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To Avoid Stagnation, The Romance Must Progress!

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It’s been a weird week. Nozaki’s got a big upcoming deadline for the manga, and seems to be kind of anxious about it. Apparently Ken-san thinks the story's stagnating again, and something's got to shake it up.

Well, when Nozaki looks at her with dark earnest eyes and asks if it’s okay if he takes up her time this week to help, it’s not like Chiyo is ever going to say no. Still, she didn’t really expect that this many things would go wrong. It’s natural enough to get caught out in the freezing rain – that happens to them all the time. Chiyo is honestly kind of proud of herself that this time she remembered to call her mom to give them a lift, instead of taking advantage of the situation to get close to Nozaki. Nozaki isn’t going to get sick again! Not with a big deadline coming up! Not on her watch!

But then there was the whole situation with the science lab, and Chiyo still has no idea how Mikoshiba could have accidentally wandered off with the only key. They could have been trapped there for ages! And honestly, any other week, that would have been fine with her – and if she didn’t know any better, she might have thought Nozaki was fine with it too … but that’s just his face, he always looks fine with things, and she knows he can’t ever to lose that much time when there’s a chapter due, which was why she’d gone to heroic efforts and broken the sliding door to get them out. She made a promise to support him! She’s going to fulfill it!

As for the mistletoe incident … well, it’s really better not to talk about the mistletoe incident ever again. She’s not sure Wakamatsu is ever going to recover.

But now the school week’s finally over, and they’re ensconced at Nozaki’s house, and they are definitely going to get some good work done! Chiyo is absolutely prepared to pull an all-nighter, if necessary, to make sure Nozaki meets his deadline!

...if only Nozaki was actually drawing anything, instead of lying despondently with his head on the table. “It’s because I’m so tall, isn’t it?” he complains, and lets out another heavy sigh. “Every day, I curse this –”

“Please don’t,” interrupts Chiyo, in agony. It’s really very difficult to hear anyone disparage the world’s most attractive human figure, even or perhaps especially when the person doing the disparaging is, in fact, the owner of the world’s most attractive human figure. “Er – what’s the thing that’s because you’re so tall?”

“That you haven’t kissed me in any of these situations over the course of this week,” explains Nozaki. “I really should have considered how difficult it would be for you to reach. This is why I think the popularity of boxes –”

“WHAT!”

Nozaki blinks at the force of her voice. “What?”

“You wanted me to – you wanted me – you wanted –” Chiyo’s voice is climbing to increasingly high-pitched levels. She takes a deep breath, to try to bring it down again, which does not work. “You had Mikorin lock us in the science lab ON PURPOSE?”

“Yes,” says Nozaki. “Sorry. You said you’d be okay with me taking up your time, but I hope it didn’t inconvenience you too much.”

Inconvenience –”

Chiyo can feel that her cheeks are fire-engine red. She buries her face in her hands, then opens her fingers enough to stare through her fingers at Nozaki, who is still blinking back at her with his patented bemused deadpan. The words KISS! and NOZAKI-KUN! are now flashing in neon-lit letters in her mind, which makes rational thinking a little bit difficult, but she’s been on this ride before, plenty of times. She’s not going to get carried away, or make any over-the-top assumptions that will just lead to disappointment.

She lowers her hands from her face, squares her shoulders, and attempts to reassume some semblance of professionalism. “So,” she says, with a feeling of deep resignation, “this big deadline – it’s Mamiko and Suzuki’s first kiss, isn’t it?”

Nozaki nods, his perfect square chin sunk morosely downwards. “It’s been much more stressful trying to get an experience for this storyline than I thought it was going to be.”

“And did you think,” says Chiyo, metaphorically holding onto her vocal pitch with both hands, “just – just out of curiosity, I mean – did you ever think that when we were in the rain, or under the mistletoe, or in the basement – you could have kissed me?

“Yes, of course, I did think about that,” says Nozaki, reasonably, “but Mamiko isn’t going to know her first kiss is coming, so I was hoping to have mine be at least a little bit of a surprise. After all, Yumeno-sensei is known as the voice of a young girl’s heart, and I don’t want to let the fans down in that respect. I think it’s important for me to be able to express that maidenly flutter, when someone just sweeps you off your feet, you know?”

“Oh?” says Chiyo. Her heart feels like it’s going to pound its way right out of her chest.

And the thing is, it’s incredibly stupid to feel this way about Nozaki attempting to use her for yet another instance of Let’s Fall In Love research. It’s so stupid. But also, Mamiko and Suzuki are presumably only ever going to have one first kiss; also also, Nozaki-kun has, absolutely objectively, the best face in the world. So like. What is she going to do? Not do this? Never do this?

She heaves a deep breath, and pushes herself to her feet. She’s brave. She knows she’s brave. She’s confessed her love to the world’s hottest and most clueless human, twice. Also, she is an artist and a professional, and if Yumeno-sensei needs to be swept off her feet, for the sake of art, and professionalism, well, then – well, then –

“Sakura?” says Nozaki, looking up in puzzlement at Chiyo, as she climbs on top of his other kitchen chair.

“Yumeno-sensei,” says Chiyo, “please understand I’m doing this because I really want you to grow as an artist and a professional,” reaches out, cups Nozaki’s face tenderly in her hands the way she vaguely remembers the hero holding the heroine’s face in some of the other manga she’s been reading for research, and leans down to kiss him.

