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An Invisible Thread

Chapter Text

It was raining outside when Ryuji looked out of the classrooms window. The bell had just anounced the lunch break, but he was caught up in this new comic he bought and had started reading in secret during the last lesson, hidden behind his textbooks. Only out of the corner of his eye he noticed most of his classmates leaving the classroom to either buy some lunch or sit down somewhere else to eat. Only a few other students remained seated, catching up on homework, studying or playing on their phones while absentmindedly unpacking their lunch boxes. His stomach was starting to grumble as well, but he just had to know how the story continued. It felt like no time had passed, when he felt the gentle tap of a shoe against his shin. the blonde haired boy looked up to see Ann with a mildly annoyed expression on her face.

„I have been standing in the hallway for ten minutes! Come on! I'm sure Futaba is already waiting for us upstairs!“ she complained while crossing her arms in front of her chest.

„Sorry, my bad, i was so caught up in reading.“ Ryuji apologized while shoving his books into his bag and following Ann out of the classroom.

Since Ren went back home again almost half a year ago now, it had become a daily routine for Ryuji and Ann to eat lunch together. The now third-years where still in different classes and none of them really knew how it became such an established routine without anyone verbally making the plans for it, but every day for lunchbreak they would meet in the hallway halfway between their classrooms to go to the roof and have lunch together. Since Futaba now was a first-year at Shujin, they were more than happy to welcome her into their lunch-group as well.

„Let me guess, you already started reading during lessons?“ Ann mused while walking towards the staircase.

„As if you dont do that as well!“ Ryuji threw back with a smirk.

They still bickered and teased eachother a lot, but deep inside they both knew how much they cared for each other so most of the time they would smile the others comments away while they would probably get upset, if anyone else would have said it.

Ryuji followed Ann up the staircase. When they got into third year, Ann decided to go for something new and disbanded her iconic white hoodie that she used to wear under her uniform blazer. Before starting the school year, she had anounced to the group that she would try a more mature look this year. While the red leggings and the skirt stayed the same, through the guidance of Haru, she now wore a lose white blouse with a v-shaped neckline under her tailored school blazer and black boots that covered her calves. She also tried different hairdos occasionally which today lead to a casual ponytail.

While Ann was trying to reinvent herself, Ryuji pretty much stayed the same. He still rolled up his schools pants at the ancles, he still wore bright, printed tshirts, no matter the occasion. He always knew that Ann was in an entirely different league – even when she wore that white hoodie, that she now dubbed „childish“. A part of him already anticipated that after Ren left and the whole group started to go more of their own ways, Ann would leave him behind again as well, finding something better to do than hanging out with the loud-mouthed blonde boy. But she didnt. When Ren left, he actually got the feeling that Ann sought his company in particular, asking him to hang out after school, go to movies or just study together.

While the school roof was technically still off-limits, nobody seemed to notice or care that three students snuck up there almost every day.

As anticipated by Ann, Futaba was already waiting for her lunch-companions. Since it was raining, they would stay under the small roofed part of the rooftop. Ann and Ryuji remembered sitting on the floor of the dry part of the roof on rainy days, holding a meeting in their early Phantom Thieve days. Now that this was their regular hangout-spot, they had made rearrangements and pushed one of the tables up against the wall. Since there still was only one lonely intact chair on the rooftop, they simply decided to sit on the table.

„What took you so long? I almost starved up here!“ Futaba greeted them as they came through the door.

„Wasn't my fault!“ Ann was quick to point out as she walked past Futaba and hopped onto the table, backing up until her back was rested against the wall.

„Yeah, yeah, it was me“ Ryuji sighed and took his place beside Ann.

Futaba took the her spot on the table to Anns other side and started unpacking her daily dose of Sojiros curry while the two third-graders did the same with their lunch boxes.

„Sooo, how was your daaay?“ Ryuji asked, mimicing a family dinner scene.

„Wait, if Ryuji is the mom, that makes Ann the dad… Sorry, dont see it.“ Futaba stated while chowing down on her curry.

Ann rolled her eyes, unsure how to react to this.

„But fine. Well RyuMom, today we got a group assignment in school and i got grouped up with one of these snarky girls from my class and some other boy whose stats i dont know yet.“ Futaba started.

When Futaba got accepted into Shujin, she had decided on a very unique approach, stating that she would be „blending in“ with the NPCs as much as possible. While Ann, Makoto and1 Haru where excited to take her shopping and create her own unique school look, like they did too, Futaba insisted on staying with the plain uniform. Only her high rising tied-up winter boots and the even higher black stockings she added to her school outfit, claiming that she needed these items for a boost.

„Ugh, I hate group projects...“ Ann stated while she unpacked her store-bought salad-bowl.

„I dont know, maybe this boy could be a good temporary companion but the girl is always looking at me like im too underleveled for her“ Futaba continued.

„You want TakamaDad to beat her up a bit?" Ryuji asked in a serious and caring voice, fully going with the new role.

„Wait what?“ Ann shrieked. „I mean… I could mess with her a litte….“ she added after some thought.

„Nah, it's okay… I'm not ready to cheat yet.. I should maybe give it a try on my own first.“ Futaba stated, leaving Ann and Ryuji impressed.

„But thank you for the offer, RyuMom and TakamaDad.“ she grinned.

„I really hate this name...“Ann sighed.

They continued to eat, with Futaba finishing first and sliding off the table. She looked at her watch and then at her two former teammates, sitting there shoulder-to-shoulder, silently enjoying their lunch. Even without them talking or interacting, they still seemed connected through an invisible thread. And even though there was more than enough free space on the table now, they didn't seem to have the intention of moving apart from each other. Half of their lunch break was over.

„If I may be excused, earlier I took on a side-quest that I need to complete before the end of the lunch break.“ Futaba announced while packing up her stuff in her bag.

„What's the side-quest?“ Ann asked confused.

„A fellow NPC requires my help in finding the solution to a numerical puzzle that needs to be solved to achieve a Level-Up.“

„So… Math-Homework?“ Ryuji guessed.

„Yeah, its math homework, way to ruin the fun Ryuji!“ Futaba pouted.

„That‘s RyuMom to you!“ Ryuji scolded in fake-outrage and prepared himself for a long mom-like speech.

„You may be excused!“ Ann interrupted Ryuji quickly.

„Thanks!“ Futaba replied quickly and darted to the door.

Ryuji grinned. „ Nice parenting there, TakamaDad.“

„Please stop!“ Ann laughed and elbowed him playfully.

„Still got room for dessert?“ Ryuji was rummaging in his back.

„You know the answer, dont you?“ Ann replied, her interest piqued.

Ryuji pulled out a small plastic container, revealing 2 chocolate chip cookies.

„Your moms cookies?“ Ann gasped.

„She made ‘em yesterday, they‘re so freakin good!“ Ryuji offered her the box.

„Its heaven“ Ann mumbled with her mouth full. „Thanks, you‘re a lifesaver“.

As if in silent understanding Ryuji and Ann stayed on the rooftop after finishing their meals. Ryuji took out his new comic-book, showing it to Ann and roughly explaining the plot. She read alongside him for a few pages until eventually losing interest and checking social media on her phone, her head eventually finding rest on his shoulder triggering his head to eventually end up leaning on top of hers. It wasnt an odd scenario to find the two blondes sitting together like this, going about their own business while still enjoying each others comforting presence.

5 minutes before the bell, Ryuji lifted his head up and looked down at Ann „Yo, time to get up“ He sighed…. „Man, im tired...“.

„Me too...“ Ann said as she slowly sat up straight again and stifled a yawn.

They packed up their stuff and made their way down the stairs. As they were about to part ways to head towards their classrooms, Ann searched through her back to pick out two small cans of energy drink.

„Hey, catch!“ she said as she tossed the can into his hands. „So you dont fall asleep during class“ she grinned and gave him a quick wink, all the while walking backwards towards her classroom.

Ryuji, also walking backwards, caught the can and smiled at her. „Thanks, youre a lifesaver!“.

After a short moment of quiet, Ryuji spoke up again, having to raise his voice a little because they moved apart step-by-step: „So… See you for homework?“.

Ann was almost at her classroom door when she responded smiling: „Sure, dont be late though!“

 

Chapter Text

It was late, the only light coming from the streetlamps, as two figures walked along the otherwise empty street. It was a night that both of them wouldnt be able to forget. The destruction of Shidos palace. After Ryuji regained consciousness, the group had spent some time together, getting something to eat before parting ways.

Ryuji didnt entirely understand why Ann insisted on accompanying him home. She didnt seem too worried about possible injuries of the explosion when she beat him up before… He admitted, he had it coming when he made that dumb remark about her crying face, but still, he felt a little hurt and annoyed that the girls, and especially Ann, would gang up on him like that when he just risked his neck for everyone of them. Especially Ann, because he did it with mainly her in mind. He wasnt ready to loose her on that ship. As he sprinted up to the life boat, he couldnt help but remember everything they went through together. But she couldn‘t know that.

Ann knew that it was wrong to beat him up, she realized it already while she was doing it. She knew that he risked his life to safe everyone and deserved so much more than a beating. Ann couldn't even tell why she punched him in the first place. His remark about her crying face wasn't that outraging to her anymore. She had a feeling that Ryuji was only trying to lighten the mood, although it might not have been the best way. But that's Ryuji. When she didn't see him after returning from Shidos ship, her heart broke. It almost felt surreal, imagining living without him. Not seeing him at school everyday, his blonde head sticking out of the crowd. His crazy loud and quick to swear mouth. His undying loyalty to his friends, that got him caught in the explosion. After their dinner, she needed to know that he would get home safe, so she decided to walk with him. She stuck to his side as close as possible without touching him, while deep down all she wanted to do was to hug him and never let go again.

None of them talked.

Ryuji wasnt unaware of Anns try to be as close as possible while trying to not make it seem weird. As he watched her out of the corner of his eye, she seemed to be lost in thought as well. He shoved his hands into his pockets and continued walking alongside her.

When they arived at his apartment-building Ryuji stopped in front of the main door, looking at Ann.

„Here we are...“ he said, rubbing his neck uncertain of what to do.

Ann looked up at him for the first time since they left the train station. He realized that her eyes were glistening, on the verge of crying. They stood in silence, looking at each other for what felt like minutes to them.

„I‘m sorry.“ Ann whispered barely audible.

„Ann what are you talking ab-?“ Ryuji couldnt finish his sentence because he was left speechless when Ann grabbed him by the shirt, clenched her hands into fists and pulled herself towards him, burrying her face in his chest.

„I shouldn't have hit you. I thought i lost you, i was so scared, i didn't know what to do. You risked your life to save us. I‘m so sorry i hit you.“ the words spilled out of her mouth and against his chest, gripping his shirt as tight as she could.

Ryuji was left dumbfounded by Anns sudden outburst. He wanted to say something, how everything was okay, how he couldn't live with himself if anything had happened to her, how reliefed he felt when he watched her getting on that boat and to safety. But he just couldn't bring out the words. Instead he just wrapped his arms around her tight, one hand gently placed at the back of her head while his own head rested on top of hers, trying to shield her from everything bad with his embrace. It was more of an instinct or probably his heart taking action instead of his brain when he placed a kiss on the top of her head, before returning to tightly embracing her.

Out of every action that Ann imagined Ryuji taking, she would never have imagined the passionate embrace that she now found herself in. And while the shock of todays events still lingered within her and she couldn't stop crying over the fact that she almost lost him, as she stood there in Ryujis arms, she finally felt relieve for the first time this day. She felt safe. She had the strange feeling that she belonged into his arms. She wanted to stay like this forever.

The feeling was mutual, Ryuji wished that he would never have to let her go. He still felt the need to say something though. „It's okay...“ he started „I had it coming with my stupid comment“.

There were a few moments of silence.

„But daaamn, you know how to pack a punch...“ Ryuji instantly regretted being unable to keep his damn mouth shut. He was almost anticipating ending up against the nearest lamppost again.

Instead he heard a snort against his chest, followed by a muffled „Shut up.“. While he was expecting Ann to pull away, she made no intention to do so.

They stood like that for what felt like hours to them.

„Ann...“ he started when he realized that the last trains woud soon be leaving. He felt the need to tell her, even though he wished that they could stay in this place forever.

„Just a few more minutes, okay?“ Ann almost whispered again, but this time there was no sadness in her voice anymore.

„Okay.“ Ryuji placed another kiss on the top of her head before placing his cheek on the top of her head again.

 

Chapter Text

It was a mild autumn afternoon when two blonde Shujin students left the school building, heading for the subway station.

„I can't believe that we‘re this swamped with homework. Third grade is haaard!“ Ann sighed while stretching her arms out to her side.

„I think I‘m already endangered of failing at least 2 classes...“ Ryuji sighed while kicking a pebble on the street.

„Shouldn't be reading so many comics during class!“ Ann teased

„It was only one time!“ Ryuji replied annoyed. „But let‘s agree that you won't be telling Makoto tonight about how bad we are currently doing?“

„Hm, as far as I can see, you seem to be doing a liiiittle worse than meeee.“ Ann teased

„For real? As if you're the honor student! Who was it, that ditched school for a photo shoot the other day?“

Ann snickered „Relax, I won't rat you out. after all, we‘re in this together, right?“

Ryuji was surprised that Ann let this issue go so easily when she could have gone on teasing him for far longer. He smiled and nodded. Hearing Ann talking about them as one unit gave him a warm feeling in his stomach.

„Anyways, what will you be up to this evening? Any hot dates?“ Ann continued. She tried sounding indifferent about wether he had a date or not, but she knew what answer she was hoping for.

„Me? Nah, I'm going to hang out with Mishima later, probably playing games.“ Ryuji responded while crossing his arms behind his head. „What are you gonna do on your girls night-out? Gossipping, gushing over boys?“ he teased with a grin.

„That's all you think we will do? Gush over guys? Please, how pathetic do you think we are?“ Ann scoffed. „We will meet up at Leblanc later, get some dinner and catch up. I mean Futaba and I see each other everyday now, but it's been months that we‘ve last seen Haru and Makoto… there will be lots and lots to talk about!“ Ann continued, purposely leaving out the fact that they would probably also be talking about boys at some point. But Ryuji didn't need to know that. „Also, since you'll be hanging out with Mishima, it's not like YOU wont be talking about girls!“ Ann teased.

Ryuji sighed, knowing she probably would be right. Since the Phantom Thieves, Mishima mustered up some courage to the point where he wasn't only gushing over girls and secretly admiring them, but actively talking to them, almost always leading to him falling deeply in love after the first chat. Especially this writing class that he picked up after school proofed to be a great place for him to meet girls that had very similar interests to him.

„Don't jinx it!“ he groaned.

They arrived at Shibuya, traversing the crowded station. At one point, Ann almost got run over by a business-man too concentrated on his phone if it wasn't for Ryuji instinctively stepping in front of her, having the man almost bump into him. „Hey, watch where you‘re going!“ Ryuji glared when the man finally looked up. After the man turned to leave, Ryuji turned around to see if Ann was okay, only to find her smiling at him. Ann couldn't help it. She thought of herself as independent, not needing to be handled like a helpless, precious doll in need of a man to protect her, like she had been treated many times before. But damn her, did the butterflies in her stomach run wild when Ryuji did it. Because she knew that he didn't do it because he thought that she was a helpless damsel in distress but he did it because it was his instinct to protect the people he cared about. She must have been lost in thought for a bit, for Ryuji slightly tapped her forehead to get her attention back.

„You there?“ he asked while tapping.

„Uh, yeah… thanks!“ Ann replied a bit dazed and started walking again, Ryuji falling in place by her side again.

As they were commencing through the grand station, Ann suddenly tugged at Ryujis jacket sleeve. „Hey, isn't that Yusuke?“, then after being sure thrusting her arm up and yelling „Hey, YUSUKE!“

Yusuke, now even taller than before, started to look around, easily spotting the only two blondes in the sea of black hair. He waved back and started walking towards them. When they both made their way to a spot out of the stream of busy people, Ann and Ryuji realized that Yusuke wasn't alone. Beside him stood a girl about their age with straight black hair, bangs and a red ornament in her hair. She wore the Kosei uniform and had a few books clutched to her chest.

„Ann, Ryuji. What a pleasant surprise to meet you here.“ Yusuke stated while greeting Ann with a loose hug and Ryuji with a handshake.

„Totally, I hope we weren't interrupting anything, I only saw you standing out, I didn't realize you were with someone!“ Ann started.

„Of course, my apologies! May I introduce Hifumi Togo, who has become a very dear friend to me since the end of the Phantom Thieves. We have come to realize that confiding in someone can be really beneficial for the mind and henceforth for the creativity. In my case that would be painting, in Hifumis case it's the art of shogi.“

„It's a pleasure to meet you.“ Hifumi said and bowed, clearly a bit uncomfortable with the description of their friendship.

Ryuji and Ann were dumbstruck, they didnt even know where to begin. The fact that Yusuke so openly just mentioned the Phantom Thieves in front of her and his odd descpription of what did seem a friendship left them at a loss for words.

„The… Phantom Thieves?“ Ann repeated.

„Yes. After all, the last year was a life-changing experience, not just for me.“ Yusuke explained.

„I'm afraid Yusuke is missing your point. But theres no need to worry. You see, Ren used to be my shogi student, where I eventually guessed his ulterior motives. Before he left, he told me to keep an eye on a certain Yusuke in my school and that is when we started talking.“ Hifumi explained.

„Wait, so you're the Shogi prodigy that we sent Ren to see?“ Ryuji asked

Hifumi nodded.

„That reminds me, Ryuji, is she everything that you imagined?“ Yusuke turned to Ryuji

„Dude, what are you talking about?“

„If I remember correctly, you seemed very interested in Hifumis appearance when I informed you all of her talents in our group chat, back then.“ Yusuke explained while Hifumi managed to look even more embarassed than Ryuji.

Ann held a finger to her chin in thought „Hm… I think I remember that one.“

Ryujis face turned red. „Why would you bring that up now???“

Ann turned to Hifumi „He can be a perv sometimes...“ she shrugged.

Hifumi didnt know how to respond to that.

Ryuji sighed, wondering how he had gotten into this situation and how he would be able to get out of it again. Hifumi was good-looking. It wasnt like he didn't find anyone attractive but her. There just wasn't anyone particularly interesting to him. Somehow he never felt the need to get to know a girl closer, as if deep inside he already knew that he had someone completely different in mind. Ever since he met her, there was always some invisible force that dragged him towards her. He couldn't pinpoint the exact reason why he was so fascinated with her. At first, it was her look. She was unlike anyone else he had ever seen before. After getting to know her, it was her character. Even back then he realized what a huge pain she could be, but he also noticed how caring she was towards her friends. Whenever he would get into a fight with other boys, he never heard the end of it from Ann, scolding him, telling him how stupid he was, all while patching him up with band-aids, that she had in her schoolbag. He would tease her for the fun of it, because instead of running away crying, she would fight back, throwing insults that he never heard of until they both would burst out laughing. When they started high school, they drifted apart. She would stick with Shiho and Ryuji got invested in the track team. Sometimes he would still think about the times the three of them spent in the school yard during breaks, laughing, having fun. Somewhere back then must have been the moment when Ryuji fell for Ann, but he realized too late. In high school he soon noticed, that he wasn't the only one that Ann made an impression on. Other boys whispered about her, boys that probably weren't as messed up as him, boys that he wouldn't stand a chance against. He would have never guessed how lonely Ann was, if she didn't have Shiho with her. If he had known, he would have tried to be there. But he was an idiot, thinking that she probably didn't care if he was there or not, and then the troubles with Kamoshida started, involving both of them in their own way. When Ann insisted on joining them in the Metaverse, he was aware of the strong words he was using, but he needed her to stay safe. He was starting to settle with the thought that Ann would never care for him the way he did. To cover it up, he would try to trick her, the others and eventually himself that he was on the prowl for girls, eventually even asking Ann for the number of her competition, making her incredibly mad. And still he couldn't help it but staring uncontrollably dumb when the opportunity arose to stare down her shirt or seeing her in a bikini. Ironic, how his attempts to ignore his feelings for Ann in the end got him the image of the perv. He had a tough time in Hawaii when she wanted to know what kind of girl he was interested in, when the answer was the girl asking the question. He settled for a vague answer and still ended up making a fool of himself, with Ann believing that he was just a shallow douche.

He must have been quiet for a long time, for this time it was Ann flicking his forehead. „Helloooo?“

„Huh, what?“ Ryuji shook his head to clear his thoughts. It seemed like while he had been lost in his head, the other three had a conversation of their own.

„It was a pleasure running into you. I hope we can do it again some time soon, perhaps even with the entire group. For now, I need to be on my way.“ Yusuke stated as he took a look on his watch and nodding to Hifumi. The girl took a bow „It was nice to finally meet you.“ she said and followed Yusuke.

„What the eff. That was sooooo embarassing!“ Ryuji sighed „She totally thinks I'm a creep.“

„Yeah… but she also hangs out with Yusuke a lot, so maybe she's used to it?“ Ann shrugged and grinned. „Anyway, I should hurry up and get going, I need to go home and change before meeting with the girls! Have fun with Mishima, see ya tomorrow!“ Ann said as she took off towards her train-line.

 

~

 

An hour later, Ryuji was ringing the bell at the Mishimas house. Yuuki opened almost immediatly, trying to pull off a cool handshake to greet Ryuji after ushering him in. Mishima still had the same chaotic haircut and was wearing simple jeans with a loose sweatshirt. The house was quiet, it seemed like he was home alone.

 

„Daamn, I didn't know that you live in such a fancy place.“ Ryuji was in awe when Mishima led him to the spacious living room. Mishima and him have met up to play games before, but it had always been at his house when his mother wasn't home so they could use the living room freely.

Mishima seemed embarassed „Well… both my parents are working, my father is a big figure in finance...“

„Dude, relax, no need to be embarassed. That's awesome!“ Ryuji tried to calm him down.

While Mishima did gain some confidence, sometimes during interactions he would still fall back into old habits of getting nervous really fast.Mishima brought some snacks and drinks from the kitchen and placed them on the small table in front of the black leather couch. His gaming console was already hooked up to the TV and the new racing game they were going to play was already installed. They opened up a bag of chips and each a can of soda while waiting for the game to start, chatting about school and other stuff. While playing, there was no time for talking except for trash-talk (mostly coming from Ryuji, but Mishima started to handle it pretty well) and the occasional outbursts of joy or disappointment on both sides. After 2 hours of playing it was a very close call but Mishima won with only one more overall win than Ryuji.

„That was great! It's much more fun to play it with someone else!“ Mishima said while leaning back and taking a sip out of his soda can.

Ryuji agreed. „So, how's life treatin ya? How's your book comin around?“ he casually asked.

„It's coming along okay, recently we've been packed with homework though, so I'm taking it easy on the writing for now. Not a lot of ideas when your brain is drained from school before you even start.“ Mishima said, visibly enjoying talking about his found passion. „This writing club that I go to is really great, there are a lot of other aspiring writers around the same age and we give each other a lot of support with spell-checking each other and all“.

There was a small silence and Ryuji could already sense what would be coming next.

„And then there‘s this girl there...“ Mishima starts, already having hearts in his eyes. „But she doesnt seem to notice me. We had a chat about her short-story, but since that, she didnt really mind me. Just saying hello and bye...“ he sighed.

„Maybe, she just doesn't know what to talk about? Or she doesn't know that you want to talk that much?“ Ryuji suggested, internally rolling his eyes.

„Maybe...“ the boy sighed. „I wish I had what you and Ann have...“

„What d‘ya mean? Ann and I aren't like that“ Ryuji was confused.

„Oh…. Ooooh, I'm sorry, I was just assuming… I just see you together almost all the time and so I thought…. „ Mishima studdered, worried about having made a fool of himself.

„Nah, we‘re just friends.“ Ryuji explained.

„I guess that she must have another guy then, because recently I saw her turning down Kaito stating that she was busy that day, and he seems to be every girls dream guy.“

Ryujis heart sank a little. Not only because he was saddened that Ann wouldn't tell him that she had met someone, but also because now the scenario that he had always dreaded appeared to happen. He knew that it would come one day, but no matter when, he would have always wished for more time. She was out of his league, he was about to forget that in the past months, where they have grown even closer than before, he needed to be reminded of that again.

„Huh… When was that, you say?“ He asked, trying to sound indifferent about it.

„It was only last week. I think on monday.“ Mishima recalled.

And thats when it hit Ryuji.

 

You really suck at this game, Ryuji“ he heard Ann almost yelling in his ear with her sometimes terribly shrill voice before he had to fend off her hands that were trying to get the handheld console away from him.

They had been sitting at Leblanc after school, it was crowded downstairs so they decided to head up to Rens room that mostly stayed the same after he had left. They were sitting on the couch, Ryuji was playing a game with Ann watching when they should have been doing homework.

Let go!“ Ryuji huffed with a mixture of annoyence and amusement while swatting Anns hands away.

Come on! I wanna try, I bet im better than you are!“ Ann didn't budge, leaning against his shoulder and side more until he eventually tipped over to the side, onto the free side of the couch, her partly falling onto him, still trying to grab the console.

Ryuji laughed, now having the advantage of being able to raise his hands over his head and therefore out of reach for Ann, who wouldn't be stopped by such methods and started to climb and crawl over him, both of them laughing.

They were so caught up in their mock fight that they didn't register Futaba walking up the stairs, throwing a confused look at the two before turning heel and leaving again.

 

 

„We were just set to do homework together“ Ryuji muttered, the realization that Ann could probably have declined another guy because she wanted to hang out with him made his heart jump again. „But maybe she just didn't like him.“ Ryuji snapped himself out of dreaming about a thing too good to be true.

„I don't know… it always seems like you two are together. What if she wants to be with you?“ Mishima said. „I mean… wouldn't you want to?“

Ryuji knew the answer. He has known for over a year. Without thinking, he took out his phone to text Ann.

 

U still in Yongen?

 

It took a while for her to respond, either because she was still at Leblanc or because she was already home.

 

Yeah, about to head home soon. U?

 

He gathered all the courage he could muster.

 

Meet in Shibuya?

 

When he received her thumbs-up, his heart almost missed a beat. He got up.

„So what's your plan?“ Mishima asked as he got up with him.

„Guess I'll have to ask her out.“ Ryuji said as he tied his shoes and took the umbrella that his mom urged him to take because of the weather forecast.

„Thanks, man.“ he said while replying Mishimas handshake before being off to the station.

He suspected that he would be in Shibuya first so he went downstairs to the platform that Anns train would be arriving, leaning against a column, trying to look chill while coming up with what to say. He registered a train entering the station and looked down the platform as the people were streaming out. It took a while until he spotted her blonde twin tails as she made her way towards him, that caring smile spreading across her face, that he was always looking forward to every day, which was so infectious. She was wearing the white hoodie that had accompanied her through all of second year, only tonight paired with tight jeans and her brown ankle boots.

„Hey there“ he said smiling as he pushed himself away from the column.

 

~

 

1 hour after saying goodbye to Ryuji Ann found herself in Yongen. Walking out of the station and walking down the road, Ann felt the nostalgia wash over her. The many hours they had spent at Leblanc, studying, plotting or simply hanging out. When she turned around the corner, she had to smile when she remembered the earlier encounter with Yusuke. It was amusing to see Ryuji embarassed about his previous actions. It showed that he wasn't that much a macho as he would like them to believe. When she entered Leblanc, only one table was occupied by some regulars.

