Onoda Sakamichi believed that shoujo manga imitated life. Above all, it excelled as a guide to high school crushes. By depicting in detail the heroine's journey, from the moment she realized her feelings to her (hopefully successful) confession, shoujo manga provided a framework which the reader could both enjoy and easily reference when struggling to identify and navigate romantic attraction in real life. In fact, it was thanks to his favorite shoujo series, Love Hime, and in particular the scenes where Kotori-chan interacted with and talked about why she liked Arimaru-kun, that Onoda had realized the nature of his own feelings.
There were only a few things that didn't add up for him.
First among them was that, in any shoujo manga where the heroine liked two people at the same time, the relationship was termed a "love triangle" and expected to be resolved by the end of the series in favor of either of her love interests. Said interests often fought in front of her, though it was obvious they enjoyed each other's company underneath all their bickering. Though the heroine might dream about it, there was never an outcome where the three of them ended up together.
This trope had started bothering Onoda recently, not because he no longer enjoyed the process of finding out who would win and keep the heroine's heart, but because it conflicted with his own hopes in real life.
His experience deviated from the paradigm in a few other ways. He had never felt his knees go weak or his heart flutter when addressed by his crushes. He didn't spend every moment they were together admiring the way they looked, though he did find them handsome and pleasing to look at, and he wasn't constantly daydreaming about holding their hands or kissing them, though he did think that might be nice.
He considered these to be minor discrepancies, and he ticked enough other items on the shoujo manga checklist that he felt certain of his feelings.
Like many heroines, he was shy and physically unremarkable. He had a special ability that had allowed him to defend his world and the happiness of the people closest to him, the way Kotori-chan did, even if it had earned him a talking-to from his mother about the importance of letting her know if he planned to ride his bicycle up the tallest mountain in the country. When it came to romance, he had zero experience and fit the trope of falling for the best friend — times two. And one of said best friends in particular seemed like he had stepped right out of the pages of a shoujo manga, especially today.
It was the second year Onoda witnessed Imaizumi's Valentine's experience, and it was turning out to be as insane as the first.
In the morning, Onoda and Naruko met Imaizumi at the rear gate, where his driver dropped him off with a smile that Imaizumi did not return. Already there were people milling about and some — most of them girls — were looking in their direction.
Imaizumi did not overtly acknowledge the attention, but to Onoda he looked like he would have liked nothing more than to get back inside the car and wait out the entire day. Or perhaps Onoda was projecting what he would have wanted to do in Imaizumi's place. Even now part of him wanted to run and hide, and he was only a point of interest by association.
He stood to Imaizumi's right and Naruko to his left and together they walked to the classroom building. It felt like they were escorting him. Imaizumi looked only ahead.
Once inside, they changed out of their outdoors shoes. Imaizumi faced his shoebox with the determination he reserved for opponents riding in front of him in a race, then opened it. At least five small packages spilled out, and Onoda glimpsed a few more still inside.
"Ka-ka-ka!" Naruko nudged Imaizumi with his elbow, and Imaizumi pushed his arm away. It was a well-practiced exchange and caused no interruption. "That's five people who like your squinty hotshot face. Need to borrow a bag?"
"I have one." Imaizumi pulled a tote bag out of his inner coat pocket. He squatted down to pick up the chocolates that had fallen out and put them in there, along with the handful that remained inside his shoebox, with an efficiency that belied practice.
Onoda tried to remember if the same thing had happened the previous year, and wondered how many more bags Imaizumi had prepared. Perhaps Naruko had prepared some as well; he had received quite a few Valentine's gifts in their first year, though not nearly as many as Imaizumi, and his popularity seemed to be on the rise.
He thought about the chocolate his mother had helped him make and split into two packages the previous evening, and felt silly.
"You could at least look a little happy," Naruko said. "Every guy wants to get chocolate on Valentine's, right?"
Imaizumi frowned. "I don't know these people. Why would I be happy to get chocolate from strangers?"
Onoda felt the atmosphere around them change at Imaizumi's words, like a cold draft down the back of his collar, and he was sure that if he turned he would see every other male student in the entrance area glaring at them.
That quiet animosity was enough for his flight reflex to kick in. He took the tote bag from Imaizumi's hands and, after a quick look to check the shoebox had been cleared of presents, closed it. Imaizumi seemed taken aback, but allowed it without comment.
"We should head to class, Imaizumi-kun, Naruko-kun!"
"Right. Come on, Hotshot."
"You two go ahead," Imaizumi said. "I'm going to the toilet first." He held out his hand for Onoda to give him back the bag.
Naruko raised his eyebrows. "What, carrying that?"
"What else am I supposed to do with it?"
"I can take this to your desk, Imaizumi-kun." Instead of handing over the bag, Onoda slid it onto his shoulder.
After a beat, Imaizumi thanked him and left.
Onoda wondered if he would be approached on the way by any girls like the ones that had put those chocolates in his shoebox. In shoujo manga, the image of girls waiting outside the classroom of their idol to confess their love was common enough that it might potentially be grounded in reality, but he couldn't imagine even the most devoted of Imaizumi's admirers would go so far as to stake out the men's toilets.
"Let's go, Naruko-kun."
Naruko was watching Imaizumi go, but nodded when Onoda spoke.
He seemed to be in an odd mood, so on their way to the classroom upstairs Onoda tried to think of something to cheer him up.
Before he could, Naruko said, "I can't believe that stupid Hotshot. Chocolate from strangers ? What if one of the girls who put in those chocolates was around and heard him dismiss it like that?"
Onoda didn't think it had been Imaizumi's intention to dismiss anyone's efforts, but he couldn't help smiling at Naruko's words. Naruko was such a kind-hearted person. Like so often over the past two years, Onoda felt thankful that he had been lucky enough to meet him and become friends, and then — more recently — have Naruko be one of his first crushes, even if he might not return Onoda's feelings.
"I think what Imaizumi-kun meant to say is that he would be happier if those chocolates were from someone he likes, rather than just chocolate from someone he doesn't know."
He expected Naruko to reply with something like, it's not like I care who Hotshot got chocolates from anyway, or let the subject drop, but instead he broke into a grin that looked like very bad news for Onoda. It was the grin he got when he was about to tease someone.
"Is that so."
He slung an arm around Onoda's shoulders. It was on the side that didn't have Imaizumi's bag, and so there was nothing to impose some distance between Onoda and the warmth of Naruko standing so close. This proximity was not new, but it felt different, perhaps because they were discussing Valentine's. Onoda looked around, desperately trying to find something else to focus on, but unfortunately, there wasn't anything or anyone around him distracting enough to help his nerves.
"Onoda-kun, could it be that Hotshot told you who he likes?"
"No!" Onoda's voice came out higher than he'd intended, drawing glances from a few other students on the stairwell. "I don't know anything! I'm just guessing at what he meant before!"
"Really, Naruko-kun! I have no idea." He laughed awkwardly.
Naruko was very warm. Onoda wanted to snuggle closer to him, and at the same time he wanted to run away and find a corner to hide in until his heart stopped pounding.
He could feel Naruko looking at him. He wondered what Naruko was thinking, and why he was so interested in who Imaizumi liked.
Then, just as unexpectedly as he had invaded Onoda's space, Naruko let his arm drop. Onoda heaved a sigh of relief, but part of him missed the contact.
"Well, if he hasn't told you, I guess he hasn't told anyone."
Onoda glanced around. He thought their conversation might have attracted attention, but nobody seemed to be paying them any mind. The stairwell was loud with the other students' own talk and laughter.
If Onoda kept his voice pitched only for Naruko's ears, he could probably ask what he had resolved to ask at some point during the day, and nobody else would hear. He lacked the courage to bring the subject up on his own when they were alone, but he could ride their current line of conversation to get it out, and then escape to first period if Naruko rejected him, which he probably would — but it was better not to think about that.
He clutched the straps of Imaizumi's bag so tight he could feel his nails digging into his palm. He decided to take a chance.
"What about you, Naruko-kun?"
"You're making a serious face, Onoda-kun. What about me?"
He was smiling, but Onoda knew he wasn't teasing anymore. He was listening. He would listen to anything Onoda had to say. So he might as well say it.
"Do you — do you have anyone you like?"
Naruko stared at him. That moment of surprise was long enough for Onoda to rethink the whole thing. He was about to apologize for being so blunt, and proceed with his earlier plan of hiding away somewhere, when Naruko let out a laugh.
"Sure I do," he said. His voice was lower than usual, probably so they wouldn't be overheard. "Really cute, especially when they're being all serious. Get this little frown here —" he tapped his finger on the spot between his eyebrows "— and after that there's no stopping them. Not as flashy as me, but really cool in their own way."
The tender look in Naruko's eyes as he described that person made Onoda wish he hadn't asked. He had been braced for hearing Naruko say he didn't like Onoda that way, but hadn't thought about how he would feel if it turned out Naruko liked somebody else.
It wasn't quite disappointment. More than that, he felt that this outcome was only natural. Naruko and Imaizumi were cool and handsome and kind and it was logical that they would be interested in people as cool as they were.
He tried on a small smile for Naruko, because he did not know what else to do. He wanted to support Naruko, and if there was someone who could make him look that happy when he was talking about them, then Onoda should feel happy too.
"They sound really nice, Naruko-kun. I hope you get chocolate from them today."
Something flickered across Naruko's expression, so fast that Onoda couldn't be sure he hadn't imagined it. Then, that moment passed and Naruko was his usual cheerful self again.
"I hope so too," he said.
Almost everybody else had already made their way to their classrooms. The bell would ring soon. Onoda vaguely wondered if Imaizumi had, in fact, been ambushed by his fans on his way back. He was about to mention this when Naruko took a half-step closer to him — not as close as he had been before, but closer than regular conversation. Onoda realized he was not yet out of the woods.
"So what about you, Onoda-kun?" Naruko asked. "Anyone you like?"
Onoda panicked. He didn't want to lie to Naruko, and he had originally sort of intended to confess at some point today, but he couldn't do it after hearing Naruko liked someone else. He wanted to dodge the conversation entirely, but it didn't feel fair after Naruko had already answered the same question honestly.
"I like Imaizumi-kun," he blurted out.
"It's weird, right? I know that! But I do! I just —"
"I don't think it's weird, Onoda-kun," Naruko interrupted. "People fall for their friends all the time! It's natural!" He shook his head and let out a short laugh. "It's just. It had to be Hotshot, didn't it.
"I'm sorry! But he's really nice, you know, even if sometimes he's not very good with words. He cares a lot!"
"Yeah, he does." Then, abruptly, Naruko clapped his hands together and grinned like before. "All right, Onoda-kun. Never let it be said that Naruko Shoukichi didn't help his friends when they needed him!"