At least, that’s the general idea. In fact, Chiyo, who has not had to lean down to interact with another human in about as long as she can remember, overbalances almost as soon as their lips touch, and they both end up crashing to the floor, Nozaki splayed on the carpet, Chiyo sprawled over his chest.

“Oh my god,” says Chiyo, burning up with embarrassment, and pushes herself up on her elbows. “Oh my god, are you okay, I’m so sorry!”

“I’m okay,” says Nozaki, and beams at her, delighted for absolutely no reason that Chiyo can make out. “Sakura, that was great! I was so surprised!”

“But Yumeno-sensei’s first kiss –”

“First kisses are disasters all the time in shoujo manga,” says Nozaki, perfectly matter-of-fact, to all appearances completely normal, which is just – appalling, horrifying, infuriating, given that Chiyo has just kind of sort of had her first kiss and is still more or less lying on his chest and feels like she is about to explode. “It’s fine if it’s a comedy beat! What matters is the –”

Chiyo cuts him off by kissing him.

This time, she’s determined to make it count.

When she finally pulls back a certain amount of time later, Nozaki’s face looks …. almost exactly the same as always, except ….. are his eyes slightly unfocused? Are his cheeks a little red? It certainly seemed like he was participating. She definitely remembers his hands going up and down her back, and – oh, God! Chiyo feels like she almost could burst into tears. How is it possible that this was just another brief episode in manga research, that they’re never going to do this again?

No, it definitely doesn’t have to be never again. Maybe she could talk Nozaki into having the first-kiss chapter be a dream sequence, or maybe Suzuki and Mamiko both get amnesia right afterwards, and then later on he’ll have to do another real first kiss, so they’ll have to do more research, and –

“Sakura,” says Nozaki, suddenly, staring up at the ceiling, “I might have made a mistake.”

Chiyo chokes, and scrambles off of him, her back against the leg of the fallen chair. “Uh – a mistake?”

“I got carried away ….” Nozaki heaves a sigh, and pushes himself up to a sitting position, cross-legged. “I’m really sorry, Sakura. I got really distracted, and forgot to take mental notes. I really don’t know if I’m going to grow as an artist from that kiss at all.”

He sounds devastatingly sincere. He’s the stupidest person in the world and Chiyo likes him so much. “Well,” she says, trying desperately to find her professional voice once again, “I, um, of course, if we need to – who are you texting?

“Mikorin,” says Nozaki, without looking up from his phone.

“WHY ARE YOU TEXTING MIKORIN?”

“So he can take pictures next time we kiss,” explains Nozaki, “and I can use them for reference in positioning.”

“...Nozaki-kun,” says Chiyo. He is not actually the stupidest person in the world. She is the stupidest person in the world, for liking him this much.

She really should just let this happen. It would genuinely serve him right. But also, she tells herself, nobly, she is not going to entrap him in any way into anything that he doesn’t want; sure, she likes him, but they’re friends first, and colleagues, and that’s more important than anything. “Um, Nozaki-kun, you do know that if – if Mikorin hears that we kissed – he’s going to think we’re dating? Everyone? Is going to think we’re dating???”

Now Nozaki does lift his head from the phone to stare at her. Behind his deadpan features, Chiyo has absolutely no idea what he’s thinking. Eventually, he says, in a rather worried tone, “By now, aren’t we dating?”

“WHAT?”

From the apartment upstairs, someone bangs on the floor and shouts something muffled that sounds like please stop shrieking! Chiyo and Nozaki both ignore this. Nozaki begins to count on his fingers. “We rode a tandem bike – I made you box lunches – we practice date-type conversations all the time – you stay late at my place every night – sometimes overnight since you learned backgrounds –”

“For the manga,” says Chiyo. “It’s always for your manga?”

From the way Nozaki blinks at her, it seems, somehow, that this is brand new information! Chiyo feels like she’s on opposite planet! “I mean,” he says, “I really don’t have time to do anything if it doesn’t support the manga, but – wouldn’t it be weird to do all those things with someone who you’re not dating?”

Chiyo lets her head thump back against the leg of the chair.

“Then,” Nozaki goes on, tentatively, as if he’s trying out a new plot device for Let’s Fall in Love and is not at all sure it’s going to work for the overall storyline, “do you … not want …. to be dating?”

“That’s not – that’s not the – you’ve never kissed me or anything, until – you never even said you liked me!”

“Of course I like you, Sakura,” says Nozaki, with a little furrow between his brow. “You’re the most important person to me. I don’t know how I ever managed without you. Don’t you know that?”

His beautiful dark eyes look deeply into hers. Chiyo stares back. She is perfectly aware that he is talking about how well she does beta. Still, she feels like she’s about to melt right into the floor.

Then Nozaki goes on, reasonably, “And of course I’ve been saving my first kiss until now. I’m a professional, you know – if I were more experienced beforehand, wouldn’t it be difficult to write Mamiko properly?”

Chiyo looks at Nozaki, and tries a thought on for size: My boyfriend is the most clueless person in the world, and I like him so much.

It fits like the proverbial glove. “Of course,” she says, and beams at him. “More than anyone else, Yumeno-sensei really speaks to a maiden’s heart!”