„Makoto, Haru, finally you‘re here!“ Futaba yelled before storming out of the kitchen, rushing to greet them before processing who came through the door. „Oh, it's just Ann...“ she sounded a bit disppointed „Seat yourself.“ .

„Uh, thanks...“ Ann replied a bit irritated before taking a seat in one of the middle booths where she could remember them sitting, making plans for their last heists.

Futaba wore an appron as she was now helping out Sojiro with the cafe every now and then. She returned to the counter to make some coffee.

„Futaba, are you handling the store alone today?“ Ann asked incredulous.

„Only for a bit, I think he went out to get some cigarettes.“

A bit of time passed and Sojiro returned, greeting Ann with a warm smile. The last customers paid, got up and left. As they went out the door, two other silhouettes walked in.

„Yay! You're here!“ Futaba yelled jumping up and down happily before storming up to hug Makoto and Haru.

„Easy there!“ Makoto exclaimed as she was crushed in a hug together with Haru.

„Group Hug!“ Ann laughed as she also rushed to them, trapping Futaba, who still was a bit shorter than all of them, in the middle. They all started laughing before releasing each other.

„It's nice to see you reunited again“ Sojiro smiled. „Alright, I'm gonna head out for the night, you got the place for yourself. Futaba, you're gonna lock up when you're done right?“

„Aye Aye, Captain!“ Futaba said, saluting Sojiro.

„And don't party too long, it's still a school day tomorrow!“ Sojiro warned before taking his hat and left.

Futaba rolled her eyes and took off her apron as soon as Sojiro was gone. „Alright! Sit down everyone, Sojiro made Curry especially for us!“ Futaba exclaimed.

„How wonderful!“ Haru still was as lovely and kind as ever. After finishing school she started studying for a gastronomy license, the first step towards opening up her own cafe. She still was involved with her fathers company as well, participating in every board-meeting, trying to steer the company away from scandals. Her style was still unchanged, today she was wearing a bordeaux colored dress with loose long sleeves and her favourite: polka-dotted tights.

„That sounds amazing. I didn't get the chance to eat all day!“ Makoto sighed as she dropped her bag. She came here directly from the university, where she studied to be a police comissioner and didn't have time to go home and change. Her iconic hairstyle still remained the same and she now wore black jeans and a white knitted turtleneck sweater.

They decided to team up to get everything ready for their dinner. While Futaba was working hard on the coffee, Haru was ladling out the curry and the rice onto the plates with Makoto taking the readied plates to the table and laying out cutlery while Ann was connecting her phone to Futabas bluetooth speakers, picking out the music.

„Oh my, I didnt realize how much I missed Sojiros curry. It has been far too long since we last saw each other!“ Haru exclaimed.

„I‘m sorry, most of the time it was me who couldn't make the time…“ Makoto apologized. „I was with Ren almost all summer, after that it was a bit complicated to settle into university-life again….“ She said, blushing a little bit, like she always did when she was talking about her and Ren.

„How is he?“ Futaba asked inbetween bites. Especially Ann and Ryuji noticed her struggle at the beginning of the school year without Ren to back her up. She kept repeating that her „Key Item“ was missing. Ren had been to Tokyo during the first week of summer vacation and they were spending almost every free minute together. When he returned home, Makoto went with him and stayed there for almost all the rest of their holidays, both of them not answering to any calls, just eventually texting to tell everyone they were okay, when they started to get worried.

Ann had to smile to herself, when she remembered Ryuji teasing that they would be only talking about guys.

„He's fine. He settled back into his old school really fast.“ Makoto said, taking a sip of coffee. „But enough about Ren, I want to hear what is going on with all of you! Haru, how are you managing?“

„Oh, I'm doing quite alright. Just the other day, I convinced the board to put more emphasis on the quality of the products of Big Bang Burger by serving them the big bang salad compared to one of my home-grown salads. They agreed on looking into the possibilities of buying from several local smaller farmers. And my private studies are coming along quite well. Currently we are learning a whole lot about finances, taxes and bookkeeping. And I'm trying to grow some new vegetables in my private garden.“ Haru started, sounding cheery as always.

„Wow, that sounds like a lot. Don't you ever need time to relax?“ Ann asked curious.

„Well, the gardening is my hobby, so that always tends to give me relaxation.“Haru pointed out „And recently, Yusuke invited me to go to an art-gallery, which was quite interesting.“

„Speaking of Yusuke, Ryuji and I ran into him in Shibuya today. He seems to have made a new friend as well.“ Ann said, scraping the last bits of curry off her plate.

„Oh, are you talking about Hifumi? He mentioned her when we were at the galery. He told me how he enjoyed having a true friend at his school. He called it something like „similar fates“, I think“ Haru recalled.

„She must be a weirdo too, if she can put up with Inari for that long.“ Futaba pointed out.

„She seemed very quiet and calm, but in a nice way.“ Ann said.

„So Ann, what have you been up to?“ Haru asked.

„Well, there has been a few photo shoots now and then, but not as many as I would wish for… On the other hand, there is enough to do with school-work alone already, so I guess I would be in trouble if I had more jobs...“ more than I already am, Ann added in thought, but tried to keep a reassuring face to not get interrogated by Makoto. Fitting for her job-to-be, she was getting better and better at interrogating people.

Yes, I remember the third year being especially hard. Thinking about it, I have no memory of how we managed both school and Metaverse-work back then.“ Haru agreed with a compassionate smile.

„Do you already have some ideas of what to do after finishing Shujin?“ Makoto asked like a stern mother. Ann knew that she didn't mean it in a bad way, but she guessed that Makoto was asking because in her world, it seemed impossible to not have plans for at least the whole next year.

„I don't know...“ Ann started, a little bit unsure of Makotos reaction „During vacation I kind of thought that I might be able to make a living with modeling alone, but these days, im getting refused without even being invited to a casting...“ Ann had a guess why that was. She stood out too much. The very reason for her solitude in school was also the reason why she now got less and less bookings for jobs. Magazines, beauty-campaigns, they were all looking for the classic japanese beauty, not for the foreign blonde girl with blue eyes. Most of the time she was able to surpress the fear of her future after Shujin, telling herself that something will come up and it will sort itself out on its own. But deep down she knew that she should probably be freaking out like Makoto would, if she had no prospects until now.

To Anns surprise, Makoto looked at her understanding „I'm sorry to hear that they don't even give you a chance… Have you thought about studying? Would there be something that interests you?“

I… guess I never thought about it….“ Ann shrugged. She has never seen herself in university. She was bad enough at studying in school already. „But I will look into it, thank you Makoto.“

„Phew, I'm glad I dont have to get grilled about that stuff for now...“ Futaba said as she was sitting in her usually preferred way, knees clutched to her chest. Now that she wasn't wearing her school uniform but her preferred baggy pants, she was able to sit how she liked again.

„Speaking of, Futaba, is everything alright at Shujin?“ Makoto turned her attention to Futaba.

„I'm doing okay!“ Futaba almost seemed proud to report. „My disguise is working perfectly. NPCs mainly ignore me. Also, RyuAnn is taking very good care of me.“ she added.

„RyuAnn?“ Makotos eyebrow perked up. Something she only did when she was expecting some explanation.

„Yeah, RyuAnn, as in Ryuji and Ann, but abbreviated. Its like a shipping name, like MakoRen.“ Futaba explained.

„Dont tell me! Is there something to ship?“ Haru exclaimed excitedly, slightly bouncing in her seat with her hands covering her mouth to hide her wide grin.

„NO!“ Ann said while looking at Futaba. „We have just maybe taken on the parenting roles for Futaba in school, thats what she means. There is no shipping.“

Futaba sighed, annoyed. „Yeah, but it's about time!“

„I have to agree, how long are you planning to make us wait?“ Haru seemed disappointed.

„They are always hanging out together, even after school!“ Futaba reported to Haru and Makoto.

„It's not like that! I mean… Sure I like being around him...“ Ann stammered.

„And he likes being around you!“ Futaba completed for her. „Don't be so dense, you know how he admires you!“ she added, mildly annoyed.

„If you don't tell him how you really feel soon, maybe at one point it will be too late and you will regret it!“ Makoto advised.

Sometimes Ann would fear that Ryuji would one day introduce her to another girl, that he had fallen for. She couldn't deny it, he was attractive, he was in shape, he had those strong muscular arms that every girl would be happy to be held with. Besides, that blonde head and the rebel image certainly would also tick the boxes for some type of girls. Instead of telling the truth and digging deeper into her feelings, she tried to cover up with a joke.

„As if anyone could put up with him,“ she waved Makotos argument away, trying to look confident.

„I wouldn't be so sure about that.“ Futaba regretted to say. „He is at least the talk of some of the first-year girls, as much as I know...“

Ann kept a straight face while inside of her something seemed to crumple.

„Ann?“ Makoto asked softly „Do you love Ryuji?“

Ann leaned back in her seat for a moment, looking down at her hands to hide her face from her friends, pretending she was thinking, when there was nothing to think about. She had known for a long time. She probably knew since middle school, that that loud mouthed brat was an idiot that she couldn't stay away from. No matter how stupid he was when he always felt the need to tease her although they both knew he didn't mean it. No matter what a jerk he was when he was after every girl but her in second grade, except for when it came to staring down her shirt, where he would be the first to look. He would always be the first one to make fun of her and make dumb remarks,  but he also always was the first one to defend her when someone else made a rude comment about her. She used to scold him for that in the beginning, claiming that she could fight her own battles but he wouldn't stop, so one day she decided to not be angry about it anymore, but grateful for his loyalty. The truth was always there. She was trying to tell herself that they were just really close friends, bound by fate and their secret, but deep down, she always wished for the chance to return into this embrace they had shared after the explosion of Shidos ship one more time, where it felt like the world had stopped and she was were she belonged. She couldn't help but smile. That idiot… she thought to herself.

„I think I do.“ Ann said, slowly looking up after she said it to look into the beaming faces of Haru and Makoto, Haru having tears in her eyes. Before she could turn her head to Futaba to see her reaction, she was tackled by the orange-haired girl into a hug.

Makoto and Haru jumped out of their seats and climbed onto the bench of the booth behind Ann to embrace her from behind. Eventually, they all started giggling.

„I missed this so much!“ Ann smiled while she was still burried under her three friends.

The four continued chatting and laughing for quite some time, until eventually getting up to clean up and close the shop. Ann unhooked her phone from the speakers to find a message from Ryuji.

 

U still in Yongen?

 

Ann couldn't help but smile, considering how she spent the girls-night with a fair amount of thinking about him, before replying.

 

Yeah, about to head home soon. U?

 

The response was immediate

 

Meet in Shibuya?

 

Ann was confused but also immensly happy. She simply replied with a thumbs-up emoji.

As they were about to leave they registered the heavy raindrops falling outside, leaving Ann cursing for not thinking about an umbrella before leaving home.

They said their good-byes to Futaba while they were still inside Leblanc as to stay dry as long as possible. As soon as Futaba locked the door, she was off sprinting to Sojiros house, waving to them over her shoulder.

Haru and Makoto of course came prepared so Ann got to stand under Makotos umbrella for the short walk to the station.

When they arrived in Shibuya, Haru got off the train with her as she needed to change lines. They hugged Makoto good-bye on the train and stepped onto the platform. Before Ann could spot him, Haru was already giggling knowingly.

„I think someones waiting for you!“ She smiled, unable to hide her excitement when she slightly nudged Ann and pointed to the blonde boy leaning against a column, not having spotted her yet.

Ann nodded, suddenly feeling more butterflies than usual when she's spotting Ryuji. He always had that smile reaching up to his eyes when he saw her approaching, which always made her heart skip a beat.

„You got this!“ Haru whispered while embracing Ann in a tight hug before leaving for the escalators. Ann walked towards Ryuji, melting at that smile that spread across his face when he noticed her.

„Hey!“ she said.

 

~

 

They walked towards Anns train line, chatting about their night. When they got off the train and left the station, it was still raining heavily outside. Ryuji unfolded his umbrella and held it above both of them. Ann wrapped her arms around his to stand even closer to him and the umbrella.

„So, was the only reason you wanted to meet up because you wanted to walk me home?“ Ann asked and looked up at him as he was staring ahead.

„I guessed that you didn't bring an umbrella, as always.“ Ryuji tried playing it cool.

„Mhm.. how considerate“ Ann grinned. She felt like there was something he wouldnt tell her. They continued in comfortable silence until they reached Anns apartment complex.

Ann changed her position so she would stand in front of Ryuji now, their upper bodys almost touching to fit under the umbrella.

Ryuji figured it was now or never. „Ann...“ he took a deep breath „would you want to go out sometimes. As in… a date“ as soon as he finished the sentence it felt like the time slowed, making the misery of waiting for her response even longer.

„No… “ Ann started, fully aware that starting her sentence with a No could be risky, but she had planned to continue before he could show any reaction. His face was faster to falter and he interrupted.

„Yeah, it was stupid...“ he started, embarassed and uncomfortable.

„No, wait, let me finish! Ryuji, we have been to dinner and we have been to the movies several times, just the two of us. Dont you think that we‘re a little bit past the dating phase?“ Ann interrupted.

Ryuji was confused. „So… what do you wanna do?“

Ann grinned. „Why dont you just kiss me?“ she challenged him.

„What the Eff? You started your answer with NO to then give me this? I almost died just now, ya know?“ Ryuji exclaimed.

„Sooooorrry, it's not like I wanted to make a pause but you HAD to interrupt me!“ Ann started. „You never let me fin-“

Ryuji hooked his free arm around her waist and pulled her close. When their lips met, it was like the last pieces of a puzzle being put into place. Again, the feeling of belonging washed over them as Ann slipped her hands into his open jacket to wrap her arms around his waist.

They stood like this for a long time. In the middle of the rain, safe under Ryujis umbrella. When they let go of each other, they both couldnt contain their smiles.

„Soo, everytime we hung out, watched a movie or grabbed a bite…. It was a date?“ Ryuji asked.

„Would it have been so different?“ she asked in return.

„I dunno… maybe I would have bought you flowers or something.“ he said.

Ann snorted. „As if...“

„Or maybe you could have dressed up for once!“ Ryuji delivered the payback.

„Cause you would stand there in suit and tie!“ Ann laughed.

„Maybe I would have, if your first response to me asking you out hadn't been NO!“ Ryuji teased.

„You‘re such a jerk! You know that? Why did I fall in love with you?“ She laughed, while jokingly punching him in the chest.

„And I fell for someone who can be a real pain in the ass sometimes. But your taste in men is good at least.“ he smirked, only to be silenced by Anns lips again.

They were standing there in silence, hugging, for a long time.

„I think I should be on my way soon...“ Ryuji murmured while looking down at Ann, who had placed her head on his chest, listening to his heartbeat. He placed a kiss on the top of her head, like he did back then on that day in december.

„Please don't!“ Ann said as she lifted her head to look up at him. „Please stay!“

„Won't your parents be upset if they find out?“ Ryuji asked and kissed her forehead.

„They're not here.“ Ann said, before putting her ear onto his chest again, hugging him tight.

„Okay, but you gotta help me think of something that I can tell my mom.“ Ryuji said.

Ann smiled and let him go. She took his hand and they headed towards her building. While they stood in the elevator, Ryuji wrote a text to his mother, claiming that they forgot the time gaming and he missed the last train, trapping him at Mishimas place who luckily offered him to stay.

Ryuji has been to Anns place several times so the tastefully decorated, modern apartment was nothing new to him. Anns parents, both working hard, owned an apartment on one of the top floors of the luxurious complex, offering a great view over parts of the city, that was especially spectacular at night.

Ann always thought that the first time she would bring a boy home would be connected with much more nervousness about how to act, but with Ryuji, it felt like nothing really had changed. They went to her room and soon decided to go to sleep after a look at the clock. While Ryuji stayed in her room to change, Ann went to the bathroom to take off her make-up and get changed into her sleeping clothes and soon returned to her room in a loose tshirt and shorts, climbing into bed beside Ryuji, unable to fully process how it came to happen that she now finally was able to sleep in his arms. She turned off the lamp on the nightstand. They laid there in the dark room, turned towards each other and smiling.

„Sorry for not dressing up for our first night together“ Ann said, half-joking but also to find out if he was disappointed.

„Are you kidding? You could wear a trashbag and look beautiful. Besides, I love that look on you.“ Ryuji said, placing his arm under her head and pulling her close with the other to then fully embrace her. Ann placed her hands on and buried her face against his chest and immediatly the same feeling of home washed over her, that she has had last december and that she was longing for since then. Ryuji kissed her head one more time before falling asleep.

 

 

It was still dark outside when Ryujis phone-alarm went off. Ryuji opened his eyes and quickly turned off the alarm, staying in bed for a bit to make sure that last night hadn't been a dream and it was not his imagination that Ann laid there, pressed against his side, her head resting on his chest, one arm slung across his stomach, holding him tight. A part of him wanted to just stay there in bed with her forever or at least until her alarm went off. But he couldn't. He needed to go home to get his uniform and school stuff.

He sighed and slowly started to move Anns arm first and then gently tried to move her head to the pillow before slowly climbing out of bed. Luckily Ann was generally hard to wake up so it was no problem for Ryuji getting dressed without disturbing her. He picked up his phone and looked at Ann, snoring lightly, her hair spread all over the pillow. He kneeled down on her bed beside her, gently kissing her forehead.

„Hm?“ Ann murmured, slowly opening her eyes, her yawn turning into a smile when she looked into Ryujis face. She reached out with her arms to sling them around his neck, wanting to pull him back to bed.

„Don't tempt me!“ Ryuji whispered. „I gotta go home before school starts, pick up my stuff.“ Ryuji leaned over her and they shared a long kiss. „See you in school.“ he smiled as he got up.

„See you in school.“ Ann replied, giving him a tired smile as she watched him leave.

Chapter Text

Ryujis mother found out about Ann very fast.

She suspected that something was up with her son. Not only did he get home very late more often now, he also seemed to have a certain spring in his step. It also happened a lot more that Ryuji went to friends places, forgetting the time there and missing the last trains. At first she was worried that he would get himself into trouble with whatever he was doing during those nights.

Ryujis mother was a nurse, having alternating shifts, leading to her beeing away over nights as well. It was a saturday morning when she came home from a night shift, unlocking the door as silent as possible as to not wake her son, only to find the light in the hallway on and a blonde girl, dressed to leave and her son in his sleeping wear, standing frozen in the hallway, staring at her in surprise.

„Uh… hey mom...“ Ryuji said like a kid being caught doing something forbidden.

„Hello, Mrs. Sakamoto.“ Ann followed, insecure about her reaction. She had met Mrs. Sakamoto before and she seemed like a kind person, but that was in middle school at a birthday party, not in the early morning in her hallway.

„So… I don't know if you remember Ann… we studied together yesterday and lost track of time -“

„...and she missed the last train.“ Ryujis mother completed his sentence with a knowing grin. „You forgetting the time happens a lot the past few weeks, don't you think, Ryuji?“

Ryuji was dumbfounded by his mother completing his sentence.

„Really, you have been using the same story over and over?“ Ann asked incredulous.

Ryujis face turned red.

„So, do you want to think of another story or do you want to just tell me the truth on why you have a girl sneaking out of the appartment at seven in the morning?“ Mrs. Sakamoto asked with an amused grin.

Not only did he plan on introducing Ann to his mother under different circumstances, but her question for the real reason put them both in the uncomfortable position to label their relationship, which they haven't done before. They both assumed they are boyfriend and girlfriend, that this was a serious relationship, but they both never dared to check with the other in fear of embarassing themselves.

Ryuji decided to gather all his guts. „Ann is my girlfriend. I wanted you to meet her, but not like this. She stayed the night and wanted to leave before you get back.“ He explained. He left out the reason why Ann was leaving later than planned.

Ann couldn't contain a smile when he called her his girlfriend. She reached out to hold his hand, locking their fingers together.

„And why was that so hard to tell me?“ Ryujis mom asked, shaking her head while taking off her shoes. „I don't know about you Ann, but im dying to eat something. Do you have time to join us for breakfast?“

„Um.. sure. Thank you, Mrs. Sakamoto.“ Ann answered surprised.

„Please, call me Ayumi.“ she said with a warm smile. „Why don't you get something ready Ryuji? I will be with you in a minute, I just need to take a shower.“ she said. When she walked past them to the bathroom she gave Ryuji a little whack on the back of his head as if to say how ridiculous it was to make such a big secret about this. Ann giggled.

Ann and Ryuji walked into the kitchen, Ryuji took out a pan and some eggs from the fridge. Ann helped in setting up the tea kettle and then leaned against the kitchen counter, watching Ryuji cracking up eggs and scrambling them. From the way he handled everything, it seemed like he had done it many times before. Across the appartment, she could hear the shower being turned on. Ann looked at Ryuji, he had been quiet since his explanation to his mother. He now stirred the eggs in the hot pan. She walked up behind him and wrapped her arms around his waist. She sensed that Ryuji was bothered by something.

„Is everything okay?“ she asked.

„Yeah… it's just… I really hoped that you would meet in a more…. normal way…. Sorry, if I put you in a weird situation.“ he said in a serious tone.

„You didn't!“ Ann assured him. She reassured herself that the shower was still on before she whispered with a grin „I‘m sorry too, it was also my fault, that we lost track of time.“

Ryuji grinned and turned around to look at her, his cheeks slightly red. He placed his free hand on her lower back and kissed her.

„I know I didn't ask you before, but… are you okay with being my girlfriend?“ he asked her, a little nervous.

Ann nodded. "More than okay.“ she smiled and gave him a kiss before he turned around to look after the eggs again.

 

By the time Ryujis mother got back to the kitchen, the small table was already set, Ryuji and Ann adding the finishing touches with glasses of juice and the plates of scrambled eggs and toast. They all sat down, Mrs. Sakamoto fixing herself some camomille tea, Ann sipping on her coffee and Ryuji starting on his eggs.

„So, Ann, I hope your parents aren't worried about you staying away for so long? Or do they know already?“ she said with a quick glance towards her son, as if to tell him how disappointed she was, that he wouldn't tell her sooner.

„My parents are out of the country most of the time. They won't be coming back for another month at least.“ Ann explained.

„Oh, I see.“ Ayumi Sakamoto replied. She understood now, why the girl in front of her seemed so independent. It also made her sad to think about her being alone at home every evening. She understood now, why Ryuji stayed with her so much in the past weeks. He probably wasn't sure if she would allow him to sleep at a girls place so many times. She wasn't sure if she would have allowed it either. When she looked at them now, sitting at the table with her, stealing glances at one another, she could feel that this wasn't just a crush of her son. It felt like they were connected. An invisible thread connecting them when they weren't even touching. A sudden smile crept across her face as she wondered, if Ryujis haircolour of choice somehow was connected to Ann. „In that case, you are more than welcome to stay here whenever you like, no matter if I'm at work.“ she said.

Ann was visibly moved by her kindness. „Thank you, Mrs. Sakam – I mean Ayumi. Your invitation means a lot to me.“

„But make sure to not lose track of school. Both of you.“ she added grinnin, causing both of them to turn red.

They spent the rest of their breakfast chatting about this and that. Ryuji and Ann volunteered to clean the kitchen, so Mrs. Sakamoto could get some rest after her long shift.

 

After cleaning up, they returned to Ryujis room, dropping on his bed.

„Your mom is really nice.“ Ann said, rolling to her side to face Ryuji.

„Yeah, she is. But I will never hear the end of it, that I didn't tell her about you sooner.“ he sighed, now facing her too.

Ann looked at the clock, it was almost 8. Although the plan was that she would leave before 7, it didn't mean that she wasn't tired back then and still was now. She yawned.

„So, since you don't have to go home now… you wanna stay a bit longer?“ he asked, infected by her yawn.

Ann grinned „I'd love to. But not in these clothes.“ she got up and went over to the desk chair, where she put the clothes Ryuji had lent her to sleep in. She changed then and there in front of him into one of his T-Shirts and a pair of lose gym shorts. Ryuji watched her with a grin. She got back and dropped onto Ryuji, the force of impact makin him grunt in pain. Ann giggled as she laid on top of him, folding her hands together on his chest and resting her chin on them, so she could look at him.

„Ow, my gut...“ was all he could muster after a few seconds.

„You mean this?“ she asked while poking her finger into his stomach to find his abs. „You‘re strong, you can handle that.“ she gave him a kiss.

Ryuji wrapped his arms around Anns waist and rolled onto his side, taking her with him. She laughed.

„You‘re playing with fire though, considering how much I just ate.“ he laughed as well.

They laid there for a bit, before Ann started yawning again, instantly causing Ryuji to yawn as well.

„Wanna go back to sleep?“ Ryuji asked.

„Wouldn't that be lame of us though?“ Ann replied, having problems keeping her eyes open.

„Who cares?“ Ryuji asked while pulling the blanket over them and falling asleep with Ann in his arms.

 

~

 

Ryuji and Ann have been a couple for two months when Ann announced that her parents would soon return home for a few weeks until Christmas. When she told him, Ryuji had turned pale. Remembering back, he had no memory of Anns parents. Whenever she would be picked up by someone, it was her caretaker. They had been in each others life for so long and he never saw them. There was an old photograph standing framed in Anns room with the three of them, but that was it.

Ryuji was mortified about meeting her parents for the first time. Being called a delinquent, a rebellious teenager and generally a no-good, didn't give you the most confidence to meet your girlfriends successfull business-parents. Would they want to know his plans for the future? He had none. Would they want to know how much money he had saved up? He didn't know, probably not much. All those possible adult-questions made him nervous and dreading the meeting that Ann was planning to set up.

It would have been a lie to say that Ann wasn't nervous about her parents meeting Ryuji. It wasn't because she was embarassed of him or because she thought that he would say something wrong. The truth was, she didn't know how her parents would react. She didn't feel like she knew her parents that well at all. Staying at the Sakamotos place a lot recently, she experienced how nice it must have been to have parents or a mother around. Ann and Ayumi Sakamoto got along great, they took a liking to each other really fast that especially showed when it came to teasing Ryuji. Last week, Ayumi even asked Ann about her opinion on an outfit. Ann enjoyed chatting with Mrs. Sakamoto a lot. She was kind and understanding. It almost felt like she treated her as her own daughter now and Ann was so honored and touched by that.

Catching up on missed mother-daughter time with someone elses mother made Ann question her parents actions again. Especially during her early school years she resented her parents for never being home, sometimes being gone for weeks at a time leaving her with a caretaker. When they had moved to Japan and she began with middle school, she started to settle with the thought of being alone and decided to make the best of it. She learned, that she would have to look out for herself and to be independent, so she would never need anyones help. School wasn't the only place that she was alone. Later, school turned into the only place where she wouldn't be alone, when she had Shiho and later Ryuji too. She didn't mind living alone in a huge apartment anymore. But bonding with Ryujis mother showed her, that having parents is more than just someone being at home with you.

While her parents where away, they would often have long phonecalls to catch up, but Ann had only mentioned her new boyfriend once and only to her mother.

When the day of her parents arrival came, Ryuji and Ann agreed that she would spend the evening alone with them to catch up and for Ann to propose a dinner with Ryuji in a few days. Anns mother seemed delighted by the idea, immediatly planning on what to cook while Anns father seemed a little bit sceptic of this boyfriend from the start.