Onoda was quickly filled with dread. "Help me with what?"
"Confessing to Hotshot," Naruko said, as if it were obvious.
"I can't do that!" He had sort of planned to, but now that Naruko had said it, it felt far too real and scary. "Anyway, I'm sure he doesn't like me back."
"Has he said that to you, or are you guessing? Because if he makes you sad, I'll —"
"I'm guessing! I haven't told him anything!"
Naruko nodded, apparently satisfied. "Then you can't know for sure."
"There's no way he could be interested in someone like me," Onoda said. "So I'm okay with being friends."
Without warning, Naruko put his hands on Onoda's shoulders. Onoda looked around and found that they were alone; the other students had left while they were talking. There was nowhere to look but at Naruko, who was looking straight at him.
"Listen, Onoda-kun." Naruko was uncharacteristically serious. "If you're really okay with things the way they are, then I'll respect that." He paused, as if trying to find words. "But don't put yourself down like that, okay? Give yourself some credit."
An apology was the first thing that came to mind, but he reined it in. "I'll try, Naruko-kun," he said instead.
It seemed to be the right answer. Naruko grinned. "Good." He stepped back and looked around. "Where's Hotshot, anyway? It must be a huge egg he's laying if he's not back yet."
"Maybe he ran into someone on the way back. Should we go find him?"
Onoda didn't think they needed to, and he wasn't fond of the possibility that they might run into Imaizumi receiving chocolate from his fans, but on the upside, Naruko couldn't coach him on how to confess to Imaizumi in front of Imaizumi himself.
Unfortunately, Naruko was not so easily distracted. "He'll be fine. Before he comes back, we need to come up with some sort of plan for later, some way the two of you can talk by yourselves. It's not going to be easy, but that's what I'm —"
The bell rang. Onoda had never been so grateful for its sound in his life.
"Crap, we're going to be late! Come on, Onoda-kun!"
They ran up the steps to their floor.
"We'll talk more at lunch! After the broadcast!"
With that, Naruko dashed into his classroom.
Onoda slipped into his and saw, to his relief, that the teacher hadn't arrived yet. Neither had Imaizumi. Onoda left the tote bag on his chair.
The moment he put it down, the door slid open and the teacher came in. Everyone rose to greet her and then took their seats.
Imaizumi walked in less than a minute later, holding two pink bags. The teacher didn't reprimand him for his tardiness, probably because he looked like he would have loved to have avoided whoever had held him up. Onoda saw him frown all the way to his desk, and felt a little sorry for him, but at the same time he couldn't help being charmed by how quietly disgruntled he looked.
It was then that Onoda realized that the person Naruko liked was Imaizumi.
It made sense. He fit Naruko's earlier description. He was cute when he frowned, like now, and he didn't give up when his mind was made up, and he wasn't flashy in the same way Naruko was, but still really cool. And every shoujo manga had fans that believed the heroine's love interests were secretly in love with one another.
The more Onoda thought about it, the more certain he became that Imaizumi was Naruko's crush.
That in itself wasn't a problem. The problem was that, because Onoda had said he liked Imaizumi, and Naruko was too good of a friend, he had inadvertently made Naruko feel like he had to put his own feelings aside and help Onoda confess to Imaizumi.
He buried his face in his hands and muffled a strangled noise in the back of his throat.
"Onoda, are you feeling all right? If you feel sick, you should go to the infirmary."
The teacher's voice broke through Onoda's thoughts. He looked up and saw that everyone in the classroom was looking at him. Imaizumi was too, with a frown different from before: he seemed concerned. Onoda felt an impulse to apologize to him, and then find Naruko and apologize to him as well, and shake their hands and wish them much happiness together.
He apologized to their teacher instead, and took the out she was giving him. He did feel somewhat ill, and as long as he made his way back by the end of first period, he might be able to use the break between classes to talk to Naruko in his classroom. It was essential that he clear up the situation at once, in order to avoid further interfering with his best friends' potential relationship.
In the infirmary he was made to sit down without any questions and given two squares of milk chocolate.
"There's nothing to be embarrassed about," the nurse said to him. "We always get a few on Valentine's Day who make themselves sick with anxiety about confessing or being turned down. Just sit there for a while and try to relax. It's not the end of the world."
Onoda supposed that was accurate enough for him, and it was better than having to give any explanations himself, so he just nodded and took the chocolate. It melted in his mouth, and made him feel a little better. He sat there for some time after eating it, lost in thought, wondering if he should try to find out if Imaizumi liked Naruko back.
Onoda headed back to class as first period ended. He had been mulling over the situation in the infirmary and come to the conclusion that he needed to come clean with Naruko as soon as possible.
To that end, he decided to use this chance find Naruko in his classroom. He was worried about missing him if he had decided to step out during the break between classes, but when Onoda passed by, through the window he saw Naruko talking to two other boys.
Not wanting to interrupt, he hesitated, wondering if he should try again after the lunchtime broadcast. He had just turned to leave when he heard Naruko call his name.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Naruko wave at him, then say a few words to the classmates he was talking to. He made his way to the window that faced the corridor, where Onoda was, and leaned out with his arms on the window frame.
"Ah, no." The idea alone made Onoda uncomfortable, and he answered automatically — but perhaps resting in the infirmary when he wasn't even sick counted as skipping. He felt a pang of guilt. "I'm heading to class now. I just wanted to talk to you."
"Sure. What's up?"
"It's about — before. When we were heading to first period. I was... thinking about it."
"Oh." It might have been Onoda's imagination, but he thought Naruko looked nervous. "What about it?"
Onoda hesitated. It didn't seem like any of Naruko's classmates were paying them any attention, but it was probably better to be vague.
"Well, you said you would help me with… something, right? I decided I don't — you don't have to help, Naruko-kun."
"Oh, that. How come? Did you confe— figure it out already?"
Onoda shook his head. "No, no, I haven't figured it out yet." He paused. "But I can't ask you to help."
"I'm the one who offered," Naruko pointed out.
"I know, but you like —" He couldn't say you like Imaizumi-kun, not where anyone could hear, and even if they had been alone it would have been too embarrassing. He felt his face grow hot. "Anyway, I don't want you to force yourself for my sake."
Naruko looked at him for what felt like a very long moment, during which Onoda did his best not to fidget. Finally Naruko said, "Well, I'm not going to lie, this isn't how I would have wanted today to go." He smiled, but Onoda saw that it didn't quite reach his eyes. "But you can't help how you feel, and I want you to be happy. We're still friends, yeah?"
"Yes!" Onoda confirmed immediately. "Yes, of course we are."
"Then think of it as me helping my friend! And Hotshot." Naruko paused. "That part's an unintended side-effect."
"It's really okay." Onoda wracked his mind for the magic words that would convince Naruko to abandon this plan, and blurted out the closest thing he could come up with. "I actually know how I'm going to go about it, so you don't have to do anything."
Naruko looked taken aback. "Really? How?"
Which was the natural follow-up question. Onoda wished he'd thought a little further ahead before he'd opened his mouth.
"Well." He thought about how confessions usually happened in shoujo manga, desperate for an idea he could recycle to get out of his own lie. "Well, I could write him a letter."
"But that's so… plain, Onoda-kun." Naruko wrinkled his nose, apparently unconvinced.
Onoda thought harder. Valentine's confessions involved chocolate (which he didn't want to reveal he'd prepared), or love letters (which Naruko had just dismissed), or the classic confession on the rooftop —
"I'm going to ask him to stay behind after practice today so I can tell him!" Onoda said.
He felt like he had struck gold with that excuse, until he saw Naruko break into a grin.
"Oh no," Onoda said, dismayed. "No, I take that back, actually —"
"Ka-ka-ka! What are you saying? That's a much better idea than a letter! It's better if there are no distractions, like that. You want to get his full attention! Stand out!"
"That's not what I want," Onoda mumbled, though he was sure Naruko wasn't listening.
"I like this idea! Now that's settled, you should make sure to ask him to stay behind the first chance you get."
Onoda heard footsteps down the corridor, and saw Naruko's teacher approaching. He was out of time to talk, and had somehow landed himself into a bigger mess than he'd been in before. Far from convincing Naruko to pursue any feelings he might have for Imaizumi and give up his plans to help, he had made him believe that Onoda had definite plans to confess first by the end of the day.
He wished he had stayed in the infirmary.
"Naruko-kun, it's really —"
"I could talk to him for you, if you want," Naruko went on. "Just tell him it's something about the team. Though actually, if you just ask directly, Onoda-kun, I think he would stay without question."
"Okay," Onoda said, weakly, as Naruko's teacher walked in. "Okay, I'll ask him. So you really don't have to."
"Everyone, back to your seats!"
"I have to go." Naruko stepped back from the window with a wave. "Talk later, Onoda-kun!"
"Okay," Onoda said, and dragged his feet down the corridor to his own classroom.
When Onoda walked in, he saw their teacher hadn't arrived yet, and everybody was talking animatedly in small groups. Probably none of them were managing to put their foot in their mouth quite as spectacularly as Onoda just had.
Sugimoto, Kanzaki, and her friend Aya were standing by Imaizumi's desk, going over the small pile of gifts he had already gathered. Imaizumi didn't seem to mind, perhaps because their presence made him look already engaged in conversation and therefore harder to approach from an outside perspective.
Onoda walked over to join them, and caught the tail end of what Sugimoto was saying. "— quite a few, and this is before second period. As expected of Imaizumi."
"They're getting an early start this year," Kanzaki said, laughing. She looked up, caught Onoda's eye, and waved. Imaizumi and Sugimoto turned.
"Are you feeling okay, Onoda?" Imaizumi asked him.
"Yeah." He didn't want to worry Imaizumi any more. He gave him a small smile and pushed the conversation with Naruko to the back of his mind. "What are you doing?"
"Inspecting the haul," Kanzaki said. "Eleven chocolates in about two hours. It's like anime in real life, right?"
Onoda nodded. "Was it like this in middle school?"
"As long as you're entertained," Imaizumi said to Kanzaki, but he didn't seem annoyed.
Kanzaki laughed softly, then went over to her desk and returned with three slim packages. She placed one on top of the pile on Imaizumi's desk. "Let's make it a dozen before second period. It's the dark chocolate you like."
The other two she handed to Onoda and Sugimoto. The gift wrapping paper had a bicycle motif.
"These are from Aya, too. She wanted to give you all chocolate, but she wouldn't have done it by herself, so it's a joint present from the both of us."
"All I did was wrap them," Aya said, looking flustered.
"But they're very nicely wrapped," Sugimoto said. "I have experience when it comes to wrapping presents, and I have to say, these are very nicely wrapped."
They thanked the girls. Onoda was especially pleased about Kanzaki's friend Aya's participation; he felt that friendship chocolate was a significant step-up from her attitude towards him when they had first met. If nothing else all day went the way he intended it to, at least he had that small victory.
