I wrote a Nobuta o Produce fic for a quasi-challenge-bet-project with sazabe. It's an Akira/Shuuji, so apologies to those who are Nobuta fans. (I love her too, just couldn't fit her in)
If there are ANY other NoP fics out there (het, bl, parody, etc) I'd love to read them.
Youthful Love, Part 1/2 (Akira)
Dedicated to: sazabe
Spoilers for: the whole series. takes place after the last episode
WHEN AKIRA FOUND SHUUJI ON THE STAIRWELL THAT DAY, HE KNEW SOMETHING WAS WRONG.
Shuuji only hung around the stairwell whenever he was feeling moody and wanted to be by himself. It was a habit carried over from their old school. But there was no reason for that now. Shuuji was well-liked in their new class, with people constantly asking him questions about Tokyo and inviting him out. Akira's popularity in this class was also up, much more so than the last one. He even went with Shuuji and some of the other classmates out to karaoke once or twice. (Though he suspected that the cause of his newfound popularity was the dramatic helicopter entrance rather than his winning personality, because whenever he went out with other people that was all they ever asked him about.)
Shuuji, though, was different. He always had a way of pulling attention to himself that Akira enjoyed watching. And he was better this time around -- less fake to the other students, at least. He still kept a front that he only dropped when he and Akira were alone (he only really complained to Akira, for instance), but at least he wasn't lying to get others to like him again. That much had changed, thanks to Nobuta.
But if all was well, then why was he at the stairwell? Akira curious! He plopped himself next to his friend, threw his arm over his shoulder, and said, "Akira's here! What's up?"
Shuuji looked at him, and then continued to stare down the metal brown stairs. They sat together for a while, until Akira's arm started to feel numb, and then he had to pull it off Shuuji's shoulder and drop it by the side.
That was when Shuuji said, "Will you listen to me, and not laugh?"
It was almost insulting that Shuuji at times still felt the need to proceed this way, but it alerted Akira to the fact that what was to come was probably serious. "Of course. Tell me now."
Shuuji said, "Shizuka confessed to me."
Akira waited, but after a minute, he realized that was all he was going to get. "And?"
"And Shizuka is cute." Shuuji folded his arms around his knees. "She's cute and sweet and friendly. You remember, right? She was one of the first to talk to me when we first came here. And she's pretty popular."
Akira waited in silence as Shuuji spoke in a slow, haltering voice. "She's..." Shuuji shrugged. "I mean, there's nothing wrong with her. She's like Mariko." He tilted his head slightly in thought. "In fact, she reminds me too much of Mariko. I keep thinking about Mariko and how I made her cry. I lied too much. The worst kind of guy." Pause. "So I'm, uh, a little worried. I don't want to make another girl cry because of me."
"So don't lie to her and you won't make her cry," said Akira.
Shuuji glanced at him and then nodded his head in agreement, as if what Akira had said was the most sensible thing in the world. Which, in Akira's opinion, it was. "Yeah, you're right."
"Mariko was really a great cook," Akira said. "Maybe Shizuka will be a great cook too." He snapped his fingers. "Hey, if she makes you anything good, will you save some for me?" Without the Tofu Man around, he only really had home-cooked meals whenever he imposed himself on Shuuji's family.
Shuuji looked amused. "Maybe."
He heard the rumors from the grapevine before Shuuji had a chance to tell him himself.
"I saw Shizuka eating lunch by herself today."
"What? Her and Kiritani broke up? But they've only gone out for three weeks!"
"Break up? BREAK UP?" Akira said loudly. He sat down on the desk nearest to the trio of gossiping girls. "Why did they break up?"
"How should we know?" said one, looking annoyed.
"They looked good together," the second girl said. One was Suzuki, the other was Imai, but he could never remember which was which because they copied each other in everything they did. Even their hair dye was the same shade of red.
"Hey, Kusano, will you take me for a ride on your helicopter today?"
That was Yamada. He knew this because she asked every three days.
"Nope. No helicopter!" he said, making flying motions with his arms. "Maybe a boat!"
Yamada giggled, making eye contact with him as she laughed. The two look-alikes both rolled their eyes. They had stopped asking him a week ago. Akira supposed that Yamada was just slower than the others. He stood up and left to find Shuuji.
Shuuji was on the stairwell.
"I'm hungry," Akira complained. He snagged the melon pan that Shuuji was eating and took half for himself. Shuuji didn't protest, which did raise the level of concern that he was feeling.
"So was she a good cook?"
Shuuji considered the question. "She wasn't bad. Better than you."
"You're better than me," Akira pointed out. "That doesn't say much."
"Class is going to start soon," said Shuuji, getting up.
"Wanna get food tonight?" Akira asked. If Shuuji was down, food would at least make him feel better. It had that kind of an effect on Akira, anyway.
Shuuji hesitated. "Your treat?"
"No," Akira protested. "I want a home-cooked meal. I buy the ingredients, we cook." He pressed three of his fingers together, kissed them, and them open like a mouth as he said, "Okay?"
Shuuji rolled his eyes but nodded.
The grilled chicken was tough and dry, the cabbage tasted like paper soaked in soy sauce, and the rice was drier than a box of crackers.
Akira chewed on the chicken thoughtfully. It could almost serve as a replacement for gum, if it didn't taste so dry. "This sucks," he declared.
Shuuji gave him an irritated look. "You were supposed to watch everything while I made the croquettes." The golden fried goodies of happiness that he was referring to were the only things that had come out normal, but alas, they were the first to go.
"I did, but I didn't know what to do with them." That was a lie. Akira had been amused by the way certain stray strands of Shuuji's bangs slipped past the hair tie to irritate his friend, who was then forced to constantly brush them behind his ear.
They chewed on in silence, until Shuuji asked, "Why did you move here?"
"I told you. It was Nobuta's idea."
