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i think everything has changed

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I was curious about the feeling of love
Perhaps I may be confused
That's when someone sweetly told me...

x

 

 

 

It’s early winter when Nozaki says one day, out of the blue, “I’m thinking of trying something new.”

“What?” says Mikoshiba, hands cupped around his eyes as he peers through the window glass of the figurine store display. “You need a new drawing mannequin? Did you break your last one?”

“Or you want a new type of steamed bun?” says Sakura, craning her neck to get a better look at the menu of the food court vendor. “I’ve heard good things about their cheese curry bun!”

“No,” says Nozaki. “A new manga.”

Sakura and Mikoshiba both whip their heads around to stare at him, faces mirrored in slack-jawed shock.

“What?” they say in utter, indignant unison.

Nozaki blinks. He hadn’t expected this degree of outrage. They must really be invested in Mamiko and Suzuki’s story. But then again, perhaps he should have anticipated this—Sakura is a die-hard fan of Let’s Fall in Love, after all, and it’s what led to their friendship in the first place. He needs to tread delicately. 

“The truth is, Let’s Fall in Love has exhausted all of its possibilities—”

Sakura’s eyes widen.

“—and it’s reaching the end of its prime—”

Sakura’s eyes go even wider. 

“—and in fact, it’s even getting to be quite boring.”

Mikoshiba physically recoils like he’s been hit. 

“What!” Mikoshiba splutters. “Wait, but what about Mamiko and Suzuki? You’re giving up on them? After everything?”

Mamiko and Suzuki are wrapping up their current story arc: a springtime chapter in which Mamiko bumps into Suzuki buying flowers at the store and tries to track down who they’re for, valiantly sleuthing her way through possible suspects and pitiful misunderstandings until she goes home to find the bouquet waiting for her on her doorstep. Early readers had praised Suzuki’s unassuming thoughtfulness and Mamiko’s innocent naivety and also the detailed drawings of the flowers themselves, which had given Mikoshiba excuse to preen for weeks. Early reviewers had criticized the contrived plot and the dull pacing and also the implausible obliviousness of the male protagonist in regard to Mamiko’s feelings, which had for some reason led Sakura to rally in Suzuki’s raging defense for weeks. Ken-san had said a cursory “It’s predictable, but I guess that’s what people like,” and Nozaki’s been tossing and turning in bed thinking about it for weeks. 

“I’m not giving up on them,” says Nozaki. “I just think it’s time to try something new.” After a pause: “I just want to see.”

Sakura has been silent. Nozaki braces himself for impassioned pleading and maybe even some tears, but when he looks at her, she only returns his gaze with a small smile. 

“If that’s what you want, Nozaki-kun,” she says, her eyes oddly shiny. “I’ll support you!”

Nozaki is taken aback. “Really? I thought you were a big fan of Let’s Fall in Love.” 

“I’m your fan!” Sakura declares, jabbing a finger at him. “And don’t you ever forget it!” 

Nozaki nods. A weight lifts off his chest in something like relief. “Thank you,” he says.

Sakura’s cheeks are red from the cold, even though they’re inside; she should really look into getting a warmer coat. 

Later, on the train home, Mikoshiba finally says what’s clearly been on his mind for a while.

“So who’s your new female protagonist going to be?” he demands. “Is she going to be as cute and caring and lovable as Mamiko?” 

“What about your male protagonist?” Sakura adds. “Is he going to be the strong and silent type? The tall and mysterious type? The cool, cute, creative, self-sufficient, sensitive, hardworking, dedicated to improving his craft, clueless but caring, good-cook type?”

“Doesn’t that last one seem a little too specific?” Mikoshiba says, scratching his head.

“I haven’t decided yet,” Nozaki admits, watching the blur of city lights pass by the window through the fog of his breath on the glass. “Every time I sit down to work out my ideas, I get overwhelmed by the blankness of the page. It’s a little daunting, trying to come up with new characters when I’m so used to following the old, familiar ones.” 

“That sounds really difficult!” Sakura says, nodding along in sympathy. 

“We’re gonna have to do a lot of brainstorming,” Mikoshiba says. 

Nozaki turns his head to look at the two of them. Mikoshiba’s holding onto the handrail of the train while Sakura clings onto his bag for balance, and they’re both looking at him with equally determined expressions in evident acceptance of their own part in supporting him through his quandary. 

Nozaki smiles. 

“I have an idea,” he says. “Why don’t you two take care of it?”

Sakura and Mikoshiba exchange a confused glance.

“What do you mean?” Sakura asks.

“Each of you can pick the inspiration for one of the protagonists. Someone you think would be a good fit for the hero, or heroine. Someone worthy of writing about. You take care of that, and I’ll do the rest.” 

“Hey, wait, isn’t that too much responsibility?” Mikoshiba says, looking pale. 

“You’ve both been working with me for a long time. Aren’t you shoujo manga experts, by now?” Nozaki shrugs. “And besides—I trust your judgment.” 

And Mikoshiba straightens up; a steely glint enters Sakura’s eyes. 

“Don’t worry, Nozaki-kun!” Sakura says. “I definitely won’t let you down!”

“Yeah!” Mikoshiba says. “Me neither!” 

“All right,” Nozaki says, and then it’s their stop, and they’re getting off the train, and he forgets all about it until the next day. 

 

 

 

In hindsight, Nozaki should have expected this. 

“Before you say anything,” Sakura says, hands held up placatingly. “You have to hear us out, okay?” 

“We’ve got good reasons!” Mikoshiba insists. 

They’ve cornered Nozaki in his classroom at lunch. He should be enjoying a peaceful meal; instead, he’s warily watching Sakura and Mikoshiba attempt to push a bored-looking Seo and a clueless-looking Kashima closer toward him through the rows of empty desks. 

“Look,” Sakura says, dragging Seo over to the desk in front of Nozaki and pushing her down into the chair, “I know you’ve already taken some inspiration from Yuzuki in the past for subplots and side arcs, but I think she’ll really shine in the spotlight! I’ve thought it through, and she’s the perfect candidate for a protagonist. She can beat up good-for-nothing bullies—”

“Isn’t she more likely to be the bully?” Nozaki points out.

“—rescue her love interest from scary situations—”

“She’s the scariest situation of all—”

“—and bring a spark of unpredictable excitement to the plot. There won’t ever be a dull scene, with Yuzuki in charge!” 

“A spark? Don’t you mean a bomb?”

“In conclusion!” Sakura says. She really prepared for this, Nozaki notes; she’s got cue cards and everything. “Yuzuki-chan is the second-coolest person I know!” 

