Notes: Back when I was in full-time education, the tutor/teacher once told me that she wanted to see me write something 'funny' for once - that it would do me some good. Occasionally I attempt to do this - this chapter being once such example.
It don't come easy, I guess.
White winds his way round his neck, drifting over his chest and tucking its way over and under his chin with soft lumps of material. Ai scowls and prods a finger against it, registering the scratchy blend of wool and the tiny gaps between the stitches, in almost, but not quite symmetrical squares. Despite being knitted together by a machine in a factory somewhere, this scarf is far from perfect.
Kiku passes an appraising eye over it, then firmly takes hold of his shoulders and shoves him back in front of the mirror so he can register how much like a snow-cone his neck now resembles.
'I was wrong,' Kiku declares sadly. 'White doesn't go with everything. You look-'
She cuts herself off, mouth forming a small pout as she struggles for a metaphor that won't comes across as too rude.
But with his eyes trained on the mirror and that god-awful monstrosity looped round his neck like a collar, Ai has no such problem.
'I look like someone spilled whipped cream over my neck,' he says bluntly. 'Too bad Yusaku isn't here to lick it off.'
He flutters out a sigh, eyes trained on Kiku's face within the mirror, and immediately enjoys the way she goes beet red, her pout bunching up into something that looks genuinely offended. And then she hides her head behind his back, thumping her fist sharply against his shoulder. Which – ow. Look, he's sturdier than a human, okay, but he still feels pain! Everyone's so cruel to him!
'You're awful,' Kiku moans. 'Terrible. How are you Takeru's friend? He always goes red whenever anyone says something even remotely dirty online. Or in class. Or anywhere, really.'
'You seem to have gone an interesting colour yourself,' Ai notes, thoroughly enjoying himself as she risks a glare from behind his arm.
Still blushing, Kiku braves the mockery in his gaze and steps out, quickly fastens her eyes back on the scarf, and letting her gaze trail up into his hair to linger on the gold-flecked tints of light it curls into. 'White is too brash,' she murmurs. 'Perhaps a creamy-yellow? It goes with parts of your hair and the colour of your eyes. Plus, you're pale. Really pale. Vampire-pale.'
Ai preens. 'I do have excellent skin.'
'You don't have skin,' Kiku tells him dryly, sounding far too much like Yusaku that it causes Ai to form a pout of his own. 'You make your own skin with that SOLtiS technology. Perfect skin. All the time and every day.'
'Jealousy is unbecoming,' Ai tells her, a bite of mirth to his tone. 'If it really bothers you, we can go to a pharmacy and get some cream to help perfect your skin.'
Kiku looks like she really wants to kick him. 'There's nothing wrong with my skin!'
Not true. With his sharp zoomed-in vision Ai can detect the beginning of a few clogged pores near her hairline and a small bruise littering the side of her neck, near her collar. Lucky for her, he's too nice to say anything. Besides; the imperfections of humans in the real world, free of their avatars, has always struck him as interesting to view. Almost pretty in how brazen they appear, in the same way scars look cool in anime, for example.
'You're right,' he says breezily. 'Sorry, sorry. I took that too far. They've got some nice dresses in the back. An all new range in pink.' He leers down at her helpfully. 'I invaded the systems of their usual courier so they could get here today.'
Kiku brightens immediately. 'Oooh!' She claps her hands together, brimming with excitement. Though she is nice enough to help Ai untangle the hideous scarf from around his neck and hand him a comb she slips out of her back, all before she escapes from the dressing room. Not that he needs it.
But still. Little things like that, are the reason Ai hasn't given up on humanity entirely. So he follows her, the comb still closed in his hand, and a smile that isn't entirely villain-like in nature as they waltz through the aisle towards the back.
Six shops and two hours later, Yusaku and Takeru find them sitting under a cute pink parasol, outside a tiny cafe, glasses clutched in their hands. A spread of approximately twelve shopping bags are spread beneath their brown wicker chairs and around their feet like the hoard of treasure a dragon from a fairytale would feel at home guarding.
Takeru stares. 'How many of them are yours?' he asks Kiku warily.
Kiku stabs a straw through a bunch of ice cubes nestling the surface of her orange juice, letting them knock against the glass with a small, menacing clink. Takeru, trained martial artist, flinches.
It's actually kind of funny to watch, so Ai rewards him by leaning back and pointing at all the bags he's brushed a quick version of his Ignis head on in purple permanent marker. 'Not to worry; most of it is mine.'
Takeru's shoulders relax. 'Oh good. So we will actually manage to squeezes everything onto the train ride back home.'
