Chiyo has always considered herself an “analog” girl. She knows very little about computers. She doesn’t even know how to operate a smartphone. She shares a single desktop with her parents. She only heard about digital painting when she entered high school, and she’s never tried it. But even she knows that it can only mean trouble when Nozaki says,
“So I was online last night and I found a board discussing ‘Let's Love!’.”
She turns carefully, trying to be casual. She wonders if this is why Nozaki-kun has seemed down this morning. “Oh?” she asks gently, searching his face for a hint of what's coming. She's sure whatever it is, it’s going to be troublesome - even from her short interactions with internet comments she knows it's rare that people turn to the net to express positive or even lukewarm feelings. She just hopes that whatever reaction Nozaki has it doesn't involve too many rewrites to the upcoming chapter; they've just finished a round of exams and they're already running behind schedule.
Nozaki’s brow furrows. He slides his phone over to her, clicking his tongue frustratedly in a way that briefly reminds her of how she used to think he might be some kind of thug. The urge to navigate over to his photo gallery in search of selfies to send to herself is almost overwhelming, but she pulls herself together at the very last second and looks down at his open browser.
“What is with ‘Let's Love!’’s inexplicable popularity anyway? I don't believe Yumeno-sensei has been in a relationship in the last ten years at least!”
“Right? Right? It's like a Showa-era shoujo manga. Its only distinguishing feature is its blandness”
“guys lets be fair it MIGHT be comparable with an early nineties series (lol)”
“lol lol lol lol”
It’s about what she expects; thanks in large part to Ken-san’s strong editorial hand, there's relatively little ‘Let's Love!” can be criticized for. It's a predictable series, like you could skip a chapter or two if you weren’t enjoying a storyline. Honestly, you could probably put it down for a year and then pick it up again without feeling like you’d missed much. That sense of familiarity and comfort was something she'd always appreciated about it as a consumer, before she got pulled into the production side of things.
She puts the phone down on the desk, clicks it shut and slides it back over to Nozaki. The uncomfortable silence holds for a minute as he picks the phone back up and opens it again, staring blankly at the screen.
Finally Chiyo can't take it anymore.
“Don't take it too personally, Nozaki-kun! You can't judge anything based on the quality of the internet reviews it gets!” She intends to sound encouraging, but as soon as she hears her own voice she knows that it sounds too cheerful, almost unnatural. Even though she can hear the edges of her voice warping, hysterical, she continues, because it’ll be even more awkward if she stops there. “I mean, surely you've left a comment somewhere on the net that kind of went farther than you meant, right?” She's rambling, but Nozaki-kun is looking right at her. She barrels forward. “Like, for example, I bought some paints on the internet a few months ago! And all I wanted to say, you know, was that the tube was kind of badly designed and it was hard to open! So people would be careful!” Her face is incredibly hot. She feels like her vision is spinning. Her voice is an octave too high. “But then somehow when I was writing the review, I got so mad! I don’t even know why! And when I pressed submit, I looked at it again and I’d said all sorts of horrible things! Things I didn’t even mean!”
“Hmmm, so you’re that kind of internet commenter.” Chiyo hadn’t even realized Seo was listening until she interjects, slumping carelessly into her assigned seat. “The kind who gets unnecessarily mean about everything. It’s always the nice ones, huh? I guess you are a bit tightly wound… Nozaki, you wanna do anything about--”
Chiyo cuts her off, her interjection more yelp than question. “Yuzuki, do you leave reviews? You don’t seem like the kind of person who spends a lot of time on the internet…”
“Oh, yeah,” Seo laughs. “I run a blog that has something of a following! I review restaurants, tourist spots, shops, all that stuff. I’ve got over twenty thousand subscribers.” Chiyo looks up at Nozaki’s expression as it shifts from surprise to something almost like grudging respect.
That’s right, Nozaki-kun! she thinks, gratified, a smile creeping across her features. Her heart swells with pride in her friend. I know you’ve never been that sure about Yuzuki, but she’s a really cool perso--
“Of course I’ve never been to most of the places I write about, and I stole, like, all of the photos I post!”
“Aaaah, Yuzuki!” Chiyo cries. Nozaki’s expression has crumbled. “Fraud -- what you’re describing is fraud! You’ve got to be careful! People on the internet are scary! You’re going to get yourself killed!”
Seo disappears at that, the sound of her laughter trailing ominously behind her down the hall toward the first-year classrooms.
“I was stupid to believe in her,” Nozaki mutters, face on the desk, and Chiyo doesn’t have a good response.
Later in the evening when they’re working on the new chapter of “Let’s Love!” it’s clear that Nozaki is still thinking about the comments. Chiyo feels ill-equipped to comfort him, and the way Mikoshiba keeps chiming in doesn’t appear to be particularly helpful either.
“I mean,” Mikoshiba continues, and Chiyo wonders if her own voice had sounded this hysterical earlier, “Just look at the comments over time! Four months ago they were complaining ‘Let’s Love!’ was too predictable. Then when you threw in that new rival character two months ago people complained that they hadn’t seen it coming!” He scrolls through threads on his phone, occasionally showing a particularly contradictory comment to either Chiyo or to Nozaki. He’s right, of course; often the same usernames who complained about lack of plot progression in April complained in May about too much progression, or too fast, or (most often) that it didn’t make any sense.
“Maybe I just don’t understand what girls want anymore,” Nozaki sighs, staring despondently at the blank paper in front of him. “I’m the man they said gave voice to young women’s hearts, but maybe that’s over now. Maybe the youth have passed me by.”
Chiyo doesn’t point out that he was called that only a month ago. She doesn’t note that when he’d been called that “sweethoneysong23923” had apparently been saying that Yumeno-sensei didn’t know how to write a plot that wasn’t either stupidly melodramatic or else just completely stupid. She doesn’t say that it’s hard to believe that a second-year in high school has been passed by by the youth of today. Instead she offers,
“Personally I think ‘Let’s Love!’ is fine as it is, but if you’re really concerned, have you thought about looking at other things that are popular?” Chiyo has always been a fan of traditional shoujo manga, but maybe that’s just a reflection of her analog status. It does seem like shoujo manga is different lately. “When I’m feeling an artist’s block, I like to look at other works that’re really different from mine and think about what I like about them.” She smiles at Nozaki, feeling immensely fond. Sometimes all of this feels like too much extra work for no payoff, but then other times she remembers that she gets to spend her afternoons with the boy that she loves, doing work that she enjoys, and somehow it still makes her giddy. She wraps her hands around her still-warm teacup and sighs happily. “Maybe you could get a sense of what people like by looking at what’s popular, and then take inspiration from the elements you think would work with ‘Let’s Love!’.”