But as he thought about it, it occurred to him that this new information about Imaizumi's chocolate preferences could be the first step toward compensating Naruko for his mistake. There was still a chance he could turn the situation around and encourage Naruko to confess instead.
When their teacher walked in and they all returned to their seats, Onoda pulled out his phone and tapped out a quick message.
Imaizumi-kun likes dark chocolate!!
Naruko's reply was immediate.
Nice work, detective! We can get you some to give him before your ~romantic confession~!
"That's not what I was going for," Onoda told the screen. He sighed and put away his phone. He needed to clear things up with Naruko before this misunderstanding went any further.
Lunch break rolled around and found Onoda still puzzling over how to handle the situation. He couldn't say he didn't actually have a crush on Imaizumi and had just said his name at random when questioned that morning, because Naruko would see through him. He had to find a way to get Naruko to believe him when Onoda told him it was okay for Naruko to disregard Onoda's feelings and follow his own, but he hadn't figured out how to do it yet.
For the moment, he was doing his best to push those thoughts to the back of his head. He was sharing lunch with Imaizumi, who had brought a larger-than-usual bento from home, and Onoda didn't want to make him worry again by spacing out during their conversation.
They were eating in their classroom, which surely constituted a subversion of a trope. In every shoujo series Onoda knew, the popular boy who was the love interest gravitated toward more solitary and potentially romantic locations such as the rooftop or a secluded corner of the school grounds. In fact, Imaizumi would normally have favored those places over the noise of the classroom, but perhaps today he felt there was safety in numbers, especially since his desk was well away from the door.
The love song that had been playing over the PA system ended and Naruko's voice filled the air instead.
That was for Ueda-kun from class 1-B, from his secret admirer. Tons of secret admirers today! All of you secret admirers who went to all the trouble of requesting love songs for the broadcast, you've already come this far, so just go and stop being secret! Actually, come by the PA room, I'll let you use the mic for a flashy and unforgettable confession!
"I don't think he's allowed to do that," Onoda said, but he couldn't help laughing along with everyone else in the classroom. Even Imaizumi seemed to be biting back a smile.
"I doubt anyone will actually come forward."
"I heard someone did last year, but they were turned away by a teacher."
"But of course Naruko's not about to let that stop him." Imaizumi sounded almost fond, probably because Naruko wasn't around to hear him.
Onoda thought it would be nice if Imaizumi showed this softer side of himself to Naruko every once in a while, but knew it would take time. Already they had made significant progress since their first year. To Onoda it seemed that their constant bickering was just the way that they had learned to interact with each other, but lacked any real animosity. And lately, they sometimes took a moment too long to deny it when somebody referred to them as friends.
It made Onoda happy to see how much they cared about each other, even when they tried to hide it. He resolved again to find a way to straighten things out with Naruko before the day was out.
Next, we have a last-minute request from Y-san! Thank you! But sorry, I played this song at the start, so please assume that it was dedicated to you too. I'm going to play a different song now, because I like it and what's the point of doing this if I can't play what I want every now and then?
Naruko listed a band and song title, and a moment later, a rock ballad started playing. It sounded familiar to Onoda, but it took him a moment to realize where he'd heard it before.
"Didn't Naruko-kun sing this when we went to karaoke with Teshima-san and Aoyagi-san? When they graduated from the club?"
"Sort of." Imaizumi split the tamagoyaki in three with his chopsticks and took one of the thirds. Onoda took another. "He seemed more invested in imitating the guitar riffs than actually singing the words."
Onoda wondered if Naruko was playing air guitar in the PA room as the song played. He smiled at the thought.
From the corridor, a gaggle of unfamiliar voices, all of them female, rose over the sounds of their classmates' conversations. Onoda looked around and saw at least ten girls from other classes outside their classroom, looking in through the window directly at them, or rather at Imaizumi, and giggling.
"There's so many." Onoda knew he wasn't the target of their attention, but he couldn't help feeling self-conscious anyway.
Imaizumi had gone as tense as he had been that morning when he'd got out of the car. "Don't make eye contact," he said. "I don't want them to know I know they're there."
And yet, to not notice their presence would have been a feat. They weren't carrying banners and calling Imaizumi's name like they did at races, but that didn't make them any subtler. Whether they were waiting for Imaizumi to step outside and give them a chance to approach him, or were content to just watch from the corridor, Onoda had no idea. He forced himself not to look in their direction, as Imaizumi had asked.
Over the PA, Naruko's broadcast was coming to an end.
That was the last song of the day! If you still have one that you really want to hear, send in a request and I'll play it next time. I want to thank everyone who requested today and, of course, everyone who gave me Valentine's chocolate! Friendship and romantic, they all made me happy. And if you wanted to give me chocolate but still haven't, come find me, I'll accept it!
"We'll see how he feels tomorrow," Imaizumi said. "He's going to binge today and make himself too sick to ride, like last year."
Yes, I know I need to wrap up! But one last message. To the guy I overheard on my way here, telling his friend that he'd seen a guy giving chocolate to another guy and that it was gross — you're the one who's gross! Get over it!
"He's going to get taken off the air," Imaizumi predicted, and, a moment later, Naruko said a hurried goodbye and the broadcast was cut off.
"I think it was a nice thing he said. I'm glad he said it!"
"He's supposed to introduce and play the songs people send in, not make social commentary." Imaizumi paused. "But you're right. It was nice of him."
Thanks to Naruko's antics (or so Onoda wanted to think), Imaizumi seemed more at ease than he had been a moment ago. His fans could still be heard outside, but he seemed to have tuned them out for the most part, and his posture was relaxed.
However, what made the biggest difference was the soft smile on his face. Onoda doubted it was on purpose, or that Imaizumi was even aware he was smiling. It was only the slightest upward tick at the corner of his mouth, but it made his features gentler, warmer, kind as he was. Onoda wondered if any of the girls outside had ever seen Imaizumi smile like that. If they had, then it was no wonder that they had fallen for him.
"You're staring," Imaizumi said, still smiling. "Do I have something on my face?"
"No!" Onoda averted his eyes. All of a sudden, his heart was pounding. "I just spaced out. Sorry!"
"You don't have to apologize."
Onoda glanced up and saw that Imaizumi's expression had changed. He didn't seem annoyed or concerned, but the secret smile from before was gone. Onoda was disappointed in himself for destroying that moment, but part of him wanted to be selfish. Imaizumi might not return his feelings, and he wasn't going to stand in Naruko's way, but at least he had been able to see that rare smile. He could at least have that to himself.
As soon as he thought that, he immediately felt guilty.
"I'm going to text Naruko-kun we're in here today." He pulled out his phone to avoid meeting Imaizumi's eyes.
He had just hit send when he heard the door of the classroom slide open and Naruko's voice commenting on Imaizumi's audience. Onoda looked up and waved him over.
"Thought you wouldn't want to brave the outdoors today," Naruko said by way of greeting, when he had made his way to the desk they were sharing. He had two heart-shaped bags slung around his wrist. "But this is like you're under siege. You should hear them out so they can get it off their chests and go."
Imaizumi frowned. "I didn't ask them to wait out there."
With a shrug, Naruko pulled a chair from the next desk over and sat with his back to the corridor, partially blocking Imaizumi from sight. Onoda heard some disappointed voices from outside.
"You brought a big bento today," Naruko said. "Big enough for three?"
Imaizumi snorted. "Not the way you eat." But he let Naruko take the extra pair of chopsticks he had brought.
Onoda and Imaizumi were practically done eating, and Naruko made quick work of what they had left for him. His first victim was the last third of the tamagoyaki. He kept up the banter with Imaizumi all the while, and Onoda listened and smiled, thinking how nice it would be if every year he could spend Valentine's like this, with them. Even after they all graduated, even if the two of them got together and spent the day as a couple, he hoped they wouldn't mind having him over for lunch.
Naruko reached out with one finger and poked Onoda between his eyebrows, just above where his glasses rested. He and Imaizumi had stopped talking and were looking at Onoda.
"You're making a face like you're thinking too much." Naruko pulled a pink-wrapped chocolate out of his pocket and put it in Onoda's hand. "Here. Stop thinking too much."
"Thank you." Onoda smiled and unwrapped it. "Ah, white chocolate is my favorite."
Naruko grinned. "I know."
Onoda put the chocolate in his mouth, and tried not to fret about the way things were going to change.
Onoda was forced to conclude that, if his shoujo manga analogy applied to his life at all, then he was the supportive side-character, not the heroine. But he could live with that. What he wanted was for Naruko and Imaizumi to be happy, and he was determined to do anything in his power to help them.
He spent all of fifth period trying to figure out the best way to find out Imaizumi's feelings, and then support him and Naruko in a potential relationship if their feelings were mutual, as per his new role in the story. But he had trouble thinking of particular scenes he might reference. Romance arcs were never told from the perspective of the side characters — which, he supposed, was what made them side characters.
He was starting to wonder if he shouldn't discard the analogy entirely when sixth period — Home Economics — rolled around and delivered a classic plot point.
"Today is Valentine's Day, as no doubt you're all aware." Their teacher stood beaming at the class, with a pink apron tied around his waist. "So we'll be making homemade chocolate. As usual, you'll work in pairs."
Immediately, about half the girls in the class raised their hands. The teacher ignored them and carried on with his explanation.
"Pairs may be mixed, but I will be the one making them. You may not switch partners. At the end of the class, you will have to leave some of the chocolates you've made for grading purposes, but are allowed to take the rest with you to give to whoever you want or eat them yourselves. Any other questions?"
The girls let their hands drop.
"Wonderful. Then I will announce the pairs. Once you know who your partner is, you may pick a work station and start prep."
Onoda thought to himself that it was a good thing he had made chocolate with his mother's help the day before. He remembered the process well enough that he wouldn't be dragging down whoever he had to team up with.
The teacher went through all the A names, and moved on to 'Ikeda Kou'. Suddenly the atmosphere in the classroom seemed to change, and Onoda could feel a number of stares directed his way. The target of their attention was Imaizumi beside him; his name was coming up soon.
"Imaizumi Shunsuke," called the teacher, and as if on cue Imaizumi sidestepped closer to Onoda, close enough that their arms were almost touching.
If that moment had been a panel in a manga, Onoda thought, the girls' eyes would have turned into sharp four-point stars, all aimed at him.
The teacher must have read the expectation in the air, and Imaizumi's silent plea. He let out a sigh and said, "Very well, you may pair with Onoda."
Onoda could feel the tension go out of Imaizumi. Once all the pairs were decided, he stepped out of Onoda's personal space again. Onoda hadn't minded the proximity — had found it nice, in fact — but that seemed like something that might come out weird if he said it out loud, so he didn't.
