Step in Time
Akira had a tendency to do things backwards, which partially explained why he'd spent his high school living on his own only to return to his parents' home during college. The other part of the explanation involved an unexpected baby brother, nineteen years younger than Akira, and Akira's sudden and fierce determination to be the best older brother in the world.
Shuuji and Nobuta soon got used to being greeted with a report of Yuya-chan's newest achievement, and only after several minutes of agreeing that yes, Yuya-chan was so amazingly brilliant to be able to blow spit bubbles, could they shift the conversation to other, less important topics.
They also got used to spending most of their free time at Akira's house. By the second semester, half of Nobuta's schoolbooks had tiny toothmarks on their covers--Yuya never tried to rip the pages, but he did like chewing on books--and Shuuji's Chinese textbook had an unfortunate stain from the time Akira hadn't burped Yuya enough and he'd spit up everywhere.
Two o'clock was naptime for Yuya-chan, so Shuuji wasn't surprised to enter Akira's bedroom one afternoon and not find the baby who'd become something of a fixture in his daily life. Akira was also missing, though, and all of the furniture had been shoved up against the walls. It looked to have been done deliberately, rather than as a result of a fight between Akira and his father--fewer and farther between now that Akira had started college and a new baby had come into the family to distract them all.
Nobuta was sitting uncomfortably on the displaced sofa in Akira's huge bedroom, and Shuuji shoved a couple of throw pillows to the side so that he could sit beside her.
"What's going on? Where's Akira?" he asked.
"He said his music wasn't right."
"Wasn't right for what?" Shuuji asked, frowning, and Nobuta shrugged in response.
A moment later Akira bounded into the room, a small stack of CDs in his arms. "Shuuji!" he said. "Good timing."
"Why? What's up?"
"First, you need this." Akira grabbed a square, cream-colored envelope off his desk and handed it to Shuuji, who just now noticed that Nobuta clutched a similar envelope in her lap. He slid the envelope open and drew out a heavy card whose embossed lettering invited him to a joint birthday party the following month.
"You're sharing your party with Yuya-chan?" he asked.
Akira nodded enthusiastically. "We'll have all of our favorite things: balloons and games and dancing and cake."
Considering that Yuya-chan's current favorite game was peek-a-boo, Shuuji wasn't sure how that was supposed to work. On the other hand, Kusano-san had probably coordinated over a hundred dinner parties and other events during the course of her marriage to Akira's father; if she didn't see a problem with a shared birthday party for a one year-old and a twenty year-old, then Shuuji wasn't going to borrow trouble unnecessarily.
"It sounds great," he said.
"So you'll be there?" Akira pressed.
"Okay!" Akira grinned. "Now all we have to do is teach Nobuta how to dance...and maybe Shuuji, too? And then we'll be set."
"Dance?" Shuuji asked, dismayed. Suddenly, the white-knuckled grip Nobuta had on her invitation made a lot more sense.
"Just the waltz," Akira said in a tone of voice that was supposed to be reassuring, but didn't do much to dispel the incipient panic in Shuuji's belly. "And maybe the foxtrot and the quickstep."
Shuuji stared. "How do you know those dances?"
"Lessons when I was little," Akira said, the words slightly muffled as he bent over the CD player. The music that streamed from the speakers a moment later was gentle and sweeping, a far cry from the bouncy pop music that was Akira's usual preference.
Although he was only wearing a tee shirt and jeans, Akira looked oddly adult and handsome as he extended his hand to Nobuta. The impression was spoiled directly afterwards, when Nobuta ignored his outstretched hand and he had to tug her up off the sofa, but even then, Shuuji found himself surprised by the gentleness of Akira's touch as he prodded Nobuta into the correct position.
Shuuji tucked his feet up underneath himself and watched the two of them as Akira spun Nobuta in a tight circle, and then traced a larger arc that circumscribed the room. Akira looked happy and confident, in stark contrast with Nobuta, pink-cheeked and staring at her feet the whole time. Either that technique actually worked for her, or she was simply a better dancer than Shuuji would ever have guessed, because they didn't stumble once.
After five or so minutes, the last few notes of the song sounded, and Akira walked over to pause the CD, leaving Nobuta to catch her breath in the middle of the room. "Nobuta's a natural!" he declared.
Nobuta shook her head, but Shuuji was inclined to agree with Akira's assessment. Maybe girls absorbed how to dance through osmosis, by watching romantic dramas...though, as far as he knew, Nobuta didn't care much for television, so that probably wasn't the reason for her success.
"Good job, Nobuta," he said, clapping his hands, and Nobuta turned even pinker.
"Shuuji's turn!" Akira announced.
"What?" Shuuji said. "No! I don't dance."
"Because you haven't learned how," Akira said agreeably. "It's fun! Right, Nobuta?"
Nobuta nodded hesitantly, and Akira grinned.
"Come on," he said, pulling a reluctant Shuuji off the couch with rather less gentleness than he had Nobuta. And then he placed one hand on Shuuji's shoulder and held the other out to the side expectantly.
Shuuji stared at him in horror. "I'm not a girl," he protested, shrugging off Akira's hand.
"Of course not," Akira said, surprised. "I am. If you were the girl, you'd have your hand on my shoulder."
There was a sudden burst of music as Nobuta pressed 'play' on the stereo, and Shuuji was almost too preoccupied by that to notice Akira taking another half a step forward, so that the two of them were standing toe to toe. He definitely noticed when Akira took Shuuji's hand and pressed it to the curve of his waist, though, then clasped Shuuji's shoulder again.
"Hold tight, okay? You're the only one who can see where we're going, so you have to steer."
"Is that what they call it?" Shuuji asked, trying to ignore the warmth of Akira's body, seeping through the thin fabric of his tee shirt, and the rough edge of his jeans against Shuuji's palm.
"That's what I call it," Akira said with the air of someone delivering an incontrovertible argument. "Come on, Captain Shuuji. Let's dance."
"Why can't I dance with Nobuta instead?"
"No dancing with Nobuta until you can be trusted to not step on her toes," Akira said sternly, and Shuuji shrugged a reluctant agreement.
Their first attempt did in fact result in Shuuji stomping on Akira's foot after only four hesitant steps. "Sorry, sorry," he said, wincing.
Akira just laughed. "It's fine. More of a pause after the third step, okay?"
"Okay." Shuuji bit his lip in concentration, bobbing his head slightly in time with the music, and tried again. This time they managed three long, slow revolutions around the room without further mishaps, and the panicky jump of his heart slowly returned to normal.
"Not bad, right?" Akira asked when the song had finished, a small eternity later.
"I felt ridiculous," Shuuji said, crossing his arms over his chest protectively.
"What does Nobuta think?" Akira asked.
Shuuji turned to look at Nobuta, curious as well.
Nobuta was wearing her thoughtful look, and finally she said, "Shuuji and Akira looked...strange, but pretty."
"We are, we are," Akira crowed, laughing, and Shuuji felt his cheeks turn hot, but couldn't bring himself to argue with her.