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In Search of the Ending to a Story

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It starts, surprisingly, with an ending. Hori has found a college — he passed the entrance exam, and they have an excellent theatre department, so he’s decided. He’ll be 2 hours away by train, which, he says, isn’t so far at all.

Umetarou and Mikoshiba are told first, as they sit in Umetarou’s apartment and work on Let's Love. They pause, blankly, until Hori looks up from his backgrounds and laughs a little. “Don’t make that face,” he says. “It’s not the end of the world; you just need to find a new background illustrator. I could teach Sakura, or maybe you, Ma-Mikoshiba.”

Mikoshiba breaks the silence. “How did Kashima take it?”

“I haven’t told her yet,” Hori says carefully, and his forehead creases a little.

Mikoshiba doesn’t reply, but he frowns as he looks back down at his work. Umetarou takes this as a sign that he needs to break the tension, so he drops his pencil and asks, “Who wants some cake?”

He didn’t used to have cake on hand all the time, but Sakura has started to want food when she comes over and, eventually, Umetarou started keeping at least one in his fridge at all times. Since Sakura has art club today, he wasn’t expecting on offering it, but it’s a handy excuse for a retreat to the kitchen.

Mikoshiba and Hori are still sitting in silence when he returns. Quickly, Mikoshiba eats his slice and starts gathering his things, and he shakes off Umetarou’s offers of more food. “I’ve gotta get home,” he says. “My mom will have dinner waiting.”

The door shuts behind him, and Umetarou turns back to his work. Suzuki and Mamiko are at their school’s culture festival, and their class is doing a food booth. Mamiko is wearing an apron, and Suzuki is handily chopping up onions.

Hori’s pencil stops scratching. “I figured you needed to know,” he says, “to find someone to replace me. But Kashima already knows that I’m leaving.”

Umetarou does not know what to say. At all. Shoujo mangas have upperclassmen leave, sometimes, usually with a confession of some sort, but Umetarou does not know how to be the one listening to his upperclassman — and friend, he thinks, the idea clunky in his head — talk about leaving.

“... Yes,” Umetarou says eventually. He does not look up from the page he’s on. “But perhaps you should… tell her.”

Hori sighs, again. “Yeah,” he agrees.

They finish their pages in silence, Hori’s slice of cake sitting mostly untouched beside him. After Hori’s put away all his supplies and stood, carefully, stretching tall to crack his spine, he walks around the table and stands next to Umetarou. Umetarou’s shuffling his papers into order, and only looks up when Hori clasps one strong hand on his shoulder. His face is tired but happy — worn and thoughtful, but pleased. As they are now, Hori is a good deal taller than Umetarou.

“Thank you,” Hori says, “for letting me draw your backgrounds. Don’t stand; I’ll let myself out.”

“Have a good night, senpai,” Umetarou says. It sounds more ordinary that he wants it to, but Hori grins and heads towards the door.

“I’ll see you soon,” he says, “when I teach Sakura about backgrounds.”

That night, after Umetarou has made his dinner and cleaned his apartment and done his homework, he falls back on his bed and grabs his phone. Hori-senpai has decided on a college, he types, and sends it to Sakura. Who else could it really go to?

Her response comes quickly. What?!? Kashima hasn’t said anything!!! Where’s he going?

He hasn’t told Kashima yet, Umetarou texts back, rolling over on his side.

Sakura sends him a few emojis, wide-eyes and blushes. Uh oh, comes a few seconds after that. I’ll try my best to keep it a secret.

Mikoshiba knows too, Umetarou adds for good measure.

Sakura doesn’t reply for a few long minutes, and Umetarou is left debating the pros and cons of cracking open a book to help him fall asleep. Before he can decide, his phone buzzes again.

Hmm… Sakura has sent. I’ve got to go to bed soon, but thank you for telling me.

Umetarou stares at that for a few seconds. He types and erases, searching for the right thing to say, but it doesn’t come. He would give up on sending another text altogether, but his phone buzzes again. Have a good night.

You too, he types back, and then he can set his phone aside and go to sleep.

 

The next several weeks seem ordinary. Umetarou has a math test; the basketball team wins a few games. After watching a series of American action films, Seo started swearing in English. A boy from 2-B gets confessed to behind the gym, and Sakura and Mikoshiba join him in watching from the bushes. It’s a girl from another school, and her friends are also watching from a nearby bush

When the confession is over — the boy has accepted, much to the girl’s friends’ delight — Mikoshiba sighs. “Sometimes I wish I had that,” he says, scratching the back of his head.

“You have Mayumayu, though, Mikorin,” Sakura says, and he sighs again.

“Yeah, but I’ve never met her. And she thinks I’m a girl.”

Umetarou says nothing, and they head back into the school building. Mikoshiba continues on about confessions, and Sakura listens carefully. She needs to walk in double time to keep up with the both of them, Umetarou thinks. She’s almost skipping.

He slows down, and Mikoshiba matches unconsciously, without pausing in his conversation. Sakura’s little legs slow until they’re walking normally, although Umetarou feels like he’s moving through butter.

They reach 2-A just in time for Mikoshiba to finish his speech. “Regardless of what happens afterwards,” he says, honest and bold, “a confession is a good thing. It’s laying your feelings bare for the other person to see and understand, and a person is always changed after that.”

There’s a reason Umetarou likes Mikoshiba. He may be hesitant before action, but he’s always held firm in his beliefs.

“That was surprisingly thoughtful, Mikorin,” Sakura says. She heads towards her classroom, and turns around to look at them. “Don’t you think so, Nozaki-kun?”

She meets his gaze, but she’s not really looking at him. She’s thinking, hard, and Umetarou has no idea what she’s thinking about.

“Yes,” he says. “It was very well put.”

Mikoshiba goes sheepish. “I was just saying,” he tells them. “That’s just how confessions are!”

Sakura smiles at him. “Yup,” she agrees brightly, and returns to her classroom.

The bell rings for the end of lunch, and Mikoshiba and Umetarou are left scrambling to get back to their classes. The boy who got confessed to is already in 2-B, blushing and bashful at the teasing of his friends.

As Mikoshiba nods a goodbye to Umetarou, he sighs, long and heavy. Umetarou thinks he doesn’t realise he’s doing it.

 

Umetarou, Mikoshiba, Kashima, Seo, and Sakura go to one of Wakamatsu’s basketball games. The team is on a winning streak, and Sakura convinces them to come and cheer for them.

They sit close to the front, so that they have a good view of the action. Wakamatsu’s lanky frame is right ahead of them, and they start to yell a few cheers to get him to look at them. It’s Seo’s long whoop that captures his attention, and he looks up from his water bottle and smiles brightly.

“You all came!” he says, jogging over, a towel around his neck. “Thank you!”

“We wanted to support you!” Sakura tells him, smiling just as wide.

“As your caring upperclassmen,” Mikoshiba adds.

Umetarou holds up a camera. “And I thought it’d be good for reference photos.”

Wakamatsu laughs. “I’ve got to get back to the bench,” he says, “but thank you.”

“Oh, little underclassman,” Kashima tells him with a smile and heavily lidded eyes, “watching you play basketball today will be our delight. I can only hope that you spread your wings and fly with all the talent I know you possess.”

Wakamatsu sputters a little. “I will!” he tells them, and turns back around to jog to the bench.

They watch the warmups — Umetarou takes pictures — and then the first few games —Umetarou takes pictures — and then there’s a break for snacks and the toilet — Umetarou takes pictures of the food stand but not the bathroom, since he already knows what it looks like. Then Wakamatsu plays, and they all lean forward and watch. Sakura and Mikoshiba cheer loudly, though they don’t seem to totally understand what’s going on. Kashima watches with interest, but stays quiet, and Seo is totally silent. Like Umetarou, she is leaning forward, totally silent, eyes on the players. When a particularly good move is made, she hums her approval, but the rest of the time she has eyes only for the game.

When it’s over — Roman Academy having won by a few baskets — she leans back, stretches, and starts to talk again. With Sakura and Kashima, mostly, but when Wakamatsu joins them in the main lobby she dunks his head down and starts chattering at him.

Sakura smiles at her. “She liked the game,” Umetarou offers, and Sakura turns her smile on him.

“Yeah,” she agrees. “And she likes talking to her friends about the things she likes.”

“Hey, you two,” Kashima calls. The other four have drifted closer to the doors. “We’re treating Wakamatsu, are you coming?”