They started the prep, and Onoda realized that, although they had been classmates for almost a year, it was the first time they were grouped together for a Home Economics exercise.
From the start, Imaizumi got the same look of concentration he did during races. He did everything with the utmost precision. Onoda wanted to do his best too, since grades would be shared, but he soon became self-conscious. He was relying on his memory of what his mother had taught him the previous evening, and he forgot to accurately measure ingredients, and remembered only when Imaizumi placed the bowls with the ingredients on the scale to adjust the amounts.
"Sorry," Onoda said, the second time it happened.
"It's not a problem. It wasn't off by a lot."
"I should have done it properly. Can I have the scale?"
Imaizumi placed it between them. "I think it's amazing you got that close just by looking at it. I wouldn't know how to do that."
"That means you're not used to fumbling your way through these things," Onoda pointed out, sheepish. "It's a good thing, Imaizumi-kun."
"Maybe." Imaizumi looked amused. "What happens when you fumble your way through and it doesn't come out like you wanted it to?"
"I think you eat it anyway and hope it turns out better the next time."
"I see. Should I be in charge of measuring the ingredients?"
Onoda heard the teasing note in Imaizumi's voice and felt warm inside. He was happy to see Imaizumi having fun, and to be a factor in that. He wanted to make Imaizumi smile more.
He got an idea out of nowhere, and followed it on impulse.
He twirled a strand of his hair around his index finger, or tried to, as much as his short hair would allow, and straightened his back. Imaizumi glanced at him questioningly. Onoda cleared his throat.
"Imaizumi Shunsuke, come forward," he said, trying to imitate Teshima's voice. "You're the new captain of measuring ingredients!"
Imaizumi blinked at him, and then, unexpectedly, snorted with laughter. He put a hand over his mouth to muffle the sound, but too late. A few of the students working at nearby stations had heard and gave them curious looks, but Onoda was not as bothered by the attention as he usually would have been. That he had managed to get that moment of laughter from Imaizumi felt like a rare accomplishment, and he laughed too.
"Settle down, Imaizumi, Onoda!"
At the teacher's warning, a few more people glanced in their direction, but soon lost interest and returned to the task at hand.
Imaizumi sobered up quickly, but his smile lingered. "Was that supposed to be Teshima-san?"
"Yeah," Onoda said, a little embarrassed. "But I shouldn't have done that in class."
"Probably not," Imaizumi agreed. He took the butter and started scooping out what they would need onto a small bowl. "I've got this. You can be captain of mixing and stirring later."
Mixing and stirring was not a hard task to be captain of. All Onoda had to do was keep the chocolate from sticking to the pan or forming lumps and, when his arm got tired, Imaizumi took over. By the time they were done melting it and pouring it into the molds to cool, almost everyone else was close to done with theirs.
They were the last pair to hand in their finished chocolates, and got assigned clean-up while everybody else went on ahead. The teacher told them it was punishment for wasting time playing around in class, but Onoda suspected he was giving Imaizumi an excuse to remain inside the classroom until the girls that were lingering outside were forced to leave for seventh period, the last class of the day.
"I feel a little bad for the girls who wanted to team up with you," Onoda told Imaizumi. They were alone, wiping the tables and putting away the dishes that their classmates had already washed. "A few looked really disappointed when you got partnered up with me."
Imaizumi let out a snort. "They might have been more disappointed if they'd got their wish. Today was the first time I've ever made chocolate."
"You wouldn't have had to make it by yourself, Imaizumi-kun. They would have helped."
"It would make more sense to want to partner up with someone who knows what they're doing."
Onoda was stacking dishes in a cupboard, with his back to Imaizumi, and could not see his face, but he had no trouble picturing his expression as he said that.
"Maybe they don't mind," Onoda suggested, smiling. "They might just want to talk to you."
"I go to the same school, so it's not like this one class is their only chance to talk to me."
Onoda could not fault Imaizumi's logic, but at the same time he thought he understood the girls' position. He had been friends with Imaizumi for almost two years, but there were still moments when it felt like Imaizumi existed in a world apart.
Where Onoda constantly second-guessed himself, Imaizumi seemed to approach everything like he did racing, moving forward with certainty, eyes on the goal. Onoda had seen him break down and lose that certainty during the Inter-High, but he had got back on his feet again; it seemed that nothing could stop Imaizumi, at least not for long.
"You know, most of them have never even said hi to me before," Imaizumi said. "But when Valentine's rolls around, they give me chocolate and claim they're in love with me. It makes no sense."
Perhaps what Imaizumi found frustrating was not the confessions themselves, but that he could not see any logical foundation for them. Onoda did not understand it any better. He doubted he would have developed feelings for Imaizumi if they had never talked or become friends. The same went for Naruko. The bicycle racing club was what had brought them together; without it, they probably would not have been more than classmates.
But that high school life would have been very different, and thinking about it would not give him any answers.
He closed the cupboard and went to stand in front of the table Imaizumi was cleaning, until Imaizumi looked up.
"In shoujo manga, one of the classic characters is the school idol," Onoda said. "He's popular with all the girls in school, sometimes boys too, and though he's usually charming in some way, his popularity is never fully explained. He is either aloof and unattainable or happy to date anyone who asks. But in that second case, he is usually reformed by his love for the heroine."
He wasn't sure what he was getting at, or if it constituted an answer. But it seemed to make some degree of sense for Imaizumi, because he shook his head.
"I'm not going to date anyone who asks," Imaizumi said. "This summer is our last Inter-High. I want to win."
That reply was so like him that Onoda couldn't help a smile. "That would be nice," he agreed.
He took a look around the classroom and saw they were done tidying up. He knew they should be hurrying to make their last class of the day, which they were already late for. Yet, if he wanted to find out if Imaizumi returned Naruko's feelings, he was unlikely to get a better chance than this.
He gathered his courage and said, "Maybe not just anyone who asks. To date, I mean."
He looked at Imaizumi, but couldn't tell what he was thinking. He hoped that he wasn't making Imaizumi uncomfortable. The closest they had ever come to talking about romance was a discussion of a Love Hime episode that had centered around the conflict between Kotori-chan's feelings for Arimaru-kun and her duties as the Princess.
But Onoda now found that, while he could easily spend hours theorizing on the relationship between two fictional characters, it was a very different conversation to have when there were real people involved. He felt that he was intruding on something private that perhaps Imaizumi wouldn't want him to know about.
And part of Onoda didn't want to know. The possibility that, like Naruko, Imaizumi might have a crush on somebody else was all too real. Onoda wanted his friends to be happy, but he didn't feel up to getting rejected twice in one day.
He was about to apologize for asking and suggest they head to class when Imaizumi asked, "What do you mean?"
Onoda hesitated. If he pushed, he might learn that Imaizumi liked Naruko, just like Naruko liked Imaizumi. That would be good news, even if he wasn't included. But he couldn't bring himself to ask directly.
"Maybe — what if there was someone who understood? If there was someone who wanted to win as much as you do?"
"A heroine, by your analogy." Imaizumi paused, and Onoda nodded to confirm. Then Imaizumi said, "I don't think that's for me."
"I don't need to find a girl who understands," Imaizumi said. "No one understands wanting Sohoku to win better than the team. You, and Naruko."
There was tension in the way Imaizumi held himself as he spoke. He looked at Onoda, and it seemed like he was weighing whether to continue or not.
What he had said — that the team came first — was something Onoda had already known. That dedication was one of the things Onoda liked about him. There was nothing unusual about Imaizumi's words, but as Onoda waited for him to continue, he had a gut feeling that something important was happening, yet he couldn't figure out what, or why he knew.
After a moment, Imaizumi looked away, and Onoda thought that perhaps he had not been holding back his own words but expecting Onoda to say something. His expression was guarded, and it offered no hints, so Onoda decided to follow his gut.
"Imaizumi-kun, I think there's nobody better to lead the team at the Inter-High than you and Naruko-kun. And I'll do my best to support you, whatever happens."
It was the truth, but as soon as the words left his mouth, he had the feeling that he had missed something in the conversation. That, while it had not been the wrong thing to say, neither had it been the right thing.
Even so, Imaizumi seemed to relax. He gave Onoda a familiar smile. "Yeah, I know you will. You always do."
Onoda smiled back. "Do you want to split the chocolates?"
"You can take them. You did most of the work anyway."
He could feel Imaizumi's eyes following his hands as he transferred the remaining chocolates to a clear bag, though he doubted Imaizumi even realised he was staring. Onoda couldn't help feeling a little self-conscious. He dropped one of the chocolates on the counter, which was clean, but it still didn't feel right to put a chocolate he had dropped in the bag with the others, so he popped it into his mouth. It was better than he had expected, soft and melty and not too sweet.
Imaizumi seemed to snap out of whatever thoughts had been distracting him. He looked faintly embarrassed when he met Onoda's eyes. Then he asked, "Good?"
"It is," Onoda confirmed, satisfied. "Are you sure you don't want to take half?"
Imaizumi hesitated for a moment, then said, "I'll take one," and chose one of the last few that hadn't been bagged yet. Onoda watched his expression as he ate it. At length he nodded and showed Onoda the faintest smile. "These are good. Thank you."
Onoda beamed at him. He packed away the rest of the chocolates and put the bag in his blazer pocket. Then they gathered up their things and headed to class down deserted corridors.
Only much later did it occur to Onoda that, though he had seen Imaizumi receive dozens of Valentine's chocolates, this was the first time he had seen him eat one.
When they got to the classroom, the drawer of Imaizumi's desk was so full that the top wouldn't come down all the way. It seemed that, while they had been at Home Economics, a few of Imaizumi's admirers had let themselves into their usual classroom and left their chocolates and love notes where he could not avoid seeing them.
But seeing was not the same as acknowledging. Imaizumi took his seat and, rather than try to force the desk closed, he opened his textbook in his lap, resting the spine on the lifted edge of the desk. He took notes the same way. The angle of his hand looked awkward for writing, but if he was uncomfortable he gave no sign of it.
Onoda, who sat two rows diagonally behind him, spent what they had left of seventh period stealing glances at him. He wished he could do something to help, like switch desks with Imaizumi so he could write properly.
When class ended, Onoda made his way over. Kanzaki was already at Imaizumi's desk, talking to him. Onoda caught only the tail end of her sentence.
"— talking about waiting outside the clubroom," she was saying. "It would be best to get there before they do."
"You're the one who likes to say audiences are an essential part of road racing." He lifted the lid of his desk to reveal the drawer and its contents, and instantly looked like he wished he hadn't.
"As long as they don't hinder the riders. Hi, Onoda-kun."
