutters. “Didn’t expect to be here so long.”

Hazuki flicks her thin eyebrows up and frowns. “Are you thinking of heading out?” she asks.

“I’m not gonna strand you with a buncha rowdy kids,” Seven says with a reassuring smile.

“I could go if you’re going,” she says with a shrug.

Seven fumbles with his phone, trying to put it back in his pocket without taking his eyes off of Hazuki. He doesn’t say the words aloud, because they sound too forward, but she hears him anyway.

“We could go together, if you’d like to keep catching up.”

When they return to the living room, Hazuki spots Ennea first, but is more than wise enough to know not to interfere. She slides into the huddle that contains Clover, Nona, and Eric.

“I don’t like you two being out alone at night,” Hazuki says after announcing her imminent departure. “Is there anyone who can drive you back to the hotel?”

“Oh, Aoi drove us,” Clover offers. “There’s two more seats in his car. We could probably…”

She trails off as she follows Hazuki’s gaze to where Aoi sits slumped against Light on the couch, eyes lidded, as he swirls a near-empty glass of scotch. Sigma, Light, and Sean are having animated conversation, and Diana at least looks like an engaged spectator, but Aoi looks like he’s on another planet.

“I’ll text Alice,” Clover sighs.

Hazuki takes only two loud steps in her stilettos towards Aoi before Seven catches her with a big, gentle hand against her shoulder. “I’ll take care of it,” he says.

The conversation only gets more heated as Seven gets closer. “A self-driving car fits all of your criteria,” Light insists. “Complex, automated tasks performed in the physical world, reprogrammed for each destination.”

“It’s not a robot,” Sigma retorts, holding his head in his hands. Light can probably hear it from the muffled sound of his voice. “I can’t tell you why right now, but it’s not. I’ll text you tomorrow why it’s not a robot.”

Seven taps Aoi on the shoulder. He barely startles as he rolls a lazy smile Seven’s way.

“Hope you ain’t plannin’ on drivin’ home, kid,” Seven says.

Aoi’s grin spreads wider. “I could buy cabs for everyone in this house,” he brags, his speech slow and almost slurred. “I can buy happiness.”

Seven chuckles and says, “Well, make sure Hazuki’s kids get home safe, alright? Stay outta trouble.”

With a sneer, Aoi touches his index finger to his thumb in his left hand and sticks his right finger through the circle, winking. Seven grabs his wrist and bends his finger back to the point that he lets out a terrified shout. It’s more satisfying than it should be.

 

Chapter Text

Carlos isn’t sitting in Junpei’s lap anymore, but he is nestled tightly between him and Akane on the couch, and Junpei’s hand is still on his waist. Junpei tries to keep from trembling, but he’s watching Carlos’s slightly parted lips with apprehension, waiting for the response to what Akane finally confessed outright.

“Wait… You…” Carlos turns from Akane to Junpei. “Both?”

“Kind of a package deal, if that’s cool,” Junpei says.

Akane gives him a stern look as if to say now is not the time for jokes. She should know from the Nonary Game that he compulsively makes jokes when he’s nervous.

“I… wow, I really don’t know what to say,” Carlos says, breathless, as he stares at his lap with wide eyes. “I, uh…”

“Oh, no, you don’t have to say anything,” Akane says, sliding an inch or two away. “This isn’t… we just thought you…”

Junpei carefully lifts his hand off of Carlos’s shirt and prepares to slide his arm out from behind as soon as Carlos leans forward a little more.

“No, I, I definitely, uh,” Carlos stammers, jerking his head towards her, then back at Junpei. “I mean, if I’m being honest with myself, I, uh… I do… have feelings for you. Both of you.” His gaze falls back to his hands. “It’s just—there’s so much going on, there’s…”

“We know you’re still taking care of your sister,” Akane says, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Don’t think of this as a time commitment. If we need to put things on hold until—”

“No, it’s not just that.” Carlos sighs and dips his head into his lap, folding his hands over the back of his neck. “There’s still a terrorist somewhere out there. And there’s you. I never wanted to come between you guys like this.”

“You’re not coming between us,” Junpei says, laying his hand back against Carlos’s side. “You’re bringing us all together.”