Sakura blushes suddenly, pink rising into red on her cheeks. “Yes!” she squeaks, and walks quickly over to join their group. Umetarou follows a little slower, and watches as Sakura’s red hair and bows fall in step with the others’. He, too, hurried to join them.

 

You have to do an extra for this next issue, Ken texts him one day. Umetarou’s just left school, and is waiting to meet Wakamatsu.

Ah?!? Umetarou texts back. (*´-`*)ゝ What will I write about??

Wakamatsu joins him, and Umetarou stuffs his phone into his pocket. They talk on the walk to the apartment; mostly Wakamatsu about the basketball tournament. Umetarou ought to make Suzuki play a sport. Does he already?

Once Umetarou has gotten out drinks and supplies and made his underclassman comfortable, he takes his phone out again. Ken has responded: Talk about school, or your assistants. I’ll let you know if it doesn’t work.

Umetarou sends in three ideas for a Yumeko’s Corner! before Ken agrees with one. The first two are about the confession he saw — “A little creepy,” Ken said when he suggested it at a meeting — and the basketball game — Pointless, since you’re not writing about basketball soon, Ken texts back — but the third is almost a joke.

“That was a pretty cake,” Ken tells him awkwardly at the end of their meeting. It’s raining, and his taxi hasn’t arrived yet, so Umetarou is standing with him in the doorway.

Umetarou brightens. “Ah, really? Sakura-san really enjoys it! Maybe it should be in the next extra!”

The joke falls flat. Ken notices his taxi arrive, and he nods absentmindedly. “Yeah, that’d work,” he says, and then takes off into the rain.

“See you, Ken-san!” Umetarou shouts at his retreating back. He doesn’t realise that his new extra will be about a cake until he’s sitting back at his table, idly watching the news.

Ah, he thinks, and then picks up his pencil to doodle some sweets.

In the end, it’s mostly the recipe, with a short forward: S-san has been enjoying this cake lately, so I figured I’d share it with you! They like it best chilled, but you can also have it heated up! It’s a lot of fun to make, but it’s even more fun to see my assistant’s happy face!

 

Kashima comes over on a Thursday. Umetarou is studying for a history test, and an unfamiliar knock sounds on his door. Much to his surprise, Kashima is standing, dripping wet, on his front door.

“Hello,” Umetarou says slowly. He is rather confused.

“Hi!” Kashima says, bright even though she’s reminiscent of a drowning bird. “I got caught in the rain, and since you lived near here I was wondering if I could borrow an umbrella?”

Instead, Umetarou opens his door a little further and gestures her in. “Wait here,” he says. “I’ll grab a towel and you can dry off.”

“Ah, thank you!” Kashima says. She waits, dripping, as Umetarou grabs a towel from his linen closet. He hesitates before going back, and quickly finds a warm shirt and pants that might fit her.

“Here,” he says, offering the towel. “But if you’d like to stay until the rain lets up, you can change into some dry clothes.”

Kashima’s brow crinkles, and she stares down at the clothes. Eventually she shrugs and grabs them, and looks back up to smile at Umetarou. “Sure,” she tells him. “Where’s your bathroom?”

Returning to his textbooks, Umetarou leaves history behind for a little and moves to science. He doesn’t understand most of it. As he tries to puzzle out chromosomes, Kashima joins him in the living room and sits, almost hesitantly, across from him, leaning back against the couch.

“Oh, the stages of mitosis!” she says when she catches a glimpse of his books. “That one’s fun.” Umetarou looks up and blinks at her, and her smile falters.

“Is there any chance you can help me understand this?” Umetarou ventures to ask, and Kashima’s smile perks back up.

She leads him through science and back to history, recaps the entire last unit quickly and easily, and then starts ahead on the next one. In two hours, Umetarou feels less like an average student and more like an above average student.

“Thank you,” he says when they’ve finished with another war.

Kashima peers out the window and stretches languidly, long limbs everywhere. “It’s stopped raining,” she observes. She turns back to him with a smile. “I’d better go.” She grabs her bag, and Umetarou follows her to the bathroom as she grabs her clothes, drying on the rack. “Still wet,” she says, frowning.

“I’ll wash them and bring them to you tomorrow,” Umetarou says without thinking. Kashima, for what feels like the millionth time that afternoon, smiles brightly at him.

“I’ll wash these and give them back to you tomorrow, then.”

Umetarou leads her to the door, grabbing an umbrella and pressing it into her hands. “In case it rains again.”

“I’ll add the debt to the books,” Kashima tells him, and pops it open. Umetarou closes the door and doesn’t watch her go, but out of his living room window, he sees a single dark umbrella making its way down the street.

The next morning, they see each other at the show lockers and wordlessly thrust plain bags at each other. Mikoshiba asks a question, which Kashima laughs off, and Umetarou keeps his umbrella in his bag. It doesn’t hurt to be prepared.

The next Thursday evening, Kashima shows up without an explanation again, this time in the sun. She watches television and eats chips as Umetarou works on Let's Love, but she doesn’t ask what he’s doing. Umetarou doesn’t ask anything either.

The Thursday after that she’s there again, at close to 6:30. Umetarou lets her in and gives her some of the curry he made.

The fourth time she comes, he slides her a slice of Sakura’s favorite cake and says, casually, “I am wondering why you’re here, Kashima-kun.”

Kashima eats the entire slice slowly as Umetarou inks a page and a half, and finally she says, “It’s… I have a problem that I’ve yet to find an answer to. When I’ve got one, or when I’ve given up and need help, I’ll probably come to you.”

Umetarou never thought of himself and Kashima as close, but maybe that’s why she’s here. He doesn’t know what he can offer her, but he’s being entirely honest when he says, “I’ll do what I can when that comes, and I’ll do what I can in the meantime.”

Kashima nods, eyes still turned away, and puts her earbuds in. They sit, with pen and music, as the clouds on the horizon slowly roll away and the sun sets, red and orange streaking into blue.

 

Umetarou has three pages in the back of his next volume devoted to answering fans’ questions. It’s mostly easy stuff — How do I get close to the boy I like? asks Yuki, age fourteen — but a question towards the end stumps Umetarou.

I’m a girl, but the person I like is also a girl. There’s always a boy in your stories. Does it still work if there’s two girls?

It’s a handwritten letter — already opened and read by Ken, but he sent it forward to Umetarou anyway. The signature is distinctly childish. Umetarou doesn’t usually chew the ends of pens, but now he bites down and thinks, unexpectedly, of Tomoda. Eventually he writes,

Of course it’s okay! You might not see a lot of stories with two girls, but they’re still there. As long as you do your best to communicate your feelings to the person you like, all the other stuff should disappear. Love is uncomplicated like that.

He stares down at his reply for a long time. That night, before he goes to bed but after he’s finished his schoolwork, Umetarou opens a new tab on his laptop and rests his hands on the keys. The empty search bar blinks at him, and Umetarou closes the tab and shuts the computer.

The last letter, and Umetarou’s response, don’t end up in the volume. Ken hands him an author’s copy and he pages blindly through it, but can’t get himself to comment on what’s missing.

That night, he opens a new tab and types something vague in the search bar. He closes it right after hitting enter, but he opens a new tab and keeps it open, a possibility.

 

In the morning, before they have to go to homeroom, Mikoshiba watches the clouds, pensive. His mouth is drawn, one sharp line, and he taps against the strap of his bag aimlessly, without pattern. Nozaki doesn’t see him between classes, but when lunch comes around his eyebrows have fallen and creased.

Seo and Sakura join them outside, and only Sakura seems to understand what’s going on.

“Mikorin,” she says, “you have to eat something.”

Mikoshiba flinches. “‘M not really hungry.”

“I bet you didn’t have breakfast this morning,” Sakura coaxes. She’s probably right. “Here, I bought you some cafeteria bread.”

Mikoshiba takes the offered bread and eats, gloom not lifting off his shoulders. Seo doesn’t notice, watching the clouds instead. She’s humming, and her legs are stretched out in front of her. It’s an idyllic picture next to Mikoshiba’s glum air.

“Hey, we’ll be third years soon,” she says. Umetarou is expecting something bittersweet but hopeful, just to contradict Mikoshiba’s mood a little more, but instead Seo asks bluntly, “Do we know where Hori-senpai’s going to college?”

“Ah,” replies Umetarou sagely. Sakura is apparently caught up with feeding Mikoshiba, so Umetarou is left stumbling and does the best he can. “I wasn’t aware that he was graduating. Is he a third year?”

Seo turns her gaze to him and narrows his eyes, but she’s stopped from saying anything when Mikoshiba stops taking Sakura’s food and folds over.