Onoda greeted them both, but was distracted by the contents of Imaizumi's drawer. In total, there were perhaps six or seven packages, most of them sporting ribbons, a few with envelopes attached. Imaizumi passed them to Kanzaki and she stuffed them into a bag like the ones used for supplies in races. She slung it across her shoulders when they were done and nodded at Imaizumi.
"See you at practice," Imaizumi said to Onoda.
He returned Kanzaki's nod and she led him out of the classroom with sure steps that had everybody else clearing a path for them.
"Don't worry, Glasses," her friend Aya said to Onoda. She was watching them go with a smile on her face. "Even Imaizumi's fangirls would have to be insane to get in Miki's way."
Onoda couldn't picture Kanzaki being anything but nice to anybody who approached her. But when he met up with Naruko after that to head down to practice together, Naruko made a similar comment.
"Remind me to never mess with the manager. I saw her marching Hotshot down the corridor and there were these girls standing there waiting for him and she smiled at them and they just scattered."
"Oh." Onoda had always thought Kanzaki had a very warm smile. He also seemed to recall that Naruko had once been smacked upside the head with a broom for saying something to Kanzaki that he shouldn't have, and wondered why seeing her escort Imaizumi had left a bigger impression than that incident. He decided not to ask. "Do you think those girls will come to observe practice?"
Naruko shrugged. "A few came last year, right?"
There were more than a few.
At least a dozen girls were lingering near the back of the clubroom. A handwritten sign taped to the door said Non-members not allowed . Imaizumi and Kanzaki were nowhere to be seen, so Onoda had to assume they were inside. Onoda felt like he was witnessing a stakeout.
He heard a familiar voice call his and Naruko's names and they turned to see Teshima standing by the bike rack outside.
"We thought we'd drop by and see how the team was doing," Teshima said, when they walked over to him. "And see if the audience was bigger this year, now that he's captain."
At Teshima's plural, Onoda looked around, but could not see Aoyagi anywhere.
"Where's the quiet one?" Naruko asked.
Teshima nodded at the gaggle of girls some distance away. Onoda hadn't looked very close the first time, but now he saw a familiar figure with bleached blond hair, apparently surrounded.
"He told Kanzaki he'd ask them to leave," Teshima said, with a wry smile. "But we might have miscalculated."
Onoda heard a high-pitched female voice squeal, "Aoyagi-san!" and there was a chorus of giggles.
"He got popular all of a sudden after he started growing out his hair."
Naruko looked as if he'd just won a race. "Ka-ka-ka! So not all of those girls are Hotshot's fans!"
"I imagine most of them are. It wouldn't make sense to look for Aoyagi here, since we retired from the club."
"Most isn't all," Naruko said.
Onoda glanced at the group. "Should we go…" Help seemed a bit extreme, since Aoyagi was not in danger, but Onoda could not think of a better word.
Teshima chuckled. "I was about to go back him up when I saw you two. Here, Naruko." From the inside pocket of his blazer, he pulled out a chocolate tablet and held it out to Naruko. "You had a good broadcast today. You don't mind that it's chocolate from a guy, right?"
Naruko looked taken aback for a moment, then grinned. "Is it okay for you to be giving me chocolate, Teshima-san?"
He nodded in the direction of Aoyagi and the girls — perhaps, Onoda guessed, to indicate that the exchange could be seen by anyone passing by. For some reason, Teshima seemed to find this funny, because he laughed.
"Oh, I see." He made as if to put the chocolate back inside his pocket. "You're too good for plain store-bought chocolate, is that it? You're some sort of chocolate elite?"
"Naruko Shoukichi loves all chocolate equally!"
He held out both hands, palm-up, until Teshima shook his head and gave him the chocolate.
"Thanks, senpai. I'll give you half later, Onoda-kun."
"You do that," Teshima said.
He glanced in Aoyagi's direction. Onoda followed his gaze and saw that Aoyagi was looking at them. His expression didn't give much away, but Onoda couldn't imagine he was enjoying the attention. Teshima nodded, perhaps to himself, as Aoyagi could not possibly have seen it from where he stood.
"That's my cue to go," Teshima said. "I'll see you two later."
He jogged off to join Aoyagi, and inserted himself into the group like he had been part of the conversation all along. Onoda could hear him talking to the girls, though he couldn't make out the words.
Naruko threw an arm around Onoda's shoulders. "Ka-ka-ka! Let's leave Aoyagi-san's fangirls to him and go, Onoda-kun."
Onoda nodded and let himself be steered toward the clubroom. He thought it must be uncomfortable for Naruko to walk that way, even a few feet, but it was nice, so he allowed himself to be a little selfish, and leaned into it slightly, as much as he dared.
Quietly, Naruko said, "Thanks for earlier, Onoda-kun."
"Earlier?" Onoda repeated, confused. He couldn't remember having done anything that merited thanks.
"What you said, when — ah, nevermind. Have you asked Hotshot yet?"
"No," Onoda admitted.
"Cutting it close for a Valentine's confession, Onoda-kun."
They stopped in front of the clubroom, and Naruko let his arm drop. Onoda found himself missing the contact almost at once, though they were still side by side, with only a hairsbreadth of air between them.
"I'll make sure he stays behind after practice so you can talk to him. You just focus on how you're going to knock his socks off, yeah?"
Naruko sounded the same as usual, and Onoda was grateful for his encouragement, but he had had enough of feeling like he was hurting Naruko by not approaching the issue directly, even if he had no idea what he was supposed to say.
"Naruko-kun, you said before that we're friends and that's why you're helping me, because you want me to be happy. But I feel the same way, I want you to be happy too."
"If this is about not wanting my help —"
"No. Well, sort of." Onoda wondered if their conversation was carrying into the clubroom, and lowered his voice. "You're always cheering me on, and I want to do the same for you. You're so cool and kind and you always make me feel better when I'm not confident enough, and you give everyone energy just by being around. I think you deserve the world."
Naruko had gone very still. Part of Onoda wanted to reach out and touch him, but he had already been selfish enough. He was going to support Naruko and Imaizumi, just like they had always supported him.
"I want you to stay behind after practice today too, Naruko-kun." He couldn't explain everything there in front of the clubroom, where anyone could arrive or open the door any second, but he was done making excuses. "Don't go home until I get back to the clubroom later."
Naruko opened his mouth to say something, but Onoda didn't give him a chance to continue the conversation. He didn't want to risk putting his foot in his mouth again.
He opened the door and stepped resolutely into the clubroom, and a loud 'Welcome, Onoda-san!' made him almost jump out of his skin.
"Sadatoki-kun." Onoda pressed a hand to his own chest, willing his heart to stop pounding, and looked up at the younger Sugimoto's smiling face. "Good afternoon to you, too."
There were a few other first years already getting changed, and they greeted Onoda and Naruko in turn, thankfully at a normal volume. Behind him, Naruko laughed and greeted the first-years back for both of them. To Onoda, he didn't sound quite the same as usual, but none of the first years seemed to notice anything was off. He clapped Onoda on the shoulder and went to change.
To guard himself against more potential surprises, Onoda took a look around the clubroom.
Imaizumi was riding his bike on the rollers, and Kanzaki was in front of him with clipboard and stopwatch in hand. Aside from the first years' talk, the clubroom was quiet, and Imaizumi's pedalling was a constant hum in the background.
Resting against the far wall behind them was the bag Kanzaki had filled with Imaizumi's Valentine's gifts. With the flap closed, it looked like it might as well have been full of jellies and energy bars. Onoda wondered if it had taken up too much room in Imaizumi's locker, or if he had just left it there so it'd be out of the way where he wouldn't have to look at it.
"Close the door behind you," Imaizumi said.
Onoda nodded, even though Imaizumi hadn't glanced up and couldn't have seen, and did as he had been told.
Then he went to his locker and put his things away. He was aware of Naruko looking at him out of the corner of his eye, as if he wanted to say something, but there was nothing he could say that would have persuaded Onoda to accept Naruko's help and confess to Imaizumi after all. No, he was determined. He was doing the right thing.
He changed slowly, half-listening to the sound of Imaizumi's bike sliding on the rollers and the first years talking amongst themselves.
Naruko pulled his red tiger shirt over his racing pants and shut his locker, then touched Onoda briefly on the shoulder and went outside. He returned with his Pinarello and walked it to the back of the clubroom, where he set up another set of rollers next to Imaizumi.
"Can't believe we're cooped up in here when it's such a nice day out," he complained loudly.
Imaizumi retorted at once. "No one asked you to warm up in here."
"But if I do this outside, you won't know it when I outpace you," Naruko said. Onoda heard Kanzaki smother a laugh. "Hey, manager! Time me!"
"I'm going to go thank Teshima-senpai and Aoyagi-senpai while we wait for everyone else," she said, and handed the stopwatch to first-year Sawada, who seemed excited to take over the task, even though it was unclear what times he was supposed to be taking.
Naruko and Imaizumi bickered back and forth all through Naruko's warm-up. By the time they got off the rollers, Imaizumi seemed to have shaken off the tension he'd been carrying with him since their last class. Onoda privately suspected that Naruko had started the squabble to turn Imaizumi's mood around, but knew that Naruko would never admit it.
Practice was scheduled to start soon, and most of the club members had arrived and finished changing. Two absences were obvious, however.
"Where are Kaburagi and Danchiku?" Imaizumi asked the other first years from their class.
The first years agreed that it was past time for those two to arrive, but nobody seemed to know why they hadn't yet or when they would.
Frowning, Imaizumi called a start to practice anyway and led the present members outside — with a certain air of dread, it seemed to Onoda. But the girls that had been crowded outside were nowhere to be seen.
Teshima and Aoyagi were gone as well. Only Kanzaki waited by the bike rack. Onoda heard her say, "All clear, captain," to Imaizumi when they walked over to get their bikes, and glanced back to see Imaizumi roll his eyes at her.
That reprieve was short-lived.
Imaizumi was halfway through his explanation of the day's menu when Onoda heard the sound of running footsteps approaching, and two familiar voices. Naruko stood on tiptoes, looking at a point behind Onoda, and yelled, "You're late!"
Onoda turned to see Kaburagi, grinning and holding two pink bags, and Danchiku trailing behind him, looking apologetic.
"Excuse us," Danchiku said, and bowed. "We'll go change and join practice immediately."
Imaizumi frowned, but nodded. "Yes. I'm not delaying our start times to wait for you, so you'd better make —"
Kaburagi cut him off and held up the bags he was carrying. "Imaizumi-san, I ran into some girls from your class. They said they wanted to come watch practice or something and they couldn't so they asked me to give you these." He sounded excited, as if he were the true recipient of the gifts. "There's a lot in here! Like, maybe five!"
"Well, I was wrong," Kanzaki commented. "These girls are resourceful."
Imaizumi looked less impressed. He was eyeing the bags like he was trying to will them out of existence.
