Shuuji was in many ways a quintessential boy--even when he wasn't trying too hard and was just being himself--but sometimes, sometimes he reminded Akira a tiny bit of a girl. Just now his bangs were pulled into his typical little ponytail, a flowery blue cotton apron protected his clothing, and he had long, pink rubber gloves covering his arms past his elbows.
"Pretty Shuuji," Akira whispered to himself.
Shuuji didn't hear. Or possibly he was ignoring Akira, but he didn't blush at all, which Akira thought he would if he had heard.
"Shuuuuji," he whined more loudly.
Shuuji straightened up and blew away the wisps of hair that had escaped his ponytail, *puff*. "What?"
"I think the stove's clean by now."
Shuuji raised his eyebrows. "You haven't even looked at the stove. Also, I've seen your apartment, and I'm not sure I trust you to know what the word 'clean' means."
"Not fair," Akira grumbled to himself. He didn't have to see the stove to know that Shuuji had been scrubbing it for ten minutes. If the dirt didn't come off by then, it wasn't anything that could hurt you.
Shuuji bent over the stove again, and Akira could hear the bristly part of his sponge going whisk, whisk, whisk on the hard surface. Shuuji's face had turned a little pink, but Akira was pretty sure that was due to exertion and not any particular emotion.
"You don't have to stay, if you're bored," Shuuji addressed the stovetop. "I can call you when I'm done cleaning the kitchen, and we could hang out then."
"Shuuji-kun!" Akira said, shocked. They had plans for that afternoon: they were going to go for a walk on the beach and eat sukiyaki and make Nobuta a bookmark. Their plans did not include abandoning Shuuji so that he could do chores alone.
"What?" Shuuji asked in an unconcerned voice.
Akira just shook his head, then stood up. "Hand over the sponge," he said authoritatively.
Rather than give it to him, Shuuji hugged the sponge close to his chest. "No, I told you, I need to do this. We can't go until my work is done."
"I know," Akira said. "And if you give me the sponge, then I can clean the stove, and you can work on everything else. That way we can leave faster. Okay?"
"Oh. Okay," Shuuji said. He dropped the sponge into Akira's waiting palm. "Do you want some rubber gloves? I can get you--"
"I'm fine," Akira said, waving Shuuji away. There were faint dark rings around each of the burners, nothing that Akira would have noticed, let alone cared about, but Shuuji apparently did. "Work, Shuuji," he ordered, and started scrubbing at the rings with all his strength.
"Why did we decide to come out here today?" Shuuji asked, tucked deep inside his coat and shivering a little.
"Because it's ours," Akira said.
Shuuji gave him a funny look. "I'm pretty sure the ocean doesn't belong to anybody. Well, except for the fishing rights, and those belong to Japan."
"Not just the ocean," Akira said. "The--" He waved his arm to indicate the beach, the water, the sky, the buildings along the shore. It was cold enough that they were the only two people in sight. The only two living creatures, actually, though he knew that there were hundreds of fish and other animals just beneath the waves. "Everything. This is our home now," he explained, "and I wanted to see it the way tourists and other people who don't live here never get the chance."
"Okay," Shuuji said, though Akira wasn't sure if that meant that he understood or just that he was being nice. He didn't complain any more, though, even when the cold salt air made him sneeze half a minute later.
Shuuji's hands were jammed into his pockets, which meant that Akira had to reach into one of them in order to hold his hand, and Shuuji protested a little but didn't actually pull away. Akira squeezed his hand gently and said, "Sukiyaki tastes better when you're chilly."
The shop was full and noisy; without even trying, Akira could eavesdrop shamelessly on half a dozen conversations.
"I think it tastes the same as always," Shuuji said. Akira blinked a little at him before he remembered what he'd said earlier.
"No, it doesn't," he insisted. "Close your eyes."
Shuuji closed his eyes.
"Now, open your mouth."
"I can feed myself, you know," Shuuji pointed out.
"Not with your eyes closed, you can't," Akira said. "Come on, do it."
Shuuji sighed and opened his mouth, and Akira dipped a bit of beef into the egg and fed it to him.
"Mmm?" Shuuji asked around his mouthful of beef, his eyebrows raised.
"Okay, now chew it a bit," Akira said--redundantly, since Shuuji had begun to do so as soon as he was fed, "and when you swallow it, pay attention to the way it warms up every part of you on the way down and makes your stomach feel all toasty."
Shuuji swallowed and sat quietly for a moment, a contemplative look on his face.
"Am I right?" Akira asked when he couldn't wait any longer. "Shuuji, I'm right, aren't I?"