“Just let me think, Sakura! I just need to think a little!” he cries, and then he bolts upright and sprints away from all of them.

“... Is he skipping school?” Seo asks as Mikoshiba’s retreating back grows smaller.

“I think so?” Sakura says.

“... Should I follow him?” Seo asks.

“Yuzuki! No!” Sakura yells, but Seo is already taking off after Mikoshiba. “Oh, that can’t be good for either of them.”

“Is something wrong with Mikorin?” Umetarou asks her, but Sakura just sighs and sits back down.

“It’s, uh — he’s — let’s finish lunch, Nozaki-kun.” When Umetarou sits next to her, exceedingly confused, she colors, but takes a bite of her food. He can smell her lunch from next to her, and some sweet flowery scent, and the former makes him hungry. They finish lunch together, and neither Mikoshiba nor Seo joins them before lunch is over.

Mikoshiba also doesn’t show up to class, according to the reports Sakura gets from Kashima, and he doesn’t come to Umetarou’s apartment after school. Sakura and Hori do, but neither starts talking about what Umetarou wants to talk about, which is Mikoshiba and Kashima and maybe Wakamatsu and Seo. He’s not sure how to breach any of those topics, so instead, he draws Suzuki and Mamiko on the top of a ferris wheel together. It is sweet and uncomplicated there, and behind them is a beautiful smearing sunset. At the bottom, there are Suzuki’s fans and Mamiko’s obligations, but at the top, Suzuki takes Mamiko’s hand and they are fine.

Seo, reportedly, gets yelled at for five minutes for skipping class again. Her claims that she was trying to help someone go unheard, and she gets cleaning duty for a week.

 

Umetarou is asked, once again, to write the drama department a new script.

“Something fun,” Hori tells him, leaning against the wall of the second years’ hallway. His tie is untucked from his shirt pocket, and he smiles at a few people as they pass. “Comedy with enough drama to tide over the romantics.”

Umetarou nods absentmindedly. “Not my style, but I’ll do my best.”

“Alright.” Hori grins at Umetarou and a girl giggles as she walks past.

In class, Umetarou jots down plot ideas in the margins of his notes. He’ll ask Kashima for help with math if she comes over on Thursday. Right now Umetarou has a script to write.

There is a prince, of course, and two different princesses, and Umetarou tentatively writes in a bold knight for Hori to play. If he doesn’t want it then some eager first year can make it work, but it’s his role; Umetarou will tell him as much.

The prince has all of Kashima’s romantic flair, but the princesses and the dragon are funny, as funny as Umetarou can make them. He debates over the ending in his last class, and decides on the more humorous choice: the princesses leave their prince behind to live with the dragon, who has been a millionaire this whole time. The prince is left on his knees, until the knight rides past, makes fun of him, and calls for the curtain to close. It should be funny, but all Umetarou has is the plot. No dialogue is coming to him.

They’re dismissed from class just as Umetarou considers writing a scene. He collects his things slowly, and nearly everyone is gone by the time he leaves the classroom. Sakura is still at the shoe lockers, though, and he joins her, tapping her on the shoulder when she doesn’t notice him.

She looks up and smiles. “Oh, Nozaki-kun! How was your day?”

“It was alright,” Umetarou says. Suddenly, all thoughts of the script have been forgotten for a half-second. “Can I walk you to the train station?”

Sakura blinks at him. “Yes, I — yes.” She turns, quickly, and heads for the door. Umetarou follows, and even with his longer legs he has a hard time keeping up.

“Don’t you normally have art club today?” Umetarou asks her, still struggling to keep up.

She slows. “No, it got cancelled,” Chiyo tells him, and laughs easily. “We were supposed to try clay, but the teacher in charge of the pottery wheels is sick, so we couldn’t get them out of storage.”

Maybe Suzuki could help Mamiko make a pot.

“And the closet was totally locked, so Seo tried to pick it —“ Chiyo continues, and Umetarou follows the smooth beat of her voice as she tells him about her day.

And someone breaks it, purposefully, and Mamiko tells Suzuki she’s not good enough for him and leaves him the pieces. And Suzuki repairs it, and gives it to her with a note, and she reads it and runs after him and they hold it between them as they kiss.

Sakura’s story is less dramatic — Seo nearly got detention, but escaped by the skin of her teeth, and art club ended up leaving five minutes after everyone else.

“Nozaki-kun?” Sakura asks. She tugs on his sleeve, and he stops dead.

“Yes?”

Sakura blinks. “We’re at the train station.”

Umetarou blinks, too, and realizes that she’s right. “Oh.”

Sakura smiles at him and drops his sleeve. “The next train comes soon, so I should be leaving.”

“Bye,” Umetarou says automatically, and then, “I hope you use the pottery wheels soon.”

“I think we will.” She’s pensive for a second, and then asks, “What were you thinking about today?”

Umetarou scratches the top of his head. “The school play. It’s supposed to be a comedy, but that’s not my style.”

“If I can try pottery,” Sakura advises, “you should try comedy.” And then — “Oh, my train’s coming! I have to go!”

“Bye,” Umetarou tells her, but she’s already gone. He’s left staring at the entrance to the train station, Sakura’s bright hair bouncing away from him.

He drafts a storyboard for the pottery story that night, but Suzuki’s hands don’t seem to fit properly around Mamiko’s on the pottery wheel. He sighs, crumples the paper up and throws it at the trash can, and starts writing the script.

 

Yumeno’s Corner! (Assorted excerpts)

H-san is leaving me soon, so he needs to teach everything he’s learned to someone else. I just hope he has a good time without us, and that we can do his work justice!

Lately I’ve started to notice how people smell? My assistant S-san smells like flowers!! Maybe I should start wearing a perfume…

I recently ordered orange soda at karaoke! It’s very tasty, but I haven’t had it in a while. I should buy some for my fridge. (⇀‸↼)

My brother’s started texting me a lot. He had a friend he texted before, but I guess they had a fight, so now he sends me lots of photos of dogs and some of his thoughts throughout the day. I like it, but I hope he makes up with his friend soon!

 

 

Wakamatsu tries to convince him to play a game of basketball, fails, pastes on screentones at Umetarou’s apartment, and gladly accepts more of Seo’s songs. He chatters happily about his classmates — two of them have a new romance, it seems — and his teammates — one of them said that his shooting form was “really improving”.

“And I blocked two of Seo-senpai’s shots last week!” he finishes. “She bought me juice afterwards.”

Umetarou looks up, perplexed, as Wakamatsu continues. “Sometimes I actually think she might be able to be a good person.”

“Uh —“ Umetarou says.

“But I forgot — is Suzuki’s tie a screentone too?”

“Oh,” Umetarou says, relieved. “No, Sakura does that.”

Wakamatsu doesn’t mention Seo again, and eagerly thanks Umetarou for Lorelai’s songs on his way out.

 

Umetarou takes Mikoshiba with him when he takes pictures of convenience stores. Mamiko might be getting a part-time job, and Mikoshiba has been tense and quiet for two weeks now, ever since that strange day he skipped class.

“So,” Umetarou says, snapping a picture of the freezers. The only employee in the store is reading a book and doesn’t seem to care, so he takes a few more. “Did you get any new games?”

“No,” Mikoshiba says. He’s squatting next to the drinks, arms folded and eyes on the floor.

“Hear any new music?” Umetarou moves on to the cashier’s desk. The cashier glances up from her book, but relaxes when she realizes he’s not taking photos of her.

“No,” says Mikoshiba again. He stands and joins Umetarou. “I need to get back home soon.”

“Alright, I’ll join you.”

Mikoshiba doesn’t reply, but allows Umetarou to walk beside him as he trudged down the sidewalks. Hands in his pockets and frown in place, he’s enough of a sight that a few mothers start hustling their children to walk faster as he passes.

They pass by a store with figurines, the kind Mikoshiba has, and he doesn’t seem to notice. “Do you have that one?” Umetarou asks, and Mikoshiba stops.

“No,” he says, clearly tempted, but then his eyebrows draw together and his mouth crumples. Turning on his heel, he speed walks away from the store, and Umetarou has to jog to keep up with him.

Mikoshiba starts to slow nearly a block away. ”I really have to go home now,” he says, subdued and staring at the ground.

Umetarou grabs his shoulder. He might not have any idea of what’s going on, but he won’t let his best friend walk away without saying anything. “Mikorin,” he says. “I…”

“I’m fine,” Mikoshiba tells him. “Really, it’s nothing that serious.”

