"No-Nozaki-kun! I'm your biggest fan!"
That was the start of Sakura Chiyo and Nozaki Umetaro's relationship. A declaration of love that was misunderstood of fanatic admiration (which was, really, not that far off) led to a series of other misunderstandings: Nozaki bringing Sakura home and somehow got her to do beta for his manga manuscript.
Sakura didn't mind — baffled, of course — but hey, it got the job done: her being closer to the boy that just a year ago stole her heart unwittingly. You can't blame her, she would argue, who wouldn't fall head over heels when someone unexpectedly lifted you up high while the cherry blossom petals are overflowing around you? No, she would not listen to counterarguments.
(Since then, when the scent of flowers appeared, Nozaki was the one she thought of the most.)
Nozaki had made her heart jumped countless times: when he bit her apple candy during summer festival to the time he whispered the word "like" to her ear when they watched the fireworks alone together.
But all those times couldn't ever dream to compare to the moment Nozaki, at 27 years old, asked her out of nowhere,
"Sakura, will you marry me?"
When a pink haired girl with big ribbons declared to him she was his biggest fan, Nozaki wasn't a bit baffled — it's normal for an artist to have fans, after all. He appreciated her and proceed to give her a lovely autograph.
Nozaki thought that interaction would end there — and maybe he would greet her at passing in the future — but turned out, she was more passionate than he expected. That led to him getting a new assistant, which was nice because he would die slower that way having his manuscript work cut off a bit, and more importantly: a new friend.
(A very good friend, he would later find out.)
After working together for the first time, he accompanied her — Sakura, a name he's starting to remember — to the train station. Something's a little off, though, Sakura was genuinely surprised when she realized he's a mangaka. How could she knew he was Yumeno Sakiko, then? That's weird.
Nozaki didn't interest that thought further, as it was quickly overwhelmed by the thoughts of manuscript and homework. He might not even remember it by the time he got home.
Two years passed by, and Sakura was still by his side a lot of times. She was a great help and an even greater friend. Unknowingly, Sakura made his high school experience more enjoyable than he had thought. Sometimes, Nozaki would look at Sakura and thought that she reminded him of Tomoda, somehow.
(Tomoda spent three years of high school supporting the protagonist, always by his side.)
They graduated high school and went to college. He enrolled to one near his place, too unbothered to move.
One day, Sakura barged in to his place uninvited, yelling, "Nozaki-kun!! Nozaki-kun!!! I got accepted!" He saw her jumped up and down excitedly, beaming widely at him.
Nozaki was a bit surprised when she told him they're going to the same college, although different majors. Well, maybe the Fine Art Department there was pretty good? He had thought so at the time, and just accepted his reasoning.
(Nozaki couldn't put a finger on why his heart felt like loosening and became lighter, almost as if he's relieved. Maybe it's because of that "mother hen"-ly feelings Kashima said he had towards Sakura?)
And so, their college days started.
Sakura's, along with Wakamatsu's, visit frequency to help his manuscript were still the same. Rather, Mikoshiba's and Hori-senpai's couldn't help as much, though their visits still could be called often. Mikoshiba's freshman year in a neighboring college was more than what he expected he could handle and Hori-senpai was already a sophomore in one a few stations away. Nozaki had heard a hearsay that Fine Art Department's one was kind of hellish, but Sakura had not missed a day of beta-ing and always offer him a hand. Nozaki had never even seen her complain — on the contrary, she almost seemed like happier?
(Nozaki admired Sakura greatly for that.)
By their sophomore year, Sakura started to stay over the night. Only a few times, either helping Nozaki catching up to his deadline, or just doing her assignment in his place — it's closer to the campus, after all.
By their junior and then senior year, that "few times" had turn more frequent.
(At one point during a stressful time in both academic assignments and manuscript works, they might had had lived together for a week. Nozaki welcomed her presence and assistance. He sometimes took breaks and cooked for her more often.
By their final year, Nozaki didn't need to ask what Sakura wanted to eat for most of the times. He could read her mood and already had her favorite foods recipes memorized by heart.)
Nozaki didn't have to experience job searching hell like lots of his peers do, because he had decided a long while ago to just continue his career as a mangaka. Following his recent success of publishing the end of 'Let's Fall in Love!' around the same time he finished his senior year. Now he's planning a sequel serialization, this time depicting the characters in a college setting.
Sakura was a different case. She wasn't struggling to get a job, instead she already had a promising chance a few weeks before graduation. A month after, Sakura barged into his place, beaming warmly at him. "Nozaki!! Nozaki!!! I got the job!"
(Nozaki felt a sense of déjà vu.)
Sakura got hired by a company ten stations away from his place. Contrary of what any of them would think back then, she chose somewhere unrelated to art.
That's life, I guess. More importantly... it's pretty far, huh?
He congratulated her, of course. He's definitely happy for her. Definitely. Definitely...
Sakura hadn't been visiting for a whole week. Sure, he got some texts full of excitement from Sakura, but...
('Ah. It's a normal development both in real life and manga.' Nozaki had thought. 'It's fine.')