"So you were late because you decided to be someone's delivery boy," Naruko said.
Kaburagi pulled a face. "I was on my way here anyway! And they were second-years! And you're always telling me to listen to my senpai."
"And you start now?!"
Imaizumi's eyebrow twitched; if he were a manga character, a cross-popping vein would be drawn on his temple. To Onoda it seemed that he would have found it easier to deal with the girls' hanging around near the clubroom; it would not have been too different from a race, and his audience couldn't follow once he was on the road.
Onoda intervened on impulse, and felt at once all eyes on him. He ignored the sudden attention as best he could.
"Kaburagi-kun, perhaps you could leave those in the clubroom when you go change. I'm sure Imaizumi-kun can get them later. And Danchiku-kun, you have climbing practice with me and Sawada-kun. Our group is last, so I'll wait here, okay?"
They stood straighter and replied, "Yes, Onoda-san!" at once, with a solemnity that Onoda couldn't get used to. The bags bounced merrily as Kaburagi jogged to the clubroom, Danchiku following.
Once the two of them had gone, the club members seemed to remember they were in the middle of practice, and went back to adjusting their helmets and fiddling with their gloves. Imaizumi continued giving his instructions, picking up where he had been interrupted.
They split into four small groups. At Kanzaki's signal, Sugimoto led the first down the main gate slope, and Naruko moved to the front of the second.
Onoda watched him talking animatedly to the first-years in his group. He couldn't make out what Naruko was saying, but the first-years were hanging onto his every word. He let out a laugh, and they laughed with him. If they had been nervous when they lined up with him, they were completely at ease now. His energy was contagious.
Beside Onoda, Imaizumi also had his eyes on Naruko. When he noticed Onoda had seen him look, however, he cleared his throat, pulled his gloves out of his back pocket and pretended to find them very interesting as he slid them on. Onoda laughed in spite of himself, which earned him a sour look. Imaizumi looked embarrassed, like he'd been caught doing something he shouldn't.
"I'm sorry about what I said before," Onoda said to him, then specified, "After Home Ec. The shoujo manga metaphor. It was weird, wasn't it? And it doesn't really translate very well to real life. I don't want you to think I wasn't taking what you said seriously, or —"
"It's okay," Imaizumi interrupted. "I didn't mind. It was very like you."
"I just didn't know how I could help." Onoda felt the need to explain himself, even though Imaizumi had already accepted his apology. "That metaphor was the only thing that popped into my mind. I don't really have any experience with this sort of thing, outside of, well. Manga is the closest thing to a frame of reference that I have."
"Does it work for you?" Imaizumi asked.
It was a simple question, practical, not judging at all. Onoda still expected that judgement sometimes, even though Imaizumi and Naruko and all the friends he had made through the club had never rejected him for liking what he did.
He thought about all the parts of his analogy that didn't add up for him, all the discrepancies that he was finding it harder and harder to reconcile as the day went on. How much simpler it had all seemed just that morning. It had been less than eight hours since he'd arrived at school, but it felt like much longer.
"Sometimes," he said.
Imaizumi nodded, apparently satisfied. "Then don't worry about if it's weird or not. Go with whatever makes sense."
It sounded so easy when Imaizumi said it that Onoda couldn't help a smile. He didn't reply, and Imaizumi didn't add anything, so they fell into silence, again watching Naruko and the first-years. Onoda couldn't help sneaking a glance at Imaizumi's expression. This time, if Imaizumi noticed, he made no effort to disguise the soft smile on his face.
Earlier, Onoda had not managed to ask Imaizumi directly how he felt about Naruko, but it seemed now that it would have been a silly question. The answer was clear to him. And though he had been unable to give Imaizumi any good advice earlier, and hadn't managed to explain everything to Naruko, and couldn't help clinging to some small hope for himself on some level, he felt warmed inside by the thought that even if his frame of reference didn't pass muster, his best friends were going to be all right.
Kanzaki's whistle pierced the air, and Naruko's group kicked off. As they sped down the hill and disappeared from sight, Naruko's voice could be heard, egging the first-years on.
Imaizumi glanced down at Onoda. "You said in your metaphor that in some cases the popular character is, uh, redeemed by their love for the heroine. What does that mean?"
Onoda stared at him. Parallel to his surprise at the question, his mind began to conjure an explanation of how those endings usually played out, complete with references to famous works that he thought might ring a bell.
Before he could answer, however, Imaizumi shook his head. "Nevermind."
Kanzaki waved at them from the gate. The first years Imaizumi had assigned to himself were standing by before the designated start line. A few glanced curiously back.
"See you later," Imaizumi said to Onoda, not meeting his eyes.
He walked his bike to the front of the group and got into position. Kanzaki blew her whistle a few moments later, and he kicked off and led them down the slope, in pursuit of Naruko's group.
Later, when Onoda was on his bike with Danchiku and Sawada trailing behind him on the uphill roads, he remembered the frustration on Imaizumi's face as he'd asked his question, and wondered which part of that sentence he had been asking for clarification on.
When Onoda got back from leading Danchiku and Sawada up Minegayama, a familiar black car was parked just inside the rear gate. Imaizumi's driver was standing beside it. He caught Onoda's eye, and bowed his head politely. Onoda hurriedly bowed back.
He was aware of the first years' curious glances, but perhaps the climb had left them too tired for questions. Onoda, too, was eager to get to the clubroom and change out of his sweaty jersey and into something that would better ward off the evening chill.
Naruko was sitting on the bench in the clubroom, already in his uniform. He informed them that, since the other groups had had a shorter course, almost everybody else had already changed and gone home.
The supply bag with Imaizumi's chocolates was still leaning against the far wall, which meant that Imaizumi was still around somewhere. Onoda wondered if Naruko was waiting for him to get back, and if he would try to convince Onoda to stay alone with Imaizumi at the first chance.
"Don't go yet," Onoda said to him, just in case. "I'm going to wash my face."
The water from the spigot outside was freezing, and Onoda gasped when it touched his face, accidentally swallowing some that went down the wrong path. He stood there coughing for a good ten seconds, feeling his eyes tear up. Then he washed his face again, taking care to keep his mouth closed this time, and used a small hand towel to dry himself.
He heard footsteps, and put his glasses back on to locate the source. It was Imaizumi, walking back from the direction of the car toward the clubroom, but he didn't seem to have seen Onoda.
Imaizumi froze at the sound of his name, like some sort of animal trying to fade into the background. When he saw Onoda waving, however, he relaxed, and walked over.
"Welcome back," he greeted. "How was the climbing group?"
Onoda beamed at the question. "They're getting really good! Especially Danchiku-kun. He was really close on the way up the rear gate slope! He almost beat me to the top!"
"Don't go letting the first-years beat you so easily," Imaizumi said, teasing. Then, after a moment, his expression closed itself. "Naruko said you wanted to talk to me."
A few feet from them, the door of the clubroom opened, and the last of the first years walked out, talking amongst themselves. They spotted Imaizumi and Onoda and said their goodbyes, then took their bikes off the racks and pedaled away.
Imaizumi cleared his throat. "I'm going to get the chocolates and take them to the car. It's waiting by the gate."
"Are you going home already?"
"No." He answered right away and, looking slightly awkward, continued in a quieter tone. "No, I'm riding home. I just don't want to lug those bags when I do. I'll come back to the clubroom after."
Onoda offered his help, which Imaizumi refused, but before he could insist that he didn't mind, the clubroom door opened again and Naruko peered out at them.
"Why are you standing out there?" he called. "You'd be warmer if you came in."
They went inside.
"You should get changed before you catch a cold," Naruko said to Onoda, who was hunching his shoulders against the chill.
Onoda got out of his jersey and into his uniform, and watched out of the corner of his eye as Imaizumi gathered all the bags of chocolates in a pile at the foot of his locker. All in all, there looked to be about thirty or forty different packages, of assorted shapes and sizes, stuffed into four bags. Only Kanzaki's bicycle-patterned wrapping paper stood out among the red and pink.
Imaizumi looked down at the gifts and let out a sigh, then slung all the bags about his person. Onoda moved to open the door for him, but Imaizumi managed it before he got there.
"Come here, Onoda-kun," Naruko said, once Imaizumi was gone. He patted the spot on the bench next to him, and Onoda sat down. "I still haven't given you the chocolate I promised."
He pulled out the chocolate tablet he had received from Teshima earlier and, after a moment's consideration, split it into two halves. "Hotshot has enough chocolate already," he said, but he broke off a few squares from his half and set them aside.
Onoda smiled, and set aside two rows of his half as well. Then he remembered the chocolates he and Imaizumi had made in class and pulled them out of his blazer pocket.
"Imaizumi-kun and I made these in Home Economics today." He held them out. "I want you to have them, Naruko-kun."
It wasn't the chocolate he had prepared to use for his confession, the previous day when he had still been planning to confess, and he wasn't confessing, but his heart had started beating very fast anyway. Naruko looked like he'd been caught off-guard, and Onoda hesitated and looked down at Teshima's chocolate in his hand.
"I-if you'd like to have it, of course," Onoda stuttered. "Y-you don't have to accept it if —"
"I'll take it," Naruko cut him off. He took the bag and wasted no time in opening it and plopping one of the small round chocolates into his mouth. "Hey, these are really good. Thanks, Onoda-kun."
Onoda looked at him, and saw that his face looked a little red.
"You're welcome." He felt incredibly relieved, and gave Naruko a big smile.
"I guess these aren't — no, nevermind. I'm happy to get chocolate from you regardless." Naruko twined the thin ribbon on the bag around his finger, playing with it instead of meeting Onoda's eye. He seemed to be struggling with something. Before Onoda could ask, he looked up and smiled back. "I should probably thank Hotshot too, huh."
"I think he'd like that," Onoda said.
As if on cue, Imaizumi walked back in. He saw the chocolates Naruko was holding and stopped short. "Are those…?"
"Yes," Onoda said. "I gave them to Naruko-kun. I thought you wouldn't mind."
He closed the door behind himself. He was holding the supplies bag Kanzaki had used before, now empty and perfectly folded. He walked to the cupboard at the back of the room, where the supplies were kept, and placed it inside, with his back to Onoda and Naruko.
"Hey, Hotshot." Imaizumi didn't turn, but he made an affirmative noise to show he was listening to Naruko. "You got lucky having Onoda-kun as your partner for these. They're actually a lot better than they could have been."
Imaizumi snorted. "I hope you choke on them."
That seemed to be as close as Naruko was going to get to thanking Imaizumi, and Imaizumi's reply as good as a you're welcome. They both seemed satisfied with the exchange. By now, Onoda knew better than to think they meant the mean things they said to each other, even if they still surprised him.