 

Three days later, Ryuji found himself sweating before even entering the building. He had texted Ann that he was almost there and she agreed to come downstairs.

A smile spread across her face when she gave him a look-down. He was really trying hard to impress her parents with wearing a dark red button-down shirt and his best looking jeans.

„Looking good there“ Ann said with a grin and gave him a kiss.

„You really think? I feel so out of place.“ He said.

Ann mustered him again before opening up the top button of his shirt. „Now it doesn't look so stuck-up“ she nodded satisfied and gave him another kiss. „Ready?“ She asked and took his hand.

Ryuji gulped and nodded.

„Relax. There's nothing to worry about!“ She said as they went inside again.

When Ann unlocked the door, the smell of food was something that Ryuij hadn't experienced in a long time in this apartment. Since Ann wasn't living with a caretaker since the third grade of middle school, she wasn't that big on cooking, although they had tried their hands at it together a few times now.

Anns father was the first to approach. His hair was well kempt, a colour of light brown, a little bit similar to Haru, his eyes a light brown as well. His features where sharp, he was dressed in dress-pants and a white button-down shirt. The way he extended his hand for a handshake alone emitted authority. Ryuji could feel how he was looking him up and down, analyzing what his first impression of him should be.

„Dad, this is Ryuji.“ Ann introduced them.

„Pleasure to meet you, sir.“ Ryuji tried to not sound intimidated as he shook his hand.

„Renju Takamaki. The pleasure is mine.“ he said, his face as straight as if he was meeting with a business partner.

Mr. Takamaki gestured them into the spacious open living and dining room, where the big table was already set. The whole window-front was equipped with bottom-to-top windows, offering a magnificent view today.

The door to the kitchen opened and Ryuji was immediatly able to tell, where Ann had gotten her looks from. Mrs. Takamaki looked like a more stern and slightly older version of Ann. Her blonde hair was braided in a circle around her head, strongly reminding Ryuji of a crown. The features of her face were a little bit softer than her husbands but she tried to make that up by wearing rimless glasses, shaped into narrow rectangles with sharp edges, giving her a stern look. Like Anns father, she seemed terribly overdressed to be at home, wearing a tight pencil skirt and a lose blouse with a ligth floral pattern.

Before Ann could introduce them, Mrs. Takamaki made the first step.

„You must be Ryuji, it is nice to meet you. Sirka Takamaki“ She introduced herself while shaking Ryujis hand, giving him a tight-lipped smile. Ryuji got the odd feeling, that she tried to sound like a kind and warm mother-figure, struggling to pull it off. There was only a slight hint of an accent in her voice, that must have been finnish.

It had started when he stepped through the door and it continued throughout the whole night. Those awkward moments of silence between every sentence spoken, leaving Ryuji to think that Anns parents struggled to find anything they would want to talk with him.

So they spend their dinner in awkward silence most of the time, Ryuji trying to break the ice by complimenting the food only to be answered by a curt Thank You by Mrs. Takamaki. He wondered if Ren had experienced the same problems on his first official dinner with Sae. He could imagine that Makotos scary tough sister would be the same.

Ann was struggling to keep up a conversation with her parents as well. She too found it a bit difficult when she realized that there was not a lot to talk about with her parents except the latest fashion shows and newest collections, which wasn't really something that Ryuji would be up to date with. It was like her parents lived in a completely different world. Looking at Ryuji, she sensed that he was struggling to think of what to say next.

Their dinner felt like hours to Ryuji. He was grateful when Ann stood up after dessert, anouncing that they would be going to her room now, taking Ryujis hand and leading him out.

 

Once in her room, Ryuji let out a deep sigh.

„Well, I fucked that up… I'm just gonna leave and jump off the next bridge.“ he said in a defeated tone.

„What are you talking about? It was my parents who were acting weird, not you!“ Ann said.

„Yeah, because they don't like me!“ Ryuji replied. „I… I‘m just gonna leave… Sorry.“ he was about to turn around, when Ann grabbed his hand.

„No, you‘re not! If this is the only reason you want to leave, I won't let you! You‘re gonna stay here!“ Ann replied in a stubborn tone, pulling him back so he would face her again. She realized how miserable he looked. She walked up to him and wrapped her arms around his neck.

„Look, even if my parents didn't like you, which I don't think, I don't care!“ she said, moving her body closer to his. „Honestly, ever since we‘ve been friends, you were there for me more than they were. So they don't have a say in this!“ She said, putting a kiss on Ryujis lips, who didn't respond to it.

He heard it from Ann, she didn't care if her parents liked him or not. So why did he? Why was it so important to him, that they approved of him as Anns boyfriend?

Ann pulled him out of his thoughts when she started kissing his neck, causing him to lose his train of thought. He wrapped his arms around her waist. „Sorry… yeah… I‘ll stay if you want.“

Ann looked up at him. „I do.“ she chewed her lip. „I love you, Ryuji“ It was the first time she had said it.

Ryujis worries from before vanished as he processed what Ann had just told him, looking up at him with those beautiful blue eyes. He didn't need to think about an answer, he had known for a long time. „I love you too, Ann.“. He grinned while locking his arms around her tighter and slightly lifting her off the ground. She giggled before pressing her lips onto his.

 

Ryuji was sleeping very poorly that night. He couldn't shake the feeling that the uncomfortable vibe during the dinner last night was his fault, that Anns parents couldn't stand him, that they thought of him as ridiculous, not good enough to be with Ann. He had been very uncomfortable after the dinner but Ann had convinced him to stay the night nonetheless. And so it happened that Ryuji was up at 6 in the morning, listening to Anns breathing, unable to fall asleep again. Part of him wanted to get up, get dressed and leave while everyone was still sleeping as to not have any more awkward encounters with Anns parents. But he knew that Ann would be mad if he did that and he himself knew as well, that that would be jerk-move.

Instead he decided to get up and get a glass of water from the kitchen. Not risking running into her parents in his sleeping clothes, he put on his jeans and a tshirt that he had packed and made his way to the kitchen.

He froze in the doorframe when he saw Sirka Takamaki standing in the kitchen, wearing an elegant morning robe, her hair in a different braid than yesterday, making coffee.

She also seemed surprised to see him this early but she reacted quickly. „Coffee?“ she asked with an indifferent expression.

Ryuji managed to nod. He still didn't like coffee, but he didn't want to seem out of place any more .

Mrs. Takamaki poured two cups and nodded towards the living room, walking ahead, setting the cups onto the dinner table and sitting down.

Ryuji followed and sat down as well.

„Ann still asleep?“ Mrs. Takamaki started while looking for something in her coffee cup.

„Yeah...“ Ryuji answered.

„She got that from her father.“ A smile crept across her face. „I‘m more of a morning person.“

Ryuji tried to hide his surprise when he realized that she tried to make conversation. „Me too… It's the best time for going for a run. The earlier the better.“

She nodded a little it more eager, as if she was glad that she found someone agreeing with her.

„Mrs. Takamaki… I‘m sorry, that I made a bad impression on you yesterday. But I loveAnn and I will try my best to convince you and Mr. Takamaki.“ Ryuji started, nervous at first.

The blonde woman looked up in mild surprise, pushing her glasses into place.

„Ryuji, you did not nothing wrong. Actually, it should be us apologizing.“ she started.

„Huh?“ Ryuji had tried really hard to watch his language so far, but this one escaped him.

„Renju and I, we are very alike. We work in the same industry, we have the same passion. Most of the conversations we have are about our job or something job-related. We… rarely get out of our bubble, so we might have forgotten how to talk about anything else than fashion or runway-shows.“ she started while stirring her coffee.

„Oh… “ Ryuji took a sip from his coffee, trying his best to act like he was doing this everyday and he wasn't disgusted by the bitter taste.

„It is very noble of you, to want our approval, but you don't need it. Ann is old enough to make her own decisions. Besides, do you really think that we can have a say in who she is dating?“ she added the last part with a knowing smirk.

Ryuji couldn't find the right words to respond, he chose to smile instead.

„Besides, who are we kidding, we weren't there for a big part of her life. I don't feel like I have the right to pass any judgment about her decisions.“ she smiled a sad smile. „Renju is a little bit different there. To him, Ann is still the little girl following him around, wanting to become a model, walking on the runway during preparations. Ann was very smart to not tell him about you before we got home or else I would have never heard the end of it with him and his worrying.“ she stated matter-of-factly.

„So he does have a problem with me...“ Ryuji muttered, disappointed.

„I don't think that he has a problem with YOU, but with the fact that his daughter has a boyfriend. Don't let yourself be intimidated by his look, that's just his face. It's good for doing business, but horrible when he wants to be nice.“

Ryuji looked at Anns mother, realizing that that was the same feeling he got from her yesterday, when he felt that she was trying to be someone she was not, but wanted to be. It was the same now, she was trying to give him kind advice, that his own mother would have probably delivered in her typical warm and caring smile, but Mrs. Takamakis style seemed to be a matter-of-fact voice with hints of humor and sentiment.

Mrs. Takamaki, realizing her words about her husbands face, let out a giggle, immediatly reminding him of Ann. He chuckled too.

„I know we didn't talk much yesterday, but I have been told on several occasions that I have a very good eye for people. And when I see you, I see a loyal soul, devoted to the people you love.“ Sirka said with a small smile. While she wasn't talking much yesterday, she still had plenty of time to watch her daughter and her boyfriend across the table, immediatly sensing the close bond they had. „And what more could any parent wish for?“ she added.

Ryuji tried hard to keep his jaw from dropping. Did Anns mother just show her approval. „I… thank you...“ he studdered before buying time by sipping his coffee.

„There you are!“

Ryuji turned around and saw Ann entering, still wearing her pyjamas.

Mrs. Takamaki looked up at her daughter as well „It seems like I'm not the only morning person anymore.“

Ann grinned as she walked over to the dinner table to give Ryuji a kiss on the cheek and a quick hug to her mother before going to the kitchen to get some coffee as well.

„I like your hair colour, by the way.“ Mrs. Takamaki stated, first serious, then grinning.

„Thanks.“ Ryuji said, rubbing his neck.

Ann returned with her coffee and sat down beside Ryuji. „So, what where you guys talking about?“

„You know… this and that.“ Mrs. Takamaki answered, giving a wink to Ryuji as if to keep their deep morning conversations between themselves.

Ann looked puzzled but decided that she didn't need to know. She grinned as she took in this new scene of her, her mother and her boyfriend sitting together and chatting. She saw how Ryuji started to grow more and more relaxed as well.

 

Since then, Ryuji and Anns mother got along very well, occasionally smiling about the same thing together. They didn't talk much, partly because Ryuji didn't know what to talk about and partly because Anns mother wasn't too sure what to tell him either. But it seemed like they had come to a silent understanding and when it was silent, it wasn't an uncomfortable silence.

 

It took two weeks for Anns father to warm up to him. It was another morning after Ryuji had spent the night at the Takamakis place when he was intercepted in the hallway as he was on his way back to Anns room after another morning coffee with Mrs. Takamaki, that had sort of became their ritual. (After a few times Ryuji came clean, admitting that he didn't like coffee, leading to Sirka introducing him to some of her favourite tea-blends that she had from Finland).

„Ryuji, can I have a word?“ Mr. Takamaki asked.

„Sure, Mr. Takamaki.“ Ryuji replied, nervous.

„Ann told me how you used to be an athlete. I was wondering if you would be interested in going on a run with me one day?“ he asked, slight uncomfort in his voice.

Ryuji was surprised. „Yes, of course.“ he answered.

„Excellent. Then be sure to bring your sports wear the next time you visit.“ Renju Takamaki said and walked away, leaving Ryuji standing in the hallway.

When Ryuji returned to Anns room, she was in the middle of getting dressed.

„What's up?“ she asked when she saw Ryujis confused face.

„Your dad just asked me to go for a run with him next time.“ he answered.

„Oh? That's nice, isn't it?“ she asked while putting on her shirt. She kept quiet about the angry speech she gave to her father about how he should pull it together and get to know Ryuji instead of wearily eyeing him all the time.

„Yeah… I guess.“ said Ryuji, suspecting that Ann had had her hand in this sudden change of heart. He grinned. She must have been pretty mad. He walked up to her and hugged her from behind, giving her a kiss on the neck.

„I love you.“ he muttered into her ear.

„I love you too.“

Chapter Text

middle school, 2nd grade, May

 

„Are you sure you‘re gonna be okay? I‘m sorry that I wont be able to come with you… The coach set up an extra training today...“ Shiho said apologetic as she walked along the schools corridor with Ann.

„Of course I will! I‘ll just head home. We‘ll go shopping another time.“ Ann tried to smile at her best friend. She knew that Shiho had to go to practice, she was essential to the team, but she couldn't shake the disappointment that easily. She had been really looking forward to this.

„We definitly will!“ Shiho assured her as she waved goodbye to head towards the lockerrooms.

Ann sighed as soon as she was out of sight. It would be another day alone at home, being observed by her caretaker while doing her homework and then watching TV until it was time for bed.

She could hear shouting before she was outside the door. When she stepped outside, she saw the reason why.

A small circle of interested kids had formed around two boys who were having a fight. It wasn't hard to determine who one of them was, his recently dyed blonde hair set him apart from the masses very well.

Before she could act, the blonde boy went down on his knees after receiving a painful-looking punch in the gut. One of the audience tugged at the other fighters sleeve, looking around nervously and they both ran off. The circle of viewers soon disbanded as well, leaving the blonde figure, still on his knees, alone.

„Ryuji?“ Ann hurried towards him, worry spreading inside her stomach.

As Ryuji realized that everyone was gone, he lifted his head. His face was still in a pained grimace from that final blow, but he tried to hide it when he saw Ann approaching. He didn't want her to call the school nurse or any other adult. When she was standing in front of him, he forced himself to get up.

Ann gave him a look-down and spotted a grazed knee from when he hit the gravel. Their middle school uniforms had a set of shorts for the boys for the summer days, so his knee had hit the ground directly. Since he was able to stand up, he probably wasn't hurt too bad. Her worry was replaced by annoyance. How many fights did he have? She pointed to one of the benches nearby and ushered him to sit down.

„Wanna tell me what happened?“ Ann asked as she was kneeling in front of him, rummaging through her bag.

„They were just shit-talking...“ Ryuji answered vaguely, definitly not wanting to go into detail.

Ann suspected that it must have been something about his mother or his family situation, for those were the only reasons why Ryuji would fly off the handle like that.

„Sombody tell you that you have anger issues?“ Ann sighed when she pulled out a small metal box.

Ryuji rolled his eyes.

Her caretaker always packed her a small kit with band-aids and disinfecting wipes. She pulled out one wipe out of its wrapper and started dabbing at the wound.

„OOWW, what the Eff! It burns!“ Ryuji howled.

„Stop whining, you just got beaten up and now you complain about a little disinfectant?“ Ann scolded him in her shrill voice.

„Quit nagging, you‘re not my mom.“ Ryuji replied annoyed.

„I guess your mom will have to say something different about this.“ Ann remarked casually.

„Shut up… she doesn't have to know about this.“ Ryuji muttered while averting his eyes.

Anns eyebrows perked up „How are you gonna cover that up? That black eye is already starting to show.“

„I don't know. She has a nightshift tonight so I probably don't see her until tomorrow evening.“

„That's when it will be the most purple!“

„Like I wouldn't know!“ Ryuji spat angrily.

Ann took a band-aid out of the box and carefully put it on his knee. „I mean… you could try to hide it with make-up...“ she started after a short silence.

„Hell no! I'm not gonna put on Make-up“ Ryuji was fast to exclaim.

„Just an idea.“ Ann sighed as she put everything away and stood up again. „Are you ok?“ she had to ask.

Ryuji still was pissed. He had taken a huge beating today and was bitterly defeated. Of course none other than Ann had found him like that, quick to lecture him in that annoying tone while still caring and even patching him up like a combat medic. Of course she was right, his right eye already started to feel swollen but the most pain he felt in his stomach region, where he had received the final blow. When Ann asked him if he was okay, he looked up at her.

„Yeah… I'm just a bit beaten...“ Ryuji said while trying to to keep a straight face over his pun.

Ann snorted. „You‘re an idiot.“. She couldn't help the corner of her mouth twitching upwards. It was a bit funny. She just hoped Ryuji wouldn't notice it.

Of course he had and he grinned in triumph. At least in this he had succeeded for today. He got off the bench. „Thanks for patching me up.“ he said, fixing his eyes on the floor and kicking some stones.

„No problem.“ Ann replied. There was a brief silence before she asked „Wanna walk to the station together?“

Ryuji nodded and so they went off. „You‘re not hanging out with Shiho today?“ he asked while walking beside her.

„We planned to, but Shiho had to go to a surprise practice session… I guess theres some competition coming…“ Ann sighed, remembering that she would now have to go home.

„Oh, sorry… Are you hungry?“ Ryuji tried to change the subject when he saw how Anns mood changed.

„A little bit maybe… but are you?“ Ann asked incredulous. He had received a major punch to the stomach, could he really be hungry now?

„I could go for something.“ Ryuji shrugged. „Wanna go to Big Bang Burger?“

„Okay.“ Ann replied.

 

They sat down in one of the booths at Big Bang Burger. When Ryuji had said that „he could go for something“, Ann hadn't anticipated that he would go for a large-size menu. She had decided to keep it small by ordering a small burger and a hot waffle with chocolate sauce.

Ryuji started to dig in as soon as they sat down.

„How are you able to eat? You got punched in the stomach half an hour ago!“ Ann exclaimed in disbelief and surprise.

Ryuji shrugged „I used up a lot of energy, I need to recharge my batteries! I landed some hits too, ya know?“ Ryuji said inbetween bites, shoving fries into his mouth. Most of the time, watching Ryuji eat wasn‘t a pretty sight to behold, but Ann had witnessed these scenes several times now. While she was aghast at first, she now found it amusing.

„And still you lost.“ Ann teased while unpacking her burger.

Ryuji flashed her the finger before returning to his meal. „And you‘re gonna get fat. Aren't models only supposed to eat salad and all that crap?“ he fired back with that smug grin of his.

Ann stuck out her tongue before she bit into her burger. „There is salad in there“ she managed to say while chewing.

Although Ann talking with her mouth full looked gross, Ryuji found it rather amusing and his hurting muscles were forgotten for a while, as they continued joking and talking.

 

After some time, Ryuji leaned back in his chair, groaning. Perhaps it wasn't such a good idea to order that much.

Ann watched him from across the table with a grin on her face. She was already finished with her dessert while Ryuji was still struggling with his fries. She put her elbow on the table and propped up her head on her hand, using the other hand to reach across and steal some of his fries. To her surprise, he didn't react, although she was sure that he saw it. With Anns help, Ryuji managed to finish the fries as well.

As they left Big Bang Burger, Ryuji took a look at the time, sighing. „My mom will still be home for a bit before going to work.“

„You‘re really going to try to avoid her until your black eye is gone?“ Ann asked, surprised that he really was serious about this idea.

„Yeah… no… I don't know… Maybe the eye won't look as bad as it feels…“ Ryuji muttered although he knew that his eye already must look swollen. The purple would show in the morning.

Ann glanced at him with a sceptic look but decided to let the issue go. „So… what will you do until you can go home?“

Ryuji shrugged and looked around Central Street. „I guess I‘m going to the arcade.“ he said with a grin when his eyes fell on the flashy signs. „You wanna come?“

Ann smiled. She took a look at her watch as well, she would still have a little bit of time until her set curfew. She would just tell her caretaker that she was doing homework with Shiho, after all, she didn't know that Shiho canceled their plans for today. She nodded and followed Ryuji towards the arcade.

They had a fun time while playing games, Ryuji realizing that Ann had some gaming-skills. It was 6:30 when they left the arcade to make their way towards Shibuya station, saying good-bye before each going to seperate platforms.

„I had fun today.“ Ann said with a smile. Shiho cancelling on her seemed long forgotten and she had to admit that she had a great time.

„Yeah, me too. Thanks for waiting out with me.“ Ryuji grinned as he waved.

 

As he was standing on the platform, waiting for his train, Ryuji heard the voices of the boys again.

Yeah, so I was thinking about asking her out for the school festival. I mean, if I turn up with Ann Takamaki, we sure will stand out.“ He heard the boy named Nagito tell his friends, who were gathered around him in the courtyard. Ryuji was about to walk by when he heard Anns name and slowed down his pace a little, so he could listen in.

She sure is hot.“ one of his friends said in awe.

Right? But I heard that she is a real piece of work. A friend of mine once talked to Suzui, asking her out and she came along and insulted him until he ran away. He says that she is struting around like she owns the place.“ The other friend told him.

Nagito grinned his smug smile „Who does she think she is? I don‘t know where she came from, but she won‘t get anywhere when she behaves like this. My father always says that loud girls will end up on the street later.“

Ryuji had heard enough as he grabbed him by the shoulder „What was that?“ he growled through gritted teeth. There were enough rumors and misconceptions about Ann, that seemed so bizarre when you actually knew her. He had no idea who started this new one, that she was walking like she owned the place, but he knew that her giving her piece of mind to the guy who pestered Shiho did happen.

Right on time! It‘s her fanboy!“ The boy named Nagito raised his voice, more kids around the school yard turned around. „Word is, that you dyed your hair for her. Is that true?“

No!“ Ryuji answered harshly.

As if. You‘re always tailing her and Suzui, and now you even have the same hair colour as her?“ He continued talking in a raised voice, building himself up in front of him.

Ryujis fists clenched. „Shut up, we‘re friends“ he growled.

Nagito laughed. „Yeah, right. Do you enjoy playing her bodyguard? Hoping that one day she might see you as her hero and not the sewer-rat you are?“ He spoke in a dramatic and over-the-top voice.

Ryuji was boiling „Shut up! Just stop talking about her like that.“

Why don‘t you make me?“ Nagito gave Ryuji a shove.

Ryuji knew how this would end. His mother made him promise over and over that he would stop getting into fights but he felt his muscles tingling and the heat rising in his head. Did he really feel like he had to protect Ann? No, he would have done this for every one of his friends. He could almost hear Ann calling him an idiot when he delivered the first punch into Nagitos face.

He knew that he would have gotten another beating, if Ann had found out that he got into this fight because of her. She got angry when Ryuji got into fights and she seemed to get even angrier when someone defended her. She would always scold Shiho and him for wanting to fight her battles, claiming that she didn't need it. Both him and Shiho didn't do it because they thought she was helpless, but because they cared, but she would hear none of it.

He sighed. Why does she have to be so complicated?

 

 

„Again, I‘m so sorry I couldn't make it yesterday.“ Shiho said as she turned around towards Ann during a break the next day.

„Don‘t worry about it!“ Ann smiled at her best friend before turning her gaze towards the blonde boy sitting on the other side of the class room, sprawled on his chair and table, hiding his now prominent black eye with his hand. „I… had a nice time still.“ she said with a smile.

 

Chapter Text

„Ann, come on! How lang can it take to paint your face?“ Ryuji hammered against the bathroom door.

„It‘s not gonna go faster with you kicking the door in!“ Ann yelled back while concentrating on the eyeliner she held in her hand. „Also, the lighting in here is terrible.“

„It‘s a lightbulb! How different can it be to your house?“ Ryuji rolled his eyes and leaned against the wall beside the bathroomdoor.

Ryujis mom walked past him shaking her head.

„What?“ Ryuji asked as he watched her turning towards the living room.

The bathroom door opened and Ryujis eyes went wide as he saw Ann, wearing black skinny jeans and a glittering red asymetrical top, her hair flowing down her back in a cascade of blonde.

„Damn...“ Ryuji was able to mutter.

„Ready to go?“ Ann asked while she gave him a look-down as well. He was also dressing for the occassion, wearing the dark red button-down shirt that he also had been wearing when he met her parents and a pair of jeans. She gave him a kiss on the cheek when she walked past him to gather the second pair of shoes that she had brought with her.

„You sure about those?“ Ryuji raised an eyebrow as he watched her slip into the bright red high heels.

„Of course I am“ Ann huffed „Don‘t they look great?“ she grinned as she mustered herself in the mirror in Ryujis room.

„That‘s not it, but remember what happened last time when we went to karaoke with everyone and you were walking home barefoot in the end?“

„Because I had blisters! Those are different shoes, they're much more comfortable.“ Ann replied as she walked past him. With the high heels on, they were almost the same height.

Ryuji shrugged and walked behind her to put on his shoes.

„You two look beautiful!“ Ryujis mom said as she saw them in the hallway, Ryuji putting on his torn white sneackers for lack of variety while Ann put on her winter coat and took her small clutch.

„Thanks mom“ Ryuji replied as he grabbed his coat before leaving the apartment with Ann.

 

„How do you think they‘ll react?“ Ann asked as they sat down on the train.

„I dunno. I guess there will be a lot of squealing?“ Ryuji suggested. They hadn‘t told anyone from the gang so far, except for Futaba, who had walked in on them making out on the roof once. They were together for two and a half months now, but they had asked Futaba to keep quiet because they wanted to tell everyone in person and now would be the time at Harus birthday party at the Wilton Hotel.

„Ugh, I bet they will be all smug, saying „We have known it for soo long““ Ann changed her voice to probably imitate Haru. She remembered the girls-talk at Leblanc from two and a half months ago, that kind of led to their first kiss, but she didn‘t want them to know that they were the ones to open her eyes.

„God, you‘re bad at impressions“ Ryuji grinned.

Ann rolled her eyes and rested her head on his shoulder. „Yeah, yeah, you never fail to tell me.“

„I bet Morgana will be heartbroken though, when he eventually finds out. I‘m sure that Makoto will tell Ren afterwards...“ Ryuji shrugged.

„I hope not… We haven‘t seen each other for so long, don‘t you think he will be over me by now?“ Ann sighed. She didn‘t want to hurt Morganas feelings. His admiration hadn‘t passed her. During the one week they were here in summer, Ren even told her that the cat somewhat had a crush on her.

Ryuji would have agreed with her, had he not known first hand that it wasn‘t that easy to let go of a crush.

As they arrived at the Wilton Hotel, they were heading straight for the elevators when they noticed a board, informing that the restaurant and bar area was closed for a private party.

„Whoooah, Haru rented the whole space? How big will this party be?“ Ryuji asked in surprise.

„Didn‘t it say in her invite that she also invited the board from Okumura Foods and some of her new friends as well?" Ann remembered while they were waiting for the elevator.

As they reached the restaurant floor, they both had to stop and stare. The buffet area that Ann was still dreaming about to this day, was decked with finger food both sweet and savoury with the chocolate fountains placed in the middle, bowls of fruit arranged around them like a work of art, people already bustling around with plates. Ann guessed that overall there were 50 people, both young and older. Some were wearing business suits, she guessed that they must be the people from Okumura Foods. Some of the tables have been pushed aside to make space for a small dance floor.

„Would you tell me your names?“ An employee of the hotel who stood beside the entrance to the restaurant asked them.

„Uh… Ann Takamaki and Ryuji Sakamoto?“ Ryuji was overwhelmed with the situation. Having a guest list and renting an entire space for your birthday party was not something he was familiar with. He had spent his 18th birthday (ilegally) drinking beer with everyone at Leblanc. He had considered that a pretty neat party.

The doorman checked his tablet, nodding after finding their names. „Welcome, may I take your coats?“ he said, now with a slightly friendlier voice.

They both complied and took off their coats before handing them to the man, who moved to hang them up on a coatrack down the hall.

„I don‘t feel fancy enough for this… „ Ann sighed.