He wishes he could bottle the way Carlos looks at him after he says that. Carlos is so open, near the point of vulnerability, and there’s so much longing behind his eyes. As soon as he blinks, the look is gone.

“Didn’t know you swing both ways,” he says with a nervous smile.

“Literally anyone would swing your way, Carlos,” Junpei retorts.

Carlos’s laugh gets stuck in his throat when Akane wraps her arms around him, pressing her cheek to his collarbone. “I’m so glad you feel the same way,” she gushes. “So do we need to set up the guest bedroom for you or no?”

Junpei’s face turns to hot steam. “Akane,” he pleads.

Carlos hasn’t put it together yet. “What do you mean?”

“Well, you could stay in our bedroom instead.” She adds, “Only if you’re comfortable with it, of course,” but she’s doing that thing with her big, beautiful eyes that means she’ll get her way.

When one of them makes an advance, Carlos keeps checking the other’s reaction before letting a smile take his face. “S-s-sure,” he stutters, his face going crimson.

“Good, because I think we might need to offer the guest room to someone else,” Akane sighs.

Aoi is holding Clover by both shoulders as he escorts her to the other end of the couch. She’s pale and looks upset. “I hate this,” she moans.

“Yeah, I know. Jus’ sit back here. Keep your head up,” Aoi says. His words are running together and he’s not steady on his feet, but he’s still playing mother hen. “Y’want some water? Li’l somethin’ t’eat? Saltines or somethin’. You ain’t had nothin’ since dinner. S’been five hours or some shit.”

Junpei grips Carlos’s shoulder to give himself a boost off of his seat. “We better get back to hosting duties, Akane,” he says.

“I need to tidy up the bedroom a little, since you’re staying with us,” she says with a smile at Carlos.

He shakes his head vehemently. “You don’t have to clean up for me,” he insists. “I said I didn’t wanna impose, don’t…”

Junpei doesn’t stick around to listen to the end of that battle of manners. Clover is holding her head in her hands, still grimacing. “Everything okay?” he asks, a little wary to get any closer than just beside Aoi.

“I got the spins,” she complains.

“She doesn’t get sick from it,” Aoi promises. “Jus’ yells a lot.”

“You need anything?” Junpei asks.

“Junpei, my dude,” Aoi says with a broad smile, clapping a clumsy hand down hard on Junpei’s shoulder, “you jus’ sit your ass down with your hot new boytoy.”

His breath smells terribly of whiskey as it comes closer to his face.

“Looks pre’y good, but his pants’re too big,” Aoi says sternly. “Makes ’im look like a potato. Tell ’im t’take ’em off.”

Junpei’s face is burning up to his ears. Goddammit, he pictured it. “I’m gonna fucking kill you, Aoi,” he growls.

“Fuckin’ try,” Aoi replies, taking two heavy steps back. “Clover, water?”

“Water,” she whines weakly.

Junpei decides to spare Aoi’s life for the convenience of not having to tend to Clover himself, not when there are other knots to untangle. Aoi’s intoxication strands one car at the house. Junpei visits Sigma and Diana to check on the status of a second.

The bottle of whiskey is depleted, save maybe half a glass’s worth. Nonetheless, neither Sigma nor Diana seem much different.

“I feel like it’s been forever since I went to all those frat parties in undergrad, but…” Sigma shrugs, gesturing down at the young, strapping vehicle for his old soul. “This body is telling me, nope, you’ve still got resistance.” He nods at Diana with a hint of a smile on his lips. “No explanation for this little lady. She’s just tough.”

Diana laughs and shakes her head bashfully.

“So Phi’s probably fine, too, if she’s got your stamina in her genes,” Junpei says, glancing over at the bar counter. “Man, she should have another drink, though. Loosen up, poor kid. She’s nervous as hell with that girl.”

“Wait, what girl?” Sigma nearly jumps to his feet. “What?”

“Are you dense?” Junpei tips his head towards Phi and Ennea. “Have you ever seen Phi smile that much? Ever? In your entire life?”

He steps in front of Sigma to try to block the obvious gawking from view of the shyly flirting girls, but the height disparity is too great for Junpei to be effective. “Oh my God,” Sigma utters.

