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Flourishing Verdantly ([personal profile] gaisce) wrote2011-03-30 11:45 pm
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[Nobuta wo Produce] Five Petals Falling

Title: Five Petals Falling
Series: Nobuta wo Produce
Spoilers/warnings: Set during the end of episode four. Hints at Shuuji/Nobuta/Akira and all permutations therein, with some Shuuji/Mariko. I don’t know it’s a subtext thing.
Wordcount: 5,921
Summary: What if. AU diverging at the 11/4 confession. Shuuji is forced to make a choice and deal with the consequences.
Author’s notes: For [ profile] annnimeee since she has to put up with me on a daily basis. Sorry it's so late, I’m a bad roommate.

There were two lines strung out before him. Each began with a tasseled end, trailing from the soles of his feet to loop over his head. And from the corner of his vision Kiritani Shuuji could see them carefully connected to each part, until the point where they disappear out of sight. Both of them hung silent and heavy, with bells tied on each rope, waiting for him to bring his hands down and send them ringing.

If he only stared ahead there was no difference between the two. There was no telling heaviness weighed down by the contents, no difference in the one that held flower blossoms and the one that held water filled from the gym faucet. No consequences as long as they remain suspended by the ropes and pulleys so carefully laid out before him.

Even though they were very different things, without his judgment they appeared the same.

Shuuji refused to look. He did not want to read the words, the writing on signs visible only to him because of his vantage point, his position. He did not want to see an explanation of what separated them, and his role in relation to each rope. It would force him to choose, not only the fate of the person standing on the other pedestal, but his own.

And he did not want to look over at Nobuta.

Shuuji kept his eyes trained on the audience and the ropes blurred in his vision until they were white dividing lines; only to snap back into focus when he reached out to grasp one in each hand. Then they were taunt and real at his touch, digging their coarse texture into his palms. And suddenly the audience behind them—Mariko’s dismay, Akira’s disapproval, the expectant stares of his teachers and classmates—all of it faded into the background.

He hadn’t read which one was which yet. They still weighed the same. If he wanted to, Shuuji would only have to blindly grab one rope and pull. Then he could open his eyes and be just as surprised as everyone else for which fate he picked to fall on Nobuta. The audience would see his shock and they would understand he didn’t mean the choice he made. Either of them.

He didn’t want to confess he loved Kotani Nobuko. Yet he didn’t want to reject her so cruelly in front of everyone. So maybe this way…maybe he would be absolved of the decision.

Shuuji closed his eyes tightly and curled his fingers around each thick rope. He leaned forward on unsteady feet, trying not to feel overwhelmed. Part of him wondered if his knees would give out, so that he would fall and pull both of the buckets down on Nobuta. He could imagine the water hitting her first, and then the flower petals drifting behind them in a gentle shower, a slow blooming absolution. A half-hearted apology that couldn’t wash away what came before it.

Even with both eyes shut tight, he still couldn’t stop himself from envision her face. The expression of utter resignation she could never truly hide. And then he found he couldn’t hide behind his own indifference either.

The next thing he knew was the sound of bells ringing and the growing wails of the audience that began to drown out its noise.

On the other platform, Nobuta felt pink and yellow rose petals tumble softly over her. Her upturned face betrayed nothing as she let them fall over her, on her shoulders, in her hair. One, two, three, four, five…they collected in her waiting hands.

Shuuji couldn’t look directly at her, too distracted by the audience’s clamor, their confusion, all demanding answers of him. But he noticed how she did not let a single petal fall that had made its way into an outstretched palm.

One. He loves me.

Akira was the first to congratulate them. Actually, he was the only one, which did nothing to improve Shuuji’s mood or encourage Nobuta to say a single word after her so-called “love confession.” Truly, he was the only one to say anything to them. Everyone else had been stunned into silence.

“It will blow over in a week. What matters now that Shuuji-kun found a way protect Nobuta’s heh~aar~to~” Akira sing-songed, making a heart shaped sign over his chest.

“No it won’t. For Nobuta, do you really think that’s the end of the teasing? Or that it suddenly makes her popular? All it does is give them more to target...”