It *had* been Nobuta's idea. It had been Nobuta's idea when she pointed out that the dolls that Catherine had given them was like themselves. The three of them together at their last school was perfect. But even if one was missing, two of them together was still happiness. Shuuji would be lonely by himself, was what Nobuta said. Akira said that Nobuta would be lonely too, but she said that she would not be as lonely as Shuuji, and Akira knew that she was right. Nobuta and Akira had not been popular in class, but neither did they really try to hide their feelings. But Shuuji always did. And that was the difference.
"You should have gone with him," Nobuta told Akira on the hill long after Shuuji's truck had gone by and everyone else went home. The two of them had been sitting there together until the sky turned orange. Akira had not felt like moving from his spot, so Nobuta had stayed with him.
"If two of us are together, they bring happiness," Nobuta told Akira. "And that two should not be me and you. I always think of the two of you together. Shuuji and AKIRA." She unconsciously stressed the pronunciation of his name, like she always did. "I met you both at the same time. I should say good-bye at the same time."
"The two of us," said Akira carefully, "Won't be happy together? Me and you?"
Nobuta grimaced. Or maybe she was smiling in that strange way of hers. "No. I will be sad because I will know that he's by himself. But the two of you will be happy."
"Then you'll find another to make two?"
Nobuta said, "Maybe Uehara. Maybe Shikatta. Maybe someone else. I'll make another friend, the way you two taught me how. Another mole. I'll cry the first three days, but after that, I'll be fine knowing that someone's with him."
"You're talking like I'm actually going to go after him," Akira said.
"You need to hurry," Nobuta told him, "Think of how surprised he'll be if you show up before he did."
When Akira did not reply, Nobuta brought his arm up to follow hers. "Nobuta power-- enter."
Akira stared at her serious face, and then laughed. He could suddenly see the look of disbelief on Shuuji's face, and he loved it. He laughed for three minutes before he hugged Nobuta for the first and last time. The rest of it was a blur-- frantic packing, an argument with his father, the last dinner with the Tofu Man, lugging his luggage to school, bugging the teachers in the staff room until they gave him the name of Shuuji's school. Then he handed in his withdrawal from the school, called up his dad and fought until he was airborne and on a helicopter over.
Shuuji said, "I'm worried about Nobuta. I know she'll be fine, but it would've made me happier to think of you with her."
"The two of us are happiness!" Akira protested.
"But the third will be happy knowing that the other two are together," Shuuji said.
"So Nobuta will be happy knowing that we're together."
Shuuji grimaced. "But *I*--" Akira stuck his lips out in an exaggerated pout, but Shuuji continued regardless. "I just thought. You know. If I wasn't there, then the two of you, maybe..." His voice trailed off into a pause before he started again. "You know. I mean, Nobuta only sees us as friends, but maybe if I wasn't there--"
"I didn't have a chance while you were there?" Akira asked. He remembered, suddenly the picture that he had tried so hard to forget.
Shuuji frowned. "That's not what I meant."
Then what about the two of you together behind my back? Akira had once wanted to scream. But the photo was a few months old now, he had known about it all along, and it no longer bothered him as much as it did. He even told himself sometimes that it was some sort of computer-digitalized trick that Aoi had done. "So then don't worry about it."
But Shuuji was now watching him. For a brief moment, Akira wondered if Shuuji knew that he knew, and then Shuuji echoed his thoughts. "You knew."
Akira considered denying it, but he couldn't see the point. "Aoi gave me the picture."
"It wasn't what it looked like," Shuuji said after a moment of silence. "That was the day I broke up with Mariko. Right after you gave up on Nobuta. I was feeling down, and Nobuta gave me a hug and told me not to worry. It wasn't anything else." His head was bent down as he spoke, and his fingers were curled into small fists, the way Nobuta always did. Akira wondered when he picked up this small habit from Nobuta, the way they all seemed to have picked up a habit or two from each other unconsciously. "I'm serious."
Akira exhaled. He experienced a sudden rush of relief, like he had been waiting for something to hit that missed. "I believe you," he said.
"I was going to tell you earlier, but I was afraid to," Shuuji admitted, lifting his head and looking relieved.
Akira elbowed him. "You can tell me anything!" he cried in a loud-pitched voice. "Anything, anything! We're best friends!" And really, this was not something that Akira would NOT want to believe.
"So anyway," said Shuuji, "You two would have had a better chance of being lovey-dovey without a third person hanging over your shoulders."
"And without Nobuta hanging over our shoulders, WE can be together forever!" Akira joked, poking Shuuji's cheek.
Shuuji pushed his finger away, looking simultaneously annoyed and amused. "You ever think that Nobuta and Shikatta hooked up?"
Akira still remembered the expression on Nobuta's face when Shikatta had said "Disgusting!" to her. He never forgave him for that. "In her last email to me, she said that she wasn't seeing anyone." But that email had been several weeks ago. "For what he said to her, if he hadn't gotten injured on his own, I would’ve beaten him up before leaving the school. So that he knows he can't say such things to Nobuta." He made a fist. "Why do you ask?"
"Nobuta..." Shuuji scooted away from Akira, put his hands in his pockets, and leaned back. His posture reminded Akira of when Shuuji had told them that he was moving, screaming of hidden uncertainty.
"Nobuta..." Shuuji said, "Nobuta's situations always make me think of my own." His hands were back on the table, and he was now poking casually at the leftover rice on his plate. "Did you really let go of Nobuta that day?"
After making her cry and having sang his heart out? And there was that long night when he did nothing but stare at the moon for hours on end, debating until he decided that if Shuuji and Nobuta wanted to go out, he would not stand in the way. "Yeah."
"Do you think," Shuuji said slowly, "That you'll ever fall in love again?" He stared at the cabbage at first, and then he was looking at Akira again. "I'm a little envious of you. You're the reason I broke up with Mariko."