“But is there anything I can do?” Umetarou asks, and Mikoshiba looks up.

“No,” he says, voice bare. “It’s fine, Nozaki. It’ll work itself out.”

Umetarou loosens his grip on Mikoshiba’s shoulder, but doesn’t let go. “You’ll tell me if it doesn’t?” he asks.

“Yeah,” Mikoshiba replies. “Promise.” And Umetarou lets go.

He walks Mikorin back to the station. They stand silently together, waiting for the next train to be announced and for Mikoshiba to cross the gate. Around them, streams of students and businessmen and housewives leave the train station, from city to neighbourhood. Some fight against the traffic, but it’s mostly people returning to their homes for the evening.

“Nozaki,” Mikoshiba says beside him, “Sorry for…” He trails off.

“It will work out, eventually,” Umetarou tells him. He crosses his arms and leans back against the low wall, stone rough against his trousers. “So it’s fine.”

Mikoshiba’s train is called and he hops off the wall, dusting off his pants. “Thank you,” he says, and heads towards the station. Smiling faintly at him – the most he can muster – Umetarou heads back home.

 

Kashima teaches Umetarou the math he missed while writing her script, as cheerful and easy as she always is. It’s not even been an hour, and she sits on the floor next to Umetarou’s windows and reads as he keeps writing and rewriting lines.

It isn’t working.

Umetarou drops his head to the table and frowns at his script. The prince is the trouble. He’s writing it with humour, not charm, and everything seems unnatural in the text.

What Would Kashima Say, he asks himself, and then he realizes that he could just ask Kashima.

He breaks the silence. “Kashima-kun?”

She looks up, eyebrows twisting, because they don’t really chat while she’s at his house. He doesn’t want to talk about Let's Love, and he doesn’t think she wants to talk about why she’s here. She answers, though. “Yes?”

Umetarou considers his next words carefully. “If you were trying to make people laugh,” he asks, “what would you do?”

“I’d be the funny man, of course,” she says immediately. “Hori-senpai would be my straight character.”

“Could you be princely while you did that?” asks Umetarou.

She considers it. “Maybe. My… natural charm isn’t funny alone, but maybe if people pretended it was silly?”

Umetarou could work with that. He might need to change a few characters a little — the princesses don’t fall for the prince, but maybe the dragon does? Or the prince is used as a weapon by the warring princesses against each other? The possibilities whirl in his mind.

Kashima interrupts his thoughts by clearing her throat. “Can I ask you something?” She’s precise and careful as she says it.

“Of course,” Umetarou says, already scribbling down a few ideas of scenes.

She’s picking her words carefully, the sentence delicate and fragile before she even says it. “When people I don’t know look at me,” she asks, and the words hang crookedly in the air, “what do you think their impression is?”

Umetarou looks up at her. She’s watching him, the setting sun testing in her hair and her eyes piercing into his. “My first impression,” he says, “was that another second year was flirting with a large number of girls and stealing my friend away. I can’t speak for anyone else.”

“But was it… Compared to how you know me now, is that bad?”

“Honestly,” Umetarou tells her, “I’m not certain I know you far more than that now, but — it isn’t bad. That’s how you are.”

Kashima looks away from him, sighs, and slides down closer to the floor. The book in her hands seems long forgotten. Umetarou doesn’t look back down at his paper.

“I’ve been trying to do something,” Kashima tells him. “It’s on Thursdays, but I never end up going. So I come here.”

“What is it?” Umetarou asks her.

“It’s — I think it would help me. Figure things out.” She flops down further, head tilted back against the windowpane and staring at the ceiling.

“Like?”

She finally closes the book and puts it aside, wrapping both arms around her legs. “I’m unsure of who I am lately.”

Umetarou doesn’t know what to say.

“Mikoshiba has been freaking out since he figured out—“ she breaks off, glances at Umetarou, and changes course. “He’s… not himself lately. So I can’t talk to him. But I thought this meeting might help.”

“You haven’t gone,” Umetarou points out, and flexes his feet in his socks.

“No.” Kashima sighs again. “I haven’t.”

Umetarou considers his next words carefully, but plunged ahead anyway. “Could I help you?”

Kashima eyes him warily.

“I’m not Mikoshiba,” Umetarou tells her, “but I can try to be similar. And I’m good at research.”

Kashima clearly hesitates, curled defensively up on herself, and then she lets go of her knees and nods. “I guess.”

Umetarou pulls out a fresh piece of paper, for notes, and listens carefully. Legs flat on the ground and feet pressed together, Kashima clenches her knees tightly and swallows. “It’s the princely thing. And the charm, with girls. Sometimes I do it with guys, too, so I don’t know if it’s a friendly thing or…” She trails off.

“Like shoujo ai?” Umetarou asks, scribbling down what she said.

Kashima looks confused. “I guess? But… not just for girls. And I don’t feel the difference between acting in the role of a prince, and wearing a skirt, but there’s supposed to be one.”

She’s stiff, not looking at Umetarou, just gripping her knees. It’s a stark difference from the Kashima that Umetarou sees at school; this one is in a worn sweatshirt, hair falling gently around her face, and she looks strangely bare and delicate in the red light falling through the windows.

“That’s okay,” Umetarou tells her. “It’s okay if you like that.”

Kashima doesn’t reply, but her shoulders loosen and straighten out, a little stronger and more even than before.

Umetarou can’t offer her any answers yet, but he feeds her dinner and they play a game of shoji. (It’s the only game he has in the apartment, but Kashima looks a little brighter after trouncing Umetarou.) He sends her home with a promise to look it up and a spare coat — it’s chilly outside.

Much to his surprise, Kashima reaches up and clasps one hand to his shoulder before leaving, and Umetarou nods a second time at the figure that walks past his window.

That night, he opens a new tab and types decisively into the search bar. More results than he expected come up, but he clicks the first one and reads the entire thing, and opens up new tabs to research the terms he doesn’t know.

Kashima gives him back the coat the next morning, at the shoe lockers, and Umetarou thrusts a stack of printouts at her.

“That might help,” he says to her quizzical look, and tries not to feel too proud about his research skills.

 

Seo tackles Umetarou in the corridor one day, and he barely manages to stay standing.

What?” he yells, and she none too gently lets go.

“I have a question for you,” she says, red in the face. Did she sprint here? Umetarou wonders, but she isn’t breathing hard.

“Yes?” he asks. None of their classmates are giving them the time of day, too used to Seo and her antics.

Not here,” Seo hisses at him, grabbing his tie and a lapel and dragging him into 2-A. Sakura is already there, distressed at the sight of Nozaki being dragged in.

No one else in the class seems to care.

Seo shoves him into a chair as Sakura walks over to join them. “Uh, Yuzuki?” she asks, concern colouring her voice. “What’s happening here?”

“Nozaki,” Seo says. If Umetarou didn’t know who she was, he’d think her ears were turning red. “Can I borrow that shoujo manga you have?”

“...Huh?”

“I know you have one,” Seo says. “Kashima told me teenage boys are carrying them around these days.”

“No, I do have one.” Umetarou is tremendously confused. “I just didn’t understand why you want it from me. Other people have them too.”

Seo narrows her eyes at him, and Umetarou understands. “I was the first person you saw, wasn’t I?”

Sakura starts to laugh. “Don’t be silly, Nozaki-kun. Yuzuki wouldn’t manhandle you like that just because you were the first person she… Oh, Yuzuki.”

“I needed one!” Seo says defensively.

“For what?” Sakura exclaims incredulously, and Umetarou is pleasantly surprised that she’s so inquisitive. (Sometimes, Sakura seems to ignore the strangest behavior from Seo.)

Unexpectedly, Seo sits, feet caught against Umetarou’s chair. “I just do,” she says, frowning, and Sakura sighs.

“Will you tell Nozaki-kun?” she asks, and Seo eyes Umetarou for a second before nodding. Sakura watches her, eyes narrowed, and goes to stew at her desk.

Seo doesn’t speak. “So?” prompts Umetarou.

She scowls and slides down in the chair, crossing her arms. “I want to eat it so I know how to steal around Waka,” she says in a rush. At least, that’s what it sounds like.

“Huh?”

“I want to read it so I know how I feel,” Seo repeats, gritting her teeth.

“About… Wakamatsu?” Umetarou is pretty sure she said something about him, at least.

Seo bares her teeth at him in what is probably not a smile. “Okay!” Umetarou says quickly, handing over the book. Seo stands and scampers away to Sakura, who says something to her. Seo frowns, shoves Let's Love into her bag — Umetarou winces and hopes it doesn’t tear — and doesn’t seem to listen.