Nozaki’s expression settles for the first time all day; the frown lines between his eyebrows smooth.
“Maybe you’re right, Sakura.” They’ve been together for what feels like ages, but Chiyo’s heart still skips a beat every time he says her name. “I’ll do some research, and then I’ll report back.”
“Mikorin and I can help!” She agrees, ignoring Mikoshiba’s protests entirely. “This weekend we’ll all look into what’s popular among high school girls recently, and then we’ll report back on Monday with some common themes.”
“Weird sex stuff,” Nozaki deadpans the second they arrive at his apartment after school on Monday. “Girls are into weird sex stuff.”
“Really weird sex stuff,” Mikoshiba whines, sounding traumatized. “I underestimated them.”
“Who,” Chiyo wheezes, dropping a bag full of otome game magazines and shoujo manga onto the floor and staring dead-eyed at the spread - titles like ’Older Brother Relations’ and ‘Deadly Kiss’ and ‘Super-Sadistic Prince School.’ “Who are the girls who are buying these?! What girl wants this?! Who are these for?!”
In a bit, after they’ve all calmed down and Nozaki has made tea, they sit down together and begin to attempt to make sense of what they’ve found.
“Most of it isn’t really about s-sex stuff, I guess,” Chiyo stutters, looking up at Nozaki, face burning. He doesn’t seem to notice her verbal slip, and is instead staring with an expression somewhere between rejection and respect at one of the volumes. “Maybe it’s about, like, s-sex-like implications, but without having to deal with actual, um, consequences, you know?” She tucks her hair behind an ear. “I mean, I don’t know what’s good about this stuff! But if I were to guess? All of these vampires and super-sadistic characters - no one’s actually really getting hurt, it’s just the threat of danger making it more exciting, right? It’s like, ah, this guy loves the main character so much, he can’t control himself.”
“I get it,” Mikoshiba chimes in. “When someone who seems like they have it together loses their cool, especially if they can’t help it, maybe it’s actually exciting?”
“I guess,” Nozaki murmurs, sounding unsure, “I could try to see what it would be like to have Suzuki act like a yandere character.” He sketches for a few minutes, then passes the paper over to Chiyo and Mikoshiba. They put their heads together, huddled around the draft.
“Mamiko…” The main characters of ‘Let’s Love!’ are depicted on opposite bars of a cage door. Mamiko looks slightly worse-for wear, eyes brimming with tears, and there’s no light in Suzuki’s eyes. “I’ll never let you out of this place.”
“This…” Chiyo shudders a bit, unsure what she’s feeling. “This could be okay.”
“Where’d Suzuki get the cage?” Mikoshiba’s tone is interested.
“He has a dungeon in his basement,” Nozaki replies almost immediately.
“What?!” Whatever positive reaction Chiyo was having to the sketch evaporates immediately. “What kind of Japanese person has a dungeon in his basement?! Or like, who even has a basement?! I know he’s the school prince, but there have to be limits!”
“Well,” Nozaki takes the sketch back, “Maybe it’s just a small cage.” When he fills in the scenery behind the characters, it’s revealed that Mamiko is being kept in a medium-sized crate, about the right size for a large dog.
“Wait, isn’t that too small?! How did Mamiko get into the crate?! Just how strong is Suzuki?!”
“He built the crate around her while she was asleep,” Nozaki responds, expression tired. “He ordered it on Amazon.”
“Too much! This is too much all at once!!”
Nozaki scratches his head, looking dissatisfied. “Yeah, to be honest, while I think aesthetically it could work, I don't feel like Suzuki is a strong enough character to carry this kind of personality shift…” Chiyo winces, wondering once again whether Nozaki likes anything about Suzuki other than his face. After a minute he stands up rather abruptly, startling his two friends. He wanders over to his desk area and rummages around in his supplies determinedly. Finally he emerges with a pair of safety scissors. He passes them to Chiyo; she passes them immediately to Mikoshiba, expression understanding.
“What? What? What is this?” Mikoshiba stares down at the scissors uncomfortably, glance darting nervously between Nozaki and Chiyo.
“Mikoshiba, do you mind holding those and saying something vaguely threatening?” Nozaki’s picked up a sketchbook and pencil; Chiyo is also looking expectantly at him.
“S-stupid! Why me?” Mikoshiba is scarlet, but when Chiyo starts shouting, oooh, Mikorin, you sound really cool in an aggressive way, you’re such a bad-boy, keep it up!! he picks the scissors up, holding them uncertainly with trembling fingers. “W-What do you want? Something dumb, like…” He seems to steel himself, taking a huge breath, then blurts out with feeling, “I love you too much! If I can’t have you, no one else will!”
There's a quiet beat. Mikoshiba's declaration hangs uncomfortably between them. Chiyo and Nozaki make brief eye contact, then look away. Nozaki begins erasing whatever he’d been working on, and Mikoshiba protests,
“What?! What kind of shared understanding did you just reach? Was it that bad? Include me in this decision!”
The conversation devolves after that and they have to take a break. When they regroup Nozaki turns back to Mikoshiba. “Well, if we’re avoiding the yandere thing, what else is there? Mikoshiba, did you get anything?”
“Yeah, I guess.” Heat is beginning to rise to Mikoshiba’s face again, but at least he seems to have mostly recovered from his hurt feelings. “I-If we’re talking about kind of dancing around weird s-sex stuff! I guess the number one thing I found.” His voice pitches up suddenly, frantic. “D-don’t read anything weird into it, okay?! It’s just.” He pulls a pile of shoujo manga out of his bag, each volume heavily earmarked. Chiyo and Nozaki reach out and take books. They turn to the marked pages.