“Who’s the first?” Nozaki wonders. 

“Please don’t ask me that!” Sakura wails. 

“Fine.” Nozaki turns to Mikoshiba. “Well, what about you? Where’s your speech?” 

“What do you mean?” Mikoshiba says. “It’s Kashima.” He elbows her beside him, as though to get her to say something, but she only smiles beatifically back at him, oblivious. Mikoshiba widens his eyes: see what I mean?

Nozaki waits.

Mikoshiba throws up his arms. “Well, I mean, come on—isn’t Kashima good at everything?”

“Thanks!” Kashima chirps. 

“And, like, she’s super popular for a reason, right?”

“Wow, Mikoshiba, you’re so sweet and thoughtful today—”

“Stop that!” Mikoshiba hisses, face red, batting Kashima’s arm away as she tries to clasp his hand. “She’s a real shoujo manga type, and you know it. Plus she already has acting experience, so she’ll be a good model for you to use however you want!”

Kashima brightens. She pulls out the chair of the desk next to Seo and sits down in it, facing backward to look at Nozaki in a newfound interest. “Oh, Nozaki, I didn’t know you’re an artist! I’m flattered to be your muse!”

Nozaki pinches at the bridge of his nose. He sighs.

“You both just chose your best friends,” he says.

Sakura and Mikoshiba look at each other, then at Seo and Kashima, then at Nozaki. They shrug. 

A great weariness and a great fondness wash over Nozaki as one. “Fine,” he says. “Let’s see where this goes.” He turns to Seo and Kashima. “Besides, it’s not like I need you to be actual actors or anything—I’m just looking for some character inspiration, for a shoujo manga I’m writing.”

“So I’m the protagonist, right?” Seo says. 

“Well,” Nozaki says. “I hadn’t exactly decided—”

“Good.”

Nozaki politely resists the urge to grit his teeth. “It’s not as simple as that. More important than your character, it’s a matter of chemistry. The main relationship has to be believable—a romance the readers can root for. Otherwise, it hardly matters how interesting you are. Before anything else, we have to make sure that you’re compatible as potential lovers.”

Sakura nods solemnly. “You have to take this seriously, Yuzuki!” 

“Fine,” Seo says. She turns to Kashima. “So should we kiss now, or what?”

Mikoshiba’s face goes bright purple.

Kashima’s expression is thoughtful, and frankly seems a little too open to the suggestion. 

“NO!” Sakura yelps, waving her arms frantically before anyone can do anything. “Wait! That’s way too soon! This is a shoujo manga, do you even know anything about the genre?! We can’t shock the readers with that kind of plot development right away—they need to be eased into the romance through chapters of the characters building up their courage through sweet scenes of glancing at each other in secret and sharing pieces of their heart and that’s all before they even hold hands—”

“Sounds like a drag,” says Seo, unimpressed. 

“It’s a sacred art!” Sakura insists. “Right, Nozaki?” 

“Well,” Nozaki says. It’s not everyday that he gets such a willing model, and kissing scenes are notoriously difficult to draw. “If she’s offering—

Mikoshiba looks like he’s going to pass out. 

Sakura slaps a hand over Nozaki’s mouth—which is only possible because he’s sitting down, considering their drastic height difference. “At least go on a date first!” she yells, her face a furious shade of red.  

“That’s a good idea,” Nozaki concedes, reluctantly putting away the pencil and notepad he’d whipped out from his pocket. “If we arrange a first-date situation, I’ll be able to get a good sense of your potential relationship dynamic.” 

“Great!” Kashima says, looking bolstered. “I’m extremely experienced with first dates, so I’ll really be able to play to my strengths in this role.” 

“I don’t know if that’s something you should be bragging about,” Mikoshiba mutters. 

Nozaki can feel a headache coming on. “We’ll have a trial stage,” he says. “First, I’ll accompany the two of you to a first date setting and see what comes of it. Why don’t we go to—”

“The movies,” Seo says, at the same time Kashima says, “a dessert café.” 

They turn to eye each other. Kashima’s already got a pout on her face. “But I want cake!”

“And I want to watch the new zombie movie,” Seo says.

“Well, think of it this way,” Kashima says coaxingly. “Which is better—cake or zombies?”

“Definitely zombies.”

“You know,” Mikoshiba says slowly, like it’s only just begun to dawn on him, “maybe this isn’t going to work out.”

Actually, for the first time Nozaki feels something like a strange tremor of inspiration. He decides not to examine it too closely. “No,” he says. “Those are perfect, classic first-date settings for a shoujo manga—let’s go to both, this weekend, and see how the two of you fare.”

“Well, count me out,” Mikoshiba says with a grimace. “Something’s probably gonna blow up, and I don’t want to be anywhere near it.” 

Nozaki turns to Sakura. “What about you?”

Sakura starts. She blinks in a rapid flutter of eyelashes. “I—I can come along?”

“You’re my assistant, aren’t you?” Nozaki says, bemused. 

The delicate flush to Sakura’s expression is gone, replaced with a beaming, straightforward happiness. “That’s right!” she says. “I’ll be there for sure! To the first date! I mean—to help you, of course, Nozaki-kun!”

“So it’s decided.” Nozaki glances back at the others. Kashima has made the first move, reaching out to take Seo’s hand; Seo instantly turns it into an arm-wrestling competition. He grimaces—never mind. He doesn’t know what it was he’d seen, the inkling of a possibility, but perhaps he had imagined it. He must have. 

“Sorry, Nozaki-kun,” Sakura says from beside him. He looks up. She’s worrying her lower lip between her teeth.

“For what?”

“I mean—I guess I don’t know if this is actually going to help you, or just make it more difficult for you.” Her eyes are downcast. 

Nozaki smiles. “Have some faith in me, Sakura.” 

Sakura whips her head up. “Huh?”

“I’m a professional mangaka, after all.” In front of them, Seo has won at arm-wrestling, but Kashima’s laughing, her teeth a sharp gleam of white. The competition’s over, but they’re still holding onto each other’s hands. Nozaki can feel the weight of his notebook burning a hole in his pocket. 

“You know what,” he says; he has a feeling. “Don’t worry. I can work with this.” 

 

 

 

He can’t work with this. 

