When Akira returns to Tokyo, things are different. They aren't different in big ways. The shops and streets are still the same as Akira remembers them. The school is still in the same place and as he waits near the bike racks, he sees students pass wearing the same uniform and hairstyles, hears them complaining about the same teachers and assignments.
The difference is Nobuta. Akira hears her before he sees her. He'd know her voice anywhere because he thinks about it far more often than he'd like to admit, more than he'd ever tell. She's laughing now, louder than Akira's ever heard her laugh before. There's no hesitancy or shyness, and when she rounds the corner and comes into view, that's not all that's changed.
She's not alone. Akira looks from Nobuta to the person next to her, the one holding her hand.
Akira nearly loses his balance and falls backwards. He stays standing just barely.
Nobuta stops in her tracks as soon as she sees him, causing Shittaka to jolt beside her. She drops his hand.
"Akira," she says, and it sounds like the first time she'd said it, surprised, almost like an accusation.
Akira somehow manages to make himself wave. His brain is having trouble processing the situation and his body reacts physically, uncontrollably, his voice coming out in a strange squawk that should have been the word "Hello."
"It's good to see you," Nobuta says, and she smiles as she does. Her smile looks more natural now. She's been practicing, Akira knows. He remembers receiving photo messages from her, the corner of her mouth quirked up, lips nearly parted. Each time, Akira had felt something swelling inside his chest. That is, until Shuuji had flipped open his phone at lunch to reveal the same picture. She'd sent it to both of them. The smile hadn't been meant for Akira alone.
Now, it seems, she smiles for everyone, not just with one corner of her mouth but both sides now, a full, wide smile. It looks beautiful but strangely Akira finds himself missing the way she used to look, face half hidden by her hair; that secret smile meant only for the three of them.
Shittaka interrupts the silence that hangs between them by clapping Akira on the shoulder. "What are you doing here?" he asks, smiling broadly.
"I—" Akira starts, and it's hard to remember what his answer would have been. He'd had this planned. It started about a month ago, or maybe it had just never really stopped.
"I didn't give up," Akira had told Shuuji, after a long back and forth of denial and avoidance and a lot of pushing of the subject. "I didn't give up on Nobuta. I know I said I would, but I can't."
Shuuji had just smiled like he'd known all along, which annoyed Akira more than anything.
"What should I do?" Akira had asked.
Shuuji had shrugged. "I'm not really good at that sort of thing," he'd said. "I guess you could tell her..."
And with that the seed had been planted and so began many days of thinking and planning, trying to get his words right, to figure out how to set the scene. He'd watched a lot of dumb romance movies and tv dramas that Shuuji's dad owned. They all seemed really into the idea of an over the top confession, a way to prove your love and serious intention.
But none of that really matters now , Akira thinks, as he watches Shittaka take Nobuta's hand again, their palms sliding together easily as if they've been doing this forever. Akira wonders how long it's been, and why he didn't know.
Luckily, Nobuta seems to notice that Akira is uncomfortable and she whispers something to Shittaka that Akira doesn't catch, and Shittaka smiles and says, "Okay, I'll see you tomorrow," and takes off, leaving the two of them alone.
"So," Akira starts, after several seconds pass of both of them staring at the ground. He thinks through the lines he'd rehearsed in his head, and how utterly useless they are now. He's already lost. He hadn't foreseen this outcome. It had never seemed like a competition before and he doesn't know how to react. He wants to collapse on the ground, but he's gotten better about extreme reactions lately, so he settles for digging his nails into the palm of his left hand.
Nobuta takes a step forward, so that they're now standing very close, and reaches her hands up to Akira's shoulders. It takes Akira a minute to realize what she's doing, that she's trying to hug him, and when he does, he isn't sure how to feel. Her hands are light and tentative as they wrap around him, just barely skirting the fabric of his jacket. It's like she's afraid to touch him. He wonders how many times she's hugged someone, if she'd hugged Shuuji like this in that photo, if she hugs Shittaka like this.
"I missed you," she says quietly, and that's all it takes for Akira to hug her back. He doesn't care about being soft and gentle and wraps his arms around her tightly. She relaxes a little at that, and squeezes him back, no longer seeming to worry about what she's doing. Akira starts to feel happy, like things are going the way he'd wanted, but then Nobuta's phone buzzes with a message and she immediately drops her hands and steps away. The moment dissolves in Akira's mind like a hazy fantasy.
It's Shuuji, and Akira groans, but feels glad that at least it wasn't Shittaka.
Nobuta doesn't reply to it, just looks at Akira and then says, "Let's go somewhere." The way she says it sounds just like if he'd never left and they were off together on another adventure. He doesn't hesitate when he nods and says, "Let's go."
They take his bicycle, and Nobuta wraps her arms around Akira's waist as they ride.