Chiyo looks up at Mikoshiba, who by now roughly matches the shade of his own hair. “Mikorin, is this --”
“Like I said, don’t read anything into it!” Mikoshiba’s voice cracks a bit, and he slams another book down. The book in question displays an image of two male rival characters holding each other in a close embrace, foreheads pressed together. “It’s just that lately, girls really seem to be into gay stuff! The fujoshi boom really seems to be a thing! If you look at the heroes in all of these series marketed for girls, it really seems like they’re paired up with each other as much as they are with the girl characters!”
Nozaki and Chiyo don’t respond for a minute, just stare blankly at Mikoshiba, as if unsure what exactly their friend is trying to tell them. Shoulders shaking, Mikoshiba finally blurts out,
“And that’s not all! Nozaki, you said you wanted to know what the readers of ‘Let’s Love!’ wanted from you. Well, take a look at this!”
He whips a final book out of his bag dramatically, throwing it onto the table. For a moment time stops. Everyone freezes when they see what Mikoshiba has brought into the room. Finally Chiyo speaks, voice barely above a whisper.
“Mikorin, this is…”
“Yeah, that’s right!” Mikoshiba slams his hand down onto the book, the cover of which depicts a very stylized and feminine Suzuki in what appears to be the strong masculine arms of Ose, a regularly appearing side character. “It’s Ose/Suzuki doujinshi! This is the third reprint! I bought it online this weekend! For you!!”
Nozaki flinches, particularly when Mikoshiba says the pairing out loud. Chiyo has slid the book out from under Mikoshiba’s hand and is reading it intently; Mikoshiba, for his part, looks like he’s trying to decide whether it would be better to dive out the window or to just drown himself in Nozaki’s sink.
“Mikorin…” Chiyo’s voice cuts through the uncomfortable silence. “This is great! This could really work!” She sighs blissfully, unaware of the unique shade of taupe Nozaki has turned. “I’d thought from a while back that it was weird that Suzuki-kun doesn’t have any male friends, but this!” Her eyes are practically sparkling, and Mikoshiba smiles back at her, obviously unsure but gratified by the praise. Nozaki’s face turns grayer. “It’s rehabilitated Suzuki-kun for me! Somehow, seeing this kind of strong relationship with another guy, it’s like, yeah, that’s why Suzuki-kun is so cool!”
“A-at least.” Nozaki-kun interjects, hands shaking, face puce, “At least let me change the pairing. Suzuki and Ryuunosuke. Let me make them better friends.”
“The pairing is your problem?!” Mikoshiba yelps, apparently forgetting that he'd been a co-author of the “Tomoda Finds Love” doujinshi, which is also on its third reprint and sold extremely well at last year’s Summer Comiket.
“Don’t be silly, Nozaki-kun!” Chiyo chirps, ignoring Mikoshiba. “Ryuunosuke-kun is Mamiko’s childhood friend, and you’ve already established that he doesn't get along with Suzuki-kun. Letting Ose-kun and Suzuki-kun have this kind of close relationship makes more sense, don’t you see?”
Once again they find themselves forced to take a break; Nozaki seems unwilling to even consider developing a too-close friendship between his male romantic leads (“Maybe Suzuki-kun’s house could burn down and he could be forced to move in with Ose-kun!” Chiyo offers a little too enthusiastically). He simply shuts down further discussion, muttering,
“I’m begging you. Anyone but that.”
When they regroup they stare wordlessly at each other, exhausted. Mikoshiba looks like he’s going to throw up; Chiyo looks like she’s just run a marathon. It’s once again Nozaki who ultimately breaks the silence.
“Okay, so, staying away from any talk of super-sadists or homoerotic overtones, is there anything in all of this,” he gestures expansively over the piles of feminine excess spread out before them, “that has a common theme?”
Chiyo thinks for a minute, then says, “If it’s just that girls are bored with traditional relationship dynamics, or that they just want something unusual or maybe a little dangerous, wouldn’t anything that subverts gender expectations kind of fall into that?” She ticks off genres on her fingers. “Unusual romances, like teacher-student, or where the boys are feminine and the girls are masculine, or--”
“Cross-dressing.” Nozaki’s tone is interested. It’s clear that he’s got an idea.
“Ah,” Understanding flashes across Mikoshiba’s face. “Wasn’t that genre popular a while ago? What, a girl cross-dresses and enters an all-boy’s school to chase after a boy she admires, was it?”
“Oh, that might work,” Chiyo claps her hands together, gratified by the smile spreading across Nozaki’s face, the first one in a while. “It’s got a lot to work with! The boys that don’t know her secret can deal with their feelings for her even though she’s a ‘boy’. There’s a secret that unites her with boys who do know. Oh, and she can see how the boy she’s interested in acts to her when she’s not a girl!” Nozaki has moved to his desk, has picked up his pen and is scribbling frantically for the first time all afternoon. Her chest feels warm and tight. When he’s bent over his work like that she really remembers what it is that she loves about him. Mikoshiba shoots her a knowing grin. She can feel herself blushing, looks down at the table. “The only problem, of course, is that’s more of a set-up for an original manga, you know? I can’t imagine how that would fit in ‘Let’s Lo--’”
“Sakura.” Nozaki’s hand is suddenly on her shoulder. She wheels around to face him. She has no idea when he got so close, but he’s kneeling next to her, looking plaintively into her eyes. His expression is searching.
“N-N-N-NO-NOZAKI-KUN?!” She freezes, a deer in the headlights. It feels like time stops. His grip strengthens for a second, then relaxes, gentle again. He smiles openly at her, and she feels like she could accomplish anything, desperately conscious of how close his face is.
“What pant size would you say that you wear?”
Nozaki enlists Hori’s help for their project. When she finds out about it, Kashima insists on participating as well, mumbling nonsensically about how if anyone was going to be cross-dressing, it really by all rights should be Hori-senpai. Nozaki makes a face like he wants to protest, but Chiyo points out that in terms of making girls boyish there couldn’t be any better source than Kashima.
“Is there something I should be doing to be more convincing?” Chiyo asks, voice shy. Kashima’s expression relaxes a bit; she reaches up to brush Chiyo’s face, fixing a stray hair from her wig.
Then her expression dissolves completely, and she laughs,
“I don’t know, I’ve never really thought that much about it, haha!”