Scenarios for a first date at a dessert café:

  • A shows up wearing an elegant burgundy pantsuit. B shows up wearing a black sweatshirt and sweatpants. Neither express any visible surprise or disappointment. 
  • Neither A nor B offer to pay. Instead they decide that external mediator C should pay for everything in return for acting as character models for him. (Why is this the first thing they agree on?!) 
  • A orders a bunny-shaped fruit parfait with strawberry slices for ears and chocolate icing eyes. B stabs it with a spoon and swirls it around in order to mess up the bunny’s face because “it was looking at me funny”. A seems to think of this as a highly amusing quirk or joke; external mediator C is of the opinion that it is more of a threat. 
  • B accidentally smears a dab of icing on the corner of her mouth. “You’ve got a little something there,” A says. “Let me help you with that.” A reaches out and wipes it away smoothly with her thumb. “Thanks,” B says, and licks the icing off A’s thumb [rest unintelligible due to a tear in the page]

“Nozaki-kun!”

Nozaki looks up from the scratched-out scribblings on his notepad page. “Yes?”

“You haven’t eaten the parfait you ordered,” Sakura says, seated beside him. She nods at it; the chocolate bear is melting in its glass cup. 

“I think I lost my appetite,” Nozaki admits. 

Sakura’s face falls. “But Nozaki-kun—”

“Oh, are you not gonna have that?” Seo says, and grabs his parfait and sets it down between her and Kashima, next to the ruined strawberry bunny one. “Score.”

“Here, Yuzuki-chan,” Kashima cooes, raising a spoonful of ice cream to Seo’s mouth. “Open up!”

Nozaki is overcome with a terrifyingly realistic vision of Seo flinging the spoonful back into Kashima’s face, or worse, of it missing and hitting Nozaki instead. He ducks preemptively. But to his surprise—and relief—Seo obligingly opens wide and eats the spoonful of ice cream offered to her, and it’s not a look of indignation or annoyance but satisfaction clear on her face. Nozaki shudders. How unsettling. 

But wait—the one time they do something actually befitting for a shoujo manga, and he’s not ready! Where’s his pencil? He scrabbles for his notepad and starts sketching as fast as he can. 

When he next emerges from his concentration, everyone’s finished their dessert and is ready to go—everyone except Sakura, her mango duck now a pile of sad yellow mush in her cup. 

“Did it taste bad?” Nozaki asks in sympathy.

“What? No, it was really good,” Sakura says, though she sounds dejected. “But Nozaki—you didn’t get to eat anything!”

“That’s okay,” Nozaki says. “I don’t think I’m in the mood for anything sweet, anyway. I’ll get something at the movie theatre later.” 

Sakura perks up. “Right—later! We’re all going to the movies, all together!” She lets out a nervous-sounding giggle.

Across the table, Kashima and Seo may as well have forgotten that Nozaki and Sakura are still there. Kashima is resting her chin on Seo’s shoulder, watching her play a mobile game. Noisy sound effects blare from Seo’s phone; around them, waiters and patrons alike shoot glares in their direction.  

“To think that they’re the ones who have actually gone on first dates before,” Nozaki says to Sakura with a shake of his head. “What kind of first date was that? I’ve never been on one, but even I know that wasn’t right.”

Sakura’s eyes widen. “Wait, Nozaki-kun, you’ve never been on a date before?”

“No. I told you that before, didn’t I?”

“You did, but—” Sakura’s face is red. “I’ve never been on a date before, either! So in a way, it’s kind of like—for both of us, wasn’t this kind of our first ever—our first d—”

“Don’t worry, Sakura,” Nozaki says. “Even if you’ve never been on a first date before, you’re much better at it than they are. At least you dressed up for it.”

Sakura’s mouth drops open. “What—I—Nozaki-kun, you noticed?”

“Of course I noticed,” Nozaki says. A mangaka’s observant eye catches every detail, after all. “Your dress is very nice today.” It’s a warm shade of lilac, like a touch of spring at the onset of winter, though it might also leave her a little cold in this weather. 

“Thank you, Nozaki-kun!” The compliment seems to have really pleased Sakura; she’s smiling from ear to ear. She sticks her spoon into her melted ice cream and brings it up to her lips, cheeks pink. Nozaki’s glad she’s found her appetite after all. 

“YES!” Seo whoops from across the table, pumping her fist, then turning to high-five Kashima. “A new record!” 

A waiter starts approaching their table from the other side of the café, a grim expression on his face. 

“Perhaps we should get going,” Nozaki says, hurriedly standing up. 

Sakura’s still got a spoonful of ice cream in her mouth. “Hmm?”

Seo looks up, spots the waiter beelining in their direction, and immediately shouts, “Run!”

“What?” says Nozaki.

Seo grabs Kashima’s arm with one hand, grabs Sakura with the other, and makes a break for the exit.

Nozaki stares after Seo sprinting away with a laughing Kashima and a confused Sakura in tow like some kind of three-headed monster. He’s joined in his bemusement by the waiter, also staring after them. 

“Just wondering,” Nozaki says to him. “If this scene were to be hypothetically used in a shoujo manga, would you be interested in reading it?”

The waiter turns his stare onto him instead. He doesn’t say anything in response, instead pointedly starting to clear away the parfait cups, stony-faced. 

“I’ll take that as a no,” Nozaki says, and hastily makes his exit. 

Outside, Sakura is wailing, “I accidentally stole the spoon! What do I do?”

“I’ll go back in and return it,” Nozaki offers, but Seo’s already snatched it from Sakura’s hand.

“Cool!” Seo says. “Free spoon. It’s one of those fancy little ones, too.” She turns to Kashima. “Hold onto this for me, will you? I don’t have any pockets.”

“It’s in my care,” Kashima declares, and sticks the dessert spoon into the pocket of her blazer. 

Nozaki wonders if this situation has detoured so far away from being romantic that it’s somehow come back full circle to it. 

“Nozaki-kun, are you all right?” Sakura asks. “You have this really scary look on your face.”

“I’m fine, Sakura,” Nozaki says. “I think my brain’s broken, that’s all. Shall we get going to the movie theatre?” 

The prospect of sitting in silence for two hours is a welcoming one. He doesn’t even put up an argument when he’s forced to pay for tickets and refreshments; they’re only here to help him, after all, and to the best of his knowledge, he’s the only one of them with an actual income. Technically, these are work expenses. He should be trying to get as much out of this session as possible, paying closer attention to Kashima and Seo sitting in the row in front of him, but he gets distracted by the plotline of the movie and his notes start taking a noticeable turn.

