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Endgame

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Sometimes working in Nozaki’s apartment for hours on end felt like a test of endurance. Time seemed to flow at a different pace as menial tasks were completed and at the end the inputted labour was felt through cramped joints and a developing slouch. Sakura stretched, her hands reaching up towards Nozaki’s apartment ceiling until she felt a relieving pop in the middle of her back. She stretched her legs out next, slowly unfolding her sweaty thighs from her calves. Her knees had become stiff from sitting in the same position for so long, the skin of her legs now imprinted with the texture of the rug beneath her. She tugged at the neckline of her shirt, fanning herself with her hand to no avail. It was hot. Even though the sun had set a long while ago the June humidity managed to carry the heat over into the night, making the apartment uncomfortably warm.

So far third year of high school felt no different to all the others. Sakura didn’t know where the idea came from, that once your last year of high school came it’d feel different. Maybe she was hoping for a wave of purpose to engulf her or an exciting development to occur as her days of youth were finally drawing to a close. Right now everything just felt the same. After school Sakura had been whisked away to finish up some last minute work before Nozaki’s upcoming deadline. Everything was so usual and she didn’t know if the normalcy disappointed her or relieved her.

In another hour the last train would be arriving at the station. With her legs straightened out beneath the table Sakura counted the pages she had left. The amount wasn’t impossible to finish but her eyes were getting dry and her wrist was stiffening.

“Sorry to ask so much of you, Sakura.” Nozaki apologized to her from his work bench. He was finishing off some screentone work Wakamatsu hadn’t been able to get to.

“It’s fine.” she responded, the corners of her mouth were upturned in an attempt at a smile but her strength betrayed her. “How come there’s still so much left?”

Nozaki visibly stiffened at her question, his gaze shifting away from her. Sakura finished off her current page, reaching for another she saw something in Nozaki's eyes she hadn’t seen before; worry.

“To tell you the truth, I’ve recently been running out of ideas…” Nozaki let out a heavy sigh. “There’s only so many more scenarios you can come up with when Suzuki and Mamiko’s relationship has developed this far.”

Sakura propped her head up with her hand and looked down at the page she had grabbed to ink, then back at the pile of unfinished pages. After reading the past issue Sakura had noted how much of a romantic stalemate Suzuki and Mamiko’s relationship had devolved into. They had gotten closer but they weren’t officially together. Mamiko still had yet to confess her true feelings to Suzuki and the two seemed to just be floating along the plot line like parallel lines, intersection being avoided at every turn.

“I’m sure you’ll be able to come up with something, Nozaki-kun.” She reassured him. It was about the only thing she could offer right now, after all Sakura was clearly the wrong person to come to when it came to romantic progress.

Two years had passed and Sakura had attempted confessing twice already but still, no results had been yielded. Then again, both times she had tried she had been too flustered to get her true feelings across. She looked up at him. Nozaki looked pensive and serious staring down at the piece of paper in his hand, his eyes flitting across the page with intense focus. Sakura sighed, this moment seemed too good to be true just a year prior. Sure, she hadn’t made significant romantic progress but on the bright side she was closer to Nozaki than she had ever been. That was an achievement in its own right, right? Was what she thought, but the question still stood: how long was she willing to stay in this neutral phase?

The thought sprung up from time to time. Mikorin would mention it to her on their walks home from Nozaki’s place. Yuzuki would mention it after an encounter with Nozaki in the hallway. Kashima would corner her on occasions when Sakura would paint sets for the drama club. The same thought phrased differently every time. When was she going to take the final leap and just tell him properly? Sakura avoided the question every time, waving it off with her hand, expertly changing the subject. She knew she was playing it safe and at times she found herself getting frustrated. Deep down she wanted to tell him but on the other hand how could she risk the relationship they had built up until now?

“Something wrong, Sakura?” he asked, looking directly into her eyes. His concern was so innocent it made her heart swell up, feelings threatening to boil over. She wanted to scream. To yell out her feelings for him.

Instead she looked down, the tips of her ears burning.

“Nothing.” she said, gripping her brush tightly.

Sometimes it’s enough just being with him was what she told herself. Her heart beating, swallowing the feelings that threatened to spill out in front of her, containing herself for another day.

 

--

 

The next day brought rain. Sakura was exhausted and it showed as she found herself straying from walking in a straight line on her way to class. All her energy had been spent at Nozaki’s the previous night. She had been working for who knows how many hours before sprinting for the last train. Now she was running on low battery mode.