“If you’re not gonna help then get out of the dressing room!” Hori grabs her by the collar, throwing her bodily out of the room and slamming the door behind him. He turns back to the newly-boyish Chiyo, ignoring Kashima’s cries from outside. “Seriously, though, Sakura, I’ll give you some tips.”
“It really isn’t Kashima’s fault,” Chiyo says semi-apologetically. “I guess she just doesn’t have to think that hard about it. Being handsome.”
“What kind of actor doesn’t think about how to make a role more believable?” Hori sighs, sounding long-suffering, but there’s no real anger in his voice. “But, yeah, I guess.” And then he smiles, very slightly, just enough for Chiyo to catch. “That’s probably one of Kashima’s strengths, huh?” Chiyo matches his smile, expression fond. Hori looks up, catches her eyes. Inhaling sharply, almost as if he’s turning on his heel, he lays his hand heavily on Chiyo’s head and barks, “Lesson number one - if you’re a man, you smile with your teeth! Come on, Sakura! Show me those pearly whites.”
In the corner Nozaki takes notes, pen scratching away furiously, expression difficult to place.
Their classmates at Roman Academy have learned over time to be relatively accepting of Nozaki’s eccentricities. Over time that acceptance has also extended to weird behavior from anyone who gets involved with him. Perhaps that’s why when Chiyo shows up at school in a boy’s uniform and a short wig no one seems to think much of it. The teacher asks her to at least put on her skirt during class hours but doesn’t say anything beyond that. When the boys see her in the morning they immediately grab Nozaki, hissing, “Nozaki, what the hell kind of play is this?!” but they don’t give her any trouble. The girls, for their part, all find her adorable.
“Anyway,” Nozaki says with a note of finality, “Sakura is helping me with a project this week, so if you could please think of her as a man and treat her as such.” It’s immediately after school; classes are over but club activities haven’t begun. He’s gathered a group of boys from his class. They’re all sitting together in a circle, strangely formal, almost like a business meeting.
“Nice to meet you again,” Chiyo adds, bowing her head. “I’m Sakura.” When everyone looks at her expectantly, she flushes, looking up at Nozaki with an unsure expression. “Uh, Sakura Chiyo… Chiyonnosuke!” She stumbles over the delivery. The boys’ expressions don’t clear; if anything a couple of them look up at Nozaki with disgust as if to ask, really Nozaki, you couldn’t even help her come up with a name? Nozaki doesn't register their disapproval; if anything, he nods slightly at her decision, expression satisfied. Actually, he came up with that name on his own.
“A-anyway!” Chiyo continues, expression determined. “Like Nozaki-kun said, please just treat me as you would a boy! Don’t think any differently of me! Feel free to treat me like furniture, or give me noogies, or dump water all over me, or slam me against walls or whatever!”
It’s unclear to everyone what Chiyo’s understanding of male friendship is, really. One of the boys leans over and asks, “Hey, Sakura, it’s not like we mind or anything, but are you really okay doing this? Nozaki’s not asking you to do anything you wouldn’t want to, right?”
She shakes her head, expression embarrassed. The truth is she’s looking forward to the experience. She’s only ever interacted with Nozaki as a girl; she’s excited to see how he acts toward the other boys, to her as a boy. She can’t help thinking that it might bring her closer to him if she sees a side of him no other girl has seen. That it might make her special somehow.
Under Nozaki’s direction, the group is asked to “do boy things, whatever things it is you do when you’re hanging out with other guys” which seems like a reasonable request until all of the boys realize en masse, horribly, looking around the room at each other, that they have no idea what “boy things” entail. If anything, the combination of Nozaki’s watchful eye, Chiyo’s trusting expression, and their own growing fear that they might not actually know what “normal male behavior” entails causes them to overperform.
At first it seems like it’s going all right. One boy breaks the uncomfortable silence and says, “Oh, yeah, speaking of which, did you watch that TV program last night about--” and everyone brightens up, but he makes eye contact with Chiyo and stammers, expression suddenly unsure, “Uhh. Baseball? About baseball?”
No one responds. Students in athletic clubs have better things to do after school than hang out with Nozaki and his girlfriend dressing in drag. The remaining students wouldn’t know the right end of a bat if it hit them - unless, of course, it was a video game bat, in which case they’re all experts. Besides, and probably more importantly, there wasn’t a television program about baseball on last night. He had simply chickened out of admitting that he liked to watch late-night romance dramas.
From there the situation quickly begins spiralling out of control. Attempts to talk about cute girls in their class are stalled entirely by how obviously their remaining female classmates begin hovering around. They get a lively discussion about a new video game started but it grinds to a halt when everyone realizes neither Chiyo nor Nozaki have any idea what they’re talking about. The boys become increasingly desperate to prove that they do know what guys do for fun; two boys who have never even gotten into a verbal argument have each other by the collars within five minutes, one boy pulls out a baseball bat and begins swinging it wildly, yelling something about “reps”, and two more follow suit and start doing push-ups. Eventually the girls have had enough; they kick the boys out of the classroom, yelling that they’re a disruption and a menace to society.
Deprived of a home base, the boys take to wandering the streets aimlessly. A manic mood pervades the group; it’s clear that they all feel like they should be doing something but no one wants to pick a fight with a stranger, I mean, who does that?!, and every attempt to pick up a girl is stalled by the way Nozaki and Chiyo hover, obvious, expectant. Eventually they take her to a local game center and decide to teach her how to play a shooter.
At first she does terribly, but they determine that it’s because she’s too conscious of Nozaki. They banish him to the corner, muttering, “You wanted us to show him a good time, so stand over here and take your weirdo notes.”
It turns out that she’s surprisingly good at the game. She’s a decent shot, with an eye for hidden items and armor, although she does yelp obnoxiously every time a new monster appears. The boys cycle through turns as her partner, feeding the machine 100 yen coins. The boys that aren’t playing chat with the girls that have gathered around to watch. By the fifth boss they’ve set up a group date for later that week. When they eventually beat the game the mood in the arcade is jubilant, and the boys pick her up and throw her into the air, shouting, Chiyonnosuke, you’re so great! A hero among men, a modern-day samurai!