Scenarios for sharing a bag of popcorn at the movies:

  • Possible intimacy of having to sit close together to share popcorn
  • A holds bag; B complains she can’t reach
  • B holds bag; B complains A blocks her view when she reaches for popcorn
  • Bag is balanced on armrest between A and B 
  • Bag tips over and popcorn falls everywhere 
  • A and B start to feed each other popcorn
  • Feeding each other popcorn turns into trying to aim and throw popcorn into each other’s mouths
  • Just get two bags of popcorn next time. [underlined twice] 
  • Why is the movie protagonist risking his life to return for the zombie girl? He only knew her for twenty minutes, and she’s a zombie now. Romance route with the survivors’ gang leader has much more potential. 

Scenarios for a zombie-human romance:

  • ?

“What is it?” Sakura whispers next to him, after he makes a disparaging sound in the back of his throat for the fifth time. She’s holding the bag of popcorn they bought to share in her lap; Nozaki hasn’t been eating any, with his hands and his mind both occupied. 

“There’s no hope of a zombie-human romance for mankind,” Nozaki whispers back. 

Sakura’s eyebrows knit together in confusion. 

Nozaki sighs. “Never mind,” he says, and he puts down his pencil, leans in to grab a handful of popcorn from the bag. He’s close enough to hear it when Sakura lets out a muffled squeak, and he glances up to see her face red, eyes wide. 

“Are you all right, Sakura?” Nozaki asks. “Did you choke on your popcorn?”

“That—that depends on if you happen to know any specific first aid techniques,” Sakura says faintly, then ducks her head with her hands pressed to her own flaming cheeks like she’s said something scandalous. Nozaki shrugs—she seems fine to him. 

In the row in front of them, Seo is laughing, which means either Kashima’s just said or done something funny or someone in the movie has died gruesomely. In the darkness of the theatre Nozaki can make out the silhouettes of the tops of their heads over their seats, huddled close together and whispering. On the screen, a flashback montage of the protagonist’s romance is playing, set to sweeping, dramatic chords; they’re missing it. No big loss, Nozaki supposes, and reaches for another buttery handful of popcorn. 

After the movie, outside the theatre, the reviews roll in.

“It was awesome!” Seo says. “The special effects were so realistic and violent!”

“I learned a lot from the acting,” Kashima says. She’d taken off her jacket during the movie, instead carrying it folded over her arm. “And I got a lot of new ideas for Hori-chan-senpai for our next school play.”

“So you two do have something in common after all,” Nozaki says.  

“A love for the arts?” Sakura suggests.

“Bad taste.”

Kashima links arms with Seo. “Yuzuki-chan, do you like acting at all? You should audition for a role in the school play. I’ll put in a good word with Hori-chan-senpai for you.”

“Only if I get to play the monster,” Seo says.

“You know if you’re the monster, I’ll have to slay you, right? I’m the prince!” 

“Not if I eat you first.”

Kashima giggles. “My, Yuzuki-chan, what sharp teeth you have!” 

Nozaki doesn’t know if he should be taking this all down in his notebook or burning it. He dutifully jots his observations down anyway, glancing sidelong at Sakura, who doesn’t seem to find any of this out of the ordinary, but does seem to be shivering a little in her dress. 

“Sakura, are you cold?” Nozaki asks. 

Sakura looks up, startled. “What? Oh—well, I guess it’s a little cold now that we’re out of the theatre, and it’s getting to be evening—”

“Here you go, Chiyo!” Seo says, ripping off her hoodie and flinging it at Sakura like a weapon before anyone can react. 

“Thanks, Yuzuki,” Sakura says, peeling the hoodie off her face and putting it on. It’s oversized, so Sakura’s swamped in fleece. “Ooh, it’s really warm!”

“But Yuzuki-chan, now you’re cold!” Kashima points out. “Here.” She unfolds her blazer from her arm and drapes it over Seo’s T-shirt; Nozaki expects Seo to take this as an affront to her strength and stamina, but she only lets the blazer hang from her shoulders with a smirk on her face. 

“You look good like this,” Seo tells Kashima, reaching up to tug at the collar of Kashima’s white dress shirt, flattening her palm over her collarbone.

Kashima smiles down at her. “So do you.” 

Nozaki blanches—her cheeks are pink. Could she actually be affected by Seo’s compliment? He flips to a new page in his notebook. After chivalrously giving up her jacket, A blushes at B’s warm words of affection...

Kashima shivers. “It is pretty chilly, though!” 

...It was just the cold?! 

She turns around and eyes up Nozaki. “Hey, Nozaki, your coat looks big enough for two people, and we’re around the same height...”

“Don’t even think about it,” Nozaki says, snapping his notebook shut.  

Kashima deflates. “Aww. It was worth a shot.” 

They’ve started walking by now, ambling at a meandering pace toward the train station, and Sakura’s wriggled deep into Seo’s giant sweatshirt and Seo’s let Kashima sneak her hand into the pocket of her blazer and Kashima’s happily pointing out the lights being strung up on the trees by the side of the road, so Nozaki doesn’t say that it would have been more efficient to simply cut out the middleman and have Kashima give Sakura her jacket, or that if Nozaki had to share his coat with Kashima he’s fairly confident she would have managed to wrest it from him completely by the end of the evening in her typical shameless fashion, or that if Sakura had asked first, Nozaki would have been much more amenable to sharing his coat with her instead. Of course it makes sense—she’s much shorter than Kashima, so it would be the most economical ratio of fabric to body coverage, and she needs it more than Kashima who had willingly given up her jacket in the first place, and anyway, Nozaki’s gotten used to giving half to Sakura by now: the back seat of a tandem bicycle, the shelter of a single red umbrella, the space set aside on the desk in his apartment with pens and inks neatly prepared and waiting. She’s his assistant, after all—one who’s stuck steadfast by his side through thick and thin, and who’s only here now out of obligation to their work. The story they’re coming up with together. 

“Thank you, Sakura,” Nozaki says now.

She jumps like he’d reached out and smacked her. “What?! For what?”

“For being here with me.” Nozaki sighs, flipping through the pages of angry scribblings in his notebook. “I don’t know if we’re getting anywhere with this, though...”

“That’s okay, Nozaki-kun,” Sakura says. Her eyes are bright. “I’m having a lot of fun!”

“Really?” Nozaki says.

Sakura looks shocked that he’s even questioning her. “Of course! I always have fun with you, Nozaki-kun.” Her eyes widen. “I mean—”

“I know your dedication to creating worthwhile storylines for shoujo manga,” Nozaki says. “I’m just glad you’re able to enjoy this part of the process, even if it doesn’t amount to anything.”

“Right,” Sakura says, something about it sounding a little faint. “Of course. My dedication to shoujo manga. You know me, Nozaki-kun—I’m such a big fan.”