Shuuji must have seen the perplexed look on Akira's face, because suddenly he looked horrified at what he just said and was talking quickly. "Whatever you're thinking, it's not like that. It's just, when I heard you singing to Nobuta, I realized that you actually really were in love with her. I never felt that way about Mariko, or anyone else.
"When Mariko first asked me to eat lunch with her, I was flattered, and I thought, why not? Everyone was really impressed and they kept talking to me about it afterwards. I liked that. But when she asked me again the next day, and the day after that, I found myself thinking, 'Is this it?' and feeling disappointed. And she always seemed so happy and everyone thought it was so great that I couldn't say no. But I never felt anything for her, the way you did for Nobuta. You even said that you liked the place where she walked. I didn't have anything about Mariko that I liked that even came close.
"So I told her the truth and she cried. It was awful. I spent the entire day remembering her crying and thinking, 'She must really hate me.' That's when Nobuta gave me that hug to cheer me up.
"I don't think that I'll ever fall in love with someone. The way you did. That I can't, and that I'll just hurt people. I didn't feel anything for Shizuka, so I finally told her today. I didn't want to lead her on like I did with Mariko. She cried and threw her onigiri at me. I felt like such a jerk. Maybe I'll always be like that."
Shuuji hugged knees and pushed his plate back. He was clearly done, both with eating and with talking, and he looked so pensive and vulnerable that Akira felt sorry for him.
Well, hell, if Nobuta could do it, so could he. He had two arms too. Akira moved over next to Shuuji and gave Shuuji a rough hug from the side. "AKIRA HUG!"
"Don't worry, Shuuji. You'll fall in love someday. It's overrated, but you'll know it when you feel it. And until then and even afterwards, I'LL BE YOUR BEST FRIEND FOREEEEVEEER!"
Shuuji laughed and touched his arm, and at first Akira thought that he was going to be pushed away. But his hand stayed there, and it was warm. "Thanks. Maybe I will."
When Shuuji had been going out with Shizuka, Akira found that he didn't mind not having anyone to eat lunch with. He was happy for Shuuji. He wasn't in love with Shizuka or jealous of her. He didn't feel the same desperate loneliness that made him feel so possessive of Nobuta. He felt a little lonely, but not enough to make him stop his friend from going out with people. He knew when he was transferring schools that Shuuji would make a ton of friends, just like before. Despite all of his lies at their last school, Shuuji was really kind. That aspect of him had not changed in their new school. If anything, it was even better because this time when he was nice to someone else, he wasn't always making excuses. Akira's theory was that a person like Shuuji always attract positive attention, because he was so good-looking and cool and kind, that making others like him was as natural to him as breathing.
But SOMETHING bothered Akira, every time he saw Shuuji leave to eat with Shizuka. He didn't know what. It was no big deal if he didn't see Shuuji at lunch. He knew he'd see Shuuji after school, or if Shuuji had plans, the next day. No big deal.
So what was this feeling that was bothering him? It was like a sense of loss, only he knew that it couldn't be that, because it wasn't really like he was losing anything. It wasn't envy because he wasn't jealous of Shizuka about anything (except that she was probably a better cook.) It was-- what was it?
He realized that evening after Shuuji left his apartment and he was throwing away all of the tasteless leftovers that it was Shuuji's warmth. Not his physical warmth (although strangely enough, that was a part of it -- they weren't joined at the hip or in constant contact, but whenever Akira touched Shuuji, he was very warm), it was his presence. When he was with Shuuji, he felt like a better person, someone that was worth Shuuji's trust. Shuuji's presence was always warm and welcoming and accepting. It was the way Shuuji checked occasionally on him to make sure that he wasn't starving, the way he would occasionally invite Akira over to eat (he always acted reluctant when he did, but then he would protest if Akira refused), the way he listened to Akira seriously when he talked about his father and knew when not to laugh.
It *was* physical too, but only in the way that water overflowing in a cup got the table underneath it wet -- an overflow of warmth from his personality. The way Shuuji's bed was warm in their shared body heat under the blanket whenever he slept over. The way Shuuji felt when he had hugged him. And it was warmth from his side as well. Like tonight, when Shuuji had looked so broken and honestly thinking that he would never fall in love -- how Akira had wanted to do everything in his power to make him happy, and the surge of protectiveness that he had experienced.
One day he crooned about their togetherness in a joking manner and as his arm felt the heat from the back of Shuuji's neck and shoulder, he wondered if it was true.
The only person he could turn to, really, was Nobuta. He sent her an impulsive email saying, "Shuuji and AKIRA has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? But we miss you. And I don't know what to do without you. Shuuji and I are the same, but I'm starting to feel different."
Nobuta's reply came later that day, when he had almost forgotten that he had ever emailed her in the first place because he was so distracted and had bumped into three times as many tables as usual, and it was simple: "I miss you too. Two of you are happiness. Make Shuuji realize it."
And he didn't know what she meant until that night, when he dreamed that he was being chased by the Truth Man again, who kept screaming and screaming at him, "TELL ME THE TRUTH! TELL ME THE TRUTH! TELL ME THE TRUTH!" so loudly that his voice filled the entire block until he screamed back, "I LOVE SHUUJI!" the way he had screamed that he loved Nobuta, once before, only this time it was different because he sounded more sure and the Truth Man didn't question him the way he did before. The Truth Man this time patted him on the back and said, "GOOD! DRINK MILK!" and the rest of the dream was a bizarre commercial explaining the health benefits of milk, which had lots of calcium for your bones AND temper.
Akira woke up and had a cup of milk afterwards. And then when he pondered over the rest of the dream, he realized that he was in BIG, BIG trouble. Because it was one thing to fall in love with your best girl friend and want her completely to yourself, and something else completely different to fall for your best guy friend and wish that he felt the same way even though you knew that it was impossible.
It sucked, actually.
Shuuji gave him a measuring look. "You okay? Something bothering you?"
Akira, lying on the rooftop and staring at the blue ceiling that capped the world, said, "No."