It’s probably time for Umetarou to go back to 2-B.

Seo returns Let's Love two days later. Umetarou flips through it frantically and doesn’t find a mark on it, and Seo scoffs. “Thanks,” she says, slouching against a locker. “For letting me read it.”

“Yeah,” replies Umetarou, and Seo perks up a little.

“But hey, why do you even have that, huh? You and Mikoshiba and Hori-chan?”

Continuously heckling him, she follows Umetarou to class, and only leaves when she finds someone else to latch onto. It turns out to be Wakamatsu; Umetarou is glad he’s left alone but deeply sympathetic for him. (As Wakamatsu tries to get to his classroom, Seo clings onto his waist and ends up being dragged along the corridor. After she trips several students, a pile-up starts in the second year hallway, right in front of 2-G’s doorway. Kashima, despondent, is separated from her fans by a crowd of bodies.)

 

 

Miyano comes over to help Umetarou with background characters and to chat. Her hair is pulled back with a headband, cute and flowing around her face. Umetarou absently doodles her hairstyle while listening to a story about college, and then moves on to recreating his friends’ hair from memory.

“And then —“ Miyano says, laughing, “— we had to buy everyone a round of drinks to calm them down!”

Umetarou tells her about the new school play — “I’ll have to come!” she replies, smiling at him, and Umetarou smiles back — and gives her another cup of tea before she has to go. Then he buckles down and finishes off the script, saves the file, and sends it to Hori for proofreading.

As he waits, he studies the drawings in front of him. Wakamatsu’s hair is a little longer, he thinks, and Mayu’s is shorter.

Umetarou stills. One of the sketches is of Sakura, taken from the side, one bow neatly tied and her face tilted up, eyes bright. It reminds Umetarou, strangely, of Mamiko, even though Sakura’s nose is too upturned and her face a little more heart-shaped.

Umetarou crumples up the doodles, along with the rest of his excess papers, and tosses them in the recycling.

 

 

Mayu texts Umetarou in math class — cn i come ovr, no capitals. Even after a few months of it, Umetarou is startled when he sees the full sentence. He almost falls out of his seat.

Yes, of course, he replies. Meet me at the gate afterschool?

y, Mayu sends back. Some things don’t really change, then.

Mayu is waiting at the gate, head tipped over onto his shoulder. It’s a Thursday, so Umetarou is without assistants, and Mayu follows him back home without any distractions.

Immediately after falling onto the couch, Mayu is practically comatose, so Umetarou starts dinner. He makes it for two, but then remembers that Kashima might come and hastily begins to chop more vegetables. She’s never met Mayu, but now is as good a time as any, so Umetarou pulls out tableware for three.

As expected, Kashima lets herself and nearly drops onto the couch before realizing someone else is there. “Uh, Nozaki? I think someone broke into your apartment to take a nap.”

Umetarou leaves the kitchen, drying off his hands on a towel. “That’s just my brother. Kashima, this is Mayu.”

Mayu blinks at her, which is as much acknowledgement as she’ll get.

“He doesn’t talk much,” explains Umetarou.

“Okay!” Kashima accepts cheerfully, and sits at the table with, Umetarou notices, a stack of papers. “Nozaki,” she says, unexpectedly serious. “Will you help me run lines?”

Umetarou agrees, and they sit at his living room table and run lines. (Well, Kashima sits — Umetarou does what he’s supposed to do, which is stand up and act.) One eye open, Mayu watches them from where he’s sprawled across the couch.

“—and so you must, good dragon!” Umetarou says in a high voice, and Kashima delivers the last line of the scene.

“Or I’ll have to take drastic measures!” she says, keeping her brilliant smile on for a beat longer, and then dropping it and her script onto the table.

“Good,” says Mayu. Umetarou blushes at the high praise.

“It could be better,” Kashima tells the table. “It needs to be.”

“For Hori-senpai?” Umetarou ventures, sitting down across from Kashima. She looks up at him, confused.

“What? No, for the scouts. There are probably going to be talent scouts in the audience, since this is our last play, and Princess Marigold wants to be an actress.”

“Oh.” Kashima, in direct defiance of all shoujo tropes, seems relatively uncaring about Hori leaving. It baffles Umetarou. He’s still not happy about Hori leaving, and he’s known for longer than she has.

She continues. “I mean, he’ll still act in college, and it’s not like I’m never going to see him again. He’ll probably come back a lot.”

“Kashima —“

“He’s good at making friends, and he’ll probably get a cute girlfriend really easily, so he won’t be lonely. Lots of people like him. He doesn’t need a great send off when what’s waiting for him is so nice.”

Dropping her head down on the table, right next to her script, Kashima sighs. Umetarou looks over at Mayu, in case he could help somewhat, but Mayu has closed his eyes and seems checked out.

“Kashima,” Umetarou says awkwardly, teaching over to pat her shoulder, “Do you want to talk about it?”

Kashima moves her head and smushes her face into the table. “No,” she says. “I just put on some pants.”

While Umetarou puzzles that one over, Mayu flips over and says, clearly, “Sometimes to figure out what your heart is saying, you need to give it time to speak.”

What follows is a baffled silence, until Kashima perks up and says, eager, “He’s right! Thank you, young Nozaki!” She grabs her scripts, tugs on her coat, and in a flash she’s out of Umetarou’s apartment.

“What?” Umetarou asks his younger brother, and Mayu stares resolutely up to the ceiling.

“It’s something I learned recently.”

Umetarou goes to sleep confused, and wakes up still befuddled. He doesn’t tell Sakura about what Kashima’s done, just like he doesn’t ask about Mikoshiba, who’s still quiet and snappish.

Instead, he turns to the apparent beacon of wisdom that Mayu has become. Mikoshiba has been very strange lately, he sends. Do you think I should say something?

Mayu responds immediately. He’s just thinking about something. He’ll talk when he wants to. It’ll be fine.

Umetarou stares at that strange message, long and wordy and knowledgeable, for a while. Eventually he flips his phone closed and slides it into his pocket, but he is no less perplexed than he was when Kashima left his apartment.

 

An art gallery opens up ten minutes away from the school, and Sakura is interested. Umetarou invites her to see it with him and brings his camera, just in case they get food.

“Oh!” Sakura says when the wide window front comes into view, several bright paintings visible inside. “C’mon, let’s go!” She walks fast enough that Umetarou is struggling to keep up, and his legs are twice as long as hers.

In the gallery, she pauses in front of every art piece, taking them in with wide eyes before talking about them with Umetarou.

“You know a lot,” he remarks at the fifth piece, an enormous oil painting of a horse. “Not just about watercolour.”

Sakura laughs and fiddles with her school bag’s handle. “My grandmother watched me when I was little, and she had an art studio. She’d set me down with fingerpaints and then do her own work, and whenever I had questions she would answer them, even when they were silly.”

“She sounds nice.” It’s no surprise, since she’s Sakura’s grandmother.

“She was,” Sakura says, and turns her soft eyes back to the painting. “She’s why I like art so much.”

“You… want to go to school for it, right?” Umetarou asks, heart beating brave and wild in his chest.

Sakura moves her smile onto him. “Graphic design, yeah,” she tells him. “All the good schools for it are pretty far, though.”

“Yeah,” Umetarou says, or maybe he says something else. Sakura moves to a glass bowl and stills in front of it, her energy frozen for a second. The door opens, and the draft of wind that accompanies it twists around Sakura’s bright hair, sending a few stands drifting. Her smell, floral and soft, is wafted towards Umetarou.

They get dinner afterwards, and Sakura obligingly mimes eating hers before taking a bite. Umetarou’s camera shutter snaps a dozen times before he nods, and Sakura happily eats.

 

 

Umetarou’s latest volume is a success — so successful that Ken’s bosses want there to be a signing. Ken talks them down from that, but corporate still wants something.

“You’re getting a Twitter,” Ken tells him at the end of the whole story. Umetarou blanches. He’s being thrust into the technological age against his will. By the end of Let's Love, Suzuki’s going to be a robot. “You are,” Ken repeats, before Umetarou can interject. “You can make one yourself, but you need to tweet at least once a day.”

“What do I have to tweet about?” Umetarou asks him.

Ken shrugs. “Go research to find out.”

So Umetarou and Sakura and Wakamatsu and Seo, who’s tagging along for who knows why, attend a class at the local library about using computers. It is filled mostly with eighty year olds. Sakura has to help several people just turn on the computer.