Nozaki watches everything from afar, jotting notes down. He watches the way one boy throws his arm around Chiyo’s small shoulders. Another boy ruffles her hair, the touch affectionate and easy in a way it wasn’t a few hours ago. When she grins, mile-wide, showing all of her teeth, one of the boys looks kind of taken aback for a split second. He laughs sheepishly. Nozaki doesn’t miss the way a faint dusting of pink colors his ears and the nape of his neck. He doesn’t notice when his pencil slows, then stops entirely.
After he’s seen Chiyo and Nozaki off on his third day of helping them with the costume, Hori finally relents and lets Kashima back into the clubroom. Club activities have been off for the week; discounting any times she chose to play hooky, this is the longest she’s ever gone without seeing him since she came to Roman Academy.
“We’re back on schedule next week, Kashima. If you have time to sulk around like that, why don’t you think about running lines?”
“I wanna run lines with you, senpai,” she grouses, even though they both know that if she ever does run lines, ultimately it’s going to be with a group of girls in a karaoke room over parfaits and tea.
“There was no reason that you would need to be there to help Sakura get into costume,” he argues. “You don’t know anything about stage makeup, and as an acting coach you proved yourself early on that you’re no good.”
“It’s no fair though,” she mutters. Her delivery is theatrical; there’s no way she actually intended for it to go unheard. “Chiyo-chan gets to dress in boy’s clothes but you don’t get to dress in--”
Hori’s karate chop from above is swift and vicious. Standing over her as she writhes on the ground, he sighs. His expression is more curious than it is angry, although there’s no doubt that he’s annoyed. “Seriously, Kashima, I don’t understand where this misconception is coming from. Unless it’s, like, really intense bullying or something.”
“But Chiyo-chan--!” Kashima tries to argue and he bonks her on the head with her script, gentler than before.
“Sakura’s a different story. She’s doing it as a favor for Nozaki, and anyway she looked cute. But me in girl’s clothes…” he gestures expansively at himself. “I don’t know what you’re trying to get out of this harassment campaign. Revenge? But it’d be weird.”
“I don’t think it would be weird at all.” Kashima answers immediately, tone honest, totally different from the way she sweet-talks girls. Her eyes are wide and questioning, her expression free from any traces of deceit. She isn’t even smiling. It’s as if she’s relaying something as obvious as the current weather to him. “I think you’d be really cute, senpai. I think it would look good.”
It’s been a long time since Hori was genuinely taken in by Kashima, in spite of how much he likes her face. Still, he finds himself thinking, oh, right. Kashima really is handsome.
“Nozaki,” Hori says later, while working on ‘Let’s Love!’, “Next time, can you write a play about a prince whose magic words make every girl a beautiful princess?”
“That’s a pretty specific request,” Nozaki muses, “But sure, why not.”
While at first Wakamatsu was concerned about Chiyo’s new, manlier persona, he’s pleasantly surprised when he sees how well she’s begun getting along with the other boys in her year. When he asks the upperclassmen on the basketball team about it they shrug and laugh,
“I don’t know, somehow thinking of her as a boy just made it easier to get to know her.”
He’s over at Nozaki’s helping to apply screentones. It’s a rare afternoon when it’s just the two of them, and he asks,
“Do you think it would help me communicate better with Seo-senpai if I just imagined her as a boy?”
Because of his pure heart he misses Nozaki’s full-body shudder at Seo’s name and the cornered expression on his face. Wakamatsu continues, “I’ve thought about it in the last couple of days. Maybe if Seo-senpai was a boy, I’d be able to talk to her straight on. Maybe if Seo-senpai was a boy she wouldn’t inexplicably win every argument we get into.” He stares down at his fingers, feeling resolved but secretly hoping, as he always does when it comes to Seo, that maybe Nozaki will do him the favor of talking him out of it. “Maybe if she was a boy I could be more honest with her without worrying about hurting her feelings.”
Nozaki puts his hand on Wakamatsu’s shoulder. Wakamatsu is overcome with a wave of gratitude for Nozaki-senpai’s constant support in his life, his unerring guidance.
“Sorry, Wakamatsu, I’ve got a deadline coming up, so could you report back on how it goes?”
The next Saturday Wakamatsu is scheduled for a date with Seo at the batting cages. He knows it’s a terrible idea for a whole host of reasons, but he’d agreed to go anyway, and he figures this is as good a time as any to try out his new approach.
When he sees Seo approach he tries to imagine what she’d be like as a guy, how he’d deal with her. She yells, “Hey, Waka, did you wait long?” even though first of all, she’s twenty-five minutes late, so yes, he waited long, and secondly, she knows perfectly well that he’s always ten minutes early to everything. He does his best to conjure an image of Seo as a man. When he blinks he feels like he can see it for a split second - tall and handsome, with bright eyes and a mischievous grin. Seo comes up to him, says, “Hey, what’s wrong with you? You’re making a weird face.” She reaches up and feels his forehead, then pulls her hand away as if stung. It’s not fast enough - his stomach has already started somersaulting. “Whoa, you’re warm - you have a cold or something? I don’t want your germs, so let’s cancel.”
The boy Seo-senpai is a pain, Wakamatsu realizes, vision spinning. He feels dizzy; when he sways, he half expects Seo to support him. Instead she just stares at him, puzzled. It’s only when his knees buckle that she reaches out and catches him. She drops him a split second later, but he thinks - Seo-senpai caught me.
He’s a pain. Wakamatsu’s face is hot. But he’s kind of cool, too. The boy Seo-senpai is a shoujo manga love interest. An obnoxious one.
“If you’re gonna hurl, Waka, do it somewhere besides on me,” Seo says, too loudly. Everyone around them dives away from them. It’s humiliating.
I wanna help him with his homework, Wakamatsu thinks. Maybe we could start as pen-pals.
Mayu’s teammates surround him after school. He’s been going through his older brother’s notes for the in-progress storyline of ‘Let’s Love’, which focused on Mamiko dressing up as a boy and infiltrating a rival school’s judo club. Umetarou has really been insistent that Mayu help him out with some of the details, so he’s staring at basic sketches and jotting down notes.
“Nozaki.” Kobayashi, his teammate who used to text for him and runs his blog, leans over his shoulder. He hums and laughs, “‘Let’s Love!’ art? I guess you’ll read anything about judo.” Mayu’s teammates know that his older brother draws shoujo manga, but he’s never been sure if they know that he’s Yumeno Sakiko. Mayu has never had the energy to enlighten them.