“Tar-get huh?” he tapped a finger from his chest to his forehead as if it suddenly dawned on him. “You’re upset because it ruins your image. Shuuji-kun’s so shallow.”

“No, that’s not the point at all! This is about Nobuta!” Shuuji shouted, throwing his arm out to gesture to her or call her up for reinforcement...only to find she had vanished in the heat of their discussion. Suddenly, his protests seemed a lot more self-serving when he lost track of her in the middle of his defense. “Where did she go?”

“Following the winds of change,” Akira commented blithely, looking down at the pavement where Nobuta’s figure was growing smaller and smaller the further she walked away from them. The flower petals were fluttering on the ground as she went past them, looking unnaturally colorful and bright against the blacktop. “The answer, amigo, is blowing in the wind~”

Shuuji idly wished Akira would go back to impersonating annoying comedians instead of folk singers. That was one step away from enka singers, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to stand that kind of idiocy for long. Before Akira could finish his off-key serenade, Shuuji shoved past him. “It’s your fault! You made her feel bad by saying something dumb like that.”

“I was the one who said you two becoming a super perfect couple would take us to the next stage of producing,” Akira pouted, but the emphasis was all wrong. The one and the two sounded too out of place when compared to his so-called hurt pride.

“It has to be on her own,” he protested. Guiltily wondering how long it took for him to notice her absence, given how she had completely disappeared by now. “All that dating and romance stuff isn’t how she should be spending her time anyway.”

“That’s what Shuuji says, but isn’t it about wanting people to like you? Just differently?” Akira retorted blithely, his fingers on his lips before snapping them as if to practice kissing. “Kon-kon.”

Shuuji glowered, shoving Akira’s hand away. “They’re not the same at all.”

Contrary to Shuuji’s worries, Nobuta had not fled their secret meeting place because she was upset about the argument. Akira and Shuuji bickered all the time, but somehow their little spats never upset her the way most conflict did. Perhaps because she knew there was never a danger that they would be disappointed in the other, even when they took opposite sides. Perhaps it was their distance that made the space between them easy for her to fill.

Ironically, Akira’s throwaway remark was the closest to the truth. It was the wind and a capricious impulse was that sent her wandering away. Once she looked out over the edge of the rooftop, to the world beyond the school grounds, something inside her suddenly seemed to bloom and flourish. When she was alone on the stage an unspeakable pressure settled on her, constricting her chest, halting her breath and silencing her voice. It had been bearing down on her for days and only until she felt the first tickle of a flower petal, the first sign of some choice being made, did she feel free to breathe again. Here, even as her body shivered in the cold breeze, she felt liberated now. And with this freedom came an inexplicable urge to release the flower petals she had carefully guarded up until this moment.

It was strange. When she was in the auditorium, surrounded by spectators and everyone’s shocked faces, she had to fight not to clutch to them too tightly in her panic. Yet, as soon as she walked out into the winter sky she only wanted to open her hands and let them fly free. And she did, fearing her own insecurities and hesitation would render the gesture useless if she waited too long.

The wind carried them off only after they had twisted slowly in the air, tumbling downward aimlessly. She thought of the willow where she first met Shuuji, and her first memory of him. The old gnarled tree lacked blossoms, not even seeds, and the withered fronds looked nothing like the sight of flower petals careening through the sky. But the feeling was the same. Being uprooted and aimless, but somehow knowing it might turn out okay.

That was why Nobuta followed the petals. She wanted to see if she was right to let them go, if they would find a new home like the willow tree. What she did not expect was to see was one flutter through a window, around the walkway, down through the stairwell’s slats, and land right on the huddled figure of Tezuka.

Nobuta always kept her head down when walking, arms crossed over her books and wrapped around her chest like a shield. From her constantly downcast observation, she knew the stairwell had an empty space below it, and that the tiling spilled over against the concrete so weeds, insects, and dirt were always hiding in the corners. But not a person.

“Sorry. I was only. . . You stay here?” Nobuta asked.

Tezuka nodded. It was a jerky motion, the kind a stick mantis does when crossing a thin twig. “It’s dark here. Bugs like to stay out of the way where people don’t notice them.” He shifted to lean out from the underside of the stairwell. “Most people anyway.”

“I. . . I didn’t mean to bother you.”