But Umetarou successfully makes a Twitter. His profile picture is, of course, Suzuki and Mamiko, and with shaking hands he drafts his first tweet:

Hello, it’s me! I’ll be joining everyone on Twitter from now on!

The elderly lady next to Umetarou peers over his shoulder and nodded, smiling. “That’s perfect, sweetheart. All your friends will love that.”

So Umetarou hits post.

For the next several weeks, he continues to hit post.

I really hate having to wake up early on weekends… It’s still dark outside!

If I was an animal, what would I be? Definitely not a walrus!

Today I tried to make M-san tea, but I accidentally made it the way S-san likes it! I had to drink it for M-san.

A lot of people reply, enough that he can’t respond to all of them, but Umetarou likes having an outlet for the things he would normally forget. He can imagine reading back over them years from now and remembering the details of his high school life that had faded away from him: the walk to school every morning, falling asleep in lit class, figuring out the next chapter of Let's Love.

Except he wouldn’t be fondly remembering that last one, because Let's Love doesn’t have an ending yet, Umetarou remembers. He doesn’t know where Suzuki and Mamiko are ending up, so he’s not about to finish it.

 

Hori asks for Umetarou’s input at one of the play practices; he brings along Mikoshiba, who brings along Seo. Apparently they’ve been hanging out lately – when Mikoshiba’s been avoiding Umetarou, he thinks a little grouchily, then shakes it off.

The princesses are excellent, although one is clearly a little better than the other. Some first year is playing the dragon, and they’re talented but pretty obviously untrained. The ensemble has more energy than they usually do, and the sets are as detailed as ever, but Kashima seems different than usual.

Maybe it’s because Umetarou knows her a little better, or maybe she’s genuinely changed her acting style, but it seems where the audience would normally fall in love with her, they’ll laugh instead.

Glancing over at Mikoshiba and Seo, Umetarou tries to gauge what they think. Seo’s a blank wall of apparent boredom, but Mikoshiba seems engaged. As Umetarou watches, he laughs under his breath a little, and Umetarou turns to see that Kashima, onstage, is doing some bizarre pulling at the castle wall.

It’s when Hori appears onstage that Umetarou realizes the difference. He’s backlit by soft golden lights, an exaggerated smirk on his face, and as Kashima sees him from her place on the ground and scrambles to her feet, Hori begins his lines in a confident voice.

“No one has ever gotten into this castle, not even the strongest knight in the realm!” It’s somewhat cheesy – Umetarou is confident enough in his own writing to admit that – but Hori delivers it like he’s been watching hundreds of knights fail.

Kashima, now on her feet, is taller than Hori, but she’s slimmer, too. As she puffs up her chest and declares that she’ll make it in, she’s as charming as ever, but she’s not charming the audience – it’s the knight that her character is trying to impress. Hori eyes her up and down, disbelief clear, and next to Umetarou, Mikoshiba laughs quietly.

Umetarou doesn’t have many notes – there are a few line deliveries he might suggest could be changed, but not many. Rehearsal ends after the first run-through, but Hori keeps some villagers behind to discuss a dance sequence; Umetarou waits at the edge of the stage as Kashima, Seo, and Mikoshiba put away the set and chatter.

When Umetarou gave Hori a part, he’d expected him to hand off some of his responsibilities, but it doesn’t seem like it. As he and a second year coach the villagers, a first year with a clipboard approaches him, and Hori makes one final point to the second year before beginning to flip through the clipboard. By the time he reaches Umetarou, shaking his head gently and grinning, the set is entirely put away, and Seo is yelling and standing on a chair.

“Sorry about that,” he says. “This dance number has spiraled out of control, I think.”

“It’s an excellent dance number,” Umetarou tells him honestly, and adds, “and you were excellent.”

Hori smiles at him, a hint of self-deprecation in the scrunch of his eyebrows, and asks him about his notes. It’s hard to concentrate with Kashima laughing so hard in the background, but Umetarou gives them as the second year hovers. Nodding, Hori writes a few things down on the clipboard, then hands it to the second year and points out what he’s written; the second year seems enraptured.

“And maybe you could try to give Kashima these by yourself?” Hori finishes. The second year’s nerves are clear on his face, but he trudges off the stage and towards the bent heads at the edge of the room. They watch him go.

“What’s that about?” Umetarou asks.

Hori shrugs easily. “Since you forced me into acting, I thought some of my other responsibilities should be taught to someone else. The tech crew is mostly being led by a first year, actually.”

Umetarou isn’t very involved with drama, but it’s hard to imagine someone else doing what Hori does – the directing, the painting, the Kashima wrangling. (Although judging by the crowds of girls around her, that second year isn’t doing a very good job.) If he were involved in any clubs, would Umetarou have seen people doing the same thing last year? It’s not like Umetarou could do that with Let's Love.

“Anyway, I’ve got to head out,” Hori tells him, clapping a hand on Umetarou’s shoulder. “I’ll get you that manuscript by Thursday, alright? We’ve just got to iron out a few things.”

Umetarou watches him leave, pausing to exchange a few words with one of the princesses. One of the villagers joins in, blushing; Hori smiles at them both before dragging Kashima out of the herd. Mikoshiba and Seo watch them leave; Umetarou joins them, and they part ways at the shoe lockers.

 

Hmm, do you think S-san would enjoy some new beta pens? I’ve been thinking about upgrading my assistants’ equipment!

If you had to choose, do you think whales or dinosaurs are cuter? (*´-`*)

Umetarou suggests doing an interview, since his fans enjoy his tweets so much. Ken just stares at him for a long second before changing the topic.

 

The basketball team is doing extraordinary well in their tournament. The middle school team never got farther than the first level, but this year regionals is a possibility. According to Sakura, who heard it from Seo, Wakamatsu practically vibrates when anyone mentions it.

The drama club is busy with rehearsals, but everyone else agrees to meet up at the sports center that Saturday, with Sakura and Umetarou bringing lunch. Umetarou invites Miyano, too, and Mayu, who stays with him on Friday so he doesn’t have to wake up any earlier. Saturday dawns gray and drizzling, and Umetarou pulls his black umbrella out of his school bag to keep Mayu and him dry – Miyano has her own. The train ride is long, but there are so few passengers that both Miyano and Mayu get seats; Umetarou stands by the door. Mostly dry, they stand outside the sports center for ten minutes before the automatic doors open; behind them stands Seo, soaked.

“We’re inside,” she says. “Since it’s raining so hard and all.”

Mayu, whose shoulders just barely don’t fit underneath the umbrella, seems a little miffed, but it fades when he sees the group. Sakura is in a light blue dress and green slicker, holding one side of an enormous bag. Holding the other end is Mikoshiba, hair darkened to a crimson by the rain but otherwise unharmed. Sakura smiles at them; Mikoshiba glances towards the gym.

“We’re early!” Sakura chirps, and tugs the bag away from Mikoshiba so that she can walk forward. “Which is good, because we can get the best seats, and maybe take some photos from the court, too.”

Mikoshiba waits until they reach him, and they all make their way to the gym. They bypass the empty ticket booth, and Sakura drops her bag in front row seats. There are two bored looking officials on the court, keeping a vague eye on them, but neither says anything as Umetarou and Sakura begin passing out food.

“Oh, how cute!” Miyano says – Umetarou’s just handed her a bento with a bunny drawn on the top in sauce.

“Ah,” Umetarou says, then admits, “I saw it on a blog and thought I’d try it out.”

As Miyano and Sakura coo over the various animals, Seo and Mayu dig in; Mikoshiba just looks at a basketball hoop. Umetarou nudges him and hands him a bento; he nods and doesn’t eat much.

By the time they finish eating, the officials have left, the teams have arrived for warmups, and the nearby stands are being filled with people staring jealousy at their lunch. At least, Umetarou assumes it’s jealousy; he spent more time on the court than in the stands, but he’s fairly certain people bring lunch to these things. And no one said anything when he suggested it, and no one stopped them from eating, so it’s obviously fine.

Wakamatsu is so focused on the game that he doesn’t even notice them in the stands. Roman Academy starts off poorly, losing three baskets and missing a few of their own, and by the end of the first corridor the coach has already switched out several members. At half-time they’re still behind, but Wakamatsu comes out of locker rooms with a familiar brightness in his eyes, and they score twice before a minute passes.

Seo stands, leaning forwards over the rail separating the court and the stands, and if not for his height Umetarou would join her. Instead he forces himself back against the seat, taking note of the excitement running through the crowd and his own blood, and looks over his friends’ heads to stare at the wall instead of the points board. Sakura, next to him, stops cheering for a moment as she notices; she smiles at him, wide and encouraging, and he offers her a faint smile back.