The ring of the doorbell cuts through the hubbub. For a brief moment of stomach-churning terror, Junpei worries it’s a neighbor who’s come to complain about the noise. The thought doesn’t have time to settle before Clover springs off of the couch with pure joy on her face. It’s not the neighbors. In fact, it’s basically the police.

“Had a fun night, Clover?” Alice teases when she steps inside.

She’s not here to party. She does engage in the human activity known as “fun” on occasion, Junpei knows, because one time he witnessed her going hard at a minimum of three different clubs in the same night, although he could only last through the first two. Clover explained the next morning—by which Junpei means at least three in the afternoon of the following day—that they had gotten home around six or seven A.M., but Clover couldn’t remember anything past four-thirty. When Alice is here to party, her makeup is shimmer and color, her clothes bare her muscles and hug her curves, and she wears the smile of a devil.

She still looks stunning today, as always, but in a practical coat and scarf, which she does not remove. She smiles politely at Junpei as she walks up the stairs. The only reason she’s extending her stay at all is because Clover, now affectionately glued to her hip, doesn’t want to get in the car with the spins.

Akane and Carlos are gone. Junpei imagines the argument they were having about cleaning the room ended with Akane insisting the bedroom must be cleaned, and Carlos offering to help, and now they were probably flirting and teasing Junpei behind his back about leaving his clothes all over the floor. Ratty T-shirts. Socks with holes. Boxers.

He jumps off of that train of thought when his eyes come across a shadow in a dark corner of the room. Sean sits against the wall beside the banister with Gab nestled between his open legs. Now that he has a face to control, he has the ability to break Junpei’s heart by gazing absently at the room, eyebrows drawn together, his lower lip jutting out just a bit further than usual.

“Hey, Sean, you okay?” Junpei asks.

Sean blinks away his listless expression and shakes his head quickly. “I’m fine,” he says, but it sounds weak.

Junpei slides down beside Sean, just close enough to reach Gab’s belly. “Getting a little too wild for you?” he guesses.

“No, it’s okay,” he says, shrugging. “I just… I guess I don’t get it.”

“Don’t get what?”

“What it’s like when you drink like that.” His voice gets low and bitter. “I guess I’ll never get it.”

Junpei had expected himself to at least have a glass of champagne tonight. However, at the first waft of the poisonous stink of alcohol, he felt tepid water running cold over his body as he stared into the shower head. The shallow, plastic walls of the tub squished his shoulders together and pressed into the back of his neck as he closed his eyes and tried to drift off into the thick, heavy smog of intoxication.

“It’s not that great, to be honest,” Junpei says. “You start off feeling dizzy, and everything seems like it’s moving just a little too fast. The more you drink, the more nauseous you feel. Something about it just makes it seem kinda funny instead of gross. I don’t know why people even like getting drunk. I don’t know why I liked getting drunk.”

“So everyone who drinks to get drunk,” Sean says slowly, “is willing to sacrifice physical comfort for happiness?”

Junpei drops a soft, bitter laugh. “And it’s not even like you know you’ll be happy,” he says. “A lot of people just get really angry or depressed or something. I used it like an emotional release. I got to the point where I was so messed up in the head that I didn’t know how I was feeling until I had three shots in me and I was screaming up a storm or crying in a shower or whatever.”

Sean’s eyes go wide. His pupils dial back to zero in on Junpei’s face.

“H-hey, quit looking at me like that,” Junpei says, folding his arms across his chest. “It’s all in the past now. I’m not gonna drink again. I’m just not. Even when it works like it’s supposed to and gets you happy, it’s not worth it. Physical comfort for happiness and all, like you said. It’s stupid.”

Sean smiles. The scratch of artificial hair touches Junpei’s arm. Sean is cooler than a human, and he’s too small to have much weight, but Junpei likes feeling him against his side.

“Sometimes I get upset I can’t be like a regular kid,” Sean says. “I can’t eat or drink. I can’t even grow up. I’ve got this human brain that’s stuck in a robot body and it wants to do human things. It’s hard.” He moves his hand from Gab’s belly to his soft ears. “But I think I’m lucky I have a human brain. I get to have all the feelings humans are supposed to have, even if my body holds me back sometimes.”