Ai beams and runs a finger round the kiwi juice he nurses in his own hand, leaning forward to delicately brush his mouth around the straw. Then he pretends to slurp. Loudly.
Takeru gives him a weird look. 'Are you pretending to drink that?'
'Yes,' says Yusaku, hands buried deeply into his hoodie pocket. 'He is.'
'That's...such a waste of money,' says Takeru, looking both bewildered and amused.
Ai sniggers. 'Well, it's certainly a waste of someone's money,' he says casually, leaving Takeru and Kiku to look a bit queasy at the implication and winning a glare from Yusaku.
Still. They don't ask questions. And after some more inane pleasantries, they walk Takeru and Kiku back to the station and Ai and Yusaku begin the long trek home, endless plastic and string handles weighing down Ai's wrists in a cascade of brown and white loops. Had he been human, they would be cutting off his blood circulation. Thankfully, he is not.
'I don't know where you are expecting to put all this,' Yusaku says a few blocks later, eyeing the bags sharply; if he is perturbed at how they fan out at Ai's sides at every step, like the crinkling unfurling of a peacock's tail feathers, he says nothing.
'Well,' says Ai thoughtfully. 'I'll be wearing at least half of this tomorrow. And then it'll go into the wash while I wear something else. And round and round it goes, like the hydrologic cycle in the great outdoors, always leaving a little bit of space behind in the closet.'
Yusaku eyes him. But says nothing. Though his frown does grow a bit more pronounced as Ai starts to struggle up the stairs towards their apartment, bags brushing against the railings on either side and becoming cumbersome.
Ai doesn't get tired. But the cramped physical space of the staircase and the way the sides bracket him and the swell of these bags together is certainly a little...limiting. And as though to mirror his thoughts, two of them nearly rip open a second later as they tug over grey stone and an iron railing. Ai freezes, fearful of taking another step and Yusaku closes his eyes as though he expects nothing less. Then he turns. And extends his hands.
'Give me some.'
Ai stares at the hands. Thinks about this command – yes, command – Yusaku's tone hadn't been nearly nice enough to make it an actual request. And makes a few calculations.
'Heh,' he bites out, wobbling perilously as he takes a step back, and thus risks another rip against a bulging bag. 'No, no, Yusaku, I don't need any help! You didn't buy anything and let's face it, carrying any of these will play havoc with your heart-rate! You'll be panting with exhaustion after a few steps!'
Yusaku's frown grows distinctively annoyed. 'I think I can manage a few.' And then being the rude, ill-mannered person he is, he seizes a few loop still fastened round Ai's wrists. And pulls.
There's a sharp tear of sound. Clothes – in all colours – though most notably in shades of purple and black – go spilling down the stairs. A few even drift into the road.
Ai and Yusaku stand frozen, staring at each other.
'OH MY GOD!'
Ai's agonised scream echoes through the streets. His face, a wan mask of horror – thoroughly dramatised and badly-acted horror – he sprints down the stairs. And has to be yanked out of the road not two seconds later as Yusaku pulls him back before a truck goes roaring past. And the glare he directs to Ai, after his partner has brushed him off and stepped into the now empty road, is nothing short of furious.
'I wouldn't have died,' Ai says huffily in return, cheeks puffed as he turns away with a visible stain of pink on his face. He gazes mournfully down at a particularly nice scarf, tire marks now stamped firmly into its cream-yellow colours. It's as though someone's run a stick of charcoal against the pale threads.
'Not the point,' Yusaku says firmly, pointedly glancing both ways down the road, before starting to pick up the stray clothes. But he's strangely gentle as he presses them back into Ai's palms. 'You still feel pain. Some new clothes aren't worth that.'
Ai smiles up at him. 'What a cool thing to say. That's what you think you are. Cool.'
'Not at all,' Yusaku says. But he's facing away from Ai when he says, expression buried in the dark, away from all the streetlamps and their soft golden glow.
And later, after rescuing everything they can, Ai frames Yusaku's face between his hands, so that his expression can't escape his sight. 'Thank you, Yusaku-sama,' he says, his grin a flash of teeth in the dark.
Because just like with Kiku and her simple gesture of showing a comb into his hand, it's the small things that count with humans. Like the offering of a palm for some shopping bags, or the press of clothes against Ai's fake fingers - and now the way Yusaku lets him, so easily, close him in.
Humanity is worth something. The clothes they make are nice, sure. A real perk - one of the only ones in fact.
But this? Ai closing in, lips on a face that shifts, that breaks against his carefully monitored touch?
Well. That's something he's still paying for, even now.