Shuuji said nothing. Akira wondered if it was obvious that he was lying. He wasn't as good at it as Shuuji was.
Shuuji then said, "What's wrong?" and Akira knew that he couldn't carry on the lie, because how could he constantly lie to his best friend when he was as transparent as a gift covered with plastic wrap?
So he sat up, and beckoned Shuuji over. Shuuji came and sat down beside him.
Akira slung his arm around Shuuji's in that familiar chummy manner of his, like he always did, only this time his arm slid down to circle Shuuji's waist, and with his head resting on Shuuji's shoulder, his mouth whispered into his friend's ear, "I'm in love again."
Shuuji staring at the floor, nodded. "And?" He lifted his head when Akira didn't immediately reply and looked curious. "Who is she--?"
Akira pressed his lips against the corner of Shuuji's mouth. The contact was brief. Then he lost all courage, let of the stunned person beside him, and headed down the stairwell.
TOO BOLD! his mind screamed at him. TOO BOLD! AKIRA PERVERT TOO BOLD! He gave a strange cry, a kind of shout that took over the sky, and then he biked all the way home and hid underneath the safety of his blankets in his bed.
How do you face someone after something like this? Akira remembered how Shuuji once stopped in class to talk to Nobuta, the time before his popularity had crashed, and everyone was wondering what someone as popular as him had to do with someone unpopular (then, how things changed, hah!) like Nobuta. He hadn't followed them out of class when they left, and everything seemed normal when he talked to them later, but he wondered now what it was. Why did the popularity-centered Shuuji then stop to talk to Nobuta in class, where everyone could see? Why IN class?
Unless Nobuta hadn't been talking to him outside of class. Avoiding Shuuji for some random reason. The way Akira would now have to, unless he could find someway to face Shuuji within the next 24 hours, lie with a straight face, and explain that it was all a sick, twisted joke. But he didn't like lying to his friends.
That left-- just facing him and avoiding the subject? Shuuji might *not* ask. Of course, he probably would, but if he did, Akira could just laugh and talk about something else.
He resolved to meet Shuuji outside his house the way he did every morning before school so that they could bike together and he could pretend that everything was fine. Only when he arrived at Shuuji's house, his legs couldn't stop pedaling, and soon enough he was biking away even as he heard Koji's cracking voice shout, "Niisan your friend is leaving~!" and then the young voice faded and he was at school all by himself.
In class, he sat exactly three seats behind Shuuji's desk, one row over. But when Shuuji entered the classroom that day, he ducked his head and avoided eye contact until Shuuji sat down at his desk.
It was terrible. Akira hated how nervous he felt, jittery, like he had stayed up all night drinking expensive imported coffee. He hated that he was such a coward, that he couldn't accept the consequences of his actions. Akira, GET A HOLD OF YOURSELF! he cried in his mind. If he didn't talk to Shuuji by lunch, it was all over. Shuuji would know that he had meant it and would no doubt feel repulsed, because --
No, his mind told him. Shuuji wasn't like that. Maybe he would pretend it never happened and never bring it up again, but he wouldn't tell Akira that he was disgusting. Heck, maybe he would-- and his heart started pounding excitedly at the thought, maybe he would reciprocate it. No. Unlikely.
But at least he knew, knew with all of his gut instinct, knew the same way he knew from the beginning when he picked Shuuji from all his other classmates to follow around and talk to (because Shuuji was one of the few who tried to be nice to everyone, if on principle alone and deep down inside, even though he had been annoyed with Akira, had still been kind enough to give him that first bike ride home), he knew that Shuuji could not completely reject him. He couldn't. They were too close of friends for that to happen. Shuuji would probably act strangely around him for the first few days, but he would get over it. As long as Akira did nothing, he could go along with it and everything could be exactly the way it was before.
Only it couldn't. It could between them. But it couldn't, in Akira's mind. He wanted-- he wasn't sure what he wanted, exactly, but he wanted Shuuji to eat lunch with him, and hang out with him, and-- wait. Didn't they do that already? So would it be so bad if they went back to the way it was before? What did he want? He wasn't exactly sure, and it was frustrating enough that Akira spent all of his time in class scribbling frustrated little circle all around the edge of his paper.
When lunch began, he sat huddled at his desk, head hidden beneath his arm. He counted to five in his head, very slowly, until he was sure that he had given Shuuji enough time to escape, if Shuuji wanted to avoid him.
Then he looked up and found Shuuji standing in front of his desk, giving him an annoyed look. "Well? Let's go to lunch already."
Akira blinked, grabbed his store-bought bento box, and followed Shuuji out of the classroom.
They ended up eating in silence on the rooftop. Akira studied Shuuji worriedly in the beginning, but then a feeling of nervous-induced calm overtook him. It was like when he took their last biology exam, which he hadn't studied for at all. By the third question, the sense of overall impending doom that he felt turned into a kind of fatalistic tranquility that lasted throughout the rest of the day. If he failed, he failed. He could forget his feelings and get over Shuuji, the way he had given up on Nobuta.
Only this time, he had really tried, whereas last time he had given up before he had really made any attempts. Because he knew that he wasn't good for her, not with the way he had wanted her to stop all her growth so that he could keep her all to himself.
"Akira," Shuuji said finally, breaking the silence.
Akira grabbed his hand, which twitched suddenly, and then inhaled. He was calm. He would stay calm. He would be calm. Calm. Akira calm. Calm, calm, calm. Calm. Calm-calm-calm-calm.
"Shuuji," Akira said, after he had chased the word the word "calm," out of his mind.
"How do you know?" Shuuji asked after a pause.
"I don't know," Akira said.
Shuuji furrowed his brow, his face in the beginning of a frown. "Then why--"
"I don't know *how* I know," Akira said, "I just *know*.
"You remember the Truth Man, right? I saw him in my dream, and he kept screaming and screaming at me to tell him the truth, and I did and that was the truth."