As the bell rang at the end of the day Sakura could be found at her desk, her head slowly lowering itself onto her notebook which barely had any notes in it. Tiredness clouded her mind and so she had barely paid attention in class.

“Sakura…” She felt a poke to her side. “Sakura! Wake up!” With a violent shake she suddenly snapped to attention. Yuzuki stood above her, a furrowed brow adding to her usual dead fish eye expression. She was holding a juice box by the straw in her mouth.

“What’s up why are you so tired?” Yuzuki asked, taking a seat beside her half-alive friend.

“Nothing. Just work, I guess.”  Sakura rubbed her eyes and sat up in her seat, a huge yawn escaping her. Yuzuki only side-eyed her, looking confused.

“Summer vacation starts tomorrow. We haven’t had work since midterms.” Sakura yawned again waving her hand in the air to brush off her friend’s suspicions.

“It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.” Sakura said, folding her arms on top of her desk and laying her head down. At least she could rest for a bit now. There wasn’t really anything to worry about until after-

“Anyways, Aoki wanted to see you in his office. He told me to wake you-”

All traces of sleepiness vanished as Sakura immediately stood up, knocking her chair to the floor in the process. She squeaked out an “Excuse me.” as she speed walked out of the classroom. Her feet nearly tracing skid marks across the floor. She had totally forgotten about student-teacher interviews today. All the way there she mentally cursed herself, preparing for the scolding she was going to get for being late. There was always something else she had to do, even after all that happened last night.

 

--

 

It was still raining as Sakura walked to the station to get home. The clouds were a deep grey, spitting fat raindrops that burst atop her umbrella. Her skin felt sticky with humidity as Aoki’s words seemed to replay on loop inside her mind.

“Hmmmm…” Aoki sighed studying various sheets of paper, jiggling his knee up and down. The gesture only made Sakura’s anxiety gain momentum. “Sakura-san…” he started, placing the paper he had been inspecting on the table between them. He looked straight at her and Sakura’s eyes locked onto him, swallowing the forming lump in her throat.

“Your grades have dropped.”

A car zipped by her on the road, splashing water across her front. She cursed, patting the dampness of her uniform. Just ahead she saw the glowing lights of a convenience store, a place to take refuge from the almost endless downpour.

“Do you have any idea where you’ll be going once you graduate? What you want to do?”

The words echoed in her mind again as she stepped inside. It was cold, the air conditioner cranked all the way up to combat the sticky heat from outside. Sakura only realized how wet she was just then, how heavy her clothes became from the water. She left her umbrella at the front of the store to dry before heading to the bathroom. Wringing out her clothes and wiping herself dry was the best she could do in this situation.

“I’m not so sure.” she said quietly, her fingers rubbing at the cloth of her skirt, eyes cast downward. “University, I guess...” she added, though her tone sounded unsure. Aoki’s leg stopped bouncing. The look he gave her was serious but had clearly been recycled many times before.

“Sakura-san, enjoying your high school life is important but living in the moment becomes dangerous once you’ve lost sight of your goals. Maybe it’s time to start thinking seriously about your future and confronting your obstacles. Think about what’s next.”

Sakura trashed all of the damp paper towels she had used. At this point she was as dry as she could be though she still felt heavy. Her skin and hair were cooling significantly and sending chills up her spine. What did she want? What did she really want to do? The answer couldn’t come to her immediately which frustrated her. For some reason her mind brought her to Nozaki’s apartment. If only she could will herself back into the place where time seemed to flow at a different pace. She wanted her hands wrapped around a mug of tea Nozaki had made for her, she would rather hear his endless talk about plot lines and story hooks than think about her own problems right now. The question still echoed in her mind: what did she want? What she wanted was-

“Oh, Sakura...” a familiar voice pulled her out of her reverie.

“Hori-senpai!” Sakura exclaimed in recognition and Hori cracked a smile at the state of her. He was rearranging stock on the shelves, wearing the convenience store’s uniform.

They stood outside, the overhanging roof of the convenience store protecting them from the onslaught of rain. Hori had bought popsicles for the two of them, it was what he could offer without taking too much from his paycheck at the end of the day.

“You know you don’t need to call me senpai anymore, right?” he handed the icy treat to her which she took in both hands. Sakura shakes her head in response.