„Don‘t worry, you look great.“ Ryuji said while putting his hand on her lower back, steering her into the crowd while looking for familiar faces or haircuts.

While one would assume that with both the blondes out of the equation, Futabas bright hair would be the next beacon, in bigger crowds it actually was Yusukes tall and lanky figure that stood out more. That also was the case this time. Ryuji steered Ann towards Yusuke, not knowing who else would be standing there.

As they made their way through and took their place beside Yusuke, their jaws dropped at the same time, when they saw a special guest, standing there beside Makoto, grinning at them.

„What took you so long?“ Ren asked. He was wearing his black blazer with a grey shirt and blue jeans.

„For real?!“ Ryuji exclaimed while Ann squealed before they both rushed towards him, crushing him into a hug.

Makoto was quick to step aside before she got caught up in the commotion. She was wearing an elegant black dress and silver heels. Makoto cast a quick glance towards Futaba, who just grinned triumphantly. Of course she had told Makoto about the day that she went to the roof only to find Ann and Ryuji entangled together, smooching. Although they both remembered their conversation at Leblanc, Makoto thought that she had made it up. Seeing these two arrive together now surely piqued her interest.

„What are you doing here, man?“ Ryuji asked as they let go of him.

„I was here for your birhtday too, right?“ Ren replied as he casually returned to putting his arm around Makoto again.

„When did you get here? Why didn‘t you tell us?“ Ann continued with the questions.

„I got here yesterday, I got out of school and hopped on the train.“

Ann turned around to face Futaba „You knew too?“ she assumed outraged. If Ren stayed here, he must have stayed at Leblanc.

„Don‘t look at me! I was as surprised as you when I got here!“ Futaba defended herself.

„Where did you stay the-?“ Ryuji was about to ask before knowingly shutting up when he realized how red Makotos face got. „Ooooh, gotcha.“ he smirked, giving a wink to Ren.

Ann caught wind of Ryujis deduction and decided to drop the issue as well, sharing a quick smirk with Ryuji before giving Futaba and Yusuke a hug.

„So where is the birthday girl?“ Ann asked while Ryuji was giving Yusuke a handshake before engaging in his own secret handshake with Futaba.

„She‘s running from table to table, trying to talk to everyone and assure that everyone has a good time.“ Makoto eplained with a sigh. She wouldn‘t have expected anything less from Haru, but it was her birthday, she shouldn‘t have to worry about everyone else. It should be her day. „Speaking of table, why don't we find ours and get something to eat?“ she added, to everyones nods.

When they found their names on one of the tables, they sat down, taking turns in visiting the buffet with Ryuji, Makoto and Futaba going first. Makoto was picking up some sushi when she got nudged in the side by Futaba, discreetly but also excitedly gesturing towards Ryuji, who was filling up two plates at once, one with meat and one with sweets. Makoto wasn‘t surprised by this at first, it was nothing new that Ryuji could sometimes eat for three people given the occassion, but then she realized that the second plate only consisted of desserts.

„Why would he fill up a whole plate with desserts, when there's so much meat here?“ she said to Futaba, almost only moving her lips without speaking, the surprise written all over her face.

Futaba grinned „I‘ll bet ya 10 yen that this plate‘s for Ann“ she whispered while taking some sushi as a distraction.

„I‘m not betting with you!“ Makoto said, moving on to the next table to pick up a mini-burger.

„You‘re no fun.“ Futaba sighed and made a turn towards the dessert table, which looked a lot more empty after Ryuji had left.

When they returned to the table, Makoto wasn‘t surprised to see that Ryuji actually placed the plate in front of Ann.

„I guess you wanted to try everything.“ he said while sitting down.

Ann grinned „You guessed correct.“ she almost hugged her plate before starting to eat.

Makoto glanced towards Futaba, only to catch her grinning at her, mouthing „10 Yen“. She shook her head. Of course she didn‘t commit to the bet, she didn‘t want to lose on purpose.

Beside her, Ren and Yusuke got up and made their way to the buffet.

„So, Makoto, have you seen that new mafia-flick?“ Ryuji asked while shoving a mini-burger in his mouth.

„Sadly, I couldn‘t bring up the time until now… I do hope to see it while it‘s still in the movie theaters though.“

„We should all go together! You in Futaba?“ he asked, turning to her.

„Yeah, why not.“ Futaba shrugged, dipping her sushi into a small cup of soy sauce.

„As long as it‘s not too bloody.“ Ann chimed in as well, enjoying every bite of her assorted sweets.

„Oh! Maybe we can even do it while Ren is still here!“ Ryuji got more and more excited. Since Ren left and Makoto and Haru graduated, they didn‘t hang out as much as they used to, slowly drifting apart. Ryuji and Ann both missed their big group hangouts.

„I‘m afraid Ren will have to leave tomorrow midday.“ Makoto answered, sadness in her voice. It wasn‘t easy to have a long-distance relationship. A part of why she hadn‘t told anybody of Rens arrival was also so they could spend a little bit of time on their own. Makoto had planned to visit him more often during the semester, but it had proven to be tougher than she thought.

„Oh.. that sucks… he only just got here...“ Ryuji retreated. He missed hanging out with his best friend, just doing nothing. Now, every time he was here for a visit, they all felt the need to do something special, stuffing their days with activities until he would have to leave again.

Ren and Yusuke returned to the table. As they started eating, a whirlwind of brown hair materialized behind Ann and Ryuji, laying her hands on their shoulders and going in for an open hug.

„I‘m so happy that all of your are here.“ Haru exclaimed in her sweet voice. She seemed to be channeling her inner Noir today, wearing black pants, a light pink blouse and a vest, that was very similar to her Metaverse outfit.

„Haru, come, sit down for a bit, did you even have something to eat?“ Makoto motioned to a vacant seat, taking on her motherly tone.

„Don‘t worry about me, Mako, I did get a bite before everyone arrived. I needed to make sure the food was good.“

„Itsh great.“ Ann said with her mouth full of cake.

„Still, this is your day, sit down!“ Makoto insisted, giving Haru a stern look that didn‘t allow any other answer.

Haru smiled, touched by Makotos worry about her. She took a seat beside Yusuke.

„Allow me to get you something to drink.“ Yusuke got up and walked to the bar.

„Oh my.. how kind of you all to worry about me.“ Haru smiled, forgetting the board members and officials for a while.

Yusuke returned not only with a glass of one of the bars fancy alcohol-free mix-drinks, but also with some snacks from the buffet, placing both in front of Haru.

„Oh Yusuke-kun, how considerate of you.“ Haru smiled, eagerly drinking her drink. Yusuke and her only recently discovered their matching passions. Haru was very fascinated by ballet and the opera. When Yusuke agreed to accompany her once, he was intrigued by the beautiful movements, discovering the inspiration he could draw from this. Since then, they would take turns in either going into one of Harus ballets or to Yusukes art exhibits of choice, enjoying the new angles of view.

While there were a few other friends of Harus the same age as them, the Phantom Thieves preferred to keep to themselves. It never got boring when they all got back together again.

 

After some time, the atmosphere relaxed a little, a few of the big wigs already leaving. The music got a little louder and people started making use of the dancefloor. Haru, Ann and Futaba dragged Makoto there together.

In the meantime, Ren had gotten up to get some drinks for him and the other two guys.

„When are you going to hit the dancefloor?“ Ren asked Ryuji, who noticed that he had placed three small glasses of beer on the table.

„Dude, how did you get these?“ Ryuji asked, turning around to look at the bartender.

„My charm is still off the charts, you know...“ Ren replied with a smug face.

„This does bring back memories…“ Yusuke started. He had drawn some very strange things onto a napkin after the two glasses of beer he had had at Ryujis birthday.

Ryuji took a glass and leaned back, watching Ann gracefully move on the dancefloor. At some point she caught his eye and gave him a quick wink before turning her attention back to the other girls. He looked at the guys, they clinked their glasses and drank their beers in silence.

„I wouldn‘t have thought Makoto to be a dancer.“ Yusuke remarked after observing the girls as well.

A smile hushed across Rens face as he took a look at Makoto. The other three girls seemed to have a lot more confidence on the dancefloor, each in their own way. Futaba simply gave herself to the music, sometimes even looking comedic when hopping around. Haru, elegant and graceful as always, swaying with the music, sometimes twirling like the ballerinas she so enjoyed to watch. Ann, graceful in her own way, but with a hint of sexiness. And between them all, Makoto, who seemed like it was one of the first times she ever experienced the atmospere of dancing together with friends. Her moves seemed rough around the edges, Ren assumed that she was thinking of Aikido-moves.

„You never answered my question Ryuji, when are you going to dance?“ Ren remembered.

„Me? Nah.. I‘m good here.“ Ryuji shook his head. He was very fine with watching Ann. „You waiting for a slow dance?“

„Maybe.“ Ren smirked.

Besides them, Yusuke had already drained his glass.

„Whoah! Dude you shouldn‘t drink so fast, you know what happened the last time!“ Ryuji exclaimed when he saw Yusuke, whose eyes started to become a bit glassy already.

„I assure you, everything is fine.“ Yusuke answered while rumaging around in his bag for a pen. Watching the dancing, he was inspired to capture it in a drawing that he would be able to present to Haru later. Since he didn't bring his sketch book, a napkin would need to do it.

When a slow song started to play, Ren got ready to walk over to the girls. Before he could snatch Makoto though, the girls had already huddled together in a circle, swaying together, giggling like crazy. When Makoto saw Ren approaching, she was about to break lose to invite him too, but Futaba was faster and pushed him away, sticking out her tongue.

Ren laughed and retreated again.

„Seems you‘ve been dumped man.“ Ryuji grinned. „What about that charm now?“

 

The later it got, more and more guests left, leaving only the phantom thieves in the end. They were sitting around their table, chatting and laughing while the hotel staff was already starting to clean up the rest of the space.

„So Haru, did you enjoy your party?“ Ann asked.

„I sure did and it was mainly because of you guys. Thank you so much for coming.“ Haru beamed.

They sat in silence for a bit, before Ann decided that it was the right time. „Hey guys, there‘s something you need to know….“ she started to gather everyones attention. Ryuji turned to her and nodded. „Ann and I are a couple“ he continued, looking at their friends, excited to see their reactions.

To their surprise and a little bit to their disappointment, none of them really reacted a lot.

Makotot nodded. „I… already knew.“

„What? How?“ Ann blurted. In the corner of her eye, she saw Futaba mimicking cutting a throat towards Makoto. „Futaba, you snitch!“ she yelled.

„Honestly, it wasn't that much of a surprise...“ Ren shrugged.

„You already told Ren too?“ Ann stared at Makoto before letting out a frustrated grunt and burying her face in her hands. This was not going like she thought…

Only Haru sat still and smiled. „I am so happy for you two!“

Yusuke had been quiet for a long time before, but now he spoke up as well „I always felt a romantic passion emanate from you two.“

„Yeah, but you also felt the deep connection of lovers between a couple who turned out to be siblings...“ Ren remarked, remembering their odd adventure on the lake.

„That was something entirely different.“ Yususke answered in his calm and composed tone.

„This did not go as I imagined...“ Ann sighed, Ryuji put his arm around her and she leaned into him, resting her head on his shoulder.

 

One of the waiters called Haru over to go over something, when she returned she told the gang „I‘m afraid we need to get going, the staff wants to finish up.“

They all started packing up, retrieving their coats and leaving the hotel. It was far into the night, Shibuya bustling with nightlife. Ren and Makoto, ever the leaders, walking hand-in-hand in the front, followed by the rest. Ann had her arms wrapped around Ryujis arm. She tried to hide it, but because she clung to him, he could feel how uneven her strides were.

He smirked „I told you those shoes weren‘t a good idea“ he said quietly, so only she would hear it.

„Shut up.. Ow… they look cute though.“ Ann winced, hanging onto Ryujis arm some more to take some weight off her feet.

As they arrived at the station they gathered around in a circle.

„So, we heard you‘re leaving again tomorrow?“ Ryuji started.

Ren nodded. „If you have the time, why don‘t we meet up in the morning at Leblanc? Have some curry for brunch? Morgana wants to see you too after all, I just couldn‘t bring him to the Wilton...“ he proposed.

„We‘re free!“ Ann was quick to agree.

Yusuke and Haru agreed to make time as well, Futaba would be there anyway. As they were about to start saying their individual good-byes, Futaba interrupted, thrusting her arms up before yelling „Group Hug!“ and throwing her arms around Makoto on one side and Haru on the other, who both gave in and started to expand the circle until they all stood huddled together in a hug. After releasing each other again, they each went their own ways, heading towards their trains. Ren kept back for a second, smacking Ryuji on the back, grinning as he turned around „I‘m happy for you.“

„Thanks, man!“ Ryuji grinned.

„Took you long enough.“ Ren added, before turning around to follow Makoto and Futaba.

 

Ann let out a deep sigh as she flopped into the seat „I think my feet are dying…“ she wailed.

Ryuji who was sitting down beside her, looked at her with a mixture of pity and amusement „I thought they were more comfortable than the others?“

„Not after hours of dancing...“

„Why would you put on uncomfortable shoes anyway? Why would you even buy them?“ Ryuji shook his head.

„Have you never bought something, for example running shoes, that didn‘t entirely fit you, but you still needed to have them because of how great they look?“ Ann described.

„Of course not! Why would I run in uncomfortable shoes?“ Ryuji answered confused.

„Huh… I should have guessed that that was a girl thing…“ Ann concluded.

„For real? Why?“ Ryuji still didn‘t understand.

„Because they make my legs look amazing!“ Ann argued.

„Your legs always look amazing.“ Ryuji answered matter-of-factly.

„But more so in high heels!“ Ann finished before realizing his compliment. She leaned over to give him a kiss on the cheek.

 

They got off at Ryujis stop, taking the escalators up.

„Ugh, screw it!“ Ann grunted before stepping out of the station building. She stopped abruptly to bend down and remove her shoes from her feet.

„For real?“ Ryuji asked as Ann walked up to him again, shoes in hand.

„I can‘t do this anymore. It‘s a long way to your place!“ Ann huffed and started walking.

„It‘s december, are you insane?“ Ryuji asked, still standing there, watching Ann stomp away barefoot.

„It won‘t get warmer if you stand around.“ Ann replied impatiently.

Ryuji shook his head and sped up to catch up with her again. After a few steps, he gave a loud sigh, taking her hand to make her stop.

„Fine, come on.“ he groaned as he turned his back towards her and bending his knees a bit. „Hop on.“

Ann was a bit confused at first but then caught his drift. They continued with Ryuji carrying Ann on his back.

Ann grinned as she was slumped on his muscular back. „This is comfortable.“

„Don‘t get used to it.“ Ryuji had to grin too. They had been going for a while and he started to feel his muscles grow tired. Of course he wasn‘t going to show it.

„Are you sure it‘s okay? Am I not hurting you?“ Ann grew worried all of a sudden when it hit her how often he had problems with his leg.

„Nah, don‘t worry.“ he shrugged it off. He did anticipate some soreness tomorrow, but nothing that he couldn‘t handle.

Ann wasn‘t convinced but she also knew Ryuji well enough to know that he would never say that she was too heavy to carry, except when he was joking, but in this moment, he took it serious.

She had to smile and gave him a gentle kiss on the neck before laying her head on his shoulder so their cheeks were touching. „Thanks.“. She could feel Ryuji smiling against her cheek.

 

When they arrived at Ryujis building, he had worked up a sweat. Him living slightly uphill hadn‘t made the way easier. Still he only put her down when they were inside the building.

In the Sakamotos apartment, after taking off their coats and shoes, Ann looked around and finally asked „Your mom‘s on a nightshift?“

Ryuji nodded.

Ann grinned „Good.“ she said before grabbing Ryuji by the shirt and pulling him into a passionate kiss. He was quick to catch up, placing one hand in the backpocket of her jeans, pulling her close, and gently placing the other one on her cheek, slightly stroking the soft skin with his thumb.

She started unbuttoning his shirt, running her hands up and down his chest and stomach, feeling the well defined muscles and his soft, warm skin. Ryuji grinned against her lips before picking her up, carrying her on his arms towards his room. She giggled and started to kiss his neck and collarbones, making Ryuji shudder.

As they made it to his room, Ryuji pulled his lips away for a moment. „You know that I‘m kinda sweaty from our walk, right?“

Ann, still up on his arms, traced a finger along his chest. „Mmm, I don‘t care.“ she smiled before pressing her lips onto his again.

„If you say so.“ Ryuji murmured against her lips and used his leg to kick the door of his room shut behind them.

Chapter Text

„And what about the other casting I did? The one last week?“ Ann was sitting in a conference room entirely walled in with glass. The window front offered a pretty view of Shibuya.

The woman in front of her shook her head. „I‘m sorry, I heard from a colleague that they chose another model.“

„So they didn‘t even send a negative reply?“ Ann was upset. She hated it, when they didn‘t even have the decency to inform the candidates that didn‘t make it.

„I‘m afraid not. I‘m sorry Takamaki.“ her agent apologized.

Ann sighed, she had never had a streak of bad luck for this long. „So, what‘s next?“

Her agent was visibly uncomfortable when she said „For now, I don‘t know of any castings that would fit your profile. I think we will need to wait for a while.“

„Not even one? It‘s almost the summer season! How is there NO casting for me?“ Ann raised her voice without realizing.

„We have talked about this, Takamaki. The recent trend shows that more and more labels are looking for… more traditional… looks...“

„By that you mean not blonde.“ Ann was annoyed.

„I‘m very sorry. Of course I will keep my eyes open and tell you if anything comes up.“ the woman said, putting an end to their meeting as she got up.

Ann was devastated, she wanted to say something, tell her agent how scared it made her feel to not get jobs anymore. She finished high school a month ago and still had no other clue of what to do with her life, except for wanting to be a full-time model, and now it seemed like nothing worked. She felt like dropping to her knees and crying, right there, in the middle of the hallway. She didn‘t, of course, and since she couldn‘t find any words, she quietly followed her agent to the reception desk and to the elevators.

Did she put all the eggs in one basket? Ever since she could imagine, her goal was to become a model. She had told her parents. She had promised Shiho, that she would become so famous, that magazines would do interviews with her. She had promised Shiho…. And now, here she was, ready to start but noone seemed to want her. Thanks to Ryujis coaching, she had never been in better shape than today. On the few jobs she had gotten in the time before her slump, everyone was very satisfied with her work, encouraging her, complimenting her. She got the chance to get a few coaching-sessions with professional models, where she had learned a lot. To her, it felt like she had improved a lot in the last year. She looked at herself in the mirror of the elevator. Was there really so much wrong with her, that nobody was interested? Was it really just the wrong hair colour?

The elevator opened and she stepped into the big lobby, the corners of her mouth seeming unable to point anywhere else than downward. With her shoulders drooping and a general slouch in her step, she exited the building, temporarily blinded by the bright sunlight, that so didn‘t match her current mood. After her eyes had adjusted to the brightness, she soon discovered where she needed to go.

He had been waiting for her in front of the building, sitting on a bench. As he saw her approaching from the distance, he got up.

As Ann saw him, she got overwhelmed by her feelings. She felt like a failure, she just wanted to crawl into a hole and never come out again. She had managed not to cry in the agency, but as she saw Ryuji, her most trusted person, all her fears were about to bubble up to the surface. She had almost reached him when the tears started to burn in her eyes, threatening to burst out any second. She quickened her pace, almost running the last few steps towards him, not registering Ryujis first neutral face now changing into a worried expression as she crashed into him, wrapping her arms around him, hiding her face in his chest, her body shaking as she was sobbing into Ryujis shirt.

„Ann? What happened?“ she heard Ryuji ask, worry in his voice, but she was unable to answer as she couldn‘t help but sob uncontrollably. He put one arm around her shoulders and placed the other hand at the back of her head, like he always did when his protective side kicked in. Although most of the time, there was nothing that he could protect her from, it still was the only place were Ann wanted to be when she was sad. As they stood there, the only sound came from Ann bawling her eyes out, her sobs eventually growing smaller. Ryuji was just standing there, holding her, letting her calm down. It had taken some time for him to learn it, but by now he knew that it didn‘t work to press Ann on telling what happened when she was unable to talk because of her sobbing.

When Ann had calmed down, she lifted her head to look up at him. The place where her face had been burried was now marked by a big wet spot with eventual streaks of mascara.

„Sorry...“ she sniffeled.

„Eff that! What happened?“ Ryuji replied in a calm voice, moving both his arms to hug her waist.

„She said that theres no castings „for my profile“. Noone is looking for a blonde girl.“ she said, defeat in her voice.

„Screw them! If they don‘t want you, it‘s their loss!“ Ryujis voice rose.

„That‘s not how it works! How can I be a model, if noone wants to hire me?“ Ann answered, her voice turning into a shriek.

„Hey… you‘ve been hired before. Maybe it‘ll take some time for them to get bored with the „traditional look“ again, and than they‘ll be running down your door!“ Ryuji tried to cheer her up.

„I don‘t know...“ Ann muttered.

„That perfume-commercial, that you also auditioned for but didn‘t get? The model they chose is so basic. She‘s got nothing on you!“ Ryuji continued.

„Of course you would say that, I‘m your girlfriend.“ Ann scoffed.

„I mean it! Do you really think that I wouldn‘t tell you if someone was prettier?“ Ryuji asked with a smirk.

Ann couldn‘t help but chuckle. „I guess you would. You are a jerk.“

„A jerk with the most beautiful girlfriend in the world.“ he grinned, raising one hand to place it on her cheek, carefully wiping away the last tear with his thumb.

Ann gave him a long kiss. „You‘re getting better at comforting.“ she admitted with a small grin.

„Ya think? Guess I‘m getting the hang of it.“

She nodded. „Ugh, I‘m just so frustrated. What am I going to do now? I always thought that I would finish school and then be a full-time model, make money and get my own place. Now that my parents are planning on moving their office to Tokyo, I don‘t wanna be at home forever.“

„We‘ll figure something out.“ Ryuji tried to reassure her. „I‘m gonna talk with Iwai, take on more shifts and save up some money, then we‘ll find some run-down apartment besides the train tracks.“ he changed his position to now stand beside her, one arm still around her waist, the other pointing towards the sky, drawing something incomprehensible.

Ann furrowed her brow „I don‘t wanna live like that...“ she said in a sceptic tone.

„Yeah, me neither.“ Ryuji grinned. „But I wanna live with you.“

Ann smiled. „I wanna live with you too.“

He took her hand. „Wanna get some frustration-crepes?“

„You really learned a lot.“ Ann grinned.

 

 

Chapter Text

It was the first week of second grade of middle school. When Ann got out of bed in the morning, she realized that she had already been in Tokyo for a year. And still she felt like she was the new girl at school. But she had learned to cope with it. She had Shiho, the best friend she ever had. All the other classmates were still wary of her, for whatever reason. They treated her like she was some dangerous influence with her different looks.

She sighed, it wasn‘t like she wanted to look different. She didn't ask to be the only blonde girl.

Ann went to the bathroom to get ready, her freshly laundered and ironed school uniform already laid out for her by her caretaker. She put on the dark blue dress with the embroidered school emblem and matched it with white stockings and a beige cardigan.

As she walked into the kitchen, her caretaker was already there, preparing her breakfast. Warm porridge with fruits, as most of the time on school days. Pancakes or waffles were reserved for days off.

„So, Ann, will you be doing homework with Shiho today?“ the middle-aged woman asked in her kind voice while Ann sat down to eat.

„I don‘t know… Shiho is already pretty busy with volleyball again…“ Ann answered.

„What about Ryuji?“ Ever since Ann had told her that she and Shiho were hanging out more and more with Sakamoto, she developed a particular interest for Anns thoughts on him. Ann guessed that she was hoping to hear that she had a crush.

Ann shrugged. „I don‘t know. Guess he will try out for the track team again...“

„Oooh, so he‘s an athlete“ her caretaker smiled with a knowing smile.

Ann looked up and raised her eyebrows at her comment. „Yeah… So?“

Her caretaker shook her head with a smile and got up to clear the table.

Ann got up and walked into the hallway, putting on her shoes and grabbing her backpack. „Thank you for breakfast, See ya!“ she said with a raised voice, so she would hear her in the kitchen.

„Have a nice day, Ann“ she heard as she was walking through the door.

 

Ann and Shiho were walking towards the school building as they passed a group of girls from their class. When they spotted Ann walking by, they started putting their heads together, whispering still loud enough for Ann to hear. „Look at her. Always needing to stand out. Dark blue isn‘t good enough for her, she has to stick out with her beige cardigan.“ One of them started, her friends nodding fiercly. „Right? And who is she trying to seduce with the school uniform and stockings? She looks so cheap.“

„Don‘t listen to them, Ann“ Shiho said as she grabbed her arm and almost dragged her away from them.

Ann sighed. „What‘s their problem? I‘m not even the only one wearing stockings!“

Shiho shook her head „Just let them talk. They're just stupid.“

As they had almost reached the school gate, the girls from before came running up, overtaking them, one of them, a girl named Ritsu, shoving Ann as she was running past her, almost causing her to fall if Shiho hadn‘t caught her by the arm. While Ann was busy with not falling down, she swore that she heard the girl running past her saying „Watch where you are going!“ in that arrogant voice of hers.

As Shiho helped her compose herself again, Ann didn‘t know how to feel anymore. On one hand, she was sad. Why was everything she did wrong in those girls eyes? On the other, she wanted to run after her and punch her face.

„Are you okay?“ Shiho asked.

Ann took a deep breath, trying to swallow her anger and sadness, before nodding and going on.

 

~

 

Ryuji woke up to a loud banging on his door.

„Ryuji, if I don‘t see you ready at the breakfast table in five minutes, I swear I will sell your video games!“

His eyes flew open. He must have missed a lot of waking knocks by his mom if she was threatening with selling his stuff. That always was her last resort. He jumped out of bed and rummaged around in his pile of clothes towering on his desk chair, looking for his uniform. When he found the dark blue pants and the white shirt, he realized how crumpled it all was. He certainly wasn‘t going to look his best today. Recalling his mothers threats, he quickly got dressed before running to the kitchen.

There was a bowl of cereal already waiting for him on the table. His mother stood at the kitchen counter, busy with packing his lunchbox.

„Good morning, sleepy head.“ she said with a smile. Her voice had returned to her normal and kind tone, her threats from before long forgotten. Ayumi Sakamoto could be scary sometimes.

With the clock in mind, he wolfed down his breakfast before jumping up, grabbing the lunchbox from his mothers hand and running to the door to put on his shoes.

„Thanks mom, bye!“ he managed to yell before storming out the door, running towards the station.

As he was about to turn a corner, he slowed down a bit, remembering a nasty colision he had had here once with another kid, because they didn‘t see each other. Although he was slowing down, he still couldn‘t react in time to evade the older lady rushing around the corner in the opposite direction, crashing directly into him, dropping her bags in the process.

„Are you alright maam?“ Ryuji asked as he had processed everything. He looked at the bags on the floor and was about to bend down to pick them up, when the woman started yelling.

„Get away from the bags! What were you thinking rushing around the corner like that? I could have gotten hurt!“

„I didn‘t run! You weren‘t looking!“ Ryuji replied in a defensive tone after he realized that the old bag was blaming him.

„You are that Sakamoto Boy, aren‘t you? I heard that you are a troublemaker. My grandson has told me everything about you!“ she continued as she hastily grabbed her bags, as if she was afraid he would go and steal something from her.