"That was the truth," Shuuji repeated in a voice bordering between incredulity and outright disbelief.
"Uh huh, yup. The truth. THE TRUTH," Akira said, getting up so that he wasn't facing Shuuji. What the hell, when you fail, might as well go all out. "THE TRUTH IS THAT I LOVE--"
Shuuji's warm hand was covering his mouth and he was saying in a desperate voice, "Shut up. Shut up. I know. I know. Don't tell the world."
Akira grinned, because if he was going down he was going to enjoy it until the very end. He grabbed at Shuuji's hand, pulled it away, and said, "You're so cute, Shuuji-kun."
He watched in delight as the reddish hue formed in Shuuji's cheeks and spread across his face.
Shuuji pulled back completely. "What are you saying? You know that we're both guys."
"Buuuuuuuut, you're a cute guy," Akira protested, because really, that was the only argument that he could think of.
"If you're saying that I look like a girl," Shuuji said in an insulted tone, "Then--"
"I'm saying you're as cute as a girl. I didn't say you were a cute girl. You'd make a weird girl. But," he concluded wisely, "You're a cute guy."
"Stop saying that!" Shuuji said, pushing him back. And Akira wondered if he went too far, only the push hadn't been very hard, and it only made him take half a step back. And the embarrassed expression on Shuuji's face made Akira want to laugh. Because he had put it there, and seeing someone else embarrassed made him feel less so.
Shuuji pressed his hand against his own forehead, pushing his bangs out of his face. "Look--" he began, and it was a serious kind of voice that made Akira suddenly scared. "This-- this is weird. I have to think about it, okay?"
Akira stared at the concrete floor beneath him. "Okay."
Shuuji went into please-everyone-faker mode. His voice went up, into that friendly voice that he had always used on the classmates of 2-B. "Don't get me wrong, we're still friends, this doesn't change anything." And hearing him say it like that made Akira suddenly want to throw himself off the edge of the building that they were on. He knew that Shuuji was lying.
"Nothing will change," Shuuji lied reassuringly. His voice went normal and serious again. "I just have to think about this."
The three of them were lying on the school rooftop, staring at the pattern of smiling clouds in the sky.
Nobuta said, "Look at me." Obediently, Akira and Shuuji sat up and looked at her.
Nobuta lifted her head and the corner of her lips pulled upwards in an even fashion.
"You're smiling," Shuuji said, grinning.
"She's smiling," Akira announced to the world. He clapped his hands. "She's smiling, she's smiling!"
Nobuta caught Shuuji's right arm with her left hand and Akira's left arm with her right. "Thank you. Both of you."
"I've been waiting for this day," Shuuji said.
"Group hug!" Akira shouted. He caught Shuuji's arm with his own and they all took a step forward until each of them had their arms around the other two.
Akira knocked on the door.
After a brief interval, he was greeted by the sight of a sleepy Koji, still in pajamas.
"You're here early," Koji said, letting him in. "Niichan's still getting ready. ONIICHAN! YOU'RE FRIEND'S HERE!" he shouted with as much enthusiasm as anyone could in the morning.
Shuuji's face appeared, toothbrush in his mouth and hair tied up. "Be ready in a few," he said, and then he popped back into the bathroom.
Akira let out a breath that he hadn't realized that he had been holding. He had been worried that things would be awkward because of what happened yesterday, but it was a normal, completely ordinary morning. He went to sit down on one of the wooden chairs, bumped his shin against the table leg, and spent the next few minutes massaging it. Yes, an ordinary morning.
Shuuji reappeared and nodded at Akira. Wordlessly, they both went to get their bikes and began the long morning ride to school.
Shuuji was smiling, and it reminded Akira of what he had been thinking about when he first woke up.
"Last night," they both started at the same time, and then stopped.
Shuuji widened his eyes in realization. "Nobuta smiling?"
Akira nodded. "She was cute."
Shuuji leaned back into his bike. "We shared another dream."
"It must be DESTINY," Akira said, imitating the duo group from their last school.
They peddled in silence after that. The morning was chilly, dim, and quiet, but Akira knew that Shuuji was probably in the same mood that he was in -- happy, because, because -- and the brightening of the colors everywhere showed that the sun was coming out.
"I miss Nobuta," Akira said.
Shuuji said, "If you had the dream, and I had the dream, then Nobuta probably did too." He stopped his bike abruptly and Akira had to stop himself before he crashed into him.
"Why are we stopping?" Akira asked, elongating the 'why' so that it sounded like a whine.
Shuuji said, "Let's get Nobuta a gift." He pointed at the window of a nearby shop, where a large pig plushy stared out the window. "Let's get her gifts from both of us."
Akira snapped his fingers. It was a good idea. Shuuji always came up with all of the brilliant ideas. "Okay," Akira said, "Now?"
Shuuji started peddling again, and Akira followed suit. "Not now. After school. Let's go shopping and get Nobuta some things that she can't get in Tokyo."
They spent the next few hours in school, brainstorming ideas at their desk. Then school ended and they were off shopping.
The stuffed pig from the window. Some Hokkaido cow milk candy chews. A blue skirt with a matching white blouse that was on sale and that, when they both saw, they knew would look good on Nobuta.
They wandered from store to store, until it was dark and they had several bags of randomly collected items. Akira paid for everything but the stuffed pig, which Shuuji insisted on paying himself.
For dinner, they sat down at a ramen stand whose heater was blasted on full strength. Akira started to take off his black school jacket when Shuuji stopped him.
"School uniforms," Shuuji said. "She'd liked a picture of us in our new school uniforms."
Brilliant, like always. Akira snapped his fingers again and pointed at him. "Okay, LET'S GO!" he shouted in English, getting onto his feet.
"But let's eat first. I'm starving."
Akira sat back down and hit his hand against the stand table. He winced, and then said, "Okay."
Shuuji checked himself out in the bathroom mirror, examining his face and brushing back his hair with his fingers.