“It feels weird not to.” she says and stares out into the distance. Cars rush by, cutting through the falling sheet of rain with no issue.

It was strange seeing him in anything other than his school uniform. He was working part time now and everything about this situation was weird. Sakura had imprinted the Hori she knew just a year ago into her mind after he graduated. The one that would ask for plays from Nozaki, who would constantly lecture Nozaki about his sloppy background work, who loved to act, who was almost constantly kicking down Kashima. What happened to the passionate drama student? Why was he not doing clubs in university?

“Sorry I can’t offer you anything else right now.” he apologized and Sakura shook her head again.

“It’s no problem.” she reassured him before sucking on the soda flavoured treat. “Why aren’t you doing drama anymore?”

“Acting and drama was fun but I don’t think I could make a career out of it. Money is tough right now as you might’ve guessed.” He gestured to his work uniform. “I’m not really in a position to just do whatever I want. I’ve got a lot ahead of me and I don’t want to make it unnecessarily hard.”

Suddenly it was here again. Future talk never seemed to disappear and it only sent Sakura spiralling down her previous thought tornado. Everyone was moving forward, letting go of the past and setting up a clear path for themselves, figuring out who they wanted to be, what they wanted in the end. What did she want? What she wanted was-

“Sorry to be such a downer.” he brushed off what he just said. He had been watching her the whole time and caught wind of how worried she looked. “Anyways, how are you? You look so tired.”

“Oh, you know, the usual, I guess.” she didn’t want to stress him out with what she was going through. Or maybe that was another excuse to not think about her issues.

“I was at Nozaki’s place late last night. Deadline stuff, you know?” she yawned just then. Hori raised an eyebrow at her and immediately caught wind of the situation.

“You know, Sakura, sometimes you have to draw the line in the sand. You shouldn’t be working that late on a school night.” he told her. Sakura only stared holes into the pavement a few feet in front of them.

“How am I supposed to refuse him when he needs my help, senpai?” Sakura asked quietly, almost instinctively. Hori eyed Sakura thoughtfully before slightly nodding his head like he had suddenly come to understand something.

“Your popsicle is melting.” he points out to her. In a rush of panic Sakura frantically licked at the melting part before it ultimately ended up as blue slush on the ground. She frowned as she watched the juice meld into the puddles at her feet. What a waste. A small chuckle escaped Hori as he stuffed the last of his popsicle into his mouth, the stick poking out between his lips which were pressed into a smile.

“Don’t laugh!” she chided the older boy.

“Sorry, sorry...it’s just that whenever I talk with you it’s always been about Nozaki. I don’t think I know a Sakura separate from him.” he laughs again. “Anyways, there’s nothing wrong with being openly selfish. Looking out for yourself isn’t a bad thing.”

What Hori had said kept Sakura up at night. It was probably supposed to be nothing, just a comment made in passing, yet it was the honest truth. It was so obvious and she felt stupid for just realizing now at the tail end of her high school life.

She stared at the ceiling of her room shrouded in darkness. Her legs were tangled amongst her sheets as her mind frantically searched for something to go off of. Who was she without Nozaki? There was evidence all around her of a past self that existed separate from him yet she still couldn’t grasp onto anything. Why had she even gone to this school in the first place? What dream had she envisioned before finding Nozaki sleeping on top of the gates on their first day of school? All of those things seemed so far now, buried underneath three years of trying to convey her feelings to this damn boy. She rolled over and nuzzled her face into her pillow. She wanted to scream, to relieve herself of her frustrations.

A sudden buzzing from the other side of the room distracted her from her thoughts. She peered over her shoulder in the direction of the sound. Her phone screen was glowing, creating a large illuminated rectangle on her ceiling. She got up to look at who was trying to message her this late at night though she could probably guess who it was from.

Nozaki-kun: I think I’m onto something...

Sakura’s entire three years of high school had been revolving around this one boy. Everything she did seemed to be as a result of him. Her fixation had distracted her from all other things and in the end she really didn’t know anything about herself. She was suddenly devoid of motivation and it frustrated her.

Yet she didn’t hate him. Sakura, even now after everything that had happened, could not deny her feelings for Nozaki. They were boiling up again, heated by her frustration. Before she had the chance to type anything, another text came.

Nozaki-kun: If it’s alright with you could you come over tomorrow?