„It was your fault, you ran into me!“ his voice rose, he could feel his blood boiling.

„And now you are blaming me? It seems that your mother hasn‘t raised you right, you little brat!“ the woman screeched.

„Leave my mom out of this, old bag!“ Ryuji snapped, already knowing that she would seek out his mother anyway, telling her everything. Before he knew it, a hot sensation spread across his cheek, as the old lady slapped him. „What the Eff??“ he yelled.

„You are a no-good, disrespectful, rotten child. A beating is something that your parents should have given you a long time ago, but your mother seems to be incapable of handling her child on her own.“ the woman hissed, turning on her heel and stomping off.

Ryuji, still dumbfounded by the slap he had received, continued walking, anger boiling up in him. He kicked one of the trash bins on his way, doing it with so much force, that he knocked it over. Normally he would have stopped to pick it back up again, like he was told to do. But since it didn‘t seem to matter if he was at fault or not, he chose to ignore it. He continued walking.

 

~

 

It was almost the end of their history lesson, when their teacher anounced that they would be divided into pairs for a group project. Ann was about to reach out to Shiho, who was sitting in front of her, when their teacher added, that she would draw the names. Anns heart sank a little. How big were the chances, that she would get drawn with Shiho? While her thoughts began to spiral, the teacher began to read names.

„We have Suzui…. And she will be working with…. Tanaka“ the teacher anounced.

Ann wanted to vomit. She recalled the hateful looks that everyone had when they would look at her. How was she supposed to work with them?

„Next we have Takahashi and… Takamaki!“ Ann looked up when she heard her name. Yuma Takahashi was a girl that she never had contact with. She couldn‘t remember that she ever was friendly towards her, but at least Ann had never heard her gossip or saw her shooting death glares either. She turned around to meet the girls eyes across the classroom. She seemed indifferent. Maybe this wouldn‘t be too bad.

Ann didn‘t really pay attention to the rest of the pairings. When the teacher had given their group assignment and the bell rang, Ann got up to walk over to Yumas table.

„Hey, Yuma. Seems we‘re partners now.“ Ann started, smiling at the girl.

„Yeah. Seems like it.“ Yuma answered, seeming unsure of how to react at first to finally show a small smile.

„So, which part do you wa-“ Ann started when she got pushed away by the same girl that she already had a run-in this morning.

„Don‘t worry Yuma! You don‘t have to work with her! Just come on to our group.“ Ritsu cut in.

„But we‘re supposed to work in pairs.“ Yuma was confused.

„We‘ll just tell Okyura that Takamaki here wasn‘t willing to work together and so Akane and I took you in.“ she told her, not caring that Ann was standing right beside her.

„Oh...“ Yuma said and for a moment it appeared as if she was struggling to make a decision. „Okay, I guess...“ she said and got up to walk towards her new group, leaving Ann behind.

Unable to think of anything else than running up to stupid Ritsu, clawing her eyes out and ripping the hair from her head, Ann stormed out of the classroom despite knowing that she was admitting defeat by doing so.

She was heading towards the girls bathroom, storming around the corner without caring, when she bumped into another person, knocking him over and tripping herself, almost directly landing on him.

In the split-second before her body hit the floor she was hoping that she would break something, preferrably her neck, to get out of this miserable situation once and for all.

Instinctively her arms shot out, catching her fall on her knees and hands. The silhouette she ran into didn‘t seem so lucky, as she heard a loud „thump“ beside her. When she opened her eyes to look who she just crashed into, she saw a spiky mop of black hair and confused brown eyes, first looking around, then resting on her.

Dazed, they got up almost in unison, not realizing how everyone in the hallway was staring at them, giggling, whispering. What is it with corners today? Ryuji thought to himself, before looking at Ann, who avoided his gaze, seeming distant.

„I‘m sorry.“ she said, keeping her gaze lowered, before pushing past him, wanting to get away from the scene as fast as possible.

„Hey, wait!“ Ryuji yelled, going after her. It was obvious that something was wrong.

After Ann had turned the next corner, she started running again, heading towards the gym and the locker rooms. At this time of day, noone was there, and so the restrooms beside the locker rooms were going to be empty too, offering the perfect hiding space to breathe and punch the walls a bit.

She didn‘t realize that Ryuji was following her all the way, getting more worried with each step she didn‘t turn around. When she finally took a turn to vanish through a door, he was so excited to finally be able to catch up to her, that he didn‘t pay attention to what room he was entering. As he busted through the door, he saw Ann standing by the sinks, whirling around when she heard the door open.

„What the hell, Ryuji? This is the girls restroom!“ she shrieked.

„Oh...“ was all he could get out, his cheeks flushing a little. Of course it had to be a restroom, he cursed inside his head, praying that noone else saw him enter.

„Whatever…“ she sighed in a defeated voice, as she walked to the wall, sinking to the floor, sitting there with her legs stretched out, her back leaning against the cold tiles. She had checked when she first entered, there was noone else here.

„I… just wanted to see if you‘re okay...“ Ryuji stammered, nervously rubbing the back of his neck.

„Yeah… I‘m fine…. Just leave me alone, please.“Ann muttered, still avoiding eye-contact, folding her hands in her lap.

Ryuji thought about his options before deciding to walk over and sit down beside her.

„What part of „leave me alone“ don‘t you get?“ Ann said, mildly annoyed, but she couldn‘t bring up the anger to really give him hell for it. A part of her was glad that he didn‘t leave her alone. She didn‘t want to be alone.

„You don‘t look like your fine, so maybe the „leave me alone“-part was a lie too.“ Ryuji shrugged, as if that was the most obvious thing.

Ann scoffed. He was a kind-hearted guy. „I‘m not fine...“ she admitted. „Everyone hates me, no matter what I do.“ she started and told him what had happened with Yuma when she had wanted to talk to her during break. „They don‘t even give me a chance. It‘s not my fault that I look different.“ she concluded, defeat and sadness in her voice. „Stupid Ritsu...“ she cursed under her breath.

„Those assholes!“ Ryuji cursed. While Ann was thinking about telling him to calm down and not to swear, she also felt a little amused by his outburst. But most of all, she felt understood. Shiho would always tell her to ignore them, turn the other cheek and lay low. Compared to that, Ryujis outrage was a very welcome change, that matched her feelings on the inside far better.

„I don‘t know what to do. If I go to the teacher now, I will be a snitch, but if I don‘t, they will tell her that it was me who didn‘t want to cooperate…“ she sighed, absentmindedly toying with her hair.

„Sorry that I wasn‘t there… I could have been your witness...“ Ryuji apologized. He suddenly felt bad for leaving the classroom immediatly after the bell.

„Don‘t apologize for that. This is my battle.“ Ann replied, although moved by his sympathy. „I‘m sorry I knocked you over… I hope you didn‘t get hurt?“ she added, after realizing that she had never checked.

„I‘m fine. This wasn‘t my first corner-accident of the day.“ Ryuji said, remembering the old hags words from the morning. You are a no-good, disrespectful, rotten child. He guessed that she wasn‘t the only one thinking like this. He decided to share the story with Ann.

„That bitch!“ Ann exclaimed after he had finished his story. Since it was only the two of them, she didn‘t hold back with swearing. She had heard on numerous occasions that Ryuji was a bad influence, mainly because of his loose tongue, his hot temper and generally his swearing. Funny enough, a huge part of why she liked him was for those reasons. In a way, he was like her. He stuck out.

Ryuji had to grin over her outburst before turning serious again. „I‘m sure that she went straight to my mom after that, blaming her parenting for everything.“ he sighed. He wished that his actions weren‘t always blamed directly onto his mom.

„But she ran into you!“ Ann couldn‘t believe that he would get in trouble for this.

„That‘s how it goes...“ Ryuji shrugged. As he looked at his watch, he saw that the break was about to end. „We should get going...“ he said as he got up. He extended his hand towards Ann, offering to help her up.

Her lips twitched into a faint smile as she reached for his hand and pulled herself up. She was the first to leave, making sure the air was clear as to not bring up any uncomfortable questions on why Ryuji was in a girls restroom. The hallway was still empty, so they managed to slip out unseen.

„So, what if we partner up for the project?“ Ryuji asked casually while walking alongside her.

„What about your assigned partner?“

„I guess he would rather work with Takahashi than me… I‘m not the most popular study partner.“ he mused.

„Won‘t we get in trouble?“ she asked.

„You don‘t have that many options, do ya?“ Ryuji grinned.

„You‘re right, I guess...“ she managed a small smile, still worrying about dragging him into trouble with her.

 

~

 

Ryuji cursed under his breath when he returned home to find his mother waiting for him in the living room. He and Ann had already started working on their assignment after school, both welcoming the opportunity to stay away from home for longer. Ryuji had hoped that his mom was off to work or something when he got home, but it seemed like she had been awaiting him.

„Hey mom.“ Ryuji tried to sound normal as he took off his shoes.

„Did you have a nice day?“ his mother asked, her voice normal. „Come, sit down for a bit.“ she added, patting the spot on the sofa beside her.

Ryuji knew what was coming. He trotted into the living room and did as he was told.

„So.. one of the ladies from the first floor came knocking this morning...“ she started, her voice calm. „She was very upset, claiming that you ran into her, knocked her down and then called her some very horrible names...“ she continued.

„She ran into me! I even wanted to help her up but she started yelling!“ Ryujis voice rose as if on instinct.

„It‘s okay Ryuji! I‘m not blaming you!“ she held her hands up, trying to calm him down. „It was an accident. Things got out of hand and you got into each others hair...“

„NO! She was the one freaking out. I was walking NORMALLY, and she rushed the corner. She talked shit about you!“ he jumped up.

„It doesn‘t matter now!“ Ayumi Sakamotos voice suddenly grew firm. „I had a talk with her and told her that you would go downstairs and apologize to her.“

„WHAT? She should be the one apologizing!“ Ryuji was yelling now. You are a no-good, disrespectful, rotten child! It rang in his head again. He clenched his fists.

„Ryuji, please!“ his mother looked at him with the look he hated the most. Defeat. She didn‘t know what to do with her easy-to-anger son.

Ryuji was standing in the living room door. He was hurt and angry. Why didn‘t she take his side? The old lady had started it, he was just defending himself. He got slapped in the face by her. Should he tell her that? Would she even care or would she think that he had deserved it? At this moment he wasn‘t sure. Why did she always need to be so calm and impartial? Why did she never get angry at the injustice, when people told her that she was a bad mother? Why did she believe them?

„No.“ he said, storming off to his room, slamming the door. He knew, that he had a short fuse. He couldn‘t help it. His fuse was even shorter when he witnessed how shitty people could be. People calling his mother incapable, people who needed to make others feel bad to feel good, people who called him a troublemaker for calling out the shittiness of others. He was fired up. He changed into his running gear and left the apartment without a word to his mother, forcefully slamming the door.

He had been running for half an hour when he passed a convenience store. He went inside, initially only wanting to buy something to drink, when he passed the small cosmetics section, displaying a row of different hair-dyes. A wild thought appeared in his head. If everyone thinks I‘m a troublemaker, why not look like it? The idea felt like a revelation, dyeing his hair as a symbol of self-acceptance. He looked at the different colors, thinking hard about with which he would identify himself the most, before resting on yellow, or „blonde“, as the package called it. Yellow, like some of his favourite shirts, yellow like the color he sees when he gets angry, yellow like the high voltage signs, yellow like the symbolic color of the electricity he would feel flowing through his muscles when he was running or preparing for the first punch . Blonde like Ann. Ann? h e was confused about how the thought of h er snuck up in his mind. Maybe it was because she could be impulsive and was the only one who would loudly swear with him. Or maybe it was because he felt like she was the only one who was on his side when he had told her about this mornings incident. That bitch! He could hear her say again and had to smile . It would be an odd symbol of comradery. Being the only two blonde students, both of them impulsive, misunderstood and loud. It‘s not my fault that I look different. he recalled Ann saying today. He grabbed the box without thinking, getting a bottle of water and paying, before running home.

 

~

 

The next day, Ann and Shiho were chatting in the classroom before their first lesson. It was a minute before the bell so everyone was already gathered in class. As the door opened, it grew quiet all of a sudden, heads turning into the same direction, jaws dropping, as Ryuji Sakamoto walked into the classroom with now bright yellow hair. Ann was shocked, beside her, she could hear Shiho gasp. Ryuji acted like nothing was off, walking to his desk and sitting down. After a few seconds, more and more students started taking up their conversations again.

 

~

 

„Why would you do this?“ Ann asked as they were sitting together to do homework.

„Huh?“ Ryuji looked up from his textbook. „Whaddaya mean?“

„Why would you dye your hair?“ Ann asked again, tapping her pen impatiently on her books. Shiho was sitting beside them, now looking up as well.

„I dunno know… just felt right…“ he shrugged. There really wasn‘t a more elaborate explanation for it.

„Why would you do something so stupid?“ Ann blurted out. She couldn‘t understand why he would choose to stick out even more than he already did. Why would he purposely inflict the troubles that she was experiencing on himself?

Ryuji looked at her in surprise. Why was she so upset about this?

„I… think Ann doesn‘t mean it so cross… It just was… a surprise...“ Shiho chimed in, choosing her words carefully.

It was true, Ann didn‘t want to sound so mean. The truth was, that she was confused on so many levels. Had his hair color of choice something to do with her? Was there a meaning that she didn‘t get? While her brain still told her that this was so stupid of him, there was also a small whisper from her heart, giddy about a boy changing his hair color to hers. She tried to fade it out.

Shiho was eyeing Ann, realizing that she must be in deep thought. She had to smile to herself. Now these two had another thing they had in common. It seemed like Ann had to chew on that for a bit.

 

~

 

„Takamaki, Sakamoto, Takahashi and Momota, come here for a second, please.“ the teacher called them out two weeks later after the lesson.

As Ann got up, she could hear Ritsu snicker „Here comes trouble.“

As they all had gathered around the teachers desk, Mrs. Okyura looked around the group. „So, I saw that you four have decided to switch partners. That wasn‘t the idea of the task.“

„It was me. I wanted to work with Sakamoto, so I asked the others if they wanted to switch.“ Ann was quick to answer. She didn‘t want to get the others into trouble. Maybe she was disapointed in Yuma for simply giving in to the pressure of Ritsu to dump her but deep down, she felt bad for her. She had been trapped between two fronts, one of them social acceptance the other one… her.

She could feel Ryuji staring at her. She asumed that he had been planning to take the blame himself with his over-the-top protective instinct, but she had made sure that she was faster. Besides, she could almost feel Ritsu breathing down her neck. She knew that the girl was not going to miss out on Ann getting a scolding. Ann was also sure, that Ritsu would have jumped in, if she hadn‘t taken the blame herself, making up a story far worse than hers.

„Is that so?“ Mrs. Okyura said, her eyes wandering back and forth between Ann and Ryuji. Ryuji hadn‘t been blonde at the beginning of this assignment, had he? Sakamoto had always been a rebelious kid who spoke his mind, the dyed hair wouldn‘t help him to a cleaner image. The other teachers have already been talking about it in the lounge before she had seen it herself. A lot of her colleagues were quick to judge, waving him off as a delinquent and a rebel, already throwing his future away in middle school, but Mrs. Okyura thought that she saw through his shell. He wasn‘t just some eager-to-fight no-good. He was doing it for a reason. And she knew that Takamaki wasn‘t the most popular girl. She shook her head. „Fine, I‘ll let this slide. But next time, you come to me first, okay?“ she said, handing them their papers before dismissing them.

Ryuji grinned „Alright!“

Anns eyes met Yumas. She was looking at her in disbelief, confusion and maybe regret. A sense of pride spread inside her. She had stuck out her head for the one who betrayed her, she had shown mercy. The sassy side of her wanted to make a comment before leaving, but she chose not to. Instead she turned towards Ryuji, sharing his grin.

Ryuji jerked his head towards Ritsu, who was busy whispering to her closest friends again, occassionally shooting the mandatory death glares towards her. Ann sighed „Whatever. Let‘s go meet up with Shiho“. And so the only two blonde students in the entire school disappeared into the hallway together.

Chapter Text

It had been a week since Shidos ship sank. Soon they would know if the change of heart was successfull. They were antsy, fingers itching to do something in this gruesome time of waiting. Mishimas message about a new mementos-request came exactly at the right time.

Getting to the targets Mementos-floor was harder than the fight itself. After they managed to change the targets heart, they already felt pretty spent, everyones stamina running low. They were planning on staying out of battles and just leaving as fast as possible, when they got ambushed by a horde of shadows.

In the chaos of battle, they didn‘t realize how they got separated into smaller groups. Ren and Makoto had their hands full with two Rangdas, attacking them with both curse and physical attacks. Ann, Haru and Yusuke were kept in check by three Barongs, sending electric attacks their way, which they were mostly able to dodge thanks to Yusukes and Kamu Susano-os buff. A little further away, Morgana and Ryuji were busy with a single Dakini, giving them a thorough beating.

„Just die already!“ Ryuji cursed as Seiten Taisei attacked the shadow with full force, finally killing it. He let out an exhausted breath, head dangling, propping his hands on his knees. Morgana used the time to quickly check for the others. Ren and Makoto seemed to have everything under control, their last foe barely standing. Yusuke, Haru and Ann still had two Barongs to go.

„Lady Ann!“ Morgana shrieked, causing Ryujis head to snap towards her direction. Ann had retreated a bit to stand behind Yusuke and Haru and now was concentrating to charge up her next attack. Haru and Yusuke were busy with dodging a Mazionga-attack from one of the shadows, while the other one was preparing a heavy electric attack towards Ann, who didn‘t notice.

„Ann! Get away from there!“ Ryuji screamed at the top of his lungs. He knew that he would never make it in time, nevertheless his legs started to sprint towards her. „ANN!“

Ann snapped out of her concentration when she heard Ryujis panicked shouts. She could only lift her head to see what was coming, but had no time left to move. The powerful lightning bolt hit her square in the chest, the force pushing her back one step. Ryuji was still running when he saw Ann getting hit. It was a strong electric attack that would normally paralyze and knock you to the floor, leaving you unable to do anything. How was Ann still standing?

„Burn them, Hekate!“ Ann screamed, unleashing a wave of flames towards the two shadows, finally killing them.

With all the shadows eliminated, the group gathered together again, huffing and beaten.

„Everyone okay?“ Ren asked, wiping the sweat off his brow.

„I think so.“ Ryuji answered, still baffeled by what he just saw.

They decided to not waste any more time. Morgana transformed into the bus again, opening the doors for everyone to climb in. Makoto took the wheel, as usual, with Ren riding shotgun today. Futaba and Haru had their spots in the last row, leaving the middle row to Ann, Ryuji and Yusuke.

„Lady Ann! Are you okay?“ Morganas voice sounded worried through the speaker, as they started driving.

„Yes… I don‘t know how, but I am...“ Ann was confused as well. She shouldn‘t be THIS alright after such a strong attack. After being hit with a shock-attack, you normally would at least feel a little tingeling in your hands for a while, especially if you were hit directly like she had been. It hadn't been a pleasant feeling in the moment she had been hit, but now she felt nothing.

„That was INSANE!“ Futaba yelled from the back. „When did you get resistant to shock?“

„I what?“ Ann was surprised.

„I looked up your stats! Hekate doesn‘t only block fire, but is resistant to electric damage!“

Anns gaze met Ryujis, who was carefully eyeing her as if to make sure that she really was okay. She turned away to look out the window. Why, of all the things, was she suddenly immune to shock? What was the meaning of that? Ann was struck by a memory of last week. Her face pressed against his chest, his arms around her, the kiss he had placed on top of her head. When they had awakened to their personas, they had torn of their masks they had been wearing for society. Last week, Ryuji and Ann had taken off another mask, that they had been hiding behind only towards each other. Last week, it had shown how much they cared for each other beneath the teasing and bickering. Had this moment triggered a change in their personas too? Instinctively she reached towards Ryujis hand, that was resting beside her on the bench. His face remained focused on the path ahead, but he slightly moved his fingers to intertwine with hers.

 

 

They had almost reached the escalators leading to the safe space, when they saw a shadow blocking the path.

„It doesn‘t look like it will move soon.“ Makoto sighed, stopping the bus at a safe distance.

„We‘ll have to clear it out then.“ Ren said, turning around to face the others. „Who‘s up for a last fight?“

„I‘m good to go.“ Makoto said.

„I feel better as well.“ Haru chimed in.

„I‘m going too.“ Ryuji said.

„Count me in!“ Futaba volunteered.

Ren nodded „Good. Mona, Panther and Fox, you stay back, keep clear of trouble.“ he said, opening the door. The others followed their leader.

„Be careful!“ Ann instructed eveyone before Ryuji pulled the door shut. Yusuke climbed into the drivers seat and together they watched the others sneak towards the shadow. Joker, swift as always, quickly jumped up to its head, ripping of the mask, revealing a Belial.

„Alright, they have the advantage. We will be out of here in no time!“ Morgana cheered.

The first turn went well, everyone was able to cause a decent amount of damage before the shadow knew what hit him and came up with a plan. Ann could see how Ryuji was charging up Seiten Taiseis next attack when the shadow pulled a suprise move, spitting a ball of fire towards Ryuji.

„Oh no!“ Yusuke exclaimed.

Ann gasped, covering her mouth. Come on, Ryuji! You‘re protecting me and I‘m protecting you! She thought to herself, before gasping again, but this time in surprise, when she saw Ryuji standing there engulfed in flames. The battle cry he then released must have been audible for the whole floor. Seiten Taisei released a thunderstorm of lightning, bringing the shadow down with the help of a One-Shot Kill from Haru and Astarte.

There were a few moments of silence before Ren motioned to the back-up party to come. Yusuke carefully drove Morgana towards the others.

Futaba tore the door open, screaming in excitement „DID YOU SEE THAT? That shadow was all „Whooosh“ and Ryuji was in FLAMES and went „RAAAARGH““ she yelled while climbing into the back row, followed by Haru. Ryuji, who was still patting out some small flames on his attire before getting in, looked up at Ann. Them being resistant to each others element must mean something. He remembered last week, her crying against his chest, clutching at his shirt, devastated at the thought of losing him. That night he realized how much Ann really cared about him. He looked up to see her watching him, a faint smile on her face. He grinned before getting into the bus, taking his seat beside Ann.

„Phew, that was hot.“ he grinned, raising his hands for a high-five from both sides as Joker climbed in beside him as well. Makoto was in the front again, letting Yusuke drive. Ren was fast to react while Ann still seemed to consider if this pun was worthy. „Come on, you know you wanna do it!“ Ryuji teased, wiggling his fingers. She rolled her eyes with a small smile before clapping her hand onto his.

They were at the entrance of Mementos again, waiting for the elevator back up to the real world, when Futaba placed a finger on her chin in thought. „So.. we discovered before that Anat is resistant to curse, which is Arsenes power. And now Hekate is resistant to shock and Seiten Taisei to fire… I wooonder what‘s up with that?“ a small, teasing grin formed on her face when she saw their faces turn red, deliberatly looking away from each other.

Chapter Text

It was three years after Ryuji and Anns graduation from Shujin, that the high school was celebrating an important anniversary, throwing a huge celebration. Of course all the alumni were welcome, but the former student council president for two years in a row, Makoto Niijima, received a special invitation including the request to hold a speech. Seizing the opportunity for a group hangout, she immediatly texted to the group chat.

 

Makoto: I just received an invitation to Shujins anniversary celebration. I hope all of you will be there too?

Ann: You got a personal invite? I just read about it on social media…

Ren: Of course she did, they even asked her to give a speech.

Ryuji: Miss Prez back at it again!

Haru: Visiting our old school sure will bring up a lot of memories. I will clear my schedule!

Futaba: I just got out of there one year ago, do I really have to return so soon?

Makoto: I just thought that it would be nice occassion for all of us to meet up again.

Yusuke: I do appreciate the idea, although Shujin has never been my school, I vividly remember the school festival. I will do my best to be there.

Ann: I guess I should be able to make it too.

Ryuji: I‘ll have to check in with work… But I guess it should work out.

Futaba: Fiiine, if everyones coming, I‘ll be there too.

 

Ryuji and Ann were sitting on the sofa together while writing, Ann laying on her back with her head in his lap. They have recently moved into their first apartment together. It wasn‘t much, but since they both were working now, they were able to afford a small apartment with a cosy living room with a built-in kitchen and a very narrow bedroom, that was almost entirely taken up by their bed and a closet, that was close to bursting thanks to Anns huge amount of clothing. While the whole house was pretty run down, the location was close to Shibuya and both of their workplaces.

„I‘m sure Iwai will let you go early, if you tell him in advance.“ Ann said when she read Ryujis response in the group chat.

After graduation, Ryuji had started to work part-time for Iwai in his shop to earn some money and to gather some experience while figuring out what his real goal for the future would be. What was supposed to be a part-time job for a few months had turned into a full-time job when Iwai offered to hire him in desperate need of someone to help him in busy times or to take over the store for a day, when he needed a day off. Ryuji didn‘t mind working for Iwai, he was a fair and understanding boss and the payment was okay. It wasn‘t what he wanted to do for the rest of his life, but at the moment he also didn‘t have a bigger opportunity knocking on his door. He had thought about working as a fitness coach or something else sports-related, but decided to let it go, when he saw how much time the courses took. At the moment, he was happy with how things were. He was living with Ann, something that they both had wanted for a long time, they were happy and they both had a job. Ann was currently working at a fashion label, as the assistant of one of the head-designers.

„Yeah, I guess… I‘m just not that crazy about going back there.“ Ryuji shrugged, looking down into her face. Among the first things he remembered when he thought of Shujin was his broken leg, Kamoshida and only after that their time as the Phantom Thieves. There had been good times as well, but that was not because of the school itself.

Ann sat up and nestled up to his side, wrapping her arms around his waist. „I know.. but it will be nice to see everyone!“

„You‘re right.“

„Besides, there‘s also good memories. Like all our lunchbreaks on the roof. Or the Phantom Thieves meetings….“ Ann smirked before she almost whispered into his ear „… that one time we made out in the library...“ she kissed his neck.

Ryuji grinned, his cheeks heating up, as he slung his arm around Anns waist, pulling her with him as he laid down on the couch, smoothly shifting her to lay on top of him. Ann giggled before she was pulled into a passionate kiss, his arm still around her waist, the other hand gently cupping her cheek, his thumb tracing along her cheekbone. While they both would never be able to forget the horrible things that had happened to them at Shujin, they certainly shouldn‘t forget the good moments there.

 

Ryuji was stocking up the shelves in the store while Iwai was sitting behind the counter, taking inventory.

„So, you‘re ready to visit Shujin again?“ Iwai asked in his deep and rough voice.

„I guess… I‘m just going because all my friends are. They even asked Makoto to give a speech.“ Ryuji answered while stacking some small boxes into the stores shelves.

„Rens girl? She does seem like a teachers favourite.“ Iwai chuckled.

„She used to be student council president, guess she left a good impression.“

They both looked up as the bell on the door chimed.

„Seems like there‘s someone here for you“ Iwai grinned while tipping his hat to the person who just walked in.

Ryuji grinned as he walked out from behind the shelve to give Ann a kiss. She got here straight from the office, her blonde hair in a ponytail, wearing ripped jeans and a black tank top under her loose red and black checkered flannel shirt, that she had owned for a long time.