That's why Nozaki was elated when the bell to his apartment rang on the next Monday and Sakura was there when he opened the door.
He gave her a shocked face for a second, then he didn't try to hide a joyful smile the next.
Instead of sweet dresses Sakura often wore during day offs in high school or most of their college days, she wore average office clothing. Instead of two big dot-patterned ribbons on each side of her head, she wore one plain ribbon on the back of her hair, like the way Mamiko styled her hair.
(Somewhere deep within Nozaki, a glimpse of a memory long forgotten resurfaced briefly for the first time.)
Turned out, Sakura still visited him a lot. It's a lot further to go to her parents' house, she had said. That first week when she started working, they had an impromptu MT she's required to participate, it went a lot more hectic than Sakura expected. Now, though, the actual work was one she could handle pretty well.
Sakura still helped a lot with his manuscript, which surprised Nozaki because, while on one hand it's a relief for him since their friends couldn't help much anymore (Wakamatsu was busy with his final year, Hori-senpai was working in a neighboring city, Mikoshiba still sometimes help when he's around) wouldn't she be too tired? Had it cut off Sakura's rest time? What if she got sick because of this, by extension of him?
It took some intensive reassurance from Sakura not to make Nozaki worry. She told him her work environment was great, and she's out of the office by three-thirty in the afternoon. Nozaki was still worried, but Sakura wouldn't back down. So, he made her an official assistant; her name would be credited right after him and some of the check went to her account.
Sakura refused at first, but Nozaki insisted.
It's been a few months since Nozaki's new serialization had been going. When he thought about it, there wasn't much different then what they had been doing since high school, with the exception their other friends would visit less and less.
On the contrary, Sakura never missed a day. Instead, she would help much more than just beta. With Hori-senpai missing, the background work had been arduous for the last chapters of 'Let's Fall in Love!'. (Nozaki did seriously tried. Really. Not like his — which in hindsight, silly — high school days efforts, but actually attempted at learning. He's just... better at other things.)
It changed one day when Sakura suprised him by taking over the background work. At first she seemed nervous, but when she got into serious mode, her work was wonderful. Apparently, she had picked up learning how to draw background gradually since junior year, for some reason.
As years went by, they keep working well together. Sakura got more and more involved.
When Nozaki ended the sequel of 'Let's Fall in Love!' three years into the serialization, he proposed to officially collaborate with Sakura to make a brand new serialization.
Sakura, face reddened, said yes.
Nozaki received this text from his father a few weeks after 'Let's Fall in Love!' sequel's final chapter was published.
"Oi, Umetarou. Mamiko has won and got her rival Suzuki in a marriage.
So when are you gonna introduce someone to your parents?"
Nozaki left it on read and didn't think much of it.
Except he subconsciously did.
He started entertain the thought of making a chapter where the female lead traveled to the future and found out they're married to the male lead she's still pining in her time.
He entertained the thought much further.
How many kinds of developments needed to be on that point where this character realize they want to be by the other's side for a long time? How would a character evaluate their choices? At what point they were sure they were prepared, either already reach a stability or working towards it together? How would they get to feel they're right for each other, and not anyone else?
Like any other topics he's ever covered in his manga, he went into research by putting himself as his character and studied the people around him. He looked, chose, and observed, then eliminated. From Mikoshiba who used to be the model for Mamiko, to Ryousuke-san whom he got to know from the café that apparently misunderstood him for a long time.
And the only person left after all those elimination was... Sakura. Which was not surprising, in hindsight.
So, Nozaki started observing Sakura and the things around her through his characters' lens.
They had known each other for almost ten years now, maybe that's how far he would make his character travel. In those ten years they saw each other almost everyday, wouldn't that give enough room for all the developments that's needed to reach marriage? There were also those times where she practically lived here, which hadn't happened yet to his characters but that might be good storyline in the future.
(As time passed by, Nozaki inadvertently took off the characters' lens more and more.)
Sometimes, he looked at Sakura and be amazed at how normal it was having her by his side. He observed, then observed again and again.
Until he met this wall full of confusion in his heart.
It would be a lie to say it was the first time Nozaki reached this wall. As far back as he could remember, he had felt the presence of it all the way since high school.
Now, Nozaki was not so much of his dense 17-years-old self and he could think quite a bit harder: The reason he stumbled to this wall now was because of Sakura, so it would make sense if he encountered it before because of Sakura as well.
He might not be that helpless as his high school self, but that didn't exactly mean he's way advanced now. Nozaki spent weeks to dish out points he'd ever experienced this and tried to connect the dots.
It's been months and Nozaki still felt confused. The furthest conclusion he could ever get to was: so he's got these confusing feelings. For Sakura. Okay, cool. Since high school, apparently? He vaguely remembered researching for a story with a cold female lead and Sakura helped him, but ended up not being able to finish it because of this wall.
So, Nozaki continued his day to day life. Continued seeing Sakura almost everyday in his home. With the awareness of having these confusing feelings for her.
That's okay for now, Nozaki thought.