“I don’t mind you bugging me,” he said, twitching out a smile at his own joke. “But they don’t ever look under here. Not even the teachers when it’s time for class. Nobody does, just Kiritani and you.”

‘Shuuji?’ Nobuta thought, but kept herself from repeating it aloud. Hearing his name didn’t surprise her. Shuuji was the kind of guy that paid attention to everyone just a little bit, even when he pretended not to care.

“Are you two going to go out?”

Nobuta barely kept herself from flinching. “No. . .”

Tezuka’s head tilted, as if pondering a logical inconsistency. “Kiritani gave me some honey for sneaking a picture of you the first day you came to school. We all thought you were going to be a new idol type, the kind that would rival Uehara-san’s position. . .”

He trailed off, leaving the implications of the words for her to decide.

“I’m not. I don’t want any position. I didn’t— I didn’t put my name in the box,” she said at last, the confession spilling out of her lips in half-stammers and whispers. “I wouldn’t burden Kiritani-san with that decision, no matter what he picked. E-especially if...”

“I know.”

He was slicking back his hair and she saw the rows of pale skin where his fingers pulled through the tangles to the scalp. And the flicker of personal agony on his face that finally surfaced after being shuffled off under corners and in dark spaces for so long. “Especially that. It’s really terrible getting water dumped on you.”

Nobuta knew what it felt like. She could still remember the chill of the wind as she stood on the roof and waited for her drenched uniform to dry, wondering how weak she would have to be for a cold breeze to cut into her so deeply. But that was before, with Bando. It wasn’t the same. Bando was a bully, and Shuuji was. . .

That would have hurt so much more.

“. . . it is.”

“You’re lucky,” said Tezuka.

She was. Shuuji had told her before the ceremony that he was going to reject her. Not to take it personally. He just didn’t want people to get the wrong idea. And she would get over it in time. Saying yes, that would mean everyone would expect them to stay together forever. Forever was more than she could comprehend. It lasted longer than her parent’s marriage, longer than the bullying. Longer than the lives of old willow trees.

Nobuta nodded, murmuring something like agreement as Tezuka disappeared underneath the shadow of the stairwell again.

Two. He loves me not.

It was worse the day after. Now that the rumors had a night to spread and solidify, there was no stopping them. And as self-serving as Shuuji’s prediction was, it didn’t make their classmates’ reactions any less true. They openly stared while in the hallways, and murmurs followed their every step. Even though Shuuji had made a point to avoid being near Nobuta, the other students stalked them, waiting for a moment when they would be forced into proximity and everyone could confirm their suspicions.

Shuuji kept his circle of friends around him like a barrier, throwing out new stories, rumors on the internet, variety show sketches, and ignoring all attempts to discuss yesterday’s upset with the wave of his hand. He even spoke up in class so their teacher would have to pay attention and keep the focus on his lecture rather than how Shuuji hunched over in his desk, all tense muscles and forced indifference.

But Shuuji’s deflection meant more attention went to Nobuta. And she had no defense for them, least of all the frustration of Bando and her gang.

It was only through Shuuji’s sheer persistence at avoiding Nobuta that he inevitably stumbled into her. Like a Greek tragedy, the more the character struggled to escape their destined path, the more irrevocable their course became. He thought the best way to stay out of Nobuta’s way would be to stay in the places she would least want to be. However, that was exactly where Bando wanted to force Nobuta, to the isolated and unwatched nooks of school, away from prying gazes and social constraints. Here, where Shuuji had taken refuge to eat his lunch in peace, was the same place Bando cornered Nobuta.

“Bet you think you got off easy, huh?” the bigger girl sneered and shoved Nobuta so forcefully the other girl stumbled back to keep herself upright.

Shuuji could hear noise of their scuffle echo from the stairwell. Looking down, he gave a silent groan of annoyance as he realized whatever punishment he spared Nobuta in yesterday’s reckless act would be undone today simply because Nobuta let herself be pushed into a corner. He almost wanted to blame her. Part of him did blame her, and told himself to just let it be. If anything, an intervention would simply make things worse by encouraging the rumors, so in a way doing nothing was helping her.

If Shuuji kept telling himself that, surely it would sound more like the truth.