"Let's go, let's go!" Akira said, and when Shuuji ignored him, he deliberately leaned over and ran his hand through Shuuji's hair in the opposite direction of the style, so that within seconds, Shuuji's hair was sticking out and messier than when he first came in.
Akira laughed and gave himself two claps for the look of Shuuji with his messed up hair. Shuuji glared at him and turned back on the sink, probably to style it again.
He was wrong. Cold water hit Akira's in the face. He blinked and stared stupidly at Shuuji for a second, until Shuuji splashed more water at him.
Akira turned on the sink closest to him and returned the favor. Shuuji dodged it, and they spent the next few minutes splashing water at each other incessantly until an old man came in and yelled at them. They apologized with looks of equal guilt on their faces and then, embarrassed and amused, they grabbed their bags and left the store bathroom.
In another five minutes, they were inside a photo booth. The first picture of them was uncomfortably cold because they still had their wet jackets on, just so that Nobuta could see what their school uniforms should be like. Then they took off their jackets and Shuuji started to primp his hair again on the screen, since in the last picture, his hair had been as messy as Akira's.
Akira put in the money for the next round, and counted. In the last photo, it had taken exactly 53 seconds before the picture was taken. When he knew the flash was about to go off, he threw his arms around Shuuji and pressed his lips against his friend's cheek.
There was the clicking sound of the camera and then a flash of light. The resulting stickers had a very surprised Shuuji with Akira kissing his cheek.
Akira snagged both sets of photo stickers from the machine and stepped out of the booth. "I'm sending both of these to Nobuta," he called behind him.
The threat must have knocked Shuuji out of his shock, because his flustered friend appeared a second later, saying, "OH NO YOU'RE NOT!"
Shuuji dove for the photos, and Akira dodged. Shuuji grabbed his arm and tried to reach for the pictures, but Akira pulled them easily out of his reach, and they struggled for a few seconds before Shuuji finally ended with both sets and Akira was laughing.
"This," Shuuji said, holding up the first set of photo stickers with them in their wet jackets, "We're sending." He held up the second set. "This, we're not." He moved to tear the offending evidence but he hesitated for a second and then it was safely back in Akira's hands, who had taken advantage of the hesitation.
"Don't destroy a picture of us, Shuuji," Akira said cheerfully. "It's bad luck. Besides, you know that Nobuta will find it as funny as I do. It'll make her laugh."
Shuuji rolled his eyes, and Akira knew that he had won the battle. "Let's go to your place so that we can send her our stuff."
They finished packing everything into the box for mailing, photo stickers pasted within the box and some left still with the backing. Akira was about to close the box when Shuuji said, "Hey, do you still have the doll that Catherine gave you?"
"Then let's send her both of ours so that she has all three. If two bring happiness, then three should give her even more happiness and luck."
Akira made a face. "But then we won't have any," he said, stating the obvious just to make sure. But it was a good idea. He started to dig around the boxes in his living room, trying to remember where he had put it.
"But we're both here," Shuuji said. Akira looked sharply at him, but Shuuji wasn't facing him. He was digging around his school bag. "She sent you after me. The least we can do is give her these."
Akira felt warm. "Okay," he said.
Five days later, they were in Akira's apartment, opening a wrapped shoe box addressed to the both of them.
Inside was a picture of Nobuta, smiling like she did in their dream, and a pair of hand-stitched blue mittens.
The letter inside was brief and addressed to them both. "I had a dream about you two a few days ago. I wanted to show you my smile. Mariko said it looked normal," Shuuji read.
"She looks cute, but her smile is still a bit stiff," Akira said.
Shuuji agreed. "But she'll have lots of time to practice it before the next time we see her." They had already planned on paying her a visit during summer break.
Shuuji resumed reading. "Mariko taught me how to knit a few days ago. I wanted to make you both a pair of gloves because I heard that Hokkaido was cold this time of the year, but I'm not very good at it and I'm slow. So you each get one for now, I'll make the matching pair later. Nobuta."
Akira took the left glove, because he was left-handed. Shuuji took the right glove. They tried them on and found them to be perfect fits.
Shuuji picked up the picture of Nobuta. "Think she got our package by now?"
Akira nodded. "She probably got the idea for it the same time we did."
"Because of the dream?"
"Because of the dream. You know, I'm starting to wonder if it's because of those pig charms you gave us. For eternal friendship. Maybe years down the line, even if we're all on our own separate ways, we'll still occasionally share the same dream. And meet up that way."
"No way," said Shuuji, but his voice was both uncertain and wistful.
Akira leaned his head against Shuuji's shoulder. "But it's true. We'll be best friends FOREEEEEEVER."
"Forever?" Shuuji asked.
Akira closed his eyes. He felt comfortable, resting against Shuuji. "Forever! Shuuji! Shuuji and AKIRA! SHUUJI and AKIRA and NOBUTA! It's DESTINY!"
And the warmth was suddenly gone, and Shuuji was facing him directly, looking serious. "So then, no matter what I say, we'll still be friends?"
Akira suddenly felt nervous. He nodded. "Yes."
Shuuji took a deep breath. "I thought about it, Akira. But I can't return your feelings. I'm sorry."
He had been expecting this response for so long that it was almost a relief when he heard it. But it still hurt. A lump started to form in his throat. He swallowed it and forced himself to relax and exhale slowly. It would only hurt both of them if he cried in front of Shuuji. Not to mention the damage that it would do to what was left of his pride. He could not cry, so instead he bit into the corner of his cheek and focused on the pain that he felt there instead of the pain that was making him want to curl up and die.
"I'm sorry," Shuuji said. And he sounded genuinely regretful, voice cracking as well, and Akira knew that he meant it. And if he thought about it, it was a good sign.
"It's okay," Akira said after a pause. "I mean, it's what I expected. And it's better that you told me this straight. I wouldn't want you to do anything that you didn't want to. You always give in to what other people want, and not yourself, so it's good that, uh--" He took a deep breath. When he thought of it this way, it did make it easier. They would always be friends first, after all. "That you didn't do what you didn't want to," he concluded lamely.