Her heart was racing, her mind screaming at her. The timing was too perfect. With a newfound conviction she typed back a reply.

Yea sure I’ll be there.

 

--

 

It was raining hard again the next day. Sakura’s umbrella dripped on the floor in the outdoor corridor of Nozaki's apartment building. It was early in the afternoon and Sakura stood outside of Nozaki’s door, her heart banging from the inside of her chest, her ears filled with the splattering of rain hitting pavement. Her hand reached out for the doorbell, pressing it once.

“Coming!” Nozaki’s voice was muffled as he called out to her from inside. Then he opened the door and Sakura thought her heart was going to stop any second now.

“Ah, Sakura.” he said to her and let her in. Sakura put on a smile but it was forced, her nervousness getting the best of her. The idea of all this seemed so easy yesterday, had her confidence left her after just one night of rest?

He left her at the entrance as she took off her shoes to get his materials ready. She entered the main living area where all of their work was done. The place was so familiar to Sakura now that she knew the layout like the back of her hand, yet the aura was that of when she had first been invited to his place. Breathe, it’ll be over soon.

“Do you want anything to drink?” he asked her while grabbing a stack of paper and setting it down at the table she always worked on.

“No, I’m okay.” Her mouth felt dry but she didn’t have the capacity to ingest anything right now. Her entire mind focused on what she had to do, what she was going to say.

“What did you want me to help with?” she asked setting her bag down beside her as she kneeled on the floor. She set her hands on the table to somewhat steady herself, she was quivering slightly and hoped he wouldn't notice.

Nozaki took a seat at the table directly in front of her, flipping through the stack of papers, making sure everything was in order. Breathe, Chiyo. Just a little bit longer.

“This is what I came up with last night.” he handed the manuscript to her and she took it in both hands.

Her nervousness came to a grinding halt as she read. As she flipped through the pages confusion began overtaking her previous emotions. She went through it again, and again, and then once more making sure that what she was seeing was real. Finally she set the manuscript down on the table and looked up at Nozaki. His hands were folded in front of his face, eyes searching for a reaction.

“Well?” he encouraged her to voice an opinion. She didn’t meet his gaze, she couldn’t.

“She gives up?” Sakura asked, she stared at the manuscript incredulous as to what she had just read. Nozaki nods, his face showing absolute seriousness.

“Yes.” he begins. “Suzuki receives an invitation from an elite prep school where he would receive better opportunities. He asks Mamiko if he should take up the offer and she still can’t bring herself to confess. Since Suzuki doesn’t get a definitive answer from her he decides that she doesn’t really care for him after all and transfers schools. Mamiko decides not to go after him and in the end she decides that this was for the best. So she gives up.”

Sakura stares down at the sheets of paper in distaste. The image of Mamiko looking out unto a distant sunset with tears in her eyes and a defeated smile across her face almost taunts her. She hates the sight of it.

“So, what do you think?” he asks her once more, his head slightly cocked to the side in curiosity.

“Why?” is all that Sakura can manage, trying not to get worked up.

“Suzuki and Mamiko’s relationship hasn’t progressed passed amicable closeness. Wouldn’t it be natural at that point for Suzuki to think that there was nothing beyond friendship?” Sakura was shaking, but not from nervousness or anxiety.

“But this whole time she’s been dropping hints!” she let out, her tone wavering a bit.

“How was Suzuki supposed to know that all of those previous interactions were hints if at the end they just went back to acting normal?” Nozaki’s lack of romanticism astounded Sakura, she wanted to laugh, this had to be some kind of practical joke. Blood was rushing through her veins at an alarming rate, she was so mad and so defeated all at the same time.

“You’re an idiot.” she whispered. She tried to contain herself like all the other times but her heart was bursting at the seams, her head felt like it was going to explode.

“What was that?” he asked, his tone was the same. He really didn’t think anything was wrong and she wanted to strangle him for it.

She slammed her fists on the table. A tear dropped onto the middle of the page, Sakura shoved the sheets of paper away from her.

“Sakura? Sakura, are you alright?” he rose from his seat moving to kneel beside her. Her hands shot up to her face, trying to physically prevent the tears from spilling out, but they only kept coming, her heart was boiling over.

“Nozaki, you goddamn idiot!” her body was shaking as she sobbed into her hands unable to contain anything anymore. She was so sick of this, he really had no clue.