Junpei moves his hand from Gab’s belly, too, to reach behind Sean and hug him against his side. “Do you ever get this weird feeling,” he asks, “where you start missing someone before he’s even gone, just because you know he’ll be gone tomorrow and you care about him a lot?”

“Carlos?” Sean guesses.

“No, I meant—Wait, did you—N-no!”

Junpei’s face feels warm on his palms when he lets it fall into his hands.

You, Sean. I’m talking about you.”

By the time he peeks through his fingers, he can’t see Sean’s face, because Sean has already pressed it against his side. He clutches Junpei’s shirt with both hands.

“More video calls with you and Eric from now on, okay?” Junpei says, laying a hand on Sean’s back. Sean nods against his shirt.

 


 

Alice has four extra seats in her car. Clover wants one, but Eric, Sean, and the Kashiwabara twins also need rides to their hotels. Aoi pulls out his phone, ready to call a cab, when Nona offers to sit on Ennea’s lap. Then Sean offers to sit on Eric’s lap. Aoi shoves his phone away with a grin. “Put Light on my lap an’ we can all fit in th’ car,” he declares.

“You are not part of this equation, Aoi,” Alice states coldly. She’s never liked the Kurashikis. Akane is probably the reason she didn’t plan to stay here for long.

Clover still has the spins, but Alice’s car is blocking Sigma’s, and she is not getting out just to move it and come back inside. She coaxes Clover out the door with that move Junpei’s seen enough times to finally recognize as a clandestine kiss: she cups her hand against her mouth and leans over as if whispering something in Clover’s ear, but her face comes rather close behind the shield of her hand, and she’s not quite centered on the ear, she’s closer to the cheekbone.

So the five members of the equation, plus a little dog (the twins are thrilled), pile into Alice’s sedan somehow and pull away just before the Klim family. And just like that, the party is over.

Aoi and Light help Junpei clean up, or at least they try. Aoi is too drunk for fine motor control, and Light can’t see what needs cleaning, but when Aoi stops fumbling with glassware and focuses his efforts on directing Light, they make about as much progress as one sober person. Light can also load a dishwasher as fast as a sighted man, Junpei discovers. The living room is clean within reason after only ten minutes. Junpei can handle the salt, snow, and dirt tracked on their floors in the morning. Or the afternoon, or later this week, or some other time that isn’t right now.

“Drink some more water before you go to bed,” Junpei calls after the boys.

“Yeah, yeah. We’ll be jus’ down th’ hall if y’need us,” Aoi says, sneering and stumbling as he tries to walk backwards down the hallway.

Junpei wrinkles his nose. “I swear, if I hear any weird noises, I’ll kill you,” he grumbles.

“That’s homophobic,” Aoi yells back.

Light drags Aoi to the bedroom door by the upper arm, waving his other hand around to look for the doorknob that is about a foot out of his reach. “You have nothing to worry about, Junpei,” he promises with a lopsided smile. “We are both, how do you say, hammered as shit.”

Aoi snorts. “You fuckin’ dweeb.”

Junpei stands alone in the hallway after Light manages to close the door. He feels the way he always does after a good party. He wishes he could keep sucking the energy out of it for hours, sustaining himself on the love between friends, talking more with the people he barely saw before they were gone. He feels this way even though he didn’t spend the night drinking.

But because he didn’t spend the night drinking, the night didn’t take an awful, shameful nosedive or fade into a black haze of improperly constructed memories that could turn his friends away from him. Tomorrow, he can text Phi to ask if she got Ennea’s number. He can look up the pictures Eric posts to social media of his travels with Sean and Gab. He can give Aoi and Light antacids and aspirin with a gloating smile. Tomorrow morning, they’ll still be his friends, and they’ll love and miss him as much as he loves and misses them.

Except everyone saw him and Carlos kiss when Aoi mashed their faces together.

There’s always something.

 

Chapter Text

The first thing Junpei sees when he opens the door and spills the light of the hallway into his bedroom is Carlos’s jeans lying in pile on the floor beside Akane’s dress. He comes crashing down from the high of the party. Knots work their way into his stomach.