"You don't have to hold on so tight," Akira says, laughing as they whizz around a corner, but Nobuta doesn't loosen her grip, and strangely Akira's glad for that.
"I missed you," she repeats, but Akira can barely hear her over the sound of the wind and the traffic, which makes him wonder if he's imagined it.
They end up in a park near Nobuta's apartment. Akira sits cross-legged on the ground while Nobuta rocks on the swing in front of him, her feet drawing spirals in the sand.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Akira asks, without prompting, and hates the way his words come out almost as a whine.
He sees Nobuta's shoulder shrug, but she doesn't look at him. "Shuuji said I shouldn't," she replies.
"Shuuji?!" Akira shifts on the ground and kicks sand with his foot. "What do you mean? He knew? You told him first?"
Nobuta's fingers slide through the metal rings on the swing chain. "I didn't mean for it to be that way." Her voice is very quiet. "I meant to call you after. He told me not to. He wouldn't say why."
Akira feels something knot up inside his chest like a tangle of ropes. He wishes Shuuji were here so he could punch him in the face.
"I thought you didn't like him," he says, finally, tossing a piece of grass at Nobuta's back.
Nobuta turns around then and frowns slightly. "I didn't then. I think…" she pauses, leans forward so that her eyes are almost completely hidden behind her hair, "I think that now maybe I do. People can change, Akira. I think that Shittaka has changed."
Akira runs his tongue over the back of his teeth and grimaces. "It's not fair!" he exclaims, voice startlingly loud. Nobuta jumps. The swing chain clinks. "I never changed. I never had to. Why does it have to be him? He isn't—It would even be better if it were Shuuji—"
"It almost was," Nobuta interrupts. "I do like Shuuji. I like you too, Akira. I just like you in different ways. I like many people, now that I know how. I'm happy for that."
Akira sighs audibly. "I'm happy for that, too," he replies reluctantly, and it's true. He is. He just wishes she didn't have to like so many people, other people, people who weren't him. He wishes she hadn't changed, too.
Nobuta gets off the swing and sits on the ground next to him. "Does it really bother you?" she asks.
"No," Akira lies. "It's fine. Sorry I sounded so upset."
Nobuta smiles. "It's okay. I'm glad I have friends to worry about me."
"Right," Akira replies. "Friends." He suddenly hates the way that word sounds.
Everyone else has changed except for Akira. Even Shuuji is different now that he knows people will like him even if he doesn't act, now that he knows that he can be Shuuji and be happy at the same time, that the two are not mutually exclusive. Even Bando has changed, if rumors are to be believed. She doesn't have a boyfriend anymore and she doesn't hit people just because she can. Akira even heard she reads in the bookstore sometimes.
But Akira feels like he's the same person he's always been. Maybe he should change. At this rate he's going to get left behind. But he doesn't want to change. There's nothing wrong with him. Why can't Nobuta just like him the way he is? If she would only like him then they could date and marry and be together forever. Why couldn't she just like him best?
Akira wants to be selfish for once. Always, he's put Nobuta and Shuuji first. Shouldn't he be allowed to get what he wants? He's used to having the money to do anything but when it comes to people, money doesn't get you very far. He thinks about some of the daytime soap operas he's watched when he's stayed home sick. The hero can always get the girl back if the guy she's with does something horrible. But Shittaka's changed too. Nobuta said so. He'd never push Nobuta's hand away again. Now he holds onto it tightly. Akira can't imagine Shittaka doing something horrible. He isn't a bad guy. Akira just has to be the better guy somehow.
"What can I do?" he asks, hanging upside down on a playground jungle gym. "What can I do?" he types in a text message to Shuuji.
"Sometimes there isn't anything," comes the reply. Sometimes Shuuji could be aggravatingly vague.
"Maybe I can like her more than he does," Akira types. "Maybe I can prove that I like her best."
"But she has to like you best, too," Shuuji replies, and Akira throws his phone down on the gravel. Shuuji is always right, but Akira wishes he wasn't.
Later, he finds himself riding the train home, caught in the space between carriages and yelling into the phone, "How could you not tell me?" as the conductor slips past him, giving him a disapproving look.
"I didn't want you to be hurt," Shuuji says, his voice sounding careful and measured even amidst the static from the receiver. "I know how you feel about her."
"But my plan!" Akira moans. "You should have stopped me!"
"Would that have really stopped you?" Shuuji asks. It doesn't really matter if it would or wouldn't have – it probably wouldn't have, Akira concedes – but Shuuji should still have told him because that's what best friends do, and now it's as though Akira has lost both of his two best friends in one fell swoop. How can Nobuta still be his best friend if she's with Shittaka, and how can Shuuji still be his best friend if he tells him nothing?