“Speaking of ‘Let’s Love!’,” One of his other teammates comes up on his other side, “My little sister reads it. The most recent plotline is actually kind of interesting.”
“Isn’t Mamiko dressing up as a boy or something? I always have trouble believing that kind of plotline. I mean, I feel like Mamiko is so cute you’d definitely know she was a girl.”
“Apparently it’s based on real life,” Mayu mumbles, staring at the sketches, mentally ticking off the mistakes in Mamiko’s form. “My brother was saying that the author had a couple of female friends dress up and offer their opinions on the experience.”
“Ahhh, girls cross-dressing in real life is popular lately, huh?” His friends laugh, “There’s cafes and stuff with girls dressed up as butlers and little brothers. There’s even that one band.”
“Yeah, but don’t you think it’d be easier for girls? I mean, they’d have to bind their chests or whatever, but they don’t have to worry about not being used to skirts or shaving.” Kobayashi nods, expression decisive. “Yeah, it’d definitely be harder to do as a guy!”
Mayu is sick of this conversation already. He figures they can have it without him. It’s still a while until practice, so he puts his head on his desk and drifts off to sleep. If anything important happens his teammates will probably let him know.
He wakes up when one of his teammates claps him on the shoulder, laughing, “So, that’s how it is. Help us settle this, okay, Nozaki?”
He blinks, clearing the sleep from his eyes. A small crowd has formed around his desk, a mix of mostly judo club members with a few enthusiastic girls. Before he even asks what he’s been signed up for he wonders briefly if everyone really doesn’t have anything better to do with their time.
“What’m I helping settle?”
“Whether or not it’s possible to dress a guy up as a convincing girl.” His friend’s grin has a sharp edge to it. He sighs loudly, even though literally everyone has told him it’s an annoying habit, and checks the clock to see if it’s seriously still not time for club activities.
“Isn’t it obvious, Mayumayu?” Kobayashi laughs. “It’s because of that pretty face of yours!”
Mayu accepts his fate. It would be a pain to fight it. Two guys and a girl drag him bodily into the drama clubroom and a female club member gets to work on him.
After a while Kobayashi calls after him,
“Hey, Nozaki, how’s it going in there?”
The girl steps out from behind the curtain, expression mixed. When they look at her, faces questioning, she shrugs and shakes her head as if to say- I don’t know, you tell me.
When Mayu pokes his head out from behind the curtain, there’s an audible gasp that shudders through the group. She’s given him a mid-length wig, and some simple, girlish makeup. She’s curled his eyelashes and applied the sheerest, glossy pink to his lips. She’s even painted his nails and given him delicate, tasteful clip-on earrings. He looks, his clubmates hate to admit, really adorable - pale-skinned and vulnerable, like a beautiful young heiress out on her own in society for the first time.
And then he steps out from the curtain entirely, and the room goes completely silent. His shoulders are too broad for the uniform he’s been given; he only has his arms in the sleeves and even they seem to be stretched to the breaking point. His skirt won’t even partially zip, and his strong, muscular thighs strain against the thigh-high socks he’s been lent. There are a pair of loafers discarded to the side; apparently he hadn’t even bothered with them.
“How could you!” one of his friends growls, frustration whining high in his throat. “I don’t even know what to be the most disappointed about!”
Mayu glances down at himself and back up with an expression that clearly indicates that if it wasn’t such a pain he’d look exasperated, but it’s a pain, so they’ll just have to settle for unsure.
“It’s pretty much time for club activities, so if you guys are done playing around, can we please go get changed? I want to try grappling throws today.”
“How dare you, Nozaki?!” His classmate repeats. He isn’t done; he steps forward aggressively, grasps for Mayu’s collar. Of course, because Mayu hasn’t been able to get into the uniform top successfully, he sort of just ends up grabbing one arm and holding it awkwardly. It’s weird, and everyone sees that it’s weird, but it’s clear that he’s committed to this and he’s gonna go through with it even if it looks stupider than he’d initially intended. “How dare you have such a strong, manly frame, one that would make me feel protected just enveloped in-- oh my god.”
He lets go of Mayu, hands trembling, voice trailing off. Kobayashi steps between them, puts a hand on either shoulder. “Anyway, let’s get to club activities - ah, but Nozaki, don’t clean anything up yet, I want to take some photos for the blog, so -- hey, don’t fall asleep when I’m talking to you!!”
“Chiyonnosuke’s really been assimilated into their ranks, huh?” Mikoshiba asks Nozaki, tone something like teasing. They’re leaning casually out of a second story window; Mikoshiba cranes his neck to watch Chiyo, who’s playing a game of kick-the-can with her new friends. The first chapter of the ‘Mamiko infiltrates a boy’s judo team’ story arc has been published without a problem. Chiyo is reprising her role as Chiyonnosuke for one extra week, to try to tie up any loose ends.
Mikoshiba watches as Nozaki’s gaze chases Chiyo across the field. Nozaki’s expression doesn’t budge, even when a boy tackles her. They both tumble to the ground; the boy in question freezes, his face turning scarlet. From this distance it’s impossible to hear what they’re saying, but from the way the boy stammers he appears to be apologizing.
“Or, like,” Mikorin continues, “If anything, aren’t they more conscious of her than they were before?”
Another boy’s yelp of hey, what the hell do you think you’re doing to Chiyonnosuke?! as he pulls his friend off of her is audible from the second floor, as well as, presumably, space.
“Yeah,” Nozaki murmurs, watching intently. A third boy cuts in to offer Chiyo a friendly hand, helping her to her feet. His smile is a mile wide; he reaches out and picks a blade of grass of of her hair, words inaudible but tone teasing. She smiles back, guard completely down. “They’d never really gotten to know her before, because she was a girl and it was hard to get a conversation started, or they were blocked by their conception of her as a ‘girl’ or whatever.” The first boy has come back, still apologizing frantically. When she laughs and gestures to show that she’s unhurt the first boy smiles at last, gratified. The color in his cheeks hasn’t faded. “Now that they’ve gotten to know Sakura better, they’ve gotten closer to her, and a couple of them are kind of more aware of her.”