"Well, if I choke, I'll blame you." Naruko stood up. He put the chocolates inside his bag and winked at Onoda. "I'm taking off now. See you tomorrow, Onoda-kun, Hotshot."
Onoda panicked. He couldn't let Naruko leave like that. "Naruko-kun, wait," he called. "I can't —" let you keep putting my feelings before yours, he wanted to say, but Imaizumi had walked over toward them; he would hear anything Onoda said. And for all he knew, encouraging Naruko to confess instead might be presuming too much.
Nothing was lining up the way it should have. Even if Onoda gave up on his feelings and thought of himself as the supportive side-character instead of the heroine, he was no longer sure he was going the right way about supporting his friends. They might not even want that support from him. He couldn't stop thinking about Imaizumi's I don't think that's for me and what does that mean?
"Onoda-kun, hold out your fist," Naruko said.
Onoda did, and in their usual pre-race ritual, Naruko passed on his spirit.
"Go stand out," Naruko said. "I told you before, you can do anything. Give yourself some credit!"
Imaizumi was leaning against the lockers opposite, watching them. Onoda couldn't tell what was going through his mind.
"Thanks again for the chocolate, Onoda-kun. It made me really happy." Naruko grinned, and for a moment looked like he might say more, but then he seemed to think better of it and turned toward the door. "It's your turn to lock up, Hotshot."
"I know," Imaizumi said.
The solution would have been clear if he had been in a shoujo manga, but of course he wasn't. So all he had left was to be honest with both of them, even if Imaizumi heard, even if Onoda had to spill his own feelings to make Naruko understand.
He stood up, mind racing to find the right words to make Naruko stay.
In his panic, it took him a moment to process that Naruko wasn't leaving.
He had his hand on the doorknob and was standing in place, head bowed down, completely still. Then, without warning, he let out a groan of frustration, cried, "I can't do this!" and wheeled around, startling Onoda so badly that he jumped.
"What now?" Imaizumi asked, not quite managing to disguise his own surprise.
"You shut up! I told myself I could be happy for you and make way, but that's not Naruko Shoukichi. A real man doesn't drop out of the race until he can't ride anymore!" He shot Imaizumi a cheeky grin. "I'm not going to just bow out of this with a smile. I need to make sure I've lost, first."
"Naruko-kun?" Onoda called, uncertainly, and his heart almost jumped out of his chest when Naruko turned to face him.
"Onoda-kun." He stood right in front of Onoda, leaving him nowhere else to look. "This morning, when I confessed to you, you rejected me. You did, didn't you?"
"Onoda rejected you?"
"You confessed to me?!"
"Why are you figuring it out now!" Naruko punctuated that last word by smacking Onoda lightly on the arm. Then he sighed."And I thought I did a pretty good job, too."
Unable to process what was happening, Onoda blurted out the only thing that came to mind. "But you like Imaizumi-kun."
"What?!" Imaizumi said, in a choked voice.
Naruko's face was nearly as red as his hair, but he held up a hand. Without looking away from Onoda, he said to Imaizumi, "I'll get to you in a moment." Onoda heard Imaizumi take a seat on the bench with a groan. "Onoda-kun, I didn't tell you that. I only told you I liked you."
"But the person you described —"
"Was you." Naruko shook his head, but there was a small smile on his face. "Do you remember what I said?"
Onoda thought back to that morning, trying to recall the exact words. "You said, um, cute, especially when they're being serious." He felt his face heat up. "And that they frown when they're serious, and, uh —"
"You're doing it right now," Naruko said, and stepped aside so Imaizumi could see.
"You are," Imaizumi agreed. He was watching them with a hand over his mouth, and he looked as flustered as Onoda had ever seen him.
"Right here." Naruko tapped a finger to Onoda's brow, just above the bridge of his glasses.
He was looking straight at Onoda, and the warmth in his eyes made Onoda's chest feel tight. After a moment he moved his hand down to frame Onoda's face, his thumb resting on Onoda's jaw. Onoda could feel his hand shake slightly, and was sure that Naruko could in turn feel his pulse racing.
"You said they were cool," Onoda said, his voice small even to his own ears. "I thought for sure — Imaizumi-kun —"
"You should have just told him directly, Naruko," Imaizumi said.
"Don't tell me how to confess to Onoda-kun!"
"Fine," Imaizumi snapped.
"Naruko-kun." Onoda swallowed hard. He wanted to believe this was happening, but there was an insistent voice inside his head that told him it couldn't be. "You didn't deny it before, when I said you like Imaizumi-kun."
Naruko glanced at Imaizumi over his shoulder. There was an expectant silence, as Naruko seemed to be struggling with words.
"Well," he said at last, "I didn't, no. I'd — really, I'd think I have terrible taste if I didn't like you as well, Onoda-kun."
"I said I'd get to you later," Naruko said, cutting across whatever Imaizumi had been about to say. "I can't confess to two people at the same time, do you want me to have a heart attack?"
Imaizumi made a vaguely affronted noise and muttered, "Unbelievable," but sat back and didn't say any more.
"Onoda-kun." Naruko stood perfectly in front of him again, so there was no missing how nervous he looked. His thumb was caressing small circles on the side of Onoda's face, perhaps unconsciously. Onoda thought he was the one who was likely to have a heart attack. "If you didn't realize I was confessing this morning, does that mean you weren't rejecting me?"
"Um," Onoda said, and stopped there, because he couldn't think clearly. "You're standing very close, Naruko-kun."
"Good or bad thing?"
"Good," Onoda said. "But now I'm really nervous."
Naruko breathed out a shaky laugh. He was so close that Onoda could feel it ghost over his lips. "Me too. Close your eyes?"
Onoda nodded, and did. He felt Naruko's other hand find his, and was hyper-aware of Naruko's breathing and pulse, loud in his ears.
Then, Naruko placed his mouth over Onoda's.
Onoda had guessed it was coming, but it still surprised him. It was very soft, and warm, and a little overwhelming, with Naruko's hand on his face and standing so close. He had no idea what he was supposed to do; if there was any sort of established method to kiss someone back, it had certainly never been explained in the romantic scenes in his manga, where everyone seemed magically to know how to navigate these situations.
Onoda pushed those thoughts out of his mind and tentatively pressed his lips back against Naruko's, and felt Naruko smile into it.
"Wow," Naruko breathed, when they broke apart. "I guess that means I'm still in the race."
Onoda nodded, but he couldn't meet Naruko's eyes. He felt like his heart might burst.
"Naruko-kun," he said, weakly, "do you think I could have a moment?"
Naruko took a step back, and Onoda gave the hand that was still inside his a brief squeeze before he walked to the end of the bench, sat down, and buried his face in his hands to muffle the urge to squeal.
"Onoda, is everything all right?" Imaizumi asked.
Onoda nodded vigorously, but didn't take his hands away. His face felt like it was on fire. But everything was more than all right.
"I think you broke him," Imaizumi said, but the note of concern from before had turned to amusement.
"I — yeah, I feel like I need a moment myself," Naruko said.
"In that case, take as long as you need. It's not like I don't have all the time in the world."
"What, Hotshot, are you jealous because I confessed to Onoda-kun first?"
"Just wondering how long I'm supposed to sit here in silence, listening to you tell Onoda that you — well, talking about me."
Imaizumi sounded so disgruntled that Onoda couldn't help giggling into his hands.
"Sorry," he mumbled. "Please don't mind me."
Naruko laughed. "Ka-ka-ka! I bet none of those girls ever confessed to you like this before, Hotshot. I bet I'm the first!"
"That's not necessarily a good thing," Imaizumi said, sounding torn between exasperation and amusement.
"Standing out is always a good thing."
"Admit it. You just can't confess like a normal person."
"What, did you expect me to confess like one of your admirers? Keep dreaming!"
Imaizumi let out a choked laugh. "No, that's okay. I don't expect you to be normal." He paused, then continued in a quieter voice. "The two of you are going to drive me insane. I don't know what I'm doing anymore."
Onoda took a deep calming breath and let his hands fall so he could look at Imaizumi. The expression on his face was the same he'd had when Onoda had offered his metaphor in the classroom, and later when they were watching Naruko ride off.
He stood up and walked over to Imaizumi and Naruko. They looked at him, and he smiled at them, and took Naruko's hand when he offered.
"I don't understand any of this," Imaizumi said. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back, as if he couldn't meet their eyes. "I've never wanted anything like this before. Not with one single person, much less two. Racing was always more important. It still is, in a different way. And at least in a race I can predict how the things I do are likely to affect the outcome."
"Control freak," Naruko said.
"You're right," Imaizumi agreed. "I can't change that."
Onoda thought about it. He figured that, if Imaizumi had truly been uneasy with the situation, he would have excused himself or said something much earlier, when Naruko's feelings had first come up, but it was better to make sure.
"Does it make you uncomfortable that Naruko-kun and I like you?"
Imaizumi looked up sharply, and Naruko glanced from him to Onoda, looking like he was biting back laughter. In that moment, Onoda wondered if he had said anything funny, and then he realized that though he had already told Naruko how he felt about Imaizumi, it was the first time he told Imaizumi himself.
And though he had daydreamed about confessing so many times and fretted about the outcome for months, in the end he'd said it just like that.
"I mean," Onoda said, feeling suddenly very nervous again, "I mean, Naruko-kun already told you he likes you, and I, well, I've always thought you're so cool and you're always supporting me and just having you around makes me happy, and I always want to be around you more, so that's, I suppose that's what it is, when you l-like somebody. Does that make sense?"
Imaizumi smiled. "Yeah. Yeah, I think so."
"Say nice things to me too, Onoda-kun," Naruko teased, and turned to him, swinging their linked hands back and forth.
Onoda leaned in quickly and kissed him on the cheek. Naruko caught the movement, and brought up his free hand to the back of Onoda's neck to keep him from pulling away, and kissed him on the lips.
"You're a lot," Imaizumi said to Naruko after, visibly amused, and Naruko laughed.
Onoda straightened his glasses and cleared his throat, then addressed Imaizumi again. "It's okay if you don't like us romantically, or if you don't feel comfortable with the idea of things changing even a little." He thought about what he had been afraid of, when he had thought about Imaizumi and Naruko together, and wondered if Imaizumi might relate. "Even if your answer's no, we're not going to — leave you behind, or anything like that."
"Yeah, you're not getting rid of us so easily," Naruko said, grinning.
Imaizumi snorted. "I wouldn't dream of it."
Onoda wanted to reassure him, but just like earlier in the Home Economics classroom, there was only one perspective he could offer.
"All I know about c-crushes and stuff like that comes from how they're shown in manga. You asked me if that makes sense to me. A lot of it doesn't." He shrugged. "But it doesn't have to. You're both special to me, and that's enough."
Imaizumi pursed his lips and looked down at his hands.