He thought he was okay with this. He was happy when he found out Akane had feelings for Carlos. He was happy when those two made coy advances towards each other throughout the evening. He can’t wrestle out of his mind the image of Carlos holding her naked body and taking her in the night.

The form of their legs under the covers runs together. They’re entangled so closely that Junpei can’t tell where Carlos ends and Akane begins. He pushes the door further ajar to cast enough light into the room to see Carlos’s bare arm reaching to the left, towards Akane’s side of the bed. Carlos is on Junpei’s side. Carlos took Junpei’s place.

Junpei doesn’t want to feel like this. He wants to be happy, tries to force the feeling back into himself.

He shuts the door behind him so he doesn’t have to see them anymore.

It’s colder in their bedroom than it’s been all season. They turned the heat down for the party to keep the house from getting too warm with so many people inside. Junpei forgot about the thermostat until now, so they must have achieved a perfect balance for the party at the expense of a comfortable night’s sleep.

His drawstring pants should be at the top of his bottom drawer where he left them this morning, but he can’t find them by touch. He figures Akane must have buried them with other clothes as she was tidying. He finds what feels like a T-shirt in his hands and goes over his head and arms like one, too. Goosebumps spring up along his bare arms. He doesn’t want to go to bed without pants in this weather; he barely wants to get into the bed at all. The desire to be under a blanket forces him to shed his jeans and climb onto the bed in his boxers.

There’s not much room beside Akane, but he slides his way in. It’s a cool, soothing touch against his wounded heart to feel her body against him. He runs a slow, gentle hand down her warm back, feeling her silk nightdress, the lilac one he loves seeing her lounge around the house in on a Saturday morning, the same one she wore on their first night together. He pulls his hand back with an involuntary hiss when his fingers hit the hand on her waist.

Just when he decides he’s going to fucking cry, he hears the sheets shift from movement that isn’t his. “Junpei?” asks Carlos in a soft, sleepy voice, and fuck him, because it’s making an even bigger mess of his feelings.

He swallows and coughs once to restore his swollen throat to normal. “Uh, hey,” he says, when he can’t think of anything else to say.

“Party’s over?” Carlos guesses.

“Yeah,” Junpei sighs, trying to expel the weights in his chest. “Everyone’s gone home safe. Uh, well, Light and Aoi are across the hall.”

Carlos lays his head back against the pillow. “Damn,” he mutters. “Didn’t mean to fall asleep here and miss goodbyes. Eric got all of Gab’s stuff?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Junpei says. “It’s fine. It… tires you out, or whatever. Makes sense.”

“I’m usually more energized by stuff like this,” Carlos replies.

He doesn’t voice his yawn, but Junpei hears his heavy inhale and exhale. His hand wanders over Akane’s body and towards Junpei. Junpei pulls back from Carlos’s heat before the hand can touch him. He doesn’t want these feelings anymore, neither the blind love nor the jealous hate.

Carlos raises his head a few inches. “You alright over there, Junpei?”

Junpei folds his arms. He curls his knees up towards his chest. He’s still cold, and he’s on the verge of falling off of the bed.

“I could go sleep on the couch,” he mumbles. He can hear how pitiful he sounds, but he can’t make it stop. “It’s… kind of cramped on the bed with three of us.”

“Hey, no, there’s plenty of room by me,” Carlos says. “Come here.”

“No, that’s… that’s cool.” Junpei slowly slides out from under the covers. “I can… let you two have some time alone, or something.”

“Time alone?” Carlos repeats.

Junpei sits up on the edge of the bed, crossing his legs to keep them warm. “Y’know, to get… acquainted, or something, I dunno,” he says. “You have an easier time getting romantic if I leave you alone, I guess.”

“No, c’mon, Junpei, stay,” Carlos coaxes.

Junpei stays seated, curling his freezing toes, because Carlos told him to, in a quiet, needy voice that he can’t resist, no matter much he wants to go throw up, or cry, or both. No alcohol needed.

“Look, I don’t know how we’re supposed to make this work with the three of us,” Carlos says, “but it should be the three of us, together.”

Junpei doesn’t believe him.