The next week passes with Shuuji and Akira not speaking to each other. Akira blames him for Nobuta, because Nobuta listens to Shuuji, and she wouldn't have dated Shittaka if he'd told her not to. If only they were still producing Nobuta then she would do everything the right way and she would marry Akira and then Akira could be happy and not hurting.
He can't bring himself to blame Nobuta. His heart feels tight at the mere suggestion.
One night, Akira bikes by Shuuji's house and throws his clay pig at Shuuji's front door, hoping it will shatter into a million pieces and wake Shuuji up and then he will understand how this is all his fault. Because, to Akira's logic, of course it is. He knew all along, so he should have told Akira that it was hopeless from the start.
The pig doesn't hit the door, though. It drops into the bushes and Akira finds it ten minutes later completely intact.
The problem with being mad at Shuuji means Akira is left without anyone to confide in and talk to and annoy during lunch and before school. And so somehow things slide back into the easy routine and, for a while, both of them don't talk about Nobuta, apart from laughing at the occasional text mail from her about a plan for a school event or something Catherine did to the principal. Akira can almost forget what he saw, what she told him, the things he knows to be true. He can close his eyes and almost imagine that everything is exactly as he had left it, that Nobuta never changed at all.
When Shuuji suggests they go to visit her again together during the school break, Akira agrees without hesitation.
That night he has a dream that Nobuta has broken up with Shittaka, and that when they meet she's wearing a cute pink skirt and her hair is done up with flowers and she calls his name like it's her favorite word in the world.
He sleeps through his alarm the next morning just to hold on to the sound of her voice.
The three of them go to an amusement park together. It is Shuuji's idea, since Nobuta has never been before. She looks at everything through new eyes and Akira can't help but stare.
"What do you want to do first?" Shuuji asks, unfolding the park map.
Nobuta just smiles. "Anything," she replies, voice full of wonder. She waves to the costumed characters as they walk by, and the little kids in school groups. She asks Akira to take a picture of her and Shuuji behind a cutout board. They poke their heads through the holes and are suddenly cartoon lions. Shuuji makes a goofy face and Nobuta doesn't look down. She stares straight ahead, eyes bright and piercing. She's looking up more and more now, unafraid to see people and have them see her.
For lunch, they get yakitori from a food stall and eat it at one of the picnic tables in the big open air food court. Akira sits next to Nobuta, closer than is strictly necessary. Shuuji makes some excuse to leave the two of them alone, and Akira slides closer then.
Nobuta stops eating and looks at him. "Do you want to sit in this spot?" she asks, oblivious.
Nobuta cocks her head to the side. "This is strange," she tells him, and somehow, Akira agrees. He'd hoped this would feel romantic, like a date, but he can see Shuuji over near the soda fountain and he can't shake the feeling like something's missing, like he's going about this all wrong.
He ignores it, and continues, gearing up for his confession.
"Please date me," he says, abruptly and too loudly. He sees Shuuji clap his palm to his forehead and roll his eyes. Shuuji would have been much smoother at this, but luckily Shuuji doesn't want to date Nobuta.
Nobuta's eyes go wide. A moment passes. Then she asks, "Why?"
"Because I like you," Akira says, as if it's the most obvious thing in the world.
"I like you too," she agrees, "but dating is strange."
Akira scowls. "It doesn't have to be. You're dating Shittaka. Is that strange? Maybe you're just dating the wrong person. Aren't you happy with me?"
Nobuta's mouth twitches a little. "I'm really happy here with you. And Shuuji."
Akira's voice comes out as a growl when he replies, "Why does it always have to be 'and Shuuji'? Why not just 'Akira'?"
She doesn't answer, but Shuuji returns at just that moment, sliding back onto the picnic bench and immediately dissolving any tension by exclaiming, "Hey, I got passes for the jet coaster. Shall we go?"
The ride only allows two passengers per row so Shuuji sits behind Akira and Nobuta. As the coaster climbs the track to the peak, Akira takes Nobuta's hand.
"Really, this ride is scary," he says, justifying himself.
Nobuta nods and clings tight.
As they go down through the banks and loops, Shuuji whooping and yelling in the seat behind them, Akira imagines that Nobuta is his, that this is their date.
But she lets go of his hand the moment the ride stops and the safety bar comes up again.
"I don't want to ride that again," she says, looking at Akira seriously. "Let's go on a ride that we can all ride together."
Later, the three of them squeeze into a photobooth near the park entrance. They make Nobuta Power with their hands and smile. Akira feels Shuuji and Nobuta pressed on either side of him and instead of feeling cramped or stuffy, he just feels good.
"Let's always stay like this," Nobuta says, as Shuuji doodles hearts over Akira's eyes with the sticker pen. "It's perfect."
