Lost and Found
They weren't children anymore, but sometimes it seemed that the three of them had barely changed. They still played silly games occasionally, still held long conversations on topics that were important only to the three of them.
Other times and in other ways, they'd changed a lot. One night Shuuji was walking Nobuta home, her scarf wrapped around his neck because he hadn't thought to wear a jacket, and somehow pointing out the North Star turned into kissing Nobuta's soft, unresponsive mouth.
He only held the kiss for a moment or two, but that was more than enough. "Sorry," Shuuji said, embarrassed, as he pulled away. Nobuta just shook her head, cheeks flushed bright pink and her eyes downcast.
He opened his mouth to try to excuse himself further, but there weren't any words to explain what he'd done, why he'd done it. The one saving grace was that Nobuta wasn't likely to hold a grudge against him for it. Shuuji started walking towards Nobuta's apartment again, only to be brought up short. He glanced down at his left arm, where Nobuta was clutching his sleeve.
"Nobuta?" Shuuji asked, feeling oddly breathless and uncertain. Nobuta's fingers tightened a little in response. He sucked in an unsteady breath and leaned in once more, and just as he began to reconsider what he was doing and back away, Nobuta raised her head to meet him halfway.
"We have to tell Akira," Shuuji said the next day, even as the thought of it twisted his stomach into knots.
"Tell him what?" Nobuta asked.
"That we're...dating." The word seemed strange to use in connection with the two of them, and he amended, "That we like each other."
"Oh," Nobuta said.
There was a long silence, and Shuuji felt his face turn warm and said quickly, "If that is how you feel--" just as Nobuta said:
"We can tell him tonight."
"Oh." Nobuta was staring into her bowl of ramen as though it contained the mysteries of the universe. On impulse, Shuuji reached for her hand underneath the table, and she jumped a little, but turned her hand to hold his properly. Shuuji smiled at her, giddy with relief. "Okay."
It was Shuuji who actually said the words in the end. He didn't know if Akira still felt anything romantic for Nobuta, but he didn't want him to hear the news from her lips, just in case.
Akira blinked at the two of them after Shuuji had finished talking and then said, uncharacteristically serious, "You know, I thought that our all going to school together again meant that we could find the things we lost or gave up on."
Nobuta nodded solemnly, no doubt thinking of the friendship they'd found unexpectedly in their last year of high school, and Shuuji nodded as well, remembering the boy who'd told him that he wanted Nobuta to be only his.
Akira huffed a loud sigh, then smiled. "But maybe the things that were lost three years ago can't return. Especially if something new takes their place. Now, promise to be good to each other," Akira ordered sternly, even as he tickled Nobuta's cheek and grinned, delighted, when she squirmed away from his fingers with a short, involuntary laugh.
Sometimes, Shuuji felt as though he were being torn down the middle. He wanted to kiss, to touch. He wanted Nobuta. But, at the same time, he was scared of pushing her too fast, of being the kind of guy who took what his girlfriend wasn't ready to give.
"Nobuta's too quick to do whatever I ask," he explained to Akira one afternoon, blushing hotly. "And so I end up never asking, especially when it comes to...you know."
Of all the responses to his confession that he might have imagined, Akira's laughter wasn't one of them. "What the hell?" Shuuji asked, torn between annoyance and a sort of puzzled mortification.
"Nobuta said," Akira gasped between giggles, "Nobuta said, 'Shuuji's a very shy person. I think he kisses you more than he kisses me.'"
"I only kissed you once, and I was drunk that time," Shuuji snapped.
Akira howled with laughter, tumbling off the sofa onto the ground in a paroxysm of amusement. Shuuji just rolled his eyes and kicked him gently while he was sprawled on the floor in convenient reach of Shuuji's feet.
After that conversation, though, it was a little easier to meet Nobuta's eyes over dinner in Shuuji's apartment that night and say, "Akira thinks that I'm being stupid."
A small grin flashed across Nobuta's face, gentle and amused and endlessly fascinating to Shuuji, who still viewed each real smile she gave with startled pleasure. "Why does he think that?"
Shuuji shrugged uncomfortably. "Because...I want to kiss you, but I don't do it."
Nobuta blushed and bit her lip, and Shuuji opened his mouth to apologize. Before he could, though, Nobuta said, "You could. If you wanted."
"Do you want me to?" Shuuji asked, and Nobuta gave him a look that said plainer than words that she thought that Akira hadn't gone nearly low enough in his estimation of Shuuji's intelligence. "Ah. Okay," Shuuji said, smiling, and leaned across the table to kiss Nobuta's ginger-flavored mouth.