„You need something else, boss?“ Ryuji turned to Iwai.

„Get outta here.“ Iwai pointed to the door with a grin.

Ryuji and Ann walked down Central Street hand in hand, talking about their days. At the Ginza Line station in Shibuya, they ran into Futaba. She was wearing a grey slouchy beanie, despite the weather not being that cold, her usual baggy pants and a thin bomber jacket. After graduating last year, she got accepted into a renowned tech-university, where she now specialized in cyber-security. She went in for a quick hug when she spotted them before they all got onto the train.

„Don‘t tell me that you actually missed this place...“ Futaba said as the three of them stood in front of the school gate, looking up at the brightly iluminated school building. She wouldn‘t say that she had a horrible time, but the two years after Ann and Ryuji had left certainly weren‘t the best either. She had made a few „friends“, but she still felt trapped there, left behind, while all her real friends were starting their lives at university or at work.

„We‘re not here for the school, but for the people we met here.“ Ann said. She also wasn‘t fond of the place, where her best friend had tried to commit suicide and a teacher wanted to have sexual relations with her. When Ryuji and her had talked about it after Makotos message, she didn‘t want to add her bad memories as well. She knew how much more upset Ryuji would have gotten.

„Let‘s just hope that Makoto won‘t praise this place too much...“ Ryuji muttered as they walked up the stairs towards the main entrance.

Inside, the place hadn‘t changed except for the garlands on the ceiling, sporting their schools colors. The hallways were bustling with both visitors and current students, giving tours to either parents or patrons.

Futaba, Ryuji and Ann headed for the auditorium, were a message board anounced a panel with various Shujin alumni talking about how Shujin changed their lives. Ann and Ryuji looked at each other and rolled their eyes after reading, Ryuji mimicked gagging. A certain Shujin teacher had definitly changed both their lifes, but probably not in a way that the school would want to hear a speech about. Ryuji placed his hand on her lower back, navigating her into the crowded auditorium. The prepared chairs were already taken, a huge crowd already lining up against the walls. Futaba spotted the others among the standing crowd. After the mandatory group hug, Ann looked at Makoto, who was shuffling around nervously, checking how full the auditorium was every other second. She had chosen to wear her old uniform, including the white turtleneck and the vest. Looking at Ren, he was also sporting the schools checkered pants. She wondered who of them first had the idea and then talked the other into it. Since they were also living together nowadays, it was hard to tell.

„Didn‘t know that there was a dresscode!“ Ann remarked.

Makoto turned a bit red „Do you think it‘s too much?“ So it must have been Rens idea.

„Of course not! You look great, Mako.“ Haru was quick to jump in.

„That‘s what I said.“ Ren added, putting his arm around Makotos shoulders.

„So, how much ass-kissing did we miss?“ Ryuji asked, shoving his hands into his jeans pockets.

„Quite a lot, I dare to say.“ Yusuke answered, leaning against the wall.

„And there‘s still more to come.“ Haru added, flicking through the program.

„Please tell me that we‘re going to leave after Makotos thing?“ Futaba lamented, tugging at Rens wrist for dramatic effect.

„And please tell me that Makotos speech is going to be soon...“ Ann added, peeking over Harus shoulder into the program pamphlet. She wasn‘t sure how much of this fake praising she could handle.

They were lucky, Makotos turn would be after the next speaker. After the speech of another alumni, Makoto walked towards the stage, after receiving a kiss from Ren and a „Good Luck“ from everyone else.

As she stood behind the lectern, she cleared her throat before moving up to the microphone. She took a deep breath before starting.

„My name is Makoto Niijima. I graduated from Shujin four years ago and I was acting as student council president for two years. When the principal asked me to do a speech about how Shujin had changed my life, I was close to refusing, because I don‘t think that Shujin as a school has changed my life in a positive way.“

A murmur errupted throughout the auditorium, Makoto continued unimpressed.

„In my first two years, the only thing important to me was gaining the facultys recognition to get a recommendation for a good college. All I did was blindly follow orders, telling myself that that‘s just what I have to do. I had no friends and I didn‘t even mind. I wanted to become student council president because of the sound of it on my resumee. Of course I told myself that I cared about my fellow students, that I did it for them as well, but the truth is, I never acted for the students, if it meant going against the faculty out of fear of losing their favor. During my second year as student council president, the school had to deal with a major scandal concerning a former volleyball coach. Two of my now closest friends were among the tormented ones. Shujin turned a blind eye to the practices of this vile man and had he not turned himself in, I am sure that he would still roam the hallways today, abusing students. With something like this happening, how can I hold a speech about how great this school is? During my third year, my life had changed drastically but not thanks to this school, but to the people I met here. I found friends for a lifetime, I found a new way to look at life, I found love.“

Makoto paused, looking straight at their group. Akira had a wide smile on his face, Futaba was standing beside him, her jaw dropped, Ryuji, an incredulous look on his face as well, had one arm around Ann, his hand resting on her hip while she leaned against him, a tear in her eye. Beside them, she saw Haru smiling her warm smile, her arms slung around Yusukes arm, who as well seemed to be moved by her speech.

„In all of those changes in my life, Shujin didn‘t have a hand in. It‘s a real stretch, but the only thing I‘m grateful to Shujin for, is accepting a transfer student with a criminal record.“ she said before stepping away from the microphone, doing a little bow.

The audience slowly started to applaud in confusion, but a group of young adults back there at the walls started to cheer wildly. Futaba was whistling with her fingers in her mouth, Ren, Ann and Ryuji were cheering and hollering loudly, Yusuke and Haru remained dignified with their clapping. Ren ushered everyone to the exit, Makoto had already planned beforehand that she would not stay in the auditorium after her speech.

„Roasting the school on its anniversary? You are a badass!“ Futaba said in awe as they met up in the hallway.

Ann, still moved by Makotos speech, walked up to her and pulled her into a hug. „That was so awesome.“

„Thank you. I‘m glad that you liked it. I… just couldn‘t act like Shujin was the perfect school.“ Makoto said. „Truth is, that everything I am today is because I have met all of you.“ she said, now with tears in her eyes as well, laughing as she was burried in hugs by all of the Phantom Thieves.

They continued walking around the hallways, reminiscing about their school-life. On the second floor, they ran across Kawakami who immediatly recognized them.

„Didn‘t expect to see all of you here.“ she grinned as she looked at Ren before scanning everyone else. „I see you still haven‘t dyed back your hair Sakamoto?“ she said, but this time it was with a wink. Of course she knew that she was standing in front of the former Phantom Thieves, some of them her former students. They engaged in some small talk.

„Sakamoto?“ Ryuji heard from behind him. He turned around to look into a vaguely familiar face. „Yamato Komaeda?“ he asked in disbelief when he recognized it. He had been in third grade when Ryuji got into the track team in his first year of high school. He remembered him as a nice guy, but he had quit the team before the shit with Kamoshida had gotten out of hand.

„Yeah, I was hoping to meet you here. Do you have a minute?“ he started, pointing away from the group.

„Uh, okay...“ Ryuji complied, leaving the confused group behind, following him into one of the classrooms, trying hard to remember if he had ever done him wrong. „So what‘s this about?“ he asked as he watched Yamato leaning against the teachers desk.

„Relax, it‘s nothing bad. In fact, I have a job offer for you.“ the young man started.

Ryuji was confused „What?“

„You know, back then before all this crap with you and Kamoshida went down, I chose to quit track team because I already had my scholarship at a university and I had a feeling that this guy was no good. I was shocked when I heard that he even got the track team to disband.“

„He also broke my leg…“ Ryuji added, not getting what he was going for.

Komaeda looked at him in disbelief before gathering himself again. „I‘m sorry that I fled before the battle. But that‘s why I‘m here today. I was still running in college and now I‘m done and I want to bring back a Shujin track team. The principal agreed and now I‘m free to assign a co-trainer.“

Ryuji looked at him in surprise. „That‘s awesome. Congratulations! I‘m sure that you and the co-trainer you choose will come up with a great team.“

Komaeda smiled. „I sure hope so. I was thinking about you as the co-trainer.“

Ryujis jaw dropped „For real? Why?“

He grinned. „We haven‘t been on the team together for long, but I remember that I saw that you have a coach mentality. You were great at motivating your teammates. Niijima also told me that you are coaching some of yor friends at the gym nowadays?“

Ryuji was still baffled, he just nodded. When did Makoto tell him this?

Yamato continued „I know that your active career is over thanks to Kamoshida, but would you be interested in coaching some new talents?“

„I… yeah!“ Ryuji found his words again.

„Great! I‘ll talk to the principal next week. As a co-trainer and because you‘re not a teacher per se, it would only be a part-time job, meaning you only need to be here during practice and maybe a little bit before and after that. Would that work for you?“ the young man with black hair started.

Ryuji thought about his other job. Seems like he would need to cut his hours at Iwais shop again. „Sure, I… I‘ll make it work.“

Ryujis hands were shaking as he exchanged contact infos with Komaeda. When he left the classroom he pumped his fist into the air, taking a deep breath before walking towards the hallway where he had left the others. Had this really just happened? As he turned around the corner, only Ann was still standing there, checking her phone. She looked up when she saw him and pushed herself off the wall. „What was that about?“ she asked.

„He… asked me to be co-trainer on the track-team he‘s trying to bring back...“ Ryuji explained, a little perplexed still.

„WHAT? Ryuji that‘s awesome!“ Ann threw herself at him, wrapping her arms around his neck. „Please tell me you said yes!“ She said as she loosened her grip a little.

„I did. But I‘ll have to talk to Iwai about working part-time again.“ he said, grinning as Ann pressed a kiss onto his lips.

„I‘m so happy for you! You will be a great coach!“ Ann was extatic, her excitement infecting Ryuji as well, fully grasping the situation now. He lifted Ann up and spun her around.

„Where are the others?“ he asked as he let her down again.

„They went downstairs to raid the buffet, Mishima should be there too.“ Ann answered, still clinging to his neck. She was happy for him. She knew that this was a job made for him and that he would be great at it.

Ryuji paused to look at her. Ann had been waiting for him despite food being served downstairs?

He was silent for so long that Ann gave him a confused look. „Something wrong?“

He grinned „Nah, I just had to let it sink in that you're taking the risk of missing out on food because you wanted to wait for me.“

„Don‘t flatter yourself, I was about to leave but then you came around.“ Ann playfully punched him in the shoulder with a grin.

„Didn‘t look like that to me...“ Ryuji grinned before moving to trap her into a headlock and messing with her hair.

„Ryuji! My hair!“ Ann shrieked as she broke free of his grasp before reaching up to mess with his blonde mop of hair. They continued messing around, teasing and eventually finding back to each other, resulting in a long kiss that made them feel like teenagers again.

„Guess today we made a good memory.“ Ryuji said, putting his arm around Anns shoulders as they were walking towards the stair case.

„Not if the others didn‘t save some food for us.“ Ann declared, her stomach grumbling since Makotos speech.

Chapter Text

A phone had been buzzing on the night stand for some time when Anns hand shot out from under her blanket to fumble around to finally turn it off. She drouzily forced herself to open her eyes and blink a few times. Raindrops were softly hitting her window, making her wish to be able to stay in bed even more. It appeared she wasn‘t alone with that wish, as she felt Ryuji stirring behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist, pulling her close, his warm chest against her back.

„We have to get up...“ she muttered, unwilling as well.

„Just five more minutes, `kay?“ she heard him mumble behind her, his face burried in her hair. They didn‘t get a lot of sleep because they got carried away with a new series they had started to watch last night.

Ann compromised, telling herself that she would stay but not fall asleep again.

She should have known, that this never worked. When her phone buzzed once more, she shot up, almost standing on her bed when she checked the time. She was lucky, that she had set the alarm to snooze, but she still had lost 15 minutes. „Oh no, no no no...“ she cursed.

„What the…?“ Ryuji sat up straight as well. „How late are we?“

„It‘s 7:45 already!“ Ann yelled, jumping off the bed, flipping on the light.

„What are you stressing about? There‘s still lots of time.“ Ryuji groaned, dropping back and pulling the blanket up.

„The casting is at 9 and I need to prepare!“ Ann shrieked. She sprinted towards the bathroom.

„Lights!“ Ryuji complained before pulling the blanket over his face.

 

20 minutes later, Ann got back, wrapped in a towel, her hair already blow-dried. She was glad that she had already picked out her outfit yesterday. While Ryuji normally never missed the opportunity to stare while she got dressed, today he was still burried under the blanket, most likely asleep again. She rolled her eyes before putting on her black leggings and the loose white knitted dress.

„Ryuji! Come on!“ she said in an annoyed tone while wrapping a wide black belt around her waist to accentuate her figure. After a quick glance at the clock, she sat down at her dressing table, putting on her make-up. When she was done, Ryuji still hadn‘t moved. She got up, walked over to the bed and pulled the blanket off, causing him to finally wake up.

„Okay, okay, I‘m awake!“ he said, shielding himself with his arms as Ann was throwing his clothes at him.

„It‘s not like you don‘t have to work as well!“ Ann huffed,

„Yeah, but I can get up and go as soon as I‘m dressed and don‘t need all the other crazy stuff. When did you get dressed, by the way?“ he asked as he put on his shirt.

„Seems like you missed it.“ Ann shrugged while packing her purse, giving herself a last check in the mirror. She was nervous. Her bad luck was still unbroken, she hadn‘t gotten one job since she finished school, and that was 4 months ago. She didn‘t notice that Ryuji, now done dressing, had walked up behind her, placing his hands on her shoulders, giving her a massage as if she were a boxer going into the ring.

„You‘re gonna be awesome! You look amazing and if those assholes don‘t see that, they are blind and they can go screw themselves.“ was todays peptalk. It always went somewhat like that. First complimenting her and then insulting the others. A part of her always wanted to correct him, but a bigger part thought that it was sweet.

 

They left the Takamaki apartment together, taking the train to Shibuya. Ann needed to get off one station earlier, Ryuji getting off with her to give her one last motivational speech on the platform. He took her into his arms and looked into her turquoise eyes.

„You know I love you, right?“ he finished, wanting to kiss her forehead but deciding to go for the top of her head instead, before she would complain again about him messing up her make-up.

„I know. I love you too.“ she smiled before giving him a quick kiss. She could redo the lipgloss.

„Burn it down, Panther.“ he said with his wide grin as he let her go, getting onto the next train towards Shibuya and to work.

Ann couldn‘t stop grinning as she was walking towards the office-building.

 

As the elevator reached the office, Ann cursed Ryuji and his damn charm and warm body, when she saw the long line of models at the sign-in desk and the ones already sitting lined-up in the provided chairs along the hallway. She was lucky enough to get a chair where she could sit down and dive into her phone. She had learned that it was better to not pay too much attention to the the competition, for it would only make her feel worse about herself. After 2 hours of waiting, they finally called her in.

As soon as she had entered the room and stepped in front of the panel of five people who immediatly started to give her a look-down, she could sense that they were going to turn her down. She had developed a kind of instinct for these situations and the way these people were eyeing her, they weren‘t convinced with what they saw. At least they had the decency to give her a fair chance, so she walked for them, answered their questions and waited patiently while they were flipping through her references. While four of them already seemed disinterested, the fifth panel member, a 30-something woman with dark-red hair and a more international look seemed a little more interested.

„Okay, thank you Takamaki, we will stay in touch.“ the bored-sounding man sitting in the middle didn‘t even look up at her as he spoke, already crossing her name off his list.

„I have one more question.“ the interested (or maybe just polite) woman intervened and got up, motioning Ann to walk towards a rack of clothes with her. „I just have one last question for you. When you look through these clothes, which ones do you like best? You can take your time, we will talk with the next girl in the meantime.“ and with that, she was gone again, walking back to the table.

Ann was confused, she had never been asked something like this before at a casting. Since she couldn‘t figure out how this could be a trap, she started rifling through the hangers, looking at all the pieces that must have been the next fall/winter collection. After looking at half of the pieces, her honest opinion was: underwhelmed. All these things seemed so.. boring. There was nothing wrong with a basic or simplistic style, but there was just something missing for her. Maybe it won‘t feel so bad if they turn me down, now that I know that the stuff doesn‘t even look that great… Ann thought to herself while continueing, knowing very well that this wouldn‘t change a thing. She was almost through when the first piece actually piqued her interest. It was a complete style, consisting of black-checkered tights, a ruby-red off-shoulder dress with a beautifully flowing skirt, reaching approximatly the middle of her thighs, and a black smooth leather jacket that seemed to be made for Ann because it had the same neckline as her metaverse-outfit once had. She couldn‘t take her eyes off of the hanger, until a voice from the panel table called out for her.

„Did you make a choice?“ the polite woman asked.

Ann turned around with the hanger in hand. „This looks amazing.“ she said, unsure if she had seen a certain sparkle in the womans eyes.

„Excuse me for a minute.“ the womand said to her colleagues as she got up, walking towards Ann. „Can we talk in my office for a sec?“ she said it as she strode past her, Ann blindly following, still not understanding, what was happening.

The woman lead her into a beautifully decorated office, pointing to a chair in front of her desk. To Anns surprise, she didn‘t walk to the other side of the desk, but sat down on the second chair beside her.

„Let‘s skip to the point, these guys in there won‘t book you.“ she started, startling Ann with her directness.

„I already guessed...“ she sighed.

„Which is sad, because that outfit you just liked so much? I made it, and I would love to see you in it. By the way, in case you were wondering, this is the only look that I made, that made it into the main-collection.“ the woman started. The way she was talking strongly reminded Ann of her own mother. „I feel like we may be in the same boat. We are a little bit unconventional for this market.. so I have an offer for you.“

Ann was speechless. „You… do?“ she stammered.

„What do you say to working for me? I‘m in need of an assistant and it seems like we have the same taste in fashion, which is the most important to me and proved to be hard to find. You would help me with everything organization-related and maybe even more, we‘ll have to see. It‘s not full-time modeling, but I will put my foot down and have you model my designs if I want them on you.“ she said, finally looking at her and waiting for a response.

„I… Yes… Okay… I would love that!“ Ann was still looking for words. Did this really just happen?

A smile spread across the womans face. „I‘m glad to hear that. My name is Kaiko Pagano. But let‘s go with Kaiko.“ the womand extended her hand.

„Ann.“ she responded, shaking her hand.

They briefly exchanged the heritage of their names, Kaiko revealing that she was half-italian, before she anounced that she needed to go back to the castings. „I‘m sure that they didn‘t miss me, but still...“ she grinned a bitter grin before asking Ann to leave her contact info and handing her a business card. „I will talk with the higher-ups today and HR will hopefully send you the documents this week. I‘m looking forward to working with you.“ she said before parting ways in the hallway. Ann kept standing there for a minute, processing what had just happened. She walked out of the office building before running the distance to Shibuya. She was too happy to stand still on the train at the moment.

As she was standing in front of Iwais Shop, she made sure that no customers were in there. She knew that Ryuji was working alone today so she forcefully pushed open the door. Ryuji flinched as the door flew open but quickly walked around the counter to stand before her, as he realized who it was. Reading her face was like reading a book. „You got it?“ he got excited.

Ann grinned before throwing herself at him, needing a minute to catch her breath before she told Ryuji everything that happened.

„For real?!“ Ryuji was infected by her excitement, „See? I told you that you can do it!“

Ann nodded „You did.“ grateful for his undying support, she leaned into a kiss. „Thank you.“ she whispered with a smile.

Ryuji grinned before he took a look at the watch. „Okay, we gotta celebrate. Where do you wanna go for lunch?“

„Hm… I‘m dying for a milkshake..“

„Diner it is!“ Ryuji said, grabbing his stuff and locking up the store for lunch-breack before taking Anns hand to walk out on Central Street. She was skipping beside him all the way, Ryuji watched her with an amused grin. He was happy for her, the constant refusals at every casting she had been to in the last months have taken their toll on her self-esteem. It was perfect, that she now got hired exactly because she was so different.

"So, now you won't need to go to castings anymore, right?" he asked as she kept skipping.

"Hm? Yeah... I guess you're right." Ann hadn't thought about that before. Now that she did, she was kind of at peace with it. She always thought that she would be a model but now that she was offered a secure job with eventual modeling oportunities, she realized that not having to go to castings anymore took a huge weight off her shoulders.

"I'm glad." Ryuji said as well. When Ann looked at him with a puzzled face, he elaborated "I mean, you're going places just to have a couple of gross old men gawk at you, pretending that they are "judging". You're beautiful, you don't need any of those bastards approval." he stated matter-of-factly. Since he was with Ann, he had gotten a closer glimpse into the modeling world and the struggles. In the last few months he had witnessed every scale of Anns emotional range, from fuming and throwing stuff to cowering under her blanket and crying bitterly about being ugly. He was happy about the prospect of never having to see her like this again.

"Aw." Ann grinned and pressed a kiss to his cheek. Ryuji had to endure a lot whenever she was down after she had gotten rejected after a casting. Sometimes, he would even be as upset as she was.

"And now that you have an office-job, you'll need to get up with me every morning." Ryuji teased, enjoying to watch her face falter a little. How often did he have to force himself to get up and go to work while Ann was still sound asleep, not getting up before 10.

"It was your fault that I overslept today! I was up way earlier than you." Ann defended herself.

"Guess that's how it'll be from now on." Ryuji chuckled.

Chapter Text

„Do you think Ren and Makoto already told Morgana?“ Ann wondered while they were travelling to Jongen. It was the day after Harus birthday party and their official anouncement, that they were now a couple. Although it has been a long night out and they had slept very little, they still didn‘t want to miss the opportunity to hang out before Ren would leave again. Ann did her best to cover up the bags under her eyes, but even if they didn‘t show, she still felt them. Ryuji sat beside her, also looking shattered, his eyelids heavy.

„I dunno.. why do you worry about this so much?“ Ryuji yawned.

„Because Morgana is our friend!“

„Yeah, but you weren‘t nervous about telling the others… Also, I should be the one worrying, it‘s me whose eyes he‘ll scratch out.“ Ryuji remarked. He didn‘t see Morgana any different than the rest of their friends. Sure, the cat had always been a little obsessed with Ann, but Ryuji never took his crush seriously. He could imagine him pouting though or throwing a fit, most likely he would insult Ryuji anyway.

„He wouldn‘t do that!…. Right?“ Ann was unsure. Morgana did have some strange mood swings from time to time and he sure was strong-headed. Ann leaned against his shoulder. „Maybe I should just tell him one-on-one?“

„It‘s up to you.“ Ryuji sighed, his eyes closed and his head tilted backwards to rest against the trains window.

 

When they entered LeBlanc, the only one to be seen was Futaba who slouched on one of the bar chairs, her head resting on the bar with her crossed arms as a pillow. She shot up as she heard the bell on the door jingle.

„We‘re first?“ Ann was surprised. She had scampered a drouzy Ryuji towards the train station in fear of being late. She could feel Ryuji throwing her an annoyed look from the side.

„Ren wanted to make a quick visit to the bathhouse and Makoto is upstairs getting ready.“ Futaba explained groggily, her head propped up on her hand, looking like she was about to fall asleep any second again.

Ann felt like this would be the moment. „Is Morgana somewhere around?“

„I think he went for a walk… You‘re gonna break it to him?“ the girl replied.

„Yeah.. Guess we should.“ Ann sighed. „I‘ll just wait for him outside.“ Ann gave a curt nod and a small smile to Ryuji before opening the door.

„You think he‘ll freak?“ Futaba asked as Ryuji flopped down into one of the booths, laying on his back, his feet dangling.

„Dunno.. But I guess it‘s best if Anns the one to tell him...“ Ryuji yawned once more.

 

Outside, Ann came across Ren who got back from the bathhouse.

„You‘re here early.“ he was suprised.

„And I thought we would be late...“ Ann grinned.

It was as if Ren could read minds „Waiting for Morgana?“ he asked.

„Yeah… I guess you haven‘t told him?“ Ann asked, fidgeting with her fingers.

„I think that it should come from you two. Although… preferably just you…“ Ren smirked.

Ann sighed, absentmindedly toying with her ponytail.

„Hey, he‘ll get over it.“ Ren tried to reassure her before heading inside, patting her shoulder as he passed.

Ann walked up the street, taking a look at the second-hand shop before she spotted Morgana approaching.

„Lady Ann!“ Morgana said, his voice dreamy as he steered towards her. „It‘s a pleasure to see you. You look beautiful as always.“

„Hey, Morgana! It‘s good to see you too.“ Ann tried to look relaxed. „Shall we walk together for a bit?“ she finally asked, figuring a walk would be a good moment to talk.

„Sure.“ Morgana agreed, turning around again, walking down the street towards the cinema. They kept quiet for a while, until they left the busy part of Jongen to turn into Sojiros street, where nobody was in sight.

„So… there is something that you need to know...“ Ann started. She had never been in a situation like this. While everyone who didn‘t know her automatically assumed that she was drowning in suitors, that certainly wasn‘t the case. And those who actually did have a crush on her, she could let down easily because she didn‘t care about them that much. Morgana was looking at her, expecting her to continue. „since you weren‘t at Harus party yesterday, you missed the official anouncement, but Ryuji and I are a couple now.“ Ann continued, tensing up after finishing her sentence.

Morganas face dropped a little, at least as much as you could tell on a cat. „Him? But... why?“ he asked, a little bit crushed, before shaking his head as if driving the thoughts away. „As long as you are happy, Lady Ann.“ he said it with a bit of a sigh, but tried to smile. He appreciated that she was taking his feelings into consideration.

Ann was surprised. This was the best outcome she could have wished for. She smiled. „I am.“

Morgana looked up at her „Is he treating you alright? If not, I will peel the skin off his face!“ he wasn‘t joking.

Ann chuckled, the thought of Ryuji mistreating her had never even crossed her mind. They could be really cruel to each other given they were both hot-heads, but during the very few fights they had had, Ann still knew that Ryuji loved her and vice versa. „He‘s great, so don‘t hurt him.“ she smiled. They soon were back at Leblanc, opening the door to see all of the Phantom Thieves together. None of them looked entirely awake, but now that Ren was back, he and Futaba were working on waking everyone up by brewing coffee.

„Hey guys!“ Ann greeted everyone, receiving tired waves and muttered hellos in return.

„Some Phantom Thieves you are. One night of partying and you are all knocked out cold.“ Morgana scolded like in the old days.

„Retired Phantom Thieves.“ Ren corrected while pouring a cup of coffee and placing it in front of Haru who was sitting at the bar.

„I feel so old...“ Ryuji groaned, he was still laying in one of the booths.

„Indeed, but I am convinced that Ren and Futabas coffee will bring us back to life.“ Yusuke was standing in the kitchen, thoughtfully stirring the curry pot. Makoto, unable to sit still as always, was standing beside him, supervising. When thinking of Yusuke, cooking wasn‘t the first thing that you would imagine him doing. Morgana hopped onto the bar stool beside Haru, propping his front paws up on the bar, observing Ren and Futaba. „Smells great as always.“ he approved.

„It tastes great as well!“ Haru added, holding her cup with both hands.

Ann walked over to Ryuji in the meantime. He sat up when he saw her approaching, now sitting sideways on the bench, his back leaning against the wall so he was able to take in the whole scene. She sat down, aligning herself with him, her back leaning against his chest, her legs stretched out, feet dangling over the edge of the bench.

„How‘d it go?“ Ryuji asked quietly so only she would hear.