“We missed you earlier. When you were still out hosting.”

Junpei wants so badly to believe him. Junpei does believe him with his whole fragile heart, but his mind is acting as a desperate shield for it by casting doubt.

His voice is so broken when he asks, “Was it good?”

The silence hurts.

“Was what good?” Carlos asks.

“The… you know. Whatever… fun you guys got up to while I was gone.”

The silence hurts so much.

“What, the cuddling?”

The silence now sounds like a loud whine of static.

“Cuddling?” Junpei repeats, twisting around to squint at Carlos through the darkness. “You mean, you were just…?”

Then Carlos shoots up like a rocket. “Holy shit, Junpei,” he realizes, “you thought we—?”

“I mean, you were—”

Junpei didn’t realize what a leap he had made to his conclusion until the static of silence starts sounding like it’s laughing at him. His head rolls down into his hands, elbows on his knees.

“Junpei, God, I wouldn’t—I would tell you if I—I would never do something like that without talking to you,” Carlos utters. “At least talking to you. I would… I mean, I would want you… there…”

A flash of heat courses through Junpei’s body, smoothing away the goosebumps for the next thirty seconds. His chest gets lighter as relief sweeps through him, refreshing his anxious body and mind.

“Is it bad that that makes me feel a lot better?” Junpei says shakily. “That’s bad, isn’t it? Shouldn’t I be okay with… with you two being together, without me, sometimes?”

“No, Junpei, that’s a serious boundary. You’d have every right to be mad if I crossed it without talking to you,” Carlos insists. “Relationships are built on communication, right? With three of us, we’re gonna have to communicate three times as much. If you’ve got boundaries, tell me about them. Tell me if you’re uncomfortable. We’ll talk through it. We’re gonna make this work.”

He reaches over and presses a warm hand flat against Junpei’s turned back. Junpei’s smile quivers with elation.

“C’mon, over here. We left room for you on this side,” Carlos says.

“Can I just… have a second?” Junpei whispers.

He doesn’t lie back down all the way, just enough to feel Akane’s body against his skin. It’s the last remedy for the remaining knots in his stomach. Her heat makes her love palpable.

“You’ll wake her up,” Carlos says, a smile in his voice.

“I doubt it. She’s funny like that,” Junpei replies. “She sleeps like a log at night. Soon as she gets six or seven hours, though, she’s the lightest sleeper. The only times I’ve ever heard her alarm, I was already awake. It’s so quiet. But she’s not hearing anything right now.”

“I love listening to you talk about her,” Carlos sighs. “I can hear how much you love her.”

“She says the same kinda thing when I talk about you,” Junpei replies.

Carlos holds back a small laugh. “Man, come over here, already.”

After leaving a soft kiss on Akane’s forehead, Junpei tiptoes slowly around the bed to Carlos’s side. Carlos lifts the covers for him. Once the sheets drift down over Junpei’s body, he realizes this is the most comfortable this bed has ever felt. Both the mattress beneath him and the blankets over him have been warmed well above the ambient temperature of the room, and something even warmer lies deeper in the bed.

“God, Carlos, you’re hot,” Junpei breathes. “I—I mean literally. Okay, also figuratively, but—dude, you gotta stay here for the winter. We’d save so much on heating.”

Carlos chuckles. He slides an arm under Junpei’s neck and around his shoulders to pull him closer. “Come closer,” he says with a smile. “I can get you warmed up in a minute.”

Junpei hesitates only a moment before scooting towards Carlos’s enticing heat. An irresistible magnetism pulls him too close, tangling their legs, squishing their chests together. If he knew where Carlos’s mouth was in the darkness, he would be pressing himself against it. He buries his face in the soft muscles of Carlos’s shoulder to bury that urge.

“Junpei, can I… ask a big favor?” Carlos whispers.

“Yeah?”

“It’s just… You know how Akane is…” He sighs. “Do you get that feeling like you… you want to be perfect for her?”

“Every damn day, man.”

“Okay, so, I… I’ve never—well, before tonight, I guess, I—I’ve never really kissed anyone before.”

Junpei’s heart does a somersault. “Never?