Mikoshiba hums knowingly. Downstairs, the second boy snakes his way over to Chiyo, throws his arm around her shoulders. It lingers a second too long.
“Aren’t you gonna take notes, Nozaki?”
“I took enough the last couple of days,” Nozaki retorts, indicating at his bag which is full of sketchbooks. “Too much of the same pattern and it’ll get stale.”
“Okay…” Mikorin defers, then laughs. “I guess I was right. In the end, it’s all about gay stuff.” He flips his phone open, expression satisfied.
As if on cue, Mikoshiba’s phone chimes. He presses a button, his expression brightening.
“Ah, Mayumayu just updated her blog, I’ve gotta go message her!! See you later, Nozaki!” He bounces off, all energy. Nozaki doesn’t have the heart to ask whether Mikoshiba has come clean about being a boy yet. He is pretty sure he already knows the answer.
The sky is clear and blue. Nozaki watches as the game of kick-the-can breaks up when Hori approaches the group, calling out for Chiyo.
“How’s it been, then, Chiyonnosuke?” Hori asks, voice joking. He reaches out and takes the short wig from her, setting it on a wig head for later. “I know this is supposed to be the end of your run, but I think for those guys’ sake you shouldn’t retire him entirely.”
Chiyo lets her hair down, strangely quiet. Her wig hair is intense, but it isn’t as bad as it could be. The effect does detract from her overall aura of melancholy, however. “Hori-senpai…” and then suddenly her eyes fill with frustrated tears. “When I agreed to do this, I thought--” She clenches her fists impotently in her lap and chokes on what might be a sob, unable to continue.
“Whoa, Sakura?” Hori reels backward, expression unsure. After a moment he sighs. “I know that you want to help Nozaki out,” he says, voice level and affectionate, “But if it was hard or it wasn’t fun, you know you can always say no, right? Nozaki’s a weird guy, but he isn’t the type to hold that kind of thing against you, so--”
“I thought!” Chiyo cuts him off, “That maybe I’d see a side I don’t normally see!! That I could be special, that I’d know the sides that he shows to girls and to boys!” Her gaze shoots up, and she meets Hori’s eyes, expression somewhere between manic and homicidal. “But what I learned is that Nozaki-kun doesn’t have another side! He doesn’t treat people differently at all! Earlier today he took a sip of milk from a milk-box that I was drinking, but he also took one from Mikorin! Two days ago he carried Akiteru-kun over a puddle! A puddle!!” She throws herself bodily at Hori, yelling hysterically, “It’s true, isn’t it! He doesn’t see me as a woman at all! He doesn’t see anyone as a woman! I’m on the same level as a beetle to him! A beetle with little hairbows!” Her face shoots up again, momentarily hopeful. “Ah-- but then, if all girls are beetles to him, at least I’m a beetle with hairbows who can do beta, so maybe I have a chance?!”
Hori makes a face, pats her on the shoulder and tells her that it’s okay and she did her best. In normal situations he and Chiyo get along surprisingly well, but he’s not that good at handling her when she gets like this. Fortuitously, Nozaki chooses that moment to enter the clubroom.
“Ah, are you about done in here?” When she sees Nozaki, Chiyo shoots away from Hori to Nozaki at a dizzying speed, grin so brilliant Hori would be offended if he wasn’t so grateful for the distance. “Sakura, I wanted to ask if you wanted to walk to the station together. Senpai--?”
“I’ll go, I’ll go!” Chiyo begins shoving her remaining belongings into her bag in a hurry. Hori smiles knowingly, shakes his head.
“Sorry, Nozaki, I’ve got club activities after this. See you later, though!” Nozaki bows to him, more as a farewell, and holds the door open for Chiyo. Hori wonders if Nozaki even notices that he did that. He thinks about her running every few steps to keep up with Nozaki’s pace and smiles in spite of himself. He stands up, stretching his back languidly, and resolves to go find Kashima.
On their walk home Chiyo chatters excitedly about her experience with the boys. Nozaki stays quiet, face unreadable, gaze quietly trained on her. It’s unusual for him to look at her this much, and it’s making her weirdly self-conscious. She looks down and twines her fingers together in front of herself, comfortable and nervous all at once.
A beetle with little hairbows who can do beta, she thinks to herself, and giggles a little bit. She’d been upset when she first said it, but it’s a strangely cute image, and she doesn’t mind it, not really. Rather, she wouldn’t know what to do if Nozaki-kun was any other way.
“Ah, but there was one weird thing -- boys calling me by my first name!” She beams up at him. “I thought it would be weird, but it really wasn’t! I guess because it’s not really my name, or maybe I was just over-imagining how strange it would be.”
Something almost like a smile passes briefly across Nozaki’s face.
“Yeah, they really all were into calling you that name, weren’t they? I guess because they already knew you as Sakura, it was easier to buy into the illusion that way.” They stop at a crosswalk. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, he says in a voice traced in laughter, “You really do have wig hair, you know.” Mortified, Chiyo moves to cover her hair with her hands; he blocks her, puts his hand gently on his head. It’s awkward, and he doesn't seem to know whether to move it or not. Ultimately he keeps his hand there, heavy and warm. Chiyo gathers her courage and looks up, is surprised to see he’s looking right at her.
“It’s not a bad thing - I can smell your shampoo.” He drops his hand, shifts his gaze to someplace far-off. He hasn’t stopped smiling. Chiyo can’t manage to summon the mental strength to respond. “It’s nice, you know? You as a girl.”
Suddenly his expression clears.
“Ah, the light changed - we’re gonna miss it.” He starts across the street. Chiyo doesn’t respond at first, too caught up in trying to figure out whether she’d just had an intense hallucination. She only snaps back to reality when he yells, “Hey, Chiyonnosuke, you’re gonna miss it!”
She’d thought that being called “Chiyonnosuke” didn’t affect her, so it’s strange the way her heart starts racing even faster when Nozaki calls her that. She’s so confused she can only bark back, “Yeah!” The response is too masculine, trained into her by Hori. When she’s halfway across the street he stretches his hand out, offering. She knows her face must be crimson. She knows she’s a beetle with hairbows. She races across the street to reach his hand anyway.