„Good, I think.“ Ann anwered, eyeing Morgana who just enjoyed a head-scratching by Haru.

„See? Told ya it will all be fine.“ Ryuji said, planting a kiss on the top of her head.

„HEY! Less whispering, more helping!“ Futaba slammed her hands down onto the bar to get their attention.

„Okay, okay!“ he raised his hands as they both got up. Ryuji went upstairs with Ren to carry down the two chairs. Futaba was pouring the last cups of coffee while Yusuke and Makoto prepared the plates, handing them to Ann and Haru to carry them to the table. With all the preparations done, they arranged themselves around the table, Makoto, Ren and Morgana taking one bench, Yusuke and Haru sitting on the two chairs placed at the head of the table and Futaba, Ann and Ryuji squeezing together on the second bench.

When everyone was seated, Ren raised his coffee-cup. „To the Phantom Thieves.“ Everyone raised their cups and repeated his words. Toasting to the Phantom Thieves was an established ritual that they came up with to honor their Personas after loosing them. Since saying all the individual names took too long, they just summed them up as the Phantom Thieves. After taking a sip of coffee, they happily dug into their curry.

„It‘s hard to believe that only one year ago, we were running around on a giant cognitive cruise ship.“ Makoto reminisced that one time they were climbing up the outside wall of the ship to reach the computer-expert. They had done some very reckless stuff.

„It feels like ages...“ Ann said.

„I kinda miss it...“ Futaba almost whispered, the general mood had suddenly turned gloomy.

While it would seem strange to miss their emotionally most difficult times, they certainly missed that feeling of power when fighting shadows with their Personas, how close they all were back then, bound together by the iminent threats and their secret.

„Yeah...“ Ryuji said. Clobbering shadows with a pipe had been a nice vent.

They all agreed, silently nodding while continuing to eat.

„Geez, I didn‘t ask you to come over to sulk together!“ Ren sighed. „On a happier note, the next time we will see each other, Futaba will be the only one going to school.“

„Way to rub it in...“ Futaba muttered.

„Will you visit us after your graduation?“ Haru asked, cheery as always.

„Four of us are graduating next year, we totally need to celebrate that!“ Ann already started planning.

„Maybe we won‘t only celebrate your graduation...“ Makoto said in an intrigueing tone.

„What do you mean?“ Yusuke inquired.

Ren sighed, shooting a sideways look at Makoto, who looked at him apologetical. „What Makoto couldn‘t contain any longer is, that I will return to live in Tokyo, as soon as I‘m done with school.“ Ren said, flinching as he heard several pieces of cutlery hitting the table. As he looked around the group, he saw surprised faces, dropped jaws and wide smiles, the widest smile coming from Makoto, who had already known before.

„For real?“ Ryuji asked after a brief moment of silence.

Ren nodded. „Yeah, for real.“

„How wonderful!“ Haru exclaimed.

„You‘re going to live in the attic again, right?“ Futaba asked, trying to hide her excitement.

„I hope so, at least for the start. But at some point, Makoto and I will probably be looking for a new place together.“ Ren carefully tried to break it to Futaba.

„This is getting serious..“ Ryuji teased with a grin.

„Moving in together is still far into the future. We will have to save up money first...“ Makoto was quick to add. Makoto was full-time occupied with her studies, leaving no time for a part-time-job.

„So, you‘ll work here again?“ Ann asked.

„If Sojiro will have me. But recently I have been toying with the thought of studying law...“ Ren said. All of them looked at him with a smile. They could definitly see him as a lawyer, most likely defending the weak.

„The future police comissioner and top lawyer sitting together at this table...“ Ryuji grinned.

„I think this calls for another toast.“ Yusuke started, raising his coffee cup once more.

 

After their brunch, they stayed at LeBlanc a while longer, catching up until it was time for Ren to head to the train station. They all decided to accompany him. Since he‘d only been here for the weekend, he was travelling light, all his things stuffed into a backpack and his old Shujin bag, that was mainly for Morgana to travel in. Since noone was paying attention to them as they were standing on the platform, Morgana got out of the bag to say good-bye to everyone.

Futaba was quick to swoop him up and hold him in her arms, squeezing him like a child would squeeze a stuffed animal. „I will miss you, Mona.“

She continued to hold him, while the rest bid their fare-wells, either scratching his head or behind his ears. When Futaba turned him towards Ryuji, Morgana turned serious for a second „You take care of Lady Ann, idiot. Understood?“

„Will do, cat.“ Ryuji said before roughing up Morganas fur, much to the latters distaste.

After Futaba helped Morgana into the bag again, they gathered around for their group hug.

„See you after graduation, guys.“ Ren said. They all nodded before releasing each other again except for Makoto, who still clung to Rens arm, unwilling to let him go.

„Oh! Those pastries over there smell amazing, let‘s go get some!“ Ann exclaimed all of a sudden, ushering everyone except Makoto and Ren towards the small bakery-stand on the platform.

„Whoa, what‘s gotten into you? Don‘t you think that can wait?“ Ryuji asked while he was pushed to the end of the platform by Ann.

„You really need to catch a hint. Makoto obviously wanted some alone-time with Ren.“ Ann rolled her eyes.

„It does feel like everytime we hang out, we steal some time from Makoto to be with Ren…“ Haru admitted.

„Those pastries do smell delicious though… I wish I would have brought some money...“ Yusuke cut through the situation.

„Really? Again? Fine, I‘ll lend you some, but you better bring me something too.“ Ann sighed, pulling out a bill and handing it to Yusuke, who immediatly made off to the stand.

Haru giggled. „Some things just never change.“

„Classic Inari.“ Futaba agreed, rocking back and forth on her heels.

Ann turned around to look back at Ren and Makoto, who were standing in a tight embrace. She couldn‘t imagine having a long-distance relationship. She had gotten way too accustomed to Ryuji always being there, in the beginning only at school and now also at home. There hadn‘t been a lot of nights that they had spent apart since their first kiss, simply because they didn‘t want to say good-bye. The thought about how Makoto must feel made her reach for Ryujis hand, as if to make sure that he wasn‘t going anywhere. Yusuke soon returned, struggling to carry five paper plates at once. As he reached the group, Haru was quick to react and took two of the plates that were already wobbling on top of his hands.

„Are you still this hungry after eating so much curry before?“ she was surprised.

„I thought that it would be inadequate if Ann and I were the only ones eating, so I purchased something for you too.“ Yusuke explained, handing out two plates to Ryuji and Ann.

„So thoughtful..“ Futaba remarked as Haru handed her a plate.

Ryuji threw a quick glance over his shoulder as well, Ren and Makoto were now kissing. „If they don‘t watch out, he‘ll miss his train.“ he grinned.

„Stop gawking!“ Ann scolded.

„You just did the same thing!“ Ryujis voice rose.

„Yeah, but that‘s different!“

„How is this effin‘ different?“

As they continued their kind-of-serious bickering, Futaba rolled her eyes „You‘re right, some things really never change...“ she sighed, causing Haru to giggle again.

Chapter Text

He was sitting in his room, crouching under his desk. His hiding place, whenever the mood of his father would suddenly swing and he was out for confrontation. Sometimes, hiding under there worked and he wouldn‘t find him when he tore open the door to his room, wanting to yell at or punish him for some ridiculous reason. Since he wasn‘t the most patient or attentive in this state, he would leave again, if he didn‘t find him on the first glimpse. As he was cowering there, he balled his fists and hoped that his father would be calm again when his mother returned from work. He knew the sound of a beating more than he knew how it felt. The times were the agression actually ended in violence have increased over the last weeks. Mostly it was his mother on the receiving end, sometimes because she was telling him to stop yelling at Ryuji. From under the desk, he could hear his father cursing in the living room, walking around, restless. His heart sank when he heard the key turning in their door. His mother was back. But his father was still angry.

Ryujis eyes flew open. It took some time for him to realize that this vivid memory of his childhood had just been a dream. He wasn‘t a child anymore. His father was gone. He was lying in his bed. Beside him, Ann was breathing softly. He sat up and took a deep breath, scanning the dark room. His eyes wandered towards the very same desk that he would hide under so many years ago. He noticed how his hands were shaking. A tear rolled down his cheek, he must have been crying in his dream. Ashamed, he wiped it away with the back of his hand.

„Ryuji?“ Anns voice was soft, partly from being drouzy, partly concern. He was so lost in his thoughts that he didn‘t notice her sitting up beside him.

„Sorry… I didn‘t mean to wake you up...“ he muttered, gathering his thoughts again.

„What‘s wrong?“ Ann put her hand on his back.

He schook his head „Nothing.. just a bad dream..“ he tried to sound unbothered. Recently he seemed to have a lot of them. Sometimes about his childhood, sometimes about school, sometimes he would dream about his leg breaking over and over again, remembering vividly how he felt the bone snapping..

Ann was silent for a second. She knew what that was like. „What about?“ she asked.

„When my dad was still here...“ he answered.

She was kneeling beside him now, her arms wrapped around his schoulders.

„It felt so real… Like I was a kid again.“ he muttered as he leaned in to her embrace, taking a deep breath.

Ann slowly pulled him back down to bed again. He burried his face against her neck, her chin resting on top of his head. He wrapped his arms around her waist, holding her tight. Ann gently stroked his head, her fingers weaving through his hair.

„I still feel guilty that I didn‘t stand up to him… I was a coward.“ Ryuji whispered after a long silence.

„You were a child.“ Ann responded.

„I still wish that I could have helped my mom somehow...“ Ryuji said with resentment.

„Your mom is strong. I‘m sure that she did everything so that she could protect you.“ Ann answered.

„I know… That‘s why it always made me so mad when someone said anything bad about her...“ he was quiet for a few moments. „I must have inherited the short fuse from my father..."

Before he knew it, Ann had pushed him onto his back, leaning over him. Her face was serious. „You are nothing like him! You are the most loyal and kind-hearted person I know. Hell, you wanted to save other lifes so bad that you almost died yourself! You will never be like that asshole.“ Ann painfully remembered the explosion and the seconds after returning to the real world, when they realized that he hadn‘t returned with them.

Ryuji was surprised by her sudden outburst. He sat up, cupping Anns cheeks in his hands and pressing his lips on hers. She was now sitting in his lap, her hands wandering towards his cheeks as well. They shared a long and deep kiss.

„Promise to tell me if I turn into an asshole?“ Ryuji asked.

A smile twitched across Anns mouth before she turned serious again „I promise.“ She had called Ryuji an asshole on multiple occasions, but that was just part of their usual bantering. She had never meant it so far and she was sure that he would never give her a reason to really mean it.

 

~

 

She was standing in front of a gravestone. It was Shihos, but the pain of losing her seemed distant, like her death had happened a long time ago. She placed flowers on the grave when she noticed someone approaching from behind her.

Ready to go?“ the voice sent a shiver down her spine. Although she didn‘t understand how she had gotten into this situation, she stood up and nodded. She didn‘t flinch when the man walked up beside her and grabbed her by the waist, his hand slowly wandering down to her hip to then find his place on her butt. There was nothing affectionate about this. She hated his touch, but in the world she was in, it had become something normal.

It‘s still such a shame about Suzui...“ the man beside her spoke. She felt dead inside when she raised her head to look at Kamoshida. He looked back down at her and raised his other hand to stroke her cheek. „She just wasn‘t as strong as you are.“ a wicked smile krept across his face as the scenery began to spin. She could hear voices calling her „Kamoshidas whore“ again and suddenly they were in his office at Shujin. Her brain told her that there was something horribly wrong with this situation, that this couldn‘t be true, but Kamoshida still pushed her up against the wall, that awful grin on his face and his hand moving up her thigh.

„Ann!“ her eyes flew open to see Ryuji, his hand on her shoulder. He must have been shaking her awake. She was breathing heavily and she felt sick to her stomach. Ryuji looked at her with worry. He woke up because she was tossing around a lot and muttering stuff. Now that he got her to wake up, she still looked horrified. He was about to say something when she suddenly started sobbing, covering her face with her hands. He immediatly reached out to pull her close to his chest. He held her tight while she curled up against him, crying her heart out over the horrible scenario her brain had just shown her. It took some time for her to calm down so she could tell Ryuji about it.

„It‘s okay, he can‘t hurt you anymore.“ he whispered while stroking her back.

Anns heart was still racing „It was so strange. It felt like I was used to it. Like I was with him or something...“ she said shivering. She pressed herself against Ryuji.

„That will never happen. Over my dead body.“ Ryuji murmured. Even though it was only a dream, the thought of Kamoshida doing something to her made him angry again. He remembered that perverted smile of Shadow Kamoshida when he wanted to kill Ann in front of their eyes, stating that he would start by „getting rid of her clothes“.

She nodded against his chest. „I know. Shiho is alive. We all survived him.“ She gently placed her hand on his thigh. He had been through enough because of the same man. She looked up at him. The memories of the dream caused her to tense up when Ryuji placed a hand on her cheek but his touch was entirely different from the one she felt before. Ryuji was affectionate and caring. She eased up, smiling as he wiped a tear away with his thumb and planted a kiss on her forehead.

She just wasn‘t as strong as you are. the words still rang in her head. It made sense, that she would dream this. She still thought that none of this would have happened, if she had just went to Kamoshidas place on that crucial day.

„Sometimes, I wonder what would have happened if I just did what he asked me to. Shiho would have never had to go through all of this shit...“ Ann muttered.

„Don‘t ever say that again! He would have never stopped messing with you or Shiho. Don‘t you ever take the blame for what that asshole did to you!“ Ryuji turned serious.

„I know that it never would have stopped. But I keep thinking that maybe I could have saved Shiho from harm...“

„That asshole still would have gone after Shiho if he had felt like it.“ Ryuji almost spat in anger.

Ann knew that he was right, but sometimes the logical thing wasn‘t what her heart would tell her. They remained in their tight embrace for a long time. Ryuji stayed awake, lightly stroking her back until she breathed in regular intervalls again. Only when he was sure that she was asleep again, he allowed himself to close his eyes as well. After Anns awakening, he had sworn to himself to protect her. Now, since both their lifes had returned to somewhat normal, they both found themselves batteling against something the other couldn‘t protect them from: memories. He took one last look at her. He might be unable to save her from her dreams, but he would make sure to always be there when she wakes up.

 

Chapter Text

As they got into their mid-twenties, more and more people started to ask questions about when Ryuji would finally propose, the most insistent of them being his own mother. Before, she would only ask him when he visited her alone, or over the telephone. But now, they were sitting in the kitchen, drinking tea, when Ann excused herself to the bathroom.

„So? Did you think about it?“ his mother burst out as soon as she heard the door close.

„For real? You‘re asking now?“ Ryuji sighed.

„Yes! Don‘t you think that she might be wondering too? You have been to two weddings in the last months!“ Ayumi Sakamoto asked.

It was true, all around them wedding bells were ringing. First it had been Shiho, where Ann got to be the maid of honor, of course. And only two months ago, it was Makoto and Ren who said Yes in a beautiful ceremony, after a three-year long engagement. By now, Futaba had found herself a guy too, one who was into computers and cartoons as much as she was. Over the years, they all had started to suspect that Haru and Yusuke could be a thing, unbelieving that their frequent meetings for lunch, dinner, ballet, art shows and what not was just their friendship. There seemed to be something, that they didn‘t want to put a tag on, which bothered Ann and Makoto the most because they mainly blamed Yusukes nature for that. Makoto would always say that Haru must want stability and certainty. While that was the truth for Harus businesses, Ryuji wasn‘t too sure if that also applied to her love life. She had almost been sold off to a scumbag for money after all. Maybe she was fine with not-labeling as well.

„You do want to ask her, right?“ his mother added.

„Of course I do! Just get off my back!“ Ryuji was annoyed but tried to act unbothered when Ann walked back into the kitchen. His mother pestering him with questions didn‘t help with coming up with the perfect way to ask for her hand. Everyone knew that he wasn‘t considered a romantic, Ann probably knew that best. He knew that she didn‘t need anything fancy, but he still wanted to make it a night that she would remember.

 

 

A week later, it dawned on Ryuji that not only his mother seemed to be very invested in this topic. Of all his friends, he assumed that Futaba was one of, if not even THE unlikeliest to ask him about his wedding plans, but he was mistaken. They were playing a game online, talking over their headsets when Futaba suddenly started.

„Is everything okay with you and Ann?“

„Yeah.. Why do you ask?“ Ryuji asked, suspicious.

„I don‘t know, guess I‘m just surprised that after MakoRens and Shihos weddings you still didn‘t put a ring on it...“

„Not you too!“ Ryuji whailed. Ren or Makoto must have put her up to this. „I‘m thinking!“

„What‘s there to think about? I got a bet running with Ren, you know? This is like the whole „will they/won‘t they?“ situation in high school all over again. You love her and she obviously must love you too if she managed to put up with you for this long...“

„I‘m not thinking about IF I want to ask her, I‘m thinking about HOW! And don‘t act like I‘m the only difficult one in this relationship!“ Ryuji answered, glad that Ann wasn‘t home.

„I wouldn‘t tell her that when you drop down on one knee...“

Ryuji, still heated up, continued rambling „She could hate the ring I pick, she could hate the way I ask, she could just say NO?“ when he ran out of horror scenarios, there was a a moment of silence.

„Why would she say No?“ Futaba was seriously curious „You have been together for years. That woman almost singlehandedly carried you home after Rens wedding, while wearing high heels. Honestly, I thought that she would just leave you there at the venue...“ He had heard that story from Ann many times already.

„It‘s not that easy! Also, when are you going to tie the knot, now that you have a guy?“ Ryuji interrupted.

„Whoops, gotta go, bye!“ with a click, Futaba was gone from his ears.

 

 

Ann was surprised when Ryuji told her to dress up because they were going out. She was even more surprised when he himself was dressing up more than usual as well. He even wore a blazer.

„So, what‘s the occassion?“ Ann asked as they walked to the subway station.

„You‘ll see.“ Ryuji answered with a promising grin.

„And where are we going?“ Ann continued.

„Stop being so impatient, you‘ll see when we get there!“ Ryuji rolled his eyes.

As they left the station in Odaiba, a light drizzle blurred the view of the beautifully iluminated pier and ferris wheel in front of them. But the ferris wheel would have to wait for now. Ryuji steered Ann towards one of the chique restaurants along the pier. As they walked up to one of the waiters, Ryuji showed the reservation that he had printed out. He wasn‘t the best prepared most of the time, but he had put a lot of thought into tonight and wanted everything to go smoothly.

The waiter looked at the paper, confusion spreading in his face, giving Ryuji an uneasy feeling as well. The waiter kept his politeness, excusing himself to one of the computers to check something.

„I‘m so very sorry Mr. Sakamoto, we had some issues with our booking system in the last days. Your reservation must have slipped through and we don‘t have a table for you right now. We could try to squeeze you in in about two hours, maybe?“ the waiter stated after his return. Ryujis mood dropped instantly. Of course this was happening….

Ann cast a sideways glance at Ryuji and noticed how deflated he looked. She had to smile, the fact alone that he had printed out a reservation showed how serious he had taken this whole evening. She turned to the waiter. „That‘s too bad, we‘ll make sure to come by another time and hope that everything works out then.“ she said with a smile before guiding Ryuji outside.

„What the Eff... This was not how it was supposed to go...“ Ryuji sighed, his mood dropping even more when they stepped outside to see that the light drizzle has turned into torrential rain, flooding the whole plaza, the huge raindrops building a curtain that made it impossible to see farther than two meters ahead.

„Maybe, one of the other restaurants has a free table…?“ Ann suggested. They were still standing under the porch roof of the restaurant to stay dry but the huge watermasses were already at her feet. She regretted wearing open high heels now.

„I‘m sure they are all booked up...“ Ryuji sighed, defeated.

Ann felt bad for him, he must have put a lot of thought into this date night, trying to do something special. „We can go..“ she pointed to some barely visible lights across the plaza „...there.“

Ryuji squinted „That‘s just a Big Bang Burger...“. The prospect of a romantic dinner at a fast food restaurant felt wrong, even to him. And tonight wasn‘t just a normal date, which made it even worse. „You sure?“

„Yup, come on!“ Ann grinned before charging ahead, her arms raised over her head when the heavy raindrops started to hit her.

While it wasn‘t a long way to get there, they still were drenched when they made it to the tunnel-like entrance of the Big Bang Burger. As Ryuji watched Ann wringing her hair, he remembered that one time when they had visited the fireworks festival with the group. Back then, he couldn‘t help but stare at her bare legs, not knowing that someday he would be able to look at them everyday. While all those years ago, Ann had grabbed him by the lapel, demanding a towel in that shrill voice that she would only get when she was flustered, today she was only grinning when she noticed Ryujis lost stare. When she caught their reflection in one of the dark glass panels, she laughed out loud. They emitted a very pitiful sight, soaking wet and hair flat. When Ryuji saw it, he had to grin as well. After ordering, they slid into one of the booths in a corner. There were only a few tables taken up in the whole restaurant, so it was rather quiet except for the usual music playing in the background. Lucky for them, the restaurant was comfortably warm, letting them forget about their drenched clothes for a while. Ryuji would have offered her his jacket, but that was dripping with rainwater as well.

„Mmm, I‘m starving.“ Ann said as she unwrapped her burger. Ryuji still seemed unhappy about the situation, but he had been hungry since they left home, so he started to dig in.

A lot of memories were made at a Big Bang Burger, Ann reminisced. They would often go to the one on Central Street when they were in middle school. She grinned when a particular memory came to her mind. „Do you remember that time in middle school we made a fry-eating-contest?“

Ryuji looked up „I felt so sick after that...“ a grin formed on his face.

„Oh, and Shiho was our judge! She looked so disgusted.“ Ann giggled.

„I think she was horrified when she saw you stuffing fries into your mouth with two hands.“

„You did that too!“

„Yeah, but I look like someone who does that and you don‘t. She must have been even more surprised that you won.“

Ann giggled before turning quiet for a moment. „Yeah… I miiiight have cheated a little bit there..“ she had a sheepisch grin on her face when Ryuji looked at her in surprise. „You were so busy with eating that you didn‘t notice that I emptied an entire box of fries into my bag…“

„For real? I had to listen to you brag about your win for weeks and you cheated?“

„I had to make sacrifices too! That bag and everyting in it never stopped smelling of fries.“ Ann tried to defend herself.

„Serves you right for cheating.“ Ryuji shrugged with a grin.

„Maybe I did it to impress you?“ Ann tried to vindicate once more with a wink.

„Nice try, I‘m not buying it.“

„But you were surprised.“

„Yeah, because I thought that you had beaten me fair and square.“

„And that‘s why I kept it a secret for so long.“

„Yeah right.“ Ryuji grinned. Her flimsy excuses were actually cute, but he could imagine his younger self thinking different if he had found out that one of the most embarassing defeats in his young life had happened because of his opponent cheating. They continued to reminisce about the old days, laughing about the stuff they did in middle school and soon Ryuji stopped worrying about the night being a total failure. His initial plan had been to go for dinner and then ask her on the ferris wheel. This could still work out. While they were eating, the rain had stopped. Ryuji, seeing his chance, was quick to drag Ann towards the ferris wheel only to receive the second big disappointment of the day. Due to the heavy rain before, they had closed early apparently not planing on opening it again tonight. Ryuji would have liked to let out his frustration, kick something and yell, but he figured that Ann would get suspicious if he freaked out over date plans. He settled for a sigh, keeping the swearing silent.

„That‘s too bad…“ Ann remarked as they were standing in front of the closed cashier booth. She hated to see Ryuji down like this. He obviously had planned something nice for her. She reached for his hand „Let‘s go home.“. She smiled at him.

 

Half an hour later, they were relaxing on their couch, watching TV. On their way home, they had gotten into another downpour, drenching them once more and leaving them eager to change into something warm and dry. They were laying in their usual spots, Ryuji stretched out on his back with Ann beside him, laying on her side, wedged inbetween the sofas backrest-cushions and him, her head resting on his chest.

„Wanna watch a movie?“ Ryuji suggested. He had come to terms with the evening not going as planned. He would have to wait for another opportunity. He was glad that he hadn‘t told anyone else of his plans.

„Sure. You pick, I‘ll get the snacks.“ Ann said as she got up to walk over to their small kitchen.

Ryuji waited for a bit, simply watching Ann walking across the room. She was wearing loose sweatpants and one of his old hoodies with the hood drawn over her head to cover her wet hair. They had been dressed up for tonight and still, watching Ann standing there, wearing his old stuff, was the most breathtaking sight to him. He smiled before getting up to walk over to their DVD-shelf.

„By the way… You never told me the occassion for tonight.“ Ann suddenly remembered, causing Ryuji to freeze for a moment.

He cursed under his breath, he shouldn‘t have gotten her hopes up in the beginning. He still stood with his back towards her, trying hard to think of something to tell her. He turned around, looking at Ann standing there with her hands full of snacks both sweet and salty as well as two cans of soda, a smile on her face. He couldn‘t help it, even if he had to listen to her teasing him about his lousy proposal for the rest of their lives, these were the moments he loved to spend with her the most. Doing nothing, not caring how it looked, just being together. He raised his finger before walking out for a second.

Ann was confused when Ryuji suddenly left the room. While he was gone, she set down the snack-loot on the coffee-table. Before she could sit down, Ryuji came back, motioning her to keep standing. Ann looked at him in confusion. He looked nervous all of a sudden.

„So.. Uh… I actually wanted to do this on the ferris wheel…“ he stammered before taking out a small box from behind his back. He was about to go down on one knee when he was tackled by Ann, knocking him down on his back. Before he could say anything, she pressed her lips onto his.

„Ann, wait..“ Ryuji managed to say before sitting up. Ann let him go and sat on the floor in front of him.

Ryuji gathered his thoughts again before starting „Ann, I had planned something completely different for today. And if you hadn‘t asked, I would have planned something else. But maybe this was supposed to be, because I‘m not fancy and I‘m not romantic. I would have proposed to you on the ferris wheel, because that‘s what happens in cheesy movies and you like those. But honestly, whenever I see you running around in sleazy sweatpants and my old hoodies, I know that this is everything that I ever want to come home to. Because it‘s our thing. And I want to be with you for the rest of my life and I love you. So… will you marry me?“ he opened the ringbox, revealing a delicate silver ring with a small ruby embedded on the front.

Ann never thought that she would be someone to cry at a proposal, but now she couldn‘t help it. She was moved by Ryujis plan to make it grande, but now that she found herself sitting on their living room floor, both of them wearing the most worn-out clothes they could find, she saw that this was a moment that she never thought she would find so beautiful. „Yes“ she finally said with a smile, wiping away a tear as Ryuji slid the ring onto her finger. „It‘s beautiful.“ she whispered while rotating her hand to take a thorough look at the ring that she would never take off again. They both got up to end up in a tight embrace.

„I love you so much“ Ann whispered into his ear, holding him tight.

„I love you.“ Ryuji replied,

Ann looked at him with a smile „Even after I cheated on our eating contest?“

„Even after that. I still proposed, didn‘t I?“ he grinned before gently kissing her. „So… how did I do?“ he sheepishly rubbed the back of his neck. He had given some thought to what he would say on the ferris wheel, but that went out the window as soon as Ann had tackled him down.

She smiled a warm smile. „It was perfect.“ She leaned in for a kiss before steering his back towards the couch to then push him onto it, herself following short after to lay down on top of him. Ryuji chuckled before wrapping his arms around her waist to stabilize her.