“What? What’s wrong?” his hand reached out to touch her shoulder but she grabbed it before he could touch her, finally facing him. She was so tired of this, all of it.

“EVERYTHING! EVERYTHING IS WRONG, NOZAKI! ARE YOU STUPID?!” Nozaki’s eyes grew wide in shock as Sakura yelled at him, tears streaming down her face, her hand had an iron grip on his wrist.

“HOW WAS HE SUPPOSED TO KNOW?! ARE YOU DENSE?! MAMIKO’S FEELINGS HAVE BEEN SO OBVIOUS! ALL THE CHARACTERS KNEW!” Sakura’s hands had a grip on both of Nozaki’s wrists now. She rose up on her knees in her rage. Nozaki was way bigger than Sakura but in the moment she had the strength to pin him on the floor, her hands holding his arms at either side of his head, the ends of her hair almost tickling his skin. Tears dropped onto his cheeks as Sakura looked down at him, her feelings spilling out all over him.

“How could he not know?” Sakura choked on her tears. At this point she knew she wasn’t talking about the manga anymore.

Suddenly Hori’s words entered her mind, There’s nothing wrong with being openly selfish. Then Aoki’s, Maybe it’s time to start thinking seriously about your future and confronting your obstacles. What did she want? Right now what she wanted was-

“How could you not know?”

Her voice felt hoarse, she had beaten a crack into the dam of her heart, and now everything was threatening to fall apart, but that was what needed to happen.

“Sakura-” he started.

This is your endgame.

“I like you.” her eyes closed instinctively. She didn’t want to see his face, it would only make things harder.

“All this time I’ve been trying to get closer to you. I’ve been trying to tell you how I feel. I’ve been annoying everyone because I only ever talk about you. I’m always thinking about you. I’ve been trying to confess for so long but it never came out right and my actions were always misunderstood. And now I can’t move on with my life because I’m so fixated on you.”

It was silent as Sakura caught her breath. Her words had been jumbled up in the heat of the moment and not as coherent as she originally planned but it was all out in the open now which made it okay.

Nobody moved or said anything. Sakura’s eyes felt so swollen and her face was so warm but she didn’t regret the feeling. She felt lighter than ever, a metaphorical weight had been lifted off of her. She felt so relieved and in her rush of confidence she peeked one eye open. Nozaki wasn’t looking at her, his head was turned to the side, his whole face was red, the pulse in his wrists was alarmingly fast.

“Th-that guy you told me about.” he stuttered, breaking the silence but still he didn’t turn to look at her. “Wh-what about him?”

Sakura let go of Nozaki’s wrists in that moment, placing them on either side of his head, turning it to face her. Her touch was so gentle, cradling Nozaki's face between her hands. She looked directly into his eyes without doubt.

“That was you.” she said it with confidence and an affectionate smile on her face. The memory of it seemed so funny now. “I’ve only ever had eyes for you.” he lifted his chin up, his lips pursed into a thin line as he looked past her head and up at the ceiling digesting what had just happened. He took Sakura’s hands into his own and then looked at her, really looked at her for the first time.

“I’m so sorry.” he said. “I’ve been really terrible to you, haven't I?” he continued, his grip on her hands was so tight but he made sure not to crush them, not to hurt her. She laughed at him, wiping away residual tears.

“It’s okay.” she sniffed, wiping her damp face with the back of her hand. “As long as you know now…” In the commotion the rain had cleared up, the sun was now shining with a glaring brightness. A large smile graced Sakura's face, the sky was finally clear.

“As long as you know now, I’m okay.”

 

--

 

Sakura’s head rested against Nozaki’s shoulder, her eyes closed, relishing in the current situation. They were sitting beside each other at the table, sipping tea that soothed her throat and warmed her core. Nozaki had opened his balcony door for fresh air. The sunlight streamed in along with the smell of rain.

“This might be bad timing but…” Nozaki trailed off. His thumb rubbing gentle circles into the back of Sakura’s hand as he held it. “Can I use that in the next chapter?”

Sakura’s head lifted off Nozaki, her eyes narrowing at him practically drilling holes into his face. She reached up and pinched his cheek, his expression never changing but still muttering out a few ouches. Then she let go, Nozaki's free hand raised to rub the assaulted cheek.

“...Fine…” she let out an accepting sigh but ultimately went back to resting her head against his shoulder. Nozaki was Nozaki after all.