“I—I mean, there was kindergarten stuff, but… I just never wanted to be in a relationship before this, so I…”

“Wait, so, you mean you wanna… practice? For Akane?”

Junpei wants to make a joke about how Carlos must not have gotten enough from Aoi’s prank earlier. Junpei also wants to kiss Carlos so badly that he can’t spare a second for a joke. He slides a desperate hand up Carlos’s neck to find his jaw, then his chin, then his lips, where the anxiety hits him at last. He’s never kissed a man before. His recent daydreams have all been variations on this moment, but this will be when he finds out how gay he really is.

“Nothing to it, promise,” Junpei exhales, and he might be talking to himself.

Carlos is the only taste of champagne he needed tonight.

He’s soft and pliant at first, slowly mimicking Junpei’s motions, but there stops being motion to mimic once he brings a hot hand to Junpei’s face. The firm, warm tip of his tongue glides over Junpei’s lips.

“Fucking liar,” Junpei mutters against his mouth.

Once Carlos slips his tongue between Junpei’s open lips, Junpei determines with complete confidence that he’s incredibly gay. His bare legs curl around the flannel of Carlos’s pants—nope, those are his pants, that’s why he couldn’t find them, Carlos is wearing them. He runs a curious, hungry hand down Carlos’s chest, feeling every chiseled muscle flex and relax as Carlos rises from the bed to climb over Junpei and kiss him down hard. When the tip of Carlos’s tongue traces over the roof of Junpei’s mouth in the way only Akane should know he likes, his contented hums turn into a full-fledged moan.

And that’s when he hears Akane giggle.

He wrenches his face away from the kiss and shoves Carlos off of him. “Both of you, fucking liars!

“I said before tonight, it wasn’t a lie!” Carlos laughs.

 “Goddammit, Akane, you were awake this whole time, weren’t you?! You told him how to—just so he could—”

“It was supposed to happen faster, it was just a little thing,” Akane protests, still fighting through giggles. “We left your spot open on the bed, and Carlos would pretend to wake up and ask you and everything. We didn’t know you would…”

“Yeah, now that all three of us are here,” Carlos says, “you wanna talk about everything, Junpei? You sure this is okay with you?”

“And both of you, what do you mean, you feel like you have to be perfect for me?” Akane demands. “I don’t want you to feel like that! You’re perfect as you are.”

“Yeah, Carlos, why do you feel like that? You are perfect,” Junpei chimes in. “With your perfect smile, and your perfect body, and your perfect hair…”

“Oh, feel his hair, Junpei! He washed out the pomade before bed and it’s so soft.”

Junpei doesn’t need to be told twice. His fingers glide and twist through Carlos’s locks. The strands caress his skin, so fine that they cling to each other at the ends but part with a gentle tug.

“What the hell, why do you even put shit in your hair?” Junpei asks.

“Because most people just look at it instead of sticking their hands in it,” replies Carlos.

“Did you feel the back of his head? It’s shorter there.” Akane takes his hand and runs it up from the nape of Carlos’s neck, against the grain, so that the strands brush against his palm as he moves.

“Really, guys?” Carlos sighs. “I thought we were trying to have a serious conversation.”

“Aw, what a dang shame, looks like that’s not happening anymore.” Junpei pets him again in the way Akane showed him.

“Stop messing around, Junpei.”

He pulls Junpei’s hand away by the wrist. When their fingers lock together, Junpei feels how much bigger Carlos’s hand is than his.

“Are you sure you’re okay with this?” Carlos asks. There’s that lovely, gentle rasp in his quiet voice. “With me being here.”

Akane’s fingers brush his other hand, then fold into his palm. “You said you want to be perfect for me,” she says, “and then you said Carlos is perfect. Are you feeling insecure?”

Carlos holds his hand tight as he hears Akane’s basic and unfortunately accurate deduction. “Junpei, you’re not—you don’t think I’m better than you or something, do you?”

“I don’t think it, I know it,” Junpei says, and as Carlos and Akane both inhale to argue, he adds, “Don’t tell me I’m just as great as you. I know I’m not. You two are literally perfect, and I don’t know how the hell I ended up here with both of you.” He squeezes Carlos back and rubs his thumb over the back of Akane’s hand. “I’m not like you guys. I don’t walk out the door every day being a hundred percent flawless. I just do my best.”