Shittaka is nowhere to be found, and Akira is about to ask, mention his name, think aloud, but he stops himself, because Nobuta looks up at him and he can see she knows what he's thinking. "It's perfect," she repeats, and means it.
When it's the three of them, it is perfect, Akira realizes, but he hates whenever Nobuta isn't there, whenever other people are there with her. He can't stand it.
The next day, he follows Nobuta on a date with Shittaka because he doesn't want to be left alone, or because he doesn't want to leave her alone with him. They are going to karaoke with a bunch of Shittaka's friends. Akira watches from a distance as they pass by the shops in the covered arcade that Nobuta loves so much, without so much as stopping. Akira wonders if Shittaka even knows that Nobuta came here everyday, that this was her favorite place.
He stops at the flower shop and looks longingly at the flowers on display.
"What would you like?" the shopkeeper asks, emerging from the shop with a bouquet of yellow and orange blossoms.
Akira turns back to where Nobuta and Shittaka are disappearing into a crowd. "I'm just looking," he says.
"Don't you hate that?" Akira asks, later. He's standing in the annoyingly bright and boldly colored corridor outside the karaoke room. He can hear half a dozen voices shouting and singing off-key still in the room. Nobuta's head is down.
"Why are you here?" she asks. She's startled to see him. Akira expects her defenses to go up, her fists to clench at her sides. But she doesn't look angry. These days, Nobuta lives life with her fists unclenched, her hands open. She doesn't need gimmicks. She has her own power now.
"You never went to karaoke with us," Akira replies, leaning back against the wall, trying to look nonchalant. "Don't you hate it?"
Nobuta shakes her head. "Being with someone means sometimes doing things you hate."
Akira grabs her wrist and encircles it gently with his palm and forefinger. "I'd never make you do that. We'd do only things you like."
"How could you be happy with only that?" Nobuta replies, breaks free of his grip, and pushes past him on the way to the drink bar.
"I'm happy when you're happy," Akira calls after her.
"I am happy," Nobuta says, but there's no hint of a smile pulling at the corner of her mouth as she says it and Akira's certain she's lying. How could she be happy with someone like Shittaka, someone who isn't Akira?
"I love you," he says, feeling helpless.
"I know," Nobuta says quietly. She's stopped walking but she isn't looking at him. The space between them seems endless.
Akira closes his eyes. "I guess that's it, then," he says, shoulders slumping. He closes his eyes and starts to slide down the wall, but then he feels Nobuta's hand covering his own.
"You're my best friend," she replies, voice merely a whisper.
Akira rolls his head to the side. "Can't I do something?" he asks. "Can't I like you more?"
Nobuta shakes her head. "You don't have to. You're you."
"But you don't need me," Akira whines.
"A person always needs friends." She squeezes his hand and it feels different from the way she'd held it on the jet coaster. Her fingers are warm and not at all afraid. "You're still the most important person," she whispers.
Then Nobuta lets go and disappears back into the karaoke room.
On his way home, Akira crosses over a bridge and passes by the truth man. He doesn't chase after him, just nods his head to Akira in greeting.
"What should I do?" Akira asks aloud, not really expecting an answer.
"Tell me the truth," the truth man replies, but his voice is gentle rather than demanding.
"I want to marry Nobuta. I want her to look at only me."
"Is that really what you want?"
Akira sighs. "I can't live without her."
The truth man laughs. "Ah, but those aren't the same thing now are they? You don't have to marry Nobuta to have her with you."
Akira looks at the man strangely. "I want her to be happy," he says finally. He's sure at least that much is the truth.
"She's already happy. She's happy to have you." The truth man smiles a broad, toothy grin. "You should be happy, too. You have so much, Akira, more than most people could dream of. Be happy with what you have."
When Akira shows up at Shuuji's apartment later that night, he feels completely drained. He isn't sure if the truth man tells the truth as much as he asks for it, but if what he says is true then maybe this is the only choice.
Shuuji doesn't say anything when he opens the door, just swings it open and lets Akira inside. There's a look in eyes like he knows what's coming. Shuuji always knows.
"I'm giving up," Akira says, and feels tears pricking the corners of his eyes as he says it. "I'm really giving up this time."
Shuuji doesn't say anything, but puts a hand on Akira's shoulder and squeezes and they stand like that for a long time in silence.
"I don't think you are," Shuuji says finally, letting go and meeting Akira's gaze. "Not really."
Later, Akira will find a dime on the street, nearly lost in the cracks of the gutter and pick it up to see that it hasn't lost any of its shine.
"Be happy with what you have," the truth man's words will echo in his head. Akira will feel something constrict in his chest but it won't be so painful this time.
He will think of Nobuta and Shuuji, and everything he has, put the dime into his pocket, and keep walking.