Nobuta made herself stand up, and muttered something so quietly that he couldn’t hear from his position on the top half of the stairs. Whatever it was, it was enough to drive Bando into a renewed fury, as she yanked Nobuta upright before shoving her against a wall, shouting: “What’s that?!”

Nobuta winced, but somehow found the strength to make her voice be heard. “P-people...people can change.”

“I don’t want to change,” Bando sneered, shoving Nobuta back against the plaster. “So what if I stand out? I’m not pathetic like you! I don’t need somebody else telling me how wonderful I am to make my way in life!”

Shuuji swallowed hard as Nobuta accepted Bando’s abuse without protest. It was the same cycle starting over again, nothing changing it. Only by his confession he was going to be dragged down with her.

“Ah, you’re right. You’re totally right” he said at last, edging toward the two girls with one hand trailing the building’s side. And suddenly the wall that had been preventing Nobuta from escaping became the shared support she and Shuuji had, connecting them together and covering their backs.

“Stay out of it, Kiritani,” Bando snarled, before pausing and letting his words sink in. “…you think I’m right?”

Shuuji jumped down the last few steps, so he was now standing on Bando’s level. “Of course! You have a lot to like about yourself. The reason you stand out doesn’t matter when nobody messes with you, and you have friends—”

He couldn’t bring himself to look at Nobuta when he said that. So he smiled, wide and friendly, to keep focused solely on the other girl.

“—you have people who like you for what you are.”

The other girl arched an eyebrow. Hesitating. “Yeah. They do. So tell your little girlfriend I don’t want to listen to her fake consolation.”

“I understand what you’re saying. Hey, I’m the same way. Do you think I wanted the whole school to think I feel like going out with Kotani? No way! No way!” Shuuji emphasized by waving his hands back and forth. “But everyone was expecting me to, so what was I supposed to do?”

“Dump water on her.”

“Ah ha ha, that’s what I mean. See, that’s not me either,” Shuuji protested, and it surprised him how he didn’t know if he was lying or telling the truth. ‘But I would have at least hesitated in responding!’ he thought to himself indignantly.

“So what exactly are you, huh?” Bando asked with a sour glare.

It was the truth that he would never have gone out of his way to publicly humiliate someone. But it was also a lie, because he could have rationalized how it didn’t matter, or, if it did matter, how all the things he might have lost meant more than her pain. He didn’t know for sure what he was going to decide until the rope had already been pulled.

“I’m completely the same! I’ you.”

Bando snorted, and Nobuta—even though she was still pinned to the wall—seemed to be one holding Shuuji in place with her look. The quiet stare that even her bangs couldn’t fully obscure, the gaze of someone who was truly looking at you, not what you pretended to be. With a stare like that, no wonder Bando seemed to delight in rubbing Nobuta’s face in the mud; obscuring it.

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

“He...” Nobuta began to stammer, and her sudden interruption was enough to make Bando pull her hand back from gripping her collar. “He…can choose something different. He can make a different choice and be himself. Like you.”

“Yeah,” Shuuji said with a confident grin. ‘What a lie. What a completely disgusting lie!’ “I decided on my own before she said anything. I’m still the same person, I didn’t let her ‘confession’ affect me.” ‘Yes, I did. And I hate it.’ “Kotani and I, we don’t go out on dates, and I still spend my lunch time with Mariko.” Another half-lie; he continued their lunch outing except it involved eating in silence on the stairwell outside the lab. But once he started he couldn’t stop talking. “Nobody really thought I would date her. Come on, do you think I’d do anything differently just because she said I could? Why would I want to?”

Bando shook her head, almost disappointed. “No, but I really thought you were going to pick the other bucket.”

‘So did I,’ Shuuji thought. “Like I keep telling you, I’m not that type. Maybe the other choice wasn’t me either, but that’s what happened. I don’t want to be the kind of person to dump water over somebody.”

“And so what if I am that kind of person?”

Shuuji inwardly put his head in his hands, knowing he had hit a nerve. “Only if you wanted to be. That’s what Kotani’s talking about, right? Nobody messes with you now, and nobody would mess with you if you wanted to do things differently. You don’t have to follow what anyone expects you to do...”