Junpei feels a tug on his right hand, the one holding Akane. Her soft, cool lips touch his fingers. “If I like everything about you,” Akane says, “doesn’t that make you perfect to me?”

“Just listen to her,” Junpei jokes, wiggling his fingers in the spaces between Carlos’s. “She’s perfect, see?”

“Junpei, I know you like kidding around when you’re uncomfortable,” she says gently.

“I also like kidding around in general. Kind of unpredictable like that.”

“Junpei.”

He falls back to the pillow with a groan. “Okay, fine, I don’t think I measure up to you guys, and it’s probably gonna keep coming up, and I might be a clingy, needy bitch about it, but I really want to make this work with all of us, I promise. Happy?”

Carlos’s lips barely brush against his temple, just a touch of warmth, but it makes him absolutely melt into the mattress.

“For what it’s worth, I think you measure up just fine, Junpei,” Carlos says, resting his head on Junpei’s pillow. “And I’m happy if you’re happy.”

Akane drapes herself over Carlos to gaze at Junpei. “I’m happy if you’re happy,” she agrees.

They’re a sight to behold: two perfect beings, loving each other and loving him. His face hurts from smiling too hard. He squishes himself up close against Carlos and stretches an arm over to wrap around Akane.

“I’m happy if Carlos steals my pants tomorrow, too.”

His head moves with the jerk of Carlos’s chest after a laugh. “Yeah, thanks, by the way,” Carlos says, rubbing his knee against Junpei’s leg. “But, uh, you’re probably about a size thirty slim-fit. Pajamas are one thing, but…”

“I think I have some thirty-two’s.”

“Because of his pudgy little beer belly last year,” Akane teases.

“Hey, shut up, it’s only two inches,” Junpei protests.

He falls quiet at the touch of Carlos’s warm palm on his cheek. Before he can put together what he wants next and tilt his head forward, Carlos is already kissing him. The soft, calming caress loosens his muscles. His body settles into Carlos when their lips slowly, gently part.

He hears Carlos deliver the same placating kiss to Akane. His eyes have adjusted to the dark enough to see their silhouettes run together, eyes closed, hands drifting to each other’s faces. He feels exactly the way he’s supposed to feel again: excited and bursting with love.

By the size and warmth of his hands, Junpei knows it’s Carlos who coaxes his head off the pillow, but it’s Akane who kisses him. She tastes like Carlos, or maybe it’s the champagne. It makes Junpei giddy either way. On his cheek, her cold fingertips trail between Carlos’s fingers as she covers his hand with hers. Carlos lowers his other hand from Junpei’s jaw. He presses a kiss there in its place.

Junpei doesn’t know where his body begins and ends. A tingling heat washes through him and carries him into another world. Love envelops him from all sides. Their bodies keep him warm.

“I’ll see what I can do about the pants,” Carlos sighs into his neck underneath his ear. “Since it’ll make you happy.”

There’s a lovely thing about sliding from friendship into romance. For all the anguish that comes from not knowing whether to risk the existing relationship by sharing new feelings, there is the reward of skipping those awkward stages of not knowing how to make conversation, of not feeling at ease in each other’s company. So much trust flows among these three lovers. They’re not worried about making this relationship work. They know they can make it work.

 


 

It depends on the model of car,” Light’s phone recites aloud in a synthesized voice that echoes off of the kitchen countertops. “Some have appended on-board computers overriding controls that a human would otherwise be able to operate and those shouldn’t be considered robots in my opinion. Cars designed from the ground up to work with a computer, especially those that don’t allow a human to override its controls, could be called robots. …Received 4:11 A.M., December 30th.

Though he does borrow a T-shirt, Carlos decides after sitting through breakfast that Junpei’s jeans will cut off his circulation on the drive home. The tight denim grips his ass as he walks to the bedroom to change.

“Light, did you get that?” whispers Aoi.

“Passing it on to Clover,” Light responds, brow knit in concentration.

“God bless your scrawny-ass legs, Junpei,” Aoi utters. “What a way to cure a hangover. Hot damn.”