“Right,” Nozaki says.

“Right.” Sakura laughs weakly. 

So they’re in agreement. All the same, Sakura’s expression still seems troubled. Maybe if this new story idea ends up being a failure, Nozaki can console her with the compromise of a minor subplot in Let’s Fall in Love with Seo and Kashima as supporting characters—he can’t let Sakura and Mikoshiba’s thoughtful picks go to waste, after all. Maybe even Sakura herself can make a cameo appearance. That would be the sort of thing that would please her, right? 

Beside him, Sakura brushes a strand of hair behind her ear, fingers nudging against the ribbon of her polka-dotted bow.

“Guys, look!” Seo’s pointing at something in the distance, lit bright in the early darkness and surrounded by a crowd. Nozaki squints: it’s an outdoor ice rink, set up for the winter. From here, he can hear the laughter and chatter of strangers. 

“I love skating!” Kashima says. “Can we go?”

“I don’t know if we have the time,” Sakura says. “Nozaki’s kind of busy, right? He has a deadline tomorrow...” 

“It’s okay,” Nozaki interrupts. “I’m almost finished anyway—I only have a few pages left to ink. Let’s go.”

Sakura looks up at him in surprise. “Wait, Nozaki-kun... you like skating? I never knew that!”

“I don’t know how to skate,” Nozaki says.

Sakura blanches. “Then why do you want to go skating so badly?”

He’s already flipping to a fresh page in his notebook. “This is a grand opportunity, Sakura,” Nozaki says, and starts running. “Come on!” 

There’s a long line to rent skates, so they pass the time by discussing possible story ideas for Nozaki’s new manga that can take place in an ice rink. 

“The protagonist bumps into a beautiful and mysterious stranger—literally,” Kashima suggests. “And she sweeps them off their feet with her magnificent skating skills. Also literally!” 

“The protagonist signs up for the skating club because of someone she’s admired for a long time,” Sakura says, a dreamy expression on her face. 

“The protagonist wakes up from a cryogenic chamber where she’s been sealed for 1,000 years and finds out that the world has been overtaken by a new ice age,” Seo says. “Also, aliens.”

“I’ll think about it,” Nozaki says. In his notebook he writes: A and B holding hands without seeming to notice? 

“I don’t think Yuzuki’s ever read any shoujo manga before,” Sakura says with great disappointment. 

“I haven’t really, either,” Kashima admits. “I only bought a volume once before because Hori-chan-senpai’s an avid fan, and I wanted to see what the fuss was all about.” She scratches her head. “I don’t know if I ever understood it, though.”

“What’s the appeal of it, anyway?” Seo crosses her arms. “Stories about aliens are cool because they don’t happen every day in real life. Why read shoujo manga when you can just date someone for real?”

Nozaki is about to respond when—to his surprise—Sakura does it for him. 

“It’s really meaningful to read about these kinds of everyday issues in shoujo manga!” Sakura bursts out. “Problems that might seem really insignificant—how to get closer to someone you care about, whether the person you like even knows you exist, how to work up the courage to express your feelings truthfully... Isn’t it even more interesting because these are all things that do happen in real life? This way, you can see yourself reflected in the story, and you can root for yourself as you root for the characters in the manga, and you can also feel moved, and happy, and...” She bites her lip. “And hopeful.” 

Nozaki blinks at her. But of course—he’s always known Sakura cares deeply for his manga. Why have her passion and sincerity taken him by surprise? After everything he’s learned about her, doesn’t he know by now the depth of Sakura’s devotion?

“Wow,” Kashima says, looking thoughtful. “I guess I really should have paid more attention to Hori-chan-senpai’s extensive notes. This is why he’s such a good director!”

“Well, we’ll read this manga, won’t we?” Seo says. “If we’re the main characters and all. Hey, Nozaki, you’ll draw us as totally cool-looking, right? Can I have an eyepatch? I want an eyepatch. And a robot arm.” 

“Of course,” Nozaki responds absently. It’s odd: Seo and Kashima aren’t doing anything particularly noteworthy, but he still feels the urge to write some of this down. To save it for later, and look at it closer, as though there is something more to be revealed by a keener eye, under the focus of the light. 

When it’s finally their turn to get on the rink—once again, Nozaki had supplied the funds for skate rentals, after expressing his disapproval that helmets and kneepads weren’t available as well—Kashima sets one skate down on the ice and immediately glides away in an elegant twirl, face upturned and neck craned swanlike. 

“I haven’t skated in so long!” Kashima says with a laugh of delight, oblivious to the admiring eyes of others around her. In her dress shirt and pants, she looks like a figure skater in competitive costume. She tosses her head back, shaking out her hair, and a couple of girls watching nearby break into gasps; one stumbles and falls on the ice. 

Here’s where Kashima will rush to her side and help her up, Nozaki thinks, and not without a generous amount of over-the-top compliments and pet names.

But Kashima hasn’t moved. She hasn’t even seemed to notice. Her hand is outstretched, beckoning, and her face is beaming, and her eyes are locked on Seo’s. 

A shark’s grin spreads over Seo’s face. “Me neither,” she says, and then she’s racing across the ice like a hockey player, snow and chipped ice spraying up from the heels of her skates. The admiring glances the girls had for Kashima transform rapidly into shrieks, a wide berth clearing in Seo’s wake. 

“What a match,” Nozaki says, surveying them as they chase each other across the rink, laughing all the way. 

“Well,” Sakura says beside him. “They have to complement each other’s flaws in some way, right?”

“Isn’t this too many flaws?” Nozaki says dubiously as Kashima and Seo speed through a gaggle of screaming children. 

“Well, come on, Nozaki! Let’s get some skating in before we get kicked out for causing a disturbance.” Sakura says this cheerfully, as if she’s used to it; she’s Seo’s best friend, though, so she must be. Her hand is extended. Nozaki stares at it, perplexed.

“What?” Nozaki asks.

“What?” There’s a dusting of pink across Sakura’s cheeks, but she doesn’t put down her hand. “You don’t know how to skate, right? I’ll help you. And besides—you won’t be able to take any notes on the rink until you’re able to skate without falling over!”

That’s Sakura, all right—thoughtful to the end. Nozaki nods in gratitude, and reaches out to take Sakura’s hand. Neither of them are wearing gloves, and Sakura’s hand is so warm that Nozaki is sure his own must be terribly cold to the touch. But Sakura doesn’t shy away—only clasps tight onto his fingers, her thumb crooking into the line of his palm. 