He was lying through his teeth. Shuuji knew he was complete and utter hypocrite who wouldn’t have followed his own advice in a million years if the decision wasn’t thrust on him. Even now, his mind still followed the same logic, and his conclusion came from the same way Bando thought. How once you found the way others perceived you, stepping out of that mold made you weak or less than genuine. So people became what others thought they were supposed to be in order to act more ‘themselves.’ They tried to live up to the assumptions so they could be stronger or more well-liked in their character. Because if you were strong like Bando or popular like Shuuji it meant you were supposed to be able to do whatever you wanted.

As long as whatever you wanted matched what other people expected of you.

“I don’t have a problem with being the way that I am,” Bando said as plowed between them. She didn’t shove Nobuta’s shoulder, yet she still didn’t move as far enough out of her way as to miss a glancing blow to the side of her uniform. “But maybe I’m getting bored of messing with you. It’s not like you need my help anymore. You’re weird enough on your own.”

Nobuta said nothing, but when Bando was completely out of sight she touched the shoulder the girl had brushed against against. Unlike the times where her hands would curl against the cuff of her sleeves and grip it so tightly her knuckles turned white. This time her hand rested lightly on her shoulder, matching the lack of pressure Bando’s pardon had granted her. Her touch was almost reverent, and all Shuuji could feel was relief that the whole inconvenient thing was over and her eyes were on something else, not him.

“You already decided. . .” Nobuta asked after a long silence.

He idly wondered if Akira told her about the night he broke all those tiles in his living room and threatened to do the same to him if he made Nobuta cry. As if that wasn’t motivation enough! Or maybe she saw the charts of water and flower paths he wrote on his planner after she gave it back to him. The times he tried over and over again to let fate decide for him, only to discover he couldn’t abide by either result.

No matter what, Nobuta understood how his choice to spare her was far from an easy decision. She had to know he wasn’t a strong enough person for that.

“Ah, yeah. Last night I thought about it and I changed my mind.”

It was another lie, but not one he spoke to keep Nobuta from the truth. It was that he didn’t know himself. His mind couldn’t decide. Even now his rational thoughts were still stuck in indecision, weighing those buckets over and over again.

It was his heart that changed.

Three. He loves me.

Mariko had not spoken to Shuuji for two days.

Of course, no one knew about the strained silence except for her and Shuuji, which was also his fault. Everyone else believed his dismissal of Nobuta after the love confession meant things had returned to normal. And Shuuji did nothing to dispel their assumptions, wordlessly going through his daily routine as if nothing had happened and nothing had changed. This included leaving his classroom and walking toward the lunch meeting spot like always. This also meant he was not seen meeting her in her homeroom or basketball practice to make amends. So they were left to go through the motions, but without the ease of before because something had come between them that easy small talk couldn’t hide.

Yesterday, she still brought an extra lunch, he saw the napkin and plastic bento box hanging from her arm, but she left it by the windowsill and didn’t stay to eat with him. The food tasted blander somehow. Something Shuuji wouldn’t have minded, he wasn’t very fond of strong tasting food in the first place, except that this made his throat close up and his stomach twist into a knot as he finished the last tofu square. His “thank you for the meal” echoed hollowly in the air without her to hear it.

Today, she came back from wherever she had disappeared to and sat down in her regular seat, opening her bento box up in the regular way and holding her chopsticks the way she would regularly hold them. Shuuji wondered if she had been crying. Maybe she left and was hoping he would try to find her, returning today in a disappointed realization that all he had done to acknowledge her constant understanding was an empty thank you. That all he could do was carefully place his chopsticks in the bento, close the lid, and slide it over to her with his head bowed.

Mariko took the lunch box back without comment. Her perfectly done nails brushed against the plastic lid, sliding across the surface without scratching it. “How is Kotani-san doing?”

“Mariko, listen, there’s nothing going on between me and Kotani-san!” Shuuji protested, realizing how whiny he sounded. “I didn’t want to be the one confessed to. That’s why I told you not try.”

“I wanted to know if she was all right,” Mariko said softly. “People have been saying her name showing up in the box was an act of bullying. And that your accepting her confession was trying save face, so she wouldn’t be humiliated.”

