The air smells like salt when Akira bikes to school, and seagulls screech at him. The sky overhead is blue, blue, blue, and Shuji’s waiting for him by the school gates, fiddling idly with his phone.
Akira brings his hand puppet up and makes it bark, “Good morning!” at Shuji.
He rolls his eyes and puts his phone away. “You’re late.”
“Sorry. Had to wash my hair. It’s still damp, see?” Before Shuji can stop him, Akira reaches out, grabs his wrist, and pulls it halfway to Akira’s head before Shuji makes a noise and tugs away.
“I don’t need to touch your hair,” he sputters. A pair of girls walking by look over, giggle nervously, and hurry through the school gates. “Let’s just go already.”
“Okay, Shuji-kun,” Akira makes Kon-kon chirp, and follows Shuji onto the school grounds.
In the new house, Shuji has his own room, so Akira practically moves in. Shuji's sitting cross-legged on the bed, watching Akira throw clothing out of his suitcase and into the dresser drawers. He's wearing a pair of Shuji’s pajama pants because last night he had laughed at his own joke and snorted soy milk all over his own pajama bottoms.
“Don’t you have your own apartment?” Shuji asks.
“Of course,” Akira says.
“Why are you staying here, then?”
“Just thinking about how much work it would take to clutter my apartment up makes me sleepy. Besides.” Akira twists and throws a shirt at Shuji's head. “Akira likes staying with Shuji-kun.”
Shuji throws the shirt back and tries to flatten his mussed up hair. “Whatever,” he huffs, but Akira thinks he looks secretly pleased. Maybe it's just wishful thinking.
“I don’t think Shuji-kun appreciates Akira,” Akira says.
“I am sorry,” Nobuta says, after a moment’s hesitation. “Perhaps Akira and Shuji should have a talk?”
Akira sticks his lower lip out and rolls over. He’s on Shuji’s bed, waiting for Shuji to bring back food because Koji had friends over earlier and they ate everything in the fridge. “Talking’s haaaard. Don’t want to.”
There’s silence over the phone line. Akira gets distracted by Kon-kon and gets into a silently mouthed argument with his hand — you talk first! no, you talk first! — before Nobuta speaks up again. “Maybe wait for Shuji. He’s strange about some things.”
Akira hangs up. Later that night, he texts Nobuta a blurry picture of Shuji sitting cross-legged on the floor, watching television with his hair pulled up in a hair tie. In return, Nobuta sends him a selfie of herself and Mariko; Mariko’s making a peace sign, and Nobuta’s smile is barely visible — Akira has to squint and lean in until his nose is almost touching the screen — but it’s there.
New school comes with new friends; girls who think Shuji is cute and guys who think he's cool, and that's okay, because Akira wants people to like Shuji, but Akira likes him best when he stops pretending to be cool. After all, he sees Shuji in the mornings, when there's toothpaste foamed on his full lower lip, sleep crusted in the corners of his eyes, and the waistband of his sweatpants is twisted under.
He knows if he has bad dreams where he’s chased by the Truth Man, Shuji sleeps poorly as well, and spends the mornings grumpy. Akira can never pester him enough to find if they’ve shared the same dreams, or if it’s just that Akira, who sleeps sprawled across the bed (usually across Shuji as well) kicks or talks in his sleep and Shuji can’t manage to wake him.
He wakes before Shuji and watches him sleep, t-shirt rucked up over his stomach, mouth slightly open as he snores quietly. Akira’s heart beats a little faster. Maybe he’s hungry. Shuji should make breakfast. He reaches out and covers Shuji’s mouth and nose with his hand.
Shuji snorts in surprise and his eyes fly open. He pries Akira’s hand off his face and glares . “What the hell are you doing?!”
“Good morning,” Akira says, head propped up one hand.
Akira lifts his other hand and makes it say, “Kon-kon hungry! Kon-kon want to eat!” in a high-pitched voice.
Shuji tries to pull the covers over his head, but Akira’s lying half on top of them. “Can’t you feed yourself for once?”
“Akira likes Shuji-kun’s food.”
Shuji gives up the blanket tug-of-war and sits up. His hair is sticking up in back, pulled half-free of the purple hair-tie. “It’s — what time is it?”
“Morning,” Akira replies promptly.
“It’s Saturday,” Shuji says, sounding dumbfounded. “Go back to sleep before I kick you out of this bed.”
Akira leans over to rest his chin on Shuji’s shoulder, and narrowly avoids getting smacked in the nose by the back of Shuji's head as Shuji jerks in surprise. “But I'm hungry.”
Shuji's fingers curl into the rumpled sheets, but he doesn't push Akira away. He turns his head, lips practically brushing Akira's cheek as he does so. “Can you wait until Dad’s left for work, at least?”
Satisfied, Akira plants a loud kiss on Shuji’s cheek and curls back under the covers.
There's silence for several seconds, then the mattress creaks as Shuji lies back down. His back is to Akira.
The beach is the best thing about the new school. He’s lying on his back, getting sand down the neck of his school jacket. The sky is cloudless blue and the ocean is loud, waves going whoosh, whoosh, whoosh against the shore. The sand is warm against his bare wrists.
A shadow falls across his face and he squints up to see Shuji, standing with his satchel slung across his shoulder, looking out at the ocean. He's blocking the sun, long shadow lying across Akira's face and spreading flat on the pale beige sand.
“Shuji-kun,” Akira sing-songs. “Let’s visit Nobuta.”
“Nobuta’s probably making new friends. Seeing us again might make being alone harder for her.”
“Feels bad without Nobuta,” Akira says. He reaches over his head and tugs on the cuff of Shuji's pants leg. “We should visit her!”
Shuji looks down at him, his lips pursed slightly, the way they do when he's thinking.
“Helicopter?” Akira suggests.
Shuji rolls his eyes and drops down onto the sand beside Akira, pulling his satchel into his lap. “We can take the bus.”
That night, worn out by the sea air, Akira texts Nobuta right before he falls asleep: a string of excited emojis and a badly misspelled sentence along the lines of see you soon .
Nobuta texts him back and says I look forward to seeing Akira and Shuji.
Akira tumbles off the bus, trailed by Shuji, and explodes, "Finally!" He stretches his arms over his head and hops on one foot for a second, almost crashing into Shuji. "It takes so long. AH!" he shouts and points, grabbing Shuji's arm with his other hand, tugging Shuji off balance and almost knocking their heads together. “NOBUTA!”
Nobuta’s clutching the straps of a big black purse in front of her, knuckles white. She shuffles towards Shuji and Akira.
Akira leans forward to look at her and pokes her cheek gently. “Ta-dai-ma,” he says, popping his lips around the -ma syllable.
Shuji comes up beside Akira, hands in his pockets, and smiles tentatively at Nobuta. “Hi.”
There’s a thwump as her bag drops to the pavement. She rushes them, head down, and drags them both into a hug, fingers digging into Akira’s shoulder, forehead pressed against where Akira's shoulder is squashed against Shuji. She keeps her head down and doesn't say anything.
Akira wraps his arms around her and squeezes. Her hair is warm and smells clean, like soap and summer, and he buries his nose against it and inhales happily. When he looks up, Shuji's looking at him over the top of Nobuta's head. Akira widens his eyes and sticks out his lower lip in a pout. With a sigh, Shuji puts one arm around Nobuta, works his other hand out of his pocket, and wraps that arm around Akira's waist, pressure light at the small of Akira's back, fabric tugging at his side as Shuji's fingers curl into Akira's jacket.
“Welcome back,” Nobuta mumbles, muffled, into the hug.