"I don't really get it," he said. "If liking someone is supposed to be all the things girls say — feeling your heart beat faster just by being close, thinking about your crush to the exclusion of everything else — I don't have that."
"You're not one of those girls, Hotshot," Naruko said. "And you're definitely not a manga heroine, Onoda-kun."
"The principle should still be the same, if the feeling is the same." Imaizumi let out a frustrated sigh. "Honestly, I'm not sure what I feel. I know it's not exactly the same as friendship. There's a lot of overlap, but — sometimes I'll be by myself and the quiet will feel a little too quiet. That's never happened before."
"If you're right, and wanting to be with someone more is what it means to like them,then I guess I don't have completely terrible taste, or it balances out." He said it with a glance at Naruko, who laughed and made a face at him. Imaizumi showed a hint of a smile, but the frustration was still in his voice when he continued, "I want to be with both of you, different from how I've ever wanted to be with anyone else, but I don't know if that means I like you, the way everyone seems to mean it."
Naruko prodded Imaizumi's foot with his, and Imaizumi tucked his feet underneath the bench with a frown.
"I want to be certain. You both deserve that much. What happens if I can't be certain of what my feelings are?"
Onoda considered the question. "What would you like to happen?"
Imaizumi hesitated, then said, "I don't know." He rubbed the back of his neck, and then asked, "What do you think would change, if I said I wanted to give this a try?"
Naruko and Onoda shared a look.
"It'd probably be about the same," Naruko said. "We'd still go ride our bikes together, and hang out on days off, and eat lunch together."
Imaizumi frowned. "If nothing changes, then why is it such a big deal?"
Onoda laughed in spite of himself. "I don't think we have to worry about making huge changes, Imaizumi-kun." He hesitated to continue, wondering if he might be pushing too far, but Imaizumi was giving him his full attention, so he decided it was as good a time as any to ask what was on his mind. "But maybe, every once in a while, if we want to hold your hand, or hug you, or k-kiss you, would that be okay?"
Imaizumi looked as flustered as Onoda felt. He seemed to consider the idea, but regardless of what he ended up saying, his initial reaction didn't seem negative. Naruko's hand tightened around Onoda's.
Finally Imaizumi said, "I don't mind. I think I'd like that."
Onoda released a breath he hadn't realized he was holding.
"Then, perhaps you could hold Naruko-kun's hand, or, um." They both looked at him, and he added, "You don't have to, of course! But I think Naruko-kun would like it if you did."
"I'm not going to make him do anything he doesn't want to do," Naruko said at once. "And it's not like I'm dying to —"
"Come here," Imaizumi said.
Naruko stared at Imaizumi's outstretched hand. "Look, Hotshot, you obviously weren't okay with even the briefest contact just now, so —"
"That's because I'm not a pebble on the road that you should be poking with your foot. Just give me your hand."
After a moment, Naruko did. Onoda let his other hand go and took a step back to give them space. Imaizumi pulled Naruko toward him slowly, as if adapting to this new kind of proximity inch by inch.
"I figured poking you was less — I don't know, invasive. You're always annoyed when I get in your space."
"And you do it anyway." Imaizumi had pulled Naruko in close enough that he was standing between Imaizumi's legs and looking down at him. His voice sounded like he was having a hard time keeping it level and unaffected. "So why are you hesitating now?"
"I don't want this if you're only doing it because Onoda-kun was really cute when he asked," Naruko said. "That's it, isn't it?"
"No," Imaizumi said.
Naruko made a disbelieving noise.
"Onoda was cute," Imaizumi amended, "but that's not why. I'm doing this for myself. I want to." He reached up to place a hand on Naruko's shoulder. "What, is the great Naruko Shoukichi getting cold feet?"
If Naruko heard the note of uncertainty in his voice, he didn't call him on it.
"Not a chance," he said, and kissed Imaizumi.
Onoda sucked in a breath. It looked a little more forceful than his own kisses with Naruko, as if even in this they had to compete with each other, but Imaizumi wasn't shying away. It occurred to Onoda as he watched them that maybe he should be turning away and letting them have privacy, but then he figured that, if they ended up adding this to their friendship, it would become normal to see such displays of affection when they were together, nothing out of the ordinary. The idea filled him with happiness.
Naruko broke the kiss first, but didn't step away.
"I think I'm getting a crick in my neck," he said.
"It might be worse if I stand up," Imaizumi pointed out. Naruko smacked his shoulder.
"Why do I even like you," Naruko said, and moved to sit on the bench next to Imaizumi, without letting go of his hand. The look on Imaizumi's face was so unguardedly fond that Onoda hesitated to speak, but after a moment they both turned to look at him.
Onoda asked, "Was that okay?"
"It was… new," Imaizumi said at length. "But not bad new."
"So you enjoyed it." Naruko preened.
"Don't look so pleased with yourself," Imaizumi told him, but it had the opposite effect.
Naruko leaned against his side, and Imaizumi let out a long-suffering sigh, but Onoda suspected it was for form's sake, or he wouldn't be smiling.
"I don't think this is what I expected."
He glanced at Naruko next to him, then shifted to put an arm around his shoulders. Naruko looked surprised, but recovered quickly.
"Me either. Who would've guessed." He shot Imaizumi an amused look. "You cuddle."
"Shut up. If you're uncomfortable, just say so."
He started to move away, but Naruko was faster. He reached up to keep Imaizumi's arm where it was and shifted to lean against his side more comfortably.
"Much better," he said.
For once, Imaizumi seemed unable to retort. Onoda couldn't help another giggle, which earned him a disgruntled look, but then Imaizumi let out a sigh and relaxed against Naruko.
Onoda took a tentative step closer. "I don't really know anything about how this is all supposed to work, either. But I'd like to figure it out together, the three of us." He gave them a sheepish smile. "I'm sure I'll do the wrong thing from time to time, but I'll do my best."
Imaizumi breathed out a laugh. "Fumble your way through and hope for the best?"
"I'm okay with that," Imaizumi said. "I want to try."
"Okay," Onoda said.
"You've got to aim higher than try," Naruko said. "Lucky for you, you have me and Onoda-kun to back you up."
Naruko held out his hand to Onoda again, and as Onoda was about to take it, he remembered the chocolates that his mother had helped him prepare the previous evening. They were still inside his school bag; one package wrapped in red, the other blue.
Could he have imagined, when he was making them, that he would have a chance to deliver them as the romantic gesture they were, and have those feelings be accepted, even if they were reciprocated in a different form?
"These are for you," he said, holding the packages out. "Happy Valentine's Day."
Naruko was the first to react and take his; an instant later, Imaizumi followed suit.
"Did you make these, Onoda-kun?"
"My mom helped." He hesitated. "Imaizumi-kun, I know you're probably tired of getting chocolate. You don't have to accept it if you don't want to."
Imaizumi looked at him like he had said something insane. "What are you saying? This isn't the same as the others. You made this."
"Damn right," Naruko said, grinning. "Come sit with us, Onoda-kun."
Imaizumi put the chocolate down and held out his hand. Heart pounding, Onoda took it, and sat down on his other side. Once he did, Imaizumi let go of his hand and put his arm tentatively around Onoda's waist. Onoda glanced up at him in surprise, and saw that he looked a little flustered, but he was smiling.
In the back of his mind, Onoda wondered how late it was, and what time the school gates closed, but it was a distant concern, and he didn't want to go anywhere just yet.
"You know, Hotshot, you should treat Onoda-kun and me to chocolate after this," Naruko said after a moment. "You owe us."
"How do you figure that?"
"You haven't given us any yet."
Imaizumi made an indignant noise. "You haven't given me any either," he said. "And I helped make the chocolates Onoda gave you earlier."
"That doesn't count. It'd be like saying these chocolates are from Onoda-kun's mom because she helped him make them."
"Um." Onoda laughed awkwardly. "That's a little weird."
"Yeah, a little. Sorry." Naruko peered around Imaizumi at him. "You're the one who gave us both chocolate, Onoda-kun. You think Hotshot — Imaizumi should treat us, right?"
Onoda felt Imaizumi turn to Naruko at the correction, and smiled. "That would be nice."
"He just said that would be nice," Naruko said.
"I heard him," Imaizumi snapped, but there was no bite to it. He put Onoda's chocolate in his blazer pocket and stood up. "Let's go, then. We can stop somewhere on the way home."
They put on their coats and grabbed their things. Naruko was about to turn off the light when Imaizumi said, "Sakamichi, wait," and placed a hand on Onoda's shoulder. Onoda turned to face him and, without warning, Imaizumi leaned down and kissed him.
It was slightly clumsy, but at the contact, Onoda sucked in a breath. Imaizumi's lips landed on the corner of Onoda's mouth, and he drew back a bit, but Onoda followed his movement on impulse, leaning up to keep from breaking the kiss. It was when he heard Imaizumi's muffled noise of surprise that he realized Imaizumi had meant to readjust, not pull back entirely.
He might have been embarrassed if he'd stopped to think about it, but Imaizumi was leaving him very little room to think about anything else. His hand tightened on Onoda's shoulder, and Onoda wasn't sure if Imaizumi was holding him up or clinging to him.
Inside his head, Onoda struck knees going weak off the list of fiction clichés that he hadn't thought applied to him.
"I hadn't kissed you yet," Imaizumi said when he drew back, by way of a very obvious explanation, but Onoda didn't feel up to pointing that out. He felt Naruko's hand on the small of his back, steadying him, and was grateful for it.
"Thank you," he said, not really sure who he was saying it to, but feeling that it was accurate for how he felt. "That was nice. Please give me some warning next time."
He heard Naruko laugh behind him.
"Okay," Imaizumi said, looking sheepish.
They switched off the light and went outside, and Imaizumi locked the door. Then they took their bikes, the last three still tied to the rack.
Imaizumi asked, "If all of this had been a plotline in one of the shoujo manga you like, would it have turned out this way?"
"Cheesy," Naruko teased.
"I wasn't asking you."
Onoda gave it some thought, but he already knew the answer. "Probably not." He had never read any manga where there were multiple love interests that all ended up together. "This is much better."
They smiled at him, identical looks that were full of warmth and love. Onoda smiled back. The uncertainty he had carried with him since that morning felt further away than ever.
"Let's go home," Naruko said.
They rode their bikes down the rear gate slope and out onto the main road. There they fell in a straight line, matching the rhythm of each other's pedalling without having to think about it. Imaizumi and Naruko took turns to draft, bickering back and forth the whole time. At every red traffic light, they turned to look at Onoda.
Onoda couldn't bring himself to care about the cold air slapping his face, or the dull exhausted ache in his legs after climbing Minegayama. The happy endings of shoujo manga couldn't compare to what he'd got.
Under his breath, he began to hum the Love Hime song.