"Maybe," Shuuji said, finally opening his eyes. "Or maybe it's just that all good food tastes better when you're really paying attention."
Shuuji was knotting a complicated pattern into the silk tassel for Nobuta's bookmark with quick, clever fingers. Akira watched for a minute before reaching for the craftbox, hesitating over the several jars of glitter before picking the purple one.
"No glitter," Shuuji said.
"Yes glitter," Akira said. "Lots and lots of glitter, Shuuji."
"It would rub off on the pages of Nobuta's book. You can use it to decorate her letter, if you want."
"Okay," Akira acquiesced, and pulled the letter they'd written closer so that he could draw a row of frolicking pigs along the bottom and make all of them a shimmery pink, with a deep bed of glittery green grass under their feet.
It was too late by the time they'd finished to send the letter that day, and Akira tucked it away in his pocket and promised to take it to the post office the next morning. Seeing the letter disappear into the coat pocket (even if it was his own coat, so that he'd get to keep it close until it was sent) made him feel strangely sad, so he said, "We could call her."
"Yes," Shuuji said immediately, and then smiled a little as if to take away from how serious he had sounded.
Akira took out his cellphone and dialed Nobuta's number, and they both hovered over it as it rang.
"Hello?" Nobuta asked, her voice tinny and a little louder than usual.
"Nobuta!" Akira said, unable to contain himself, and then pressed the phone into Shuuji's hands.
"No, this is Shuuji," Shuuji said into the phone. "He's here, but he's letting me talk to you first."
Whatever Nobuta said in response made Shuuji laugh softly. Akira settled back to watch him and listen to the strange, one-sided conversation and guess what Nobuta was saying hundreds of miles away. Sometimes it was easy, like when Shuuji said, "He's made a couple of friends already," and he knew that Nobuta had just asked how Koji was doing. But most of the time Shuuji would answer Nobuta with tantalizingly vague questions that could mean anything and nothing.
Finally, Shuuji said, "I should let Akira have the phone now. He's been almost scarily patient so far." Nobuta said something that made him smile, and he said, "I'll talk to you soon. Goodbye, Nobuta." He handed the phone back to Akira.
"Nobuta!" Akira said into the phone.
"Hello," Nobuta said.
"How are you doing?"
"I made a video," Nobuta said, which meant she was doing well.
"What's it about?"
"The sounds that people don't listen to."
"What, like a person teaching math class?" Akira asked.
"No," Nobuta said in a serious voice, and Akira wished desperately for a second to be in the same room with her so that he could see whether or not she liked his joke by the look on her face. "Things like the hum of lightbulbs and traffic going by a closed window and the sound the heater makes."
"Save it so you can show it to me the next time I come to Tokyo, okay?" Akira asked.
"We made you something today," Akira said, ignoring Shuuji's whispered, "Don't tell her, idiot! It's supposed to be a surprise."
"Made me something?" Nobuta asked slowly. Akira closed his eyes to picture her face: surprised and curious and maybe a little happy, in her cautious Nobuta way.
"Mmm," he agreed. "Well, I made it for you, but Shuuji helped." Shuuji made an indignant sound on the other side of the couch.
"What did you make?" Nobuta asked, and this time he could hear the smile in her voice.
"A poem about today. Shuuji helped create the feeling for it, and I wanted you to share it with us." He could feel Shuuji's eyes on him, and the sensation settled, sweet and heavy, into his stomach. And then he whispered the poem to Nobuta, because it would be too embarrassing for Shuuji to hear it, too.
"Thank you," Nobuta said solemnly when he'd finished. "I think it's a very beautiful poem." Akira grinned all across his face.
When Nobuta had to go a few minutes later, he hung up the phone and punched Shuuji lightly in the arm. "That's for thinking that I would spoil Nobuta's surprise," he scolded.
"It was a reasonable assumption," Shuuji said in protest, but Akira didn't agree with him at all.
Half an hour later, Shuuji decided that it was bedtime, and he walked Akira to the door to say goodbye.
"See you in school tomorrow," Akira said and snuck a quick kiss.
"Stupid," Shuuji hissed, shoving him away. "What if my father came home and saw us?" Right after that, though, he pulled Akira into his room in order to kiss him properly, so Akira knew that he wasn't really mad.
Akira rested his forehead against Shuuji's when they paused to catch their breaths. The air between them was soft and damp and smelled faintly of the green tea Shuuji had had earlier. Shuuji tried to capture his mouth in another kiss, and Akira shook his head minutely. "I'm busy," he said.
"What are you doing?" Shuuji whispered.
Shuuji rolled his eyes a little, but let him continue, and Akira closed his own eyes to better feel Shuuji, resting warmly in his arms and in his heart.