The other team tightens their defense, but in the fourth Roman Academy slips first one than another basket through. Blocking gets rougher and passes get faster, but when the buzzer sounds, Roman Academy has won. Seo, in the first burst of movement she’s made in a while, straightens up and whoops.

Then she hops over the rail and bodyslams Wakamatsu to the ground. The rest of the team piles on, and the riotous noise of the crowd is deafening, but Umetarou is fairly certain he can still hear Seo’s shouting.

Sakura tugs him away from watching, and they file out into the lobby. It’s still raining; they huddle in a corner far from the doors and wait for Seo to text Sakura back.

“She’s probably getting yelled at for climbing over the fence,” Mikoshiba says, more quiet and reserved than Umetarou would expect.

Sakura, eyes still on her phone, places a small hand on Mikoshiba’s arm. Next to her, Miyano watches the flow of people in and out of the building, and Mayu stares at the wall next to Mikoshiba.

“Oh!” Sakura says finally. “She’s going to stay with the team while they go over the game and get food.”

They don’t move. A businessman loudly shakes off his umbrella in the doorway, causing a traffic jam, and Mayu cautiously tugs Umetarou’s sleeve once – an ‘are we going?’ He isn’t exactly sure.

“Well, we can all go back to mine and I could make dinner?” Umetarou offers. If Mikoshiba wasn’t acting so strangely, he would’ve thought everyone would accept immediately, but he’s watching even Sakura cautiously.

“I need to go to the library for school,” Miyano tells him apologetically. “And then grocery shopping.”

But Sakura agrees, smiling widely, and tugs on Mikoshiba’s sleeve until he does too. They walk outside, Umetarou and Mikoshiba under one umbrella, and Miyano and Mayu under the other. Sakura walks by herself between their groups, and Umetarou would offer to squeeze her between him and Mikoshiba, but she gives him a shake of her head when they catch eyes.

So Umetarou walks with Mikoshiba. The heavy rain pounding on the umbrella means there’s no awkward silence, and that he can hardly hear Miyano chattering to Mayu behind them.

“I’m glad you’re coming over,” he says eventually, when they’re reaching the street of the train station. “I feel like I haven’t seen you lately.”

“I wouldn’t miss it,” Mikoshiba tells him lightly. His hair has dried fluffy.

They part ways with Miyano at the train station, and Mayu joins them under the umbrella for the walk from the station to Umetarou’s apartment. Once there, he immediately curls up on the couch; Mikoshiba sits at the table, as always, and Sakura joins Umetarou in the kitchen as he cooks.

Later that night, he sends out a tweet:

I always love eating with others around the table when it’s raining. It makes everything feel like a home.

 

Kashima doesn’t visit Umetarou that Thursday; he sends her a text and does his best to do schoolwork. She sends a short one back: I decided to go to that meeting. Thank you for helping me with it.

After he’s eaten dinner, his sketches are interrupted by the buzzing of his door. He answers.

“I forgot to tell you something about the Saffavids,” she explains. “Here, I brought my notes.”

 

 

“Ah, I think Seo is getting nervous around Wakamatsu,” Sakura says one day at lunch, eyeing the food in Umetarou’s bento. He offers some to her; she takes it and smiles widely at him.

“How so?” he asks. Mikoshiba, next to them, has leaned in with interest.

“She keeps running away from him,” Sakura explains. Umetarou and Mikoshiba exchange a glance. Seo is the type to run at things, headfirst, and break them with her forehead; she’s definitely hit Wakamatsu with a headbutt before.

But it’s true. Seo is skittish, ducking around corners and shoving classmates to get away from Wakamatsu. Wakamatsu would most likely be warier, but Seo is making more appearances at basketball practice to try to keep them on their toes.

“Sorry, senpai,” he explains to Umetarou, “but some of these players are at a whole other level.” So as Wakamatsu stays late practicing, Umetarou enlists Mayu’s help in screentones. With Hori working on the play, and Mikoshiba still often doing work at home, Umetarou’s apartment seems more empty than usual.

 

The play goes off spectacularly. Umetarou sees it three times – once at dress rehearsal, once during the school production, and once during a night production, and the audience cheers louder every time.

During the school production, after the bows have been taken, Kashima steps forward. It’s unexpected, judging by the crease in Hori’s brow, but the audience sighs dreamily. Kashima laughs it off, smiling, and says, “A special thank you to our tech crew and next year’s drama captain. Without them, this show wouldn’t be half as good.”

The audience erupts into cheers.

“And of course,” Kashima continues over the cheers – she really can project. “A thank you to this year’s captain. You’ve helped me more than I can say, and I’m sure your fellow third years agree.”

The third years’ section’s cheering has more hooting and hollering than Umetarou expected, but, as he claps along, he thinks that Hori doesn’t seem to mind much. Then Seo, in the second year’s section, starts hollering too, and then a first year does, and the entire audience of normally well behaved teenagers is clapping and shouting for Hori.

Onstage, Hori blushes furiously. Kashima laughs and beckons at the wings, and a herd of first years starts handing out flowers to the other cast members, the skinny assistant director, and Hori. The audience is ordered out class by class, but still the third years clap, and Hori gently whacks Kashima in the head.

Across the room, Sakura’s orange hair catches Umetarou’s eye.

 

On the weekend, Mikoshiba texts Umetarou that he’s coming over. Umetarou shoves another eggplant into his cart and power walks through the rest of his shopping; when he reaches home, loaded with bags, Mikoshiba is waiting at his door.

“Ah, let me help,” he says, taking a few bags from Umetarou. Mikoshiba knows his kitchen well enough to put away groceries, so they do it together.

Umetarou sneaks a glance at Mikoshiba as he tries to reach the taller shelves. He’s happier today, chattering a little about something his mother said, and as Umetarou sorts his fresh vegetables he has to smile.

“But enough about me,” Mikoshiba says. “How’s Let's Love doing?”

Let's Love is doing well in a storyline about a school play, Umetarou tells Mikoshiba as he fixes him a slice of cake, and there’s about tennis planned. They sit down at the table, same as always, and Mikoshiba picks at the cake before pushing it away.

“I have something to say,” he says.

“Okay,” Umetarou says.

When Mikoshiba first started acting oddly, Umetarou had been pretty sure it was a stomach bug. That or food poisoning, but Sakura had said it was fine, and Kashima didn’t seem very worried, so Umetarou had trusted them. Now, in the brightness of a hot day, Umetarou watches Mikoshiba fiddle with a fork, and remembers how it felt to not know what was going on with his best friend.

He’s not. “I’m in love with your brother,” he says, staring straight at Umetarou, and Umetarou feels a pressure he didn’t know was there ease.

“Thank you for including me in your life,” he tells Mikoshiba, heartfelt.

They stare at each other for a few seconds. Mikoshiba begins to eat his cake.

“Do you want to know about it?” he asks after swallowing a mouthful of cake. He looks a little confused, which confused Umetarou, who says,

“Do you want to tell me?”

So Mikoshiba does.

When Umetarou texts his brother to ask about it later, he gets a short reply: unexp but fine. slow pace. So he calls, and listens to the soft sounds of his brother breathing on the other line, and coaxes out a few short answers. But before that, he draws Let's Love as Mikoshiba plays a game, and then Mikoshiba draws a few flowers for him. The next day, he watches Mikoshiba eat three rolls at lunch, and opens his phone to tweet:

A good friend is a very important thing to have.

He considers it for a few seconds, hits send, and allows Sakura to eat a few of his hot dog octopi.

 

The graduation ceremony is long and tedious; Umetarou very nearly falls asleep several times. The classmates on either side of him take turns shaking him awake until it’s over.

He stands and stretches, and realizes that, somehow, Hori just graduated. In Let's Love he would have added more blooming flowers on the edges of the page, and possibly a declaration from a rival to make things interesting, but in real life it happened with little pizazz and more sticky heat.

Umetarou offers Hori a hand to shake, but instead gets drawn into a hug. Hori pounds him once on the back before stepping back, cheeks ruddy, and says, “This’ll be you next year. Hopefully you’ll stay awake for it, huh?”

Umetarou wonders how he knew as Hori gets dragged away by some other third years, and Mikoshiba materializes from the whirlwind of students. “It seems like just yesterday it was our entrance ceremony,” he says.