„All I ever wanted was you, you know that?“ Ryuji muttered while gently pushing a strand of hair back behind her ear. He hadn‘t realized it in the beginning, but it was true. Ever since he met her in middle school, she was the only girl on his mind.

Ann smiled „And you got me. Forever.“ After another kiss she added in a playful tone „Sure you can put up with that?“ she teased, hinting at his regular remarks that she was a hand-full.

„Call me crazy, but I‘m looking forward to it.“ Ryuji grinned. „You sure you wanna be married to an idiot?“ he returned, refering to the several times Ann called him that or other things.

Ann grinned „Oh, I can‘t wait to become Mrs. Idiot.“. She ended their conversation by pressing her lips onto his.

 

Chapter Text

Futaba: Everything is in place, commence mission „Surprise Lightning“

Who came up with this codename? Ann thought as she read the text message before quickly putting away her phone when she noticed Ryuji raising his head across the table.

„Something up?“ he asked in a whisper. They were sitting in the library to study together.

„NO! No…. Everything‘s fine.“ Ann reacted unnaturally quick and loud, forcing a cheerful smile while ignoring the mean look from the librarian across the room.

„Oookay...“Ryuji raised and eyebrow before returning to his textbook.

Ann eased up a little. She needed to keep it together. Everyone had been worried from the start, that she would ruin the surprise. She wasn‘t going to proof them right.

Ryuji glanced at his phones watch before slamming his book shut. „Wanna get out of here?“

Something in the way he said it made her neck tingle and her cheeks flush and she hated herself for it. What was wrong with her? It‘s just Ryuji. She gathered herself before looking up and nodding.

„You‘re still up for Curry with Futaba and me at LeBlanc later, right?“ Ann asked, trying to sound casual as they were walking towards the station together.

„Yup.“ Ryuji said with a grin. „But no cake, promise?“

„Who wouldn‘t want cake for their birthday? But fine, I promise.“ Ann reluctantly agreed.

Ryuji was pleased. He was intrigued to why Ann was so adamant about that meeting at LeBlanc tonight. Sure, it was a saturday and it was his birthday, but as far as the two girls had told him, it would just be a casual hangout with them and maybe Mishima. He was a bit disappointed that the other Phantom Thieves didn‘t even send him a text congratulating him or something. But he supposed that that‘s just how it goes when you grow up. Everyone was so busy all of a sudden.

 

An hour before Ryujis arrival, Ann opened the door to LeBlanc, two large grocery bags in her hands. „Hi Boss!“ she anounced herself, causing Futabas father to stick his head out from the kitchen.

„You‘re here early.. Go on ahead, Futaba and Ren are upstairs already.“ he greeted her in his deep voice. Ann handed him one of the bags to refrigerate before heading towards the staircase. As she was climbing the stairs, she could hear Futaba commanding „Higher….. higher…. Too high! Lower…. A little lower….“ As she reached the first floor, she could see Ren balancing on a chair, trying to tie a banner to the roof beams. Futaba was standing by the table close to the stairs, her hands sculpting the Yusuke-typical picture frame, the tip of her tongue showing in concentration as she was trying to find the perfect position.

„Lady Ann! You‘re here!“ Morgana was the first to react, jumping off the bed to trot towards her. Ann smiled before crouching down to rub the cats head.

In the meantime, Ren had decided to ignore Futabas instructions and simply fixed the banner. He ignored Futabas complaints as he walked up to Ann, greeting her with a hug. „Long time no see, Panther.“

„Far too long.“ Ann agreed. While it has only been a few months since Rens departure, it felt like so much longer to everyone of the Phantom Thieves.

„Ryuji will totally freak when he sees you!“ Futaba said while poking Morgana, much to the latters distaste.

Ann set down the second bag, unpacking some more decoractions that she had bought beforehand. She immediatly got to work by climbing onto the sofa, attaching a colorful garland to the wall, right above the huge Phantom Thieves flag that has been there since Ren lived here. Futaba was quick to rummage through the bag as well, fishing out some baloons that she started to inflate. Morgana had retired to the bed again, overviewing the process as Ren took some colorful ribbons from the bag and started to wrap them around the rafters. 20 minutes later, Haru and Makoto arrived. Makoto immediatly rushed forward to embrace Ren, so taken away by her emotions that she gave him a long kiss then and there, which she never would have done under normal circumstances. Ann and Haru exchanged a look resembling an „Awww!“. They all knew how embarassed Makoto would be if they commented on it.

„I know that Ryuji said no cake, but I couldn‘t help it. These looked so delicious when I walked by this bakery...“ Haru apologized while pointing at the cardboard box she was carrying. Ann couldn‘t help but lift the lid, peeking inside to find a number of assorted, beautifully decorated, cupcakes.

„They look amazing!“ Ann exclaimed, already making up her mind that she would eat his share as well, if he didn‘t want them. „Also, technically, cupcakes aren‘t cake and he said he didn‘t want a cake, so...“ she grinned.

„Guys, I think Ren and Makoto are stuck...“ Futaba interrupted, pointing her head towards the couple, still standing in a tight embrace. Only their lips were moving, apparently they were whispering things to each other.

Haru smiled a warm smile before saying „Let‘s leave them be for now. It‘s been a long time.“

Ann agreed and tried to tear her gaze away from them. Alone the embrace that they were in now showed their deep affection for each other. She wondered if she would ever find herself in a moment like this. Not in a long-distance relationship, of course, but in the arms of someone she loved as much as Ren and Makoto loved each other. She slipped into a daydream, imagining the feeling of being embraced by strong arms, her fingers intertwining with the calloused fingers of a made-up man. A warm feeling spread inside of her, followed by her face freezing when she realized that the made-up man turned into Ryuji.

„You‘re making it weird...“ Futaba whispered while elbowing her. Ann was gratefully snapped out of her daydream.

„Sorry… It‘s just so cute.“ she waved it off, her cheeks flushed.

„I see that you are already done with decorations. It looks lovely.“ Haru remarked while looking around the room.

„I just hope Yusuke or Mishima come soon… We could need some help with moving the table.“ Ann sighed, nervously checking her phone.

„And you think that these two will be a big help?“ Futaba raised an eyebrow. „There‘s a reason why Ryuji is the muscles of the Phantom Thieves...“. She noticed Anns cheeks turning red. She was about to tease her, but then decided not to.

Haru giggled „Maybe Futaba is right… I‘m sure that if we all work together, we will manage without them.“

Ren and Makoto joined them again after a few minutes, their hands still glued together. Haru was right, the five of them did manage to move the table and the additional seats without a problem. Morgana gave emotional support from his spot on the bed. With the table set up, Ren got everything ready for the hotpot they were about to have. Haru and Makoto helped Ann with chopping the ingredients downstairs while Futaba dropped down onto the bed besides Morgana.

„You think Anns birthday gift for Ryuji will be her heart?“ she sang in a teasing voice for only Morgana to hear.

„Of course not! Lady Ann is a woman of class. What could she possibly see in the blonde monkey?“ Morgana was immediatly outraged.

Futaba chuckled „I think she sees a lot.“

„Stop with these odd assumptions.“ Morgana became more distressed by the second.

„Relax, kitty.“ she sighed before lightly tugging his ears.

Downstairs, Ann nervously watched the clock. It was almost time and they still had a lot to do. She did her best to chop fast without cutting her fingers off. Haru and Makoto stood beside her at the bar, doing the same. She froze when the bell at the door chimed, not daring to look up.

„You are awfully late...“ Makoto remarked in a flat tone as two dark-haired figures walked in. The shorter boy immediatly got nervous.

„Apologies, ma‘am.“ Mishima stammered while nervously fidgeting with his fingers.

Haru giggled as she saw Makotos horrified expression. She surely could be intimidating, it seemed like sometimes she didn‘t even notice how much.

Yusuke turned to the three girls, tipping an imaginary hat. „I apologize as well. It turned out to be more difficult than expected to finish the gift for our dear friend.“

„Just go on upstairs and help Ren...“ Ann shooed them towards the back of the cafe.

 

Five minutes later, Ryuji thankfully still hadn‘t arrived when the girls finished cutting. They filled the different ingredients into small bowls. The pot with the broth was already cooking upstairs on the small electric cooking plate. They set up the small bowls around the big pot, adding the last finishing touches when they heard the doorbell chime another time. As if on cue, everyone stopped in their tracks and turned silent, trying to hear what Sojiro was saying downstairs. As Ann caught the conversation-fragment „upstairs“ she furiously gestured for everyone to take their positions while she snuck up to the railing, slowly peeking over to see Ryujis blonde mop of hair appearing at the foot of the stairs. Morgana flipped the lightswitch while she quietly stepped back a few steps, her neck prickling in anticipation.

As Ryuji was three steps away, he noticed the darkness in the attic. Before he could call out, Morgana flipped the switch again, revealing everyone jumping up, throwing their hands in the air and yelling „Surprise!“ at once. His face was proof that the surprise was a full success. His mouth stood agape for a few moments before stammering a „What the Eff?“.

Ren stepped forward, being the first to fistbump and hug his best friend. „Happy birthday, dude!“

„What are you doing here?“ Ryuji was still confused.

„It‘s your birthday.“ Ren shrugged.

Ryuji grinned, fully grasping the situation before pulling him into another hug and slapping his back. The others stood around them, grinning at the scenario they were watching. After their long greeting, Ryuji went around the room to greet everyone else before his eyes fell on the hotpot.

„For real?“ he asked, a grin on his face as he scanned all the small bowls, noticing the large variety of meat and the selection of vegetables that only consisted of those he liked.

„How good you noticed. I‘m starving.“ Ren ushered everyone to the table. Makoto threw him a challenging look when she noticed how he deliberately pushed Ryuji and Ann to sit beside each other on the couch. He gave a small wink before taking his place at the head of the table, patting the spot beside him for Makoto to sit down, who obliged with a sigh. Ryujis eyes grew bigger and bigger at the sight of the feast in front of him. „This is awesome! Thank you guys!“ he exclaimed before throwing the first thin sliced peace of pork into the pot.

 

Their meal was accompanied by light chatter, mostly about Rens life back in his hometown and what has happened in Tokyo since he was gone. As they all knew, Makoto and Haru had started studying. Both of them had stories to tell of how little time they got to spare now, making Ryuji even more appreciative that today they took their time to spend it with them. Yusuke was now in third grade at Kosei as well, his art scholarship was going well, he recently received a lot of praise by his superiors. As for the remaining Shujin students, there wasn‘t much to report. Their life was going on without any particular excitement. With the hotpot gradually emptying, the conversations split up into smaller groups. Haru and Yusuke were hunched over the latters sketch book, Yusuke sharing his latest sketches of landscapes to a delighted Haru. Ryuji, Mishima and Futaba were chatting about a new video game. Mishima was obviously trying to impress Futaba with his knowledge. Ryuji didn‘t know if it simply was because he wanted to proof to her that he wasn‘t just an NPC or if it was an attempt of flirting. Morgana was sitting behind Ren on the workbench, chatting with Ann, Ren and Makoto about Rens hometown.

After working together to clear the table, everyone gathered around once more for the presents. Futaba jumped ahead, handing him a sloppily wrapped box.

„The Featherman DVD collection! Thanks Oracle!“ Ryuji exclaimed after ripping of the paper.

„Yup, found it in Akihabara. Had to fight a kid for it…“ Futaba anounced proudly.

The other presents consisted of a giftcard for his favourite Ramen shop from Haru, an elegant notebook with a leather cover engraved with a yellow lightning from Makoto, a small canvas with a painting of Captain Kidd from Yusuke and a giftcard for the arcade from Mishima. There were two presents remaining unpacked. Ryuji went for the flat one first, revealing a rare edition of one of his favourite manga.

„For real? Where did you find this?“ Ryuji asked, immediatly guessing that it must have been from Ren.

„I stumbled across it in the store in my town.“ Ren grinned, visibly happy about his reaction.

While Ryuji was still thrilled by Rens present, excitedly flipping through the pages, Ann grew nervous about hers. Would he even like it? While she was pondering about it, she didn‘t notice Ryuji reaching for the sparkling red giftbag, ruffling through the tissue paper, turning quiet when he held the actual gift in hand.

Ann had a metal worker sculpt the Skull mask, that turned out to look exactly like the real thing from the Metaverse. When she held it in her hand for the first time, she was a little proud of herself for remembering so many details about it. Ryuji seemed impressed as well for he was still staring at the matte metal, tracing the cold surface with his finger. He turned to Ann, a wide smile on his face „This is insane!“ he said as his smile infected Ann. He turned back towards the rest of the table „This whole evening is awesome. Thank you!“ he adressed everyone.

Makoto and Haru took it upon themselves to collect the dishes and wash them downstairs. The rest of the group kept lounging upstairs, listening to some music. Futaba was stretched out over the table to admire Ryujis rare manga. Ann and Yusuke stood by the window, chatting about the difficulty of remembering the small details about their Personas and Metaverse-gear since they both went for a Phantom Thieves-related present for Ryuji. They didn‘t pay any mind to Ren getting up, rummaging around in his travel bag and setting up a few dark glass bottles on the table. Only when their former leader handed a bottle directly to Ryuji, he realized that it was beer.

„How did you get that?“ Ryuji was surprised. Since they were all legally underaged, it was nearly impossible to buy alcohol here in Tokyo.

„The countryside‘s different….“ Ren simply shrugged. After turning 18, his father had silently handed him a bottle of beer, later stating that Ren was old enough to give it a try, since he knew that his son had himself under control. Since then, they had started a weekly ritual of sitting out on the porch, each a glass of beer in hand. Before leaving, he had asked his father to buy him a few to take to the city. His father sceptically obliged, but made him promise to stay responsible and keep an eye on his friends.

Ryuji grabbed the bottle, grinning a mischiefous grin while Ann and Yusuke walked back up to the table.

Yusuke pondered a while before saying „I have heard that alcohol can lead to inspiration… I would like to try one as well.“

„Are you sure?“ Ann asked Yusuke with raised eyebrows. He was eccentric enough without the alcohol…

„I‘ll take one too!“ Mishima anounced, trying hard to sound confident. He definitly was trying to impress tonight.

Ren handed out bottles to the guys while Ann and Futaba watched them. After a moment of consideration, Ann stepped forward to grab one as well.

Ryuji looked at her with surprise „You‘re sure about that?“ he asked doubtfully.

Ann shot him an icy look „What, because beer is reserved for guys?“ she rolled her eyes as Ryuji raised his hands in defence, giving her an „I tried to warn you“-look.

As they passed around a bottle-opener, everyone except for Ren suddenly froze when they heard the stairs creak. Makoto and Haru soon after appeared, Makotos face darkening as she realized what was going on. The only person unbothered by Makotos serious face was Ren, who lazily sat on the couch beside Ryuji.

„What are you doing?“ Makoto asked, although she already knew. Mishima gulped, his brow starting to turn sweaty.

„We‘re celebrating Ryujis birthday.“ Ren said matter-of-factly.

„By ilegally drinking beer.“ Makoto asked, taking the stance of a mother that caught her children doing something bad.

„Yup. You want one too?“ Ren remained cool, holding a bottle towards Makoto.

„All of us are underage and I‘m a future policwoman.“ Makoto stated, glaring at Ren.

A mischievous smirk spread across Rens face „That‘s what makes it fun.“

The tension was unbearable for the bystanders as they stood there to watch Makoto and Ren having a stare-off. Makoto looked like she would shoot needles out of her eyes any moment now. Ren still held out a bottle for her, his look was a mixture of rebellion and annoyance. It felt like minutes had passed when Makotos hand shot out to grab the bottle. A skilled flick with her keyring and the bottelcap popped off, her eyes on Ren all the while, giving him an annoyed look. An amused grin spread on his face before he gave another bottle to Haru. He then turned to Ryuji again, continuing their conversation from before. Makoto and Haru walked over to Ann and Futaba, who were now standing by the window. Futaba was sitting on the bed besides Morgana. „Why am I being left out?“ she complained.

„Because Boss would kill all of us, if he found out that we gave you alcohol!“ Makoto said while helping Haru open her bottle.

„That was intense…“ Ann stated, still intimidated by what she just witnessed.

Makoto shook her head with a small smile "That was nothing... We do like to challenge each other. Well... he challenges me more than I do him.."

Haru was taking a sip from her bottle before shuddering. „Oh my… While I do like the bitterness, I think I will stay with coffee.“ she smiled.

 

Over at the table, Ryuji was taking in the moment. All of his friends were here after planning the perfect birthday celebration for him. Chilling at the hideout, great food and a little rebellion. He grinned at Ren. „I gotta give it to you man, this is an amazing party. How did you plan all this while being hours away?“

Ren shook his head „I did nothing except for coming here. It was mostly Anns doing. She also got all the ingredients for the hotpot.“

Ryuji had to smile as he looked over to her, leaning against the wall, laughing about something Haru had said. He didn‘t know that she knew him this well, but everything about this evening was spot-on.

As his eyes returned to their table, he was surprised to see Yusukes and Mishimas bottle empty already. Yusukes eyes were looking a bit glassy. „Dude, I don‘t think you‘re supposed to drink this fast...“ Ryuji said.

„I can assure you, that I am fine.“ Yusuke answered, looking around the room as if seeing it for the first time.

„Is he on drugs?“ Mishima asked.

„Who knows with Yusuke...“ Ren shrugged.

„Don‘t be foolish, I am waiting for inspiration to strike me.“ Yusuke answered.

Mishima still seemed confused while Ryuji and Ren were okay with his response.

 

Later Ryuji was standing in front of LeBlanc to catch some fresh air. It was a warm night, there was still a little bit of life on the streets of Yongen, mainly because of the neighborhoods movie-theater. The door opened to reveal a blonde head. „There you are.“ Ann said with a smile before stepping outside to stand beside him. „Is everything okay?“

Ryuji grinned „Yeah. I just needed some fresh air. I‘ll be back in a minute.“

„Okay, but don‘t take too long, we miiight have another surprise for you.“ she teased before turning around to walk back in.

„Ann?“ Ryuji said before she opened the door. She turned around to look at him. „Thanks for everything. This was the best birthday ever.“

Ann smiled as she was opening the door. „Happy Birthday, Ryuji“ she said before going back inside.

 

As he walked back upstairs, everyone was still engaged in lively chatting, except for Yusuke, who was frantically drawing on a paper napkin. Mishima was laying face down on one of the benches, arms and legs dangling down on each side.

„So Yusuke found inspiration, but what‘s wrong with Mishima?“ Ryuji asked as he sat down on the sofa again.

„I guess he‘s not doing so well with the beer...“ Haru said as she walked downstairs.

„Classic NPC.“ Futaba stated.

They heard a muffled „Noooo!“ from Mishima, distressed about being called an NPC again.

„At least now we know he‘s alive. That was the first sound he made in the last 10 minutes...“ Ren said.

Makoto looked at the scenery with raised eyebrows. Before she could say something, the lights went out once more only for Haru to appear with a platter of the cupcakes, a burning candle sticking out of each one, giving off enough light for her to navigate through the room. As she slowly walked towards the table, she started to sing Happy Birthday, everyone chiming in. As Haru sat the platter down on the table in front of Ryuji, the blonde haired boy looked around the circle that had formed around the table. His eyes lingered a little longer on Ann, who was standing right on front of him, her face iluminated by the dim candlelight, her eyes seeming to sparkle. She must have noticed his look, for she knitted her eyebrows before raising her hands in defense „I swear, I told everyone that you don‘t want cake!“ A grin flickered across her face before before she added „However, I can eat yours if you don‘t want them…“

„Weren‘t you supposed to be on a diet?“ Ryuji teased, remembering Ann almost clawing his eyes out when she watched him eat a bag of chips the other day.

Ann crossed her arms in annoyance „Shut up, I didn‘t eat a lot of the hotpot...“ she pouted.

„Just saying…“ Ryuji had a mischievous grin „Bikini seasons coming...“

„What?“ Ann was flustered by his response before regaining her posture, stomping the floor „You perv-“

„Just blow out the candles!!!“ Futaba yelled in annoyance.

„These two never change...“ Morgana sighed.

Ryuji flashed a last grin before blowing out the candles to everyones applause. Haru turned the lights back on.

„So, is it like this at school too?“ Ren quietly asked with a smirk on his face, nudging Futaba.

„You have no idea.“ Futaba sighed before taking a cupcake.

 

As they were sitting around the table again, Yusuke leaned torwards Ryuji „This has truly been a memorable evening. I would like to give this to you, so you will always be reminded of this day.“ he said in a dramatic voice before handing him a folded napkin. „These moments of pure and true friendship. I just had to bring them to paper.“

„Dude, that‘s a napkin.“ Ryuji said with raised eyebrows.

„Yes.. I had to improvise...“ Yusuke answered.

His dramatic anouncement had piqued attention, everyone was staring at the napkin in Ryujis hand now. He didn‘t think of much when he unfolded Yusukes gift. „Uh...“ he said after a few seconds of taking in the maniacal drawings of Yusuke Kitagawa. The most prominent figures were eight black splotches accompanied by one tinier black splotch, surrounded by frantic lines. Ryuji squinted while rotating the napkin, trying hard to make out anything while Yusuke was waiting in anticipation.

„Do you like it?“ Yusuke asked after a few moments.

„Yeah…. But what is it?“ Ryuji asked, placing the drawing on the table for everyone to see.

„It could be a bunch of shadows...“ Morgana had jumped up on the table.

„It‘s kinda creepy...“ Ann said as she was kneeling on the bench, taking a bite of her second cupcake.

„This is material for nightmares.“ Mishima was still a bit dazed.

„Is this supposed to be us?“ Makoto wondered, starting to doubt Yusukes sanity.

„Oh, oh! Is the small one supposed to be Mona-chan?“ Haru excitedly exclaimed.

„Ooooh, so these triangles are the ears...“ Futaba nodded.

„It shouldn‘t be this hard to deduct that this is supposed to be us...“ Yusuke seemed a bit hurt.

„I think I see which ones Ryuji...“ Ren said, pointing to a blotch with faint spikes at the top.

„Then I guess these two must be Ann and Haru...“ Makoto pointed to two figures, one surrounded by a smaller and the other with a bigger cloud.

„So the lines around „us“ must be this room.“ Ann deduced, looking at Yusuke for reassurance.

Yusuke still seemed disappointed but slowly started to nod.

„We solved the puzzle! Good job everyone!“ Futaba cheered in old Navigator-manner.

„This might have been the hardest puzzle yet.“ Ren added before looking at the clock. „And the last trains are gone.“

Everyone checked the clock in surprise, they didn‘t notice the time going by so fast.

„Seems like this turns into a sleep-over.“ Ann grinned.

„I doubt that we will all fit into the bed though...“ Yusuke pondered.

„Of course we won‘t all share a bed!“ Ann shrieked.

„I think Sojiro has stored an old futon matress somewhere around here...“ Futaba recalled, looking through the now slightly more cluttered attic. Since Rens departure, a part of it had returned to its usual purpose: storage.

„Then let‘s set up camp.“ Ren clapped his hands together, the leader shining through again. The stowed-away matress turned out to be rather big and was quickly declared as the girls camp. They carried together some blankets and pillows to improvise a second and third matress on the floor for Yusuke and Mishima, Ryuji anounced that he would take the couch and no one questioned that Ren and Makoto would sleep in Rens bed. They took turns in using the downstairs bathroom before retiring to their sleeping places, calm chatter from Futaba and Haru still filling the room, as they made up for many missed sleep-overs in their childhood. Ann was the last to return from downstairs to find the attic dark except for the small light on Rens workbench beside the sofa. Ryuji was about to get ready for bed too, as he was adjusting the small pillow at the end of the sofa.

„This feels like old times...“ Ann whispered with nostalgia as she flopped down onto the couch beside him.

„Yeah… Sometimes it still feels surreal.“ Ryuji answered, equally quiet, as he looked into the room again, only making out faint silhouettes of his best friends, most of them already asleep.

„What do you mean?“ Ann was confused.

„I mean… at the beginning of the second year, I had no one. All I did was hating on Kamoshida and pitying myself.“ Ryuji explained.

„I guess you‘re right.. Before you guys came along, I was pretty lonely too…“ Ann realized before smiling „Back then, I often thought about middle school and that one time Shiho, you and me got locked in at school because we forgot the time and noone checked...“

Ryuji quietly chuckled „Yeah, that was insane.“ he hesitated for a second „We‘ve been through so much in middle school. How did we grow so far apart in one year?“ there was a bit of sadness in his voice.

Anns face darkened for a moment as well „I don‘t know.. I guess high school was just too much… First, coping with being in a different class than both of you and then… Kamoshida… When the rumours started, everyone began to hate me. After what he did to you, I assumed that you would too.“ She fiddled with her fingers. „I‘m sorry.“

Ryuji rubbed his neck „I‘m sorry too. I knew that those rumours were bullshit but I was so caught up in my own shit, that I thought that the last person you wanted to see was the me...“

Ann smiled a small smile before leaning back and stretching out her legs „I‘m glad that fate has brought us back together.“ she said, blushing a little after thinking about her choice of words. She closed her eyes. It had been a long day and sleep was tugging at her already. She knew that there was a spot on the futon for her, but she also didn‘t want to get up. He leaned back as well, his head resting against the wall as he turned to her. „Yeah. Me too.“ he whispered. There were a few moments of silence before he figured that Ann had fallen asleep. He sighed while weighing his options. If he got up and carried her over to the futon, she would surely wake up and freak out. While he was thinking about it, her upper body shifted to the side, resting against his arm, her head falling on top of his shoulder. Ryuji let out a sigh. With a lot of effort, it would have been possible to wake her up again, a lot of effort being an amount that he wasn‘t ready to put in. Maybe he even enjoyed this situation, but only maybe. He sighed on the inside before covering her with his jacket and slowly trying to find a comfortable position for himself to sleep in while sitting before he turned off the light.

 

Ren awoke to the familiar noise of the business downstairs. The smell of coffee was faintly wafting upwards and he could hear dishes clattering. Beside him, Makoto immediatly stirred. She was clutching his upper arm, her chin above his shoulder. He slowly raised his head to scan the situation. Beside the bookshelf, Haru and Futaba were curled up with Morgana sleeping in the middle. At the far end of the room, next to the stairs, Yusuke was sleeping like a mummy with his arms crossed over his chest while Mishima was sprawled out on his blanket, faintly snoring. A smile flickered across his face when he turned to the sofa to see the two blondes. Ryuji was leaning in the corner formed by the couch and the workbench, the small pillow wedged between his shoulder and head. Ann was slouched against his upper arm in a position that looked very uncomfortable. She still had a peaceful look on her face as she was huddled into Ryujis jacket. Reassured, Ren put down his head again before going back to sleep for a little longer.

Sojiro Sakura was surprised when a drouzy and hungry horde came down from the attic about an hour later. He was still happy to provide the gang with the necessary coffee and a small portion of curry for breakfast before they got ready to head out.

„Oh, I didn‘t ask yesterday, but did we nail the surprise?“ Ren asked Ryuji as they were standing outside of LeBlanc.

„I did suspect something… But I never imagined anything like this.“ Ryuji admitted.

Futaba sighed „Great, Ann blew it...“

„Did not!“ Ann was outraged.

Ryuji smirked, remembering the scene at the library the day before „You still suck at acting...“ After Ann punched his arm he added „But it was still the best birthday ever.“