Shuuji looked away. It would be easier if Mariko—if she weren’t so understanding. Even though she didn’t understand anything about him, she seemed so willing to accept the best in others. Even now, her heart went out to Nobuta. Even though others would be jealous, would lash out at him for doing what he did, would get upset, she didn’t. If she was a worse kind of person, maybe lying to her wouldn’t hurt so much. “Ah, she’s okay.”

“I guess it was good you convinced me not to sign up. Even if I was the one who confessed to wouldn’t have made a decision except to spare me from being humiliated, would you?”

There was a hint of insecurity in her voice that Shuuji hated. ‘It’s not my fault,’ he wanted to say, ‘Don’t put me in that kind of position. Why does everyone want to know about things like what’s in my heart? It’s disgusting. And when they forced me to decide in front of the whole school...’

“I just don’t like that kind of thing. I told you already, Mariko, it would only put pressure on us.”

“The reason I didn’t show up yesterday,” Mariko whispered, as if making her own confession, “is because Ishizaka-sempai asked me if I would go out with him. He said he wondered if we were going out, but if you chose Kotani-san already then maybe he had a chance. And I didn’t know what to tell him.”

“Wait, wait! I heard really awful things about that guy, like he has three girlfriends at once and you’re too good for him!” Shuuji shouted, leaping up from his chair.

Mariko looked up from the bento and straight at him. But her bangs were perfectly cut, and he could see the light reflected in the irises, wet from tears threatening to spill over. “Are we going out, Shuuji?”

As much as Shuuji hated her for asking, he couldn’t fault Mariko for being curious and unsure about the things he purposefully kept vague. Even now he wanted to keep that ugly side from her, the part of himself that he could never show anybody. Except he had shown it to Nobuta, didn’t he? When he said he was going to casually dismiss her for the sake of saving his own face. Did that mean he cared so little for her that it didn’t matter or that he cared enough for her that he knew there was no point in hiding his true self?

But Nobuta was different, that urgency made him confront the situation, whether he wanted to or not. And in confronting his dealings with Nobuta, Shuuji had to accept it wasn’t fair to string Mariko along when he knew he had hurt her with his decision. Not because he chose to save Nobuta, but that her feelings never really entered the equation for him. The same way the cake she so carefully prepared for him was just something he thought of giving away so he wouldn’t have to swallow it. How even the sweetest gesture could turn sour in his mind, because he couldn’t appreciate it the way it was intended.

Shuuji sat straight up and placed his hands on his knees, rubbing them against the fabric. Sweaty palms disgusted him, and made him feel even more ugly and wretched.

“The reason I’ve never confessed is because...I’ve never fallen in love with anybody. Even you, Mariko. The ‘in love’ where you have to admit it out loud, and you can’t control yourself, I can’t.” ‘It’s disgusting,’ he wanted to say. ‘It makes me sick inside, like eating cake before bed.’ “I don’t want anyone to think I would date her. But with you, eating lunch and talking, I didn’t mind if others thought that about us. Even’s the same. If you confessed to me, it would be the same reasons,” he murmured, looking away so he wouldn’t see her tears. ‘Being hated, I can’t stand it.’ “I’m sorry...”

“So…you don’t really want to go out with me?” Mariko asked, her voice trembling.

Shuuji stood up, giving her a shamefaced bow before turning away. “I don’t. I can’t…even if you were the one up on stage for Confession Day and I said I did, I can’t. I don’t want to be with Nobuta, I don’t want to go out with...anyone.”

Without another word, Shuuji left the lab. He couldn’t bear to stay and watch Mariko cry, her tears pouring down her pretty face just as if he had cruelly thrown a bucket of water at her.

Four. He loves me not.

The days passed and soon the old routine found itself again. With Bando’s indifference to Nobuta and Mariko’s quiet acceptance of Shuuji’s decision, their classmates found nothing had irrevocably changed between Kotani Nobuko and Kiritani Shuuji. Things went back to the status quo, and for the first time in the school’s history, the 114 “confession” was treated like any other odd moment, and not a defining memory for those involved.

Of course, Akira had a thing about “odd moments” and still refused to let it go.

“I told you, told yooooooou, a rock and a strong person make the super best couple,” he repeated in the safety of their rooftop meeting place. “You wasted the best chance-o.”