“Come on, Nozaki-kun! Follow my lead!” Sakura’s face is awfully red. But her expression is set in firm determination, and so Nozaki does exactly that—hobbles after her, clumsy in his skates, and onto the ice. 

“You’re doing great, Nozaki-kun!” Sakura’s voice is overbright and enthused. “Wow, you’re a real natural at this! You’re doing so well, don’t worry! Just keep going!”

“Sakura,” Nozaki says, amused. “I’m not doing anything at all. I’m coasting along on your momentum.” 

“Well, keep doing that and don’t let go!” Sakura’s grabbed his other hand, as well, and now the two of them are locked in an odd, stiff position with Sakura skating backwards across the rink and dragging Nozaki along. Sakura has to crane her neck to watch for obstacles in their path behind her, but all Nozaki has to do is stare straight ahead, at the top of her head, at the bows fixed in her hair, at her brow furrowed in intense concentration. Absently, Nozaki runs his thumb along Sakura’s hand clenched in his own, then laces their fingers together for a better grip. He looks down at them. Strange. They’ve spent so much time together, by now, but have they ever held hands like this? 

Sakura’s hands feel like they’re trembling. Concerned, Nozaki looks back up at her to find her staring straight at him—then blanches as he catches sight of the sideboards of the rink coming up fast behind her.

“Sakura, watch out!” he shouts, right before Sakura crashes into it with a screech, and he crashes into her, and they all go down in a sprawling heap.

“Chiyo-chan! Nozaki! Are you all right?” The blades of a pair of skates scrape to an abrupt stop beside them on the ice. Nozaki blinks up to see Kashima peering down at them in worry. Behind her is Seo, who takes one look at the two of them and starts to laugh. 

Nozaki looks down. He’s taken the brunt of the fall, and Sakura is clutched tight in his arms on top of him, her face burrowed against his chest and eyes squeezed shut as though bracing for impact. He doesn’t see anything funny about the situation. 

“Sakura?” Nozaki says; she hasn’t moved. “Are you hurt?”

Sakura’s eyelashes slowly flutter open. She blinks at him. For a moment—for a moment—

“ACK!” Sakura yelps, clambering off him, eyes wide and expression flustered; her elbow accidentally digs into Nozaki’s gut and he grunts, breath choked out of him. 

“Oh no, Nozaki! Are you all right? Did I make it worse?” Sakura’s wail is oddly comforting. He blindly reaches out in some attempt at reassurance; his hand finds its way to the top of her head, and he pats her until she calms down. 

“I’m fine, Sakura. My back’s a little sore, but I think we’ve managed to avoid any injury. Will you help me up?”

After Nozaki’s back on his feet, wobbling precariously in his skates, Sakura says, “Your hands!”

“What?” Nozaki says.

Sakura grabs at his hands. At first Nozaki thinks she’s going to lead him across the rink again, but she’s holding up his hands and examining them closely, lips pursed. 

“Did you fall on them?” Sakura asks. “Do they hurt anywhere?”

Nozaki gently closes his hands around hers, stilling her frantic searching. “They’re fine, Sakura. See?”

Sakura’s lower lip trembles. “I’m sorry! Your hands are your livelihood—I should have been more careful!” 

“You did well,” Nozaki tells her, watching her eyes widen in surprise. “We made it all the way to the other side of the rink, didn’t we? Anyway, you can’t learn anything without making a few fumbles along the way.” 

Seo claps him on the back and nearly sends him sprawling again. “Yeah, wipeouts are all just part of the fun! Now you know the ice can’t hurt you!”

“I don’t think that’s actually true,” Nozaki says gingerly.

“Whatever—you’re stronger than it, anyway! C’mon!” She’s speeding off again with Kashima in hot pursuit. Nozaki watches them go, feeling an odd sort of commiseration for Wakamatsu, of all people, as well as a faint gladness that he quit the basketball team when he did. 

“Do you want to stop?” Sakura asks. She’s looking at him with miserably shiny eyes, and Nozaki realizes that if he bows out now to sit on the sidelines and watch, Sakura might take it to mean that she personally ruined his first-ever skating experience. That won’t do at all. 

“No,” Nozaki says, and is pleasantly surprised to find he means it. It’s been a long time since he’s done anything on this level of physically strenuous, or anything he’s this hopelessly bad at; put another way, it’s been a long time since he’s risked anything. This has been a chaotic and unpredictable night, but it hasn’t been a bad one, and he wants to see it through to the end. “Come on, Sakura—you heard her. Let’s go.”

Under Sakura’s watchful guidance, Nozaki’s eventually able to make laps around the entire rink, though he prefers to keep the sideboards within arm’s reach just to be safe. A few kids snicker at him as they skate by; he starts creating an elaborate story arc in his head where the heroine is mocked by childish bullies for her inferior skating ability, only for the love interest to take her under his arm, sweeping her into majestic leaps and twirls and lifts... 

“Nozaki?” 

Sakura’s voice brings him out of his fantasy. He blinks. 

“Hmm?”

“Nothing—you had a weird look on your face.” Sakura’s smiling. “Just wondering what you were thinking about, I guess.”

Across the rink, Seo and Kashima are skating together, engrossed in conversation about something. They’re too far away for Nozaki to hear what they’re saying. Wasn’t that what he came here for in the first place—to listen, and to look, and to glean some spark of an idea in what happens between them, around them? But rather than the usual urge to iron them out into characters on a page, he finds himself wanting them to stay inscrutable a little longer. There’s no rush to their mystery; rather, this night feels forgiving in all its failures and misunderstandings and mistakes, so perhaps it’ll forgive this one, too. Besides, he gets the sense that there’s a far more intriguing thread here to unravel anyway, one he hasn’t quite pinpointed yet, though he suspects he’s getting close. Something in the sprays of snow kicked up by the blades of their skates, or the thin lines carved behind them, intersecting in a tangled web all across the ice. Something in the curious tilt of Sakura’s head, and how she had looked at him earlier... how she had looked at him, then...

“I was just thinking that skating would be an enjoyable setting to read and write about, because it’s an enjoyable activity in real life,” Nozaki muses. “I’m having a good time, even if it’s not something I would normally do.” He smiles at her. “I’m glad I came here with you.”

How Sakura had looked at him, then—

“Me, too,” Sakura says, and her voice is soft. “I’m really glad I’m here with you, too, Nozaki.”