"I'm sorry," Shuuji repeated, looking terrible.
Akira pat him on the back. "It's okay. Stop apologizing. We'll always be friends, so it's okay."
Shuuji nodded. Since he wanted to prove to Akira that he was still Akira's friend, he stayed for another half hour, but it was clear that he felt terrible and uncomfortable, so in the end Akira told him that it was fine and kicked him out of his house.
That night, he stared at the ceiling and wondered how he could convince himself the truth of his words. They would always be friends, but he couldn't be a hypocrite and pretend that it didn't hurt. He spent the rest of the night singing his heart out so that when the morning came, he would be able to face the world again.
It didn't work. By the morning his throat hurt and his eyes were puffy. He closed the window blinds and slipped back underneath his blanket to sleep. He could always face the world again tomorrow. No sense in rushing the inevitable.
The next time he awoke, the light through the window made the room bright. Lunch was some instant noodles. He lied on his bed for a little bit.
He picked up his cell phone and almost called Nobuta's house number, only he had never really talked on the phone with her before, and he wasn't sure what he would say. So he sent an email asking if he could visit her on the weekend instead.
Akira considered calling his father and asking for another helicopter ride home, but he decided against it. He could picture the way their conversation would go in his head very clearly. The last thing he wanted was his old man asking him why he was coming back and if maybe, just maybe, he had changed his mind about taking over the company, because, if that was the case, then his father certainly wouldn't mind making him the heir to the company again. No pressure, of course.
By the time he knew school was out, he suddenly had a vision of Shuuji coming over to see if he was alright. And as much as he loved Shuuji (which was part of the problem), he couldn't stand the thought of seeing him at the moment. Not yet.
So he spent his time hanging around the town shopping center, buying himself snacks and generally trying not to think about Shuuji. He knew he would have to face him at some point, but at the thought of seeing him, his whole body reacted: stomach tightening into thick knots of tension, shoulders hunching defensively, throat always threatening to close up. It was easier not thinking about him and just focusing on what was in front of him.
He was buying soy milk from a tofu stand that reminded him of the Tofu Man when he heard the beginnings of an argument form behind. A girl was trying to say, "I don't want to see you anymore," and a boy was cutting her off, saying repeatedly, "But I love you."
Akira half-listened as the boy professed his feelings once more. The girl wasn't listening, and he felt sorry for the boy until he heard the boy accuse the girl of cheating on him with someone. The girl denied it. In fact, now she was screaming about something that the boy had done to someone else, and then Akira heard the sound of skin striking skin and the girl crying out.
That did it. Akira put his drink down and turned around. The girl's face was covered by her hands as she cried, but he could see the boy clearly: another high school student, hair cut short, arrogant and angry. He was shouting that he knew she was cheating on him, and he smacked her on top of the head again. Akira remembered suddenly the Bando incident, and how Bando took out her pain on Nobuta. The boy didn't even realize how lucky he was. It really pissed him off.
Before he realized it, he was restraining the boy's raised arm. "You shouldn't hit a girl," he told the boy. And when the boy's eyes turned furiously at him, Akira punched him in the face.
"Kusano-kun!" The girl cried. He glanced at her and realized that it was Yamada. Her eyes were wide, and her mascara was leaking down her red face.
"Who are you to her!" The boy screamed, getting back to his feet. He shoved Akira. He was taller than Akira, and the force made him take a few steps back. "How do you know her! Are you the one she's cheating with!"
The guy was clearly an obsessed and paranoid freak.
Akira cocked his head. "I'm a classmate," he said, ducking a blow. He formed a heart shape with his hands. "If your heart really loved her," he said, as the heart became two fists, "Then you wouldn't hit her." Then he socked the guy in the chest. His opponent crashed to the floor.
"Kusano-kun! Please stop!"
Akira ignored her. The boy was down, but he was glaring at him from the ground, eyes full of hate. Akira was about to kick him in the stomach, but Yamada latched onto his arm and wouldn't let go.
"Kusano, please stop!" When Akira stopped moving, Yamada stepped forward, and told the boy, "It's over between us." Then she grabbed onto Akira's arm again, tugged, and said, "Let's go, please?"
"When you love someone," Akira said, wagging his finger like a lecturing teacher, "You can't force them to love you back. You can't force them into a cage so that you're the only one they'll see. When it comes to love, force is No-No." The last part he said in a patronizing tone, and the boy looked enraged. Akira would have said more to piss him off, but Yamada was tugging onto his arm, wanting to leave, so he gave the boy one more warning look before he left with her.
He spent the next ten minutes walking Yamada in silence. He had no idea where they were headed, but he didn't ask. She cried for the first seven minutes and by the end of the next few minutes, she was telling him in a raw voice how she had really liked Yoichi in the beginning. How Yoichi had been so nice at first. They'd met on the beach, he had told her that she was cute in the mini-skirt that she was wearing and asked for her name. He went to a nearby all-boy's school. He'd walk her home and buy her sweets. But sometimes, he was mean. He hated her next door neighbor, a boy friend that she'd known since childhood, the instant he met him, and that was when things went downhill. He'd call her constantly, each time asking in a joking voice if she was expecting someone else on the phone. He didn't like it when she went out her girl friends. The day after she did, he "accidentally" mistook her phone for his and took it home when she wasn't paying attention. When she got it back, he had gone through and erased all her contacts, by accident. Then he started following her everywhere, even to cram school, and would wait the entire time outside of her class for her to come out so that he could walk her home.
She thought it was romantic at first when he said that he wanted her to only look at him, but then he'd throw a silent fit whenever she went out with other people, even just classmates. The last straw was when he had seen her give her next door friend a birthday present. The next day she saw her friend with bruises all over his face. Some guys he didn't know from another school had attacked him. Her boyfriend was not one of them, but when he described the school uniform of his attackers, she knew that they were Yoichi's friends. That was when she got scared and couldn't stand to look at Yoichi anymore.