That was, until one day while they were working on the manuscript with just two of them and Nozaki went out for a minute to pick up groceries: When he opened the door back to his apartment, he was greeted by the sight of Sakura smiling warmly at him, her serious work session having been interrupted, while saying, "Welcome home, Nozaki!"
It might not be the first time it happened, he couldn't care less anyway. But in that moment, Nozaki realized he wanted to see this sight for a long, long time. Just for him.
That day, Nozaki finally learned of what's there behind the wall.
He spent two weeks preparing.
Then, on one evening when they were taking break from work and having dinner, he threw the question.
"Sakura, will you marry me?"
Sakura thought she heard it wrong, so she asked Nozaki to repeat what he just said.
Nozaki answered without missing a beat, "Sakura, will you marry me?"
She heard him right the first time, apparently. And in an instant, her mind went into panic mode.
Is this another ploy? Is he researching for future storyline? What kind of reaction does Nozaki want to see?? Should I go with a good ending route or a bad one???
In that frantic state of mind, Sakura let out a reply, "Yes.......?"
To which Nozaki replied, "Okay. Cool."
And Sakura thought they were gonna leave it at that.
Until a week later when Nozaki took her for ring shopping. Sakura felt dangerously confused but went along anyway. When Nozaki asked her which ring she liked best, she took time to answer truthfully, her mind imagining they were picking engagement rings for themselves. She tried to cool it off, thinking it was probably for another research.
Then came the next weekend. They had no work so Sakura was just chilling in her parents' home. In the afternoon, she went to open the front door when the bell rang and found Nozaki standing outside. Dressed neatly in semi-formal attire, normal hairstyle but refined. Holding a flower bouquet, a bag full of food, and a small paper bag... with the logo of the ring store they went to the other day.
Sakura sensed cold sweats running down her spine.
"No-Nozaki... what are you doing here?"
"I came to get your parents' blessings."
"...Isn't this too far for a research?"
"Ng?" Nozaki tilted his head, a bit confused. "What research? I'm here for your parents' blessings. For our marriage."
It took a lot of assurances from Nozaki to convince Sakura he really was not roleplaying for manuscript research. Damn, he never thought the price for all those years worth of cooking up ideas would bite him now of all time in the form of trust issues about the one thing Nozaki was tremendously serious about.
For Sakura, she knew when Nozaki got serious after a decade of sticking by his side. So, her disbelief came purely out of: oh my god is this really happening??? Me and Nozaki?????
They somehow worked it out — like they always do, in a way that only worked for them — but Sakura's disbelief still came and went. Maybe this was the result of dreaming something so intensely and for so long, that by the moment it's right in front of you and you could actually reach it, it wouldn't easily feel real and you'd keep questioning your reality.
Even until Sakura had just walked on the aisle, had just been let go by her dad, and was standing beside Nozaki who looked absolutely handsome with a wedding suit to the point Sakura felt she might faint any moment and feared that she would wake up and found out everything was a dream.
It was a small wedding, with family and close friends. Cherry blossom petals were everywhere, decorating the secluded cottage with warmth inside in the otherwise cold weather of late November.
Nozaki opened her veil.
"Nozaki... we're really getting married?" Sakura couldn't help but whisper. It wasn't the first time she threw this question.
Usually Nozaki would pat her head and smiled faintly, saying yes and reassured her.
But this time, there's a sad frown on his face and he smiled weakly. "Yeah. Are you having a change of heart, Sakura?"
Strangely, her heart gradually calmed. The doubts in her mind and heart seemed to vanish all of a sudden. Sakura felt so sure for the first time in a long while.
"No, Nozaki... I'm happy!" Sakura beamed widely at him; relieved, without any burden. "I'm really, truly happy!" And she was, every fiber of her being never felt so much joy before.
She was there, with Nozaki — and their reality was more perfect than anything she had ever dreamt.
Life after marriage didn't seem too different from before, Sakura had thought.
She still went to work at the same time, be with Nozaki after work either working manuscript in silence for hours (because that's just how they roll) or enjoying each other's company, and their friends would still visit time to time.
The differences was instead of 'welcome in', Nozaki greeted her 'welcome home' after work. That they would draw or beta side by side and saw a wedding band each on their ring finger.
The differences were now they had moved to a bigger apartment with one king sized bedroom and that Nozaki would wake her up in the morning, would pack her a cute homemade bento and kiss her goodbye when she left for work. That she would shop groceries after work and often Nozaki would joined and picked her up so they could walk home together, discussing if they would like curry for dinner or a new recipe Nozaki wanted to try.
That she didn't need to mind the time for being too late or to call her parents notifying she wouldn't go home tonight — because now her home was here, with Nozaki.
One evening on a snowy day, both were cuddling on the couch. Cupping each their own glass of hot chocolate while keeping warm under the same blanket. The cozy inn they had rented for the weekend in celebration of the tenth anniversary was under the ownership of a ski resort nearby, which they had just experienced that noon as well.
Sakura suddenly had a nostalgic thought.
"You do know by now that I've liked you romantically since high school, right?"
Nozaki pondered for a moment.
"...Oh. That makes sense," he finally replied, having just realized he spent the last ten years thinking it was him who caught those feelings first.