It strikes Nozaki that to Seo and Kashima, Sakura and Nozaki must be the ones who look strange and secretive, huddled together by the side of the rink, too distant to see the minute details of their expressions; to see that they’re each looking at the other. The thought fills him with an unfamiliar thrill. That anybody and everybody here could be tasked with carrying such precious weight, in the flick of a glance or the exchange of a word or a hand held in another’s—that all around them are stories unfolding past the page. Anywhere, and everywhere, and most important, most exciting of all—right here. 

“Let’s go for another lap,” Nozaki says, reaching out his hand, and Sakura smiles, and takes it.

 

 

 

On the train everyone slumps in their seats, sore and tired after skating. Seo’s playing her phone game again, this time thankfully with her earphones plugged in, and although Kashima isn’t watching her screen like before, she’s sharing one of the earbuds as she scrolls through her own phone. Sakura’s head is lolling against the window, though she doesn’t look sleepy, her eyes alert and focused on the blurred views outside. Nozaki welcomes the meditative sort of quiet they’ve settled into, taking the time to sort through his notes. Most of it is unusable, of course, but he has to find the hidden gems—anything that strikes his notice. 

“Yo, your station’s coming up next,” Seo says, elbowing Kashima. 

First to depart will be Kashima, then Seo. Sakura and Nozaki will disembark together, headed to Nozaki’s apartment to polish up his latest chapter before his deadline. It’s getting a little late, though; maybe Sakura will have to stay the night. It’s up to her. 

Kashima removes Seo’s earbud and stretches luxuriously before getting to her feet. “Thanks for today, Chiyo-chan and Nozaki! I had a great time!” She waves at them, then turns to Seo. “Oh, and Yuzuki-chan...”

Yuzuki stares up at her, still wearing Kashima’s blazer. “Yeah?”

Kashima smirks. “You can keep the jacket. It looks better on you.” 

“This is just your way of dressing me up, isn’t it?” Seo says with a snort.

“Nonsense!” Kashima says, and she’s leaning a bit closer, now, almost swaying, though with an intent sheen in her eyes. “Yuzuki-chan, I always think you’re cute, no matter what you’re wearing!”

“Yeah?” Seo tilts her chin up at Kashima, something expectant to her gaze, to the wide spread of her legs in her seat. “Prove it.”

“If you insist,” Kashima says, and she leans all the way in, and so does Seo, and their lips meet in the middle in a kiss. 

It takes a moment for Nozaki’s brain to catch up to what he’s seeing. Then his pencil’s back in his hand, furiously sketching, because it’s quite generous of them to model the kissing scene for him after all, and he doesn’t want to let their dedication go to waste. Seo’s even got her fingers tangled in the collar of Kashima’s shirt, dragging her down—it’s all very convincing.

After a while, he straightens up. “Very good,” he says, satisfied. “Okay, I got what I needed, you two can stop now.”

They don’t stop.

Nozaki glances at Sakura. Her mouth is hanging wide open.

The train is rumbling to a stop. The automated voice over the subway speakers is announcing their arrival at the station. The doors hiss open; a flood of people get off, and a flood of people get on.

Kashima breaks away from Seo, her face flushed, her mouth red. “Bye, everyone! See you at school!” She waves cheerfully at them like the collar of her shirt isn’t rumpled, and disappears out the doors.

The doors hiss shut. The train starts moving again. A middle-aged man in a suit sits down in the seat Kashima just vacated. 

Seo turns toward Nozaki and Sakura, sees the expressions on their faces, and says, “What?”

Nozaki stares down at what he’d sketched in his notebook. Then back up at Seo.

“What was that?” Sakura says. It comes out more as a squeak.

“Huh? What was what?” Seo seems genuinely bemused. 

“You and Kashima,” Nozaki says. “Just now. That was for the manga, right?” 

“What was for the manga—oh, what, you mean the kissing?” Seo scratches at the back of her head. “No, that was for us.”

“For you,” Sakura repeats.

“Yeah. I mean, we’re dating and all.”

“You... you went on a first date,” Sakura says slowly, like it will help Seo understand better. “A pretend one. Today. With us. For Nozaki’s manga. Remember?” 

“No, I mean, we’re actually dating. We’ve been dating for a while now.” Seo snorts. “What, you didn’t know? I thought that’s why you asked us to model as your lead couple in your manga in the first place. Wasn’t it?” 

Silence.

Seo shrugs. “Well, it was pretty fun today, right?” She puts her earphones back in and returns to her phone. 

Outside—the world spinning past the windows. 

 

 

 

The walk back to Nozaki’s apartment is in silence.  

It lasts up until the last couple of blocks, before Sakura turns to Nozaki, and he sees his own stunned expression mirrored back at him. 

“I...” she begins.

“What?” Nozaki says.

“I didn’t know,” Sakura says. “Did you?”

“No.” But now that Nozaki’s thinking about it, some occurrences over the course of the day are starting to make a strange sort of sense. 

“I never would have predicted...” Sakura’s voice trails off. “But Nozaki-kun, don’t you think...”

“What?”

“Don’t you think that it feels... good, somehow?” Sakura’s stopped in her tracks. She’s still wearing Seo’s sweatshirt. Her words are clouds of white in the night air. “Like—we spent all day finding fault with how they acted as a fake couple, only to find out they were a real one all along. And that makes me feel really happy! I don’t know why—it’s just that against all the odds we came up with, they were one step ahead of us the whole time. They found what they wanted. Maybe... maybe that’s what we were missing, from the equation.”

“Their own intentions?” Nozaki asks. 

“Something like that. Something we can’t really account for when watching only from the outside.” Sakura looks really thoughtful.

“Something like love,” Nozaki suggests.

Sakura looks startled, then laughs. “Yeah—you’re right, Nozaki-kun! That must be it! The simplest answer—it was right here all along, wasn’t it?”

She smiles up at him, her cheeks reddened from the cold, and how she looks is how she had looked then on the ice, for a moment. For only a moment she had looked at him with an expression of such warmth and relief, as though having found the ground beneath her after her fall, as it had always been there. An uncomplicated and unguarded sort of joy, without the mask of a secretive blush or a face turned away or a stammering excuse. Without the shield of a story, she had looked at Nozaki like she was seeing nothing but him, and that’s how she’s looking at Nozaki now, and it strikes Nozaki that he doesn’t want this to only last for a single, fleeting moment.

“Sakura,” Nozaki blurts—a clumsy attempt to prolong it. 

She blinks up at him. “What?”

“I don’t...” He’s made a living out of words, yet the right ones elude him when they’re most needed. He shakes his head and sighs. 

“I don’t know if this story will get anywhere,” Nozaki says, and it sounds like admitting defeat in more ways than one. A deflection: a retreat to safer, familiar ground.