“Miyamae-kun, I’ve really been enjoying this recent plotline in ‘Let’s Love!’,” one of Ken’s coworkers praises him. He wishes that she wouldn’t, especially not in a public place where she could be overheard, especially not in front of Maeno.
“Ah, the one with Mamiko dressing up like a boy?” Another coworker chimes in, voice enthusiastic, and Ken is torn between the usual pride one should feel when someone praises a project they’ve worked on, exasperation at remembering the state the manuscript had been in when he’d originally received it from Yumeno-sensei, and a cold wash of dread when he feels Maeno’s stare from across the room. “I’ve really been enjoying it, too! It’s a really thoughtful and interesting take on an old classic trope - it’s like, not so daring as to be out of character for a classic series like ‘Let’s Love!’, but still new and fresh.”
Ken does know; he’s dealt with enough late-night text messages from Yumeno-sensei updating him on the storyline, as well as with enough exasperating drafts and rewrites. It wasn’t a bad idea in theory, and Yumeno-sensei always does manage to pull through with a good final product in the end, but he needs a strong editorial hand even on the most traditional of plotlines.
“I heard from Miyako-sensei,” Ken’s stomach drops at the first sound of Maeno’s voice, “That Yumeno-sensei actually did first-hand research for this storyline?” It always surprises Ken when Maeno indicates that he has any interests beyond himself. Still, his coworkers are looking at him with renewed interest, goaded on by Maeno’s question, and he sighs and replies,
“Yes, Yumeno-sensei likes to try to gather material through personal experience, so they had a classmate help them with some hands-on research.”
“You mean Yumeno-sensei had a classmate cross-dress and give their thoughts, or something like that?” His coworkers’ expressions are unsure, but maybe hovering somewhere near tragically misplaced respect. “Now that you mention it, she’s a high school student, isn’t she? It must be nice for her to be so close to her source material.”
“That’s right, that’s right,” his other coworker agrees. “Whether it’s a girl dressed as a boy or a boy dressed as a girl, it’s still pretty easy to do in high school, huh? You’re still young, and no one really minds that much.”
“Yeah,” Maeno agrees, voice light, and Ken suddenly knows that he’s about to have a huge problem on his hands. “You’d know all about that, wouldn’t you, Miyamae-kun?” Their coworker’s attention immediately shoots from Ken to Maeno, which Ken supposes was probably the motivation for the comment. He quickly weighs his options, tries to decide if his initial urge to grit his teeth and shake his head warningly at Maeno is the right move. He knows that would just encourage him, though, so instead he keeps his expression blank.
Ultimately there isn’t a good solution. Gratified by the women’s attention, Maeno continues, “Oh, have I never told this story? When Miyamae-kun and I were in high school together, in our third year our class did a cross-dressing cafe for the school festival. Both he and I wore costumes - we had to shave our legs and everything, the whole nine yards!” He laughs a very particular laugh that Ken knows Maeno thinks is charming, but one that everyone who knows him actually finds obnoxious. He gestures expansively to his coworkers, who are making faces like they don’t know whether to be charmed or disgusted. It’s a relatively common expression among people who have to interact regularly with Maeno. “I know what you’re thinking -- I seem like I’d be able to pull it off, right? And you’re right!” And then he shakes his head softly, expression regretful. “But it was hard for Miyamae-kun, you know? It was hard not to feel sorry for him, honestly.”
Ken’s going to kill Maeno. And maybe his coworkers, as witnesses. Maybe Yumeno-sensei, for good measure, for being the one to bring the topic up in the first place.
And then, because it’s Maeno, he makes it worse.
“Actually, I still have a photo of it, if you want to see --”
Ken grabs the photo from Maeno before it’s even all the way out of his wallet. He’s familiar with the photo; in it he and Maeno are standing uncomfortably next to one another. He’s in a girl’s sailor uniform, and Maeno is wearing a maid dress he got from somewhere indeterminate. Ken is wearing a wig; Maeno’s hair is his own. They’re both wearing light makeup, applied by the steady-but-laughing hand of a female classmate. He knows the photo intimately, because he’s tried for years to track down and destroy all the copies.
He knows for a fact that Maeno doesn’t regularly carry this photo around, which means he must have brought it in today, which means he’s been planning this for a while.
“Ahh, are you not going to show it to us?!” his coworkers complain as he shoves the photo into his jacket pocket. “Stingy!”
“Sorry,” he hisses, shooting Maeno a look he hopes will kill. Later, when they’re alone in the elevator, Maeno chirps brightly,
“You know, Miyamae-kun, even if you never give it back, I have an electronic copy.”
“I will literally pay you,” Ken barks out, “not to put it on your blog.” Maeno makes a noncommittal noise, laughs gently. If he were a normal person, it’d be a pleasant sound , but because it’s Maeno it fills Ken with irritation. The elevator is moving at what feels like a snail’s pace; he hates being stuck with Maeno like this, finds himself wishing literally anyone would get on with them. Finally he snaps, “What were you thinking, bringing something stupid like that in with you?” Maeno huffs, placing his hand on his heart, expression hurt.
“What are you talking about, Miyamae-kun? You may have forgotten about those days already, but for me they’re a precious memory.” Maeno’s gaze is trained on the elevator buttons, a small, wistful smile dancing across his expression. “Things were so much easier back then, weren’t they? Simpler, less complicated.”
It’s an out-of-character comment for Maeno, and in spite of himself it catches Ken off-guard. He pulls the photograph out of his pocket, looks at it and thinks about the smell of freshly-cut grass, about pressing his uniform in the mornings, about buying meat buns and the lunchtime rush and about staying late to work on the school festival. Maeno aside, it really had been fun. Or, thinking about it, he guesses it had been fun even with Maeno.
“I mean, look at my skin in this photo!” Maeno exclaims, pointing enthusiastically at the picture. “Do you know, in those days I barely even moisturized? Now I have to get up, like, an hour early just to get my skin looking this good.” He sighs dramatically, clapping his hand on Ken’s shoulder. “It must be nice to have already given up, Miyamae-kun, seriously, some days I really envy you.”
Ken crumples the photo up, ignores Maeno’s protests, resolves to shred it later. He’d been stupid to believe in him, even for a minute. After all, this isn’t some cliche josei manga.