Akira listened to her story in silence. It made him think about Nobuta, and how he was glad that he had never pursued her. He'd never hit her, he knew, but he had made her cry and there was a moment when he wished that no one would look at her. He and Yoichi were completely different people, but he wondered if Yoichi wasn't just feeling as possessive of Yamada as he had of Nobuta. Only, Yoichi had taken his fear and feelings too far.
It was different, how he felt about Shuuji. With Nobuta, he had wanted to keep her all to himself. With Shuuji, he had wanted to tell the whole world how he felt. He liked watching Shuuji make friends in class and be popular. He felt a strange kind of pride in it, like he was special because someone as well-liked as Shuuji was still his friend. He wondered why the way he had felt about Nobuta was so different from how he now felt about Shuuji. Maybe it was because Shuuji was a guy. Nobuta was a girl, and he had wanted to always protect her and keep her by his side. He still did, sort of, but as a friend. But Shuuji was a guy-- his equal.
For whatever good that his feelings did. What he had told Yoichi was the truth: he couldn't force Shuuji to love him back. Nothing he did would make it happen. It was something he had already known from the very beginning, but had always had hope anyway. It was at this moment that he acknowledged to himself that it was hopeless.
Akira realized that Yamada talking to him. He looked at her-- make-up ruined, eyes red, cheeks starting to swell-- and wished that he had hit Yoichi harder. He hated guys who made girls cry.
"Do you like anyone, Kusano-kun?"
Her question caught him off-guard, but he knew that she was just trying to make conversation now that she was done telling someone her feelings. All she had needed was someone to listen to her about Yoichi, and now that she was done, she was ready to talk about something else.
Akira gave a half-shrug. "Hungry koi bite off the fingers of anyone who puts their hand in the water. It's an old form of torture."
Yamada gave a short laugh. "No they don't! What's that supposed to mean?" She was smiling now. "You know, Class 2-E's Midori has a crush on you. She's a friend of mine from middle school. She always wants me to ask you for a ride in the helicopter so that she can come along."
Wow, someone liked *him* for once. That was something new. He couldn't place a face to the name, though. But it was nice to hear.
Yamada said, "Thank you, Kusano-kun." She stopped walking; they were outside of a middle-class house. She wrung her hands together quietly for a few seconds, before she blurted, "I'm worried that he might come after you with his friends."
Akira shrugged. He honestly couldn't care less at the moment. He opened his mouth to answer, but the next voice that interrupted the air was a different masculine voice and not his own.
There was a boy standing outside of the house now. His face had bruises that ranged in color from green to purple, and the skin around his eye was swelled. But he sounded worried, not in pain. "Ayako, are you all right?"
"Shun-chan!" Yamada turned towards Akira. "Thanks again. I'll see you at school tomorrow." She waved and ran towards the other boy. Akira watched as they hugged, and then the two of them went together into the house, hand in hand.
Akira ditched the second day of school. He meant to go, really, but he couldn't get himself ready in time. Everything took longer than normal because he kept spacing out as he did everything half-heartedly. He spent probably an hour staring at his hair and not even really doing anything to it. By the time he was ready, school was half-way over and it seemed pointless to go to school for half a day, so why even bother to go at all? It was a Friday, the weekend was coming up, and though he did not receive a response from Nobuta other than "Are you okay?" he was seriously considering taking the train to go see her. Although a week ago, he and Shuuji had already made plans to go to the beach that weekend. He wondered if they would still go.
It was in the late afternoon, when he was in the town shopping center buying soy milk again, that his cell phone rang. The name that showed up on his phone: "Kiritani Shuuji."
He debated whether or not to answer, but in the end he didn't and after the happy electronic melody stopped playing, Akira regretted it. He couldn't avoid Shuuji forever. He didn't want to. Shuuji was his best friend, and he had promised him that they would be friends forever. He didn't want to lose Shuuji, not like this. He finished his milk and left the stand.
Akira was in the middle of dialing Shuuji back while heading back to his bike when he spotted Yoichi. There was a white compressor bandage against his angry purple cheek. Yoichi was leaning casually against a fence and looking very, very pissed off. Flanking both sides of him were four other boys: one had a shaved head, another a pierced lip, one a head the shape of a meat bun, and the last lean and tall. They were all wearing the same dark blue school uniform and watching him the way vultures watched a man dying of thirst, waiting to spring into action.
That was when Shuuji answered, sounding hesitant. "Hey."
"Hellllllo," Akira said, not taking his eyes off of the boys. As good of a fighter he was, five against one were not good odds. He left his bike where it was; it would take too long to unlock the chain. "How are you?"
They were walking towards him now.
"You didn't come to school today," Shuuji was saying. "Listen, I have to talk to you."
"Great. I'm out shopping right now," Akira said. If he ran, he had a better chance of taking them down one by one. "I'll have to call you back."
Akira ran. He heard their footsteps follow seconds later. The phone was slowing him down because he was still holding it to his ear; Shuuji was saying something, but he wasn't paying attention to what it was.
"So then-- hey, are you okay?" Shuuji sounded worried.
"This is depressing," Akira said, in between breaths. "Listen. Can't talk. Missed what you said. I'm being chased by some guys and I'm probably not going to be able to see you today."
"Wait up you bastard!"
Akira didn't know the streets well. Seconds later he found himself staring at a concrete wall. He laughed on the phone, pitch higher than normal. "Gotta go." Something desperate inside of him twisted his voice and made him say, "Help me." Shuuji was shouting his name when he hung up.
He threw the phone at Yoichi and followed it with the first punch.
I am really, really bad with grammar. If you see any blatant mistakes, I'd love to know. Thanks.
update: Part 2 here. Thanks to everyone who left a comment!