“Is that what’s worrying you?” Sakura says. They’re still stopped on the sidewalk, under the glow of the streetlamps. It’s cold, but neither of them are making any move to hurry to Nozaki’s apartment. “It’s okay, Nozaki. Whether you choose to move onto a new story, or stick with the old—either way, I know you still have a lot you want to explore, to tell. And you’ll always have my support, of course!”

“Thank you, Sakura,” Nozaki says. “But I know this story means a lot to you. You’ve invested so much into it.”

There’s a short pause. 

“Nozaki-kun.” Sakura is watching him. Something about her gaze seems careful. “It’s not the story I love.”

“What?”

“You—I—I just think, even what you’ve tried to do, regardless of whether or not you follow through—I think it’s brave enough to have just started. To move forward past your own limits.” Sakura bites her lip.

After a moment, she says, “I want to be brave, too.”

She’s still looking at him. Her expression is steadfast, unwavering. 

She takes a step closer.

Ah—what a simple thing. What a simple want. 

Sakura reaches out and takes Nozaki’s hand in hers.

“Nozaki-kun,” she says. She says it with a slight tremor. Nozaki might not have been able to tell, had he not spent countless days by her side, listening to the constant cadence of her voice. “I like you. A lot.” He can hear the swallow of her throat. She says it again: “I like you a lot. A lot, a lot, a lot.” Is she marvelling at what the words sound like, in her voice? The sound they make in the air, like bells that have been struck? “I always have. I tried to tell you but—I didn’t know the words. I’m saying them now, I guess. Nozaki-kun.” Silver pearls in the air. “I like you.”

“I know,” Nozaki says.

Something freezes in her expression. “What?”

“I know, now,” Nozaki says. “I think I could have known earlier, if I paid closer attention. If I knew what to look for. But I’ve found it, now.” 

He smiles at her. “Thank you for telling me.”

“Nozaki-kun,” Sakura says, and it is steadier, now—his name in her mouth. 

“I like you, too,” Nozaki says. A pause. “Very much.” 

Sakura swats his arm. Nozaki startles. Of all reactions, he hadn’t expected that one.

“You can’t say that!” Sakura yells, her face a familiar shade of pink. 

“What?” Nozaki says, confused. “Didn’t you say it, too?”

“No, I mean—the second part!” Another swat. “You’re one-upping me in my own confession!” 

Nozaki is surprised into a laugh. “Is that it?” She’s still holding onto his hand. He tightens his grip on it, feels her fingers flex in response. “Would you rather I take it back?”

Sakura gasps. “No! You can’t! You said it, Nozaki—it’s mine! In fact, you should say it again.”

“All right.” Were these the words, all along? This simple? This powerful? “I like you too, Sakura.”

“What about the second part?”

“I thought you said I couldn’t say that.”

“Nozaki-kun!”

“Alright. I like you very much.”

“You can say it again, you know!”

“Sakura. I like you very, very much.”

“Alright, that’s enough! Geez, Nozaki, I’m gonna blush! But also—you can say it more.” 

Nozaki bites back his smile and turns to continue walking, Sakura’s hand still latched onto his. “Come on. Let’s go and finish up our latest story.”

“But what about the next one?” Sakura says, swinging their held hands between them and giggling. 

“There’ll be time for that one,” Nozaki says. “And the one after that. And the one after that...”

Their words follow them every step of the way home in lingering clouds of white, but even they fade away eventually, becoming just another part of the night. And then they’re left only with each other and the hour darkening around them, endless in its silent promise.

Still—it seems enough. 

 

 

 

“So how’d it go?” Mikoshiba says at lunch.

Nozaki exchanges a glance with Sakura.

“Um,” Sakura says. 

“What?” Mikoshiba says, looking between them. “What, did I miss something? What did I miss?”

“Well,” Sakura says.

Best to rip the band-aid off quickly. “It turned out Seo and Kashima were already dating,” Nozaki says. 

Mikoshiba snorts. “No, but really, what happened?” 

Nozaki and Sakura exchange another glance.

“That’s what happened.”

“C’mon, guys! I asked Kashima and all she said was that she had a lovely time, but I know something had to have happened. You can tell me, right?” 

“Hey,” comes a voice. They turn to look. It’s Seo and Kashima, coming up to them in the school hallway, and Seo’s holding something in her hands. Nozaki blinks in surprise—it’s a copy of Let's Fall in Love.

“What are you doing with that?” Nozaki asks.

“Kashima decided to dig out the copy she bought ages ago so we could read it together.”

Nozaki’s heart quickens. “And?” he asks, trying not to sound too eager. 

“And I definitely think you made the right choice with using me as the protagonist!” Kashima says. 

“That’s it?” Nozaki says. “Don’t you have any critique? What did you think of the story?”

“That Suzuki dude should have secretly been an alien all along,” Seo says. “Also, don’t forget my eyepatch and robot arm.” 

Right. Nozaki doesn’t know what he expected. He looks down at the cover. It’s an old volume—the very first, in fact. Mamiko smiles up at him, her eyes shining, hair pulled back with a large bow. 

“Ah,” Nozaki says.

“What?” Sakura asks.

“Nothing,” he says. “I just had a familiar feeling, that’s all.”

“Thanks for paying for everything last night, Nozaki!” Kashima says. “It was really fun! We should do it again sometime soon!”

Nozaki shudders. “I'll be in touch,” he lies. 

“Hey,” Mikoshiba says, a little desperately, now. “Guys. What happened on the first date? Nozaki and Sakura won't tell me anything—they just say you’re dating for real.”

“We are,” Seo says, and she links her arm through Kashima’s, and they head off. 

Mikoshiba stares after them. Then at Nozaki and Sakura. Then back after them. 

“No way,” Mikoshiba says, shaking his head. “You guys are all just pranking me, right? I mean, what? Next thing, you’ll be trying to tell me that you two are dating!”

Nozaki exchanges another glance with Sakura. 

“Um,” Sakura says.

“What,” Mikoshiba says, staring between them. “What is it? What did I say that’s so funny?” 

“Nothing,” Nozaki says, and decides he can wait to break the news for as long as it takes for Mikoshiba to notice that Nozaki’s been holding hands with Sakura this whole time. Surely they can keep the mystery alive a little longer. “I just wanted to thank you both for your help, with starting something new.”

“What, did it work?” Mikoshiba asks.

“I guess it really did, didn’t it?” Sakura says in a wondering tone. 

“Yeah,” Nozaki says, and smiles. “It’s only just beginning.”