“Shut up about it already. We’re lucky it ended up as good as it did,” Shuuji groaned. He didn’t mention how he still couldn’t speak to Mariko, but that was because Nobuta already knew. And if she knew then Akira had to have known. It would have been pointless to bring up. “You have no idea how bothersome this whole thing was.”

“Only because Shu~uji-kun is afraid. If Akira were in Shuuji’s place I’d be shouting from every rooftop. This rooftop would be my big start, my debut!”

Nobuta said nothing but looked at Akira with a puzzled expression.

“You had nothing to lose! Nobody takes what you say seriously!” Shuuji retorted.

In a flash, Akira had stepped off and stuck his face right in front of Shuuji’s. Unlike his usual half-drunk on soymilk and half daydreaming expression, his eyes were oddly intense. “I’d do it. I’d scream it out loud. Shout hard enough that everyone would know I’m serious. It’s weird thinking of you two like that, it makes my stomach feel weird...”

“What?” Shuuji sputtered, flinching back. “Are you jealous?”

“Hmmmnaah, don’t know,” Akira mused, all intensity suddenly evaporating as he decided to keep leaning forward to overbalance into Shuuji.

“But you just said you felt weird when you saw us together,” Shuuji protested, trying to imbalance Akira so he would stop leaning so much on his shoulder.

“Then maybe I’m jealous but don’t know who I should be jealous for.” He finished the last part by rubbing his cheek on Shuuji’s shoulder as if to shake his head of the indecision. No, not rub, nuzzled. He definitely just nuzzled Shuuji.

“Don’t say such weird stuff.” Shuuji glared and moved to shove Akira back.

Nobuta pressed her hands deep against the cuff of her sleeves. “Don’t.”

“Huh, you think it’s weird too?”

“No. Don’t be jealous,” she murmured in a voice barely above a whisper. At her word, Akira and Shuuji froze in place with their hands in mid-grapple, straining to listen. “You are...both of you...”

Akira was the first to catch on, and nodded. “Hmm, it’s true. I like Nobuta most when it’s three of us. I like you better when you’re with us, Shuuji-kun. When you’re on your own you’re not as fun.” He paused, his grip tightening on Shuuji’s coat before pushing away. “I like myself best when I’m with you. When I thought about you two together it made me happy and sad, but when I thought of you two together without me I just—” Akira trailed off, throwing a fist into the chain link fence. “AKIRA CHOP!”

The sound of the bent iron pieces rattled and kept going even after Nobuta reached over and pulled Akira’s hand away by the cuff of his sleeve. Shuuji saw pieces of his skin peeling back, stretching and revealing the bloody tissue underneath as Akira flexed his hand back into position. It stirred in him a slight feeling of revulsion, but Nobuta held fast even as she reached for a handkerchief to bind it. Somehow, when Nobuta was doing it, it didn’t seem like she was trying to hide the scratches. The handkerchief was there to keep Akira’s hand together, even if he manage fine on his own—he was a karate expert after all. And when he felt Nobuta’s hand reach out for his cuff, Shuuji let his arm be pulled toward them, an inescapable gravitational pull.

“Does this mean Shuuji-kun would have confessed to Akira?” Akira grinned, smiling more for Nobuta than for Shuuji, but somehow the acts balanced out the intent between both of them.

Shuuji snorted. “I would have let them dump water on you in an instant.”

“Aaah, Shuuji’s so cruel~” Akira cried and draped over the other boy again. “So cruel, Shuuji, so mean.”

“Tch, maybe you smell!”

Akira sniffed himself. “Akira smells like Akira. Huh, right Nobuta?” He asked, scrunching his nose up the way a pig snout looked. “Oink oink!”

“Akira smells,” Nobuta acknowledged, a faint trace of a smile on her face.

“Hey, hey, you didn’t say if that was bad or good?! Do I smell good?”

“Will you get off me already?!” Shuuji shouted, and tried to sidestep away from Akira. Except that his halfhearted attempt at escape only seemed to drag them closer together, colliding into Nobuta as the three of them bumped into each other, their laughter and shouts fading into an incomprehensible cacophony on the wind.

Five. He loves...

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