“That’s because there was an entrance ceremony in that game you played yesterday,” Umetarou reminds him, and Mikoshiba smiles at him. “I have to head home early, but if you see Wakamatsu, tell him I said congrats on the game.”

Roman Academy’s team had lost in the last few seconds of their game, earning them place in second. Umetarou had seen Wakamatsu that morning; he’d been upset, but said, “Seo-senpai says we’ll practice harder over summer break, and hopefully the new first years will be talented.”

“I will,” he tells Mikoshiba, who disappears into the crowd. Umetarou tries to find his way back to his classroom, but is accosted by Seo shoving something at him – a copy of Let's Love. “Here,” she says, “I borrowed it for something.”

Umetarou isn’t sure what. He has a guess, but Seo leaves too quickly for him to ask, and he thinks that he can ask Sakura later.

He gathers his things from the classroom, and, standing at the window, takes a few pictures of the crowds swirling below. Better to have them than not, he thinks. He walks down with the shoe cubbies with a few classmates, where, standing with one shoe on and her hair bow askew, is Sakura. She jumps when he touches her shoulder, but smiles at him, blushing. “Ah, Nozaki-kun!”

“What were you thinking about?” he asks her.

“Just the entrance ceremony,” she says after a pause. “And us graduating.”

Umetarou considers his own entrance ceremony, which he remembers none of. It’s not unlike Hori’s graduation in that way.

“I’ll walk you to the station,” he says instead.

They get sidetracked on the way there – Umetarou has cake about to go bad, so they stop by his apartment to get it, and then he remembers that he bought new beta pens and shows them to her. By the time they’re close to the station, the sun has just barely begun to set, heavy pink clouds meeting the blue sky. Where the sun meets the horizon is orange, the same color as Sakura’s hair.

They talk about Hori leaving.

“Yeah, it’s strange to think about. but someday I’m going to leave for college, and you’ll have to find someone for backgrounds and beta,” Sakura says, clutching the cake to her chest, small face pointed up at the sky. Umetarou considers the sky too, and wonders if it’ll rain.

“You’re going to college far away?” Umetarou asks. He can smell Sakura’s perfume, sweet and flowery, or maybe that’s just how she always smells. A train just got out – businessmen and students flow through the streets away from the station, and the two of them are battling against the tide.

“Probably,” Sakura replies. “We don’t have many good art or business schools near here.”

She smiles at a toddler that passes them on the street. Umetarou doesn’t know what to say at the thought of Sakura leaving – he’s been able to consider his own graduation all day, but at the thought of Sakura, and Kashima and Seo and Mikoshiba and Hori, who was almost gone, his brain is blank.

So without thinking, Umetarou blurts, “I was thinking about the ending Let's Love. So. I might not have to find someone new.”

“You are?” Sakura asks, and Umetarou realizes that he has been looking at her for too long; he quickly turns his face away, even as she starts to look at him. He is not focusing on the train station just in front of them, but he takes in its familiar features all the same.

“Yes,” Umetarou says, certain, helpless, and then tries to joke. “It wouldn’t be the same without your beta.”

Sakura laughs softly, and Umetarou can’t stop himself from turning to look at her again. She’s looking down, and Umetarou focuses on one of her bows unconsciously. He can’t stop himself from brushing his hand against her; he knows its size and softness and the calluses on the tips of her finger, but he doesn’t remember learning about them. Like Sakura’s favorite sandwich, or the Saffavid empire, it just slipped past.

He’s stopped at the steps of the train station, Sakura two steps above him. She’s a little taller than him at this height, she has to look down as she says softly, “I’ve... been learning backgrounds from Hori-senpai. For Let's Love.”

Her eyes are honest and bright; Umetarou raises his other hand towards her and hesitates. She smiles at him, nervously and easily, and he places it on her waist, lightly, barely touching the material of her shirt. Umetarou wants to say something, anything, because he doesn’t know what he’s doing, but instead, he meets her eyes and leans forward. Around them, the other passengers have disappeared into the night.

It lasts a split second, Sakura’s lips warm against Umetarou’s, his eyes closed, and when he opens them again Sakura is smiling widely, like she can’t help it. Umetarou’s heart is bursting out of his chest, beating wildly to a soundless drum, but his legs are steady. Sakura is blushing pink, clashing with her hair but the same color as the clouds.

“Sakura,” Umetarou says, and his voice is barely audible even to him. “I think I’m your fan.”

Sakura grabs his hand and says, even more quietly than Umetarou, “I like you, Nozaki-kun.”

In the aftermath of a kiss the air is awkward. Umetarou takes his hand off her waist but leans forward and drops her forehead against her hair, and Sakura lets out a small squeak.

“Do you really think you’ll end Let's Love?” she asks.

Umetarou, right now, is unsure of everything except the floral scent of Chiyo’s hair, and that he was charmed by the squeak. “I might. I don’t know,” he says. That, like kissing Sakura, was unexpected, but he can feel that it’s right.

Sakura is quiet for a moment. Umetarou can hear her breathing, and his, and isn’t sure which one belongs to who. He hopes, desperately, that there isn’t someone else on the street watching them

“That’s alright,” she says eventually. “You’ll figure it out.”

In the station, the sound of the train approaches. Sakura pulls away and her cheeks begin to lose their blush. “I have to go,” she says, grabbing her cake with both hands.

Umetarou rummages through his bag for a few seconds to grab his umbrella and hands it to her. “Take this,” he says. “I think it might rain.”

They glance up at the darkening sky together, and another sound goes off inside the station.

“That’s my train,” Sakura says, and runs off into the station. “See you tomorrow, Nozaki-kun!” she yells, and the rain has just begun to fall when Umetarou reaches his apartment.

 

I arrive at the cafe a few minutes early, grab a drink, and take a seat in the corner that Yumeno and I arranged to meet in. The author appears a few minutes later, with another accompanying them, and I’m surprised by the pair’s look: a slight girl with bows in her red hair and a imposing dark haired boy, shockingly tall. Their height difference is laughable.

Yumeno sits, and their partner bids a farewell. “We came straight from school,” Yumeno explains. It’s the first thing said, even before a hello.

We introduce ourselves and get settled, and I start the interview. “Who was that? Someone special?”

Yumeno smiles. “My partner,” they say, and there might have been a blush on those cheeks. “It’s kind of new.”

It’s the first relationship Yumeno’s ever been in, which is unsurprising if you understand that they’re still a high school student. When you consider that this is the author of over a dozen one-shots and a successful monthly serialisation, though, it’s a bit of a shock.

Yumeno draws on real experiences for love, although they might have happened to other people.

“I’m learning that sometimes you can’t focus on the story, though,” Yumeno says. “If you read about this and want to experience it, then you can, and if you experience it yourself, then you might not have to let people read about it.”

I refrain from asking them any questions about their own love life, after that. But when asked if there’s anything that sets Let's Love apart from its counterparts, Yumeno laughs a little.

“A big part of Let's Love is its honesty,” they tell me. “I want other high schoolers to look at what’s happening and relate to that, and I think they can. That is something that comes from my youth.”

So what’s going to happen to Let's Love when its author is out of high school? Yumeno turns a little more somber at the question. “It’s inevitable that I’ll grow up and leave Let's Love behind,” they say, grimacing even as they admit it. “I love this story, but Suzuki and Mamiko are going to change, just like I will.

“Still,” Yumeno tells me, “When the time comes, I’m going to give that story the ending it deserves, and then move on to other works. They won’t be bigger or better, I think, they’ll just represent a different part of my life.”

I ask what part of their life it will represent, and Yumeno smiles again. This one is thoughtful and introspective, like they’re looking inside at their ideas and can't help but smile. “I’m hoping to write a story that affects a different group of people. Suzuki and Mamiko were for students to enjoy and understand, but I want this next romance to be one that people see and go, ‘Hey, that’s me!’ I want them to really relate to it, on a visceral level.”

I leave off the questions about the future — Yumeno is eager to talk, and I don’t want to spoil the new series for myself. So instead, I ask the question I give to all romantics. “And what advice do you have for those people looking for the kind of love you show us?”

Yumeno considers this, sipping their coffee and staring up at the ceiling. “I think you need to start being in contact with yourself more,” they say, more to the ceiling than to me. “You need to understand who you are and what you want, and then you can think about other people.”

I have enough for an article, so I finish my drink and pack away my things. In front of me, Yumeno texts someone, a lazy smile on their face. I say goodbye, they say goodbye, and I leave. It’s an anticlimactic ending, unlike the endings of Let's Love, but maybe that will change as Yumeno moves on in life.